Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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Wednesday

30

October 2019

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American Dharma Doesn’t Know What to Say About Steve Bannon

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As repulsive as some may find him, Steve Bannon is an important figure in twenty-first century American politics. Leading the Trump campaign to victory in 2016 against seemingly all predictions earned the former head of Breitbart News a place in the history books. Esteemed director Errol Morris is no stranger to interviewing controversial Republican figures, most notably former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known.

Morris’ new documentary American Dharma ostensibly aims to peel back the layers of Bannon, known for his bombastic rhetoric and policies that many deride as racist, xenophobic, and homophobic, to say the least. The film covers a large portion of Bannon’s life, from his upbringing to his rise as a right-wing power broker. Trouble is, Morris never really stakes out a territory to craft anything revelatory about a man who’s been the subject of media fascination for years now.

For his part, Bannon consistently looks like he’s having the time of his throughout the documentary. Noting his love of Morris’ Fog of War and the inspiration it gave him to make political films of his own for conservative audiences, Bannon clearly appreciates the chance to be the director’s next project. That reverence hardly translates into cooperation, as Bannon manages to sidestep nearly every controversial question Morris throws at him.

Morris’ line of inquiry is hardly of the softball nature, but American Dharma suffers from a lack of follow-ups. There are several occasions where Morris flat out asks if some of the policies, such as the travel ban, were racist in nature. He doesn’t really get an answer, nor does he pursue one.

With a runtime of a little over ninety minutes, American Dharma understandably lacks the time to cover every noteworthy aspect of Bannon’s life or even his political career. Morris spends so little time on Bannon’s White House tenure that a casual viewer might forget he was there at all. More time is dedicated to Bannon’s favorite films than the Trump White House.

It is in this chief regard that Morris misses the mark for his film. Bannon is no stranger to marquee interviews, the recipient of Time magazine covers and 60 Minute profiles. Events such as the Access Hollywood tape scandal have been covered extensively for years by several mediums. The time that Morris dedicates to the campaign comes at the expense of a discussion of actual policy that Bannon would have been responsible for as Chief Strategist in the White House.

American Dharma fails to present any new insight on Steve Bannon, a shame considering the man’s history of loose lips. Bannon famously served as a major source for Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury book, and gave an interview that was highly critical of the Trump administration to the progressive outlet The American Prospect days before his departure from the White House. Bannon certainly likes to share what he really thinks about policy and Donald Trump. Morris just didn’t manage to get much out of him.

Part of the problem with American Dharma may be the fact that unlike The Unknown Known, we’re still in the midst of the administration that the subject was a part of. Morris presents a broad portrait of Bannon, too often treading through the same terrain that’s been picked clean by a media that rarely talks about anything but Trump. American Dharma may have relevance to future generations unfamiliar with the daily media play-by-play, but it’s unclear what he expected a 2019 audience to make of this film. We’ve seen this show before.

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Tuesday

29

October 2019

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The Lighthouse is a Contemplative Gem Bound to Captivate and Terrify

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On the surface, a film like The Lighthouse seems to exist in stark contradiction to pretty much anything else you could find playing at your local theatre. Filmed on one location, using 35 mm black and white film and only two actors in speaking roles, Robert Eggers’ second feature carries the aura of a stage play throughout its narrative. Throw in a runtime of nearly two hours, the whole experience feels designed to capture the essence of cabin fever that being stuck on a rock would inevitably create.

Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (William Dafoe) are two lighthouse keepers, or “wickies,” assigned to a small rocky island for a four-week stay. Wake, the senior wickie, finds himself disinterested in the mundane duties, leaving Winslow to handle all the manual labor himself. Monotony and time make for uneasy bedfellows, giving a sense of unreliability to the narrative.

Pattinson and Dafoe give two of the best performances of their careers, putting seemingly every emotion on display throughout the film. There’s an impressive depth to their relationship, reflective of their isolated surroundings. Much of the film plays out like a horror movie, but there’s plenty of moments of natural comedy that help ease the tension.

Eggers proves his directorial skills time and again throughout the narrative. The Lighthouse is a quiet, almost contemplative film, but there’s a deliberate sense to the pacing. Some of the sequences exude claustrophobia, putting the audience right in the midst of the dilemma that Wake and Winslow find themselves in.

