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Non-Review Review: Zombieland – Double Tap

“Time to nut up or shut up,” reflects veteran zombie hunter Tallahassee as a horde of the undead make their way across the front lawn of the Elvis-themed motel where he has taken up residence. His doppelganger, Albuquerque, responds derisively, “Isn’t that phrase a little 2009?”

It is more than “a little” 2009. Then again, Zombieland: Double Tap is more than a little 2009. The film is the latest in a line of long-delayed sequels, including Deadwood: The Movie, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Toy Story 4 and Rambo: Last Blood. It feels as if the studios are rushing through their development slate as the end of the decade approaches, frantically trying to check off any potential sequels and spin-offs that might have been gestating. This is all a little strange, given that Zombieland was itself a modest critical and commercial hit, and hardly a film crying out for a sequel that has been a decade in the making.

“Tonight were going to party like it’s 2009.”

Double Tap feels rooted in 2009, for better and for worse. It is great to see this cast reassembled, as if the intervening decade had never happened. Part of the appeal of Zombieland was the combination of an apocalyptic horror with a low-key hangout comedy, and that is dependent on cast chemistry. The years have not altered that. However, there’s also an awkwardness to the film, a sense in which it hasn’t managed to keep pace with times. A few of its jokes feel curiously dated, but it also seems strangely disengaged from any shifting cultural trends over the past decade.

The result is a movie that is as solid and charming as the original film, but which occasionally feels like it is running in place. Double Tap is easy and entertaining, but never quite gets the blood flowing.

Columbus’ Day.

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Non-Review Review: Maleficent – Mistress of Evil

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil might be the worst wide release of 2019, which is no small accomplishment in a year that produced Welcome to Marwen, Life Itself and Hellboy.

To be fair, the film’s starting point is decidedly eccentric. There is an argument to be made that the original Maleficent helped to kick start Disney’s live action remake renaissance, alongside the greater success of Alice in Wonderland. While the film didn’t quite do Aladdin or The Lion King numbers, it earned a hefty three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars at the global box office. It isn’t a surprise that it got a sequel. It is a surprise that the sequel took half-a-decade to materialise, to the point that Disney’s live action cinematic slate has already moved well beyond this villain-centric reimagining.

She’s really glowing lately.

Even allowing for the five year gap, Mistress of Evil is a staggeringly tone-deaf piece of work. The original Maleficent was a very clumsy piece of allegory, but an ambitious one. Obviously drawing from the same basic revisionist approach as Wicked or Oz: The Great and Powerful, the film attempted to offer an empathic and compassionate approach to one of the great villains of the Disney canon. The film depicted Maleficent as the victim of assault and shaming, a target of a patriarchal smear campaign.

Unfortunately, despite nods at subverting conventional gender narratives, Maleficent doubled down on them. Instead of allowing its title character her own strength and independence, Maleficent insisted on redeeming the character through the narrative of motherhood. This was decidedly uncomfortable, the obvious insinuation being that the only way for a woman to recover from such a brutal assault was through embracing conventional gender roles. Still, as misguided and clunky as the execution was, it was interesting to see a family-focused blockbuster story grappling with these sorts of big ideas.

“I’m Batman.”

Mistress of Evil somehow finds a way to double-down on the misguided clunkiness while also stripping out anything resembling an interesting or engaging social commentary. Almost everything about the movie is horrendously and grotesquely misjudged. Mistress of Evil is a frankly inexplicable hybrid of groan-worthy fifties domestic sitcom and pained allegory about the folly of resistance even when being herded into gas chambers. That isn’t even a “read” of the film, it’s “what is literally depicted on screen.”

The result is one of the most ill-judged blockbusters of the past twenty years.

Magnificent.

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Non-Review Review: The Irishman

“Time goes by so fast,” Frank Sheeran reflects to a young nurse late in the movie. He adds, “You’ll understand when you get there.”

Of course, the nurse doesn’t quite understand the passage of time in the way that Frank does. “You’re young,” he explains. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” In contrast, Frank Sheeran’s entire life seems to be left behind him. When The Irishman introduces the audience to its central character, he is already well past his prime. He is resting in a retirement community. He begins to narrate his story through internal monologue, but then decides to directly address the camera. After all, there is nobody left who might be exposed or shamed by his reminiscences. They are all long gone.

The end is DeNiro.

The audience really feels the passage of time in The Irishman. It is revealing that Frank’s most prized possession appears to be his watch. The watch itself changes as Frank’s situation does, becoming more ostentatious has his stock rises, but there is always a watch on the bedside table and it is always fixed first thing every morning. Even more than the ring that signifies his acceptance into the underground criminal fraternity, Frank holds tight to that watch. It measures the seconds that make up the minutes, the minutes that make up the hours, the hours that make up a life.

It is a critical cliché to praise a long film by saying that it doesn’t feel long, that the time spent watching a story unfold “flies by.” In some cases, that is true. Of this year’s hyper-extended offerings, both Avengers: Endgame and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood move breezily enough that they never feel their length. In contrast, The Irishman does feel every minute of its three-and-a-half hour runtime. That’s part of the movie’s power. By the time that the audience has reached that conversation between Frank and his nurse, they have some small understanding of what he is saying. They have lived that life with him.

Get Hoffa his case.

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Non-Review Review: Official Secrets

Official Secrets is an interesting story with some solid performances, but it’s also an unstructured mess.

Official Secrets unfolds against the backdrop of the lead up to (and immediate aftermath of) the invasion of Iraq. It follows GCHQ employee Katharine Gun’s decision to leak a classified internal memo in an effort to prevent the nation’s march to war. Along the way, Katherine’s story intersects with the press who bungled their efforts to hold the government to account, before evolving into something that vaguely resembles a Kafka-esque legal thriller about a woman charged with treason who cannot defend herself because to share any information with her legal team would be treason of itself.

