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Non-Review Review: King Richard

King Richard is an interesting take on the classic sports biopic.

On the one hand, King Richard is a very conventional film. It’s a movie that hits all of the marks that one expects for an inspiring look at two sports icons like Venus and Serena Williams. There is family tension. There are debates about whether the young athletes are ready. There are training montages. Made with the active participation of the Williams family, King Richard was never going to be a gritty “warts and all” interrogation of its subject. Instead, it’s a charming and charismatic star vehicle for Will Smith, one of cinemas most charming and charismatic stars.

King Richard holds Court.

However, there’s also an interesting tension at play within the film itself, one that derives from the film’s understand of just how inevitable the success of Venus and Serena Williams actually is. To be fair, most sports biopics are stories of triumph over adversity, given that they tend to focus on successful sports stars. However, Venus and Serena Williams exist in such rarified company, dominating culture to such an impressive degree, that the conclusion of King Richard doesn’t just feel predetermined but inescapable.

Cleverly, King Richard doesn’t try to fight this idea. Instead, it leans into it. King Richard is a character study of Richard Williams, the hustler who boasts eagerly and enthusiastically that he is “in the champion-raising business.” To any outside observer, Richard’s confidence borders on insanity. When an observer remarks that he’s claiming to have raised “the next Mohammad Ali”, Richard is quick to correct them and boast that he’s got “two” of them. There’s an interesting frisson at play here, because King Richard trusts its audience to know that – no matter how surreal his claims might appear to his contemporaries – he is entirely correct.

A Rich(ard) character study…

In hindsight, it seems almost absurd to point out how severely the odds were stacked against the success of Venus and Serena Williams. The two were born into a large working class family in Compton, surrounded by drugs and violence, with nowhere to train but community tennis courts. Richard and his wife Brandy didn’t have the money to send the pair to upper-class academies, so had to teach the girls themselves with an obsessive devotion to recording and playing back the work of professionals. However, none of that really matters, because any audience watching King Richard knows the outcome of this story.

The result of all of this is a sports biopic that hews quite close to the familiar rhythms and template of other sports biopics, but which operates according to a different internal tension. It’s a movie which sticks close enough to events that there’s no second act humbling of Richard, Venus or Serena. The movie never tries to build suspense around whether its stars are going to succeed in the face of the enormous odds against them, but instead about when and why. It’s a subtle shift in emphasis. However, coupled with the film’s strong casting and powerhouse lead performance, it’s enough to help King Richard stand out from the crowd.

The perfect Ten(nis)?

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Non-Review Review: Ghostbusters – Afterlife

In the final act of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, young Phoebe has a sudden realisation about the farm that her family has inherited from her eccentric grandfather. “This isn’t a farm,” she boasts. “It’s a trap.”

She could just as easily be talking about the film itself. Afterlife is a belated sequel to the original Ghostbusters, consigning Ghostbusters II to a weird continuity limbo where Ray still owns an occult bookstore but there’s no way that that the film’s climax could have happened. The film follows the family of Egon Spengler, his estranged daughter and her two grandchildren, who take ownership of his farm shortly after his death. Inevitably, the family unit learns that the eccentric patriarch who abandoned them in the middle of the night with no explanation really did love them all along.

Blast from the past.

Afterlife is suffocated in a reverential nostalgia that treats the original Ghostbusters as a fetish object. Sure, a casual audience member might watch Ghostbusters as an irreverent mid-eighties comedy that was cleverly skewing Reagan era values, but Afterlife instead sees an earnest classic of American cinema that deserves to be venerated and celebrated as a monument of popular culture. Much like Ivo Shandor erected the skyscraper at 55 Central Park West as a tribute to the Cult of Gozer, Afterlife has been erected as a monument to the cult of Ghostbusters.

It’s telling that the movie’s subtitle is “Afterlife” rather than “Resurrection.” This is not a movie about breathing new life into an existing property. It’s not about finding anything new or interesting to do with these characters or concepts. Instead, it’s about finding a way to tap into the audience’s desire for Ghostbusters nostlagia as a way to wring a few more dollars. In its own way, Afterlife is as cynical as Peter Venkeman in the original Ghostbusters, but at least Venkeman had the decency not to disguise his ruthless pragmatism as earnest sentiment.

