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Non-Review Review: The Aeronauts

At one point in The Aeronauts, reluctant partners Amelia Wren and James Glaisher open up to one another. High above the clouds, separated from the world below, Wren talks a little bit about her own departed husband and how she has struggled to come to terms with his absence. It isn’t a particularly in-depth conversation, coming about thirty minutes into a hundred-minute movie, so she stops rather abruptly. She is grateful for the tact and restraint of her conversational partner, the socially-awkward Glaisher. “Thank you,” she tells him. “Another would have pushed me further.”

This is more than just a small and inevitable moment of character development awkwardly signposted, a gesture that Wren and Glaisher are not as incompatible and oppositional as even they have come to believe. It is also a statement of purpose for Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts. It is a promise to the audience that The Aeronauts will never push its viewers or its characters in particularly uncomfortable or unconventional directions. Instead, it will offer a much gentler type of story that moves at its own pace and deals with various obstacles and developments well within its comfort zone.

On top of the world…

The Aeronauts is a clean, old-fashioned awards season drama. Two talented young actors are locked together in a confined space, playing characters who see the world in what initially appear to be two very different ways that gradually align over the course of the movie’s runtime. The costumes are spectacular. The music is triumphant. The special effects are impressive. There is tragedy, but it is overcome. There are complications, but they are handled. The Aeronauts is surprisingly conventional for a film that can be described as “the Victorian hot air balloon adventure starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne.

This isn’t a criticism. At least, not a particularly biting one. The Aeronauts understands it is pitching itself as broad crowd-pleasing entertainment, so never pushes too hard in any direction that might possibly jeopardise that. Anything that might possible put that at risk is hastily thrown overboard. This is at once the best and worst thing about The Aeronauts. “Your husband pushed too far,” Glaisher warns Wren at one point, both an example of the film’s complete aversion to subtext and an in-text justification for its careful moderation. The Aeronauts is aiming at “charming.” It lands squarely on target.

A triumph of scale.

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Non-Review Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns largely accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Mary Poppins Returns is a belated sequel to the original film, and very clearly – and very strongly – takes that original film as its major influence. Indeed, many of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Mary Poppins Returns are carried over directly from the previous film. Mary Poppins Returns is visually inventive, narratively accessible, highly unfocused, and episodic in structure. These are all aspects that it shares with the beloved family classic that spawned it, for better and for worse.

The nanny’s state.

There is an endearing energy in Mary Poppins Returns, and a comforting nostalgia. Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns to the sort of film that was already endangered when Mary Poppins was released, the cinematic equivalent of vaudeville entertainment; a collection of largely isolated sketches tied together by the thinnest of string, serving as a showcase for the creative talents of everybody involved from the performers to the animators to the set designers. Mary Poppins Returns comes remarkably close to capturing the spirit and the appeal of the original.

However, Mary Poppins Returns struggles slightly to balance its fidelity for (and veneration of) the original with the demands of a modern family blockbuster, the film occasionally caught in the push-and-pull of familiarity and modernity. It doesn’t quite work, but it gets close enough for those craving an old-fashioned feel-good family film.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

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Non-Review Review: The Meg

The Meg is proof that bigger is not always better.

There are moments when The Meg works beautifully, the film embracing its ridiculous concept by going all-in on a couple of absurdly heightened images. There are a number of shots in The Meg, particularly towards the climax, that are gleefully and unapologetically “too much.” It would undercut these moments to discuss them in any great detail in a review of the film, particularly since they are the moments when everything in the film seems to click into place. In these beats, there is a reckless abandon, as if the film understands the appeal of “Jason Statham in Jurassic Shark.”

Lifeboats find a way.

Unfortunately, these moments serve to highlight what is missing from so much of the rest of the film. The Meg is a movie committed to the idea of “more”, but is more invested in promise than in delivery. Everything in The Meg happens at breakneck pace, to the point where the first act of the film might make a compelling blockbuster on its own terms, given room to breath. However, like the sea-faring predator that inspired it, The Meg is eager to get to the next thing and the next thing after that. The result is a movie that feels rushed, but never urgent.

