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Non-Review Review: Den of Thieves

Heat was not the first cops and robbers film to parallel the opposite sides playing for control of the board, suggesting lives on a collision course inside a gritty crime epic.

However, Heat did it better than most. Heat inspired an entire generation of film fans, and arguably an entire subgenre of heist movie. Los Angeles had always lent itself to operatic crime sagas, with triumph and tragedy playing off against one another in the City of Angels, but Heat redefined the game. The movie developed a style of storytelling, both in terms of actual technical craft and in terms of storytelling construction.

Mann of Today.

Success breeds imitation, and there have been far too many crime films inspired by Michael Mann’s classic, to the point that many film fans were disappointed to discover that Mann himself had not adhered to the template in making Public Enemies. Almost every year, there seems to be another example of a movie constructed in the image of Heat, from Takers to The Town. The quality varies from film to film, as does the level of innovation and inspiration.

Den of Thieves is rather brazen in how much it takes from Heat, lifting both the crime classic’s cinematic language and even direct scenes. The result is a lukewarm reHeat of an exquisite meal, something to which the movie cheekily alludes towards the end of its climactic heist when one character literally serves up days-old leftovers. It isn’t anywhere near as filling or satisfying as the original meal, but it can satisfy a craving.

You definitely feel the Heat around the corner.

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Non-Review Review: Maze Runner – The Death Cure

Maze Runner: The Death Cure feels like a movie that has arrived several years too late, a belated epilogue to the young adult boom.

The Death Cure is the last in the trilogy, the culmination of a journey that began with The Maze Runner in 2014. By that point, the young adult adaptation boom was already winding down. The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn, Part II had been released two years earlier, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II had been released the year before that. There was a clear sense that The Maze Runner was starting when everybody else was ending.

“So, it turns out that the Death Cure is… not dying. Whudda thunk it?”

Of course, there were still faint signs of life in the genre when the series began, but those sparks have largely been extinguished. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II was released the year after The Maze Runner. One year later, The Divergent Series: Allegiant underperformed to such a degree that it has been suggested that the series might be resolved on television. Even in the context of The Death Cure, there is a sense that the production team understand the fatigue; there is no over-extended duology to bring the series to a close; no lingering Part II.

The Death Cure is mostly an efficient film, one that keeps moving well enough for the bulk of its two-hour-and-twenty-two-minute runtime, although the bloat eventually becomes too much in the final act. There is something very functional about The Death Cure, a sense that everybody involved the film – and every character within the film – has adopted a “let’s get stuff done” attitude towards the production. There is all the expected angst, betrayal, insecurity and hesitation expected of a young adult novel, but surprisingly little wallowing in those emotions.

After initial trials proved unsuccessful and disappointing third quarter returns, WCKD moved on to producing “The Death Treatment.”

The result is something of a mixed blessing. Very few young adult adaptations had the benefits and strengths that defined the Harry Potter or Hunger Games franchises. Those two heavy-weight franchises had the luxury of several built-in advantages denied to many of their imitators; the strong ensemble cast, the compelling source material and the distinctive-within-limits voice. The Death Cure seems cognisant of its limitations, and so structures itself in a way to avoid exposing them too readily and too often.

However, this efficiency hinders The Death Cure. The film only rarely stumbles, and never falls flat on its face. However, it never manages to soar either.

Runner, runner.

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61. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – This Just In (#122)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Stacy Grouden, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

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Non-Review Review: The Commuter

The Commuter is the best Neeson Season movie since The Grey and the best movie about the financial crisis since The Big Short.

On paper, The Commuter is a mildly interesting premise that feels very much of a piece with the typical January awards-fare counter-programming. It is very much a high-concept action film that feels populated from a mad lib. [Liam Neeson/Bruce Willis/Gerard Butler] is a [former cop/current cop/law enforcement official] who finds himself embroiled in a race against time to [protect/rescue/expose/defeat] a [loved one/conspiracy].

McCauley took the instruction not to fire the gun inside the carriage a little… literally.

The Commuter is very much of piece with Liam Neeson’s other collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra; Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night. It is a movie about a weary protagonist embroiled in a situation beyond his control, the perfect fodder for a midweek movie to be enjoyed with a bucket of pop corn and a soft drink of choice. However, what elevated The Commuter above these earlier collaborations is similar to what elevated Collet-Serra’s The Shallows above so many familiar shark movies.

The Commuter has the look and feel of a big dumb action movie, a film inviting the audience to engage on its own terms rather than theirs. However, there is a very knowing and self-aware quality to The Commuter, an understanding of what the audience expects of the film and what the film can expect from the audience in return. The result is a film that always feels smarter and better than it needs to be, very carefully calibrated; just serious enough to work, just self-aware enough to charm. The result is a delightfully enjoyable action film.

Dial “C” for Commuter.

