Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Movie Reviews Archive

Sunday

12

May 2019

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Pokemon: Detective Pikachu Lets a Convoluted Narrative Detract from an Entertaining Experience

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A live-action adaptation of the massively popular Pokémon franchise always carried a degree of inevitability, with the question of plot serving as perhaps the largest looming question. The main video game series and the anime based on it both carry the same general objectives in catching and battling Pokémon. Deploying a similar storyline for a live-action movie could have been tricky to pull off, as the sight of adorable monsters beating each other up certainly presents the possibility of being quite upsetting to watch, especially for young children.

The decision to center Pokémon: Detective Pikachu around a mystery sidesteps this issue, largely taking action out of the main narrative. Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu is less an electrically-charged rodent than a wise-cracking one, better for laughs than battle. Reynolds is rather amusing in the title role, but such humor feels weirdly out of place in the world of Rime City, far better suited for his other massively popular role in Deadpool.

As a buddy cop movie, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu functions quite well. Justice Smith gives a compelling performance as Tim Goodman, a young man trying to find a place in a world that’s let him down far too often. The narrative doesn’t give Tim that many moments to shine, leaving his overall arc feeling a little clichéd, but the film has much bigger issues than that.

The film takes a remarkably convoluted approach to handling the matter of Pikachu’s ability to talk. As a general rule, Pokémon and humans can’t communicate with each other, but fans of the series will know that there are a few exceptions, most notably in the anime where Meowth talks practically every episode. An unexplained talking Pikachu would not have been much of a plot hole, but the film followed that notion down the rabbit hole to its own detriment.

The mystery at the core of Detective Pikachu is uncomfortable to say the least. Buddy cop movies are less about the destination than the camaraderie enjoyed along the journey, but that’s also assuming that the end goal doesn’t fundamentally change the way you perceive the adventure itself. For some, suspension of disbelief may be enough to sidestep the issues presented, but there still remains the sense that the film opted for a needlessly weird twist that was bound to be divisive.

As funny as Reynolds is throughout the film, after a while, it starts to feel like the film is using his humor as a crutch in the absence of a deeper narrative purpose. At times he feels completely irrelevant to the plot, sounding more like a commentary track than an integral part of the story, which is itself a product of the film opting for a far more complex plot that it needed. Reynolds’ Pikachu is too much of a good thing, never building on an amusing foundation until a clunky attempt to establish some sense of narrative payoff in the third act.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu could have easily made for an entertaining experience without having much of a story. Adorable creatures and Ryan Reynolds are a match made in heaven, but the film unnecessarily burdened itself with a bizarre plot that totally undercuts the movie. Fans of Pokémon will undoubtedly find much to love in seeing all the beautiful CGI, but the experience as a whole leaves a lot to be desired.

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Thursday

2

May 2019

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Knock Down the House Is a Powerful Showcase of Democracy in Action

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A documentary like Knock Down the House faces two narrative challenges that can be difficult to overcome in a ninety-minute runtime. Showcasing four separate women putting up primary campaigns against incumbent Democrats, the film has to not only tell multiple stories, but ones with widely known outcomes. It should hardly be a surprise to anyone that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went on to beat incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley.

One of the appeals of political documentaries is the behind the scenes perspective they provide, a chance to know the candidates beyond their cable news appearances. The grassroots nature of the four campaigns highlighted in Knock Down the House gave the documentary a much more intimate feel than films focused on larger efforts by established candidates. Without massive staffs or even office buildings, the film spotlights each of the candidates’ best assets, namely being themselves.

Amy Viela, Cori Bush, and Paula Jean Swearengin came up short in their efforts to unseat their Democrat incumbents. Bush and Swearengin both managed to pull in over 30% of the primary vote, very impressive totals for unknown grassroots campaigns running against established politicians with all the benefits that entail. The documentary showcases their individual motivations for getting in the race, women with deep emotional stakes at play to change a system that isn’t working for too many Americans.

