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Non-Review Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Perhaps Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom offers an illustration of how times have changed.

The film exists as part of the same production deal that brought Fences to cinemas just four years ago. Denzel Washington signed a deal with HBO to produce screen adaptations of all ten of August Wilson’s plays, bringing one of America’s core dramatists to as wide an audience as possible with the highest quality production. Even without that specific context, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels like a companion piece to Fences; they are both films adapting Wilson, produced by Washington and starring Viola Davis.

A play of note…

However, while Fences was a major theatrical release distributed by Paramount, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has gone direct to Netflix. While the film will have a limited theatrical run where that is possible, it will primarily stream online. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is still a lavish production with a top tier cast working from strong material. However, as with the release of The Boys in the Band on Netflix earlier in this awards season, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom illustrates that even in the four years since Fences, the market for these sorts of productions has migrated to streaming.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the sort of clean and uncluttered performance-driven adult-skewing film that might have enjoyed a wide release in years past, but now it seems impossible to imagine the film anywhere but on a service like Netflix.

Levee-raging his talent.

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Non-Review Review: Jingle Jangle – A Christmas Journey

The big question with Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is simple: what do audiences want from a Christmas film?

Jingle Jangle exists in the context of Netflix’s recent efforts to build a sturdy collection of modern holiday cinema, from the classic animation of Klaus to the adventure of The Christmas Chronicles to the formula of A Christmas Prince. These are clearly part of an effort to buttress the streaming service’s library with a collection of films that audiences can enjoy in the holiday season. Jingle Jangle marks the latest glitzy addition to that selection, starring Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker and produced by Oscar-winner John Legend.

The Greatest Snowman.

Jingle Jangle is a fine execution of the standard Christmas movie formula. There are songs. There are children. There is a framing device involving a story that appears to blend fantasy and reality. There is lavish production design. There are morals about the importance of family. There are ominous deadlines that count down very specifically to Christmas. There are toys. There is missletoe. There is an improbably (and yet also inescapably) happy ending. There are also no surprises waiting beneath this lavishly decorated Christmas tree.

Then again, maybe that is the point. Maybe people don’t want surprises at Christmas, but instead the warm comfort of familiarity.

Going by the book.

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New Escapist Column! On the Strange Logic of Netflix’s Cancellations…

I published a new piece at The Escapist today. With Netflix announcing a number of major cancellations recently – from GLOW to Altered Carbon – it seemed like an interesting topic to discuss and explore.

Netflix operates a bit more opaquely than more conventional television broadcasters, and so its internal logic is a little rougher around the edges. However, the logic of cancellation has become a little clearer over time, as the streamer has drawn the shutter down on more and more of its shows. Indeed, with the benefit of the growing dataset, it appears that the underlying logic of cancellation for the streaming service is not radically different from that of television – even if the underlying math is a little more unusual.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Rebecca

The most shocking thing about Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Rebecca is how tame it feels.

The bulk of the coverage of the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance focuses on the idea that Wheatley is tilting at cinematic windmills by daring to explore the same ground that Alfred Hitchcock had already so memorably mapped. Hitchcock is as close to a cinematic sacred cow as exists, and to attempt to remake one of his most beloved films would be tantamount to making another version of Gone with the Wind or restaging Casablanca. It is one of the rare lines that exists in a modern pop culture built around recycling existing intellectual property.

Maxim-um fun.

In truth, there’s nothing wrong with daring to approach the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. After all, Park Chan-wook’s Stoker was very much an update of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. More than that, there are perhaps valid reasons for wanting to go to Manderley again. Hitchcock’s adaptation of du Maurier’s novel was constrained by the demands of the Production Code Authority, and forced to change key plot points and obscure others through subtext. While some observers might argue this renders the film more “artful”, it does justify a revisit in a less puritanical time.

