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Non-Review Review: A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is both surprisingly moving and about an hour too long.

Writer and director Terrence Malick bases A Hidden Life around the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter. During the Second World War, Jägerstätter was called up to serve in the armed forces. He refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and so was punished for his pacifism. It’s a weighty and important story, and Malick ensures that any contemporary relevance will not be lost on viewers. A Hidden Life grapples with that most fundamental of questions, what it means to be a good person in a fallen world and how the measure of such morality might be taken.

Going to grass…

As one might expect from Malick, A Hidden Life is shot and edited in a rather disjointed and impressionist fashion. The film often feels like a waking dream. Scenes are not always clearly delineated, often beginning in the middle of abstract conversations that then play over atmospheric establishing shots like some sort of historical stream of consciousness. It’s an approach that has defined a lot of Malick’s later work, but is perhaps best seen as an outgrowth from Tree of Life. That sort of emotive and drifting storytelling style works oddly well when applied what is both a linear story and a familiar historical milieu.

The big problem with A Hidden Life is that it feels highly repetitive and redundant, particularly in its final ninety minutes. Rather than advancing or developing his thesis, Malick spends the final ninety minutes of the film just bluntly restating it over and over. It is exhausting, and not necessarily in the way that a film about the virtues of peaceful protest in an unjust world should be.

Peak Malick?

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“So, Your Son is a Nazi”: Modern Hollywood’s Weird Fixation on Feel-Good Stories About Fascists…

JoJo Rabbit is supposed to be an “anti-hate satire”, but what exactly is it satirising?

To be fair to director Taika Waititi, JoJo Rabbit is a well-made and charming crowd-pleaser. It manages something genuinely impressive, offering a feel-good coming of age comedy set against the backdrop of Germany in the dying days of the Second World War. It belongs the awkward, saccharine genre that produced films like Jakob the Liar or Life is Beautiful or The Day the Clown Cried. It is impossible to overstate how thin a razor blade Waititi is dancing, and how remarkable it is that he maintains his balance. The film never feels too sombre or too dark, but never as tasteless as something like The Book Thief.

Of course, Waititi largely manages this through cinematic sleight of hand. He avoids dwelling too heavily or for too long on the victims of fascist oppression in Nazi Germany. JoJo Beltzer finds a young Jewish girl hiding in his attic, but the film never details the horrors of the Final Solution. The characters are repeatedly confronted with the sight of bodies hanging in the public square, but the camera never really lingers on them. Instead, it focuses on JoJo’s reaction to them. The audience’s gaze is fixated on his gaze. The question isn’t how the audience feels about the horror, but how they feel about how JoJo feels.

This raises an interesting and slightly unsettling question about the recent wave of Hollywood films exploring the emergence of the modern extreme right and the resurgence of fascist ideology. Who exactly are these films for? What is the intended audience of JoJo Rabbit, and what exactly is it saying to them?

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144. La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) – Summer of ’99 (#26)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Ethan Shattock and Gerard Rooney from Disconnected Talk, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, continuing our Summer of ’99 season, Roberto Benigni’s La Vita è Bella.

1999 was a great year for movies, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that would define cinema for a next generation: The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, 10 Things I Hate About You, Fight Club. The Summer of ’99 season offers a trip through the year in film on the IMDb‘s 250.

In mid-century Italy, lovable fool Guido embarks on a courtship of the beautiful Dora, a woman far outside of his station. As Italy descends into fascism, Guido hopes that his optimism will allow himself – and his family – to endure in the face of unimaginable evil.

At time of recording, it was ranked 26th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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Non-Review Review: Overlord

Overlord is a film that works a lot better in concept than in does in execution.

The idea of constructing a pulpy monster narrative around Nazi atrocities during the Second World War has a certain appeal to it. Not only does it evoke the sort of trashy fiction that that often existed at the margins of popular culture, but it also suggests the speculative lenses through which audiences process trauma, the way in which mass media filters horrors almost beyond human comprehension into something tangible and visceral, creating an uncanny and uncomfortable prism through which anxieties over these horrors might be channeled.

Russelling up some fun.

The horrors inflicted by the Nazis are almost impossible to fully comprehend; the systemic brutality inflicted upon those marginalised groups under their authority, the destruction that they wrought across Europe. These traumas linger in the popular memory. While the reality of those atrocities must never be forgotten or downplayed, there is something very powerful in the idea of translating that to the screen through the cinematic language of horror. Like Wolfenstein, Overlord seems to suggest an impressionistic portrait of the horrors of the period.

