Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Movie Reviews Archive

Thursday

14

November 2019

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Lady and the Tramp Is Visually Pleasing Lifeless Slog

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For a company known for its princesses, it’s rather remarkable that the original Lady and the Tramp remains one of Disney’s finest love stories more than half a century after its release. The film presents complex themes in a manner that can be understood by children but perhaps resonate more with their parents. After a year of highly disappointing live-action remakes that transformed their source material into bloated jumbled messes, failing to recapture the original magic, an adaptation made for Disney+ seemed like a good way to lower the stakes.

As far as aesthetics go, the 2019 Lady and the Tramp is a finely crafted film. The sets are spectacular, capturing the feel of the early 20th century in a way that feels suited for the big screen. Similarly, the acting is top notch. In particular, Yvette Nicole Brown and F. Murray Abraham look absolutely delighted to be there, giving performances that radiate their vibrant energy through the screen.

The voice cast finds itself in a puzzling position. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Tessa Thompson or Justin Theroux as Lady and Tramp. The trouble lies more with the nature of what they’re being asked to do.

The canine leads are convincing, but not particularly compelling. Using actual dogs carries a degree of authenticity that CGI can’t provide, but that also boxes the voices into a bit of a corner. Some degree of disconnect between the dogs and their human voices is to be expected, but this comes at a cost to the film’s emotional core. It’s hard to find the romance convincing when the actors aren’t capable of playing along.

Animation doesn’t really have this problem since the artists have plenty of leeway to impose human characteristics onto their subjects. With the 2019, Lady and the Tramp, the special effects department is perfectly capable of making the dogs talk, but they struggle to convey emotion in the process.

As fun as many of the human actors are, the nature of the film’s plot doesn’t give them much to do. Brown’s Aunt Sarah is a delightful villain, but she isn’t on screen very much. It’s almost as if the 2019 film expects its audience to be familiar enough with the 1955 version to superimpose their own nostalgic memories in the absence of strong character development.

The human leads aren’t really leads. Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons don’t do anything wrong, but there comes a point in time where the audience is supposed to care about this family. The film forgot to supply a reason.

Lady and the Tramp might be Disney’s best live-action remake of 2019. That’s not saying much. What’s most unfortunate is the idea that this is such a near miss. There’s so much to like about the way this film was constructed, from its beautiful scenery to the actors who so clearly love being a part of this timeless narrative. If only there was a heart at the center, beating life into the anemic presentation of the story.

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Thursday

14

November 2019

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“i’m gonna make you love me” Is a Moving Portrait of a Life in Transition

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Detransitioning, the process of transgender people returning to the sex one was assigned at birth, can be a touchy subject within the LGBTQ community. The notion of transitioning being a “mistake” naturally crosses most, if not all, trans people’s minds at some point in time, a natural feeling given the gravity of what’s at stake. The exact detransition rate can be hard to pinpoint due to differences in methodology used, but many peer reviewed sources have found the number to be anywhere from 0.3% to 3% among adults.

The documentary i’m gonna make you love me features a man named Brian Belovitch, who transitioned in the late 70s, living as Natalia/Tish for many years before reverting back. As Natalia, Brian got married, lived as an army wife in Germany, and performed in many nightclubs throughout New York City. The film presents a fascinating portrait of what life was like for trans people back then, as Natalia had seemingly little trouble living life as a woman, a stark contrast to the kind of narratives right-wing media pushes today.

Brian makes for a fascinating subject, an engaging man who wears his emotions on his sleeves. There are times when he clearly feels uncomfortable, but there aren’t any moments where it feels like he’s holding back. The archival footage contrasts well with his contemporary persona, a lively spirit who’s just trying to figure out who he is in this world.

Director Karen Bernstein features interviews from a number of people from various stages of Brian’s life, who help to add context to his transition. Brian’s family was far from supportive, even going as far as to blame him for adding stress to his mother’s life. Contemporary footage of Brian with his husband Jim helps take some of the edge off the often brutal narrative, giving the audience an assurance of a happy ending.

The documentary itself does have a bit of an identity crisis. As a film, i’m gonna make you love me largely aims to showcase the full picture of Brian’s life, past and present. The narrative is quite anchored to Brian’s transition and subsequent detransition. While Brian’s transition into Tish receives ample focus throughout the film, detransition is only covered for a brief portion toward the end.