The film’s cinematography is also a highlight, impressive considering the small size of the island. Eggers uses the ocean around the lighthouse to aid the sense of isolation, as well as the magnitude of the powers beyond the wickie’s control. In that regard, space is both minuscule and grandiose.

The only issue with The Lighthouse lies with its runtime. 110 minutes is long for many movies, especially one filmed in a small space with two actors. There is the sense that Eggers deliberately drew out the narrative to mirror the plight of his characters, hopelessly stuck with no end in sight.

Trouble is, there’s only so many times that Winslow and Wake can experience the same conflicts until the whole exercise starts to feel a bit monotonous. The notion of purpose behind the monotony clashes with the idea that the film spends a bit too much time hovering above its destination before landing. It could be fifteen minutes shorter without losing a beat.

Despite the overly drawn out third act, The Lighthouse is a remarkable film. It’s funny, horrifying, uncomfortable, and deeply strange, all at the same time. Minimalism isn’t a trait often truly appreciated on the big screen. Eggers crafted a quietly beautiful narrative that’s well-worth a trip to the theatre.

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Monday

28

October 2019

1

COMMENTS

Joker Succeeds Due to the Strength of Joaquin Phoenix’s Performance

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Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” helped popularize the idea that superhero movies could exist as reflections of reality rather than their comic book source material. For decades, the Joker has existed as an over-the-top sinister arch villain, drawing a sick delight from being responsible for some of Batman’s darkest hours, including killing Jason Todd and paralyzing Barbara Gordon. For big screen feature films, the criminal mastermind’s terror stems from utterly realistic nature of his tyranny, the kind of evil not dissimilar from those who commit mass shootings or other heinous acts.

Todd Phillips’ Joker rarely feels like a comic book movie. Instead, his take on the iconic villain plays out as more of long think piece on the nature between isolation and evil. For a character who’s been committing crimes for eighty years, the comics don’t tend to spend a lot of time on the background information that led the Joker on the path of darkness. There isn’t even really an established history regarding the character’s real name.

Joaquin Phoenix presents Arthur Fleck as a pathetic individual. Arthur is clearly mentally ill and lacks any meaningful connection to the outside world besides his similarly delusional mother (Frances Conroy). Arthur wants to be a comedian, but it’s unclear if he actually knows what a joke is.

Phoenix’s mesmerizing lead performance is more than enough to carry the narrative past many of its meandering moments. Giving one of the strongest performances of his storied career, Phoenix plays Fleck with such nuance that it’s often hard to take your eyes off him in each scene. Many talented actors have played the Joker, but Phoenix ensures that his take will go down as one of the best takes on the character.

As a film, Joker is a bit diminished by Phillips’ approach to potential sympathy that one might feel toward the film’s “protagonist,” a label that feels uncomfortable if not accurate. Arthur Fleck is a very bad man who’s led about as tragic a life as one could present on film. Never lost on the audience is the sense that the Joker represents a failure on both fronts of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. The narrative fully explains how this monster came to exist, but Phillips isn’t interested in telling anyone how to feel about Arthur.

Some may appreciate that approach, giving the audience full leeway to come to their own conclusions. Situations are rarely as black and white as many films make them out to be, but Joker feels utterly comfortable swimming around in the grey. Arthur can be grey and sympathetic, understandably despicable. Whether those implications should be transferred onto Fleck’s real-world counterparts is a different story, albeit one where the lines might seem a little blurred.

The other aspect of Joker that doesn’t quite work is its desire to exist as part of Gotham’s larger lore while simultaneously being about as far removed from a comic book movie as has ever been presented on screen. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) plays a supporting role, an inclusion that feels more obligatory than out of narrative necessity. The Joker is without a doubt the most well-known comic book villain in history. There isn’t any explicit reason why the Wayne family needs to be included in his story. Phillips hardly makes the case for their presence in this film.

Joker is a triumph largely due to Phoenix’s performance. The film has a lot of flaws, but Phoenix keeps the narrative afloat with his commitment to the character. For a genre wrapped up in franchises and connected universes, it’s rather refreshing to see a movie with a concrete beginning, middle, and end.

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Saturday

28

September 2019

0

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Between Two Ferns: The Movie Is a Serviceable Adaptation Best Enjoyed with Low Expectations

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The idea of doing a movie based on Between Two Ferns seems natural in many ways, if not a little daunting for a web series that’s typically presented in small doses. The streaming world has changed quite a lot since its parent company Funny or Die launched in 2007. With Netflix able to provide the budget and platform for a feature release, it feels only inevitable that Zach Galifianakis’ awkward talk show would expand.