This approach is intriguing, and there are moments when Overlord works very well, when the film is creepy and unsettling in all the ways that it should be creepy and unsettling. However, the film suffers greatly when the script tries to impose a familiar framework on these horrors, when it runs through the checklist of storybeats expected for a major modern cinematic release. Put simply, Overlord works best when it aspires to be Captain America: The First Avenger, but as a horror film” and it works worst when it just tries to be Captain America: The First Avenger.

I want to take his face… off.

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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 3, Episode 2 (“Paper Clip”)

A real pleasure to re-team with Tony Black to round out our coverage of “the unopened file” on The X-Cast, following on from our discussions of Anasazi and The Blessing Way. And this time, it’s an even stronger line-up. The wonderful Chris Knowles is joins us for the discussion of the final part of the season-bridging trilogy.

As ever, a huge thrill to be a part of this. Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip represent a landmark moment for The X-Files as a television show, and it’s been an honour to talk through those changes with Tony. However, Paper Clip is something special because it’s clear how much Chris loves this episode. There are few pleasures in life quite as satisfying as sitting down with somebody to talk about something they love.

I’ll be back on The X-Cast later in the season, to the point that I think the members of the Patreon may already have access to one of my own smaller side projects as part of the podcast. However, it was a delight to get to talk about three episodes that are so close to the core of what The X-Files is for a combined runtime of close to four hours.

The truth is in here. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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Non-Review Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Early in the film, a supporting character reveals the ingredients of the eponymous culinary delight, the mysterious “potato peel pie.” Those ingredients are, somewhat predictably, potatoes and potato peels. With some small measure of pride, the character in question boasts that his potato pastry remains conceptually pure. There is no flour, no sugar, no flavouring. There is only potato. Watching The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this almost feels like a moment of self-awareness.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society could certainly use more flavouring.

Pie in the sky thinking.

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I Came, I Thor, I Conquered: The Strange Postcolonial Politics of the Thor Trilogy…

The Thor franchise has never been particularly consistent.

Compared to the Iron Man or Captain America films, the three Thor films have lacked a clear sense of unity or direction. Part of this is down to the lack of a singular creative vision across multiple films in the trilogy. Jon Favreau provided a very clear statement of purpose when he worked on the first two Iron Man films, a loose improvisational style tailored around the personality of Robert Downey Jnr. The Russo brothers ensured that Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War were of a piece with one another, pseudo-political action movies.

In contrast, the Thor franchise has always felt like the runt of the litter. The first film in the series was directed by Kenneth Branagh, and bristles with the excitement of getting to play in the comic book world of grand language and bright colours. Branagh pitches Thor as the most classic superhero movie; he borrows the Dutch angles from Batman! and the bright aesthetic from Superman. In many ways, Thor is the most undervalued film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps the best distillation of the company’s formula applied to the character best suited to it.

Branagh did not return for the sequel, Thor: The Dark World. Marvel initially hired Patty Jenkins, but that fell through due to creative differences. Jenkins would demonstrate her ability to direct mythology-themed superhero action with Wonder Woman, but Marvel replaced her with Alan Taylor. Taylor was a television director, and by all accounts was treated as such by the studio. The film ended up an overstuffed tonal mess, often feeling like a half-hearted (and confused) imitation of the wave of “prestige-tinted blockbusters” that were popular at the time.

The failure of the sequel would lead to a significant delay between the second and third films in the series, not to mention a complete change of direction. The third film in the trilogy, Thor: Ragnarok, would be directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi. Waititi was a comedy director best known for his work on What We Do in the Shadows and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, who pitched the film as a superhero version of Withnail & I. The result was a film that felt utterly unlike either of the two earlier entries, even sending its title character out into deep space.

As such, the Thor films all exist at odds with one another. There is no consistent throughline to the series. The setting, the tone, the quality, the narrative focus; all of these elements change from one film to the next. The title character is introduced in Thor when he gets hit by a van, can become an inter-dimensional peacekeeper in The Dark World, and wield ray guns and steal space ships in Ragnarok. Attempting to impose structure or consistency upon the Thor films is an act of madness, one compounded when trying to integrate them into The Avengers or Avengers: Age of Ultron.

And yet, in spite of all of this, there are small themes and ideas that simmer through the three films in the franchise, recurring fascinations. In particular, the Thor trilogy is particularly fascinated with the idea of empire. In shifting away from the idea of Asgardians as literal gods or living stories, the franchise instead settled on the notion of Asgard as an imperial power tasked with bringing order to “the nine worlds.” With its magnificent spires, idyllic surroundings, exaggerated British accents, the Thor movies return time and time again to the idea of Asgard’s golden throne as the seat of empire.

Each of the Thor movies approach this idea in different ways, but they all play with the question of imperial legacy in a manner that is arguably more political than anything in The Winter Soldier or Civil War.

Note: This post contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok. Continue at your own risk.

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