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Non-Review Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver is largely about keeping the wheels spinning.

Circular imagery recurs throughout the film. At various points, long-take sequences begin and end in the same location, following characters as they move in a literal circle. At other points, the camera remains static while characters leave the frame to one side and enter from the other, creating the impression that they have just lapped their environment. Baby Driver is populated with objects that go all the way around to end up where they started; the clicker on an iPod, the drum of a washing machine, the wheels on a car, the subwoofer on a stereo, the record on a turntable.

Tune in, and cop out.

Even the dialogue and story move in something approaching a circle; recurring patterns of bad behaviour and errors in judgement, repeated lines offering a sense of symmetry to the story. In one of the nicer smaller examples, both the extended opening and closing sequences make a point to place the eponymous getaway driver behind the wheel of a striking red Subaru. Calls and response, echoes and refrains, patterns and sequences. It all comes around, Baby Driver suggests.

There is very little novel or innovative in Baby Driver, which feels very much like an attempt by writer and director Edgar Wright to construct a more conventional crowd-pleasing film than cult hits that defined his earlier efforts. A lot of Baby Driver feels conventional and archetypal, a conscious choice on the part of the director. While the supporting cast features any number of interesting players breathing life into familiar criminal archetypes, Baby Driver suffers from the fact that its two leads are its least satisfying element.

Drive baby.

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Non-Review Review: Gifted

Gifted is a sweet little movie, occasionally a little too sweet.

Gifted is essentially a wry family drama, the tale of a custody battle over a gifted young child that plays into larger questions about the responsibilities of parenthood and the expectations heaped upon greatness. Young Mary Adler is undoubtedly a mathematical genius. At the age of six, she is rattling off advanced multiplication and square roots, much to the amazement of the adults around her. Her uncle Frank and her grandmother Evelyn find themselves at odds with how best to raise Mary.

Head and shoulders above the other kids…

Gifted is an ambiguous meditation on the obligations that parents have to their children, to the challenges in determining what is best for their offspring. How does a parent respond to a child who is preternaturally intelligent? Is it right to push a person to be all that they can be? Is it healthier to teach them to accept themselves? It is an intriguing debate. At its most earnest, Gifted plays out like Whiplash by proxy and with numbers. There are time at which Gifted seems a little clumsy, a little awkward in its grand emotional gestures or core themes.

However reductive that summary might seem, Gifted is elevated by the combination of a witty script and a charming cast. In particular, Gifted is anchored in the central dynamic between Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace, who bring a vulnerability and warmth to the relationship between unlikely caregiver and talented youth.

Keep on trucking.

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Non-Review Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is an impressive piece of work, one worthy of its central character.

Wonder Woman is an impressive blockbuster from director Patty Jenkins. In many ways, it is an archetypal superhero origin story. It hits many of the Joseph Campbell beats expected of it. Superficially, the film looks to be a hybrid of Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and Superman, which is quite the pulpy cocktail. Jenkins plays into that, delivering her action set pieces with great skill and hitting all the requisite beats.

To the wonder.

However, the most interesting aspects of Wonder Woman are happening under the hood. It is too much to describe the film as a superheroic deconstruction in the style of Logan or The Dark Knight, but it is a film that has put a lot of thought into what it is doing and why it is doing it. The movie’s best beats are cheekily subversive, in an unobtrusive way. Wonder Woman is aware of the weight pressing down upon it, as the first female-led superhero film of the post-Iron Man era, but it never breaks its stride.

More than that, Wonder Woman is pure and unadulterated fun. It is a movie that is very clever and astute, but which never lets those attributes crowd out its sense of adventure and momentum. Wonder Woman is a sprawling period piece superhero fantasia, executed with deft skill and an engaging attitude.

Waiting for Gadot.

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Non-Review Review: Baywatch

The most damning criticism of Baywatch is that it is actually a pretty decent Baywatch movie.

