Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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Tuesday

15

January 2019

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Mahershala Ali Brings True Detective Back to Form

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The TV landscape has changed quite a bit in the half-decade since True Detective’s debut in 2015. The novelty of seeing big Hollywood names on the small screen has diminished in the wake of new series featuring A-list talent such as Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Michael Douglas. “Peak TV” exists as much as a cliché as a universal truth in this current era. There are more good shows on right now than anyone, even critics, has actual time to watch.

True Detective has always embraced the slow burn, a concept increasingly harder to sell in this bloated environment. After squandering much of its cultural capital on a forgettable second season, the show finds itself needing to balance suspense with the notion that its audience doesn’t necessarily need to accept that anymore. Mystique is an increasingly tougher sell, especially for week-to-week series.

Casting Mahershala Ali in the lead role was perhaps the best decision the show could have made. Ali has the power to mine intrigue from the mundane, an expressive actor capable of playing the same role across three time periods in a way that makes each feel fresh and unique. We don’t learn all that much about his character, Wayne Hays in the early episodes, but he plays the minimalism to his advantage. His ability to captivate in each scene makes the episodes fly by in a way that was sorely missing from season two.

The time jumps also provide some interesting commentary on the nature of America’s current cultural obsession with true crime series. Unsolved crimes, particularly ones involving children, remain alive years after their cases have gone cold through podcasts and Internet message boards. The unsettling nature of these heinous acts exists in a puzzling contrast with their status as entertainment symbols, something that essentially applies on a broader scale to fictional series like True Detective that deal with brutal murders.

Season three marks a return to form for True Detective, even if though it fails to reach the highs of its freshman effort. America seems less enthralled by anthology series in recent years than it has in the past, perhaps an inevitable development for a medium pushing its saturation point. A strong performance from Mahershala Ali keeps things interesting enough to wash the stink of season two away, even if the series isn’t likely to capture the country’s attention in quite the same way again.

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Monday

14

January 2019

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Mary Poppins Returns Is a Worthy Successor to a Timeless Classic

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For decades, the idea of a Mary Poppins sequel seemed completely sacrilegious, a notion undercut by the current climate of reboots and reimaginings.  Perhaps the only surprise is that Mary Poppins Returns took fifty years to come to fruition. Disney appeared aware of the delicate nature with which one must approach a return trip to Cherry Tree Lane, crafting a film that paid homage to its predecessor while simultaneously doing its best to put some healthy distance between the two.

Julie Andrews’ performance as the magical nanny is one of the most iconic in film history. For all the ways that Emily Blunt appeared destined for failure in taking such a daunting task, she rather effortlessly makes quick work of any notion of comparison early on. Quite literally, Blunt’s Poppins hits the ground running, exhibiting great comfort in the role. The choice to set Returns twenty-five years after the original gave room for Blunt to play the ageless character with a greater sense of reserve than Andrews, while maintaining the quirky sense of confidence that has made the character so endearing for all these years.

A big part of Blunt’s effectiveness is her reluctance to play on the audience’s inevitable nostalgia. She remains ever-faithful to the character while never stooping to the level of impersonation. As much as Mary Poppins has remained Julie Andrews’ over the decades, Blunt transforms her into an entity similar to James Bond, a character with traits the audience expects and others that are open to interpretation.

The supporting cast eases Blunt’s burden with energetic performances that keep the audience smiling from one musical number to the next. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s charm is quite contagious, wearing such an authentic smile on his face throughout the film that you can’t help but share in his obvious joy. Colin Firth does an excellent job as the ruthless banker William “Weatherall” Wilkins, whose efforts to repossess the Banks’ home serves as the film’s primary conflict. Jeremy Swift, best-known for his role as the Dowager’s prickly butler Spratt on Downton Abbey, delivers a delectably sinister performance as Wilkins’ eager enforcer Hamilton Gooding, aided by his softer counterpart Templeton Fyre, played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

Mary Poppins Returns demonstrates a careful deployment of its title character, who largely plays a backseat role in the primary conflict between the Banks family and Wilkins. Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer deliver compelling performances as the grown-up Michael and Jane, while the film’s child actors anchor the dramatic tension. Many sequels make the same mistake of doubling down on the assets that made the original so memorable, but Mary Poppins Returns exercises considerable restraint, making each of the Poppins-centric scenes are the more memorable in the process.

