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Non-Review Review: Dating Amber

Dating Amber is a sweet, if perhaps overly familiar, coming of age story.

Dating Amber has a pretty compelling hook. Eddie and Amber are both gay teenagers growing up in rural Ireland during the mid-nineties. The country has just decriminalised sodomy, and finds itself in the midst of a highly divisive and contentious referendum on divorce. Against this backdrop, Amber hits on a clever idea to avoid the scrutiny of her classmates. She and Eddie will pretend to be a couple, so that they can both present as heterosexual long enough for Amber to escape this suffocating environment.

Vicious cycles.

It’s a very straightforward but compelling premise. It evokes the set-up of something like Easy A, tapping into the youthful anxieties of teenage life, and combines it with the increasingly progressive and diverse entries into the genre like Love Simon or Handsome Devil. Writer and director David Freyne draws from his own teenage experiences to add a level of authenticity, and the film is elevated by two winsome performances by Lola Petticrew and Fionn O’Shea.

The film lacks the delicate tonal balance that is necessary to elevate a teenage coming of age story from a charming affair to a classic of the genre, swerving too dramatically from its playful and cheeky opening premise to an overly earnest and sincere final stretch. It allows suffers slightly from a heavy reliance on formula, hitting most of the marks expected of a story like this, but never really finding a way to push past those conventions into something more profound or insightful. However, Dating Amber is an appealing and engaging entry into the genre.

Couple of friends.

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Non-Review Review: The High Note

The High Note doesn’t quite manage to hit the peak that it title suggests, but it hits most of the notes that it needs to.

The basic plot of The High Note concerns a personal assistant named Maggie who works for Grace Davis. Davis is a singer in the twilight years of her career, working hard to remain relevant and to stay afloat in an industry that seems ready to cast her aside. Maggie is convinced that her boss (and her idol) is capable of delivering so much more than her management and her record label expect of her, but finds herself trapped in an uphill battle to prove that she has a vision that is worth listening to.

She’s got the juice.

There are any number of obvious comparisons to be made with The High Note. The classic underappreciated-working-stiff-is-finally-recognised-as-a-prodigious-talent narrative unfolding against a Hollywood backdrop obviously evokes any of the myriad (official and unofficial) versions of A Star is Born. However, the emphasis within that template on a demanding ageing female star and the younger woman working under her feels like it is somewhat carried over from Nisha Ganatra’s previous film, Late Night.

The High Note is tremendously predictable, but it’s to the credit of Flora Greeson’s screenplay that the movie understands this. There are very few surprises nestled in the story, but The High Note leans into that. It is a surprisingly and endearing gentle movie about the path to stardom, one that keeps its stakes low and which tempers its formula with just enough self-awareness to avoid feeling stale or rehashed. The High Note is solid, sturdy and appealing – even if it seems to reflect the Grace Davis that audiences see, rather than the one that Maggie aspires towards.

Tune in for more…

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Non-Review Review: Scoob!

Have you ever wondered what it might look like is a beloved fifty-one-year-old children’s television franchise had a midlife crisis?

If so, Scoob! might just be for you.

We have lift-off.

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Non-Review Review: M.o.M. Mothers of Monsters

M.o.M. Mothers of Monsters is an ambitious and clever piece of indie horror constructed on a tight budget.

It marks the feature-length narrative directorial debut of Tucia Lyman. Lyman has a variety of experience in horror, particular on television shows like Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, Ghosts of Shepherdstown and Ghosts of Morgan City. With that in mind, it makes sense that Lyman’s first narrative feature should borrow a lot of the language of paranormal reality television. M.o.M. is essentially a found-footage horror film, with the audience navigating and assembling a collection of seemingly raw video files into a cohesive narrative.

Will he snap?

There is something inherently old-fashioned about the found footage horror template. The format was all the rage in the early years of the twenty-first century, perhaps informed by the use of first-person camcorder footage to document events like 9/11. It arguably reached its apotheosis with the release of the security-camera home haunting horror Paranormal Activity in 2007. Contemporary horror has moved back toward more traditional approaches, prompted by the success of films like The Conjuring, making M.o.M.‘s found footage approach feel decidedly retro.