Knock Down the House does a great job explaining the many roadblocks put into place to impede primary challengers, a system that makes it about as a difficult as possible to even get on the ballot. There are a few scenes highlighting the work of groups like Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, grassroots organizations seeking to recruit and support candidates for office. All the stereotypical notions of polished politicians are thrown out the window in favor of real people seeking to create real change.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary spends much of its time on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose successful campaign has captivated the nation for much of the past year. The footage from her campaign presents a stunning contrast between grassroots efforts and the establishment, frequently painting Crowley as out of touch, representing a district he no longer even called home. AOC fans might have enjoyed a documentary completely dedicated to her meteoric rise, but the film makes great use of all its subjects to present Washington as out of touch with the nation at large.

Refreshingly absent from the bulk of the narrative is the man in the White House. For all the media attention that Trump gets, much of America simply doesn’t care about his Twitter feed. Even in deep red West Virginia, Swearengin’s campaign focuses on the bread and butter issues affecting her state and not as a referendum on his every move. AOC also goes out of her way to criticize Crowley’s Trump-heavy campaign literature, reframing the “us vs. them” debate in a context better suited to her community.

Knock Down the House is an uplifting documentary that highlights the power of democracy in action. Only one of the film’s four subjects managed to win her race, but their efforts offer more than just inspiration to future candidates. Democracy isn’t always fair, but it’s always worth fighting for.

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Monday

29

April 2019

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War and Peace Remains One of Cinema’s Crowning Achievements

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There are many ways for a reader to approach a massive text such as War and Peace, but I tend to recommend the method I used. By shooting for a hundred pages a days and accepting that I’d often miss that mark, I made it through Tolstoy’s magnum opus in eighteen days. The chance to see the remastered four-part Sergei Bondarchuk version screened in its entirety on a single day appealed to me as someone who got through War and Peace through total immersion in the material. The story is not so much consumed as absorbed, an adventure that’s never truly over because the characters feel too real to every fully fade from memory.

The seven-hour runtime covers a surprisingly small portion of Tolstoy’s epic, instead concentrating its attention on the major events throughout the text. Appropriately titled, the four parts largely center around Count Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Countess Natasha Rostov, as well as the War of 1812, which takes up much of the book’s second half. As a result, the philosophical journeys that Pierre and Andrei embark on are considerably condensed, and the stories of supporting characters such as Princess Marya Bolkonskaya, Count Nikolai Rostov, Sonya, Denisov, and Antole Kuragin receive only minimal attention. While it’d take a few seasons of a TV show to adequately cover all the major plotpoints of the book, it is certainly interesting to see that even one of the world’s longest films can’t fully encapsulate one of history’s longest celebrated novels.

The film itself is nothing short of a masterpiece. The sets are gorgeous and elaborate, from the grand balls to the expansive battlefields. The actors give immersive performances that highlight the personal growth of their characters over the few years of the narrative. Not only does Bonarchuk direct all four parts, he also plays a lead role as Pierre, bringing out the complexities of the good-hearted buffoon trying to make the most of circumstances seemingly always beyond his control.

While Pierre’s coming of age story is the most palpable of the three leads, Prince Andrei’s journey is a far more reserved transformation as he grapples with the beliefs he’s grown up with, rejecting the grand ambitions instilled by his father. Vyacheslav Tikhonov manages to capture the essence of Andrei’s journey without the benefit of the narrator’s eloquent depiction of his internal struggle. Film Andrei is undoubtedly less likable than his book counterpart, but Tikhonov puts so much emotion into his performance that you can’t help but feel compelled by his journey.

Having the least to do with war of the three major characters, Natasha doesn’t get as much screen time in War and Peace, but Ludmila Savelyeva gives perhaps the most compelling performance of the entire film. Her Natasha is so vibrant and full of life, contrasting tragically with the horrors that war brought to the characters’ doorsteps. Savelyeva brings out in the innocence in Natasha, grasping to understand why her vision of the future had to be senselessly altered by acts seemingly contradictory to human nature.

As much as War and Peace embodies the very definition of the word epic, the film is often at its most powerful in the quieter moments. Singular events are not as important as the broader effect that follows, something continually on display as Pierre, Andrei, and Natasha try to make sense of the world around them. Beautifully showcasing rural Russia, the film often uses its lush scenery to highlight the contemplative thoughts of the narrator. Tolstoy’s commentary throughout the book serves essentially as a character in its own right, and the film does a good job incorporating the spirit of the text’s broader philosophy into its overarching narrative. So much happens in seven hours, but Bondarchuk constantly makes sure that his viewers have the time to fully take it all in.

