Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Movie Reviews Archive

Tuesday

11

May 2021

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Classic Film: The Las Vegas Story

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Many have seen Las Vegas as a place of opportunity, only to leave town feeling like a loser. Vegas isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in such a high-stakes, cut-throat environment. 1952’s The Las Vegas Story explores the kinds of characters who would try their luck there and the unfortunate suckers who would be better off steering clear of Sin City.

Linda Rollins (Jane Russell) used to thrive as a singer in Vegas before leaving town, much to the chagrin of her old performing partner, Happy (Hoagy Carmichael), who plays piano at the Last Chance Casino. Linda returns to town at the behest of her husband, Lloyd (Vincent Price), desperate to make a quick buck. While in town, Linda reconnects with her old fling Dave Andrews (Victor Mature), a local police lieutenant, sparking memories of what might have been if she’d settled down with a better man.

Director Robert Stevenson sends his narrative in about a million different directions. The drama of Lloyd’s money troubles becomes exacerbated by a murder about halfway through the narrative, an audible that shifts the film’s focus from character drama to a rather conventional whodunit. The story’s bread and butter is the relationship between Linda and Dave, enhanced by the great chemistry between Russell and Mature.

The film’s unfocused narrative is buoyed by a deep bench of compelling characters, led by Russell’s commanding lead performance. Linda didn’t want to return to Vegas, but quickly rekindles the magic in the place where she used to thrive. The film often offers meditations on the passing of time, refreshingly upbeat despite its noir genre trappings.

While the pulpier murder mystery intrigue cuts some of the character drama short, the tonal shift gives way to one of the earliest helicopter/car chases in film, a highly impressive feat of cinematography. Russell is unmatched by her male counterparts, but Mature brings a great deal of depth to Dave, refusing to let the character be put into a box as a jealous ex-boyfriend.

Linda possesses a level of complexity rarely afforded to female characters in the time period. Her relationships with her husband and former lover aren’t pitted against each other in the way the audience might expect, instead reflecting the intricate complexity of human emotion that isn’t easily boxed into a love triangle. Russell is given so much space to explore Linda’s motivations, quite impressive given everything else going on in the film.

What works best about The Las Vegas Story is the way this world feels lived in. The characters carry their decades of baggage while striving toward a better future. Vegas’ unforgiving atmosphere isn’t for everyone, but few films so eloquently depict the appeal of the city for those tough enough to thrive there. If you can make it in Vegas, could you be happy anywhere else?

Stevenson’s final credited RKO picture may not exactly be a triumph of filmmaking beyond its groundbreaking helicopter chase, but The Las Vegas Story is the kind of narrative that sticks with you long after the credits have rolled. A mid-movie musical number from Carmichael’s Happy perhaps illustrates this dynamic best, an out-of-place sequence that hits home through its sheer delight. Like the jazz Carmichael so excelled at, the film knows how to sequence itself in a way that feels both spontaneous and carefully choreographed in its delivery.

The various pieces of the film don’t necessarily connect in a way that crafts the most cohesive experience, but there’s so much to enjoy along the way. Fine art is rarely produced by throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. The Las Vegas Story feels like Stevenson managed to stick most of what he’d thrown, a real treat of a B movie well worth the ninety-minute runtime.

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Friday

7

May 2021

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Jupiter’s Legacy doesn’t know where to focus its narrative

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We’re in a bit of a transitional era for television. Shows that used to aspire for a six or seven season run are now lucky to get three or four. The longer-running scripted series can be found almost exclusively on network television. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, giving creators a clearer picture of the trajectory of their material.

This shift does put a stricter burden on shows to get going right off the bat. In hindsight, spending a full season of Daredevil waiting for Matt Murdock to put on the costume or waiting until the first season finale to have the Runaways run away falls a bit flat, with both shows only running for three seasons. There’s setting up a story and then there’s dragging one’s feet. Unfortunately, Jupiter’s Legacy more often than not fits the latter bill.

