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Non-Review Review: The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time demonstrates that the adjective “novelistic” isn’t always a compliment.

Writer and director Antonio Campos is clearly aiming for an epic sweep to The Devil All the Time. The film unfolds over the course of several decades, following several intersecting lives in rural Ohio in the space between the end of the Second World War and the height of the Vietnam War. This is a tale that spans generations, with an impressive density. Small characters get huge arcs, dramatic twists hinge on chance encounters, and a large amount of the film’s plot is delivered by way of folksy omniscient narration.

Holland of the Free?

It is easier to admire The Devil All the Time than it is to appreciate it. Campos has drawn together a formidable cast to tell a story that explores a host of big ideas about small town life. The Devil All the Time clearly aspires to be a piercing study of religion, sex and violence in the American northeast. The film maintains an impressive atmosphere, in large part due to Campos’ moody direction and the work of Lol Crawley and the rumbling soundtrack from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.

However, nothing in The Devil All the Time has room to breath. There are so many elements competing for narrative space that even films two-hours-and-twenty-minute runtime feels overstuffed. Characters are never allowed to stew or develop in a way that a story like this demands, instead reducing the movie to a series of plot points and thematic observations delivered in a rich and moody manner, but without any real substance to bind them all together.

Book ‘im.

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Non-Review Review: The Roads Not Taken

There are two different, decent competing movies tucked away inside The Roads Not Taken. Sadly, the whole is much less than the sum of its two largest parts.

The first  of these movies is a fairly conventional study of a daughter coping with her father’s neurological degeneration. It is a fairly standard template, tapping into recognisable anxieties about growing old, and the realisation that many children will have to act as caregivers for their parents in old age. This is a solid basis for a movie on its own terms. Indeed, it seems like a film that could easily net an awards nominations for actors Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning.

Holding it together.

The second film is a more abstract and ambitious work, in which an older man reflects on the life that he has lived and – trapped inside his own head with a slipping sense of reality – allows himself to play out fantasies of how his life might have been different. This a more philosophical work, a more reflective and introspective film. It seems like something from a stranger and more unusual movie, something like The Fountain or even Cloud Atlas.

The problem is that these two angles on the story do not fit together. In cutting across them, director Sally Potter undercuts and undermines both narratives. Neither thread has enough room to breath and build momentum, and both are driven by fundamentally different stakes. One movie is about the experiences of an aging writer named Leo, while the other is about his daughter Molly, and shifting back and forth causes the movie to lose its emotional footing. The result is an interesting and well-intentioned curiosity, but an underwhelming film.

Baby, I’m a-maize-d by you.

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New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “Chadwick Boseman And Broken Time”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard and Bob Chipman for the second episode, primarily discussing the passing of Chadwick Boseman and the summer of broken time typified by TENET, i’m thinking of ending things, Palm Springs and Bill & Ted Face the Music.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

Non-Review Review: Mulan (2020)

Niki Caro’s Mulan is an interesting beast.

As a piece of production, it’s impressive. It lands neatly among the best of Disney’s live action adaptations of its classic animated films, simply by virtue of its willingness to offer something new. It avoids the limp and slavish devotion of films like The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, even if it never quite transcends its origins like Pete’s Dragon. It is vibrant and dynamic film, one that leans into what is possible in live action rather than animation, with cinematographer Mandy Walker ensuring that colours really pop off the screen.

Claws for concern

However, there’s also something slightly frustrating about Mulan. It often feels like the changes from the animated film were not made with the intention of improving the film or finding a new angle, but instead to render Mulan more palatable to a targetted Chinese audience. After all, for all the attention paid to the film’s video-on-demand release, its box office prospects have always had one eye on China. The result is a film that feels more cautious and more conservative than an animated film produced over two decades ago.

Mulan is clean and stylish, but feels a little too calculated and sterile to be its best self.

A prime cut?

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“You’re a Real Cowboy!” The Haunted Emptiness of Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, will be launching a belated Summer of Scorsese this week with a look at Taxi Driver. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s 1976 classic.

Even watched today, there is something deeply unsettling about Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Travis Bickle is a haunting figure, drifting through the night in what writer Paul Schrader has repeatedly described as a “metal coffin.” Of course, Taxi Driver is a film of the seventies. The New York through which Bickle moves no longer exists – the one famously (but not actually) told to “drop dead” by Gerard Ford. Bickle is a Vietnam veteran, later sequences revealing scars on his body, and even his mohawk is drawn from experiences of soldiers who served in that war. Even beyond this, the vacuous-but-wholesome politics of Palantine evoke the disillusion of the post-Watergate era.

However, there is also a timelessness to Travis Bickle. His strange isolation in a city populated by millions of people is a manifestion of Emile Durkheim’s concept of “anomie”, the weird loneliness that human beings can feel when trapped in confined spaces with countless anonymous neighbours. More than that, as countless observers have explained in the nearly half-century since Taxi Driver‘s release, Bickle’s murderous possessiveness towards Betsy and Iris feels eerily prescient in an era of mass shootings and manifestos by entitled angry young men.

What is most striking about Taxi Driver is the emptiness of Travis Bickle. Bickle is a young man who seems to be completely lacking in any sense of identity or self, any strong sense of who he is or what he wants. As much as Taxi Driver presents Bickle as a nightmare of urban living, he is also a reflection. He is an empty vessel that seems to have been shaped by the world around him without any deeper understanding or comprehension of what that means. Bickle isn’t a person so much as a manifestation of a culture so far in decline that it has folded into itself.

