Ian Thomas Malone

Friday

21

January 2022

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Sundance Review: Emergency

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College narratives often ground themselves in the fleeting sense of adventure before the pressures of the real world consume lives that were once preoccupied with red solo cups and late night glow parties. Students of color have often lacked the full freedom to engage in such youthful indiscretions with the same benefit of the doubt that their white counterparts might enjoy. Director Carey Williams blends dark comedy with social commentary in his powerful second feature Emergency, adapted from the 2017 short of the same name.

Kunle (RJ Cyler) and Sean (Donald Elise Watkins) are best friends doing their best to navigate a superficially woke college campus. Seeking to attend seven college parties in one night, the two second-semester seniors hope to make the most of their remaining time together before the real world pulls them apart. Unfortunately, for them, their plans are scuddled by the presence of a random girl (Maddie Nichols) passed out on the floor of their off-campus housing.

The bulk of the narratives follows Kunle, Sean, and their roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) as they attempt to drive the girl, nicknamed Goldilocks, to the hospital, understanding the reality of how the optics of three students of color and a catatonic white girl will be perceived by law enforcement or their university. Kunle, anxious about his acceptance into a Princeton Ph.D. program, also carries the anxiety of not being sure how to break the news to Sean, exacerbated by the dark turn of what was supposed to be an epic evening. Tying the two story strands together are Kunle and Sean’s differing perspectives on what it means to be black in America.

Williams is a fearless director able to craft humor amidst horrific circumstances, aided by Cyler and Watkin’s delightful chemistry. College narratives often have “teachable” moments that basically exist to bookend the film’s storytelling intentions. Emergency manages to have some of that same harmless fun without ever blunting the social commentary about what it means to be a young black man in America.

The tonal shifts are at times quite jarring. The streamlined narrative does drag a bit at times across the 105-minute runtime. Williams’ greatest strength as a director is his ability to shock his audience, even in scenes that might otherwise be completely predictable in nature. The humor doesn’t always land, but Emergency possesses a degree of sincerity rarely found in a genre that often celebrates the superficiality of the college experience.

College films often invite their audience to live vicariously through their protagonists. Emergency peels back the layers enough to explore the inauthenticity of that sense of shared experience in higher learning, but without abandoning the trappings of the genre entirely. Few narratives manage to run such a diversified gauntlet of emotions in a single feature.

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Friday

21

January 2022

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Sundance Review: The Princess

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The past year has seen the release of several new works focusing on the life of the late Princess of Wales, but in many ways, it feels weird to label this era a “Diana resurgence.” The public has hardly lost interest in Diana since her tragic death in 1997. Her legacy continues to shape the Royal Family and the public’s engagement with the venerable, archaic institution.

Comprised solely of archival footage and contemporaneous media commentary, the new documentary The Princess takes a look at Diana’s life as it was depicted back then. Director Ed Perkins rarely strays away from the conventional narratives that have developed in the decades since her death. Married at age 19 to the future King of England, a man hopelessly in love with another woman, the Princess of Wales saw her life transform practically overnight into a non-stop media circus that followed her every move, until she was quite literally buried in the ground.

The main overarching narrative of the documentary is Diana’s relationship with the media, though Perkins occasionally switches gears to focus on her doomed marriage to Charles. The lack of modern interviews feels quite refreshing, giving the film space to let its points speak for themselves. There’s no expert testimony about the grueling nature of the paparazzi that could land more powerfully than an extended sequence of the young Diana being unable to even get in a car without being hounded by bizarre intrusions into her personal life.

The Princess possesses a weirdly intimate quality for a narrative focusing on one of the most famous individuals of the era, one that rarely goes more than a single scene without shots featuring hordes of cameras. Aside from Charles, the Queen and the rest of the Royal Family only appear briefly. Perkins repeatedly returns to the tug-of-war between Diana’s modernity and the Firm’s staunch resistance to anything resembling change.