The restoration is absolutely beautiful. The film is crisp and clear, as if it was plucked out of time only yesterday. Up on the big screen, it evokes just about every emotion the human soul is capable of experiencing over the course of its runtime, an adventure that, while tiring, never letting go of one’s attention.

The 2019 remastered version of War and Peace offers a singular cinematic experience, a profoundly moving theatrical tour de force. Seven hours might be a lot of time to commit to sitting in a single seat, but there’s simply nothing else like it out there. This restoration carefully enhances one of the greatest films in history, an adventure well-worth making the time to see on the big screen.

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Saturday

27

April 2019

0

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Tater Tot & Patton Is a Moving Exercise in Indie Minimalism

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The indie genre has developed quite a few clichés over the past few decades. The subject of grief often meets its match by the two-pronged approach of quirky love interests and a mellow score. Tater Tot & Patton exhibits much of the typical fare you’d expect from the indie genre, but the film finds a quiet sense of grace in its minimalistic narrative.

Tater Tot & Patton starts off in that same manner as many indie films. A millennial is sent to live in a small country town to find that things are not quite as glamorous as big city living. Andie, aka Tater Tot, can’t find cell service, Wi-Fi, or even a fresh vegetable. Turns out South Dakota doesn’t share all that much in common with Los Angeles.

Her uncle Erwin, aka Patton, is a simple man. He likes beer. He doesn’t like technology and certainly doesn’t understand why a young woman wouldn’t want to eat baked beans for every meal. His wife is in the hospital, leaving Erwin and Andie on their own to deal with each other in spite of their differences and their addictions.

Most of the film is set on Erwin’s farm, with the interactions between Erwin and Andie making up the bulk of the narrative. Jessica Rothe and Bates Wilder each give compelling performances in the title roles, keeping things interesting throughout the ninety-minute runtime. Despite having only two other characters with actual names, you never really get tired of Tater Tot & Patton’s interactions. The two actors work very well together and director/screenwriter Andrew Kightlinger made a smart decision to largely let them handle the narrative.

Kightlinger also makes great use of the South Dakota setting, using the natural beauty of the sparse locations as a perfect companion for his minimalist cast. We don’t get a ton of insight for what’s driving Andie’s demons, but it’s easy to feel for her frustration with being out in the middle of nowhere with no sense of forward motion. Kightlinger’s obvious affection for the state shows, highlighting it in the narrative without forcing any of the typical clichés the media likes to toss around regarding the Midwest.

There are, however, plenty of other clichés in the narrative. While the lead actors give strong performances, there’s little either can do to change the simple fact that they’re essentially playing stock characters from any run of the mill indie movie. Andie is a self-centered millennial seemingly lost without her phone and Erwin is pretty much that emotionally detached awkward uncle no one wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving dinner. There’s also the weird sense of destiny that brought these two damaged people together to “fix” each other that’s certainly been played out by countless other films.

Despite a few narrative issues, Tater Tot & Patton is certainly worth a watch if you’re a fan of indie movies. It hardly breaks new ground in the genre, the film sustains itself off two strong lead performances and stellar production values. Too many movies try to overstuff their runtimes, but Tater Tot & Patton finds power in the quiet moments, perhaps a timely movie for an era where everyone seems to be moving a mile a minute.

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Saturday

27

April 2019

2

COMMENTS

Avengers: Endgame Sends the First Era of the MCU off with a Bang

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Even with a three-hour runtime, Avengers: Endgame set out with goals that seemed impossible to accomplish within a single film. The twenty-second installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to provide satisfactory conclusions for not only the storyline left unfinished with last year’s Infinity War, but also the broader Infinity Saga arc as well as those belonging to many of the original Avengers. This film was the moment the whole connected universe spent over a decade building toward.

With those intentions in mind, Endgame gives the most attention to the heroes that built the franchise. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and the recently returned Hawkeye all get plenty of moments to shine. This being the end of the era, departures were certainly expected, and Endgame functions well as a conclusion to their narratives without necessarily forcing any arbitrary reunions.

As for the snap, well, no spoilers on that front. With the programming announcements for the upcoming Disney+ service and trailers for Spider-man: Far From Home all over the internet, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to hear that the characters expected to lead the MCU going forward aren’t necessarily going to remain dust. Endgame isn’t their movie, though.

