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Non-Review Review: Animals

Animals lacks any real bite.

At its core, Animals is the story of the unhealthy relationship that exists between Laura and Tyler. Laura is a Dublin girl, with close ties to her extended family. Tyler is an American abroad, a young woman who seems to be running as far away from her family as possible. A chance encounter on a night out brought the two together in their twenties, and they have since become inseparable. Laura lives with Tyler in her lavish city centre apartment, while Tyler is a welcome guest at all of Laura’s family gatherings. The two seem to share a single life.

Putting the matter to bed.

Naturally, that relationship has begun to strain and fray as the women enter their thirties – Laura is about two years older than her best friend, while Tyler’s thirtieth birthday is a significant event in the context of the film. Laura seems to want to move on, to embrace adulthood and responsibility; she courts a young professional pianist named Jim and tries desperately to work on the novel she’s been picking over for the last decade. Tyler pushes back against this, terrified at the prospect that her best friend might leave her behind to wallow in her own hedonistic insecurities.

Animals is too generic to make a meaningful impression. Its major character and narrative beats are all helpfully signposted from the get-go, its destination obvious from the end of the first few scenes. However, there’s not enough substance present to justify that sense of inevitability, the leisurely-paced journey towards a foregone conclusion that hits every expected plot point and character moment along the way. Animals feels very much like every other “young person has a life crisis and has to find a way to be comfortable with themselves” narrative of the past decade, with little to distinguish it.

At home on the (G)rainger.

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Non-Review Review: Luce

Luce is a compelling dialogue-driven thriller, anchored in a set of impressive performances and a meaty script.

At its core, Luce is a study of integration and idealism. It touches on the question of identity, that established by an individual and that imposed by the people around them. Luce derives its title and its tension from its lead character, a promising young African American student. Adopted by an upper-middle class white couple and rescued from his past as a child soldier, Luce has become an exemplar. He is an all-star debater, an impressive academic student, a successful athlete. He is loved by both the faculty and his fellow students. To hear the other characters talk about him, Luce is just about perfect.

Getting schooled.

Naturally, Luce challenges that idea. Luce invites the audience to wonder whether the title character really is everything that everybody else believes him to be. More than that, the film interrogates why so many people seem to need Luce to be an exemplar. The film is a fraught push-and-pull as questions are raised about Luce. When the honours student turns in an inflammatory essay and when fireworks with the explosive power of a shotgun are found in his locker, the characters around Luce find themselves asking if they understand the teenager, or if they ever could.

The result is a tense and claustrophobic drama, as the characters navigating these accusations and insinuations try to constantly reconfigure their understanding of the title character. It’s a remarkable push-and-pull, elevated by some very potent themes and a wealth of strong performances.

Keeping track.

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Non-Review Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain places a prestige veneer on the weirdness of the recent “man’s best friend” tear-jerker subgenre.

A Dog’s Journey and A Dog’s Purpose were a rough-and-ready example of the genre, films exploring the complicated world of human beings through the simple mind of a dog. There was an almost endearing clumsiness to how ruthlessly those films targeted the audience’s emotional vulnerability; A Dog’s Purpose used the gimmick of reincarnation as a narrative “get out of jail free” card, making a point to kill off its canine protagonist no fewer than three times, understanding this as a shortcut to the audience’s tear ducts.

“It’s about the good walk,
And the hard walk…
… It’s a beautiful ride.”

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a more prestigious product, executed with greater craft. That doesn’t mean that The Art of Racing in the Rain is any less surreal or eccentric than other entries in the subgenre, nor should it imply that The Art of Racing in the Rain has pushed that subgenre beyond the underlying assumptions that the bodily functions of a dog are hilarious. Instead, the polished exterior of The Art of Racing in the Rain is all about execution as opposed to content. The film makes the same points in the same ways, but shifts its tone to approximate sophistication.

The results are no less uncanny for that attempt at sophistication. If anything, The Art of Racing in the Rain feels all the weirder for how it juxtaposes the sillier and goofier “talking animal movie” tropes with the sensibilities of more earnest fare. The Art of Racing in the Rain is aggressive and merciless in its attempt to conjure up an emotional response to its over-extended central metaphor, but the film’s surreality lingers much longer.

Thinks are looking pup.

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Non-Review Review: Fast and Furious Presents – Hobbs and Shaw

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw works best when it delivers exactly what audiences expect from that title.

The breakout star of The Fate of the Furious was the chemistry between Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson. Behind the scenes conflicts between Johnson and franchise headliner Vin Diesel had forced the production team to structure the eighth film in the franchise so Johnson and Diesel didn’t have to share the screen. This led to a number of endearingly absurd set pieces, such as a heart-to-heart appeal between the two men conducted across a street over the speaker systems of monster cars. It also meant that Johnson had to find a new screen partner, and Statham was the member of the ensemble who fit the bill.

