Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Friday

18

June 2021

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Classic Film: Yojimbo

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Akira Kurosawa possessed an uncanny ability to make intimate settings feel like they carried the weight of the world. At its core, 1961’s Yojimbo is a small town political struggle, with two rival factions warring over the local gambling industry. Such a dispute hardly requires a substantive moral quandary to produce compelling drama, but Kurosawa keeps his eyes on the bigger picture, using his narrative to explore the rot of man.

The film follows an anonymous rōnin (Toshiro Mifune) who adopts the pseudonym “Kuwabatake Sanjuro” as he stops in a small town for a drink of water and a rest. Discovering the messy political scene between Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka), Sanjuro quickly proves his value in the conflict by killing several of Ushitora’s henchmen. Not content to be a mere hired gun, Sanjuro pits the factions against each other in an attempt to maximize his earnings.

Mifune’s broad range beautifully illustrates the complex morality Kurosawa spends his narrative grappling with, a moving exploration of society’s worst inclinations. Sanjuro has a certain charm to him, but both Kurosawa and Mifune are careful to ensure that the audience doesn’t become too enamored by his often amusing antics. Mifune is skilled at playing the opportunistic mercenary with a degree of depth that lets the trials of his tortured soul unfold in real-time.

Kurosawa crafts a wonderful aesthetic in his town, an eeriness enhanced by the chilling score. A once quiet village buckles under the weight of greed, the gambling industry serving as an apex predator disrupting its ecosystem. The town carries the intimacy of a stage play while exuding the strength of an epic, a generation of conflict coming to a head as a result of one wandering rōnin entering the fray.

Yojimbo is the kind of narrative designed to stick with its audience for a lifetime. Both Kurosawa and Mifune put Sanjuro through the ringer, an emotional whirlwind that few could expect throughout the first act. There are points in the third act where it feels like the film is finally buckling under its exorbitant weight, and rather long 110-minute runtime, but the payoff hits its mark in a way that makes you want to rewind and start the whole thing over again.

To American viewers, Yojimbo may best be remembered as the inspiration for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, an unofficial remake that resulted in a successful lawsuit by Yojimbo’s production company, Toho. Both Leone and Clint Eastwood see their fine work pale in comparison to Kurosawa and Mifune’s grasp of the material, including their dark comedic take on the messy morality at hand. Yojimbo carries great appeal for fans of Westerns to see firsthand how much Kurosawa directly influenced the entire genre.

For those who think of the “man with no name” as a kind of stock character, Mifune offers strong contradicting evidence. Though we never learn Sanjuro’s real name, Mifune gives the audience a deeper sense of intimacy through his performance. Kurosawa puts forth some of his best work in this fascinating samurai narrative.

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Monday

7

June 2021

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Strong performances buoy Physical through its narrative shortcomings

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

The 1980s carry a certain mystique that only grows as time moves further and further on from the era. Beyond the sheer absurdity of the aerobics craze, where ridiculously slim people jazzercised in unison while decked out in thong leotards and neon leggings, lies a natural sense of intrigue to understand the zeitgeist of it all. “What the hell were they thinking,” exists not as a rhetorical question, but a legitimate point of entry for aerobics scholarship.

Apple TV+’s new series Physical follows the rise of Shelia (Rose Byrne), from misanthropic housewife to aerobics star. Stuck in a dead-end marriage with a burnout college professor Danny (Rory Scovel), Shelia initially copes with her monotonous existence by blowing off steam at ballet class, typically followed by a binge-eating & purge session of fast-food burgers in a hotel room.

It’s not until Danny decides to run for state assembly, no easy task for a socialist hippie in the Reagan-loving San Diego suburbs, that Shelia’s hotel bills start putting a strain on their already-shaky finances. Seeking a workout outlet following the closure of her ballet studio, Shelia discovers the aerobics studio run by Bunny (Della Saba) and her surfer bum boyfriend, Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci). Needing money, Shelia quickly dominates Bunny’s orbit, occasionally also taking advantage of Greta (Dierde Friel), whose children attend the same preschool.

Byrne is mesmerizing in the lead role, her performance adding a much-needed layer of depth to Shelia’s fairly superficial personality. The first few episodes focus almost solely on Shelia, a dynamic that Byrne sells well with her cool approach to her character’s toxic home life. What works best about the early episodes is the way the show makes no apologies for its anti-hero who is severely lacking in the empathy department. Shelia is rotten in the way few women leads are ever allowed to be, making excellent television along the way.

