Ian Thomas Malone

Sunday

24

March 2024

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Staying the Course

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Five year Estradiol Illusions anniversary! Ian talks about what she’s been up to this year, mostly writing and trying to get over yet another breakup. Life is a tricky game. Best to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with things.

Thank you to everyone who’s listened to the show over the past half-decade! We don’t do as many new episodes as we used to, but it’s always fun to catch up. 

Ian is far more active on her two preferred platforms, Facebook and Threads

Tuesday

5

March 2024

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The 2024 Oscar Nominees for Best Picture Ranked

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2023 was a fantastic year for filmmaking. The nominees for the Academy Award for Best Pictures have several contenders that would have been worthy winners in any of the three years since the pandemic. Of course, awards don’t work that way. Best Picture winners are forever immortalized, even in the years when any number of films could’ve eked out a victory.

Art is subjective, an inherent flaw of awards shows. Any number of people could rank the Best Picture nominees in a thousand different ways. My list reflects the way each filmmaker’s storytelling landed for me. Your list would almost certainly be different.

As a critic, I’m primarily interested in two elements of filmmaking: craftsmanship and messaging. All ten Best Picture nominees feature exceptional acting, an element of the art form that can often be found in complete turkeys. It is a far more daunting task to elicit genuine emotion from the audience toward perspectives quite foreign to their own. Art reminds us all of the inherent relatability of the human experience across the boundaries of space and time.

Here is my list, ranked from most deserving of Best Picture to least deserving. Your thoughts on the nominees and my ranking are encouraged in the comment section.

1. Anatomy of a Fall A legal drama has not won Best Picture since 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. Anatomy of a Fall does not seem likely to break that trend, but Justine Triet’s intimate depiction of a writer on trial for the death of her husband presents one of the most captivating treatises on language depicted on film in the modern era. Sandra Hüller plays an eminently cold individual who manages to draw sympathy from the audience almost through a force of gravity, a gripping slow burn. Alternating between French and English, Triet constantly plays with the nature of identity and the agony of a human heart at war with itself. Few films manage to capture the claustrophobia of marriage without pointing fingers. People are often awful to each other. Life is not a scorecard, except in places like the courtroom, where everything is on the line.

2. Past LivesFew films capture the quiet, painful dignity of heartbreak quite like Celine Song’s work. Greta Lee delivers a performance of eloquent nuance as Nora, a South Korean expatriate whose journey to America separated her from her childhood crush Hae Sung, played by Tae Yoo. For all of us, the passage of time is full of what-ifs, moments that could consume an entire existence if one allows it. Song handles her material with such grace, a style reminiscent of French romanticism and the best elements of the 2000s mumblecore wave. Few films capture the humanity of loss with such a restrained approach. No other Best Picture nominee captured the pain of love quite like Past Lives, a marvelous feat of filmmaking.

 3. The Zone of Interest The greatest triumph of Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Martin Ames’ 2014 novel of the same name is the way the film communicates the horrors of the Holocaust so vividly without ever depicting them on screen. The narrative focuses on Rudolf Höss and his family’s comfortable life in Auschwitz, with a single wall separating their idyllic existence from the atrocities just beyond their backyard. The cinematography puts quite a bit of distance between its subjects and the audience, though Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller, the latter nominated for Best Actress for her work in Anatomy of a Fall, put forth commanding performances in the lead roles. The Zone of Interest is a tough film to watch, but Glazer deserves a lot of credit for his innovations in a well-trodden genre, an experience that leaves you completely drained by the time the credits roll.

 4. Oppenheimer Oppenheimer will almost certainly win Best Picture. Christopher Nolan’s work is both larger than life and strangely intimate, anchored by a tour de force performance from Cillian Murphy in the lead role. Few films with three-hour runtimes move with such deft precision, using Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s 2005 biography American Prometheus as its lodestar. The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon represented a singular convergence of blockbuster filmmaking and genuine art. Nolan’s split timeline non-linear narrative has the weird effect of taking the film outside both its subject and his bomb, a dynamic that starts to shrink Oppenheimer as the story progresses. Oppenheimer loses a bit of his mystery as a man when the narrative shifts to Los Alamos, appearing more like a traffic conductor or a politician than someone who rather singularly transformed the entire world.

 5. BarbieThe defining blockbuster of 2023 is a worthy awards show contender. Greta Gerwig managed to transform a doll designed to be everything to everyone and deliver a message that felt both personal and universal, a sentiment best expressed through America Ferrara’s Oscar-nominated supporting performance. Robbie and Gosling are quite delightful in the lead roles, shuttling between the plastic world of Barbie and the plastic world of Los Angeles. Barbie gets a little cutesy when awkwardly poking fun at itself, but Gerwig’s work is well-deserving of a nomination, even if the film is unlikely to walk away with many trophies.

 6. Poor Things ­­– Few filmmakers can elicit genuine shock quite like Yorgos Lanthimos. An adaptation of the Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name, the film follows Bella, a woman who was revived after her suicide when a mad scientist implanted her unborn child’s brain into her body. Emma Stone is absolutely captivating in the lead role, easily the best performance of her career. The film possesses the best set design of all the nominees, with gorgeous steampunk aesthetics, but the story loses a lot of its power as the narrative wears on. Lanthimos’ most beautiful film is quite compelling in its own way, though its quasi-feminist messaging leaves a lot to be desired.