Bringing a mic to the gun fight.

All of this should provide the solid basis for a character-driven drama. The film’s structure and content are typical of second-shelf-from-the-top awards fare; it is dealing with weighty subject matter in such a way that it also plays as a commentary on contemporary society, it is structured in such a way as to serve as a showcase for its lead performer who has a track record as an awards winner, and it treats its narrative and its characters with the solemnity that they deserve. This is quite close to something like Denial, to pick an obvious example.

Unfortunately, Official Secrets lacks to the sort of tight focus and easy self-confidence that elevates the best of these films. Official Secrets is constantly pushing itself and trying to ensure that it is holding the audience’s attention. It never feels entirely sure where the drama lies within the story, and so spreads its attention too wide and too thin. The result is a disjointed and uneven exploration of a story (and character) that deserve better.

“It’s all memo, memo, memo…”

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Non-Review Review: The Day Shall Come

The Day Shall Come is an ambitious piece of work that suffers from some very fundamental flaws.

Chris Morris’ long-awaited follow-up to Four Lions treads on relatively familiar ground. The narrative unfolds along two threads in parallel. The first of these focuses on Moses Al Shabazz and the Church of the Star of Six, a vaguely radical (but completely non-violent) religious organisation built around addressing historical injustice and using psychic powers to bring down construction cranes over Miami. The other narrative thread is build around the bureaucratic machinations of local law enforcement, desperate to justify the bulking up of their budget after the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

My ami.

Separately, these elements feel like they should work well enough for Morris. The opening credits promise that the film is “inspired by one hundred true stories” and the set-up is absurdist enough that it feels entirely believable. Morris’ knack has always been in articulating the heightened and surreal aspects of the modern world while grounding them in mundanity, so that even the most outlandish of concepts feels anchored in a world that is recognisable and convincing. Like all great satirists, Morris holds a mirror up to the world that he sees and produces a caricature that feels as true as an naturalist portrayal.

However, The Day Shall Come just doesn’t work. A lot of this is tonal, with one of the film’s two central story lines occasionally veering into trite sentimentality that feels completely at odds with the rest of the film and which plays as an attempt to soften Morris’ more conventional and abrasive style. The result is a film that has a few compelling elements and solid (if bleak) gags, but which often feels unjustly worried about how its audience will respond and so sands down its rough edges to make something more palatable. The problem is that the rough edges are by far the most interesting parts.

He can preach until he’s horse.

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Non-Review Review: Joker

The most interesting parts of Joker are inevitably going to be drowned out in shout matches about the least interesting parts of Joker.

Before the film was released, it seemed to have a totemic power. Critics (especially American critics) seemed tied up in how “dangerous” this cinematic origin story of a killer clown could be. Entertainment Weekly refused to assign the film a simple letter grade. Vulture ruminated on whether mainstream audiences were ready for a film that combined the moral ambiguity and grit of seventies cinema with the trappings of superhero blockbusters. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and director Todd Phillips did his bit to stir the pot by complaining about the “far left” or “woke” culture.

All of which seems to combine to suggest that Joker is a film of the moment, to imbue the live action R-rated autumnal release about Batman’s arch enemy with a powerful cultural resonance. Joker seemed to exist as a Rorschach test, even before anybody arguing about it had actually watched a full scene of footage from it. Listening to the chatter, reading the churn of the internet, it seemed like Joker had to mean something. Even if the film refused to provide a simple meaning, that meaning would be imposed on it. Joker was to be the best and worst of the current moment. It was to be a film that spoke to the “now.”

As such, it is almost a relief how stridently Joker refuses to actually say anything particularly insightful, and to trollishly chide the conversation around it for trying to force meaning upon it. In one of the film’s most absurdly on-the-nose moments, the camera passes over a demonstration outside a city opera house as protestors wave signs in the air. “We’re all clowns,” the sign proclaims. Amid the cacophony around it, how right Joker is.

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Non-Review Review: Judy

Judy is set primarily against the backdrop of Judy Garland’s time performing in London in the late sixties within the six months leading to her death.

As such, it’s no surprise that the film features more than a few sequences of the protagonist taking to the stage and performing to the sold out crowds. In fact, there are very few surprises in Judy at all. The film hits most of its marks and delivers pretty much everything that is expected of it. After all, what would be the point of a Judy Garland biography that didn’t include renditions of old favourites like Somewhere Over the Rainbow or even The Trolley Song? The film’s framing device allows director Rupert Goold to fold these classics in without having to embrace the musical sensibilities of something like Rocketman.

Let’s Judge Judy.

The most revealing and indicative of the performances peppered through the film is not the one where Garland falls to pieces, nor the one where she makes a triumphant return and pours her heart out to the audience. (Naturally, the film hits both of those marks.) The most compelling of these sing-on-stage sequences is the first. Having arrived in London, Garland has refused to rehearse. As opening night approaches, she sits in her bathroom drinking. She is micromanaged and guided to the stage, thrown out in front of the first crowd. She is palpably nervous. The audience is anxious. It could all fall apart.

And it… goes okay. It isn’t the best night ever, nor the worst. Garland’s voice cracks a little even when she finds the right tempo, her movements are slightly robotic rather than spontaneous or energised. However, despite these complaints, everything holds together long enough for Judy to finish the set. The crowd gets what they paid for, and Garland delivers what she promised. It plays almost as a microcosm of Judy as a whole.

A familiar song.

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