Indeed, much of how Bickle sees the world is informed and shaped by the forces around him, perhaps even unconsciously and passively. Bickle offers a glimpse of American masculinity in crisis, of decades of westerns and pulp adventures that have been digested and processed and rehashed until there is no meaning underneath it all. It’s possible to read Taxi Driver as a reiteration of The Searchers, one of the greatest westerns ever made and one of Martin Scorsese’s famous films. However, it isn’t Taxi Driver recreating The Searchers so much as Bickle himself.

There’s an uncomfortably warped sensibility to all this, a bitter meaninglessness that serves as an indictment of the world around him. Travis Bickle is a monster, but he is a monster manifested from the collective unconscious of a city (and perhaps a world) trapped in decline and decay.

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New Escapist Review! “TENET”

I have actually already reviewed TENET for this blog. However, given the state of the pandemic in the United States, The Escapist did not feel comfortable asking its writers to attend cinema screenings. As I am based in a country that is dealing with the crisis (relatively) well, I have stepped into the gap to provide written reviews for movies not receiving a streaming release.

This is unlikely to be a long-term dynamic, but I was flattered at the invitation and was happy to substitute in for this particular situation. This is a very unusual time. The review is much more conventional and concise than the reviews on this site, and even has a numerical score attached. I feel like a proper film critic. You can read the review here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Video! Introducing “In the Frame”…

For about a year now, I have been writing the In the Frame column twice weekly at The Escapist on Mondays and Fridays. Today, we have a very special announcement. We are looking at launching a companion video series, In the Frame. Hopefully it’ll be releasing on Mondays, but you can get a sense of what we have planned by taking a look at the teaser below or watching the video here.

New Escapist Column! On “TENET” and the Return of the Discourse…

I published a new piece at The Escapist earlier today. With the release of TENET bringing life back to American multiplexes next week, it also seems to be resurrecting “the discourse.”

TENET is the first major theatrical release of the summer. It is the first such release since Birds of Prey. There have been direct-to-video releases like Hamilton or Greyhound or Palm Springs. However, none of these have managed to catch the conversation in a way that a big theatrical release does. For the first time in almost half a year, there is a movie that strangers can shout at one another about on the internet. TENET has not even been released in American cinemas, but it is already generating highly charged shouting matches.

This is simply how people talk about films these days, with intensely impassioned positions and aggressive stances, stakes on the moral high ground and narratives predetermined. In hindsight, the six months without a release large enough to spark such online debate, the pandemic offered something of a reprieve from the shouting and the screaming. I missed cinemas, but I did not miss “the discourse.”

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

 

Non-Review Review: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

“There is no objective reality,” explains Jake late in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. “You know there’s no colour in the universe, right? Only in the brain.”

This seems to be as close to a thesis statement at I’m Thinking of Ending Things dares to offer. Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is a dense and surrealist exploration of the fragility of memory and identity, and the blurred boundaries that exist between the inside and the outside. The story is relatively simple. A young woman accompanies her boyfriend on a trip to have dinner with his parents. She needs to get home, but there is a snow storm. As the couple journey into rural America, things begin to slowly but surely unravel.

Snow escape.

There’s been an abundance of cinema recently about the collapse of time and reality, the sense of a universe folding into itself – Palm Springs, TENET, Bill and Ted Face the Music. These films are made all the more uncanny for having been produced long before the current global pandemic unravelled our sense of space and time, but seem to speak perfectly to it. That anxiety that all of history is happening at once and that “cause” and “effect” are unmoored as reality itself contorts and bends.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things stands apart from these other films, as one might expect of a Charlie Kaufman project. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has a greater interiority. The film seems to unfold in vast snowy wilderness, but it seems just as accurate to suggest that it unfolds in the writer’s imagination. Perhaps it isn’t time and reality that contort, but simply the protagonist’s understanding of these concepts. Then again, do these ideas exist in some absolute and objective form somewhere, or are they just concepts that people label so as to feel more comfortable?

Table discussion for later.

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Non-Review Review: Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a solid legacy sequel, if not a spectacular one.

The third Bill and Ted movie has been in the works for a long time. It has been gestating for years in various states, driven by the enthusiasm of writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey had the relative good fortune to arrive only two years after Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but Bill and Ted Face the Music emerges after a thirty-year gap in which the original films have gone from charming curiosities to bona fides cult classics.

Old friends.

This is to say that Bill and Ted Face the Music faces a challenge that is every bit as impossible as that facing the eponymous heroes. Providing a fitting capstone to a franchise that has grown from humble beginnings to legendary status is a monumental task, on par with trying to unite the world through music. Indeed, perhaps the smartest thing about Bill and Ted Face the Music is the way in which it recognises that the task it has set itself and its two leads is insurmountable.

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a charming film, one that largely coasts on the delightful ironic earnestness of its two lead protagonists and a sincere affection for all of its characters. It’s hard to resist Bill and Ted Face the Music, with its playfulness and its breezy sensibility. However, the film doesn’t entirely work. It struggles with pacing, it struggles to anchor its ensemble together, and it often feels like it is trying to do far too much within its modest (but nimble) eighty-minute runtime. Bill and Ted Face the Music won’t save the world, but might make it a little happier.

Music to my ears.

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