Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: December 2018

Monday

31

December 2018

0

COMMENTS

Aquaman Squanders Jason Momoa by Overstuffing Itself at Every Turn

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The stakes for Aquaman are far more arbitrary than they seem. We can say that some mandate existed to “save” the mess that is the DCEU, but this notion is completely undercut by the fact that the movie makes almost no mention of its connected universe. A viewer could sit down in their seat with no knowledge that this film is Jason Momoa’s third go-around as Arthur Curry and leave never wondering if there had been life before Atlantis. Aquaman didn’t need to save anything other than the sea.

With the stink of the moody incoherent Justice League washed away, Aquaman sets a far more jovial tone. Unlike Ben Affleck, Jason Momoa constantly looks like he’s enjoying himself in his role, playing the half-human/half-Atlantean with a kind of contagious glee. His charm is up and away the film’s strongest asset, allowing the film to play up its hero’s inevitable campy moments in a way that preserves some grace in self-parody. The film is desperate to be in on the joke rather than the butt of it, a fate that has befallen every other DCEU release save for Wonder Woman. There is plenty of laughter to be had in Aquaman, though some of it appears quite unintentional.

Momoa’s enthusiasm serves an excellent deflection from a subpar script that seems to take its cues from the 1970s Super Friends cartoon instead of Zack Snyder’s DCEU offerings. Sometimes the dialogue is naturally funny, but often the laughter comes from cringe-worthy camp moments that make you wonder how a major studio approved such lackluster writing. As a superhero, Aquaman has lived for decades with a reputation for being pretty lame, with Momoa’s natural sense of swagger serving as a great counterbalance that’s too often undercut by a script that rarely does him any favors.

The film’s larger plot barely earns a passing grade for coherence, but Aquaman is weighed down by a few too many subplots. The opening sets up Black Mantra, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, as the villain only to discard that notion early on in favor of a multi-tiered approach. Patrick Wilson never seems fully confident in carrying the role of antagonist as Arthur’s brother Orm Marius, who’s desperate to unite the various ocean kingdoms to fight back against land dwellers and all their pollution. As if two villains weren’t enough, Dolph Lundgren also hangs around as Nereus, king of Xebel and father of Arthur’s primary love interest Meera, played by Amber Heard. None of the bad guys are particularly memorable, largely because there isn’t enough time to go around between all the various rabbit holes director James Wan wants to play around in.

The bloated runtime serves as the film’s fatal flaw. Aquaman is far too long, constantly undercutting its charm in service to derivative action sequences that lose all appeal by the third act. Some of the film’s fight scenes are truly impressive in nature, but others look lifted off a Power Rangers battle. Wan squanders any goodwill on that front by stuffing far too many battles into the film, turning any camp factor from humorous to tedious.

Aquaman is very entertaining at times. If its narrative hadn’t been so overstuffed with needless subplots and excessive action sequences, it very likely would have made for an excellent superhero film. Instead, it settles for being the second best DCEU release, an accolade it was practically predestined for by token of not being a depressing slog. It is still a chore to get through in one sitting. Thorough editing could have saved this film from a fate similar to the “so bad it’s moderately entertaining” legacy of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which exiled the caped crusader from the big screen for almost a decade. Aquaman is a marginal improvement for the DCEU, but it should have been so much more.

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Wednesday

26

December 2018

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The Favourite Is a Timely Feminist Treatise on Power

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Feminism is an especially rich subject to explore in period dramas for many reasons. The blatant injustices of earlier eras shed light on our current climate, where inequality continues to thrive. The crimes of the aristocracy extend far beyond sexism, as the near complete absence of any sense of upward mobility dictated that one’s life circumstances were almost always determined by external factors other than free will. If we take feminism at its root definition, to strive for equality of sexes, empowering women in period dramas means freedom to be as ruthless and manipulative as their male counterparts.

The Favourite is a film about power. Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is a monarch whose ability to wield all that ruling entails is largely dictated by the political machinations of those around her. Hindered by a variety of ailments, Queen Anne’s lover Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, tries to govern in her steed. Standing in the way of her proxy rule is Robert Harley, played by Nicholas Hoult, who objects to war with France and all the taxes it entails.

Emma Stone gives perhaps the finest performance of her career as Abigail Hill, who comes to court in squalor after her father squandered her family’s standing and security. Finding work as a scullery maid, Abigail quickly demonstrates that she’s not looking for handouts, but rather opportunities to reclaim that which she lost through no fault of her own. She bonds with Sarah, wrestles with Robert, and plays the games she needs to play in order to survive in a world that offers few second chances.

