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Non-Review Review: The Roads Not Taken

There are two different, decent competing movies tucked away inside The Roads Not Taken. Sadly, the whole is much less than the sum of its two largest parts.

The first  of these movies is a fairly conventional study of a daughter coping with her father’s neurological degeneration. It is a fairly standard template, tapping into recognisable anxieties about growing old, and the realisation that many children will have to act as caregivers for their parents in old age. This is a solid basis for a movie on its own terms. Indeed, it seems like a film that could easily net an awards nominations for actors Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning.

Holding it together.

The second film is a more abstract and ambitious work, in which an older man reflects on the life that he has lived and – trapped inside his own head with a slipping sense of reality – allows himself to play out fantasies of how his life might have been different. This a more philosophical work, a more reflective and introspective film. It seems like something from a stranger and more unusual movie, something like The Fountain or even Cloud Atlas.

The problem is that these two angles on the story do not fit together. In cutting across them, director Sally Potter undercuts and undermines both narratives. Neither thread has enough room to breath and build momentum, and both are driven by fundamentally different stakes. One movie is about the experiences of an aging writer named Leo, while the other is about his daughter Molly, and shifting back and forth causes the movie to lose its emotional footing. The result is an interesting and well-intentioned curiosity, but an underwhelming film.

Baby, I’m a-maize-d by you.

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Non-Review Review: The Neon Demon

Is it possible for a film set in the world of high fashion to be too superficial?

That is very much the crux around which Neon Demon pivots. Nicolas Winding Refn is a glorious stylish director with a strong visual sense and a provocative attitude. Thematically, his films tend to touch upon broad ideas like the correlation that exists between masculine identity and violence. It is familiar ground for anybody who has ever watched a film, followed a television show, read a book or even browsed a newspaper. Refn doesn’t necessarily do anything novel or compelling when it comes to his subject matter.

A cut throat industry...

A cut throat industry…

Instead, Refn offers a striking aesthetic that is lush and overwhelming. It is too much to suggest that Refn’s films would work just as well (or even better) with the volume turned down low. After all, Cliff Martinez’s scores are a key part of the appeal of Drive and Only God Forgives. More than that, the blunt metaphorical “nobody in the history of the world has ever talked like this” dialogue is very much part of the appeal. Characters in Neon Demon converse around one another, talking in abstracts and affectations. It is a pure pulpy delight.

At the same time, Neon Demon brushes up against its own limitations. When Refn draws on archetypal female characters, he seems to fall back on shallow sexist caricatures. “Are you food or are you sex?” one character asks young model Jesse early in the film. The movie suggests its own alternative (and sadly all too conventional) dichotomy. Refn’s female characters are reductive and crudely formed; just like his male characters. However, the reduction of the female characters in Neon Demon is much more problematic than that of his male characters.

This business can murder.

This business can murder.

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Non-Review Review: We Bought a Zoo

The biggest problem facing We Bought a Zoo is that it can’t ever decide how serious a family drama it wants to be. It follows a family recovering from the loss of their mother by purchasing a zoo and attempting to renovate it, and it never finds a healthy balance between the shamelessly upbeat montage-set-to-classic-pop “live your crazy dreams!” feel-good fun and the heavier subject of a family finding piece. The result is a movie that often feels a little toosweet and a little too earnest at the same time, and never manages to mix the two tones with a great deal of success.

Not quite out of the park...

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Twixt a Rock and a Hard Place: Francis Ford Coppola, Movie DJ…

A large part of me has tremendous respect for Francis Ford Coppola, even if his stock was considerably diminished by the twin misfires of The Godfather, Part III and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the nineties. However, it takes a significant amount of courage to pretty much turn your back on major movie studios and produce a string of relatively independent and relatively experimental films, especially when you could legitimately be described as one of the main architects of modern cinema. Part of me wonders what would happen if George Lucas and Steven Spielberg attempted something similar to the string of low-budget arthouse releases Coppola has directed in recent years. His latest film, Twixt, comes with a gimmick that would put 3D to shame. The director is taking it on tour, and will apparently “remix” it for each and every audience. There’s no guarantee that two different audiences will see the same film.

Mixmeister Coppola...

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Non-Review Review: Super 8

Super 8 is a love letter to film. It’s an ode to the trashy, forgettable – yet still endearing – stuff, like a bunch kids screwing around with an obvious fixation on the work of George A. Romero. It’s also a sweet tribute to the film that emotionally connects with us, like the footage of a long lost relative projected against a wall, almost convincing us for a second that they’re still with us. JJ Abrams might consciously evoke early Spielberg with his style, but it’s only to celebrate the common ground they both share, the believe that film is truly powerful and emotion medium, one that strikes a chord on the most improbable of notes, teaching us life lessons and engaging us in nothing short of magic. The posters and trailers might convince you that Super 8 is a classic monster movie with seventies trappings – and it is – but it’s also that other difficult-to-get-quite-genre, the coming-of-age tale. Just one that features giant monsters.

Nice camera work...

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