Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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Friday

19

November 2021

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Classic Film: Point Blank

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There’s an inherent beauty in the way that film offers such an enclosed, finite glimpse into its subject’s lives. Sequels aside, audiences aren’t invited to the happily-ever-after. In most cases, the three-act structure is all you get.

John Boorman’s iconic 1967 thriller Point Blank deploys a non-linear structure, showcasing its lead’s death in the opening scene. Walker (Lee Marvin) is betrayed pulling a heist on Alcatraz Island by his partner Reese (John Vernon) and wife Lynne (Sharon Acker), left to bleed out in the prison only four years removed from its active operations. The narrative is anchored by Walker’s pursuit of his share of the job, putting him at odds with Reese’s shadier associates.

On the surface, the film largely plays out like a revenge thriller, but vengeance isn’t the primary focus for either Boorman or Marvin. Instead, their focus lies pretty solely with the deconstruction of Walker’s psyche. Walker moves with determination back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but the layers quickly unravel behind the broken man.

Marvin, who played a key role in adapting the film from the Richard Stark’s 1962 novel The Hunter, delivers a deceptively subtle performance, keeping his cards close to his chest. For a man with one of Hollywood’s most distinct voices, Walker doesn’t speak all that often. Instead, Boorman utilizes Johnny Mandel’s chilling score to supply much of the perpetually heightened dramatic tension.

What’s particularly remarkable about Boorman’s work is the way that he essentially introduces a fourth act into the equation that lingers in the audience’s mind long after the credits roll. The non-linear structure doesn’t just toss the traditional notion of narrative out the window, it practically laughs at the idea that one would want to put the pieces of the puzzle back together. Beyond that, Point Blank stresses the unimportance of doing so.

One could spend hours deliberating over whether Walker truly died in the opening act, but film isn’t really about those kinds of answers. A conventional thriller within the genre might care more about definitive conclusions, satisfied with its role as mere entertainment. Such is the realm where Point Blank separates itself from its peers.

Walker wanted his work to mean something. Boorman and Marvin operated with the very same intentions, a thoroughly tantalizing production. Featuring stunning cinematography that highlights an anxious 60s LA, Point Blank is the kind of film that’s hard to get out of your head. Walker isn’t particularly likable, but his frantic grasps at purpose are far more meaningful than your typical revenge fare. A definitive entry in the genre.

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Tuesday

16

November 2021

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DOC NYC: Come Back Anytime

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Even before the pandemic upended the entire world, the digital age transformed the very nature of what it means to be a community. For all the ways the internet had brought people together, especially the marginalized, it’s hard to understate the value of a friendly face in one’s own neighborhood. The documentary Come Back Anytime centers its narrative on the sheer power of a simple bowl of ramen to bring people together.

Masamoto Ueda is a self-taught chef who’s operated a small ramen shop, Bizentei, in Japan for more than forty years. While culinary trends change rapidly over the years, Masamoto, affectionately called Master by his regulars, has kept his recipe steady over the decades, a style that reminds his customers of traditional Tokyo street ramen. After only a few minutes, it’s easy to see the appeal of Bizentei, where customers can eat at the counter barely a foot away from where Masamoto prepared their meal, a gentle old man with a warm spirit.

Director John Daschbach does a fabulous job communicating taste through his visual medium. Ueda and his customers expertly break down what sets Bizentei’s menu from other ramen shops. It’s pretty impossible not to look at the food without getting hungry, but you also learn a great deal about the art of fine ramen.

Of course, there’s more to the story than just stellar soup. Ueda has fostered a community over his decades running Bizentei, a place where regulars not only come to eat, but to laugh and share in each other’s company. Over the course of the film, customers share the ways that Ueda has helped them along the way, often inviting them for foraging trips to the mountains, or simply offering a place for them to cry when times are tough.

Daschbach crafts a compelling case for the nature of legacy. Ueda has never been concerned with building a ramen empire or even handing over the reins once he gets too old for the work. Instead, he’s pretty purely fixed on the moment, providing for his family and his community. It’s pretty refreshing to see a director present his material for what it is, a beloved restaurant that someday won’t be there anymore. The world won’t end when Ueda retires, but Daschbach eloquently communicates the impact he’s made on his little slice of the word. Nothing lasts forever.