As promised at the end of Infinity War, Thanos does return. The purple menace plays an unexpected role in Endgame, not as ever-present as he was the last time around, but the film deploys him in a way that will seem especially fitting to longtime MCU fans. A movie with a title like Endgame wouldn’t feel complete without an epic battle for the ages, and the film includes many of the franchise’s best action sequences.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Endgame is the way it managed to incorporate so many elements from its twenty-one predecessors. There have been dozens of lists highlighting which movies are important for casual fans who haven’t seen them all, but Endgame has some throwbacks to some ones that many have written off as unnecessary to watch. That’s not to say that you need to go back and watch all the ones you’ve missed in order to follow along, but hardcore MCU viewers will be rewarded with numerous throwbacks.

The three-hour runtime is a challenge to one’s bladder, but the movie itself flies by in the blink of an eye, or perhaps more appropriately, the snap of the finger. The pacing isn’t quite as frantic as Infinity War, which had to juggle a much larger cast, but there’s surprisingly little downtime. If anything, the film could have actually benefited from a few more quiet scenes with the original Avengers, but it’s hard to say that Endgame didn’t make the most of every minute.

Endgame is a spectacular conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first era. The notion of such a complex story spread out over twenty-two films is pretty impressive, but Endgame ups the ante by serving as a fitting ending to just about every corner of that connected franchise. The MCU will live on with plenty of superheroes around to carry the torch, but it’s hard to imagine anything coming close to the sheer magnitude of Endgame’s ambitions.

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Wednesday

10

April 2019

0

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A Dark Place Is a Well-Crafted Mystery

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Dozens of TV procedurals air hundreds of episodes each week featuring murders that are discovered and solved in a forty-minute timespan. For film, the added runtime carries a greater sense of weight, knowing that the audience will likely never see these characters again. A Dark Place is the kind of film that manages to present an intriguing character while never losing sight of the objective at hand.

Donald Devlin is a peculiar man. He runs his sanitation route, takes care of his sick mother, and tries to be a decent father, but there’s something about him that’s fairly odd. He has an affection for keeping warm in already hot temperatures and displays a weird sense of concern for the death of a young boy in his neighborhood, presumed drowned under potentially dubious circumstances.

Despite the disinterest of the local sheriff in investigating the death as a homicide, Donald takes it upon himself to investigate. The result is what you might expect if your town oddball decided to suddenly start playing detective. People start asking questions as Donald searches for answers.

Like its protagonist, A Dark Place is a weird film. It’s beautifully shot, as director Simon Fellows frames many of his scenes in a way that subtlety brings out the nuances in his actors’ performances. Andrew Scott, known to the general audience as Moriarty on the BBC’s Sherlock, does an excellent job portraying Donald, always keeping things interesting if even through a quiet expression on his face. We don’t learn much about Donald, such as the specific disorder driving his obsessive behavior, but that’s not really a problem either. He’s a sympathetic protagonist who’s easy to root for even though there isn’t much of a broader character arc beyond the murder mystery itself.

The mystery is well-paced, if not a little predictable. There’s surprisingly little suspension of disbelief required to get behind Donald as an amateur sleuth, but some of the pieces of the puzzle are perhaps a little too neatly put together. The brisk speed of the narrative does allow the audience to forgive a few of the clichés, like sheriffs giving a warning about asking too many questions, the kind of stuff you’d find in just about any amateur story.

Clocking in at just under ninety minutes, the film is one that probably could have used with an extra ten minutes to fully flesh out Donald’s relationships, particularly with his daughter, played by Christa Beth Campbell. Campbell gives a strong performance for a young actress, especially opposite a veteran performer like Scott, helping to soften out Donald’s more tedious personality quirks. Bronagh Waugh also gives a lively performance as Donald’s coworker Donna.

A Dark Place could’ve benefitted from a little more character development, but the film is an engrossing mystery that’s well worth a watch. Andrew Scott always keeps things interesting, giving a solid performance that’s enough to buoy the film through some of its more predictable parts. It hardly reinvents the wheel, but Fellows put together an enjoyable film for fans of the genre.

