Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: November 2018

Monday

12

November 2018

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BritBox’s Dark Heart Shows Promise After An Uneven Debut

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Unlike their real-life counterparts, television cop shows have the luxury of avoiding handling controversial victims. Police investigate the murder of an un-convicted pedophile because the law has no place for vigilante justice, putting aside any broader moral questions an individual might care to raise. Whether those cases make for compelling television is a completely different matter, one that Dark Heart chooses to address in its opening episodes.

DI Will Wagstaffe is haunted by the unsolved murder of his parents that occurred when he was a teenager. He’s a moody detective who approaches his job with unrivaled concern for the victims, regardless of their life circumstances. Wagstaffe’s home life is complicated by the arrival of his sister Juliette, who shows up at their parents’ house with a black eye, creating an interesting dynamic between two siblings with issues neither wants the other to meddle in.

Dark Heart is largely carried on the strength of lead actor Tom Riley, who brings a sense of nuance into the well-trodden territory of TV procedurals. Wagstaffe is a rare character among the broader trope of tortured detectives. He shows a strong desire to move past the grief that haunts him. His grief isn’t some superpower to be wielded in the broader sense of justice, but an acknowledged problem that needs to be dealt with. The character’s sheer humanity is compelling because it’s relatable. Trauma isn’t something that can be wished away.

The series has had a turbulent production schedule, previously premiering on ITV back in 2016. As a result, much of the cast of the first two episodes were unable to return for the rest of the show’s six-episode first season. The need for a soft reboot creates a bit of a bumpy experience, as the show has to introduce new characters in episode three alongside ones who were barely developed themselves. Wagstaffe’s partner Josie Chancellor, played by Anjli Mohindra, stands out in particular as an interesting character who doesn’t get much time to shine.

The move from ITV to BritBox Original might suggest an effort to salvage a show that wouldn’t otherwise be worth airing on a major network, but Dark Heart’s narrative certainly seems better suited for a niche audience that wouldn’t be put off by the grim stories it wants to tell. It’s rough around the edges, but Riley delivers a strong enough performance to keep the viewer interested in seeing what happens to his character. The series isn’t likely to make enough waves to draw new subscribers to BritBox, but fans of the service will find Dark Heart worth checking out. Hopefully it won’t need another two years to find its rhythm.

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Sunday

11

November 2018

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Omnipresent Is a Timely Commentary on the Temptations of Technology

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For all the ways in which technology has improved the world, such as making thousands of miles seem much smaller through the lens of a Skype call, the idea of abuse of this incredible power never ventures far from the broader discussion. Surveillance is an especially hot-button topic, as the ease with which one can record an entire room can create the ever-looming sense that one is being watched. Omnipresent (originally titled Vezdesushtiyat) is a Bulgarian film about what happens when a man decides to make that fear a reality.

Emil lives a comfortable life. He has a nice family, a beautiful home, and a great job running an advertising agency to supplement his respected but stagnant career as a novelist. His situation would be the envy of many creative types, except something isn’t quite right with Emil’s paradise. He wants something more.

A ploy to catch a thief plundering his bedridden father’s antique treasures leads Emil to discover his passion for surveillance. He sets up cameras in his office, his home, his wife’s office, even his bathroom. He sits and watches for hours, sometimes using the footage to his advantage, but sometimes just out of a sick sense of pleasure. His motives are never really made all that apparent to the viewer because Emil himself doesn’t really seem to know why he enjoys invading other people’s privacy.

Omnipresent juggles a delicate balance between its plot and its protagonist, knowing that the further Emil dives into his spying, the more alienated he’ll become from the viewer. Emil isn’t particularly likable, Velislav Pavlov delivers a captivating performance that circumvents any need to identify with his character’s abhorrent behavior. The film allows Emil to be a flawed man without offering excuses, providing important commentary on the dangers of surveillance. People can venture down dark roads without even stopping to consider the risks at hand. There doesn’t always have to be an easy answer for why people do bad things.