Kidding around.

Afterlife is a nightmare coloured in shades of sepia-tinted nostalgia. It is a story about how the best that children can ever hope to accomplish is to emulate their forebearers, foresaking any identity of their own as they grapple with problems that their grandparents singularly failed to resolve. It is a story about how even death is not enough to remove a respected actor and writer from his obligations to a piece of intellectual property, and a reminder of how easily the dead can be animated to serve the demands of the living.

In the world of Afterlife, the dead exist to satisfy the living. This isn’t nostalgia, it is necrophilia.

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New Escapist Video! “Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a Lifeless Franchise Resurrection”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which will release in theatres next weekend.

Non-Review Review: Spencer

Spencer introduces itself as “a fable based on a true tragedy.” The official synopsis describes the movie as “an imagining of what might have happened.”

The obvious point of comparison is Jackie. Both are movies directed by Pablo Larraín, offering a tightly-focused profile of their young, famous, female subjects. However, while Jackie is very much about a character who is cannily and carefully cultivating a mythology out of tragedy, Spencer is perhaps about a character failing to do just that. Jackie Kennedy was able to build the myth of “Camelot” in the wake of her husband’s death, a monument that would last generations. Spencer imagines its female protagonist crushed beneath the weight of a national myth, learning that “no one is above tradition.”

A sorry estate of affairs…

Diana Spencer remains a fascinating figure. She has a strong hold on popular culture. Her narrative is a driving force in the second half of The Crown. There was a spectacularly ill-judged attempt at a more conventional biopic with Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana. Her ghost haunted The Queen. Diana is often described as “the people’s princess”, but there’s something unsettling even in that affectionate appelation. It is, after all, possessive. It opens up the question of whether Diana was every truly allowed to be herself, or was instead beholden to everybody else – the royals, the public, the ghosts of royal consorts past.

Spencer is very much a companion piece to Jackie, but it feels more like a ghost story. It is haunting and ethereal, its subject flinching even from Larraín’s gaze. The result is enchanting, but also deliberately and effectively frustrating. Spencer is a fable, complete with all the echoing space that such stories usually contain.

Christmas Mourning.

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Non-Review Review: Eternals

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is a small, but necessary, step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There has been a lot of pre-publicity around Eternals, most of it centring on Zhao as an auteur. Zhao has given interviews insisting that she directed all of the film’s action. Kevin Feige has talked about how her work convinced Disney executives to shoot in real locations rather than simply rendering a lot of the movie in post-production. As such, Eternals has become a weird battleground for the idea of authorship within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When Marvel saw the breadth of its domain…

It is easy to understand why this is. There have been Marvel Studios movies directed by Oscar-winners before; Joe Johnson won an Academy Award for visual effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Taika Waititi recently won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for JoJo Rabbit. However, there is something tangibly different about seeing a big budget blockbuster coming from an artist who won both Best Picture and Best Director at that year’s Academy Awards.

It also makes sense in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have undoubtedly been Marvel Studios films with strong senses of authorship: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. However, those movies all feel quite a long time ago. Although one can perhaps pick up traces of Cate Shortland’s personality in Black Widow or Daniel Destin Cretton’s interests in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, those films feel very familiar and very rote.

Red eyes in the morning…

There is tangible sense of opportunism at play in way that Marvel Studios has positioned Eternals as an auteur-driven project. After all, the studio has a long and complicated history with directors who have distinct visions; Patty Jenkins, Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay have all suggested that the company’s culture is not particularly welcoming to creatives. In particular, Zhao’s assertion that she oversaw the movie’s action sequences exists in the context of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who recalls being told that if she chose to direct Black Widow, she would not be allowed to direct the action scenes.

Again, context is important here. Eternals is really the company’s first director-driven project since Black Panther, which is a big deal given the studio’s history of beginning pre-visualization of scenes and special effects “before the cinematographer or director has signed on to the project.” While movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Ant Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home are all varying degrees of entertaining, none of them feel like the work of a filmmaker who has something particularly pressing to say about the modern world.

Superfriends.

All this tension plays through Eternals, the fine balancing act between a director with a very distinctive artistic sensibility working with a studio that appears eager to launder its reputation by association, while also being anxious that this auteur doesn’t get to go too far. In some ways, Eternals feels like a limit case for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an example of just how far the studio will allow a creative talent to stretch a rubber band before aggressively snapping it back into the default position.

