Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: May 2019

Monday

27

May 2019

3

COMMENTS

Game of Thrones’ Final Season Was a Frantic Mess

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

The image of Daenerys Targaryen’s massive armada sailing to Westeros at the end of season six ended up being the high point of her time on the series. After spending years building her up as the apex player destined to “break the wheel,” seasons seven and eight largely focused on tearing her back down, slowly eating away at her army until her opposition established a believable sense of equal footing. Dany may have taken King’s Landing with brute force, but her cause was lost with waiting, heeding Tyrion’s advice not to sack the capital at the expense of most of her original Westerosi allies.

Season eight sought out to complete Dany’s downward spiral, along with defeating the White Walkers and providing satisfactory conclusions for many of the show’s large ensemble. All in six episodes, a choice made by creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. To call this season rushed would be an understatement.

The first two episodes largely concerned themselves with table-setting for “The Long Night.” Episode two, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” stands out as one of the best of the series for its focus on the complex relationships between the many characters, an immensely satisfying episode that functioned as a bit of a finale in its own right. The calm pace of the first two episodes contrasts with the frantic nature of the final two, which barely took a moment to breathe, more than understandable given how much needed to be done before the end.

A six-episode season was never going to be enough to wrap up such a complex series, but a bigger issue was the fact that the show dedicated half its final run to an underwhelming villain who didn’t even factor into the endgame. The White Walkers may have been a presence in the show since the first episode, but the underwhelming battle of Winterfell failed to reflect the Night King’s billing as an arch villain. Considering how rushed the final three episodes felt, it’s clear that the Night King should have been disposed of last season, giving the show a bit more wiggle room to focus on its endgame.

The first four episodes all built up a feud between Daenerys and Sansa that ended up pretty much going nowhere. You could argue that Sansa’s feelings toward Dany helped turn Jon, Tyrion, and Varys against her, but the Northern territorial disputes were hardly needed in that regard. Dany’s burning of King’s Landing superseded any of the peripheral politics.

The show struggled to portray Jon and Dany’s relationship, complicated by a few reasons. Putting aside the incest, Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke didn’t have much natural chemistry, exacerbated by the show’s reluctance to give them scenes alone together. Jon’s stabbing of Dany made for beautiful cinematography, but the gravity of the moment failed to accurately reflect the underdeveloped nature of their relationship.

For a show ostensibly about the mechanics of power, the idea of having Bran end up on the show is complicated to say the least. His abilities helped turn the tide of the Battle of Winterfell, but the three-eyed raven stayed out of the conflict in King’s Landing. We don’t know if he made the decision based on the knowledge that he’d become king, but we don’t necessarily need to in order to recognize that a monarch shouldn’t possess that kind of absolute power.

The finale acknowledged Tyrion’s mistakes, suggesting he’d spend the rest of his life fixing them, but such a “punishment” perhaps fails to truly acknowledge his role in Dany’s decline. It’s hard to find a single moment in his time as Dany’s Hand where he offered good advice. Why would he be rewarded for such incompetence?

Cersei felt weirdly irrelevant for too much of the season. For all the excellent villains we’ve seen on the show over the years, Cersei has always been the best. The show made the right move placing her as the final big bad over the Night King, but it didn’t give her many opportunities to shine. Instead, she mostly stood around giving orders and not doing much else with her time. The show’s finest manipulator of politics sat on the sidelines for its final stretch, perhaps the strongest encapsulation of the issues with season eight.

The show did offer satisfactory conclusions for many of its key characters, including Arya, Sansa, Brienne, and Jaime. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” worked so well for its focus on characters and not on moving the plot forward a mile a minute. We spent almost a decade with these people. The final season had its share of payoff for that investment, but it was constantly undercut by the rapid nature of the plot.

Finales are difficult to pull off under any circumstance. TV is generally much better at maintaining the status quo than concluding it. With so many loose strands heading into season eight, it seems unlikely that four more episodes would have been able to wrap things up much better than six did. That doesn’t really change the fact that this season spent much of its time poorly, a product of needing to do too many things at once.

Season eight made the regrettable mistake of giving half its time to an underwhelming villain at the expense of the characters who made the show special in the first place. For all the ways this series has felt larger than life over the years, becoming a worldwide phenomenon, its conclusion constantly felt unnecessarily rushed. These characters deserved better.

