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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2019) #4!

It’s time for the latest Scannain podcast!

This week, I join Jay Coyle and Graham Day from Speakin’ Geek to discuss the week in film news. It’s a fun and wide-ranging discussion, covering everything from the growth of Dreamworks as an animation studio to the extended cut of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. There’s also discussion of Dragonball Z and Destroyer. In film news, we mark the passing of Dick Miller, the coverage of Sundance, February at the Irish Film Institute and the thirtieth anniversary of the Cork French Film Festival.

The top ten:

  1. The Favourite
  2. Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet
  3. Stan and Ollie
  4. Second Act
  5. Mary Poppins Returns
  6. The Mule
  7. Vice
  8. Mary Queen of Scots
  9. Glass
  10. A Dog’s Way Home

New releases:

You can download the episode here, or listen to it below.

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Non-Review Review: High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird is a quietly radical movie about a sports agent.

This should not be a surprise. Director Steven Soderbergh is a director fascinated with systems, particularly capitalist systems. Unsane might have taken the form of a trashy and tacky nineties thriller, but it was primarily interested in exploring the horrors of a psychiatric industrial complex. Side Effects touched upon the way in which pharmaceutical companies and legal systems work. Contagion was a story about structural responses to a viral infection that spread rapidly through an increasingly interconnected world.

Managing the situation.

With that in mind, it makes sense that Steven Soderbergh’s movie about the NBA lockout of 2011 would feature very little actual basketball. Sure, footage of games plays on several of the large flatscreens adorning bar or office walls, but it’s just window dressing. Just when it looks like Soderbergh might actually show a game, he cuts away dramatically to a shot of a billionaire’s daughter carrying her dog on board a private jet, flanked by two helpful staff holding umbrellas to protect her from the wind. High Flying Bird is about basket ball as an institution, but not a sport.

A cynic would argue that  High Flying Bird is about basket ball in the same way that the NBA is about basket ball, interested in institutions and structures more than the actual sport itself. Such a cynic would be right at home in the world of High Flying Bird, where characters talk freely and repeatedly about the  “game that’s been played behind the game”, “the game that they made over the game”, or “a game on top of a game.” Professional basket ball is not about basket ball, High Flying Bird argues coherently and consistently. Professional basket ball is about profiting off basket ball.

“What are you doing here?”
“Beatz me.”

High Flying Bird is drawn from a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is perhaps best known for working on the story for Moonlight with Barry Jenkins. Indeed, the cast is anchored by Moonlight co-star André Holland. High Flying Bird recalls Moneyball, in that it is a film about sport that does not feature sport, understanding that the activity does not exist in a vacuum. For High Flying Bird, professional basket ball is about money and power and race, and the real game is being played away from where the camera and the audience is looking.

The only thing that keeps High Flying Bird from being a slam dunk is a lack of focus. High Flying Bird doesn’t entirely trust its cast and its premise to hold the audience’s attention through all of these conversations about abstract concepts layered upon abstract concepts placed over a game that the film only shows in the background. As a result, McCraney and Soderbergh crowd out the story with subplots designed to generate human interest; a tragic back story, an emerging romance. These elements ultimately distract from the most interesting aspects of the film.

This screenshot is also about capitalism. Somehow.

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New Podcast! The Pensky File – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 5, Episode 9 (“The Ascent”)

I was thrilled to be asked back to join The Pensky Podcast to discuss Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, particularly as they hit the fifth season, which may well be the best season of Star Trek ever produced. So, no pressure talking about The Ascent, then.

Wes had a family emergency to take care of, so I joined Clay to discuss this mid-season double-buddy comedy episode in which Odo and Quark find themselves stranded on a hostile alien world while Nog and Jake discover that life as roommates is less than ideal. It’s a fun, broad discussion. We cover everything from the writers’ tendency to use subplots lifted directly from sitcoms to flesh out supporting characters through to debates about stakes in modern mass media, as well as the shift away from the twenty-odd episode season that has squeezed out episodes like The Ascent. It was great fun, and I hope you enjoy listening. I’ll let you decide which one of us is Quark and which one of us is Odo.

You can find more from The Pensky Podcast here, and listen to the podcast by clicking the link or just listening below.

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Non-Review Review: Alita – Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel is the result of a creative union between James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez.

