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Non-Review Review: Polar

At the heart of Polar is a vaguely interesting idea.

The basic premise of Polar filters an archetypal masculine midlife (or retirement) anxiety through the prism of a hyper-violent fantasia. It is almost a cliché to suggest that certain types of men revert to boys when confronted with their own mortality, but only because it permeates popular culture that treats middle age as a relapsed adolescence reflected in the shiny toys that such men buy and the selfish decisions that such men make. Polar just takes that central metaphor and runs with it.

The assassin who came in from the cold.

Even beyond that basic concept, there’s something potentially compelling in the premise of an assassination-themed black comedy that hinges on what amounts to a pension swindle. It’s hyper-capitalism run wild, the commodification of human life to the point that workers are literally killing one another to prevent the company from having to make a pay-out. The Other Guys managed that deft balance with ease and grace. On some strange level, it’s fun to imagine a hyper-violent assassination thriller rooted in something as mundane as balance sheets, mergers and annual reports.

Unfortunately, Polar is a disaster of a film. It just doesn’t work. More than that, the ways in which it doesn’t work are painfully and predictably mundane. It’s leery, voyeuristic and trashy, but not in any fun way. It has a weird anal fixation that most obviously manifests itself in those sleazy tight close-ups of female derrieres, but which has a slight equal opportunity air to it; audiences are also treated to a number of shots of Mads Mikkelsson’s ass as he thrusts into his female co-stars, and the film opens with Mikkelsson receiving a prostate exam that might serve as a metaphor for the store film.

Not a patch on John Wick.

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Non-Review Review: Instant Family

The biggest issue with Instant Family is one of identity.

Is Instant Family best approached as a broad feel-good comedy that deals too glibly with serious and deeply affecting issues, or is it an earnest drama that too eagerly punctuates its heart-tugging beats with gags that play loudly the gallery? Instant Family never quite seems to work this out, bouncing quickly from one extreme to another without any sense of internal cohesion. Instant Family often seems unsure of the tone that it wants to hit, which means that it can never maintain a consistent tone for more than a scene or so.

Kids also make great human shields.

To be fair to Instant Family, it is possible to deftly balance the demands of comedy and drama. There are countless great films that balance on a knife-edge between the two extremes, most notably the work of directors like Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers. While there is obviously some debate about how skillfully they pull off this balance, it is also a key ingredient in contemporary Oscar contenders like Vice or Green Book. It is entirely possible for a film to make the audience both laugh out loud and cry softly at the same time. Pixar is very good at this.

The issue with Instant Family is one of speed and extremes, how much ground it tries to cover in navigating the space between funny and moving, and how quickly it tries to cross that space.

Family matters.

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Non-Review Review: The Mule

The Mule is an endearingly and charmingly bizarre piece of work, one which plays to both the best and worst impulses of its leading man and director.

A revealing moment comes very early in The Mule, when the protagonist is making his way through a horticultural convention. Pausing at a table where a salesman is explaining that customers can now order their flowers online, Earl pauses and sighs. “The internet,” he mutters to both himself and the audience. “Who needs that?” It’s a moment that serves as something of a litmus test, in which the audience find themselves asking how much that statement illuminates Earl’s perspective or the film’s central arguments.

Who needs Netflix money anyway?

Earl is very much an archetypal Clint Eastwood protagonist. He is crotchety, casually racist, well-intentioned and irresistibly charming. These elements are often uncomfortable when played off one another, with films like Gran Torino playing with the tension between the film’s perspective and the outdated views of its incredibly engaging protagonist. Eastwood is everybody irascible elderly relative, to the point that it’s almost impossible not to like him. Particularly in his later roles, Eastwood rarely plays characters who are actively malicious. They are just insensitive and blunt.

Of course, Earl is also a decidedly ambiguous figure. This is part of what defines him as an archetypal Clint Eastwood protagonist. Eastwood’s screen persona is the very definition of a certain sort of masculinity; confident, assured, assertive, canny. However, Eastwood’s screen persona is also built around deconstructing certain old-fashioned notions of masculinity, picking at the role that violence plays in defining a masculine identity or exploring the emotional consequences of rigid professionalism and stiff stoicism.

Case foreclosed.

Earl is incredibly disarming, and almost impossible not to like, a fact that The Mule repeatedly and consciously acknowledges. From Drug Enforcement Administration agents to cartel enforcers, Earl has the capacity to smooth-talk absolutely anyone. Attending his granddaughter’s wedding, his ex-wife very pointedly has to fight off the urge to succumb to Earl’s charm offensive. The Mule is quite conscious that Earl’s wit and charisma are not the entirety of who he is, and how they belie other less flattering aspects of his personality.

The Mule is a film that is stuck in a constant push-and-pull with its leading man, which results in an uneven but compelling film. The Mule never seems certain what to make of its title character, never sure how seriously it takes him. The result is to leave a lot of space for the audience to navigate their own reaction to the film’s cocaine-carted grandfather.