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Sunday

26

May 2019

0

COMMENTS

Strong Lead Performances Can’t Redeem Aladdin’s Empty Existence

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

The frequency with which Disney live-action remakes are hitting the theatre can make it easy to forget that the process of creating them requires vastly different individual mandates for each film. A film like the original animated Dumbo only ran for a little over an hour, leaving plenty of room for a live-action adaptation to make its own mark on the material. The animated Aladdin however clocks in at ninety-minutes, a feature-length film in its own right. Guy Ritchie’s live-action adaptation had the tall order of capturing all the key plot moments from its animated predecessor while also giving its own cast enough time to shine.

Ritchie’s Aladdin is bolstered by three very strong performances from its lead actors. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are eminently charming in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. The two have a lot of natural chemistry and give welcoming performances that have the audience rooting for their characters by the end of the first musical number. So far Maleficient is the only live-action adaptation to receive a sequel, but I’d actually really like to revisit Massoud and Scott’s interpretations of the characters in a follow-up.

As the Genie, Will Smith had an impossible task in following the late great Robin Williams, whose take on the character remains one of the most iconic voice acting performances of all time. Smith does a great job in differentiating the two, crafting a character completely different from his animated predecessor. Smith’s Genie is less zany and far less in your face, but he’s still an empathetic figure capable of delivering plenty of laughs.

While Massoud, Scott, and Smith all do an admirable job bringing classic characters to life, the film moves far too quickly to give any of them a chance to breathe. Despite the fast pacing, the film feels like quite a slog with a two-hour runtime. The performances bring their own magic to the table, but there’s only so much Ritchie can do with his film’s organic moments while also serving the narrative of its predecessor.

Jafar might be one of the most memorable villains in Disney history, but Ritchie, unfortunately, diminishes his larger-than-life presence in the live-action film. Marwan Kenzari does a serviceable job playing the character, but he never gets a moment to shine. We learn nothing new about Jafar’s motives and there’s no song featuring the character. He’s the only character who feels smaller in the real world, reduced to merely a narrative obligation.

Ritchie’s Aladdin struggles to find its own voice while constantly serving the narrative of its source material. Like Smith’s Genie, Scott’s Jasmine is a totally different character than her animated counterpart, but the scenes that highlight her personality often feel clunky when mashed together in between recreations of iconic scenes from the original. As a result, the film feels far more derivative than it should, stifling its own sense of originality while trying to juggle too much.

The musical numbers are often entertaining, but perhaps predictably fail to recreate the sense of awe and wonder put forth in the original. The audience knows what’s coming. Ritchie should know that, but he doesn’t do much to trying and recapture any luster. The film is at times far too content to pale in comparison to the original.

Making matters worse is the fact that the strict adherence to the plot of the animated original constantly reminds the audience of how much time is left in the film. The two-hour runtime is far too long for something that predictable. It’s rarely outright boring, but the slower scenes aren’t helped at all by the familiarity of it all.

Aladdin is occasionally entertaining, but the film fails to stand out in any meaningful way. The actors put forth an admirable effort, but they’re not allowed enough opportunities to truly stand out. There are times when the film feels like it’s trying to do too much, but the result is that it feels like it accomplished nothing at all by the time the credits start to roll. Young children might be wowed by the impressive scenery, but the overall experience is regrettably empty.

 

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Monday

20

May 2019

2

COMMENTS

Game of Thrones Season 8 Recap: Episode 6

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones, Pop Culture, Reviews

The difficulty in pulling off a successful television finale largely boils down to the struggle to present a conclusion that fits in line with the show’s original ethos as well as its natural evolution along the way. Game of Thrones is in the extremely rare position of having been based off source material that itself hasn’t concluded yet, plotting its own course for the past few years. Somehow, a conclusion needed to honor George R.R. Martin’s original vision while still providing a sense of narrative closure for all the ways its deviated from the books. On both fronts, it sort of succeeds.

Bran is king. Does that make sense? Sort of, if you try not to think about it. Philosophers have long grappled with the idea of a philosopher king, a ruler who draws his/her effectiveness through a lack of desire to actually possess power. Trouble is, it’s exceedingly difficult to find one of those people. Bran himself hardly fits the bill.

I’ve tried long and hard throughout these recaps not to excessively pontificate on Bran’s powers. We know he knows a lot of things, but he’s been quite selective in what he chooses to reveal to the others. He helped planned the strategy against the Night King, but did absolutely nothing to warn anyone that Daenerys was planning to burn King’s Landing. Only one of those events posed a true existential threat to his power.

Now, maybe he didn’t bother to look at King’s Landing. We don’t know, but that’s because the show decided not to tell us. It’s fair to wonder what Bran’s motives are. For the entire season, it didn’t seem all that clear. Maybe he’s just as corrupt as the worst of them.

