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Non-Review Review: Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell is a paradox of a film, a narrative so propelled with righteous fury that it somehow misses its own point.

Clint Eastwood’s latest is his tightest and leanest narrative since Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, and this is not a coincidence. There’s considerable thematic overlap between Richard Jewell and Sully, both of which speak to themes that interest Eastwood as one of the defining American filmmakers. Like Sully, Richard Jewell is the story of an exception person who heroically saves lives only to witness the bureaucratic institutions of the state (and the press) turn upon them.

Pressing on.

Of course, Richard Jewell is quite distinct from Sully. Eastwood trades out “America’s Dad” Tom Hanks for the more ambiguous figure of Paul Walter Hauser. While Hanks is the embodiment of American decency, a clear-cut spiritual successor to Jimmy Stewart, Hauser has largely been defined by more muddy and murky roles with fantastic turns in films like I, Tonya and BlackKklansman. Indeed, the opening act of Richard Jewell leans into Hauser’s inscrutability, suggesting a more ambiguous interrogation of masculine heroism.

Unfortunately, Richard Jewell does not develop in that direction. Its early suggestions of moral complexity and anxieties about individual as much as collective authority give way to a stirring condemnation of a conspiracy to “railroad an innocent man.” This righteous fury is entirely justified, after all. The press and the authorities demonised Jewell, arguably hounding him to an early grave. However, Richard Jewell winds up so caught up in its righteous fury that it winds up “railroading” another innocent, abusing its power in the same way it accuses the press and authorities.

Lawyer up.

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Non-Review Review: Bad Boys For Life

Bad Boys For Life is an extremely stupid and occasionally veering on incoherent film. It is also a lot of fun.

There are any number of obvious problems with Bad Boys For Life. The pacing and plotting is a mess, stopping and starting at random intervals depending on the film’s mood as much as its own internal logic. Characterisation varies wildly from one scene to the next. Bad Boys For Life has even picked up some of the more frustratingly formulaic narrative beats from modern blockbusters, stumbling blindly into overwrought bathos and even attempting to offer a retroactively Freudian origin story for veteran police officer Mike Lowrey. It also understands that modern blockbusters have to be “about” things; in this case, growing old.

Welcome to Miami.

However, a large part of the charm of Bad Boys For Life is the way in which the film seems to have taken virtually every note that an executive might possibly offer and decided to approach these notes in a way that feels surprisingly fitting for a belated follow-up to Michael Bay’s bombastic duology. Bad Boys For Life is unashamedly and unapologetically its own thing. This results in a cocktail that doesn’t exactly go down smooth, but at least offers a refreshing and distinctive flavour. It helps that Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah lean strongly into the series’ sensibility, and invest heavily in its core strengths.

For all its gestures towards the modern age of intellectual-property-driven franchise-building, Bad Boys For Life grasps that the heart and soul of the series has always been the charm in watching Will Smith and Martin Lawrence bounce off one another. That dynamic between Smith and Lawrence, two performers who know how to work an audience and a camera, are arguably what grounded the first two films – keeping a very human perspective amid the ensuing “Bayhem.” In Bad Boys For Life, they does something similar, adding a charismatic star power that is often absent from contemporary blockbuster production.

Police don’t stop.

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Non-Review Review: A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is both surprisingly moving and about an hour too long.

Writer and director Terrence Malick bases A Hidden Life around the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter. During the Second World War, Jägerstätter was called up to serve in the armed forces. He refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and so was punished for his pacifism. It’s a weighty and important story, and Malick ensures that any contemporary relevance will not be lost on viewers. A Hidden Life grapples with that most fundamental of questions, what it means to be a good person in a fallen world and how the measure of such morality might be taken.

Going to grass…

As one might expect from Malick, A Hidden Life is shot and edited in a rather disjointed and impressionist fashion. The film often feels like a waking dream. Scenes are not always clearly delineated, often beginning in the middle of abstract conversations that then play over atmospheric establishing shots like some sort of historical stream of consciousness. It’s an approach that has defined a lot of Malick’s later work, but is perhaps best seen as an outgrowth from Tree of Life. That sort of emotive and drifting storytelling style works oddly well when applied what is both a linear story and a familiar historical milieu.

The big problem with A Hidden Life is that it feels highly repetitive and redundant, particularly in its final ninety minutes. Rather than advancing or developing his thesis, Malick spends the final ninety minutes of the film just bluntly restating it over and over. It is exhausting, and not necessarily in the way that a film about the virtues of peaceful protest in an unjust world should be.

Peak Malick?

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Non-Review Review: Queen & Slim

Queen & Slim is a stylish modern indie that occasionally bites off more than it can chew, but is elevated by a surprising amount of warmth and humour.

