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The Curse of the Weeping Woman

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The Conjuring series has long since expanded from being a franchise and is now a legitimate cinematic universe, for good and ill. While few would argue with the merits of the main series entries The Conjuring 1 and 2 (and upcoming 3), we’ve also had to contend with the likes of Annabelle and The Nun, with Annabelle Comes Home, The Nun 2 and The Crooked Man all on their way. The latest spin-off is the barely-connected-to-the-main-series Curse of the Weeping Woman.

Proceedings focus in on the slight tale of social worker, Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini), who is working to support two kids after the death of her police officer husband. Anna becomes involved with a case involving two apparently abused children, who are terrified of the spectre of La Llorona, a ghost in Latin American folklore. Naturally, Anna takes the pragmatic view that ghosts don’t exist, but soon the crying lady’s evil intentions are fixed on our plucky heroine’s family and she may have to reevaluate some stuff… if she survives.

Originally titled The Curse of La Llorona (and inevitably released in the US under the title due to the large Hispanic audience), the film has a few things going for it, but it seems intent on squandering them all. Linda Cardellini is an agreeable lead and tries her best, but the material is so bare bones she never really gets a chance to shine. Similarly, Raymond Cruz, who was so unforgettable as Tuco in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, has nice moments as troubled ex-priest Rafael Olvera, but they never add up to anything. Hell, even the Weeping Woman herself, played capably by Marisol Ramirez, never gets to do anything other than lurch onto screen accompanied by loud noises or look creepy hanging around puddles.

The Curse of the Weeping Woman had a lot of potential, but like a lot of The Conjuring spin-offs, it feels like a lesser entity. Worse still, it’s not at all scary and frequently a bit dull. Hell, at least Annabelle was bad enough to cause a few unintentional chuckles, whereas mirth of any kind is in short supply here; as is tension, atmosphere or any compelling reason to keep watching.

Ultimately, The Curse of the Weeping Woman is a forgettable dud, and that’s a crying shame.

 
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Rocking the Couch

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Rocking the Couch takes a rudimental approach in its coverage of #metoo that resultingly ends up scattershot and well-trodden. From interviews of actresses who have experienced sexual abuse to history lessons on misconduct in Hollywood, Rocking the Couch’s ambitious efforts to cover a broad spectrum of information within a sixty-minute runtime is admirable, however, sees it unable to effectively dissect important issues facing Hollywood and culture at large.

Where female interviewees share their traumatic experiences on screen, it is with the male respondents, often members of law enforcement or producers, and their dissociative responses on how female victims should behave that highlight something culturally problematic. It is unclear whether Rocking the Couch has something interesting to say about this male perspective – the bizarre manner in which interviews are conducted, involving green screen backgrounds and interviewees drinking wine, is distracting to the point that important themes come across as satirical.

Issues with editing are prevalent throughout Rocking the Couch, with director Minh Collins’ decision to embellish the film with cheap transition effects and stock-images that interrupt interviews being of high school PowerPoint presentation quality.

In title, Rocking the Couch makes a bold declaration that its timely subject matter will disrupt Hollywood, which despite its earnest attempts to do so doesn’t rock the couch as much as it brushes past it.

 
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Back Of The Net

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Though catered to with primping regularity on the small screen, the tween audience has copped short shrift when it comes to cinema. Their tastes are so singular that they practically exclude interest from all outside demographics, perhaps putting the brakes on any possibility of making true box office gold. After crafting a modest success with 2017’s Rip Tide, prolific and enterprising producer Steve Jaggi replicates that film’s formula – relatively-high-profile-American-gets-transplanted-to-Australia – with Back Of The Net, which sees Disney Channel darling, Sofia Wylie (Andi Mack, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series), taking on a similar role to Rip Tide’s Debby Ryan (Jessie, Sing It!). The results are equally fresh and entertaining.