 7. American FictionCord Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure is an absolute delight that marches to the beat of its own drum. Jeffrey Wright delivers a commanding lead performance as a writer/professor who finds unexpected success with a satire of stereotypical Black narratives that pander to white audiences. A powerful and necessary scathing rebuke of the publishing industry’s treatment of marginalized authors. Jefferson’s work struggles a bit down the stretch, but it’s a delightfully charming film. Sterling Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Issa Rae deliver strong supporting performances.

 8. The Holdovers There is a lot to like about The Holdovers, a charming 1970s period piece about a Massachusetts boarding school. Paul Giamatti showcases his leading man chops as a hapless curmudgeonly teacher, bolstered by strong backing performances from Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa. Director Alexander Payne plays it a little too safe with his narrative that borrows too heavily from filmmakers of the time period. Giamatti would be a worthy upset over likely Best Actor winner Cillian Murphy, but The Holdovers itself is hardly Best Picture worthy.

 9. Killers of the Flower Moon ­The framing for Martin Scorsese’s epic western centered on the 1920s Osage Indian murders is a complete disaster, focusing on a woefully miscast Leonardo DiCaprio instead of the far more compelling Lily Gladstone. Nominated for Best Actress, Gladstone finds herself sidelined for much of the unwieldy 206-minute runtime. Robert DeNiro and Jesse Plemons put forth strong supporting efforts. The cinematography is superb, but Scorsese’s exceedingly relaxed pacing undoes almost all its dramatic tension.

 10. Maestro – Bradley Cooper shows off his ample technical skills as a director in his sophomore effort, while also exposing some glaring flaws as a storyteller. Cooper’s first film, A Star is Born, was the third remake of the 1937 classic. Maestro presented no easy crib sheets, a meandering slog that feels much longer than its 129-runtime suggests. As an actor, Cooper disappears into the role of Leonard Bernstein, but he doesn’t have anything compelling to say. Carey Mulligan does her best grasping at straws for material amidst this poorly conceived avant garbage.

Friday

1

March 2024

1

COMMENTS

Dune: Part Two is a worthy adaptation of unwieldy source material

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There’s a simple reason why one of the most popular science fiction books in the history of popular literature has struggled to find a worthy film adaptation. It’s not exactly accurate to say that Dune is unfilmable, but the book and its sequel are exceedingly heady philosophical exercises that don’t play well to adaptation. Denis Villeneuve’s first Dune took an admirable stab at the novel’s first half, often succumbing to the unwieldy weight of exposition and the sheer scope of the cast.

The back half of Dune is a bit more of an intimate affair. With Leto (Oscar Isaac) dead, the exiled Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) find a new home among the Fremen, who dedicate their lives to disrupting the spice production now returned to House Harkonnen after they usurped House Atreides. One of the Fremen leaders Stilgar (Javier Bardem) is convinced that Paul is their messiah, quickly inserting Lady Jessica into the mechanics of their political world as the new Reverend Mother.

Dune is a very dense text. Villeneuve does an excellent job breaking the material down for casual audiences, even if much of the nuances of groups like the Bene Gesserit is lost in the pacing. The women of the film, particularly Lady Jessica and Chiani (Zendaya) provide most of the emotional backbone of the narrative, often exposing the flaws of the White Savior trope in the process. Herbert’s writing spent a lot of time focusing on prophecy that a film doesn’t really have time to explore. The book has the luxury of presenting Paul’s ascendency over hundreds of pages as a matter of fate. The abridged runtime makes for a far more awkward presentation of a young teenager as the messiah of this rich world.

Villeneuve shows off his confidence with a relaxed sense of pacing, leaning heavily on the exceptional cinematography to carry the narrative instead of Herbert’s densely packed plotting. Part Two cuts a lot of stuff out, often to the point of making you wonder why the first film spent so much time on unnecessary exposition. There is something beautiful about the way Villeneuve focuses on the beauty of Arrakis instead of trying to cover as much material as possible.

The film does buckle under its obligations to function more like a blockbuster film than an exercise in philosophy. The limits of its 165-minute runtime are quite exposed when the narrative leaves Arrakis for a bit to focus on the Emperor (Christopher Walken) and House Harkonnen. Feyd-Rautha is a flimsy, underdeveloped villain, a shame given Austin Butler’s obvious enthusiasm in the role. Stellan Skarsgård does an admirable job as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, making the most of a limited runtime, but there’s an obligatory sense to the villainy that the film never quite shakes.

The action sequences are a bit of a mixed bag, much like the first film. The individual fight choreography is quite good, but the broader battles leave a lot to be desired. The cinematography of the actual fighting pales in comparison to the simpler frames showcasing the planet. The sandworms themselves aren’t given the same beautiful care and attention as they received in the first film.