The biggest flaw of the film is its run time, which goes on about a half hour more than it probably should have given the simplicity of its primary objective. As a result, the second act drags its feet a bit in service to an entertaining yet unnecessary cameo by Meryl Streep. The musical numbers fail to reach the iconic status of the original songs, but deserve a lot of credit for their originality.

Mary Poppins Returns delivers a delightful experience that crafts its own magic while remaining faithful to its source material. Disney held itself to the highest standards, never content to settle for a cheap cash grab. The production values and the performances make for a highly entertaining movie-going experience well-worth the trip to the theatres.

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Monday

14

January 2019

1

COMMENTS

A Strong Performance by Jodie Whittaker Makes Adult Life Skills a Worthwhile Experience

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The subject of growing up has been explored by countless indie movies, trodden well past the point of cliché. Practically every week a new film pops up promising to offer insight on the dilemma of what it means to be young and sad, unable to skirt by on the strength of one’s own quirks. Adult Life Skills takes on a similar mandate, exploring the stranglehold that grief can wield over one’s sense of direction.

Anna’s life is a mess. Her primary method of grief management following her brother’s death is sitting in her mother’s backyard shed making videos of her thumbs discussing existential dread. Not much of a life, but that’s the kind of position tragedy can thrust a person toward, perpetuating the status quo long past its expiration date. It can be quite hard to move on when you don’t have a clue where you’re going.

Quite unlike her character, lead actress Jodie Whittaker has proven up to the task for whatever direction her career has taken her, demonstrating a remarkable range between stints on Broadchurch and as the first female doctor on the long-running Doctor Who. Whittaker makes up for a script that paints Anna as sympathetic but not particularly compelling by honing in on the subtle moments in each scene, adding a layer of depth to the cookie cutter protagonist. Her ability to weave through the nuanced nature of grief practically sustains the narrative all on its own.

Not a lot happens in Adult Life Skills, but the film plays its simple plot to its advantage. A lot of indie films take lost protagonists and string them about for ninety minutes until a chance occurrence provides enough of an aha moment to function as a climax. Coming of age films don’t necessarily offer conclusions in the typical cinematic sense, as you can’t really win at life in the same way as you can defeat a giant three-headed monster. Adult Life Skills never loses sight of its premise, delivering a satisfying resolution that doesn’t call for unnecessary helpings of suspension of disbelief.

The film is not without a few drawbacks. Aside from Whittaker, child actor Ozzy Myers (in his debut performance according to IMDB) gives the film’s only other compelling performance. Most of the characters fall more into the category of forgettable than terrible, but Brett Goldstein delivers an immensely irritating performance as Brendon, an awkward real-estate agent who drags down each scene with cringe-worthy dialogue.

Adult Life Skills makes up for its lack of originality on the strength of Jodie Whittaker’s performance. Fans of hers will find plenty to like in the way the film allows her to showcase her talent for the entirety of the brisk runtime. Not every film needs to reinvent the wheel. Many sink under the weight of their outstretched ambition. The subject of millennial angst remains a popular topic for film to explore, often promising answers the screen can’t possibly deliver. Movies like Adult Life Skills succeed in celebrating the mundane, encouraging their audiences to take each step at a time.

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Friday

4

January 2019

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Vice Doesn’t Know What to Say About Dick Cheney

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Adam McKay achieved a seemingly impossible task with his previous film The Big Short in crafting a narrative about the financial meltdown that was both entertaining and easy to understand for the general public. The life of Dick Cheney presents similar issues, an unlikable man who has hardly lived a life that followed any semblance of a hero’s journey, carving his place in history by operating in the shadows of power. While Cheney rarely relished the spotlight during his tenure as vice president, Vice can’t function behind the closed doors of Washington.

Christian Bale nails the peripherals of a Cheney impersonation. He looks and sounds just like him, but there’s little life beneath the prosthetics. The “Darth Cheney” characterization was at least in part inspired by the public’s lack of understanding of the grander motives behind the man beyond a drive for absolute power. Neither McKay nor Bale demonstrate any further clarity on that subject and it shows. The result is a robotic performance with nothing substantive to help illustrate the mystery.

