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Non-Review Review: Ben is Back

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Ben is Back finds itself in a strange place in terms of weirdness.

At is core, Ben is Back is essentially the Key and Peele vehicle Keanu reimagined as an earnest prestige picture for the era of Beautiful Boy. It is an inherently absurd premise, an exploration of drug addiction that takes the form of an epic odyssey to rescue a beloved family pet. The incongruous pairing of a recovering addict with his suburban mother on this most unlikely Christmas adventure adds an extra layer of strangeness to the whole proceedings. There’s something very exciting about all of these elements thrown together, feeling incredibly unconventional.

Hug life.

Unfortunately, Ben is Back feels gun shy. It never commits to the inherent ridiculousness of using a trashy thriller template to tell a more intimate story about a pressing contemporary issue. Instead, Ben is Back compromises itself. It tries to have the best of both worlds. It tries to strike a balance between being a dogsploitation journey in to the heart of darkness with a more grounded and mundane portrait of a family struggling with the trauma that addiction has inflicted upon them. The two tones might work separately, but they jar as Ben is Back alternates between them.

This is a shame, as there’s a lot of potential in Ben is Back, and a few moments when it seems like it might actually deliver upon it.

Ben around the world, and I can’t find my baby.

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Non-Review Review: Vox Lux

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Vox Lux very brazenly and very openly positions itself as the evil twin of A Star is Born.

Both Vox Lux and A Star is Born are meditations on the idea of fame in contemporary America, particular the effect that it has upon an individual. Effectively the third (or fourth) retelling of a classic Hollywood fairy tale, A Star is Born offers a much more optimistic perspective on how deeply fame is anchored in the American popular consciousness, a story about an individual being seen and elevated because of their unique gifts. Vox Lux is a decidedly more cynical take on that same story, a darker meditation on the corrupting power and toxic cult of fame.

All the glitters…

These are old ideas. Popular culture has grappled with fame and stardom for decades, the push-and-pull around the siren call of celebrity both lauded and dissected over and over and over again. Neither A Star is Born nor Vox Lux have anything especially innovative or insightful to say about the notion of celebrity, nothing that hasn’t been explored or deconstructed or interrogated countless times. Much is made of the idea popstar Celeste as a new voice for the twenty-first century in Vox Lux, but it’s never clear that the film has anything new to say.

That’s not an issue. There is power in reiterating familiar ideas. Vox Lux tells a familiar tale with a strong est of performances and confident narrative style. Perhaps this is enough, in its own wry way. Perhaps Vox Lux is arguing that the bold new voices of the twenty-first century are just repackaging and reheating old ideas with a new energy and new commitment. It might just be the movie’s darkest joke.

Life of Lux-ury.

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Non-Review Review: Angelo

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Angelo is perhaps as good as “what if Barry Lyndon, but with slavery from a European filmmaker?” could hope to be.

The basic premise of Angelo owes a lot to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a period piece that largely eschews many of the conventional trappings of period productions to offer a more philosophical meditation on man’s relationship with the larger world. Both Angelo and Barry Lyndon are stories about people trying to navigate the complicated networks of human relationships in an unstable world, their own pursuit of stability and self-actualisation subject to arbitrary forces that exist outside of their control. Both are stark moral fables that border of nihilistic, shot in a much a colder manner than most of their period movie contemporaries, eschewing a lot of the warmth and romance traditionally associated with the genre.

Of course, Barry Lyndon was the story of a peasant Irishman who found himself fleeing to the European continent and trying to make a living for himself, whose star would rise and fall along the way. In contrast, Angelo is inspired by the true-life story of Angelo Soliman. Writers Alexander Brom and Markus Schleinzer take obvious liberties with the basic story of the black man who integrated himself in some of the most exclusive circles of nineteenth century European royalty only to discover how fickle such associations could be. This creates an inherent tension within Angelo. This is a film that opens with Angelo’s abduction from Nigeria, and which returns time and again to his status as a slave. However, it does so without really grappling with that reality.

Angelo threads the line about as delicately as possible, focusing more on its abstract thematic preoccupations and philosophical musings than any concrete details. However, there is a sense of cynicism about the film, a sense that the movie is utterly uninterested in the particulars of Angelo Soliman’s life or the finer details of what life as an actual slave (and later a freed slave) would be like in the nineteenth century. Instead, Angelo avoids these smaller questions by asking bigger and bold questions about the very nature of human existence as a whole.

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Non-Review Review: Fighting With My Family

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

There is very little by way of surprises in Fighting With My Family.

The film is effectively a straight-down-the-middle combination of the sporting-underdog narrative with the working-class-kid-makes-good narrative, this time filtered through the prism of a young wrestler from Norwich who finds herself cast into the spotlight when she is recruited by the World Wrestling Federation. Along the way, there are all manner of trials and tribulations, many of them expected in a story like this; there is tension with those who weren’t special enough to be elevated, self-doubt about her worthiness for this big break, an acknowledgement that she needs to change herself before she can expect the world to change to meet her. This is all stock material, and it would be easy enough to map out even without a true story providing a blueprint.

