Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: February 2019

Thursday

21

February 2019

0

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A Discovery of Witches Is a First-Rate Drama Full of Magic & Romance

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The worldwide phenomenon that the Twilight series sparked created an impression that vampire-themed entertainment was a fad, destined to fade over time. This notion forgets the longevity of bloodsucker-themed fiction, a genre that’s endured for more than two hundred years. Works like Sky One/Sundance Now’s A Discovery of Witches remind us how much the genre has to offer with top-notch talent crafting the material.

Based off of the critically acclaimed All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches follows Diana Bishop, an academic of magical ancestry as she finds a manuscript that holds the secrets to the broader mythical world that includes demons, vampires, and witches. With help from the handsome vampire Matthew Clairmont, Bishop tries to make sense of her findings while avoiding the influences of the powerful Congregation, an Oxford-based group tasked with maintaining order between the various magical factions.

With stellar production values and first-rate performances, A Discovery of Witches is the rare show that nails just about every aspect of a compelling first season. The chemistry of lead actors Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode radiates through the screen, selling their romance alongside all the other world building required to set the stage. Too many first seasons string the audience along with promises of greater things to come later. A Discovery of Witches is extremely well-paced, introducing its cast of characters while always keeping the plot moving.

Though the show is set in contemporary times, the extensive use of estate houses and old libraries makes the show feel at times like a period drama. The supporting cast is fairly intimate, including veteran TV actors such as Owen Teale, Alex Kingston, and Louise Brealey. While most of the drama focuses on Bishop and Clairmont, the show wisely keeps the number of supporting characters to a minimum, allowing the actors to shine with limited screen time.

What really stood out in A Discovery of Witches’ first season was the way it explained its world of magic without ever diving into length exposition dumps. Plenty of shows take an episode or two to go in back in time and explain how all the circumstances came to be. Witches gives its audience what it needs to know without resorting to information dumps. There are questions left to be answered, of course, but that’s true of any narrative. The confidence in its storytelling is quite palpable.

Already renewed for two more seasons, A Discovery of Witches managed to stuff its first outing with plenty of plot and character development while leaving plenty for future stories. They took a concept that many thought was completely worn out and methodically breathed new life into the vampire genre. A lot of shows are guilty of holding back in their freshman efforts, understandably leaving some gas in the tank to keep the audience engaged. It’s relatively rare to see a show unafraid to go into its narrative full-throttle. The result is an immensely satisfying first-rate drama that should be a must-watch for fans of mythical storytelling.

 

 

 

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Thursday

21

February 2019

1

COMMENTS

Alita: Battle Angel Is a Collection of Stunning Visual Sequences That Lacks a Cohesive Story

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Movies like Alita: Battle Angel showcase the sheer power of seeing a movie on the big screen better than most. With breathtaking special effects in practically every scene, the sense of awe and wonder remains present for practically the entire two-hour runtime. Unfortunately, the vision, beautifully put together by director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron, is severely undercut by the absence of a cohesive narrative holding all of that imagery together.

Alita: Battle Angel does not really have a central narrative. There are many subplots present, but none that really stick out as the one to use when giving a one-sentence explanation of the plot. A scientist named Dr. Dyson Ido, played by Christoph Waltz, rebuilds the titular cyborg, played by Rosa Salazar, who is revealed to be a three-hundred-year-old warrior and the last of her kind. Alita befriends a boy named Hugo, played by Keean Johnson, who teaches her about the futuristic game motorball. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connolly also hover around the narrative as Vector and Chiren, two shady individuals connected with the darker side of Iron City, the film’s central location.

Though almost all of the characters are connected to each other through highly implausible coincidences, there is little connecting the various strands of a plotline. The city of Zarem, which hovers above Iron City, serves as a MacGuffin, as Hugo tries to buy passage, but the film only gives this narrative sporadic attention throughout the film. Early on Dr. Ido is revealed to be a “Hunter-Warrior,” Iron City’s mercenary version of law enforcement, a plotline that supplies much of the film’s action. Problem is, the action really isn’t in service to some bigger purpose, leaving the visually stunning scenes with an empty after taste.