Many popular science-fiction films have riffed off Dune’s basic premise over the years. Paul suffers from the weight of so many who came before him. Villeneuve never truly sells his lead as this necessary messiah figure, a reality exacerbated by the excessive amount of parental figures he has in the film, including Lady Jessica, Stilgar, and Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin).  All three work hard to sell Paul as a figure of destiny, but Chalamet is rarely given much space to run with the ball. Zendaya is a much more satisfying emotional care of the film, an awkward reality that the source material can’t really compensate for.

Villeneuve spends so much time capturing the feel of Arrakis that he sometimes forgets that the audience needs to feel something toward Paul, perhaps the weakest character among the principal cast. It’s not necessarily Villeneuve’s fault that audiences are bound to be familiar with the Luke Skywalker’s and the Neo’s of the world who owe so much to Herbert’s work, but the headiness of Paul’s character is quite lost in the shuffle. One has to wonder if some of the time spent on characters who only appeared in the first movie might have been better allocated to the newcomers in Part Two whose introductions feel quite rushed.

Dune probably needed three movies to get everything right. As it stands, Part Two is a very good film. Casual moviegoers may find themselves checked out at times, especially when Florence Pugh’s Irulan swoops in for what’s essentially an important extended cameo, but Villeneuve delivered a worthy adaptation of Herbert’s work. Some of the material’s inherent flaws are products of its time, as well as Hollywood’s reluctance to invest in newer work. Paul’s weaknesses as a messiah somewhat reflect the reality that our society has moved beyond some of the confines of Herbert’s sandbox. Villeneuve has crafted a beautiful film that will likely go down as the definitive take on the franchise, while also exposing many of the flaws that demonstrate why it took so long to get made in the first place.

Wednesday

28

February 2024

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COMMENTS

Couple to Throuple is a predictably toxic portrayal of polyamory

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The LGBTQ population is very poorly represented by the swath of offerings across the reality TV landscape. Millions of heterosexuals can enjoy seeing the most toxic elements of straight culture play out each week on their favorite programs. The gays have no such luck, those of us predisposed to the genre forced to endure the adult equivalent of Disney princess fare.

The Peacock series Throuple to Couple ostensibly attempts to provide some insight into the world of ethical non-monogamy, a widely misunderstood segment of the dating world. Though ENM is quite common, though often confusing to explain with all the different terminology. ENM is an umbrella term that includes, but is certainly not limited to, open relationships, polyamory, and the more widely known practices such as swinging/swapping/threesomes. If any/all of that sounds confusing, the nuance is bound to be something lost in the weeds of reality television show

Couple to Throuple takes a bunch of ENM-inclined folk and dumps them in a beautiful island resort in Panama. As the title suggests, the primary driver of the narrative are couples seeking a third. The couples are presented with a swath of potential singles. In a style similar to Love Island the throuples share a bed together immediately, an awkward rite of passage for reality dating shows. What’s a little unusual is that the group of singles is kept around for the duration of the ten episode season, an awkwardly fixed ecosystem that betrays many of the flaws of this self-proclaimed experiment.

Seasoned practitioners of ENM generally frown upon the concept of “unicorn hunting,” usually when a heterosexual couple seeks a bisexual woman. There is an inherent power imbalance when a third enters into an established dynamic, sparking natural concerns over fetishization and basic stability. Couple to Throuple starts off its season with some exercises nominally designed to address this, overseen by a relationship “expert,” but the basic issues surrounding the very premise of the show surface almost immediately.

Few of the couples in Couple to Throuple have much experience with ENM. The term throuple may have entered the public lexicon, but the practice itself is fairly rare within polyamory and ENM. At least one of the couples has experience dating outside their relationship, but most are opening things up, or dating someone else together for the first time. Many of the singles have been in poly relationships, another messy reality for the power structures of the program. In typical reality TV fashion, the show emphasizes several “stay or swap” ceremonies, where the couples and their thirds are each given the chance to either stick with things or switch up their trouple. The constant emphasis on rotation only adds to the inherent instability of this mess, an untenable burden of doubt for many of the singles.

The idea of the couples being new to ENM is an interesting concept in theory, especially since many viewers are in the exact same boat. The execution is a predictable mess of toxic drama. The show largely tosses out any educational intentions halfway through, instead focusing almost all its attention on conflict and will they/won’t they moments between the cast. At a certain point, the show becomes quite clownish in its shameless dedication to one throuple that spent the entire season feuding with each other. The farce is so absurd that it’s almost hard to enjoy even as a problematic guilty pleasure.

The show takes such a haphazard approach to ENM that even basic reality is ignored in favor of throuple fantasy. The show repeatedly emphasizes the idea of monogamy within the throuple as something that many of the people want, not necessarily even just the established couples. The power dynamics of a closed throuple are very complicated, of course not something that the show cares to explore.

The most laughable moment of the entire season comes from one of the throuples deciding they’d definitely found their third, leaving the villa with an aura of “Mission Accomplished” that stands in direct contrast to the amount of drama centered on that couple for much of the season, including basic issues with jealousy not to mention practically untenable boundary issues. The show essentially decided that because this throuple was going to be worthless at future “stay or swap” ceremonies, they had no future narrative worth exploring.

