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Non-Review Review: Bird Box

Bird Box is a fascinating contemporary horror movie.

The stock comparison will be to something like A Quiet Place, another contemporary horror movie that plays a fairly standard set-up with a high-concept twist. In A Quiet Place, the characters were stalked by monsters that could not hear them, and so they had to move without generating any sound. In Bird Box, the characters find themselves confronted by supernatural monsters that drive any person who looks at them completely insane, often to the point of self-destructive suicide.

Carry on regardless.

However, Bird Box feels decidedly more abstract than A Quiet Place, more lyrical and more metaphorical in its construction. It was often difficult to read a strong central allegory into A Quiet Place, to see it as anything more than a very effective old-fashioned horror film that very effectively literalised one of the central tensions for horror movie audiences; the desire to scream with the need to keep quiet. Bird Box does something similar, effectively creating a horror movie where even the characters themselves must close their eyes when the scary parts happen.

However, there is much more going on in Bird Box, perhaps even too much. The central premise of the horror movie lends itself to any number of varied (and possibly contradictory) readings about the insanity of the modern world and the need to protect the family from chaos that might at any moment encompass them. Bird Box is an ambitious and effective horror, one that applies a variety of tried-and-tested horror formulas to bracing social commentary.

Life is anything but a dream.

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Non-Review Review: Roma

There’s a lyrical beauty to Roma, a decidedly intimate and personal project for director Alfonso Cuarón following on from his triptych of more mainstream fare.

Roma is a very different beast from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men and Gravity. It is much smaller in scale, focusing on the life of a maid who works for a slightly-above-middle-class family in early seventies Mexico city. Shot in black and white, often favouring quiet scenes and still shots, there is an observational aspect to most of Roma, a sense in which the movie very gently and very elegantly watches life unfold in slow motion without any sense of hurry or panic. For most of its runtime, Roma is content to just be.

This is not a surprise. After all, Cuarón has been candid about how much of the film is drawn from his own childhood. Even without that outside knowledge creeping in, Roma seems to tacitly acknowledge it in the central role that the cinema plays in the story. At one point, the young children take a trip to the picturehouse to see the space thriller Marooned, with Cuarón making a point to showcase a sequence that evokes his own work in Gravity. As much as this is a story about a young woman who works as a maid to a privileged Mexican family, it is undoubtedly filtered through the lens of childhood.

Although nominally set against the backdrop of early seventies Mexico, Roma repeatedly suggests that the larger world is but the echo chamber for the uncertainty and tumult within a family unit; when earthquakes happen and revolutionaries march, they are simply expressions of more intimate traumas and challenges facing these characters. In the world of Roma, it is as below as above, reflecting the way in which a child might see the outside world as nothing more than an extrapolation of the home life that they know so well.

This lends Roma an almost magical quality. Although the film and its characters are complex and developed, there is something poetic in the way in which Cuarón chooses to tell this particular tale. Cuarón never rushes or hurries his characters, instead giving them room to breath. He finds a zen-like calm in the stability of the everyday, the safety of routine against the backdrop of larger anxieties and uncertainties. The characters in Roma repeatedly navigate life-changing events, but underscored with a childlike certainty that they can survive them.

Roma is a genuinely moving piece of cinema.

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Non-Review Review: The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles is corny, clumsy, cheesy. It is more than a bit naff, to the point that it frequently seems to run on naff.

It is not especially inventive or creative with its premise, and often seems to have opted for the easiest manner of jumping from one set piece to the next. The Christmas Chronicles is incredibly broad, to the point where it even includes a weird castration joke about a computer-generated elf wielding a chainsaw in what had been (up until that point) a completely non-lethal. The film takes a fairly standard Christmas movie premise – what if a bunch of kids have to work with Santa to save Christmas? – and goes through the motions with it.

No Claus for concern.

Truthfully, that is about enough. It isn’t just that Christmas is a time for generosity and cheer, it is that Christmas is also a time to welcome very simple and very striaghtforward entertainment designed to be consumed by families with across a broad range of ages, in varying degrees of consciousness and sobriety. There is a time and a place for the broadly-drawn hijinx that drive The Christmas Chronicles, and Christmas itself would seem to be it. It is an affectionate old-fashioned family movie throwback to a time when emotional arcs could be drawn in crayon and a handful of creative juxtapositions could sustain a film.

The Christmas Chronicles pulls it off. Just about.

Filed by letter.

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Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a set of stories about the Old West, more a set of stories about the stories that are told about the Old West.

To be fair, the anthology film wears this premise on its sleeve. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by its nature an omnibus of short stories, drawing its audience’s attention to the format through the framing device of an anonymous hand leafing gently through an old hardcover book of short stories. Even within the individual stories, the Coen Brothers frequently nest smaller and more intricate narratives; whether stories shared at dinner, great works recited for an enchanted audience, or even just strangers in a stage coach making awkward conversation with one another.

The rifle man.