Daenerys’ death makes sense from the perspective of needing to wrap up the series. Trouble is, the show spent parts of the first four episodes building up a fight between Dany and Sansa that never really mattered. Jon killed her. Maybe Sansa’s feud with her played a part in that, but it definitely didn’t need to, what with the whole burning innocents situation and Jon’s chat with Tyrion.

The show treated Dany as a protagonist for all these years, only to pivot toward the idea that she was a narrative nuisance that needed to be dealt with before things could be wrapped up two episodes before the show ended. Two episodes are hardly enough time to present a compelling case that such a major part of the story was now suddenly a horrible monster that should be stabbed before she even got a chance to sit in that chair she’d coveted for most of her life.

Kudos to Drogon for understanding all the symbolism in the Iron Throne enough to see the importance in burning it down.

Why did the other kingdoms accept Bran as ruler while the North kept its independence? Why did we need a king? Obviously wheels can’t be broken overnight, but the show never really sold its audience on the idea that the realm needed to stay together. Dorne, which treasured its independence perhaps more so than any other region, doesn’t have any reason to accept Bran.

Seeing Edmure Tully and Robin Arryn again was fun. I liked how the show attempted to portray the Seven Kingdoms again after years of only focusing on a few of the Great Houses, but their meeting felt a bit too condensed for the scope it was aiming for.

Sansa has probably never met Edmure. The scene where she told him to sit down was fun, but they definitely don’t have any sense of familial relationship. Oddly enough, she never even spoke to cousin Robin, who she spent a bit of time with back in season five.

Jon gets sent back to the Wall, a throwback to what almost happened to Jaime when he killed a Targaryen monarch in the throne room. A fitting end for a boring character, even if we have no idea who controls the Wall, or why they even need one in a post-White Walkers world. Glad he got to finally pet Ghost.

Brienne becoming Lord Commander was a pretty great moment, though I don’t envy a life spent listening to Bran’s nonsense. The scene where she writes Jaime’s name in the White Book, which records all members of the Kingsguard, was sort of touching, except for the fact that Jaime hasn’t been Lord Commander for a while. The show never really invested in him caring about the Kingsguard in the way that the books did, especially in A Feast for Crows.

Eye roll for Bronn as Master of Coin. Why would the Reach accept him as ruler of Highgarden?

Sam is a maester now I guess. Why does he get to leave the Night’s Watch? Does anyone care?

Sansa gets to be the ruler we all knew she was capable of becoming. I just wish she could have been ruler of Westeros, not just the North. Would have made a much better queen than her odious brother.

I hope Bran wrote a nice thank you note to Meera Reed for being by his side all those years, only to be cast aside right at the end of season seven. The way that all played out has me wondering if D&D knew what would happen to Bran. Between that and taking over Hodor’s body all those times, he really doesn’t look all sympathetic.

Arya’s journey would make for a great spinoff. I found her ending to be the most satisfying of all the characters, a great callback to the season four finale where she set sail for Essos. She didn’t get a ton to do this season, but the final moment between the Stark children and their Targaryen cousin Aegon was very touching.

Finales are tough. Few are great, many are terrible, plenty are polarizing, and more than a few fall flat. In terms of being divisive, the Game of Thrones finale seems to occupy the space between Lost and The Sopranos, not quite in the realm of outlandish but certainly not fully satisfying either. Definitely one of those finales that will take some time to sink in. I didn’t love it, but I’m open to the idea of that changing down the road.

That’s it for this week, but there’s still some Thrones content to come. I’ll have my full season review next week, along with the recap podcast tomorrow. To all of you who have read these recaps over the years, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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Wednesday

15

May 2019

0

COMMENTS

Booksmart Is a Hilarious Coming of Age Comedy That Packs an Emotional Punch

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High school graduation presents the template for a rite of passage, the informal end of childhood. The uncertainty of college life without all of one’s childhood friends is scary, a disruption of the long-held status quo. The occasion is ripe for adaptation because it provides America’s youth with a unifying sense of journey, something most of us who grew up in this country have commonly experienced.

Booksmart is a film about accepting change. Amy and Molly are two childhood friends who have done just about everything together, putting their broader social lives aside to encourage each other to pursue academic excellence. Such persistence pays off on the college admissions front, but the high school experience cannot be measured in grades alone. The night before graduation the two set out to hit one last milestone, to attend a high school party.

The highlight of the film is without a doubt the natural chemistry between lead actresses Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein. The two are perfect together, presenting the kind of relationship right off that bat that most television shows would need a full season to establish. The ease with which their friendship permeates through the screen accentuates the narrative’s emotional resonance, making it easy for the audience to see themselves at the heart of the film’s conflict.

