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Non-Review Review: UglyDolls

UglyDolls exists in the “uncanny valley” of modern children’s animated films.

Films like UglyDolls are a reminder of how profoundly Pixar has altered the cinematic landscape, and shifted expectations in terms of what audiences – young and old – expect from these sorts of films. Most obviously, the basic premise of UglyDolls echoes that of Toy Story; in much the same way that, say, The Emoji Movie mirrors Inside Out. This is a film about sentient toys trying to find an existential justification for their existence, often defined in terms of their relationship to a child. UglyDolls is a movie aout misfit toys cast out from the factory assembly line, wondering if they will ever be worth of love.

All dolled up with nowhere to go.

To be fair to UglyDolls, it is much better than The Emoji Movie. At the very least, UglyDolls understands that the film needs to be ordered around a strong central theme. UglyDolls has a solid conceptual basis, a familiar children’s movie allegory, and a very straightforward narrative structure. That said, although somewhat less crass in its materialist ambitions than The Emoji Movie, the film feels cynically calculated in other ways. The casting of performers like Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe and Blake Sheldon seems designed to move the film’s soundtrack album. And the premise is obviously toyetic.

Still, UglyDolls comes closer than most of these sorts of films to working, largely failing because it ultimately underestimates the maturity and intelligence of its target audience.

A glass apart.

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142. American History X – Summer of ’99 (#34)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Charlene Lydon, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, kicking off our Summer of ’99 season, Toby Kaye’s American History X.

1999 was a great year for movies, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that would define cinema for a next generation: The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, The Best Man, Cruel Intentions, Fight Club. The Summer of ’99 season offers a trip through the year in film on the IMDb‘s 250.

Danny Vinyard finds himself called to the principal’s office after submitting a salacious and controversial essay citing Adolf Hitler as a civil rights hero. There, the school principal Doctor Sweeney sets Derek another assignment: a personally essay exploring his relationship with his white supremacist brother Derek. Derek Vinyard was just released from prison that morning, and is about to discover that putting his life back together will not be as easy as he might have hoped.

At time of recording, it was ranked 34th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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Non-Review Review: Luce

Luce is a compelling dialogue-driven thriller, anchored in a set of impressive performances and a meaty script.

At its core, Luce is a study of integration and idealism. It touches on the question of identity, that established by an individual and that imposed by the people around them. Luce derives its title and its tension from its lead character, a promising young African American student. Adopted by an upper-middle class white couple and rescued from his past as a child soldier, Luce has become an exemplar. He is an all-star debater, an impressive academic student, a successful athlete. He is loved by both the faculty and his fellow students. To hear the other characters talk about him, Luce is just about perfect.

Getting schooled.

Naturally, Luce challenges that idea. Luce invites the audience to wonder whether the title character really is everything that everybody else believes him to be. More than that, the film interrogates why so many people seem to need Luce to be an exemplar. The film is a fraught push-and-pull as questions are raised about Luce. When the honours student turns in an inflammatory essay and when fireworks with the explosive power of a shotgun are found in his locker, the characters around Luce find themselves asking if they understand the teenager, or if they ever could.

The result is a tense and claustrophobic drama, as the characters navigating these accusations and insinuations try to constantly reconfigure their understanding of the title character. It’s a remarkable push-and-pull, elevated by some very potent themes and a wealth of strong performances.

Keeping track.

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Non-Review Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain places a prestige veneer on the weirdness of the recent “man’s best friend” tear-jerker subgenre.

A Dog’s Journey and A Dog’s Purpose were a rough-and-ready example of the genre, films exploring the complicated world of human beings through the simple mind of a dog. There was an almost endearing clumsiness to how ruthlessly those films targeted the audience’s emotional vulnerability; A Dog’s Purpose used the gimmick of reincarnation as a narrative “get out of jail free” card, making a point to kill off its canine protagonist no fewer than three times, understanding this as a shortcut to the audience’s tear ducts.

“It’s about the good walk,
And the hard walk…
… It’s a beautiful ride.”

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a more prestigious product, executed with greater craft. That doesn’t mean that The Art of Racing in the Rain is any less surreal or eccentric than other entries in the subgenre, nor should it imply that The Art of Racing in the Rain has pushed that subgenre beyond the underlying assumptions that the bodily functions of a dog are hilarious. Instead, the polished exterior of The Art of Racing in the Rain is all about execution as opposed to content. The film makes the same points in the same ways, but shifts its tone to approximate sophistication.