Adapted from Mark Millar’s hit Image Comics series of the same name, the show follows an older guard of superheroes as they start to pass the torch to the younger generation. Sheldon Sampson, The Utopian (Josh Duhamel), has spent decades keeping the world safe, and his fellow heroes out of politics, but his team, The Union, faces an existential identity crisis for what its future might look like. Sheldon struggles to relinquish control, not trusting his son, Brandon (Andrew Horton), with the responsibility of protecting the planet, at times also at odds with his brother, Walter (Ben Daniels), and wife, Grace (Leslie Bibb).

Like its title character, Jupiter’s Legacy as a show struggles to let go of the past. At least half of the show’s first season is spent on flashbacks showing the original 1930s expedition that gave The Union their powers. This heavy screen time allotment marks a significant departure from the comics, which only tended to give a couple of pages an issue to the origin narrative.

A great strength of Millar’s source material was the way he communicated a sense of awe and wonder with regard to the island that Sheldon is drawn toward in his dreams. As a series, Jupiter’s Legacy dedicates far too much time to mundane flashbacks, drowning out the far more interesting present day narrative. The period sets are well-constructed, but the story is so lifeless that it makes you wonder why the resources weren’t dedicated elsewhere. The superhero sequences are few and far between.

The heavy emphasis on flashbacks also creates an awkward dynamic for the series’ leads to play characters at drastically different ages. The makeup used to make Daniels look like an old man is absolutely comical, stripping his character of any level of seriousness. Duhamel and Bibb don’t fare much better, hardly adequate for a series attempting to depict heroes looking to retire.

The series starts off on a great note. The first episode hones in on the aspect of the comics that’s aged best since its 2013 debut. The Union struggles internally with how involved they want to be in politics, noting the endless Washington gridlock that only gets worse with each passing year. There’s a great moral dilemma to explore with regard to the military-industrial complex, but the show seems weirdly averse to anything that might sound too political.

There’s also the issue of simply not having enough time to dedicate to its storylines set in the present. The first season is comprised of eight episodes, two of which barely run over half an hour. The broader supporting cast has to play second fiddle to storylines for the leads split across two separate timelines. The dynamic is confusing, thinly plotted, and simply not very good.

Fans of the comic are certainly aware of a certain massive spoiler heading into the series. The show barely touches the conflict that sets up this whole situation, clearly intending to save the bulk of that conflict for a future season. That’s not necessarily the worst strategy in the world, but the result creates a narrative vacuum that the show tries to fill with excessive time spent in the past.

An early triumph for the season is the way that Jupiter’s Legacy crafts an aesthetic that feels unique amidst the crowded superhero genre. That unfortunately doesn’t really extend to the worldbuilding, which never firmly establishes what exactly is going on in the present. There are too many characters, but not enough for them to do.

Too often, Jupiter’s Legacy feels like its top concern is to set up future seasons, while not giving its audience enough to care about. The current trajectory of television suggests this time allotment won’t be well-served, an uneven ratio of buildup to execution. A season spent in service to future seasons doesn’t work that well when the season itself doesn’t have much to enjoy.

 

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Thursday

6

May 2021

1

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What Lies West is a charming, confident indie coming of story

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The lines between child and adult have blurred quite a bit over the decades. “Growing up” possesses a fundamentally different meaning in a country where practically college students graduate into a job market that hardly offers salaries one can buy a house and raise a family on. A twenty-two year old is not exactly an adult anymore.

What Lies West follows a summer in the life of two young women searching for their place in the world. Nicolette (Nicolette Ellis) is a recent college graduate who takes a summer job looking after Chloe (Chloe Moore), a sixteen-year-old with an overbearing mother. Nicolette wants to be an actress, but doesn’t feel the pull to move to LA, instead finding comfort in her native Sonoma County. A tedious ex-boyfriend Alex (Jack Vicenty) dangles the prospects of a job in front of her, a familiar tune to anyone who’s tried to get a job after graduation.

The bulk of the narrative is fueled by Chloe’s desire to hike forty miles to the beach, an adventure certain to earn the wrath of her mother, endangering Nicolette’s employment in the process. Director/screenwriter Jessica Ellis frames the film like a meditation, more concerned with the nature of asking questions than any answers they might provide. Nicolette Ellis and Moore develop strong chemistry over the course of the film, a natural sense of pacing that lets them slowly lower their guards and trust each other.