Having thoroughly explored the origins of Tish, the film regrettably doesn’t have the same lust to dig deeper into the resurfacing of Brian. There are a few reasons offered to explain the detransition, including health and social considerations, but the brevity with which this is covered leaves a lot to be desired. To some extent, this is a natural product of the limitations of documentaries to adequately cover a full life within a ninety-minute narrative, but that’s also reflective of the choices that Bernstein made as a director.

There are people who will seek out this film as part of an effort to paint transitioning as a dangerous proposition with uncertain results. Brian has lived his life without regret. I’m gonna make you love me is not a film with an opinion of whether or not transitioning is a good idea, though many may try and twist Brian’s story to fit their own agenda. With that in mind, there’s an added importance to narratives like this one that showcase people rather than the ideas they’re supposed to represent.

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Monday

11

November 2019

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Making Waves Presents the Case for Sound

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The larger than life imagery that often dominates the big screen can make it easy to forget that movies are an experience enjoyed across multiple senses. Sound plays a crucial role in storytelling, conveying messages that words can’t possibly get across. In Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, director Midge Costin presents sound as a vital component for the staying power of cinema.

The film takes its audience on a tour through the history of filmmaking, thoroughly explaining the rise of sound and how it came to be taken seriously. The transition from silent movies to talking pictures was hardly seamless, as microphone technology at the time created many problems for the actors forced to perform within its confines. Most film fans are bound to have heard the phrase “sound stage,” though perhaps not knowing that Hollywood relied on these spaces because location shooting created noise beyond what anyone at the time had the power to control.

Making Waves utilizes footage from dozens of films, allowing film aficionados to connect with its messaging on a deeper level. The work that sound engineers do on a daily basis looks immensely complicated to a general audience, but the film never allows itself to sink into territory that’s too hard to understand. Costin explains the various ways that sound editors manage all the various components that go into their craft in a way that’s easy to understand.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is best enjoyed by dedicated film buffs. Costin uses a variety of well-known films to illustrate her points, as well as interviews with numerous Hollywood icons including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The films used cover a wide enough spread that practically anyone can follow along, but there is definitely an added emotional resonance that stems from having experienced the sensations that are being described. The feeling of awe and wonder that stems from many Star Wars scenes is certainly more relatable to those who can remember the first time they saw those images

There are points where Making Waves does veer off a little into inside baseball. Costin, herself a sound editor, clearly has plenty of heroes within the business. A few receive extended focuses for their work alongside such directors as Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. These scenes are interesting enough, but there’s a bit of a disconnect between them and the broader focus of the film on the overall history of cinematic sound. Condensing documentary footage into one ninety-minute feature is always a challenge, but sometimes it felt like the film had its eye on two separate balls.

Making Waves illustrates the case for sound in a comprehensive and compelling fashion. Costin covers an astonishing amount of ground in one single documentary. It’s the kind of film that sticks with you as you sit down to watch another, taking extra care to absorb the craftsmanship from the sound editors. Fans of film, or those who want to deepen their understanding of cinema, will most certainly want to check this one out.

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Tuesday

5

November 2019

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The All-Americans Gives an Intimate Look into an East LA Tradition

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The idea of sport existing as a unifier offers comfort in these seemingly divided times. Beginning in 1925, the “East LA Classic” homecoming football game between rivals James A. Garfield High School and Theodore Roosevelt High School has grown to become one of the most popular annual high school games played in the country. In The All-Americans, director Billy McMillin explores this historic rivalry against the backdrop of the challenges imposed upon each school’s predominantly Latino population.

As its title suggests, much of the narrative in The All-Americans centers around the very question of what it means to be an American. Using soundbites from far right commentators, McMillin juxtaposes the hate too often spewed in the media with the faces of those most affected by the fear-mongering. Football is often seen as “America’s Game,” while Latino immigrants are often told to go back to “their” country, even those who have lived here their entire lives.

Several scenes depict classroom discussions of America’s uneasy relationship with nativism and the idea of the country serving as a “melting pot.” The students bring fascinating perspectives to the table, gently pushing back on the very concept of the American Dream. The All-Americans features several people who are undocumented, perpetually living with the concern that they may one day face deportation. Though Trump’s name is never uttered, he remains a looming presence throughout much of the narrative.

