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Non-Review Review: Thor – Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is a pure pop superheroic pleasure.

Thor has always been the most archetypal member of the Avengers, the character cast in the most conventional superheroic mould. Captain America was a soldier; Tony Stark and Bruce Banner designed weapons; Black Widow was an assassin; Hawkeye was a cosplayer with a bow and arrows. In contrast, Thor was a literal demigod. He looked the part of a conventional superhero, with his billowing red cape and his awesome power.

To Hela back.

Part of the joy of superhero stories is the way in which they form a strange oral history tradition; the stock comparison is to modern mythology, and there are certain shades of that. Superhero stories provide a lens through which classic and archetypal stories might be reimagined and reconstructed. Building on Chris Claremont’s characterisation of Wolverine, James Mangold pitched the superhero as the spiritual descendant of the samurai in The Wolverine and of the cowboy in Logan.

Thor: Ragnarok understands the potential of the comic book superhero as a framework for remixing and reimagining classic tales, as a weird cultural cocktail that effortlessly blends countless different flavours. In this respect, director Taika Waititi is being faithful to the source material. The appeal of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s work on Thor was the synthesis of classic mythology and retro science-fiction to construct something that was utterly unique. Thor was both a Norse god and a cosmic champion, a superhero and a mythic figure.

Wave after wave.

Thor: Ragnarok is perhaps a little over-stuffed, particularly in its opening act. Ragnarok races to hit plot points and fill in details, with an ensemble that feels far too deep for a two-hour-and-ten-minute romp. The biggest problem with Ragnarok is that the movie is practically overflowing with delight and joy. This not a serious problem by any measure. The movie never drags, and its goofy charm is never anything but infectious. Ragnarok could be structured and paced better, but the chaotic nature of the movie is part of its appeal. Ragnarok constantly threatens to burst.

The result is a movie that lacks the finesse and efficiency that define the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one that is overflowing with an energy and an eagerness that are endearing.

The ties that bind.

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Non-Review Review: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is a well-produced and well-performed feel-good historical drama, one elevated by a strong sense of timeliness.

Battle of the Sexes is structurally a classic “historical buddy film”, a subgenre of the biopic that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The idea is to take a big historical event involving two important and opposed figures, and to build a narrative about that singular event following both characters on their collision course. Ron Howard is something of an expert with this particular biographical subgenre, having directed both Frost/Nixon and Rush, two very fine examples of the form.

Riggsed game.

Of course, there are plenty of films that still adopt the classic biopic format of documenting an extended portion of a single life. Recent films like The Founder or American Made come to mind, very traditional sweeping narratives that tended to pop up in awards nominations during the eighties and nineties. However, there is something to be said for the format of a tightly-focused two-hander, of a narrative built around two adversarial forces locked in some existential combat. It might look like sport, but it is always something more serious.

Battle of the Sexes is built around the historic tennis match played between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs, but it is obviously about more than just a tennis match between a man and a woman. It evolves into a story about the symbolic weight of this match, of the culture that warps around it, of the dogma that it threatens to reinforce. Battle of the Sexes resonates surprisingly clearly, even more than thirty three years removed from its original context.

Causing quite a racket.

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Non-Review Review: The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is an ambitious tonal mishmash.

The Death of Stalin is funny and smart. It is a very well observed comedy of errors set against the backdrop of the power struggle that unfolds against the backdrop of the passing of the eponymous Soviet dictator. Officials, relatives and hangers-on all jockey for position, scrambling over one another to secure their place on top of the heap. “How can you scheme and run at the same time?” Lazar Kaganovich challenges Nikita Khrushchev at one point during the film, a line that sets the tone for the ensuing madcap chaos.

Fools Russia in.

However, The Death of Stalin struggles to find the right pitch for its political shenanigans. Based on historical events, The Death of Stalin juxtaposes the sly and transparent manoeuvrings of its central characters against depictions of real-life historical violence and brutality. The Death of Stalin is very candid about the collateral damage incurred by these sorts of regimes, as well it should be. The Death of Stalin would be wrong to gloss over the human cost of its political jousting. At the same time, these brutal beats undercut the movie’s broader slapstick comedic plotting.

The Death of Stalin is charming and endearing in places, but it struggles to find a proper tone. The Death of Stalin is at once too dark to work as a broad farce and too light to play as a pitch black comedy. The result is a movie that feels far too unbalanced and unhinged, with brilliant moments and great performances that never manage to find a consistent groove.

Sorry state of affairs.

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Non-Review Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

Goodbye Christopher Robin is largely a container for a set of impressive performances.

