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Non-Review Review: Annabelle – Creation

The issue with Annabelle: Creation is not one of skill or technique. Annabelle: Creation is a very well-crafted and well-constructed horror film. The issue is that Annabelle: Creation never quite figures out what kind of horror film it wants to be.

Annabelle: Creation struggles with tone. The movie bounces between extremes. At some points, it feels like it wants to be a genuinely dark and unsettling study of trauma and exploitation, a harrowing horror movie metaphor for some of the worst terrors that could be inflicted upon its young cast in their remote location. At other points, it is a much more conventional action horror movie, combining the blockbuster thrills approach of The Conjuring with the almost playful concept-driven self-aware scares of Lights Out.

Eye, Creepy Demonic Doll.

The movie often feels caught between these two approaches, repeatedly suggesting something much darker nestled at the core of what is a fairly solid and fairly recognisable horror template. There are moments when Annabelle: Creation is skin-crawlingly effective, and there are moments when the film cleverly punctuates its scares with awkward-laugh-out-loud moments of stress relief. In isolation, David Sandberg balances both approaches quite well.

The problem comes in trying to blend them together.

“Give me a moment, I’ve got to put my face on.”

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Non-Review Review: Detroit

Detroit is a powerful and visceral piece of cinema, one that loses its way in a muddled second act.

The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty cemented Kathryn Bigalow’s talent for conveying a sense of chaos and disorganisation on film. It can be very difficult to capture the messiness of real life in the movies, given how cluttered narratives can become distracting or disorienting. It takes a very real talent to guide the audience through this carnage in a way that captures the organic ambiguities of the story while ensuring that nobody is lost or distracted. Bigalow has a very rare talent for that.

Insecurity guard.

Unsurprisingly, Detroit works best in its opening and closing acts, when the narrative pulls back to the real-life story covering the Detroit Riots in late July 1967. The film’s opening and closing beats have the feel of a weird docudrama, with Bigalow using handheld cameras and tight focus in a way that allows her to blend footage of the cast with archive material. Characters are identified by legends down the bottom of the screen, while the audience is frequently put in the position of confused spectators in a way that captures the mere anarchy loosed upon the city.

However, Detroit fumbles a little bit in its second act. For the middle of the film, Detroit narrows its focus significantly. Instead of providing socio-economic and political context for the entire riots, or dealing with the aftermath of horrific events, Detroit transforms into a story about a bunch of characters locked in a confined space together. As the film’s closing text admits, these sequences are much less verifiable than the snapshots populating the opening and closing acts, much less a matter of public record.

Big Mackie.

The second act of Detroit is a more conventional fictional narrative. While the movie is never less than interesting and clever, that organic sensibility is lost. During the first and third acts, the focus is on the broader story of the larger community, so it does not matter that many of these characters feel like archetypes and ciphers. When Detroit zooms in on the characters, they seem drawn too crudely to support the scrutiny. Detroit works a lot better as an epic social study, and less well as a claustrophobic character study.

Bigalow struggles to get the balance right, resulting in a film that is certainly ambitious and worthy, but also more uneven than her recent output. Detroit is too confident and too professional to be deemed a failure, but its second act is too shallow to be a success either.

I predict a riot.

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Non-Review Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk is compelling in its contradictions.

Dunkirk concerns a pyrrhic victory, a defeat which became a source of national pride. Dunkirk is at once a story rooted in a very particular event and a mythic narrative populated by archetypal characters. Dunkirk follows three parallel stories as they move towards a singular inevitable climax, although those narratives are allowed to move at their own pace towards those epic events and even overshoot one another. Dunkirk is at once chaotic and disjointed, and yet moving with a very clear sense of purpose and direction.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, it is too much to describe Dunkirk as a “puzzle box” narrative. It always very clear to the audience exactly what is going on, and the movie’s mysteries and revelations tend to be smaller and intimate rather than broad and sweeping. Nevertheless, it is a movie consciously unstuck in time, recalling Nolan’s long-standing fascination with shifting his narrative backwards and forwards along a timeline. (Insomnia, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises stand out as Nolan’s most linear films.)

Dunkirk is a war epic in the broadest possible sense, its narrative bouncing between three separate timelines covering the retreat from the eponymous port. However, there is also a faint sense that Dunkirk itself is unstuck in time. As much as the film is rooted in the reality of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, it speaks to something much bigger and more sweeping. There is a vagueness to Dunkirk which suggests that the film might well speak to realities beyond its specific setting.

