Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: November 2020

Thursday

12

November 2020

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COMMENTS

76 Days provides a front row seat to the early days of the coronavirus

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The coronavirus has fundamentally changed life on earth for practically every country. The film 76 Days provides a front-row seat into the heart Wuhan hospitals from February to April, as the rest of the world began to grapple with what we were all about to face. The result is often jarring to watch, an important reminder of the stakes at hand across our planet.

Directors Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and a third collaborator credited as anonymous to protect their identity, present a narrative at the heart of the action, shot mostly within the contamination zones at four separate hospitals. The doctors and nurses, all decked out in head-to-toe protective equipment, are clearly under siege, doing the best they can to handle these unknown and chaotic circumstances. The directors do a fabulous job framing each scene, camera angles that make you feel like you’re in the room with the patients and staff.

The fear and anxiety are palpable in the air with every moment. Many of the doctors do not exactly have the best bedside manner, perfectly understandable given the stakes at hand. We’ve known all along that the doctors and nurses are the heroes of this global pandemic, but 76 Days gives them a chance to be seen as people. Like the rest of us, many of them are scared, doing their best under enormous pressure. There is great power in their resilience.

While the filmmakers take a mostly hands-off approach to the narrative, there are a few strands that come together to form a cohesive story. An elderly patient receives a great deal of focus, growing restless under the strict demands of the hospital. A film like 76 Days hardly needs to spend much time presenting protagonists to root for, but the filmmaker’s approach gives an added sense of depth to the material. This isn’t just a living history, but a story of people caught in the whirlwind.

Perhaps most striking is the similarities between some of the patients and the broader American fatigue that many feel toward the virus. Everyone is tired of COVID, from mask-wearing to not being able to see your loved ones. 76 Days is a powerful wake up call to anyone not taking this pandemic seriously, a gut-wrenching display of the stakes at hand.

76 Days is often very difficult to watch. The pain and suffering rarely lets up, though it’s clear that the filmmakers are aware of this tonal dynamic. There are points for hope. The history of the coronavirus is not fully written yet, but 76 Days does a hell of a job presenting the early weeks of this global nightmare.

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Thursday

12

November 2020

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COMMENTS

Assassins is a riveting real-life thriller

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A failed attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland changed the course of history on the Korean peninsula. A simple desire to spend some time at the happiest place on earth cost Kim Jong-nam the chance to lead North Korea as Supreme Leader, which instead was handed to his younger half-brother Kim Jong-un after the death of their father Kim Jong-il, and later his life. The documentary Assassins chronicles Kim’s highly publicized assassination at a Malaysian airport in broad daylight, and the tragic aftermath that ensnared the unwitting perpetrators.

Director Ryan White masterfully breaks down the complex mechanics of North Korean politics and the Malaysian justice system in a fascinating thriller. The North Korean government is widely believed to have been behind the assassination, manipulating two separate women into dousing Kim with the highly deadly chemical VX under the guise of being performers in a prank show. While the North Koreans who orchestrated the murder quickly escaped, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huoung almost found themselves executed for their role in the international firestorm.

Much of Assassins centers around the legal defense of both women, Aisyah from Indonesia and Huoung from Vietnam. Neither girl knew each other, both seeking a chance at stardom not unlike many online influencers. With so many different countries involved in the saga, White does a great job making sure his audience doesn’t get lost in the chaos.

Though the subject matter is serious, the legal defense teams often keep things upbeat for the audience. The pacing feels more in line with a political thriller than a typical documentary, heightening the suspense for a subject whose outcome anyone could find out with a simple google search. White ensures the journey is just as interesting as the destinations.

Kim Jong-un’s “love affair” with Donald Trump has been the subject of wide mockery by many. Though many docs succumb to the temptations of dedicating too much time to Trump, White keeps mentions of our soon-to-be former president to a minimum. Having almost certainly ordered the hit on his brother, Chairman Kim is an important factor, but this isn’t fully his story. Assassins juggles its many pieces quite well.

North Korea is a tough nut to crack for anyone, even U.S. intelligence. Assassins is a welcoming doc for anyone, even if you know nothing about the hermit kingdom. Kim Jong-un lends himself well to mockery, but White never loses sight of the monster at hand. At times, the trial drags a bit, perhaps serving as too much of a play-by-play, but this doc is a must watch for anyone looking to learn more about this elusive part of the world.

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Wednesday

11

November 2020

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Seduced breaks down the complexities of NXIVM’s vast web

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The saga of NXIVM is endlessly fascinating, a web of mostly detestable figures running a pyramid scheme in Albany, New York. Occasionally lost in the jokes about Keith Raniere’s bullshit is the trail of victims he left in his wake. There are the Mark Vicente’s and the Sarah Edmonson’s of the story, whose own culpability remains a puzzling question. The India Oxenberg’s of the story are perhaps even more complex, women who were indoctrinated at young ages to become sex slaves and cogs in the scheme’s vast machine.

Much of HBO’s The Vow was filmed in real time as former NXIVM members worked to take Raniere down, culminating in his 2018 arrest alongside several other key figures. A major storyline of The Vow centered around actress Catherine Oxenberg’s efforts to save her daughter India from the cult’s clutches. STARZ’s Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult picks up where season one of The Vow left off, presenting India’s story in her own words for the first time.

Seduced offers a superb primer into the world of cults, expertly breaking down the mechanics behind Raniere’s long grift. Several expert psychologists provide simple explanations for the ways that Raniere was able to build such a vast empire while mostly recycling nonsense from self-help gurus and Scientology. Like its bizarre name, NXIVM can be pretty confusing at first, but Seduced peels back the layers of the bullshit.

Raniere ruined countless people, both psychologically and financially. Part of NXIVM’s effectiveness was the way in which the organization was able to entrap its members by making many culpable themselves. The lines between victim and perpetrator can be blurred. India was a sex slave to Smallville actress Allison Mack, but India herself had slaves of her own. By including interviews with some of the prosecutors, Seduced works to clean up what will always be a messy picture. There are no easy answers here.

Seduced is a succinct series, presented over four episodes. The show is ostensibly India’s narrative, while including accounts from other DOS victims that help provide a clearer picture of the destruction Raniere caused. There is some slight overlap with content explored in The Vow, but Raniere’s insistence on recording practically every interaction ensures that there’s plenty of new material here.

India’s interviews are often challenging to watch. Persistent is the sense that she’s still clearly working through all of this. Maybe Seduced would be better off waiting for a bit longer to present her story, but maybe India simply wants to get on with her life. The brief amount of time between Raniere’s arrest and the arrival of NXIVM-related content is perhaps too short a period for much introspection, a dynamic exacerbated by the fact that many of the subjects only narrowly avoided prosecution. This is messy stuff.

India’s time in Albany gave her a much better front row seat to the actions of key players such as Nancy Salzman, Mack, and Raniere than The Vow was able to present. The web is complex, hardly the subject than any series would be able to tackle in only a handful of episodes. Seduced clearly has the better claim to casual viewers, supplying the broad details of what makes NXIVM so captivating while limiting the time spent down the various rabbit holes.

NXIVM is among the weirder true crime stories in recent memory, involving numerous Hollywood figures, ginger ale heiresses, and the Dalai Lama among countless others. It’s not hard to see why this saga is so fascinating to many. India is a young woman who went through the trauma of a lifetime in her early twenties. Seduced presents her story in a way that horrifies while also providing some hope that this unfortunate mess won’t define the rest of her life. NXIVM’s victims deserve a chance to turn the page.

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Wednesday

11

November 2020

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Sidney Flanigan

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We are delighted to welcome actor & musician Sidney Flanigan to the show. Sidney made her acting debut in the spectacular film Never Rarely Sometimes Always at Sundance, one of Ian’s favorites from the festival. Sidney’s band Starjuice just released a new EP “Reminders,” which can be heard of Spotify. Sidney talks about her experiences making Never Rarely as well as the challenges of recording music in the covid era.

 

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You can check out Starjuice on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/3b4yx9xGEgYJW3Kp9kwZLO

 

Ian’s Sundance review of Never Rarely Sometimes Always: https://fansided.com/2020/01/25/never-rarely-sometimes-always-sundance-review/

Cover art courtesy of Starjuice. Headshot by Victoria Stevens. 

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Monday

9

November 2020

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COMMENTS

No Ordinary Man

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Today we are delighted to host Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt & Amos Mac, co-directors and co-writers of the fascinating new documentary No Ordinary Man to the show. The film chronicles the life and legacy of jazz musician Billy Tipton, whose death sparked a media firestorm after it was revealed that he was a transgender man. Aisling, Chase, and Amos share plenty of insights from their experience making the doc, an important piece of LGBTQ cinema.

 

No Ordinary Man is part of DOC NYC’s exciting slate. Tickets can be purchased here: https://www.docnyc.net/

 

Ian’s review of the film: https://ianthomasmalone.com/2020/10/no-ordinary-man/

 

Film poster courtesy of Parabola Films

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Saturday

7

November 2020

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COMMENTS

The Mandalorian Season Two Review: Chapter Ten

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Big reveals like last episode’s Boba Fett cameo naturally create a sense of anticipation that The Mandalorian is obviously not in any rush to address. For the most part the show does a pretty good job with episodic storytelling, delivering quality television in a way that makes you okay with the fact that the big questions aren’t going to be answered any time soon. Elaborate action sequences and short episode runtimes don’t leave a ton of time for narrative.

Episode Two, “The Passenger,” does not care about story. The pieces of this episode feel like puzzle pieces that were jammed together out of place, reverse engineered to justify a giant spider sequence. This is by far the clunkiest narrative of The Mandalorian thus far. Frog Lady (literally the name listed on the show’s IMDB) is nothing more than a plot device.

The episode starts off with a fairly impressive action sequence on the outskirts of Tatooine, involving a failed attempt to ransom Baby Yoda for Mando’s jet pack. Baby Yoda’s cutest moment in the episode came early, delivering a sly glance of approval toward his adopted dad’s antics. Obviously the bandits were not going to get away with stealing Mando’s toys.

We run into Peli Motto at the famed Mos Eisley cantina, playing sabacc with a giant ant, a not-so-subtle nod to episode director Peyton Reed, who helmed both Ant-Man movies. Peli’s scenes last episode were fairly rushed and perfunctory. Here, Amy Sedaris works her charm with a bit more screen time, albeit in an exposition-heavy sequence that almost immediately got right to the chase.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Mando’s early conversations with Greef Karga. Carl Weathers was given plenty of time to make his character shine, providing a valuable ally for Mando to interact with. This show doesn’t have a ton of recurring characters.

Peli is given a fraction of the time that Greef received, while essentially aiming to serve in a similar function. Peli got a few lines of rushed banter in before neatly advancing the plot, the kind of fast pacing you’d see on an episode of Law & Order. Can’t she have a moment to breathe?

The bigger issue with this whole dynamic is that the show has yet to make a case for why the audience should care about Mando’s quest to find other Mandalorians. The mission feels like an obligatory plot device, a notion in line with the amount of time it’s received these past few episodes. The show doesn’t need to solve this narrative right away, but it would be nice if The Mandalorian at least made an attempt to explain the importance of this season’s broader arc.

Detours can be fun. Seeing New Republic x-wings is fun. This episode had excellent action sequences, but time and time again it failed miserably on the narrative front. The sub-light travel mandate was only sort of convincingly explained, a slight step up from Frog Lady using pieces of the mercenary droid Q9-0 from last year’s sixth episode to communicate.

The weakest scene by far involved Frog Lady trying to guilt Mando into saving her eggs while the Razor Crest sat on an unstable pile of ice chunks with a giant hole in its hull. Are we really supposed to care about these eggs when Baby Yoda has been repeatedly chomping on them? Did Frog Lady notice what the little guy was doing, even after she’d saved his life?

Baby Yoda is cute and all, but the show too often tried to play it both ways with the eggs, using them for humor but also as an emotional anchor propelling Mando to care about Frog Lady. The spider sequence was fun to watch if you don’t think too hard about why it took Mando so long to use his flamethrower. Assuming these spiders fear fire like most arachnids, Mando could’ve easily kept them away from the ship.

The follow up scene with the New Republic pilots similarly fell flat. Maybe they had time to learn Mando’s noble history while flying around looking for the Razor Crest enough to not want to arrest him, though it’s unclear why they wouldn’t help him fix his ship. That hole looked pretty bad, though maybe not as big an issue as when the Jawas stripped his whole ship in the second episode of last season.

The stellar action sequences weren’t enough to make up for the cringeworthy nature of practically every scene involving dialogue. A strong contender for worst episode of the whole show. Bad Mandalorian is still fun Mandalorian, but this show is capable of better than this clunky plotting and bad writing. It’s hard to give filler a pass when it is this poorly assembled.

Be sure to check out Estradiol Illusions’ Mandalorian podcast recaps!

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Saturday

7

November 2020

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COMMENTS

Mandalorian Season 2 Recap (Episode 2)

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Chapter 10, “The Passengers” was a bit of a mixed bag. The stellar action sequences were hindered by some pretty abysmal plotting and narrative choices. 

Are we supposed to care that Baby Yoda is casually eating the last of Frog Lady’s eggs? Join host ITM as she breaks down this peculiar episode. 

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Thursday

5

November 2020

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COMMENTS

18 to Party never quite finds its voice

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There are countless think-pieces written each day about the effects of social media on our broader mental health, particularly our country’s children. Boredom as we once understood the concept is essentially a thing of the past, with seemingly limitless entertainment options at any given time. Set in the early 80s, 18 to Party centers its narrative around the mundane interactions between eighth graders as they wait for something to happen.

The film is almost entirely shot behind a fairly mundane looking small-town nightclub, with the kids understanding that their youth places them relatively low on the social totem pole. Most of the kids are just happy to be somewhere, even if the whole setting looks pretty bleak and depressing. Director/screenwriter Jeff Roda presents a minimalist narrative, an obvious homage to the youth-centered films of the 80s, through the filter of a Waiting for Godot-style plot.

Roda’s screenplay is the film’s biggest liability. It’s neither funny nor endearing. The kids have fairly mundane conversations that might be relatable to some extent on a surface level. One of the more developed plotlines centers around one of the kids struggling to decide whether he wants to do theatre, the activity potentially existing in conflict with his soccer schedule.

18 to Party features a very young cast, unlike many films in the 80s which relied on actors in their 20s to play teenagers. For the most part, the kids are pretty good, trying their best to inject emotion into Roda’s fairly lifeless screenplay.

As a director, Roda really doesn’t do his actors any favors. The film makes frequent use of long takes, leading to many scenarios where the actors look pretty confused with what they’re supposed to be doing. Roda doesn’t actually give them anything to do. Often, they look bored, a sentiment the audience could certainly share.

The inconsistent approach to pacing produces inconsistent results. The meandering narrative might have worked with a better script, but the whole dynamic falls apart in the third act when Roda decides to throw in some heavy stuff. Recent suicides in the town are mentioned throughout the film, but Roda ramps things up for one particular scene that falls pretty flat without any consistent attempt at a build-up.

Roda has a particular affection for the word “faggot,” inserted liberally into one of the film’s more dramatic scenes, wielding it as a crutch. To an extent, one can understand a writer’s desire to achieve “authenticity” by using a slur that kids used then and still use now. At the same time, you have to wonder if anyone would have noticed if he’d simply omitted it altogether.

Whatever case could be made for throwing around a word like that is practically beside the point. Roda doesn’t use it well, instead just hurling it at the audience over and over again in a scene that completely misses its mark. Much like the rest of 18 to Party, it’s lazy.

18 to Party is a thoroughly lackluster endeavor. Roda’s awful screenplay deflates any value from this derivative half-baked homage. Even at eighty minutes, the whole ordeal feels too long. Roda clearly loves 80s culture, but he brings nothing new to the table here.

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