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Non-Review Review: Black Christmas (2019)

Black Christmas is an interesting misfire.

There’s something inherently clever about using the familiar template of a slasher movie to engage with the idea of toxic masculinity and the horrors of campus culture. Sophia Takal and April Wolfe certainly have a lot to say, and producer Jason Blum deserves a great deal of credit for positioning a film like this as part of the larger “social thriller” milieu that includes films like The Invisible Man or Get Out or Us. There’s a lot bubbling through Black Christmas, and it’s great to see a slasher film dabbling in these ideas.

Take a bow.

The biggest problem with Black Christmas is that it simply doesn’t work as a horror film. In terms of basic narrative mechanics and pacing, Black Christmas is a mess. The film suffers from many of the same structural problems that haunt so many disposable horror movies; the characters are thinly sketched, the film’s slow build-up feels a little too slow and its climactic confrontations feel a little too rushed and its internal logic is close to non-existent. These problems are compounded by the fact that actually positioning this movie as a remake creates an extra level of extraction.

Black Christmas has good ideas, but is somewhat lacking in the execution.

Don’t choke.

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Non-Review Review: Downhill

Earlier this year, Parasite became the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar.

This was a landmark moment for the Academy Awards and for mainstream American cinema in general. It was significant enough in cultural terms to merit a racist dog-whistle from the President of the United States. It also suggested that it was possible for foreign films to make over the “one inch barrier of subtitles.” The film’s box office returns were impressive, and its cultural footprint quite sizable. Parasite seemed to make its own strong argument for the viability of foreign-language films in the English-language market place.

Passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage…

Downhill makes a similar argument, albeit in much less compelling terms. The indie cringe comedy is an adaptation of Ruben Östlund’s breakout foreign language sensation Force Majeure, premised on the idea that there are audience members who might be drawn to the basic premise of the original film, but alienated by the subtitles. Indeed, Östlund himself seems to have acknowledged this, moving on to more English-language-friendly pastures with The Square, a film with a lot of dialogue in English and starring actors like Dominic West and Elizabeth Moss.

Downhill makes its own argument for the necessity of Force Majeure, by demonstrating just how much can get lost in translation.

Cold reception.

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Non-Review Review: Lady and the Tramp (2019)

Lady and the Tramp represents a new frontier for Disney’s reimaginings of their animated classics.

The studio has had great success adapting those older films for younger audiences with a hybrid of live action and computer-generated remakes, with Aladdin and The Lion King ranking among the highest grossing movies of last year. Mulan looked like it might have been on course to continue the trend, and the studio is working away on a new version of The Little Mermaid. However, what makes Lady and the Tramp so interesting is that it is not going to be one of those theatrical blockbusters. Instead, it was released directly on Disney+, the company’s streaming service.

A completely identical meatball game.

There are two ways of looking at this. Disney might have been hoping to give Disney+ a bit of a boost by offering an exclusive brand-name and star-driven family-friendly film. Alternatively, the studio might have accepted that Lady and the Tramp was never a viable theatrical release to begin with, whether because it didn’t scratch the right nostalgic itch or because of the quality of the adaptation simply wasn’t up to snuff. In reality, it seems like a combination of the two factors.

Lady and the Tramp is fairly standard as these adaptations go. It is hurt by the push to verisimilitude and by the decision to expand a tight animated story into a bloated live action one. It is also very visually, aurally and tonally flat. It’s a film that seems built around the ethos of “just enough”, often feeling like a television movie that has somehow earned a theatrical special effects budget. Lady and the Tramp is not the worst of the Disney live action adaptations, but it may be the most lifeless.

No far horizons.

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Non-Review Review: The Way Back

The Way Back is a paint-by-numbers redemption narrative, anchored in a tremendous central performance from Ben Affleck and enriched by its keen observations.

The basic plot of The Way Back will be familiar to most audience members. Jack is an alcoholic construction worker who is struggling to hold his life together. He has learned to do just enough to remain functional, but not so much that the people around him haven’t noticed his struggles. Jack stubbornly refuses any assistance offer by his family or by his ex-wife, believing that he has found something resembling an equilibrium. His addiction has pushed him into a slow and noticeable decline, but he has yet to implode.

He’s Backfleck.

