Ian Thomas Malone

Tuesday

15

November 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Crown wallows in an annus horribilis of its own making

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The general logic behind rotating the cast of The Crown every two seasons was to give the show a chance to cover the spread of major events in the Royal Family across the long and storied reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The transition in practice is a bit clunkier, with the need to reacquaint the audience with the characters gunking up the narrative flow of the show. A further complication stems from the reality that The Crown is slowly creeping up on recent history, particularly one saga that’s been covered ad nauseam for the past few decades.

Season five centers its narrative on decay. The Crown is quite preoccupied with positioning the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia as a broader narrative for the downward trajectory of relevance for the Royal Family as a whole, a notion that might confuse viewers fresh off the triumphant Platinum Jubilee, as well as the global outpour of affection following the death of Her Majesty in September. The fairly rosy outlook for the monarchy was hardly a given in the midst of 1992’s infamous “annus horribilis,” which saw the breakdown of 75% of the Queen’s children’s marriages as well as a tragic fire in Windsor Castle.

The overabundance of doom and gloom illustrates season five’s predominant shortcoming, a textbook example of showing without telling. Bad things happen to the monarchy and the Queen (Imelda Staunton) is very sad about it. She loses her boat, her kids get divorced, and Diana is tricked into going on national television to pull back the curtains as to what an uncaring and unsympathetic family the Windsors really are. That’s kind of it. The Queen doesn’t really do anything other than mope and cling to the past, even with regard to her choices in cable television. 

Previous seasons of The Crown, particularly the third season, struggled with Her Majesty’s place in a narrative that often found her relatives far more interesting to depict. Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and Margaret (Leslie Manville), once primary focuses of the series, are reduced to idle background characters, the former seeing his primary arc consumed with carriage riding and a friendship with Penelope Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) that the show rather openly wishes was more than that. The Crown retains its contempt for the Queen Mother (Marcia Warren), one of the most interesting members of the family who’s been reduced to a window draping for the entire course of the series.

The Crown also refuses to let its fascination with the Duke of Windsor slip away, giving the long-dead former monarch an epilogue in the form of his valet Syndey Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), who later served Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) in his efforts to ingratiate himself to the Crown. Episode three perhaps best highlights the main issue for the season as a whole, a narrative so strapped for plotlines that it would dedicate a full episode to the father of the man who died in the same car crash that killed Princess Diana. Such screentime might have been better deployed to the Queen’s three other children. After a season of relative prominence, Anne (Claudia Harrison) is reduced to almost complete obscurity, while Andrew and Edward barely exist at all.

Unsurprisingly, season five dedicates much of its runtime to the end of the marriage between Charles (Dominic West) and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki). The biggest problem with this dynamic is the reality that the show brought upon itself. The irrevocable breakdown of the marriage was already defined throughout season four, leaving this season with little but the epilogue. There are interesting moments here and there in the saga, particularly toward Diana’s mindset heading into the Panaroma interview that was solicited under false pretenses, but there’s not enough meat here to carry a season. Debucki does a fabulous job as Diana, but she’s hardly given many moments to define the Princess of Wales as her own like Emma Corrin was able to manage.

West is perhaps in the most strenuous position among the leads, portraying the future King of England in the midst of his most unlikable era. Along with Pryce, West suffers from an inability to truly sink into the role, neither actor able to deliver an accent that sounds much like their subject. Charles is fundamentally correct in most of his concerns about the future of the monarchy, but nothing can change how insufferable and entitled he fundamentally comes across as. Late-season remarks by Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) lay out the challenges with Charles quite well.

The Crown spends its own annus horribilis oddly bored with itself, a meandering season without the passion it once evoked toward its privileged subjects. There’s nothing new to explore and nothing fresh to say about Diana and Charles. As much as stagnancy may have defined this chapter of the Royal Family, it’s hard to forgive the show’s exceedingly boring delivery. As an institution, The Crown will always have to deal with the “why” of monarchy, an existential moral question with real-world implications. As a show, The Crown might want to take a more deliberate approach to its own execution and present a better thesis for its own existence. 

Monday

14

November 2022

0

COMMENTS

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse presents a corporate-approved perspective on an American icon

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It would impossible to overstate the cultural significance of Mickey Mouse. The greatest modern example of the commodification of art into product, Mickey has spent the past hundred years reinventing himself as a Rorschach test for whatever capitalism needs him to be. Mickey is everything, everywhere, all at once. 