The results are no less uncanny for that attempt at sophistication. If anything, The Art of Racing in the Rain feels all the weirder for how it juxtaposes the sillier and goofier “talking animal movie” tropes with the sensibilities of more earnest fare. The Art of Racing in the Rain is aggressive and merciless in its attempt to conjure up an emotional response to its over-extended central metaphor, but the film’s surreality lingers much longer.

Thinks are looking pup.

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Non-Review Review: Fast and Furious Presents – Hobbs and Shaw

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw works best when it delivers exactly what audiences expect from that title.

The breakout star of The Fate of the Furious was the chemistry between Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson. Behind the scenes conflicts between Johnson and franchise headliner Vin Diesel had forced the production team to structure the eighth film in the franchise so Johnson and Diesel didn’t have to share the screen. This led to a number of endearingly absurd set pieces, such as a heart-to-heart appeal between the two men conducted across a street over the speaker systems of monster cars. It also meant that Johnson had to find a new screen partner, and Statham was the member of the ensemble who fit the bill.

I have to admit, there were many more explosions and fistfights than I expected for a historical biopic exploring the relationship between Thomas Hobbes and George Bernard Shaw.

It’s easy to over-intellectualise the chemistry between Johnson and Statham. There’s the obvious physical contrast; Johnson has the bulk of a former professional wrestler, while Statham has the lean physique of a diver. There’s Johnson’s wholesome all-American persona set against Statham’s slightly devilish charm. There’s Johnson’s deep authoritative voice playing off Statham’s distinctly hard-edged accent. The duo play very well as a study in contrasts, while both also being able to support otherwise forgettable action films in their own right. They are a perfect fit.

Hobbs and Shaw works best when it understands this. The film’s best scenes are not the ridiculously over-the-top action scenes, which often seem borrowed or lifted from much better movies and which only fleetingly manage to tip themselves over into the delightful surrealist absurdity that makes the modern (Johnson era) Fast and Furious movies such a delight. Instead, the movie comes to life when Johnson and Statham are trading schoolyard insults, posturing and snarking, indulging in the sort of old-fashioned buddy action movie banter that is so rare these days.

Suns out, guns out.

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Non-Review Review: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fairy tale, for better and for ill.

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Non-Review Review: The Angry Birds Movie 2

The Angry Birds Movie 2 is a mess, a film that seems uncertain of its own target audience.

Like the original Angry Birds Movie, the sequel feels like something a throwback, an animated film that evolutionary leap that Pixar brought to computer-generated animation during their peak in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Other animated studios have come to embrace the sort of sophisticated storytelling that elevated those iconic and beloved Pixar films, most notably Dreamworks in projects like Kung-Fu Panda or How to Train Your Dragon.

Cool customers.

In contrast, both The Angry Birds Movie and The Angry Birds Movie 2 feel displaced in time, or perhaps even a glimpse sideways into a world where Wall-E and Up never happened, so Shrek and its sequels still provide a template for storytelling in computer-generated animation. The Angry Birds Movie arguably made a better deal of this than one could expect, with an approach that harked back to the cartoonish sociopathy that defined so much of twentieth-century American animation, a particularly crass and crude spin on the Tex Avery template.

There are moments in The Angry Birds Movie 2 were that retrograde influence clearly shines through. In fact, The Angry Birds Movie 2 is at its strongest when it feels more like a collection of Looney Tunes sketches than an actually narrative. Unfortunately, all of this gets muddle; the eggs that were such an important plot point in The Angry Birds Movie get scrambled, as the film jumps from extremes; broad pop culture parodies, nineties nostalgia, absurd cartoonish violence, pseudo-feminism, a jilted lover plot, commentary on modern dating.

The se-squeal.

Maybe some of these elements could work in isolation, if the production team found an interesting angle into. Maybe some of these elements could work in unison, if they were combined in small doses and with a clear over-arching design in mind. However, The Angry Birds Movie 2 never seems sure of what it wants to be or who it wants to be for, creating a strange cocktail that doesn’t serve any of its audience particularly well.

The result is something of a curate’s egg.

Birds of a feather.

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