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Non-Review Review: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn is a profoundly odd film.

On the surface, it looks like another one of those “movies they don’t really make anymore” that tend to get a small release around awards season, like Bad Times at the El Royale or Widows. It is an old-fashioned private detective story that starts with something relatively small before pulling back to reveal a vast and insidious conspiracy at work. It is a movie that is both a genre piece and a statement, and so seems an appropriate release for this late in the calendar.

Railing against the system.

However, on closer inspection, Motherless Brooklyn is much more surreal piece of work. The film was a passion project for writer, director and star Edward Norton. Norton had been struggling to bring the film to screen for the better part of two decades. It is a period piece in more than just its fifties New York setting. It feels like a time capsule. Although Motherless Brooklyn is only Norton’s second theatrical film as director, it arguably feels much more tailored to Norton’s style and interests than his actual directorial debut Keeping the Faith.

However, Motherless Brooklyn feels like it is lost in more than just time. The film is meandering, indulgent and unfocused. It has moments of incredible beauty and surprising power, but lacks the discipline to streamline everything else around those elements. Motherless Brooklyn is not a great film, but it is a strange one.

Evil plans.

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Non-Review Review: Knives Out

Knives Out is a sharp and point “whodunnit” for the post-truth era.

The most obvious point of reference for Knives Out is the work of Agatha Christie, although the film itself includes allusions to CSI, Murder, She Wrote and other generic procedural television show. There is a mysterious death inside a luxurious mansion, with a wealthy family who seemed ready to tear themselves apart even before the loss of their patriarch. An outside investigator finds himself drawn to the case, which begins to unravel as he follows each of threads back towards something resembling the truth.

Drawing a Blanc.

The beauty of Knives Out lies in the way in which writer and director Rian Johnson takes the familiar framework of a mystery story and allows it to descend into anarchy. Knives Out is constantly twisting and turning, zigging and zagging. Nothing is ever what it appears to be, and as more evidence comes to light it seems like nobody has any real idea of where the truth actual lies – including both the dogged private investigator trying to fashion order from chaos and even the killer themselves. Knives Out often feels like a wry, clever thriller about how nobody knows nothing.

In other words, Knives Out is the perfect murder mystery for this particular moment, in every possible way. This extends beyond the films obvious topical allusions and central themes, and is even woven into the manner in which the story unfolds.

To coin a phrase…

Note: This review will contain (or even allude to) very basic spoilers for Knives Out. Nothing too big or too specific. However, if you don’t want to be spoiled and are just here for the headline: Go see it. Then come back and read the review, if you want. Continue reading

Non-Review Review: 21 Bridges

21 Bridges is a solid, sturdy old-fashioned thriller.

This is both faint praise and gentle criticism. 21 Bridges offers a familiar set-up and premise, as a dogged detective hunts two suspects through the night. Although the film makes solid use of Chadwick Boseman as its lead, it is not impossible to imagine an alternate version starring Liam Neeson. It would arguably make a perfectly fine counterpart to Run All Night. The plot of the film involves a manhunt for two criminals who murdered several police officers during a botched heist, which gradually escalates into a full-blown conspiracy.

He needs more cop on.

It is all pretty paint-by-numbers. There is not a lot in 21 Bridges that surprises. More than that, there is very little in 21 Bridges that pops, that distinguishes it from other entries in the subgenre. This is both a blessing and curse. There is something comforting in the familiarity of 21 Bridges, in the way that movie never demands or expects more of its audience or itself than it promises to deliver. It largely succeeds at what it sets out to do, with minimal flourish or clutter. It moves through its plot with the same sense of purpose and focus as its protagonist.

21 Bridges knows exactly what it is doing, and mostly succeeds at doing it.

“Tonight, this island is Manhunttan.”

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Non-Review Review: The Two Popes

Very few movie disintegrate so completely and thoroughly across their runtime as The Two Popes.

The Two Popes feels like two different movies, both tonally opposed to one another and both bleeding relentlessly into one another. The first is a delightfully surreal Odd Couple riff (The Odd Pope-le? Vicious in the Vatican?) that finds two men who would be pope forced to interact with one another, their mutual unease inevitably transforming to a gentle understanding and even compassion. The second is a more earnest historical biography, a film that aims to properly contextualise the life and times of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who would be Pope Francis.

The robe less travelled.