This partnership makes a certain amount of sense. Both Cameron and Rodriguez are genre film-makers, and one suspects that the two men would have been fast friends had they emerged at around the same time; Cameron came of age making films like Piranha 2 or Terminator, and those are certainly of a piece with Rodriguez’s filmography from Desperado through to Planet Terror and even Sin City. Cameron has arguably elevated his work into the mainstream, in that it is impossible to imagine Rodriguez producing a mass-appeal cultural smash like Cameron did with Terminator 2: Judgment Day Titanic or Avatar.

Slice o’ life.

However, allowing for that core similarity, Cameron and Rodriguez are still fundamentally different film-makers. Their interests might align when it comes to genre work, but they construct their movies in a very different manner, with a different emphasis on different aspects of their technique. Cameron is much more interested in bringing polish to his genre work, in finding a way to transform otherwise niche high-concept tales into crowd-pleasing blockbusters with mass appeal. In contrast, Rodriguez revels in the grottier aspects of his genre work, believing that the lack of sheen is part of the appeal.

Alita: Battle Angel finds these two aesthetics at odds with one another. The story at the heart of Alita is pure Cameron, dedicated to world-building and social commentary while relying on exposition and centring on big set pieces. However, the delivery of Alita is very much in the style of Rodriguez, stressing cool beats and individual sequences rather than the singular cohesive whole. The result is jarring and deeply fascinating, but it doesn’t quite come together. Alita is an intriguing piece of cinema, but a less than satisfying would-be blockbuster. Like its central character, it seems constructed of parts that don’t quite fit.

Red is dead.

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Non-Review Review: The Lego Movie 2 – The Second Part

Appropriately enough, given the brand involved, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part very skillfully builds on The Lego Movie.

Of course, The Second Part faces the typical challenges that haunt sequels to beloved and genre-bending films. A large part of what made The Lego Movie such a joy was the way in which it played with audience expectations of what it could be. More specifically, it built very cleverly and very consciously to a late development that was both entirely organic and very surprising, which is a difficult balance to strike. The Second Part starts with that late development baked into the premise, which means that it can’t pull the same twist again. It removes an important toy from the chest.

Bricking it.

However, while The Second Part lacks the novelty that made The Lego Movie so refreshing, it does have the advantage of building on what came before. In keeping with the nature of the toys depicted, The Second Part has the luxury of building upon an established template to tell its own story. The Second Part can trust that the audience understands the logic (both literal and metaphorical) that guided The Lego Movie, and so can develop that idea in interesting directions.

The result is a sequel that is fulfilling and satisfying, but which never quite matches the highs of the original film. The Second Part is clever, funny and canny. However, it is also – by its very nature – less innovative and creative. The results are impressive and affecting. While they don’t have quite the same impact as they did in The Lego Movie, the success of The Second Part is at least reassuring. That the template works so well even without disguising its twists offers proof that the fundamental building blocks are solid.

Piece in our time.

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116. Green Book – This Just In (#170)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book.

At time of recording, it was ranked 170th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is, at its core, a story of authenticity.

It is the tale of Lee Israel, the noted biographer who hit a bit a creative and economic snag in the early nineties. Unable to shop around her planned biography of Fanny Brice, Israel instead decided to market forgeries; type-written letters offered up in the voices of famous writers, auctioned on the collector’s circuit. Israel had a knack for capturing the voices of her subjects, from Noel Coward to Dorothy Parker. In fact, Israel’s work was often deemed indistinguishable from the real thing, at least in an abstract and narrative manner.

Forging ahead.

There is something very timely in this premise, in the blurred boundaries between the real and the fake. Of course, this has been an aspect of the American character for well over a century, with P.T. Barnum famously advertising an obvious phony as “a genuine fake.” However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? arrives at a moment in time where the real and the fake seem to have collapsed into one another, where reality is often indistinguishable from fantasy, populated by people who will often happily accept a heartwarming fake over cold reality.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is largely an unshowy piece of awards fare. The film is never self-consciously stylised and never overly aggressive. Can You Ever Forgive Me? never seems sure how thrilling or how funny or how dramatic it should be, and so tries to split the difference between those three extremes. The result is a very broad film with a very familiar central arc. However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? very insistently avoids getting in its own way, which allows its two central leads room within which they might work their magic.

“Gee, Richard E. Grant sure plays a good drunk.”

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