Anyone who engages in a single element of ENM will tell you that it’s not easy to make things work in the long run, an often-forgotten reality of any type of relationship dynamic. Polyamory, the specific act of being in a relationship with multiple people, is very challenging, requiring ample empathy and communication. One might not necessarily expect a reality TV show to handle anything with nuance or grace, but it’s pretty jarring to see how quickly Couple to Throuple races to the gutter in its quest to be as toxic as humanly possible.

The show does deserve some sliver of credit for its effort to show some positive LGBTQ visibility. The lack of a MMF dynamic is a little disappointing, with many MFF configurations, but it wouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the show had trouble casting couples. Good intentions from a few couples aside, most of these people are too new to ENM to make for any kind of positive representation here.

Shows like Love Island, Love is Blind, and The Bachelor do not carry the same weight of obligation toward the heteronormative community that Couple to Throuple possesses toward ENM people. It’s not inaccurate to say that’s unfair, but that’s also the reality that every LGBTQ or LGBTQ-adjacent community has to confront with regard to mainstream media.

Couple to Throuple paints a toxic portrait of polyamory in the trashiest, most predictable way possible. Anyone with any experience in ENM knows this community has plenty of characters ripe for the genre. The poly community deserves our own cringey shows, but this base-level rancid vanilla simply fails on every level.

 

 

 

 

Friday

16

February 2024

0

COMMENTS

The Traitors unites the reality TV extended universe with its delectable gameplay and stellar storytelling

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Reality TV found its footing in the post-9/11 American landscape. Shows like Big Brother and Survivor exposed the underbelly of our nation’s baser instincts amidst a culture grappling with the pearl-clutching phoniness that’s defined the Republican Party’s wayward bet toward Christian nationalism dating back to the Reagan era. George W. Bush’s embrace of culture war issues like gay marriage, a strategy more bluntly wielded by his ideological successor Donald Trump, created a swamp of debauchery ripe for the kind of antics cherished on MTV.

The Big Brother house is hardly as loose as it once was, making national headlines in its fourth season for the first on-camera copulation the Head of Household room. Survivor has largely shied away from controversy since the mid 2010s, having not outed any transgender contestants since 2017 and avoided dumpster fire casts since the trainwreck that was Worlds Apart in 2015. The Real World has been off the air for years, having shed its Spring Break-style reputation popularized by cast members like Trishelle Cantella long before, spawning its decidedly tamer, competition-based spin-off The Challenge (which was known as Real World Road Rules Challenge until 2010).

In many ways, The Challenge, which has evolved from its Real World/Road Rules days to include plenty of characters from across the Reality TV Cinematic Universe, namely CBS and Viacom properties (which have since remerged into Paramount Global following their prior detransition in 2005), set the rubric for The Traitors. While reality TV has long-sought D-list celebrities in its programming, The Challenge brought forth a novel idea to create its own celebrities. Former Real World alum such as Cantella, Chris “CT” Tamburello, and Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio have all found illustrious careers in the genre decades after their original seasons aired. The Challenge helped transform reality TV from a petri dish for Andy Warhol’s “Fifteen Minutes of fame” thesis into something a longer form narrative not too dissimilar from the soap operas that once used to dominate the low-budget TV artform. The Challenge gave us characters to root for year in and year out.

The Traitors, which airs on Peacock, follows a fairly simple premise. A group of people are sequestered in a Scottish castle, divided into faithfuls and traitors hiding within their ranks. Each night, the traitors pick a faithful to “murder,” eliminating them from the game. The group partakes in a mission to earn money for the collective pot, maxed out at $250,000. Before bed, the group meets at a roundtable to deliberate and attempt to vote out, or “banish,” a traitor. If all the traitors are eliminated by the end of the game, the remaining faithfuls split the prize pot.  If any traitors are undiscovered, they either share the prize among their fellow traitors, or if they’re the only one left, take it all for themselves.

The first season of The Traitors split its cast between reality TV stars and civilians unfamiliar to that cutthroat world. The results were entertaining, if not predictable. After remaining undetected as a traitor for the duration of the game, four-time Survivor icon Cirie Fields mopped the floor with the foolish civilians she carried to the end, easily taking out Bachelor alum Arie Luyendyk Jr., who transitioned from faithful to traitor late in the game. The civilians felt cheated and were very grumpy that they were betrayed in a game called The Traitors. International versions of the show, including its original Dutch version De Verraders have varied between civilian and celebrity casts.

For the show’s second season, The Traitors did away with pesky crybabies and opted for a cast entirely comprised of reality TV stars. The two groups most represented within the cast are reality competition alumni from Paramount properties such as Big Brother, Survivor, and The Challenge and cast members from Bravo lifestyle reality shows such as The Real Housewives, Shahs of Sunset, and Below Deck. The latter group is an odd fit for a competition show, though it makes sense that fellow NBCUniversal entity Peacock would find plenty of space at its roundtable for sibling network Bravo’s favorite daughters such as Kate Chastain, Brandi Glanville, and Phaedra Parks.

