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Non-Review Review: Bad Boys For Life

Bad Boys For Life is an extremely stupid and occasionally veering on incoherent film. It is also a lot of fun.

There are any number of obvious problems with Bad Boys For Life. The pacing and plotting is a mess, stopping and starting at random intervals depending on the film’s mood as much as its own internal logic. Characterisation varies wildly from one scene to the next. Bad Boys For Life has even picked up some of the more frustratingly formulaic narrative beats from modern blockbusters, stumbling blindly into overwrought bathos and even attempting to offer a retroactively Freudian origin story for veteran police officer Mike Lowrey. It also understands that modern blockbusters have to be “about” things; in this case, growing old.

Welcome to Miami.

However, a large part of the charm of Bad Boys For Life is the way in which the film seems to have taken virtually every note that an executive might possibly offer and decided to approach these notes in a way that feels surprisingly fitting for a belated follow-up to Michael Bay’s bombastic duology. Bad Boys For Life is unashamedly and unapologetically its own thing. This results in a cocktail that doesn’t exactly go down smooth, but at least offers a refreshing and distinctive flavour. It helps that Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah lean strongly into the series’ sensibility, and invest heavily in its core strengths.

For all its gestures towards the modern age of intellectual-property-driven franchise-building, Bad Boys For Life grasps that the heart and soul of the series has always been the charm in watching Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bounce off one another. That dynamic between Smith and Lawrence, two performers who know how to work an audience and a camera, are arguably what grounded the first two films – keeping a very human perspective amid the ensuing “Bayhem.” In Bad Boys For Life, they does something similar, adding a charismatic star power that is often absent from contemporary blockbuster production.

Police don’t stop.

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Non-Review Review: A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is both surprisingly moving and about an hour too long.

Writer and director Terrence Malick bases A Hidden Life around the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter. During the Second World War, Jägerstätter was called up to serve in the armed forces. He refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and so was punished for his pacifism. It’s a weighty and important story, and Malick ensures that any contemporary relevance will not be lost on viewers. A Hidden Life grapples with that most fundamental of questions, what it means to be a good person in a fallen world and how the measure of such morality might be taken.

Going to grass…

As one might expect from Malick, A Hidden Life is shot and edited in a rather disjointed and impressionist fashion. The film often feels like a waking dream. Scenes are not always clearly delineated, often beginning in the middle of abstract conversations that then play over atmospheric establishing shots like some sort of historical stream of consciousness. It’s an approach that has defined a lot of Malick’s later work, but is perhaps best seen as an outgrowth from Tree of Life. That sort of emotive and drifting storytelling style works oddly well when applied what is both a linear story and a familiar historical milieu.

The big problem with A Hidden Life is that it feels highly repetitive and redundant, particularly in its final ninety minutes. Rather than advancing or developing his thesis, Malick spends the final ninety minutes of the film just bluntly restating it over and over. It is exhausting, and not necessarily in the way that a film about the virtues of peaceful protest in an unjust world should be.

Peak Malick?

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Non-Review Review: Queen & Slim

Queen & Slim is a stylish modern indie that occasionally bites off more than it can chew, but is elevated by a surprising amount of warmth and humour.

It is no surprise that Queen & Slim looks beautiful. It marks the theatrical debut of director Melina Matsoukas, perhaps best known for her work on some of the most striking and memorable music videos of the past decade – including Rihanna’s We Found Love and Beyoncé’s Formation. Matsoukas has a wonderful eye, and she brings that to bear on this story of two unlikely fugitives who watch as their frankly uninspiring first date takes a sharp turn into an outlaw romance that finds them racing desperately for Cuba.

Getting the show on the road.

Queen & Slim is recognisably a modern American indie, drawing from the kind of cinema that Barry Jenkins helped to mainstream with Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. It focuses on two young African Americans, and examines the world from their perspective. It is also dazzling to look at, cinematographer Tat Radcliffe saturating the frame with warm golds and neon purples. It exists in a liminal space, somewhere between a grounded naturalism and heightened dream logic – and all the more effective for that juxtaposition.