The presence of motorball is Alita: Battle Angel’s biggest shortcoming. The film makes no effort to explain the rules, bringing more attention to the game as a total knockoff of the cult classic Rollerball. It could have had value as a sideshow similar to podracing in The Phantom Menace, but the film thrusts the motorball into the spotlight for reasons that never really add up.

The film also includes a completely unnecessary romance between Alita and Hugo that feels crafted out of obligation to the concept that it should have a love story rather than any narrative necessity. The romance along with Connelly’s character Chiren, who happens to be Dr. Ido’s ex-wife, could’ve been cut from the film entirely with next to zero narrative consequences.

The action sequences are spectacular and the effects are of the high quality that one would expect from a film with Cameron’s name attached. As Alita: Battle Angel, it becomes clear that most of the drama that precedes the fight scenes is there merely to necessitate the battles. Unoriginal conflict can be forgiven in service to stunning visual sequences, but the film suffers from an inability to pick a singular generic narrative to get behind. It’s practically impossible to put aside the incoherent plot when the film is constantly changing gears.

Despite the lack of narrative continuity, the script is occasionally witty, offering a few laugh-out-loud moments. As a character, Alita is very relatable, if not a bit bland. The performances are all fairly strong, even if Waltz, Connelly, and Ali look a bit out of place in a film that doesn’t always know how to utilize their talents.

There is a lot to like in Alita: Battle Angel, which never falls into the territory of boring. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to recommend a film that could never decide what it wanted to be. The film fails to present a cohesive narrative to anchor its visual splendor, giving the audience plenty of entertaining sequences but little to root for.

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Sunday

17

February 2019

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Dead Ant Is a Weirdly Endearing B-Movie Triumph

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Part of the appeal of b-movies lies in their innate ability to redefine the parameters of expectation that audiences naturally take with them when sitting down to watch a film. The “so bad it’s good” trope reflects the fact that entertainment value can occasionally circumvent the typical binary we use to judge art. Dead Ant is a film acutely aware of this sentiment, embracing camp in favor of anything resembling a coherent narrative.

The plot of Dead Ant is fairly straight-forward. A washed-up hair metal band on its way to a music festival runs into a nasty insect problem after a pit-stop for psychedelic drugs. The cast of characters is fairly intimate, mostly featuring the members of the band Sonic Grave, including Sean Astin, Jake Busey, Rhys Coiro, and Leisha Hailey. Tom Arnold, co-star of the 90s hit True Lies, puts in a strong performance as band manager Danny, delivering most of the film’s memorable comedic lines.

The film struggles through its first half-hour, full of dated clichés about political correctness and power ballads. The idea that a hair metal band would be searching for a “comeback” in the late 2010s, decades after the genre’s heyday, is an absurdity that the film could’ve wielded to its comedic benefit, especially since none of the members look old enough to have been in a band in the 80s. Thankfully the jokes start connecting by the second act, timed well with the introduction of the titular ants.

Dead Ant finds its groove once it trades in the clichés for camp comedy, delivering several laugh-out-loud moments. There’s a point where Arnold starts to look more comfortable in his role, dropping one hilarious line after another in rapid succession as the characters start to fight back against the ants. Coiro is another standout of the film’s second half, owning his ridiculous scenes with a healthy dose of charm, like he finally figured out what the film was supposed to be. Dead Ant is the kind of movie that owes its success largely due to its actors’ willingness to embrace the film’s absurdities.

The script is a bit disjointed at times, but the actors find grace even with the occasional tumble through their lines. The plot holes are transformed into amusing comedic moments, embracing its own inconsistent continuity. In a strange way, the errors serve to heighten the film’s replay value, if only to see if there’s more lurking in the ant-riddled desert.

While few b-movies are known for their stellar special effects, Dead Ant actually exceeds expectations with plenty of pretty believable ants. There are a couple scenes where the digital ants hardly line up with the havoc they’re supposed to be causing, but in a way that’s part of the fun. The film never lets the effects distract from other comedy it’s trying to deliver, maximizing its assets in the process.

