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Non-Review Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The most evocative image in War for the Planet of the Apes is the United States flag, with an alpha and an omega scrawled across it.

This thematic juxtaposition is repeated throughout the film. The antagonistic human forces at the heart of War for the Planet of the Apes use the symbols as a logo. When they recruit apes into their ranks, they brand them with the symbol. When the audience is invited into their camp around half-way through the film, an oil tanker is marked the graffiti “the end and the beginning.” In some ways, this is a reflection on War for the Planet of the Apes as the final movie in a prequel trilogy, but it is also a much stronger thematic statement.

Cool customer.

At the heart of War for the Planet of the Apes is the idea that the apocalypse is not scary because it represents the end of something, but that the collapse of civilisation is so unnerving because it represents a clear slip backwards. The apocalypse threatens mankind with the idea that people are nothing more than animals, no better than their ancestors when push comes to shove. The apocalypse suggests that everything that has been accomplished can be lost in an instant. In the end, people retreat back to what they truly were, and it is horrifying.

War for the Planet of the Apes is not so much a movie about the collapse of a civilisation as a grim argument that the very idea of civilisation is transient and illusory.

Take a bow.

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Non-Review Review: The House

The House comes from the writing duo Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen, representing Cohen’s directorial debut.

O’Brien and Cohen are perhaps best known for their work on Neighbours and Neighbours II: Sorority Rising, two of the more successful “overgrown manchildren” movies of the past few years. (They also worked on the somewhat underrated Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.) While these sorts of movies about grown-ups behaving badly are a dime-a-dozen in the modern comedy landscape, Neighbours and Neighbours II were elevated by a number of factors: attention to their female leads, very canny casting, clever shifts in the film’s moral weight at key moments.

They are so money.

The House is perhaps a more modest proposal than Neighbours and Neighbours II. It is certainly a lot more straightforward in its plotting and character arcs, a simplicity reflected in the relatively abridged run-time of eighty-eight minutes. (To be fair, both Neighbours and Neighbours II kept their runtime just over the hour-and-a-half mark, which seems about right for a broad comedy.) However, it shares one key strength. It is a movie that very skilfully captures the feeling of a mid-life crisis, and the yearn to return to into a belated adolescence.

The House is a little uneven in places, prone to the structural problems that haunt a lot of contemporary blockbuster comedy from the jokey asides that jar with the narrative to the oh-so-tidy resolution, but it has a solid core. It is a movie that understands the middle-class middle-aged urge to break bad in the most banal of fashions, just a hint of sadness lurking beneath its more absurd twists. The House doesn’t always win, and maybe it hedges just a little too much, but it knows the game that it is playing.

A dicey proposition.

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Non-Review Review: Halal Daddy

Halal Daddy is a pleasant enough culture clash comedy, perhaps most notable for how conventional it is.

The premise of Halal Daddy is immediately striking, based on a true story about the halal meat factory in Sligo. It is a compelling set up, one with a lot of potential to explore the collision of differing perspectives and outlooks against the backdrop of the West of Ireland. Certainly, director Conor McDermottroe does an excellent job capturing a sense of place and texture in this Sligo-set comedy.

Meat cute.

However, what is most surprising about Halal Daddy is how conventional it feels. In many ways, it plays like the extended pilot for a BBC sitcom. Indeed, there is a sense that Halal Daddy might easily have been broken down into a series of six relatively interconnected episodes built around a variety of miscommunications and errors in judgment featuring the core cast. At certain point, Halal Daddy feels like a compressed set of stories, with each new set of complications summarised as “the one where…”

This is not a huge problem. Halal Daddy has a lot of charm. Some of that charm comes from a winning central performance from Nikesh Patel, while some of it comes from the casual ease with which it navigates from sitcom beat to sitcom beat without ever letting any of these potential problems overwhelm its characters or the audience. Halal Daddy is an enjoyable feel-good comedy, one that only occasionally feels a little light of touch.

There’ll be halal to pay.

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Non-Review Review: Baby Driver

Baby Driver is largely about keeping the wheels spinning.

Circular imagery recurs throughout the film. At various points, long-take sequences begin and end in the same location, following characters as they move in a literal circle. At other points, the camera remains static while characters leave the frame to one side and enter from the other, creating the impression that they have just lapped their environment. Baby Driver is populated with objects that go all the way around to end up where they started; the clicker on an iPod, the drum of a washing machine, the wheels on a car, the subwoofer on a stereo, the record on a turntable.

Tune in, and cop out.

Even the dialogue and story move in something approaching a circle; recurring patterns of bad behaviour and errors in judgement, repeated lines offering a sense of symmetry to the story. In one of the nicer smaller examples, both the extended opening and closing sequences make a point to place the eponymous getaway driver behind the wheel of a striking red Subaru. Calls and response, echoes and refrains, patterns and sequences. It all comes around, Baby Driver suggests.