Ellis’ greatest success with the film is her ability to challenge the conclusions of the coming of age genre. As a medium, film offers brief snapshots into a person’s life. 80 minutes with a character cannot possibly encapsulate their entire existence, lives that cannot be tied up with a bow in the form of a “happily ever after.”

There’s no great “aha” moment that a young millennial can take to coast through the rest of their life. The real world doesn’t have climaxes set to indie music where one can scream on a trash pile in the rain until everything makes sense. Nothing is ever going to make sense.

The film features plenty of beautiful shots of Sonoma County. A small-scale indie production, Ellis mostly relies on her script and her leads to make the magic happen, aided by the awe-inspiring scenery. The confidence that the film exudes allows its modest narrative ambitions to really nail their mark.

What Lies West carries the most appeal for those of us who remember how awful it felt to graduate without any clear sense of what the future might bring. That relatable plight can be harder for a film to nail, a medium that aims for resolutions that don’t always reflect the twists and turns of the real world. Ellis understands that today doesn’t have to be about tomorrow, taking comfort in the small steps that add up along the way.

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Tuesday

20

April 2021

1

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The Last Right is a touching meditation on grief with plenty of laughs

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Grief has an odd way of bringing people together, strangers who may not otherwise offer much more than a simple hello. The Last Right centers its narrative around this dynamic, starting off with two strangers seated next to each other on a plane to Ireland to bury separate loved ones. As the pandemic has halted the world around us, the idea of a chance conversation offering a glimmer of comfort almost feels like a luxury in today’s age.

The film follows Daniel (Michiel Huisman), an American lawyer on his way to Ireland to bury his mother and to take custody of his brother, Louis (Samuel Bottomley), with the intention of sending him to a boarding school for autistic students. A plane ride conversation with Padraig (Jim Norton), on his way to his estranged brother’s funeral, changes Daniel’s trip when Padraig suddenly dies himself, naming Daniel as his next-of-kin despite their brief affiliation.

Most of the narratives follows Daniel, Louis, and funeral home employee Mary (Niamh Algar), as they drive across Ireland to deliver Padraig’s body to Northern Ireland, where he can be buried next to his father. Director Aoife Crehan crafts a road movie that simultaneously serves as a mediation of grief mixed in with a comedy of errors.

Huisman, Bottomley, and Algar develop fast chemistry, an unlikely trio all united by a common understated sense of loneliness in the wake of circumstances beyond their control. Crehan’s script has a keen understanding of the innate human desire to heal. One cannot always control what happens in life, but nor should one resign themselves to a fate dictated by one’s past. The future always offers its alternatives.

The narrative is a bit formulaic at times. Crehan may not be too terribly interested in reinventing the wheel, instead putting together a touching film that hits all of its notes in a very satisfying manner. Supporting performances by Michael McElhatton, Colm Meaney, and Brian Cox bolster the primary trio on their adventure, at times doubling as a broader love letter to Ireland itself.

What’s most impressive about The Last Right is Crehan’s ability to maximize the scope of his story, set over the course of a single weekend. The 106-minute runtime gives the audience a firm grasp of the characters, without reaching too far toward an undeserved outcome. Periods of mourning are difficult times to get through. Crehan’s film is unafraid to be funny at times, understanding the immense power of human connection in times of mourning.

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Friday

2

April 2021

0

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Godzilla vs. Kong doesn’t have enough of a punch to make up for its awful human characters

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Fans have waited close to sixty years for a follow-up clash between titans Godzilla and King Kong. Godzilla vs. Kong is one of those titles that explains everything the film is supposed to be, a narrative that pretty much solely hinges on its ability to deliver plenty of fight scenes between the two famous kaiju. Unfortunately, there is the pesky matter of humans that the screenplay never quite figures out.

There have been a dozen King Kong films and three dozen entries to the Godzilla franchise. Godzilla vs. Kong is a direct sequel to 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, itself a follow-up to 2014’s Godzilla, and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. There was some solid worldbuilding in this “MonsterVerse” to get us to this point, establishing the hierarchy of the titans and why Godzilla and Kong are on a natural collision course as alpha predators.