The biggest challenge presented for Between Two Ferns: The Movie is the staying power of the gag. For a web series that only put out a few short episodes a year, an expansion requires the concept to grow, at least a little bit. The movie version sort of rises to the task, taking the gag on the road in an effort to secure Galifianakis the character a bigger late-night television show.

Comedy is generally not a form of entertainment that lends itself well to explanation. If you have to describe why something’s funny, part of the joke has a habit of losing its humor. For ten years, Galifianakis savaged celebrities on Between Two Ferns without offering a reason behind the rudeness.

Perhaps understandably, the worst part of Between Two Ferns: The Movie is the explanation. Will Ferrell plays a fictitious version of himself as the founder of Funny or Die, having picked up Galifianakis’ public access show due to the unexpected comedic nature of his interview style. It’s hardly the worst explanation in the world, serving as an obligatory plot device, but it’s not very funny either. As a result, the first half of the film drags quite a bit, learning how to be a movie at a cost to its funniest bits.

The film does get quite a bit funnier when it figures out its kinks. Lauren Lapkus, Ryan Gaul, and Jiavani Linayao play the parts of Galifianakis’ crew, serving as suitable counterweights to their host’s abrasive nature. The spotlight rarely moves off Galifianakis, but the film does a good job fleshing out its supporting cast a bit.

The celebrity cameos are mostly pretty hilarious, with Brie Larson and Benedict Cumberbatch providing the most laughs. An exchange with David Letterman gives a glimpse of a direction that the film could’ve taken itself in, shining a critical lens on Galifianakis that’s mostly absent from the rest of the narrative. The biggest disappointment of the celebrity cameos is that the film doesn’t take the chance to explore the emotional turmoil that could be brought on by his abrasive style of questioning.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie is a competent film that delivers plenty of laughs, while never quite aiming for the high bar set by its source material. Diehard fans of the web series will undoubtedly find much to enjoy in this narrative. The combined comedic genius of Galifianakis and director/co-screenwriter Scott Aukerman were certainly capable of putting out something better. The film never runs the risk of soiling Between Two Ferns’  legacy, but does little to improve it either.

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Thursday

26

September 2019

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COMMENTS

Titans’ Second Season Raises the Bar

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Season one of Titans covered quite a bit of ground in just eleven episodes. The first live-action adaption of the wildly popular DC superhero team carved out a niche that set it apart from both from the animated adaptations as well as the broader DCEU. The show managed to establish its core team plus a number of supporting characters who were promoted to the main cast for the second season. While many streaming shows drag their feet through inaugural seasons, Titans spent its time investing in a pretty cast of characters alongside plenty of action sequences to hold the audience’s interest.

For fans of Teen Titans Go!, the large cast of Titans might be a bit intimidating. There’s not one, but two Titans teams, with original members Wonder Girl (Conor Leslie), Hawk (Alan Ritchson) and Dove (Minka Kelly) still in the fray as Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) attempts to train a new generation. The presence of Jason Todd (Curran Walters) gives the show two Robins, an interesting sibling-esque dynamic that explores the nature of what it means to be the Boy Wonder.

Titans is a show as much concerned with the past as the present. After finally arriving to the famed Titans Tower, the narrative hints at earlier strife while gradually explaining what broke up the original group. The pacing is a little frantic at times, a product of the show’s rather short episodes for a drama on a streaming service, but there’s never the sense that the narrative is kicking its feet.

Few shows feel as connected to their parent network as Titans, the television embodiment of the DC Universe service. It’s not inaccessible to casual fans by any means, but the show offers plenty of nods to longtime DC fans. Dick Grayson made his live-action debut in 1943, a lifetime before Jason Todd made his in Titans’ first season. Todd himself is quite an interesting figure in Batman lore, but the character also reveals aspects of Grayson as well as Bruce Wayne that no prior adaptation had sought to explore.

So far this season has exercised restraint with the Dark Knight, finally depicted in a speaking capacity after cameo appearances last season. Iain Glen plays a competent Bruce, suave and paternal, while keeping the spotlight on his sidekicks. It’s not Batman’s show, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be apart of it, a line that other superhero franchises have struggled to walk.