The film juggles an impressive number of subplots for a two-hour movie. Teodora Duhovnikova stands out as Emil’s unhappy wife Anna, whose performance stretches across the ground the film would otherwise be too constrained to cover, wearing years of turmoil in every expression. Mihail Mutafov also delivers a compelling performance as Emil’s father Kirill, a man resilient against the many hardships aging brought to his doorstep. The strong acting drives home the stakes at hand, showcasing the many people on the receiving end of Emil’s selfish treachery.

Director Ilian Djevelekov did a superb job in managing the various threads of his work, fully fleshing out his storylines while never losing sight of the major force driving the narrative. Omnipresent could have gotten by playing to the viewer’s own fears of being watched, but the intimacy it gives to its characters makes the narrative all the more powerful when it stops to consider the ramifications of Emil’s behavior.

Technology is a powerful tool that’s all too easy to abuse. Omnipresent conveys the wreckage that can be created in the wake of a decision made without considering the God-like power at one’s fingertips. Bulgaria’s selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars tells a tale that transcends language, a powerful story for today’s environment.

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Saturday

10

November 2018

1

COMMENTS

Nesting Comfortably in Braveheart’s Shadow, Outlaw King Is an Action-Packed Delight

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As unfair as it seems to compare Outlaw King to an unrelated film made nearly twenty-five years earlier, Braveheart’s presence looms heavily over the narrative. The story, mostly set in the immediate aftermath of William Wallace’s death, functions essentially as a sequel, continuing the First War of Scottish Independence. Rather than partition his film off from a previous Best Picture Winner, director David Mackenzie utilizes his viewer’s likely familiarity with the history to his advantage, crafting a narrative unburdened by needless exposition.

At its core, Braveheart was a story of hope in the face of brutal opposition, fighting for that freedom that should be bestowed on every human as a birthright. Outlaw King is far more grounded in the brutal reality of Robert the Bruce’s uphill battle. War is ugly. Guerilla warfare against a well-organized foe leads to a lot of casualties and heartbreak. There’s little romance to be found in constantly being on the run, hoping your enemy spares those who harbored your resistance for a night or two.

Chris Pine’s Robert the Bruce is not a particularly inspiring figure. He’s totally beleaguered under the weight of his sense of duty. His face is perpetually sullen, the grey in his beard conveying the losses he’s endured in the name of a fight few think he can win. His best moments are brought out in scenes with Florence Pugh, who anchors the film’s emotional core as Bruce’s wife/queen consort Elizabeth de Burgh, delivering a compelling performance that greatly raises the stakes of the personal conflict at hand.

Outlaw King spends very little time on the macro-politics of the era. The viewer is never really given a firm grasp of the underlying cause of the animosity between Robert the Bruce and King Edward I. Much of this seems to be the result of about twenty minutes of footage, which dove more into the history of the story, being cut from the film between earlier screenings and the version released on Netflix. The film assumes the viewer knows enough about war and oppression to follow along, resulting in a narrative that rarely stops to take a breath.

The two-hour runtime passes by in the blink of an eye. Mackenzie has a firm sense of pacing, injecting just enough plot development to buoy the film between action scenes, all of which are incredibly well-crafted. The supporting cast is largely under-developed, perhaps the product of the film’s shorter runtime, but Robert the Bruce’s companions make up for the charisma lacking in their leader. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Tony Curran particularly stand out as Scottish commanders James Douglas and Angus MacDonald, making the most of the few scenes their characters are given to stretch their legs.

I came away from Outlaw King incredibly impressed with Mackenzie’s directing. The film is meticulously well-crafted, always aware of when a scene has outstayed its welcome, while never allowing itself to be bogged down by a desire to explain the mechanics of war. It isn’t as good as Braveheart, but it knows its hero doesn’t possess the same heroic larger than life sense of grandeur as William Wallace. The film is an excellent companion to its cultural predecessor, giving Robert the Bruce’s story a worthy adaptation of its own.

