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Non-Review Review: Unless

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Unless is a film that woefully over-estimates its own profundity.

Unless is an indulgent, misguided, ill-judged, clumsy and offensive piece of work, a tone-deaf study of upper-middle-class ennui that laments the plight of characters at least two degrees of separation from an individual with an interesting perspective. Unless is a story about vicarious empathy, the tale of wealthy people whose response to horror and tragedy is to assume that they cannot feel true compassion for an individual’s suffering without embarking upon their own existential grief tourism.

Begging belief.

Begging belief.

All of this is compound by a script and direction that are suffocatingly heavy handed. As if afraid that its audience might somehow miss the subtle nuances of this tail of wealthy familial angst, Unless repeatedly trips into slow motion for the most mundane of moments as if hinting at some deeply-buried profundity. The music soars, even when the events of screen do not merit it, leading to a hilarious disconnect between the events happening and the movie’s estimation of them. And everything is ominously signposted, as characters muse endlessly in pseudo-evocative monologues about life.

Unless is, quite frankly, a terrible piece of film.

Norah battle to the strong.

Norah battle to the strong.

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Non-Review Review: Their Finest

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Their Finest is a charming, if somewhat overly schmaltzy, Second World War comedy drama.

To be fair, the basic premise and setting do a lot to carry the film. The Second World still exerts a mythic power, particularly to the members of the United Kingdom that weathered the Blitz before marching (with American support) to victory. That moment is powerful and evocative, Britain serving as the “island fortress” holding Nazi German at bay. The imagery is striking, from the bombed out buildings to the rubble on the streets to the sounds of air raid sirens. It is a rich and evocative setting.

Projecting.

Projecting.

More than that, it is a setting that offers all manner of storytelling possibilities. As one of the defining moments of the twentieth century for Great Britain, it is the perfect fodder for telling smaller and more intimate tales. After all, everybody knows the basics of the Blitz, so there is more opportunity to explore the lives of those who exist at the fringe of the narrative. Those were extraordinary times, and so stories that might otherwise seem ordinary are elevated to be extraordinary by virtue of unfolding against those circumstances.

Their Finest is the tale of about one woman’s struggle to be heard and acknowledged as a writer against this backdrop, fighting the war at home in any number of ways. It is a fascinating premise, and one that feels relatively under-explored in the larger context of this defining historical moment. While Their Finest occasionally trips into cliché and melodrama, and occasionally even loses focus on the story that it is trying to tell. Still, a strong cast and a lot of charm carry Their Finest a long way.

Station keeping.

Station keeping.

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Non-Review Review: The Rehearsal

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

There’s a lot of dramatic weight to be derived from the idea that actors are fundamentally creepy.

Of course, this is a crass generalisation and in no way reflective of how the world actually works, but just conceptually there is something fascinatingly creepy in the idea of acting. At best, it is a form of grown-up make-believe, in which the performer conjures reality from imagination in a way that blurs the line between the tangible and the ethereal. At worst, it can seem almost predatory as these actors draw up real-life experiences to enhance the illusion; how must it feel for an actor to manifest something deeply personal or intimate?

ACTion man.

ACTion man.

This is perhaps why popular culture has grown so fascinated with tales of “method” actors who warp their bodies and bend their psyches in pursuit of some fundamental truth about the characters they have been asked to bring to life. It does not matter that the Stanislavski method is quite far removed from the sensationalist version that has seeped into public consciousness. After all, there is something fascinating about tales of Christian Bale’s remarkable physical transformation or that time Daniel Day Lewis saw the ghost of his father while playing Hamlet.

The Rehearsal really mines this popular notion of actors as an uncanny bunch blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, exploiting real emotions and stories so as to offer a more convincing simulacrum. The problem with The Rehearsal is in trying to wed this sensationalist and exaggerated approach to a more relaxed feel-good film and forcing to to conform to something approaching the form of a romantic comedy.

Courting controversy.

Courting controversy.

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Non-Review Review: Without Name

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

Without Name is a stunningly confident theatrical debut from director Lorcan Finnegan.

