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Non-Review Review: She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow is very much a modern indie horror movie, in that’s decidedly absurdist and surrealist, and perhaps scariest in a vague existential sense.

It’s interesting to consider the development of this particular strand of modern horror cinema. In some ways, it reflects the development of the indie comedy in the early years of the twenty-first century, once it became clear that these sorts of films could be financially and critically successful. This led to a strange situation where movies that were essentially off-kilter dramas were marketed as comedies, films like A Serious Man, Nebraska or The Kids Are All Right. (This approach to comedy arguably even spilled out into television, where even comedies adopted a prestige sheen.)

It’s not the end of the world…

Something similar has been happening in terms of prestige horror. A large part of this is due to the emergence of smaller studios supporting genre fare from writers and directors with strong visions – Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, Ari Aster’s Hereditary. These films blended the sly aesthetics and stylistic sensibilities of independent cinema with the trappings of horror, producing a strand of horror that was reasonably successful, highly praised, and strongly distinctive.

Of course, all of those films are drawing from the genre’s rich history. Hereditary is perhaps the most obvious example, and it’s possible to draw a clear line between Hereditary and New Hollywood experiments with the genre in films like The Exorcist or Don’t Look Now. As such, it isn’t that this is an entirely new approach to horror that came out of nowhere. Instead, it is a logical extrapolation of certain trends and sensibilities, pushed to their logical extremes.

Looking out for herself.

She Dies Tomorrow clearly fits within that framework of modern indie horror cinema, along with films like The Lodge or The Lighthouse. However, She Dies Tomorrow pushes itself much mroe confidently towards the rhythms and structures of a blackly comic psycho drama. She Dies Tomorrow is a film about existential loneliness, the frustrating death drive, and suffocating dinner parties populated by people who can barely stand one another. It is very much a standard low-budget indie drama. It’s just flavoured with a dash of existential horror.

It’s a cocktail that doesn’t quite work. Writer and director Amy Seimetz offers a film that is intentionally disjointed and disconnected, but one that is ultimately more frustrating than it aims to be. She Dies Tomorrow has a number of striking images and interesting ideas, but punctuates them with scenes that play almost as a parody of arthouse drama.

Dial it back.

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Non-Review Review: Greyhound

Greyhound is a tight and claustrophobic maritime thriller that knows pretty much exactly what it’s doing.

At its best, Greyhound capitalises not just on Tom Hanks as the patron saint of dads, boomers and the American cultural memory of the Second World War, but also as a time-displaced Jimmy Stewart. This makes a certain amount of sense. Despite the presence of character actors like Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan and Elizabeth Shue, Tom Hanks is the only star in Greyhound. The film remains tightly focused on Captain Ernest Krause, the commander assigned to protect a convoy of supplies crossing the Atlantic shortly after America’s entry into the Second World War.

It doesn’t exactly shatter expectations.

It makes sense that Greyhound should be tailored to Tom Hanks. Hanks wrote the screenplay, adapting it from C.S. Forrester’s The Good Shepherd. More than that, Hanks has demonstrated his strong interest in the history of American involvement in the Second World War with films like Saving Private Ryan and television series like Band of Brothers and The Pacific. As such, Greyhound feels like it fits perfectly within the actor’s wheelhouse.

This is an illustration of how effectively Greyhound works. Greyhound is a movie that knows what it needs to deliver, and sets about delivering that in the most efficient manner possible.

The old man and the sea.

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Non-Review Review: Palm Springs

On the surface, Palm Springs is instantly recognisable as a genre-savvy update of the classic Groundhog Day template for the twenty-first century.

The basic plot finds two young adults – Nyles and Sarah – trapped living the same day over and over and over again. There is no escape from this nightmare, which finds the pair constantly reliving the wedding of Sarah’s sister Tala. As befitting the more modern media-literate approach to these sorts of stories, Palm Springs joins Nyles at a point where he has already been trapped in the loop for an extraordinarily long amount of time. He is already as familiar with the rules and limitations of this sort of narrative as any audience member who watched Groundhog Day on loop.