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Tuesday

6

November 2018

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Outlander Brings Its Scottish Charm to the New World

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Season four marks a new beginning of sorts for Outlander. With the end of the Jacobite risings, the deaths of Black Jack/Frank Randall, and the reunification of Claire and Jamie Fraser, the show finds itself heading into colonial America having resolved most of its longstanding conflicts. One does not need to spend much time wondering what the show could possibly do next, as Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling book series ensures that the series will have at least six more seasons worth of material, putting aside the numerous spinoff works.

For all of the geography that its story covers, Outlander remains remarkably grounded in its best asset. The show constantly presents new beautiful landscapes for its characters to explore, but it never forgets that romance lies at the very heart of its appeal. The palace of Versailles can captivate the eyes, but Claire and Jamie’s love penetrates deeper into the soul, deserving precedence over whatever new destination comes into play.

Twenty years have passed since the stones of Craigh na Dun first brought Claire to eighteenth-century Scotland. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising for a show about time travel, but Outlander handles the literal passage of time quite well. Four seasons in, Claire and Jamie genuinely act like an old married couple. Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan have had to adapt to a lot of different circumstances over the years, including the ways their characters are supposed to be perceived. The raw passion of the early years has evolved into a refined maturity, an impressive feat for a show that owes much of its early success to carnal indulgences. Their love feels genuine.

Season four takes its time before settling into another history shaping conflict. The stakes hardly feel lowered, as America is hardly kind to Claire and Jamie for long, but the show benefits from giving their romance a break from the heartache of prolonged separation. After all the time spent apart in season three, it’s nice to have a few scenes where the two simply stop to take in the journey they’ve been through just to be together.

The strength of Balfe and Heughan’s acting allows the show to get away with some of its persistent problems. There’s rarely an episode of Outlander that couldn’t be one or two scenes shorter, a weird dynamic considering the amount of source material each season has to adapt. The show gives inconsistent time to its supporting cast, making it harder for the viewer to bond with any of them in the same way as fan favorite Murtagh, who was absent from most of season three, though the show broke from the source material which killed him off in the Battle of Culloden. Outlander has never been a perfect show, but it knows how to utilize its best assets, letting Claire and Jamie dominate the narrative set against the backdrop of beautiful scenery and impressive set designs.

TV shows often head into their fourth seasons with an eye on the eventual endgame. The sheer number of books left to be adapted takes Outlander past the natural lifespan of many cable offerings, making it hard to tell where this story will end up. Like the romance at the heart of its narrative, Outlander looks ready to withstand the passage of time.

 

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Monday

5

November 2018

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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms Is an Utterly Forgettable Visual Splendor

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As a ballet, The Nutcracker has a fairly straightforward premise. You don’t need to know much more than the basic toy soldiers battling rats plot to sit and enjoy the timeless Christmas story. When it came to expanding that narrative into a feature-length film, The Nutcracker and The Four Realms falters whenever it tries to explain its beautiful fantasy.

Clara, played by Mackenzie Foy, is a young girl grieving the loss of her mother. A posthumous Christmas Eve gift reveals a locked egg without a key. A quest to find the key takes her to the Christmas Tree Forest, where she discovers the Four Realms, a land created by her mother. Strife between the Fourth Realm, lead by Helen Mirren’s Mother Ginger, and the rest of the kingdom, ruled by Keira Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy in a sort of regent dynamic, sets off the main conflict of the narrative.

There are a lot of questions regarding the world that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms inhabits, but every scene that tries to offer some sense of exposition falls flat, creating additional confusion. The film has loose explanations for the passage of time and how the toy soldiers came to life, but it consistently bites off more than it can chew, especially with the geopolitics of the realm. It hints that there’s more to the Mother Ginger/Sugar Plum feud than lets on, but doesn’t dedicate enough time to providing a cohesive explanation for what happened between in the time between Clara’s arrival and her mother’s creation of the world.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms would have been much better off explaining as little as possible about its world, instead focusing on the stunning visuals and competent performances from its star-studded cast. Foy’s Clara is charming and likable, even if her character’s personality is rather out of sync with the film’s broader message about self-confidence. Jayden Fowara-Knight similarly makes the most of a thinly written character as Clara’s companion Captain Phillip Hoffman. As usual, Knightley & Mirren give spectacular performances, even though they’re rarely given anything interesting to work with.

