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Non-Review Review: Happy Death Day 2 U

“You mean this is all about money?” asks a confused grad student early in Happy Death Day 2 U, as a stubborn college dean shuts down his (frankly reckless science experiment. The dean explains that the college is primarily interested in cultivating intellectual property and patents, which comes as news to his more innocent students. The dean protests, bluntly, “Somebody has to keep the lights on around here.”

It’s an odd exchange within an odd film, and one that makes relatively little sense in the context of the story being told. however, it feels like a very revealing exchange in terms of the logic underlying Happy Death Day 2 U. The original Happy Death Day was a cinematic highlight of 2017. Somewhat (and fairly) overshadowed by Get Out, the original film was a playful and self-aware slasher movie hybrid which worked as both a charming example of the genre and broad critique of the exhausting and repetitive nature of such films.

Masking his intentions.

Happy Death Day was the story of a young woman who finds herself trapped reliving the same day over and over, facing a masked serial killer and getting murdered in a variety of inventive ways before resetting to do it all over again. Within that premise was a clear critique of horror franchise formulas that tended to trap protagonists within these familiar frameworks over and over and over again. In that context, Happy Death Day 2 U seems almost redundant. Tree has already lived the same story twelve times. What could a sequel possibly add, beyond some dollars to the bottom line?

It is to the credit of Happy Death Day 2 U that the film inherently and intrinsically understands this. Happy Death Day 2 U is a messy and awkward film, but it is crystal clear in at least one respect. Happy Death Day 2 U knows exactly what sort of film it doesn’t want to be. Unfortunately, it never seems entirely certain of the film that it does want to be.

Stab me, Baby, one more time.

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Non-Review Review: On the Basis

On the Basis of Sex is a sturdy, old-fashioned awards season film.

On the Basis of Sex is earnest, unshowy and very conventional in both concept and execution. All of its beats are familiar, all of its rhythms predictable. It’s not especially inventive or innovative. It is a meat-and-potatoes awards fare, a fascinating story that is told in an uncluttered manner. While there are still a handful of these sorts of films released every year, it often seems like the ground is shrinking out from under them. As awards season has leaned towards quirky indie films like Vice or The Favourite, it has left films like On the Basis of Sex and Can You Ever Forgive Me? sitting in the dust.

Ruthless litigation.

There is nothing wrong with old-fashioned awards fare, even if On the Basis of Sex occasionally feels conflicted about which particular mode of old-school biographical film it seeks to emulate; it starts like a conventional subject’s-life-in-two-hours piece in the style of films like Ghandi or Patton, and then shifts into the slightly more modern twist on the genre that tends to focus on one formative event like Frost/Nixon or The Queen or Elvis & Nixon. It is a strange shift, with On the Basis of Sex spending half an hour on a general introduction to Ruth Bader-Ginsberg before focusing on the meat of this particular story.

This lack of focus is not a major issue. Old-fashioned awards fare can work reasonably well with the right material and talent, despite seeming quaint by the standards of the time. On the Basis of Sex never stands out from the crowd in the same way as its central character, but then that might be expecting too much given that surprisingly long shadow cast by Ruth Bader-Ginsberg.

Courting controversy.

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Non-Review Review: High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird is a quietly radical movie about a sports agent.

This should not be a surprise. Director Steven Soderbergh is a director fascinated with systems, particularly capitalist systems. Unsane might have taken the form of a trashy and tacky nineties thriller, but it was primarily interested in exploring the horrors of a psychiatric industrial complex. Side Effects touched upon the way in which pharmaceutical companies and legal systems work. Contagion was a story about structural responses to a viral infection that spread rapidly through an increasingly interconnected world.

Managing the situation.

With that in mind, it makes sense that Steven Soderbergh’s movie about the NBA lockout of 2011 would feature very little actual basketball. Sure, footage of games plays on several of the large flatscreens adorning bar or office walls, but it’s just window dressing. Just when it looks like Soderbergh might actually show a game, he cuts away dramatically to a shot of a billionaire’s daughter carrying her dog on board a private jet, flanked by two helpful staff holding umbrellas to protect her from the wind. High Flying Bird is about basket ball as an institution, but not a sport.

A cynic would argue that  High Flying Bird is about basket ball in the same way that the NBA is about basket ball, interested in institutions and structures more than the actual sport itself. Such a cynic would be right at home in the world of High Flying Bird, where characters talk freely and repeatedly about the  “game that’s been played behind the game”, “the game that they made over the game”, or “a game on top of a game.” Professional basket ball is not about basket ball, High Flying Bird argues coherently and consistently. Professional basket ball is about profiting off basket ball.

“What are you doing here?”
“Beatz me.”

High Flying Bird is drawn from a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is perhaps best known for working on the story for Moonlight with Barry Jenkins. Indeed, the cast is anchored by Moonlight co-star André Holland. High Flying Bird recalls Moneyball, in that it is a film about sport that does not feature sport, understanding that the activity does not exist in a vacuum. For High Flying Bird, professional basket ball is about money and power and race, and the real game is being played away from where the camera and the audience is looking.

The only thing that keeps High Flying Bird from being a slam dunk is a lack of focus. High Flying Bird doesn’t entirely trust its cast and its premise to hold the audience’s attention through all of these conversations about abstract concepts layered upon abstract concepts placed over a game that the film only shows in the background. As a result, McCraney and Soderbergh crowd out the story with subplots designed to generate human interest; a tragic back story, an emerging romance. These elements ultimately distract from the most interesting aspects of the film.

This screenshot is also about capitalism. Somehow.

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Non-Review Review: Alita – Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel is the result of a creative union between James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez.

