Ian Thomas Malone

Monthly Archive: September 2020



September 2020



Dead is a hilarious buddy cop comedy with a ton of heart

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The stoner comedy genre has taken a bit of a hit in the wake of marijuana’s broader mainstream acceptance. Gradually shedding its counter-cultural image, humor from such endeavors must rely less on shock value. The New Zealand-based comedy/horror film Dead puts forth a strong effort that subverts all genre expectations.

Dane “Marbles” Marbeck (Thomas Sainsbury) is a bit of a hapless stoner who concocts a potion made from pot and his late father’s neurological medication that allows him to see ghosts. One ghost, Tagg (Hayden J. Weal), a police officer who was recently murdered while pursuing a serial killer, presents Marbles with an opportunity to put his gifts to use. In exchange for helping him solve the case, Tagg offers Marbles his life insurance payout in order to buy his family farm from his mother (Jennifer Ward-Lealand).

Sainsbury and Weal, who also co-authored the screenplay, are quite compelling in the lead roles. There’s a depth to Marbles that elevates the character beyond the many stock personality types that can be found in the genre. He’s not just a sad dope, but a kind person with a sense of personal drive that’s easy to get behind. Also juggling director duties, Weal constantly challenges his audience with emotionally resonant material that’s quite funny without ever feeling like it’s playing for laughs.

A scene early on between Marbles and his father Ross (Michael Hurst) comes out of nowhere with its heartfelt sincerity, hardly the kind of approach common in a buddy cop stoner film. Weal packs quite a lot of character development in for Marbles and Tagg, giving their relationship a journey that feels unconstrained by the limits of a ninety-minute runtime. The pacing is superb.

Dead tackles LGBTQ issues quite well in an interesting dynamic. Sainsbury, openly gay, plays the straight Marbles while Weal, openly heterosexual, plays the openly gay Tagg. Tagg’s gayness is integral to the narrative, but the film takes an inclusive approach to its humor. It’s rather refreshing to watch a film where the LGBTQ community actually feels in on the jokes.

The New Zealand landscape is absolutely beautiful. Much of Dead is filmed outdoors, giving global audiences a chance to experience the country, particularly valuable in the midst of a pandemic. While clearly not a big budget endeavor, the strong production values and first-rate cast more than make the case for the film.

Dead is in Select Theaters and Virtual Cinemas on 9/25 and on Digital on 10/6



September 2020



Michael Hurst

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We are delighted to welcome Michael Hurst to the show for a wide-ranging discussion of his illustrious career. Michael is best remembered for playing Iolaus on Hercules: The Legendary Journey’s & Xena: Warrior Princess, and for his directorial work on shows like Spartacus and Ash vs. Evil Dead. Ian & Michael talk at length about the influence that Hercules has had on the fantasy genre, opening the door for dozens of shows that followed.

Michael recently appeared in the New Zealand production Dead, a hilarious and tender buddy cop comedy. Dead premieres on virtual cinemas on September 25th, with a VOD release on October 6th. Full of LGBTQ themes and making great use of the beautiful New Zealand landscape, Dead is a perfect choice for pandemic viewing.

Ian’s review of Dead: https://ianthomasmalone.com/2020/09/dead-is-a-hilarious-buddy-cop-comedy-with-a-ton-of-heart/



Headshot courtesy of Michael Hurst. Film poster courtesy of 1091 Pictures.



September 2020



Blackbird can’t overcome its sloppy filmmaking and lackluster screenplay

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The right to die is sadly still a controversial issue in much of the world. For many terminally ill people, the idea of going out on your own terms is far better than the alternative, a few extra weeks spent practically comatose hooked up to all sorts of machines. Agency is not a concept that should be removed from this equation.

Blackbird handles the subject of agency quite well. Lily (Susan Sarandon) chooses to end her life on a specific day, after a long battle with ALS. She and her husband Paul (Sam Neill), invite their family for one last weekend together before Paul delivers a concoction designed to bring her suffering to an end. With a stacked supporting cast that includes Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, and Rainn Wilson, you’d expect the film to tackle the subject matter with the level of grace that it deserves.

Unfortunately, Blackbird is a mess almost straight from the get-go. Director Roger Michell crafts the film like a stage play, using extensive wide shots in the majority of the film’s first half. The camera often remains fixed for full scenes, showcasing rooms of the house essentially from the perspective of a security camera. There’s some initial novelty in the idea of making the audience feel like a wallflower, but the whole approach is clunky and distracting.

Despite the talent involved, Michell essentially kneecaps his cast by restricting the audience’s access to them. You can hear the words coming out of the characters’ mouths, but often you can’t see their expressions. If he truly wanted to mirror the stage, he made the rather puzzling decision to place the audience in the back row.

Worst of all, Michell conveys the wrong message with his stagnant camera. There’s a scene between Wasikowska and Winslet early on where they’re preparing a guest room. The conversation is to some degree meant to take a back seat to their actions, possibly a commentary on mundane chores in the face of imminent tragedy. Instead, the whole sequence leaves you envious of the characters, lost in something other than this boring mess.

What makes this whole dynamic even more confusing is that Michell essentially abandons this approach halfway through. Ensemble scenes in the back half feature plenty of close-ups. It’s as if he realized that the early scenes weren’t working and decided to call an audible, without going back to fix his mistakes.

Blackbird does an absolutely terrible job of conveying the severity of Lily’s illness. There is talk of her not being able to move her right hand, though she’s shown several times to have mobility, occasionally when Sarandon’s left arm is the one left still. Anyone familiar with ALS might find that this portrayal leaves quite a lot to be desired. A scene meant to convey her illness features Lily dropping a wine glass, except the whole setup is pretty outlandish.

Lily is shown sitting in a chair eating a piece of cake off a plate on her lap, with no side table in sight. It would seem practically impossible for anyone, terminally ill or not, to eat the cake while holding a wine glass. The audience is supposed to take this moment as a sign that she should be put out of her misery, but it’s so lazy and careless that the whole sequence earns little more than an eye-roll.

The screenplay is very bad. Early on, some of the awkward small talk seems designed to capture the spirit of the moment. As the narrative meanders along, it’s clear that the mediocrity wasn’t intentional. The sloppiness grows tiresome after a while. There’s a sequence where Winslet’s Jennifer asks for gin, only to be immediately handed a glass of wine. Some of this stuff could be forgiven, errors are a part of film, but sloppiness seems to define Michell’s approach to Blackbird.

The bad writing and directing puts a burden on the actors that none of them seem particularly eager to carry. Neill and Wilson in particular look bored out of their minds, phoning in their performances. Sarandon, Wasikowska and Winslet fair a bit better, though the material doesn’t give them much to work with.

Overburdened by a terrible screenplay and sloppy filmmaking, Blackbird makes a mess out of its sensitive material. People deserve to die with dignity, a surprisingly controversial issue in this modern age. Unfortunately, this film is not a good messenger.



September 2020



Mulan is a step in the right direction for Disney’s live action remakes

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Disney has an identity problem when it comes to their live-action slate. Efforts like The Lion King and Aladdin are too tethered to their source material to craft their own voices. Others such as Dumbo fall apart in the absence of any clear sense of purpose. Mulan removes the talking animals and musical numbers from the equation, plotting its own course through the ancient Chinese folklore.

Armed with a $200 million budget, a record-setting sum for a female director, Niki Caro crafts a visually breathtaking experience. The New Zealand landscape is beautiful, if not a bit distracting for a film set in China. CGI can bring practically any concept to life, but other Disney efforts have suffered from an over-reliance on green screens.

Mulan is competently acted, though it’s hard to say that any particular talent steals the show. Yifei Liu brings grace and a sense of determination to the title role, but she’s a bit too reserved. The absence of a confidant figure such as Mushu who is in on the ruse puts some strain on Liu’s ability to express the struggle at the core of the narrative.

Unlike it’s animated predecessor, Mulan puts its supernatural elements at the heart of the conflict. Mulan is basically turned into a superhero, exhibiting “chosen one”-type powers that diminish the feminist message that the film is trying to convey. Here, women can do anything, if one has special powers to dodge arrows and transform into animals.

The screenplay is pretty lackluster. While following the same basic trajectory of the source material, swapping out the Huns for Rouran warriors, the film never quite finds its heart. Mulan never really clicks with her fellow warriors, a fairly forgettable bunch who never receive much attention.

Caro largely keeps romance out of the equation, a refreshing dynamic for a Disney film. Mulan’s journey is one of the self, determined by her own actions rather than gauged in relation to the feelings of a man. It might have been interesting to see how the film addressed plotlines from the original in a world with larger LGBTQ equality, but Disney has demonstrated no grace in this area anyway.

Mulan is a flawed movie. The action sequences help buoy the film through its less compelling sequences. The brief attempts at humor do little than serve as reminders of how much heart Eddie Murphy brought to the original. With that in mind, it’s easier to forgive the lack of comedy. It seems absurd to think that a live-action effort could have ever surpassed its predecessor in this regard.

With Mulan, Disney shoots for more than a shot-for-shot remake of the past. The result is a little clunky at times, but compelling enough to justify its existence. Skeptics of Disney’s live-action genre may not be completely convinced, but Caro brings something fresh to the conversation. It is an entertaining film. That might not feel like high praise, but it’s a step in the right direction.