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Non-Review Review: Second Act

In structural terms, Second Act is effectively a romantic comedy. It just hits upon the novelty of stripping out a secondary lead.

Second Act is the story of Maya Vargas, as played by Jennifer Lopez. Maya works as a manager at a local supermarket, where she has found a way to turn the business into a local institution due to her quick-thinking and her understanding of what customers actually want. Maya is grounded, smart and reasonably successful in her chosen field. However, she is also fundamentally unsatisfied. She aspires to something greater than the life that she currently lives, and fate conspires to elevate her through a case of mistaken (or at least obscured) identity.

Streets ahead.

Second Act is a familiar aspiration fantasy, anchored in the idea that personal reinvention is possible through a combination of imagination and insight, that people are capable of transcending their circumstances or their bad luck through a combination of intelligence and commitment. Although Maya only has a single love interest over the course of the film, the boyfriend with which she starts the adventure and who is promptly sidelined, the beats and rhythms of Second Act are taken wholesale from the romantic comedy template.

Perhaps the love affair at the heart of Second Act is Maya learning to properly love herself.

Milo’s to go.

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Non-Review Review: Vice

Vice feels at once like an extension of both Adam McKay’s work on The Big Short and recent innovations on the biographic picture format codified by I, Tonya.

At its core, Vice is the biography of a man whose defining attribute is how unassuming he appears. The opening text lays out the challenges facing the production team in trying to structure a biographical film around a man who has spent his life lurking at the edge of the frame, how hard it can be to extrapolate his inner workings from the outline of his journey through the world. Dick Cheney worked very hard to erase his own footprint; it is with no small irony that the film notes how thoroughly Cheney cleared his own email servers.

No need to be a Dick about it.

The film’s anonymous narrator, himself framed as perfectly average individual, repeatedly stresses how “ordinary” the central character presents himself. At one point, he advises a former colleague that the new standard operating procedure is “softly, softly.” Similarly, the documentary acknowledges the lacunas in the narrative that is constructing, how difficult it is – to evoke a different Shakespearean play than he chooses to quote – “to see the mind’s construction in the face.”

The result is fascinating, a character study that becomes an exploration of systemic flaws and inequities. Vice is a story about a man who appears to have no fixed political beliefs, no strong political identity, no clear political voice. Instead, Vice is a study of the politics of power as politics of itself, a tale about a man whose central political motivation is not ideological or existential, but purely practical. Vice is the tale of the will to power of a perfectly mundane and average individual, and the carnage wrought on his journey towards that power.

Vice City.

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Non-Review Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns largely accomplishes what it sets out to do.

Mary Poppins Returns is a belated sequel to the original film, and very clearly – and very strongly – takes that original film as its major influence. Indeed, many of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Mary Poppins Returns are carried over directly from the previous film. Mary Poppins Returns is visually inventive, narratively accessible, highly unfocused, and episodic in structure. These are all aspects that it shares with the beloved family classic that spawned it, for better and for worse.

The nanny’s state.

There is an endearing energy in Mary Poppins Returns, and a comforting nostalgia. Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns to the sort of film that was already endangered when Mary Poppins was released, the cinematic equivalent of vaudeville entertainment; a collection of largely isolated sketches tied together by the thinnest of string, serving as a showcase for the creative talents of everybody involved from the performers to the animators to the set designers. Mary Poppins Returns comes remarkably close to capturing the spirit and the appeal of the original.

However, Mary Poppins Returns struggles slightly to balance its fidelity for (and veneration of) the original with the demands of a modern family blockbuster, the film occasionally caught in the push-and-pull of familiarity and modernity. It doesn’t quite work, but it gets close enough for those craving an old-fashioned feel-good family film.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

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Non-Review Review: Boy Erased

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Boy Erased is the amount of faith that writer and director (and supporting actor) Joel Edgerton puts in the material at hand.

Boy Erased is based on a memoir written by Garrard Conley, offering a fictionalised account of the writer’s time in gay conversion therapy in rural conservative America. The film is fiction to the extent that the names have been changed; Garrard Conley becomes Jared Eamons. However, Boy Erased never tries to disguise its influences or to assert ownership of the story. The end of the film includes pictures of the real-life inspirations for various characters, often illustrating how uncanny the film’s casting had been.

Bedfellows.

More than that, perhaps as a nod to the increased self-awareness within these sorts of stories, the film hints at its own fictionalisation. The article and book that Jared decides to write towards the end of Boy Erased is very plainly the basis of the film that audience is watching. There is something intriguing in that, in the way that Boy Erased folds itself into its own narrative. The ending of Boy Erased is rooted in the characters responding to the story that Jared has written of his experiences, a clever and reflexive narrative choice that is consciously (and shrewdly) underplayed.

