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Non-Review Review: UglyDolls

UglyDolls exists in the “uncanny valley” of modern children’s animated films.

Films like UglyDolls are a reminder of how profoundly Pixar has altered the cinematic landscape, and shifted expectations in terms of what audiences – young and old – expect from these sorts of films. Most obviously, the basic premise of UglyDolls echoes that of Toy Story; in much the same way that, say, The Emoji Movie mirrors Inside Out. This is a film about sentient toys trying to find an existential justification for their existence, often defined in terms of their relationship to a child. UglyDolls is a movie aout misfit toys cast out from the factory assembly line, wondering if they will ever be worth of love.

All dolled up with nowhere to go.

To be fair to UglyDolls, it is much better than The Emoji Movie. At the very least, UglyDolls understands that the film needs to be ordered around a strong central theme. UglyDolls has a solid conceptual basis, a familiar children’s movie allegory, and a very straightforward narrative structure. That said, although somewhat less crass in its materialist ambitions than The Emoji Movie, the film feels cynically calculated in other ways. The casting of performers like Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe and Blake Sheldon seems designed to move the film’s soundtrack album. And the premise is obviously toyetic.

Still, UglyDolls comes closer than most of these sorts of films to working, largely failing because it ultimately underestimates the maturity and intelligence of its target audience.

A glass apart.

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142. American History X – Summer of ’99 (#34)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Charlene Lydon, 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.

This time, kicking off our Summer of ’99 season, Toby Kaye’s American History X.

1999 was a great year for movies, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that would define cinema for a next generation: The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, The Best Man, Cruel Intentions, Fight Club. The Summer of ’99 season offers a trip through the year in film on the IMDb‘s 250.

Danny Vinyard finds himself called to the principal’s office after submitting a salacious and controversial essay citing Adolf Hitler as a civil rights hero. There, the school principal Doctor Sweeney sets Derek another assignment: a personally essay exploring his relationship with his white supremacist brother Derek. Derek Vinyard was just released from prison that morning, and is about to discover that putting his life back together will not be as easy as he might have hoped.

At time of recording, it was ranked 34th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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Non-Review Review: Animals

Animals lacks any real bite.

At its core, Animals is the story of the unhealthy relationship that exists between Laura and Tyler. Laura is a Dublin girl, with close ties to her extended family. Tyler is an American abroad, a young woman who seems to be running as far away from her family as possible. A chance encounter on a night out brought the two together in their twenties, and they have since become inseparable. Laura lives with Tyler in her lavish city centre apartment, while Tyler is a welcome guest at all of Laura’s family gatherings. The two seem to share a single life.

Putting the matter to bed.

Naturally, that relationship has begun to strain and fray as the women enter their thirties – Laura is about two years older than her best friend, while Tyler’s thirtieth birthday is a significant event in the context of the film. Laura seems to want to move on, to embrace adulthood and responsibility; she courts a young professional pianist named Jim and tries desperately to work on the novel she’s been picking over for the last decade. Tyler pushes back against this, terrified at the prospect that her best friend might leave her behind to wallow in her own hedonistic insecurities.

Animals is too generic to make a meaningful impression. Its major character and narrative beats are all helpfully signposted from the get-go, its destination obvious from the end of the first few scenes. However, there’s not enough substance present to justify that sense of inevitability, the leisurely-paced journey towards a foregone conclusion that hits every expected plot point and character moment along the way. Animals feels very much like every other “young person has a life crisis and has to find a way to be comfortable with themselves” narrative of the past decade, with little to distinguish it.

At home on the (G)rainger.

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Non-Review Review: Luce

Luce is a compelling dialogue-driven thriller, anchored in a set of impressive performances and a meaty script.

At its core, Luce is a study of integration and idealism. It touches on the question of identity, that established by an individual and that imposed by the people around them. Luce derives its title and its tension from its lead character, a promising young African American student. Adopted by an upper-middle class white couple and rescued from his past as a child soldier, Luce has become an exemplar. He is an all-star debater, an impressive academic student, a successful athlete. He is loved by both the faculty and his fellow students. To hear the other characters talk about him, Luce is just about perfect.