The film does an excellent job of explaining the importance of the East LA Classic, as well as the role that football plays in shaping the players’ lives. For most, playing on the team doesn’t carry any significant collegiate opportunities. Roosevelt’s coach speaks of his team’s 100% graduation rate, ensuring that players will leave school with a degree and the opportunities that come with it.

A few students from each team are given an added focus. One of these players became a father himself, juggling school, football, and providing for his kid while trying to lead a relatively normal life. Several scenes depict the player’s extended families, giving a broader sense of perspective to their stories, as well as the importance of the Classic itself. Several players explicitly remark that they started playing football just to be a part of this specific game, carrying the lineage of the near century-old event.

With time dedicated to the history of the classic, the actual game itself, both teams, their coaches, several players, and a broader discussion of the politics of immigration, The All-Americans aims to tackle quite a bit of material. Its runtime of just over ninety minutes doesn’t exactly lend itself well to all of these objectives, but McMillin has a strong grasp of pacing. The film never lingers too long in one area while giving the audience all it needs to follow along. One doesn’t even need to understand football to enjoy the film.

The All-Americans is a touching documentary, one that never tries to paint a false sense of finality by the end. Narrative resolution is a tough proposition when dealing with a bunch of high school students who will face plenty of greater hardships than what they’ve encountered on the field. Their lives are just beginning. The film does an excellent job of covering the role that the Classic played in their lives while never losing sight of the fact that in the end, it’s just a game.

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Monday

4

November 2019

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The Return of Linda Hamilton Makes Terminator: Dark Fate A Worthwhile Experience

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The box office disappointment of 2015’s Terminator: Genisys might have signaled the end of Hollywood’s preeminent Judgement Day narrative, but such a decision would have ignored the elements of the film that worked. For all its timeline shortcomings, Genisys served as a great outlet for Arnold Schwarzenegger to prove that his iconic role could improve with age. Schwarzenegger’s “Pops” T-101 was funny, caring, and perfectly capable of kicking ass.

With that in mind, Terminator: Dark Fate served as a natural vessel for the return of the franchise’s other true iconic star. While Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Genisys both have merits as action films, the absence of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor has deprived the series of its original emotional core. For all the emphasis that’s been placed on John Connor, it is Sarah Connor who has been responsible for saving the savior.

Dark Fate as a film is completely aware of the puzzling contradictions that exist within “chosen one” narratives. To be told that you will someday be a figure of great importance seems to diminish the notion that there’s plenty of choices to made along the way. Terminator has always been a series about saving the future, but to do that, one must naturally also keep the present out of harm’s way.

Daniella Ramos (Natalia Reyes) wasn’t born to lead a resistance. Knowledge of future actions hardly alters this dynamic. Heroes are made, not willed into existence. For all the ways that Dark Fate feels rooted in the past, Reyes never feels lost in the shuffle, ensuring that Ramos remains a vital presence in the film as all the chaos unfolds around her.

While Terminator has always been a feminist franchise, Dark Fate lets its heroines lead the narrative. Mackenzie Davis plays Grace, an enhanced human capable of taking on a “Rev-9” Terminator (Gabriel Luna), the franchise’s most menacing villain since Robert Patrick’s iconic T-1000. For all the guardians who have been sent back in time to protect the savior of humanity, Grace manages to combine the strength of the T-101 with the compassion of Kyle Reese.

Dark Fate shines brightest when the focus is on Hamilton, who puts forth one of the best performances of her career. Sarah Connor isn’t the primary focus of the film, but an essential piece of its narrative. Connor hasn’t lost any of her edge from Judgment Day, but the characters wears the scars of the past while still being capable of eliciting more than a few laughs. Hamilton and Davis have a natural chemistry that brings plenty of levity to the film’s otherwise grim tone.

Fitting with the film’s feminist dynamic, Schwarzenegger takes a backseat role, similar to that of Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in Blade Runner 2049. The T-101 is still a vital piece of the narrative, but the film looks more to Hamilton than Schwarzenegger to be its elder states-person. This works for a lot of reasons, chiefly among them being that Schwarzenegger has had his time to shine in earlier sequels. His Dark Fate T-101 is a different take than his Genisys counter-part, but the films complement each other well at least in part because Dark Fate recognizes where to trod in this well-worn pasture.