The Disney+ documentary Mickey: The Story of a Mouse chronicles the mouse’s rise from mere cartoon short to a monolithic leviathan, occasionally with a keen sense of self-awareness. Born out of a loss to Walt Disney, who saw the rights to his initial creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit snatched away by the clutches of capitalism he would eventually learn to wield for himself, Mickey was a cultural force straight from the get-go. The documentary does a fabulous job explaining Disney’s early technical prowess, one of the first to bring sound to cartoons.

Director Jeff Malmberg does a good job bouncing between Mickey’s storied history, and the present day he continues to dominate. Mickey superfans will undoubtedly love the behind-the-scenes glimpses into Disney’s animation studios, particularly its revered archival department. Malmberg manages to provide some perspective into Disney’s importance to shaping animation without ever diving too deep into the weeds. The documentary never loses sight of its primary objective of serving as a victory lap for Mickey’s century of innovation and excellence.

The doc does spend a bit too much of its 89-minute runtime on a rotating series of interviews from Mickey superfans stating obvious platitudes about the mouse, often carrying the aura of a Trump administration cabinet meeting. With all the beautiful archival footage and behind-the-scenes perspectives, the laymen’s perspectives on Mickey’s status as a cultural behemoth grow a little tiresome after a while. There is a certain irony in the sequence covering Walt’s time creating wartime propaganda for the U.S. military, this documentary serving a similar purpose for the house that Mickey built.

The propaganda does grow a bit tedious in the third act, when the time comes to admit fault for some of Mickey’s past depictions, particularly in blackface. Mickey has not always been everything to everyone, a shining example of Disney’s core center-right conservative leanings that the company still embodies to this day. Malmberg does not shy away from the implications of Mickey’s commodification, albeit without an iota of self-awareness for the reality that this is truer today than ever before with soaring ticket prices to Disney Parks and an incrementalist approach to inclusivity that puts Disney far behind several of its corporate peers.

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is entertaining propaganda that should appeal to Disney superfans while only superficially engaging with the realities of Mickey’s status as the bastion of American capitalism. Malmberg made a beautiful documentary, crafted with obvious love for its subject. There is little artistic merit to this work, not with the strings of Disney’s corporate overlords never far from the frame. 

Friday

11

November 2022

0

COMMENTS

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever pays tribute to Chadwick Boseman while setting its own course for the future

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The death of Chadwick Boseman left a void in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that can never be filled. The triumphs of the first Black Panther gave director Ryan Coogler an abundance of material to craft a follow-up that not only paid tribute to Boseman’s legacy, but built on the foundation he helped establish. The show must go on, not just for capitalism’s sake, but for the proletariat who were inspired by the original film’s mature themes that were far more substantive than typical Marvel fare.

Coogler’s most impressive achievement with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is his innate ability to give the narrative space to shape its own story while never losing sight of the grief at hand. The film starts off with T’Challa’s death, Shuri (Letitia Wright) unable to use her ample brilliance to save her brother’s life. A time jump moves the narrative up a year, where Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is struggling to contain the fallout of the events of Avengers: Infinity War, which revealed Wakanda’s vibranium supply to the rest of the world, America in particular uncomfortable with a world power possessing weapons out of its reach.

Phase Four has largely focused on elements of the world at large, previously unknown to the heavy hitters across the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an ocean of possibilities from the heavens or the broader multiverse. The ocean itself carries more than a few secrets, particularly with regard to one of Marvel’s oldest heroes/antiheroes/villains. Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) rules Talokan deep beneath the ocean, a civilization reliant on vibranium for basic necessities such as light itself. The comics have often pitted Wakanda and Talokan against each other, two isolated superpowers with vastly different governing ideologies.

Wakanda Forever never quite settles on a single figure to replace T’Challa’s position as the primary protagonist, instead relying on a combination of Romanda, Shuri, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) to carry the load. The ensemble dynamic works quite well for the narrative, though the mechanics of geopolitics cut quite a few corners to establish the conflict. Wright and Gurira’s chemistry does wonders for the film’s levity, delivering moments of much-needed humor. Shuri holds much of the film together, working marvelously off Namor and in some touching scenes, M’Baku (Winston Duke), building off the bonds established in the first film. Mejía is a superb Namor, embodying the underwater ruler’s signature cynicism while serving out the unenviable task of following Erik Kilmonger, the MCU’s best villain. 