American-in-Oz, Cory Bailey (Wylie), is a nerd of the first order, more interested in science and studying than just about anything else. But when a classic absent-minded-professor move sees her board a bus for a soccer academy instead of the one taking students on an ocean study trip, Cory is thrown way, way outside of her comfort zone. Suddenly surrounded by cute boys, bitchy girls and sweet new friends, Cory has to use her considerably sized brain pan to find a way to carve out success on the soccer field.

Equipped with a cast boasting energy to burn – Sofia Wylie is like a cinematic ray of sunshine, while Kate Box (TV’s Rake and Wanted) gleefully steals all of her scenes as the soccer team’s harried coach – director, Louise Alston (making a surprise detour after the impressive Jucy and All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane), mines them for all they’re worth. With a limited budget, she really showcases her cast, letting their natural charisma and screen presence glow through. While the messages are strong and on-point, and the humour is effortlessly bubbly, the cliches do admittedly fly thick and fast, and you can pretty much see every plot move coming from a mile away. The film’s abundant warmth, energy and charm, however, make up for these shortfalls, and Back Of The Net ends up kicking more than a few nifty goals.

 
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Hellboy

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In 1993 a talented comic book artist/writer named Mike Mignola debuted the now iconic character of Hellboy, a demonic bloke who loves pancakes, cigars and punching the shit out of evil. Just over a decade later, in 2004, a talented writer/director named Guillermo del Toro released a cinematic adaptation, Hellboy starring Ron Perlman, that while taking some liberties with the source material and adding an unnecessary romance, brimmed with whimsy and imagination. Said film got a sequel in 2008, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which performed adequately but not spectacularly at the box office and, for a time, the embers of the Hellboy franchise cooled.

Fade in to 2019 and another talented director by the name of Neil Marshall, the chap who brought us the excellent Dog Soldiers (2002) and all-time genre classic The Descent (2005), has rebooted big red in a brand new adventure. And the result? Ehhh it’s a bit of a mess, hey.

Hellboy (2019) focuses on Hellboy (David Harbour this time around) on a quest to defeat an evil witch, Nimue (Milla Jovovich) who is gathering an army of monsters and ready to unleash a plague across England and then the world. It’s a fun premise, with a lot of eye-catching creature effects and gore, but there’s just something missing in this adaptation. Ian McShane, one of the world’s most charming actors, is horribly miscast as Hellboy’s adoptive father, Trevor Bruttenholm, and the new BRPD team members, Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) are only sporadically interesting. Most disappointing is Hellboy himself, however, who has gone from being an optimistic dreamer and charming smart arse to a whiny, self-loathing dickhead who spouts unfunny zingers every ten seconds. It doesn’t help that David Harbour’s wonderfully expressive face is covered in layers of stiff makeup effects, so he looks for all the world like a frowning botox tragedy; but it’s hard to imagine what Neil Marshall was going for here with this singularly unappealing performance.

The thing is, lower budget remakes of large comic book properties can actually be a good thing. Despite its relatively poor showing at the box office, 2012’s Dredd reboot is remembered much more fondly than 1995’s Sylvester Stallone-starring stinker, Judge Dredd. Same goes for 2008’s Lexi Alexander-directed Punisher: War Zone, which was arguably the best take on the material until Netflix took that crown. However, this Hellboy seems intent on avoiding everything that makes the character likable, unique or interesting.

On the slender plus side, some of the creatures look pretty cool and the gore is… kinda fun? A couple of the sequences in the third act are so batshit crazy in their viscera-splattered invention, you can’t help but chuckle.

Sadly, however, a few good gore gags and a monster or two can’t disguise the dearth of imagination on display here, and the whole effort feels like an unfortunate misfire. While not without occasional goofy charm this version of “diablo muchacho” should have probably spent more time in (development) hell.

 
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Thunder Road

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In a steady opening 12-minute shot, director Jim Cummings invites you to watch Officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings), the protagonist of his film Thunder Road, wrestle with a multitude of feelings and insecurities as he tries to give a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. He cracks jokes, only to immediately regret them. He apologises to the people crying in the church, assuming that he’s being too emotional. He’s a mess and the cherry on the whole pathetic cake comes when Jim attempts to perform a choreographed dance to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’, unable to play the song due to a faulty CD player.

