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Non-Review Review: Adrift

Adrift is a visceral and powerful survival thriller, based on the remarkable true story of Tami Oldham.

In the mid-eighties, Oldham became a figure of note following a disastrous journey into the Pacific with her fiancé Richard Sharp. Sailing from Tahiti to San Diego, their luxury yacht is caught in the middle of Hurricane Raymond. The ship is damaged, the pair separated. Waking up in the flooding living compartment, Oldham is forced to improvise in order to survive. It is a harrowing scenario, a story of a woman essentially wrestling against the elements in a desperate attempt to stay alive in a seemingly impossible situation.

Sail away with me…

The basic premise of Adrift is familiar. It recalls any number of powerful lost-at-sea narratives, from All is Lost to Cast Away to The Mercy. Director Baltasar Kormákur wrings as much tension as possible from the premise, perhaps drawing on his experience working on similar ocean-themed movies like The Sea or The Deep. At certain points in Adrift, the audience is liable to feel claustrophobic, to gasp for breath as the camera whirls and struggles against the oppressive force of nature.

Adrift suffers slightly from a sense of over-familiarity, and from a clumsy plot development that it chooses to play as a big twist rather than an organic narrative element. Nevertheless, Adrift is a tense story of survival in impossible circumstances.

Mast-er and commander.

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Non-Review Review: Hereditary

Perhaps what is most striking about Hereditary is how all the comparisons to The Exorcist seem off base.

To be fair, every movie deserves to be judged on its own terms unless it expressly demands otherwise, whether through a preexisting relationship or an inviting homage. Nevertheless, The Exorcist has been a touchstone for Hereditary in the run-up to the film’s release, a critical cliché employed to underscore just how effective Hereditary is. Rolling Stone has pitched the film as “this generation’s The Exorcist.” TimeOut described it as “a new generation’s The Exorcist.” Titlemag acknowledged the use of such critical shorthand.

Something to chew over.

It’s easy to see why this comparison has been made. The Exorcist is public short-hand for scary, a famously controversial film that shocked audiences upon release and which many members of the current generation first heard discussed in hushed tones. More than that, there’s significant thematic overlaps between Hereditary and The Exorcist, with both films serving as unsettling explorations of a tightly-knit family dynamic that use supernatural horror as prism through which these dynamics might be interrogated.

However, there is a major tonal difference between Hereditary and The Exorcist. In many ways, The Exorcist represents a very broad and populist strand of seventies horror, with an accessible central narrative that plays off easily understood fears in a very direct manner. The Exorcist was a cultural phenomenon, earning almost two hundred million dollars at the United States box office on initial release, and becoming a touchstone for an entire generation of horror fans. It is a movie that has inspired parodies and references, which can be used casually as shorthand with non-cinephile audiences.

Putting the ‘fun’ in ‘funeral.’

Hereditary is a very different sort of beast. Hereditary is not a descendant of that sort of broad crowd-pleasing horror spectacle. The narrative is dense and layer, its symbolism abstract and its storytelling often allegorical. Hereditary is full of ambiguities and lacunas, with tension simmering beneath the surface before exploding dramatically towards the climax. If Hereditary is a descendant of sixties and seventies horrors, it is a closer relation of more abstract nightmares like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

This is perhaps the most interesting thing about the film, and one which perhaps goes a long way towards explaining some of the more contradictory aspects of its theatrical release.

Do look now.

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Non-Review Review: Ocean’s 8

Ocean’s 8 is mostly a charming and inoffensive heist movie that coasts off the charisma of its central cast.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of itself. There’s nothing wrong in watching an ensemble including Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock bounce off one another, performers who are both talented screen and genuine old-fashioned movie stars. As with the series of films that obviously inspired (and named) Ocean’s 8, the cast have an easy chemistry with one another. Star power goes a long way, and there’s something almost refreshing in seeing a movie that runs almost exclusively on it in this age where these sorts of high-profile movies are largely driven franchising, high concepts and intellectual property.

Properly trained for this.

Of course, there’s some small complication in that in that Ocean’s 8 feels at times like an effort to split the difference between being a star-driven caper movie and also the latest installment in a larger recognisable franchise. Indeed, some of the movie’s weakest moment lean most heavily on nods and winks to the trilogy of Steven Soderbergh movies that provided a launching pad for this female-star-driven caper. The title character is Debbie Ocean, revealed to be the sister of Danny Ocean; that is the least of it. (Even the choice of “8” in the title seems designed to leave room for two more installments making a trilogy.)

Still movie stars are a dying breed, so it’s a novelty to see so many of them congregating in the same place and to see a movie that understands the appeal of watching confident performers playing competent characters who are constantly in motion. Ocean’s 8 lacks some of the more undervalued elements of the earlier films, the problems created by their absence here underscoring their importance, but it mostly succeeds as a light and breeze caper movie without a clear antagonist, without a strong directorial vision and with an over-extended third act.

Getting the gang together.

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Non-Review Review: The Happy Prince

“I am my own Judas,” explains Oscar Wilde around the midway point of The Happy Prince.

Just in case the audience doesn’t get the point, The Happy Prince is saturated with religious iconography and constant reminders of how Oscar Wilde was his own worst enemy. At one early point, Wilde confronts a group of homophobes in a church. At another, Wilde reflects on the local church that he visits for solace and how it reminds him what it is to suffer. Towards the end of the film, a priest is summoned to deliver the last rites, the splashing of holy water juxtaposed with the spit and venom of a mob in flashback.

