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Non-Review Review: Fast and Furious Presents – Hobbs and Shaw

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw works best when it delivers exactly what audiences expect from that title.

The breakout star of The Fate of the Furious was the chemistry between Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson. Behind the scenes conflicts between Johnson and franchise headliner Vin Diesel had forced the production team to structure the eighth film in the franchise so Johnson and Diesel didn’t have to share the screen. This led to a number of endearingly absurd set pieces, such as a heart-to-heart appeal between the two men conducted across a street over the speaker systems of monster cars. It also meant that Johnson had to find a new screen partner, and Statham was the member of the ensemble who fit the bill.

I have to admit, there were many more explosions and fistfights than I expected for a historical biopic exploring the relationship between Thomas Hobbes and George Bernard Shaw.

It’s easy to over-intellectualise the chemistry between Johnson and Statham. There’s the obvious physical contrast; Johnson has the bulk of a former professional wrestler, while Statham has the lean physique of a diver. There’s Johnson’s wholesome all-American persona set against Statham’s slightly devilish charm. There’s Johnson’s deep authoritative voice playing off Statham’s distinctly hard-edged accent. The duo play very well as a study in contrasts, while both also being able to support otherwise forgettable action films in their own right. They are a perfect fit.

Hobbs and Shaw works best when it understands this. The film’s best scenes are not the ridiculously over-the-top action scenes, which often seem borrowed or lifted from much better movies and which only fleetingly manage to tip themselves over into the delightful surrealist absurdity that makes the modern (Johnson era) Fast and Furious movies such a delight. Instead, the movie comes to life when Johnson and Statham are trading schoolyard insults, posturing and snarking, indulging in the sort of old-fashioned buddy action movie banter that is so rare these days.

Suns out, guns out.

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Non-Review Review: Fighting With My Family

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

There is very little by way of surprises in Fighting With My Family.

The film is effectively a straight-down-the-middle combination of the sporting-underdog narrative with the working-class-kid-makes-good narrative, this time filtered through the prism of a young wrestler from Norwich who finds herself cast into the spotlight when she is recruited by the World Wrestling Federation. Along the way, there are all manner of trials and tribulations, many of them expected in a story like this; there is tension with those who weren’t special enough to be elevated, self-doubt about her worthiness for this big break, an acknowledgement that she needs to change herself before she can expect the world to change to meet her. This is all stock material, and it would be easy enough to map out even without a true story providing a blueprint.

However, Fighting With My Family is elevated by two key factors. The first is a sharp script from Stephen Merchant. The co-creator of The Office seems an incongruous choice for a film like this, and it’s remarkable how light his touch is. Fighting With My Family is funny, but not in the arch manner suggested by so many of Merchant’s other projects. The film is self-aware, but enough to coax over a cynical audience rather than going so far as to deconstruct itself. Fighting With My Family acknowledges its own tropes and narrative conventions, but doesn’t pick them apart. It understands that they are familiar and well-worn, but also appreciates that they exist for a reason in stories like this. It is a very delicate balance, and Merchant’s script strikes it well. It makes it look easy.

The other advantage that Fighting With My Family has is the central cast. Florence Pugh is a young actor to watch, quickly establishing herself as a tremendous creative talent through work in films like Lady Macbeth and Outlaw King, and she brings an endearing vulnerability and strength to the leading role. She is also fantastically supported by the actors around her, in particular Nick Frost and Lena Headey as her wrestling parents. Like any good wrestler, Fighting With My Family knows and hits all its marks with a little broad crowd-pleasing emotion thrown in. It’s as carefully fixed (but never faked!) as any wrestling match, but elevated by a smart and savvy script and a charming cast.

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Non-Review Review: Skyscraper

Hollywood never really gives up on a genre that it loves, even when it might appear that the audience has moved on.

The perpetual reinvention of the western is one example, a genre that is constantly updated in terms of style and substance to reflect the times. The western has been reinvented and reimagined countless times over the past few decades, whether by combining it with other genres or by examining its underlying assumptions. The western survives in movies like The Hateful EightThe RevenantBone Tomahawk; films that are very clearly westerns even if audiences from the genre’s peak would struggle to recognise them.

Hanging on in there.

Disaster films are another example of Hollywood’s perpetual reinvention of a genre that has fallen out of style. While by no means as ubiquitous as they once were, disaster films still pop up from time to time. The attempts to update the disaster film often take the form of hybridisation, of tying the trappings of the genre into a more marketable template. In the nineties, Independence Day cleverly wed the disaster movie to an alien invasion narrative. More recently, Patriots’ Day tied the structure and rhythms of the disaster movie into a counter-terrorism epic.

Skyscraper hits upon what might be the ultimate genre fusion for the disaster movie template. At the very least, it feels like an inevitable hybrid in the modern cinematic climate. At its core, Skyscraper essentially asks… “what if a disaster movie, but also a superhero film?

The bed Rock of a stable marriage.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Tsunkatse (Review)

Tsunkatse is the crossover between Star Trek: Voyager and WWF that you didn’t know you needed. Mostly because you didn’t actually need it.

Tsunkatse is a delightfully bizarre piece of television, and perhaps the most cynical piece of Star Trek ever produced. That is saying something, considering that the franchise also includes Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, an episode that literalises William Shatner’s paranoid delusions about his fellow cast members. Separated from the episode by almost two decades, it is still hard to believe that Tsunkatse actually exists, even allowing for other “out there” premises for Voyager episodes like Threshold or Concerning Flight.