Clocking in at just under ninety-minutes, Dead Ant provides plenty of laughs without ever overstaying its welcome. The first half-hour is regrettably underwhelming, but the film course corrects with enough time left to provide an entertaining experience. If the idea of a b movie filled with hair metal and giant killer ants seems like your cup of tea, you won’t be disappointed by this weirdly endearing film.  

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Monday

11

February 2019

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PEN15 Is One Of Hulu’s Best Original Shows

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The first episode of Dawson’s Creek garnered much controversy all the way back in 1998 for daring to talk about subjects like masturbation and premarital sex, airing at a time before premium cable changed the television landscape. Two decades later, shock value just doesn’t carry the same weight. The idea of a TV show set in middle school starring two adult actresses covering similar subjects in a far more graphic manner barely raises an eyebrow.

PEN15 sets its sights on the most cringe-worthy chapter in many people’s educational experience. As much as high school can be defined as a time full of awkwardness and poor decisions, middle school offers an environment with far less freedom and a lot more puberty. The sexual tension that fuels so many high school dramas essentially begins in middle school, though television has been reluctant to cover that period for obvious reasons. The material is too graphic for child actors, and adult actors don’t exactly look convincing playing thirteen-year-olds.

While co-creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle hardly look like children, both actresses are immensely effective in sidestepping that issue completely. PEN15 crafts its own funhouse version of reality that allows Maya and Anna to navigate its halls with relative grace, considering the heavy dose of cringe comedy offered in practically every scene. Suspension of disbelief is hardly needed, as PEN15 eloquently captures the zeitgeist of adolescence in the early 2000s.

Though the adult actors carry the bulk of the drama, PEN15 does have an impressive cast of child actors in supporting roles. Each episode is mostly self-contained, allowing the show to thoroughly cover a wide variety of topics in its first season. There isn’t a single episode that reeks of filler, a rarity among streaming shows, especially in their first seasons.

What sets PEN15 apart from many shows that depict childhood is its unapologetic refusal to force resolution. For many, if not most, middle school is a cringe-worthy time that we’d like to forget. All the efforts made by ABC’s Afterschool Specials and shows like 7th Heaven and Boy Meets World to turn each conflict into a teachable moment seem to forget how often bad things happen that don’t serve some broader purpose. Kids can be mean. Often, justice isn’t served. The bad guys win all the time. Shows can pretend like there’s some silver lining hidden in bullying, but PEN15 deserves a lot of credit for throwing conflict out there in a way that doesn’t try to package it all up by the end of the episode.

Back in 2015, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp crafted a hilarious prequel that worked around the fact that actors in their 40s were playing teenagers. PEN15 deployed a similar approach, wielding the surreal to offer some brutally honest commentary on the struggles of growing up. The show has quickly become one of Hulu’s best original series. Few shows dare to take on middle school, but Maya and Anna prove how powerful such a journey can be while providing a hilarious experience along the way.

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Monday

11

February 2019

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Following the Same Instruction Manual as Its Predecessor, The Lego Movie 2 Is Hilarious & Sweet

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The worst sequels are the ones that are too self-conscious about their own existence, straining the narrative with an unnecessary mandate. The world didn’t need The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, but of course that was never going to have any bearing on whether or not the film was made. The success of the first made a follow-up inevitable. The notion of whether a follow-up could resonate in quite the same way is the only question that should be asked.

The Lego Movie’s biggest strength was its ability to blend silliness with thought-provoking realism. The film wielded a broad spectrum of human emotion, leaving the audience with much to chew on by the time the credits started to roll. That kind of experience is hard to recreate for many reasons, chief among them being that the viewers walk into the theatre knowing what’s in store for them.

The Second Part doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, or the brick. The narrative is largely another medley of light-hearted humor set against a real-world backdrop, this time in the form of Finn struggling to get along with his younger sister. The jokes continue to come at a rapid-fire pace, delivering plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. The film does an excellent job offering jokes for audiences of all ages, alternating gags with plenty of references aimed at older viewers, including some memorable lines on Chris Pratt’s career and the state of DC Comics.