Wilde at heart.

The Happy Prince is not an especially subtle or nuanced film, which is somewhat ironic for a biography about the life and times of one of the greatest witticists in history. Wilde was one of the most eloquent writers in the English language, as much in his personal correspondence as in any of the plays or stories that he wrote. As such, there is something strange in the bluntness of The Happy Prince, perhaps most transparently in the way that the film bends over backwards to construct a portrait of the writer’s final days that conforms to the eponymous story.

The Happy Prince is a story about a fascinating subject with a compelling central performance, but constructed in such a clumsy manner that the performance of Everett the actor cannot anchor the film of Everett the director.

It could use some fine tuning…

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Non-Review Review: China Salesman

China Salesman is fascinating disaster.

China Salesman is not a good film by any measure, but it is strangely compelling. There is something intoxicating about the film, in spite of its myriad flaws – the awful script, the atrocious dubbing, the clumsy editing, the terrible performances, the muddled storyline, the abundance of nonsensical technobabble. Part of this is down to the sheer abundance of energy that director Tan Bing brings to proceedings. China Salesman whips and whirls, cranks and zooms, pans and swirls with a kinetic energy that renders these flaws almost bedazzling, offering an effect that in some ways evokes a bad trip.

The gun show.

However, China Salesman is perhaps most interesting as a mirror and a prism. It is, like Wolf Warrior II, very much the Chinese equivalent to those old patriotic eighties American action movies like Delta Force or Iron Eagle, the kind of populist nationalist cinema that is currently channeled through franchises like Transformers. As such, there is something intriguing in seeing the image that China Salesman projects into the world, as an assertion of multinational intent to the rest of the world and as a statement of patriotic self-image to the country itself.

China Salesman is terrible. It is also terribly interesting.

The old man and the Seagal.

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Non-Review Review: Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom is an intriguing and compelling mess of a film. It is shrewd and clever, if never entirely human.

Director J.A. Bayona might be the first director since Spielberg to put his own unique slant on the Jurassic Park franchise, to move with just enough confidence and faith in his own stylistic sensibilities to escape the shadow of the legendary director who turned a pulpy novel into a beloved family classic. Bayona does that by allowing his own stylistic sensibilities to shine through, to embrace his own interest and to engage with the material on his own terms.

Dino escape.

Fallen Kindom walks a fine line. It is very much a creature grown in a laboratory to satisfy the demands of the larger franchise. There are elements here that exist purely because they are expected, because they are signifiers of what a “Jurassic Park movie” should look like, including both returning characters and new characters fashioned after familiar archetypes. At the same time, there is a coy and wry self-awareness to Fallen Kingdom that was sorely lacking from Jurassic World, a cynicism about its own nature that integrates rather neatly into its larger worldview.

Although it may be damning with faint praise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is easily the best Jurassic Park movie since Jurassic Park: The Lost World, the film in the franchise with which it shares most of its DNA.

Things are heating up.

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Non-Review Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 certainly makes a strong case for being “the movie of the moment.”

Adapted loosely from Ray Bradbury’s iconic and beloved science-fiction novel, a piece of source material that famously bewildered François Truffaut during his first and only interaction with Hollywood movie-making, writer and director Ramin Bahrani perfectly positions Fahrenheit 451 as a piece of pop culture for the Trump era. Bahrani smartly retains almost as much of the aesthetic of the source material as he updates, making a strong case that Fahrenheit 451 is more than just an opportunistic broadside at the current political moment.

“I’m going to burn it all.”

Nevertheless, Bahrani makes a number of changes to the story, and turns up the volume on particular story elements, to align his televisual adaptation for the current cultural moment. Ray Bradbury famously claimed that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 as a criticism of television, creating an engaging irony within this adaptation. Bahrani shifts the emphasis slightly to position his adaptation as a criticism of the internet, in particular modern internet subcultures and the way it decreases the audience’s attention span. There are live streams, in-home assistants that are always listening, emojis, and online “fans.”

This is certainly a valid approach to the material, and it’s to the credit of Bahrani as a writer and a director that he manages to build a world that is obviously of a piece with that created in the source material written sixty-five years ago and which works as a pointed commentary on modern cultural discourse. With its brutalist architecture, its cold digital cinematography, its compelling central performances, its suggested alternative history, and its ominous ambient lighting providing the occasional splash of vivid colour, Fahrenheit 451 creates a fictional world that is compelling and engaging.

Lighting a spark…

Unfortunately, the film’s narrative is nowhere near as engaging as its setting. Bahrani cannily borrows characters, premises and sequences from the source novel, but he largely reworks the story. Fahrenheit 451 is restructured as a more conventional science-fiction narrative than the original book, complete with apocalyptic stakes and a macguffin to drive the plot. The plot of Fahrenheit 451 is generic science-fiction fluff, a pale imitation of the familiar rhythms of movies like The Matrix or Equilibrium or Aeon Flux. It is almost as though Bahrani has internalised Bradbury’s critique of television as dumb and simple and broad.

As a result, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. It is a beautiful piece of work from an aesthetic perspective, but one employed in a very crude and unsatisfying manner.

Television film.

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