Overstuffed is quickly becoming the default setting for Phase Four Marvel movies, with the last two cinematic releases spending large chunks of their runtimes meandering with uncertain senses of purposes. Coogler keeps his film focused throughout its 161-minute runtime, but the narrative does occasionally buckle under the weight of its lofty expectations. Newcomer Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) meshes instantly with the cast, largely occupying the position of Wakanda outsider that Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) possessed in the first film, but the scenes set in America felt a bit superfluous to all the other far more interesting stuff going on in the film. There’s little Coogler can do to mitigate the clunkiness that stems from the obvious setup for Williams’ upcoming Disney+ series Ironheart.

Oddly enough given its title, Wakanda never really gets its moment to shine in Wakanda Forever. Scenes shot in the country are largely limited to interior stages such as the throne room, along with a handful of sound stages that barely give a proper glimpse of the majestic cities. Absent is the sprawling beauty of the country’s landscape amply featured in both the first film and Infinity War. The special effects never quite give Talokan the same sense of awe and wonder, the cinematography unable to compensate for the film’s heavy use of green screens.

The fight scenes also leave more than a bit to be desired, an increasingly common trend across the MCU. Talokan’s beef with Wakanda is a much more interesting political discussion than a military conflict, but it wouldn’t be much of a Marvel movie without explosions. Coogler puts all the pieces together in a way that makes Wakanda Forever feel like more of an epic than its predecessor, even if the special effects don’t necessarily support that thesis.

Wakanda Forever could have easily succumbed to the weight of expectations dictated by forces outside of the artistic process. Coogler and the cast ensured that the film wouldn’t solely be defined by Boseman’s death or by obligations to set up the broader MCU. Wakanda Forever is a beautiful film that builds off its predecessor instead of merely mourning what could have been. What could have been a feature-length memorial service instead dared to rival the greatness of its predecessor. It might not surpass the quality of the first Black Panther, but Wakanda Forever is easily the best MCU film in years. 

Thursday

27

October 2022

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Dracula A.D. 1972

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Canons cannot be constructed contemporaneously, an academic construct that takes on a life of its own, even as plenty try to influence its narrative trajectory through the annals of time. Dracula A.D. 1972 was not a film crafted with careful regard to how its place in Hammer Horror lore might be viewed fifty years down the road. Few could have predicted that its leads Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would grow to become iconic figures in the broader genre, with extra attention given to the few releases where the pair appeared together. Legacy and inception serve two different masters, the latter understandably preoccupied with its present, unconcerned with how its overwhelming mediocrity might be perceived by future generations.

Dracula A.D. 1972 presents an interesting premise, taking its title character out of his accustomed period setting, at least in theory. Dracula (Lee) doesn’t really engage with the seventies at all, largely kept confined to a deconsecrated church that housed his resurrection proceedings. A group of bohemians gathered inside the decaying St. Bartolph’s Chruch, which conveniently housed the gravesite of Dracula’s iconic nemesis Lawrence Van Helsing (Cushing), to do drugs and maybe resurrect a long-dead vampire. Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), with a cringe-inducing last name that’s merely Dracula spelled backward, manages to succeed, though terrifying his hippie posse in the process. Among them is Van Helsing descendant Jessica (Stephanie Beacham), who lives with her grandfather Lorrimer (also Cushing), an occult expert.

The film largely follows the investigation of the death of Laura (Caroline Munro), killed by Dracula shortly after his resurrection. Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) enlists Lorrimer’s help to piece things together, while the hippies, unaware of Laura’s death, return to their nightclub for 1970s antics. The narrative never quite settles on a definitive lead, initially positioning Jessica as its clearest protagonist before later favoring the tandem of Lorrimer and Murray. Horror movies are not necessarily known for their character development, but the film never makes much of an effort to get its audience to care about a single one of these characters.

Much of Dracula A.D. 1972’s shortcomings can be blamed on its failure to deliver an adequate follow-up sequence to the excellent 1958 Dracula that first paired Lee and Cushing. The film opens with an interesting 1872 battle sequence between Dracula and Lawrence, hinting at an eventual showdown between Dracula and Lorrimer, that never quite comes to fruition. Lee and Cushing barely share the screen together, a shortcoming that sinks the entire experience far more than its forgivable campy aesthetics.

Lee and Cushing, two of Hammer Horror’s most iconic talents, appeared opposite each other three times in Dracula films. Dracula A.D. 1972 fails to recognize its best asset, keeping the two apart for no apparent reason, a wasted opportunity to add to the rich Hammer Horror canon. The then-modernity of the narrative could’ve aged remarkably well over time, if the film had done the basic work of crafting a passable story. Instead, the audience is handed a half-baked detective narrative spliced with some hippies, and its title character marginalized in a location sorely lacking the rich gothic beauty seen in Cushing and Lee’s original Dracula appearance.

