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Non-Review Review: Late Night

As the title implies, Late Night is a film about a late night American chat show, a prime-time institution that has lost its edge and finds itself almost at the bottom of a slide into irrelevance.

Katherine Newbury is a British comedian who landed a plum gig on American television and never looked back. Her nightly chat show is a fixture of the cultural landscape; the film opens with Newbury accepting a comedy award, and a late scene takes place in a room in her house that seems to be overflowing with trophies. However, there is also a sense that Late Night with Katherine Newbury has become sloppy in its old age. Ratings have been declining for a decade. The network is eager to replace the veteran broadcaster with somebody younger and fresher.

Talking shop.

Against this backdrop, Molly Patel arrives. A young woman with no direct comedy experience, Molly finds herself drafted into the writers’ room as a cynical “diversity hire.” A former “factory” (“chemical plant,” she repeatedly and insistently clarifies) worker, Molly is a big fan of the show who also understands that it needs a course correction. Indeed, Late Night accepts that the old-fashioned format needs to be updated, and becomes a battle over how best to modernise the template. Network president Caroline Morton and talent agent Billy Kastner suggest radical reinvention, but Molly thinks the basic template is still sound.

To a certain extent, it feels like Late Night is having a conversation with itself about itself. The movie belongs to the familiar tried-and-true template of the “new job or career crisis” comedy, those films about inexperienced characters who find themselves thrown into a new job with no real grounding and forced to adapt to their circumstances; Second Act is the most recent example, but there are plenty to choose from including Morning Glory, The Ugly Truth, 9 to 5, Working Girl. It is a familiar genre, the first-cousin of (and often interwoven with) the romantic comedy.

A bright spot.

The romantic comedy has been having a very public conversation with itself in recent years, playing out through the viral success of Netflix’s love letters to the genre like Set It Up or in more straightforward but more diverse big screen iterations like The Big Sick or Crazy Rich Asians. Indeed, Late Night feels like something of a companion piece to The Big Sick and Crazy Rich Asians, a film that fundamentally understands the sturdiness of the narrative template with which it is working. Like Molly’s approach to the eponymous show, Late Night understands that the basic structure doesn’t need renovation, just the content.

The result is an endearing workplace comedy that plays as a loving homage to the genre, elevated primarily through execution. Late Night understands the importance of new perspectives and reacting to a changing world, but it also understands what fundamentally works in movies like this. Late Night benefits from two fantastic central performances from Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, playing two very well-drawn characters. It is consistently funny, but also consistently well-observed. Late Night demonstrates that the workplace comedy works for a reason, and sets out to demonstrate the genre’s robustness.

Addressing the issues…

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Non-Review Review: The Children Act

Perhaps the most striking thing about The Children Act is how it manages to combine so many stock prestige drama beats into such a chaotic cacophony.

The Children Act is a mess from beginning to end, all the more jarring for how familiar and how recognisable the constituent elements might be. The Children Act often feels like a fairly standard IKEA table where all of the pieces have been assembled to create something monstrous. Often during the runtime, the audience might spot a familiar beat or plot point, but often one deployed with little consideration for how these elements normally work or how they might better service this particular story.

Come what May.

The Children Act is a film that very clearly aspires towards a certain style of prestige cinema. It is directed by Richard Eyre, responsible for awards fare like Iris or Notes on a Scandal and even the recent highly successful BBC adaptation of King Lear. It is written by Ian McEwan, adapting his own novel, the writer perhaps still best know to movie-going audiences as the novelist who provided the source material for Atonement. It stars Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci, two actors who are always highly engaging, and who should bounce off one another.

Unfortunately, almost nothing within the film actually works, with strange decisions contorting the narrative into strange shapes. The Children Act is a curiousity that is more intriguing than it is engaging, more compelling for how completely it refuses to work than for anything that it is actually trying to say.

Just this.

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Non-Review Review: Brave

Brave is certainly a significant improvement upon Cars 2, even if it doesn’t necessarily measure up the finest films in the Pixar stable. Part of the problem is the sense that, for the first time, the studio is telling a story that isn’t really their own. I know that particular films in the studio’s history owe a great deal to certain influences (The Incredibles to The Fantastic Four, for example), but Brave really feels like the studio is very much trying to put its own take on the conventional “Disney Princess” movie. While the results are certainly interesting, it never feels like Braveis entirely comfortable with itself. While the film is, technically speaking, quite impressive, it does feel like it never quite strikes the right balance.

The right to bear arms…

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Non-Review Review: The Remains of the Day

It’s a sad truth that Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins are rarely handed roles that allow them to demonstrate their true abilities. The Remains of the Day is an absolutely stunning period drama from Merchant Ivory (which sounds far more impressive than any functional “combination of last names” really should). It’s a rather beautiful look at the classically romantic British character, but also an absolutely scathing attack upon it. It’s a brilliant examination of the inherent tragedy of the stereotypical British detachment, the capacity to maintain emotional distance in order to endure whatever life has to offer. Mister Stevens is the quintessential English butler, but he’s also one of the most tragic central characters I think I’ve seen in quite some time.

All that Remains...

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Non-Review Review: Last Chance Harvey

There’s something pleasant about watching just-past-their-prime actors working together on small-scale productions. Kinda a reminder that even though they don’t dominate Hollywood anymore (because Hollywood has little respect for their elderly), they are still around. It’s even nicer when they stray from the projects that they are obviously making a fair bit of capital on (such as Dustin Hoffman’s work in Meet the Fockers) towards smaller, more intimate fare. Last Chance Harvey is a solid and sweet romantic comedy in the very classical sense. It doesn’t rely on inappropriate sex jokes or physical comedy to make its audience laugh, just provides some wonderfully awkward ‘that could happen and it would be mortifying’ humour paired with some emotional honesty. And, despite being crafted in the mould of a classical genre, it manages to seem like a breath of fresh air.

Thankfully, Harvey is never short with her...

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Non-Review Review: The Boat That Rocked

This is a movie that ends with a rendition of the classic Bowie pop number Let’s Dance, because it couldn’t fit it anywhere in its linear narrative amid all the time-specific pop and rock tunes. The movie has quite a bit in common with that most financially successful of songs from the Thin White Duke. It’s light, it’s breezy and it’s catchy, with just a hint of some extra darkness that is rarely found among its light and fluff compatriots. It’s also the work of an intensely talented artist (and, indeed, artists) who probably should be doing more innovative and important work, but we almost can’t blame them because it’s so much fun. Almost.

Quite a board walk...

Quite a board walk...

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