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Non-Review Review: Wine Country

Wine Country should be a slam dunk.

The appeal Wine Country lies in its central cast. Wine Country assembles an impressive selection of older female comedians and drops them into a fairly standard premise that should allow them room to bounce off one another and enjoy themselves. It is a tried and true comic formula, the unleashing of a set of comedic personas on a familiar plot, the sole purpose of that stock set-up being to avoid getting in the way of the chemistry and charm of the cast. Wine Country has quite the cast; Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell and Emily Spivey, along with supporting turns from Tina Fey and Cherry Jones. That should be enough to get any comedy half way home.

Toast of the town.

The actual plot of Wine Country is fairly simple as such things go, but this is a canny move. Wine Country is designed as a cast showcase, and so the plot’s primary function is to serve as justification for bringing (and keeping) these characters together so that the film can bounce from one scene to the next. Wine Country is the story of a group of friends who come together to celebrate a fiftieth birthday, traversing the eponymous region while each dealing with their own personal and professional crises. Character traits are arbitrary, and their arcs simplistic; in many cases, it seems like the characters were developed through nothing more than vague word association, a collection of generic adjectives (“busy”“immature”“obsessive”) thrown into a hat and selected at random.

While this does hold Wine Country back, it isn’t the biggest issue with the film. Quite simply, Wine Country is put together in a frustratingly clumsy and haphazard manner, looking a feeling like a cloying made-for-television movie that somehow stumbled upon a phenomenal cast. The film looks flat and over-lit, even allowing for the sunny Californian setting. Many of the jokes feel lazy and obvious, grabbing the lowest hanging fruit; perhaps appropriate given how much time the film spends in vineyards. The soundtrack is awful and on the nose, slowly and loudly suffocating any genuine emotion the film might attempt to evoke. There’s no doubt that the cast and crew making Wine Country had a great time making the film, but none of that carries over to the finished product.

‘Til the (fri)end of time.

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Non-Review Review: Isn’t It Romantic?

Isn’t It Romantic? is a movie that seriously misjudges its own premise.

At the heart of Isn’t It Romantic? is a fairly solid observation. The conventional romantic comedy has seen better days. The genre enjoyed a boom in the nineties, largely driven by the star power and charisma of actors like Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. It is no surprise that Isn’t It Romantic? opens with the familiar chords of Roy Orbinson’s Pretty Woman and then cuts to a childhood memory of the lead character watching Pretty Woman. In recent years, the genre has gradually been squeezed out of cinemas. It is no longer the cultural force that it once was, with a handful of notable exceptions. Isn’t It Romantic? positions itself as part of a larger discussion about the state of the genre.

He will, in fact, take you to the candy shop.

However, Isn’t It Romantic? approaches this issue in a very strange way. Typically, genres that have been marginalised or pushed to the fringes respond with a level of introspection and analysis; think of Unforgiven with westerns or even Cabin in the Woods with schlocky teen horrors. The idea is that the genre can take itself apart and put itself back together. On the surface, Isn’t It Romantic? seems to be positioning itself as this sort of movie. Indeed, a significant portion of the movie’s stretch of set-up is given over to an extended sequence of the lead character working through the tropes and rhythms of, and the problems with, the romantic comedy genre in almost excruciating detail. Isn’t It Romantic? seems to position itself as an autopsy.

However, it very quickly becomes clear that beyond pointing out these tropes, Isn’t It Romantic? has very little interesting to actually say about them. If the film genuinely believes that the genre is dead, then Isn’t It Romantic? opens as a public autopsy before morphing into a strange act of cinematic necrophilia.

The best laid plans.

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116. Green Book – This Just In (#170)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book.

At time of recording, it was ranked 170th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen is a deeply weird film, and not in a good way.

The basic structure of the film is a feel good narrative of a character coming to terms with his post-traumatic stress disorder. Mark Hogancamp was beaten almost to death by a group of Neo-Nazis outside a bar, for nothing more than mentioning that he liked to wear women’s clothes. Mark has retreated into himself, creating a model village called “Marwen”, an anachronistic Belgian village from the Second World War. The town is home to a toyetic doppelgänger for Mark, the heroic “Hoogie”, who finds the courage to fight Nazis despite his losses.

The toast of the town.

The arc of the film is very obvious from that premise, with a number of other details sprinkled into the script to provide stakes and momentum. Nicol, an attractive redhead dealing with the loss of her son and a stalker ex-boyfriend, moves in across the way and connects with Mark. At the same time, the sentencing of the criminals who attacked Mark is fast approaching, and Mark needs to read his “victim impact statement” in open court. There is also a suggestion that Mark is wrestling with addiction, having to careful ration his painkillers.

All of this is fairly standard prestige picture stuff, providing Mark and the audience with a very clear journey across the film and offering a potentially hopeful conclusion to Mark’s journey. This is all very hokey, but it could work. It is a very earnest narrative, but director Robert Zemeckis is the kind of storyteller who knows how to make those sorts of narratives work. Forrest Gump is a beloved classic for a reason, no matter how clumsy and hokey it might be.

