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Non-Review Review: Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn is a profoundly odd film.

On the surface, it looks like another one of those “movies they don’t really make anymore” that tend to get a small release around awards season, like Bad Times at the El Royale or Widows. It is an old-fashioned private detective story that starts with something relatively small before pulling back to reveal a vast and insidious conspiracy at work. It is a movie that is both a genre piece and a statement, and so seems an appropriate release for this late in the calendar.

Railing against the system.

However, on closer inspection, Motherless Brooklyn is much more surreal piece of work. The film was a passion project for writer, director and star Edward Norton. Norton had been struggling to bring the film to screen for the better part of two decades. It is a period piece in more than just its fifties New York setting. It feels like a time capsule. Although Motherless Brooklyn is only Norton’s second theatrical film as director, it arguably feels much more tailored to Norton’s style and interests than his actual directorial debut Keeping the Faith.

However, Motherless Brooklyn feels like it is lost in more than just time. The film is meandering, indulgent and unfocused. It has moments of incredible beauty and surprising power, but lacks the discipline to streamline everything else around those elements. Motherless Brooklyn is not a great film, but it is a strange one.

Evil plans.

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Non-Review Review: Knives Out

Knives Out is a sharp and point “whodunnit” for the post-truth era.

The most obvious point of reference for Knives Out is the work of Agatha Christie, although the film itself includes allusions to CSI, Murder, She Wrote and other generic procedural television show. There is a mysterious death inside a luxurious mansion, with a wealthy family who seemed ready to tear themselves apart even before the loss of their patriarch. An outside investigator finds himself drawn to the case, which begins to unravel as he follows each of threads back towards something resembling the truth.

Drawing a Blanc.

The beauty of Knives Out lies in the way in which writer and director Rian Johnson takes the familiar framework of a mystery story and allows it to descend into anarchy. Knives Out is constantly twisting and turning, zigging and zagging. Nothing is ever what it appears to be, and as more evidence comes to light it seems like nobody has any real idea of where the truth actual lies – including both the dogged private investigator trying to fashion order from chaos and even the killer themselves. Knives Out often feels like a wry, clever thriller about how nobody knows nothing.

In other words, Knives Out is the perfect murder mystery for this particular moment, in every possible way. This extends beyond the films obvious topical allusions and central themes, and is even woven into the manner in which the story unfolds.

To coin a phrase…

Note: This review will contain (or even allude to) very basic spoilers for Knives Out. Nothing too big or too specific. However, if you don’t want to be spoiled and are just here for the headline: Go see it. Then come back and read the review, if you want. Continue reading

Non-Review Review: Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Charlie’s Angels is a fascinating tonal mess. It doesn’t work at all, but the ways in which it doesn’t work are fascinating.

Charlie’s Angels feels like something of a hybrid. It combines several different styles of blockbuster into a single film. It pitches itself as a campy and goofy stupid 1990s blockbuster, but inflected with a veneer of 2000s self-seriousness and filtered through the lens of 2010s ironic self-awareness. However, these elements do not compliment one another, and Charlie’s Angels is never particularly interested in either smoothing over the gaps or exploring the dissonance. The result is an aesthetic that is probably best described as “comedically sociopathic.

Three of a kind.

It’s a shame, because there is some interesting stuff here. Writer and director Elizabeth Banks plays with ideas like the female gaze, and trying to reappropriate the franchise’s iconography and history for the twenty-first century. However, Charlie’s Angels lacks the clean focus that is necessary for a project like this to work, it cannot even figure out whether it wants to be a ground-up rebuild of the classic model or a nostalgic tweak upon it, and so seems to wander the gulf between those two extremes.

Charlie’s Angels is a strangely lifeless blockbuster, for a film that tries to cram so much in.

Solid as a rock?

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Non-Review Review: 21 Bridges

21 Bridges is a solid, sturdy old-fashioned thriller.

This is both faint praise and gentle criticism. 21 Bridges offers a familiar set-up and premise, as a dogged detective hunts two suspects through the night. Although the film makes solid use of Chadwick Boseman as its lead, it is not impossible to imagine an alternate version starring Liam Neeson. It would arguably make a perfectly fine counterpart to Run All Night. The plot of the film involves a manhunt for two criminals who murdered several police officers during a botched heist, which gradually escalates into a full-blown conspiracy.