In the film’s final segment, The Mortal Remains, the self-described “distractor” Thigpen explains that he distracts his quarry through stories. “People can’t get enough of them,” he assures his audience. “Because people connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us… but not us.” In its own weird way, positioned at the tail end of the narrative, Thigpen seems to offer something of a thesis statement for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a story about stories. In particular, a story about certain types of stories.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is decidedly uneven, as anthology films tend to be. That said, the quality is high enough (and the stories disparate enough) that it’s easy to imagine that each story of the six might be someone‘s favourite. The Coen Brothers very cannily and very astutely ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny. However, they are connected by a series of recurring preoccupations about life of the frontier and man’s awkward relationship to both that wilderness and his fellow man.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not consistent enough to rank among the Coens’ best work. While the movie maintains a consistent perspective and philosophical vantage point across its two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, the individual stories vary so wildly in terms of aesthetic and rhythm that the film never quite coheres as well as it might. At the same time, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains enough delightful details in its smaller moments that linger, suggesting that the film might best be remembered as a collection of inspired moments rather than as a satisfying whole.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a ballad as a concept album.

Don’t leave him hanging.

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Non-Review Review: The Other Side of the Wind

It is still strange to think of The Other Side of the Wind as an object that actually exists.

The film has haunted film films for decades, the prospect and potential of one last Orson Welles film that remains to be found long after the iconic director’s passing. The footage had all been shot. The material was gathered. All that had to be done was to journey through those hours and hours of material, in search of something resembling a feature film. It evokes that famous story about how Michelangelo approached sculpting, except that instead of a lump of marble, this work of art is to be subtracted from mountains of film.

Of course, there is a valid debate to be had about whether the version of The Other Side of the Wind that has been screened can claim to be the real or actual version. After all, the film arguably only ever existed inside the head of Orson Welles. After his passing, the only thing that could be released was an approximation of his vision, an impression of his filmmaking. This is particularly true given the extent to which Welles relied on editing in his filmmaking. Welles famously boasted to Cahiers du Cinema that editing was more important than mise en scene.

However, watching The Other Side of the Wind, there is a strong sense that Welles himself would approve this ambiguity, that he would actively encourage it. The Other Side of the Wind is a knowingly twisty and slippery piece of work, a wry and iconic piece of film that somehow still seems avante garde more than four decades after it was originally shot. There is a sense in which The Other Side of the Wind feels like sly and biting joke, one told by a comedian with pitch-perfect timing. Only one question remains. Who is the butt of this joke?

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2018) #39!

It’s time for the latest Scannain podcast! A somewhat bumper edition this time.

This week, I join Jason Coyle, Grace Duffy and Ronan Doyle to discuss the week in film. As usual, we talk about the top ten and the new releases, as well as what we’ve watched this week. In this episode, Jay talks about “instant classics”, Ronan discusses the heartbreak of Rosie, and Grace inadvertently watched The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings again.

In film news, we discuss the upcoming Cork Film Festival, Katie winning Screen Directors Guild Finders Series Award, and Netflix’s successful “Summer of Love.” There’s also an extended season about awards season social media fatigue.

The top ten:

  1. Night School
  2. Cliff Richard Live: 60th Anniversary Tour (Concert)
  3. Bad Times At The El Royale
  4. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween
  5. Kler (Clergy)
  6. First Man
  7. Johnny English Strikes Again
  8. Venom
  9. Smallfoot
  10. A Star is Born

New releases:

  • The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid
  • Dogman
  • Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween
  • Halloween

You can download the episode here, or listen to it below.

Non-Review Review: 22 July

22 July is both a very well made and a spectacularly ill-judged film.

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, 22 July focuses on the infamous attacks conducted by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011. The attacks were brutal and horrific, and sent shockwaves across both Europe and North America. To a certain extent, Breivik’s attacks prefigured a wave of similar violence in the years that followed, violence driven by nativism and xenophobia, toxic forms of ethno-nationalism that crept in to the social and politic spheres. There is no denying that these attacks (and their aftermath) deserve attention and discussion. They are a formative moment in modern western politics.

However, there is also a sense that Paul Greengrass might not be the best director to tell this sort of story. There are several reasons for this, but most them come down to Greengrass’ stylistic sensibilities, his strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. It is incredibly obvious from the outset what kind of film Greengrass is trying to make. Greengrass is trying to capture the horror and brutality of Breivik’s actions, and to present the ordinary everyday heroism of those who survived and endured his assault. However, Greengrass’ directorial sensibilities conspire to undercut these aspects of the film.

Greengrass may be a very naturalistic film director, who at times seems almost like a documentarian in his storytelling, but he can direct a visceral and effective action sequence. This means that the part of 22 July that really feels alive and propulsive is the mass shooting. More than that, Greengrass’ no-frills style means that most of the characters in 22 July never feel particularly well-developed or well-formed, never having a life outside of the frame or what the movie expects of them. As a result, the only character who does stand out is Brievik himself.

The result is a film about mass murder and ethno-nationalism that structurally resembles more conventional issue-driven movies, but without any of the strong emotional cues or distinctive performances that serve to place the moral weight within those narratives. Instead, 22 July often feels rather blunt and matter-of-fact, a collection of events and occurrences without any actual living characters to clog up the mechanics. The only things that stand out within 22 July are those elements that are (by their nature) heightened and extreme.

The result is a movie about a horrific terrorist attack that only seems to come alive in its depiction of the attack, and an ensemble drama about the cultural response to trauma where the only compelling character is a white supremacist terrorist.

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