Fans wishing for the sense of comradery enjoyed in past Teen Titans adaptations might be a bit disappointed in Titans’ take of the group dynamic, but the familial bond remains. Rachel (Teagan Croft) remains the emotional core of the series, a girl trying to find her place in a world that doesn’t quite understand her. Anna Diop and Ryan Potter give nuanced takes on Starfire and Beast Boy respectively, taking their characters in new directions that build off their arcs in season one.

Season two builds upon the foundation of Titans’ impressive inaugural effort, a show that uses DC’s rich lore to offer a fresh take on the beloved franchise. With Teen Titans arch-nemesis Deathstroke (Esai Morales) in the fray, the show is quite poised to dive into territory that other adaptations have shied away from. It’s definitely not the Titans many expected, but the show is one of the more interesting superhero offerings currently on TV.

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Friday

20

September 2019

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Downton Abbey Is a Welcome Return Bound to Satisfy Long-time Fans

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The series finale of Downton Abbey perfectly wrapped up the show in a way that left plenty of room for a return visit to the great country estate. For some, the film might seem superfluous, an unnecessary epilogue to a series that already saw a proper ending. The familiar sounds of Downton’s theme song coupled with the first shot of the beloved castle are bound to warm the hearts of dedicated fans eager for a few more hours spent with these characters.

To creator & screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ credit, he knows when to not tinker with a formula that already works. As a movie, Downton Abbey closely resembles the Christmas specials that capped off each series, a bit more of a cinematic feel than the average episode, but not much more. The extensive helicopter shots of Highclere Castle are just about the only aspect that set the film apart from its source material.

The film makes quick work of reassembling the pre-finale status quo of the series. Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) enjoys his retirement for all of five minutes before being summoned back to Downton. The post-service lives of Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) are practically whisked out of memory. There are even kitchen maids present for the first time since the end of series five.

With the King and Queen set to visit Downton, the film finds itself a suitable plot to serve as the backdrop for all the side plots that make the series so beloved. As a show, Downton has always pulled off the big moments quite well, but the show has always been about the little moments. The film possesses all the trimmings of a feature while never losing sight of the smaller-scale magic between the characters that made Downton come alive.

As expected, there’s a fair amount of over-the-top melodrama that seemingly comes out of left field. Fellowes finds a way to include subplots for seemingly every single character, some that work better than others. Even the new characters, particularly the King’s attaché, find themselves with thoroughly fleshed out storylines.

There are a couple of plots that feel a bit stuffed in, clearly designed in service to the characters rather than the narrative. The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is never short on one-liners, though, like series six’s overly-drawn out hospital plotline, her talents might have been better spent on a nobler cause. The absence of Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) from the bulk of the narrative left Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to focus primarily on the visit, bound to disappoint those who wanted to see a bit more from the show’s leading actress. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), the often put-upon middle child of the Crawley family, supplies much of the emotional drama.

Like Lady Mary, Mr. Barrow (Rob James-Collier) finds himself looking like a bit of an odd-man-out despite being a central figure in the show’s narrative. Much of this is a product of the film’s desire to integrate his butler predecessor Carson back into the heart of Downton. Longtime fans of Mr. Barrow will undoubtedly find themselves smiling at the story carved out for the closeted servant.

Much of the narrative is totally over-the-top in a way that only seems fitting for a film designed solely to give longtime fans two more hours with the characters they love. There’s absolutely no learning curve present for newcomers to Downton, or even casual fans who might not remember where Daisy (Sophie McShera) left things off with Andy (Michael C. Fox) or the fate of Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) who spent much of the series accused of various murders.

The viewers who found the very idea of a Downton Abbey movie unnecessary will certainly remain unconvinced. For a show about change, the film seeks to uphold the status-quo as much as possible, only throwing a cursory glance toward the themes that drove the show. This story already has an ending.

For those of us who long for the Sunday evenings spent with the Crawley family and their servants, Downton Abbey hits practically every note. The narrative isn’t perfect, but Fellowes and director Michael Engler know how to give fans exactly what they want. Revivals often tinker with the formula just to switch things up. Downton Abbey plays the tunes everyone wants to hear, an immensely satisfying follow-up to one of the great television programs of the twenty-first century.

