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Non-Review Review: The Devil All the Time

The Devil All the Time demonstrates that the adjective “novelistic” isn’t always a compliment.

Writer and director Antonio Campos is clearly aiming for an epic sweep to The Devil All the Time. The film unfolds over the course of several decades, following several intersecting lives in rural Ohio in the space between the end of the Second World War and the height of the Vietnam War. This is a tale that spans generations, with an impressive density. Small characters get huge arcs, dramatic twists hinge on chance encounters, and a large amount of the film’s plot is delivered by way of folksy omniscient narration.

Holland of the Free?

It is easier to admire The Devil All the Time than it is to appreciate it. Campos has drawn together a formidable cast to tell a story that explores a host of big ideas about small town life. The Devil All the Time clearly aspires to be a piercing study of religion, sex and violence in the American northeast. The film maintains an impressive atmosphere, in large part due to Campos’ moody direction and the work of Lol Crawley and the rumbling soundtrack from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.

However, nothing in The Devil All the Time has room to breath. There are so many elements competing for narrative space that even films two-hours-and-twenty-minute runtime feels overstuffed. Characters are never allowed to stew or develop in a way that a story like this demands, instead reducing the movie to a series of plot points and thematic observations delivered in a rich and moody manner, but without any real substance to bind them all together.

Book ‘im.

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Non-Review Review: Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes is a movie with a lot of charm, anchored in a sense of playful enthusiasm and a winning central performance.

Adapted from Nancy Springer’s The Enola Holmes Mysteries series of novels, the basic premise of Enola Holmes is straightforward enough. The classic Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes is given a younger sister, who inevitably finds herself forced to navigate the wider world while solving mysteries and avoiding the best efforts of her older brothers to ship her off to a suffocating and restrictive boarding school where she might be taught to be a lady.

Make yourself at Holmes…

Enola Holmes moves quickly and cheerfully through its starting premise and central mystery, bouncing from one sequence to another with considerable grace. However, it’s lead actor Millie Bobby Brown who carries the film. Brown is probably best known for her work on Stranger Things and a prominent role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but Enola Holmes suggests a long and promising career ahead of the young actor. It is impossible to imagine the movie seeming as effortless without her at its centre.

In fact, Enola Holmes suffers most when it moves away from its protagonist and makes room in her story for less compelling (but more nominally “important”) characters that wind up sapping the film’s energy. Enola Holmes has a surprisingly slow start for a film that breezes along once it finds its footing, and that is largely because it is initially reluctant to give its central character the breathing room that she needs. Still, once the film gets past that, it is a highly enjoyable adventure.

Enola that look…

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Non-Review Review: The Roads Not Taken

There are two different, decent competing movies tucked away inside The Roads Not Taken. Sadly, the whole is much less than the sum of its two largest parts.

The first  of these movies is a fairly conventional study of a daughter coping with her father’s neurological degeneration. It is a fairly standard template, tapping into recognisable anxieties about growing old, and the realisation that many children will have to act as caregivers for their parents in old age. This is a solid basis for a movie on its own terms. Indeed, it seems like a film that could easily net an awards nominations for actors Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning.

Holding it together.

The second film is a more abstract and ambitious work, in which an older man reflects on the life that he has lived and – trapped inside his own head with a slipping sense of reality – allows himself to play out fantasies of how his life might have been different. This a more philosophical work, a more reflective and introspective film. It seems like something from a stranger and more unusual movie, something like The Fountain or even Cloud Atlas.

The problem is that these two angles on the story do not fit together. In cutting across them, director Sally Potter undercuts and undermines both narratives. Neither thread has enough room to breath and build momentum, and both are driven by fundamentally different stakes. One movie is about the experiences of an aging writer named Leo, while the other is about his daughter Molly, and shifting back and forth causes the movie to lose its emotional footing. The result is an interesting and well-intentioned curiosity, but an underwhelming film.

Baby, I’m a-maize-d by you.

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Non-Review Review: Mulan (2020)

Niki Caro’s Mulan is an interesting beast.

