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Non-Review Review: Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire often feels like Netflix resurrected Cannon Films, and tasked them with remaking Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Training Day, without any constraints in terms of logic or internal consistency.

Outside the Wire is a bad film, but it is a bad film in somewhat interesting ways. This is not the dull lifeless quality of Wild Mountain Thyme. It is instead the gonzo “throw everything at the wall, regardless of how it fits together” energy of a film like Serenity or Book of Henry. It is a film that makes a number of bizarre choices that often seem to confusingly double back on one another, to the point that any review of the film inevitably comes across as a deranged play-by-play rather than coherent criticism.

“You’re a droid, and I’m a ‘noid.”

Outside the Wire is set in Eastern Europe in the distant future of 2037, as a new Cold War brews between Russia and the United States, raging as a proxy war in the Ukraine. (It perhaps says something about the state of current politics that this reference feels very dated.) Lieutenant Thomas Harp is a drone pilot. During a routine assignment, he breaks the chain of command and fires a missile that kills two servicemen. As a penalty, Harp is assigned to active duty on the frontier.

This is a fairly standard set-up. It recalls movies that meditate on the morality of drone warfare, like Good Kill or Eye in the Sky. Indeed, as Harp arrives on site, the commanding officer outlines the brutal cynicism of this punishment. “You’re here because somebody deemed the dollar value of your training to be higher than the lives of those two men. If you survive, air force keeps a pilot. If you die, you’re a cautionary tale to all the other fly-by-wire assholes.” The stakes are grounded, logical. The moral at play is clear. Harp is going to learn what war is really like.

Robot Wars.

Then, in the space of three minutes, Harp is assigned to work with an officer named “Leo.” Leo is an oddity. “He’s not like us,” the commanding officer warns. Leo works alone in a large office, filled with records. He listens to vinyl music. He types on an analogue keyboard. Within minutes of arriving, Leo has already conscripted Harp on a covert mission behind enemy lines. It initially seems like Leo is planning to deliver a set of vaccines to a local children’s hospital. “So you’re hearts and minds, sir?” Harp asks. Leo replies, “Yes, I’m hearts and minds. Ostensibly.”

It turns out that the vaccine run that Harp has been assigned moments after arriving to his first active deployment is actually a clandestine strike mission to take out local war lord Victor Koval. Koval is plotting to take control of the Ukrainian nuclear arsenal, and Leo is committed to stopping that from happening. Leo walks Harp through an elaborate exposition machine, involving photo plays and interactive maps. There’s a lot of elaborate detail, but the mission is clear. This is a “save the world” buddy movie.

And then Leo takes off his shirt, and reveals that he is android. All of this is twenty minutes into the film.

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Non-Review Review: Pieces of a Woman

If only Pieces of a Woman were interested in allocating more space to its central female character.

Pieces of a Woman is notable as Vanessa Kirby’s first cinematic lead role. The actor has a long career in theatre and on television, and has made an impression with a couple of strong supporting turns in blockbusters like Mission: Impossible – Fallout or Hobbs and Shaw. However, Pieces of a Woman marks the first time that Kirby takes centre stage, and the film gives her the juicy role of a young woman trying to come to terms with a home birth that ended in tragedy, as her life falls to pieces around her.

Where’s LaBeouf?

Kirby is great in Pieces of a Woman, offering a central performance that is layered and nuanced, one that often opts for interiority instead of extroversion. It’s a quiet performance, but a rich one. Kirby deserves a lot of credit for her work. However, Pieces of a Woman refuses to give Kirby’s performance the credit that it deserves, instead drowning out that powerhouse dramatic in a sea of prestige drama clichés and larger-than-life supporting turns from actors like Shia LeBeouf. Kirby winds up somewhat lost in a film that should be centred on her, through no fault of her own.

If Pieces of a Woman is a story of a fractured response to grief, it often feels like some of the pieces get lost because the film has no real interest in looking.

Pregnant pause.

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Non-Review Review: One Night in Miami

The past year has seen an interesting resurgence in old fashioned stage-to-screen adaptations.

It is been a common criticism that screen adaptations of classic stage plays tend to be “stagey” rather than traditionally “cinematic.” After all, many plays are written in such a way as to play to the strengths of theatre as a medium, built around core characters delivering monologues on standing sets in an intimate scale. One of the more common criticisms of movies like Doubt is that they fail to fully translate the material so that it is optimised to work in the language of cinema. As a result, quite a few adaptations will try to disguise their theatrical origins.