It is no surprise that Queen & Slim looks beautiful. It marks the theatrical debut of director Melina Matsoukas, perhaps best known for her work on some of the most striking and memorable music videos of the past decade – including Rihanna’s We Found Love and Beyoncé’s Formation. Matsoukas has a wonderful eye, and she brings that to bear on this story of two unlikely fugitives who watch as their frankly uninspiring first date takes a sharp turn into an outlaw romance that finds them racing desperately for Cuba.

Getting the show on the road.

Queen & Slim is recognisably a modern American indie, drawing from the kind of cinema that Barry Jenkins helped to mainstream with Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. It focuses on two young African Americans, and examines the world from their perspective. It is also dazzling to look at, cinematographer Tat Radcliffe saturating the frame with warm golds and neon purples. It exists in a liminal space, somewhere between a grounded naturalism and heightened dream logic – and all the more effective for that juxtaposition.

Queen & Slim occasionally veers a little bit too heavily into the stylistic clichés of this sort of cinema, leaning a little too heavily on shots studying the contemplative faces of its leads or taking in the breathtaking vistas of the American wilderness at an always perfectly calibrated distance from the eponymous couple’s vehicle of choice. It is to Matsoukas’ credit that Queen & Slim largely avoids indulgence, demonstrating an endearing humanism and humour beneath this carefully crisp and calibrated exterior.

Out(run the)law…

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New Escapist Column! On “Rogue One” as “Star Wars” for the Twenty-First Century…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine a little while ago, looking at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Like most films, the original Star Wars was a product of its time. It spoke to simmering tensions and traumas related to the late seventies, from lingering atomic anxieties to the horrors of the Vietnam War. However, a lot of time has passed since the original trilogy, and our cultural anxieties have changed over the intervening years. Since the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney, the Star Wars franchise has been fixated and focused on the original trilogy. However, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the only film to make an effort to ask what those tropes and conventions mean moved to the present day.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Reviewsical: Cats

Were they blind when they made this? Do they think it looks good?
Is it fit for awards? Would it sweep at the Globes?
Can you say of the effects that they look worse than they should?
Are they justifiably excited when the internet goads?

Because Tom Hooper can and Tom Hooper did
Some actors did and some actors would
A major studio would and a major studio can
But reviewers can’t and reviewers don’t.

How about those special effects? Are they truly a feat?
Are they tense when they sense there’s no awards buzz?
Do you mind all the signs with the puns in the street?
Did they know from the go that they’d just filmed a dud?

Because Tom Hooper can and Tom Hooper does
Tom Hooper does and Tom Hooper can
Tom Hooper can and Tom Hooper does
Tom Hooper does and Tom Hooper can
Tom Hooper can and Tom Hooper does

Familiar songs for counterprogramming
All those known songs to bring them all in
There’s even a song that Ray Winstone sings
Tom Hooper’s Cats promises all of these things.

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Non-Review Review: Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is probably the weakest live action theatrical Star Wars film, which is quite something in a world where Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones exist.

To be fair, some of the problems with The Rise of Skywalker are forced by external events. Carrie Fisher passed away early during production, and there was always a sense that the third film in the trilogy would focus on Leia in the same way that Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens had focused on Han and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi focused on Luke. As a result, the film’s consciously flailing around how best to fill that void is understandable.

Similarly, director JJ Abrams arrived on the project at the last minute, after Colin Trevorrow was removed from the project. The new Star Wars trilogy has an abridged production cycle to begin with, but The Rise of Skywalker had to switch hands midstream. As a result, it makes sense that there is a certain rough quality to the storytelling, with Abrams inheriting a film that was not designed for him and trying to impose himself upon it.

These are serious and credible challenges facing The Rise of Skywalker, and it would take an impressive film to overcome these logistical hurdles. As much as Han Solo might not like to hear the odds, those odds have been stacked against The Rise of Skywalker from very early in the production process. The film seems keenly aware of this. At one point, Poe crash lands the Millennium Falcon on the forest moon of Endor. When Jannah comments on the rough landing, Poe replies, “I’ve seen worse.” Jannah replies, “I’ve seen better.”

However, while that failure to stick the landing might be forgivable – if disappointing in its own terms – The Rise of Skywalker is most severely undermined by unforced errors. The film makes any number of catastrophic storytelling choices, both in the story that it decides to tell and the way that it ultimately opts to tell it. Whenever The Rise of Skywalker reaches a narrative crossroads, it never fails to pick the weakest of the options in front of it. This is bad of itself, even without the sense that these choices are being driven by the most craven of motivations.

As with films like Justice League, it often feels like The Rise of Skywalker has been shaped and informed by listening to the loudest voices raging on the internet and tailoring a film to appease their aesthetic sensibilities. The grand tragedy of The Rise of Skywalker is that the kind of fans that it is intended to appease are well past being appeased. More than that, these cynical efforts to appease those fans serve to alienate the actual audience. The Rise of Skywalker is everything certain fans wanted from The Last Jedi. Not uncoincidentally, it is nigh unwatchable.

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