As a piece of production, it’s impressive. It lands neatly among the best of Disney’s live action adaptations of its classic animated films, simply by virtue of its willingness to offer something new. It avoids the limp and slavish devotion of films like The Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, even if it never quite transcends its origins like Pete’s Dragon. It is vibrant and dynamic film, one that leans into what is possible in live action rather than animation, with cinematographer Mandy Walker ensuring that colours really pop off the screen.

Claws for concern

However, there’s also something slightly frustrating about Mulan. It often feels like the changes from the animated film were not made with the intention of improving the film or finding a new angle, but instead to render Mulan more palatable to a targetted Chinese audience. After all, for all the attention paid to the film’s video-on-demand release, its box office prospects have always had one eye on China. The result is a film that feels more cautious and more conservative than an animated film produced over two decades ago.

Mulan is clean and stylish, but feels a little too calculated and sterile to be its best self.

A prime cut?

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Non-Review Review: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

“There is no objective reality,” explains Jake late in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. “You know there’s no colour in the universe, right? Only in the brain.”

This seems to be as close to a thesis statement at I’m Thinking of Ending Things dares to offer. Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is a dense and surrealist exploration of the fragility of memory and identity, and the blurred boundaries that exist between the inside and the outside. The story is relatively simple. A young woman accompanies her boyfriend on a trip to have dinner with his parents. She needs to get home, but there is a snow storm. As the couple journey into rural America, things begin to slowly but surely unravel.

Snow escape.

There’s been an abundance of cinema recently about the collapse of time and reality, the sense of a universe folding into itself – Palm Springs, TENET, Bill and Ted Face the Music. These films are made all the more uncanny for having been produced long before the current global pandemic unravelled our sense of space and time, but seem to speak perfectly to it. That anxiety that all of history is happening at once and that “cause” and “effect” are unmoored as reality itself contorts and bends.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things stands apart from these other films, as one might expect of a Charlie Kaufman project. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has a greater interiority. The film seems to unfold in vast snowy wilderness, but it seems just as accurate to suggest that it unfolds in the writer’s imagination. Perhaps it isn’t time and reality that contort, but simply the protagonist’s understanding of these concepts. Then again, do these ideas exist in some absolute and objective form somewhere, or are they just concepts that people label so as to feel more comfortable?

Table discussion for later.

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Non-Review Review: Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a solid legacy sequel, if not a spectacular one.

The third Bill and Ted movie has been in the works for a long time. It has been gestating for years in various states, driven by the enthusiasm of writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey had the relative good fortune to arrive only two years after Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but Bill and Ted Face the Music emerges after a thirty-year gap in which the original films have gone from charming curiosities to bona fides cult classics.

Old friends.

This is to say that Bill and Ted Face the Music faces a challenge that is every bit as impossible as that facing the eponymous heroes. Providing a fitting capstone to a franchise that has grown from humble beginnings to legendary status is a monumental task, on par with trying to unite the world through music. Indeed, perhaps the smartest thing about Bill and Ted Face the Music is the way in which it recognises that the task it has set itself and its two leads is insurmountable.

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a charming film, one that largely coasts on the delightful ironic earnestness of its two lead protagonists and a sincere affection for all of its characters. It’s hard to resist Bill and Ted Face the Music, with its playfulness and its breezy sensibility. However, the film doesn’t entirely work. It struggles with pacing, it struggles to anchor its ensemble together, and it often feels like it is trying to do far too much within its modest (but nimble) eighty-minute runtime. Bill and Ted Face the Music won’t save the world, but might make it a little happier.

Music to my ears.

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Non-Review Review: TENET

NOTE: I live in Ireland. Our cinemas are open. Evidence suggests that it is (relatively) safe for people to attend the cinema if they take the necessary precautions. However, I am aware that it is not safe in every country to do so, and I also understand that many readers may not feel safe attending their local cinema even in areas where the evidence suggests it is safe. As this seems to be a hot-button issue with all theatrical releases during the pandemic – but with TENET in particular – it feels important to stress this outside the body of the review itself.

