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Non-Review Review: Set It Up

Set It Up is a loving ode to the classic romantic comedies of the nineties, harking back even further to their antecedents, the screwball comedies of the forties.

The basic premise of Set It Up is straightforward. Zoey Deutch is Harper, the personal assistant to Lucy Liu’s Kirsten. Kirsten is a cutting-edge sports journalist, and Harper is an aspiring writer who found herself working as a personal assistant and has been unable to extricate herself from that situation. Glen Powell is Charlie, the personal assistant to Taye Diggs’ Rick. Charlie hopes to leverage his experience with Rick into a successful and prosperous career, if he can survive Rick’s temper tantrums.

Their chemistry is through the roof.

Following a chance encounter while picking up a delivery late one night, Charlie and Harper hit upon a cunning plan to escape the ridiculous demands of their bosses. Charlie and Harper will use the positions of trust afforded to them as personal assistants in order to trick their bosses into a relationship. Their logic is that a potential romance would eat into Kirsten and Rick’s free time, and thus afford Charlie and Harper more personal time. Charlie can reconnect with his increasingly estranged girlfriend, while Harper can try to become the writer that she always wanted to be.

It is perhaps churlish to describe Set It Up as formulaic, as the primary appeal of the movie is in watching a charming cast navigate a modern spin on a variety of classic romantic comedy tropes. There are perhaps moments when Set It Up leans a little too heavily into its genre trappings, and there are moments when its attempts to update genre conventions for the twenty-first century don’t exactly land. Nevertheless, the film is elevated by charming central performances and breezy yet witty script that understands the mechanics of the genre enough to know when to play with them and when to play them straight.

Will we see some PDAs from the PAs?

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Irony, Thy Name Is Gump: “Forrest Gump” and the Art of Earnest Irony…

Forrest Gump is a movie that I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around.

On one level, it’s an incredibly sacchrine and simplistic exploration of the first fifty years of the so-called “American Century”, the turbulent second half of the twentieth century as navigated by a dim-wit with nothing but good intentions to guide his way. The eponymous character floats on the winds of history like a feather, a metaphor that bookends the film in a manner that is incredibly cloying. There is something undeniably condescending and overly simplistic in the notion of history in Forrest Gump, as a force that sweeps up men and nations without any rhyme or reason.

As such, it’s easy to be wary of Forrest Gump and its approach to history. Forrest Gump presents a very clean and sanitised accounting of the second half of the twentieth century, one in which there is absolutely nothing happening beneath the surface of American life, and in which there is no point even attempting to comprehend the myriad of forces at work on the country and its inhabitants. In this way, Forrest Gump plays as a trite moral fable. There is no point in even trying to understand the chaos that is the modern world. It is enough to be decent and oblivious, and things will work out fine.

At the same time, there has always been something lurking at the edge of the frame in Forrest Gump, beneath all the folksy trappings and the simplistic history lessons. It is too much to suggest that Forrest Gump has an edge, but it certainly has a point. Forrest Gump in many ways presents an avatar of the final fifty years of the twentieth century in its central character. The eponymous character is an embodiment of a certain American ideal, a personification of the American public that has been bewildered and confused by the speed and pace with which history seemed to move in that turbulent half-century.

With that in mind, there is something vaguely self-aware in Forrest Gump, something that perhaps simmers beneath the surface of the film. Gump is a likable and charming protagnonist, brilliantly brought to life by Tom Hanks in a performance that (deservedly) won him his second Best Actor Oscar. However, there has always been something uncanny in the film’s presentation of Gump as the character most ideally suited to the twentieth century, in contrast to supporting characters like Lieutenant Dan or Jennie. Forrest Gump is a movie that argues the only way to survive the twentieth century is as a fool and an idiot.

There’s always seemed something very wry and very cynical in that idea, buried beneath the film’s cotton-candy exterior.

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Non-Review Review: Adrift

Adrift is a visceral and powerful survival thriller, based on the remarkable true story of Tami Oldham.

In the mid-eighties, Oldham became a figure of note following a disastrous journey into the Pacific with her fiancé Richard Sharp. Sailing from Tahiti to San Diego, their luxury yacht is caught in the middle of Hurricane Raymond. The ship is damaged, the pair separated. Waking up in the flooding living compartment, Oldham is forced to improvise in order to survive. It is a harrowing scenario, a story of a woman essentially wrestling against the elements in a desperate attempt to stay alive in a seemingly impossible situation.

Sail away with me…

The basic premise of Adrift is familiar. It recalls any number of powerful lost-at-sea narratives, from All is Lost to Cast Away to The Mercy. Director Baltasar Kormákur wrings as much tension as possible from the premise, perhaps drawing on his experience working on similar ocean-themed movies like The Sea or The Deep. At certain points in Adrift, the audience is liable to feel claustrophobic, to gasp for breath as the camera whirls and struggles against the oppressive force of nature.

Adrift suffers slightly from a sense of over-familiarity, and from a clumsy plot development that it chooses to play as a big twist rather than an organic narrative element. Nevertheless, Adrift is a tense story of survival in impossible circumstances.

Mast-er and commander.

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Non-Review Review: Hereditary

Perhaps what is most striking about Hereditary is how all the comparisons to The Exorcist seem off base.

To be fair, every movie deserves to be judged on its own terms unless it expressly demands otherwise, whether through a preexisting relationship or an inviting homage. Nevertheless, The Exorcist has been a touchstone for Hereditary in the run-up to the film’s release, a critical cliché employed to underscore just how effective Hereditary is. Rolling Stone has pitched the film as “this generation’s The Exorcist.” TimeOut described it as “a new generation’s The Exorcist.” Titlemag acknowledged the use of such critical shorthand.

Something to chew over.