Sadly this dynamic hardly applies to the human characters held over from King of the Monsters. Returning actors Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler add next to nothing to the narrative. Brown’s Addison Russell is at least involved in some hijinks to discover the motive of Godzilla’s attack on Pensacola, Florida, along with her friend Josh (Julian Dennison) and Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), a conspiracy theorist/podcast host dedicated to bringing down Apex Cybernetics.

Brown, Dennison, and Henry have solid chemistry that would’ve worked a lot better if the screenplay cared at all about them as characters. Instead, we see them periodically throughout the narrative, with only the vague understanding that they’re there as filler for the film’s 113-minute runtime. Chandler’s presence is non-existent to the point where it essentially becomes a distraction. Ceding the role of male lead to Alexander Skarsgård, the audience is left wondering why Chandler bothered to show up for a sequel that clearly has no use for his character.

The film could be forgiven for all of this if it was laser-focused on its main objective, but the fights are too few and far between to justify the utter absence of anything resembling compelling drama from the human characters. Director Adam Wingard proves his talent in the action genre. The first battle, in particular, is a triumph of special effects, a dazzling spectacle in the middle of the ocean.

The two subsequent battles fail to adequately raise the bar. The action shots are too fast-paced, often laser-focused on the titans to the point where you can’t really see the carnage around them. The CGI is top-notch, but the experience feels weirdly small at times, with the cinematography limiting the audience’s ability to get a firm grasp of what’s going on at times. This isn’t always the case, but it happens enough to make one long for the days of watching two guys in rubber suits stomping on cardboard buildings while low-budget pyrotechnics go off in the background.

Herein lies the problem with Godzilla vs. Kong. The human scenes are such a dud that they drag everything else down, a woefully pathetic screenplay that practically insults its audience with its apathy. The fights range from excellent to solid, which is not enough to carry the deadweight from this otherwise awful experience.

There are some great sequences here. The Toho Godzilla films rarely produce drama that aspires to be on the level of Citizen Kane, but those narratives at least try to entertain their audiences when the monsters aren’t fighting. There is far too little effort in Godzilla vs. Kong, an easily avoidable misfire. These titans of the kaiju genre deserve so much better than this mess.

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Monday

29

March 2021

0

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Superman & Lois brings a breath of fresh air to the Arrowverse

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The future of the Arrowverse is a bit up in the air. Supergirl & Black Lightning are ending this year, and The Flash & Legends of Tomorrow are not far behind them. It’s fair to wonder if the unprecedented “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover was not just the high point for the small-screen shared universe, but also its final big moment of triumph. With Batwoman still figuring itself out after the departure of its anemic lead actress and Stargirl doing its own thing on Earth-2, Superman & Lois enters a broader franchise in need of a standard-bearer, lest viewers turn to HBO Max as the sole provider of DC-related television.

It is oddly fitting that the Arrowverse would turn to Clark Kent, DC’s favorite son, to inject a bit of life into The CW’s offerings. Smallville was a staple of The CW in its early days, one of the most popular holdovers from The WB. Small-screen superhero storytelling has changed quite a bit since Tom Welling’s “no flights/no tights” Kal-El blended comic book lore with WB-era soap opera antics.

While Tyler Hoechlin’s Clark certainly does don the cape, part of what makes Superman & Lois work so well is the show’s ability to ground itself in the lore of everything that’s come before. Set in Smallvillle, the series is just as concerned with the Kent family life as the broader world that Superman is supposed to protect. The narrative weaves both the traditional teenage angst that fueled so many WB/CW shows before it and the action pieces that have made the Arrowverse such a smashing success, coupled with a cinematic aspect ratio and production values uncommon for broadcast television.

Superman & Lois eschews the more formulaic tropes of its Arrowverse predecessors, giving each episode a more relaxed sense of urgency. For all its sillier arcs, Arrow consistently delivered top-notch stunt choreography in practically every episode. That kind of episodic pacing doesn’t really suit Clark Kent in quite the same way as Oliver Queen, hardly the proper superhero to go busting into warehouses late at night.