Dracula A.D. 1972 could have been fun camp. Countless B-movies have been forgotten in time, but audiences fifty years down the road continue to engage with this turd because of its star power, hoping in vain for another showdown between two titans of the genre. The canon keeps Dracula A.D. 1972 relevant despite its tedious attempt at a narrative, lacking the confidence to elevate itself above the bare minimum required to call itself a film.

 

Monday

24

October 2022

2

COMMENTS

House of the Dragon delivers a gripping finale that brings its first season full circle.

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House of the Dragon headed into its first finale with one simple mandate. All the chaotic time-jumps and recastings that threw ample hurdles at an audience just trying to learn its characters’ names served the singular purpose of getting all the pieces in place for the main event, the last dance, to borrow a phrase from Michael Jordan’s documentary that saved America from boredom in the early days of Covid. Episode ten, appropriately titled “The Black Queen,” had to deliver a suitable rationale for letting a family squabble devolve into a realm-shattering war.

The absence of the Dragonstone crew from the previous episode embodied a broader problem for the show’s back half. Rhaenyra functioned early on as the closest thing to a definitive lead for House of the Dragon, lacking a clear counterpart like the dynamic between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, the ice and fire. House of the Dragon had to clear over a decade of backstory before it could introduce characters like Aegon and Aemond, vital figures for the rest of the events of the series. “The Black Queen” gave the show a chance to come full circle, resolidifying Rhaenyra as the emotional core of the series.

Emma D’Arcy showed off their range repeatedly throughout the episode, Rhaenyra contending with the deaths of her father, stillborn daughter, and second son all while preparing for war in the infancy of her reign. Rhaenyra’s coronation was easily the most moving scene of the season. The acting, score, and cinematography demonstrated the Westerosi sense of awe and wonder at its best, a high point for the entire franchise. Matt Smith beautifully captured the reverence that Daemon holds for his wife, even as he bristles with restraints on his appetite for control.

The episode did highlight the show’s broader disconnect toward how its own characters might be received over the course of its sprawling, chaotic season. The defection of Kingsguard member Ser Erryk Cargyll delivered an emotional moment when he revealed the crown he spent much of the previous episode acquiring, putting himself in opposition to his brother Arryk. There’s easy sympathy to be had in the idea of twin brothers going to war against each other, but Erryk and Arryk have received such little screen time that it’s hard to care much about them as characters.

A similar predicament befalls the scene between Corys Velaryon and Rhaenys Targaryen, the former lamenting the current state of his family. House Velaryon has had a mess of a season, with plotlines such as Corys’ effort to marry his prepubescent daughter to an old man, the marriage of his closeted homosexual son to Rhaenyra, and the execution of his younger brother for stating the blatantly obvious reality that his grandchildren from that marriage did not possess an ounce of Velaryon blood. It’s hard to take House Velaryon seriously when the show remains so hellbent on making them the patsy for every storied Westerosi pastime such as incest and adultery.

Anyone who’s read the novellas that make up Fire and Blood would be excited for Lucerys’ ill-advised trip to Storm’s End, a plan so stupid that House of the Dragon wisely chose not to spend much time explaining it. After an extended sequence where Daemon hurled excessive amounts of exposition into Westerosi geography, the show wisely didn’t try to explain Rhaenyra’s senseless decision to send her young children as envoys to anyone other than reliable allies. Lucerys did not really travel to earn the support of House Baratheon, but to get killed by his uncle, giving his mother a worthy excuse to go to war against the Green’s.

Lucerys didn’t make much of an impression in his limited screen time, but Ewan Mitchell seized every opportunity to endear Aemond to the audience. The beautiful sequence of the behemoth Vhagar chasing down the much smaller Arrax represented some of the best special effects we’ve seen from either House of the Dragon or its predecessor. The audience doesn’t need to care that a young boy was senselessly murdered, not when his uncle is the far more compelling character.

House of the Dragon concludes its first season on an extremely high note. It is more than fair to acknowledge the reality that this season would have worked better with two or three additional episodes given the amount of ground it covered. Ten episodes is an arbitrary number, and the cost is hardly a concern for a flagship HBO offering.

The highs of “The Black Queen” ultimately demonstrate House of the Dragon’s ability to stick the landing. Things may have been rushed, but the show delivered in its efforts to set the stage for the dance. Time will provide a better rubric to evaluate the pacing issues throughout the season, but the show did a fantastic job establishing the stakes of its premise.

