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Non-Review Review: Fear Street Part Three – 1666

If Fear Street Part One – 1994 and Fear Street Part Two – 1978 didn’t make it clear enough, Fear Street Part Three – 1666 confirms that the trilogy is more of a miniseries than a set of films.

To be fair, this was quite clear from the outset. The films feature a large branching cast, with many actors carrying over from one installment to another. The continuity between the individual films is so tight that the two later installments each open with an extended “previously on…” segment. Fear Street Part Three – 1666 carries this idea to its logical conclusion, effectively functioning as a two-part season finale. It opens with an hour set in the past and then jumps forward for a forty-minute coda designed to close the book (if not literally) on the events from Fear Street Part One – 1994.

A sight for sore (or missing) eyes…

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this. After all, there’s arguably not a huge difference between the structure of these three films and something like the Red Riding trilogy. More to the point, it demonstrates how porous the gap between various media has become. Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, the highest grossing movie of 2020, is really just a six-episode bridging arc between two seasons of the manga. Hamilton is both one of the best movies of all-time according to the Internet Movie Database and an Emmy nominee. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe is arguably as much television as cinema.

As such, it’s hard to judge Fear Street Part Three – 1666 entirely on its own merits.

Tying it all up.

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Non-Review Review: Space Jam – A New Legacy

Space Jam: A New Legacy is content to be content.

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Non-Review Review: Fear Street Part Two – 1978

Fear Street Part Two: 1978 sets itself a more modest goal than Fear Street Part One: 1994.

Part of that is simply the luxury of being the second part of a larger series. Fear Street Part Two: 1978 has appreciably less table-setting to do than Fear Street Part One: 1994, as the earlier film did a lot of the hard work in terms of establishing rules and building a framework for the trilogy’s internal mythology. While Fear Street Part Two: 1978 obviously builds on the foundations established by Fear Street Part One: 1994, it also has the luxury of working within an established template that saves it the bother of having to unload a lot of exposition very quickly while also serving as a self-contained slasher tribute.

Camp Fear.

Part of it is also because Fear Street Part Two: 1978 is referencing a much less ambitious and self-aware set of movies. Fear Street Part One: 1994 was drawing from a pool of self-aware nineties horror movies like Scream, Urban Legends and I Know What You Did Last Summer, movies made by filmmakers who had grown up watching classic slasher movies on video cassettes and wanted to put their own self-aware spin on the genre and its conventions. So Fear Street Part One: 1994 was a self-aware riff on self-aware riffs on the genre. In contrast, Fear Street Part Two: 1978 draws from a purer sort of slasher movie.

These two factors mean that Fear Street Part Two: 1978 feels a lot less busy and cluttered than Fear Street Part One: 1994, if appreciably less ambitious. More than that, with a lot of the mythology building out of the way, Fear Street Part Two: 1978 is able to use its own narrative real estate to deepen and develop the core themes of the trilogy, foregrounding its big ideas with a little more finesse than the previous entry. The result is a movie that is perhaps less energised and less dynamic than its predecessor, but also a lot more comfortable and assured in what it is doing.

Sister, sister.

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Non-Review Review: Black Widow

Black Widow was originally supposed to release in May 2020.

This would have marked as something of a “coda” movie to the main saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a belated follow-up tidying away loose ends from Avengers: Endgame in much the same way as Spider-Man: Far From Home. Like a lot of the releases immediately following that massive cultural phenomenon, Black Widow feels like a bit of unfinished business. It is the first solo movie based around the only female founding member of The Avengers, a project that gestated in various forms over decades across multiple production companies.

A vicious cycle.

Of course, Black Widow would always have felt curiously out of step and out of time. Scarlett Johansson wrapped up her tenure as Natasha Romanoff in Endgame, with the superhero sacrificing her life in the quest to defeat Thanos. As a result, Black Widow has to position itself earlier in the timeline. It functions as something of an interquel between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, following the title character as she desperately evades capture by United States Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.

Had Black Widow released on time, it still would have felt like a movie that arrived four years too late. After all, despite introducing Natasha Romanoff as early as Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would not build a solo superhero film around a female character until Captain Marvel. For all the chaos unfolding behind the scenes, the DC Extended Universe managed to beat Marvel Studios to the punch with the release of Wonder Woman in May 2017. It’s interesting to wonder whether the decision to position Black Widow as a direct sequel to a May 2016 release is something of a retroactive grab at that title.