Somehow, the production team couldn’t secure Jean-Claude Van Damme as a guest star.

To be fair, Tsunkatse isn’t awful. It isn’t especially good either, but it never develops into the trainwreck suggested by the premise of making a Star Trek episode designed to cash-in on the popularity of wrestling. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but there is something to be said for the fact that Tsunkatse manages to be a truly memorable episode of Voyager based around a highly dubious premise, without ever collapsing into itself. Tsunkatse is better than it has any right to be, and that might just be enough.

Might.

Rock your world.

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Non-Review Review: Rampage

Rampage suffers from some pretty severe tonal issues. The video game adaptation starts and ends as a spiritual companion to Kong: Skull Island, but takes a detour into the last American Godzilla movie during its extended climax.

The results are jarring, creating a more dissonant movie than either of its obvious monster-movie forebearers. Rampage is goofy enough that its urban carnage feels out of place, and brutal enough that some of its cheekier decisions feel mean-spirited and vindictive. The result is very much a curate’s egg, to the point that it occasionally feels like Rampage escaped its creators in the edit room.

Going ape.

There is a lot to like in Rampage, particularly its weird committed earnestness when it comes to dealing with the friendship between a primatologist and his gigantic albino gorilla. Rampage skirts the line, occasionally embracing the camp absurdity of muscle-bound Dwayne Johnson’s deep-seated emotional attachment to a computer-generated rampaging “gene-edited” monster. Rampage understands the absurdity of the set-up, but makes a convincing sell of it nonetheless.

Unfortunately, Rampage‘s human characters are never as interesting, which creates a problem when the climax attempts to shift gears into a sprawling urban destruction epic. Rampage feels as much a product of careful and outrageous engineering as the creatures at its core. However, as with those creatures, it never feels quite like those doing the engineering had a clear design in mind.

“I sure picked a bad day to move George to the Metropolis Zoo.”

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Non-Review Review: Baywatch

The most damning criticism of Baywatch is that it is actually a pretty decent Baywatch movie.

Of course, it is hard to define exactly what Baywatch is. The show ran for eleven seasons, launched a handful of spin-offs, built up an instant recognisable iconography. However, the most striking Baywatch was just how hazily the concept was defined. As imagined by Baywatch, the beach front was a tabula rasa, a canvas as blank as the sand dunes on the shore or the expressions on most of the cast’s faces. The beauty of Baywatch was in its lack of a distinct identity, its capacity to be almost anything that it wanted to be, albeit in the clumsiest and cheapest manner possible.

To Beaches, or Not To Beaches?

Baywatch was nominally a show about lifeguards, about beautiful people running in slow motion. However, it could also be a show about shark attacks, about drug smuggling, about wrestling matches, about illegal immigration, about mermaids, about possession. It could even launch a spin-off Baywatch Nights, about private investigators pursuing beach-themed crimes that evolved into a water-themed X-Files knock-off. Baywatch could be whatever the audience wanted it to be, and even sometimes what they needed it to be.

Baywatch was a mirror unto which anything could be projected, the most popular show in the world about the day-to-day adventures on Malibu Pier. Baywatch became a window into the popular consciousness, an abyss that gazed back. Many tried to decipher its mysteries, to account for its popularity. Was it as simple as the fact that very pretty people were running while wearing very little clothes? Did Baywatch speak to a deeper yearning in those landlocked countries where it proved so popular? Did Baywatch know the audience better than they knew themselves?

A versatile storytelling engine.

All of this is to say that Baywatch comes with a baked-in absurdity. It is so elastic a premise, and so ridiculous a concept, that it is pretty much immune to mockery. It is hard to imagine a joke about Baywatch that the show never embraced in earnest during its two-hundred-and-forty episode run. Baywatch is beyond parody as a pop culture object. It is a möbius strip of ridiculousness and earnestness, taking itself so seriously that it doubles back around into self-aware absurdity.

This is the biggest problem with Baywatch. It is a terrible parody of Baywatch, if only because the source material seems to exist in a realm where parody has been folded in on itself and presented as an entirely sincere beach-bound adventure.

Lost at sea.

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Non-Review Review: San Andreas

San Andreas is a b-movie that desperately wants to be taken seriously.

The film is at its best when it engages with its corniness. The characters make terrible baseball-related puns as the world falls to pieces. Our protagonist has a clever idea inspired by a passer-by’s choice of headware. Paul Giamatti sells his seismological terror. A desperate mother decides to plough a boat through a window into the room where her daughter is already close to death. The disaster relief efforts are interrupted so that the news reporters can thank the team of hard-working seismologists who predicted the disaster whole minutes before it happened.

Pilot error?

Pilot error?

However, the film has no real sense of tone or mood. The script longs for a deeper resonance, and so aims a lot higher than it can actually hit. The main characters spend most of the disaster working through the death of a child several years earlier, with cliché flashbacks striving for heart-breaking but landing on groan-inducing. Plot points are dutifully and awkwardly set up, with characters spending most of the first act spewing obvious foreshadowing more than meaningful dialogue.

The result is a mismatched and uneven piece of work, a disaster movie in more than the way that the production team intended.

"Um, I found a plot hole..."

“Um, I found a plot hole…”

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