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Non-Review Review: Rambo – Last Blood

There’s something almost disappointingly pedestrian about Rambo: Last Blood.

The sequels to Rambo: First Blood have often struggled to live up to the original film, to capture the aspects of that early eighties action drama that elevated above so many of its contemporaries. Watched today, First Blood is a surprisingly sensitive piece that exists worlds apart from the gleeful revenge fantasies of Rambo: First Blood, Part II or Rambo III. It exists a world apart from superficially similar action movies like Missing in Action or P.O.W.: The Escape, a surprisingly meditative and reflective piece of work.

Parting shots.

It isn’t really a surprise that Last Blood strips out a lot of that meditation and reflection. Even the best of the sequels – the no-nonsense Rambo, from 2008 – was relatively straightforward in its ambitions and its methods. What is disappointing about Last Blood is how mundane its own ambitions and methods really are. The bulk of Last Blood is given over to a story that feels lifted from the most crass of the spiritual descendants of the original Rambo, with the eponymous Vietnam veteran embarking on a mission into the Mexico underworld to recover his surrogate daughter.

That said, Last Blood roars to life in its final act, recapturing some of the thrills that distinguish the series from so many of its imitators and successors. There’s a pulpy absurdist thrill to the film’s final act, which tries awkwardly to combine the wry commentary of the original film with the hyper-violence of the sequels. The result is a film that averages out to somewhere around “just about fine.”

Take a bow.

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Non-Review Review: Between Two Ferns – The Movie

Between Two Ferns: The Movie offers an abstract take on cringe comedy.

The film is an adaptation of the cult web series, which finds Zach Galifianakis planning a fictionalised version of himself. The basic set-up involves Galifianakis inviting on a particularly famous guest, and the interview coming very quickly off the rails. It often descends into awkward silence, although occasionally exchanges get a little punchier. The whole premise is a riff on the absurdity and tedium of celebrity interviews, which very rarely result in something so skin-crawlingly embarrassing, but can still feel deeply uncomfortable for both audience and participants.

At a crossroads.

The Movie wraps a framing device around that set-up, expanding the world of its fictionalised Galifianakis by offering a broader context for the viral web interviews. In the world of the film, Galifianakis is a small-town public access television host whose work has been distributed online by a cocaine-addled Will Ferrell. Ferrell has exploited this “grotesque” as a twenty-first century freak show, which has become a runaway success according to the click counters that Ferrell keeps on his office wall or even carries around in his pocket at all times.

The Movie adopts a familiar enough plot structure for this kind of adventure. It escalates the stakes while providing a framework for episodic encounters. After one particularly disastrous interview, Ferrell sets Galifianakis a challenge. If Galifianakis can land ten celebrity interviews on a road trip, Ferrell will secure his top seller a Lifetime (not life-time) chat show slot. So Galifianakis sets off on a road trip in the style of David Brent: Life on the Road, with a band of misfits sidekicks for a collection of broad comedic set pieces that run the gamut from genuinely hilarious to disappointingly repetitive.

That sinking feeling.

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Non-Review Review: Ad Astra

“I am attempting to communicate,” astronaut Roy McBride offers into a microphone, his voice translated into a signal to be broadcast via laser signal out to Neptune, where his long-absent father is lurking in the darkness.

Although the film is nominally set in the “near future”, director James Gray pitches Ad Astra as a nostalgia piece. It is Heart of Darkness (really Apocalypse Now) by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it also has faint shades of Star Wars in its portrayal of a father-son schism elevated to cosmic drama. Ad Astra presents the universe as a stark-yet-beautiful place, and the film itself fits that aesthetic. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has experience making space look stunning from Interstellar, and that carries over to the rich-yet-sterile look of Ad Astra.

Spaced out.

There are times when Ad Astra feels a little too arch and a little too dry in its meditative space odyssey. Roy’s constant internal monologue walks a fine line between profundity and self-parody. The film locks itself so firmly to Roy’s perspective, and nestles itself so snugly inside his head, that the world around him occasionally feels illusory. Of course, all of this is intentional. Gray clearly intends to contrast Ad Astra with the obvious epic space adventures to which it is indebted, and his stylistic sensibility certainly allows it to stand apart.

Ad Astra is a vivid story of extraterrestrial alienation, just one that doesn’t happen to feature any aliens.

Shock and launch.

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Non-Review Review: Downton Abbey – The Movie

Like the television series from which it is derived, Downton Abbey: The Movie certainly has its charms.

Most of these charms are plain and self-evident, examples of why the British period drama has endured as a high-end guilty pleasure for so long. There is something inherently appealing about assembling a crowd of talented actors, dressing them in beautiful clothes, and asking them to have polite-but-wry conversations in luxuriant surroundings. Downton Abbey benefited from a combination of elements, but largely lavish production design, an idyllic setting and a winning cast. Naturally, all of those elements carry over to the feature film adaptation – give or take Dan Stevens and Lily James.

Motor sensational, Paris or maybe hell.
Clutches of sad remains.