Widow maker.

Even aside from all of this baggage, Black Widow is a frustrating film. It is a movie that feels only a draft or two (or an editting pass or two) away from greatness. The film grapples with big themes and bold character work in interesting ways that occasionally verge on confrontational. After all, Natasha Romanoff has consistently been portrayed as a complicated and ambiguous figure within this world of gods and legends, an international assassin whose moral and bodily autonomy was violated in the most grotesque ways, and who responded to this by trying to reinvent herself as a superhero.

There’s a fascinating story there, and Black Widow intermittently acknowledges as much. However, when the film gets close to hitting on any nerves, it immediately retreats into snarky irony and wry one-liners that rob the story of any real weight and the characters of any real agency. Black Widow is supposed to be a story about a character asserting her own agency in the face of an uncaring machine. Instead, it feels like a film where the machine always wins.

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Non-Review Review: Fear Street Part One – 1994

Nostalgia is a strange creature, by turns deceptive and revealing.

Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy, based on an original story inspired by the books written by R.L. Stine, is effectively a loving slice of horror nostalgia and a trip through slasher movie history. Fear Street Part Two: 1978 is very obviously an effort to take the genre back to its roots, evoking classics like Halloween or Black Christmas, and with its summer camp setting directly inviting comparisons to Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th, Part II. Similarly, Fear Street Part One: 1994 is clearly constructed as a loving homage to the slasher revival of the nineties, to films like Scream, Urban Legends or I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Skull Kill Crew…

In some ways Fear Street feels like a companion to that other big Netflix nostalgia property, Stranger Things. The three films are directed and co-written by Leigh Janiak, who is married to Stranger Things co-creator Ross Duffer. Like Stranger Things, there is a strong sense that Fear Street Part One: 1994 is aimed at a generation of viewers too young to remember the era firsthand. As such, Fear Street Part One: 1994 doesn’t feel like an attempt to accurately recreate the era so much as provide a cartoonish snapshot. It captures the pop memory of the period much more than the reality.

Fear Street Part One: 1994 is an appealing slice of genre nostalgia populated with a charming cast and an appealing high concept, albeit one that is occasionally so preoccupied by its broad brush strokes that it misses the final details. Then again, that is how nostalgia often works. Ironically, Fear Street Part One: 1994 probably has less to say about the genre than the movies that it is invoking.

“I have a bone to pick with you.”

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Non-Review Review: The Tomorrow War

The Tomorrow War is a mess of a movie.

Rumour has it that Amazon paid $200m to acquire the movie from Paramount Pictures, which has taken the pandemic as an excuse to offload films like The Lovebirds, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Coming 2 America. Blockbuster cinema is still something of a siren call for streaming services, with Paramount famously able to entice Netflix into buying The Cloverfield Paradox as a big post-Superbowl release. However, it’s notable that most major studios would be reluctant to part with a surefire financial hit.

“We need to have grown up conversation about how many deaths are acceptable in an alien invasion.”

The Tomorrow War feels very much like a streaming era blockbuster, something to fire up on television rather than to enjoy in cinemas, something that might be justified as a perk that comes with all the free shipping rather than a movie that is worth the audience’s time and attention (and the price of a ticket) on its own merits. The Tomorrow War is a clumsy misfire of a movie, essentially three different movies awkwardly stitched together with a bloated runtime and no internal coherence.

This would be a problem if any of the individual three movies were good. It’s somehow worse for the fact that all three are awful and are worse in combination.

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Non-Review Review: @zola

The opening line of @zola is inevitable.

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this b!tch here fell out?” asks Aziah King, the “Zola” of the title. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” There was simply no other way that the film was going to start. The line was foregrounded in the movie’s first trailer, and of course it was the opening tweet of the viral twitter thread (#TheStory) that inspired this cinematic adaptation. To put it simply, there was never any way that @zola was going to open any other way.