Of course, it is hard to define exactly what Baywatch is. The show ran for eleven seasons, launched a handful of spin-offs, built up an instant recognisable iconography. However, the most striking Baywatch was just how hazily the concept was defined. As imagined by Baywatch, the beach front was a tabula rasa, a canvas as blank as the sand dunes on the shore or the expressions on most of the cast’s faces. The beauty of Baywatch was in its lack of a distinct identity, its capacity to be almost anything that it wanted to be, albeit in the clumsiest and cheapest manner possible.

To Beaches, or Not To Beaches?

Baywatch was nominally a show about lifeguards, about beautiful people running in slow motion. However, it could also be a show about shark attacks, about drug smuggling, about wrestling matches, about illegal immigration, about mermaids, about possession. It could even launch a spin-off Baywatch Nights, about private investigators pursuing beach-themed crimes that evolved into a water-themed X-Files knock-off. Baywatch could be whatever the audience wanted it to be, and even sometimes what they needed it to be.

Baywatch was a mirror unto which anything could be projected, the most popular show in the world about the day-to-day adventures on Malibu Pier. Baywatch became a window into the popular consciousness, an abyss that gazed back. Many tried to decipher its mysteries, to account for its popularity. Was it as simple as the fact that very pretty people were running while wearing very little clothes? Did Baywatch speak to a deeper yearning in those landlocked countries where it proved so popular? Did Baywatch know the audience better than they knew themselves?

A versatile storytelling engine.

All of this is to say that Baywatch comes with a baked-in absurdity. It is so elastic a premise, and so ridiculous a concept, that it is pretty much immune to mockery. It is hard to imagine a joke about Baywatch that the show never embraced in earnest during its two-hundred-and-forty episode run. Baywatch is beyond parody as a pop culture object. It is a möbius strip of ridiculousness and earnestness, taking itself so seriously that it doubles back around into self-aware absurdity.

This is the biggest problem with Baywatch. It is a terrible parody of Baywatch, if only because the source material seems to exist in a realm where parody has been folded in on itself and presented as an entirely sincere beach-bound adventure.

Lost at sea.

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Non-Review Review: Pirates of the Caribbean – Salazar’s Revenge

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salavar’s Revenge is a strange beast, a conscious effort to refactor the Pirates of the Caribbean series into a more modern movie franchise.

On the surface, the appeal of Pirates of the Caribbean seems very simple. People like pirates, pirates have adventures. The period trappings, supernatural elements and exotic maritime setting add a sense of novelty to adventure. It is not rocket science. Indeed, the relative simplicity of the premise is part of the appeal, with the series tending to construct very straightforward narratives that provide a framework for set pieces and comedy action.

They should bottle Jack’s water.

It is very hard to imagine Pirates of the Caribbean having a “mythology” in the same way that many modern blockbuster franchises have a mythology. Audiences are not necessarily watching for character arcs or larger plot developments. Audiences are drawn in by the and the set pieces, with a healthy dose of Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. There is a reason that Pirates of the Caribbean will always be a notch below The Lord of the Rings on Orlando Bloom’s filmography, because the series has never really aspired to “epic” heft.

There is a sense that Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner only appeared in the first three films so that they could be tied together to form a “trilogy”, with the two sequels hastily bolted on to an original film that was a runaway success story. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was not diminished by the absence of Keira Knightley or Orlando Bloom, even if it ran into other structural problems related to making Jack Sparrow its primary character.

New Jack City.

As such, Salazar’s Revenge feels like a very strained attempt to rework the series to resemble modern blockbuster cinema. As with sequels like xXx III: The Return of Xander Cage and The Fate of the Furious, there is a conscious effort to appeal to nostalgia by roping in cast members from earlier installments to make token appears in order to cultivate a sense of continuity. Salazar’s Revenge attempts to create a broad “mythology” within the context of Pirates of the Caribbean, treating characters from the original film as fetish objects due to their continuity ties.

