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Non-Review Review: Horrible Histories – The Movie: Rotten Romans

Horrible Histories – The Movie: Rotten Romans is essentially a feature-length pantomime, and works best on those terms.

Horrible Histories is an adaptation of a popular series of children’s (teenager’s) books that aim to explore history through an unconventional lens, providing a somewhat grittier and more tongue-in-cheek accounting of the historical record than those found in school books. They are immensely popular, and have existed long enough to have a cross-generational appeal. It is entirely possible that many parents bringing their children to see Horrible Histories will themselves have read one or two of the source books.

Sharp satire?

Naturally, Horrible Histories is not the first attempt to adapt the books for a broader audience. The BBC adapted the series to television a decade ago, attracting a wide range of comedic talent to bring the show’s unique perspective to life; the series included figures like Alice Lowe, Simon Farnaby, Al Murray, Mark Gattiss, David Badiel and Chris Addison. The series was beloved, even featuring satirical musical numbers. Its influence lived on in specials like the BBC’s centenary rap battle marking the start of the First World War.

Horrible Histories largely eschews a lot of the talent responsible for the television series, although it does make room for a few cameos. However, the film is at its strongest when it embraces the source material’s irreverent playfulness. Ironically, the film suffers when it tries to weave a conventional narrative into this structure.

“Our problems are legion.”

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Non-Review Review: The Lion King (2019)

It’s a very strange comparison to make, but the film that most obviously comes to mind when watching Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is Gus Van Sant’s infamous nineties remake of Psycho.

This is Favreau’s second “live action” adaptation of a classic Disney animated film, even if that descriptor is somewhat misleading. It might be more accurate to describe The Lion King (which was shot entirely in virtual reality) as “verisimilitudinous.” It is designed to approximate “live action”, rather than being live action itself. On that note, the film is a technical triumph. On the level of pure craft, The Lion King is a staggering accomplishment. It is a virtual reality film that is in many ways indistinguishable from reality itself. However, the onion has even more layers to it. It is a virtual reality film approximating the reality while meticulously and faithful reproducing a beloved animated film.

Join the cub.

As such, and much like Van Sant’s Psycho, there is an element of reflexive postmodernism to The Lion King. Both the Psycho and Lion King remakes feel more like conceptual art installations than movies in their own right. They are certainly more interesting as abstract objects than as actual stories. After all, the stories in question were so closely wedded to form and context the first time around that the idea of remaking them so literally and so faithfully seems absurd from a creative point of view. As such, the process of replication becomes intriguing of itself. Both Psycho and The Lion King are incredibly faithful copies that consciously lean into their uncanniness.

Favreau’s Lion King looks beautiful, but largely feels like a limit case. It is a certain approach to modern filmmaking taken to – and perhaps pushed beyond – its farthest extreme.

Pride of the Pridelands.

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Non-Review Review: Blinded by the Light

If the type of jukebox musical codified by the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, Mamma Mia and Rocketman is to become a fixture of the pop cultural landscape, there are certainly worse ways to approach the template than Blinded by the Light.

Many of the beats and structures of Blinded by the Light will be familiar to audiences. Blinded by the Light is a variety of familiar genres blended together; a nostalgic pop period piece rooted in the late eighties, a coming of age story about an insecure teen, a culture clash dramedy about an immigrant family in turbulent times. On top of all that, it is a loving ode to the music of Bruce Springsteen in particular, and more broadly to the power of musical fandom in the life of a wayward teenager.

“Stay on the streets of this town, and they’ll be carvin’ you up all night.”

Blinded by the Light knows the track relatively well. It hits most of its marks. There are few surprises nestled within the run-time of this life affirming story of a young man treating the music of Bruce Springsteen as a spiritual guide. Indeed, there is even a little clumsiness on display. Blinded by the Light makes a strong thematic argument for the importance of family and friends, particularly those around frustrated teenager Javed. However, those characters tend to drop into and out of the narrative, disappearing for extended periods.

However, Blinded by the Light is elevated by infectious enthusiasm. Blinded by the Light – for better and for worse – captures that teenage intoxication of excitement and interest, with a compelling vulnerability and with all the energy of youth. Blinded by the Light is cringy and silly and goofy, but knowingly so. It doesn’t just capture the awkwardness of teenage fantasy, but embraces it. There is a sense that Blinded by the Light is aware of the embarrassment and the stupidity obscured by teenage enthusiasm, and refuses to look away. There’s something joyous in that.

“In Candy’s room, there are pictures of her heroes on the wall,
but to get to Candy’s room, you gotta walk the darkness of Candy’s hall.”

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Non-Review Review: Annabelle Comes Home

At its core, Annabelle Comes Home is the Captain America: Civil War of the Conjuring Shared Universe.

That is a very strange sentence to type, and more than likely a very strange sentence to read. However, it speaks to very strange times. It seemed highly unlikely that The Conjuring would spawn Hollywood’s second most successful cinematic universe, despite efforts by various other studios to emulate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, even the Warner Brothers trailers before Annabelle Come Home reinforce how dramatically the franchise has moved the needle. Blockbuster franchise horror cinema is a thriving market even outside these films. Later this year, Warners have IT: Chapter 2 and Doctor Sleep.

