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Non-Review Review: Judy

Judy is set primarily against the backdrop of Judy Garland’s time performing in London in the late sixties within the six months leading to her death.

As such, it’s no surprise that the film features more than a few sequences of the protagonist taking to the stage and performing to the sold out crowds. In fact, there are very few surprises in Judy at all. The film hits most of its marks and delivers pretty much everything that is expected of it. After all, what would be the point of a Judy Garland biography that didn’t include renditions of old favourites like Somewhere Over the Rainbow or even The Trolley Song? The film’s framing device allows director Rupert Goold to fold these classics in without having to embrace the musical sensibilities of something like Rocketman.

Let’s Judge Judy.

The most revealing and indicative of the performances peppered through the film is not the one where Garland falls to pieces, nor the one where she makes a triumphant return and pours her heart out to the audience. (Naturally, the film hits both of those marks.) The most compelling of these sing-on-stage sequences is the first. Having arrived in London, Garland has refused to rehearse. As opening night approaches, she sits in her bathroom drinking. She is micromanaged and guided to the stage, thrown out in front of the first crowd. She is palpably nervous. The audience is anxious. It could all fall apart.

And it… goes okay. It isn’t the best night ever, nor the worst. Garland’s voice cracks a little even when she finds the right tempo, her movements are slightly robotic rather than spontaneous or energised. However, despite these complaints, everything holds together long enough for Judy to finish the set. The crowd gets what they paid for, and Garland delivers what she promised. It plays almost as a microcosm of Judy as a whole.

A familiar song.

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Non-Review Review: The Laundromat

The Laundromat is as messy and awkward as it is ambitious and creative.

At the very least, The Laundromat demonstrates that director Steven Soderbergh is as playful as he has ever been. Soderbergh is fifty-six years old. He is supposedly retired. However, Soderbergh remains vital and energised. Soderbergh’s filmography is ecclectic, with projects varying wildly in terms of tone and quality. However, a willingness to experiment and to try new things remains one of the most unifying threads within his expansive filmography. While some older directors get stuck in familiar patterns and routines, Soderbergh seems pathologically anxious about the possibility of stasis.

A wealth of revelations.

This is most obvious in terms of craft, with Soderbergh often tweaking how he produces and distributes his output. Soderbergh directed the entirety of The Knick, embracing the potential of television as a storytelling medium beyond the familiarity of cinema. He has spent his retirement re-editing classic films, reflecting the ascent of “remix” culture. He shot all of Unsane on an iPhone, seizing on the potential of new technology to alter the film-making paradigm. He partnered with Netflix for the release of High Flying Bird, taking advantage of the streaming service’s deep pockets and esoteric sensibilities.

The Laundromat is not a huge leap for Soderbergh in terms of craft. Instead, it’s an ambitious film in terms of narrative. The Laundromat represents an effort on the part of the director to map the complicated and corrosive mechanisms of global capitalism through a series of sprawling and open-ended vignettes intended to sketch the outline of something far larger than any single story. It’s a familiar Soderbergh premise; the director has long been fascinated by the way in which systems and structures work – especially those built around capitalism or globalisation. It doesn’t always work, but is never less than fascinating.

Boxed in.

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Non-Review Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch is bizarre misfire, lurking somewhere within the uncanny valley of prestige awards fare.

The film looks just enough like a standard end-of-year prestige piece to convince at a distance. John Crowley knows how to frame a shot and how to edit a sequence, particularly when setting it to music. The production values are impressive. The presence of actors like Jeffrey Wright or Nicole Kidman help to sell the illusion. The film itself is built around a variety of familiar awards-friendly tropes, charting the struggles of an orphan who drifts through the social strata twenty-first century American while struggling with his emotions and his drug addiction.

The Goldfinch is decidedly artless.

However, there’s also just enough wrong with The Goldfinch to push it into some weird liminal space. No three members of the cast seem to believe that they are in the same movie. The film decides to spend two hours as a reflective mood piece, before cramming a fairly generic thriller into the next twenty minutes, and wraps up by having a secondary character explain an ending that happened entirely off-screen. Large passages of the movie consist of time-lapse montages of characters staring into middle distance as overwrought monologues discuss concepts of grief and guilt.

Most of The Goldfinch is dull and lifeless, but there are moments when the film swerves wildly into surreality. Those moments aren’t necessarily good, but they are at least more interesting than the hollow prestige trappings that surround them.

I sense a laboured metaphor.

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Non-Review Review: Rambo – Last Blood

There’s something almost disappointingly pedestrian about Rambo: Last Blood.

The sequels to Rambo: First Blood have often struggled to live up to the original film, to capture the aspects of that early eighties action drama that elevated above so many of its contemporaries. Watched today, First Blood is a surprisingly sensitive piece that exists worlds apart from the gleeful revenge fantasies of Rambo: First Blood, Part II or Rambo III. It exists a world apart from superficially similar action movies like Missing in Action or P.O.W.: The Escape, a surprisingly meditative and reflective piece of work.

Parting shots.

