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Non-Review Review: Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots is unfocused and unmoored.

Mary, Queen of Scots feels like it should be a star vehicle for Saoirse Ronan. This makes sense. Ronan is a star in ascent. She has three Oscar nominations, and has recently headlined films with broad appeal like Brooklyn and Lady Bird. The concept of building a star vehicle for Ronan from the life and times of Mary Stuart seems like a good idea. Ronan experimented with larger-scale films in her teens like The Lovely Bones or The Host, but it seems perfectly reasonable to have her approach a large scale period drama as a genuine movie star.

Beth left unsaid.

However, Mary, Queen of Scots suffers from what feels like a crisis of confidence. The film’s second-billed lead is Margot Robbie, a successful Oscar-winning actor with similar star wattage to Ronan. Despite the fact that Mary Stuart retained the title of the film, Mary, Queen of Scots has largely been sold and marketed as a film with two leads; consider the misguided #dearsister hashtag publicity campaign, or the misguided branding on the character-focused profiles. It often seems like Mary, Queen of Scots clumsily aspires to be a biography of Queen Elizabeth I.

Mary, Queen of Scots is never entirely sure whether it wants to be a character-driven story focused on one woman’s life or a two-hander about lives in parallel. Watching the film, it feels like the decision was repeatedly taken and revised at various points during production, never committing to one approach for fear that it might preclude the other. The result is uneven and disjointed. Mary, Queen of Scots devotes enough time to Queen Elizabeth I that she feels like a major player, but only managed to get Ronan and Robbie together on set for a single day.

Queen of hearts.

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Non-Review Review: Monsters and Men

Monsters and Men is an impressive theatrical debut for director Reinaldo Marcus Green, at least in technical sense.

There is an artfulness to Monsters and Men, an impressive level of craft. The compositions are striking and impressive. In particular, the closing shot of the film is an emotive and memorable visual that lingers as the closing credits role. If Monsters and Men is any indication, Green has a long and impressive career ahead of him. He demonstrates a keen eye for cinematic images and an intuitive knack for visual storytelling.

“I’m talkin’ to the man in the two-way mirror…”

Unfortunately, Monsters and Men is much less satisfying as a narrative experience than it is as a collection of shots and images. It is an ambitious and provocative piece of work, a narrative triptych that focuses on three very different characters affected in three very different ways by a police shooting in New York. Monsters and Men hopes to fashion a mosaic, to offer three fractured perspectives that might better illuminate the whole. Unfortunately, these individual stories don’t really work together and do not cohere into a singular or defining statement.

Monsters and Men undoubtedly has its heart in the right place as a piece of low-budget socially-conscious film making, but it simply cannot deliver on its ambitions. Although this ultimately undercuts the film, there are certainly worse flaws to have.

Feeling fenced in.

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Non-Review Review: The Upside

The Upside doesn’t work.

From the outset, it is very clear what The Upside wants to be. This a movie that aspires towards a broad feel-good mood. Perhaps its closest companion in this particular awards cycle is Green Book. It is easy to be cynical about such films, and it is particularly easy to be cynical about The Upside. The film’s delayed release is not the result of a studio desperately holding a hidden gem until late in awards season, this is a would-be crowd pleaser pried from the cold dead hands of the Weinstein Company.

Hart to heart.

Everything in The Upside seems designed to guide an audience on an emotionally uplifting journey, a story of two characters from very different circumstances brought together so that each might elevate the other. All of the big moments in The Upside are no so much telegraphed as broadcast, the volume turned up to eleven. Characters scream and shout, at both each other and the world around them. Catharsis isn’t just sought, it is amplified. There is no moment at which The Upside leaves the audience in any doubt about what they should feel.

The result is a clumsy and awkward piece of cinema that constantly trips over itself, repeatedly undermining anything meaningful or significant that it might have to say about either of its two central characters.

“So, what is The Upside here?”

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Non-Review Review: Life Itself

Life Itself is a spectacular disaster.

There’s an incredible amount of ego on display in Life Itself, which makes a certain amount of sense. It is an auteur project from Dan Fogelman, written and directed by the guy responsible for This is Us. It is the kind of adult-centric drama that people don’t really make anymore, from the mind responsible for one of the biggest television hits of the decade. On paper, it is easy to see why there was a bidding war over Life Itself on the festival circuit, major studios tripping over one another to offer the largest cheque.

A pregnant pause.

Watching the film, of course, it is easy to see why Life Itself ended up as a cinematic footnote. It was dumped at the United States box office, dead on arrival. It limped into the United Kingdom with a simultaneous theatrical and television release on Sky One, a strategy usually reserved for enjoyable nonsense like Final Score. There is a reason for this. In Life Itself, ego gives way to indulgence. There is an incredibly and obnoxious smugness to Life Itself, the confidence of a truism scrawled clumsily on a beer mat, punctuated by several exclamation marks and underlined for emphasis.