On its own, this whole shower of shame would make a great short – and indeed, it does (https://vimeo.com/174957219). As a prologue, it perfectly pitches the sad and humorous tone Cummings is gunning for. It’s okay to laugh at Jim, but you’re going to feel incredibly sorry for him as soon as you do.

Thunder Road sees Jim trying and failing to cope with his mother’s death. His only solace comes in the shape of his daughter, Crystal (Kendal Farr), who he shares custody with along with his deadbeat ex-wife, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer). Despite her young age, Cummings shows Crystal talking to her father like she’s an exhausted mother. Realising that he’s forgotten to pass on an invite to friends’ birthday now long gone, Crystal returns to her colouring as if she’s run out of things to say. Jim, for his part, knows his own shortcomings and overzealously tries to be a good dad; at one point, staying up all night so he can learn how to play patty cake.

Trying too hard and falling short is the thread that runs through Thunder Road as Jim seeks ways to settle the angst and regret born from his mother’s passing. Hints are dropped that Jim was never the dutiful son, but equally, he could just be convincing himself that he wasn’t. However, realising that he’ll never be able to make amends for the times he believes he never got to truly understand his mother, he exerts more effort on himself to be the perfect father to Crystal and ultimately, seems to just get in his own way more often than not.

As Jim, Cummings portrays a painfully insecure man wrapped up in nervous, twitching skin. Constantly on edge, you’re just waiting for the dour police officer to snap at any moment and hoping that he gets his stuff together before he does so. His momentary flashes of rage erupt at the most inopportune moments – such as halfway through a parent teacher meeting, squished into a child’s school desk – and are for the most part, excruciatingly funny. Other times though, Cummings ensures that the seriousness of Jim’s mourning bubbles to the surface to remind us that he is not just a uniformed Pagliacci the clown. In one scene, Jim’s partner finds him at home having torn up his entire home after a particularly vicious custody trial with Rosalind. Like Adam Sandler’s outbursts in Punch Drunk Love – to which this film would make an extremely satisfying double bill – these moments show the impotent rage that courses through our ‘hero’.

Overall, Thunder Road is a brilliant piece of work that paints the portrait of an all too human response to tragedy building upon tragedy. We are all guilty of not doing the right thing when we need to, or doubling down on repressing our feelings in case people think we’re weak. Officer Jim Arnaud is a poster child for those moments and his tale is as sad, and as happy, and as mournful, and as uplifting as you could expect. It’s an absolute treat of a movie.

 
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The Hole in the Ground

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Being a parent is hard work. That’s a statement with which even the most earnestly evangelical of breeder will agree, and being a parent of a difficult child is immeasurably harder still. But what if your child isn’t just a bit of a dick, what if your ruggie is actually supernaturally evil? This premise has proven fertile ground for horror movies throughout cinema’s history, with classics like The Bad Seed (1956), The Omen (1976) and Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979). More recently films like Insidious (2010), The Babadook (2014) and Hereditary (2018) have joined the ranks of this well-worn subgenre. Now, first-time feature director Lee Cronin brings his take, The Hole in the Ground, to the table to mostly effective results.

The Hole in the Ground tells the tale of Sarah O’Neill (Seana Kerslake) and her son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). The pair have moved to the idyllic, but isolated, Irish countryside for reasons initially unspecified, but clearly not ideal. Sarah is trying to be strong for her son, but she’s experienced recent trauma, both physical and mental. Chris is an odd, imaginative, kid who is unsure about the reasons for his life’s upheaval, and does take it out on his mum from time to time. However, he soon becomes fascinated by an enormous hole in the ground out the back of his new house, and wouldn’t that be fun to explore…

The Hole in the Ground spends the bulk of its 90 minute runtime building tension slowly, but effectively, as Chris’s behaviour gets more out of character and bizarre. His change from weird kid to ‘the other’ is conveyed effectively by both director and the young actor. Of course, these films depend in large part on the effectiveness of the pay off, and in that regard The Hole in the Ground doesn’t disappoint. The third act is tense, surreal and genuinely gripping, showing that Cronin haseserious genre chops.

