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Non-Review Review: The Rhythm Section

Perhaps the most revealing distinction between The Rhythm Section and the James Bond franchise is that the characters in The Rhythm Section appear to have done their beer sponsorship deal with Stella Artois rather than Heineken.

That’s a little facetious. After all, it seems highly likely that Heineken paid a great deal more to sponsor No Time to Die than Stella Artois paid for a few minutes of screentime in a late January release from producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. Nevertheless, there is something to it. Although the marketting copy is keen to sell The Rhythm Section as something of a gender-swapped teaser for No Time to Die“from the producers of James Bond,” boasts the trailer and the advertising – it’s to the credit of director Reed Morano that she is interested in something a little bit more complex and sophisticated.

Taking a shot at it.

Of course, The Rhythm Section doesn’t entirely work. It is a messy and clumsy film. At points, this seems to be a deliberate stylistic choice and a clear point of contrast, an attempt to imbue the classic spy movie format with a sense of the chaos that informs and shapes the real world. At other moments, it feels like a miscalculation and an error in judgment. The Rhythm Section is an earnest attempt to crash the trappings of an espionage revenge thriller into a more intimate personal drama about grief and trauma, but sometimes the mix goes wrong and the film veers into the realm of indulgent self-parody.

Still, there’s a lot to like about The Rhythm Section in spite of its imbalances. The film is genuinely trying something something ambitious, even if it occasionally buckles under the weight of those attempts. At its best, The Rhythm Section suggests a new spin on an old formula. At its worst, it is at least anchored in a compelling central performance amid overwrought clichés. The Rhythm Section might not hit every note perfectly, but it manages to keep time.

Spy, craft.

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Non-Review Review: Horse Girl

Horse Girl is certainly an ambitious work, if not an entirely successful one.

Directed by Jeff Baena and co-written with star Alison Brie, Horse Girl is essentially a study of a socially awkward young woman who gradually loosens her grip on reality. Sarah is a charming and isolated young woman. She works a steady job at an arts and crafts shop, to which she seems quite suited – she’s immediately able to identify the best paint for a classroom setting. She lives with a roommate who clearly harbours some affection for her. She assists at the local stables. She even attends weekly dance fitness classes.

Horsing around.

However, beneath the surface, Sarah is increasingly isolated. She lives in a world of her own, absorbed in her supernatural procedurals, lying about the extent of her social circle, and haunted by dreams that don’t seem quite right. Sarah increasingly begins to feel that there is something very wrong with the world, as she experiences lost time and lucid dreams. Naturally, things only escalate from there.

Horse Girl plays with some interesting ideas, and approaches its subject matter in interesting ways, but it suffers a little bit too much from a suffocating sense of forced whimsy. Horse Girl premiered at Sundance, and for all its ambition, it is very much a “Sundance indie.” There is constantly a sense of a more interesting film bubbling beneath the surface, waiting to get out, but never quite able to materalise beneath the trappings of its own particular brand of independent cinema.

Getting it all back to front.

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Non-Review Review: Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell is a paradox of a film, a narrative so propelled with righteous fury that it somehow misses its own point.

Clint Eastwood’s latest is his tightest and leanest narrative since Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, and this is not a coincidence. There’s considerable thematic overlap between Richard Jewell and Sully, both of which speak to themes that interest Eastwood as one of the defining American filmmakers. Like Sully, Richard Jewell is the story of an exception person who heroically saves lives only to witness the bureaucratic institutions of the state (and the press) turn upon them.

Pressing on.

Of course, Richard Jewell is quite distinct from Sully. Eastwood trades out “America’s Dad” Tom Hanks for the more ambiguous figure of Paul Walter Hauser. While Hanks is the embodiment of American decency, a clear-cut spiritual successor to Jimmy Stewart, Hauser has largely been defined by more muddy and murky roles with fantastic turns in films like I, Tonya and BlackKklansman. Indeed, the opening act of Richard Jewell leans into Hauser’s inscrutability, suggesting a more ambiguous interrogation of masculine heroism.

Unfortunately, Richard Jewell does not develop in that direction. Its early suggestions of moral complexity and anxieties about individual as much as collective authority give way to a stirring condemnation of a conspiracy to “railroad an innocent man.” This righteous fury is entirely justified, after all. The press and the authorities demonised Jewell, arguably hounding him to an early grave. However, Richard Jewell winds up so caught up in its righteous fury that it winds up “railroading” another innocent, abusing its power in the same way it accuses the press and authorities.

Lawyer up.

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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.