There is very little novel or innovative in Baby Driver, which feels very much like an attempt by writer and director Edgar Wright to construct a more conventional crowd-pleasing film than cult hits that defined his earlier efforts. A lot of Baby Driver feels conventional and archetypal, a conscious choice on the part of the director. While the supporting cast features any number of interesting players breathing life into familiar criminal archetypes, Baby Driver suffers from the fact that its two leads are its least satisfying element.

Drive baby.

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Non-Review Review: Gifted

Gifted is a sweet little movie, occasionally a little too sweet.

Gifted is essentially a wry family drama, the tale of a custody battle over a gifted young child that plays into larger questions about the responsibilities of parenthood and the expectations heaped upon greatness. Young Mary Adler is undoubtedly a mathematical genius. At the age of six, she is rattling off advanced multiplication and square roots, much to the amazement of the adults around her. Her uncle Frank and her grandmother Evelyn find themselves at odds with how best to raise Mary.

Head and shoulders above the other kids…

Gifted is an ambiguous meditation on the obligations that parents have to their children, to the challenges in determining what is best for their offspring. How does a parent respond to a child who is preternaturally intelligent? Is it right to push a person to be all that they can be? Is it healthier to teach them to accept themselves? It is an intriguing debate. At its most earnest, Gifted plays out like Whiplash by proxy and with numbers. There are time at which Gifted seems a little clumsy, a little awkward in its grand emotional gestures or core themes.

However reductive that summary might seem, Gifted is elevated by the combination of a witty script and a charming cast. In particular, Gifted is anchored in the central dynamic between Chris Evans and Mckenna Grace, who bring a vulnerability and warmth to the relationship between unlikely caregiver and talented youth.

Keep on trucking.

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Non-Review Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is an impressive piece of work, one worthy of its central character.

Wonder Woman is an impressive blockbuster from director Patty Jenkins. In many ways, it is an archetypal superhero origin story. It hits many of the Joseph Campbell beats expected of it. Superficially, the film looks to be a hybrid of Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and Superman, which is quite the pulpy cocktail. Jenkins plays into that, delivering her action set pieces with great skill and hitting all the requisite beats.

To the wonder.

However, the most interesting aspects of Wonder Woman are happening under the hood. It is too much to describe the film as a superheroic deconstruction in the style of Logan or The Dark Knight, but it is a film that has put a lot of thought into what it is doing and why it is doing it. The movie’s best beats are cheekily subversive, in an unobtrusive way. Wonder Woman is aware of the weight pressing down upon it, as the first female-led superhero film of the post-Iron Man era, but it never breaks its stride.

More than that, Wonder Woman is pure and unadulterated fun. It is a movie that is very clever and astute, but which never lets those attributes crowd out its sense of adventure and momentum. Wonder Woman is a sprawling period piece superhero fantasia, executed with deft skill and an engaging attitude.

Waiting for Gadot.

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Non-Review Review: Baywatch

The most damning criticism of Baywatch is that it is actually a pretty decent Baywatch movie.

Of course, it is hard to define exactly what Baywatch is. The show ran for eleven seasons, launched a handful of spin-offs, built up an instant recognisable iconography. However, the most striking Baywatch was just how hazily the concept was defined. As imagined by Baywatch, the beach front was a tabula rasa, a canvas as blank as the sand dunes on the shore or the expressions on most of the cast’s faces. The beauty of Baywatch was in its lack of a distinct identity, its capacity to be almost anything that it wanted to be, albeit in the clumsiest and cheapest manner possible.

To Beaches, or Not To Beaches?

Baywatch was nominally a show about lifeguards, about beautiful people running in slow motion. However, it could also be a show about shark attacks, about drug smuggling, about wrestling matches, about illegal immigration, about mermaids, about possession. It could even launch a spin-off Baywatch Nights, about private investigators pursuing beach-themed crimes that evolved into a water-themed X-Files knock-off. Baywatch could be whatever the audience wanted it to be, and even sometimes what they needed it to be.

Baywatch was a mirror unto which anything could be projected, the most popular show in the world about the day-to-day adventures on Malibu Pier. Baywatch became a window into the popular consciousness, an abyss that gazed back. Many tried to decipher its mysteries, to account for its popularity. Was it as simple as the fact that very pretty people were running while wearing very little clothes? Did Baywatch speak to a deeper yearning in those landlocked countries where it proved so popular? Did Baywatch know the audience better than they knew themselves?

A versatile storytelling engine.

All of this is to say that Baywatch comes with a baked-in absurdity. It is so elastic a premise, and so ridiculous a concept, that it is pretty much immune to mockery. It is hard to imagine a joke about Baywatch that the show never embraced in earnest during its two-hundred-and-forty episode run. Baywatch is beyond parody as a pop culture object. It is a möbius strip of ridiculousness and earnestness, taking itself so seriously that it doubles back around into self-aware absurdity.

This is the biggest problem with Baywatch. It is a terrible parody of Baywatch, if only because the source material seems to exist in a realm where parody has been folded in on itself and presented as an entirely sincere beach-bound adventure.

Lost at sea.

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