Olivia Wilde puts forth a strong showing behind the camera in her directorial debut, often framing her scenes in a way that brings out the subtleties in her actors’ performances. Like many adaptations of high school, Booksmart presents a fairly absurd depiction of adolescent life where students live out their wildest Snapchat fantasies, but Wilde keeps even her most outlandish scenes grounded in relatable drama. There are many laugh out loud moments, but the script ensures a certain emotional staying power beyond the humor.

The film takes a careful approach to LGBTQ issues. Amy is gay, a trait that isn’t treated as a point of debate or amusement by any of the other characters. Her storyline has its cringe-worthy moments, but those are crafted out of the awkward nature of adolescence rather than as a product of her sexuality. Amy is treated just like any other character, something that might seem weird to point out if it weren’t for the fact that so few similar depictions of LGBTQ youth exist in American cinema.

For a film that takes place over a twenty-four-hour window, Booksmart does an excellent job in presenting its characters as fully fleshed out individuals, even its rather extensive supporting cast. Billie Lourd and Skylar Gisondo, in particular, portray gag characters that still have depth beyond the humor they’re ostensibly around to provide. High school films can often get by on the sheer reliability of their narratives, but Booksmart stands out for its extensive investment in the journey of its subjects.

Booksmart manages to be the funniest high school comedy in years while never losing sight of its powerful emotional core. Olivia Wilde’s first feature film as a director is a powerful showcase of her talents. Few films are capable of making an audience cringe in one moment and cry in the next, but Booksmart possesses a firm grasp of the messy, often hilarious nature of growing up.

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Tuesday

14

May 2019

0

COMMENTS

What We Left Behind Is a Heartfelt Tribute to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

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The raw beauty of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine stems from the ways in which it changed the very definition of what it meant to be Star Trek. The primary form of exploration came not from visiting planets, but the characters who inhabited an isolated space station out in the Gamma Quadrant. The show pioneered serialized narratives well before the “golden age of television” ushered in the era of long-form storytelling. As with many trailblazers, the initial reaction proved divisive, but recent years have been kind to DS9, with the ease of streaming paving the way for future generations of fans to experience the show.

What We Left Behind is a documentary crafted to celebrate the legacy of Star Trek’s “middle child.” Co-directed by Ira Steven Behr, who served as the showrunner on DS9, the film takes a thorough approach to exploring all the various elements that went into making such a complex show. The extensive interviews, which feature the entire principal cast, practically every recurring actor, and plenty of members of the production crew and writing staff, highlight the profound impact that the show made on all of their lives.

It’s clear from the very first moments of the film that Deep Space Nine changed the lives of practically everyone involved. Behr does an excellent job not only capturing that energy, but also sustaining it throughout the course of the documentary. Building on that strong connection, Behr brought back a few of the writers to plot what season eight might have looked like. Complete with numerous animated graphics, the prospective episode is featured throughout the documentary, perhaps serving as the best example of the show’s staying power after all these years.

While the Deep Space Nine’s streaming and DVD releases haven’t had the same complete HD makeover that its two predecessor series received, most of the footage from the show included in What We Left Behind has been beautifully modernized. The show looks absolutely spectacular in HD. The chance to see one of the series’ many space battles up on the big screen with that kind of careful restoration is well worth the price of admission itself.

Behr’s greatest strength as a director is his ability to maintain an introspective lens. Like any show, mistakes were made along the way. An interview with the former chairman of Paramount Television Group Kerry McCluggage in particular took a hard look at the decision to forbid Avery Brooks from shaving his head or wearing a goatee. For all of Deep Space Nine’s progressive values, the show fell short on the subject of LGBTQ inclusion, a misfire that Behr acknowledges head-on in a way that brought me to tears as a gay Star Trek fan. That kind of raw honesty is quite rare for a documentary crafted by people personally involved with their subject.

While the documentary goes to great lengths to avoid being just a “talking heads” retrospective, it is rather powerful when it examines pivotal moments in the show’s production history. There are times when the cast and crew get pretty emotional with each other, understandable given the immense stress of working on a television show that puts out twenty-six episodes a year. Though Behr acknowledges the narrative confines of a single documentary, his film provides an immensely satisfying look at all the elements that went into making the show.

What We Left Behind is a beautiful celebration of Deep Space Nine, crafted with love by the people who poured their hearts into the show. Fans of the series couldn’t hope for a better examination of the show that changed Star Trek. It’s the kind of documentary that makes you want to put on an episode right when you get home, a powerful tribute to a show that lives on in the hearts of so many.