The film plays out largely like a stage play with a fairly minimalist approach to set locations and relying on the inter-character drama rather than the history to propel the native. The cast is spectacular, vibrantly playing off each other with such delight that you completely forget what terrible people the characters are. The Favourite lacks a true protagonist, but you can’t help but root for Abigail as she plots her way back into society.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos consistently makes his presence known throughout the film, utilizing unconventional angles and cutaways that complement the sharp dialogue in practically every scene. The Favourite never forgets that it’s a period drama, but it uses the genre as a playground of sorts, constantly bending the rigid confines of what we expect from characters in corsets. Like many of his other films, Lanthimos uses humor not as satire, but as a way to butter up his audience before delivering the cold truth about the nature of humanity.

Colman solidifies her status as one of England’s finest working actors, playing the sickly Queen Anne in a way that garners sympathy without making her out to be a victim. Vulnerability and power often seem incompatible, as if the presence of one can cancel out the other. Queen Anne is used by all the other principle characters, but Colman displays a subtle sense of strength to perpetuate the idea that she’s never incapable of reclaiming her sense of authority.

The Favourite is an uncomfortably empowering feminist film, allowing its female characters to strive for an equal sense of malice and cruelty. These characters are oddly endearing in their awfulness, unafraid to be unabashedly evil in the absence of any standard of morality. Power exists out the binary of right and wrong despite what we’re taught as children. We’re not supposed to take pleasure in being evil, but film presents a reality adjacent to our own, one where such problematic charms from a talented cast can be embraced as good theatre without any broader ramifications. The Favourite makes its period setting feel completely contemporary, unabashedly stripping power down to its raw carnal form.

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Monday

24

December 2018

0

COMMENTS

A Meandering Narrative Derails the Otherwise Well-Constructed Mary Queen of Scots

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Despite the literal definition of the genre, almost all biopics offer a false promise by token of their run times. Few two-hour movies can provide a complete portrait of a historical figure’s life. There just isn’t enough time. The best biopics narrow in on a specific period of a person’s story in order to illuminate a broader point about who they were.

Mary Queen of Scots appears aware of this predicament, with all of its trailers spotlighting the troubled relationship between two cousins seemingly destined for turmoil. Much has been said of the historical inaccuracy at the heart of the film’s narrative, the fact that history refutes the idea that Mary and Elizabeth ever met, but this revision is hardly a factor weighing down the film. Much more problematic is the idea that the narrative never seems fully committed to the course it laid out for itself early on.

Somewhere along the way the film decided that the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth wasn’t enough to sustain the entire narrative, but Mary Queen of Scots never really laid down the framework to dedicate much time to anything else. Some attention is given to Mary’s many troubles in Scotland, with seemingly everyone around her conspiring to end her reign, but these scenes can’t shake the aura of filler. There’s nothing really tying any of the political turmoil together besides the history itself, presenting sequences strung together without any hint of a story.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the casting is Mary Queen of Scots biggest strength. Saoirse Ronan plays a charming and relatable Mary. Margot Robbie makes the most of the limited scope Elizabeth is given in the narrative. The rest of the cast, including David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn, and Gemma Chan all put forth compelling performances in supporting roles, but the acting isn’t the problem. The issue is that the film never gives any of its immense talent anything compelling to do.

As effective as Ronan and Robbie are at garnering sympathy for their character’s positions, such efforts are squandered because the film never really builds toward anything. We know their eventual meeting is going to happen by token of the trailers, but everything else feels like they’re simply going through the motions until that moment comes. Despite being ostensibly the two most powerful people in their realms, both characters are never really shown to be anything more than helpless. You can feel for them, but that’s about all that’s ever asked of the audience. There’s nothing here for anyone to actually root for.

Mary Queen of Scots is a film comprised of beautiful pieces with absolutely zero substance at the center. The costumes are gorgeous and the performances are excellent, but these elements cannot indefinitely sustain the absence of narrative. There’s a lot to appreciate in the film’s diverse casting, with nods to acceptance of homosexuality and gender fluidity, which effectively dispels the notion that inclusion is a distraction in period dramas. Trouble is, the film seems entirely composed of diversion used to substitute for the notion that it actually has a story.

