Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: January 2019

Tuesday

15

January 2019

0

COMMENTS

Mahershala Ali Brings True Detective Back to Form

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, Reviews

The TV landscape has changed quite a bit in the half-decade since True Detective’s debut in 2015. The novelty of seeing big Hollywood names on the small screen has diminished in the wake of new series featuring A-list talent such as Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Michael Douglas. “Peak TV” exists as much as a cliché as a universal truth in this current era. There are more good shows on right now than anyone, even critics, has actual time to watch.

True Detective has always embraced the slow burn, a concept increasingly harder to sell in this bloated environment. After squandering much of its cultural capital on a forgettable second season, the show finds itself needing to balance suspense with the notion that its audience doesn’t necessarily need to accept that anymore. Mystique is an increasingly tougher sell, especially for week-to-week series.

Casting Mahershala Ali in the lead role was perhaps the best decision the show could have made. Ali has the power to mine intrigue from the mundane, an expressive actor capable of playing the same role across three time periods in a way that makes each feel fresh and unique. We don’t learn all that much about his character, Wayne Hays in the early episodes, but he plays the minimalism to his advantage. His ability to captivate in each scene makes the episodes fly by in a way that was sorely missing from season two.

The time jumps also provide some interesting commentary on the nature of America’s current cultural obsession with true crime series. Unsolved crimes, particularly ones involving children, remain alive years after their cases have gone cold through podcasts and Internet message boards. The unsettling nature of these heinous acts exists in a puzzling contrast with their status as entertainment symbols, something that essentially applies on a broader scale to fictional series like True Detective that deal with brutal murders.

Season three marks a return to form for True Detective, even if though it fails to reach the highs of its freshman effort. America seems less enthralled by anthology series in recent years than it has in the past, perhaps an inevitable development for a medium pushing its saturation point. A strong performance from Mahershala Ali keeps things interesting enough to wash the stink of season two away, even if the series isn’t likely to capture the country’s attention in quite the same way again.

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Monday

14

January 2019

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Mary Poppins Returns Is a Worthy Successor to a Timeless Classic

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

For decades, the idea of a Mary Poppins sequel seemed completely sacrilegious, a notion undercut by the current climate of reboots and reimaginings.  Perhaps the only surprise is that Mary Poppins Returns took fifty years to come to fruition. Disney appeared aware of the delicate nature with which one must approach a return trip to Cherry Tree Lane, crafting a film that paid homage to its predecessor while simultaneously doing its best to put some healthy distance between the two.

Julie Andrews’ performance as the magical nanny is one of the most iconic in film history. For all the ways that Emily Blunt appeared destined for failure in taking such a daunting task, she rather effortlessly makes quick work of any notion of comparison early on. Quite literally, Blunt’s Poppins hits the ground running, exhibiting great comfort in the role. The choice to set Returns twenty-five years after the original gave room for Blunt to play the ageless character with a greater sense of reserve than Andrews, while maintaining the quirky sense of confidence that has made the character so endearing for all these years.

A big part of Blunt’s effectiveness is her reluctance to play on the audience’s inevitable nostalgia. She remains ever-faithful to the character while never stooping to the level of impersonation. As much as Mary Poppins has remained Julie Andrews’ over the decades, Blunt transforms her into an entity similar to James Bond, a character with traits the audience expects and others that are open to interpretation.

The supporting cast eases Blunt’s burden with energetic performances that keep the audience smiling from one musical number to the next. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s charm is quite contagious, wearing such an authentic smile on his face throughout the film that you can’t help but share in his obvious joy. Colin Firth does an excellent job as the ruthless banker William “Weatherall” Wilkins, whose efforts to repossess the Banks’ home serves as the film’s primary conflict. Jeremy Swift, best-known for his role as the Dowager’s prickly butler Spratt on Downton Abbey, delivers a delectably sinister performance as Wilkins’ eager enforcer Hamilton Gooding, aided by his softer counterpart Templeton Fyre, played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

Mary Poppins Returns demonstrates a careful deployment of its title character, who largely plays a backseat role in the primary conflict between the Banks family and Wilkins. Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer deliver compelling performances as the grown-up Michael and Jane, while the film’s child actors anchor the dramatic tension. Many sequels make the same mistake of doubling down on the assets that made the original so memorable, but Mary Poppins Returns exercises considerable restraint, making each of the Poppins-centric scenes are the more memorable in the process.

The biggest flaw of the film is its run time, which goes on about a half hour more than it probably should have given the simplicity of its primary objective. As a result, the second act drags its feet a bit in service to an entertaining yet unnecessary cameo by Meryl Streep. The musical numbers fail to reach the iconic status of the original songs, but deserve a lot of credit for their originality.

Mary Poppins Returns delivers a delightful experience that crafts its own magic while remaining faithful to its source material. Disney held itself to the highest standards, never content to settle for a cheap cash grab. The production values and the performances make for a highly entertaining movie-going experience well-worth the trip to the theatres.

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Monday

14

January 2019

1

COMMENTS

A Strong Performance by Jodie Whittaker Makes Adult Life Skills a Worthwhile Experience

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

The subject of growing up has been explored by countless indie movies, trodden well past the point of cliché. Practically every week a new film pops up promising to offer insight on the dilemma of what it means to be young and sad, unable to skirt by on the strength of one’s own quirks. Adult Life Skills takes on a similar mandate, exploring the stranglehold that grief can wield over one’s sense of direction.