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Monday

13

May 2019

2

COMMENTS

Game of Thrones Season 8 Recap: Episode 5

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones, Pop Culture

There’s a scene in A Storm of Swords where Stannis remarks that “Ser Barristan once told me the rot in King Aerys court began with Varys. The eunuch should never have been pardoned.” Varys has served five kings, Aerys, Robert, Joffrey, Tommen, and Daenerys. Six if you count those letters he was sending around gossiping about Jon Snow. Has he served any of them well?

Varys has always been a character who claims to care about the greater good, but that kind of manipulative altruism relies heavily on his own desires. As an advisor to Daenerys, he had the ability to use his influence to guide his Queen toward the path he best saw fit, putting aside the problematic nature of that notion. He didn’t do that. Instead, he schemed.

Dany burned a lot of innocent people, looking a lot like her deranged father in the process. Dany has always had that anger inside of her, contrasted with the caring ruler she became in Meereen. In Westeros, she felt unloved, a product of the show’s narrow scope this season.

Assuming Gendry possessed some sort of loyalty to the person who named him Lord of Storm’s End, Dany would have, at least in theory, three major houses supporting her claim. The show doesn’t feature anyone from Houses Tyrell or Martell anymore, but we shouldn’t forget that Dorne and the Reach backed her, along with Yara who now controls the Iron Islands. That’s a big chunk of Westeros, full of people disinclined to back either Cersei or whoever ends up ruling in the North.

No one ever pointed this out to Dany. Not Tyrion, not Varys, not Jon. She feels unloved by Westeros because the show has framed it that way, spotlighting an understandably reluctant North as her primary contrast. From that perspective, a Dany/Jon feud seems inevitable, but from a larger geopolitical point of view, she had a lot more going for her. Until she burned a bunch of civilians.

Are we supposed to care? The character development isn’t great, but this is also a shorter season. The cinematography was spectacular. I loved every minute of the King’s Landing scenes. Sometimes, logic should be damned, especially when it comes to television. TV should be fun. This episode was a blast.

Tyrion looked kind of weird wandering around the battle by himself. He’s been pretty useless for a while now, offering bad advice and scheming to undermine Dany. Sure it was nice that he cared about the innocent people, but Dany just wanted to hear some bells before she went on a killing spree.

Grey Worm killed Harry Strickland. We didn’t need Harry or the Golden Company, but some elephants would have been nice. Not much of a battle.

Euron died happy. Favorite character in season eight. Glad to see he went out with a bang, even if it didn’t make a ton of narrative sense.

Jaime’s scenes totally undercut his relationship with Brienne, but he’s not exactly the kind of character destined for a happy ending. I would have liked to have seen his arc drawn out a little more, but this season did a good job of tying up a few loose strands, particularly with Bran.

I never personally bought into the idea that Arya or Jaime would kill Cersei. She’s pregnant. Sure, the show has killed pregnant people before, namely Talisa Stark (Jeyne Westerling), but heroes tend not to do that kind of stuff. Nobody is going to be mad at a pile of rocks for killing a pregnant villain.

My favorite scenes in the episode involved the random soldiers that first tried to stop Arya and The Hound, as well as Tyrion a bit later on. As much as the show feels larger than life in so many ways, it also tends to only focus on a handful of people in this big world. It is quite easy to forget that there’s all these other people in the realm, just trying to get by.

Jon felt weirdly irrelevant this episode. No one cared to listen to him. That’s usually how I feel. Guessing he’ll be caught in the middle of next episode’s inevitable showdown between Dany and Sansa. I’m not really into his whole reluctant ruler act. Sansa should just be queen instead.

I’ve never been a fan of the idea of Cleganebowl. The Hound is more than just his lust for revenge. As his brother, Gregor Clegane died a long time ago. Definitely wish Sandor didn’t sacrifice himself to take down a walking corpse. Arya and he could have had a great spinoff.

Stay weird Qyburn.

Arya chooses life. Hopefully she goes to Storm’s End and lives happily ever after. I imagine she’ll factor into next episode, but it’s kind of unclear how unless she goes and assassinates Dany, which wouldn’t make a ton of sense considering how this episode played out at the end with Arya choosing life over death.

Plenty of people will dislike this episode, particularly Dany’s heel turn, for perfectly legitimate reasons. I really enjoyed it, mostly because it was good television. Tyrion and Jaime’s goodbye was compelling regardless of the circumstances. Davos is great as always.

I had fun watching it. Sometimes that’s enough. Having done these recaps for years, I know I’ve taken great pleasure in pointing out all the plot holes, shoddy characterizations, and ways the books have done things better. I do greatly enjoy the show though. This season has been far from perfect, but it’s been entertaining. I will certainly miss it when it’s over.