The past few years have offered plenty of reasons to dispel with the occasional public perception that period dramas are dry and boring. Mary Queen of Scots unfortunately plays this trope up quite well. The sum of its many admirable parts don’t add up to an interesting movie, only two hours of watching talented actors try to pull a narrative out of thin air.

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Sunday

23

December 2018

0

COMMENTS

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Is a Heartfelt Psychedelic Delight

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There are a few great ironies surrounding the release of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s a superhero movie about connected universes that exists outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is a visual splendor with cutting-edge animation that still has a throwback feel to days gone by of costumed animated shows. The narrative focuses on a teenage boy trying to find his place in the world just as Spider-Man is about to become the only Marvel franchise not completely under the control of Disney, with an unclear direction full of possibilities.

After a decade of rotating Spideys, the Peter Parker origin story is more than a little played out. “With great power comes great responsibility” begins to apply to the franchise itself, risking becoming self-parody with any additional repetition. Into the Spider-Verse never loses sight of this, killing off its prime universe Peter Parker early on in favor of an older, heavier, and sullen version of the character to serve as a mentor to the film’s primary protagonist Miles Morales.

Shameik Moore voices Morales perfectly, bringing a sense of vulnerability to the Spider-Man role in a way not seen since Tobey Maguire. His Miles is grounded in an entirely relatable position, a boy who’s not quite sure where he belongs in a rapidly changing environment. Much is expected of him throughout the film, but he never lets the superpowers arbitrarily alter the human issues at the heart of the narrative.

The animation in Into the Spider-Verse provides some of the most innovative visuals ever crafted in a mainstream film. I practically had acid flashbacks throughout some of the sequences, expecting Jefferson Airplane to start playing at any moment. What’s perhaps more impressive is the way in which this scenery fits in perfectly with the arc of the film. Animated films have the luxury of being able to craft literally any scenario imaginable, but such sequences need to be consistent with the presentation of the storytelling.

Into the Spider-Verse manages to simultaneously present a fairly traditional origin story while seamlessly intertwining scenes from every corner of the animator’s imagination. It’s a wild ride that’s always rooted in reality. The other universe’s spideys don’t get a ton of screen time, but you feel like these characters have grown in their short time together. Film presents mere snippets of a character’s life. This movie makes every moment count.

The superhero genre has frequently pushed the limits of market saturation over the past few years. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was hardly born out of necessity, but along the way, it made a very compelling case for the future existence of non-MCU Marvel movies. These stories go beyond connected universes, even ones about connected universes, showing a sense of wonder beyond the prospects of an appearance from a superhero of another franchise. The movie throws everything and the kitchen sink at the audience’s imagination, delivering an immensely satisfying experience that should not be missed on the big screen. We’ve seen a lot from superheroes, but Into the Spider-Verse serves as an excellent reminder for how much more the genre has to show us.

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Friday

21

December 2018

0

COMMENTS

Dabbling in Video & Comics, DC Universe Carves a Niche for Itself in the Crowded Streaming Field

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There’s an increasingly familiar refrain that follows news of additional streaming services. “Not another one,” cries the public-at-large, reflective of the transitional period television finds itself in. An indefinite one, for we don’t really know what will happen to the cable-streaming paradigm years from now. What we do know, or rather should know, is that consumer markets don’t arbitrarily decide that enough is enough. As long as people continue to use streaming services, and they most certainly will, new ones will sprout up.

DC Universe quickly sets itself apart from its competition by its breadth of content, much of which deviates from the standard streaming fare. The service bills itself as “The Ultimate DC Experience,” dedicating much of its focus to the core of DC’s business: comic books. Included are plenty of offerings from throughout DC’s long history, beautifully converted into an easy to use digital format.

The service impressed me at first glance for its focus on curation, something that befuddles most other streaming services. From the homepage to the sections of the DC Encyclopedia, you can find many collections of specific comics that give you a good sense of what you might want to read. I appreciated the absence of an algorithm that never works in favor of a system that looks like it was put together by an actual human being. It’s easy to spend the amount of time one intended to reserve for entertainment simply in the search of that content, lost in the pages of options. So far I’ve never found myself lingering on what to read or watch with DC Universe, which does its best to make the vast world of comics far less intimidating.

