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Non-Review Review: Detective Pikachu

Detective Pikachu is disarmingly cute, both the movie and the character.

There are a number of serious problems with Detective Pikachu, although none of them are so serious as to become fatal flaws and most are easily explained by virtue of the film’s target audience. Most obviously, Detective Pikachu is never a movie that is particularly elegant in its storytelling. This is a film that burdened with an impressive volume of visual and spoken exposition, particularly in the opening half-hour. Characters are constantly expositing to one another, and often spelling out their motivations and perspectives for the benefit of the audience.

“Just want to take another Pikachu.”

However, once Detective Pikachu gets past that, there’s a lot of charm on display. A lot of that is down to the two central performances from Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith, both of whom provide solid emotional throughlines and play the comic absurdity of the premise. There is also a lot to be said for the efficiency of the script, which rockets through virtually everything that the audience might expect from a Pokémon film. The energy of the cast prevents it from ever feeling too much like a checklist.

Detective Pikachu never quite achieves the level of transcendence, never pushes past its simple premise towards something more intriguing or compelling. Instead, Detective Pikachu delivers pretty much what it promises, with an endearing and infectious smile on its face.

No drive.

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Non-Review Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile

There’s an interesting film somewhere within Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile.

After all, the serial killer is a fascinating figure in the American popular consciousness. Although the serial killer’s stature has declined since its peak in the nineties, the recent “true crime” boom on both streaming services and in podcasts have helped to reignite some interest in the figure. Indeed, it is worth noting that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile feels almost like a companion piece to director Joe Berlinger’s other Ted Bundy project, the Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. As such, it is perhaps revealing that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile feels like an appendix to The Ted Bundy Tapes, an extra that dramatises the meatier material presented in that streaming service true crime documentary.

Killer good looks.

After all, although Berlinger has worked on narrative films before, he is known primarily as a documentarian. (There is some small irony that his most prominent narrative film is Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows.) Inevitably, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile would feel secondary. It may have premiered on the festival before The Ted Bundy Tapes, but it was released afterwards, ensuring that to the casual viewer it will seem like something of a response to that breakout hit. More than that, though, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile feels like it has very little new to say about either its serial killer or its cultural context. There is surprisingly little in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile that isn’t evoked by the words “Ted Bundy.”

The serial killer is a well-explored subject in popular fiction, having been the focus of decades of narratives and deconstructions. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile looks for an interesting angle on its subject, but never finds a way in. The result is a film that has an interesting premise, but which struggled to get under the skin of a serial killer.

Slice of life.

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Non-Review Review: The Curse of La Llorona

The Curse of La Llorona is fairly solid as contemporary studio horrors go.

Although the arrival of Avengers: Endgame has a lot of attention focused on the largest and most successful shared cinematic universe of the twenty-first century, there is a lot to be said for the strange horror universe that has been built outwards from The Conjuring. Although this trend is most overt in The Conjuring 2, the rare horror movie to also feature a car chase sequence, there is something fascinating in how these films have transformed studio horror into a blockbuster concern.

Mother have mercy.

There is a reason that these films are released during the summer months, as counter-intuitive as that might seem. Again, discussing The Curse of La Llorona in such terms might seem cynical, but it is genuinely striking. It takes a lot of work to satisfy the competing demands of the two genres; the shock of horror with the familiarity of blockbuster storytelling. The challenge with The Curse of La Llorona lies in offering audiences something that satisfies all their expectations of a film like this, while still offering a few shocks and starts along the way. It is a remarkable accomplishment.

The Curse of La Llorona strikes that balance relatively well. The film knows the formats and rhythms of a horror film, and director Michael Chaves knows both what the audience expects and how to work within that format to build a genuine and compelling sense of dread. The Curse of La Llorona is well-made, efficient, and delivers what the audience anticipates from a Conjuring spin-off. There’s something endearing in the reliability, in the care with which the film strikes these sorts of balances.

Scream queen.

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Non-Review Review: A Dog’s Journey

A Dog’s Journey is incredibly earnest.

To be fair, it kind of goes with the territory. A sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, the film fits comfortably in the same “narrating baby or animal observes the adult world” subgenre as the Look Who’s Talking films. The basic premise of the film finds a beloved family pet reincarnating over and over again in order to serve as a spiritual companion to a family across three generations. Voiced by Josh Gad across a wealth of breeds, genders and personas, this “boss dog” finds themselves drawn towards a family struggling to hold itself together amid incredible internal tension.

Hardly a crowning accomplishment.

The premise and execution are admittedly very hokey. The characterisation is threadbare. The actors vary wildly in terms of skill. The jokes are often hackneyed and overly familiar. The script is full of strange narrative cul de sacs and tangents that occasionally stall the forward momentum of the film. A Dog’s Journey is an exceptionally tightly (or even well-) constructed film. However, the almost aching levels of sincerity almost hold it together despite these sheering forces.

At the heart of A Dog’s Journey is an incredibly simple-yet-heartfelt idea of the relationship that exists between a dog an it’s owner. Late in the film, one character concedes to another, “It must be nice to have something that loves you unconditionally.” For all the film’s flaws, it never doubts the idea that the love of a dog for its owner (and perhaps vice versa) is truly unconditional and uncompromising, no matter how complicated the world around that relationship might become.

Fields of gold.