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Wednesday

18

September 2019

0

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Powered By Strong Lead Performances, Hustlers Is a Delightful, Thought-Provoking Thriller

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The 2008 financial meltdown affected practically every industry in America. Millions of people saw their livelihoods affected with little recourse from the government, which reserved its bailouts for the same sectors that caused the mess in the first place. No one went to jail for all this carnage.

Hustlers is a film that depicts an industry that rarely saw any attention through this fiasco. Nightclubs rely on wealthy patrons to keep the drinks flowing, the DJs spinning, and the girls dancing. Without the stream of bills flowing from the businessmen to the dancers, a lot of women found themselves in desperate circumstances, forced to accept subprime working conditions just to squeak out a living.

Dorothy/Destiny (Constance Wu) is a girl with plenty of ambition. She wants a glamorous life, a sense of self-reliance, and the ability to provide for her elderly grandmother who raised her. She struggles to navigate the world of the strip club to find the ever-elusive high rollers, the kind of patrons with the ability to give the women plenty of financial security for themselves.

Dorothy finds a mentor in Romona (Jessica Lopez), a talented dancer with a deep Rolodex. The two form a kind of mother/daughter relationship, with a genuine bond that proves vital when their world comes crashing down in the wake of the 2008 crisis. Dancing ceased to become all about the fantasy, with customers demanding sexual lines be crossed.

With the rules of engagement redefined, Romona and Dorothy take their destinies into their own hands, establishing a routine to drug wealthy men and con thousands of dollars from them under the guise of a wild night out. The world of strip clubs provides a bit of cover, with many of their marks too embarrassed to go to the police about what had happened. The lines of right and wrong are blurred in a world where the victims aren’t particularly sympathetic, the same kinds of selfish executives who brought down the financial sector in the first place.

Though Hustlers possesses a strong ensemble cast, Jessica Lopez completely captivates as Romona. She’s a three-dimensional character with complex flaws, which Lopez thoroughly explores over the course of the film’s two-hour runtime. Lopez has a keen ability to draw the spotlight, but also to direct it toward her co-stars, most of whom get their own chance to shine.

Wu’s Dorothy is a similarly complex character, whose emotions about their con are shown in a different fashion than Romona. Hustlers frequently bounces around in time, dedicating a portion of the narrative to an interview of Dorothy by a journalist named Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), who is writing about the story after the key players had all been busted. Dorothy and Romona share familial bonds, but the film allows the two actresses the latitude to color outside the lines of what the audience might expect from their dynamic. Strands of The Great Gatsby and Goodfellas are present in their relationship, but Hustlers is committed to plotting its own course.

The greatest strength of Hustlers is the film’s ability to analyze morality without drawing conclusions. What Romona and Dorothy did was bad. Their motives cannot be adequately attributed to notions of survival or providing for their families. The sheer selfishness on display is never mitigated by any other factor.

Film is full of anti-heroes whose actions are remembered alongside the feelings their deeds evoked. Hustlers never excuses the actions of its characters, while giving the audience the freedom to choose where to lend their sympathies. Director and writer Lorene Scafaria has crafted an excellent film bound to inspire discussions of morality for years to come.

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Wednesday

18

September 2019

0

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Corporate Animals Is Trapped Under the Weight of a Lackluster Script

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Workplace comedies often age better than other forms of humor, possessing an easy to relate to quality regardless of the industry being depicted. Incompetent, self-centered bosses are hardly a dime a dozen. Neither is the idea of a company spending money it doesn’t really have on something as silly as a cave spelunking retreat.

Corporate Animals is a film that aims to capture the zeitgeist of worker disenfranchisement. Demi Moore plays Lucy, a racially insensitive fool running Incredible Edibles, a company that makes consumable crockery. Lucy has no trouble stealing her employee’s ideas, or claiming indigenous heritage. Her bits are funny for a few minutes, but the character is so one-dimensional that she starts to grow tiresome not very long into the movie.

To make matters worse, Moore looks increasingly bored as the film goes on. Lucy starts off the film uttering cliché after cliché, before taking on more of a leadership role as the group becomes trapped in a cave. Given Lucy’s importance to the narrative, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense that she was initially depicted in such a superficial manner.