Nor is Clark Kent the primary focus. As good as a Superman as Tyler Hoechlin is, Elizabeth Tulloch often captivates the most attention. Leaving Metropolis for the sake of her family, Lois Lane gave up a career-defining position as the star reporter for a major newspaper, the kind of stature that would grant her instant celebrity status in the real world. Both Lois & Clark are personalities far bigger than Smallville, yet they feel at home in this environment as they teach their boys how to be men.

The constant juggle of responsibility between their own family and the world at large makes for quite compelling television. Through its early episodes, Superman & Lois has fared quite well at satisfying its audience’s natural urge for superhero action as well as the bread and butter CW family storytelling. This isn’t the kind of show that makes for a marquee offering for a streaming service, but it’s the kind of series one can look forward to each week, a sense of familiarity desperately needed in this pandemic landscape.

Such a balance works well with its broader storyline involving Morgan Edge (Adam Rayner), a clash of a capitalist mogul and small town values. A real estate developer is hardly on the same level as Damian Dahrk or Eobard Thawne. Superman & Lois so far has shown that it doesn’t necessarily need a menacing “big bad.”

The Arrowverse won’t be around forever. HBO Max’s own slate of DC content will naturally diminish the broader importance of The CW to deliver weekly superhero narratives for television audiences. Whatever the future holds for broadcast TV, Superman & Lois captures one’s attention with its great storytelling.

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Monday

22

March 2021

0

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Shoplifters of the World is a messy slog that’s bound to depress longtime fans of The Smiths

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The Smiths are an easy band to fall in love with. Morrissey’s humorously melancholic lyrics work beautifully layered on top of Johnny Marr’s jangly riffs. Producing only 70 songs over the course of their five-year career, with only a few duds, it’s not very hard to memorize the lyrics to them all. There’s a certain poetic tragedy to be found in their short tenure as a group, undoubtedly enhancing their legacy.

The new film Shoplifters of the World centers its narrative in the immediate aftermath of the group’s breakup. Armed with a soundtrack full of Smiths tracks, director/writer Stephen Kijak presents a story that takes place over the course of a single day. The longer the film goes on, the more it looks like that was the same amount of time it took to craft his atrocious screenplay.

The slice of life method might have worked better if Kijak hadn’t written two absolute clunkers to serve as his leads. Cleo (Helena Howard) mostly wants to party to numb the pain of the group’s breakup, also possessing a strange kleptomaniac streak. Dean (Ellar Coltrane) takes a far more unhealthy approach, holding a local heavy metal DJ named “Full Metal Mickey” (Joe Manganiello) hostage at gunpoint and forcing him to disrupt his set to play entirely Smiths songs.

Kijak relies too heavily on Smiths songs to carry his otherwise empty narrative. Longtime fans may want to rethink their dedication after watching this disaster. Kijak’s screenplay includes line after line directly lifted from Smiths songs, often merely just the titles of Smiths songs, but he never seems interested in doing anything more than lazy wordplay. There are a few strands of plot to be had in dealing with homophobia and growing up, but the film is never particularly committed to any of its characters.

The biggest problem with the narrative is that it can’t survive at all without The Smiths. The film has absolutely nothing going for it besides its soundtrack. There are a few times where Kijak inserts archival footage of old Moz interviews into the film, trying to send home the message that these songs can save lives. Unfortunately, Morrissey can’t really save this awful film that’s far too desperate to lean on him without a crutch.

There some broader complaints that might feel like nitpicking more if the film didn’t solely cater to Smiths superfans. The timeline is an absolute mess. Taking place on the supposed day of their breakup, the film ignores the basic fact that Marr had left the group months before the release of their final album, Strangeways, Here We Come. Set in Denver, Colorado, Kijak completely overblows what their American popularity would have been in 1987, instead inserting their broader legacy into the picture as if it had been there all along.

Some of those historical liberties might be easier to forgive if the narrative was better or if The Smiths’ broader timeline wasn’t fairly simple to follow. The sole redeeming quality of the film lies in its soundtrack, but Smiths diehards would be better off simply putting on a record and listening to the music without this mess getting in the way. Kijak is obviously a fan by token of the film’s existence, but he does an absolutely terrible job communicating that affection to a broader audience.

