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Non-Review Review: Wind River

Taylor Sheridan’s loose “Frontier trilogy” imagines the frontier as the site of America’s original sin.

Like Sicario and Hell or High WaterWind River is set in what might be considered a modern-day equivalent of the “wild west.” It is a harsh and brutal world, one in which people fight a losing battle to make sense of that violence. Sicario imagined the frontier as Mexico, a tale of lawless retribution set against the backdrop of the already-lost War on Drugs. Hell or High Water imagined that frontier in Texas, a modern tale of bank robberies and land grabs. Wind River pushes that frontier to vast frozen surroundings of Wyoming, putting Native Americans in focus.

In the wild white yonder…

As the trilogy has moved North, it has also shifted tones. Sicario was confused and angry, struggling to explain the horrors that were unfolding. Hell or High Water blended that anger with a sense of wistful nostalgia, reflecting on the tragic irony of manifest destiny eroded by late capitalism. Wind River is just profoundly sad, a meditation on loss that seems more exhausted than angry. It is a tale about those people left behind on what remains of the frontier, about violence that is too easily overlooked and ignored. There is no rage here, no passion. There is just fatigue.

Wind River is a western set in the forgotten part of the west. It is a western set in the snow, on a Native American reservation. It is the story of a frontier that is too readily forgotten.

In cold blood.

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Non-Review Review: Annabelle – Creation

The issue with Annabelle: Creation is not one of skill or technique. Annabelle: Creation is a very well-crafted and well-constructed horror film. The issue is that Annabelle: Creation never quite figures out what kind of horror film it wants to be.

Annabelle: Creation struggles with tone. The movie bounces between extremes. At some points, it feels like it wants to be a genuinely dark and unsettling study of trauma and exploitation, a harrowing horror movie metaphor for some of the worst terrors that could be inflicted upon its young cast in their remote location. At other points, it is a much more conventional action horror movie, combining the blockbuster thrills approach of The Conjuring with the almost playful concept-driven self-aware scares of Lights Out.

Eye, Creepy Demonic Doll.

The movie often feels caught between these two approaches, repeatedly suggesting something much darker nestled at the core of what is a fairly solid and fairly recognisable horror template. There are moments when Annabelle: Creation is skin-crawlingly effective, and there are moments when the film cleverly punctuates its scares with awkward-laugh-out-loud moments of stress relief. In isolation, David Sandberg balances both approaches quite well.

The problem comes in trying to blend them together.

“Give me a moment, I’ve got to put my face on.”

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Non-Review Review: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a very pretty mess.

Atomic Blonde is a stylistic showcase for director David Leitch and star Charlize Theron, a bruising and beautiful ballet of brutality with a killer soundtrack. Atomic Blonde is a film set in a funhouse mirror version of Berlin in November 1989, a movie that argues its location is more a state of mind than a physical place. The violence in Atomic Blonde is visceral, the mood tangible, the soundtrack delectable. Atomic Blonde is a feast for the senses.

Seeing red.

However, Atomic Blonde also makes next to no sense. The film is an action movie dressed in the attire of a nihilistic espionage thriller, and a little narrative confusion inevitably comes with the territory. These films are all but obligated to have twists and betrayals, macguffins and revelations, switches and levers. Atomic Blonde embraces that zany approach to plot and structure with relish. However, the problem with Atomic Blonde is more fundamental than all that. It often struggles to remain coherent from one scene to the next, from one set piece to another.

Atomic Blonde is beautiful chaos, an exploding collage that probably didn’t make any sense to begin with.

Putting her turtleneck on the line.

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Non-Review Review: An Inconvenient Sequel – Truth to Power

An Inconvenient Sequel feels somewhat inconvenienced by factors outside of its control.

Much like An Inconvenient Truth, this documentary is very meticulously and carefully structured. It is built around the same core idea of a climate change lecture provided by Al Gore, but it also has a very linear and clear arc to it. There is a definite narrative running through An Inconvenient Sequel, which occasionally feels like a real-life thinking person’s political thriller, only with fewer shady businessmen and less immediately dramatic stakes. An Inconvenient Sequel has a story that it very clearly wants to tell, centring on Al Gore at the Paris Climate Change Conference.

However, that narrative is repeatedly interrupted. Forces beyond Gore’s reckoning creep in around the edges of the story that he wants to tell. Gore very clearly intended for this narrative to be triumphant in nature, to the point that he opens his big presentation in the middle of the film by promising the audience a happy ending. However, time and again, real life intervenes. Disruptions interrupt the flow of the story that Gore has constructed, to the point that the last ten minutes of the film feel like a bizarre postscript, as if real life were directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

It would be churlish to blame Gore for this. In fact, An Inconvenient Sequel is in many ways more interesting for these outside elements that creep into the story being told. Real life is full of complications that are unforeseen and yet inevitable. However, there is a sense that these sweeping dramatic reversals have caught Gore and the documentary off-balance, that they are struggling to properly respond, that they are not ready to veer “off script” to cope with what the world has thrown at them. The result is uncomfortable, chaotic, and surreal. And oddly compelling.