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Non-Review Review: The Big Sick

What is most striking about The Big Sick is the sense of authenticity, and not in the most obvious way.

The Big Sick was written by the husband and wife team of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, loosely inspired by their own romance. Nanjiani plays a fictionalised version of himself, a stand-up comedian working in Chicago dealing with the weight of his parents’ expectations. Zoe Kazan plays a slightly more fictionalised version of Gordon, swapping out the surname Gordon for Gardner. The broad strokes of the story conform to how Nanjiani and Gordon came to meet and fall in love, and some of the barriers that arose between them. So The Big Sick is authentic in a very literal way.

However, The Big Sick is most striking in its small moments. While the movie is obviously built around the narrative arc of this true-to-life relationship, it perfectly captures all the weird little moments that define people. Nanjiani is a comedian by profession and Gordon is a psychologist, and there is a sense that both are keen observers of human nature. There are a lot of little touches in the film that resonate, that add a sense of convincing realism and gravity to a story that is dealing some very weighty material. (After all, the title of the film kind of hints at the stakes.)

The Big Sick is an astoundingly beautiful piece of work.

Full disclosure: Kumail Nanjiani is a very nice person. I don’t know him personally, but he very kindly agreed to write the intro to my upcoming book Opening the X-Files: A Critical History of the Original Series. Which I believe was in the middle of the production of this film, so I greatly appreciate that.

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The 250, This Just In, Episode #12 – Baby Driver (#127)

Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney host This Just In, a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver.

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Non-Review Review: The House

The House comes from the writing duo Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen, representing Cohen’s directorial debut.

O’Brien and Cohen are perhaps best known for their work on Neighbours and Neighbours II: Sorority Rising, two of the more successful “overgrown manchildren” movies of the past few years. (They also worked on the somewhat underrated Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.) While these sorts of movies about grown-ups behaving badly are a dime-a-dozen in the modern comedy landscape, Neighbours and Neighbours II were elevated by a number of factors: attention to their female leads, very canny casting, clever shifts in the film’s moral weight at key moments.

They are so money.

The House is perhaps a more modest proposal than Neighbours and Neighbours II. It is certainly a lot more straightforward in its plotting and character arcs, a simplicity reflected in the relatively abridged run-time of eighty-eight minutes. (To be fair, both Neighbours and Neighbours II kept their runtime just over the hour-and-a-half mark, which seems about right for a broad comedy.) However, it shares one key strength. It is a movie that very skilfully captures the feeling of a mid-life crisis, and the yearn to return to into a belated adolescence.

The House is a little uneven in places, prone to the structural problems that haunt a lot of contemporary blockbuster comedy from the jokey asides that jar with the narrative to the oh-so-tidy resolution, but it has a solid core. It is a movie that understands the middle-class middle-aged urge to break bad in the most banal of fashions, just a hint of sadness lurking beneath its more absurd twists. The House doesn’t always win, and maybe it hedges just a little too much, but it knows the game that it is playing.

A dicey proposition.

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Non-Review Review: Halal Daddy

Halal Daddy is a pleasant enough culture clash comedy, perhaps most notable for how conventional it is.

The premise of Halal Daddy is immediately striking, based on a true story about the halal meat factory in Sligo. It is a compelling set up, one with a lot of potential to explore the collision of differing perspectives and outlooks against the backdrop of the West of Ireland. Certainly, director Conor McDermottroe does an excellent job capturing a sense of place and texture in this Sligo-set comedy.

Meat cute.

However, what is most surprising about Halal Daddy is how conventional it feels. In many ways, it plays like the extended pilot for a BBC sitcom. Indeed, there is a sense that Halal Daddy might easily have been broken down into a series of six relatively interconnected episodes built around a variety of miscommunications and errors in judgment featuring the core cast. At certain point, Halal Daddy feels like a compressed set of stories, with each new set of complications summarised as “the one where…”

This is not a huge problem. Halal Daddy has a lot of charm. Some of that charm comes from a winning central performance from Nikesh Patel, while some of it comes from the casual ease with which it navigates from sitcom beat to sitcom beat without ever letting any of these potential problems overwhelm its characters or the audience. Halal Daddy is an enjoyable feel-good comedy, one that only occasionally feels a little light of touch.

There’ll be halal to pay.

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