In terms of its overall place in the subgenre, The Hole in the Ground is not quite as revelatory as The Babadook or Hereditary, treading more familiar genre beats rather than forging its own identity. That said, it’s still an effective, lowkey bit of allegorical horror with solid performances and a third act that crackles with surreal menace and effective tension. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you’ll find The Hole in the Ground has a lot to dig.

 
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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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The novelist Graham Greene once quipped along the lines that “Don Quixote is considered a great novel because nobody ever finished it”. What a delicious irony there is in relation to Terry Gilliam’s obsessive and relentless pursuit to get to film Cervantes’ iconic tale. As many movie buffs will know, Gilliam tried to get the project up over a very long period and his attempts were always thwarted by a combination of things that sink films; failure to get finance, creative differences, inappropriate casting and so on. There is even a killer documentary about this saga with the perfect title Lost in La Mancha (2002).

Now the time bandits have re-landed as it were and, in 2019, the film is releasable. In this iteration, if that is the right word, Adam Driver takes the role of Toby (essentially Gilliam), who is going out of his mind trying to get the film made. He has cast his Quixote (the wonderfully versatile Jonathan Pryce) but the old actor is also having difficulty in not falling into the role and then being unable to get out. To make matters worse, Toby has unwisely flirted with the girlfriend of his boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and there is a good chance that a violent retribution will befall him.

While the baffled and exhausted crew wait on, Toby becomes a sort of dragooned Sancho Panza and follows the now-deranged Quixote on a picaresque sojourn through the desert regions of Spain, thus ensuring the very chaos he has sought to avoid.

It is a great circular premise and writers Gilliam and Tony Grisoni want it to amuse and bemuse in equal measure. This is a double-edged sword of course, because there is always the danger that we will just get lost ourselves and become tired of the whole charade.

Gilliam himself has form here. He can be so inventive and perhaps so unable to listen to common sense (he has had several projects blow their budget/time line etc) that he ends up producing a fascinating mess.

He was never the most logical of thinkers, but he has great madcap powers. We owe him his seminal visual contribution to the Monty Python. We really can’t be too cross with Gilliam, after all some of his iflms have been near masterworks (Brazil, The Fisher King). It can be exhausting keeping up with him, but we should still go and see his films and just be grateful that this too-bland world contains a mind dedicated to such glorious folly.

 
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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

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FromSoftware releases are more than simply games, these days they are practically cultural events. Masters of minimal, atmospheric storytelling and punishing, but satisfying gameplay, each of their titles comes with much fan anticipation, online speculation and endless, earnest think pieces about why “this one should have an easy mode”. In short, FromSoft games are a big deal and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is no exception.

Speculation about the new From game has been rampant since the Dark Souls trilogy closed out with its third entry in 2016. What would be next, we wondered. Bloodborne 2? A reboot of Demon’s Souls? A new IP of some kind? When we finally saw footage of Sekiro, it immediately became dubbed “Samurai Souls”, which was an exciting premise but not particularly accurate. You see, while Sekiro shares many similarities with the so-called Soulsborne games, it’s actually not part of that family. Sekiro is its own thing, for good and for ill.

Sekiro tells the story of Wolf, a wandering shinobi, who is on a mission to save the Divine Heir Kuro from the Ashina clan. The mission gets off to a bad start as during the opening minutes of the game, Wolf gets his left arm lopped off. In typical From-style, you the player need to rebuild the gruff hero’s strength, learn to use a fancy prosthetic and save Kuro from certain death. If this all sounds unusually straight forward for a From game, you’re absolutely correct. Sekiro’sstory is, by the standards of this developer, almost shockingly vanilla. Oh sure, there are some weirder aspects towards the middle and end sections, but nothing like the mind-bending cosmic horror of Bloodborne or the nihilistic fantasy of Dark Souls.