Almost entirely by chance, Jack finds himself drafted back to his old high school, emotionally blackmailed into coaching their basketball team. Jack had played basketball as a teenager, but gave up on the sport in much the same way that he has recently withdrawn from the world around him. Inevitably, through his coaching, Jack finds himself connected with the lovable misfits that he takes under his wing. Jack guides these young men towards sporting glory, helping them (and himself) to find purpose in what they are doing.

It is all very conventional. There are very few surprises in The Way Back, which feels almost like one of those well-executed manoeuvres that Jack has his team execute out of the court. Everything lines up, all the pieces are moved with purpose, and the end result is never really in doubt. However, The Way Back elevates this well-worn formula with two secret weapons. Most obviously, Affleck finds an intersection of his traditional movie-star charisma with the baggage of his star persona. More subtly, the film is willing to just observe its characters, to let them be themselves.

Team works.

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Non-Review Review: Bloodshot

Bloodshot is a deeply dysfunctional movie.

At its core, Bloodshot offers a collision of old-fashioned nineties-era action spectacle with modern superhero genre tropes. There’s certainly a rich vein of material to be mined in the uncanny valley between Hollywood’s recent past and its inescapable present, with the intersection of these two styles of film-making being a larger part of the appeal of the trainwreck theatre of movies like Venom. Unfortunately, Bloodshot finds a way to combine the least appealing aspects of each approach, resulting in a film that feels hollow and unsatisfying.

Pounding excitement?

Bloodshot does get some points for the cleverness of its pivot from stock nineties action movie into modern superhero fare. Indeed, given the character’s origin as one of the most nineties of comic book characters at one of the most nineties of comic book publishers, there’s even something a little wry in trying to transition him from an older style of blockbuster into something a little more modern. In deed, there’s even some interesting metatext there, with Vin Diesel himself as one of the last nineties action heroes transforming into a straight-up superhero.

Unfortunately, Bloodshot never manages to get these moving parts to line up in an interesting or compelling manner, always following the path of least resistance towards inescapable destinations. The film offers a couple of heavy-handed meditations on free will and self-determinism, but there’s a grim irony in a movie so formulaic arguing for the importance of making one’s own choices.

Diesel powered.

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Non-Review Review: The Jesus Rolls

The Jesus Rolls is a loaded premise on a number of levels.

Most obviously, it is a film that takes a memorable supporting character from a beloved film and asks them to hold focus for ninety-odd minutes. Not all characters are designed to support a feature film, as the cavalcade of failed Saturday Night Live films will attest. It’s possible to get lucky, as with cases like Wayne’s World, but these happen relatively infrequently. Jesus might be a character who works best as part of the larger wacky ensemble of The Big Lebowski, where he exists in a heightened world of wandering cowboys, conceptual artists, pornographers and nihilists.

The risks are compounded by the change of authorship. Jesus Quintana was a character created by the Coen Brothers, and so makes a great deal of sense in their world of dysfunctional and cartoonish eccentrics. While actor John Turturro has experience as a writer and director, he is very clearly a different sort of filmmaker. Turturro’s last theatrically released feature was Fading Gigalo, released in 2013. There’s little in Turturro’s filmography to suggest that his approach to Jesus will mesh with the character’s origin in a stylised Raymond Chandler homage.

The Jesus Rolls is a strange sort of misfire. It’s a surprisingly flat film, which says a lot considering its gonzo inspirations and its bawdy preoccupations. There’s a hollowness to it all, an emptiness and a lack of focus. It lacks the energy or zeal that might excuse its paper-thin approach to its plot and protagonist, aspiring towards a weightiness that neither its characterisation nor its content can support. The Jesus Rolls often feels like a series of interlocking vignettes rather than a movie, but none of which succeed at holding the audience’s attention.

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174. Birdemic: Shock and Terror (-#5)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Donal Smith and Donal Sweeney, 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.

This time, James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

Software salesman Rod has the perfect life. He has just closed the biggest deal in the history of his company, which has itself just been bought out by a giant conglomerate. More than that, a chance encounter with an old school friend leads to a blossoming romance with a Victoria’s Secret model. Everything is going well, until death swoops in from above.

At time of recording, it was ranked 5th on the list of the worst movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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