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Non-Review Review: No Time to Die

There is perhaps some irony in the fact that a movie titled No Time to Die is the longest movie in the James Bond franchise.

No Time to Die is an interesting mess of a movie. It’s a film that contains a variety of interesting and intriguing elements that never coalesce into something completely satisfying, and are often lost in a mess of continuity accrued from the previous four entries in the franchise. As the final film in the franchise to star Daniel Craig, No Time to Die finds itself tasked with turning off the lights at the end of the night, serving as something of a series finale to the actor’s previous adventures.

Drinking it all in.

The biggest challenge facing No Time to Die is the simple fact that the previous four films in the franchise don’t really form a single or cohesive narrative. They were four separate movies, with each shaped and informed by the reaction to the prior entry. When Casino Royale proved that audiences could accept a modern take on the James Bond franchise, Quantum of Solace doubled down on tweaking the character to fit into the modern action thriller landscape. When that didn’t work, Skyfall course-corrected for a more traditional approach. Following that success, SPECTRE tried clumsily to tie it all together.

No Time to Die spends far too much of its impressive runtime trying to reconcile these films to each other. As a result, the film never really finds space to play with its own more interesting and compelling ideas.

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Non-Review Review: The Many Saints of Newark

The Sopranos was a groundbreaking piece of television that completely changed the rules of television as a medium, with a mob epic that was singularly suited to the opportunities and the constraints of its given medium. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about The Many Saints of Newark is that it at least reinforces how much of the success of The Sopranos was down to its existence of a television show. The Many Saints of Newark demonstrates that so many of the tricks that made The Sopranos so compelling when watched in thirteen-hour seasons become deeply frustrating when condensed to a two-hout movie.

The Many Saints of Newark is a fundamentally flawed film. The most charitable interpretation of the film is that it feels like an attempt to condense an entire season of television down to a cinematic narrative that clocks in at just under two hours. The Many Saints of Newark is a sprawling film, one that spans from the late sixties into the early seventies. It often doesn’t seem to have a singular driving plot, but instead a set of competing subplots that swirl and occasionally cohere around the lead character of Dickie Moltisanti. They gesture broadly at compelling thematic concerns, but without any real clarity or focus.

Clever Dickie.

The Many Saints of Newark hinges on the narrative trickery that made The Sopranos such a compelling watch. It has an expansive cast. There’s a recurring ambiguity about what any of this actually means and what parts of it will be actively important to the resolution of the story. The film is willing to spend extended periods focusing on vignettes involving tertiary supporting cast members, away from the nominal lead. The film’s ending is a very deliberate and pointed anticlimax, one that is very deliberately set up over the film’s runtime, but which still feels designed to confound audience expectations.

All of these elements worked on The Sopranos because the production team had enough room to explore and develop them. The show was dense enough and had enough narrative real estate that credited leads like Lorraine Bracco or Dominic Chianese could disappear for multiple episodes at a time, only to return at pivotal junctures. The show spent enough time developing its narrative threads that sudden curve balls that seemed to derail certain plots instead felt like satisfying and unexpected pay-offs from others. The Many Saints of Newark doesn’t have this luxury. It doesn’t seem expansive, just messy.

Family ties.

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Non-Review Review: Copshop

Copshop is a loving and pulpy throwback to old-fashioned seventies b-movies, that simply doesn’t know when to quit.

Copshop operates very firmly within the comfort zone of everybody involved. Director Joe Carnahan has made a name for himself as a director of these sorts of high-concept thrillers. Stars Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo both seem perfectly at home glowering at each other across a police station cell block, separated from one another by two sets of bars. Watching Copshop, the film plays as a slight tweak on the basic concept that has made Assault on Precinct 13 an enduring cult hit: an isolated and under-staffed police station finds itself unde rsiege and stuck with a dangerous criminal.

The Butler did it.

There’s a compelling simplicity to Copshop, with the movie building outwards from a solid premise, and understanding the appeal of these sorts of movies. Carnahan imbues the film with an appealing nastiness and cynicism that feels appropriate for this kind of genre throwback. Most of the runtime of Copshop finds its protagonist, Officer Valerie Young, forced to choose between the lesser of two evils as the situation steadily escalates around her. For most of the film’s runtime, Carnahan commits to this meanness in a manner that is often lacking from these sorts of throwbacks and tributes.

Unfortunately, Copshop somewhat falls apart in its final ten minutes, as the film seems unable to settle on a single satisfying ending and so instead cycles through at least three different climaxes hoping that one of them might stick. The movie’s bombastic and over-stuffed third act is a frustrating conclusion to a film that worked to that point largely because of its minimalism and its restraint.