I have to admit, there were many more explosions and fistfights than I expected for a historical biopic exploring the relationship between Thomas Hobbes and George Bernard Shaw.

It’s easy to over-intellectualise the chemistry between Johnson and Statham. There’s the obvious physical contrast; Johnson has the bulk of a former professional wrestler, while Statham has the lean physique of a diver. There’s Johnson’s wholesome all-American persona set against Statham’s slightly devilish charm. There’s Johnson’s deep authoritative voice playing off Statham’s distinctly hard-edged accent. The duo play very well as a study in contrasts, while both also being able to support otherwise forgettable action films in their own right. They are a perfect fit.

Hobbs and Shaw works best when it understands this. The film’s best scenes are not the ridiculously over-the-top action scenes, which often seem borrowed or lifted from much better movies and which only fleetingly manage to tip themselves over into the delightful surrealist absurdity that makes the modern (Johnson era) Fast and Furious movies such a delight. Instead, the movie comes to life when Johnson and Statham are trading schoolyard insults, posturing and snarking, indulging in the sort of old-fashioned buddy action movie banter that is so rare these days.

Suns out, guns out.

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Non-Review Review: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fairy tale, for better and for ill.

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Non-Review Review: The Angry Birds Movie 2

The Angry Birds Movie 2 is a mess, a film that seems uncertain of its own target audience.

Like the original Angry Birds Movie, the sequel feels like something a throwback, an animated film that evolutionary leap that Pixar brought to computer-generated animation during their peak in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Other animated studios have come to embrace the sort of sophisticated storytelling that elevated those iconic and beloved Pixar films, most notably Dreamworks in projects like Kung-Fu Panda or How to Train Your Dragon.

Cool customers.

In contrast, both The Angry Birds Movie and The Angry Birds Movie 2 feel displaced in time, or perhaps even a glimpse sideways into a world where Wall-E and Up never happened, so Shrek and its sequels still provide a template for storytelling in computer-generated animation. The Angry Birds Movie arguably made a better deal of this than one could expect, with an approach that harked back to the cartoonish sociopathy that defined so much of twentieth-century American animation, a particularly crass and crude spin on the Tex Avery template.

There are moments in The Angry Birds Movie 2 were that retrograde influence clearly shines through. In fact, The Angry Birds Movie 2 is at its strongest when it feels more like a collection of Looney Tunes sketches than an actually narrative. Unfortunately, all of this gets muddle; the eggs that were such an important plot point in The Angry Birds Movie get scrambled, as the film jumps from extremes; broad pop culture parodies, nineties nostalgia, absurd cartoonish violence, pseudo-feminism, a jilted lover plot, commentary on modern dating.

The se-squeal.

Maybe some of these elements could work in isolation, if the production team found an interesting angle into. Maybe some of these elements could work in unison, if they were combined in small doses and with a clear over-arching design in mind. However, The Angry Birds Movie 2 never seems sure of what it wants to be or who it wants to be for, creating a strange cocktail that doesn’t serve any of its audience particularly well.

The result is something of a curate’s egg.

Birds of a feather.

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Non-Review Review: Horrible Histories – The Movie: Rotten Romans

Horrible Histories – The Movie: Rotten Romans is essentially a feature-length pantomime, and works best on those terms.

Horrible Histories is an adaptation of a popular series of children’s (teenager’s) books that aim to explore history through an unconventional lens, providing a somewhat grittier and more tongue-in-cheek accounting of the historical record than those found in school books. They are immensely popular, and have existed long enough to have a cross-generational appeal. It is entirely possible that many parents bringing their children to see Horrible Histories will themselves have read one or two of the source books.

Sharp satire?

Naturally, Horrible Histories is not the first attempt to adapt the books for a broader audience. The BBC adapted the series to television a decade ago, attracting a wide range of comedic talent to bring the show’s unique perspective to life; the series included figures like Alice Lowe, Simon Farnaby, Al Murray, Mark Gattiss, David Badiel and Chris Addison. The series was beloved, even featuring satirical musical numbers. Its influence lived on in specials like the BBC’s centenary rap battle marking the start of the First World War.

Horrible Histories largely eschews a lot of the talent responsible for the television series, although it does make room for a few cameos. However, the film is at its strongest when it embraces the source material’s irreverent playfulness. Ironically, the film suffers when it tries to weave a conventional narrative into this structure.

“Our problems are legion.”

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