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Non-Review Review: Mosul

Mosul is a frustratingly generic war movie, particularly given its potential as an exploration of Iraq in the wake of the American withdrawal.

Mosul is produced by Joe and Anthony Russo, best known as the directors of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The pair have leveraged the success of their work with Marvel to produce the work of other filmmakers, including past collaborators. 21 Bridges was a star vehicle for Black Panther leading actor Chadwick Boseman. Extraction starred Thor actor Chris Hemsworth and was directed by stuntman Sam Hargrave who had been Chris Evans’ stunt double on Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Iraqqing up an impressive reputation.

Mosul marks the directorial debut of veteran writer Mathew Michael Carnahan, who collaborated with Adam Mervis on the screenplay for 21 Bridges. Indeed, the Middle Eastern War on Terror framing of Mosul feels like an organic extension of Carnahan’s interests as a writer; his first two screenplay credits were for The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs, both released in 2007. As such, tasking Carnahan with making a boots-on-the-ground war film about the chaos in Iraq following the end of American involvement seems like a perfectly logical choice.

To his credit Carnahan understands the language and the logic of war movies. With its emphasis on handheld footage, Mosul occasionally feels like a spiritual companion to something like Blackhawk Down. With its recurring fascination with the absurdity and insanity of the horror of these sorts of conflicts, Mosul plays an extension of the core themes of Apocalypse Now. Indeed, Carnahan cycles through the conventional tropes and clichés of war movies with thrilling abandon, ensuring a propulsive sense of momentum and movement through the film.

“Mosul, Mo’ Problems.”

At the same time, Mosul feels a little too generic and too conventional. There are only a handful of sequences in the movie that feel like they relate specifically to this context, to the particulars of the war being waged in Iraq against Daesh. Too often, the film feels like it could be any war in any place at any time. It doesn’t help that Mosul positions itself more as an action movie and thriller than as a drama or study. Indeed, there are moments when Mosul feels just a little exploitative, as if attempting to extract pulpy thrills from a crisis that is still unfolding.

That said, Mosul hits most of its marks with enough skill and efficiency that none of these problems ever reach critical mass. Mosul bounces quickly from each set-up to the next, never allowing its audience or its characters the space to dwell on the familiarity of its set-up and execution. Mosul is a tightly constructed war thriller, even if it never fulfills its potential.

Commanding presence.

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Non-Review Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Perhaps Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom offers an illustration of how times have changed.

The film exists as part of the same production deal that brought Fences to cinemas just four years ago. Denzel Washington signed a deal with HBO to produce screen adaptations of all ten of August Wilson’s plays, bringing one of America’s core dramatists to as wide an audience as possible with the highest quality production. Even without that specific context, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels like a companion piece to Fences; they are both films adapting Wilson, produced by Washington and starring Viola Davis.

A play of note…

However, while Fences was a major theatrical release distributed by Paramount, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has gone direct to Netflix. While the film will have a limited theatrical run where that is possible, it will primarily stream online. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is still a lavish production with a top tier cast working from strong material. However, as with the release of The Boys in the Band on Netflix earlier in this awards season, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom illustrates that even in the four years since Fences, the market for these sorts of productions has migrated to streaming.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the sort of clean and uncluttered performance-driven adult-skewing film that might have enjoyed a wide release in years past, but now it seems impossible to imagine the film anywhere but on a service like Netflix.

Levee-raging his talent.

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Non-Review Review: The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special

“The past is the best present,” promised the trailer to The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special. That seems to be the special’s statement of intent.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is the latest example of Disney’s efforts at brand consolidation within the Star Wars franchise, arriving just as the second season of The Mandalorian has begun folding characters from animated series like The Clone Wars and Rebels into live action continuity. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is not so much about bringing another marketed part of Star Wars history into the larger tapestry of the Star Wars franchise. Instead, it is effectively about replacing The Star Wars Holiday Special, the famously terrible special from 1978.

“Life Day comes around so fast…”

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special seems designed to effectively neutralise a lot of the stench of The Star Wars Holiday Special by repurposing the core concept and idea in a manner that is easier to package and distribute without potentially harming the overall brand. It largely works. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is a much better production than the earlier iteration. Crucially for Disney, it is also much less embarrassing. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is an iteration of that foundational Star Wars text that can stream on Disney+ without harming the brand.

That is perhaps the best thing that can be said about The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special. It is a perfectly serviceable piece of Star Wars content.

The hole issue with modern Star Wars.

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New Escapist Video! “The Mandalorian – Chapter 11: The Heiress”

I’m thrilled to be launching 3-Minute Reviews on Escapist Movies. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’ll be doing weekly reviews of The Mandalorian.

