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Non-Review Review: Triple Frontier

Triple Frontier feels very much like a J.C. Chandor grab bag. And that’s no bad thing of itself.

The film runs on a variety of different concepts and ideas that run through Chandor’s other films. On a purely plotting level, the idea of a story about five guys trapped alone in the wilderness trying to survive on hostile terrain evokes the survival drama of All is Lost, albeit with more men carrying more weapons. The thematic underpinnings of the story, particularly its preoccupations with the dangers of greed and the consequences of unchecked avarice, resonate with Chandor’s earlier work like Margin Call or A Most Violent Year. There is a sense in which Triple Frontier feels of a piece with the body of work that Chandor is building for himself.

Even more broadly, Triple Frontier feels like the kind of older sort of film that rarely gets made in the current studio system; an ensemble cast dropped into a fairly standard premise, anchored in the recognisability of the actors rather than the familiarity of the intellectual property. Triple Frontier is a film build around the closest thing that modern Hollywood has to star wattage. The film reunites Chandor with Oscar Isaac, who anchored A Most Violent Year and the secondary lead role is given over to Ben Affleck, who is arguably one of the rare remaining movie stars. There is no small irony in the fact that Triple Frontier should end up on Netflix, despite being the sort of mid-budget, actor-driven, basic-concept action thriller that studios used to churn out on a regular basis.

Triple Frontier is perhaps Chandor’s weakest film. It lacks the raw urgency of Margin Call, the desperate intimacy of All is Lost and the claustrophobic anxiety of A Most Violent Year. However, it is still a well-constructed survival parable driven by a likable cast and confident director with a clear affection for an older style of Hollywood film-making.

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120. Andhadhun – This Just In (#129)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Giovanna Rampazzo and Babu Patel, This Just In is a subset of 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, Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun.

At time of recording, it was ranked 129th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

Non-Review Review: Isn’t It Romantic?

Isn’t It Romantic? is a movie that seriously misjudges its own premise.

At the heart of Isn’t It Romantic? is a fairly solid observation. The conventional romantic comedy has seen better days. The genre enjoyed a boom in the nineties, largely driven by the star power and charisma of actors like Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. It is no surprise that Isn’t It Romantic? opens with the familiar chords of Roy Orbinson’s Pretty Woman and then cuts to a childhood memory of the lead character watching Pretty Woman. In recent years, the genre has gradually been squeezed out of cinemas. It is no longer the cultural force that it once was, with a handful of notable exceptions. Isn’t It Romantic? positions itself as part of a larger discussion about the state of the genre.

He will, in fact, take you to the candy shop.

However, Isn’t It Romantic? approaches this issue in a very strange way. Typically, genres that have been marginalised or pushed to the fringes respond with a level of introspection and analysis; think of Unforgiven with westerns or even Cabin in the Woods with schlocky teen horrors. The idea is that the genre can take itself apart and put itself back together. On the surface, Isn’t It Romantic? seems to be positioning itself as this sort of movie. Indeed, a significant portion of the movie’s stretch of set-up is given over to an extended sequence of the lead character working through the tropes and rhythms of, and the problems with, the romantic comedy genre in almost excruciating detail. Isn’t It Romantic? seems to position itself as an autopsy.

However, it very quickly becomes clear that beyond pointing out these tropes, Isn’t It Romantic? has very little interesting to actually say about them. If the film genuinely believes that the genre is dead, then Isn’t It Romantic? opens as a public autopsy before morphing into a strange act of cinematic necrophilia.

The best laid plans.

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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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