Making a splash.

This level of self-awareness in a story is potentially dangerous, encouraging ironic detachment. It’s very each for stories about these sorts of genre-savvy protagonists to feel more like plot devices than actual characters, particularly when operating within constructs that audiences only recognise from other films. “It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard of,” Nyles casually explains to Sarah early in the film. Sarah responds, aghast, “That I might have heard of?”

There are certainly moments when Palm Springs feels like it might be just a little too knowing and a little too arch, its own story too consciously framed in terms of familiar narrative devices. Most notably, even though the film is not directly named, one of the big emotional beats in Palm Springs seems to be lifted directly from Jurassic Park. Released the same year as Groundhog Day, it exists within the same nostalgic framework and was just as defining for an entire generation of movie-goers. Moments like that feel just a little bit too heavy-handed.

Some “him” time.

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Non-Review Review: Eurovision Song Contest – The Story of Fire Saga

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a limp misfire.

There’s no doubt that the film comes from a place of affection and sincerity, reportedly inspired by writer and star Will Ferrell’s delight on discovering the camp weirdness of the Eurovision Song Contest. Indeed, The Story of Fire Saga has clearly been produced with the enthusiastic participation of the contest itself; the film uses a lot of branding associated with the event, features cameos from commentators like Graham Norton, and even ropes in a couple of past participants for its most endearing tribute to the surreality of the competition.

Marching on.

However, whether because it constrained by the official branding or simply by the limitations of Ferrell as an outsider looking in, The Story of Fire Saga doesn’t work. On a basic level of comedy mechanics, there are not enough jokes to sustain the indulgent two-hour runtime. On a more fundamental level, The Story of Fire Saga often fails to grasp what makes the Eurovision Song Contest such a beloved cultural institution. There’s a sense in which The Story of Fire Saga could be about almost anything else, and would be functionally the same movie.

This is a disappointment, particularly given that The Story of Fire Saga is being released in a year without the Eurovision.

A pretty weak ‘Vision.

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Non-Review Review: Irresistible

Irresistible is a movie that largely exists to demonstrate that nobody hates the political left like the political left.

Jon Stewart’s second feature as writer and director essentially positions itself as a post-2016 political satire. Stewart’s former correspondent Steve Carell is cast as Democratic campaign manager Gary Zimmer, who is still nursing the wounds of the 2016 election. The film features two short table-setting prologues, the second of which finds Zimmer lying in bed on November 9th, 2016 as the news media plays back his unearned confidence in the face of the earth-shattering Donald Trump victory. There’s a sense in which Zimmer needs to be humbled.

Window into a broken system.

A couple of years later, both Zimmer and the party clearly still smarting from that humiliating defeat, a video comes across Zimmer’s desk. Recorded at a town hall in Deerlaken, Wisonsin, it shows a military veteran standing up for the rights of immigrants and minorities to a town administration desperate to lock them out of welfare. Colonel Jack Hastings appears to be the complete package, a white rural farmer with genuinely progressive politics. “He’s a Democrat,” Zimmer insists. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Stewart tries to position Irresistible as a biting social commentary on the state of the modern Democratic party and its awkward relationship with the white rural voters who are undergoing incredible political hardship as a result of a series of global recessions, and who feel increasingly disconnected from the political establishment. It’s an old theme that belongs to a rich cinematic tradition including films like Mister Smith Goes to Washington, and it should still resonate these days.

Making Hastings while the sun shines.

Unfortunately, Stewart’s satire is unfocused and tonally unbalanced. It’s never clear exactly what the film is saying, beyond expressing an understandable frustration with the establishment of the political left. However, the film’s anger is clearest when it is singularly focused as to imply a vacuum that simply doesn’t exist. More than that, Stewart occasionally seems to invest in the some sort of nostalgic and romantic fetishisation of the rural community that he so scathing ridicules in the political establishment.

This issue reflects a broader problem with the movie. Irresistible is tonally erratic at the best of times, alternating between a biting satire set in a world that is at least meant to be recognisable and a more cartoonish comedy populated by outlandish science-fiction elements. Stewart can’t seem to hone in on what Irresistible is trying to say about the political system, beyond the simple fact that political types are the absolute worst.