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Non-Review Review: All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World is an intriguing and uneven anthropological study of wealth.

Ridley Scott’s drama documenting the abduction of Paul Getty treats its subjects as members of a different species. In an introductory voice-over, the character of Paul Getty explains that the truly rich may as well come from “another planet.” They might look the same, but they are fundamentally different from ordinary people. At one point, John Paul Getty recalls an argument on how a publisher tried to change the title of his book from How to be Rich to How to Get Rich. Getty complains, “Getting rich is easy. Any fool can get rich. Being rich, that’s something else entirely.”

A Plum(mer) Role.

This idea simmers through All the Money in the World, the notion that there is something more than just a bank balance that separates the wealthy from the poor. “Money is never just money,” reflects advisor Fletcher Chase, and All the Money in the World suggests as much repeatedly. Throughout the film, journalists and paparazzi stalk the Getty family like wildlife photographers trying to snap a picture of some rare beast in its natural habitat. The Getty’s stand apart, and that sense of otherness is compounded by some measure beyond a balance in any account.

All the Money in the World is fascinating in its exploration of this idea, but it suffers from a lack of focus and clarity. All the Money in the World feels more like a series of vignettes than a single narrative story, a set of compelling sequences that never add up to a fulfilling whole. There is something intangible missing, as if the figures don’t quite add up. Then again, that flaw seems perfectly suited to the characters at the centre of the narrative.

Oil’s well that ends well.

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Non-Review Review: Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is visually sumptuous, thematically rich, but narratively clumsy.

There is a lot to love in The Last Jedi. Most notably, the gamble that Disney took on director Rian Johnson has paid off. The Last Jedi looks and feels like no other Star Wars movie. It is not simply the intimacy with which Johnson stages conversations separated by half a galaxy, nor the high quality visual effects. There is an endearing and appearing sense of wonder to The Last Jedi, as if watching a small child playing with action figures and humming the lightsabre noise to himself. The Last Jedi feels like the work of somebody continuing and expanding a story, more than just recreating it.

Rey of Hope.

Indeed, the best moments in The Last Jedi struggle to reach beyond what audiences have come to expect from the franchise. Some of this is inherited from the ambition of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, particularly in early scenes that emphasise the human cost of this galactic struggle. However, there are other more ponderous moments in The Last Jedi when it seems like Johnson and his characters are asking profound questions of the franchise itself, poking at the underlying assumptions that power this box office behemoth.

This was essential for the success of The Last Jedi. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was an exercise in nostalgia that worked so well because of three factors; it was a palette cleanser after the prequels, it innovated by pushing background characters to the narrative foreground, and it was released more than a decade after Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Nostalgia is not enough to sustain a franchise that will be releasing one major motion picture a year for the foreseeable future. The Last Jedi needs to find something interesting to say about a forty-year-old franchise.

Seeing red.

In its best moments, it seems like The Last Jedi is lining up its arguments. It looks at the Star Wars universe through new sets of eyes, often in a literal sense. Johnson is not a director in the vein of Lucas or Abrams. Johnson is not a director who feels entirely comfortable with spectacle and scale. Instead, Johnson offers a tighter and closer glimpse at the universe and the people who inhabit it. There is a lot of focus on faces in The Last Jedi, shadows moving across them, eyes either focused or trying desperately to look away.

However, The Last Jedi ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. The bolder and more provocative suggestions at the heart of the narrative remain just that, nothing more than implications or subtext. The Last Jedi has intriguing and bold ideas, but lacks the resolve to follow them through to their logical conclusions. Although undoubtedly less nostalgic than The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi remains too trapped by its own past to fully chart its own course and map its own destiny.

Shore thing.

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Non-Review Review: Lady Bird

Lady Bird is a sweet and charming little film, one anchored in two great central performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

Lady Bird is relaxed and casual, a story of teenage anxiety unfolding at its own pace without any tangible sense of stakes or scale. Lady Bird is a refreshingly quiet and sincere movie, one that captures a lot of the listlessness associated with youth, the obliviousness to the reality of the outside world, the struggle to define a unique identity. For all the film is anchored in its Californian surroundings, Lady Bird is a universal coming of age story.

Blessing in disguise.

Like its protagonist, Lady Bird is smart and wry, if a little directionless and unsure of itself. However, the movie works in large part because of the decision to build its emotional core around the relationship between the eponymous character and her mother. Ronan is phenomenal here, but Metcalf is just as able to match her co-star. Both actors deliver raw and genuine performances that perfectly capture the push-and-pull of any real-life familial dynamic.

Lady Bird is perhaps a little too eccentric and a little too whimsical in places, drawing its supporting cast in broad strokes and leaning a little too heavily into stereotypes of adolescence, but the film has a warm and beating heart that sustains it for its ninety-three-minute runtime.

Bye, bye, birdie.

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