In many ways, The Movie feels like an extension of the British tradition of the Christmas Special – those seasonal themed episodes of television institutions like Doctor Who or Only Fools and Horses or Call the Midwife. The goal is something approaching celebratory nostalgia for the object in question, a light story populated by familiar characters in comfortable surroundings designed to be consumed by an audience coalescing on the couch after a hearty dinner. The budget is typically larger. There’s typically some weight emotional import, but coupled with a sense that nothing too dangerous is happening.

The Movie commits to this aesthetic, leaving it particularly inert and unengaging. Downton Abbey was always exquisite television comfort food, a light cream desert of a Sunday evening. The Movie takes that lightness and wraps it in cotton wool, creating an eerie and uncanny level of insulation. Downton Abbey was always a story of nostalgia for an idealised early-twentieth-century Britain, but The Movie plays almost as nostalgia for that nostalgia.

Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise.

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Non-Review Review: Hustlers

Hustlers wears its influences on its sleeve, which no small accomplishment for a movie about a bunch of criminal strippers.

Hustlers is adapted from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article, covering a post-recession swindle orchestrated by a group of enterprising strippers. The film is a tale of greed and commercialism, of opulence and corruption. The premise practically writes itself. Hustler is a story that is just lurid enough and just timely enough and just charged enough that it all comes together perfectly. The film’s narrative exists at an intersection of money and sex and drugs, but is anchored in a broader cultural and social context that uses this seemingly trashy set-up to say something seemingly profound about the American condition.

Given the premise and themes, it is no surprise that Hustlers should take so many of its cues from the films of Martin Scorsese. Joker has dominated a lot of the autumnal discussion about Scorsese’s influence on contemporary cinema with its obvious debts to films like Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, but Hustlers is just as transparent in the debts that it owes to Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s influence is felt on every inch of the film, from the film-making to the narrative structure to the awkward articulation of the central theme in the closing scene. It is both a strength and a weakness for Hustlers.

While Hustlers occasionally feels a little too indebted to the work of Scorsese to stand on its own two feet, the film largely works. Part of this is down to the skill and playfulness with which director Lorene Scafaria acknowledges her influence. Part of this is down to the film’s engaging charm and sense of humour, belying a compelling moral sophistication befitting the films that it is so obviously evoking. A lot of it comes down to the strong casting, including a compelling central dynamic and a powerhouse performance from Jennifer Lopez.

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Non-Review Review: IT – Chapter Two

IT: Chapter Two is muddled, messy and bloated, particularly in its middle stretch.

The horror sequel opens relatively strong and delivers a satisfying emotional pay-off. Unfortunately, the film’s structure means that it meanders wildly between those two fixed narrative points. Chapter Two runs a muscular two-hours-and-fifty-minutes, a full quarter-of-an-hour longer than the original film’s already impressive run time. In fact, taken together, the two films are more than one-and-a-half times the length of the early nineties miniseries adaptation of the novel. Chapter Two spends a lot of time on repetitive storytelling beats, splitting up the cast so each of the leads has their own identically-structured adventure.

Glowing, glowing… gone.

These structural flaws feel inevitable. Part of what worked so well with IT: Chapter One was the decision to largely eschew the complicated and convoluted mythology that King wove through his beloved doorstopper of a novel. The original film was not concerned with alien invaders or local legends beyond what was strictly necessary, allowing it to offer an extended horror movie riff on Stand by Me, a coming-of-age saga about young teens on the cusp of adulthood. In Chapter Two, that bill comes due. The sequel not only has to do its own heavy lifting, but take on a lot of the world-building the original film mostly ignored.

Indeed, there is a sense that Chapter Two works much better as a companion piece to the earlier film than as a narrative in its own right. Indeed, there is something interesting in the way that, taken as a whole, the two IT films represent the first real cinematic glimpse of Stephen King as an author of the American epic. IT is the story of a group of childhood friends facing a monstrous evil, but it feels much larger than that. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Chapter Two is the manner in which it creates a sense of scale and scope that has previous eluded adaptations of King’s work.

Pennywise, pound foolish.

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Non-Review Review: The Informer

The Informer is essentially three films packaged in one.

While it’s hard to precisely outline these films without giving too much away, The Informer begins as a sleazy urban thriller about a police informer before morphing into a gritty prison drama before escalating into an elaborate hostage film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these central premises. In fact, as fodder for film making goes, they are very reliable. Each of those three basic premises comes with stakes built in, and would be ubiquitous enough that the audience can follow along without the need for too much exposition or context.

🎵Oh Kinnaman, where’d you run to?
Oh Kinnaman, where’d you run to?
Oh Kinnaman, where’d you run to?
Kinnaman… where you gonna run to?🎶

Unfortunately, The Informer never quite settles on a particular tone or mood as it breezes through each of these three set-ups. The film runs just under two hours, which is a respectable run-time, but it does mean that each of those three genres ends up compressed. The film arguably spends more time on the transition between that initial urban thriller and subsequent prison drama than it does in either setting, creating the impression of a film more interested in visceral movement than a larger journey.

None of the three genres get enough screen-time or development to truly work, instead feeling like rough drafts rather than compelling set-ups. The characters and the storytelling are similarly rushed, often feeling flattened or sanded down in order to ease the movie’s transition from each type of story to the next. The result is a movie that only fleetingly engages, never holding its gaze long enough to deliver on any of its potential.

Poor (in)form.

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