The review of the third episode of the second season, The Heiress, is available below.

Non-Review Review: Jingle Jangle – A Christmas Journey

The big question with Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is simple: what do audiences want from a Christmas film?

Jingle Jangle exists in the context of Netflix’s recent efforts to build a sturdy collection of modern holiday cinema, from the classic animation of Klaus to the adventure of The Christmas Chronicles to the formula of A Christmas Prince. These are clearly part of an effort to buttress the streaming service’s library with a collection of films that audiences can enjoy in the holiday season. Jingle Jangle marks the latest glitzy addition to that selection, starring Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker and produced by Oscar-winner John Legend.

The Greatest Snowman.

Jingle Jangle is a fine execution of the standard Christmas movie formula. There are songs. There are children. There is a framing device involving a story that appears to blend fantasy and reality. There is lavish production design. There are morals about the importance of family. There are ominous deadlines that count down very specifically to Christmas. There are toys. There is missletoe. There is an improbably (and yet also inescapably) happy ending. There are also no surprises waiting beneath this lavishly decorated Christmas tree.

Then again, maybe that is the point. Maybe people don’t want surprises at Christmas, but instead the warm comfort of familiarity.

Going by the book.

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Non-Review Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy is misconceived on just about every possible level.

On the most superficial and surface level, Hillbilly Elegy is the most cynical form of Oscar bait. It is a vehicle for actors Amy Adams and Glenn Close to take a run at awards season, turning the inner dial on their performances up to eleven playing absurd caricatures of complex and nuanced human beings. There are moments when, entirely divorced from its form or substance, Hillbilly Elegy veers into the realm of self-parody, as Adams musters every dramatic bone in her body to shout “bad dog!” with as much conviction as possible, as if every moment could be an Oscar clip.

“Looks like we got ourselves a good old-fashioned act-off.”

It isn’t that Close and Adams are bad performers. Indeed, there’s a credible argument to be made that – on some level – Hillbilly Elegy might be “worth it” if it eventually allows Adams to take home what will effectively be a career award. However, everything in Hillbilly Elegy is a staggeringly ill-judged combination of heightened melodrama and earnest sincerity. Ron Howard directs the film with a solemn profundity that suggests he is peeling back the layers of the American heartland, as if viewing the film through the lens of Terrence Malick via the Russo Brothers.

However, underneath the surface, there is something more insidious and uncomfortable at place in Hillbilly Elegy. The film is based on the autobiography of J.D. Vance, a book that became a breakout sensation in 2016. The arrival of the book coincided with the election of Donald Trump, and so it became a cornerstone of a subgenre of literature built around understanding Trump voters – the kind of soul-searching that led to fawning profiles of white nationalists in The New York Times. (While Vance characterises himself as “a nationalist”, the film overtly avoids his politics.)

Ad-Vancing.

This context perhaps explains the assurance and self-importance of Hillbilly Elegy, which at every turn presents itself as a window into a different culture – the idea of the “forgotten” America or the “left behind” America. Unfortunately, it also explains the most horrific aspect of the film, the way in which Hillbilly Elegy treats its characters as exhibits in some grotesque zoo. While adapted from a book written by a character rooted in that community, Hillbilly Elegy often feels like an anthropological study constructed from second- or third-hand accounts.

However, the movie’s most egregious fault might be how profoundly it misunderstands Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

This Cagney and Lacey reboot is really something.

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Non-Review Review: Mank

There’s something vaguely reassuring about Mank.

The most obviously and immediately striking aspect of David Fincher’s biopic is how consciously the film is steeped in a very particular time and place. Mank plays out against the backdrop of the thirties and forties, following screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he is inspired to develop (and as he actually writes) Citizen Kane. So much of the film deliberately evokes the period; numerous inside jokes and cameos from key Hollywood figures, the stark black-and-white cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt, the way Fincher even frames shots to evoke the period.

However, all of these period elements are juxtaposed with a broader sense of modernity and timelessness. Mank is shot in the same black-and-white style as Citizen Kane, but in a modern aspect ratio. The film features cigarette burns and other markers of classic cinema, but was shot entirely digitally. The film even offers an almost parodic old-fashioned happy ending for most of the major characters, but while telling a story that simply would not have been possible within that studio system.

The result is a movie that celebrates Hollywood without venerating it. Indeed, what distinguishes Mank from many other “films about films” like The Artist or Hugo is the way in which it tempers its nostalgia. Mank doesn’t necessarily long for the past in the way that most Hollywood productions about Hollywood do. This ambivalence to nostalgia is not cynicism or futurism, but a tacit acknowledgement that the past is still present. Mankiewicz might be rubbing shoulder with the players of another era, but the rules remain largely the same.