As lifeless as Bale’s Cheney is at times, the performance never becomes a distraction throughout the film. The same cannot be said of Steve Carrell’s turn as Cheney’s mentor Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the Iraq War. Secretary Rumsfeld’s outspoken personality lends well to parody, but Carrell never feels comfortable in the role. He looks the part, but he never acts with the suave sense of confidence that defined Rummy throughout his controversial career. The voice is perhaps the biggest issue. Not only does Carrell not sound like Rumsfeld, he distinctly always sounds like Steve Carrell, an unnecessary diversion that constantly feels like he’s guest hosting Saturday Night Live rather than trying for an Oscar nomination.

McKay seems aware of the potential for distraction in other characterizations, keeping a fictionalized President Nixon off-screen entirely and limiting President George W. Bush to a few pivotal scenes, even though Sam Rockwell plays a pretty competent Dubya. Amy Adams delivers the most compelling performance in the film as Lynne Cheney, perhaps the only character with a clear sense of motive. Too many characters in the film exist solely for exposition sake, awkwardly dropping summaries of key events into casual conversations even though McKay has a narrator and plenty of text to do the explaining for him.

Vice suffers from an overstuffed narrative that never demonstrates a clear sense of direction, meandering from point to point with little continuity to tie everything together. Cheney’s time as VP is almost entirely defined by the Iraq War and the controversial “enhanced interrogation” methods he championed. Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it treats the entirety of the Bush administration as an afterthought, dedicating surprisingly little time to covering his most consequential era. Cheney’s motives for the war are only lightly explored, an issue perhaps exacerbated by the omission of his time as Secretary of Defense, where he oversaw the First Gulf War. To Cheney, Saddam Hussein is painted in Vice as a means to an end for the exercising of absolute executive power, a lazy explanation that ignores much of the nuance and conflicting power centers at the heart of the decision.

Mary Cheney’s homosexuality is given almost as much screen time as the war, a puzzling decision that falls flat by its narrative conclusion that barely involves the VP at all. Biopics cannot provide a full picture of anyone’s life, but Vice seems far too content to squander its runtime on arbitrary chapters of Cheney’s life that no one will talk about when his obituaries are eventually written. This situation is exacerbated by the complete and utter indifference that McKay displays toward presenting anything resembling a conclusion for his film.

Vice lacks a core thesis behind its gorgeous aesthetics. The film is never boring, as its beautiful sets and excellent cast always keep things moving along. Its subject will go down as one of, if not, the most powerful vice presidents in American history. Unfortunately and inexcusably, this biopic can’t seem to find much of anything to say about the life trajectory of a man who went from being a drunk college dropout to the architect of the modern military-industrial complex.

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Monday

31

December 2018

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Aquaman Squanders Jason Momoa by Overstuffing Itself at Every Turn

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The stakes for Aquaman are far more arbitrary than they seem. We can say that some mandate existed to “save” the mess that is the DCEU, but this notion is completely undercut by the fact that the movie makes almost no mention of its connected universe. A viewer could sit down in their seat with no knowledge that this film is Jason Momoa’s third go-around as Arthur Curry and leave never wondering if there had been life before Atlantis. Aquaman didn’t need to save anything other than the sea.

With the stink of the moody incoherent Justice League washed away, Aquaman sets a far more jovial tone. Unlike Ben Affleck, Jason Momoa constantly looks like he’s enjoying himself in his role, playing the half-human/half-Atlantean with a kind of contagious glee. His charm is up and away the film’s strongest asset, allowing the film to play up its hero’s inevitable campy moments in a way that preserves some grace in self-parody. The film is desperate to be in on the joke rather than the butt of it, a fate that has befallen every other DCEU release save for Wonder Woman. There is plenty of laughter to be had in Aquaman, though some of it appears quite unintentional.

Momoa’s enthusiasm serves an excellent deflection from a subpar script that seems to take its cues from the 1970s Super Friends cartoon instead of Zack Snyder’s DCEU offerings. Sometimes the dialogue is naturally funny, but often the laughter comes from cringe-worthy camp moments that make you wonder how a major studio approved such lackluster writing. As a superhero, Aquaman has lived for decades with a reputation for being pretty lame, with Momoa’s natural sense of swagger serving as a great counterbalance that’s too often undercut by a script that rarely does him any favors.