Morrissey’s lyrics appeal on a deeply personal level, the kind of depth that keeps fans returning to his work after all these years. None of that is communicated well in Shoplifters of the World. It’s hard to think of a worse way to honor the legacy of The Smiths than by watching this film.

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Sunday

21

March 2021

0

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Zack Snyder’s Justice League delivers on its mission

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It’s easy to frame Zack Snyder’s Justice League as an attempt to correct an error, as the cinematic Justice League will likely go down as one of the worst superhero movies of all time, an abomination of blockbuster filmmaking. An unthinkable tragedy forced Snyder to step away from the destination his entire DCEU had been working toward, but that entire strategy had been under question since the muted reception to Snyder’s Man of Steel & Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as well as the Snyder-produced Suicide Squad.

The world has changed quite a lot since 2017. An unprecedented fan campaign coupled with a streaming service in need of content amidst an industry, and a globe, ravaged by the pandemic affords a rare do-over for the line-up composed of DC Comics’ best assets. Relying almost entirely on footage shot before Snyder previously stepped away from the film, ZSJL is a film firmly rooted in the same problems that had the broader population clamoring for Snyder to be removed as the architect of the DCEU in the first place. The only thing that’s fundamentally different is a sense that this film is the proper concluding chapter to an uneven era in DC lore.

Time has been kind to Snyder’s bleak Earth. The runtime of just over four hours might be anxiety-inducing to a bladder seated in a crowded theatre, but ZSJL’s narrative fares much better from the comfort of one’s couch. The only pressing issue is the 4:3 aspect ratio, which feels more than a bit confining to footage that once might have played best on an IMAX screen. It’s not hard to imagine that the dedicated fans up for watching such an epic in that environment may one day get their wish.

The narrative plays well without Joss Whedon’s forced efforts at humor. It’s fair to say that the idea of a Justice League film may have been better served by giving its full roster their own solo films ahead of the team-up, as ZSJL spends much of its time properly introducing Aquaman, Cyborg, and The Flash. Snyder’s work is at least aware of this reality, forcing Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne to juggle to awkward comradery amidst these heroes united by a common existential cause.

As with his earlier DC Comics adaptations, Snyder is in no rush to get to the core of his narrative. The first ninety minutes contain far too many sequences that are fundamentally superfluous to his broader intentions. The gel doesn’t always settle perfectly, but where Snyder especially succeeds with his worldbuilding is his ability to make it feel lived-in. ZSJL doesn’t ignore its predecessor films like Whedon’s trainwreck. Batman v Superman remains a bloated mess, but Snyder keeps his eye on the ball, rewarding fans who have put in the effort to engage with his ideas over the years.

Steppenwolf is still an imperfect choice to be the Justice League’s first big villain, but the restoration of Darkseid to the film at least keeps some air in the room. Snyder clearly intended to save Darkseid for a sequel that will almost certainly never be made, a reservation that won’t see its payoff. It’s a messy dynamic, but certainly much more cohesive than its 2017 predecessor.

Perhaps the film’s best asset comes through the subtraction of the earlier film’s greatest crime. Henry Cavill’s CGI-erased mustache served as the biggest joke of the 2017 Justice League, a conduit to channel through everything else that was wrong with the movie. Here, Superman still isn’t in the film very much, but that’s a worthy trade-off to see Kal-El’s distracting upper lip removed from the equation.

Snyder hasn’t exactly pieced together a great movie, but his vision has a cohesive flow sorely missing from its predecessor. Longtime fans will find much to love in the culmination of his work. The hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut has delivered what it set out to achieve. The film may bear the same issues that plagued much of Snyder’s time spearheading the DCEU, but there’s a poetic sense of justice in seeing the director given the chance to properly complete his work.

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Friday

19

March 2021

0

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SXSW Review: The Hunt for Planet B

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The question of extraterrestrial life is hardly a matter of if, but where. The universe is a pretty massive place, far beyond human comprehension. NASA has barely scratched the surface of our own galaxy, let alone the far reaches of the cosmos.