#NoTimeForReflection

However, the opening line is also a statement of purpose and a key to the film’s central joke. @zola positions that opening salvo as an iocnic statement of itself, a millennial riff on “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and “call me, Ishmael.” The central conceit of Janicza Bravo’s adaptation of the twitter thread is to treat the work like a piece of some modern literary canon, a snapshot of modern America filtered through the prism of art, captured 140 characters at a time. It’s a clever approach, and the best part of @zola is how eagerly it commits to that wry framing.

@zola is an impressive piece of craft, a collision of a very classical formalism with a more modern sensibility to create something that exists in a striking and imaginative space. However, there are times when @zola commits too heavily to studying its characters through the prism of social media, making them feel more like macabre exhibits in some twenty-first century freakshow than actual human beings. Still, @zola sets out to capture an extremely online aesthetic and it largely succeeds – for better and for worse.

#FreaksAndGeeks

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Non-Review Review: F9 – The Fast Saga

They say “start as you mean to go on.” So it seems appropriate that F9: The Fast Saga opens with a car crash.

The ninth installment in the Fast and Furious franchise arrives at an interesting time in the run of the series. Vin Diesel has announced that it might be time to retire the franchise, following a closing trilogy worthy of the characters. After much internal drama, two of the franchise’s core characters have spun out into their own franchise with Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw. The series is also still coming to terms with the passing of Paul Walker, who was the glue that held the franchise together. After all, what are Roman and Tej doing on the team now that Brian is gone?

Back in the ‘burgh.

Perhaps understanding that this is a tumultuous time for the Fast and Furious series, F9 makes a number of obvious plays for safe and familiar ground. Justin Lin returns as writer and co-director, a veteran of the franchise who helmed the four films between Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Fast and Furious 6. Lin directed Fast Five, which is probably the best film in the franchise, existing at the perfect intersection between the series’ origins as a gritty urban western and the bombastic blockbuster behemoth that it would become.

F9 clearly and repeatedly attempts to recapture some of the magic of Fast Five, but only serves to demonstrate that the franchise can’t go home again.

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Non-Review Review: In the Heights

When it premiered, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights was a radical piece of work.

Miranda had begun working on the musical when he was in his sophomore year of college, producing an eighty-minute version of the play in 1999. He would take a prototype of the completed musical to Waterford, Connecticut in 2005. The show would move Off-Broadway two years later, and would open on Broadway in February 2008. It was a move that very much announced the arrival of Miranda as a serious talent, and would serve as a springboard to his later success with Hamilton.

“There’ll be dancing…
Dancing in the Street…”

In the Heights is set against the backdrop of Washington Heights, a neighbourhood on the north west side of Manhattan. Inspired by Miranda’s own experience as a Puerto Rican immigrant, the musical follows the inhabitants of the neighbourhood as they navigate a changing world. The story is told through the eyes of Usnavi, the young owner of a small bodega who dreams of returning to his home in the Dominican Republic, but who needs to find a way to express his feelings for Vanessa, who is considering a move of her own to the West Village.

Miranda wrote In the Heights as a very pointed response to traditional staged musicals like West Side Story. It’s no small irony that, more than twenty years after it premiered, the film adaptation feels as much like a traditional musical as any of the classics that Miranda had railed against.

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Non-Review Review: Luca

There’s an appealing low-stakes gentleness to Luca. In fact, Luca might be Pixar’s first hangout movie.

The film tells the story the eponymous sea monster. The young boy lives off the Italian Riviera, tending to the local fish and dreaming of the world above the surface. One day, following a chance encounter with a more adventurous boy named Alberto, Luca discovers that he can change form when dry. Outside the ocean, Luca and Alberto can pass as human children. Against his family’s better judgment and aware of what might happen if he is discovered, Luca decides to make the most of life above the waves.

“I wanna be where the people are…”

This description makes Luca sound like a retread of The Little Mermaid. That’s not an entirely unfair point of comparison. Both Luca and The Little Mermaid are stories about young characters who dare to dream of a life beyond the underwater world they know. However, Luca has a very distinct mood and ambiance. Luca is not really plot-driven. It lacks a central villain like Ursula or stakes as overt as the terms of Ursula’s spell. Instead, Luca is much more interested in the smaller details that mark a wonderful childhood summer.

Luca is undeniably minor Pixar, but that doesn’t mean it’s especially shallow.

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