In theory, Without Name belongs that long-standing environmental horror genre, the fear that nature exists in opposition to mankind and that human beings are ultimately a hostile species not welcome in their surroundings. There are all manner of variations in that classic horror set-up, but it bubbles through any number of classic horror films, from The Shining to Jaws to The Birds. There is a recurring fear that the world is not a welcoming place for mankind, and that the wilderness might one day rebel against mankind’s desire to tame it.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

Without Name takes that familiar premise and puts a uniquely Irish spin on it, distinguishing its own set of anxieties from those felt by the European Settlers in the United States or even those disconnected from their pagan roots in the United Kingdom. Without Name draws heavily upon the Western European pagan spirituality that informs films like The Wicker Man or A Field in England, but weds it to unique Irish anxieties about property and ownership that reflect both long-standing uncertainties and modern fears.

The result is a delightfully weird little environmental horror that feels very much of its time and place, a credit to its first-time director.

Sleep well...

Sleep well…

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Non-Review Review: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies)

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki plays almost like a mumblecore Raging Bull.

To be fair, that is a very facile description. Almost every boxing film stands in the shadow of Martin Scorsese’s 1980 biography of Jake LaMotta, but The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki invites those comparisons by filming its period-specific based-on-a-true-story boxing fable in black and white. It is hard not to think of Raging Bull in that context, and it is incredibly daring for The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki to actively invite the comparison.

Skipping to the point.

Skipping to the point.

However, in explicitly evoking that classic boxing movie, writers Juho Kuosmanen and Mikko Myllylahti are able to do something genuinely interesting. Taking all the iconography and expectations of the boxing movie genre, Kuosmanen and Myllylahti are able to tell a story that skews its perspective slightly. Channelling Raging Bull only underscores this subtle shift, with The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki not so much asking for a comparison as a contrast.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is charming in the way that it embraces the clichés and expectations of the boxing movie only to subvert with a more naturalistic (and optimistic) love story about a boxer who largely eschews the conventions of the biography films that such sportsmen tend to inhabit.

On the ropes.

On the ropes.

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Non-Review Review: 20th Century Women

20th Century Women is more affective than effective.

Mike Mills’ late seventies drama is far too quirky for its own good, often feeling more like a dramatised video essay than a narrative film. Mills provides a rake of social context for his story, from samples of Lodger to references to The Man Who Fell to Earth. He plays an extended section of President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Conscience” address to the nation and even inserts some footage from Koyaanisqati. Characters monologue (and even dialogue) over careful compositions as the camera tracks across footage.

Making a splash.

Making a splash.

Everything in 20th Century Women feels overstated. It is not enough to have characters quote extended passages from contemporary literature and poetry, Mills makes sure to cite his sources up on screen. The result is that 20th Century Women feels more like an annotated thesis statement than an engaging story. Mills keeps the camera at a distance from his characters, constantly moving through scenes instead of allowing them to develop organically. Everything is quirky and arch.

The result is that 20th Century Women suffocates its most interesting elements; its characters, its cast, its engagement with American masculinity and femininity on the cusp of Reaganism. This is a movie that strives so hard for authenticity that it only exposes its artifice.

Fanning the flame.

Fanning the flame.

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Non-Review Review: The LEGO Batman Movie

“I have aged phenomenally,” Bruce Wayne confesses about half-an-hour into The LEGO Batman Movie.

He is not wrong. The LEGO Batman Movie is in many ways an overt celebration of the legacy of the Caped Crusader, the pop culture icon who remains one of the most recognisable figures in the world. Repeatedly over the course of the film, character reference Batman’s rich history, from the Joker’s confession that they have known each other for “seventy-eight years” or Alfred’s reference to “that weird [phase] in 1966” or even Barbara Gordon’s slideshow presentation that goes back to the cover of Detective Comics #27 and the forties film serial.

Holding it all together...

Holding it all together…

The framework of The LEGO Batman Movie allows the characters and the script to comment upon the Batman mythology. The script is crammed with references from the length and breadth of the character’s publication history, from “Bat shark repellent!” to particular costume styles to minor villains to musical cues to fourth-wall-breaking references to other media that has inspired various interpretations of the Caped Crusader. This allows The LEGO Batman Movie to be explicitly about Batman in a way that few Batman stories can be.

As such, The LEGO Batman Movie offers a very broad summary of the Batman mythology and characters, surveying decades of printed and screen material to reduce Batman to his most simply and essential qualities. The LEGO Batman Movie offers a very compelling portrait of Batman as a man so traumatised by loss that he never allowed himself to grow up, while somehow subconsciously cultivating a family around himself. For all the character’s lauded darkness, The LEGO Batman Movie celebrates the hope at the heart of that mythology.

Welcome to his man-cave.

Welcome to his man-cave.

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