Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: April 2020

Thursday

16

April 2020

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Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans Is a Loving Victory Lap for the Franchise

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Disney used to have an informal “65-episode rule” that applied to practically all of its television series. This approach kept costs down, allowed the company to quickly stockpile a syndication library, and prevented Disney Channel from being overly tied to one program. Obviously there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but this method was fairly standard practice across much of children’s programming.

The original Teen Titans series ran for 65 episodes from 2003-2006. Cartoon Network earned the ire of many when it cancelled the popular adaptation of the DC Comic’s superhero team. Its 2013 spinoff, Teen Titans Go!, has proved vastly more successful, producing 278 episodes (at half the runtime of the original) so far, along with a feature film adaptation, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. While far more comedic in nature, the presence of the entire original voice cast gives the spinoff a natural sense of continuity to its predecessor.

Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans is a concept seemingly unimaginable to anyone who grew up watching weekday afternoon and Saturday morning cartoon blocks, full of shows who saw their lifespans cut short at the 65-episode marker. That is the way television used to work. The past rarely returns to the present, except in the form of streaming services that cater to nostalgia.

While nostalgia obviously drives the concept, Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans is not a film that overly relies on the past to drive its narrative. Fans of the original series will find plenty to enjoy in seeing the old interpretations of Robin, Starfire, Raven, Cyborg, and Beast Boy, but the plot anchors itself on much firmer footing. Raven’s father Trigon drives the plot, a compelling father/daughter conflict that works well as a plot that doesn’t need to take up the film’s whole attention.

Teen Titans Go! is hardly a show about actual fighting, but the action sequences in the film are quite fun. The 2003 team work well as the “serious Titans,” serving as the foil to their more cartoonish counterparts. It’s more of the 2013 roster’s movie, fitting given their popularity, but each character gets plenty of time to shine. The voice cast do a great job juggling duel roles.

The film is a shining example of how to please longtime fans without relying too hard on nostalgia. The jokes are well written, enjoyable both for casual viewers and diehard fans of the comics. It’s an inclusive style of comedy that doesn’t overstay its welcome with a lean 77-minute runtime.

Fans of the original series who don’t appreciate the lighthearted tone of Go! might find similar disappointment, but Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans is a very entertaining extra chapter in the Teen Titans chronology. As a film, it’s not quite as full of laughs as its cinematic predecessor, but it’s also playing toward a different objective. The Titans have crafted an impressive television continuity over the past seventeen years. The film plays homage to their legacy while keeping its eyes on the present.

 

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Monday

13

April 2020

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Classic Film: The Draughtman’s Contract

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Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtman’s Contract revels in its take on convention, a kind of satire played with such a straight face that it could have been easily based on a nineteenth century novel. Set in the English Wiltshire in the late 1600s, the film follows an artist in his efforts to craft twelve landscapes of a country house. Filled with murder and cuckoldry, the narrative leisurely unloads on its audience, refusing to bend to any conventional understanding of storytelling.

Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) is an amusing character, though hardly the sort designed to be much of a protagonist. Neville is very particular about the atmosphere, forcing strict guidelines on the household to avoid parts of the property and certain parts of the day. The Herbert family must cater to Neville’s every whim, including his sexual desires, though the boredom of country life gives the routine an added sense of purpose.

The characters are distant, both in a figurative and literal sense. Greenaway frames most scenes to resemble portraits, rarely adjusting the camera. Without close-ups, the true point of view is hidden, or perhaps left up to the audience. The freedom of interpretation carries a liberating burden, leaving one to decide what matters on their own terms.

The costumes are absolutely delightful. Each character is dressed about as flamboyantly as possible. The excesses of the aristocracy are in full display, a group determined to be measures by the layers and tulle on their bodies. If it’s meant to be parody, Greenaway assures that it’s carried out with as much of a straight face as possible.

Greenaway’s success lies in his ability to be simultaneously distant and welcoming, a charm that buoys the film’s peculiar narrative. Much of the action centers around Neville’s work, but The Draughtman’s Contract isn’t too concerned with his artistic output. It’s a murder mystery that doesn’t care much about resolution. Simply put, it’s a film that gives the audience significant leeway to draw from it whatever they will.

Some may find that approach unwieldy, a film unconcerned with articulating a message or with whether or not its audience can relate to its main character. The Draughtman’s Contract is crafted to force one to think, in the absence of any obvious conclusion. The narrative manages to be compelling while divorced from any necessity to interpret its findings.

Rare are the kinds of stories that exhibit such comfort in the unresolved. Film supplies its audience with brief portraits into their characters’ lives that are implied to carry much grander weight, much like a landscape intends to capture the full essence of its subject. Life is rarely that convenient. More lies beneath the surface, either for people to discover or to be the subject of endless speculation. The Draughtman’s Contract delights in the ways it can manipulate its audience’s emotions both during the film’s runtime and for a good while after.

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Friday

10

April 2020

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Classic Film: Made in U.S.A.

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Some films are so inaccessible that the mind can’t help but gravitate toward the unique particulars of their creation as a way to explore the labyrinth. Shot concurrently with Two or Three Things I Know About Her, it is as if Jean-Luc Godard crafted Made in U.S.A. as a way to break away from what few singular strands of convention were present in the former’s narrative. Based at least in part on The Jugger by Donald E. Westlake and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, as well as its film adaptation by Howard Hawks, the film found itself exiled from American cinema for decades due to complications surrounding the rights.

Made in U.S.A. can hardly be said to be an adaptation of much of anything. There are odes of crime fiction that draw parallels to Chandler’s work, but Godard doesn’t have plot on his mind. The film essentially functions without a plot, though its narrative is so splintered that it barely appears to function at all.

Anna Karina mostly carries the film as Paula, who encounters her dead lover in a hotel room. Paula interacts with plenty of gangsters. The aura of Walt Disney looms large over the film, a figure at odds with the bleak nature of noir crime. Godard plays around with left and right repeatedly throughout the film, challenging his audience to see outside the binary. If Disney represents one pillar of the industry, with Humphrey Bogart at the other, Godard wishes to float around the clouds above them.

The color scheme of the film is absolutely beautiful. Godard paints with a palette of primary colors, mainly red and blues against a landscape of 60s Paris. For practically that reason alone, the film is worth a watch, if only to enjoy a time period where fashion enjoyed such a radical simplicity.

Made in the U.S.A. is the product of Godard’s efforts to make something that in no way, shape, or form resembles a product. Movies, the kind that Disney still puts out to this day, have beginnings, middles, and ends. Everything in life follows this same pattern, as does Made in U.S.A. from a broader standpoint. The big difference being that the audience is constantly left without the typical narrative tools through which one typically mines enjoyment from the experience.

By venturing too deep into the abstract, Godard relinquishes some of the impact his words might carry when aimed at a more conventional subject. There is plenty of Godard’s anti-war sentiments present in the film’s rather political third act. Paris, France, and life itself bear the burdens of the wars that came before us.

Godard has quite a lot to say about the cyclical nature of life’s establishments, the forces that reign over his political and entertainment realms. Made in U.S.A. often struggles to articulate these messages mostly because it isn’t very interested in letting the audience in on its thought processes. Godard found great successes in most of his other 60s output, but Made in U.S.A. is a satisfying experience for fans of his work looking to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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Wednesday

8

April 2020

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Circus of Books is a Loving Tribute to a LA Institution

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The mountains of progress that have been made in the fight for LGBTQ equality in recent years can make it easy to forget just how hard it was for gay people to connect just a few years ago. Before the age of Grindr and Tinder, places like Circus of Books served as meeting places for gay people to meet each other in relative safety. The Internet drastically reshaped the American economy, particularly the porn industry, leaving plenty of mom and pop establishments struggling to make ends meet.

The documentary Circus of Books follows the final days of the beloved establishment, as well as the couple who ran it. Karen and Barry Mason hardly look like the kind of people who would become major distributors of hardcore gay porn, but the two created a successful business out of an industry that was almost completely decimated by the Reagan administration. Directed by their daughter Rachel, the film presents an intimate look at how Circus of Books operated in its heyday.

Mason does a deep dive into her parents’ life work, from the early days acquiring the store, to their role as producers of gay porn starring icons like Jeff Stryker, all the way to the last days of the business. Interviews from former staff as well as Hustler founder Larry Flynt help give context into the world of gay porn distribution and the Mason’s important role in the supply chain.

As a documentary, Circus of Books mostly splits its attention between the bookstore and the Mason’s complicated home life, particularly toward Karen’s handling of the coming out of their son, Josh. Rachel thoroughly explores the seemingly contradictory mindset of her mother’s reluctance to accept her own son’s homosexuality while running an establishment that caters to the gay community. The whole sequence is a little uncomfortable to watch, like seeing a family air out its dirty laundry, but the resolution serves as a good reminder that allies are as complex and diverse as the broader LGBTQ community itself.

There is a point where Karen expresses to her daughter that maybe the documentary should have been about some of the actual gay pioneers during a visit to USC’s archives, a sentiment that’s perhaps included in the film with an inflated sense of confidence. Rachel Mason crafts an interesting and well-paced narrative, albeit one that often struggles to shake the aura of a vanity project. The sense that the Mason family is only participating because their daughter is the director remains particularly present in the third act.

Circus of Books was an important LGBTQ cultural spot in Los Angeles. Mason lovingly pays tribute to her parents’ business while giving her audience plenty of reasons to care about this piece of gay history. The modern age doesn’t have the same need for physical media, but stores like Circus of Books served a broader purpose in giving a marginalized community a place for connection. It will be missed not necessarily for its back room or “Vaseline alley,” but for the sense of belonging that its presence helped foster.

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Sunday

5

April 2020

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Classic Film: Two or Three Things I Know About Her

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A film like Two or Three Things I Know About Her (original French title Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d’elle) retains a certain sense of timelessness by the very nature of its premise. Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 treatise on consumerism largely functions without a narrative. In the absence of structure, each viewing represents an individualized experience that’s rather difficult to replicate.

The closest thing the film has to a plot centers around Juliette Jeanson (Marina Vlady) going about her daily life. Juliette’s life is much like many other upper-class women, except for the sex work that she engages in, interspersed with her otherwise mundane existence. Juliette especially comes alive in a series of musings aimed directly at the camera in sequences that feel sort of like breaking the fourth wall.

Godard repeatedly demonstrates a fascination with language throughout the film, identifying it as the house that man lives in, both a vital tool and a limiting asset. We understand each other through our shared ability to communicate. Without it, we have nothing, except Godard isn’t entirely sold on language’s ability to accurately capture moments.

Language describes circumstances with broad strokes. One can describe a person going to a car wash, but the duty of determining what moments deserve illustration is a flawed proposition at best. A moment cannot be fully depicted no matter our efforts or best intentions.

In terms of capturing the essence of a film, narrative helps anchor the audience in the themes that are to be presented. By tossing narrative out of the window, Godard forces the audience to engage with film as a medium purely on his terms. It’s an uncomfortable yet deeply satisfying exercise.

The same holds true for the role of the critic, to provide a review within accepted standards. The critic does not move through a film, line by line, to provide a tracking poll of sorts by which the entire narrative must be judged. Such a practice would be futile if attempted, and unreadable if completed.

If a character turns her head to the left and the narrator tells you it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s there on screen, a fact that tells us little about the overarching answer. If things are significant because they are present, much of what we understand about art must be completely wrong.

Godard displays much contempt for the efforts of advertising to use language to influence society, fearing that their success will eat away at humanity’s ability to interpret meaning. Capitalism reduces the human experiences to numbers and bottom lines, consumption as the goal rather than the means.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her is a very difficult film to engage with. The lack of cohesive narrative constantly forces the audience to be at unease with their own understanding of what’s happening on the screen. It does not, however, skirt the traditional of question of good or bad.

Godard found his success in creating a film that keeps its audience guessing long after the credits have stopped rolling. Entertainment is a secondary concern, but there are ample pleasures to be found in taking the mind for a jog through his absurdist landscape. Two or Three Things I Know About Her is practically impossible to fully understand, but the act of grappling with the material is a delightful exercise.

 

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Thursday

2

April 2020

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Tiger King Proves Sometimes Reality Is Better Than the Dream

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America finds itself in a period desperate for distractions to take our minds off the collective sense of anxiety many of us feel toward the present state of affairs. Cooped up at home, a narrative like Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness scratches this itch perfectly, the kind of train wreck you can’t look away from even as every fiber of your being feels dirty for having spent time with its subjects. The best true crime stories are the ones that are too absurd to work as pieces of fiction, with twist after twist designed to completely overload the senses.

At the heart of Tiger King is its titular subject, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic, a man of poor taste in just about every sense of the word. For years, Joe Exotic reigned over the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, a small zoo in Oklahoma. Joe Exotic owned hundreds of tigers, earning the wrath of animal rights activist Carole Baskin, who operates the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Florida. Exotic’s efforts to wage war against Baskin left him financially ruined, leading to him attempting to hire a hit man to murder her. A 2018 arrest for those efforts, among other charges, lead to twenty-two-year sentence, which he is currently serving.

Tiger King uses extensive footage filmed over several years, allowing the filmmakers to capture Joe Exotic and all of his antics before he found himself behind bars. Exotic is a natural entertainer of the Trumpian variety, a man perpetually capable of stooping to new lows with his asinine behavior and lust for the spotlight. Much like his zoo, Exotic appeals in the same way as toilet humor, a juvenility perfect for Netflix, where the audience can laugh along without feeling ashamed for their enjoyment.

The seven-part series covers a wide range of topics beyond the Exotic/Baskin feud, itself full of subplots. Fellow tiger enthusiast Bhagavan “Doc” Antle receives an extended profile, a similarly vile character who runs a preserve/harem in South Carolina. Tiger King strikes at the heart of the types of people who engage in the shady business of exotic animals, an expensive endeavor that leads to plenty of abuse, both of the animals and the employees lured to the premises.

A Shakespearian tragedy fitting for this dystopian modern era, Tiger King finds a sense of mesmerizing beauty in its perpetual race down the gutter. Joe Exotic is a truly terrible human being, selfish and vindictive, hardly a suitable protagonist or anti-hero. Likewise, he’s not wholly a villain either, having a kind of weird charm that tugs at the heartstrings, if only for a moment. In Baskin, the show finds a suitable foil, herself an odd character who walks under a perpetual cloud of suspicion after her husband mysteriously vanished in 1997. There are no heroes in Tiger King.

The great triumph of the series lies with its utter lack of moral message. Owning exotic animals is bad, yes, but that’s also something already well-apparent to many viewers in the year 2020. Tiger King isn’t all that concerned with stating the obvious. Instead, the series mostly just focuses on the absurd nature of its narrative. Each episode contains more plot twists than most movies could get away with. It is magnificent entertainment.

To call it a guilty-pleasure almost doesn’t feel right considering all that’s going on in the country. Pleasure is in short supply. Joe Exotic is a seemingly-endless supply of amusement. Tiger King isn’t just must-watch. It’s the perfect narrative for our times.

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