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Non-Review Review: Black ’47

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Black ’47 is a powerful piece of pulp storytelling, a bold and daring window into an under-served chapter of Irish history.

Directed by Lance Daly, working from a story derived by a variety of writers, Black ’47 is essentially a western set against the background of the Irish Famine. Of course, the reality is much more nuanced than that simple description would suggest, but it provides a suitable starting point for discussion. Indeed, all the genre elements are in place; a soldier returns home from war to discover the horrors that have befallen his family, and decides that there shall be no justice on earth save for that which he might exact by his own hand.

Black ’47 is a very sparse and rugged film. It would be a surprise if the nominal lead character, Feeney, speaks more than one hundred words. Indeed, at one point he explicitly rejects the English language as a tool of communication. The landscape of the film is rough and cold, the audience feeling the chill that runs through the film and almost smelling the decay in the air. Black ’47 reflects its rough and wild settings, and the characters who have been shaped and moulded by those surroundings.

Black ’47 is an effective piece of storytelling.

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Non-Review Review: The Lodgers

The Lodgers is a beautifully-directed and somewhat muddled gothic horror film.

The Lodgers literally drips with atmosphere, as one might imagine given the combination of writer David Turpin and director Brian O’Malley. Turpin has studied and lectured in English, writing his doctoral thesis on therianthropy. O’Malley directed Let Us Prey, one of the most visually striking and memorable Anglo-Irish horror films of the past couple of years. As such, a gothic horror set against the backdrop of Irish Independence seems very much in keeping with their aesthetics, and it does not disappoint.

The fall of the house of Lodgers.

The Lodgers is a rich piece of work, both in terms of visuals and themes. Like any good horror story, the subtext simmers through the work, O’Malley and Turpin tapping into rich veins of social and political anxiety, often weaving those threads together in a compelling and exciting manner. The Lodgers might be best described as the work of Edgar Allan Poe channeled through a seance with William Butler Yeats. It feels undeniably Irish, rooted in the land and its people.

At the same time, The Lodgers suffers slightly in its own internal mechanics. Like the big house at the centre of the story, the construction is largely sound. However, there is a sense that some upkeep and maintenance might be required. The Lodgers is undercut by a number of key defects including its casting and its dialogue. The Lodgers is visually striking and rich, but it stumbles in some of its more basic elements.

Stairway to heaven.

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Non-Review Review: Finding Your Feet

Finding Your Feet is a fairly placid and mostly unobjectionable film that adheres to an increasingly familiar formula, a gentle reminder that life can often begin at sixty.

Finding Your Feet largely coasts off the charm of its cast, who seem to be having an enjoyable time with one another and appreciating the opportunity to find themselves cast as romantic leads in a globe-trotting adventure. In particular, there is something disarming in seeing Timothy Spall cast as a charming romantic lead, a disarmingly sincere lovable rogue who inevitably scrubs up quite nicely. Finding Your Feet offers very few surprises, but that is part of the attraction, perhaps worried that too many surprises might throw off the presumed viewer.

Spall good, baby.

However, Finding Your Feet is too awkward and clumsy to allow the audience to get entirely caught up in the familiar beats and rhythms of the tale. The familiar plotting of Finding Your Feet helps compensate for some strange storytelling decisions, with major character arcs unfolding off-screen and the film trying to fill its run time with things happening rather than focusing on the people to whom these things are happening.

Finding Your Feet is bland and inoffensive, its central cast providing a disarming charm that the movie never quite earns.

The sequel will feature a new addition to the cast and will be titled, ‘So You Think You Can Charles Dance?’

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Non-Review Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

The Cloverfield Paradox is important. It’s just not very good.

The Cloverfield Paradox is a movie that seems destined to be overshadowed by the circumstances of its release. The Cloverfield Paradadox is one of several films that Netflix harvested from the increasingly beleaguered Paramount Pictures. Netflix will be handling the international distribution of Annihilation and picked up The Irishman when Paramount backed out. However, The Cloverfield Paradox remains one of the strangest fruits of this bitter harvest, in large part because of its pedigree, its production and its release.

It ain’t Clover ’til it’s Clover…

As the title implies, The Cloverfield Paradox is part of the shared universe of JJ Abrams films including Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane. Both were films that cleverly snuck up on audiences, and both were films that performed well for Paramount. As such, Paramount’s decision to sell off The Cloverfield Paradox seems strange – this is one of the company’s few successful properties, and there is even a fourth movie in the pipeline still aiming for a theatrical release. It seems a strange choice for Paramount to offload on Netflix.