Dems the breaks.

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Non-Review Review: Artemis Fowl

Artemis Fowl is only ninety-three minutes long, but it feels much longer. In more ways than one.

As with Scoob! or Trolls World Tour, there’s something slightly cynical in releasing Artemis Fowl direct to streaming. The film feels like it might have wallowed in a theatrical release, with little to distinguish it from other young adult adaptations like The Maze Runner or The Mortal Engines. Although derived from a series of beloved children’s books, the cinematic adaptation of Artemis Fowl was never going to be this generation’s answer to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or The Hunger Games – despite the belaboured sequel hooks.

Fowl play.

The most interesting question that occurs when watching Artemis Fowl is at what point this became clear to the production team. Artemis Fowl has the look and feel of a movie that has been fed through a meat grinder. It is appreciably shorter than most would-be tentpoles, even though there is a seemingly continuous voice-over delivering reams of exposition. The plotting is haphazard. The character arcs are broad. There is a palpable sense that something happened in getting from page to screen, and the real mystery is where in the process things went so wrong.

Watching Artemis Fowl becomes almost an interactive mystery of itself. Was the project always this disjointed and chaotic, or was that something that happened in postproduction? More than that, was that process something that happened before or after Artemis Fowl was earmarked for a streaming release? When exactly on the creative process did everybody working on Artemis Fowl just give up completely?

A flying finish.

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Non-Review Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods argues that the wounds inflicted by the Vietnam War never truly healed.

The basic plot of Da 5 Plots is standard war movie stuff, recalling the set up of the classic Simpsons episode Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in “The Curse of the Flying Hellfish”, which itself drew upon a variety of inspirations including episodes of M*A*S*H and Barney Miller. The film follows four veterans who return to Vietnam ostensibly to repatriate the remains of their lost squad commander “Stormin’ Norman.” However, it quickly becomes clear that these former soldiers also have their eyes on a more lucrative prize.

The past never stays buried.

Co-writer and director Spike Lee uses the familiar trappings of war movies – and specifically of Vietnam War movies – to interrogate the legacy of the conflicts and the scars that it left on the national psyche. Indeed, one of the most interesting structural choices in Da 5 Bloods is to effectively invert the basic structure of BlacKkKlansman, which opened as a pointed genre tribute before seguing into actual contemporary news footage during its final act. Da 5 Bloods starts by offering a glimpse of the chaos of the early seventies before diving into the story that it wants to tell.

The result is to contextualise both Da 5 Bloods and its statement on contemporary American identity, drawing a strong line from the unrest and horror of the Vietnam era to the madness of the present moment. Da 5 Bloods was obviously written and filmed well before the latest crisis in the United States, but Lee is a shrewd filmmaker with his finger on the pulse. Da 5 Bloods feels like a movie that is both about the nightmare of this particular moment and the tragic inevitability of that moment as the outcome of unprocessed trauma that has been festering for decades.

Normcore.

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Non-Review Review: The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island is very much a typical late Judd Apatow project, in the style of Funny People, This is 40 or Trainwreck.

It is a serio-comic character study that essentially tries to wed the juvenile comedic sensibility that Apatow brought to the mainstream with films like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin with the more earnest adult coming-of-age stories that were popular in the early nineties. The results are sporadically funny and affecting, often built around a single or multiple star personas. In each cause, the quality of the film largely comes down to the quality of the star anchoring it, with Trainwreck standing out due to strong turns from both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader.

“King of One of the Boroughs of New York!”

The King of Staten Island tries this approach with Pete Davidson, the stand-up comedian who is currently best known for his work on Saturday Night Live that often involved him directly addressing his own personal controversies. As with Trainwreck, the film is driven by Davidson who shares a co-writing credit and whose character is transparently modelled on Davidson himself. As such, Davidson’s star persona exerts a strange gravity on The King of Staten Island, all the more notable for the fact that this is really Davidson’s first proper starring role of itself.