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Non-Review Review: Detroit

Detroit is a powerful and visceral piece of cinema, one that loses its way in a muddled second act.

The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty cemented Kathryn Bigalow’s talent for conveying a sense of chaos and disorganisation on film. It can be very difficult to capture the messiness of real life in the movies, given how cluttered narratives can become distracting or disorienting. It takes a very real talent to guide the audience through this carnage in a way that captures the organic ambiguities of the story while ensuring that nobody is lost or distracted. Bigalow has a very rare talent for that.

Insecurity guard.

Unsurprisingly, Detroit works best in its opening and closing acts, when the narrative pulls back to the real-life story covering the Detroit Riots in late July 1967. The film’s opening and closing beats have the feel of a weird docudrama, with Bigalow using handheld cameras and tight focus in a way that allows her to blend footage of the cast with archive material. Characters are identified by legends down the bottom of the screen, while the audience is frequently put in the position of confused spectators in a way that captures the mere anarchy loosed upon the city.

However, Detroit fumbles a little bit in its second act. For the middle of the film, Detroit narrows its focus significantly. Instead of providing socio-economic and political context for the entire riots, or dealing with the aftermath of horrific events, Detroit transforms into a story about a bunch of characters locked in a confined space together. As the film’s closing text admits, these sequences are much less verifiable than the snapshots populating the opening and closing acts, much less a matter of public record.

Big Mackie.

The second act of Detroit is a more conventional fictional narrative. While the movie is never less than interesting and clever, that organic sensibility is lost. During the first and third acts, the focus is on the broader story of the larger community, so it does not matter that many of these characters feel like archetypes and ciphers. When Detroit zooms in on the characters, they seem drawn too crudely to support the scrutiny. Detroit works a lot better as an epic social study, and less well as a claustrophobic character study.

Bigalow struggles to get the balance right, resulting in a film that is certainly ambitious and worthy, but also more uneven than her recent output. Detroit is too confident and too professional to be deemed a failure, but its second act is too shallow to be a success either.

I predict a riot.

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Non-Review Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk is compelling in its contradictions.

Dunkirk concerns a pyrrhic victory, a defeat which became a source of national pride. Dunkirk is at once a story rooted in a very particular event and a mythic narrative populated by archetypal characters. Dunkirk follows three parallel stories as they move towards a singular inevitable climax, although those narratives are allowed to move at their own pace towards those epic events and even overshoot one another. Dunkirk is at once chaotic and disjointed, and yet moving with a very clear sense of purpose and direction.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, it is too much to describe Dunkirk as a “puzzle box” narrative. It always very clear to the audience exactly what is going on, and the movie’s mysteries and revelations tend to be smaller and intimate rather than broad and sweeping. Nevertheless, it is a movie consciously unstuck in time, recalling Nolan’s long-standing fascination with shifting his narrative backwards and forwards along a timeline. (Insomnia, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises stand out as Nolan’s most linear films.)

Dunkirk is a war epic in the broadest possible sense, its narrative bouncing between three separate timelines covering the retreat from the eponymous port. However, there is also a faint sense that Dunkirk itself is unstuck in time. As much as the film is rooted in the reality of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, it speaks to something much bigger and more sweeping. There is a vagueness to Dunkirk which suggests that the film might well speak to realities beyond its specific setting.

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Non-Review Review: Star Trek – Insurrection

“I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,” Riker tells Troi at one point in Star Trek: Insurrection, and it might be the most telling line in the film.

Insurrection is many things, perhaps too many things. However, it primarily feels like a meditation on what it means to grow old, focusing on the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That first live-action Star Trek spin-off had revived the franchise as an on-going cultural concern, even launching a feature film franchise including Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact, and spawning its own spin-offs including Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A fist full of Data.

However, by the time that Insurrection arrived, The Next Generation was looking quite old. The Next Generation had launched more than a decade earlier, and had been off the air for almost five years. Although it had been a pop cultural behemoth, even its children (or its younger siblings) were starting to look a little long in the tooth. Deep Space Nine was in its final season, and Voyager was closer to its end than to its beginning. There was a creeping sense of fatigue and exhaustion.

In theory, this positions Insurrection quite well. After all, the original feature film franchise really came into its own when the characters found themselves forced to confront their own mortality. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breathed new life into the franchise as it forced Kirk to come to terms with his old age, while Star Trek III: The Search for Spock indulged the sense of grown-ups behaving badly in a story that forced Kirk to throw aside his ship and his career in service of an old friend.

Picard’s hairpiece was fooling nobody.

Stories about age and mortality resonate, and so Insurrection has a fairly solid foundation from which to build. There is just one sizable problem. The cast and crew of The Next Generation have no intention of growing old, of wrestling with mortality, of confronting their age. Insurrection is fundamentally a story about rejecting this maturity and this sense of age, of refusing to accept that time takes its toll and denying that old age is best faced with solemn dignity and reflection.

Insurrection is a story about mamboing against the dying of the light.

A familiar dance.

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