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New Escapist Column! On the Hubristic Tragedy of the Dark Universe…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. With the release of The Invisible Man this week, which is quite good, I took a look back to Universal Studios’ abandoned and cursed Dark Universe.

Frankly, there is no way to talk about the Dark Universe without acknowledging it as one of the greatest acts of cinematic hubris in the twenty-first century. The whole misbegotten experiment was transparently a result of Universal looking at the success of The Avengers, and deciding to built its own imitation using whatever properties it found lying down the back of the couch. The result was Dracula Untold and The Mummy (along with one of the most hilariously ambitious pieces of marketing ambition in living memory), two of the worst-reviewed blockbusters of the decade.

Luckily, The Invisible Man is a fantastic piece of work, a shrewd and sophisticated horror that is more interested in telling its own story than existing as a piece of “content” for a larger shared universe. You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Mickey and the Bear

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Mickey and the Bear marks a confident theatrical debut from director Annabella Attanasio.

Mickey and the Bear is a study of poverty in the Pacific Northwest, unfolding against the backdrop of a small Montana town. The opening scenes establish this quite effectively, introducing Mickey as a young woman living in a trailer that is literally falling apart with her father Hank. Hank is a veteran of the Iraq War, and the scars clearly linger. He has an opiod prescription to help with his leg wound, but adamantly refuses the psychological help that he clearly needs to come to terms with the trauma. The film is essentially a ticking time bomb in the form of a character study, a countdown to the point where Mickey’s world implodes.

Mickey and the Bear is bolstered by a set of strong performances. Mickey is played by relative newcomer Camila Morrone, who offers a complex and nuanced take on a character who has largely given up any real hope of outside intervention and so has retreated into herself. Hank is played by veteran James Badge Dale, with Hank’s dysfunction feeling of a piece with the psychological damage felt by Badge Dale’s characters in films like Flight or Echoes of War. The two play off one another well, layering their relationship with myriad emotions which suggest the full range of their complicated dynamic.

As writer and director, Attanasio infuses Mickey and the Bear with a palpable sense of quiet desperation. Dread and anxiety hang over the film, but even they are pressed beneath the weight of grim inevitability.

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Non-Review Review: Toni Morrison – The Pieces I Am

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Toni Morrison – The Pieces I Am feels like a really pleasant dinner party with very engaging guests, which is both high praise and faint criticism.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary is a decidedly unfussy affair. Although it uses stock footage and inserts to provide a sense of context for its conversations, The Pieces I Am largely focuses on direct interviews with its subjects. People like Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, Fran Lebowitz and Walter Mosley  directly address the camera and the audience. There’s an endearing sense of camaraderie and friendship in all of this. There’s a wonderful warmth to the documentary, most of which radiates from Morrison herself.

The Pieces I Am is never especially incisive or combative, even when discussing thorny issues around systemic injustice and a longstanding history of cultural violence. These elements are never ignored or brushed aside, but they are never allowed to lower the tone of the discussion or shift the mood of the debate. Instead, The Pieces I Am remains focused on providing a space where artists can talk at length – and very much in their own distinctive way – about what Toni Morrison means to them.

The result is an immensely charming and affectionate study of one of the great American writers, which only occasionally feels little over-indulgent.

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Non-Review Review: Vivarium

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Vivarium is an abrasive and aggressive work of surrealism.

It is very much of a piece with director Lorcan Finnegan’s earlier work, feeling like a clear descendant of his “ghost estate” short Foxes and his “land will swallow you whole” horror of Without Name. Indeed, Vivarium taps into many of those same fears, essentially beginning as a horror story about a young couple going house hunting and ending up lost in a monstrous and seemingly unending estate. It morphs from that into an exploration of a broader set of anxieties about the very idea of “adulthood”, of what young people expect from their adult life and what it in turn it expects from them.

Vivarium often feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. It features a small core cast. Although shot on an actual housing estate, Finnegan pushes the production design into the realm of the uncanny so that it looks like a gigantic creepy sound stage. The script consciously pushes its narrative into the realm of the absurd. However, throughout it all, the film remains keenly focused on a simple and strong central metaphor. Although Vivarium operates at an unsettlingly heightened level of reality, and although its populated by a mess of signifiers it never entirely explains, it remains firmly anchored in relatable ideas.

Vivarium is perhaps a little over-extended and little heavy-handed in articulating its central themes and ideas, but it is consistently interesting and ambitious. It’s well worth the time.

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Non-Review Review: The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man makes his victims visible.

Freed from the confines of the ill-fated blockbuster “Dark Universe”, writer and director Leigh Whannell is able to craft a version of the iconic H.G. Wells story that speaks to the modern moment and which taps into a set of fears that are a lot easier to acknowledge these days. Horror stories have always worked best as allegories for the things that unsettle a society – even back to the sexual anxieties of Dracula and the monstrous procreation of Frankenstein – as so Whannell reconfigures The Invisible Man to speak to a terror that was largely invisible until recently.

Ringing true.

The central protagonist of The Invisible Man is not the eponymous translucent figure. Appropriately enough, the man who turns himself invisible is largely marginalised by the narrative. In the opening ten minutes, he’s glimpsed lying in bed and then through a car window, but his face is consciously obscured. Through the rest of the film, he is largely present in a few photographs and acting through his brother as a proxy. His absence is both clever and effective, underscoring the extent to which he dominates and haunts the film even when he is off-screen.

Instead, The Invisible Man is built around Cecilia Kass. It remains tightly focused on her efforts to escape her abusive ex-boyfriend, even after his apparent suicide. The Invisible Man suggests that such trauma cannot easily be evaded and eluded. “Adrian will haunt you, if you let him,” one of Cecilia’s friends warns her. The Invisible Man argues that he’ll haunt her either way.

Interrogating assumptions.

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New Escapist Column! On the Fascinating Paradox at the Heart of “Alien: Covenant”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday. Because it was a light week for geek culture, I actually got to write a little bit about something I’ve thought far too much about; Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant.

Covenant is not a great film. It’s not even a particularly good film. However, it is a fascinating film. A large part of that is because it emerged in the middle of a wave of compromised big budget blockbusters like Suicide Squad, Justice League and Solo: A Star Wars Story, films that often felt like watching a wrestling match between the director and the studio. Covenant feels the same way, trying to reconcile Fox’s desire for an Alien prequel with Scott’s desire for a Prometheus sequel. However, what’s most interesting about Covenant is how that conversation seems to play out within the movie itself.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

170. Before Sunset – “Two Guys Die Alone 2020” (#236)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Jay Coyle, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, a Valentine’s treat. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset.

Finishing up his book tour in Paris, Jessie crosses paths once again with Celine. With a little over an hour before Jessie has to catch a flight back to the United States, the pair take a stroll through Paris. As they do, the nine years since their last encounter fades away, allowing them to reminisce about what might have been and consider what might yet be.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 236th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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