DC Universe’s investment in curation also carries over to a sense of community put forth by the site. A program called DC Daily covers a wide variety of topics from episode to episode, giving users something new to look forward to each day. The site also features daily articles and a community message board, neither of which seems particularly groundbreaking in the year 2018 except for the fact that no other service puts any stock into that kind of stuff. It’s small touches like these that separate DC Universe from other streaming sites, not just presenting content but exploring it. Not since Filmstruck’s demise has a streaming service put more effort into cultivating an interest in what it has to offer.

Despite the diversity of content, DC Universe’s library is still a bit rough around the edges. It seems a bit unfair to knock the absence of the CW Arrowverse shows, Gotham, Teen Titans Go!, or the newer DCEU movies, since contracts for those rights must have been signed long before the service’s debut, but its video content is still fairly meager. Highlights include the complete run of Super Friends, long absent from streaming, as well as remastered versions of Batman: The Animated Series and the original Wonder Woman series, both of which look absolutely beautiful in HD.

The service is off to a great start with its original programming. I was very impressed with Titans and am excited to see its spinoff Doom Patrol next year. The animated original Young Justice: Outsiders is also set to debut just after the new year. Other scripted originals on the slate for later next year include the live-action Stargirl and Swamp Thing and an animated series centered on Harley Quinn. If any of these shows have similar production values to the excellent Titans, the service should quickly pile up a nice collection of original content.

DC Universe was born into a rapidly changing TV environment, one that isn’t likely to heed the “not another streaming service” cries from sectors of the consumer market. What sets DC Universe apart is what it’s trying to bring to the table. The generic backlash against streaming services seems to forget that not all of these sites are trying to offer the same thing.

The barometer we use to gauge the quality of streaming services, namely original content, is a bit unfair. No service can compete with Netflix’s unsustainable twelve billion dollar budget for original programming, nor is DC Universe designed to appeal to mass consumers in the same way. Instead, it sets its focus on living up to its slogan, “the ultimate DC membership,” with an impressive library of content designed to fully immerse one in the DC experience. Art is designed to be a communal experience. Other services could learn a lot from DC Universe’s efforts to add a human touch to the equation.

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Wednesday

12

December 2018

0

COMMENTS

Girl Is an Irresponsible Exploitation of the Transgender Body

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Since its success at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Belgium’s Girl has been causing quite a stir. Director Lukas Dhont has been criticized for his casting of a cisgender male as the teenage transgender ballerina Lara, a longstanding point of contention for films depicting trans narratives. The cisgender casting may have attracted the most controversy thus far, but Girl’s biggest red flag is Dhont’s flagrant obsession with the deterioration of Lara’s genitals.

Lara, played by Viktor Polster in his film debut, is a passionate young teenager eager to pursue her dancing at a top academy while trying to live a life unhindered by the prejudices toward her gender identity. She has a loving father, supportive instructor, and caring medical professionals but encounters discrimination from her peers and, in one bizarre instance, a professor who outright polls the female members of their class regarding their comfort toward Lara in the middle of a lesson. As cringe-worthy as that moment sounds, it’s just the tip of the iceberg for Lara’s downward spiral.

In many ways, Lara isn’t really the main character in Girl. Lara’s crotch is a much more potent force that Dhont seems hellbent on featuring at every possible moment. The film features multiple scenes of Polster’s teenage penis in plain view and several close-ups of his pubic region that’s been bloodied by Lara’s excessive taping. Any narrative value of these scenes dries up by the third go-around, leaving the sense that Dhont is farming the transgender body for all its voyeuristic worth.

Suffering has been a common theme of many, if not most, transgender narratives. Dhont takes Lara’s sadness to extreme degrees, with practically every scene dedicated either to her humiliation or the steady decline of her mental health. This hyper-focus on misery comes at the expense of Polster’s performance, whose range is essentially confined to either very sad or completely despondent. There are a few scattered moments where Polster delivers subtle expressions that showcase his talent as an actor, but the torment is so heavy-handed that it robs him of any chance to leave an impression other than the boilerplate sympathy one should naturally feel toward a teenager that’s in as much visible pain as Lara.

Girl’s timeline deserves considerable scrutiny with regard to Lara’s transition. While hormone replacement therapy is a process that’s highly individualistic in nature, it is never something that happens overnight or even in a few weeks. Based on the start of the semester and a New Year’s Eve celebration toward the end, the bulk of the film appears to take place over a six-month span, the very early stages of HRT. Dissatisfaction with progress is hardly out of the ordinary, but Dhont makes several decisions that demonstrate his fundamental lack of understanding of how transitioning works.