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Sunday

7

April 2019

0

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Shazam! Breathes New Life into the DCEU

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For all the talk about the disastrous state the DCEU was in, the solutions always seemed pretty simple. Earlier entries piled on dour imagery and quite simply weren’t much fun to sit through. Thankfully, Shazam! got that message loud and clear.

It’s hard to believe that the first live-action adaptation of Shazam! premiered all the way back in 1941, back when the character was called Captain Marvel. Perhaps it’s fitting that a follow-up would debut the same year that Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel finally made her first big screen appearance, with both superheroes expected to play major roles in their respective franchise’s futures. Despite the name change and all the copyright battles, Billy Batson is still the boy behind the red suit, able to wield the power of six different gods by speaking a single word.

Shazam! is the rare superhero film that feels more like a comedy than an action flick. Many of the scenes are laugh out loud hilarious, the kind of humor that presents itself naturally and not just as comic relief. Zachary Levi does a spectacular job inhabiting the mind of a fourteen-year-old child, exhibiting all the wonder and awe that many of us would feel if we suddenly possessed superpowers. Jack Dylan Glazer also provides much of the laughs as Billy’s foster brother Freddy, displaying an extraordinary amount of confidence and comfort in a lead role for an actor his age.

One of the downsides of these extended universes is that their narratives often feel overstuffed as they juggle their own story as well as obligations to the broader continuity. Shazam! thoroughly exists within the established DCEU, but the references all feel deliberate, in service to the film at hand. Shazam! possesses the best script and narrative pacing of any DCEU film released. It manages to be hilarious while also displaying a tremendous amount of heart. Billy’s adopted family all get their moments to shine, an impressive feat for an action film dealing with a big cast.

A comedy like Shazam! probably didn’t need to hit a home run with its villain, but the film thoroughly fleshes out Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, providing enough backstory to understand the motivations behind the menace. He’s not particularly likable, unlike Black Panther’s Killmonger, but Mark Strong plays him in a way that makes the audience at least understand where the character is coming from. The film provides some thought-provoking commentary on the notion of “chosen ones,” and what happens to the people who didn’t necessarily get the chance they thought they deserved.

My only point of criticism is that the third act at times feels a bit overly drawn out. Part of this undoubtedly stems from the film’s reluctance to overstuff its plot, understandable for a film dealing with a child superhero first learning to control his powers. The ending leaves you with a rare feeling for a superhero film these days, hungry for a direct sequel and not just a large team-up with other members of the universe. A most impressive feat for a franchise that’s been too often defined by its misfires.

Shazam! is the best film of the DCEU thus far, an action-packed adventure full of humor and heart. Billy Batson has been through quite a lot over the past eighty years, changing names and publishers, but this film is proof that the character still has a lot to offer. While the DCEU once looked like a complete mess, things appear to be shaping up for the franchise. Shazam! is the perfect reminder of the power of not taking one’s self too seriously.

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Friday

5

April 2019

0

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Hurley Presents a Surface Level Narrative of a Fascinating Man

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While the past decade has made great progress in removing the stigmas around homosexuality, documentaries like Hurley serve as excellent reminders for how difficult it can still be for some people to embrace being gay publicly. Professional sports, in particular, remains a fairly hostile environment for LGBTQ people, with many preferring to stay in the closet during their careers. The life of motorcar legend Hurley Haywood could have shed some light on this dynamic, but too often the film that bears his name is too reluctant to dive beneath the surface.

Hurley focuses on two separate narratives for most of its runtime, Haywood’s homosexuality as well as his relationship with teammate Peter Gregg, who committed suicide in 1980. Actor and racer Patrick Dempsey, who serves an executive producer on the film, offers context for Hurley’s place in motorcar lore. People unfamiliar with endurance racing might be confused at first, as the film doesn’t do much to explain the specifics, but you do get a sense for what sets Haywood apart from his contemporaries.

The documentary struggles with the contrast between Hurley’s racing achievements and his life as a closeted homosexual. Haywood has no trouble explaining his achievements throughout the film, at times coming across as rather boisterous, but he’s quite uncomfortable talking about life as a gay man in professional sports. The contrast in confidence is palpable, but the documentary is reluctant to pursue what it means for Haywood to have spent close to seventy years of his life hiding who he really was.