It’s easy to see why this comparison has been made. The Exorcist is public short-hand for scary, a famously controversial film that shocked audiences upon release and which many members of the current generation first heard discussed in hushed tones. More than that, there’s significant thematic overlaps between Hereditary and The Exorcist, with both films serving as unsettling explorations of a tightly-knit family dynamic that use supernatural horror as prism through which these dynamics might be interrogated.

However, there is a major tonal difference between Hereditary and The Exorcist. In many ways, The Exorcist represents a very broad and populist strand of seventies horror, with an accessible central narrative that plays off easily understood fears in a very direct manner. The Exorcist was a cultural phenomenon, earning almost two hundred million dollars at the United States box office on initial release, and becoming a touchstone for an entire generation of horror fans. It is a movie that has inspired parodies and references, which can be used casually as shorthand with non-cinephile audiences.

Putting the ‘fun’ in ‘funeral.’

Hereditary is a very different sort of beast. Hereditary is not a descendant of that sort of broad crowd-pleasing horror spectacle. The narrative is dense and layer, its symbolism abstract and its storytelling often allegorical. Hereditary is full of ambiguities and lacunas, with tension simmering beneath the surface before exploding dramatically towards the climax. If Hereditary is a descendant of sixties and seventies horrors, it is a closer relation of more abstract nightmares like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

This is perhaps the most interesting thing about the film, and one which perhaps goes a long way towards explaining some of the more contradictory aspects of its theatrical release.

Do look now.

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83. United Passions (-#55) – World Cup 2018

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Chris Lavery and Babu Patel, The Bottom 100 is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, a trip through some of the worst movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, to mark the launch of the World Cup 2018, Frédéric Auburtin’s United Passions.

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Non-Review Review: Ocean’s 8

Ocean’s 8 is mostly a charming and inoffensive heist movie that coasts off the charisma of its central cast.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of itself. There’s nothing wrong in watching an ensemble including Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock bounce off one another, performers who are both talented screen and genuine old-fashioned movie stars. As with the series of films that obviously inspired (and named) Ocean’s 8, the cast have an easy chemistry with one another. Star power goes a long way, and there’s something almost refreshing in seeing a movie that runs almost exclusively on it in this age where these sorts of high-profile movies are largely driven franchising, high concepts and intellectual property.

Properly trained for this.

Of course, there’s some small complication in that in that Ocean’s 8 feels at times like an effort to split the difference between being a star-driven caper movie and also the latest installment in a larger recognisable franchise. Indeed, some of the movie’s weakest moment lean most heavily on nods and winks to the trilogy of Steven Soderbergh movies that provided a launching pad for this female-star-driven caper. The title character is Debbie Ocean, revealed to be the sister of Danny Ocean; that is the least of it. (Even the choice of “8” in the title seems designed to leave room for two more installments making a trilogy.)

Still movie stars are a dying breed, so it’s a novelty to see so many of them congregating in the same place and to see a movie that understands the appeal of watching confident performers playing competent characters who are constantly in motion. Ocean’s 8 lacks some of the more undervalued elements of the earlier films, the problems created by their absence here underscoring their importance, but it mostly succeeds as a light and breeze caper movie without a clear antagonist, without a strong directorial vision and with an over-extended third act.

Getting the gang together.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Muse (Review)

In its own way, Muse marks the end of an era for Star Trek: Voyager, as Joe Menosky’s last solo script for the series.

To be fair, this is not Menosky’s last script credit on the series. Menosky would collaborate with Brannon Braga on the season-bridging two-parter Unimatrix Zero, Part I and Unimatrix Zero, Part II. In fact, those episodes have themes that play directly into Menosky’s interests; the two-parter is a story about dreams and narratives, about worlds that exist beyond the literal and the concrete. More than that, Menosky would work on the writing staff of Star Trek: Discovery, contributing the script to Lethe, one of the season’s stand-out episodes that was also about narratives – albeit internalised ones.

Dropping the mask.

However, Muse still feels like it marks the end of an era. Menosky had been a fixture of the Berman era of Star Trek dating back to the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, making his debut with Legacy and arguably making his biggest impression with Darmok early the following season. Menosky’s involvement with the franchise ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, but his influence was often felt. Indeed, Menosky even contributed a handful of scripts and stories to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, including the teleplay for the underrated Dramatis Personae.

With Menosky’s departure from Voyager at the end of the sixth season, Brannon Braga would become the longest-serving writer working on the Star Trek franchise. His tenure on the television franchise would surpass that of Ronald D. Moore, and of any writer who hadn’t spanned the gap from the end of the original Star Trek to the early seasons of The Next Generation, with the arguable exception of producer Rick Berman. As such, Muse feels very much like the end of an era. It marks the departure of one of the guiding light of the Star Trek franchise, albeit one often overlooked or ignored.

Storyteller.

Muse is an episode that speaks to Menosky’s key interests within the Star Trek franchise, the idea of Star Trek as something akin to a modern mythology. More than any other writer on Star Trek, Menosky is invested in stories that are fundamentally about stories. His influence on Voyager is more subtle than that of Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor or Brannon Braga, but can felt in the recurring idea that Voyager itself is a Delta Quadrant myth. More than any of the other Star Trek series, Voyager feels like it is a story about a collection of archetypes rather than characters.

Menosky first articulated this idea in the closing scene of his otherwise forgettable script for False Profits, but reinforced it in episodes like Distant Origin, Living Witness and Blink of an Eye. It could reasonably be argued that this idea became part of the show’s identity, to the point that it can even be traced through episodes not explicitly credited to Menosky, like Live Fast and Prosper. It seems appropriate that this idea should serve as the central theme of Muse, an episode that might be read as a thesis statement on Menosky’s approach to the franchise.

Acting out.

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