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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: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give is an earnest and sincere attempt to grapple with a very important issue.

The Hate U Give is essentially structured around the aftermath of a police shooting in the United States, following a young woman named Starr who witnesses one of her oldest friends gunned down by a police officer during what should have been a routine traffic stop. What follows forces Starr to reassess everything that she thought she knew about the life that she was living. The Hate U Give puts the audience squarely in Starr’s position as the community around her begins to fracture and fray.

Taking a hands-off approach.

This is a very timely and very relevant movie, particularly in the context of current tensions within the United States. It frequently seems like a lot of the core issues in the United States come down to a complete lack of empathy or understanding, an inability or unwillingness of certain Americans to examine life as lived by people outside their frame of reference; individuals who respond instinctively with fear to social and political movements like “Black Lives Matter”, who refuse to properly consider the context of events like the protests in Ferguson.

The Hate U Give is occasionally a little clumsy in its storytelling, in how it approaches the arguments that it is making. It is a little broad in places, certain elements exaggerated for effect. Nevertheless, The Hate U Give offers an engaging and insightful exploration of a turbulent moment in contemporary American culture.

“All power to all the people.”

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Non-Review Review: Creed II

Creed II is a much better sequel than Rocky IV deserves.

At the heart of Creed II is the grudge match that fans of the franchise had been anticipating since the core concept of this “legacy-quel” series was first suggested. Adonis Creed in the ring against Viktor Drago. The son of Apollo Creed squaring off against the son of Ivan Drago, a generational rematch of the bout that cost Apollo Creed his life in Rocky IV. Adonis Creed is haunted by the name that he inherited from a father that he never met, and so it seems only reasonable that his film series would circle back around to allowing him closure on this.

A Rocky Road Less Travelled.

There is an irony in all of this. One of the central themes of Creed was the challenge of this spin-off movie franchise existing in the shadow of the original beloved Rocky series. Co-writer and director Ryan Coogler rose to that challenge, and created one of the great franchise success stories of the twenty-first century. As a result, it occasionally feels like Creed II is not so much fighting to escape the shadow of Rocky IV as much as it is wrestling with the weight of Creed.

Creed II is a solid and sturdy sequel to Creed, although not a superior one. It isn’t necessarily the sequel that Creed deserves.

To the Viktor, the spoils…

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Non-Review Review: Elvis and Nixon

Elvis and Nixon is a larger than life account of a larger than life meeting between two unlikely legendary figures.

Much has been made of the fact that neither Kevin Spacey nor Michael Shannon bear much resemblance to Richard Milhous Nixon or Elvis Aaron Presley. In fact, the film even makes a point of mentioning it. After a weird encounter at the White House gate, one security guard concedes of Elvis, “He’s taller than I thought.” Of course he is; Michael Shannon is noticeably (about ten centimetres) taller than his character. Indeed, the lack of physical resemblance between the actors and the subjects seems to be the point.

"Yeah, I suppose he KINDA looks like he from an angle."

“Yeah, I suppose he KINDA looks like he from an angle.”

After all, many of the best cinematic Nixons look rather unlike the nation’s thirty-seventh president. Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella picked up Oscar nominations despite the fact that there was no risk of confusion. The same is true of Dan Hedaya, even if he never picked up an Oscar nomination. Both Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley exist as larger-than-life figures in the American popular consciousness more than distinct individuals; both are recognisable archetypes who seem to speak to the nation’s cultural memory more than its specific history.

Elvis and Nixon realises and embraces this. The film is gleefully and archly ahistorical, to the point that this becomes the point. It is not so much that the line between reality and fiction blurs for director Liza Johnson, it’s that the boundary never existed in the first place. There is no record of what actually happened during the thirty minute conversation, but that’s probably for the best. Nothing could be quite as fun as the mismatched odd couple comedy of Elvis and Nixon.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

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Non-Review Review: Suite Française

Suite Française is the name given to a planned series of five novels written by Irène Némirovsky during the Second World War. Living in France during the conflict, Némirovsky was Ukrainian and Jewish descent. She completed the first two novels in the series (Tempête en Juin and Dolce) and had outlined the third (Captivité) before she was arrested as a Jew in 1942. Némirovsky was detained at Pithiviers, before she was transferred to Auschwitz. She died in Auschwitz in August 1942.

The two novels were undiscovered for more than half a century; her daughter – Denise Epstein – only discovered the novels in the nineties. They were written microscopically inside journals. The 140 pages that Némirovsky had written expanded to more than 500 printed pages. There is some evidence that even the two “completed” manuscripts were not quite finished. Notes suggested that Némirovsky was considering revisions to Dolce so as to change the fate of a featured character. More than six decades after her death, Suite Française was eventually published in 2004.

An officer and a gentleman...

An officer and a gentleman…

Adapting any novel for the screen is tough job, let alone a sequence of five novels – only two of which were ever finished, and published posthumously. Part of the intrigue of Suite Française was the fact that these were novels depicting incredible historical events as they actually occurred. It is impossible to quite convey that sense of urgency and vitality after decades of storytelling about the Second World War. Although it is an adaptation of a novel published only a decade earlier, Suite Française has the weight of considerable expectations baring down on it.

Even allowing for the difficulties with this particular adaptation, Saul Dibb and Matt Charman’s script still feels quite clumsy in execution; despite excising most of Tempête en Juin, the finished script feels curiously over-written. Monologues tend to meander and wander, as if the script doesn’t trust the cast to convey deep emotion through their performances, as if the writers are afraid the audience might miss the key philosophical or moral points of the script. This is a shame, as Suite Française is beautifully acted and looks quite wonderful.

The good German...

The good German…

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Non-Review Review: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner is a perfectly solid piece of young adult action adventure. It excels primarily as a piece of old-school science fiction, the kind layered with blunt social commentary and barely-veiled allegorical themes. The Maze Runner constructs a fascinating metaphorical maze for our heroes to explore. It works less well when it comes to making the audience care about the characters navigating it.

It's alive inside...

It’s alive inside…

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Non-Review Review: RoboCop (2014)

José Padilha’s RoboCop reboot is much better than the lame duck attempt to adapt Total Recall a few years back. It’s a functional action film, structured well enough to stand on its own two feet as a science-fiction thriller. There are the obligatory explosions and CGI, but there’s also a clear enough story populated by reasonably well-drawn characters with just the faintest hint of social commentary at the core. It is solid and functional on its own terms, even if it suffers in comparison to its source material.

Robocop 2.0...

Robocop 2.0…

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