Then again, the film’s production was notoriously troubled. The film was originally titled “The God Particle” before being changed to “Cloverfield Station” before finally being released as “The Cloverfield Paradox.” While the finished film looks impressive and has a top-notch cast, watching it is an incredibly disjointed experience. There is a sense that The Cloverfield Paradox has not been edited so much as filleted, that the audience is watching the leftover elements of a film that have been assembled from leftovers after the connecting tissue has been scraped from the bone.

Admiring the handiwork.

However, all of this is overshadowed by the circumstances of the film’s release, with Netflix finallising the deal to purchase The Cloverfield Paradox in late January, reportedly paying over $50m for it, and releasing it directly following the Super Bowl. There were no critics’ screenings, no advanced hype. There were simply two television spots promising viewers that they could watch the film on Netflix “after the game.” This was a brutally effective piece of marketting from Netflix, using the film to create a “disruption” to the established pattern of major movie releases.

This was an uncanny move, because all of the surrounding hype around this “event” glosses over the fact that The Cloverfield Paradox is just a new sheen on a familiar cliché. It is a “direct to video” film elevated to a seismic pop cultural phenomenon. And it is not even a good “direct to video” film.

Station-keeping.

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Non-Review Review: The Mercy

It can be tempting when reviewing contemporary films to looks for some sort of profound meaning, some deep insight on the contemporary world reflected back on celluloid. This is particularly true in the current climate, when it seems like every piece of American pop culture is just waiting to be read as a meditation upon the tenure of President Donald J. Trump. Some of this is because politics are particularly inescapable at this moment, when a reality television star is the leader of a free world. Part of it is perhaps down to critics trying to make their own meaning in the world.

Nevertheless, The Mercy seems to be the quintessential Brexit film. A biography of (in)famous British sailor Donald Crowhurst, The Mercy is a fascinating piece of a work. A large part of the film’s success is down to how skilfully and cannily it manipulates its audience and their expectations, how heavily leans on the tropes and conventions of the standard biographical drama to wrongfoot the viewer. The Mercy starts out as one type of film, only to make a brutal swerve into another. It is a harrowing tale of grand delusion smashed against the shoals of reality.

Tough sail.

Note: This review will assume some passing familiarity with the story of British sailor Donald Crowhurst. These true-life events may be considered spoilers for audience members without any foreknowledge and who wish to see the movie entirely blind. So consider this something of a spoiler warning.

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Non-Review Review: Black Panther

Black Panther is something special.

In a lot of ways, it is a very typical Marvel blockbuster. The familiar formula is in place, and the movie follows the rhythms that audiences have come to expect from these films. There is a certain tempo and structure to the film, the sort of clean efficiency that delineates most of the movies produced under the banner of Marvel Studios. For a film advertised using a remix of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, it is striking how conservative Black Panther is.

The Panther Strikes!

However, there is a lot to be said for the film’s more understated revolutionary qualities, the depth of understanding that the production team bring to the adaptation. Black Panther is acutely aware of what it means to construct a superhero fantasy epic about an African prince who leads a utopian society in the context of 2017, and there is something reassuring in how confidently and efficiently the film works within that framework. It is not merely that the existence of Black Panther is important, it is that Black Panther‘s assertion of its identity is important.

Black Panther is superior blockbuster by any measure, constructed with a great deal of care and thought about what it means. Much like its title character, there is a sense that the weight of expectation is upon Black Panther, and the most remarkable thing about the film is how seriously it takes that obligation without ever feeling burdened.

Heavy lies the head that wears the cowl.

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Non-Review Review: Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is certainly a beautiful film.

In many ways it resembles the dresses designed by the artist at its centre. It is elegant, well-composed, stylish. It looks perfect and has just the right texture. Phantom Thread is a meticulously-produced piece of work, with every technical aspect of the film delivered to the highest possible standard. More than that, Phantom Thread is a very clever and incisive film, one that arguably feels much more suited to this particular cultural moment than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Tailored to the role.

However, Phantom Thread feels like one of Reynolds Woodcock’s dresses in another manner. As fantastic as it might look, it is not designed for living. There is one memorable sequence in the middle of the film where Woodcock actually confiscates the dress from a patron because it is not being treated with the pomp and ceremony that he expects. These are dresses for display, designed to leave observers breathless. It never ignites the same passion as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, never feeling as anchored in appreciable human emotion.

Phantom Thread often feels too much like strolling through Woodcock’s parlour, the audience invited to examine the sheer craft and cleverness of what is being done, but warned in the starkest possible terms not to touch anything. There is beauty, but no feeling.

Make it sew.

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