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Non-Review Review: Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire often feels like Netflix resurrected Cannon Films, and tasked them with remaking Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Training Day, without any constraints in terms of logic or internal consistency.

Outside the Wire is a bad film, but it is a bad film in somewhat interesting ways. This is not the dull lifeless quality of Wild Mountain Thyme. It is instead the gonzo “throw everything at the wall, regardless of how it fits together” energy of a film like Serenity or Book of Henry. It is a film that makes a number of bizarre choices that often seem to confusingly double back on one another, to the point that any review of the film inevitably comes across as a deranged play-by-play rather than coherent criticism.

“You’re a droid, and I’m a ‘noid.”

Outside the Wire is set in Eastern Europe in the distant future of 2037, as a new Cold War brews between Russia and the United States, raging as a proxy war in the Ukraine. (It perhaps says something about the state of current politics that this reference feels very dated.) Lieutenant Thomas Harp is a drone pilot. During a routine assignment, he breaks the chain of command and fires a missile that kills two servicemen. As a penalty, Harp is assigned to active duty on the frontier.

This is a fairly standard set-up. It recalls movies that meditate on the morality of drone warfare, like Good Kill or Eye in the Sky. Indeed, as Harp arrives on site, the commanding officer outlines the brutal cynicism of this punishment. “You’re here because somebody deemed the dollar value of your training to be higher than the lives of those two men. If you survive, air force keeps a pilot. If you die, you’re a cautionary tale to all the other fly-by-wire assholes.” The stakes are grounded, logical. The moral at play is clear. Harp is going to learn what war is really like.

Robot Wars.

Then, in the space of three minutes, Harp is assigned to work with an officer named “Leo.” Leo is an oddity. “He’s not like us,” the commanding officer warns. Leo works alone in a large office, filled with records. He listens to vinyl music. He types on an analogue keyboard. Within minutes of arriving, Leo has already conscripted Harp on a covert mission behind enemy lines. It initially seems like Leo is planning to deliver a set of vaccines to a local children’s hospital. “So you’re hearts and minds, sir?” Harp asks. Leo replies, “Yes, I’m hearts and minds. Ostensibly.”

It turns out that the vaccine run that Harp has been assigned moments after arriving to his first active deployment is actually a clandestine strike mission to take out local war lord Victor Koval. Koval is plotting to take control of the Ukrainian nuclear arsenal, and Leo is committed to stopping that from happening. Leo walks Harp through an elaborate exposition machine, involving photo plays and interactive maps. There’s a lot of elaborate detail, but the mission is clear. This is a “save the world” buddy movie.

And then Leo takes off his shirt, and reveals that he is android. All of this is twenty minutes into the film.

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New Escapist Column! On “Cobra Kai” and the Future of the “Netflix Bump”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Because the new season of Cobra Kai arrived on Netflix last week, I thought it was worth taking a look at the show’s relationship to Netflix.

Cobra Kai is just the latest in a series of shows that have been “saved” by the streaming service, with earlier seasons struggling on other providers only for Netflix to find an audience and even take up the bill; Arrested Development, You, Lucifer and so on. However, things are changing. As companies like YouTube bow out of the streaming wars and as companies like NBC begin consolidating their broadcast and streaming wings, there’s both fewer of these gems produced and less room for Netflix to get the ones that are produced to larger audience.

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

Non-Review Review: Pieces of a Woman

If only Pieces of a Woman were interested in allocating more space to its central female character.

Pieces of a Woman is notable as Vanessa Kirby’s first cinematic lead role. The actor has a long career in theatre and on television, and has made an impression with a couple of strong supporting turns in blockbusters like Mission: Impossible – Fallout or Hobbs and Shaw. However, Pieces of a Woman marks the first time that Kirby takes centre stage, and the film gives her the juicy role of a young woman trying to come to terms with a home birth that ended in tragedy, as her life falls to pieces around her.

Where’s LaBeouf?

Kirby is great in Pieces of a Woman, offering a central performance that is layered and nuanced, one that often opts for interiority instead of extroversion. It’s a quiet performance, but a rich one. Kirby deserves a lot of credit for her work. However, Pieces of a Woman refuses to give Kirby’s performance the credit that it deserves, instead drowning out that powerhouse dramatic in a sea of prestige drama clichés and larger-than-life supporting turns from actors like Shia LeBeouf. Kirby winds up somewhat lost in a film that should be centred on her, through no fault of her own.

If Pieces of a Woman is a story of a fractured response to grief, it often feels like some of the pieces get lost because the film has no real interest in looking.

Pregnant pause.

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Non-Review Review: The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky is an ambitious and sporadically interesting mess.

There are a lot of individual elements that work relatively well in George Clooney’s most recent directorial effort. Indeed, the most surprising thing about this apocalyptic space drama is the way in which is eschews a lot of the stylistic trappings of the recent “sad astronaut” subgenre. Conceptually, The Midnight Sky feels like a companion piece to films like GravityInterstellarThe Martian, First Man, and Ad Astra. It is a story about isolation and about a space mission with the potential to go horribly wrong. However, Clooney gives the film a distinct texture, brighter and bolder.

Drinking it all in.

However, The Midnight Sky never coheres in a satisfying manner. Part of this is simply structural, with Clooney having to consistently cut between two sets of characters in radically different situations in a way that constantly undermines momentum. However, part of this is also narrative, with The Midnight Sky essentially built around a powerhouse closing twenty minutes that are obvious from the opening ten, but have to be delayed and postponed with a series of tonally disjointed episodic adventures to prevent the film from ending too soon.

This is a shame. There are hints of a much better movie in The Midnight Sky, but the film itself gets lost in space.

“Nuke the sky from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

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New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “Unwrapping a Star Wars and Netflix Christmas”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard and Matt Razak for the fourteenth episode. It’s a seasonal special, as we discuss The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special, The Star Wars Holiday Special and the Christmas Prince trilogy.

You can listen to the episode here, back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

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.

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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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