There’s a scene early on that features a consultation for gender confirmation surgery before Lara’s even started hormones, something that makes little sense even before you consider how delicately doctors approach treatment for transgender youth. Lara later learns that her surgery must be delayed due to her tucking, in what would be an absurdly early point for that to even be on the table, especially since her father and therapist were aware of her depression. Realistically, surgery wouldn’t be on the table for years for a teenager like Lara. Fictional narratives aren’t exactly expected to showcase complex issues in a completely authentic fashion, but Dhont plays fast and loose with the details in a way that demonstrates how little he’s interested in portraying even a semi-realistic transition. For Girl, Lara’s bloodied crotch takes precedent over anything else interesting about her identity.

There are critics out there, overwhelmingly cisgender men, who feel that this whole casting controversy is a total non-issue, repeating the adage, “acting is acting.” The trouble with this argument is that it relies extensively on a false utopian sense of society, where everyone exists on equal footing. Much of the overwhelmingly positive coverage of films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians focused on the authenticity of their inclusive casting. A Fantastic Woman, the incumbent Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film, earned worldwide praise for its transgender narrative, starring an actual transgender woman. Daniela Vega’s performance in that film captured the hardships of being transgender without focusing on her transition or her genitals.

Girl exists in stunning contrast, a film guided by cisgender voices that never seeks to explore the nuances of the transgender identity, not when it can constantly return to its point of utmost fascination. Dhont claims to have been interested in this project for close to ten years, inspired by a transgender dancer he’s since become close friends with. The trouble is that he never demonstrates any concern for transgender people beyond what you might find from a stranger on Grindr, desperate for a peek of one’s private parts. For years, prominent transgender voices have called for an end to the exploitative trauma porn that defines most depictions of trans people on screen. Instead of elevating transgender characters as people worthy of dignity or respect, Dhont exploits their bodies to his heart’s content. Girl is a deeply dehumanizing film, reducing the transgender identity from a soul to an appendage.

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Tuesday

11

December 2018

1

COMMENTS

Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers Is a Documentary Crafted for True Believers

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America’s affection for conspiracy theories has evolved considerably over the years. What used to be fodder for the fringes found its way into the White House. The slow drip of falsehoods from the President’s Twitter account lends a weird feeling of nostalgia for the seemingly mundane claims of Bob Lazar, who made considerable news in 1989 when he came forward about his alleged work at the S-4 facility in Nevada, commonly associated with the Area 51. Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell’s new documentary Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers explores the man behind the UFOs.

Corbell begins his documentary by laying out his intentions, telling viewers that he seeks to “weaponize” their curiosity. The film is largely compromised of footage interviewing Lazar at his home alongside archival clips from when he first made his claims. Las Vegas news anchor and prominent UFO true believer George Knapp, who Corbell lists in the credits as a mentor, is also heavily featured. Most of Knapp’s scenes are featured via phone interviews with Corbell, where the focus almost always seems to be an effort to heighten Lazar’s credibility.

The notion of credibility was always destined to play a major role in a documentary like Area 51 & Flying Saucers. Lazar’s story experiencing credibility problems on a number of levels, from the very notion that the government could keep such a secret for all these years to his inability to verify his claims of attending Cal Tech and M.I.T., neither of which have any record of his attendance. Lazar’s attempts to muddy the water as to his employment records leave a certain degree of ambiguity to a sympathetic audience, but the complete and utter lack of any piece of evidence that could credibly prove he took classes at either school is an issue that Corbell seems intent to dispose of as quickly as possible.

Corbell largely abandons any effort to objectively present Lazar’s story, at one point professing to Knapp that he finds that the evidence supporting his subject’s claims outweighs the many holes in his story. Almost everyone featured in the documentary, including Knapp, Lazar’s friends and family, and the director himself report to believe his claims, a problem largely of Corbell’s own making. Corbell’s desire to “weaponize” his audience is undercut by his indifference toward trying to convince anyone watching who wasn’t a true believer already.

A reported FBI raid on Lazar’s house during the filming of the documentary further undercuts Corbell’s credibility. A dramatic sequence of a text message conversation about the raid starts off the movie before taking a backseat for much of the narrative. The raid is suggested to have been a government attempt to locate “atomic element 115,” but neither Lazar nor Corbell present any bit of proof to suggest that such a raid occurred, not even a disheveled house.

