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Non-Review Review: The Children Act

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Children Act is how it manages to combine so many stock prestige drama beats into such a chaotic cacophony.

The Children Act is a mess from beginning to end, all the more jarring for how familiar and how recognisable the constituent elements might be. The Children Act often feels like a fairly standard IKEA table where all of the pieces have been assembled to create something monstrous. Often during the runtime, the audience might spot a familiar beat or plot point, but often one deployed with little consideration for how these elements normally work or how they might better service this particular story.

Come what May.

The Children Act is a film that very clearly aspires towards a certain style of prestige cinema. It is directed by Richard Eyre, responsible for awards fare like Iris or Notes on a Scandal and even the recent highly successful BBC adaptation of King Lear. It is written by Ian McEwan, adapting his own novel, the writer perhaps still best know to movie-going audiences as the novelist who provided the source material for Atonement. It stars Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci, two actors who are always highly engaging, and who should bounce off one another.

Unfortunately, almost nothing within the film actually works, with strange decisions contorting the narrative into strange shapes. The Children Act is a curiousity that is more intriguing than it is engaging, more compelling for how completely it refuses to work than for anything that it is actually trying to say.

Just this.

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Non-Review Review: Upgrade

On a very fundamental level, Upgrade understands the anxieties that drive body horror.

Body horror is largely rooted in the grotesque realisation that human bodies are little more than machines made of meat. After all, every student who has studied biology understands the mechanics of the human body; the processes that drive it, the structures that hold it together, the logic by which it operates. The nerve endings that relay signals from the furthest region of the body back to the brain, the synapses that fire within the brain. Described in such cold and rational terms, human consciousness becomes a mystery, a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit. Software we don’t understand running on wet hardware.

What the neck is going on?

More than that, human bodies are inefficient machines. They are soft and squidgy, held together by tendons and muscles stretched over bones built of calcium and hinges filled with synovial fluid. The human body impressive feats of engineering from an evolutionary perspective, through the mere fact that it exists, albeit more vulnerable than the architecture or the mechanics of the world designed by human beings. Bodies can easily be bent and broken, warped and distorted. They can be attacked in so many ways, and fall into disrepair with such ease. They are unreliable, and very difficult to fix.

Upgrade understands that body horror thrives at the intersection of these twin anxieties; the nightmarish uncertainty of how human consciousness fits within the mechanics of basic biology, and the realisation that the human body would never pass basic health and safety standards for any complex piece of machinery. Upgrade wonders what happens when that machine made of meat receives an update to its operating system.

An impressive body of work.

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“A Bunch of Grown Men in Rubber Masks Playing Trick or Treat.” Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Good Old-Fashioned Espionage Fun…

One of the most striking aspects of Mission: Impossible – Fallout is how thoroughly and how completely it rejects the idea of morally compromised blockbuster protagonists.

The Mission: Impossible series has always had a bit of an auteur quality to it, with individual writers and directors bringing their own styles to bear on a given installment. The original is very much a Brian dePalma film, leaning heavily into themes of identity and Hitchcockian tension. The second is very much a John Woo film, complete with slow motion black leather and white doves. The third is a J.J. Abrams film that comes in and very consciously tweaks the formula while drawing attention to its own plot mechanics. The fourth is a string of incredibly impressive and kinetic action sequences strung together with Brad Bird’s patented sense of pacing and spectacle.

However, there was some tension when Christopher McQuarrie was recruited to direct the fifth film in the franchise and returned to direct the sixth. McQuarrie is primarily known as a writer rather than a director, with only a handful of director credits to his name. McQuarrie doesn’t necessarily have a distinctive style, although he has a long-standing relationship with Cruise from his work as director on Jack Reacher and as writer on Valkyrie and The Mummy. However, in a high-stakes action series, there was always a question of what McQuarrie could bring to the series to put his own distinct slant on the series. Whether he has or not is still a matter of heated debate; some would argue that Mission: Impossible is an ode to Tom Cruise as auteur or to the stuntman as auteur.

That said, there is a sense that McQuarrie is approaching the material in his own unique way. Perhaps reflecting his own background as a writer, his two Mission: Impossible films tend to play rather heavily with the idea of what a Mission: Impossible film actually is, even if they aren’t quite as ponderous or self-conscious as the recent James Bond films. McQuarrie’s scripts for his Mission: Impossible films are decidedly writerly in a way that Mission: Impossible II and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol are not, and in a markedly different manner than Mission: Impossible III. In fact, arguably the biggest issue with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was that McQuarrie was too writerly, working too hard to sell the idea of Ethan Hunt as a compulsive workaholic.

Fallout perhaps gets the balance right. A large part of this is down to the careful structuring of its action sequences to build a sense of propulsive momentum. Most Mission: Impossible films tend to peak in the middle; the dangling sequence from Mission: Impossible, the Vatican sequence and bridge raid in Mission: Impossible III, the skyscraper climb from Ghost Protocol, the opera sequence and underwater dive from Rogue Nation. Instead, barring the spectacle of the HALO jump, the set pieces in Fallout constant escalate. They ramp up; the bathroom brawl, the Paris motorbike chase, the two-level urban pursuit, all building to the three-thread helicopter climax.