Saturday

22

October 2022

2

COMMENTS

Black Adam can’t overcome its atrocious screenplay

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Part of the beauty of the Justice Society of America in the nearly forty years since the genre-defining comic book crossover event “Crisis on Infinite Earths” erased their home planet Earth-2, itself largely a creation designed to differentiate older Golden Age heroes from their more modern Silver Age counterparts, was the way that the team came together to fight the good fight even as the world had largely passed them by. There’s something inherently relatable in watching more obscure, less powerful heroes battle back the tides of time and their own declining relevance. Ironically, given the frantic explosion-laden extravaganza that defines Black Adam’s attempt at a narrative, the JSA represented a quieter time for superhero storytelling.

Superhero filmmaking has come to embrace the obscure, making household names of characters such as the Peacemaker or the Guardians of the Galaxy that few people outside of diehard comic fans would have heard of just ten years ago. Characters like Black Adam and the JSA don’t completely fit under this bill, having achieved mainstream success back in the 1940s, but the idea that Shazam/Captain Marvel’s archnemesis’ live-action debut would come through a solo effort lacking Billy Batson entirely is still a bit hard to believe. The champion of Kahndaq has straddled the lines between villain and antihero for years, a fascinating, sly figure ripe for the greying morality of the post-9/11 era.

Dwayne Johnson has largely avoided villain-type roles throughout his career. His approach to Black Adam displays a puzzling amount of apprehension toward playing an antihero as well. The Kahndaq that Teth-Adam is awakened into is occupied by a force called the Intergang, which the film essentially presents as a Blackwater-type oppressive military force with an ill-defined mandate in the complex geopolitics of the Middle East. Leaning heavily into antipathy, Johnson’s best effort to sell Adam’s reluctance to rid the Intergang with a snap of the finger is the fact that he’s been asleep too long to care anymore, a lazy excuse indicative of Black Adam’s larger shortcomings as a film.

Black Adam squanders the DCEU’s meatiest moral quandary with an atrocious script hellbent on saying absolutely nothing interesting about its narrative or stacked roster of characters. It’s quite astonishing how boring this movie really is. Johnson’s wooden performance is largely a hodgepodge of the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax the Destroyer mixed with T2-era Terminator, a god with too much power that sucks the soul out of his film.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has no idea how to balance the film’s large cast of characters. The rapport between the JSA is established at breakneck speed, veterans Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) are joined by newcomers Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), an awkward team dynamic, especially in a movie serving as an origin story to a completely different character. Black Adam spends much of the film alongside his liberators, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), and brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), a bloated collection of protagonists that leaves little room for the film’s breathtakingly underwhelming villain.

The humor in the film is largely a derivative mess, Johnson stumbling over his badly written lines whenever he tries to crack a joke. Brosnan is the only actor present with an understanding of the comedy he’s expected to deliver. Hodge delivers the best performance of the film, working quite well off Johnson and Brosnan, though the film suffers from its emotional overreliance on Carter Hall in a narrative that’s supposed to be Black Adam’s moment to shine. The decent CGI is rendered moot by the lifeless fight choreography, a further waste of Johnson’s immense talents as one of the most dynamic performers in the history of professional wrestling.

The politics of Kahndaq are the film’s biggest failing. The narrative comes close to hinting that it wants to take a side against America’s propagation of the military-industrial complex, a game of footsie that it never follows through on. Further puzzling the situation is the presence of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), whose efforts in service to the exact same cause were scrutinized in last year’s The Suicide Squad. There is not much difference between Waller’s antics in that movie and the Intergang here, not that anyone working at DC appears to notice or care. After years of Zack Snyder’s Ayn Rand ramblings soiling the DCEU, it’s a little disheartening to see such a waffling from a film that clearly understands its lead’s anti-imperialist ethos.

Black Adam is a disheartening failure for the DCEU. Johnson embodies the awe and wonder Black Adam evokes, but he doesn’t do any interesting with his subject. There’s nothing at the core of this film besides tropes and plot holes, a predictable third act that unravels the film’s earlier tight pacing. The JSA is brought to life with obvious love, though clearly established with the intention of setting up their own spinoff down the road.

It’s a sad kind of train wreck to watch. Words are easy things to write. We shouldn’t live in a world where expensive blockbusters are completely undone by atrocious screenplays. Black Adam has plenty of talent and first-rate special effects, neither of which can cover up just how bad this screenplay truly is. The studio executives should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this easy layup to go completely off the rails.