It’s one thing for a documentary to feature Lazar’s claims without necessarily getting to the bottom of any of them. That’s pretty much to be expected. Corbell destroys his own credibility by being far too eager to play along with Lazar’s stunts, relieving his audience of the obligation to take him seriously. Lazar can tell the audience to take it or leave it with regard to his claims, but that approach carries far less weight coming from the filmmaker himself.

Area 51 & Flying Saucers also features cutaways with pseudo-philosophical narrations by Mickey Rourke that sound like drunken Terrence Mallick impression, complete with mumbles at the end of several passages. While the narration offers some well-placed comedic relief at times, it fails to tie any of the strands together, perhaps best illuminating the documentary’s core issue. Corbell managed to get Lazar to open up for the first time in years, but he doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to say. This is a film made for true believers. The rest of the audience may come away amused by Lazar’s antics, but Corbell wasted an opportunity to dive deeper into a fascinating subject.

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Tuesday

11

December 2018

1

COMMENTS

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Season Two Is Content to Be Very Good

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For those of us who have been Amy Sherman-Palladino fans since the early days of Stars Hollow, the overwhelming success of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s first season came as a victory lap of sorts for a creator who finally achieved the recognition she deserved. The fast-talking period piece showcased all of Sherman-Palladino and her husband Dan’s best talents, a colorful zany world populated by strong women who persevere through their sheer force of will. With all the Emmys it earned, it’s easy to forget that Maisel is not simply the culmination of a career, but the start of a whole new series.

Season two’s early trip to Paris seems like a vacation of sorts for the narrative, taking a moment to bask in its own success. For a show that paints a beautiful portrait of 50s New York City, this season spends much of its time away from the Big Apple, adding a multi-episode trip to the Catskills into the mix. The cast proves charming no matter the location, delivering Sherman-Palladino’s signature dialogue with such delight that it’s hard not to smile while watching.

Fresh off an Emmy win for Best Actress, Rachel Brosnahan continues to shine in the title role, wearing the many narrative hats required of Midge Maisel with an uncanny sense of ease. Each scene featuring her standup is a delight. I found myself at the end of each episode only wishing there were more of them.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is never particularly urgent with its narrative. Like other Sherman-Palladino shows, it is fully content to let its characters simply run around in the gonzo realities beautifully crafted by its creator. This strategy is hardly a bad one, but with only ten episodes, the show doesn’t have the pacing luxuries of a network TV offering like Gilmore Girls.

Midge’s ex Joel stands out as the weak part of the season. He’s featured far too often for an unsympathetic character whose role in the narrative is of questionable importance after the first season. This problem is exacerbated by the heightened focus on Midge’s parents, dedicating a sizable arc to their marital problems. While Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub are always a treat to watch, there is the sense that their storylines came at the expense of an increased focus on Midge’s career.

While season two is almost always fun to watch, the show constantly feels like it’s content to be very good rather than great. I don’t know how fair that is. Not all shows, particularly comedies, need a sense of urgency or even particularly high stakes. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel should not be expected to be the fictional manifestation of America’s current cultural re-evaluation of the depiction of women on screen, even if its debut seemed to perfectly answer the call of the moment. It can simply be, very good television.

The streaming era has changed the sense of what constitutes “event viewing,” both for shows that air week to week on traditional networks and for those that are dropped once a year on the online-only platforms. It’s easy to attach an added weight of obligation to a show like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which set a high bar in its Emmy-winning debut. There’s a natural desire to have something that only comes around once a year be special. For all the charms of season two, the show is unnecessarily hindered by poor screen time allotment and a meandering narrative.

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Monday

10

December 2018

0

COMMENTS

Kusama Infinity Delicately Illustrates a Portrait of a Persistent Spirit

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The notion of timelessness persistently follows art pieces that are perceived to stand the test of time. We say great art is timeless because it transcends the cultural era it was born into, as countless pieces are introduced each year while few are destined to truly be remembered. It can be easy to forget that timeless is a label added retroactively, forgetting the complex mechanics that take art from the now to the eternity. For Yayoi Kusama, the acknowledgment of greatness came much later in her career than for many of her respected contemporaries. Kusama Infinity tells the story of the process that plucked her from unfortunate obscurity into prestigious art galleries across the world.