The show does struggle with where to focus its attentions. The aerobics narrative often plays second fiddle to Danny’s campaign, an unfortunate allotment of screentime for the show’s worst character. Danny grows increasingly insufferable with the early-season addition of Jerry (Geoffrey Arend), a college buddy turned campaign manager. Though Shelia refers to Danny as the most brilliant man she’s ever met, Byrne puts no effort into selling the idea that her character ever looked at him with any degree of serious affection.

Likewise, the show hardly puts any effort into making Danny into anything resembling a sympathetic character. Shelia hides her aerobics interest from Danny, as well as the state of their dire finances, but the secrecy doesn’t really build toward any substantive narrative payoff. The show commits early on to Danny being an airheaded deadbeat, which sucks most of the air out of their slowly deteriorating relationship.

Pacing is a big problem for the second half of the ten-episode season. While the first few episodes are framed almost exclusively from Shelia’s point of view, the show gradually gives more focus to the supporting cast. Bunny and Greta see compelling storylines shortchanged at the expense of Danny. Working with limited screen time, Pucci quickly endears the audience to Tyler, an airhead with a heart of gold who works well opposite Shelia and Bunny.

More puzzling is the sudden emphasis midseason on John Breem (Paul Sparks), a real-estate developer/Republican mainstay who mostly acts as the face of Reagan conservatism in opposition to Danny’s dirtbag left aspirations. Sparks gives a predictably strong performance that’s essentially a riff on other prestige TV characters he’s played on shows like House of Cards and The Girlfriend Experience. Breem is much more compelling than Danny, but the show never really justifies why the character needed his own scenes with so much else going on.

Show creator Annie Weisman seems to struggle with how to frame Shelia’s attitude toward her family. Shelia goes from hardcore apathetic toward her husband and daughter early on, only to shift gears later on with little explanation. The show’s efforts to explore Shelia’s backstory fall a bit flat, coupled with the broader pacing problems of the second half of the season.

As a period piece, Physical is only mildly interested in exploring the politics and culture of the 1980s. There’s an early gaffe in the pilot where Danny remarks that Reagan had “just” been elected president, though the 1986 settings place the narrative 75% through his time in office. There is occasionally some interesting commentary on the nature of consumerism, but one might expect a bit more insight from a show that chose to place its political plotline at the center of the narrative.

Most disappointing is the show’s middling interest in what’s presented as its premise. Physical doesn’t have much to say about aerobics or what it is that drew people to such a seemingly absurd form of exercise. Weisman does highlight how the exercise could cater to body-obsessed people like Shelia, but the layers of spandex are hardly peeled back by the conclusion of the first season.

Byrne’s electric performance carries the show through its uneven pacing and sloppy narrative that spends way too much time highlighting the show’s worst character. Physical has the pieces of a great show. It’s beautifully shot and wonderfully acted for the most part. It is hard to shake the reality that the show that highlights a woman’s meteoric rise to aerobics fame was ill-advised to place such a heavy emphasis on the loser husband she was trying to get away from.

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Wednesday

26

May 2021

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Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Yesterday’s Enterprise”

Written by , Posted in Podcast

We are back on the Enterprise-D, and also the Enterprise-C. Tasha Yar faced a tragically silly death in “Skin of Evil,” marvelously analyzed on this humble podcast. Natty Strange is back to help us assess the return of everyone’s favorite lesbian chief of security and her weird relationship with Shooter McGavin. 

 

You can follow Nat on Twitter @nuns_on_film. Be sure to check out her new Star Trek blog, deepspacenat.com and her new Twitch channel

You can follow Pokey the Penguin’s latest adventures by checking out Pokey’s website https://www.yellow5.com/pokey/ & @pokeythepenguin

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Tuesday

25

May 2021

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Classic Film: Death in Venice

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Film does not require one to separate sinner from saint in order to follow a narrative. The Gustav von Aschenbach in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice is a washed-up pedophile who takes a vacation to stave off the rapid decay of his pathetic existence. Instead of basking in the luscious scenery that the magnificent city has to offer, Aschenbach instead squarely focuses his attentions on a young Polish boy named Tadzio.

One might think to call Visconti’s work a game of cat and mouse between Aschenbach and Tadzio. The iconic director essentially sets up that sort of dynamic with his lead actors, the veteran Dirk Bogarde, and the young Björn Andresen, in a career defining-role. The trouble with the narrative is that it doesn’t really exist as anything more than set-up, a runtime of 130 minutes that never seems all that interested in moving the ball forward.