Nothing particularly memorable happens in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. The film’s few dancing scenes leave you wondering why the film didn’t work harder to incorporate them into the broader narrative. The action sequences are well-crafted but consistently feel like the characters are simply going through the motions. Such sentiment defines the entire experience.

There are far worse ways to spend an hour and a half than The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, but that’s just about the highest bar the film tries to meet. Beautiful scenery can captivate the mind for a few moments, but art succeeds when it leaves its audience with a sense of emotion that lingers beyond the initial delivery. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’ biggest crime is that it is utterly forgettable in nearly every sense of the word.

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Sunday

4

November 2018

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Gearing up for Its Final Musical Number, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Remains One of TV’s Best Portrayals of Mental Health

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Like its protagonist Rebecca Bunch, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has always existed in open defiance to the rules that govern the world it exists in. Surviving multiple seasons as one of the lowest-rated shows on broadcast television, the musical comedy doubled down on its surreal fun-house version of reality while simultaneously offering one of the medium’s rawest takes on mental health, neither of which are particularly conducive to mainstream success. Rachel Bloom’s Bunch has never let imminent failure get in the way, which perhaps explains why the show enjoys such a rabid cult following better represented through Netflix streams and YouTube clicks than the increasingly archaic Nielsen model.

This current age of television has been benevolent toward beloved yet under watched shows, giving them final seasons to wrap up their stories rather than detestable cliff-hangers. With the finish line in sight, the early episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s fourth season take stock of its hero’s journey while recognizing that there’s plenty of story left to tell. The days of stalking Josh Chan are long past, but the underlying motives that brought Rebecca out to West Covina remain. This dynamic is perhaps best reflected in the show’s new opening, which bears no mention of its title while still evoking the same sense of uncertainty toward Rebecca’s own identity. Josh was never really the end goal, but rather a placeholder for the void that Rebecca has been unable to fill in order to achieve contentment with her life.

Season four manages a strong balance between Rebecca’s arc and those of the rest of the show’s stellar cast. Daryl Whitefeather remains a singular force in TV’s portrayal of male bisexuality, a man unafraid to be tender and vulnerable as he takes stock of the things that matter in his life post-coming out. Josh and Nathaniel are similarly emotionally exposed, existing in open conflict with the “tough guy” image society often expects men to inhabit. Heather and Paula take backseat roles to the rest of the cast in the early episodes, but both exhibit a sense of belonging and purpose that was absent from their characters at the start of the show. These people have all come a long way, with plenty of road left to travel.

The extended eighteen-episode order gives Crazy Ex-Girlfriend plenty of time to explore its cast before it’s time to start wrapping up the narrative. Aided by a strong offering of musical numbers, Rebecca demonstrates growth while remaining unsure of little beyond perhaps an understanding that her elaborate schemes won’t make her happy. She’s always worn her flaws on her sleeve, endearing herself to the audience through her sheer humanity.

Life is hard. Singing about it won’t change the circumstances that make us sad, but music, comedy, and companionship can offer the kind of solace that gets you to the next day. With grim ratings, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend spent most of its run looking like a show that didn’t have much of a tomorrow to call its own. It defied the odds while staying true to what’s made it such a treat for its loyal audience. As Rebecca & co. dance and sign toward the finish line, I’m grateful that such a genuine portrayal of how hard it can be to live inside your own head managed to go out on its own terms.

 

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Saturday

3

November 2018

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Mid90s is a Likable Coming of Age Story with an Unclear Sense of Purpose

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The era of Snapchat selfies and Instagram filters has made the 90s an especially fertile ground for exploring adolescence in a time right before children started to grow up with their lives broadcast on the internet. As someone who would have been just a few years younger than protagonist Stevie during the period of Mid90s, I remember just how much the concept of “cool” seemed to exist in relation to how older kids around the neighborhood spent their time. For his directorial debut, Jonah Hill chose to center his narrative around the significance of the childhood sense of meaning derived from riding around on a rolling piece of wood.

