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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: Rocketman

As has been noted, the iconic Elton John song that inspired the film is titled Rocket Man, while the film itself is simply Rocketman.

The missing space is an intriguing stylistic choice, given that the film is obviously designed to evoke Elton John’s beloved contemplative ballad about space-age truckers. What purpose does the omission of that space serve? What is gained by contracting the song to create a single-word title for the biographical feature film. Having watched the film, it feels like the missing space might have been lost as an inadvertent consequence of a thorough find-and-delete of anything resembling subtext from the screenplay.

Fancy, that.

To be clear, this isn’t entirely a flaw with Rocketman. Musicals are fundamentally designed to render subtext as supratext, to literalise and articulate the themes and ideas and emotions underscoring a character or plot. By their nature, musicals feature characters very theatrically expressing their innermost feelings and desires directly to the audience through the medium of song and dance. Subtlety is not necessary in this context, and could even become something of a hindrance. A musical – especially a jukebox musical like this – is narrative as stadium rock.

The musical sequences in Rocketman capture this beautifully, and are the film’s strongest attribute. The movie just has trouble turning the volume down in the scenes between those numbers.

Key details.

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Non-Review Review: Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin is a fairly sturdy adaptation of a beloved animated film.

The obvious point of comparison here is something like Beauty and the Beast, with the live action adaptation facing many of the same challenges. By that standard, Aladdin acquits itself quite well. As with Beauty and the Beast before it, Aladdin is a fairly straightforward no-frills and no-surprises effort to transition a classic piece of nineties animation into live action; it lifts both the song and score, the set pieces, the themes, the characters, even the tempo. It is less ambitious or imaginative adaptation process than Alice in Wonderland or Pete’s Dragon, for better and worse.

Carrying a lamp for the original…

With that in mind, Aladdin feels like a clear improvement upon Beauty and the Beast. A large part of this is down to knowing what to do with the roughly forty minutes of storytelling real estate that seem to be added to these projects by default, adapting eighty-minute cartoons into two-hour blockbusters. The cartoons that inspired Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin were already very tightly structured and very well-constructed, so anything added to otherwise highly faithful adaptations those films often feels alien or uncomfortable.

Beauty and the Beast seemed particularly unsure what to do with those forty minutes, leading to strange narrative diversions to answer questions that nobody asked, like, “What happened to Belle’s mother?” In contrast, Aladdin benefits from a much better understanding of where the story can be fleshed out. There are a few clumsy missteps along the way; the new songs often stand out in contrast to those ported over from the original film, and the first act drags a little. However, by and large, Aladdin understand what aspects of the original can stand to be bulked up.

“And you’re sure you want to use your wish for a photo-realistic Sonic the Hedgehog movie?”

If this is to be the future of these adaptations – and the success of Beauty and the Beast means that it most likely will be – then Aladdin is far from the worst template. It is fun, it is light, it is diverting. It has a charismatic cast, and a solid understanding of the story that it is updating. However, it is also a little sluggish at the start and bloated at the end, traits inherited from modern blockbusters rather than a result of the process of adapting the source material.

At the same time, as with Beauty and the Beast, the same core issues shine through. Despite what spoiler culture might suggest, a film is more than just a series of plot events. Aladdin is adapting a film that was designed specifically for another medium, while making a point to stress its fidelity to that source material while translating it to live action. The biggest problem with Aladdin is built into it from the outset; this is an approach to the story that will always work better in animation than in live action.

It’s not quite a whole new world…

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The Wickedness That Man Do: The Logic, Structure and Morality of “John Wick”

The John Wick films remain a minor miracle.

John Wick was the product of an era where big budget action films were increasingly moving away from in-camera effects and practical stunt work towards computer-generated spectacle. The original film was designed to consciously showcase the craft involved in stunt work, a profession that is still undervalued in filmmaking circles. (Notably, there is no Academy Award for “Best Stunts.”) The original film was designed from the ground up in order to give a group of stunt artists the opportunity to showcase their craft for theatrical audiences, at a point in time where a lot of the best stunt choreography was going direct-to-video.

It certainly works on those terms. The films in the series are among the most impressive action films of the twenty-first century, showcasing the commitment of the stuntmen working on them. The climax of John Wick: Chapter II and the opening thirty minutes of John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum rank among the most visceral action ever captured on film. The films even acknowledge their influences and inspirations; the opening scenes of Chapter II feature Sherlock Jr. projected onto the front of a building, while Chapter III broadcasts The General on a Time’s Square billboard. This is not arrogance, but aspiration.