The cast is great, bar none.

However, this past year has seen a number of high-profile stage performances adapted for film, completely unashamed of their roots. Hamilton was not a conventional cinematic adaptation of the hit musical, but instead a recording of a performance pieced together in such a way as to attempt to recreate the experience of watching the show in a theatre. On Netflix, The Boys in the Band and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom made no effort to disguise their theatrical roots. Even Ryan Murphy’s The Prom embraced the hyperrealism of Broadway.

One Night in Miami is another example of this trend, with playwright Kemp Powers adapting his own play for the screen. Director Regina King never tries to make One Night in Miami seem especially cinematic or epic in scope, instead opting to focus on what made Powers’ play such a success in the first place. One Night in Miami is a piercing and biting snapshot of an ongoing argument in progressive minority circles, powered by sharp dialogue and a set of winning performances. It is perhaps a little too stagey for its own good, but it still works a treat.

Raising the roof…

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Non-Review Review: Wild Mountain Thyme

“Welcome,” narrates Christopher Walken in the opening moments of Wild Mountain Thyme. “Welcome to Ireland. My name’s Tony Reilly. And I’m dead.”

Even before it as released, Wild Mountain Thyme had positioned itself as a viable candidate for the “best bad movie of 2020”, a title that merits some distinction from actually and actively bad movies like Artemis Fowl or Songbird. There is something inherently performative about the idea of “best bad movies”, which requires them to be inherently entertaining in decidedly unconventional ways. Of course, Cats is perhaps the great example of this is recent memory, a terrible movie that has been swiftly reclaimed as a cult classic.

Fifty shade of green.

The premiere of the trailer for Wild Mountain Thyme immediately grabbed the internet’s attention, as did news about the plot of the play from which writer and director John Patrick Shanley was drawing. There was something about the combination of factors at play: the terrible accents, the twee portrayal of rural Ireland obviously written from an outsider’s perspective, Shanley’s interview comments about the Irish, and rumours about an insane third act twist. There was some anticipation that this could be an equivalent to something like Steven Knight’s Serenity.

Of course, the truth is that competing at this level, drawing that sort of interest and fascination, requires a certain spark. For all the problems with Serenity, it was not a film that lacked for ambition. Knight followed his impulses unwaiveringly and unquestioningly, and there’s something intoxicating in watching a film steer itself so confidently towards a premise so completely insane, with no real idea of how to execute the twists that it wants to employ. Sadly, Wild Mountain Thyme lacks that energy and vigour. Indeed, the worst thing about it is how dull it is.

Making a splash.

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Non-Review Review: Nomadland

Nomadland is essentially two competing and irreconcilable films.

The first, and more successful film, is a character study of its protagonist. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who has embarked on a life on the road following the death of her husband and the destruction of the community in which she lived. Fern is a wanderer, a restless soul who finds herself trapped between the harsh demands of life on the road and the freedom that such a lifestyle affords her. She is a restless soul wandering across the vast open plains of the United States of the America.

Fern From Home.

The second, and irreconcilable, film is a snapshot of a particular class of people that developed in the aftermath of the Great Recession. As jobs were destroyed and houses were repossessed, large numbers of people found themselves dispossessed and force to live an itinerant existence largely dependent upon the gig economy to keep their heads above the ever-rising tide. There is something almost documentarian about this film, drawing as it does from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book and featuring many actual “nomads” in supporting roles.

Nomadland quite rightly refuses to condescend to the people who have found a way to survive on the margins. However, the decision to focus on a character like Fern robs the movie of a lot of its potential sting and insight. Watching Nomadland, there’s something almost empowering about the way that Fern’s existence plays out, a sense in which Fern is living the way that she always wanted to on some level. This feels rather cynical and calculated in the context of the very real and devastating trauma of the financial crisis and the destruction that it wrought.

Highway drifter.

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Non-Review Review: News of the World

News of the World is a gentle and sweet modern western, albeit more than a little disjointed.

Adapted from Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same name, News of the World is essentially an update on the classic western template exemplified by The Searchers. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a veteran of the Civil War who makes his living travelling through the Southern United States, reading the news to assembled crowds. On one journey, Kidd comes across a carriage that has been destroyed. Its driver has been killed, and its sole occupant – a young girl – abandoned.