He needs more cop on.

It is all pretty paint-by-numbers. There is not a lot in 21 Bridges that surprises. More than that, there is very little in 21 Bridges that pops, that distinguishes it from other entries in the subgenre. This is both a blessing and curse. There is something comforting in the familiarity of 21 Bridges, in the way that movie never demands or expects more of its audience or itself than it promises to deliver. It largely succeeds at what it sets out to do, with minimal flourish or clutter. It moves through its plot with the same sense of purpose and focus as its protagonist.

21 Bridges knows exactly what it is doing, and mostly succeeds at doing it.

“Tonight, this island is Manhunttan.”

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New Podcast! The Pensky File – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 7, Episode 16 (“Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges”)

I was thrilled to be asked back to join The Pensky Podcast to for one last conversation about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I joined Wes and Clay as their coverage of the seventh season winds down, as the pair prepare to jump into the so-called “Final Chapter.”

I got to talk about Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, which is one of my favourite Deep Space Nine episodes ever produced. Arma Enim Silent Leges is the last episode to air before the multipart closing epic that launches with Penumbra, and feels like as worthy a capstone to Deep Space Nine as its companion piece Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang. It’s an exploration of moral compromise and realpolitick, but also about the practicalities of planning for a postwar status quo. It is a clever, ambitious and effective episode of Deep Space Nine, a thoughtful exploration of the show’s core themes.

We also had a lot of fun saying the title out loud multiple times.

You can find more from The Pensky Podcast here, and listen to the podcast by clicking the link or just listening below.

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Non-Review Review: The Two Popes

Very few movie disintegrate so completely and thoroughly across their runtime as The Two Popes.

The Two Popes feels like two different movies, both tonally opposed to one another and both bleeding relentlessly into one another. The first is a delightfully surreal Odd Couple riff (The Odd Pope-le? Vicious in the Vatican?) that finds two men who would be pope forced to interact with one another, their mutual unease inevitably transforming to a gentle understanding and even compassion. The second is a more earnest historical biography, a film that aims to properly contextualise the life and times of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man who would be Pope Francis.

The robe less travelled.

Both of these premises are workable on their own. Of course, the first premise has a bit of an advantage in that “throw two great British actors into scenes together” tends to result in highly watchable material, and “… also, they’re both popes” is a pretty impressive chaser to that. In contrast, the historical biography section of the film is a bit more generic and familiar, even if there’s potential here. After all, this ground has been explored in films as compelling as The Secrets in Their Eyes.

The problem is that the two films don’t mix, at all. Every attempt to combine them hurts the film as a whole, both stopping the narrative dead and representing a jarring transition from one type of film into another and back again. It isn’t that The Two Popes allows these stories to collide, it instead tries to run them in parallel. The result is a narrative traffic jam, and a film in which each half hour is appreciably weaker than the one leading into it.

Good faith arguments.

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Non-Review Review: The Last Right

The Last Right is perhaps a little too driven by cliché and a little too heavy handed in its emotional beats, but it’s genuinely charming and benefits from a clever concept and an endearing cast.

To be fair, The Last Right runs into its problems in its first and third acts, in setting up and resolving its central dynamics. These problems flow largely from the fact that so many of details around the edge of the central premise of the film feel lifted from a collection of stock eighties American dramedies. Certain key elements of The Last Right feel like they came packed in an IKEA box ready for assembly, and so the movie’s introduction of and conclusion for those elements tends to feel rather rote.

Carry on…

However, The Last Right really kicks into gear once it has done that initial set-up, allowing its characters room to breath and interact with one another within the relatively safe but also free-form template of the classic road movies. Road movies largely live or die based on the chemistry of the cast and strength of the humour, and The Last Right works well on both counts. There’s a relaxed ease to The Last Right, a willingness to trust the actors and the characters to carry the bulk of the film.

The result of a trip with a few bumps along the way, particularly at either end of the journey. However, for most of the adventure, The Last Right is a pretty enjoyable ride.

Death drive.

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