Anna’s life is a mess. Her primary method of grief management following her brother’s death is sitting in her mother’s backyard shed making videos of her thumbs discussing existential dread. Not much of a life, but that’s the kind of position tragedy can thrust a person toward, perpetuating the status quo long past its expiration date. It can be quite hard to move on when you don’t have a clue where you’re going.

Quite unlike her character, lead actress Jodie Whittaker has proven up to the task for whatever direction her career has taken her, demonstrating a remarkable range between stints on Broadchurch and as the first female doctor on the long-running Doctor Who. Whittaker makes up for a script that paints Anna as sympathetic but not particularly compelling by honing in on the subtle moments in each scene, adding a layer of depth to the cookie cutter protagonist. Her ability to weave through the nuanced nature of grief practically sustains the narrative all on its own.

Not a lot happens in Adult Life Skills, but the film plays its simple plot to its advantage. A lot of indie films take lost protagonists and string them about for ninety minutes until a chance occurrence provides enough of an aha moment to function as a climax. Coming of age films don’t necessarily offer conclusions in the typical cinematic sense, as you can’t really win at life in the same way as you can defeat a giant three-headed monster. Adult Life Skills never loses sight of its premise, delivering a satisfying resolution that doesn’t call for unnecessary helpings of suspension of disbelief.

The film is not without a few drawbacks. Aside from Whittaker, child actor Ozzy Myers (in his debut performance according to IMDB) gives the film’s only other compelling performance. Most of the characters fall more into the category of forgettable than terrible, but Brett Goldstein delivers an immensely irritating performance as Brendon, an awkward real-estate agent who drags down each scene with cringe-worthy dialogue.

Adult Life Skills makes up for its lack of originality on the strength of Jodie Whittaker’s performance. Fans of hers will find plenty to like in the way the film allows her to showcase her talent for the entirety of the brisk runtime. Not every film needs to reinvent the wheel. Many sink under the weight of their outstretched ambition. The subject of millennial angst remains a popular topic for film to explore, often promising answers the screen can’t possibly deliver. Movies like Adult Life Skills succeed in celebrating the mundane, encouraging their audiences to take each step at a time.

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Friday

4

January 2019

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Vice Doesn’t Know What to Say About Dick Cheney

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

Adam McKay achieved a seemingly impossible task with his previous film The Big Short in crafting a narrative about the financial meltdown that was both entertaining and easy to understand for the general public. The life of Dick Cheney presents similar issues, an unlikable man who has hardly lived a life that followed any semblance of a hero’s journey, carving his place in history by operating in the shadows of power. While Cheney rarely relished the spotlight during his tenure as vice president, Vice can’t function behind the closed doors of Washington.

Christian Bale nails the peripherals of a Cheney impersonation. He looks and sounds just like him, but there’s little life beneath the prosthetics. The “Darth Cheney” characterization was at least in part inspired by the public’s lack of understanding of the grander motives behind the man beyond a drive for absolute power. Neither McKay nor Bale demonstrate any further clarity on that subject and it shows. The result is a robotic performance with nothing substantive to help illustrate the mystery.

As lifeless as Bale’s Cheney is at times, the performance never becomes a distraction throughout the film. The same cannot be said of Steve Carrell’s turn as Cheney’s mentor Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the Iraq War. Secretary Rumsfeld’s outspoken personality lends well to parody, but Carrell never feels comfortable in the role. He looks the part, but he never acts with the suave sense of confidence that defined Rummy throughout his controversial career. The voice is perhaps the biggest issue. Not only does Carrell not sound like Rumsfeld, he distinctly always sounds like Steve Carrell, an unnecessary diversion that constantly feels like he’s guest hosting Saturday Night Live rather than trying for an Oscar nomination.

McKay seems aware of the potential for distraction in other characterizations, keeping a fictionalized President Nixon off-screen entirely and limiting President George W. Bush to a few pivotal scenes, even though Sam Rockwell plays a pretty competent Dubya. Amy Adams delivers the most compelling performance in the film as Lynne Cheney, perhaps the only character with a clear sense of motive. Too many characters in the film exist solely for exposition sake, awkwardly dropping summaries of key events into casual conversations even though McKay has a narrator and plenty of text to do the explaining for him.

Vice suffers from an overstuffed narrative that never demonstrates a clear sense of direction, meandering from point to point with little continuity to tie everything together. Cheney’s time as VP is almost entirely defined by the Iraq War and the controversial “enhanced interrogation” methods he championed. Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it treats the entirety of the Bush administration as an afterthought, dedicating surprisingly little time to covering his most consequential era. Cheney’s motives for the war are only lightly explored, an issue perhaps exacerbated by the omission of his time as Secretary of Defense, where he oversaw the First Gulf War. To Cheney, Saddam Hussein is painted in Vice as a means to an end for the exercising of absolute executive power, a lazy explanation that ignores much of the nuance and conflicting power centers at the heart of the decision.

Mary Cheney’s homosexuality is given almost as much screen time as the war, a puzzling decision that falls flat by its narrative conclusion that barely involves the VP at all. Biopics cannot provide a full picture of anyone’s life, but Vice seems far too content to squander its runtime on arbitrary chapters of Cheney’s life that no one will talk about when his obituaries are eventually written. This situation is exacerbated by the complete and utter indifference that McKay displays toward presenting anything resembling a conclusion for his film.

Vice lacks a core thesis behind its gorgeous aesthetics. The film is never boring, as its beautiful sets and excellent cast always keep things moving along. Its subject will go down as one of, if not, the most powerful vice presidents in American history. Unfortunately and inexcusably, this biopic can’t seem to find much of anything to say about the life trajectory of a man who went from being a drunk college dropout to the architect of the modern military-industrial complex.

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