The Traitors is a very messy show. The reality TV world is not that big. Players such as Dan Gheesling, Parvati Shallow, and Janelle Pierzina bring with them reputations going back to the George W. Bush administration. Viewers would have to consume thousands of hours of reality television to understand all the dynamics at play. The two distinct genres within reality TV, competition and lifestyle converge in a bizarre fashion, with the Bravo women forming a natural clique against the gamers. Somehow, amidst all the chaos, The Bachelor alum Peter Weber formed a group including the likes of Cantella, Love Island: USA alum Carsten “Bergie” Bergensen, and former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow. This show is all over the place.

Presiding over all the chaos is actor Alan Cumming, who brightens up each episode with his flamboyant outfits and delectable one-liners. Cumming’s obvious delight radiates through the screen, a sentiment clearly shared by many in the cast. It’s not hard to see why.

Big Brother and Survivor are incredibly taxing games. Both require physically and emotionally draining gameplay, as well as major time commitments from the players. Stars of the genre are usually younger professionals in their twenties without families or obligations that would present logistical challenges for the months required to play these games. Every single Big Brother and Survivor alum who has played The Traitors did their respective shows multiple times. Especially in BB’s case, it seems unlikely that any of them will ever play the show’s full format ever again.

Survivor, The Challenge, and Survivor are far too physically demanding for most seasoned veterans of reality competition programming. Fields’ recent stint on Big Brother 25 further demonstrated the show’s lopsided favoring of physicality over the kind of strategic thinking that defined its glory years. The Traitors presents a unique opportunity for titans of the genre to showcase their skills once more in a setting that favors spectacle over strength.

The casting of reality TV icons clearly works to the show’s benefit. The Traitors leans heavily into its murder-mystery aesthetic, with a collection of characters who understand the perpetual need for drama. The blend of gamers and Bravo personalities has crafted a singular blend of chaos and mayhem that’s compelling to watch even if you aren’t familiar with the histories of the players.

The Traitors presents an Avengers-style convergence of reality TV titans at a time when the streaming era has diminished popular culture’s collective consciousness. Backed by a delectable host and stellar production values, Peacock has elevated the entire genre while giving longtime icons another chance in the arena. Big studios are doubling down on established franchises across the board for tentpole films. Peacock is currently proving how effective reality TV can be on that front. As the sun sets on the concept known as “peak TV,” The Traitors has rather flamboyantly thrown its name into the gauntlet as one of the best shows on television.

Wednesday

14

February 2024

0

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The Zone of Interest is a powerful commentary on the mundane cruelty of apathy

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The breadth and depth of the broader World War II genre, especially the entries that focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust, have immortalized horrors that humanity cannot afford to forget. The most effective historical films tend to be the ones that teach us something ugly about the present that we take for granted. The film The Zone of Interest dedicates its narrative to one simple question anyone who’s ever learned about the Holocaust is bound to have asked: how could anyone let that happen?

Over a million Jewish people were killed at Auschwitz during World War II. Director Jonathan Glazer keeps his narrative at arm’s length from the camp itself, instead focusing on the home life of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), who was commandant of the camp for three years during the war. Höss and his family lived in a house that shares a border wall with the camp, his wife Hedwig Höss (Sandra Hüller) working hard in the garden to build an idyllic sanctuary away from the horrors happening right next door. Like his wife, Rudolph spends his days buried in his work, always too busy to process the horrors he’s in charge of perpetuating.

Largely shot like a documentary, with multiple cameras rigged inside the Höss family home and frequent long takes, Glazer presents an approach that feels intentionally hands-off. The director doesn’t really need to worry about his audience having a familiarity with the subject material. Instead, The Zone of Interest aims to cast a light on the mundane nature of evil. Real life doesn’t have secret villain layers. Instead, there are far uglier realities, like a swimming pool that’s only a few meters away from a crematorium.

Friedel and Hüller both perform well under untenable circumstances as lead actors in a film with no protagonists. Hüller plays Hedwig like a selfish housewife, only able to see the blessings that a life at a post like Auschwitz had afforded to her family, a reality of her own choosing. Friedel threads a more subtle needle, a boring administrator glued to his singular task.

The 105-minute runtime flies by, an impressive feat for a film that deliberately keeps a fair amount of distance between its narrative and its audience. There are a few occasions where Glazer practically forces his viewers to be alone with the cruelties he structures the film around while never actually showing the camp in operation. The deafening silence that lies at the core of The Zone of Interest is nauseatingly powerful, an impressive feat of filmmaking within a well-trodden genre.

We all know the horrors of the Holocaust. Modern audiences would do well to remember that genocide does not happen in a vacuum. It takes the work of countless people such as Rudolf Höss to perpetuate the wheels of destruction, as well as the apathy of all who surround them. Few films can convey such a message with so light a touch. The Zone of Interest isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s quite impossible to forget.

Saturday

3

February 2024

0

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Shohei Ohtani’s Final Start as an Angel

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No sport manages to integrate itself into the life of its fans quite like baseball. Baseball is always there. Not in a purely literal sense, but if you add up the days from Spring Training to the 162 regular season games, plus the post-season and the off-season Hot Stove, it’s easy to see why baseball often functions as a metaphor for life. Every day matters, but the calendar isn’t stocked full of appointment viewing quite like football or soccer.