This partnership makes a certain amount of sense. Both Cameron and Rodriguez are genre film-makers, and one suspects that the two men would have been fast friends had they emerged at around the same time; Cameron came of age making films like Piranha 2 or Terminator, and those are certainly of a piece with Rodriguez’s filmography from Desperado through to Planet Terror and even Sin City. Cameron has arguably elevated his work into the mainstream, in that it is impossible to imagine Rodriguez producing a mass-appeal cultural smash like Cameron did with Terminator 2: Judgment Day Titanic or Avatar.

Slice o’ life.

However, allowing for that core similarity, Cameron and Rodriguez are still fundamentally different film-makers. Their interests might align when it comes to genre work, but they construct their movies in a very different manner, with a different emphasis on different aspects of their technique. Cameron is much more interested in bringing polish to his genre work, in finding a way to transform otherwise niche high-concept tales into crowd-pleasing blockbusters with mass appeal. In contrast, Rodriguez revels in the grottier aspects of his genre work, believing that the lack of sheen is part of the appeal.

Alita: Battle Angel finds these two aesthetics at odds with one another. The story at the heart of Alita is pure Cameron, dedicated to world-building and social commentary while relying on exposition and centring on big set pieces. However, the delivery of Alita is very much in the style of Rodriguez, stressing cool beats and individual sequences rather than the singular cohesive whole. The result is jarring and deeply fascinating, but it doesn’t quite come together. Alita is an intriguing piece of cinema, but a less than satisfying would-be blockbuster. Like its central character, it seems constructed of parts that don’t quite fit.

Red is dead.

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Non-Review Review: The Lego Movie 2 – The Second Part

Appropriately enough, given the brand involved, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part very skillfully builds on The Lego Movie.

Of course, The Second Part faces the typical challenges that haunt sequels to beloved and genre-bending films. A large part of what made The Lego Movie such a joy was the way in which it played with audience expectations of what it could be. More specifically, it built very cleverly and very consciously to a late development that was both entirely organic and very surprising, which is a difficult balance to strike. The Second Part starts with that late development baked into the premise, which means that it can’t pull the same twist again. It removes an important toy from the chest.

Bricking it.

However, while The Second Part lacks the novelty that made The Lego Movie so refreshing, it does have the advantage of building on what came before. In keeping with the nature of the toys depicted, The Second Part has the luxury of building upon an established template to tell its own story. The Second Part can trust that the audience understands the logic (both literal and metaphorical) that guided The Lego Movie, and so can develop that idea in interesting directions.

The result is a sequel that is fulfilling and satisfying, but which never quite matches the highs of the original film. The Second Part is clever, funny and canny. However, it is also – by its very nature – less innovative and creative. The results are impressive and affecting. While they don’t have quite the same impact as they did in The Lego Movie, the success of The Second Part is at least reassuring. That the template works so well even without disguising its twists offers proof that the fundamental building blocks are solid.

Piece in our time.

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Non-Review Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is, at its core, a story of authenticity.

It is the tale of Lee Israel, the noted biographer who hit a bit a creative and economic snag in the early nineties. Unable to shop around her planned biography of Fanny Brice, Israel instead decided to market forgeries; type-written letters offered up in the voices of famous writers, auctioned on the collector’s circuit. Israel had a knack for capturing the voices of her subjects, from Noel Coward to Dorothy Parker. In fact, Israel’s work was often deemed indistinguishable from the real thing, at least in an abstract and narrative manner.

Forging ahead.

There is something very timely in this premise, in the blurred boundaries between the real and the fake. Of course, this has been an aspect of the American character for well over a century, with P.T. Barnum famously advertising an obvious phony as “a genuine fake.” However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? arrives at a moment in time where the real and the fake seem to have collapsed into one another, where reality is often indistinguishable from fantasy, populated by people who will often happily accept a heartwarming fake over cold reality.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is largely an unshowy piece of awards fare. The film is never self-consciously stylised and never overly aggressive. Can You Ever Forgive Me? never seems sure how thrilling or how funny or how dramatic it should be, and so tries to split the difference between those three extremes. The result is a very broad film with a very familiar central arc. However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? very insistently avoids getting in its own way, which allows its two central leads room within which they might work their magic.

“Gee, Richard E. Grant sure plays a good drunk.”

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Non-Review Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

Velvet Buzzsaw is a broad and blackly comic exploitation horror story.

Of course, Velvet Buzzsaw has all the trappings of a biting social satire about the shallowness of the art world, the kind of cartoonish takedown that has been a pop culture staple for decades, built on the acknowledgement that the world of commercial art is vapid and that the people who inhabit that world are delusional and self-centred. There’s certainly an elements of that to Velvet Buzzsaw, which populates its cast with the kinds of characters who might be ordered in a box set for that kind of film; the pretentious and insecure critic, the conniving climber, the manipulative dealer, the precious artist.

The art of horror.

However, Velvet Buzzsaw has nothing particularly new or interesting to say about these characters and this world. In fact, the opening half-hour or so that the film spends with these characters in this world is perhaps the weakest part of the film, often feeling like the television edit of a more pointed and acerbic film. There is a sense that writer and director Dan Gilroy understands this. At one point, early in the film, Rhodora Haze surveys a Miami art show with a potential client. “I get the joke,” she admits. “None of this new.” She may as well be talking about the stretch of the film in which she finds herself.

However, as with Nightcrawler, there is a sense that the social commentary is not the central appeal of Velvet Buzzsaw. Instead, again as with Nightcrawler, the appeal of Velvet Buzzsaw is the manner in which Gilroy appends what is a fairly straightforward criticism of hypercapitalism to the framework of a horror movie, to create a compelling and exciting aesthetic. Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t work as an angry takedown of a world that has been well-explored across film and television, but it does work as a delightfully schlocky B-movie about (literally) killer art installations.

Painting the town red. And blue. And yellow.

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