However, Wheatley never manages to bring these ideas to the surface. His version of Rebecca never manages to quite articulate or express the anxieties lurking in the shadow of Hitchcock’s classic. Rebecca is a sleek and stylish production with a set of solid performances and a few flashes of visual vigour, but it lacks a strong sense of its own identity – often seeming disjointedly caught between its influences and its impulses, failing to reconcile the two into anything especially compelling.

A time for reflection.

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Non-Review Review: The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band is not only a cinematic adaptation of a classic play, it is a cinematic adaptation of a particular staging of a classic play.

The Boys in the Band is a film designed to capture a snapshot of the 2018 Broadway run of Mart Crowley’s iconic 1968 off-Broadway play. It is directed by Joe Mantello, who is perhaps best know for his theatre work including Wicked and the fiftieth anniversary revival of The Boys in the Band that forms the basis of this filmed version. The film reunites the entire ensemble of that staging, including actors like Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer.

Banding together.

In some ways, Hamilton feels like the obvious point of comparison here. The goal is not just to bring a beloved play to the screen, but to capture the particular energy of a particular staging of that beloved play. However, while Hamilton leaned into its attempts to recreate the Broadway experience for an audience watching at home, The Boys in the Band is a much more traditional cinematic adaptation of a theatrical staging. It is a film, but it is a film that feels particularly “stagey.” It recalls a particular brand of awards fare, like Doubt or Fences.

This is perhaps the biggest issue with this adaptation of The Boys in the Band. With the exception of a few framing scenes set outside the apartment at the beginning and the end of the story, The Boys in the Band doesn’t feel like a reimagining so much as a restaging. Then again, it’s debatable to what extent this is a problem. Mantello’s approach to the material is straightforward rather than showy, putting his faith in the script – which was reworked by Crowley shortly before his death with writer Ned Martel – and in the cast, trusting them to carry the film.

Not-so-midnight-cowboy.

This largely works. The Boys in the Band is a fascinating snapshot of a cultural moment. Crowley’s play was famously one of the first pieces of mainstream pop art to focus on a large a diverse cast of gay characters, arriving before the AIDS crisis and before Stonewall. While the play has remained constant in all of those years, the world around it has changed. Its fortunes have ebbed and flowed, while the text seems to remain vital and relevant – it always seemed to say something to the moment, even if that something made critics uneasy.

The Boys in the Band is a welcome reminder that there is nothing inherently wrong with a theatrical approach to cinematic stagings of beloved plays. The Boys in the Band may not pop off the screen in the way that Hamilton does, engaging as much with the audience’s experience of the show as with the content of the show itself. Instead, The Boys in the Band serves largely as a showcase for its actors and for its source material, proof that there is a lot to be said for locking a bunch of talented cast in a confined space with a good script.

Drinking it all in…

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Non-Review Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is Aaron Sorkin’s second feature film as director, following on from Molly’s Game.

However, the project originated with Steven Spielberg. The finished film includes the Dreamworks logo. Watching the movie, it feels like Sorkin is channeling Spielberg, particularly with the film’s delicate balance of historical accuracy and its relatively heartening final act. Indeed, The Trial of the Chicago 7 feels like something of a companion piece to Spielberg’s most recent film, The Post. It is another movie about the troubled transition from the flawed utopian idealism of the sixties to the brutal political cynicism of the seventies.

Cycles of mistrust.

In many ways, The Trial of the Chicago 7 appeals to Sorkin’s strengths as a writer. After all, Sorkin rose to prominence as the writer of A Few Good Men, another court room drama. The basic premise of The Trial of the Chicago 7 involves placing a bunch of similar-but-distinct characters in a locked room together and focusing on the group dynamics, which provides a lot of space for Sorkin to demonstrate his skill with dialogue and characterisation. There’s a lot of clever detail and definition between the protagonists in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

To be fair, The Trial of the Chicago 7 suffers slightly from being a little heavy-handed in places. As with Spielberg and The Post, Sorkin is very much aware of the movie’s contemporary resonance and occasionally leans into it a little too eagerly. Beyond that, the depiction of events from the eponymous trial can occasionally seem a little episodic and haphazard. Still, there’s a lot to recommend The Trial of the Chicago 7, particular as an old-fashioned example of an ensemble historical drama.