The film’s larger plot barely earns a passing grade for coherence, but Aquaman is weighed down by a few too many subplots. The opening sets up Black Mantra, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, as the villain only to discard that notion early on in favor of a multi-tiered approach. Patrick Wilson never seems fully confident in carrying the role of antagonist as Arthur’s brother Orm Marius, who’s desperate to unite the various ocean kingdoms to fight back against land dwellers and all their pollution. As if two villains weren’t enough, Dolph Lundgren also hangs around as Nereus, king of Xebel and father of Arthur’s primary love interest Meera, played by Amber Heard. None of the bad guys are particularly memorable, largely because there isn’t enough time to go around between all the various rabbit holes director James Wan wants to play around in.

The bloated runtime serves as the film’s fatal flaw. Aquaman is far too long, constantly undercutting its charm in service to derivative action sequences that lose all appeal by the third act. Some of the film’s fight scenes are truly impressive in nature, but others look lifted off a Power Rangers battle. Wan squanders any goodwill on that front by stuffing far too many battles into the film, turning any camp factor from humorous to tedious.

Aquaman is very entertaining at times. If its narrative hadn’t been so overstuffed with needless subplots and excessive action sequences, it very likely would have made for an excellent superhero film. Instead, it settles for being the second best DCEU release, an accolade it was practically predestined for by token of not being a depressing slog. It is still a chore to get through in one sitting. Thorough editing could have saved this film from a fate similar to the “so bad it’s moderately entertaining” legacy of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, which exiled the caped crusader from the big screen for almost a decade. Aquaman is a marginal improvement for the DCEU, but it should have been so much more.

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Wednesday

26

December 2018

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The Favourite Is a Timely Feminist Treatise on Power

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Feminism is an especially rich subject to explore in period dramas for many reasons. The blatant injustices of earlier eras shed light on our current climate, where inequality continues to thrive. The crimes of the aristocracy extend far beyond sexism, as the near complete absence of any sense of upward mobility dictated that one’s life circumstances were almost always determined by external factors other than free will. If we take feminism at its root definition, to strive for equality of sexes, empowering women in period dramas means freedom to be as ruthless and manipulative as their male counterparts.

The Favourite is a film about power. Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is a monarch whose ability to wield all that ruling entails is largely dictated by the political machinations of those around her. Hindered by a variety of ailments, Queen Anne’s lover Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, tries to govern in her steed. Standing in the way of her proxy rule is Robert Harley, played by Nicholas Hoult, who objects to war with France and all the taxes it entails.

Emma Stone gives perhaps the finest performance of her career as Abigail Hill, who comes to court in squalor after her father squandered her family’s standing and security. Finding work as a scullery maid, Abigail quickly demonstrates that she’s not looking for handouts, but rather opportunities to reclaim that which she lost through no fault of her own. She bonds with Sarah, wrestles with Robert, and plays the games she needs to play in order to survive in a world that offers few second chances.

The film plays out largely like a stage play with a fairly minimalist approach to set locations and relying on the inter-character drama rather than the history to propel the native. The cast is spectacular, vibrantly playing off each other with such delight that you completely forget what terrible people the characters are. The Favourite lacks a true protagonist, but you can’t help but root for Abigail as she plots her way back into society.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos consistently makes his presence known throughout the film, utilizing unconventional angles and cutaways that complement the sharp dialogue in practically every scene. The Favourite never forgets that it’s a period drama, but it uses the genre as a playground of sorts, constantly bending the rigid confines of what we expect from characters in corsets. Like many of his other films, Lanthimos uses humor not as satire, but as a way to butter up his audience before delivering the cold truth about the nature of humanity.

Colman solidifies her status as one of England’s finest working actors, playing the sickly Queen Anne in a way that garners sympathy without making her out to be a victim. Vulnerability and power often seem incompatible, as if the presence of one can cancel out the other. Queen Anne is used by all the other principle characters, but Colman displays a subtle sense of strength to perpetuate the idea that she’s never incapable of reclaiming her sense of authority.

The Favourite is an uncomfortably empowering feminist film, allowing its female characters to strive for an equal sense of malice and cruelty. These characters are oddly endearing in their awfulness, unafraid to be unabashedly evil in the absence of any standard of morality. Power exists out the binary of right and wrong despite what we’re taught as children. We’re not supposed to take pleasure in being evil, but film presents a reality adjacent to our own, one where such problematic charms from a talented cast can be embraced as good theatre without any broader ramifications. The Favourite makes its period setting feel completely contemporary, unabashedly stripping power down to its raw carnal form.