However, there is something interesting happening beneath all of this. The story running through John Wick, Chapter II and Chapter III is largely incidental; the tale of a man who lost his puppy and who embarked upon a murderous rampage that sucked him back into a life that he long ago abandoned. The world-building is impressive, but abstract; the characters navigate a byzantine social structure of rules and codes that govern an underworld of assassins, arms dealers and black market surgeons. The whole set-up is incredibly heightened, and incredibly fun. It is absurd, but enjoyably so.

At the same time, these aspects of the John Wick have a strange and powerful resonance. The entire John Wick series is built around the idea of codes of honour and rigid social hierarchies, in a way that feels more than just incidental. This world of gold coins and killer hotels, of a New York City seemingly populated entirely by murderous assassins, is one of the most striking aspects of the series. It also feels the most pointed and timely. The John Wick films are designed as visceral thrill machines, but there are aspects of the films that resonate beyond that.

In their own weird way, the John Wick films seem like the perfect answer to the modern troubled cultural moment.

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Non-Review Review: Thunder Road

Thunder Road is a sweet, affecting piece of work.

It seems a little bit disingenuous to describe Thunder Road as a comedy. Much has been written about how the boundaries of the genre have shifted in recent years, particularly on television where form seems to dictate genre more than content. (Tom Hanks even took time to spoof that shifting trend during an appearance on Saturday Night Live.) There are funny moments in Thunder Road, often well-observed and organically delivered, but even those humourous beats underscore the film’s deep-seated melancholy.

Thunder Road is a profoundly human film, but one that feels very tragic. Focusing on a divorced police officer recovering from the recent death of his mother and facing the prospect of losing his daughter, there’s a lot of genuine emotion surging through Thunder Road. Jim Arnaud is a man who is very clearly lost at sea, oblivious to his own mental state even as friends (and bystanders) watch him crumble before their eyes. The film’s humour often seems like an attempt to stave off tears, as if an awkward laugh might offer a reprieve against the slow sense of mounting dread.

Thunder Road is an impressive piece of work, a film with real heart.

A grave mistake…

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130. (ii) Mary and Max (#177)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Andy Hazel, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max.

Mary Daisy Dinkle is a precocious eight-year-old growing up in the suburbs of Waverley outside Melbourne. One day, on the spur of the moment, she picks a name at random out of a phone book and decides to write to Max Jerry Horovitz, an atheist Jew living in New York City. The two strike up an unlikely friendship that crosses decades, navigating their interwoven lives separated by half the world.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 177th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: John Wick – Chapter III: Parabellum

The biggest issue with John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum is that it lacks an ending.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with an ambiguous or open-ended film. Indeed, a large part of the thrill of John Wick: Chapter II was the extent to which it fudged such boundaries. Despite the fact that John Wick offered something of a satisfying conclusion, the sequel picked up mere moments later to offer a coda that audiences never realised was needed. The ending of the first sequel bled (both literally) into the one that would follow. Open-endedness is not an issue of itself.

“So John Wick flees on horseback, the assassin’s after them on a motorcycle and it’s like a battle between motors and horses, like technology versus horse.”

After all, Chapter II belonged to the now-familiar family of “second films in trilogies.” Traditionally, the first film in a series would be relatively self-contained, with a broad teasing ending at best that could provide closure if the box office numbers didn’t work; Star WarsBack to the Future. In contrast, after those movies were box office hits, sequels were often commissioned in batches of two; Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back bleeds more obviously into Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, Back to the Future II bleeds into Back to the Future III.

However, there tended to be an understanding that closure was necessary at some point. Not necessarily in a definitive or conclusive manner for the series as a whole; Return of the Jedi is not the last Star Wars movie. However, a sense that the single narrative being tidied up. The characters’ journeys may not be completed, but their arc within this particular story is complete. Parabellum feels very much like a cheat on this front. Although building from a premise with a clear ending, it seems to be awkwardly constructing a perpetual motion device.

Shattering expectations.

After all, John Wick’s journey has a clear end point. The character arc that began in John Wick has any number of potential resolutions. Chapter II seemed to offer some clear linear progress to that journey, taking the character from his position in the closing moments of John Wick and escalating the existential stakes significantly. The single biggest problem with Parabellum is that the film doesn’t manage a comparable transformation. Wick’s situation doesn’t seem particularly different between the beginning and the end of the film. At most, the character has run a closed loop.

This is a shame, as that is a lot to like in Parabellum. As with both John Wick and Chapter II, this is a visually stunning film. It is saturated with neon glows of reds and blues, mingling and reflecting into beautiful purples on grimy streets and immaculate sterile sets. The stunt choreography is breathtaking, and a testament to an underappreciated artform, ballet with blades and bullets. Indeed, Parabellum even improves upon the already enchanting heightened operatic (and gloriously melodramatic) storytelling of John Wick and Chapter II, weaving them into an engaging parable.

Getting their just deserts.

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