The James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch into space on October 31st, represents a step forward in humanity’s understanding of the broader universe. Nathaniel Kahn’s new documentary The Hunt for Planet B aims to bring these broad existential questions back down to earth, focusing on the human equation in the exploration. The balance is a dynamic that Kahn continuously struggles with throughout the course of the narrative.

The Hunt for Planet B is light on science, a narrative without nearly enough substance to sustain a feature-length runtime. Kahn only seems interested in the telescope or NASA for brief moments, almost desperate to turn his attention anywhere else. No one sitting down to watch the film would actually expect Kahn to find planet B, but ninety minutes with this material hardly leaves one with much of a deeper understanding of any of the material.

At one point, the documentary turns its attentions to the music preferences of one of the scientists during a car ride. The subject notes an interest in 80s music. If you want to watch a documentary to learn about what kind of genres of music scientists working on the James Webb Space Telescope enjoy, Kahn certainly delivers on that front. The same can hardly be said for those looking for substantive discussions on complex science.

Part of this problem is hardly Kahn’s fault. His subjects are able to succinctly explain all the things that we don’t know about the universe, but much less successful in giving a lay audience a better perspective of what we do know. That might not be as much of an issue if Kahn seemed actually interested in the telescope that’s supposed to be at the heart of the narrative.

There are other weird points of obvious filler beyond the 80s music chatter. There are a few scenes that feature C-Span footage of House committee oversight into NASA, showcasing how little elected officials understand about science. These sequences might be more compelling if Kahn managed to tie them back into his overall narrative, but there isn’t much of a cohesive storyline here.

With the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope delayed due to the pandemic, it seems likely that Kahn’s documentary had to be curtailed as well. That might be easier to forgive if The Hunt for Planet B wasn’t such a dull experience, a film that has no business carrying a feature runtime. The whole thing could’ve been easily condensed into a format more suitable for a 60 Minutes segment without losing any substance.

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Friday

19

March 2021

0

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SXSW Review: Potato Dreams of America

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The world has seen quite a few coming out narratives over the past few decades as LGBTQ culture has become more mainstream. The world that Potato Dreams of America debuts into is quite different than the one director/writer Wes Hurley grew up in. America has changed quite a bit since Hurley’s short film Little Potato premiered in 2017. Both films are based on Hurley’s experiences as a Russian immigrant to America, at a time when being gay was hardly accepted in either country.

With Potato Dreams of America, Hurley utilizes a surrealist landscape to tell his life’s story. The narrative covers a wide stretch, from his youth to early adulthood. As a director, he’s inventive with his storytelling, playing with his character’s accents to highlight his fish out of water status in both countries. Coupled with the luscious sets, Hurley crafts a compelling backdrop for the film.

Unfortunately, the script is pretty lackluster. Hurley throws cliché after cliché at the audience, tired humor centered around capitalism and the American dream. There’s really nothing in this narrative that hasn’t been explored before on screen, a situation exacerbated by the film’s stunning mediocrity.

The performances fare a bit better than the screenplay. As the “American Potato” (the unnamed protagonist that’s clearly a stand-in for Hurley) and Jesus Christ, Tyler Bocock and Jonathan Bennett supply a couple of entertaining scenes in the middle, albeit hindered by the otherwise lackluster presentation. Lea DeLaria does a great job as Potato’s mother Tamara, easily the best performance of the film.

Based on true events, it’s clear that Hurley prioritized autobiography at the expense of his film’s story. This is 90 minutes of Hurley’s life that obviously means a great deal to him as a filmmaker, having previously explored his childhood in the earlier short. He does a terrible job translating that passion to the audience.

Autobiography or not, Hurley doesn’t really have anything interesting to share about growing up as a gay immigrant. This story might have played better ten years ago, but here it comes across as dated and at times, regressive. At one point, Potato’s mother expresses indifference to her son’s coming out. Whether that’s true of Hurley’s life or not, it doesn’t make for compelling material to watch on screen.

Potato Dreams of America struggles to present itself as more than a vanity project with a terrible script. It is a positive sign of the times that Hurley’s sincere story of coming out lands with such a thud in 2021. Unfortunately, his film isn’t strong enough to sustain itself without any novelty in its premise.

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