On the chain.

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Non-Review Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

There’s something unsettling on how conservative Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is, even by the standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This is particularly frustrating when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings positions itself as a progressive piece of pop culture. There’s a lot to appreciate about the film, conceptually. It is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from an Asian American director. It is the first entry in the franchise with a predominantly (almost exclusively) Asian cast. It exists in conversation with the company’s long-standing history of clichés and stereotypes, exploring and reconstructing them. Even more than that, it has a fundamentally charismatic cast and a fairly solid emotional arc, both of which should sustain it.

Stick with it.

However, all of this ultimately feels like empty window dressing arranged around a weirdly traditionalist and pandering core. At its heart, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a story about how “kids these days” really don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going, and really just need to get back in touch with their roots and learn from their elders. There are points when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels a little bit like a Jerry Seinfeld joke about stupid millennials with their gap years and their gig economy.

There’s something disheartening in all this, particularly with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings positioned as the first true origin story to follow Avengers: Endgame, the herald of a new era for perhaps the most ubiquitous pop culture franchise in the world. However, when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings should be looking forward into a bold new era, it casts its gaze backwards.

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Non-Review Review: Reminiscence

Reminiscence is an intriguing concept in desperate need of a stronger execution.

Reminiscence marks the feature film directorial debut of Lisa Joy, the co-creator of Westworld. In some ways, this is revealing. It often seems like the best version of Reminiscence might be a television pilot, a two-hour feature-length exploration of a futuristic dystopia that lays a lot of groundwork to be explored by later episodes and seasons. It’s very clear that Joy has put a lot of thought into the world of Reminiscence, about how it works and how it developed, and why it turned out the way it did. All of that work is either on-screen or blasted over the audio system via helpful voiceover exposition.

On the record.

Unfortunately, Reminiscence struggles to devote any real energy to its actual narrative or characters. Reminiscence is clearly constructed as an affectionate homage to classic film noir, in everything from its production design to its plot structure to its thematic concerns. However, it lacks the richness and the complexity that distinguishes the best of the genre. Instead, because so much time is spent explaining and re-explaining the mechanics of the world, everything else feels like a thinly-drawn sketch.

Reminiscence often feels like the faded memory of a much more engaging film.

Shining a light on it.

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Non-Review Review: People Just Do Nothing – Big in Japan

People Just Do Nothing: Big in Japan has had an interesting journey to the big screen.

People Just Do Nothing began as an online video series, before transitioning to BBC Three and then to BBC Two. The mockumentary comedy accrued a cult following, and so it’s refreshing to see much of the cast and crew given the chance to take the concept to a cinematic adaptation. There’s something inherently charming in this comedy concept built around a bunch of unqualified (and perhaps even untalented) local pirate DJs getting to make their own feature film that takes the characters and the cast to Japan. (It is also, for example, fascinating to see the characters fronting an anti-piracy public service announcement.)

The band at a crossroads.

Big in Japan has a lot of work to do, both in appealing to fans of the series and in winning over potential new converts. The movie is designed to function both as a culmination of the characters’ journey and paradoxically as an introduction to the characters. It’s a lot to ask from a feature film, particularly a comedy, and Big in Japan occasionally stumbles under the weight of those competing demands. Big in Japan is at its weakest when it’s trying to craft a story that is at once a satisfying development for long-term followers these characters while also being universal enough to work for audiences new to this world.

Big in Japan works best in its smaller moments, when it commits to individual jokes rooted in particular character. It falters when it sacrifices those strengths in the hopes of advancing the big picture. Big in Japan is arguably at its best when it goes small, a lesson that the film tries to impart to its own characters.

Toasts of Tokyo.

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Non-Review Review: Censor

Censor is a love letter to the era of so-called “video nasties” and an exploration of the moral panic that tends to encompass discussions of the genre.

Niamh Algar plays Enid, the eponymous moral guardian with a traumatic back story who has committed herself to protecting the nation’s sanity by watching and rating the low-rent horrors flooding the market. Over dinner conversation, Enid takes offense when her mother asks if she has seen any good movies recently. “It’s not entertainment, Mam,” Enid snaps. “I’m protecting people.” It’s very clear that Enid believes this, taking meticulous notes and engaging in rigorous debates about exactly how much eye-gouging the public can tolerate.

The Green Night.