In many ways, Corporate Animals feels like it was written as a spec script for a sitcom that ended up being stretched out for a feature film, much to the detriment of the narrative. The jokes are fairly frontloaded, leaving the second half of the movie rather empty as the gags wear thin. The film has a fairly talented ensemble cast, with Karan Soni and Isiah Whitlock Jr. giving performances that help buoy the film through some of its boring parts. Unfortunately, there’s just too much downtime to make up for.

Much of the film takes place in a single cave location, the kind of set you see a billion times on various Star Trek episodes. The minimalist setting gives the cast a much more heightened sense of responsibility to entertain the audience, something the script doesn’t seem all that prepared to handle. The narrative just kind of strolls along with little sense urgency, even when cannibalism is introduced.

The film’s lackluster second half exposes a broader problem with the narrative. The characters constantly hint at broader problems with the company, stuff that this film doesn’t have the time, or likely the budget, to explore. The script establishes a lot of strong rapports between the ensemble, but it can’t cover up the sense that there’s so much missing from this story. Perhaps making matters worse is the presence of Ed Helms in a minor role, naturally evoking comparisons to The Office that don’t do the film any favors.

Thematically, the film is totally all over the place. It tries to poke fun at corporate incompetence, start-up culture, and green innovation among other topics, never really sticking with one subject for very long. You get the sense that Corporate Animals wanted to be some kind of satire, but its messaging is too scattershot to resemble actual commentary.

Corporate Animals is a mess of a comedy that wastes its talented cast with a meandering script that’s too light on jokes to make for a worthwhile experience. The plot might have made for an interesting twenty minutes of television. Even with a runtime of under 90 minutes, this narrative is stretched far too thin to carry a feature-length film.

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Wednesday

11

September 2019

19

COMMENTS

Bill Burr: Paper Tiger Struggles To Get Past Its Flimsy #MeToo Commentary

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Analysis of the #MeToo movement and subsequent “outrage culture” has become popular fodder for comedy specials. Bill Burr: Paper Tiger dedicates its first act to commentary on the nuances of feminism, intersectionality, and the nature of sexual harassment accusations. Burr clearly feels obliged to comment on this point in American culture, but he’s not very good at mining the humor out of this complicated minefield.

The presence of Dave Becky as an executive producer, who was caught up in Louis C.K.’s masturbation scandal, feels a bit out of place considering Becky’s conciliatory tone after the backlash. Burr suggests the importance of “due process” in a segment with little humor, his candor conveniently leaving out the situations where such efforts to combat sexual harassment were met with institutional pushback.

The theme of Paper Tiger is quite simple. Burr doesn’t want to hear about how life might be hard for anyone else. This dynamic is best illustrated through a bit where he talks about how a #MeToo accuser described a man “vigorously” masturbating. Burr describes this approach as the only way to achieve self-pleasure as far as he knows, comparing the alternative to something that Sting might practice. If he spent more time listening to women, he’d know that masturbation as an activity enjoyed by people of all genders can, in fact, have a rhythm described as something other than vigorous.

Sure that might sound like nitpicking, but the whole segment highlights a broader issue for the special. For all the talk of Burr wanting to “trigger” people, his most outrageous bits never feel edgy enough to pack the desired punch. He talks about wanting to drive by a woman’s rally yelling outrageous things in an effort to see people flail around in agony, struggling to contain his laughter at the imagery. Sure, “owning the libs” has become an internet meme, but the whole segment plays out like Burr actually believes he can inspire such terror with his words.

A telling moment in the special came when a heckler shouted about consent as Burr lamented the plight of women who enjoyed rough sex in the #MeToo era. Understandably, Burr was annoyed at having his rhythm disrupted, but he also reacted with indignation at the idea that people were questioning his very understanding of consent. His reaction exists in stark contrast to his opening segments, a man who doesn’t want you to think he’s a sexist pig while telling jokes that depict him as such.

He’s provocative for sure, taking aim at Stephen Hawking and Michelle Obama, occasionally earning a chuckle in the process. The jokes themselves don’t really dive deeper than surface-level humor about living with a debilitating disease like ALS or being a First Lady with ambitions beyond mere photo ops. The shock value is there for those who laugh at things they wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in public.

A good barometer for whether or not you find Paper Tiger funny is whether or not you laugh at the mere thought of a person taking offense to something you said. Such amusement can be had without a person actually running around screaming in terror at said words. An abstract “snowflake” can certainly substitute for the real thing.