The film does stretch itself a bit thin to achieve a feature-length runtime. Daschbach does not need 82 minutes to make his points, increasingly relying on scenes outside Bizentei in the third act with diminishing results. Ueda is a fascinating subject who’s open and generous in his interviews, providing a well-rounded sense of the man by the time the credits roll.

As the pandemic has fractured our own sense of community, Come Back Anytime is a strong testament to the power of simple connection. Food culture often finds itself caught up in the latest fad, or the most photographic presentations. There’s a reason people can eat at a place like Bizentei multiple times a week for twenty years. A true master can let his craft speak for itself.

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Sunday

24

October 2021

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With Dune, Denis Villeneuve struggles in the sands of Arrakis

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Dune is a challenging book to adapt to screen for a few big reasons. Frank Herbert includes practically no filler in his 1965 epic, a densely packed narrative built to naturally resist any efforts to parse it down. A feature-length movie can’t be twenty hours long.

It’s easy to explain the appeal of the planet Arrakis or the feud between Houses Atreides and Harkonnen, but concepts like the Muad’Dib or the Bene Gesserit represent ideas that Herbert spent much of his life exploring through the five sequels he wrote before his 1986 death. Director Denis Villeneuve is tasked not only with portraying the events of the story, but also to bring to life the headier parts of Herbert’s world that even hardcore fans can struggle to understand.

Villeneuve does not necessarily try to tame the beast that is Dune, instead choosing to emulate the Fremen approach to wormriding. He sinks his hooks into his work’s massive scale and spends the 156-minute runtime desperately trying to hang on. The results are a bit more of a mixed bag than with his previous film Blade Runner 2049, a similar journey into well-trodden, narratively challenging terrain.

As a film, Dune is absolutely beautiful. The cinematography conveys its spectacle in every single frame. Having been previously adapted for screen in David Lynch’s 1984 disaster and the solid yet decidedly smaller-scale 2000 Sci Fi Channel miniseries, Villeneuve finally gives the source material the blockbuster adaptation it deserves.

The story falls a bit short in ways that help validate the two previous adaption’s efforts. Dune deserves the big screen, but its material is far better suited for television, a far more forgiving medium to the amount of exposition required. Villeneuve does a pretty good job giving his audience what they need to know, but he’s less successful in harnessing the emotional weight of the stakes at hand.

Timothee Chalamet looks a bit lost as the young Paul Atreides. It’s hard to blame him. Dune is really Dune part one, covering roughly the book’s first half. Chalamet is forced to be the star of a coming-of-age story where his character doesn’t get the chance to actually come of age. It’s an awkward dynamic, undoubtedly made more awkward by the film’s handling of the white savior trope at the core of its narrative. Dune is largely about destiny, but it can’t do much to overcome the privileged, mildly tedious nature of its star character.

As Lady Jessica, Rebecca Ferguson largely carries the emotional weight of the narrative. Caught between the world of the Bene Gesserit and her loyalties to her family, Jessica is by the most intriguing of the characters in Villeneuve’s orbit that’s forced to operate without much of Herbert’s backstory. The politics of the film’s universe are way too overly simplified, leaving Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) with little to do but stare at things and express love for his kid.

Villeneuve has a firm grasp on Arrakis’ awe and wonder, but he never gives the audience a reason to invest in the narrative. The worldbuilding struggles without a strong emotional core. It’s hard to blame him for too much, having put forth stellar cinematography and a first-rate cast.

Dune isn’t as satisfying as it should have been considering all the talent involved. Villeneuve makes sure that supporting players like Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), and Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) get their moments to shine, but House Atreides as a whole never really feels like the power center it’s presented to be. There’s too much going on.

While part two is practically a foregone conclusion, it’s a fair question whether Villeneuve invested enough in the Fremen during part one. He treats Chani (Zendaya) as an object of fantasy more than a character, a notion that will sit in the audience’s mind for however long it takes to craft the sequel. Javier Bardem and Sharon Duncan-Brewster put forth two the film’s best performances in very limited appearances. Villeneuve may have been better off using Arrakis’ own people to explore the planet rather than mostly through the eyes of its under-developed colonizers.