Shohei Ohtani’s six years as a member of the Angels upended the rhythm not just of Anaheim, but the game itself. Shohei singlehandedly transformed the city which largely exists as support infrastructure for Mickey Mouse’s vast empire, into a cultural hub of international relevance. Every day that Shohei took the mound had the potential for history in the making, a once-in-a-lifetime sensation for a league that plays 2,430 regular season games each year.

There’s a familiar pattern for Angels fans that’s developed over the past decade. Spring is for hope, Summer is for tragedy, and September is for next year. It’s rare to see the All-Star Game roll around with the Angels still in contention, spurring the usual discourse over how a team that spends so much on payroll, that not only boasts a historical phenom like Ohtani, but also one of the greatest players of the twenty-first century in Mike Trout, could be this haplessly pathetic. Being an Angels fan is a miserable experience most of the time.

Like many major metropolises, the broader Los Angeles area is home to plenty of people who didn’t grow up here, myself included. Before Ohtani, the busiest times of the year for Angel Stadium tended to be when the Yankees and Red Sox were in town, bringing with them their legions of East Coast expatriates. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I’ve always had loyalties to the American League, never buying into the nonsense that it’s actually fun to watch the pitcher embarrass himself in the batter’s box, a moot point as of 2022.

My baseball friends around the country often find my fascination with the Angels perplexing. The Los Angeles Dodgers are a far more competent organization, with Red Sox icons Dave Roberts and Mookie Betts at the heart of the team. The Dodgers/Angels dynamic is a lot like the Yankees/Mets rivalry I grew up with in my hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut. Like the Mets, it takes a certain degree of masochism to root for the Angels. People wonder why anyone wasn’t born into that vicious cycle of heartbreak would choose it willingly. Bandwagoners like to hitch themselves to a winning horse.

Angels Stadium was a lot easier to get to when I first moved to Southern California for grad school in 2015, spending the first year and a half of my time on the West Coast in Claremont. I’ve lived in Long Beach for the past seven years, a swing city between LA and Orange County in many ways, while also more or less equidistant to either ballpark. Dodger Stadium is about fifteen minutes further away from my apartment than Angel Stadium, depending on the wildly changing variable known as LA traffic.

My beloved late grandmother grew up a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Maybe it’s due to my experience with ethical non-monogamy, but I’ve never felt weird rooting for multiple teams. The Red Sox are my first love, and NESN broadcasts with Don Orsillo, Jerry Remy, and Dennis Eckersley taught me most of what I know about the game. Summers in Toronto with my grandfather instilled in me a natural affection for the Blue Jays, though their pitiful organization makes it easy to avoid conflicts of interest with the Sox. A connoisseur of baseball fashion, my fitted hat collection of more than fifty caps includes eight bearing the insignia of the Montreal Expos, split allegiances that drive some people crazy until they listen to me waxing poetically over my passion for this game.

Dodger Stadium is a cathedral, a shining city on a hill, albeit a hill that’s a tremendous pain in the ass. Angel Stadium is a dump, one of the ugliest parks in the league. The food at Angel Stadium is gross, and unlike Dodger Stadium, there’s almost nothing fun to do at the park if you get there early. Inexplicably, Angel Stadium recently raised the cost of parking from ten dollars to twenty, removing one of its key values over Dodger Stadium’s ridiculous rates.

There is no reason for anyone who wasn’t born an Angels fan to root for this team. Like the Mets, each year starts with a lot of promise, and a few weeks later ends in pain. The Angels often have more payroll tied up in their IL (Injured List) than entire teams spend on their rosters. The same team that spent hundreds of millions on Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Justin Upton, Vernon Wells, and Anthony Rendon often trots out a September roster stocked to the brim with AAAA talent never to be heard from again.

I attended Shohei Ohtani’s August 23rd start last season with a funny feeling in my gut. Ohtani hadn’t looked right in weeks, and the team was in freefall after inexplicably going all-in at the trade deadline. Each start seemed like the last time Ohtani would take the mound for the Angels.

I waited until ninety minutes before the game to pick up a ticket off Stub-Hub, procuring a seat just a few rows behind the dugout for a little over a hundred dollars. Part of the beauty of preferring the Angels to the Dodgers has always been the cheaper tickets, a reality I won’t soon forget as Shohei-mania inflates prices in LA for the next ten years.

Shohei left the game in the second inning. He hit a home run in the bottom of the first and collected two strikeouts before leaving the mound. As the first game of a double header, Angel Stadium was most unforgiving in the August heat. The stadium was full of angry bandwagoners furious that they’d spent hundreds of dollars on their seat for a Shohei cameo.

The Angels lost 9-4 to a talented young Cincinnati Reds roster. The Angels looked as pathetic as ever. The mood in the stadium was sour, almost everybody sunburned and depressed.

As for me, the most recent failures of the team did little to shake my bizarre love affair with the Angels. I went to the game by myself, as I often do, unable to convince any of my friends to abandon their workday on behalf of America’s pastime. I befriended an older lawyer seated next to me, impressing him with nonstop baseball facts as a chatty transsexual.