Tuesday

18

October 2022

0

COMMENTS

House of the Dragon soars above its vacuous source material

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House of the Dragon may very well be the most expensive television show ever born out of a procrastination project. Largely based on the novella The Princess and the Queen and its prequel The Rogue Prince, published originally in the anthologies Dangerous Women and Rogues respectively, both edited by George R.R. Martin and his late friend Gardner Dozois, the depiction of the Dance of the Dragons was less a fully realized world than a side project by an author hellbent on doing anything other than finishing The Winds of Winter. The repackaging of said novellas along with some other material as Fire and Blood gives the whole project a sense of grandeur that covers up what’s largely a shameless cash grab by Martin’s publisher, understandably thirsty for some new Westeros content.

The main books in A Song of Ice and Fire presented their chapters through varying point-of-view characters, giving the readers an intimate first-hand perspective into the people we’d grown to love and hate, sometimes both. The novellas that make up House of the Dragon were presented through the lens of Archmaester Gyldayn, an elusive unreliable narrator. The execution of the text put a fair bit of distance between such legendary figures in Westerosi lore as Daemon and Aemond Targaryen, and the audience gobbling up these morsels of story. House of the Dragon has far less concrete substance to work with than its predecessor Game of Thrones.

 Part of the beauty of Thrones was the show’s need to juggle seemingly countless strands of plot within its ten-episode seasons. Fans scoured the opening credits to see which characters would appear in the episodes, screen time serving as the ultimate limited commodity. House of the Dragon couldn’t be more different, with a limited cast of characters predominantly set in King’s Landing. Without the benefits of Thrones’ frequent changes in scenery, HotD has had to double down on the gritty mechanics of television storytelling to fuel its narrative, wisely sparsely deploying its greatest asset in the realm of spectacle, the titular dragons that prompted HBO to favor this narrative over competing spin-off concepts.

House of the Dragon is less a Game of Thrones spinoff than a Westerosi adaptation of Succession, another HBO crown jewel. Like Succession, HotD features a large family wielding capitalism’s most nepotistic instincts in service to selfish goals no reasonable human being should care about. Television doesn’t need to care about right or wrong. It’s fun to watch attractive bad people doing naughty things. HotD isn’t an existential fight for survival against unthinkable evil like Game of Thrones, but a petty family squabble between people with the fantasy equivalent of nuclear weapons.

Showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik pulled off an immensely impressive feat with season one. House of the Dragon lacks practically every defining attribute that made its predecessor great, but the steady narrative pacing and first-rate acting allowed the show to succeed on its own merits independent of the broader spectacle. The show managed to get its audience invested in characters even amid a clunky time jump that saw two of its leads, both its princess and its queen, recast midway through the season.

The early first-rate performances by Milly Alcock and Emily Care as Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower might have presented a lot of problems for Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, tagging in midway through in a confusing narrative with a cast of characters with oddly similar names. House of the Dragon is the rare kind of show where you actually feel for the characters without necessarily needing to identify them all. The legend of Daemon Targaryen manifests itself through Matt Smith’s uncannily minimalistic performance, commanding all the attention in a room with a single smirk.

One doesn’t need to pick a side between the “Greens” and the “Blacks” to feel for the patriarch ushering in his own family’s demise. King Viserys Targaryen slowly withers away over the course of the season, but Paddy Considine delivers every line with the grief of a dying man faced with a horde of relatives who hate each other. It’s surprisingly easy to relate to this collection of selfish incestuous royals and the oligarchs who feed off their scraps.

Unlike its predecessor, the audience can tune into House of the Dragon knowing how all of this is going to end, who’s going to kill who, and who’s going to lose an eye for implying their cousins are bastards. There is a surprising level of dramatic tension for a show without the benefit of natural suspense. HotD is a lot slower than its predecessor, but there’s ample beauty to be found in the ways that the cast manages to bring its meager source material to life. Game of Thrones was a great show based on a great series of books. HotD is a great show based off Martin’s various procrastination musings thoroughly content with their own mediocrity. The latter is unlikely to leave a lasting impression on popular culture, but it might end up being the more impressive piece of work when all of this is said and done.

Tuesday

11

October 2022

2

COMMENTS

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law confidently grows into Marvel Studio’s best television series

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Phase Four should be the greatest time to be a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The sprawling, seemingly-interconnected franchise carries the aura of being stuck in a rut, with frontline entries falling flat from meandering scripts and an overabundance of ugly green screens. Marvel Studios still hasn’t established a cohesive vision for its post-Endgame fare, sending its established television heroes on entertaining, if not inconsequential affairs (Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, Hawkeye). WandaVision, its crowning TV achievement, saw its thesis completely undone by the mess that was Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Other entries such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Ms. Marvel succeeded largely by doing their own thing, only loosely grazing the peripheral vision of the vast broader world.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law essentially splits the difference between the two camps of Marvel Studios TV efforts, a series focusing on a brand-new character that feels like it firmly exists in the MCU’s present. Borrowing heavily from Ally McBeal, the show leans heavily on Marvel’s penchant for humor while rewarding superfans who spend time in every nook and cranny of the MCU, making stuff like the eminently forgettable The Incredible Hulk feel relevant again. Comic books as a genre always try to serve two distinct audiences in diehard fans as well as those potentially picking up a series for the first time. She-Hulk feels like the first Marvel Studios series to really play for both at the same time.