As important as Peter Gregg was to Haywood’s career as a racer, his prominence in the documentary seems puzzling at times. There are several instances where multiple interviewees criticize aspects of Gregg’s personality in sequence, though it’s unclear what larger purpose these accounts serve. The film isn’t ostensibly about Gregg, and its participants start to look a bit petty as they continue to harp on the deceased racer, a situation exacerbated by several interviews with one of Gregg’s children.

The film presents conflicting explanations for why Haywood chose to come out as this particular point in his life. Haywood himself offers up a touching account of a conversation he had with a young closeted gay man, clearly inspired by the profound effect he had on the individual’s life. This perspective is contrasted by Haywood’s clear reluctance to embrace the “activist” label. At one point, one of the interviewees goes on a long-winded diatribe about how Haywood should not become a gay activist, doing so with a kind of subtle homophobia that America continues to struggle with. The “tolerance but not acceptance” approach is one that feels increasingly dated as society acknowledges the injustices of policies like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Hurley regrettably chose to play a “both sides” approach by including interviews that offered up opinions for how Haywood should present his homosexuality to the world.

Haywood’s husband Steve Hill provides much of the background for their relationship over the years. His scenes are some of the most powerful in the film, emotionally recounting how difficult it was to watch the man he loved celebrate his success from a distance. Hill provides a valuable historical perspective on the closet, immeasurable challenges that America is thankfully moving away from.

What’s sadly missing from Hurley is the idea of resolution for all those years Haywood and Hill spent hiding their relationship. Part of this likely stems from the fact that Haywood didn’t come out publicly all that long ago and still seems fairly uncomfortable talking about his sexuality. There isn’t really any takeaway beyond the sense that Haywood wants to occupy the space between being helpful and a full-on activist. Hurley misses an easy opportunity to shed light on the hardships forced upon LGBTQ athletes, never quite suggesting that something in that culture needs to change.

While it’s easy to understand that Haywood doesn’t want his sexuality to define his legacy, Hurley suffers from a surface level approach to its central narrative. The film would have been better off simply presenting more of a career retrospective, without putting too much weight on Haywood’s coming out to anchor such a large portion of its runtime. Hurley Haywood is an easy man to admire, an individual who achieved great success in a field that still remains hostile to a core part of his existence. The documentary about his life doesn’t really do justice to the man, a film that plays it too safe to present anything meaningful for LGBTQ athletes who might look to Haywood’s story for inspiration.

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Tuesday

2

April 2019

0

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Dumbo Is an Overstuffed Mess

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For all the talk of Disney live-action remake fatigue, Dumbo made a lot of sense to get one of its own. Given that the original animated classic clocked in at just over an hour, there was plenty of space for an update to spread its own wings, or ears. Unfortunately, director Tim Burton never quite seemed sure which direction to take his adaptation in.

Burton’s Dumbo starts off on the right foot, evoking nostalgic memories of the original circus. The sight of the seminal Casey Jr. Circus Train is immediately contrasted with the dour state of the Medici Brothers’ Circus, facing financial problems in a post-World-War 1 America. Danny Devito was perfectly cast as owner/ringmaster Max Medici, in search of a marquee act to keep his troupe afloat. While this dilemma could have easily served as the main plot point for the film, Burton had loftier expectations, to the film’s detriment.

In the absence of talking animals, Colin Farrell is tasked with anchoring the moral heart of the film. Farrell’s Holt Farrier and his two children are perfectly serviceable voices for the titular elephant, but the emphasis on their family crisis simply isn’t as interesting as anything involving Dumbo. CGI Dumbo is adorable, but he’s weirdly often not the focus of his own movie.

To make matters worse, Michael Keaton and Eva Green are thrown into the film’s second half, forcing a conflict that feels increasingly forced as time goes on. Neither character is particularly fleshed out, a puzzling decision when you consider that the movie spends a good deal of its first half establishing various members of the Medici troupe. With a crowded human cast, the climax is robbed of much of its emotional impact, having not adequately invested in the characters we’re supposed to care about.

Dumbo’s needlessly over the top third act is one of the most chaotic disasters ever depicted in a Disney film. Too often, the plot feels reverse engineered in service to Burton’s grand vision of a finale and not a natural sequence of events. Characters behave in peculiar ways that receive little to no build up. Worst of all, Dumbo feels like a bit player in his own movie.