Is Burr actually offensive? At times, sure, but more of in the eye-rolling “offensive uncle at Thanksgiving” vein than something people might actually be outraged by. Comedians often claim they’re on the verge of “cancellation,” as Burr himself suggests, a point instantly disproven by the very existence of the special. He says, “This is going to be my last show ever,” something that only feels edgy or amusing to people who preface every offensive thing they say with that ominous foreshadowing.

As someone who belongs to a group that Burr took aim at, there isn’t much to be offended by in the notion of being told transgender women “discard” their penises. It’s a joke that’s been told a million times that lacks any basis in the fundamental process of bottom surgery. Are we supposed to laugh at the idea of a gender-neutral bathroom on a plane when literally every bathroom aboard every plane is fitted that way?

Burr is much stronger when he turns his humor inward. He talks about his temper and his desire to deal with that anger for the sake of his child. Similarly, his bits about his wife are fairly funny, even though much of it is similarly laced in the denial of any semblance of advantage afforded to him as a straight white man.

At one point early on, Burr suggests that the #MeToo movement “had to happen.” He does seem like a fairly likable man throughout the special, an Archie Bunker-like figure trying to be a good father while struggling to process the ever-changing world around him. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of people out there in similar boats, resistant to change that might come at a cost to their own standing in the world.

Burr best illustrates the problem with Paper Tiger when he remarks that the #MeToo movement appears to be winding down, having seemingly handled the most egregious cases. If that’s the case, maybe so too should standup comedians find something else to talk about. Maybe soon, we’ll see a special dedicated to outrage for the people who are outraged about outrage culture. Hopefully it’ll be funnier than this lopsided routine.

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Monday

9

September 2019

0

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The Riot Act Is a Gorgeous Film Plagued by a Plodding Script

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Period pieces have an inherent additional layer of complexity to their presentation that films with contemporary settings don’t need to worry about. Set in 1903, Devon Parks The Riot Act is a thriller that does an excellent job of making the audience feel as though they’re actually in Van Buren, Arkansas, back in a time when a traveling vaudeville act would be the pinnacle of one’s entertainment options. The film makes extensive use of Van Buren’s historic buildings, giving it a far more authentic feel than many period pieces, let alone those with indie budgets.

The beautiful locations give the eyes plenty to look at throughout each scene. Such scenery is often more entertaining to watch than the characters. Period pieces may have additional considerations to look out for, but films set in the past still need narratives that work for their audience living in the present.

The Riot Act’s script is a meandering slog, a product of the film’s unclear narrative focus. Dr. Willard Pearrow (Brett Cullen) takes umbrage with his daughter’s lover (Brace Harris), shooting him before he can run off and live happily ever after with Allye (Lauren Sweetster). Two years later, a traveling vaudeville act is booked in his opera house, haunted by a mysterious “ghost” seeking revenge on the powerful doctor.

While the mystery surrounding Dr. Pearrow’s relationship with Allye could’ve carried the narrative, the film burdened itself with a few unnecessary subplots. In keeping with its 1903 Arkansan setting, the townsfolk are hardly receptive to diversity, taking umbrage with the presence of African American member of the troupe. The film ostensibly tries to aim for historical accuracy in portraying this drama but lingers too long on a plot point that feels particularly stale to a present-day audience.

Making matters worse is the films 101-minute runtime, which stretches its various plot strands quite thin by the end. A more streamlined approach to the narrative would’ve done the film wonders, while allowing it to sidestep the social commentary that’s not very interesting to begin with. The Riot Act is too long for its own good, a script that rarely seems sure of what it’s supposed to be doing.

There is a lot to like in many of the scenes, often shot like a stage play. Parks maintains a minimalist focus, using sparse lighting and stage direction to give his actors a chance to shine. The play-like dynamic works well for the period setting, especially for an indie.

The performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Cullen and Sweetster are mostly good, but many of the scenes are brought down by actors speaking their lines too quickly or sounding muffled in the process. More than a few scenes look like they should have been reshot. There are obvious limitations put on indie films, but clumsy takes drag down the otherwise excellent production values.

The Riot Act has a lot to admire as an indie period piece, but the film plays out like a rough cut in desperate need of additional editing. The locations are beautiful and the acting is mostly good, but the script is too unsure of itself to make for a worthwhile experience. Parks’ debut shows plenty of promise, but the execution just isn’t quite there.

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