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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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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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130. (i) Mary and Max (#177) – Interview with Adam Elliot and Andy Hazel

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, 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 weekend, we’ll be discussing Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max with the wonderful Andy Hazel.

However, Andy actually managed to sit down with director Adam Elliot to discuss the film and his career in general. It’s a fun and wide-ranging discussion, covering a host of topics from the writer-director’s influences to his future plans to the film’s place on the list and even the difficulty securing international distribution. We hope you enjoy, and join us again on Saturday for our discussion of the film itself with Andy.

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Non-Review Review: Booksmart

Booksmart has charm to burn.

Olivia Wilde’s feature length directorial debut is built from a familiar high school coming-of-age template. It is the story of two kids who just want to party before graduation and before heading their separate ways. There are any number of films built outward from that premise, or even core components of that premise. Booksmart is canny enough to understand the genre in which it is working. Indeed, the casting of Beanie Feldstein seems designed to directing invoke two key touchstones; Feldstein’s most notable role to date remains her supporting role in Lady Bird, and her brother Jonah Hill launched his career (in part) off the success of Superbad.

Partying is such sweet sorrow.

As with any movie in a familiar genre, the success Booksmart hinges on the execution more than the concept. There are dozens of films riffing on similar ideas, so Booksmart needs to distinguish itself in how it approaches the material in question. The film elevates this somewhat stock premise through the use of a charming cast and surprising emotional earnestness. It helps that the comedy driving the film is both very well-observed on its own terms and tends towards the affectionate rather than the mean-spirited. There’s an affectionate humanism in Booksmart, and the recurring suggestion that characters are more than just the roles that they play in the highly performative environment of high school.

However, it is the two leads that truly elevate Booksmart, working with a sharp script and confident direction to create an engaging and endearing portrait of teenage insecurities.

Hold on!

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Non-Review Review: Float Like a Butterfly

Unlike its protagonist, Float Like a Butterfly never quite figures out what it wants to be.

Float Like a Butterfly finds itself trapped between two different genres. On one side, Float Like a Butterfly aims for gritty social realism, charting a Traveller family as they attempt to navigate the uncaring Ireland of the early seventies. This is a familiar and naturalistic coming of age story, focusing on young Frances as she tries to hold her family together while her recently released father Michael sinks deeper and deeper into a drunken stupor. Frances is caught between the conservative patriarchal ideals of her own community, and the predatory hatred of the outside community.

The haymaker.

On the other hand, Float Like a Butterfly tries to position itself as an empowering sports movie, the familiar template about a confused and alienated young person who finds meaning and purpose through the expression that sport offers. Inspired by none other than Mohammad Ali himself, Frances aspires to become “the greatest.” She takes up boxing, even inheriting a set of gloves at one point. This is a story about a woman who is pressed in by a conservative society, but who finds a necessary outlet through sport. It is a feel-good triumphant narrative.

To its credit, Float Like a Butterfly plays both sides of this narrative relatively well; it offers a compelling portrait of life on the margins when it aims for naturalism, and delivers the feeling of empowerment and elation when it evokes those upbeat sports films. The big problem with Float Like a Butterfly is that it never reconciles these two competing halves into a single cohesive film. It is too meandering and too grounded to really sell itself as a sports narrative, but too heightened and too structured in its familiar plot rhythms to work as a slice of life.

Winning ribbons.

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