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Monday

24

December 2018

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A Meandering Narrative Derails the Otherwise Well-Constructed Mary Queen of Scots

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Despite the literal definition of the genre, almost all biopics offer a false promise by token of their run times. Few two-hour movies can provide a complete portrait of a historical figure’s life. There just isn’t enough time. The best biopics narrow in on a specific period of a person’s story in order to illuminate a broader point about who they were.

Mary Queen of Scots appears aware of this predicament, with all of its trailers spotlighting the troubled relationship between two cousins seemingly destined for turmoil. Much has been said of the historical inaccuracy at the heart of the film’s narrative, the fact that history refutes the idea that Mary and Elizabeth ever met, but this revision is hardly a factor weighing down the film. Much more problematic is the idea that the narrative never seems fully committed to the course it laid out for itself early on.

Somewhere along the way the film decided that the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth wasn’t enough to sustain the entire narrative, but Mary Queen of Scots never really laid down the framework to dedicate much time to anything else. Some attention is given to Mary’s many troubles in Scotland, with seemingly everyone around her conspiring to end her reign, but these scenes can’t shake the aura of filler. There’s nothing really tying any of the political turmoil together besides the history itself, presenting sequences strung together without any hint of a story.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the casting is Mary Queen of Scots biggest strength. Saoirse Ronan plays a charming and relatable Mary. Margot Robbie makes the most of the limited scope Elizabeth is given in the narrative. The rest of the cast, including David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn, and Gemma Chan all put forth compelling performances in supporting roles, but the acting isn’t the problem. The issue is that the film never gives any of its immense talent anything compelling to do.

As effective as Ronan and Robbie are at garnering sympathy for their character’s positions, such efforts are squandered because the film never really builds toward anything. We know their eventual meeting is going to happen by token of the trailers, but everything else feels like they’re simply going through the motions until that moment comes. Despite being ostensibly the two most powerful people in their realms, both characters are never really shown to be anything more than helpless. You can feel for them, but that’s about all that’s ever asked of the audience. There’s nothing here for anyone to actually root for.

Mary Queen of Scots is a film comprised of beautiful pieces with absolutely zero substance at the center. The costumes are gorgeous and the performances are excellent, but these elements cannot indefinitely sustain the absence of narrative. There’s a lot to appreciate in the film’s diverse casting, with nods to acceptance of homosexuality and gender fluidity, which effectively dispels the notion that inclusion is a distraction in period dramas. Trouble is, the film seems entirely composed of diversion used to substitute for the notion that it actually has a story.

The past few years have offered plenty of reasons to dispel with the occasional public perception that period dramas are dry and boring. Mary Queen of Scots unfortunately plays this trope up quite well. The sum of its many admirable parts don’t add up to an interesting movie, only two hours of watching talented actors try to pull a narrative out of thin air.

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Sunday

23

December 2018

0

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Is a Heartfelt Psychedelic Delight

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There are a few great ironies surrounding the release of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s a superhero movie about connected universes that exists outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is a visual splendor with cutting-edge animation that still has a throwback feel to days gone by of costumed animated shows. The narrative focuses on a teenage boy trying to find his place in the world just as Spider-Man is about to become the only Marvel franchise not completely under the control of Disney, with an unclear direction full of possibilities.

After a decade of rotating Spideys, the Peter Parker origin story is more than a little played out. “With great power comes great responsibility” begins to apply to the franchise itself, risking becoming self-parody with any additional repetition. Into the Spider-Verse never loses sight of this, killing off its prime universe Peter Parker early on in favor of an older, heavier, and sullen version of the character to serve as a mentor to the film’s primary protagonist Miles Morales.

Shameik Moore voices Morales perfectly, bringing a sense of vulnerability to the Spider-Man role in a way not seen since Tobey Maguire. His Miles is grounded in an entirely relatable position, a boy who’s not quite sure where he belongs in a rapidly changing environment. Much is expected of him throughout the film, but he never lets the superpowers arbitrarily alter the human issues at the heart of the narrative.

The animation in Into the Spider-Verse provides some of the most innovative visuals ever crafted in a mainstream film. I practically had acid flashbacks throughout some of the sequences, expecting Jefferson Airplane to start playing at any moment. What’s perhaps more impressive is the way in which this scenery fits in perfectly with the arc of the film. Animated films have the luxury of being able to craft literally any scenario imaginable, but such sequences need to be consistent with the presentation of the storytelling.