If there are any hidden mysteries about Diana’s life yet to be discovered, Perkins certainly hasn’t found them. The Princess is a gorgeous documentary, albeit one that relies a bit too heavily on its subject’s innate appeal to make its mark in the crowded Diana landscape. The 106-minute runtime flies by, a combination of strong pacing and the breathtakingly obvious appeal of its subject.

Viewers will undoubtedly recognize many of the famous interviews depicted in the documentary, but Perkins does manage to capture the mood of England as the circus unfolded. There is still tremendous power to be found in extended sequences of Diana’s funeral as it was processed by millions across the world, an exceedingly rare global sense of unity. Perkins may not have brought anything new to the table, but his film still packs quite a punch for the countless individuals who still can’t get enough of the Princess of Wales, even after all these years.

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Wednesday

19

January 2022

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The Matrix Resurrections is too meta for its own good

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The past twenty years have tipped the real world toward the Matrix in ways no one could have imagined in 1999. Much has been made of the transgender themes present in the Wachowski’s original work, a community that’s largely benefited from our changing society. The Matrix is a world where people can bend the very construct of reality to their will, something that modern medicine has afforded to those seeking transition.

Over the course of their post-Matrix careers, the Wachowski’s have often tried to bend the landscape of modern blockbusters to their will. In a world full of derivative sequels and reboots, films like Cloud Atlas and Jupiter’s Legacy dared to get weird. However one feels about the end results, especially in the latter’s case, there is much to enjoy in the way the Wachowski’s dared to be different.

The Matrix Resurrections, Lana Wachowski’s first solo film without her sister Lily, had the power to reinvent the modern blockbuster, an art form that’s quite resistant to the queer undertones that permeate through the science fiction genre. Instead, Wachowski’s efforts to subvert her previous work ended up embodying many of the same tropes that plague practically every major franchise. What should have been a triumph of the present instead found itself solely consumed by the past.

The biggest problem with the film is its inability to ever really progress past first-act territory. The long-awaited return of Neo gives Keanu Reeves ample room to shine, but Resurrections never stops basking in his glory long enough to let him add to the canon. Reeves often feels like a spectator in his own film, a dynamic that might have worked better if he was there to pass the baton to a future star.

The same largely holds true for Trinity. Carrie-Anne Moss played as pivotal a role in the success of the first Matrix as Reeves, but Resurrections largely reduces Trinity to the mere object of Neo’s subconscious affection, a dynamic exacerbated by the film’s meandering attention span. Frequent flashbacks to the first film serve as little more than a distraction, reminding viewers of their ability to simply watch that one instead.

Resurrections’ fascination with meta-commentary might have worked if Wachowski had been able to rein herself in a bit. Newcomers Neil Patrick Harris and Jonathan Groff look like they’re having the time of their lives as they deconstruct the very nature of sequels, but those kinds of scenes are supposed to be icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Wachowski’s ability to poke fun at Hollywood’s sequel industrial complex falls flat in the midst of a film that is itself not very entertaining.

The new cast perform their roles admirably. There’s a lot of exposition dedicated to the crew of the Mnemosyne, led by captain Bugs (Jessica Henwick), that doesn’t accomplish much other than padding an already-long 148-minute runtime. The actors all look like they’re having the time of their lives, which would be easier to get behind if it was in service to a better plot.

Audience members might be miffed that Lawrence Fishburne wasn’t asked back, owing to Morpheus’s death in the seemingly-canon game The Matrix Online. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II absolutely crushes the role, a performance full of intrigue that pays ample homage to Fishburne. Problem is, this movie doesn’t know what to do with Morpheus. You could literally trim all his scenes out and change nothing about the narrative, a bizarre way to handle one of the franchise’s most important characters.

The fatal undoing of The Matrix Resurrections largely stems from a point it concedes in the narrative. The film would exist whether Wachowski returned or not. There is some sense in the rationale that a Wachowski-directed Matrix might be better than a Wachowski-less Matrix, but that point alone isn’t enough to justify the existence of the former. Inevitability is not a key component of quality.