The most memorable aspects of this biopic are the three leading performances; Domhnall Gleeson as the writer himself, Margot Robbie as Daphne de Sélincourt and Kelly MacDonald as the nanny Olive. This triumvirate elevates the material to hand, fleshing out an overly broad and overly sentimental script through their ability to underplay moments. Gleeson, Robbie and MacDonald communicate their characters effectively through meaningful glances as much as overloaded dialogue.

Bear with me.

In some ways, Goodbye Christopher Robin suffers from a surplus of ambition. Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan, the film casts a very wide net, hoping to encapsulate decades in the lives of these characters. The result is that many of the film’s emotional arcs and beats feel truncated in the move to the next important event, which in turn leads the movie to amp up the sentimentality for maximum impact. There are moments where Goodbye Christopher Robin works perfectly, but there are more moments where it seems to fumble.

Goodbye Christopher Robin tries to cover too much ground. “That bear swallowed us whole,” Milne reflects towards the end of the story, but there is a sense that the script poses just as much danger.

“If we could sell these stories, we’d by Milne-aires.”

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Non-Review Review: Maze

Maze is a gritty well-constructed psychological thriller, documenting the famous escape of thirty-eight inmates from the eponymous prison in 1983.

Written and directed by Stephen Burke, focuses its attention on two central characters who serve as opposite sides of the same coin. Larry Marley is a veteran member of the IRA, who survived hunger strike and is looked for a cause around which he might rally the movement. Gordon Close is the warden in charge of maintaining order in a prison packed with murderers and terrorists. Both men are trapped, whether by iron bars, concrete walls or political ideology.

Burke infuses Maze with a powerful cynicism, a clear frustration and contempt for a cycle of violence and hatred that perpetuates itself. The prison environment becomes a metaphor for the world created by the authorities and paramilitaries, a climate in which both sides serve as wardens and prisoners, ensuring that nobody is ever truly free. Maze is constructed as a very sterile film, largely desaturated, with Burke keeping the camera steady and often at a distance.

Maze is perhaps a little bit too conventional in places, a little too anchored in the routine expected from a prison break film and a little heavy-handed in its symbolism and thematic ruminations. While Burke avoids getting drawn into either side of this battle of wills, resisting the urge to glamourise or romanticise the escapees, there are points at which Maze feels a little too straightforward, trapped by the expectations of this sort of narrative. Still, the result is a thoughtful and well put-together film.

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Non-Review Review: The Ritual

The Ritual is a fairly conventional horror movie that is slightly elevated by a number of nice touches.

The Ritual is pretty predictable piece of horror, at least in the broad strokes. A group of friends set out on an international adventure together, tracking into the wild. The group is tied together by a common loss, but there are all manner of silent (and not so silent) resentments simmering beneath the surface. Journeying to Sweden, the quartet embark upon a hike into the wilderness. When fate intervenes, and forces them to cut their trip short, they make a choice to take a turn off the beaten track. They quickly come to regret that particular decision.

The Ritual belongs to a familiar genre of modern horror, the tale of adult friends who wander off into the wilderness and find themselves confronted by something primal and horrific; The Descent, The Blair Witch, Cabin Fever. Of course, these are all the descendants of classic horror movies offering similar warnings about daring to wander off the beaten track; The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There is very little in the basic form of The Ritual that will catch many audience members off-guard, even in the jump scares.

The Ritual is elevated by technique, by attention to detail from writer Joe Barton and director David Bruckner. The Ritual never catches the audience off guard by zigging when one might expect it to zag, but it occasionally teases the possibility of zigging. There are any number of little touches that charm, minor subversions of horror movie conventions that enrich the more predictable beats. The film looks impressive, is paced nicely, and is very well cast. While none of this allows The Ritual to transcend its more stock qualities, it does add up to a well-made film.

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Non-Review Review: Home Again

Home Again is an attempt at a classic screwball comedy where anything resembling a hard edge has been softened to a smooth felt.

Writer and director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is clearly hoped to construct an old-school Hollywood farce, centring on a relatively recently singled mother who finds her world turned upside down when three handsome young strangers move into her guest house down the end of her garden. Naturally, Alice Kinney cannot anticipate how quickly these three young aspiring film makers will disrupt her family life, but the situation quickly escalates in a relatively unthreatening manner.

Home Again has a solid premise and a charmingly committed performance from Reese Witherspoon, but the movie feels far too gentle to really work. There is something strangely bloodless about Home Again, which means that the movie often struggles to get its own pulse racing. There is a sense that Home Again is far too worried about the possibility of offending anyone, even its own characters. Home Again is a film full of selfish, shortsighted and manipulative characters, but it never allows them to embrace those qualities in a way that might threaten the happy ending.

Home Again feels far too comfortable in itself to really work.

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