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Non-Review Review: Lost Girls

Lost Girls is a solid and unfussy true crime drama, anchored in a strong central performance from Amy Ryan.

There are interesting ideas simmering in the background of Lost Girls. Director Liz Garbus is best known as a documentarian, and there are certainly aspects of Lost Girls that feel like they belong more comfortably in a documentary than a narrative feature. Michael Werwie’s script is adapted from Robert Kolker’s book of the same name, looking at the case of the Long Island Serial Killer. The killer was never caught, with some speculation as to whether his last documented murder occurred in 2010 or 2013. The investigation is currently ongoing, which gives the film a certain edge and rawness.

However, Garbus works hard to keep things tasteful and restrained. In actual narrative terms, Lost Girls is fairly conventional. It often feels assembled from a list of scenes that audiences expect to see in a drama like this. There are plenty of scenes of concerned mother Mari Gilbert yelling at impotent authority figures, countless scenes dictating the indifference or ineptitude of the authority figures tasked with protecting these young women, lots of emotional scenes in which Mari comes to terms with her own imperfections as a mother following her daughter’s disappearance.

However, the most interesting aspects of this “unsolved American mystery” lurk at the edge of the frame, recalling the quiet tweaks that Just Mercy made to the death penalty drama this past awards season. Lost Girls is a serial killer film that is much more interested in systemic injustice than it is in the sensationalist actions of a single monstrous villain. Lost Girls never quite manages to convincingly restructure the serial killer investigation movie template to the extent of something like Zodiac, but perhaps it doesn’t have to. It is more interesting for subtle shifts in emphasis within a familiar formula.

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Non-Review Review: Sergio

Sergio belongs to the same school of earnest, overwrought, tonally misjudged, narratively unfocused, clumsily paced biopics that includes Noble, The Price of Desire and A Girl from Mogadishu.

This films offer heartwarming stories about truly exceptional individuals. There is undoubtedly value in that. However, the genre often confuses subject for substance. These biographies assume that the story they are telling is so compelling and so engaging that the actual art of storytelling doesn’t matter, that the basic mechanics of constructing a satisfying narrative or balancing a consistent tone or finding an interesting hooks are fundamentally less important than the simple fact that they are about something that makes them inherently “worthy.” Worthy of attention, worthy of praise, worthy of time.

“You can’t spell U.N. with U.”

Sergio certainly tells a story that is worth telling. It is an adaptation of the life of Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations diplomat. By all accounts, de Mello was a genuinely exceptional person who made a very real and very tangible difference to the world. There is a compelling story to be told here, a life that is worthy of study and discussion. Indeed, director Greg Barker seems to think so. Sergio is Barker’s first narrative feature, and it serves as a companion piece to his 2009 documentary of the same title. It’s easy to understand why Barker was so drawn to the subject.

Unfortunately, Sergio is a complete misfire. It is a disaster. It is a clumsily constructed film with no strong sense of identity or purpose, with little to say about its central character or his circumstances beyond “this was a remarkable person.” However, even that is communicated through exposition and information dumps rather than through actual storytelling.

“You wanna live like common people.
You wanna see whatever common people see.”

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Non-Review Review: Emma.

Emma. is gorgeous to look at.

Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel is immensely stylised in a way that suits the material. Austen’s Emma has always been a story about characters who exist ensconced in a world without any material wants or desires, without any existential threats or simmering tensions. The story’s stakes derive within the context of the comforts and luxuries in which Emma Woodhouse has lived her life. When the film opens, Emma’s biggest concern is the departure of her beloved governess, who is simply moving a kilometre and a half down the road and will remain part of her social circle.

Indeed, de Wilde even opens with an intertitle quoting the novel’s opening setnence, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The film is built around this idea, creating a stylish cocoon for Emma, a world that looks like it might have been entirely constructed from those brightly coloured confections that its characters serve at afternoon tea.

The result is a beautiful and charming film that captures a lot of the low-stakes charm of the source material, offering a richly designed world in which the novel’s romantic comedy trappings might unfold.

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Non-Review Review: Greed

Greed, for lack of a better word, is not good.

Greed belongs to a relatively recent subgenre, the sort of ironic and winking social commentary of films like The Big Short, Vice and Bombshell. There is a sense with these sorts of films that earnestness is overdone, that aching sincerity will only get a strong moral message so far, and that the proper way to engage with audiences is through a wry self-awareness that acknowledges the cynicism of the world in which people live. Theoretically, this approach allows the film to communicate strong central themes without potentially alienating audiences through self-righteousness or self-satisfaction.

Like all subgenres, the quality of the end result varies on a case-by-case basis. However, Greed seems like a project perfectly suited to director Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom is a director who frequently blends fact and fiction in his work – to point where, due to his work on projects like The Trip and Tristram Shandy, a lot of his collaborations with Steve Coogan involve the actor playing a fictionalised version of himself. So there’s something interesting in the way that Greed takes a template often applied to true stories and instead builds a story around a fictional avatar of capitalism, Sir Richard MacReady.