However, part of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that McQuarrie seems to fundamentally understand how a Mission: Impossible film works, and so weaves it carefully into the plot. Fallout superficially resembles a modern franchise blockbuster in a number of ways; the pulsing Lorne Balfe score, the darker and edgier teases, the heightened sense of continuity, the ridiculous escalated stakes, the crosscutting climax. However, all of these elements serve to emphasise the relative simplicity of Mission: Impossible as a series, and to celebrate what distinguishes it from contemporary blockbusters rather than attempting to close the gap.

The Mission: Impossible films seem relatively old-fashioned as far as blockbuster franchises go. They are released at a fairly steady pace, but with significant gaps between films. There is always relatively little gossip or hype around them until they actually arrive. There are seldom any casting rumours. There are no hardcore fans wondering how this instalment will fit within an established continuity. There is no post-credits teaser to set-up the next installment. Each film has a markedly different tone instead of enforcing a consistent house style across the films. It is possible for audiences to dip their tow into a particular film in the franchise without having to do any real homework.

More than that, they are a rare modern franchise that seems to be driven as much by star power as by the intellectual property. This may be largely down to how Brian dePalma adapted Mission: Impossible for the big screen in 1996, in the era before X-Men and Spider-Man effectively changed the blockbuster landscape. dePalma approached Mission: Impossible not as a sacred “mythos” to be adapted to screen with fidelity and delicacy. Instead, dePalma treated Mission: Impossible as a springboard to crafting his own decidedly esoteric psychological espionage thriller. There are elements of the original Mission: Impossible that can be traced back to the original show, but it is about as faithful to the source material as Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman: Returns.

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Non-Review Review: The Meg

The Meg is proof that bigger is not always better.

There are moments when The Meg works beautifully, the film embracing its ridiculous concept by going all-in on a couple of absurdly heightened images. There are a number of shots in The Meg, particularly towards the climax, that are gleefully and unapologetically “too much.” It would undercut these moments to discuss them in any great detail in a review of the film, particularly since they are the moments when everything in the film seems to click into place. In these beats, there is a reckless abandon, as if the film understands the appeal of “Jason Statham in Jurassic Shark.”

Lifeboats find a way.

Unfortunately, these moments serve to highlight what is missing from so much of the rest of the film. The Meg is a movie committed to the idea of “more”, but is more invested in promise than in delivery. Everything in The Meg happens at breakneck pace, to the point where the first act of the film might make a compelling blockbuster on its own terms, given room to breath. However, like the sea-faring predator that inspired it, The Meg is eager to get to the next thing and the next thing after that. The result is a movie that feels rushed, but never urgent.

The Meg is so busy trying to heighten its stakes and its scale that it never quite manages to establish them.

Don’t bait him!

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92. The Prestige (#49)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Phil Bagnall, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.

On the cusp of the twentieth century, an obsession brews between two magicians. Alfred Borden and Robert Angier compete to surpass one another on the London stage; lives will be lost, illusions will be shattered, and reality itself might fray along the edges.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 49th best movie of all-time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: American Animals

“To do this thing would take extraordinary effort,” observers Warren Lipka of his fiendish heist scheme in American Animals. “Not ordinary effort.”

Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals is a blend of documentary and dramatisation. It explores the true story of the effort by four young men to steal a collection of precious books from the Library of Transylvania, a scheme that went disastrously and spectacularly wrong. Adopting a style that recalls Bernie or a slightly more grounded I, Tonya, Layton slices interviews with the real-life criminals into a narrative reconstruction of the attempted crime. The results are intriguing, occasionally veering into an exploration of the malleability of memory and the limits of personal perspective.

Up to their old tricks.

At the same time, American Animals is very much engaged with a masculine middle-class malaise. A recurring motif of the film has various figures from around the four criminals pause to reflect upon the character of these young men. “They were good kids,” various talking heads assert over the course of the documentary, talking fondly about their childhoods and their schoolwork and their aspirations. The four young men at the heart of American Animals did not plan (and botch) a heist because they were bad kids or because they needed the money. They did not act out of desperation or anger.

Instead, American Animals suggests that the characters enacted this ambitious and absurd scheme out of a sense of boredom, out of a desire to escape the mundanity of their everyday lives, to do something “extraordinary” to transcend their so-called “ordinary” lives.

Model citizens.

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Non-Review Review: Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is a delight from beginning to end.

The go-to description of Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is “a G-rated Deadpool”, which is both accurate in general and interesting in specifics. Although the two Deadpool films have become cultural shorthand for “self-aware superhero parodies”, that is not what they really are; at their best, they are affectionate eighties action movie homages with a superhero veneer and a sheen of ironic self-awareness. Ironically, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is a much better example of an affectionate and a committed parody of superhero cinema.

Cycles of violence.

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is nonsense, but it is gleeful and self-aware nonsense, dedicated to both celebrating and gently mocking both the conventions and the specifics of superhero blockbuster filmmaking. It is too much to describe Teen Titans Go! to the Movies as a deconstruction of either superheroics or the modern cinema based around these characters, but the film cleverly plays on the tropes, conventions and history of these characters to do something that is highly amusing and occasionally gut-busting.

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is cheeky fun, and it would be hard for anybody with any affection for either animation or superheroes to watch it without a grin on their face.

Teen work, people.

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