However, Fighting With My Family is elevated by two key factors. The first is a sharp script from Stephen Merchant. The co-creator of The Office seems an incongruous choice for a film like this, and it’s remarkable how light his touch is. Fighting With My Family is funny, but not in the arch manner suggested by so many of Merchant’s other projects. The film is self-aware, but enough to coax over a cynical audience rather than going so far as to deconstruct itself. Fighting With My Family acknowledges its own tropes and narrative conventions, but doesn’t pick them apart. It understands that they are familiar and well-worn, but also appreciates that they exist for a reason in stories like this. It is a very delicate balance, and Merchant’s script strikes it well. It makes it look easy.

The other advantage that Fighting With My Family has is the central cast. Florence Pugh is a young actor to watch, quickly establishing herself as a tremendous creative talent through work in films like Lady Macbeth and Outlaw King, and she brings an endearing vulnerability and strength to the leading role. She is also fantastically supported by the actors around her, in particular Nick Frost and Lena Headey as her wrestling parents. Like any good wrestler, Fighting With My Family knows and hits all its marks with a little broad crowd-pleasing emotion thrown in. It’s as carefully fixed (but never faked!) as any wrestling match, but elevated by a smart and savvy script and a charming cast.

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Non-Review Review: Out of Blue

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Out of Blue is just awful.

Carol Morley is an intensely talented director. Dreams of a Life is a fascinating documentary, exploring a harrowing true story with empathy and compassion. However, Out of Blue seems to get away from her. Morley is directing a screenplay that she adapted from Night Train, Martin Amis’ darkly comic parody of detective fiction. Indeed, Out of Blue seems to carry over some of the parodic intention of the source material in its better moments, playing as deranged and heightened homage to detective movie clichés. However, there is also a sense that Out of Blue is taking all of this very seriously underneath it all, that it is unwilling to commit to “the bit” and that it confuses its own pseudo-profundity for actual insight.

Even if Out of Blue never actually functions as a cinematic narrative, there is some fun to be hand with certain stretches of it. There’s enough in Out of Blue that it almost plays as investigative thriller pastiche; a knowing and heightened riff on the familiar formulas of sordid investigative thrillers. There are stretches when Out of Blue plays like the kind of weird and esoteric object that a view might find playing on Adult Swim in the early hours of the morning, couched between episodes of NTSF:SD:SUV and playing opposite Angie Tribeca. The dialogue is so hardboiled that it could be used as murder weapon, the insights into the human condition so laboured that they’ve been granted health insurance.

The biggest issue with Out of Blue is that it never seems to be “in” on the joke.

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Non-Review Review: The Sisters Brothers

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

The Sisters Brothers is a charming and deeply unfocused modern western.

Adapted from Patrick deWitt’s novel of the same time, The Sisters Brothers is a tale of two bounty hunters at work on the frontier. Working for the mysterious (and ominous) “Commodore”, Charlie and Eli Sisters are men of violence who stalk the wilderness in search of those who have wronged (or, to quote Charlie, “victimised”) their employer. However, the film is about more than just that. As with so many westerns, it is a story of encroaching modernity and civilisation atop a foundation of brutality and violence, and efforts to navigate the liminal space between the two.

Brothers’ keepers.

The Sisters Brothers works best when it focuses on its core cast, especially the eponymous murderous siblings played by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly. There is an appealing tragedy to these two men and how they face the changing times. Charlie seems unwilling to acknowledge civilisation and society, revelling in debauchery and indulgence. Eli imagines himself capable of the sort of change that such a transition would demand from him. Pheonix and Reilly layer their performances in contradictions and nuance, suggesting life beneath the archetypes.

However, The Sisters Brothers is simply too unfocused and too meandering to completely work. This is particularly apparent when the film indulges in any number of narrative diversions, or when the film eschews its core narrative altogether to embrace a more philosophical perspective. The Sisters Brothers has great ideas, but those ideas tend to diffuse without a strong narrative structure around them. The Sisters Brothers often feels in need of a tighter edit and a strong script polish, which is a shame considering the strengths that it demonstrates otherwise.

Shore thing.

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Non-Review Review: Loro

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Loro is certainly a Paolo Sorrentino film.

Loro is an interesting watch removed from its original context. It is nominally a biographical film covering the most defining Italian politician of the twenty-first century, Silvio Berlusconi. In reality, it feels like an attempt at something broader, a sweeping commentary on corruption and moral decay that just happens to exist (like so much of contemporary Italian culture, the film suggests) in the orbit of that towering figure. The film was originally released in Italy as a duology running a total of three-hours-and-one-quarter, Sorrentino combined both halves and cut forty-five minutes from the total runtime for international distribution.

It is a difficult film to parse outside of that context. It is difficult to tell if some of the gaps and hiccups in the film are down to the necessity of trimming a quarter of the runtime or simply due to the “inside baseball” nature of a film based around the national politics of a different country. This is not to suggest that Loro is impenetrable or nonsensical without any background knowledge. Indeed, Sorrentino goes out of his way to frame Loro as a universal story about concepts like sex, power, desire, and age. However, watching the film, it feels like there are gaps and lacunas in the narrative. Despite its extended runtime, Loro feels truncated.

And yet, in spite of these gaps, Loro has an incredible infectious energy that sustains it. While perhaps a little too unfocused and perhaps a little too simplistic, it is never anything less than compelling in its absurd study of power and corruption. Loro doesn’t necessarily have a lot to say, but it makes a point to say it all very well.

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