It is a very strange and unsettling creative direction for a series that would lend itself to a more episodic and playful approach, an attempt to add nostalgic weight to a franchise that cannot necessarily support it. Salazar’s Revenge buckles and suffocates under the demands of callbacks that nobody wanted and references to earlier events that are unlikely to have lodged in any viewer’s long-term memory. The result is disorienting and unsatisfying, despite some of the movie’s more endearing set pieces.

Pirates II, plus Pirates III, equals Pirates IIIII: Salazar’s Revenge.

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Non-Review Review: Alien – Covenant

Alien: Covenant feels as though somebody facehuggered Prometheus and ended up with Alien.

It is a very messy, very awkward, very clever piece of film. It is a genre movie that understands both what it wants to be, and also the reasons why it cannot be what it wants to be. It is a film aware of its own grotesque attributes, of the way that it has been warped and deformed in its journey from original idea to concept to screen. It is a movie very much aware of what it wants to be, but it is also cognisant of the fact that it cannot be that film. Alien: Covenant is the result of any number of compromises, but it is very pointed on the subject of those compromises.

Alien DNA.

Most likely driven by the critical and audience reaction to Prometheus, the sequel is a decidedly more conservative affair. For all intents and purposes, Covenant is wed more tightly to the Alien franchise than to its direct predecessor. Although one main character (and performer) carries over from Prometheus to Covenant, most of the major characters from Prometheus are relegated to small supporting roles and cameos. Even the Engineers, the alien race at the centre of Prometheus, are primarily relegated to an extended flashback sequence.

In contrast, Covenant embraces the trappings of the familiar Alien franchise. The soundtrack repeatedly samples Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score from the original Alien. The climax devolves into a hybrid of the most iconic action beats from the first two Alien films. The film lingers on the dramatic reveals of familiar Alien iconography, only barely teasing audience expectations before fulfilling them. It seems fair to argue that Covenant is a movie more consciously designed to appeal to fans of the Alien franchise than Prometheus was. The clue is in the title.

Bursting at the seams.

However, Covenant is most interesting when it plays up the tension between what it clearly wants to be and what it actually is, when the script throws the concept of sequel to Prometheus into conflict with the demands of a prequel to Alien. There is a strong sense of disillusionment and frustration in Covenant, particularly as explored through the story of David. Michael Fassbender’s enigmatic android is the only major returning character from Prometheus, and in many ways the central character. He reappears after being lost in the wilderness, angry and resentful.

Covenant is a big ball of Oedipal rage. It’s clever, awkward, messy and disjointed, but also entirely in keeping with the themes of the larger series.

The wilderness years.

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Non-Review Review: Snatched

Snatched is a collection of comedy sketch pieces arranged around some of Amy Schumer’s favourite themes.

Some of these gags land very well. Indeed, Snatched works best as a genre spoof, riffing on the tropes and expectations of the standard “Americans have an adventure abroad” film as a mother and daughter team become embroiled in a heated pursuit across South America. There are individual characters, actors, and jokes that work very effectively within that framework. More to the point, Snatched offers a veritable smorgasbord of gags.

They haven’t a leg to stand on.

The problem is that many more of these jokes miss. They miss for a variety of reasons, but there are two big recurring problems. The most obvious issue is that many of the jokes are entirely predictable and follow the path of least resistance. In quite a few scenes, it is very easy to tell where the set-up is leading before the pay-off arrives. Snatched is a very conventional and very safe comedy adventure.

There is also the slight problem that Snatched is trying to have its cake and eat it with some of its central ideas. Schumer’s comedic targets tend to be white middle- and upper-class Americans, the joke being their reaction to the outside world; although Schumer is not credited on the script, Snatched is very clearly trying to play into that. However, Snatched repeatedly goes for the low-hanging fruit and often seems to be playing its more reactionary gags entirely straight.

Things went South fast.

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