Life Itself watches like the work of an over-eager film student motivated primarily by the profundity of their own insight, having assembled an impressive cast and offering a globetrotting story. Unfortunately, Life Itself is decidedly less fun than the best of those pseudo-profound philosophical treatises, delivered with a suffocating sense of its own self-importance.

Some significant (An)tonal issues.

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My 12 for ’18: “Annihilation” and Creating Something New…

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number one.

It’s not destroying. It’s making something new.

Rankings can be very revealing. They say a lot, both about wider culture, but also about the person who is making the list and the time at which the list is being made.

The best top tens inevitably reveal something about the time at which they were made. New Year’s Eve is a time for reflection, and a large part of the process of putting together these sorts of end-of-year lists is to reflect upon the year that has been. Any end-of-year top ten (or twelve) inevitably reveals something about how the person making that list experienced the previous twelve months. Whether consciously or not, every such list suggests a time capsule of the year, offering a snapshot of the general mood or even an outline of the zeitgeist.

A lot of the movies included in this list are examined through the lens of 2018, whether in terms of filmmaking, storytelling, or broader cultural concerns. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a superhero origin for a hyper-literate internet-raised generation. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a meditation on how quickly and viciously anger can spread. A Quiet Place reflected trends in contemporary horror cinema at literalising the experience of watching a horror film, a “meta” mode of horror.

Annihilation does something very similar. Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel is a film that is about a strange phenomenon that warps and distorts the biology of anything that comes into contact with it. Those who wander into “the Shimmer” are lost, their sense of direction disturbed and they are promptly confronted with monstrosities that appear to be sewn together from a variety of familiar shapes, often bent and broken in unsettling ways. In this sense, Annihilation feels like a knowing commentary on popular culture in 2018.

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My 12 for ’18: “I, Tonya” and the Post-Truth Biopic

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number two.

One of the interesting things about being an Irish film critic, as opposed to an American film critic, is that it does make the end-of-year top tens rather… jumbled.

Piracy and social media have done a lot to close the gap between cinematic releases in peak blockbuster season. Movies like Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Avengers: Infinity War tend to be released day-and-date around the world in an effort to prevent bootleg copies and spoilers cutting into those profit margins. The conversation about such films tends to be instantaneous or nigh-instantaneous, as it is with even off-season blockbusters like Mary Poppins Returns or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In contrast, awards fare is still staggered. The “big” and “populist” awards fare films tend to synchronise releases across the globe; A Star is Born, First Man, Bohemian Rhapsody, Widows. However, the smaller and more eccentric films end up staggered across the New Year. So although I have seen If Beale Street Could Talk, ViceStan and Ollie and The Favourite, they are not eligible for this end of year countdown.

In contrast, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and I, Tonya both make the countdown of my favourite releases of 2018, despite the fact that the bulk of the conversation around them (and the bulk of their cultural context) was anchored in 2017. It is something that seems strange, even as I go through my end of year list, feeling like I’ve arrived late enough to the party that I might as well just order breakfast.

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My 12 for ’18: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” & Doing This One Last Time

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number four.

“Alright, let’s do this. One. Last. Time.”

There were few cinematic experiences this year as joyous as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I first saw it at a preview screening, surrounded by children of all ages. This was entirely appropriate. After all, Into the Spider-Verse is a movie that connects immediately and emotionally to any audience member’s inner child. Like many of the best modern family films, it understand the wonder and awe with which children see the world. It also understands the intelligence with which children process information, something adults often overlook.

A lot has been written about the fantastic animation employed in making Into the Spider-Verse. The technique is revolutionary and jaw-dropping; everything from the use of Ben Day dots to the shading using red and green to create an uncanny depth perception to the blurring of various styles for characters like “Spider-Man Noir” or “Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham.” It is no surprise that Sony are attempting to copyright the animation process, to render it proprietary. The film would make a good case for its place on the list based on animation alone.

However, what has been less discussed in terms of Into the Spider-Verse is the actual storytelling. Part of this is obviously visual, and reflected in all of the praise that the animation is receiving. However, a lot of this is in the scripting and the structuring of the film. Into the Spider-Verse is a revolutionary film in a technical sense, a breathtaking cinematic accomplishment bursting at the seams with a remarkable visual imagination. It is also a story that understands how such stories are told. It also understands that the audience understands how such stories are told.

Into the Spider-Verse is a thoroughly modern superhero film, a narrative that is consciously designed for a contemporary audience that have been trained to process information in a more dynamic and exciting way. Even beyond its long overdue acknowledgement that “anybody can wear the mask”, Into the Spider-Verse is very much a film for 2018.

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