The third act is atrocious, lacking the innovative stunts that defined the first trilogy. For all the scorn thrown at the original two sequels, at least Reloaded introduced ample new terrain for the choreographers to explore. Like its narrative, Resurrections doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

LGBTQ people rarely have such a prominent seat at the table of blockbuster franchises. Representation isn’t really enough. It can’t be. Trans people hear all the time about how bright the future will be.

You can’t have a vibrant tomorrow if your present is so squarely focused on the past. The Matrix Resurrections has no purpose beyond stoking nostalgia. It’s unclear if a fresh director might’ve been able to craft a better film in this universe. Unfortunately Wachowski set the bar so low that it’s hard to imagine anyone making a worse mockery of such a beloved franchise.

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Tuesday

18

January 2022

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Classic Film: Pale Flower

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Loyalty is a concept that’s fundamentally incompatible with the pillars of capitalism. A worker can spend decades serving the bottom line, devotion impossible to replicate in the opposite direction. Criminal organizations such as the Mafia or Yakuz lean on the history of loyalty to keep subordinates in line, expecting underlings to take the fall for mishaps with time from their lives for which they could never be adequately compensated.

Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 noir classic Pale Flower centers its narrative on a life spent in service, for the sake of loyalty, with little to show. Muraki (Ryō Ikebe) is released from prison after a lengthy sentence for murder. Lacking a family or any semblance of a meaningful existence, Muraki lives in squalor by day, only coming alive in Tokyo’s nighttime gambling parlors. A fellow player Saeko (Mariko Kaga), catches his interest. One of the few female players of the “Flower Card” game, Saeko’s lack of skill does not hinder her appetite for higher stakes games, urging Muraki to connect her with clubs that can provide more enhanced thrills.

Much of Shinoda’s work focuses on the mundane interactions between Muraki and Saeko as they navigate Tokyo’s criminal underbelly. The bulk of the 96-minute runtime takes place at night, often indoors as rain pours in the background, a dreary, unforgiving world for Muraki to return to after his years in jail. Shinoda carefully deconstructs any notion of glamour to be had in organized crime, a world with little to offer anyone who’s not at the top.

Pale Flower’s lasting legacy comes largely from Shinoda’s carefully constructed aesthetic. The gorgeous cinematography brings the gambling parlors to life, capturing the anxiety on each of the players as they spend their meager savings on flighting thrills. Composer Toru Takemitsu delivers a jazz-infused score that perfectly illustrates the appeal of this lifestyle without ever attempting to offer up an endorsement.

Shinoda digs into the heart of a life in decay, years of unrewarded loyalty blunting the natural longing for a greater purpose. There’s an easy chemistry between Ikebe and Kaga that captures their draw to each other, two aimless souls looking for a friendly orbit, if only for a little while. The audience doesn’t learn much about Saeko, or practically any character for that matter, but the film has a way of speaking volumes without the use of words.

As a genre, noir often concerns itself with exploring the ugly nature of humanity, focusing on morally dark figures with their backs against the wall. You’re not supposed to necessarily identify with someone like Muraki, a cold-blooded killer, but there’s ample beauty to be found in the process of understanding the lives of people who have been cast out by society. Shinoda isn’t just concerned with the story of Muraki, but also the sound of Muraki as he sits alone with his thoughts, coming to terms with the wasted potential that is his very existence.

Pale Flower captures the raw power of noir to shine a spotlight on the corners of humanity most of us would prefer not to visit, at least not in the real world. Few entries explore their dark environments with such unrequited beauty. Less concerned with story than the sheer emotion it evokes, Shinoda’s work is a triumph of the human spirit.

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Tuesday

14

December 2021

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The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

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Our journey into the Rankin/Bass cinematic universe continues with the 1985 special The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus their final production to use traditional stop-motion animation. Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1902 novel of the same name, the film is a pretty bizarre Santa origin story that often feels more like a riff on The Lord of the Rings than holiday entertainment. Despite it’s weirdly complex narrative and confusing characters, the special is a ton of fun to watch, even if it delivers a much weirder brand of festive cheer.

This is almost certainly our final holiday episode of the season. Be sure to check out all of our Christmas coverage from 2020 & 2021. From all of us at Estradiol Illusions, we wish you a very pleasant holiday season and thank you for spending a bit of it with us. 