This should go without saying, but given the nature of the current pandemic it is worth repeating: No movie is worth risking your life for. If you feel – or if information from sources you trust suggest – that it is unsafe to go to the cinema, then please do not go. I loved this film. I will see it in cinemas again at least twice within the next week, because it is safe for me to do so. This review should not be taken as an endorsement that the reader should feel they have to (or are expected to) risk their lives to see this film. With that in mind, here is the review.

“Time isn’t the problem,” insists Neil early in TENET. Like a lot of things that the shady operator says over the course of the film, this is not exactly true.

There is a lot riding on TENET. Almost none of this was intended when the film was conceived and produced. As the first major theatrical release since the coronavirus pandemic, TENET effectively shoulders the burden of saving cinema – particularly with a death of major releases between now and Wonder Woman 1984 and with the planned release of Mulan on Disney+. It’s a lot of weight for a film like TENET to carry. Time will tell whether it can succeed or not, but it makes a valiant effort.

Shattering the release window.

TENET rises to this challenge in a couple of ways. Most obviously, TENET is quite simply a triumph of blockbuster filmmaking. Director Christopher Nolan has boasted about how much of the film was completed using in-camera effects and how carefully choreographed it all was. TENET is a movie that showcases the power of spectacle, whether in its delightfully complicated action sequences or even in Hoyte Van Hoytema’s breathtaking establishing shots. TENET is a movie that demands as big a screen as possible, reminding audiences of the scale of such filmmaking.

However, there’s more to it than that. TENET is a film that feels curiously attuned to this cultural moment. It is a film that deals with many of Nolan’s pet themes and obsessions, but in a way that feels very much in step with the modern moment. It’s hard to summarise TENET without spoiling the movie, without revealing too much in terms of plot mechanics or character motivations, but TENET is a film about the breakdown of time itself. It is a film about the collapse of chaos and effect, and a world in which the future and the past are a war over the present.

A career highlight?

It’s an ambitious film. Nolan’s movies are frequently driven by high-concepts and abstract ideas, and the director is remarkable in his ability to build crowd-pleasing blockbusters around concepts like time dilation in Inception and the theory of relativity in Interstellar. If anything, TENET seems to push that idea to breaking time. As Neil repeatedly points out over the course of the film, he has a degree in quantum physics and he struggles to make sense of the film’s internal logic. Perhaps the film’s protagonist (known simply as the Protagonist) sums it up best, “Woah.”

TENET is an interesting film from Nolan in a number of ways. The villainous Russian oligarch Andrei Sator is probably the director’s scuzziest character since Insomnia or Memento. The film itself is perhaps Nolan’s most emotionally repressed since The Prestige. These sensibilities are blended with his more modern high-concept blockbuster aesthetic, and flavoured with a surprising amount of self-awareness. The result is a heady cocktail that is occasionally overwhelming, but never unsatisfying.

Well, masks are recommended at cinema screenings.

Note: Warner Brothers have specifically requested that reviews avoid spoilers. As a result, this review will talk rather generally about TENET. However, if you want to see it completely unspoiled, it is perhaps best to just take our word for it: it is good. It is probably even the best film we’ve seen this year. That is a very short review.

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Non-Review Review: Project Power

Project Power is an oddity, a strange clash of style and content that never quite aligns but results in some interesting chemistry.

The basic plot of Project Power is fairly straightforward. A mysterious designer drug known only as “power” has arrived on the streets of New Orleans. These pills cause the user to spontaneously manifest a random superpower for five minutes – that power can be awesome, mundane or fatal. It’s a basic set-up as these sorts of stories go, and its rooted in the tropes of the modern superhero genre: human experimentation, industrialised production. unchecked power fantasies.

The bitterest pill.