 

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Sunday

12

May 2019

0

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Pokemon: Detective Pikachu Lets a Convoluted Narrative Detract from an Entertaining Experience

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A live-action adaptation of the massively popular Pokémon franchise always carried a degree of inevitability, with the question of plot serving as perhaps the largest looming question. The main video game series and the anime based on it both carry the same general objectives in catching and battling Pokémon. Deploying a similar storyline for a live-action movie could have been tricky to pull off, as the sight of adorable monsters beating each other up certainly presents the possibility of being quite upsetting to watch, especially for young children.

The decision to center Pokémon: Detective Pikachu around a mystery sidesteps this issue, largely taking action out of the main narrative. Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu is less an electrically-charged rodent than a wise-cracking one, better for laughs than battle. Reynolds is rather amusing in the title role, but such humor feels weirdly out of place in the world of Rime City, far better suited for his other massively popular role in Deadpool.

As a buddy cop movie, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu functions quite well. Justice Smith gives a compelling performance as Tim Goodman, a young man trying to find a place in a world that’s let him down far too often. The narrative doesn’t give Tim that many moments to shine, leaving his overall arc feeling a little clichéd, but the film has much bigger issues than that.

The film takes a remarkably convoluted approach to handling the matter of Pikachu’s ability to talk. As a general rule, Pokémon and humans can’t communicate with each other, but fans of the series will know that there are a few exceptions, most notably in the anime where Meowth talks practically every episode. An unexplained talking Pikachu would not have been much of a plot hole, but the film followed that notion down the rabbit hole to its own detriment.

The mystery at the core of Detective Pikachu is uncomfortable to say the least. Buddy cop movies are less about the destination than the camaraderie enjoyed along the journey, but that’s also assuming that the end goal doesn’t fundamentally change the way you perceive the adventure itself. For some, suspension of disbelief may be enough to sidestep the issues presented, but there still remains the sense that the film opted for a needlessly weird twist that was bound to be divisive.

As funny as Reynolds is throughout the film, after a while, it starts to feel like the film is using his humor as a crutch in the absence of a deeper narrative purpose. At times he feels completely irrelevant to the plot, sounding more like a commentary track than an integral part of the story, which is itself a product of the film opting for a far more complex plot that it needed. Reynolds’ Pikachu is too much of a good thing, never building on an amusing foundation until a clunky attempt to establish some sense of narrative payoff in the third act.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu could have easily made for an entertaining experience without having much of a story. Adorable creatures and Ryan Reynolds are a match made in heaven, but the film unnecessarily burdened itself with a bizarre plot that totally undercuts the movie. Fans of Pokémon will undoubtedly find much to love in seeing all the beautiful CGI, but the experience as a whole leaves a lot to be desired.

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Tuesday

7

May 2019

0

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The Hot Zone Is a Brilliant Thriller That Kicks the Summer TV Season off with a Bang

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A series like The Hot Zone possesses a kind of natural antagonist that crawls under the skin of its audience through its simple realism. Based off Richard Preston’s 1994 bestseller of the same name, the series depicts the Ebola virus in two separate time periods, from its 1976 outbreak in the central African rainforest to its 1989 discovery in a primate quarantine facility in Reston, Virginia. National Geographic’s upcoming limited event supplies a sense of terror that few series can wield in such an effective manner.

At the heart of The Hot Zone is Dr. Nancy Jaax, an Army colonel working as a veterinary pathologist at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, dealing with some of the most dangerous viruses on the planet. Played by Juliana Margulies, Jaax leads the effort to diagnose and later contain the facility in Reston that potentially possesses an existential threat to America. While dealing with the occasional sexist remark, Marguiles plays Jaax as a force of nature on the base, a careful professional working diligently to get to the bottom of what they discovered on U.S. soil.

Aiding her efforts are Dr. Peter Jahrling (Topher Grace), a civilian working in the USAMRIID, who initially discovers that the virus plaguing the monkeys is more than a simple case of Simian hemorrhagic fever, and Wade Carter (Liam Cunningham), her mentor who was on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak in 1976. Carter is also the focus of the series’ numerous flashbacks as he tries to figure out how to deal with the virus tearing apart central Africa. Jaax’s husband Lt. Colonel Jerry Jaax (Noah Emmerich) works alongside her at the base, often acting as a go-between with the higher-ups, cautious to prevent the outbreak from becoming a nationwide panic.