This is the challenge facing Eternals. It goes further than any Marvel Studios film in recent memory, but that’s still not far enough.

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Non-Review Review: Last Night in Soho

Last Night in Soho is a fascinating snapshot of the siren lure of nostalgia, and how it is so often filtered through a presumptive male gaze.

Last Night in Soho follows a young student named Eloise who moves to London for the first time to follow her dream of becoming a fashion designer. After some tensions with her roommate, Eloise moves out of her apartment into a small bedsit, with warnings that past tenants have had some strange experiences in the flat – disappearing in the dead of night, as if fleeing from something that shares the space. Eloise has always been sensitive to otherworldly presences, and it is no surprise when she seems to connect with the memories imprinted in her new bedroom.

Who nose?

Night after night, Eloise is seduced by memories of a young woman named Sandy, who came to London to pursue her own ambitions of becoming a singer. Sandy met a handsome talent agent named Jack, who promises that he can make all of her dreams come true. As Eloise sinks deeper into this nostalgic fantasies of the swinging sixties, she notices that the lines are begin blur – between her waking moments and her sleeping thoughts, between herself and the girl who visits her at night, between dreams and nightmares.

At its core, Last Night in Soho is a meditation on the idea that it is not always so easy to escape the past.

Bad romance.

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New Escapist Video! “Army of Thieves Is a By-The-Numbers Heist Movie – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Army of Thieves, which will release on Netflix this weekend.

New Escapist Video! “The Last Duel Proves Ridley Scott Is Still Sharp – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of The Last Duel, which released theatrically worldwide last weekend.

Non-Review Review: The French Dispatch

The French Dispatch is a sweet and sincere love letter to a certain kind of journalistic endeavour, and to the creative process beyond that. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly disjointed and uneven.

To be fair, these structural problems come with the format. Wes Anderson has constructed his latest film as an anthology, one loosely designed to mirror the flow of a magazine like The New Yorker. The film is comprised of an opening obituary, a travellogue, and three short stories, all designed to emulate the structure of reading a classic journalistic magazine. It’s an interesting and ambitious approach to structuring a movie, one not without challenges and one that allows Anderson the opportunity to lean into his already heightened sensibility.

That is a lot of Wes Anderson.

However, as with many anthology films, The French Dispatch suffers from an unevenness in terms of pacing. As one might expect from an anthology directed by a filmmaker as distinctive as Anderson, The French Dispatch does maintain a consistent tone across its various elements, but it also suffers from stopping and starting five times over. It doesn’t help that each of the three stories flows in much the same way, playing on many of the same tropes of Anderson’s storytelling, starting with Anderson’s signature arch detachment and inevitably puncturing it with small glimpses of humanity.

The appeal of a magazine like the fictional French Dispatch is a diversity of voices and perspectives. The film positions itself as a celebration of the individual journalists relating their stories to the audience, finding their own ways into these narratives and sharing something over themselves with the world. However, while the film does afford some shading of the characters themselves in the framing sections and within the narrative, the stories themselves all feel like they are cut from the same clothe. They are even similar in stylistic terms, mostly shot in black-and-white Academy ratio, occasionally breaking that for dramatic effect.

Stu(dent)ing resentment…

To be fair, this isn’t a fatal problem. Anderson remains a director with a strong aesthetic and keen sense of humour. His worlds are elaborately constructed, both rich and textured. For all that Anderson’s rigid formalism can seem twee or arch, his films are often possessed of a real heart, one that is all the more effective for sneaking up on the audience through these otherwise carrefully composed surroundings and often caricatured characters. The French Dispatch is no different. It is a film with charm to spare, and with a genuine heart beneath it.

Still, for all that The French Dispatch is a celebration of artistic freedom and discovery, and a passionate argument for an editorial hand the encourages distinct voices and approaches over one that imposes a consistent style, by the time the third story is finished, it feels too much the work of a singular voice working a familiar framework.

The Wright stuff.

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New Escapist Video! “Halloween Kills is a Bloody (and Ambitious) Mess – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Halloween Kills, which released theatrically and on Peacock this weekend.