The other big change from standard operating procedure is the gameplay. Whereas Souls and Bloodborne let you choose from a variety of weapons and a variety of play styles, Sekiro gives you a single weapon. Certainly, Wolf can swap out various prosthetic gadgets and other nifty tricks, but it’s sword all the way, baby. Plus, get ready to block and parry. A lot. Like, pretty much the whole game. Sekiro is on a mission to retrain the player, so forget the slower back and forth dance of Dark Souls or the dash-and-slash of Bloodborne, because this is all block, deflect and break that posture for the deathblow. It’s a clever, nuanced system with a steep learning curve but once mastered it makes combat quite satisfying, however it’s hard not to miss the weapon variety from other From games. The inclusion of a spear, hammer and other era-appropriate gear would have gone far in making the proceedings feel a little less samey. Other aspects of Sekiro have been streamlined too, with PvP elements and the ability to summon online players to assist you both missing, and frankly, missed.

Look, dear reader, I’m going to be frank with you here as I slip briefly into the first person. I adore the Soulsborne games, with all my heart. Bloodborne in particular is in my top two all time games – with the other entry being a second copy of Bloodborne – however as much as I respect the craft and artistry of Sekiro, I don’t love it. The story feels a wee bit generic, the characters a little flat, and while the technical aspects of blocking, parrying and breaking posture are well-designed and executed with aplomb… they’re not all that much fun. Obviously this is subjective, and you may feel completely differently, but that’s how this one landed for me.

There’s a lot that’s great about Sekiro, mind you. The world is vital and a joy to explore. The new grapple mechanic adds a degree of verticality to the levels that is a real eye-opener. And the stealth elements, while not always perfectly implemented, are often a great deal of fun. The boss fights, as always, are memorable and frequently wrenchingly frustrating too, and I suspect it will be a while before I forget facing Madame Butterfly, Genichiro Ashina or the freaking Guardian Ape for the first time. However, as happy as I was besting them, I didn’t experience the same endorphin surge delivered by previous From games, instead feeling a kind of grumpy relief. Like I’d just finished cleaning a feral bathroom or a much-delayed trip to the gym.

Ultimately Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is going to be for a very specific type of player. The kind of gamer who liked the other From games, but wanted a more grounded story. Who enjoyed the likes of Bloodborne, but felt it needed more ear-jangling parrying sections and was, perhaps, a little mystified by all those weapon options. Sekiro is a very good game, conceptually, artistically and mechanically, but it’s also a streamlined, pared back experience that feels like it’s lacking some essential element, an indefinable component, that made the other From games masterpieces.

 
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Tom Clancy’s The Division 2

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When The Division launched in 2016 it was an engaging looter shooter beset by intermittent bugs and a lack of meaningful endgame, but it did contain the core of a great idea. Teaming up with your mates, or randos, to take on wandering gangs in a post apocalyptic New York during a snowy winter was a fabulous concept, and even at the game’s low points one couldn’t fault the atmosphere and sense of place. Now The Division 2 has arrived with the goal of addressing its predecessor’s flaws and, by and large, succeeds in this lofty goal.

The Division 2 changes location and season, this time taking place in Washington DC in the height of a sweltering summer. Various criminal factions vie for control of the former seat of America’s government, and it’s up to you – playing solo or in a team – to discourage their homicidal shenanigans with the ultimate attitude adjuster: a metric shit-tonne of guns. If this plot sounds familiar, or slight, that’s because it is. Much like the previous game in the series, The Division 2 is a premise with delusions of grandeur rather than a cohesive story. This is a deliberate choice by developers Massive Entertainment, because they want the player to be able to experience the game in their own way, either by charging through the story or taking the slow approach. While this is a laudable goal, it would have been nice to experience some kind of deeper narrative engagement because at the climax of the story, one shouldn’t be struggling to remember who the main characters actually are.