Queen & Slim occasionally veers a little bit too heavily into the stylistic clichés of this sort of cinema, leaning a little too heavily on shots studying the contemplative faces of its leads or taking in the breathtaking vistas of the American wilderness at an always perfectly calibrated distance from the eponymous couple’s vehicle of choice. It is to Matsoukas’ credit that Queen & Slim largely avoids indulgence, demonstrating an endearing humanism and humour beneath this carefully crisp and calibrated exterior.

Out(run the)law…

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New Escapist Column! On How “Avatar’s” Lack of a Cultural Footprint Might Be Its Best Feature…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine earlier this week, given the release of new concept art for the Avatar sequels.

Much as been made of the extent to which Avatar left no tangible pop cultural footprint, despite its massive financial success. It’s a fascinating conundrum, and almost impossible to imagine in this age of fractured fandoms and hot takes. Indeed, that lack of a strong cultural footprint might even be the best thing about it. For better or worse, Avatar was a film that millions and millions of people saw and enjoyed, before getting on with their lives. And in an era where films increasingly feel like religious events, there’s something vaguely comforting in that.

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

New Escapist Column! On the Use of Long Takes in “1917”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine a little while ago, looking at the use of long takes within 1917.

The long take is an interesting cinematic technique. Most obviously, it’s a dazzling display of craft and technical proficiency. It’s a power move that exists largely so a director can flex their muscles. However, it also serves a compelling paradoxical purpose. The longer that a director holds a take, the more that the audience drifts away from reality. Cuts allow the audience to ground themselves, to process what they have seen. Removing cuts forces the audience to hold a single long gaze. In 1917, Sam Mendes uses that gaze to collapse time and space. In doing so, he captures some of the insanity of war.

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

Non-Review Reviewsical: Cats

Were they blind when they made this? Do they think it looks good?
Is it fit for awards? Would it sweep at the Globes?
Can you say of the effects that they look worse than they should?
Are they justifiably excited when the internet goads?

Because Tom Hooper can and Tom Hooper did
Some actors did and some actors would
A major studio would and a major studio can
But reviewers can’t and reviewers don’t.

How about those special effects? Are they truly a feat?
Are they tense when they sense there’s no awards buzz?
Do you mind all the signs with the puns in the street?
Did they know from the go that they’d just filmed a dud?

Because Tom Hooper can and Tom Hooper does
Tom Hooper does and Tom Hooper can
Tom Hooper can and Tom Hooper does
Tom Hooper does and Tom Hooper can
Tom Hooper can and Tom Hooper does

Familiar songs for counterprogramming
All those known songs to bring them all in
There’s even a song that Ray Winstone sings
Tom Hooper’s Cats promises all of these things.

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Non-Review Review: Jumanji – The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level is a deeply weird and uneven film, but one that works much better than it really should.

To be fair, a lot of the more serious problems with The Next Level are the problems that face many blockbuster sequels. The film scales upwards from its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Given than Welcome to the Jungle was already somewhat overstuffed, The Next Level is bursting at the seams. Not only does the film bring back the entire primary cast from the previous film and bulk up the material for characters in supporting roles, it also adds at least three new major actors to the cast and attempts to maintain the same setpiece-driven pacing that kept Welcome to the Jungle moving.

Game on.

However, this doesn’t capture just how weird The Next Level allows itself to become. The film’s final act features one of the most bizarre emotional pivots in recent memory – a plot resolution that includes a terminal cancer diagnosis, a flying horse and Awkwafina doing her best impression of Danny DeVito. This isn’t even the primary plot. This is the pay-off to a secondary storyline that has, by this point in the narrative, been pushed into the background. None of this should work. Truth be told, it doesn’t really work. However, it is strangely committed. The Next Level never wavers as its plot leads to these strange places.

Like Welcome to the Jungle before it, The Next Level benefits from a propulsive approach to storytelling. To dwell on any of its plot points or character beats or emotional pay-offs would invite madness, and so the film never really does. The Next Level never settles down long enough to let the audience really appreciate how surreal or unusual its framing of these conventional tropes actually is, because there’s always something more to see or to do. The result is a messy and convoluted piece of blockbuster cinema that openly frays at the edges (and throughout), while holding together better than it should.

Solid as The Rock.

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