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Non-Review Review: The Favourite

If the stock comparison to The Killing of a Sacred Deer is The Shining, then the obvious comparison to The Favourite is Barry Lyndon.

It is a stock comparison, bordering on facile. After all, there is a world of difference between Yorgos Lanthimos’ story of two women competing for the attention of Queen Anne and Stanley Kubrick’s story of the rise and fall of a roguish Irish gentleman. However, the similarities are striking. Both are eighteenth century period pieces that boldly eschew the conventions of period dramas. Both The Favourite and Barry Lyndon rely heavily on natural light and repeatedly draw the audience’s attention to the nature of the narrative of constructed.

You Only Live Weisz.

However, the most striking point of comparison might be thematic and philosophical rather than simply literal or textual. Just as The Killing of a Sacred Deer explored the collapse of a family unit through the prism of decaying masculinity in a manner that recalled The Shining, the world of The Favourite is defined by its study of power, pettiness and pomposity. As in Barry Lyndon, the fickleness of comfort and the arbitrary nature of security are a recurring fascination for The Favourite, which meditates repeatedly on how precarious such positions can be.

The Favourite is a story of cruelty, both human and natural.

A Stone-Cold Schemer.

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Non-Review Review: White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick struggles to articulate what it is actually saying.

The basic premise of White Boy Rick is quite clear from the outset. The film is set in Detroit. Barring a coda, the bulk of the action unfolds in the four years following on from 1984, during Ronald Reagan’s second term. Although the President himself is not directly discussed in the context of the narrative, there is an early conversation in which two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and one member of the Detroit Police Department ruminate upon Nancy Reagan’s famous “just say no” appeal.

Ricked off.

White Boy Rick is an earnest and well-intentioned movie exploring the consequences of the so-called “War on Drugs” in eighties America, and the manner in which that campaign was both fruitless in terms of its nominal objectives and actively harmful to the communities in which it unfolded. White Boy Rick attempts to position itself as a tragedy about a young man – the eponymous character’s age is something of a recurring battle cry – who happens to get wrapped up in something much bigger than his own circumstances.

Unfortunately, White Boy Rick struggles to construct a strong and engaging narrative around this central thesis statement, repeatedly stumbling in trying to graft the character’s arc and decisions to the broader social commentary that it wants to make. The result is a deeply frustrating film that squanders potentially interesting subject matter.

Daddy’s home.

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Non-Review Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an amazing Spider-man movie.

There is no other way to describe it. Into the Spider-Verse is a clean lock for the best superhero film of the year, neatly leapfrogging the superlative Black Panther. Into the Spider-Verse is also the best animated film of the year, placing comfortably ahead of The Breadwinner or Incredibles 2. In fact, it seems fairly safe to describe Into the Spider-Verse as the best feature film starring Spider-Man since Spider-Man II. Even that feels like hedging, and would be a very closely run race.

Just dive on in.

Into the Spider-Verse is a creative triumph. It is a fantastically constructed movie, in virtually every way. The film’s unique approach to animation will inevitably dominate discussions, and understandably so. Into the Spider-Verse is a visually sumptuous piece of cinema that looks unlike anything ever committed to film. However, the film’s storytelling is just as impressive if decidedly (and consciously) less showy in its construction. Adding a phenomenal cast, Into the Spider-Verse is just a film that works in an incredibly infectious and engaging way.

Into the Spider-Verse does whatever a Spider-Man movie can. And then some.

Suits him.

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Non-Review Review: Mowgli

Watching Mowgli, it very quickly becomes clear why Warner Brothers sold the film to Netflix, rather than pressing forward with a theatrical release.

Mowgli was always going to suffer in comparison to The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau’s live-action reimagining of the animated Disney classic. When the two projects were in development, they seemed like obvious dueling movies; like The Prestige and The Illusionist, or Deep Impact and Armageddon, or Volcano and Dante’s Peak. It seemed like a game of chicken between two major studios; two rakes on the same beloved property arriving in cinemas at close proximity to one another. When it became clear that The Jungle Book would hit cinemas first, the fear was that Mowgli would look like an inferior imitation.

Bagheering belief.

Those fears were misplaced. Indeed, the most striking thing about Mowgli is how different and distinct it is from The Jungle Book. Despite the similar premise and being based on the same material, there is little chance of any casual audience member confusing them. Ironically, this ends up being an issue of itself. Mowgli is distinct from the iconic Disney film, but for good reason. Andy Serkis’ film is drawing more directly from the work of Rudyard Kipling. This explains the significant differences in terms of tone and narrative. These differences are intriguing and engaging, revealing in their own ways.

However, these differences are also informative. Mowgli‘s relative fidelity to its source material ultimately serves to underscore just how effectively Disney changed the underlying story in The Jungle Book, and just how carefully crafted that other film is to a larger audience. Mowgli is not a bad film, although it does have some serious flaws. However, it is a much less appealing and much weirder film than The Jungle Book. As a result, it makes sense that the film would end up at home on Netflix, where it can afford to be a little stranger and a little more eccentric than the perfectly calibrated Jungle Book.