The gorgeous cinematography gives the eyes plenty to gaze at throughout the narrative. To some extent, Visconti doesn’t deserve that much credit for being able to eloquently paint visual portraits of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, hardly the most challenging task. 1971 Venice is an easy marvel, almost enough to keep the mind occupied during Visconti’s anemic story.

Visconti reduces Aschenbach to a shell of the character brought to life in Thomas Mann’s source material. Bogarde does an admirable job in a lead role that gives him practically nothing to do besides stalk the boy over and over for two hours. While Mann sent Aschenbach to Venice to revitalize his career, Visconti essentially sends him there to die, a failed conductor licking the wounds of a disastrous performance.

The real crime of Death in Venice is the way Visconti abandons any sense of drive for Aschenbach beyond his base-level perversions. Though Aschenbach and Tadzio never speak to each other, Andresen responds to Bogarde’s infatuations more than enough times to qualify as communication. Visconti takes the narrative to an uncomfortable sexual level while never being terribly interested in dealing with the ramifications.

On some level, Death in Venice plays like an inside joke for Visconti to fool around with homosexual themes at a time when doing so more blatantly would have crossed obscenity lines in plenty of countries. The director takes a beautiful city and well-respected source material, only to reduce everything to the same single note that he hammers home again and again. The audience is left on its own to bend the fragments of narrative into something resembling meaning.

Visconti understands the beauty of Venice. His inability, or unwillingness, to engage with Mann’s work is a barrier that sinks Death in Venice. The legacy of the film is largely defined by Visconti’s exploitation of Andresen’s body in service to nothing in particular. It’s hard to look at the result as anything other than a tragic, beautiful, mess. There’s not enough here to sustain a two-hour narrative, a bizarre misfire considering the substantive source material.

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Wednesday

12

May 2021

0

COMMENTS

Jupiter’s Legacy w/ co-DP Nicole Hirsch Whitaker

Written by , Posted in Podcast

We are delighted to welcome Nicole Hirsch Whitaker to the show to talk about her work as co-director of photography for the new Netflix series Jupiter’s Legacy. Nicole shares plenty of insights from behind the scenes and the way she worked to shape the show’s unique aesthetic in the crowded superhero landscape. Ian & Nicole also talk about the challenges of framing a series with a giant spoiler that fans of the comic book will know all too well.

 

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Jupiter’s Legacy is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

Headshot courtesy of Nicole Hirsch Whitaker. Series poster courtesy of Netflix.

 

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Tuesday

11

May 2021

0

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Classic Film: The Las Vegas Story

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Many have seen Las Vegas as a place of opportunity, only to leave town feeling like a loser. Vegas isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in such a high-stakes, cut-throat environment. 1952’s The Las Vegas Story explores the kinds of characters who would try their luck there and the unfortunate suckers who would be better off steering clear of Sin City.

Linda Rollins (Jane Russell) used to thrive as a singer in Vegas before leaving town, much to the chagrin of her old performing partner, Happy (Hoagy Carmichael), who plays piano at the Last Chance Casino. Linda returns to town at the behest of her husband, Lloyd (Vincent Price), desperate to make a quick buck. While in town, Linda reconnects with her old fling Dave Andrews (Victor Mature), a local police lieutenant, sparking memories of what might have been if she’d settled down with a better man.

Director Robert Stevenson sends his narrative in about a million different directions. The drama of Lloyd’s money troubles becomes exacerbated by a murder about halfway through the narrative, an audible that shifts the film’s focus from character drama to a rather conventional whodunit. The story’s bread and butter is the relationship between Linda and Dave, enhanced by the great chemistry between Russell and Mature.

The film’s unfocused narrative is buoyed by a deep bench of compelling characters, led by Russell’s commanding lead performance. Linda didn’t want to return to Vegas, but quickly rekindles the magic in the place where she used to thrive. The film often offers meditations on the passing of time, refreshingly upbeat despite its noir genre trappings.

While the pulpier murder mystery intrigue cuts some of the character drama short, the tonal shift gives way to one of the earliest helicopter/car chases in film, a highly impressive feat of cinematography. Russell is unmatched by her male counterparts, but Mature brings a great deal of depth to Dave, refusing to let the character be put into a box as a jealous ex-boyfriend.