However, Greed just doesn’t work. It’s not consistently funny enough to pull off the knowing approach to its tale of global inequality. It packs fewer genuine laughs into its runtime than more direct critiques of capitalist excess like The Wolf of Wall Street. It also lacks the comfort of projects like The Big Short and Vice in blending exposition into narrative, often clumsily halting its story to deliver earnest lectures almost directly into the camera through painful framing devices. “Think of me as an idiot,” insists one character, before setting in motion the obligatory “how capitalism works” montage.

More to the point, the narrative elements themselves also struggle, with the film awkwardly trying to casually set up dominoes to build to a seemingly chaotic outcome that looks a little too arch and too planned to come across as spontaneous. This is the problem with Greed. The film, ironically enough, seems greedy. It wants to do too much, it wants to be too many things. As a result, it winds up under-cooking the constituent elements and struggling to find a way to integrate them into a cohesive whole.

Greed is an interesting work in that – like Bombshell – it serves as a reminder that films like The Big Short and Vice are managing a much more complicated balancing act than might originally appear.

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Non-Review Review: The Rhythm Section

Perhaps the most revealing distinction between The Rhythm Section and the James Bond franchise is that the characters in The Rhythm Section appear to have done their beer sponsorship deal with Stella Artois rather than Heineken.

That’s a little facetious. After all, it seems highly likely that Heineken paid a great deal more to sponsor No Time to Die than Stella Artois paid for a few minutes of screentime in a late January release from producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. Nevertheless, there is something to it. Although the marketting copy is keen to sell The Rhythm Section as something of a gender-swapped teaser for No Time to Die“from the producers of James Bond,” boasts the trailer and the advertising – it’s to the credit of director Reed Morano that she is interested in something a little bit more complex and sophisticated.

Taking a shot at it.

Of course, The Rhythm Section doesn’t entirely work. It is a messy and clumsy film. At points, this seems to be a deliberate stylistic choice and a clear point of contrast, an attempt to imbue the classic spy movie format with a sense of the chaos that informs and shapes the real world. At other moments, it feels like a miscalculation and an error in judgment. The Rhythm Section is an earnest attempt to crash the trappings of an espionage revenge thriller into a more intimate personal drama about grief and trauma, but sometimes the mix goes wrong and the film veers into the realm of indulgent self-parody.

Still, there’s a lot to like about The Rhythm Section in spite of its imbalances. The film is genuinely trying something something ambitious, even if it occasionally buckles under the weight of those attempts. At its best, The Rhythm Section suggests a new spin on an old formula. At its worst, it is at least anchored in a compelling central performance amid overwrought clichés. The Rhythm Section might not hit every note perfectly, but it manages to keep time.

Spy, craft.

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Non-Review Review: Horse Girl

Horse Girl is certainly an ambitious work, if not an entirely successful one.

Directed by Jeff Baena and co-written with star Alison Brie, Horse Girl is essentially a study of a socially awkward young woman who gradually loosens her grip on reality. Sarah is a charming and isolated young woman. She works a steady job at an arts and crafts shop, to which she seems quite suited – she’s immediately able to identify the best paint for a classroom setting. She lives with a roommate who clearly harbours some affection for her. She assists at the local stables. She even attends weekly dance fitness classes.

Horsing around.

However, beneath the surface, Sarah is increasingly isolated. She lives in a world of her own, absorbed in her supernatural procedurals, lying about the extent of her social circle, and haunted by dreams that don’t seem quite right. Sarah increasingly begins to feel that there is something very wrong with the world, as she experiences lost time and lucid dreams. Naturally, things only escalate from there.

Horse Girl plays with some interesting ideas, and approaches its subject matter in interesting ways, but it suffers a little bit too much from a suffocating sense of forced whimsy. Horse Girl premiered at Sundance, and for all its ambition, it is very much a “Sundance indie.” There is constantly a sense of a more interesting film bubbling beneath the surface, waiting to get out, but never quite able to materalise beneath the trappings of its own particular brand of independent cinema.

Getting it all back to front.

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Non-Review Review: Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems is a two-hour panic attack. And it’s brilliant.

Uncut Gems is a propulsive tension engine. The film follows the wheeling and dealing of Howard Ratner. Ratner operates a jewellery story in Manhattan’s Diamond District, but his real passion is gambling. Have accrued considerable debts, Howard concocts a simple plan to clear the slate. Smuggling in a rare black opal from East Africa, Howard plans to auction it and use the proceeds to settle up with his creditors. Naturally, things quickly spiral out of control as Howard’s impulsiveness and competitiveness get the better of him, pushing him to greater and greater lengths.

Off the chain.

Anxiety permeates Uncut Gems. Howard is a free-wheeling opportunist defined largely by his recklessness and his resilience, but his self-assuredness stands in contrast to the experience of watching Uncut Gems. As the film unfolds, the audience (and Howard) understands how fragile Howard’s elaborate improvisations truly are. Almost every scene in Uncut Gems threatens to bring Howard’s house of cards around his ears. Even the film’s triumphant and celebratory moments feel uncomfortable, as the audience and the protagonist wrestle with how precarious it all is.

Uncut Gems is a triumph, a shining diamond.

This diamond is about to get roughed up.

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