Ian Thomas Malone

Monthly Archive: October 2019



October 2019



American Dharma Doesn’t Know What to Say About Steve Bannon

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As repulsive as some may find him, Steve Bannon is an important figure in twenty-first century American politics. Leading the Trump campaign to victory in 2016 against seemingly all predictions earned the former head of Breitbart News a place in the history books. Esteemed director Errol Morris is no stranger to interviewing controversial Republican figures, most notably former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known.

Morris’ new documentary American Dharma ostensibly aims to peel back the layers of Bannon, known for his bombastic rhetoric and policies that many deride as racist, xenophobic, and homophobic, to say the least. The film covers a large portion of Bannon’s life, from his upbringing to his rise as a right-wing power broker. Trouble is, Morris never really stakes out a territory to craft anything revelatory about a man who’s been the subject of media fascination for years now.

For his part, Bannon consistently looks like he’s having the time of his throughout the documentary. Noting his love of Morris’ Fog of War and the inspiration it gave him to make political films of his own for conservative audiences, Bannon clearly appreciates the chance to be the director’s next project. That reverence hardly translates into cooperation, as Bannon manages to sidestep nearly every controversial question Morris throws at him.

Morris’ line of inquiry is hardly of the softball nature, but American Dharma suffers from a lack of follow-ups. There are several occasions where Morris flat out asks if some of the policies, such as the travel ban, were racist in nature. He doesn’t really get an answer, nor does he pursue one.

With a runtime of a little over ninety minutes, American Dharma understandably lacks the time to cover every noteworthy aspect of Bannon’s life or even his political career. Morris spends so little time on Bannon’s White House tenure that a casual viewer might forget he was there at all. More time is dedicated to Bannon’s favorite films than the Trump White House.

It is in this chief regard that Morris misses the mark for his film. Bannon is no stranger to marquee interviews, the recipient of Time magazine covers and 60 Minute profiles. Events such as the Access Hollywood tape scandal have been covered extensively for years by several mediums. The time that Morris dedicates to the campaign comes at the expense of a discussion of actual policy that Bannon would have been responsible for as Chief Strategist in the White House.

American Dharma fails to present any new insight on Steve Bannon, a shame considering the man’s history of loose lips. Bannon famously served as a major source for Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury book, and gave an interview that was highly critical of the Trump administration to the progressive outlet The American Prospect days before his departure from the White House. Bannon certainly likes to share what he really thinks about policy and Donald Trump. Morris just didn’t manage to get much out of him.

Part of the problem with American Dharma may be the fact that unlike The Unknown Known, we’re still in the midst of the administration that the subject was a part of. Morris presents a broad portrait of Bannon, too often treading through the same terrain that’s been picked clean by a media that rarely talks about anything but Trump. American Dharma may have relevance to future generations unfamiliar with the daily media play-by-play, but it’s unclear what he expected a 2019 audience to make of this film. We’ve seen this show before.



October 2019



The Lighthouse is a Contemplative Gem Bound to Captivate and Terrify

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On the surface, a film like The Lighthouse seems to exist in stark contradiction to pretty much anything else you could find playing at your local theatre. Filmed on one location, using 35 mm black and white film and only two actors in speaking roles, Robert Eggers’ second feature carries the aura of a stage play throughout its narrative. Throw in a runtime of nearly two hours, the whole experience feels designed to capture the essence of cabin fever that being stuck on a rock would inevitably create.

Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (William Dafoe) are two lighthouse keepers, or “wickies,” assigned to a small rocky island for a four-week stay. Wake, the senior wickie, finds himself disinterested in the mundane duties, leaving Winslow to handle all the manual labor himself. Monotony and time make for uneasy bedfellows, giving a sense of unreliability to the narrative.

Pattinson and Dafoe give two of the best performances of their careers, putting seemingly every emotion on display throughout the film. There’s an impressive depth to their relationship, reflective of their isolated surroundings. Much of the film plays out like a horror movie, but there’s plenty of moments of natural comedy that help ease the tension.

Eggers proves his directorial skills time and again throughout the narrative. The Lighthouse is a quiet, almost contemplative film, but there’s a deliberate sense to the pacing. Some of the sequences exude claustrophobia, putting the audience right in the midst of the dilemma that Wake and Winslow find themselves in.

The film’s cinematography is also a highlight, impressive considering the small size of the island. Eggers uses the ocean around the lighthouse to aid the sense of isolation, as well as the magnitude of the powers beyond the wickie’s control. In that regard, space is both minuscule and grandiose.

The only issue with The Lighthouse lies with its runtime. 110 minutes is long for many movies, especially one filmed in a small space with two actors. There is the sense that Eggers deliberately drew out the narrative to mirror the plight of his characters, hopelessly stuck with no end in sight.

Trouble is, there’s only so many times that Winslow and Wake can experience the same conflicts until the whole exercise starts to feel a bit monotonous. The notion of purpose behind the monotony clashes with the idea that the film spends a bit too much time hovering above its destination before landing. It could be fifteen minutes shorter without losing a beat.

Despite the overly drawn out third act, The Lighthouse is a remarkable film. It’s funny, horrifying, uncomfortable, and deeply strange, all at the same time. Minimalism isn’t a trait often truly appreciated on the big screen. Eggers crafted a quietly beautiful narrative that’s well-worth a trip to the theatre.



October 2019



Joker Succeeds Due to the Strength of Joaquin Phoenix’s Performance

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Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” helped popularize the idea that superhero movies could exist as reflections of reality rather than their comic book source material. For decades, the Joker has existed as an over-the-top sinister arch villain, drawing a sick delight from being responsible for some of Batman’s darkest hours, including killing Jason Todd and paralyzing Barbara Gordon. For big screen feature films, the criminal mastermind’s terror stems from utterly realistic nature of his tyranny, the kind of evil not dissimilar from those who commit mass shootings or other heinous acts.

Todd Phillips’ Joker rarely feels like a comic book movie. Instead, his take on the iconic villain plays out as more of long think piece on the nature between isolation and evil. For a character who’s been committing crimes for eighty years, the comics don’t tend to spend a lot of time on the background information that led the Joker on the path of darkness. There isn’t even really an established history regarding the character’s real name.

Joaquin Phoenix presents Arthur Fleck as a pathetic individual. Arthur is clearly mentally ill and lacks any meaningful connection to the outside world besides his similarly delusional mother (Frances Conroy). Arthur wants to be a comedian, but it’s unclear if he actually knows what a joke is.

Phoenix’s mesmerizing lead performance is more than enough to carry the narrative past many of its meandering moments. Giving one of the strongest performances of his storied career, Phoenix plays Fleck with such nuance that it’s often hard to take your eyes off him in each scene. Many talented actors have played the Joker, but Phoenix ensures that his take will go down as one of the best takes on the character.

As a film, Joker is a bit diminished by Phillips’ approach to potential sympathy that one might feel toward the film’s “protagonist,” a label that feels uncomfortable if not accurate. Arthur Fleck is a very bad man who’s led about as tragic a life as one could present on film. Never lost on the audience is the sense that the Joker represents a failure on both fronts of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. The narrative fully explains how this monster came to exist, but Phillips isn’t interested in telling anyone how to feel about Arthur.

Some may appreciate that approach, giving the audience full leeway to come to their own conclusions. Situations are rarely as black and white as many films make them out to be, but Joker feels utterly comfortable swimming around in the grey. Arthur can be grey and sympathetic, understandably despicable. Whether those implications should be transferred onto Fleck’s real-world counterparts is a different story, albeit one where the lines might seem a little blurred.

The other aspect of Joker that doesn’t quite work is its desire to exist as part of Gotham’s larger lore while simultaneously being about as far removed from a comic book movie as has ever been presented on screen. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) plays a supporting role, an inclusion that feels more obligatory than out of narrative necessity. The Joker is without a doubt the most well-known comic book villain in history. There isn’t any explicit reason why the Wayne family needs to be included in his story. Phillips hardly makes the case for their presence in this film.

Joker is a triumph largely due to Phoenix’s performance. The film has a lot of flaws, but Phoenix keeps the narrative afloat with his commitment to the character. For a genre wrapped up in franchises and connected universes, it’s rather refreshing to see a movie with a concrete beginning, middle, and end.