Bear with me.

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Non-Review Review: Green Book

Green Book feels like a movie lost in time.

If Green Book feels displaced, it is not from the early sixties backdrop against which the story unfolds. Instead, Green Book feels like an awards season movie that was produced in the early nineties, and which slipped gently under the radar until it was unearthed at some recent point. Green Book very much belongs to those early nineties awards fare meditations upon race and class in America – especially Driving Miss Daisy, the film it most strongly evoked.

Going by the Book.

As a piece of nineties awards fare, Green Book would be judged rather kindly. It is crowd pleasing. It is broad. It is earnest, without being unnecessarily confrontational. It is also appreciably smarter than many of those nineties commentaries on race in America, consciously subverting and even inverting a lot of the expectations of the form. it is designed in such a way as to leave the audience with a big grin on their face, playing with familiar sets of narrative logic that nests a classic “odd couple” movie inside an exploration of the prejudices of the Deep South in the sixties.

However, Green Book is not a lost piece of nineties awards fare. It is a product of the current era. While it might track ahead of similarly ill-judged (and sadly contemporaneous) awards season movies about race like The Blind Side or The Help, it is still far more clumsy than a movie tackling these ideas should be in a twenty-first century context. Green Book feels positively outmoded when compared to fellow high-profile films about race like BlacKkKlansman or Sorry to Bother You or If Beale Street Could Talk. Green Book feels like a relic.

Food for thought.

This is a paradox. Green Book is significantly better in terms of production than many of the films to which it consciously invites comparison, films by white directors inspired by true events and coloured by nostalgia. However, it is significantly weaker than many of the more vital and dynamic films grappling with the same subject matter. Green Book often feels caught between these two extremes, and this presents a challenge in properly assessing it.

Green Book is a very good example of the kind of movie that it wants to be. However, it leaves unanswered the question of whether movies like this still have a place in the modern cinematic landscape.

“Doctor Shirley, you can’t be serious?”

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New Podcast! Standard Orbit #246 – “A Tale Of Three Producers “

I was thrilled to be invited to join the great Zach Moore on Standard Orbit, a Star Trek: The Original Series podcast hosted over at Trek FM. I appeared on the show last year to discuss the third season of the series, and so it makes sense that I should be back to discuss the second season.

Zach got in touch after reading some of my reviews for the second season from several years back. He was particularly fascinated with my breakdown of the season between three producers: Gene L. Coon, John Meredyth Lucas and Gene Roddenberry. Each of those three producers had their own unique style and each brought their distinct sensibility to the series. In fact, watching the season in production order, there a discernible shift between the three talents involved. Coon was much more interested in playing with the tropes and conventions of the young series, while Lucas was engaged with more traditional science-fiction storytelling and Roddenberry had his own strong idea of what the series could be.

Zach was, as ever, a very gracious host. I had great fun discussing it. You can hear the full discussion below or visit the episode page here.

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Non-Review Review: Roma

There’s a lyrical beauty to Roma, a decidedly intimate and personal project for director Alfonso Cuarón following on from his triptych of more mainstream fare.

Roma is a very different beast from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men and Gravity. It is much smaller in scale, focusing on the life of a maid who works for a slightly-above-middle-class family in early seventies Mexico city. Shot in black and white, often favouring quiet scenes and still shots, there is an observational aspect to most of Roma, a sense in which the movie very gently and very elegantly watches life unfold in slow motion without any sense of hurry or panic. For most of its runtime, Roma is content to just be.

This is not a surprise. After all, Cuarón has been candid about how much of the film is drawn from his own childhood. Even without that outside knowledge creeping in, Roma seems to tacitly acknowledge it in the central role that the cinema plays in the story. At one point, the young children take a trip to the picturehouse to see the space thriller Marooned, with Cuarón making a point to showcase a sequence that evokes his own work in Gravity. As much as this is a story about a young woman who works as a maid to a privileged Mexican family, it is undoubtedly filtered through the lens of childhood.

Although nominally set against the backdrop of early seventies Mexico, Roma repeatedly suggests that the larger world is but the echo chamber for the uncertainty and tumult within a family unit; when earthquakes happen and revolutionaries march, they are simply expressions of more intimate traumas and challenges facing these characters. In the world of Roma, it is as below as above, reflecting the way in which a child might see the outside world as nothing more than an extrapolation of the home life that they know so well.

This lends Roma an almost magical quality. Although the film and its characters are complex and developed, there is something poetic in the way in which Cuarón chooses to tell this particular tale. Cuarón never rushes or hurries his characters, instead giving them room to breath. He finds a zen-like calm in the stability of the everyday, the safety of routine against the backdrop of larger anxieties and uncertainties. The characters in Roma repeatedly navigate life-changing events, but underscored with a childlike certainty that they can survive them.

Roma is a genuinely moving piece of cinema.

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