The King of Staten Island is occasionally moving and engaging, but it never manages to escape from Davidson’s shadow. Simultaneously, there’s something slightly frustrating in the way that for all The King of Staten Island transparently draws from Davidson’s own experiences and history, its narrative structure is painfully generic. Its central character arc is so routine as to undermine any real sense of personality or intimacy. This is the central paradox of the film. The King of Staten Island is both unable to escape Davidson’s gravity and unable to bring itself to look directly at him.

Fighting firemen.

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Non-Review Review: The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night is a loving fifties homage, with more than a few contemporary resonances.

The film is structured so as to evoke pulpy science-fiction, opening on a slow push in on an old black-and-white television set airing Paradox Theatre, a show clearly designed to evoke the various fantastical anthology shows modelled after The Twilight Zone. Director Andrew Patterson keeps reminding audiences of this framing device, occasionally pushing out of his narrative on to the grainy distorted television screen and even occasionally cutting to black to underscore the fact that the narrative the audience is watching is being controlled.

Zero to fifties in only ninety minutes!

The premise of The Vast of Night is remarkably straightforward. One summer evening late in the fifties, something strange happens in a New Mexico town. As the bulk of the town gathers for a big basket ball game, only a handful of residents remain at home. Fay dutifully mans the town switchboard, while the charming DJ Everett handles the radio broadcast for the benefit of “the five of you out there listening.” However, his radio show is briefly interrupted by a strange noise, sparking an investigation that leads to somewhere very strange indeed.

The Vast of Night doesn’t really have too many surprises. After all, the basic premise all but suggests an inevitable conclusion: what could possibly be causing strange signals in New Mexico in the late fifties? However, The Vast of Night is elevated by a number of key factors. Patterson brings a very confident and assured direction to the story, making The Vast of Night a very compelling watch given its relatively low budget and tight focus.

Radio gaga.

However, writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger deserve a great deal of credit for the script. The Vast of Night is a film that takes great pleasure in the trappings of its late fifties setting, and is keenly aware of the context in which its characters operate. “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of the communist party,” Fay jokingly records into a microphone early in the film, while later events include accounts of the horror of radiation. The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the era in which it is set.

However, more than that, The Vast of Night understands the strange tethers that tie that idealised past to the more complicate present. By its nature, The Vast of Night is a film about hearing and listening. More than that, though, it is a story about the choices that people make in what they choose to hear and who they choose to listen to. It is a film about conversation, about signal, about noise, about cross talk, and about decay. The Vast of Night is a story about the breakdown of communication, and the horrors that unfold in what society tunes out as white noise.

Interview to a kill.

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Non-Review Review: Dating Amber

Dating Amber is a sweet, if perhaps overly familiar, coming of age story.

Dating Amber has a pretty compelling hook. Eddie and Amber are both gay teenagers growing up in rural Ireland during the mid-nineties. The country has just decriminalised sodomy, and finds itself in the midst of a highly divisive and contentious referendum on divorce. Against this backdrop, Amber hits on a clever idea to avoid the scrutiny of her classmates. She and Eddie will pretend to be a couple, so that they can both present as heterosexual long enough for Amber to escape this suffocating environment.

Vicious cycles.

It’s a very straightforward but compelling premise. It evokes the set-up of something like Easy A, tapping into the youthful anxieties of teenage life, and combines it with the increasingly progressive and diverse entries into the genre like Love Simon or Handsome Devil. Writer and director David Freyne draws from his own teenage experiences to add a level of authenticity, and the film is elevated by two winsome performances by Lola Petticrew and Fionn O’Shea.

The film lacks the delicate tonal balance that is necessary to elevate a teenage coming of age story from a charming affair to a classic of the genre, swerving too dramatically from its playful and cheeky opening premise to an overly earnest and sincere final stretch. It allows suffers slightly from a heavy reliance on formula, hitting most of the marks expected of a story like this, but never really finding a way to push past those conventions into something more profound or insightful. However, Dating Amber is an appealing and engaging entry into the genre.

Couple of friends.

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