On the surface, Censor is a movie with a plot that loosely suggests something akin to Hardcore or 8mm. Throughout the film, hints are dropped about Enid’s traumatic past, including the mysterious disappearance of her younger sister while the two girls were playing together. When the latest film from a provocative auteur named Frederick North crosses her desk, Enid seems to recognise one of the on-screen victims. Is her sister still alive? Has she been swallowed by this world of exploitation horror cinema? More to the point, can Enid finally rescue her and bring her home?

The beauty of Censor lies in how co-writer and director Prano Bailey-Bond plays with this familiar set-up, building a movie around the idea that horror movies are a form of escapism for moral guardians as much as the intended audience, a space into which these people can project their own nightmares and anxieties without ever having to confront the reality of the world around them.

Signalling concern.

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Non-Review Review: The Last Letter From Your Lover

The Last Letter from Your Lover is an adaptation of Jojo Moynes’ breakout romantic novel of the same name, and it very much feels like a cinematic adaptation of a beloved novel.

The basic premise of The Last Letter from Your Lover is a nested love story. While working on a feature about another subject, an intrepid journalist named Ellie Haworth finds a mysterious love letter. This love letter suggests a secret affair in sixties high society. The letters are clearly addressed to Jennifer Stirling, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a wealthy industrialist, who finds herself navigating her own past following an accident that leaves her with amnesia.

How I Met Your Lover.

It’s a solid set-up for a romantic drama, with The Last Letter from Your Lover paralleling both Ellie and Jennifer in their investigations into Jennifer’s mysterious past in an effort to explore and investigate the sordid affair that potentially could derail Jennifer’s entire life. The Last Letter from Your Lover benefits from two charming lead performances from Felicity Jones as Ellie and Shailene Woodley as Jennifer, along with strong direction from Augustine Frizzell.

Unfortunately, The Last Letter from Your Lover never feels like a convincing screen romance, but instead a shadow of a much more engaging love story on the page.

Letter be.

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Non-Review Review: Profile

Profile is the latest entry in the so-called “Screen Life” series, produced by Timur Bekmambetov. It is also notable as the first entry in the series to be directed by Bekmambetov himself.

The “Screen Life” series is effectively a set of heightened genre movies that unfold through the screen of a laptop, narratives that unfold through chat boxes, Skype chats, playlists and file transfers. It’s an innovative and experimental approach to storytelling. While the results – Unfriended, Searching… and Unfriended: Dark Web – have varied in quality, the hook has always been fascinating. So much of modern life is navigated through screens that it is fascinating to see movies try to reflect that. Indeed, there’s an argument that movies like Unfriended play better on computer screens than they do in theatres or on televisions.

Translating the story to screen.

Profile adheres to the cinematic conventions of these sorts of stories, but it feels unnecessarily constrained in other ways. Each of the three previous films has been a genre exercise told through a computer screen. Unfriended and Dark Web are teenage horror movies, while Searching… is a delightfully schlocky nineties thriller reimagined through a web camera. In contrast, the subject matter of Profile is decidedly weighter. The film is based on the non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Ereklle, looking at online recruitment of young British girls by Islamic extremists.

This is an appreciably more grounded and more serious piece of subject matter than something like Unfriended or Searching…, and it’s interesting to see this cinematic language applied to this subject matter. After all, this is a digitally native story and a tale about the process of mediating the world through computer screens. However, Profiles suffers slightly from the need to frame this subject matter not through the lens of a web camera, but through the prism of genre, to transform something very real and very threatening into a heightened cartoonish thriller.

A new Skype of thriller…

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Non-Review Review: The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad is a stunning piece of blockbuster cinema.

There’s an understandable urge to treat The Suicide Squad as something of an outlier, particularly in the modern wave of big superhero blockbusters. After all, this is an R-rated blockbuster about a bunch of super-villains populated largely be characters that few people will recognise, let alone care about, and which exists in something of a strange continuity limbo away from the rest of the shared continuity. It is darkly funny, bitterly bleak, and decidedly uninterested in things like brand synergy. It is a sequel to a maligned film from a director now best known for his work with a rival studio and a rival property.

Squad goals.

Looked at from a certain angle, The Suicide Squad must seem as alien as the monster that rampages through the film’s third act – a space oddity that fell to Earth. However, this just makes it all the more remarkable that writer and director James Gunn has managed to fashion all of this into a thrilling and spectacular piece of blockbuster cinema that understands the appeal and the potential of the superhero genre without forsaking its own distinct perspective and while delivering on everything that a well-made populist blockbuster should.

There are very few superhero movies that are put together like The Suicide Squad. That’s their problem.

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