Ian Thomas Malone

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Tuesday

21

March 2023

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Shazam! Fury of the Gods tries to do too many things at once, an empty disaster

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

Superhero sequels often have an unhealthy need to pad out their rosters with far too many characters. The “connected universe” approach deployed by DC and Marvel can give these cinematic experiences the feel of open-ended television, or their own comic book source material. It bears noting that film does not possess the narrative space as TV or comics. The entirety of a superhero’s cinematic canon can possess a shorter runtime than a single television season, peanuts compared to the ninety years that someone like Billy Batson has spent in the pages of a comic book.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods squeezes six main superheroes and three villains into a runtime of barely over two hours. Further exacerbating the dynamic is that five of the six superheroes are played by two different people, their child and adult counterparts, with the eldest member of the “Shazamily,” Mary (Grace Caroline Currey) now played by the same actress in both forms. Billy Batson (Zachary Levi and Asher Angel) is no longer so much the star of his own movie than a traffic cop trying to keep his family, and the various pieces of his movie, together.

The plot is pretty straightforward, though delivered in an exceedingly incoherent fashion. Two daughters of the Titan (god) Atlas, Hespera (Helen Mirren), and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) want the staff from the first movie to take over the world. Why? The movie doesn’t really have time to explain the motives for either character, besides the general sense that they are not very nice.

The film barely has time to explore any members of the Shazamily either. Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer and Adam Brody) functions essentially as the lead kid, still being bullied in school in a sequence that feels quite wrong for the year 2023. He befriends a new girl, Anne (Rachel Zegler), a figure anyone in the audience would know to be important in a narrative that already has way too many characters. The rest of the family, Batson included, are mostly stuck in their plotlines from the first film. The one notable exception is a member of the family who is gay, seemingly just because it would likely be the only thing anyone would remember about this character.

Fury of the Gods feels oddly empty for a film with far too many characters, coasting solely off any remaining goodwill earned by its predecessor. This narrative tries to pretend it has a heart to cover up the overabundant sense of nothing at its core. There isn’t any time to do anything besides go through the motions, at times reminding the audience of the charm this story once had, when it space to actually explore its own characters.

The film does find time to poke fun at the peculiar nature of its heroes’ identities, repeatedly referring to Freddy as “Captain Everypower.” There’s a reason the Shazamily sounds so awkward to say. Billy, Mary, and Freddy all spent many decades wearing variations of the “Captain Marvel,” moniker, while the younger three are much newer characters. Shazam’s powers and his name were involved in two of the most famous lawsuits in comic book history, creating a sense of confusion for both casual fans and comic book diehards alike. The trouble is, DC itself hasn’t really understood what to do with the Marvel family either, decidedly B-tier heroes who lend themselves well to charm, but not necessarily convolution.

Mirren and Liu are completely wasted playing generic villains. The film’s humor doesn’t land well within a narrative that never seems to understand what’s going on, even with its paint-by-numbers delivery. Anyone can follow along with this generic mess. The broader question is, why would anyone want to?

It’s easy to see how this formula might have worked as a season of television, with plenty of time and space to explore all the themes director David F. Sandberg tossed out there. This narrative has no business being a movie. The lackluster special effects don’t exactly look all that cinematic either.

Shazam used to be a highlight of the DCEU’s splintered roster. Fury of the Gods squanders all that goodwill. The first Shazam! was a relatable treat, a self-contained story that could be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of whether you’ve ever picked up a comic book. Fury of the Gods tried to do so many things at one time that it actually achieved nothing at all.

 

Thursday

16

March 2023

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The Mandalorian Season 3 Review: Chapter 19

Written by , Posted in Blog, Star Wars, TV Reviews

As a show, The Mandalorian is going through a television equivalent of puberty these days. What started as an episodic space western with an adorable breakout character is starting to embrace the idea of having an actual supporting cast, no longer content to treat Din Djarin as a Man with No Name-type stand-in. Whether a pivot toward serialization is a good idea remains to be seen, but Chapter 19, “The Convert” didn’t exactly present the best case for less Grogu in a world where many are perfectly fine with “The Baby Yoda Show.”

The episode started off with a bit of an unfortunate whiff. Mando takes his bath, completing his redemption arc without getting eaten by the Mythosaur, a win for any of us who were worried that the show might spend its entire season centered around helmet drama. Rather than build on actual narrative stakes between Mando and his reunited son, or Bo-Katan, the show throws us into a very rushed space battle with terrible CGI, unfunny R5-D4 antics, and plenty of plot holes. One could accept that Katan’s ship’s radars might not pick up a bunch of Tie Interceptors, but fans have known since the very first Star Wars that Ties can’t fly far without a carrier. The idea that Katan’s home is being bombed by a squadron with seemingly no warning or explanation for how they got there is clownish behavior for a franchise that does little else besides lean on nostalgia, the kind of stuff that can’t be covered up by Grogu rapidly opening and closing his pram, which isn’t as cute as anyone making the show thinks it is.

One can kind of see the logic in exploring a character like Dr. Pershing, who helped set up Team Mando’s Grogu rescue in the season two finale. Dedicating the majority of the longest episode of the series thus far to a tertiary villain is a tall order before anyone considers the Andor-sized elephant in the room. Right in the middle of The Mandalorian’s broader narrative identity crisis, the show made the inexplicable decision to start riffing off the only Star Wars show that could legitimately call itself a serious drama.

Andor is the only live-action Star Wars show that doesn’t deploy StageCraft, technology that’s often ruined The Book of Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and too many recent Marvel movies. While The Mandalorian is often one of the only Disney products to properly wield StageCraft, Andor, with its lavish practical sets, is one of the most beautiful shows on television. There is no world in which The Mandalorian’s Coruscant looks better than Andor’s. It’s unclear why the former even tried. Putting aside the differences in practical effects vs. StageCraft, it makes no sense for a series fresh off a two-plus year hiatus would bench its leads only to deliver its audience a cheaper version of a show many of them had undoubtedly recently seen.

The Mandalorian and Andor serve two very different audiences. The latter carries substantive, serious stakes, obviously intended for adults. The former is the standard bearer for an entire streaming service, a glorified live action cartoon. That’s not a bad thing either. Diversity of content is supposed to be a good thing, even if this episode reminded us that apparently Coruscant has “one trillion” permanent residents, even if the same handful of people keep showing up across this galaxy that can’t help feeling small as a result. This plotline had no business being in The Mandalorian, except maybe because The Mandalorian doesn’t know how to be The Mandalorian right now.

Some of this awkward Coruscant dynamic might have been averted if Dr. Pershing’s adventures with Elia Kane, who fans might justifiably mistake for a new character given how long it’s been since season two, had been broken up with a scene or two with Mando and friends in the middle of the episode. The end revelation sort of justifies this, as it might looked awkward for Katan to have a dialogue-heavy scene without removing her helmet, but the show didn’t exactly look great spending all that time on two characters plenty would have forgotten about. The sympathy the show wants its audience to feel for Pershing is totally undercut by the ease with which he instantly slipped back into his old cloning ways, a former villain violating the terms of his amnesty for seemingly no reason other than he thinks he knows better than people who didn’t try and perform lab experiments on the cutest character in television.

The episode almost redeemed itself at the end when Mando and Bo arrived at the Mandalorian hideout. There is clearly a darksaber-sized conflict brewing between the two, Bo keeping the mythosaur sighting to herself. Putting aside the silliness of the living waters of Mandalore, Vizsla delivered a compelling sequence on the nature of identity when she accepted Katan into their tribe, despite the latter belonging to a completely different sect of Mandalorian lore. Katan, who once sought the darksaber to lead her people to salvation, suddenly falls backwards into the same kind of found family dynamic she’s clearly been longing for during all of her throne sulks. As confusing as the rival Mandalorian factions are, and as clunky as the show dumps its exposition, this episode concludes with real narrative stakes established between two of its best characters, though the show may not be well-served by keeping Katee Sackoff under her helmet for too long.

Chapter 19 was an unfortunate dud that ended on a compelling note. The show started to take baby steps toward the plotline that consumed much its first two seasons, the value of Grogu’s DNA, but perhaps at the wrong moment. We don’t need a Dr. Pershing-centered episode before The Mandalorian has actually taken a moment to evaluate the nature of the relationship between Mando and Grogu, the latter of which will undoubtedly stick out like a sore thumb the longer his dad hangs out with his helmet clan. We certainly don’t need bargain bin Andor with StageCraft effects. We’re almost halfway through the season and things only start to feel like they’re headed in a cohesive direction.

Thursday

9

March 2023

0

COMMENTS

The Mandalorian Season 3 Review: Chapter 18

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

The Mandalorian used to be a show about found family, the bonds of love stretching beyond matters of blood. The show is still sort of about that, but now it’s mainly about a grown man trying to redeem himself from the heinous crime of taking off his helmet, first to rescue his son and then to say goodbye, a farewell that was scrubbed away on a completely different television show. Fans are not necessarily wrong to wonder why any of us should care beyond the basic reality that Grogu is still very adorable.

After a solid premiere that efficiently, if not awkwardly, set the stage for the rest of the season, episode two doubled down on a couple of utterly tired Star Wars tropes. As a company, Disney has always had an unhealthy love affair with nostalgia, something that essentially ruined the sequel series. I doubt many members of the audience watching the original film in 1977 ever thought that R5-D4 would become an important character more than forty years down the road, providing unnecessary comic relief on a show that already has too many characters capable of fulfilling that role, but here we are.

The Mandalorian can’t let Tatooine go. Production clearly enjoys the ease of filming on desert sets, but the overuse of Peli both last season and in The Book of Boba Fett exposes this show’s broader issue of its weak bench. Mando used to meet new characters every week. Now he just seems to travel in a circle visiting the same handful of people. Amy Sedaris is certainly fun, but no amount of comic relief can cover up the awkward narrative mess that was Peli throwing her astromech droid on Mando for no real reason. Why does she want to get rid of R5-D4 so badly? Does anyone actually care? R5-D4’s cowardly antics were tiresome and not amusing in the slightest.

Star Wars also loves its MacGuffins. The Force Awakens used a “map to Skywalker” as a major plot point, presumably because J.J. Abrams needed a substitute for the Death Star plans in his near shot-for-shot remake of A New Hope. No one seemed to notice that the whole quest to obtain the map was rendered moot by Luke’s apathy in The Last Jedi, a breathtakingly bad display of narrative plotting for a multibillion-dollar franchise. The whole quest to take a bath in Mandalore is essentially just as stupid, something for Mando to do because the show needs something to focus its attention on when Grogu isn’t eating something or being cute.

What happened to Grogu being in danger if he wasn’t properly trained by a Jedi? He’s clearly not as much of a baby anymore, a decent pilot, though Anakin already displayed that N-1 starfighters could be expertly flown by complete amateurs in The Phantom Menace. The most realistic part of the whole episode was Bo-Katan snapping out of her throne sulking upon sight of Grogu’s adorable face.

The ruins of Mandalore featured dull, lifeless special effects accompanied by static cinematography. Disney’s StageCraft technology supposedly costs tens of millions of dollars each episode, yet the cheap ugly CGI can’t even pull off a single wide shot with a character in it. It’s utterly pathetic how far the standards in science fiction have fallen. The Mandalorian has often deployed StageCraft better than most other Disney properties, but this episode, unfortunately, laid all its worst inclinations to bare. The shots were dark, frantic, and worst of all, boring. Give me Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks any day over the hideous abomination in the eyes of man that is StageCraft practically every time it’s been deployed in recent memory.

“The Mines of Mandalore” tried to address the elephant in the room which is the nature of Mando’s quest when Bo-Katan called out his ridiculous escapade. Mando wasn’t necessarily wrong to point out that ceremonies and traditions are what define our cultures and communities. The trouble is, his place as a Mandalorian is ill-defined and out of place with the show’s style as a space Western. Just as Grogu doesn’t belong with the Jedi, Mando doesn’t really belong with his people either. Maybe the show will head in that direction, but for now, it’s a bit tedious to spend this time on this confusing mess of a plotline.

Dave Filoni’s outsized influence continues to be felt with the Mandalore exposition, completely missing why a general audience enjoys watching the show. The beauty of a western is that anyone can follow. It’s unclear how many casual fans could follow along with the last five or so minutes of this episode, dumping tons of dialogue that are bound to confuse anyone who hasn’t seen The Clone Wars or Rebels, two animated series that originally aired on Cartoon Network and Disney XD respectively, channels almost entirely aimed at children. Star Wars is certainly family-friendly entertainment, a reality that riles plenty of adult viewers, but it’s a bit of a stretch to expect that a general audience made the time to watch the animated spinoffs explicitly written for kids.

Episode two was ugly, convoluted, and worst of all, boring. This show makes no emotional investments in its characters, coasting entirely on cute antics and nostalgia. The episodic format does give the show plenty of space to turn things around, but this season’s broader arc is an absolute dud. The sooner the show can find a new narrative to focus on than redemption for Mando’s helmet, the better.

 

Thursday

2

March 2023

0

COMMENTS

Big Brother Canada must restore the live feeds

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Big Brother can be a difficult passion to explain. The idea of watching over a dozen strangers locked in a house full of cameras tracking their every move for close to three months can sound monotonous, creepy, and even by design, a tad Orwellian. Big Brother is the ultimate endurance test in reality television, a marathon of lies, deception, and treachery that packs a hefty cash prize for the houseguest who manages to conquer the pit of vipers.

Big Brother Canada recently announced the discontinuation of its live feeds ahead of its eleventh season, in favor of curated “Digital Dallies” featuring highlights of the day’s events inside the house. Though there have been more than sixty iterations of Big Brother across the world over hundreds of seasons, BBCAN is the only one to follow the American style format, where houseguests are allowed to openly scheme against each other, a stark departure from the original rules of the Dutch-originated series. Whereas most international Big Brother series play out like American Idol, the public voting on each eviction, Big Brother US and Big Brother Canada take their cues more from Survivor, backstabbings and all.

The live feeds are where Big Brother makes its magic. Smart players recognize the slow-moving nature of the game, subtly planting the seeds of chaos in each week’s Head of Household. There are often more alliances formed in the early weeks of the show than one could count on both hands, certainly more than could be depicted on the show’s three weekly primetime episodes, commonly referred to as the “edit,” by superfans. Dozens of social media accounts dedicate practically every waking hour to covering the events of the house, ensuring that more casual fans never miss a beat.

Big Brother Canada is one of the best-produced reality shows on television. Its two most recent seasons featured some of the best dynamic gameplay and most memorable casts in the history of Big Brother North America, both immensely fluid seasons that weren’t governed by a majority alliance. Big Brother Canada contestants enter that house ready to make big moves, flip the votes, and play the game at a caliber comparable to the format’s golden era. People can say that with confidence in large part due to the transparency provided by the live feeds. We all know that BBCAN is in fact, that good.

Some fans will undoubtedly lose interest in the show as a result of this baffling decision, but the fact still remains that BBCAN is the only other Big Brother in the world that plays by the rules that have helped ensure the longevity of the game more than twenty years after its debut. Plenty of other countries have given up on Big Brother, including its native Netherlands. Big Brother Canada itself saw its future up in the air after its fifth season, with massive fan support saving the show from cancellation.

The decision to cancel the feeds will certainly push the show back in that unfortunate direction, which is a real shame. Big Brother Canada has a gorgeous house with ample space for the secret missions it lovingly deploys much more frequently than its American counterpart, a throwback to the original format of the show. Arisa Cox is a fantastic, engaging host with a genuine passion for the game that exudes from every one of the show’s eviction episodes. Fans taking to Twitter with vows to abandon BBCAN should consider all we stand to lose if our friends in the north close up shop.

The live feeds are often mundane, especially in the back half of the season when there are fewer houseguests, who are all naturally feeling the effects of the experience. Like baseball, Big Brother is a game not defined by constant excitement, but those little moments where a spark ignites, and you remember why you fell in love with this thing that so many fail to understand. Anyone who’s ever watched a flip come together in real-time knows the sheer power of the live feeds to set this game apart from anything else out there.

The sun is setting on traditional network television. The streaming era offers seemingly endless entertainment possibilities, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the power of communal experiences. Much as the world has changed over the past twenty years, Big Brother has always been there to give us all a distraction from the outside world, a sport fit for the underdogs with a hunger to compete in a game that calls for broader talent than sheer athleticism.

Big Brother is a beautiful game. Big Brother Canada has often represented the apex of the format’s sheer power to excite and delight. The absence of the live feeds threatens to render the game indistinguishable from all the other reality shows out there. I’ll still watch Big Brother Canada 11 because I feel the producers have earned my respect as a viewer after a decade of delivering some of the best reality television in the world. For the future of the game we all love, I hope they reconsider this decision that poses a very real existential threat to its survival. Big Brother without the live feeds is not Big Brother.

Wednesday

1

March 2023

0

COMMENTS

The Mandalorian Season 3 Review: Chapter 17

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There is no precedent in television history for The Book of Boba Fett’s decision to hand over two of its seven episodes almost completely to The Mandalorian, let alone in a way that completely undid the latter’s superb second season finale. There are undoubtedly millions of Mandalorian fans who did not make it to the fifth episode of Fett’s unremarkable season and have no idea how or why Mando and Grogu were reunited. Season three’s opener “The Apostate” at times didn’t seem particularly concerned with that reality, exacerbated by the more than two-year wait since we’ve had an actual episode of The Mandalorian.

The show has hardly missed a beat after moving on from its initial two-year arc, quickly establishing the stakes for Mando’s re-entry into his people’s good graces. The sequence featuring the giant crocodile was among the best uses of StageCraft after a stretch of extremely lackluster special effects in The Book of Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Ant-Man and the Wasp Quantumania among others. The Mandalorian continued its streak of superb effects alongside some beautiful practical sets, including a gorgeously revamped Nevarro that looks a teensy bit like Batuu from Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

The scene with Greef Karga was a little clunky, offering a bit of necessary exposition while Grogu engaged in some of his most memorable antics, using the force to spin Greef’s chair and eat his desk candy. Mando is right to note that the situation with Grogu is complicated, but the episode passed on an opportunity to explore this dynamic between the two, even with Greef serving as the closest thing Mando might have to a confidant on the show.

The decision to rebuild IG-11 makes some narrative sense, Mando wanting a capable droid to explore the perils of Mandalore. The comic relief centered around IG-11 going rogue fell a little flat, indicative of the show’s broader relationship with its extended cast. The season two finale featured a full room of allies on Mando’s side when Luke Skywalker appeared. Now, Mando seems weirdly short on allies, though Cara Dune’s absence was deftly explained after the actress self-canceled off the show with her Majorie Taylor Greene-type antics. Nevarro feels weirdly small, Greef looking like he runs the show alone in a town with the resources to make an IG-11 statue in the square but no suitable alternative droids to help Mando’s mission besides a broken potentially homicidal bounty hunter turned nurse.

Letting Shard live was inexplicably reckless, a move that bit Mando in the ass almost immediately, albeit in service to a stellar space sequence. It’s clear Shard, and maybe Moff Gideon, will be thorns in Mando’s side down the road. Mando’s refurbished N-1 starfighter is one of the best throwbacks to the prequel trilogy that new Star Wars has given us, a beautiful substitute for the Razor Crest.

The show found itself a bit caught in the weeds with the return of Bo-Katan, who has fallen from grace among her people after failing to acquire the Darksaber in Mando’s possession. The show handled the exposition with some grace, but this episode was the first time that The Clone Wars and Rebels felt truly important to the plot rather than merely enhancing the experience. The overarching plot is understandably becoming more complex that the self-explanatory arc of the first two seasons. It’ll be interesting to see how much season three relies on established Star Wars lore moving forward.

“The Apostate” was solid television that never felt like it needed to make a big splash to compensate for the long hiatus. As a show, The Mandalorian has often produced its best work with fairly self-contained storytelling, but the demands of Mando’s mission will undoubtedly introduce a greater sense of serialization into the mix. The episode didn’t do a great job bridging the gap from Fett’s “Mando 2.5” dynamic, but it certainly served as a strong premiere in setting up the rest of the season.

Monday

27

February 2023

0

COMMENTS

Babylon is a beautiful self-indulgent disaster

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The 89th Academy Awards ceremony presented the film industry with a watershed moment that it’s only starting to fully grasp in the years since. The mistaken announcement of La La Land as the Best Picture winner over Moonlight came with plenty of understandable shock given the high-profile flub, but also plenty of understated bewilderment at the idea that a small budget film about gay people of color could triumph over an elaborate production centered on Hollywood’s favorite subject: itself. Though La La Land director Damien Chazelle took home an Oscar for Best Director for his efforts, the notion of his work falling just short of the top industry prize courses through the veins of his recent release Babylon, a film that tries way too hard to be the definitive statement on Hollywood grandeur.

Babylon follows a few different narratives that are somewhat intertwined with each other. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) works a lavish party at a studio executive’s house in 1926 Los Angeles, quickly folding an infatuation for rising star Nelle LaRoy (Margot Robbie) into his broader longing to be part of the mechanics of show business. Aging silent film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) gives Manny his first break as an assistant. With the advent of sound quickly upending the entire industry, Manny, Nelle and Jack all confront their brave new world with varying degrees of competence and grace.

Few films open with such a declaration of their own epic stature quite like Babylon. Chazelle’s worldbuilding is absolutely delightful, with lived-in sets that capture the exquisite grandeur of the era. Keenly aware that a runtime of over three hours can’t be sustained on frantic party energy, Chazelle manages to synchronize his characters’ career fatigue with the own exhaustion his narrative evokes from the audience. Babylon is the kind of work that needs to be survived before it can be enjoyed.

A body fed nothing but sugar will eventually long for nutrition. Babylon resists the idea that its audience needs nourishment, but the high starts to wear off halfway through when it becomes abundantly clear that Chazelle has absolutely nothing unique to say about Hollywood. The absolutely gorgeous cinematography constantly dazzles, Chazelle putting forth an admirable effort to cover up his empty narrative that putters through its final ninety minutes following a predictable path.

Though Babylon is nominally an ensemble piece, Calva’s Manny carries most of the film’s emotional weight, a not-so-subtle surrogate for Chazelle himself. Robbie and Pitt are a lot of fun, if not at times a bit distracting given their leading roles in the eerily similar Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Despite its meandering nature, supporting characters Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a talented jazz trumpeter, and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a lesbian cabaret singer, are given almost nothing to do besides expose the racism of the era. Adepo delivers the film’s most emotionally gut-wrenching sequence when forced to confront showbusiness’s tendency to appease bigotry rather than condemn it. The power of the scene is unfortunately undercut by Chazelle’s relative apathy toward Palmer as a three-dimensional character despite having ample opportunity to explore his character.

Babylon is an easy film to hate. Chazelle’s work is sloppy, arrogant, and self-indulgent bordering on masturbatory, but also irritatingly beautiful and hard to get out of one’s head. The ending deserves all the eye-rolls in the world, a clownish sequence that could only be executed by a director who lacked anyone around him capable of reigning his antics in. Nothing in this mess feels terribly original, yet somehow, inexplicably, it’s the kind of movie you walk out of longing for the next opportunity to watch it all again.

Chazelle delivers on the themes he superficially explored in La La Land, blowing his earlier work out of the water. There are still plenty of signs of an immature artist behind the wheel, especially in a series of scenes featuring Tobey Maguire. It feels so outlandish to say that there’s nothing else like Babylon out there, a narrative full of obvious cliches that borrows heavily from so many other better films, but the pieces of this messy epic clunkily come together to produce something magical. You may hate Babylon, but it’s impossible to forget Babylon. Chazelle may not have topped any of the classics he was riffing off of, but managed to produce an epic worthy of the name.

 

Friday

17

February 2023

0

COMMENTS

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is Marvel’s greatest embarrassment

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The criticism of Marvel movies possessing a paint-by-numbers feel has existed for almost as long as the MCU itself. The idea that each superhero’s journey serves as little more than an Instagram filter over the exact same formula isn’t entirely unfair, but the MCU has generally managed to make up for its lack of originality with an abundance of charm. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is a depressing case study of what happens to the whole enterprise when the same song and dance starts to lose its muster.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is one of the few surviving Avengers who actually seems to be enjoying life after the events of Endgame. Parlaying his fame into a successful memoir, Scott seems to have finally left his past behind, though his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton, the third actress to portray the character) worries that he may have lost sight of the needs of the world around him. Whether Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), now successful CEO of the Pym Foundation, agrees is largely unclear, since most people involved with making the film seem to have forgotten that the Wasp shares equal billing with Ant-Man, generally implying a sense of lead-character status.

The film’s plot quickly is set in motion after Cassie and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who the former now refers to as “grandpa” with absolutely zero explanation, craft a device that can communicate with the Quantum Realm, where Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) was famously trapped for thirty years. The idea that Scott too was trapped there after the events of the last Ant-Man film or that the space served as the main catalyst driving the events of Endgame is not deemed relevant to the plot. Naturally, a portal to the QR is a terrible idea, and the five find themselves sucked into a vortex, split up into two very convenient groups. Scott and Cassie get some space to work on their father/daughter bond, while Hope and her parents wander around looking for something that might resemble an interesting storyline.

Director Peyton Reed never seems terribly interested in exploring his characters as people. Unfortunately, Quantumania can’t really explore the Quantum Realm either, not with the severely limited scope of its special effects department. Marvel’s laziest cinematography reduces the Quantum Realm to a monotonous green screen that looks to be about the size of an elementary school gymnasium, forcing all the actors to stand in place for almost the experience. Seasoned cinematographer William Pope recycles the same zoomed-in shot of the characters’ upper torsos again and again, presumably to clip coupons for the visual effects department. The color palette is bland and dreary, like a child cross-contaminated their Easter egg dyes, a tedious depressing eyesore.

The performances are almost as lifeless as the CGI. Rudd, Douglas, Lilly, and newcomer Bill Murray all looked bored out of their minds, the latter as if he required a sedative to get through his scenes. If Murray agreed to shoot more than one take for any of his scenes, it certainly doesn’t come across in the final product. The jokes fall flat, with Rudd constantly betraying his complete awareness of what a disaster he’s starring in. Pfeiffer and Newton try their best to make the most of their character’s expanded roles, though their attempts to convey awe and wonder for the Quantum Realm fall flat in the incoherent narrative that moves swiftly through its 124-minute runtime, quite short by MCU standards.

Quantumania suffers under some predictable hurdles that befall most third entries. The film already has too many characters within the Ant-Man family, on top of carrying the weight of a certain iconic villain in Marvel lore. Jonathan Majors makes his proper MCU debut as Kang the Conqueror after playing an alternate-timeline variant in Loki. Kang is supposed to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat, already announced as the villain of the next Avengers film set for release in 2025.

Majors is always a joy to watch, but Quantumania is simply not a good outlet for his talents. Kang’s introduction is quite rushed, a reality of the film’s scattershot interests. Majors brings some depth to the lifeless experience, but his performance often serves to highlight the film’s abundant limitations. The plot grows exceedingly incoherent in the film’s third act, a narrative completely out of steam by the time Kang gets to do anything interesting. The film would have been much better off allowing secondary villain M.O.D.O.K., another iconic figure in Marvel lore, to slot in as the main antagonist, sparing Majors for a narrative that could bring some dignity to Kang as a character. It’s unclear how Marvel expects anyone to want more of Kang after this clownish endeavor.

Quantumania represents an embarrassing low point for the MCU, a soulless cash-grab that debases the very idea of cinema itself. A just world would never allow the superhero genre to recover from such an artistically bankrupt abomination. This movie just doesn’t fail to give its audience a reason to care for its narrative, it makes you wonder why you ever cared in the first place.

Monday

13

February 2023

0

COMMENTS

Tàr is a beautifully crafted, vapid commentary on cancel culture

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Society has long struggled with discourse surrounding the unwieldy leviathan known as cancel culture. The term has become somewhat of a Rorschach test, its definition molded to whatever situation best suits the intentions of the party that invoked its usage. The film Tàr gender swaps the traditional mechanics of the #MeToo movement, centering a manically narcissistic female conductor at the heart of its tale of power and treachery.

Lydia Tàr (Cate Blanchett) is seated at the top of her insulated world. The first female composer of the Berlin Philharmonic, Tàr juggles an upcoming live recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the release of her memoir, alongside the tedious nature of orchestral politics and heavy travel schedules on private jets between spacious apartments in some of the most beautiful cities of the world. Armed with a hands-on assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) to schedule her every move, Tàr structures her entire existence on the endless validation of her own brilliance.

A former student’s suicide throws Tàr’s empire into chaos, the genius lesbian maestro’s taste for younger women a poorly kept secret across her realm. Tàr disrupts the mechanics of the orchestra by elevating a young cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) who she’s had her eye on even as her wife and concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss) looks on in disapproval. The presence of her former mentor Andris Davis (Julian Glover) serves as a stark reminder of how one can go from the top of the mountain to an afterthought lost in the annals of time.

Director Todd Field presents his 158-minute narrative as if it was unfolding in real time over the course of a few days. There’s a marvelous lived-in feeling to the worldbuilding that produces ample natural tension across the slow burn. Much as cancel culture feels like the boogeyman, Field manages to bring the inner workings of #MeToo to life, a highly impressive feat of filmmaking.

The true beauty of Tár stems from the sheer vitality of Cate Blanchett to the whole production. It’s not unfair to say that the entire immaculately crafted film would fall apart without her, a towering presence that commands the whole experience. Field deserves plenty of eye-rolls for using a lesbian as his stand-in for cancel culture commentary that would feel clownish if it had a male lead, but there’s no denying that his synchronicity with Blanchett results in a breathtaking experience.

Much of Tàr’s through-line depends on a pivotal scene between Tár and one of her students in a class she was guest-teaching at Julliard. The BIPOC Gen Z student expresses apathy for the work of Bach as a white male cisgender composer, goading Tár into a fiery rebuke of cancel culture fitting for the primetime programming on Fox News. Field crafts an easy lay-up in his lazily constructed strawman bound to resonate with an audience that probably can’t name many transgender women composers of color, let alone a handful with portfolios of work comparable to the impact and legacy of one Johann Sebastian Bach.

Field does himself and his work a great intellectual disservice by reducing the Bach question to a matter of his gender identity and problematic personal life. At the heart of every academic and artistic institution on this planet lies a canon that defines their very orbit. Modern efforts to diversify the canon harness the raw power of its reality as a living, breathing entity that does not need to forever remain an exclusive club of the only people who were allowed a seat at its table, namely cisgender white men.

An average audience may understandably find it absurd that a student at an institution like Juilliard would not be familiar with Bach. You’d be hard-pressed to go into many classrooms full of Ph.D. students in English Literature who had read more than a handful of Shakespeare’s plays or Dryden’s verse, who could tell their Schopenhauer from their Hegel and certainly could name any Faulkner beyond the few that pop up as Jeopardy! questions. Anyone with half a brain can sound like a pretentious ass while gatekeeping the canon, but the sad truth is that our nation would rather highlight fluff like the assault on cisgender heterosexual white men than debate whether those same anointed few should forever center the conversation within their respected fields.

Another question that Tàr unfortunately tries to sidestep completely is the nature of the impermeability of genius. Many abusers have clung to their perceived Godlike aura to justify further bad behavior. History has shown us time and time again that the success of artistic movements or cultural institutions rarely hinges on the fortunes of singular individuals. The sun still rose the day after Harvey Weinstein’s cancellation just as it would on any other morning. Those in power would sleep better at night if you weren’t aware of that innate truth. Field is not unaware of this dynamic either, but he focuses his attention elsewhere far too often to produce any interesting conclusions on the subject.

Tàr ends up as an unfortunate mix bag, another film about cancel culture that doesn’t really take a stand on its subject material. Field’s pseudo-intellectual script betrays a spectacular exposition on power’s corrosive rot on the genius of the soul, though Blanchett remains perpetually able to pick up the pieces of his shoddy reactionary mess. The end result produces a beautiful film, albeit one that falls just shy of greatness.

Friday

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February 2023

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Titanic Remains One of Cinema’s Crowning Spectacles

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

Few pieces of popular culture capture the zeitgeist of the 1990s quite like Titanic. From its elaborate practical sets to its sappy dialogue to the unparalleled cultural phenomenon it was able to inspire, James Cameron’s epic represents the apex of twentieth-century filmmaking while paying homage to a tragedy our collective consciousness refuses to let go of. Twenty-five years later, Titanic still stands as a truly singular moment in cinema, a feat both of physical endurance for those who struggle to sit in a theatre for three hours and the emotional intelligence required to embrace the film’s ultimate mandate and cry amongst a room full of strangers there to experience the exact same tug on their heartstrings.

The magic of the theatre requires a buy-in from the audience beyond the mere suspension of disbelief required to follow along with a narrative parsed down to exist within the restricted confines of the medium. As a film, Titanic serves two distinct masters: the historical and the interpersonal. We the audience know that the boat sinks amidst several preventable tragedies, capitalism playing the role of God in choosing which victims to spare. Any human being with half a soul could acknowledge that this senseless carnage is in fact, sad.

Cameron’s exceedingly sappy love story across the barriers of class and culture forces the audience not only to reckon with the tragedy but to invest emotionally in the depths of its sorrow. Titanic is not a documentary, but a narrative that required a force of dramatic tension that could counterbalance the weight of its inevitable climax. You need over-the-top characters to match the irony of the fate of the unsinkable ship.

Jack and Rose’s love story is bound to resonate with anyone who’s ever enjoyed the fleeting perfection of a one-night stand. Leonardo DiCaprio brings a kind of manic energy to Jack that’s designed to change a person like Rose’s life, even if everyone involved knew that their kind of love isn’t built to sustain the morning after. Both Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart manage to capture the essence of that swooning heart that got a taste of life’s purest essence, if only for a moment. Some love is only meant to last forever in memory.

Titanic is supposed to be silly, armed with a cartoonish steel baron (Billy Zane) and his equally outlandishly over-the-top valet (David Warner) to manifest the role of narrative villain in places where the iceberg’s dramatic range was far more limited. Kathy Bates grounds the silliness as the “unsinkable” Molly Brown, champion of the proletariat from her perch in first class, a fairy godmother to supply Jack with the confidence he needs to seize the means of production. Brown serves as a kind of Greek chorus through the absurdity of it all. Rose’s mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) is the living embodiment of the cruelty of man, willing to sacrifice her daughter’s happiness to keep her head above the working class.

The big screen has hardly been better-utilized than in service to Titanic’s third act. The special effects hold up marvelously all these years later, but Cameron’s mastery of practical effects has always been his bread and butter. At a time when many studios are looking to cut corners, the sight of tens of thousands of gallons of water ravaging an exquisite set never grows stale with repeat viewing. Rarely does a major blockbuster feel as grand as its budget suggests.

Cameron’s greatest strength is his unrelenting drive to amass a spectacle fitting of his source material. Titanic is a testament to a time when film tried to step outside the confines of the screen and change the very world around its walls. It’s easy to poke fun at the over-the-top nature of this epic, but the water settles around the endless debates of whether Jack could’ve fit on the door (yes) or if old Rose should have given her granddaughter the priceless jewel (also yes), one truth remains self-evident. There’s never been a cinematic experience quite like Titanic.

Wednesday

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February 2023

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The Gender of Our Discontent

Written by , Posted in Podcast

ITM spends some time with one of her least favorite subjects, her own gender. Not quite feeling like a woman these days, Ian doesn’t really know what that means. Her gender is probably just tired, or hormonal, or hungry. Maybe all three.