Stevie is a young thirteen-year-old kid who desperately wants to fit in with the older kids who hang around the local skate shop. With an angry overbearing older brother and an overwhelmed single mother, his home life leaves a lot to be desired. After bonding with the resident younger kid of the group, Stevie gradually finds acceptance among those who share a similar sense of uncertainty for what their futures might bring.

Hill demonstrates a keen ability to capture beauty in the subtle moments of dialogue between his characters. Little time is spent developing any of them beyond descriptors you might read in a dramatis personae, but the young actors possess enough confidence to project power in mundane conversations. Lead actor Sunny Suljic captivates every scene with an expressive performance that captures the essence of youthful angst.

Mid90s loses steam as it moves along, weighed down by the burden of excessive subplots that it never cares to explore beyond a few isolated moments. For much of the movie, the narrative moves at a leisurely pace without a clear end goal, enjoying the simple moments between the characters. To his film’s detriment, Hill seems unsatisfied with the open-endedness created by many youthful coming of age stories, injecting a forced sense of drama where none needed to exist.

Film rarely tries to capture the full essence of a character’s life, an impossible task for many reasons beyond the time restraints. Open-ended coming of age narratives often seek to focus in on a pivotal period in their lead’s life where at least some of the soul’s inner turmoil finds a sense of resolution. Perhaps the nostalgia of youth lends itself well toward comforting one facing life’s later struggles, which tend to carry a greater sense of importance than fitting in with the local skaters.

Mid90s isn’t quite sure what you should make of Stevie’s time skateboarding, which could explain some of the decisions made late in the narrative. Hill put forth an admirable effort in his directorial debut, demonstrating great talent in crafting memorable scenes. Unfortunately, the films fails to come together when it forces itself to find an arbitrary resolution. I have no doubt Hill will make many great movies in his career, but Mid90s fell apart when he started to try and reach a conclusion he didn’t necessarily need to present.

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Friday

2

November 2018

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Venom is an Entertaining Mess

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Venom is an anomaly for modern superhero films, existing outside a broader connected universe. The irreverent alien symbiote made its film debut in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, the year before Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, forever changing the way studios approach comic book adaptations. Though a few dozen superhero movies have come and gone between the Topher Grace and Tom Hardy versions of the character, Venom as a film seems to want to pay homage to the idea that a movie can exist as a movie without any broader ramifications for future team-ups down the road.

Freed from shared universe obligations, Venom never seems sure what it wants to do with its time. The plot never really exists as more than an excuse to pair up Hardy’s Eddie Brock with the titular symbiote. Riz Ahmed plays a competent menacing villain in Carlton Drake, but the character lacks any compelling traits to set him apart from the “mad scientist” trope that defines his place in the narrative. Michelle Williams has a few standout scenes as Brock’s ex-fiancée Anne Weying, but largely feels wasted in a wooden supporting role created more out of obligation to give Brock more human characters to interact with than anything else.

Venom shines when it lets Hardy run wild with his alter-ego. Venom is a hilarious character who develops an oddly charming buddy-cop romance with Brock as the film settles into its second act. The relationship produces a number of laugh out loud moments that serve in stark contrast to the film’s otherwise grim tone. Such mood-swings seem to define the entire experience.

Like Brock’s relationship with Venom, the movie exists in constant turmoil between dueling desires to be simultaneously formulaic and spontaneous. The action scenes feel wooden, but there’s enough humor to make you wish you were enjoying yourself just a teensy bit more. Hardy makes the most of what he’s given as an actor, but the narrative is too all over the place to create a cohesive experience. Venom is a very fun mess to watch, but it would be a stretch to call it a good film.

Which isn’t to say that Venom doesn’t have a place in the crowded superhero genre. The narrative is far more chaotic than any MCU offering and never as grim as a DCEU installment. Venom gets its titular character right, but fails to supply a worthy vehicle for him to play in. The film is perhaps best enjoyed in snippets on premium cable, where one can focus on the humorous elements while forgetting that movie doesn’t really know how to tell a story.

 

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