Dune’s action sequences leave plenty to be desired, an oddly refreshing dynamic. Studios were leery of Herbert’s work for years largely due to the fact that it’s not a franchise that relies on battles. Villeneuve makes one of the book’s few epic conflicts look pretty small, an irony that Herbert himself might appreciate.

Arrakis has not been kind to those who venture to its world, a notion that applies both to its characters and those who have sought to adapt the material. Villeneuve crafted a beautiful film full of obvious love for Dune’s lore. It’s just too hard to walk away from the epic feeling a little underwhelmed with the final presentation. Maybe that’s inevitable to some extent, but maybe Villeneuve simply got lost in the desert, failing to fully grasp the magic of the spice.

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Wednesday

20

October 2021

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Classic Film: Halloween

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

Horror movies, particularly those in the slasher genre, exude an aura of indifference with regard to their characters, many of whom exist simply to be killed by the film’s big scary villain. The audience is trained not to get too attached to anyone whose name wasn’t near the beginning of the credits, just as most narratives have plenty of secondary and tertiary characters who don’t play a role in the climax. Gruesome death is largely just a way to pass the time, some warm-up thrills before the big main event.

Many slasher films forget the importance of giving their audiences some morsel of a reason to care about the secondary characters designed to serve as cannon fodder, spending large portions of their runtimes treading water in between murders.  Halloween had different intentions. Carpenter’s meticulously crafted film doesn’t waste a single second, the gold standard of the slasher genre with its most effective score.

Halloween is an intimate film with few characters. Carpenter doesn’t spend much time exploring the backstories for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), or Michael Myers (Nick Castle), understanding the inherent relatability of the stakes at hand. It’s not that there’s no time for frivolous backstory, but there’s no real need for it either. The gruesome nature of Myers’ villainy more than speaks for itself.

Carpenter can raise his audience’s heartbeat with a simple piano riff. Night or day, the sound of that melody takes hold of the senses, presenting the idea that anything could happen at any moment. Pleasance and Curtis, the latter making her cinematic debut, are top-notch, but Halloween is the rare film that could’ve coasted solely on the strength of its score.

Michael Myers is the very definition of evil, but Carpenter is careful not to saddle his villain with the bulk of the audience’s contempt. There is much reserved for the institutions that failed to safeguard the world from the boogeyman, including the hospital that failed to contain him and the police who didn’t take him seriously. Myers is not exactly a great example of the cover-up being worse than the crime, but Carpenter manages to spread the blame around.

What’s particularly refreshing about Halloween is the way that Carpenter’s fairly narrow scope feels simultaneously conclusive and open-ended. The bogeyman cannot be killed, not when Myers’ services are required for a dozen sequels. There should be no relief at the end of the narrative, yet Carpenter masterfully eases up on the pressure valve, providing a sense of closure where none should exist. For a genre often defined by low-budget direct-to-video releases, Halloween is a shining example of the power of the form when a master of the craft is behind the wheel.

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Monday

18

October 2021

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Storm‘s End

Written by , Posted in Blog, Podcast

We are back in Westeros! Jim McGeehin returns to the show for a wide-ranging discussion on Storm’s End, the Stormlands, and the region’s significance within ASOIAF. George R.R. Martin’s worldbuilding is so rich that we can do an entire podcast episode about a mundane topic with relatively little bearing on the overall narrative. Lots of talk on Robert’s Rebellion, The War of the Five Kings, and (f)Aegon’s upcoming plans.

You can follow Jim on Twitter @JM_SLAL, on Tumblr, and on his YouTube page

Jim’s last appearance on the show: https://ianthomasmalone.podbean.com/e/stannis-baratheon-in-the-north/

Be sure to check out all of our other ASOIAF/Game of Thrones episodes.

Map of the Stormlands courtesy of HBO.

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Sunday

17

October 2021

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New article for Little White Lies

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Ian wrote a personal essay on The Penguin, one of her favorite comic book characters, for Little White Lies. You can read the piece here: https://lwlies.com/articles/the-penguin-batman-danny-devito-trans/

 

 

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Thursday

14

October 2021

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Classic Film: Scream 2

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Sequels are not particularly well equipped to surpass their predecessors. Films are constantly forced to balance their narratives and characters within the confines of a feature-length runtime. Sequels have to do all of that, on top of introducing new characters and a narrative that appeals to fans of the original while also not feeling too derivative or too long in the process.