“Jo, hanna! Time to go!”

Kidd determines that the young girl is named Johanna. She was taken from her parents when she was very young and raised by the Kiowa tribe. She was recently recovered, and the army is attempting to send her back to her last surviving relatives. Of course, with her escort killed and the Union forces scattered trying to manage Reconstruction, Kidd finds himself tasked with caring for the young woman and ferrying her across the nation to reunite her with her mother’s extended family.

There’s a surprising and endearing warmth to News of the World, which largely comes from casting Tom Hanks in the lead role. In some ways, this feels like the movie’s most telling update to that classic western formula, replacing John Wayne’s true grit with Tom Hanks’ hanksian decency. News of the World is perhaps a little too episodic and too uneven for its own good, occasionally feeling like a more mainstream counterpart to something like The Sisters Brothers, but it works largely thanks to the central performances of Tom Hanks and his co-star Helena Zengel.

Horsing around.

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Non-Review Review: Soul

Soul is ambitious and well-crafted.

If Onward had been positioned as the populist Pixar film this year, then Soul is a counterproint. It is a prestige piece for the company, something similar to Inside Out or Wall-E. After all, Soul is the latest project from Pete Docter. Docter has been part of the Pixar brain trust since its earliest days, even working on the stories for Toy Story and Toy Story 2. However, Docter’s most recent high-profile work has been his scripting and directing duties on Up and Inside Out, two Pixar films to have been nominated for Best Picture and to win Best Animated Feature.

The afterlife and all that jazz.

The premise of Soul is suitably abstract. Joe Gardner is a music teacher who always dreamed of being a successful stage musician. One day, a former student gets in contact with him, offering a gig with jazz legend Dorethea Williams. Joe manages to land the gig, and is convinced that his fortunes are about to change for good. Naturally, dramatic irony strikes, and Joe finds himself sent to the afterlife. Refusing to accept that his life is over, Joe commits to doing whatever it takes to get back to Earth and live his dream. “I’m not dying today,” he vows. “Not when my life just started.”

Soul deals with very big ideas in a remarkably clever way. The film creates a compelling and fascinating imaginary world that recalls both Riley’s internal life from Inside Out and even the afterlife depicted in Coco. Docter also uses the story as a meditation on weighty subject matter like death, dreams and disillusionment. It’s bold and striking, and the film largely works as a showcase for the company’s imagination. However, Soul does stumble slightly in its final act, pulling its punches ever so slightly as the film reaches its denouement.

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New Escapist Video! “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Review in 3 Minutes”

I’m thrilled to be launching 3-Minute Reviews on Escapist Movies. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute feature film review to the channel, discussing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which features the last major live-action performance from Chadwick Boseman.

Non-Review Review: Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman 1984 is ambitious and messy.

In many ways, the original Wonder Woman could be said to be the first true blockbuster of the Trump era, in much the same way that The Dark Knight was the closing blockbuster of the Bush era and Star Trek was the opening blockbuster of the Obama era. It is not a literal or a chronological distinction, but instead that acknowledges the film’s place as a cultural marker. The original Wonder Woman spoke to the question of what it meant to be good in a world that is not, which resonated in the second half of the decade.

No spoilers.

As such, it feels appropriate that Wonder Woman 1984 will be the last blockbuster of the Trump era. Part of this is simply down to factors outside the film’s control – it was originally meant to release earlier in the year, and Warner Brothers had originally planned for Dune to take the Christmas release slot that ultimately went to it. Still, it’s hard to watch Wonder Woman 1984 without getting a sense that director Patty Jenkins has a lot to say about the current moment. Even insulated by its mid-eighties setting, Wonder Woman 1984 is a movie anchored firmly in the present.

There’s a lot of rich thematic material here and grand ideas. Indeed, Wonder Woman 1984 might just be the first superhero blockbuster that serves as a metaphor for the idea of an economy. However, the execution is a little too broad and too clumsy. Wonder Woman 1984 works best when it is anchored in its characters and giving them room to breathe. It struggles a bit when it tries to position itself as a brand extension of a recognisable franchise.

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New Escapist Video! “Wolfwalkers – Review in 3 Minutes”

I’m thrilled to be launching 3-Minute Reviews on Escapist Movies. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute feature film review to the channel, discussing Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers.