Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: February 2020

Wednesday

19

February 2020

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Schwartz and Crystal Shine in Standing Up, Falling Down

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Show business is a terrible industry to try to make a living in. Many people fly to Los Angeles with dreams of grandeur, only to return home with empty bank accounts and a missing sense of purpose. Life rarely goes according to plan.

Standing Up, Falling Down is mostly a film about the period of time after the death of the dream. For Scott (Ben Schwartz), LA was supposed to be the beginning of something. Instead, he finds himself back in his childhood bedroom in Long Island, lost in the middle of his 30s. He finds companionship in his dermatologist Marty (Billy Crystal), an eccentric upbeat drunk who helps him find solace in his failures.

Schwartz puts forth the best performance of his career. Scott is a bit of a departure from the types of roles he’s known for on shows like Parks & Recreation or House of Lies, but the quieter tempo works well for him. It’s not a particularly challenging character to play, but Schwartz does a good job drawing sympathy for his fairly pathetic protagonist.

The film is carried off the strength of Schwartz and Crystal’s chemistry, two actors who are clearly having fun with the material. That kind of enthusiasm can be make or break for a film like Standing Up, Falling Down, which hardly reinvents the wheel. There are countless films about sad young people in America with failed careers in entertainment. The two strong performances from Crystal and Schwartz make it easy to forget that this is a story that’s been told many times before.

Standing Up, Falling Down also does a good job not biting at the low-hanging fruit that many indie films pursue. Scott has a pretty good family life and a sister Megan (Grace Gummer) who’s fairly supportive even though she’s also in a fairly dead-end job. Scott’s predicament is a life setback, not the end of the world. Director Matt Ratner is great at keeping the narrative grounded in its circumstances.

There are a few pacing issues in the third act that hinder the film a bit. The narrative is a fairly slow burn, until the time comes where it needs to start presenting something resembling a climax. The last half hour includes a couple plotlines that probably should’ve been introduced a bit earlier. For a film where the quiet moments speak the loudest volume, there comes a point where Ratner makes a bit more noise than he needs to.

Standing Up, Falling Down isn’t the most groundbreaking film in the world, but it’s a very enjoyable narrative. The ninety-minute runtime doesn’t waste a second, utilizing its best assets to sustain the film. Billy Crystal is almost always a treat to watch, evening if he’s doing something mundane like making pancakes. Ben Schwartz proves he’s capable of being more than an obnoxious loud mouth, a moving film that hits all the right notes, even if you can see them coming from a mile away. Sometimes for a movie, that’s more than enough.

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Saturday

15

February 2020

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire Is a Masterpiece

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LGBTQ people have been around since the beginning of time, natural subjects for period pieces. The biggest obstacle is the historical discrimination shown toward our community, limiting the types of narratives that can be told. “Happily ever after” isn’t a concept that gay people got to enjoy until fairly recently. The new French film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire takes on lesbian love at the end of the eighteenth century, a tall order that writer and director Céline Sciamma tackles with ease.

Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a young painter commissioned to craft a portrait in secret on an island in Brittany. Her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), resists her mother’s efforts to get her to pose, as she does not want to be married off. Marianne is tasked with spending time with Héloïse to learn her features well enough to paint without her subject’s consent.

Sciamma’s greatest strength as a director is her ability to capture powerful quiet moments between her two stars. Appropriately, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a slow burn. The film has a very small cast and not a whole lot happens over the course of its two-hour runtime. The pacing works very well, as Sciamma crafts her scenes in a way that constantly leaves you wanting more.

Merlant and Haenal are spectacular. The narrative unfolds over about two week’s time, the kind of stretch ripe for the passion of summer flings. The two present a compelling romance that unfolds fairly naturally, pressed up against the confines of reality. Love thrives in the vacuum of brevity.

Sciamma is superb at crafting scenes that speak volumes without dialogue. There are plenty of dreamy sequences that play around with consciousness. The spooky setting of the island manor also lends itself well to this dynamic. It’s the perfect environment for a passionate fling that fills the mind with love and longing.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire perfectly demonstrates how to depict gay love in a period setting without caving to broader societal expectations. Heartbreak is natural in a world that denied the validity of LGBTQ romance for so long, but we also live in a modern environment that’s grown tired of narratives that bask in gay pain. Too many films have relished in the drama of inevitable breakups. The time is right for a different kind of story.

In many ways, LGBTQ narratives aren’t exactly made for members of our own community. Many are made from the perspective of heterosexual cisgender men, or designed to appeal to an audience who doesn’t know what it’s like to love someone you’re not supposed to be with. The realities of these situations are rarely as dramatic as cinema makes them out to be.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire understands the realities of forbidden love. Moments come, and then they leave. What’s left is the sense of fulfillment brought about by the experience of having felt that burning passion. Love is love, even when it’s not allowed to last forever. Few things ever do.

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Friday

14

February 2020

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Relish Is a Muddled, Derivative Take on Teen Angst That Lacks Focus

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The idea of doing a modern day take on The Breakfast Club is certainly tempting for many teen narratives. The genre owes much to John Hughes, who had a knack for understanding angst in a way that’s hard to replicate. With Relish, director Justin Ward takes a stab, putting forth a narrative that serves as less of an earnest homage than a pathetic rip-off.

The film follows five teenagers as they escape from the Deacon Treatment Facility. Kai (Tyler DiChiara) is a young transgender man struggling in a world that doesn’t accept his gender identity. Aspen (Hana Hayes) is a social media influencer with an unhealthy addiction to her phone. Levi (Mateus Ward) is addicted to opiods while Sawyer (Chelsea Zhang) battles OCD and a fear of being abducted by aliens. Rounding out the bunch is the manic depressive Theo (Rio Mangini), who’s quiet and reserved as he tries to keep his demons at bay.

Ward essentially frames the narrative as a road film, with the teens on their way to a music festival via stolen car. As with many stories, the journey is more important than the destination, except for the fact that the journey isn’t really all that important either. Relish mostly plays out like a series of vignettes with some half-baked philosophy thrown in to give the film some semblance of purpose.

The script is absolutely horrible. Ward muddles his film with terrible dialogue, ruining plenty of almost-sincere moments. He’s fairly competent at framing scenes, but the substance of the interactions falls flat. It’s a movie that’s clearly trying to come across as sincere, but lacks the words to adequately communicate its intentions.

The transgender representation is also an unfortunate mixed bag. DiChiara is a great actor, comfortable and confident in the lead role. Trouble is, the script gives him so little to work with that you end up feeling sorry for the actor rather than the character.

Ward’s lack of understanding of trans issues is apparent in the way he frames Kai’s story. The script offers him nothing but misgendering and repeated mentions of “the operation.” It’s superficial and tedious, an utter waste of a talented actor.

A similar dynamic is on full display with Aspen. Ward repeatedly swings and misses in trying to convey how a modern day social media influencer might behave. She’s not exactly a shallow character, but the way she talks about her online life sounds like it was written by someone with no understanding of how the internet works. As a result, Aspen’s scenes feel like they were crafted by a fourth grader, focusing solely on the most obvious traits of online life.

Relish has a talented young cast, but Ward doesn’t know how to use them. A laughably bad script tanks the entire experience. The film wanders around aimlessly for its runtime, trying to present snippets of meaning in scenes that fail to convey any understanding of modern day teen angst. Ward is no John Hughes, a fault that could be forgiven if he hadn’t tried to set up his film as a modern day take on The Breakfast Club. His film is pretty awful even before you hold it up to such a classic.

 

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Wednesday

12

February 2020

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The L Word: Generation Q Is a Slight Improvement on Its Shallow Predecessor

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The L Word will always be regarded as groundbreaking television series by nature of its premise. Public opinion toward LGBTQ people has undergone a massive transformation since 2004. Despite its status as a pioneer of queer representation in popular culture, The L Word has aged quite poorly as a narrative. Obsessed with melodrama and the superficial lives of its upper-class lesbians, it’s pretty embarrassing to think that this show served as many people’s point of entry to engaging with LGBTQ issues.

Popular culture has changed quite a bit since then. The L Word: Generation Q finds itself in a climate that’s far more unforgiving toward poorly crafted gay narratives. It’s not enough to feature lesbians on television, now you have to find something interesting for them to do. In this regard, Generation Q demonstrates that The L Word really hasn’t learned all that much.

The show was smart to keep the returning characters to a minimum. Bette (Jennifer Beals), Shane (Katherine Moennig), and Alice (Leisha Hailey) are the sole members of The L Word’s large ensemble cast to come back as regulars. The absence of Jenny Schecter, a strong contender for worst LGBTQ character ever depicted on screen, is refreshing, but Generation Q falls to put forth a strong case for why the audience should want to spend more time with Bette, Shane, and Alice.

Shane is still pretty cool. Alice is still annoying and obsessed with serving as a standard bearer for the community. Bette has more first world problems, this time running for mayor without any clear sense of conviction. The show is more than willing to forgive its characters’ shortcomings, shallow people living shallow lives, but it’s not very interested in demonstrating how any of these people have grown.

The new characters are a bit of a mixed bag. Sarah, better known by her last name Finley (Jacqueline Toboni), is the standout of the bunch, an executive assistant on Alice’s TV show who squats in Shane’s house. Micah Lee (Leo Sheng) helps correct the sins of the past in the trans masculine department, an adjunct professor with lots of depth in the romantic realm. Dani (Arienne Mandi) and Sophie (Rosanny Zayas) are less successful, an engaged couple with family melodrama that feels better suited for the climate of the original show.

The L Word was pretty horrifically terrible in the realm of transgender representation, repeatedly demonizing its trans male character Max in cringey depressing manners. In addition to Micah, recurring characters Pierce (Brian Michael Smith) and Tess (Jamie Clayton) are given substantive plots that don’t hinge on their transness.  The show is spread pretty thin with its ensemble cast, but manages to blend the new characters in with the holdouts pretty well.

The biggest problem for Generation Q is the writing. The superficial storytelling isn’t very interesting in a world with far better LGBTQ representation. Eight episodes isn’t a lot of time to craft compelling plotlines for such a large cast, but the show doesn’t really try. For the most part, it’s far too content to revisit tired tropes explored by its predecessor.

It’s not really quite clear who Generation Q is trying to please. It’s not really a “greatest-hits” style revival like many other reboots of the past few years. The legacy characters aren’t simply there to pass the baton either. Trouble is, they’re not really there to do anything interesting. Alice has already been on television and Bette spent the entire previous series jumping around from various high-status professions. Are we supposed to care about seeing this again?

For some, that answer might be yes. Generation Q is hardly unwatchable, unlike the later seasons of its predecessor. It’s hardly a satisfying experience. The LGBTQ community deserved better than the shallow storytelling of The L Word. The past few years have given the community just that. There isn’t much need for The L Word anymore. Generation Q doesn’t do much to change that sentiment.

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Tuesday

11

February 2020

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Rise of the Resistance

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Grab your Mickey Ears and your lightsaber, we’re heading back to Batuu! Disneyland’s new ride Rise of the Resistance is finally open and Ian & Tarabelle are here to talk about it. Rise of the Resistance is truly incredible, one of the park’s crowning achievements. Ian & Tarabelle also break down the new Star Tours scene based on The Rise of Skywalker, as well as a general update on Galaxy’s Edge as a whole.

 

For more of Estradiol Illusions’ Disneyland coverage, check out our episodes ranking every ride in the park as well as one on Galaxy’s Edge pre-Rise and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

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Saturday

8

February 2020

1

COMMENTS

Birds of Prey is a Meandering, Self-Congratulatory Slog

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2016’s Suicide Squad is quite possibility the most disappointing superhero movie of all time. The film’s constant efforts to make it look like its characters were having fun fell especially flat considering the talent involved. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was so obviously destined for better things than that disaster, putting her in a great position for her own film. Unfortunately, Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn falls into too many of its predecessor’s tropes.

Birds of Prey tries to be a lot of things at once. The bulk of the narrative is spent on Harley’s efforts to capture, and then protect Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who stole a diamond from Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a crime lord with a grudge against Harley. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smolllett-Bell) are also in the fix to anchor the Birds of Prey team that’s kind of based off the comic books, but their presence muddles a narrative that’s already pretty shoe-stringed as it is.

Robbie is a natural to play Harley Quinn, but Birds of Prey exposes some of the flaws in the way she approaches the character. Harley is a great gag character, but a bit one-dimensional for a leading hero. Director Cathy Yan is reluctant to give Quinn enough time to grow, constantly distracted by other shiny objects in the narrative. Harley feels restricted in her own film, an incoherent narrative without any real focus other than a feeble effort to laugh at its own jokes.  A strangely self-congratulatory effort.

Though he doesn’t make an appearance, the Joker’s presence looms heavily over the film. To some extent, this might be expected. Harley Quinn is practically synonymous with Batman’s signature villain, even though her comics do a pretty good job mitigating this dynamic. For a film series whose best Joker adaptation isn’t in the DC Extended Universe, you would think that Birds of Prey would want to do everything in its power to make you forget there’s another version of that laughing maniac.

Birds of Prey could have easily sidelined any thoughts of the Joker early on, but Yan is hell-bent on bringing him up repeatedly throughout the film. This kind of approach is fundamentally unsatisfactory regardless of how you feel about Jared Leto’s take on the character. He’s not in the movie. For those who are pleased with his absence, the constant reminders only serve to harken back to a not-so distant era where this Harley ran off with that odious creature. It doesn’t make any sense.

The film also repeats Suicide Squad’s bad habit of long-winded expository scenes that stifle the narrative. It’s hard to invest in the film when it’s constantly bending over backwards to take the audience out of the moment. It’s also spread too thin to do justice by any of the characters it awards these backstories to. Huntress is perhaps the biggest victim of this dynamic. Winstead is fun, but she’s a footnote in a movie that probably would have been better off omitting her entirely.

McGregor pours a lot of heart into the villainous Roman, but the film pigeonholes him into a largely perfunctory role. Yan could have cut him out entirely and not all that much would change. He is painfully obligatory, there because a film needs to have a bad guy. Birds of Prey would rather wink at the audience than try and give its narrative any real sense of purpose.

The fight scenes are very good. Though the titular Birds of Prey really aren’t that necessary to the film, there are snippets of good chemistry between the actresses. The film is just too unfocused to dive deeper into their relationships, too busy with the shiny object of the moment.

At times, Birds of Prey is capable of making the audience smile. It’s a film that clearly looks like it’s having a lot of fun, going out of its way to convey this sentiment time and time again, just as Suicide Squad included countless expressions of “we’re the bad guys.” We get it. Harley Quinn is a very fun character. She just keeps appearing in subpar movies that don’t do her any justice. Maybe someday she’ll be liberated with a film that doesn’t roll around in its own mediocrity.

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Friday

7

February 2020

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Sundance Wrap Up

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Our Sundance coverage concludes! Returning guest Michelle Jaworski joins Ian for a look back at their favorite moments from the festival. From the films to the jam-packed nature of Park City to all the sleep deprivation and malnutrition, Sundance is both a sprint and an endurance test.

 

Films discussed include Crip Camp, Minari, Spaceship Earth, Zola, Herself, Nine Days, Miss Americana, Jumbo, and Dick Johnson is Dead.

 

For more of Michelle – follow her on Twitter @michejaw & check out her articles at The Daily Dot

Ian’s Sundance coverage can be found on her author website & FanSided page. This Twitter thread was her only attempt to organize them all…

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Tuesday

4

February 2020

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Sundance Spotlight: Nathan Barr, composer of Uncle Frank

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As our Sundance converage rolls along, we’re super excited to welcome Nathan Barr, composer of Uncle Frank to the show. Uncle Frank is one of the standout films of the festival, a heartwarming narrative for the LGBTQ community. Nathan shares some of his experiences crafting the film and collaborating with director Alan Ball again after seven seasons composing music for True Blood.

 

You can follow Nathan on Twitter @composerbarr

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Tuesday

4

February 2020

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Sundance Spotlight: Anthony Willis, composer of Promising Young Woman

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Our Sundance coverage continues with one of my personal favorites from the festival, Promising Young Woman. Delighted to welcome composer Anthony Willis to the show. Anthony explains his approach to scoring Emerald Fennell’s unique masterpiece. Anthony also plays some of the music from the film, an exciting treat you won’t want to miss. 

Promising Young Woman will be released on April 17th.

 

For more of Anthony, follow him on Twitter @AnthonyBWillis

 

Also be sure to check out Ian’s FanSided review of the film

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Saturday

1

February 2020

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Sundance Review: Once Upon a Time in Venezuela

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The human-rights crisis in Venezuela receives only occasional coverage in the United States, largely centering on the fight for control of its government. News reports mention shortages of food and other vital supplies, but the dangerous political climates make it hard to actually see what’s going on there. The documentary Once Upon a Time in Venezuela aims to shed light on the village of Congo Mirador, a once-prosperous community built on stilts above Lake Maracaibo.

Director Anabel Rodríguez Ríos keeps the narrative squarely focused on the people of Congo Mirador. Most of them are struggling fishermen, fighting a war with pollution that’s hurting their industry and destroying their homes. The sediment buildup in the region is out of control, but the government doesn’t seem to care. As a result, more and more people are forced to leave the village, taking their homes with them in the process.

There isn’t much of a narrative, but that’s not really an issue. Ríos lets the people speak for themselves, rarely injecting anything resembling her own opinion. The people there are trying to thrive, having to do more with less.

The school is run down and the fishing boats are in desperate need of repair, but the people are proud, hopeful that a day will come when these hardships are behind them. The realities of the situation paint a bleaker picture, something Ríos is keen to explore as time moves on. For a government dealing with nationwide turmoil, a small fishing village is hardly a concern.

The film doesn’t spend a lot of time on the politics of the situation, but the focus that Ríos does give is particularly telling. It’s hardly a surprise that there’s corruption in Venezuela, but Ríos captures it in real time. People demand bribes for their votes, money or other material goods. Guards at the polling stations prevent any semblance of democracy.

Ríos presents both sides of the political equation. There are people who still worship the ground that Chavez once walked on, and those fed up with the current state of the government. Footage from actual dealings with local politicians demonstrates their lack of concern, complacency delivered with a hug and a smile.

In some ways, Ríos takes too much of a hands off approach. The narrative is a bit difficult to penetrate for outside audiences, particularly considering the complex nature of the country’s politics. It’s a powerful human piece, albeit one that struggles to find its own voice in the midst of all the tragedy.

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is a haunting look at a dying region and the people who left it behind. Ríos sugarcoats nothing, a raw testimonial of government corruption. It’s a difficult documentary to watch, but an important narrative of a community ravaged by senseless greed. Though there’s little hope for optimism, the value of the truth cannot be understated in a country that does everything it can to silence the opposition.

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