My shining Ohtani moment came the year before. I caught my first foul ball at his September 29th, 2022 start, where he came within a single strike of taking a no-hitter into the ninth against the Oakland Athletics. Knowing Shohei would likely remain in Southern California as part of the Dodgers, I hardly viewed the status of the 2023 Angels as an apocalyptic scenario.

SoCal locals tend to laugh whenever the Angels are referred to by their official name, the Los Angeles Angels. Everyone knows that Anaheim is neither part of Los Angeles, nor much of a city in its own right. The Angels are Orange County’s team.

I moved to California at a precarious state in my life. I began transitioning shortly after arriving on the West Coast, and have now spent almost a third of my life here. The Red Sox are the team I love to watch the most on TV, but I understand the love I feel for our SoCal teams as a sign of the roots I’ve laid here. As a transgender person living through unprecedented hatred aimed at our community, I’ll always be grateful to this city for giving me the space to realize that I can live a dignified life.

I often to go baseball games when I’m feeling sad. I tend to joke that it’s cheaper than therapy, objectively true with our broken healthcare system, but it’s more than that. Baseball is a constant. So much of this world stands in chaos, but baseball goes on. The cool breeze of a Southern California evening works wonders for clearing your mind.

The Angels have never once made the playoffs since I came to SoCal in 2015. That seems unlikely to change for the rest of Trout’s tenure. Lifelong Orange County residents will feel the pain of that much worse than I will, having my childhood heroes at Fenway to fall back on.

I tried to savor Shohei’s time in Anaheim, particularly the intimacy of having such an unprecedented talent in a setting that often feels like a regional ballpark. The Dodgers are a national beast, though only slightly less futile concerning the postseason, the Covid-shortened 2020 campaign aside. There is not a lot of hope in Anaheim these days.

One could say I’m more than a little spoiled for having two teams within driving distance. Visitors to my apartment often laugh at the memorabilia for the Sox, Dodgers, Angels, and Blue Jays, not to mention various souvenirs from other ballparks. I’m not a typical baseball fan by any means.

Some of my happiest memories of the West Coast are the evenings I spent at Angel Stadium with various loved ones over the years. I often joke that because I had my second puberty here, technically I grew up in Long Beach. Baseball’s status as “America’s pastime” naturally evokes a sense of nostalgia. I’m grateful to have lived out here long enough to feel that same warmth whenever I visit either of our parks.

Shohei Ohtani’s time in Anaheim has ended. The once-in-a-lifetime convergence of talent like Trout and Ohtani came, went, and spent most of its time on the IL. Baseball has never been a sport defined by one player or one moment.

2024 will likely not be much of a year to remember for the Angels, but I can’t wait until I pull up to the stadium, overpaying for parking to watch a hopeless team break its fans’ hearts. Shohei will work his magic down the 405, but baseball is a sport that finds its best magic in the quiet moments. The world is on fire right now, but for those of us who love that silly game, there’s always the promise that spring will come again.

Monday

22

January 2024

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COMMENTS

Saltburn’s luscious scenery can’t save its empty narrative

Written by , Posted in Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Satire often functions best when those being lampooned carry with them a degree of humanity. It’s easy for fiction to craft strawmen to tear down. There are far greater ramifications for the audience when a certain level of discomfort sinks in when you realize that you feel some sympathy for the people you’re supposed to hate.

Emerald Fennell’s sophomore effort Saltburn fills its narrative space with nothing but unsympathetic characters. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a scholarship student struggling to find his place in elitist Oxford. He builds an easy rapport with classmate Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), an outgoing member of the ruling class with plenty of sympathy for Oliver’s fish-out-of-water status. Oliver fabricates much of his biography, earning an invitation to spend the summer at Saltburn, Felix’s family’s massive country estate.

Saltburn has all the makings of a delicious drama. Felix’s family, including mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) are a delight to watch as they skirt the line between inviting and off-putting, their welcoming nature perpetually contrasting with the impermeable barriers of the inherent inaccessibility of their class. An outsider might feel at home at Saltburn, while never forgetting that they’ll never truly belong.

The cinematography is absolutely delightful, with some of the best camera work in modern filmmaking. Anthony Willis, who scored Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman delivers a chilling score that works with the cinematography to support the singular aesthetic put forth by Saltburn as an estate. The playground that Fennell has constructed is wonderfully inviting, almost able to make you forget that there’s supposed to be a story here.

Unfortunately, Saltburn falls a bit short when it’s time to pivot from the sugar high of watching beautiful people behave horribly toward a narrative with any sense of takeaway. The acting is phenomenal across the board, but Keoghan’s work never really feels in service to anything beyond the constant shock value. Much as Fennell tries to put forth the idea of a subversive narrative, Saltburn never really tries to get beneath the surface of its shallow themes.

The film loses much of its steam by the time the third act rolls around. The 131-minute runtime is a bit too bloated for substance free diet that Fennell presents to her audience. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that there’s nobody to root for in Saltburn. Life is not necessarily a game of heroes and villains, especially when you’re dealing with the privileged Oxford class.