The Hot Zone does an excellent job of breaking down the science behind the virus for a general audience. The show takes a thorough approach to the Reston disaster, exceptionally well-paced over the course of its six episodes. The Africa flashbacks provide an additional broader perspective on Ebola, showing the devastating effects of the virus that continue to this day.

Part of what makes The Hot Zone so compelling is its grasp on the nature of suspense. The series hones in on the basic fundamental fear that Ebola invokes, an incurable plague that one can become infected by with a simple breath of air, brutally tearing one’s insides apart as it wreaks its carnage. Several scenes look like they could have been part of an installment in the Resident Evil franchise, with disaster lurking at every corner. Like the characters in their hazmat suits, there’s a natural sense of claustrophobia that reverberates back to the audience.

Character development can be a tricky subject for limited series, especially ones as plot heavy as The Hot Zone. The series takes the time to emotionally invest in its subjects, enhancing its narrative by giving the audience more to care about than just the virus. Jaax is more than a scientist fighting a deadly virus, she’s a mother, wife, and daughter who cares deeply about the people she works with and the nation she’s trying to protect. There’s real tangible growth in this journey for many of the characters, a rarity for a show that almost certainly won’t see another season.

Bolstered by a stellar cast, The Hot Zone is a brilliant thriller that kicks the summer TV season off with a bang. The three-night format is a great way to experience the show, giving the audience two episodes of this delectably bingeable suspense ride at a time. One of the best limited series of the year so far, National Geographic’s adaptation of Richard Preston’s bestseller is a joy to watch from start to finish.

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Monday

6

May 2019

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Game of Thrones Season 8 Recap: Episode 4

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones, Pop Culture

Last season presented a simple reason for why Daenerys’ first act in Westeros didn’t involve taking King’s Landing and killing Cersei. If Dany invaded King’s Landing, burning tons of people in the process, everyone would hate her forever and she’d be a bad queen. Except, this isn’t really the reason. Dany didn’t invade the capital because the show needed to keep Cersei around for the final season.

As a result, Cersei got stronger and made allies who could shoot dragons out of the sky with giant sea scorpions. Who knew that the show’s most ruthless villain was also very smart? Tyrion knew all of that and yet he gave Dany a lot of bad advice anyway. Despite this, we don’t get a scene where they hash that out, because apparently, we needed a few focusing on mutiny. So here we are, in a position where Cersei has the upper hand largely because no one else bothered to stop her.

Winterfell was mostly fun, minus the virgin jokes and the Sansa/Hound conversation. Brienne’s sexual past was a weird thing for Tyrion to joke about, having been forcibly married to the woman she’s sworn to defend, while also sitting at a table with his brother who’s only ever had sex with their sister. Strange.

Sansa’s comments about her trauma were easily the low point of the episode. Yes, she’s survived a lot to get where she is. No, she probably wouldn’t still be a “little bird” if that hadn’t all happened. It’s great that she’s become a key player, but it would’ve been nice if the show hadn’t tried to sugar coat rape and abuse like that.

Huzzah for Lord Gendry Baratheon, who apparently isn’t interested in claiming the throne now that he’s a legitimate heir of Robert Baratheon. I liked how Arya turned him down. They had their moment, but she’s not destined for that kind of life. Arya and The Hound should get a spinoff.

Dany and Jon’s bedroom scene was very bad. Mentioning Ser Jorah in a sexual context was gross, but then Dany looked all desperate begging Jon to stay in the bastard closet. Weird that the person who came to save the North now looks weaker than basically everyone else.

We finally got an R + L = J moment that wasn’t right at the end of an episode. Of course, Sansa told Jon’s secret. Why shouldn’t she?

As much as I’ve criticized the Dany/Sansa feud for feeling forced this season, it was at least in service to sensible moments of conflict. The North is tired. Yes, they agreed to help Dany, but that doesn’t mean it has to be done immediately. It’s okay to have conflict about logistics, demonstrating Sansa’s leadership abilities in looking out for her people first.

Bronn is back. Does anyone care? Me neither. Should’ve been killed off last season.

The second half of the episode felt weirdly rushed for a show that took its sweet time taking in the post-apocalypse high. Putting aside how bizarre it was that no scout ship sailed ahead to take a look at Dragonstone, this episode really didn’t need to have a Dany/Tyrion/Cersei confrontation at the end, especially before Jon arrived with the rest of the troops. Why wouldn’t Cersei just order her archers to shoot them all and be done with it?

How did anyone know that Missandei was captured? She could’ve have drowned just as easily. Equally weird that this specific news made it to Winterfell. It’s a shame that she had to die for seemingly no reason. Poor Grey Worm.