Into the Spider-Verse manages to simultaneously present a fairly traditional origin story while seamlessly intertwining scenes from every corner of the animator’s imagination. It’s a wild ride that’s always rooted in reality. The other universe’s spideys don’t get a ton of screen time, but you feel like these characters have grown in their short time together. Film presents mere snippets of a character’s life. This movie makes every moment count.

The superhero genre has frequently pushed the limits of market saturation over the past few years. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was hardly born out of necessity, but along the way, it made a very compelling case for the future existence of non-MCU Marvel movies. These stories go beyond connected universes, even ones about connected universes, showing a sense of wonder beyond the prospects of an appearance from a superhero of another franchise. The movie throws everything and the kitchen sink at the audience’s imagination, delivering an immensely satisfying experience that should not be missed on the big screen. We’ve seen a lot from superheroes, but Into the Spider-Verse serves as an excellent reminder for how much more the genre has to show us.

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Friday

21

December 2018

0

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Dabbling in Video & Comics, DC Universe Carves a Niche for Itself in the Crowded Streaming Field

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There’s an increasingly familiar refrain that follows news of additional streaming services. “Not another one,” cries the public-at-large, reflective of the transitional period television finds itself in. An indefinite one, for we don’t really know what will happen to the cable-streaming paradigm years from now. What we do know, or rather should know, is that consumer markets don’t arbitrarily decide that enough is enough. As long as people continue to use streaming services, and they most certainly will, new ones will sprout up.

DC Universe quickly sets itself apart from its competition by its breadth of content, much of which deviates from the standard streaming fare. The service bills itself as “The Ultimate DC Experience,” dedicating much of its focus to the core of DC’s business: comic books. Included are plenty of offerings from throughout DC’s long history, beautifully converted into an easy to use digital format.

The service impressed me at first glance for its focus on curation, something that befuddles most other streaming services. From the homepage to the sections of the DC Encyclopedia, you can find many collections of specific comics that give you a good sense of what you might want to read. I appreciated the absence of an algorithm that never works in favor of a system that looks like it was put together by an actual human being. It’s easy to spend the amount of time one intended to reserve for entertainment simply in the search of that content, lost in the pages of options. So far I’ve never found myself lingering on what to read or watch with DC Universe, which does its best to make the vast world of comics far less intimidating.

DC Universe’s investment in curation also carries over to a sense of community put forth by the site. A program called DC Daily covers a wide variety of topics from episode to episode, giving users something new to look forward to each day. The site also features daily articles and a community message board, neither of which seems particularly groundbreaking in the year 2018 except for the fact that no other service puts any stock into that kind of stuff. It’s small touches like these that separate DC Universe from other streaming sites, not just presenting content but exploring it. Not since Filmstruck’s demise has a streaming service put more effort into cultivating an interest in what it has to offer.

Despite the diversity of content, DC Universe’s library is still a bit rough around the edges. It seems a bit unfair to knock the absence of the CW Arrowverse shows, Gotham, Teen Titans Go!, or the newer DCEU movies, since contracts for those rights must have been signed long before the service’s debut, but its video content is still fairly meager. Highlights include the complete run of Super Friends, long absent from streaming, as well as remastered versions of Batman: The Animated Series and the original Wonder Woman series, both of which look absolutely beautiful in HD.

The service is off to a great start with its original programming. I was very impressed with Titans and am excited to see its spinoff Doom Patrol next year. The animated original Young Justice: Outsiders is also set to debut just after the new year. Other scripted originals on the slate for later next year include the live-action Stargirl and Swamp Thing and an animated series centered on Harley Quinn. If any of these shows have similar production values to the excellent Titans, the service should quickly pile up a nice collection of original content.

DC Universe was born into a rapidly changing TV environment, one that isn’t likely to heed the “not another streaming service” cries from sectors of the consumer market. What sets DC Universe apart is what it’s trying to bring to the table. The generic backlash against streaming services seems to forget that not all of these sites are trying to offer the same thing.

The barometer we use to gauge the quality of streaming services, namely original content, is a bit unfair. No service can compete with Netflix’s unsustainable twelve billion dollar budget for original programming, nor is DC Universe designed to appeal to mass consumers in the same way. Instead, it sets its focus on living up to its slogan, “the ultimate DC membership,” with an impressive library of content designed to fully immerse one in the DC experience. Art is designed to be a communal experience. Other services could learn a lot from DC Universe’s efforts to add a human touch to the equation.