Mark his words…

However, Welcome to Marwen chooses to elaborate upon its stock upbeat triumph-over-adversity template in a number of frankly bizarre ways. Welcome to Marwen flails wildly between genres, pivoting from earnest and overwrought melodrama to absurd fantasy to lazy comedy on a dime. The issue is not that Welcome to Marwen doesn’t cohere as a film, the issue is that many of the individual scenes within the film struggle to find a consistent tone from one minute to another.

Zemeckis is a skilled enough craftsman that the film impresses on a purely technical level; the dolls tilt into the uncanny valley on occasion, but there is every indication that this is intentional. However, on a purely narrative level, Welcome to Marwen feels like it was put together by a twelve-year-old who had only read about how movies work.

Hoogie’s heroes.

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Non-Review Review: Night School

Night School works better than it probably should, while never quite escaping its fundamental flaws.

Night School suffers from a lot of the structural issues that affect modern studio comedies. Most obviously, the film feels over-extended. It’s not just the run time, which clocks in at a muscular one-hundred-and-ten minutes, which is asking a lot for a broad comedy with a very simple premise. It is the individual jokes within the comedy, which are often stretched to breaking point and beyond. Perhaps the most egregious example is an early gag about finding hair in food at a restaurant, which goes on for what feels like five minutes built around the same standard social set-up.

To teach’s own.

There are very few major surprises in Night School. There are a few small and smart ideas buried in the mix, but they often feel crowded out by the broad jokes and the familiar clichés. There’s a recurring sense that Night School doesn’t always play to its strengths, at least below the headline. At the same time, the film understands that it lives or dies by the chemistry between its two leads, offering a conventional persona-driven conflict of manners that places Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish in opposition to one another before inevitably moving them into alignment.

Night School is diverting, if unsatisfying. It manages a passing grade, if little more.

Hart to Hart.

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Non-Review Review: Crazy Rich Asians

The romantic comedy is, by its nature, an aspirational genre.

At its core, the romantic comedy is built around the idea that love conquers all, that soul mates exist, that there is one person in a million for every other person and that they are destined to find one another. The romantic comedy is aspirational in its presentation of love: the idea that everybody lives happily ever after, that every obstacle can be navigated if two people love one another. Of course, reality doesn’t always work out like that. This is just one reason why we tell stories; not just to tell us how the world is, but to insist how it should be.

Crazy, stupid, rich love.

This is perhaps why the romantic comedy is so often wedded to other fantasies; consider the ostentatious wealth depicted in most romantic comedies, but especially in Nancy Meyers films like It’s Complicated or Home Again. Romantic comedies present an idealised depiction of family life, where all differences can be reconciled and where practical concerns need never even be articulated. Even romantic comedies that aren’t explicitly about wealthy families luxuriate in a fantasy of wealth; very few families could realistically afford even the starter pack romantic comedy wedding.

There is nothing inherently wrong with aspiration, to be clear. Action movies and superhero films tend to indulge in a similarly idealised fantasy of heroism and strength of will, imagining worlds where many of the complications of everyday life can be shuffled into the background or wrestled into submission. However, the aspirations baked into romantic comedies are more tangible and more immediate, more recognisable even in their outlandishness.

“I mean, I’m rich. But I’m not crazy rich.”

Very few people will find themselves liberating a soccer stadium from terrorism, but most audience members have romantic relationships and many have weddings and even families. Even those audience members who don’t have their own spouses and children would have grown up within something resembling a familial structure. As a result, even the most outlandish romantic comedy offers something that more closely approximates lived experience.

Crazy Rich Asians fundamentally understands this aspirational nature of romantic comedies, and takes a great deal of pleasure in its display (and even celebration) of absurd wealth. The film’s title is a bold statement of purpose. There is something exhilarating in that.

Love don’t rom (com).

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Non-Review Review: The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders may be the worst film of the year.

There are any number of issues with The Happytime Murders. The film is only ninety one minutes long, but feels interminable. The film has no idea what it is about in any meaningful sense, beyond assembling a number of familiar tropes in a very familiar way. Beyond that, the film seems to believe that rehashing familiar clichés is amusing of itself, some sort of self-aware postmodern ironic anti-comedy where the reference to the thing is enough of itself to become a joke.

It really blows.

A larger problem is that the film assumes that seeing puppets do “adult” things has greater novelty than it does. The Happytime Murders is a film that is consciously powered by the juvenile thrill of watching beloved children’s characters caught in inappropriate situations – swearing at one another, smoking cigarettes, engaging in vigorous sexual activity. This glosses over the fact that there are plenty of other media that has already covered this ground. The Happytime Murders runs on a joke that has already been repeated and rehashed several times.

However, all of these concerns distract from the biggest issue with The Happytime Murders. It is just not funny.

The boy in blue.

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