Hello dolly.

However, even the mere existence of Annabelle Comes Home is an illustration of the success of this particular horror franchise. This is a major cinematic release at the height of summer. It is not even counter-programming like, for example, Midsommar. This is event cinema. As with The Conjuring 2, this is also very clearly designed in the language of blockbuster cinema. Like Civil War, this is nominally the third film in its franchise; although the nature of that franchise has changed dramatically with each film. As with Civil War, the production team have tethered this sequel to the heart of the shared universe.

Annabelle Comes Home is a fascinating, if not entirely successful, slice of blockbuster horror that seems to exist primarily as a showcase for the success of its own franchise. It’s sturdily and reliably constructed, if a little lacking in its craft and technique. It balances this lack of finesse against a playful sense of humour and a slyly subversive sensibility, resulting a solid addition to the shared universe.

Nobody ever asks the killer doll their side of the story.

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Non-Review Review: Pavarotti

Pavarotti is pretty much exactly what one might expect from a Ron Howard documentary looking at the life of Luciano Pavarotti.

Howard is often overlooked or dismissed as a filmmaker, in large part because he never cultivated the same sort of auteur persona associated with other great American directors like Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis. Indeed, it’s often quite difficult to pin down what exactly makes a Ron Howard film distinctly his own, which is something of a compliment. Howard has a versatility and adaptability that makes him one of the most enduring and successful major American film directors, with his filmography including films as diverse as Splash, Willow, Ransom, A Beautiful Mind and The DaVinci Code.

Nailing the high note.

However, there are certain recurring motifs that can be spotted in his work. In particular, Howard has something of a minor fascination with competence, returning time and time again to the idea of people who are very good at doing what they do. Some of Howard’s best films read as odes to competence, simply watching highly capable people in tense situations, demonstrating their skill and craft; Apollo 13, Rush and even Frost/Nixon. It is tempting to read far too much into this, to ask whether Howard sees something of himself in his subjects, the skilled craftsman who delivers exactly what’s needed more times than not.

This perhaps explains the shape of Pavarotti, Howard’s latest effort. It is a film that is very much interested in the how of its subject, more than the why. The film largely avoids trying to explain the eponymous tenor, and comes alive when discussing the maestro‘s technique, craft and organisation. There is a genuine appreciation of the skill and technique on display in Pavarotti, which is very engaged in the mechanics of how the singer accomplished so much of what he did – both in terms of actual performance, but also in terms of business management. The only problem is that this doesn’t leave much room for Pavarotti as a man.

Scoring highly.

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Non-Review Review: Spider-Man – Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home cannot help but exist in the shadow of Avengers: Endgame.

Indeed, one of the problems marketing Far From Home was the manner in which the entire emotional premise of the film served as a spoiler for Endgame, which meant that the film had to wait quite late in the game to release its second trailer. This sets up an interesting tension with Far From Home, which finds itself in the the seemingly contradictory position of being both the last movie in the current “phase” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also a film actually being produced by a company other than Marvel Studios.

Masking his feelings.

This weird push-and-pull runs through Far From Home, which seems caught between existing as a coda and epilogue to Endgame and working as a Spider-Man movie in its own right. To a certain extent, this was always going to be a tension within Far From Home, even before Endgame set its sights on becoming the biggest movie of all time. Endgame was always going to exert a gravity on Far From Home, given its plot mechanics and its character decisions. Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, along with director Jon Watts, were always going to be reacting to narrative and character choices that they never made.

As such, the most interesting thing that Far From Home can do is to literalise that tension.

Night Monkey Moves.

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Non-Review Review: What We Left Behind

Part of what is so remarkable about What We Left Behind is the way in which it feels more like a testament (and love letter) to how series producer and documentary co-directory Ira Steven Behr saw the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine than an exploration of the show itself.

This is not a surprise. Indeed, the poster for the documentary notably features Behr holding the eponymous space station in the palms of his hand, as much trying to figure it out for himself as offer it to the audience watching. Behr jokes that the documentary began production in 2012, but spent three years trying to figure out its identity and its angle. With its release in 2019, this puts Behr in the paradoxical position of having lived with What We Left Behind for almost as long as he lived with Deep Space Nine itself.

There isn’t too much in What We Left Behind that a dedicated fan won’t already know about the show’s production and history, but that’s not the point. An early sequence in the documentary exists largely in order to caution the viewer against interpreting the accounts offered in the documentary too literally. Repeatedly, actors and writers contradict themselves and each other. At one point, Robert Hewitt Wolfe casually recalls the finer details of Shadows and Symbols better than Hans Beimler, who actually wrote the episode. “I wasn’t even on the show at that point!” Wolfe jokes.

However, the documentary comes back time and again to the second season episode The Wire in order to explain these competing accounts and contradictory stories. They all hint at some greater truth.

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