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Monday

13

December 2021

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Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers is a touching tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh

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Prince Philip passed away just a few months shy of what would have been his one-hundredth birthday, a historic milestone for a royal consort. To celebrate the occasion, members of the Royal Family, including all four of Philip’s children and most of his adult grandchildren, sat down for a series of televised interviews. The special Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers features footage filmed both before the Duke of Edinburgh’s death and after, an intimate portrait of a quite unusual life.

The special largely divides its footage into three categories. The interviews with the Royal Family carry an understandable degree of novelty. Alongside the interviews, archival footage of the Duke’s life presents a biography of his life that may be a bit familiar to many watching. The special also features a behind-the-scenes look at the Duke’s office and library, peeling back the curtain of his day-to-day activities.

No one tuning into The Royal Family Remembers should expect a hard-hitting look at the Duke’s life. The Royal Family, particularly its members who still reside in the U.K., are notoriously averse to airing conflict in the public sphere. The closest the special comes to controversial subjects is a brief explanation of the context surrounding Philip’s proclivity for off-color remarks that would get him in trouble with the media.

The nature of the special makes a pivot from celebration to memorial a fairly seamless one. Death hardly comes as much of a surprise to people approaching 100 years old. While the tone is a bit more somber than any of the Royal Family would have liked, the interviews keep an upbeat tone that makes for enjoyable viewing.

One interesting takeaway from the special is the Duke’s approach to humility. The role of royal consort is a supporting gig, a life in service to supporting one’s spouse. The special highlights how uncomfortable Philip could be when asked to boast about his achievements, instead shifting the spotlight to others. Modesty is a trait sorely absent from so many in power, speaking volumes about the man’s character.

There are no real surprises in The Royal Family Remembers, an engaging hour-long perspective of a fascinating figure. Those seeking a more balanced look at Prince Philip’s life certainly have plenty of other options to find such material. As far as puff pieces go, this one is pretty entertaining.

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Monday

13

December 2021

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A Miser Brothers‘ Christmas

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Our holiday coverage continues with A Mister Brothers’ Christmas, the 2008 follow-up to the 1974 gem The Year Without a Santa Claus. Featuring returning voices Mickey Rooney and George S. Irving as Santa Claus and Heat Miser, the film aims to recapture the magic of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion classics. Unfortunately, the film never quite comes together as anything more than a nostalgia production with some truly horrendous music. Ian does her best to unpack what went wrong and why she’s still happy that it exists.

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Monday

13

December 2021

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It‘s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie

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We’re back in the Muppets Extended Universe with the 2002 television film It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. With a plot that’s strikingly similar to the 2011 cinematic film The Muppets, adult-themed humor, and some uneven celebrity cameos from NBC Universal properties, the film occupies a weird place in Muppets lore. A strong performance from Joan Cusack goes a long way toward buoying a production perhaps best known for suggesting that Kermit’s existence played a role in one of the defining tragedies of the 21st century.

Be sure to check out all of EI’s holiday coverage! 

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Friday

10

December 2021

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Pinocchio‘s Christmas

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Into the weeds of the Rankin/Bass holiday catalog! Pinocchio’s Christmas is a bizarre special, serving as both an adaption of the 1883 novel and a more traditional Santa-infused holiday narrative. There is a lot going on, with multiple villains and plotlines converging on the poor wooden boy. Ian does her best to unpack it all.

 

Be sure to check out all of our holiday-themed episodes!

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Friday

10

December 2021

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The Little Drummer Boy

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We are continuing our Bass/Rankin coverage with the 1968 classic The Little Drummer Boy. Aaron starts off our story as a misanthropic troubadour performing for an audience of none, only to be changed by the healing power of laughter after pounding his drum until a newborn baby saved his lamb. Ian isn’t sure what to make of her affection for Ben Haramad, the closest thing the special has to a villain who isn’t driving a chariot in the middle of the night.

 

Be sure to check out all of our holiday-themed episodes!

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