Courting controversy.

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Non-Review Review: Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes is a movie with a lot of charm, anchored in a sense of playful enthusiasm and a winning central performance.

Adapted from Nancy Springer’s The Enola Holmes Mysteries series of novels, the basic premise of Enola Holmes is straightforward enough. The classic Victorian detective Sherlock Holmes is given a younger sister, who inevitably finds herself forced to navigate the wider world while solving mysteries and avoiding the best efforts of her older brothers to ship her off to a suffocating and restrictive boarding school where she might be taught to be a lady.

Make yourself at Holmes…

Enola Holmes moves quickly and cheerfully through its starting premise and central mystery, bouncing from one sequence to another with considerable grace. However, it’s lead actor Millie Bobby Brown who carries the film. Brown is probably best known for her work on Stranger Things and a prominent role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but Enola Holmes suggests a long and promising career ahead of the young actor. It is impossible to imagine the movie seeming as effortless without her at its centre.

In fact, Enola Holmes suffers most when it moves away from its protagonist and makes room in her story for less compelling (but more nominally “important”) characters that wind up sapping the film’s energy. Enola Holmes has a surprisingly slow start for a film that breezes along once it finds its footing, and that is largely because it is initially reluctant to give its central character the breathing room that she needs. Still, once the film gets past that, it is a highly enjoyable adventure.

Enola that look…

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Non-Review Review: Project Power

Project Power is an oddity, a strange clash of style and content that never quite aligns but results in some interesting chemistry.

The basic plot of Project Power is fairly straightforward. A mysterious designer drug known only as “power” has arrived on the streets of New Orleans. These pills cause the user to spontaneously manifest a random superpower for five minutes – that power can be awesome, mundane or fatal. It’s a basic set-up as these sorts of stories go, and its rooted in the tropes of the modern superhero genre: human experimentation, industrialised production. unchecked power fantasies.

The bitterest pill.

Project Power uses this central plot element to two competing ends. In terms of direction, the simple-yet-flexible set-up serves as a motivator for a variety of high-concept and high-energy action sequences as characters manifest strange abilities that inevitably alter the dynamics of one-on-one combat, allowing for impressive stunts and frantic violence. In terms of theme, Project Power uses this set-up as a metaphorical commentary on the War on Drugs and the historical exploitation of marginalised communities by those in… well, power.

These are two interesting angles, even if they are never explored as creatively as one might hope. Indeed, the two approaches make strange bedfollows, with Project Power feeling like a paranoid conspiracy thriller that movies with the hyper pacing of a modern direct-to-video action film. It doesn’t really work, but the cocktail is fascinating enough that it holds attention.

Power play.

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New Escapist Column! On “The Old Guard” and Offering Easy Answers to Tough Problems…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. The Old Guard was released on Netflix this evening, so it seemed a film that was worth discussing.

The Old Guard is essentially a film that exists half-way between a turn-of-the-millennium high-concept action film and a modern superhero blockbuster, and it doesn’t always split the difference in a particularly elegant way. This is a film that is about the importance of doing good in the world, even when the results aren’t quantifiable or apparent. However, it makes a rather clumsy and facile argument about that, lacking the strength or vision to make its point from first principles.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “Hannibal” as the Perfect Adaptation…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. With Hannibal premiering on Netflix and generating a host of new appraisals and discussions, connecting with a new generation of fans, I thought it might be worth looking at Bryna Fuller’s television masterpiece.

In an era dominated by recycled intellectual property, remakes and reboots, it would have been easy to be cynical about another adaptation of Thomas Harris’ seminal serial killer novels, particularly given how severely the film franchise had degenerated since the triumph of Silence of the Lambs. However, Bryan Fuller used Hannibal as a showcase for a particularly ambitious and inventive approach to adaptation, one that used an existing set of iconography in new and innovative ways. Hannibal was the perfect adaptation of a familiar property, breathing new life into it.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.