Sequels often mess with their characters’ personalities in an effort to manufacture new drama. Thankfully, The Second Part doesn’t fix what isn’t broken, playing to its characters’ strengths without forcing any unnatural conflict. Emmet is still an unrelenting optimist, Lucy is still afraid to open up, and Batman is still a raging narcissist. There are little bits of character development here and there, but the movie as a whole is content to keep the dynamic of the first film in place.

The musical numbers don’t pack the same punch and the plot wins zero points for originality, but the film has more than enough heart to make up for its lack of imagination. The Second Part is a lot of fun. Unimaginative concepts can still be entertaining, just as plenty of films are made each year that are completely derivative of earlier classics. The idea that a sequel should bring something new to the table can exist alongside the notion that it might just be okay if one doesn’t.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is a well-paced comedy that knows exactly when to tug on the heartstrings. It’s not as imaginative as the first, but that’s practically a given for any sequel. When it comes to providing an experience well worth seeing on the big screen, the movie hits every note that matters. Maybe that won’t be enough for a future installment, but for now, everything is still pretty awesome.

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Thursday

7

February 2019

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A Violent Man Doesn’t Have a Clear Sense of Purpose

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Sports movies are in many ways completely antithetical to their real-life counterparts. Legendary plays happen spontaneously, but movies have to manufacture these moments in an effort to convey that same sense of shock and wonder to an audience that expects something to happen. A Violent Man effectively substitutes any sense of suspense that might occur in its MMA octagon for a murder mystery, sprinkling the sports genre with a heavy dose of thriller.

Ty Matthews is an aging fighter looking at the end of his prime. An opportunity for a practice match against the well-known Marco Reign gives him a sense of optimism for his future not enjoyed by his girlfriend Whitney. An effort to defy an NDA imposed by Reign’s manager Ben is scuttled when the reporter he contacted ends up dead after a sexual encounter between the two, with the police looking at Ty for the murder.

The acting is A Violent Man’s strongest attribute. Thomas Q. Jones does an effective job in the lead role, drawing out empathy for Ty’s struggle without requiring the audience to agree with many of his decisions. Ben Davison puts forth a solid effort as Reign’s manager, carefully juggling charm with sleaziness in nearly all of his scenes. Issach De Bankolé gives a strong performance as trainer/mentor Pete, anchoring the emotional core of the film with his concern for Ty and the current trajectory of his life.

While the actors are shown to be capable of carrying the drama, the writing doesn’t give any of them much to work with. The vast majority of the scenes are riddled with clichés. Khalilah Joi can’t really do much as Ty’s girlfriend, Whitney when the script constantly calls for her to deliver the most predictable lines imaginable. Denise Richard’s brief appearance as reporter Victoria is entirely undercut by her character’s painfully unrealistic lust for Ty, casting aside any sense of obligation to portray a believable journalist.

A Violent Man struggles to be a sports film and a thriller, stripping either of any sense of dramatic urgency. Much of the second half of the film is dedicated to the fallout of Victoria’s murder, but the film pivots back to Ty’s feud with Marco in the third act, culminating in a weak title fight that feels less like a climax than an obligation to get it out of the way as quickly as possible. The conclusion is rushed and undercut by the narrow scope of the film that renders it practically inevitable.

For most of the film, director Matthew Berkowitz makes the most of a small budget, using minimalistic lighting and a strong score to hone in the intimacy of his sets. The title fight loses this touch, feeling oddly small and out of a place in a narrative that otherwise knew how to make the best of its locations. Perhaps some of this is the fault of the limited use of Chuck Liddell as Reign, who isn’t in the film for long enough to leave any kind of lasting impression.

MMA fans may find something to enjoy in A Violent Man, which offers some decent commentary on the struggles of making it in an unforgiving business. The lackluster script hinders both the performances and the narrative pacing. There’s a lot to like in the concept, but the film fell apart as it tried to tie its various strands together.

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