Much of Dumbo is competently crafted. The sets are beautiful, the CGI is well designed, and the performances are perfectly compelling. The script is another story, all over the place with little flow from scene to scene. Had the film simply centered itself on the key conflict of the original, a cute little elephant who misses his mother, it wouldn’t have been very difficult to produce an enjoyable cinematic experience. Instead, Burton flies all over the map with his plot, ensuring that none of its pieces connect by the end of the film.

Dumbo squanders its charming source material with an overstuffed narrative that moves too quickly to explore its characters. One of the chief complaints of the Disney live-action remakes is that they inevitably pale in comparison to the original. While that was probably bound to be the case for a movie based on one of the most iconic animated films of all time, a live-action Dumbo had plenty to offer. It just could have done with a fewer plotlines taking time away from that cute little flying elephant.

 

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Saturday

30

March 2019

0

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Satan & Adam Squanders a Good Story with No Sense of Narrative Direction

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The story of blues duo Satan and Adam is a fascinating one that transcends racial and generational barriers. The pairing of a young white kid playing harmonica on the streets of Harlem alongside a black guitarist who was once signed to Ray Charles’ Tangerine Records produced a unique sound that brought them plenty of success, including numerous festival appearances and a European tour opening for Bo Diddley. Unfortunately, the documentary tasked with presenting their story never seems confident as to how to tell it.

As a film, Satan & Adam is all over the place. The documentary starts off by setting the scene of racial tension in New York City in the 1980s, featuring interviews with Al Sharpton. Presented alongside the introductions of Adam Gussow and Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee, the narrative appears to assign some broader societal purpose behind their pairing, except the film abandons that subject early on. The mentioning of racial tension appears to essentially exist in the film to make the case that it was hard for a person like Adam to perform on the streets of a predominantly black neighborhood. It’s a weird point to bring up with regard to an Ivy League-educated individual, and one that falls flat in its efforts to garner sympathy for Adam’s outsider status.

The documentary struggles in its duel presentation of Mr. Satan and Adam’s lives. Gussow is interviewed extensively throughout the film, but Mr. Satan’s legend is largely established through third-person accounts. Mr. Satan had played for decades alongside James Brown, King Curtis, and Big Maybelle, which makes Adam sound fairly boisterous in several scenes where he equates their playing abilities. The absence of interviews from Mr. Satan creates the illusion that he’s deceased throughout much of the film’s first half.

Satan & Adam struggles to establish Adam’s likability, positioning him as the singular force behind the commercialization of their music. Adam published an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1998, and he admits that he begrudgingly shared half the commission for the story at Magee’s request. Gussow is also depicted as the driving force behind their studio recording, but the impact of this on Mr. Satan’s life is left unclear, a puzzling decision since the documentary extensively covers Satan’s mental breakdown and abrupt move to Florida. Adam is nowhere to be found throughout Satan’s recovery, a point that’s only briefly touched upon.

The film lacks a cohesive overarching narrative, only briefly focusing on Satan and Adam’s success as a duo. Their inclusion on U2’s classic Rattle and Hum album is mentioned along with an interview with The Edge, but the segment feels like a minor footnote instead of a high point of their careers. Satan’s life is fascinating, but the documentary suffers when only Adam’s story is presented, especially given how much of the narrative is driven by Adam’s own accounts. Magee’s wife, Miss Macie, is introduced late in the film, presented essentially as a villain disrupting the band. Macie’s antagonistic introduction is paired with a few quick interviews that hint at tension on the road, though the documentary moves on shortly after without really explaining anything. It’s never really made clear what the filmmakers expect anyone to make of these brief snippets of conflict.

Satan & Adam has a good story to tell, but the documentary never establishes a consistent narrative to tie its many pieces together. With a runtime of barely eighty minutes, it’s possible that the documentary bit off more than it could chew, tackling two separate lives, their joint musical career, as well as Harlem race relations all in one film. What’s oddly missing is the clear sense that both of their lives were improved by their relationship with each other. Satan would have been a Harlem legend regardless of Adam, while Gussow has enjoyed a career teaching literature at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. The lasting legacy of Satan and Adam is one that the film never quite establishes. For a documentary that took over twenty years to film, Satan & Adam doesn’t know what it wants to say.

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