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“We’re Not Soldiers”: The Cautious Superhero Optimism of “The Avengers”…

Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea. It’s not that I needed Superman to be “real,” I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams. I needn’t have worried; Superman is so indefatigable a product of the human imagination, such a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves, that my Idea of the Bomb had no defense against him.

– Grant Morrison, Supergods

There was an idea, Stark knows this, called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could.

– Nick Fury, The Avengers

In hindsight, The Avengers looks like a sure bet; a bunch of recognisable characters from successful properties bound together to create a blockbuster.

It is a testament to how profoundly The Avengers has reshaped the media landscape in its image that this appears almost a given. In a world that has seen the release of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the original film in the franchise seems almost quaint. Only six heroes? Only one primary villain, and one who was previously defeated by Thor in Thor? Sure, Thor is “the strongest Avenger”, but that seems almost quaint in this era of universe-spanning crossovers that fold on the expansive casts of films like Ant Man or Black Panther or Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps it is an ode to the power of  the idea that The Avengers feels so small in hindsight.

At the same time, there’s a maturity and reflection in the original Avengers that is largely lacking from Infinity War and Endgame. One of the most frustrating aspects of Infinity War and Endgame is the way in which the films devolve into unquestioning power fantasies; stories about great men who wield the power of gods for their own benefit with little regard for the obligations or responsibilities that come with that power. The characters of Infinity War and Endgame never question the use of their power for their own benefit, never contemplate their right to hold the fate of four different universes in their hands. Banner never questions the appeal of living as the Hulk forever, just as Thor insists on abandoning his people to have wack adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy cast.

In hindsight, what is most striking about The Avengers is how fascinated it is with the question of what superheroes are, and what function they serve. Perhaps in keeping with the general enthusiasm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or perhaps reflecting his own affection for the genre, Joss Whedon keeps coming back to the suggestion that superheros represent an idea and an ideal. They represent an idealised manifestation of American power and identity, quite literally contrasted at the end of the film with the horror and majesty of the atomic bomb.

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2019) #16!

It’s time for the Scannain podcast!

This week, I join Jay Coyle and Grace Duffy to discuss the week in film. There’s a lot to discuss. As one might expect given the big release of the week, there’s a lot of Marvel Cinematic Universe talk; The Incredible Hulk, Avengers: Infinity War, Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s also time to discuss Tropic Thunder, Catch Me If You Can and The Shallows. In terms of film news, Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium is screening at Cannes and the IFI is hosting a Trish McAdam season in May.

The top ten:

  1. Hellboy
  2. Five Feet Apart
  3. Little
  4. Pet Sematary
  5. Captain Marvel
  6. Wonder Park
  7. Greta
  8. Wild Rose
  9. Shazam!
  10. Dumbo

New releases:

You can listen to the podcast directly here.

“… Because That’s What Heroes Do”: The Curious Definition of Heroism and the Politics of Power in “Infinity War” and “Endgame”…

Note: Obviously don’t read this if you haven’t seen both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.

Superhero films are the most ubiquitous form of twenty-first century blockbuster.

The summer season is increasingly crowded by blockbuster superhero releases. This year is actually a fairly tempered year for Marvel Studios. Only Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame are on the docket from the company, with Sony handling the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home later in the summer. However, the space between the two Marvel Studios releases included films like Shazam! and Hellboy. Later in the year, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will effectively close off Twentieth-Century Fox’s superhero blockbuster slate before it is folded into the Disney machine. Indeed, even the non-brand superheroes look to have had a fairly decent year; other releases this year include Glass and Brightburn, both movies with original characters playing with genre tropes.

There are lots of discussions about why the genre has become such a dominant feature of the pop cultural landscape. Perhaps it is simply down to technology, with advances in computer-generated animation allowing for more convincing depictions of the scale and drama expected in these sorts of stories. Guardians of the Galaxy would have been very difficult to make even a decade earlier, when it would have been next-to-impossible to animate Rocket Racoon on a workable budget. However, it may also be cultural. The rise of the modern superhero blockbuster film roughly coincided with the War on Terror, a connection rendered explicit in films like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Old-fashioned heroism was undoubtedly appealing at a time of political crisis.

This is interesting in the context of Endgame. In many ways, Endgame looks to be an event of biblical proportions. There is a reasonable chance that Endgame could become the most successful movie of all-time. There is a good chance that Endgame could have a one billion dollar opening weekend. Within hours of opening, the film film had already placed (highly) on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the top 250 movies of all-time. Endgame is a bona fides pop cultural phenomenon. It is a film that shakes the world underneath its feet. It is the culmination of a twenty-odd film journey, but it is also something of a conclusive statement on (at the very least) the modern iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most high-profile example of the superhero in modern cinema.

What is that statement? What is the film actually saying? To be fair, this was an issue with Avengers: Infinity War. It was very difficult to distill a singular thematic point or moral thesis from Infinity War, largely because the film was structured in such a way as to deny its central characters any agency or autonomy within the narrative. Infinity War was a breathtakingly cynical piece of corporate logistics, occasionally veering into downright nihilism. After all, the climax of the film unfolds in the way that it does simply because Stephen Strange sees that it is supposed happen that way. No choice that the characters make has any impact on what happens, because there is only ever one way that it could happen.

Endgame is interesting in how it builds on this. In particular, how Endgame chooses to define its central characters. If Endgame is to be the defining superhero story of the modern era, its definition of “heroism” is very esoteric.

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