Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: June 2021

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June 2021

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Classic Film: Yojimbo

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Akira Kurosawa possessed an uncanny ability to make intimate settings feel like they carried the weight of the world. At its core, 1961’s Yojimbo is a small town political struggle, with two rival factions warring over the local gambling industry. Such a dispute hardly requires a substantive moral quandary to produce compelling drama, but Kurosawa keeps his eyes on the bigger picture, using his narrative to explore the rot of man.

The film follows an anonymous rōnin (Toshiro Mifune) who adopts the pseudonym “Kuwabatake Sanjuro” as he stops in a small town for a drink of water and a rest. Discovering the messy political scene between Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Kyū Sazanka), Sanjuro quickly proves his value in the conflict by killing several of Ushitora’s henchmen. Not content to be a mere hired gun, Sanjuro pits the factions against each other in an attempt to maximize his earnings.

Mifune’s broad range beautifully illustrates the complex morality Kurosawa spends his narrative grappling with, a moving exploration of society’s worst inclinations. Sanjuro has a certain charm to him, but both Kurosawa and Mifune are careful to ensure that the audience doesn’t become too enamored by his often amusing antics. Mifune is skilled at playing the opportunistic mercenary with a degree of depth that lets the trials of his tortured soul unfold in real-time.

Kurosawa crafts a wonderful aesthetic in his town, an eeriness enhanced by the chilling score. A once quiet village buckles under the weight of greed, the gambling industry serving as an apex predator disrupting its ecosystem. The town carries the intimacy of a stage play while exuding the strength of an epic, a generation of conflict coming to a head as a result of one wandering rōnin entering the fray.

Yojimbo is the kind of narrative designed to stick with its audience for a lifetime. Both Kurosawa and Mifune put Sanjuro through the ringer, an emotional whirlwind that few could expect throughout the first act. There are points in the third act where it feels like the film is finally buckling under its exorbitant weight, and rather long 110-minute runtime, but the payoff hits its mark in a way that makes you want to rewind and start the whole thing over again.

To American viewers, Yojimbo may best be remembered as the inspiration for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, an unofficial remake that resulted in a successful lawsuit by Yojimbo’s production company, Toho. Both Leone and Clint Eastwood see their fine work pale in comparison to Kurosawa and Mifune’s grasp of the material, including their dark comedic take on the messy morality at hand. Yojimbo carries great appeal for fans of Westerns to see firsthand how much Kurosawa directly influenced the entire genre.

For those who think of the “man with no name” as a kind of stock character, Mifune offers strong contradicting evidence. Though we never learn Sanjuro’s real name, Mifune gives the audience a deeper sense of intimacy through his performance. Kurosawa puts forth some of his best work in this fascinating samurai narrative.

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Monday

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June 2021

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Strong performances buoy Physical through its narrative shortcomings

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

The 1980s carry a certain mystique that only grows as time moves further and further on from the era. Beyond the sheer absurdity of the aerobics craze, where ridiculously slim people jazzercised in unison while decked out in thong leotards and neon leggings, lies a natural sense of intrigue to understand the zeitgeist of it all. “What the hell were they thinking,” exists not as a rhetorical question, but a legitimate point of entry for aerobics scholarship.

Apple TV+’s new series Physical follows the rise of Shelia (Rose Byrne), from misanthropic housewife to aerobics star. Stuck in a dead-end marriage with a burnout college professor Danny (Rory Scovel), Shelia initially copes with her monotonous existence by blowing off steam at ballet class, typically followed by a binge-eating & purge session of fast-food burgers in a hotel room.

It’s not until Danny decides to run for state assembly, no easy task for a socialist hippie in the Reagan-loving San Diego suburbs, that Shelia’s hotel bills start putting a strain on their already-shaky finances. Seeking a workout outlet following the closure of her ballet studio, Shelia discovers the aerobics studio run by Bunny (Della Saba) and her surfer bum boyfriend, Tyler (Lou Taylor Pucci). Needing money, Shelia quickly dominates Bunny’s orbit, occasionally also taking advantage of Greta (Dierde Friel), whose children attend the same preschool.

Byrne is mesmerizing in the lead role, her performance adding a much-needed layer of depth to Shelia’s fairly superficial personality. The first few episodes focus almost solely on Shelia, a dynamic that Byrne sells well with her cool approach to her character’s toxic home life. What works best about the early episodes is the way the show makes no apologies for its anti-hero who is severely lacking in the empathy department. Shelia is rotten in the way few women leads are ever allowed to be, making excellent television along the way.

The show does struggle with where to focus its attentions. The aerobics narrative often plays second fiddle to Danny’s campaign, an unfortunate allotment of screentime for the show’s worst character. Danny grows increasingly insufferable with the early-season addition of Jerry (Geoffrey Arend), a college buddy turned campaign manager. Though Shelia refers to Danny as the most brilliant man she’s ever met, Byrne puts no effort into selling the idea that her character ever looked at him with any degree of serious affection.

Likewise, the show hardly puts any effort into making Danny into anything resembling a sympathetic character. Shelia hides her aerobics interest from Danny, as well as the state of their dire finances, but the secrecy doesn’t really build toward any substantive narrative payoff. The show commits early on to Danny being an airheaded deadbeat, which sucks most of the air out of their slowly deteriorating relationship.

Pacing is a big problem for the second half of the ten-episode season. While the first few episodes are framed almost exclusively from Shelia’s point of view, the show gradually gives more focus to the supporting cast. Bunny and Greta see compelling storylines shortchanged at the expense of Danny. Working with limited screen time, Pucci quickly endears the audience to Tyler, an airhead with a heart of gold who works well opposite Shelia and Bunny.

More puzzling is the sudden emphasis midseason on John Breem (Paul Sparks), a real-estate developer/Republican mainstay who mostly acts as the face of Reagan conservatism in opposition to Danny’s dirtbag left aspirations. Sparks gives a predictably strong performance that’s essentially a riff on other prestige TV characters he’s played on shows like House of Cards and The Girlfriend Experience. Breem is much more compelling than Danny, but the show never really justifies why the character needed his own scenes with so much else going on.

Show creator Annie Weisman seems to struggle with how to frame Shelia’s attitude toward her family. Shelia goes from hardcore apathetic toward her husband and daughter early on, only to shift gears later on with little explanation. The show’s efforts to explore Shelia’s backstory fall a bit flat, coupled with the broader pacing problems of the second half of the season.

As a period piece, Physical is only mildly interested in exploring the politics and culture of the 1980s. There’s an early gaffe in the pilot where Danny remarks that Reagan had “just” been elected president, though the 1986 settings place the narrative 75% through his time in office. There is occasionally some interesting commentary on the nature of consumerism, but one might expect a bit more insight from a show that chose to place its political plotline at the center of the narrative.

Most disappointing is the show’s middling interest in what’s presented as its premise. Physical doesn’t have much to say about aerobics or what it is that drew people to such a seemingly absurd form of exercise. Weisman does highlight how the exercise could cater to body-obsessed people like Shelia, but the layers of spandex are hardly peeled back by the conclusion of the first season.

Byrne’s electric performance carries the show through its uneven pacing and sloppy narrative that spends way too much time highlighting the show’s worst character. Physical has the pieces of a great show. It’s beautifully shot and wonderfully acted for the most part. It is hard to shake the reality that the show that highlights a woman’s meteoric rise to aerobics fame was ill-advised to place such a heavy emphasis on the loser husband she was trying to get away from.

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