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Wednesday

12

December 2018

0

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Girl Is an Irresponsible Exploitation of the Transgender Body

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Since its success at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Belgium’s Girl has been causing quite a stir. Director Lukas Dhont has been criticized for his casting of a cisgender male as the teenage transgender ballerina Lara, a longstanding point of contention for films depicting trans narratives. The cisgender casting may have attracted the most controversy thus far, but Girl’s biggest red flag is Dhont’s flagrant obsession with the deterioration of Lara’s genitals.

Lara, played by Viktor Polster in his film debut, is a passionate young teenager eager to pursue her dancing at a top academy while trying to live a life unhindered by the prejudices toward her gender identity. She has a loving father, supportive instructor, and caring medical professionals but encounters discrimination from her peers and, in one bizarre instance, a professor who outright polls the female members of their class regarding their comfort toward Lara in the middle of a lesson. As cringe-worthy as that moment sounds, it’s just the tip of the iceberg for Lara’s downward spiral.

In many ways, Lara isn’t really the main character in Girl. Lara’s crotch is a much more potent force that Dhont seems hellbent on featuring at every possible moment. The film features multiple scenes of Polster’s teenage penis in plain view and several close-ups of his pubic region that’s been bloodied by Lara’s excessive taping. Any narrative value of these scenes dries up by the third go-around, leaving the sense that Dhont is farming the transgender body for all its voyeuristic worth.

Suffering has been a common theme of many, if not most, transgender narratives. Dhont takes Lara’s sadness to extreme degrees, with practically every scene dedicated either to her humiliation or the steady decline of her mental health. This hyper-focus on misery comes at the expense of Polster’s performance, whose range is essentially confined to either very sad or completely despondent. There are a few scattered moments where Polster delivers subtle expressions that showcase his talent as an actor, but the torment is so heavy-handed that it robs him of any chance to leave an impression other than the boilerplate sympathy one should naturally feel toward a teenager that’s in as much visible pain as Lara.

Girl’s timeline deserves considerable scrutiny with regard to Lara’s transition. While hormone replacement therapy is a process that’s highly individualistic in nature, it is never something that happens overnight or even in a few weeks. Based on the start of the semester and a New Year’s Eve celebration toward the end, the bulk of the film appears to take place over a six-month span, the very early stages of HRT. Dissatisfaction with progress is hardly out of the ordinary, but Dhont makes several decisions that demonstrate his fundamental lack of understanding of how transitioning works.

There’s a scene early on that features a consultation for gender confirmation surgery before Lara’s even started hormones, something that makes little sense even before you consider how delicately doctors approach treatment for transgender youth. Lara later learns that her surgery must be delayed due to her tucking, in what would be an absurdly early point for that to even be on the table, especially since her father and therapist were aware of her depression. Realistically, surgery wouldn’t be on the table for years for a teenager like Lara. Fictional narratives aren’t exactly expected to showcase complex issues in a completely authentic fashion, but Dhont plays fast and loose with the details in a way that demonstrates how little he’s interested in portraying even a semi-realistic transition. For Girl, Lara’s bloodied crotch takes precedent over anything else interesting about her identity.

There are critics out there, overwhelmingly cisgender men, who feel that this whole casting controversy is a total non-issue, repeating the adage, “acting is acting.” The trouble with this argument is that it relies extensively on a false utopian sense of society, where everyone exists on equal footing. Much of the overwhelmingly positive coverage of films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians focused on the authenticity of their inclusive casting. A Fantastic Woman, the incumbent Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film, earned worldwide praise for its transgender narrative, starring an actual transgender woman. Daniela Vega’s performance in that film captured the hardships of being transgender without focusing on her transition or her genitals.

Girl exists in stunning contrast, a film guided by cisgender voices that never seeks to explore the nuances of the transgender identity, not when it can constantly return to its point of utmost fascination. Dhont claims to have been interested in this project for close to ten years, inspired by a transgender dancer he’s since become close friends with. The trouble is that he never demonstrates any concern for transgender people beyond what you might find from a stranger on Grindr, desperate for a peek of one’s private parts. For years, prominent transgender voices have called for an end to the exploitative trauma porn that defines most depictions of trans people on screen. Instead of elevating transgender characters as people worthy of dignity or respect, Dhont exploits their bodies to his heart’s content. Girl is a deeply dehumanizing film, reducing the transgender identity from a soul to an appendage.

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