Both of these premises are workable on their own. Of course, the first premise has a bit of an advantage in that “throw two great British actors into scenes together” tends to result in highly watchable material, and “… also, they’re both popes” is a pretty impressive chaser to that. In contrast, the historical biography section of the film is a bit more generic and familiar, even if there’s potential here. After all, this ground has been explored in films as compelling as The Secrets in Their Eyes.

The problem is that the two films don’t mix, at all. Every attempt to combine them hurts the film as a whole, both stopping the narrative dead and representing a jarring transition from one type of film into another and back again. It isn’t that The Two Popes allows these stories to collide, it instead tries to run them in parallel. The result is a narrative traffic jam, and a film in which each half hour is appreciably weaker than the one leading into it.

Good faith arguments.

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Non-Review Review: The Last Right

The Last Right is perhaps a little too driven by cliché and a little too heavy handed in its emotional beats, but it’s genuinely charming and benefits from a clever concept and an endearing cast.

To be fair, The Last Right runs into its problems in its first and third acts, in setting up and resolving its central dynamics. These problems flow largely from the fact that so many of details around the edge of the central premise of the film feel lifted from a collection of stock eighties American dramedies. Certain key elements of The Last Right feel like they came packed in an IKEA box ready for assembly, and so the movie’s introduction of and conclusion for those elements tends to feel rather rote.

Carry on…

However, The Last Right really kicks into gear once it has done that initial set-up, allowing its characters room to breath and interact with one another within the relatively safe but also free-form template of the classic road movies. Road movies largely live or die based on the chemistry of the cast and strength of the humour, and The Last Right works well on both counts. There’s a relaxed ease to The Last Right, a willingness to trust the actors and the characters to carry the bulk of the film.

The result of a trip with a few bumps along the way, particularly at either end of the journey. However, for most of the adventure, The Last Right is a pretty enjoyable ride.

Death drive.

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Non-Review Review: Frozen II

Frozen II is solid.

In fact, it might even be a little stronger than Frozen, on the whole. Of course, Frozen was the breakout Disney animated hit of the decade, crossing the one billion mark and turning Let It Go into a genuine pop phenomenon. However, Frozen always felt a little rough around the edges when compared to Disney’s other animated princess-centric movies of the decade; The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Moana and maybe even Brave.

Pretty cool.

Frozen II arrives with a lot of the familiar problems of sequels. The original film was populated by characters who filled a story function, whereas sequels often have to create story functions to accommodate characters who are surplus to requirement. Kristof felt largely unnecessary in Frozen, but he feels particularly unnecessary in Frozen II. Similarly, the success of the original film often encourages sequels to dive deep into a conjured mythology, to over-explain something that requires no explanation. Frozen II does this with Elsa herself, trying too hard to explain her.

As a result, Frozen II suffers from some awkward pacing. It stutters and starts. It often gets slowed down checking in on familiar characters, or delivering reams of exposition for unnecessary back story. However, the irony of all this is that Frozen II has much more interesting things to say than Frozen, and is much more confident about saying them. Frozen II retreats from the logical conclusions of its strongest arguments, but it is still a surprisingly bold film for a sequel to one of the most successful children’s films ever made.

Lighten up.

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Non-Review Review: I Lost My Body

I Lost My Body is a stunning piece of animation.

In a Parisien hospital, a dismembered hand comes to life. Distracted and disoriented by memories of its previous life, it scrambles out of the fridge and out into the world. Making a daring escape from the inevitable fate of medical waste, this detached hand embarks on a journey across Paris. This adventure takes the body part from the roofs to the underground, through the gutters and into the air vents. It confronts rats and pigeons, but also encounters rare beauty and intimate insight. All of this is part of a primal urge to return to the body from which it was so cruelly severed.

Taking the matter in hand…

It is certainly an interesting and intriguing premise, and I Lost My Body lives up to the absurdity of that set-up. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film runs a tight eighty-one minutes, which means that it never overstays its welcome and that the central hook never has the opportunity to become distracting. I Lost My Body uses this absurd premise as a prism through which it might explore ideas of human connection, of the unlikely ways in which lives intersect and collide within the modern world. Some of its choices are inelegant and clumsy, but it never lacks ambition or insight.

I Lost My Body is a moving tale of what it’s like to feel truly disconnected.

Naofel me.

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