Dark Fate isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but quite a satisfying journey for fans of the franchise. The film doesn’t really build on the format of the first one, the same model that’s been replicated by every sequel besides Salvation. For many, this return to the franchise is an unnecessary proposition.

It’s not exactly high praise to refer to something as more of the same, but Dark Fate has a firm understanding of the franchise’s mythology. Not every movie needs to reinvent the wheel, as long as its adaptation of the wheel remains an entertaining experience. Dark Fate brings together everything that fans loved about the first two Terminator films. Whatever timeline reboots lay ahead in the future for this franchise, the chance to see Sarah Connor once again in peak form should not be missed on the big screen.

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Friday

1

November 2019

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Markie in Milwaukee Is a Powerful, Often Unsettling Transgender Narrative

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Transitioning is an incredibly difficult journey even under the best of circumstances. The highs of living out of the closet often contrast with the struggle for acceptance that far too many transgender people experience. Markie in Milwaukee documents ten years of turmoil that one transgender woman faced, coming to grips with her identity against a backdrop of an incredibly unsupportive community.

Markie Wenzel is a woman stuck between two worlds, facing a choice few ever have to consider. She’s an upbeat, soft-spoken person with a pleasant demeanor, if not a little socially awkward. Her height, close to seven feet, led to bullying at an early age, something that hardly let up as she began her transition in the mid 2000s.

As a minister in a fundamentalist Christian church, Markie encountered quite a lot of pushback from her community as she began to present as female. Her family all but abandoned her, refusing to accept a hiccup in an otherwise happy life.

The film offers a broad lens to examine Markie’s life at the various stages of transition, including the point where she decided to stop and return to life as Mark, a decision that was rewarded in the form of family visits, including a new granddaughter. Markie’s church took her back, basking in the glory of a sinner come to repent for the crime of being born different.

Markie in Milwaukee operates on an entirely different narrative wavelength than its subject, a moving narrative that highlights the many conflicts that transition brings out. Director Matt Kliegman largely lets Markie speak for herself, but the framing of the documentary often suggests that he’s at odds with the statements coming from Markie. The film carries the feel of belonging to Markie, but the audience is given plenty of leeway to suggest that there’s more beneath the surface that she’s not quite ready to tackle.

Kliegman puts the audience in a challenging position with regard to how to process Markie’s choices. Generally speaking, it’s considered inappropriate to second-guess the way a transgender person explains their identity. It is impossible to watch Markie in Milwaukee and not do just that.

This dynamic is most on display in scenes highlighting Markie’s church and her family. Despite a few efforts by Markie to suggest her detransition was not fueled by religious pressure, she contradicts herself on a few occasions. The footage from her church and children’s home demonstrates the intrinsic link between the two.

In all her years of transition, Markie found acceptance in the form of support groups and friendly strangers out in public. She didn’t appear to develop any meaningful connections beyond those surface level relationships. That kind of isolation is bound to be tough on anyone.

The saddest aspect of the film is the way in which Markie lives her life believing that she’s caused all this damage to her family. To say that that’s their problem, not hers, is an accurate reflection of the situation, yet Markie’s life is not improved by the notion that her identity shouldn’t be a burden on anyone else. For too many transgender people, the idea that our lives are an abomination is allowed to fester, tearing away at one’s psyche.

As a transition narrative, Markie in Milwaukee would have been improved by a stronger focus on the decision to embrace her old identity again. Kliegman touches on the subject a few times, most notably in a conversation between Markie and her therapist. One can certainly understand the sensitive nature of the subject matter, but the resolution to Markie’s story leaves more questions than it probably needed to.

Markie in Milwaukee is a flawed narrative, but a vitally important one in today’s climate. In many ways, Kliegman’s film is most valuable to the family members of transgender people, serving as a cautionary tale for the road that too many loved ones have to face alone. Markie Wenzel has been dealt a raw hand in life, but her story can help future generations to avoid the same hardships.

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Wednesday

30

October 2019

0

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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

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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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