Project Power uses this central plot element to two competing ends. In terms of direction, the simple-yet-flexible set-up serves as a motivator for a variety of high-concept and high-energy action sequences as characters manifest strange abilities that inevitably alter the dynamics of one-on-one combat, allowing for impressive stunts and frantic violence. In terms of theme, Project Power uses this set-up as a metaphorical commentary on the War on Drugs and the historical exploitation of marginalised communities by those in… well, power.

These are two interesting angles, even if they are never explored as creatively as one might hope. Indeed, the two approaches make strange bedfollows, with Project Power feeling like a paranoid conspiracy thriller that movies with the hyper pacing of a modern direct-to-video action film. It doesn’t really work, but the cocktail is fascinating enough that it holds attention.

Power play.

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Non-Review Review: She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow is very much a modern indie horror movie, in that’s decidedly absurdist and surrealist, and perhaps scariest in a vague existential sense.

It’s interesting to consider the development of this particular strand of modern horror cinema. In some ways, it reflects the development of the indie comedy in the early years of the twenty-first century, once it became clear that these sorts of films could be financially and critically successful. This led to a strange situation where movies that were essentially off-kilter dramas were marketed as comedies, films like A Serious Man, Nebraska or The Kids Are All Right. (This approach to comedy arguably even spilled out into television, where even comedies adopted a prestige sheen.)

It’s not the end of the world…

Something similar has been happening in terms of prestige horror. A large part of this is due to the emergence of smaller studios supporting genre fare from writers and directors with strong visions – Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, Ari Aster’s Hereditary. These films blended the sly aesthetics and stylistic sensibilities of independent cinema with the trappings of horror, producing a strand of horror that was reasonably successful, highly praised, and strongly distinctive.

Of course, all of those films are drawing from the genre’s rich history. Hereditary is perhaps the most obvious example, and it’s possible to draw a clear line between Hereditary and New Hollywood experiments with the genre in films like The Exorcist or Don’t Look Now. As such, it isn’t that this is an entirely new approach to horror that came out of nowhere. Instead, it is a logical extrapolation of certain trends and sensibilities, pushed to their logical extremes.

Looking out for herself.

She Dies Tomorrow clearly fits within that framework of modern indie horror cinema, along with films like The Lodge or The Lighthouse. However, She Dies Tomorrow pushes itself much mroe confidently towards the rhythms and structures of a blackly comic psycho drama. She Dies Tomorrow is a film about existential loneliness, the frustrating death drive, and suffocating dinner parties populated by people who can barely stand one another. It is very much a standard low-budget indie drama. It’s just flavoured with a dash of existential horror.

It’s a cocktail that doesn’t quite work. Writer and director Amy Seimetz offers a film that is intentionally disjointed and disconnected, but one that is ultimately more frustrating than it aims to be. She Dies Tomorrow has a number of striking images and interesting ideas, but punctuates them with scenes that play almost as a parody of arthouse drama.

Dial it back.

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Non-Review Review: Greyhound

Greyhound is a tight and claustrophobic maritime thriller that knows pretty much exactly what it’s doing.

At its best, Greyhound capitalises not just on Tom Hanks as the patron saint of dads, boomers and the American cultural memory of the Second World War, but also as a time-displaced Jimmy Stewart. This makes a certain amount of sense. Despite the presence of character actors like Stephen Graham, Rob Morgan and Elizabeth Shue, Tom Hanks is the only star in Greyhound. The film remains tightly focused on Captain Ernest Krause, the commander assigned to protect a convoy of supplies crossing the Atlantic shortly after America’s entry into the Second World War.

It doesn’t exactly shatter expectations.

It makes sense that Greyhound should be tailored to Tom Hanks. Hanks wrote the screenplay, adapting it from C.S. Forrester’s The Good Shepherd. More than that, Hanks has demonstrated his strong interest in the history of American involvement in the Second World War with films like Saving Private Ryan and television series like Band of Brothers and The Pacific. As such, Greyhound feels like it fits perfectly within the actor’s wheelhouse.

This is an illustration of how effectively Greyhound works. Greyhound is a movie that knows what it needs to deliver, and sets about delivering that in the most efficient manner possible.

The old man and the sea.

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