Indeed, the real joy of Mank is not found its glorification of Hollywood titans or the products of the studio system, but in its celebration of the “supporting players.” The story of the “organ grinder’s monkey” is discussed repeatedly, often as a metaphor for power a hierarchy. Instead, Mank seems to suggest that the relationship is symbiotic. There’s something striking in a movie from a director as venerated as David Fincher that is so openly critical of the various myths of Hollywood like the auteur theory and its cousin “the great man” theory of history.

Mank is the story of a little man, one repeatedly framed as “the court jester” and who does little to push back on that characterisation. As one might expect for a movie about Citizen KaneKing Lear is a frequent point of reference. If so, Mank suggests that the fool has the best view of all.

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Non-Review: His House

His House is a striking and unsettling piece of piece of work, and an impressive feature debut for director Remi Weekes.

His House focuses on Bol and Rial, a refugee couple who have fled war-torn Sudan and arrived in the United Kingdom. Against all odds, the couple are allowed out of the detention centre and assigned their own living space. It is a rundown old house on an estate. “You must have won the jackpot,” explains their case worker Mark, even as the front door falls off its hinges. It is a big house, one in need of a lot of care and work. However, it all belongs to Bol and Rial – and whatever they have brought with them.

That sinking feeling.

His House works on a number of levels. Most obviously and most importantly, it is genuinely unsettling. Weekes understands the mechanics of horror, and works closely with composer Roque Baños and cinematographer Jo Willems to construct a genuinely creepy horror. Weekes makes excellent use of negative space and framing to make the audience uncomfortable, and generally does an excellent job with mounting tension and dread. His House is an impressive piece of horror, judged simply as a genre piece.

However, the film is also quite pointed and well-observed in its horror. His Horror riffs on the tropes and conventions of the familiar haunted house story, particularly as a metaphor for trauma. What elevates Weekes’ screenplay, from a premise by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, is an understanding that sometimes the ghosts that fill a haunted house arrive with the owners.

It is certainly a fixer-upper.

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Non-Review Review: The Craft – Legacy

The Craft: Legacy is, as the title implies, a legacy sequel to The Craft.

The Craft is an interesting film. It received something of a critical drubbing on initial release, but there have since been conscious efforts to reevaluate it. This is not unusual in female-focused horror; Jennifer’s Body has undergone another recent critical reappraisal, and deservedly so. The Craft is an interesting film in this sense; it is certainly a better movie than many critics thought it was, if not quite the hidden masterpiece that its modern defenders would want it to be.

Picture imperfect.

One of the key and enduring strengths of The Craft was that it was a relatively rare example of a female-focused supernatural horror movie when it was released, explicitly engaged with the idea of female empowerment in the context of the mid-nineties, filtered through a teenage perspective. (It arrived a year before Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) The fact that this was an underserved market was perhaps best illustrated by the launch of the similarly-themed television show Charmed two years later, which would quietly run for eight seasons.

The Craft was imperfect, but it scratched a very strong itch. The Craft: Legacy naturally arrives at a very different time. While audiences looking for these sorts of genre stories about young women grappling with supernatural metaphors for empowerment in a hostile world, there are far more options than there were in 1994. The Craft: Legacy needs to do more than just offer a nostalgic reminder of a film that has slowly and surely built up a cult following. Unfortunately, the film can’t even do that.

Getting Coven with Stepdad.

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Non-Review Review: The Witches (2020)

The Witches offers a clumsy American update of the classic Roald Dahl novel.

To be fair, there is something potentially interesting in attempting to update The Witches, both for modern audiences and for American viewers. It’s to the credit of director Robert Zemeckis and co-writers Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro that they at least understand this. The Witches makes a number of alterations to its source material, and at least some of those reflect a genuine and compelling attempt to update the story to fit in a modern and American context.

Any witch way but loose…

At the same time, The Witches is a mess. Part of this is down to the way in which a lot of the appeal of Dahl’s story is lost in translation, as a wry and arch British story gets filtered through the hypersaturated Americana of one of the defining American directors, an even more exaggerated effect of what happened with Steven Spielberg’s work on The B.F.G. However, some of this is more fundamental, as Zemeckis struggles to balance tone and mood across the film, and finds his attentions drawn more to what his interests desire than what the plot demands.

The Witches is a misfire, but an intriguing one. There are hints of a much more compelling movie to found, sifting between its more misjudged moments.

Putting a (ro)dent in his reputation…

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