The Meg is so busy trying to heighten its stakes and its scale that it never quite manages to establish them.

Don’t bait him!

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Killing Game, Part II (Review)

In some ways, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II feel like a perfect companion piece to Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II.

Building upon the high-concept large-scale template established by Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II during the third season, these two two-part episodes established a blockbuster template for Star Trek: Voyager going forward. They solidified Brannon Braga’s vision for the series, and effectively laid out a blueprint for his widescreen spectacle-driven reimagining of the final three seasons. Like Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II before them, The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II are blockbuster Star Trek.

Time’s up.

Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had produced any number of two-part episodes over the course of their runs. In fact, The Best of Both Worlds, Part I and The Best of Both Worlds, Part II had helped to cement the two-part story as impressive tool in the franchise’s storytelling arsenal. On both VHS and blu ray, these two-part stories were constantly repackaged as mini-movies; Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II, Unification, Part I and Unification, Part II, Chain of Command, Part I and Chain of Command, Part II.

However, Voyager represented a very clear evolution in the way that the production team approached these stories. Basics, Part I and Basics, Part II were the exception that proved the rule, the last holdover of the Michael Piller era. Largely driven by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky, the later Voyager two-parters took on a decidedly more blockbuster sensibility. They could easily be packaged as mini feature films, and might even work better in those formats than as two standalone narratives. They were bigger and bolder than earlier two-parters had been.

Holo promises.

Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II provided the model for these big “event” two-parters. Scorpion, Part I and Scorpion, Part II applied to the Borg in order to offer an even bigger bang for their buck. Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II took the ship and crew to their limit to tell a story set over an entire year. The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II pushed the idea even further, with UPN opting to show both parts of the story on the same night as something like a television movie. It was a big deal.

Deep Space Nine had broadcast The Way of the Warrior as a television movie, but it was a season premiere and effectively a second (or even third) pilot. The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II comprised a high-concept mid-season two parter. They were arguably a stock Voyager episode, only bigger. In the years ahead, Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II would follow the same pattern. So would Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II. The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II established a trend.

Super evil alien space Nazi.

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Non-Review Review: The Hobbit – Battle of the Five Armies

It has become a stock criticism to suggest that Peter Jackson did not need a full trilogy to adapt The Hobbit for the big screen. That said, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was an unexpected pleasure – a movie not all hindered by the pacing concerns of the trilogy and instead interested in its own central narrative. You could cut the opening scene from The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies onto the end of The Desolation of Smaug and you would have pretty much everything that you need.

While this approach benefited The Desolation of Smaug, it puts Battle of the Five Armies at something of a disadvantage. It is debatable whether there was enough material to support three full films based on The Hobbit – even drawing from other sources in the Tolkien canon – but this is clearly not the best way of structuring those three films. There is a sense that Battle of the Five Armies suffers from the decision to extend the planned duology into a full-blown trilogy.

The not-so-magic dragon...

The not-so-magic dragon…

To be fair to Peter Jackson, he does avoid the ending issues that haunted The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. However, he does that by editing Battle of the Five Armies as a brief epilogue to the previous two films, following by a massive battle sequence. This is quite impressive from a technical standpoint, but there is a sense of fatigue to it all. As the title implies, this is a five-way battle involving thousands of participants; both organic and computer-generated. A lot gets lost in the shuffle, and the plot – as it stands – could be explained in two sentences.

More than that, Battle of the Five Armies is hindered by its status as a prequel. The fact that everybody in the audience has likely seen The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring means that they know all this spectacle is really for nothing. The first two films in the trilogy largely avoided the problem by pitching the story as a working-class version of The Lord of the Rings, allowing characters to engage in quests that are deeply personal even as they ripple to larger events.

A messed-up character orc...

A messed-up character orc…

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