Not beaten yet.

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Non-Review Review: Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots is unfocused and unmoored.

Mary, Queen of Scots feels like it should be a star vehicle for Saoirse Ronan. This makes sense. Ronan is a star in ascent. She has three Oscar nominations, and has recently headlined films with broad appeal like Brooklyn and Lady Bird. The concept of building a star vehicle for Ronan from the life and times of Mary Stuart seems like a good idea. Ronan experimented with larger-scale films in her teens like The Lovely Bones or The Host, but it seems perfectly reasonable to have her approach a large scale period drama as a genuine movie star.

Beth left unsaid.

However, Mary, Queen of Scots suffers from what feels like a crisis of confidence. The film’s second-billed lead is Margot Robbie, a successful Oscar-winning actor with similar star wattage to Ronan. Despite the fact that Mary Stuart retained the title of the film, Mary, Queen of Scots has largely been sold and marketed as a film with two leads; consider the misguided #dearsister hashtag publicity campaign, or the misguided branding on the character-focused profiles. It often seems like Mary, Queen of Scots clumsily aspires to be a biography of Queen Elizabeth I.

Mary, Queen of Scots is never entirely sure whether it wants to be a character-driven story focused on one woman’s life or a two-hander about lives in parallel. Watching the film, it feels like the decision was repeatedly taken and revised at various points during production, never committing to one approach for fear that it might preclude the other. The result is uneven and disjointed. Mary, Queen of Scots devotes enough time to Queen Elizabeth I that she feels like a major player, but only managed to get Ronan and Robbie together on set for a single day.

Queen of hearts.

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Non-Review Review: Destroyer

At its core, Destroyer is a pulpy, heightened B-movie.

The basic plot involves a former undercover officer who finds herself tidying up loose ends from a botched job twelve years earlier, Erin Bell trying desperately to stay ahead of everything as the walls close in around her. It’s a standard template for a story like this, and audiences will be familiar with the basic structure of the story. Erin’s life is a disaster zone, and there is a sense that she still carries the scars from the trauma she enduring working with a local criminal gang.

She is become death…

As with most other genre exercises like this, Destroyer lives or dies in the execution. The template is so recognisable because it works efficiently. Apply a talented performer, a good director and a solid script to the template, and the movie will work. In that respect, Destroyer benefits from a compelling central performance by Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell, and from director Karyn Kusama’s understanding of the rhythms and tempos of genre exercises like this.

Destroyer stumbles a little bit in its third act, largely due to a completely unnecessary piece of narrative trickery. However, the film is propulsive and compelling enough to make it across the finish line.

Copping to it.

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Non-Review Review: Monsters and Men

Monsters and Men is an impressive theatrical debut for director Reinaldo Marcus Green, at least in technical sense.

There is an artfulness to Monsters and Men, an impressive level of craft. The compositions are striking and impressive. In particular, the closing shot of the film is an emotive and memorable visual that lingers as the closing credits role. If Monsters and Men is any indication, Green has a long and impressive career ahead of him. He demonstrates a keen eye for cinematic images and an intuitive knack for visual storytelling.

“I’m talkin’ to the man in the two-way mirror…”

Unfortunately, Monsters and Men is much less satisfying as a narrative experience than it is as a collection of shots and images. It is an ambitious and provocative piece of work, a narrative triptych that focuses on three very different characters affected in three very different ways by a police shooting in New York. Monsters and Men hopes to fashion a mosaic, to offer three fractured perspectives that might better illuminate the whole. Unfortunately, these individual stories don’t really work together and do not cohere into a singular or defining statement.

Monsters and Men undoubtedly has its heart in the right place as a piece of low-budget socially-conscious film making, but it simply cannot deliver on its ambitions. Although this ultimately undercuts the film, there are certainly worse flaws to have.

Feeling fenced in.

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Non-Review Review: The Upside

The Upside doesn’t work.

From the outset, it is very clear what The Upside wants to be. This a movie that aspires towards a broad feel-good mood. Perhaps its closest companion in this particular awards cycle is Green Book. It is easy to be cynical about such films, and it is particularly easy to be cynical about The Upside. The film’s delayed release is not the result of a studio desperately holding a hidden gem until late in awards season, this is a would-be crowd pleaser pried from the cold dead hands of the Weinstein Company.

Hart to heart.

Everything in The Upside seems designed to guide an audience on an emotionally uplifting journey, a story of two characters from very different circumstances brought together so that each might elevate the other. All of the big moments in The Upside are no so much telegraphed as broadcast, the volume turned up to eleven. Characters scream and shout, at both each other and the world around them. Catharsis isn’t just sought, it is amplified. There is no moment at which The Upside leaves the audience in any doubt about what they should feel.

The result is a clumsy and awkward piece of cinema that constantly trips over itself, repeatedly undermining anything meaningful or significant that it might have to say about either of its two central characters.

“So, what is The Upside here?”

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