However, the fact that this is the closest that Boy Erased comes to a subversive or deconstructive moment only underscores the matter-of-factness with which Edgerton’s handled the material. Outside of using the origins of the film to provide the basis for a third-act catharsis within the film, Edgerton takes a very straightforward approach to this story. He never seems particularly interested in bending the narrative out of shape or of heightening particular elements for dramatic tension.

Syke out.

In its own weird way, Boy Erased feels decidedly conservative for a contemporary awards film. It is much less energised or dynamic than other similar works, such as the addiction drama Beautiful Boy starring Lucas Hedges’ Lady Bird co-star Timothée Chalamet. This creative restraint is not a criticism in any way; quite the opposite. Edgerton trusts the story that he has been given, and trusts his cast to deliver. Boy Erased is not a showy or ostentatious piece of work, instead a film constructed to specification with care and craft.

Boy Erased is a film that exists primarily as a vehicle for its subject and for its cast, and that is a credit to Edgerton’s approach to the material.

They said that he needed this, but it couldn’t be father from the truth.

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Non-Review Review: Aquaman

Aquaman is not a disaster on the scale of Justice League. It is perhaps closer to Green Lantern.

This comparison makes a certain amount of sense. Both Aquaman and Green Lantern are defined by the influence of writer Geoff Johns. Johns is an interesting figure, having broken into the entertainment world through film. He famously worked as a personal assistant to Richard Donner. However, Johns is best known for his work in comic books, particularly at DC when he enjoyed long character-defining runs on properties like Justice Society of America, The Flash and Green Lantern. A controversial figure, Johns is a strong writer with a great sense of a property’s core appeal.

Sink or swim time.

However, Johns’ skill with comic books does not translate to cinema. Green Lantern was largely influenced by Johns’ own work on the title, which remains a highlight of DC’s twenty-first century output. The feature film employed Johns’ characterisation of Hal Jordan, ported over a lot of his revamped mythology for the character, and even employed one of his own creations as the primary villain. However, a good comic book run did not translate to a good film. Green Lantern was more focused on being a faithful adaptation of the comic than a satisfying film in its own right.

Aquaman suffers from the same fundamental issue. The movie is packed to the gill with continuity references, particularly to Johns’ reworking and reimagining of the character, which has been repackaged as an omnibus collection to mark the release of the film. Aquaman features an incredibly dense mythology that is often delivered via awkward exposition dump, with characters bouncing between long tiring world-building dialogue scenes and epic computer-generated spectacle. Ironically, there is no room for any of this to breathe.

A Mera mistep-a.

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Non-Review Review: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give is an earnest and sincere attempt to grapple with a very important issue.

The Hate U Give is essentially structured around the aftermath of a police shooting in the United States, following a young woman named Starr who witnesses one of her oldest friends gunned down by a police officer during what should have been a routine traffic stop. What follows forces Starr to reassess everything that she thought she knew about the life that she was living. The Hate U Give puts the audience squarely in Starr’s position as the community around her begins to fracture and fray.

Taking a hands-off approach.

This is a very timely and very relevant movie, particularly in the context of current tensions within the United States. It frequently seems like a lot of the core issues in the United States come down to a complete lack of empathy or understanding, an inability or unwillingness of certain Americans to examine life as lived by people outside their frame of reference; individuals who respond instinctively with fear to social and political movements like “Black Lives Matter”, who refuse to properly consider the context of events like the protests in Ferguson.

The Hate U Give is occasionally a little clumsy in its storytelling, in how it approaches the arguments that it is making. It is a little broad in places, certain elements exaggerated for effect. Nevertheless, The Hate U Give offers an engaging and insightful exploration of a turbulent moment in contemporary American culture.

“All power to all the people.”

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Non-Review Review: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy is a cocktail essentially comprised of three contrasting main ingredients, none of which particularly gel.

Most obviously, it is a traditional performance-driven piece of awards fare designed to showcase the talents of Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carrell; there is a lot of shouting, a lot of confrontation, a lot of listless staring. On top of that, it is also a more modern piece of awards fare, one younger and hipper than stodgy old dramas about addiction; Beautiful Boy might be a good seventy-percent intercut montage set to music of beloved artists like David Bowie and John Lennon. The remaining third is a fifties moral panic anti-drugs film for the twenty-first century.

This movie is Timothée Chala-meh.

These three styles of film are constantly battling within Beautiful Boy. There must be a way to synthesise these three competing approaches into a holistic and satisfying piece of work, but instead Beautiful Boy bounces frantically from one mode to another, never settling on a single cohesive tone or approach. This is disappointing, as Beautiful Boy is a very earnest and sincere piece of work. There’s a strong sense that the film is trying to articulate something that is both important and profound. However, it just cannot clearly translate that sentiment into speech.

Beautiful Boy is a mess of a film, but a fascinating mess in a number of places.

Yes. Most of the screenshots of this film will be of Timothée Chalamet. Why?

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