The existence of Scream 2 was a foregone conclusion, a natural progression for the slasher genre that loves nothing more than sequels. The biggest challenge for director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson is a simple fact that Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) puts so eloquently within the film itself. Sequels suck.

The original Scream took care to lay down the framework for a sequel effort, particularly with regard to Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), who Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) appeared to have wrongly implicated in her mother’s death. With Sidney, Randy, Cotton, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) returning, Scream 2 stood apart from practically all its slasher contemporaries as one of the few sequels to actually try and build off its predecessor’s story rather than simply cash in on its fame.

Craven almost surpasses the original Scream, a top-notch narrative that’s just a bit too overstuffed for its runtime. Scream 2 does a fabulous job building on Sidney, Dewey, and Gale, a return effort that never feels obligatory. The writing and acting are just as good as the first.

The confines of the slasher genre itself may have held back Scream 2 from being able to surpass Scream. Successful sequels such as The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, and Aliens all strongly deviated from the story structure of their predecessors. Aliens switched genres entirely, substituting out Ridley Scott’s suspense horror for Cameron’s action-heavy sequences. Scream 2 still fully belongs to the slasher genre, blunting its ability to top that which had already been done before.

While sequels are often derided as cash-grabs, Campbell, Cox, and Arquette each bring their A-game, approaching their characters with obvious love. The narrative does an excellent job showcasing the ramifications of the events of the first film, aside from some mild erasure of Dewey’s sister Tatum (Rose McGowan). Perpetually confronted by circumstances beyond her control, Sidney remains an awe-inspiring badass reluctant to cede agency over her life.

There is, maybe inevitably, a bit too much going on. Newcomers Derek Feldman (Jerry O’Connell) and Mickey Altieri (Timothy Olyphant) never really get a chance to make their mark. The narrative naturally can’t recreate the group dynamic of the first film, but even a rather long 120 minute runtime leaves too many strands of plot feeling unexplored.

Reported to have near-daily script rewrites, the whodunit is practically impossible to deduce. Repeat viewings only reveal morsels of clues, a stark departure from the first’s well-crafted mystery. The identity of the Ghostface is less important the second time around, the character growth of the core group serving as a much meatier core.

As Randy notes in one scene, sequels come with a higher body count, ostensibly doubling down on what the people want. Scream 2 features more deaths than its predecessor, but Craven isn’t simply playing for shock value. Ghostface’s spree is hardwired into the film’s pacing, a narrative that rarely lets up on its audience. Few horror films have managed to hit the two-hour mark without a single lull, a quite impressive feat given the production troubles and internet leaks.

Scream 2 is not as good as Scream, but easily stands above any other direct sequel in the horror genre. The death of a certain beloved character serves as the film’s biggest mistake, a poorly executed sequence designed clearly for shock value that’s beneath the quality of the talent involved. It’s easy to see how Scream 2 could’ve been a complete mess, but the cast and crew come together for another first-rate effort that almost succeeds in its most gargantuan task.

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Thursday

14

October 2021

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Classic Film: Scream

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

The legacy of a film like Scream (1996) could be defined by the way it resurrected public interest in the slasher genre. Such a truth obfuscates the rawer achievement of Wes Craven’s genius. The film industry’s obsession with remakes and reboots all but ensure that the slasher genre will never truly die, like the monsters that populate its franchises.

Scream’s crowning triumph is the way the film subverted the slasher genre from inside its own walls. Craven crafts an homage to his earlier work that stands above it, a singular feat in filmmaking. There’s so much joy in Kevin Williamson’s screenplay, but Scream doesn’t aspire to be a satire, but rather a continuation of the work started by the genre’s forefathers, with one of its most celebrated icons at the helm.

Reinventing the slasher genre by the 90s hardly required a reinvention of the wheel. Craven himself had played around with the confines of the genre two years prior with the extremely meta Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which brought original A Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp back into the fold, breaking from the longstanding slasher sequel model of relying on unknown actors to keep costs down. New Nightmare’s most radical notion was that invested in its product, striving for more than the low-hanging fruit of the direct-to-video market.