That said, The Division 2 succeeds spectacularly well when it comes to the world you inhabit. From the first mission where you take back the White House, to the endgame content featuring the dreaded Black Tusk faction, every single location feels lived in, thought out and constructed in a way that best suits a game of this type. Gameplay has also been significantly tweaked, adding elements of strategy to the somewhat tired cover-based shooting mechanics, to the point where players can potentially be overwhelmed by even low level enemies if they don’t choose their position wisely. Enemy AI, the bane of most looter shooters, has been jacked up to give your foes a real sense of agency. None of these cats will be joining Mensa anytime soon, however they will flank, take cover and rush you at times that feel logical. This is a far cry from Destiny’s often braindead foes and gives the action a sense of vitality and excitement.

Best of all, however, The Division 2 showers the player with loot. Whether you’re doing main missions, side missions, bounties, control points, Dark Zone exploration or just pissfarting about in the open world, you will continue to accrue better and better gear. You’ll need it too, because the game contains a surplus of content. The main campaign is a beefy one and after you hit the level cap of 30, an entirely new faction invades the game and reboots the main story missions. It’s a clever way of making old locations feel new again, and certainly addresses the original’s pitiful endgame woes.

The Division 2 won’t convince anyone who despises looter shooters, or games-as-a-service, of its considerable charms. However, for fans of the genre, this is quite possibly the best example currently available. Yes, there are still a few bugs and the shooting never quite attains the god-tier status achieved by Bungie, but it’s a sprawling, rewarding ballistic adventure that’s well worth a look for those keen to get in some post-apocalyptic combat practice before society really collapses. In about eighteen months or so, we reckon. Give or take.

 
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The Aftermath

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What’s worse than a bad idea? A good idea presented badly. And the idea at the heart of director James Kent’s (The Testament Of Youth) latest is indeed a good one: Re-examining the culpability of the parties involved in World War II, using a love triangle as a proxy for the strained relations between Britain and Germany after the war. As personified by Jason Clarke’s British colonel, we get glimpses of a darker aspect of the Allies’ involvement in the fight, one that shows their hands aren’t clean.

It’s not something that often comes up, this Satoshi Kon-esque pointing-of-fingers at post-war culture, and it could have made for an interesting flick. Unfortunately, nothing here carries the same venomous accuracy as something like Paranoia Agent, and that blind aim dooms the movie.

The execution, which ultimately means far more than the intentions behind it, cannot pick a single tone to go with. We go straight from grime-coated interrogation scenes that depict not killing one’s self as the cowardly thing to do, right into a snowball fight between Keira Knightley and a turtleneck-sweater-wearing Alexander Skarsgård that looks like something out of a Hallmark production.

It is frankly baffling how aloof this film can get about its own subject matter, always one rendition of ‘Springtime for Churchill’ away from becoming a total farce. It doesn’t help that the displays of prejudice here are about as subtle as a Mel Brooks production too, except this isn’t meant to be funny.

But ultimately, the biggest problem is with the love triangle itself, even ignoring its place as a vehicle for the film’s grander point. It’s not just that all three people involved are unlikable, which they definitely are in their own ways, but it’s that the circumstances that push the romance forward are incredibly forced. There isn’t nearly enough chemistry between any of them to make the jarring turns into trysting the night away feel like they’re worth your investment. Then again, when the literal furniture has more personality than the people struggling to sit on it, engagement is probably too much to ask for.

And we haven’t even gotten to the sheer drabness of this production, where it feels like we’re being subjected to white noise with the occasional glimpse of grounded terror just to claim that something is happening. But even when we get to the end of this affair, nothing even comes of it. It spends so long trying to insist it has a point, only to completely fumble the landing and make this whole exercise feel even more wasteful.

This is a situation where nobody wins. Those who want romance aren’t likely to vibe with the walking billboards offered here, those who want period drama will be aghast at the apathy behind it, and those who like to think about a film’s ideas will likely be giving more thought to them than the filmmakers themselves. It’s a mess.