Euron is smart enough to shoot a dragon out of the sky, but apparently doesn’t question how Tyrion knows that Cersei is pregnant despite being in the North all season, a clear indicator that the baby isn’t his. Maybe he doesn’t care? Or the show doesn’t care about either situation? I don’t really care either.

R.I.P. Rhaegal. Guess the show’s budget got tired of two dragons. Only one to go.

Could Bran have warned Dany about Euron’s trap? Probably. The fact that he didn’t isn’t necessarily surprising, but it’s weird how no one in the show has tried to fully tap into his superhero powers.

Oh Varys. I’m glad he’s still alive, but these mutinies are a little tiresome. He’s supposed to be a spymaster, not the monarchy’s ombudsman. He should either serve Dany or step aside. No more scheming to switch sides.

Brienne and Jaime happened. Wish they’d left it at that without the whole Jaime leaving bit. I get that it makes sense to send him to King’s Landing, but the Jaime/Cersei plotline is one long-running element of the show I didn’t need to see resolved in these last few episodes.

Tormund’s constant lusting over Brienne was beyond tiresome, but at least he gets to give Ghost a good home. Shame on Jon for not even giving him a pet on the way out. And they think this man should be king? Bah. A man who can’t even say goodbye to his direwolf is not fit to rule.

I hate how the show has portrayed Daenerys since she arrived in Westeros. Sure, something needed to happen to bring her massive army down a few pegs, but the writing for her character has been awful. She could be sitting on the Iron Throne right now if it wasn’t for bad tactical advice. Rather than explore that notion, instead the show’s been painting Jon as the reasonable alternative.

Between R + L = J and the lack of chemistry between Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke, their romance has suffered a lot over the past few episodes. I just wish the show could figure out what to do with them rather than drag this monarchy quibble out for the whole season. It’s totally unnecessary and quite frankly, boring.

That’s it for this week. I actually mostly enjoyed the episode despite the numerous issues. There’s a lot of pacing questions that will certainly be answered in two weeks, but it’s hard to really get behind the way this episode decided to spend its time. See you next week!

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Thursday

2

May 2019

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Knock Down the House Is a Powerful Showcase of Democracy in Action

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

A documentary like Knock Down the House faces two narrative challenges that can be difficult to overcome in a ninety-minute runtime. Showcasing four separate women putting up primary campaigns against incumbent Democrats, the film has to not only tell multiple stories, but ones with widely known outcomes. It should hardly be a surprise to anyone that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went on to beat incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley.

One of the appeals of political documentaries is the behind the scenes perspective they provide, a chance to know the candidates beyond their cable news appearances. The grassroots nature of the four campaigns highlighted in Knock Down the House gave the documentary a much more intimate feel than films focused on larger efforts by established candidates. Without massive staffs or even office buildings, the film spotlights each of the candidates’ best assets, namely being themselves.

Amy Viela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin came up short in their efforts to unseat their Democrat incumbents. Bush and Swearengin both managed to pull in over 30% of the primary vote, very impressive totals for unknown grassroots campaigns running against established politicians with all the benefits that entail. The documentary showcases their individual motivations for getting in the race, women with deep emotional stakes at play to change a system that isn’t working for too many Americans.

Knock Down the House does a great job explaining the many roadblocks put into place to impede primary challengers, a system that makes it about as a difficult as possible to even get on the ballot. There are a few scenes highlighting the work of groups like Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, grassroots organizations seeking to recruit and support candidates for office. All the stereotypical notions of polished politicians are thrown out the window in favor of real people seeking to create real change.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary spends much of its time on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose successful campaign has captivated the nation for much of the past year. The footage from her campaign presents a stunning contrast between grassroots efforts and the establishment, frequently painting Crowley as out of touch, representing a district he no longer even called home. AOC fans might have enjoyed a documentary completely dedicated to her meteoric rise, but the film makes great use of all its subjects to present Washington as out of touch with the nation at large.

Refreshingly absent from the bulk of the narrative is the man in the White House. For all the media attention that Trump gets, much of America simply doesn’t care about his Twitter feed. Even in deep red West Virginia, Swearengin’s campaign focuses on the bread and butter issues affecting her state and not as a referendum on his every move. AOC also goes out of her way to criticize Crowley’s Trump-heavy campaign literature, reframing the “us vs. them” debate in a context better suited to her community.

Knock Down the House is an uplifting documentary that highlights the power of democracy in action. Only one of the film’s four subjects managed to win her race, but their efforts offer more than just inspiration to future candidates. Democracy isn’t always fair, but it’s always worth fighting for.

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