Getting schooled.

Naturally, Luce challenges that idea. Luce invites the audience to wonder whether the title character really is everything that everybody else believes him to be. More than that, the film interrogates why so many people seem to need Luce to be an exemplar. The film is a fraught push-and-pull as questions are raised about Luce. When the honours student turns in an inflammatory essay and when fireworks with the explosive power of a shotgun are found in his locker, the characters around Luce find themselves asking if they understand the teenager, or if they ever could.

The result is a tense and claustrophobic drama, as the characters navigating these accusations and insinuations try to constantly reconfigure their understanding of the title character. It’s a remarkable push-and-pull, elevated by some very potent themes and a wealth of strong performances.

Keeping track.

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Non-Review Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain places a prestige veneer on the weirdness of the recent “man’s best friend” tear-jerker subgenre.

A Dog’s Journey and A Dog’s Purpose were a rough-and-ready example of the genre, films exploring the complicated world of human beings through the simple mind of a dog. There was an almost endearing clumsiness to how ruthlessly those films targeted the audience’s emotional vulnerability; A Dog’s Purpose used the gimmick of reincarnation as a narrative “get out of jail free” card, making a point to kill off its canine protagonist no fewer than three times, understanding this as a shortcut to the audience’s tear ducts.

“It’s about the good walk,
And the hard walk…
… It’s a beautiful ride.”

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a more prestigious product, executed with greater craft. That doesn’t mean that The Art of Racing in the Rain is any less surreal or eccentric than other entries in the subgenre, nor should it imply that The Art of Racing in the Rain has pushed that subgenre beyond the underlying assumptions that the bodily functions of a dog are hilarious. Instead, the polished exterior of The Art of Racing in the Rain is all about execution as opposed to content. The film makes the same points in the same ways, but shifts its tone to approximate sophistication.

The results are no less uncanny for that attempt at sophistication. If anything, The Art of Racing in the Rain feels all the weirder for how it juxtaposes the sillier and goofier “talking animal movie” tropes with the sensibilities of more earnest fare. The Art of Racing in the Rain is aggressive and merciless in its attempt to conjure up an emotional response to its over-extended central metaphor, but the film’s surreality lingers much longer.

Thinks are looking pup.

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141. Escape Plan 2: Hades – This Just In (-#100)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and with special guests Babu Patel and Giovanna Rampazzo, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 100 worst movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Steven C. Miller’s Escape Plan 2: Hades.

At time of recording, it was ranked 100th on the list of the worst movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“One Priceless Moment”: “Apollo 11”, and the Search for a Singular Defining Narrative…

This July marked the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landings.

It was an occasion marked with much discussion and celebration. The nostalgia had arguably kicked into high gear the previous winter with Damien Chazelle’s First Man, an awards-season biopic looking at the life of Neil Armstrong. Mired in an absurd controversy, First Man failed to make as much of an impact as it might. It under-performed at the box office and ended up shut out of the big awards races. However, there were other celebrations of the landmark date. Donald Trump met with the surviving astronauts. Mike Pence used the occasion to push for a manned mission to Mars.

There was also Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11. This documentary is interesting, in large part because it eschews a lot of the conventions of these sorts of retrospective celebrations. There are no talking heads; what little exposition exists in the film is drawn from a combination of archive recordings and public materials, without any sequences of participants or experts trying to explain the footage that the audience is seeing. Indeed, a lot of Apollo 11 flows without dialogue, a sequential retelling of the moon landing stitched together from newly-discovered 70mm footage.

What is most striking, and most successful, about Apollo 11 is the fact that it captures the essence of the moon landing as much as the finer details. The intimate footage – cobbled together from dozens of sources  – offers a rare and intimate insight into the mission, but that is not the source of the documentary’s power. Apollo 11 fundamentally understands the appeal of the idea of the moon landing, particularly at this moment in time. Stitching together countless different perspectives of the same event into a singular cohesive narrative, it offers a glimpse of a rare moment where mankind was “truly one.”

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