The world of Scream is inhabited by top-notch performers who strive to bring out the most in their characters. Casey Becker is only on the screen for a few minutes, but Drew Barrymore makes every second count, taking such delight in the mechanics of the genre that her character’s death resonates for the rest of the film. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) faces a never-ending cascade of nonsense, yet Campbell’s powerful performance ensures that the audience never pities her or reduces her to a damsel in distress. Sidney’s right hook delivered to the face of Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) plays out like a broader indictment of horror’s misogynistic tendenc2ies, an environment where women rarely have agency.

Craven and Williamson give the narrative such a sense of intimacy that it feels crafted for the stage. The investments in Scream’s characters leave a legacy that’s worth revisiting after the audience knows the answer to its core whodunit. Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) brushes up against the fourth wall in explaining the “rules” of horror, but it’s not delivered like a sly in-joke, but rather as a vessel for Craven to deconstruct the audience’s expectations.

Scream could’ve succeeded simply as a fun love letter to horror made by one of the godfathers of the genre. Instead, Craven aimed for a far more ambitious target. The slasher market was in a rut for little reason other than that its output was pretty terrible. Craven displayed the sheer power of quality filmmaking, a legacy that extends far beyond the film’s value as a meta-comedy.

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Wednesday

13

October 2021

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Classic Film: The Mummy

Written by , Posted in Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

A film like The Mummy (1932) confronts modern audiences with the very nature of what it means to be “genre-defining.” The Mummy is one of the most iconic horror films in history, without actually being all that scary. Even putting aside the cultural differences of the past 90 years, it’s hard to really imagine a packed screening full of people in the 1930s clinging together in abject terror. Director Karl Freund’s work isn’t that kind of film.

Instead, the narrative largely relies on its villain’s innate ability to get under the audience’s skin. The film starts off at the site of an archeology dig lead by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) searching for the tomb of Imhotep (Boris Karloff). Sir Joseph’s assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), an archaeologist assistant, reads a scroll which awakens the mummy, driving him insane in the process, instilling a heightened baseline suspense that continues for the rest of the film, set ten years later.

Imhotep, now living as the historian Ardeth Bay, isn’t really looking for revenge on a world that buried him alive. Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) takes over for his father as the ostensible protagonist, though predictably the mummy remains the real star of The Mummy. Karloff delivers the kind of singular performance that carries the entire film. The indomitably cool Ardeth Bay remains one of the genre’s defining achievements.

Ardeth Bay shares some DNA with Frankenstein’s Monster in the sense that both aren’t really villains in the traditional sense, but rather victims of unfortunate circumstances trying to find some meaning in a world that has no real place for them. Bay is a much smoother operator, quickly seizing the means of production for his own goals, namely the resurrection of his long-dead lover to inhabit the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). While certainly self-serving in his murderous intentions, the film is careful not to turn Bay into a figure of cartoonish villainy.

The film’s brisk 73-minute runtime hardly has much room for substantive character development. Johann and Manners put in solid work toward giving the audience someone to root for, but nothing really works without Karloff anchoring the narrative. The Mummy lets you empathize with a tragic figure who’s traversed thousands of years without the woman he loves. There’s no grey area in the film’s morality, but it’s a mature sense of conflict that considers everyone’s individual stakes. 

Few films in the horror genre have delivered such fascinating character studies. Blood and gore might shock a viewer, but The Mummy finds chills that cut much deeper. The humanity of Ardeth Bay still resonates nearly a hundred years later. The film likely won’t make you jump out of your seat, but Karloff’s performance gives the mind so much to chew on long after the credits have stopped rolling.

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Tuesday

12

October 2021

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Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Season 1)

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It’s morphin time! Grab your spandex and your zord, it’s time for an in-depth look at one at a pivotal piece of 90s popular culture. Ian and special guest Colin George-Babb explore the first season, full of iconic monsters and the tropes that have come to define the series in the decades since its premiere. Ian and Colin discuss the origins of the series and what they love about this fabulous first season.

No putties were hurt in the making of this episode! 

You can follow Colin at gokaiburakku

 

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