M.o.M. is occasionally a little clumsy and heavy-handed, sometimes stretching its premise a little too far and struggling to balance sharp tonal shifts between heightened sensationalism and grounded domestic horror. Still, there’s something endearingly committed and energetic in this low-fi horror thriller, an infectious and gleeful embrace of its more absurd elements.

Receiving a dressing gown.

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Non-Review Review: The Assistant

The Assistant is a quiet and simmering examination of complicity.

The story unfolds over the course of a single day in the life (mostly the office) of Jane. Jane is the eponymous assistant, working at an independent film company in New York as the right-hand woman to a(n in)famous producer with an explosive temper and monstrous appetites. Kitty Green’s film follows Jane from her early morning Uber ride into work to the single muffin that she allows herself at the deli on the way home, keeping an intense and claustrophobic close-up on lead actor Julia Garner.

Garnering praise.

The Assistant arrives with enough weight that the audience knows what it is about even before the film clearly articulates it. The Assistant is transparently a #metoo movie and the unnamed and largely unseen (but very clearly heard and very strongly felt) producer is very plainly a stand-in for convicted sexual offender Harvey Weinstein. This allows The Assistant a great deal of freedom. Because the audience comes to the film with that assumed knowledge, Green’s script and direction are able to peddle in ambiguity and tease the veil of plausible deniability.

The beauty of The Assistant lies in the way that both the audience and Jane (and seemingly everybody else) knows what is happening, but keep their head down and their focus elsewhere. It’s a story about looking away so that one might see no evil and the noise that people make so that they might hear no evil. It’s an anxious, ominous, suffocating study of the constant smoothing done at the margins of these sorts of horror stories.

Dial it back.

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Non-Review Review: Underwater

There’s a surprising charm to Underwater, which largely extends from its sense of propulsive forward momentum.

Underwater is not necessarily a good movie. It often feels like two radically different and highly derivative science-fiction movies stitched together, transposed from deep space to the deep sea. Underwater is never entirely sure whether it wants to be Gravity… but in the ocean” or Alien… but in the ocean”, and so repeatedly finds itself caught between the two extremes. It is a film populated by archetypes rather than characters, and which is pushed from one set piece to the next by percussive force rather than any coherent throughline.

A deep dive.

And yet, in spite of all that, there’s something strangely appealing about the mismatch of elements at play in Underwater. It isn’t just the way in which the film bounces haphazardly between a disaster film and a monster movie, it is also reflected in the casting. Underwater is a B-movie that brings together quite an eclectic set of leads. Kristen Stewart continues the gentle transition back towards the mainstream that began with Charlie’s Angels, but finds herself working opposite a cast including arthouse favourite Vincent Cassel and broader performers like T.J. Miller.

These seemingly contradictory elements create a strange frisson within the film, one that is just as volatile as the energy reactor that (inevitably) threatens to got critical to add an extra layer of pressure to the already beleaguered characters. However, director William Eubank seems to understand that these components are highly unstable, and so Underwater moves a dizzying pace that helps to prevent any of internal imbalances from reaching critical mass. It’s hardly the stuff of create cinema, but it’s a surprisingly sturdy and energised B-movie.

Suited to the task.

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Non-Review Review: Fantasy Island

What, exactly, is the point of the Blumhouse reboot of Fantasy Island?

To be fair, Blumhouse are a studio with a varied track record. They have produced some of the most interesting and compelling mainstream horror movies of the past few decades, including films like Get Out and The Invisible Man. They have also produced a fair amount of cynical schlock, such as Truth or Dare. There are also a number of films that seem to exist in the middle ground between those two extremes, like The Hunt or Black Christmas. It’s certainly a more varied approach than the standard horror films that heralded the studio’s arrival, like Insidious or Sinister.

Palming it off.

Jason Blum is a shrewd producer, and there’s a sense in looking at the studio’s output of trying to balance competing artistic and commercial demands. Blum tends to keep budgets under control, but he also seems to offset the riskier and more ambitious projects with generic crowd-pleasing fare. Fantasy Island would seem to belong in that category, but exactly what crowd is it intended to please? Watching Fantasy Island is a strange experience, and not just because of the multitude of structural and storytelling problems.

On a more basic level: who exactly is this movie for?

Can’t stick the island-ing.

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