It isn’t really a surprise that Last Blood strips out a lot of that meditation and reflection. Even the best of the sequels – the no-nonsense Rambo, from 2008 – was relatively straightforward in its ambitions and its methods. What is disappointing about Last Blood is how mundane its own ambitions and methods really are. The bulk of Last Blood is given over to a story that feels lifted from the most crass of the spiritual descendants of the original Rambo, with the eponymous Vietnam veteran embarking on a mission into the Mexico underworld to recover his surrogate daughter.

That said, Last Blood roars to life in its final act, recapturing some of the thrills that distinguish the series from so many of its imitators and successors. There’s a pulpy absurdist thrill to the film’s final act, which tries awkwardly to combine the wry commentary of the original film with the hyper-violence of the sequels. The result is a film that averages out to somewhere around “just about fine.”

Take a bow.

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Non-Review Review: Between Two Ferns – The Movie

Between Two Ferns: The Movie offers an abstract take on cringe comedy.

The film is an adaptation of the cult web series, which finds Zach Galifianakis planning a fictionalised version of himself. The basic set-up involves Galifianakis inviting on a particularly famous guest, and the interview coming very quickly off the rails. It often descends into awkward silence, although occasionally exchanges get a little punchier. The whole premise is a riff on the absurdity and tedium of celebrity interviews, which very rarely result in something so skin-crawlingly embarrassing, but can still feel deeply uncomfortable for both audience and participants.

At a crossroads.

The Movie wraps a framing device around that set-up, expanding the world of its fictionalised Galifianakis by offering a broader context for the viral web interviews. In the world of the film, Galifianakis is a small-town public access television host whose work has been distributed online by a cocaine-addled Will Ferrell. Ferrell has exploited this “grotesque” as a twenty-first century freak show, which has become a runaway success according to the click counters that Ferrell keeps on his office wall or even carries around in his pocket at all times.

The Movie adopts a familiar enough plot structure for this kind of adventure. It escalates the stakes while providing a framework for episodic encounters. After one particularly disastrous interview, Ferrell sets Galifianakis a challenge. If Galifianakis can land ten celebrity interviews on a road trip, Ferrell will secure his top seller a Lifetime (not life-time) chat show slot. So Galifianakis sets off on a road trip in the style of David Brent: Life on the Road, with a band of misfits sidekicks for a collection of broad comedic set pieces that run the gamut from genuinely hilarious to disappointingly repetitive.

That sinking feeling.

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Non-Review Review: Ad Astra

“I am attempting to communicate,” astronaut Roy McBride offers into a microphone, his voice translated into a signal to be broadcast via laser signal out to Neptune, where his long-absent father is lurking in the darkness.

Although the film is nominally set in the “near future”, director James Gray pitches Ad Astra as a nostalgia piece. It is Heart of Darkness (really Apocalypse Now) by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it also has faint shades of Star Wars in its portrayal of a father-son schism elevated to cosmic drama. Ad Astra presents the universe as a stark-yet-beautiful place, and the film itself fits that aesthetic. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has experience making space look stunning from Interstellar, and that carries over to the rich-yet-sterile look of Ad Astra.

Spaced out.

There are times when Ad Astra feels a little too arch and a little too dry in its meditative space odyssey. Roy’s constant internal monologue walks a fine line between profundity and self-parody. The film locks itself so firmly to Roy’s perspective, and nestles itself so snugly inside his head, that the world around him occasionally feels illusory. Of course, all of this is intentional. Gray clearly intends to contrast Ad Astra with the obvious epic space adventures to which it is indebted, and his stylistic sensibility certainly allows it to stand apart.

Ad Astra is a vivid story of extraterrestrial alienation, just one that doesn’t happen to feature any aliens.

Shock and launch.

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Non-Review Review: Downton Abbey – The Movie

Like the television series from which it is derived, Downton Abbey: The Movie certainly has its charms.

Most of these charms are plain and self-evident, examples of why the British period drama has endured as a high-end guilty pleasure for so long. There is something inherently appealing about assembling a crowd of talented actors, dressing them in beautiful clothes, and asking them to have polite-but-wry conversations in luxuriant surroundings. Downton Abbey benefited from a combination of elements, but largely lavish production design, an idyllic setting and a winning cast. Naturally, all of those elements carry over to the feature film adaptation – give or take Dan Stevens and Lily James.

Motor sensational, Paris or maybe hell.
Clutches of sad remains.

In many ways, The Movie feels like an extension of the British tradition of the Christmas Special – those seasonal themed episodes of television institutions like Doctor Who or Only Fools and Horses or Call the Midwife. The goal is something approaching celebratory nostalgia for the object in question, a light story populated by familiar characters in comfortable surroundings designed to be consumed by an audience coalescing on the couch after a hearty dinner. The budget is typically larger. There’s typically some weight emotional import, but coupled with a sense that nothing too dangerous is happening.

The Movie commits to this aesthetic, leaving it particularly inert and unengaging. Downton Abbey was always exquisite television comfort food, a light cream desert of a Sunday evening. The Movie takes that lightness and wraps it in cotton wool, creating an eerie and uncanny level of insulation. Downton Abbey was always a story of nostalgia for an idealised early-twentieth-century Britain, but The Movie plays almost as nostalgia for that nostalgia.

Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise.

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