Despite its abundance of MCU heroes, the series largely succeeds off the strength of Tatiana Maslany’s performance in the title role. Reluctantly thrown into the deep end of the superhero world, Jen Walters is a great conduit for the viewer to experience all the chaos, sharing the space with established MCU favorites such as her cousin Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Wong (Benedict Wong), and Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) without ever ceding agency to her own narrative. For a show firmly rooted in sitcom humor, She-Hulk displays remarkable restraint toward not overplaying the gags, especially the title character’s long history of breaking the fourth wall. Thor: Love and Thunder could’ve learned a thing or two from She-Hulk’s responsible attitude toward the role of comedy in its narrative.

Many of the Marvel Studio TV series have suffered from Disney’s self-imposed mandate of six-episode seasons that every other live-action show after WandaVision has followed. She-Hulk benefits from a bit of breathing room for Walters’ transition from lawyer to super-lawyer. At times, the show does feel a bit like it’s being engineered for a different era, riffing off shows like Ally McBeal that benefited from then-standard twenty-two+ episode seasons. The mechanics of television production call for characters like Nikki (Ginger Gonzaga) and Pug (Josh Segarra) to occasionally be treated like actual cast members with their own B-plots, but the show doesn’t have much interest in such antics beyond brief fourth-wall gags.

Nine episodes is a weird, completely arbitrary number of episodes for a formula like She-Hulk. The idea of a sitcom functioning like a prestige series makes sense for this unprecedented streaming era that doesn’t need to care about things like episode length. Seasons could function that way too if the heavy hands of capitalism weren’t guiding Disney’s every move. The space afforded to She-Hulk allowed the series time to hit its stride, giving the audience a chance to endear itself to both the characters and the world that’s been lovingly crafted over the season.

Episodes like the penultimate “Ribbit and Rip” demonstrate the flip side of this equation. The return of Matt Murdock to the Daredevil costume for the first time since his own Netflix series was unceremoniously canceled in 2018 was an epic comeback completely out of left field, a tonal change for the darker character that felt completely natural due to Maslany and Cox’s instant chemistry. Daredevil’s return demonstrates just how keenly the entire operation understands the pulse of its audience.

She-Hulk could have easily suffered under the weight of its many sitcom tropes and excessive cameos, but the show rests comfortably on Maslany’s big green shoulders. She-Hulk is Phase Four’s crowning achievement thus far. We still don’t really know where the MCU is headed in its post-Infinity Stone era, besides some inevitable multiverse cameo shenanigans. She-Hulk’s sense of confidence makes it easy not to care where this is all headed, a show that’s never forgotten that it’s not the Endgame that matters, but the journey along the way.

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September 2022

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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power gives Prime Video its streamer standard-bearer

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

The modern streaming era churns out more content than any single person would be able to watch. Television has largely moved on from the idea of water cooler shows, collective pop culture consciousness fading away in favor of tribes divided by individual subscription services that families often begrudgingly add to their budgets. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power represents Jeff Bezos’ best effort to reverse that trend, a billion-dollar gamble to produce a television show too massive to ignore.

Spectacle is The Rings of Power’s best asset. For all the money invested in a single television season, the show does succeed in its effort to be one of the most beautiful series ever made. With many of its rivals cutting corners on cheap green screens, The Rings of Power wields its on-location filmmaking and beautiful practical sets to invoke a natural sense of awe and wonder from its audience. Middle Earth feels like a living breathing entity.

Of course, prestige television cannot sustain itself on gorgeous cinematography alone. The original Lord of the Rings trilogy was powered by the true fellowship (pun intended) of its characters. The Rings of Power has a diverse cast that’s fairly spread out over Middle Earth, the show lacking a “Council of Elrond” moment where all the principals were together in the same spot. Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is himself a main character, a wide-eyed diplomat still trying to find his place in the world, but the main elf at the center of the action is the not-yet-Lady Galadriel (Morfydd Clark).