Linda possesses a level of complexity rarely afforded to female characters in the time period. Her relationships with her husband and former lover aren’t pitted against each other in the way the audience might expect, instead reflecting the intricate complexity of human emotion that isn’t easily boxed into a love triangle. Russell is given so much space to explore Linda’s motivations, quite impressive given everything else going on in the film.

What works best about The Las Vegas Story is the way this world feels lived in. The characters carry their decades of baggage while striving toward a better future. Vegas’ unforgiving atmosphere isn’t for everyone, but few films so eloquently depict the appeal of the city for those tough enough to thrive there. If you can make it in Vegas, could you be happy anywhere else?

Stevenson’s final credited RKO picture may not exactly be a triumph of filmmaking beyond its groundbreaking helicopter chase, but The Las Vegas Story is the kind of narrative that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled. A mid-movie musical number from Carmichael’s Happy perhaps illustrates this dynamic best, an out-of-place sequence that hits home through its sheer delight. Like the jazz Carmichael so excelled at, the film knows how to sequence itself in a way that feels both spontaneous and carefully choreographed in its delivery.

The various pieces of the film don’t necessarily connect in a way that crafts the most cohesive experience, but there’s so much to enjoy along the way. Fine art is rarely produced by throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. The Las Vegas Story feels like Stevenson managed to stick most of what he’d thrown, a real treat of a B movie well worth the ninety-minute runtime.

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Friday

7

May 2021

0

COMMENTS

Jupiter’s Legacy doesn’t know where to focus its narrative

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

We’re in a bit of a transitional era for television. Shows that used to aspire for a six or seven season run are now lucky to get three or four. The longer-running scripted series can be found almost exclusively on network television. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, giving creators a clearer picture of the trajectory of their material.

This shift does put a stricter burden on shows to get going right off the bat. In hindsight, spending a full season of Daredevil waiting for Matt Murdock to put on the costume or waiting until the first season finale to have the Runaways run away falls a bit flat, with both shows only running for three seasons. There’s setting up a story and then there’s dragging one’s feet. Unfortunately, Jupiter’s Legacy more often than not fits the latter bill.

Adapted from Mark Millar’s hit Image Comics series of the same name, the show follows an older guard of superheroes as they start to pass the torch to the younger generation. Sheldon Sampson, The Utopian (Josh Duhamel), has spent decades keeping the world safe, and his fellow heroes out of politics, but his team, The Union, faces an existential identity crisis for what its future might look like. Sheldon struggles to relinquish control, not trusting his son, Brandon (Andrew Horton), with the responsibility of protecting the planet, at times also at odds with his brother, Walter (Ben Daniels), and wife, Grace (Leslie Bibb).

Like its title character, Jupiter’s Legacy as a show struggles to let go of the past. At least half of the show’s first season is spent on flashbacks showing the original 1930s expedition that gave The Union their powers. This heavy screen time allotment marks a significant departure from the comics, which only tended to give a couple of pages an issue to the origin narrative.

A great strength of Millar’s source material was the way he communicated a sense of awe and wonder with regard to the island that Sheldon is drawn toward in his dreams. As a series, Jupiter’s Legacy dedicates far too much time to mundane flashbacks, drowning out the far more interesting present day narrative. The period sets are well-constructed, but the story is so lifeless that it makes you wonder why the resources weren’t dedicated elsewhere. The superhero sequences are few and far between.

The heavy emphasis on flashbacks also creates an awkward dynamic for the series’ leads to play characters at drastically different ages. The makeup used to make Daniels look like an old man is absolutely comical, stripping his character of any level of seriousness. Duhamel and Bibb don’t fare much better, hardly adequate for a series attempting to depict heroes looking to retire.

The series starts off on a great note. The first episode hones in on the aspect of the comics that’s aged best since its 2013 debut. The Union struggles internally with how involved they want to be in politics, noting the endless Washington gridlock that only gets worse with each passing year. There’s a great moral dilemma to explore with regard to the military-industrial complex, but the show seems weirdly averse to anything that might sound too political.

There’s also the issue of simply not having enough time to dedicate to its storylines set in the present. The first season is comprised of eight episodes, two of which barely run over half an hour. The broader supporting cast has to play second fiddle to storylines for the leads split across two separate timelines. The dynamic is confusing, thinly plotted, and simply not very good.

Fans of the comic are certainly aware of a certain massive spoiler heading into the series. The show barely touches the conflict that sets up this whole situation, clearly intending to save the bulk of that conflict for a future season. That’s not necessarily the worst strategy in the world, but the result creates a narrative vacuum that the show tries to fill with excessive time spent in the past.