The core issue at hand with Saltburn is Fennell’s reluctance to leave her mark on the audience. The film puts forth a few scenes that are destined to remain in the public discourse for at least the next few years, undoubtedly bolstered by the rising star power of Keoghan and Elordi, but Fennell has nothing to say about wealth or status. In that regard, Fennell is no different from her shallow subjects.

Saltburn is pretty and plenty of its audience will delight in being able to say they were in on the joke whenever the film resurfaces on social media. A viral movie is not necessarily a good movie. When the shock wears off, there’s little left beyond the gorgeous scenery. It’s a shame to see such a first-rate production so ill-served by a script with nothing to say.

Monday

22

January 2024

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COMMENTS

The Long Game

Written by , Posted in Podcast

ITM just celebrated a three-month anniversary of her new relationship. She’s really excited to be in love again. So excited, in fact, that she recorded a whole episode on how her emotions represent the culmination of her whole transgender journey, even years removed from the end of her medical transition. For all the nonsense the world throws at trans people, there’s a lot of joy out there too. 

Sunday

31

December 2023

62

COMMENTS

The Dreamer is a pathetic mess from a man who simply doesn’t care anymore

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

The worst kinds of people to watch sports with are the ones who blame the officiating every single time their team gets blown out. The discourse surrounding the past few Dave Chappelle specials has essentially shifted from the comedic value of his work into a broader cultural discussion into the boundaries of the genre itself. Plenty of far-right publications took the non-sequitur route in their praise of Chappelle’s broadsides against the transgender community, lauding the bravery of his so-called “free speech” while casting aside any exploration of the merit of his humor.

The Dreamer is a lazy victory lap from a man with nothing else of value to offer the world beyond self-congratulatory musings on his own legacy, a lethargic effort aimed solely at fueling the far-right grievance industrial complex for another week. The Closer was a mostly humorless treatise centered around the backlash to his prior special Sticks and Stones. While Chappelle claims early on in The Dreamer that the controversy wasn’t worth the trouble, it’s kind of clear that it was, if only for one fairly sad reason. Trans jokes are pretty much all he’s got left.

After an opening bit where he compares trans people to Jim Carrey’s much-lampooned method acting work as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, Chappelle mostly stays away from the trans community, though not without a clunk segue via some cheap jokes aimed at disabled people. There are some tasteless jokes aimed at the broader LGBTQ community, and a joke about identifying as a woman if he was sent to prison that falls in line with his previous special’s fascination with early 2000s style edgelord humor, but you can tell that Chappelle knows that his audience is growing tired of his obsession with gay people. A recurring theme throughout the special is Chappelle’s apparent level of self-awareness toward his reputation as a “lazy comedian.”

The most telling point of The Dreamer occurs halfway through when Chappelle starts on a bit about the Titan submersible. Chappelle admits that this joke never plays well on venues on his tour, but does it anyway, a joke that falls flat yet again at the Lincoln Theater in Washington DC. Longtime Chappelle director Stan Lathan does his subject no favors with constant cutaways to an audience that perpetually looks apathetic as joke after joke fails to land. It would be ridiculous to say that Chappelle doesn’t care what people think. His last two specials were entirely consumed with the reception of his work, at great expense to the comedic value of the material itself.

The DC location was ostensibly selected to draw parallels to Chappelle’s first special Killing Them Softly, also filmed at the Lincoln Theater, that propelled him to international stardom. The two decades that have passed since his debut have been kind to him in many ways, but an uncomfortable reality surfaces time and time again. He’s lost his edge.

Predictably, Chappelle spends a lot of time on the Will Smith slap endured by his friend Chris Rock at the Oscars, and on the spectator who attacked him at the Hollywood Bowl back in May. Chappelle squanders his unique perspective on the situation in favor of lazy jokes that lack the sharp timing that once defined his work. More and more, Chappelle just looks like a bored old rich guy out of touch with the industry he so radically helped define.

Comedy is not as kind to its aging stars as performers in other trades. The Rolling Stones can take the stage for two hours playing material that’s fifty years old. Chappelle can’t spend the night repeating bits from Killing Them Softly, even as his disengaged audience might wish that he would. There’s something fundamentally sad about watching Chappelle reflect on how hungry he used to be, while he tries to fill time in a special that often forgets that it’s supposed to be funny.

At times, Chappelle returns to his favorite punching bag, sprinkling a few trans jokes here and there, even as he pretends to claim that he gives people respect no matter what. He’s certainly resentful of the idea that people think he needs trans jokes to stay relevant, but not enough to do anything about it. There are enough shots at the trans community to ensure that the media will cover his new special, but the pickings are pretty thin otherwise.

The discourse that surrounded his last few specials will undoubtedly continue. People will spend the next few weeks playing armchair referee over the perceived boundaries of comedy. None of that matters.

The simple reality that Dave Chappelle’s newfound champions of the political right so conveniently ignore amidst the hornets’ nests that he loves to kick up is that the man has lost a step. The Dreamer isn’t particularly edgy. Instead, the special is something much sadder for a man who once sat at the top of the world. The Dreamer is boring.