Galadriel, caught in a similar pull between Middle Earth and the comforts of dreamy Valinor as Arwen was in the original trilogy, supplies much of the interesting action in the show’s first two episodes. The Arwen/Aragorn dynamic is on full display with a relationship between Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a human apothecary, and Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), an elvish archer stationed in the Southlands in a posting that’s much to the resentment of the humans in the region. The show’s frantic pacing doesn’t give much time to the colonialist sentiments introduced, but the material is presented in a far more digestible manner than Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or his similarly dense appendices.

The show is lacking a bit in levity, some supplied by the Harfoots (Hobbits in need of a better deep conditioner) and by King Durin IV (Owain Arthur), an eccentric dwarf and estranged friend of Elrond. The Harfoots are probably the most interesting to watch, young halflings Elanor Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) sparking the wide-eyed sense of curiosity that high fantasy tends to elicit when done properly. In keeping with the traditions of the genre, there’s far too much going on to keep up with, but it’s also fairly refreshing to see a massive show not intentionally weigh itself down with too much exposition.

The Rings of Power does suffer a bit from an unevenly defined sense of purpose. Sauron is hinted at as the show’s true big bad, but the show doesn’t have anything like the original material’s clearly stated mission to guide its narrative. The first two episodes don’t exactly do the best job of outlining what this show is about, a dynamic that would be a bigger problem if it wasn’t so beautiful to watch.

The lack of true narrative purpose stands in stark contrast to Bezos’ own mission for The Rings of Power, which carries the heavy mandate of needing to be Prime Video’s standard bearer in the streaming wars. Anything less than global popularity on the scale of Game of Thrones or Stranger Things would essentially represent a billion-dollar failure. Global phenomena can’t exactly be willed into existence, but capitalism is banking on a Lord of the Rings-style booster rocket to try and prove otherwise.

The Rings of Power needs more time to flesh itself out, but Bezos delivered on his mandate to produce the most beautiful show on television. TV is once again shooting for the stars instead of hiding behind hideous green screens to fuel the content mill. This show isn’t perfect, but you do get the sense that it is sincerely trying to be a spectacle. That sheer ambition alone is a sight to behold.

The first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power were screened for review

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July 2022

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Classic Film: The Man I Love

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

There is a certain timelessness to the sensation of falling in love with a terrible man. Released in 1946, the film The Man I Love could have easily been released today as a commentary on the vapidity of modern romance, and the innate challenges of resisting the perfect charm even when every red flag is waving right in front of you. Sometimes the heart wants what it wants.

Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) works as a nightclub singer, with a vibrant personality and commanding charisma. Feeling a bit homesick in the big city, Petey returns home to Long Beach, California to visit her sisters, Sally (Andrea King) and Ginny (Martha Vickers). Sally works as a waitress in an Italian restaurant, perpetually harassed by Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda), whose uncle owns the establishment among other mob-connected enterprises.

Director Raoul Walsh’s feature is a train wreck of unnecessary subplots entirely redeemed by Lupino’s mesmerizing performance and the highly effective jazz score. The film has far too many characters for its 96-minute runtime, a narrative that has no idea whether it wants to be noir or a soap opera. The film sort of comes together in the second half, when Petey takes up work in one of Nicky’s nightclubs, striking up a romance with pianist San Thomas (Bruce Bennett) as she becomes embroiled in a murder.

Lupino practically makes it her singular mission to carry the narrative, pouring her heart and soul into Petey’s tortured psyche. Bennett is unremarkable as her primary love interest, though that’s also kind of the point of the film. Petey’s romance with a man who doesn’t deserve her reflects the way Lupino almost singlehandedly saved Walsh’s otherwise mediocre film. Women all too often know exactly what it’s like to have to exert additional labor value to carry the laziness of men, which is pretty much The Man I Love in a nutshell.

Walsh’s skills as a director occasionally surface throughout the film, though the frantic pacing and indecisive tone frequently hinder the experience. The Man I Love is often a tedious experience, but it’s hard to dismiss the work entirely. Walsh and Lupino work so well together that the atrocious screenplay feels almost easy to forgive.

There is a certain allure in falling for bad men, even if the act itself is not particularly defensible. Film often functions best when it depicts the innate contradictions that comprise humanity. The Man I Love is not a great movie. It is hard to even label Walsh’s narrative as a good film. Lupino deserves better, but that’s also not necessarily the primary concern. Life is not about what we deserve, but rather what we do with the cards that we were dealt. Working in a time when women received fairly mediocre roles, Lupino took that deflated ball and ran with it in a way that’s pretty inspiring all these years later.