An early triumph for the season is the way that Jupiter’s Legacy crafts an aesthetic that feels unique amidst the crowded superhero genre. That unfortunately doesn’t really extend to the worldbuilding, which never firmly establishes what exactly is going on in the present. There are too many characters, but not enough for them to do.

Too often, Jupiter’s Legacy feels like its top concern is to set up future seasons, while not giving its audience enough to care about. The current trajectory of television suggests this time allotment won’t be well-served, an uneven ratio of buildup to execution. A season spent in service to future seasons doesn’t work that well when the season itself doesn’t have much to enjoy.

 

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Thursday

6

May 2021

1

COMMENTS

What Lies West is a charming, confident indie coming of story

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The lines between child and adult have blurred quite a bit over the decades. “Growing up” possesses a fundamentally different meaning in a country where practically college students graduate into a job market that hardly offers salaries one can buy a house and raise a family on. A twenty-two year old is not exactly an adult anymore.

What Lies West follows a summer in the life of two young women searching for their place in the world. Nicolette (Nicolette Ellis) is a recent college graduate who takes a summer job looking after Chloe (Chloe Moore), a sixteen-year-old with an overbearing mother. Nicolette wants to be an actress, but doesn’t feel the pull to move to LA, instead finding comfort in her native Sonoma County. A tedious ex-boyfriend Alex (Jack Vicenty) dangles the prospects of a job in front of her, a familiar tune to anyone who’s tried to get a job after graduation.

The bulk of the narrative is fueled by Chloe’s desire to hike forty miles to the beach, an adventure certain to earn the wrath of her mother, endangering Nicolette’s employment in the process. Director/screenwriter Jessica Ellis frames the film like a meditation, more concerned with the nature of asking questions than any answers they might provide. Nicolette Ellis and Moore develop strong chemistry over the course of the film, a natural sense of pacing that lets them slowly lower their guards and trust each other.

Ellis’ greatest success with the film is her ability to challenge the conclusions of the coming of age genre. As a medium, film offers brief snapshots into a person’s life. 80 minutes with a character cannot possibly encapsulate their entire existence, lives that cannot be tied up with a bow in the form of a “happily ever after.”

There’s no great “aha” moment that a young millennial can take to coast through the rest of their life. The real world doesn’t have climaxes set to indie music where one can scream on a trash pile in the rain until everything makes sense. Nothing is ever going to make sense.

The film features plenty of beautiful shots of Sonoma County. A small-scale indie production, Ellis mostly relies on her script and her leads to make the magic happen, aided by the awe-inspiring scenery. The confidence that the film exudes allows its modest narrative ambitions to really nail their mark.

What Lies West carries the most appeal for those of us who remember how awful it felt to graduate without any clear sense of what the future might bring. That relatable plight can be harder for a film to nail, a medium that aims for resolutions that don’t always reflect the twists and turns of the real world. Ellis understands that today doesn’t have to be about tomorrow, taking comfort in the small steps that add up along the way.

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Thursday

6

May 2021

0

COMMENTS

Jessica Ellis

Written by , Posted in Blog, Podcast

We are delighted to welcome filmmaker Jessica Ellis for an in-depth conversation about her new film What Lies West, a delightful coming of age movie shot in Jessica’s hometown Sonoma County. Jessica shares many insights into indie filmmaking, along with some valuable perspectives on Disneyland and the LA sandwich scene.

 

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What Lies West comes out May 11th on VOD & DVD. You can learn more about the film at https://www.whatlieswest.com/

Ian’s review of the film: https://ianthomasmalone.com/2021/05/what-lies-west-is-a-charming-confident-indie-coming-of-story/

 

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Thursday

22

April 2021

0

COMMENTS

Downton Abbey Character Study: Thomas Barrow

Written by , Posted in Blog, Podcast

New feature at Estradiol Illusions! Take a trip with us back to Downton Abbey for an in-depth look at one of the show’s most fascinating characters. After being introduced as the show’s primary antagonist in season one, Thomas Barrow largely sheaths his villainous inclinations, growing to become a figure with great depth. Ian explores Barrow’s full series arc and the ways he gradually endeared himself to the audience. 

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out Ian’s in-depth review of the Downton Abbey film: https://ianthomasmalone.podbean.com/e/downton-abbey-1569517256/

Please leave a review on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts if you feel so inclined. 

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