The story of Kusama, still actively working into her ninth decade, is an especially tough one to cover in a ninety-minute documentary. Director Heather Lenz does a very good job juggling the numerous fascinating eras of Kusama’s life, intertwining her stylistic development with the pertinent biographical details of the periods. Much of the film is dedicated to her time spent in New York City from 1957-1972, where she exhibited alongside art icons such as Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg.

The film serves as a thorough case for the total reexamining of what we view to be the “canon” of art, as well as the institutional biases that still hinder the careers of too many women and minorities like Kusama. Too much of cultural preservation rests in the hands of an exclusive club designed to reward its own, an issue that similarly plagues literature, film, and music. Kusama Infinity includes several scenes that examine respected works of Warhol and Oldenburg among others, suggesting that their pieces were imitations of Kusama’s own innovations, a notion lost on the canon for decades. The film serves as an excellent cautionary tale for those who seek to curate culture, recognizing that no era should be solely represented by a bunch of white men.

Kusama Infinity has a peculiar relationship with its source, who appears throughout the film in interviews and other segments. Lenz covers an expansive amount of ground in Kusama’s career and personal life, but it never really feels as though she’s diving very deep beneath the waters. Kusama’s life invites many questions, but the film never really takes an investigative approach toward its subject. Instead, it looks like it’s trying to be the definitive documentary on Kusama’s life, a goal it achieved by token of her participation. The result is a film that’s fascinating from start to finish, but one whose director never really sought to make her own mark.

It’s hard not to think of the #MeToo movement when watching Kusama Infinity and the ways in which Kusama’s career was neglected as male contemporaries received many accolades for ripping off her material. Kusama has enjoyed a career resurgence since the 1990s and is currently one of the most successful living artists in the world. Her film doesn’t seek to correct the sins of the past so much as it serves as a warning sign against the kind of practices that hindered her career in the first place. Art cannot be timeless unless it is allowed to be seen. Kusama’s life is an inspiring story of the resilience of passion to take the artist to infinity even if high society isn’t quite ready for the ride.

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Thursday

6

December 2018

5

COMMENTS

Syfy’s Nightflyers Is a Pitiful Incoherent Injustice to George R.R. Martin’s Good Name

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For some reason, it feels weird when cable networks try to emulate their streaming counterparts and debut shows at a faster pace than the standard week-to-week model. The idea of broadcasting a new show on consecutive nights certainly can present the notion that such an occasion is “event viewing,” but the mind also wanders to the motive behind such a deviation from the typical rules that govern television. For SyFy, airing a show like Nightflyers four times a week over a two-week stretch could be advertised as a special holiday treat for those who detest Santa-themed offerings, but instead mostly comes across as an attempt to be done with this incoherent mess as quickly as possible.

Nightflyers is based off a novella by George R.R. Martin, written a little over ten years before the release of A Game of Thrones, the first volume of his magnum opus. With the wild success of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, it seems inevitable that more networks would want to jump in on adapting his extensive back catalog. The biggest problem for Nightflyers is that the show plays like somebody took that too literally, jumping into a series without taking the usual steps that go into crafting a narrative that anyone watching would actually care about.

The plot of the show is fairly simple. A group of scientists go looking for alien life and bad things happen. It’s the kind of show that spends such little time on character development that describing any of the people onboard the ship seems like I’m doing the show’s work for it. There’s an obligatory pain in the ass brought on the ship who no one likes and an engineer who seems to be doing an impression of an indifferent android. There’s romantic tension among the other characters. The show kind of throws this stuff out there without ever really conveying a sense that these are actually people anyone cares about. As a result, it’s hard to get invested in any of them.

That kind of hollow strategy might work over a ninety-minute horror movie, but falls flat over the course of a ten episode season. The early seasons of Game of Thrones each sought to adapt a thousand-page book. Nightflyers seems completely lost with one-tenth of the material. There’s a fair amount of filler, which is presented in a way that makes it hard to differentiate from the moments where it wants to advance the story. The show has random cutaways at times that feel like a student filmmaker fooling around in the editing room.

Nightflyers is the kind of show that feels like it exists solely because of the fame of the author of its source material, with little to no effort put in to actually create a worthwhile experience. The show has decent production values, even though much of it feels like it was created by a Kubrick fanatic assigned to knock off The Expanse. Nightflyers is a plodding derivative mess that never seems interested in giving its viewers anything to care about. SyFy appears to have dumped this one over a two week period in order to make sure everyone has forgotten about this turkey by the time the holidays are over.

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