Ian Thomas Malone

Movie Reviews Archive

Monday

27

June 2022

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Double Indemnity

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Society generally does a horrible job explaining the concept of crime to children. Separating the world into a false binary of good vs. evil barely even orbits the reality of injustice. A person hardly needs a rotten soul to find themselves wrapped up in a situation far beyond any lay person’s assessment of their moral fiber.

1944 launched the film noir genre with the iconic masterpiece Double Indemnity. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a fairly hapless insurance salesman, overconfident in his own ability to sway any scenario to his own liking. Neff is quite the easy mark for Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a disgruntled housewife looking to murder her selfish husband. Neff puts up an obligatory meager resistance to the idea of committing a capital offense, before realizing that his knowledge of the insurance would prove invaluable to the success of the scheme.

Director/co-screenwriter Billy Wilder masterfully identifies the low-stakes pressure point in Neff’s character that defines his weakness as a person. Neff is not an evil man by nature. He is, however, very bored. Undervalued at work, Neff’s boss Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) pressures him into taking a desk job viewed by Neff as a demotion beneath his skills as a salesman out in the fields.

Stanwyck plays her feminist icon with an understated sense of poise that demonstrates that while she’s firmly in command of Neff’s psyche, she hardly needed it to exert much pressure to achieve her goals. Phyllis promises the thrill of a lifetime, one that his desk job could never care to deliver. The murder isn’t the result of a battle between good and evil, but rather a natural response to a system that had no place for either Phyllis or Neff, both pawns in someone else’s game. Capitalism is the true villain of Double Indemnity.

Wilder understood an innate truth of crime thrillers. Some find satisfaction at the end of a whodunit when the killer is brought to justice, but that’s not the sum total of the appeal of the genre. Plenty seek a deeper understanding of why someone might turn away from the path of justice, to commit atrocities that make us feel uneasy to even think about.

MacMurray’s status as the “leading man” is almost an oxymoron. Stanwyck is the real driving force, but Wilder positions the two in a clever way that heightens Neff’s lingering emasculation at the hands of his boss. Neff can’t stand the uncomfortable claustrophobia of life square in the palm of capitalism’s mighty hand. The murder is not the work of an evil man, but the temper tantrum of a grown adult tired of living his life like a child, without a whiff of agency.

Noir delivers these uncomfortable truths, the layers of ugliness that often define the human experience. Crime thrillers teach us to rejoice when the bad guys are brought to justice. Noir isn’t interested in demonizing those who walk off the straight and narrow path, instead determined to present their full humanity, the kind of reality that can’t be boxed into the good vs. evil binary. Neff and Phyllis are criminals, but Wilder’s triumph lies in the way he successfully brought out the best in his characters.

Wednesday

25

May 2022

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COMMENTS

Top Gun: Maverick demonstrates the vitality of the big screen through its devotion to practical effects

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The original Top Gun helped solidify Tom Cruise’s status as a leading actor. More than thirty years later, Hollywood tends to rely on franchises rather than its A-listers to bring fans to the theaters. Top Gun: Maverick is a marriage of two different eras of cinema, a nostalgia-laden action romp structured fueled by Cruise’s pursuit of high-octane stunts and his effortless charm.

Maverick hasn’t changed all that much since 1986. The same reputation that earned him legendary status as a pilot kept him from climbing the career ladder, stalling at the rank of captain. After a botched stunt threatened to end his career, Maverick is sent back to Top Gun to train a team for a high-stakes mission to take out a facility manufacturing enriched uranium. The complex mission parameters leave little room for error, placing a heavy burden on Maverick to select his team from the Navy’s best, among them Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his best friend Goose.

Top Gun: Maverick is an expertly paced testament to the power of practical effects. Cruise’s tireless devotion to blockbuster filmmaking bleeds through the screen in every scene, a modern cinematic marvel. The script is not exactly Dryden’s Aeneid, full of clunky jokes, but you can’t help but smile at the way Cruise pours his heart and soul into the whole production.

While Cruise is the focus of practically every scene, the supporting cast find their magic as well. Teller carries the emotional weight of Goose’s absence in every expression. Rooster’s beef with Maverick is a bit predictable, but the film finds time to give him a mini-rivalry with fellow trainee Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), reminiscent of the original Maverick/Iceman feud/angsty bromance. The rest of the trainees, including Monica Barbaro, Lewis Pullman, Jay Ellis, and Danny Ramirez, are clearly having the time of their lives, the group possessing impeccable chemistry that makes up for their limited screen time.

The film does have a bit of a clunky romance. Jennifer Connelly plays Penelope Benjamin, a local bar owner with a long history with Maverick. Connelly and Cruise are fun to watch together, but the script does a poor job selling the idea that this plotline exists for any other reason than to give Cruise something to do when there are no planes in the air.

The beauty of director Joseph Kosinski’s feature is that everyone understands the real reason fans are in the seats. The plane sequences are unbelievably spectacular, a true sight to behold on the big screen. Much of the 131-minute runtime is spent in the air. Rarely more than two scenes go by without a plane sequence, a non-stop adrenaline rush. The crew’s dedication to top-notch action choreography is about as strong a selling point for movie theatres as can be made.

Top Gun: Maverick blows the first film out of the water. The script could have used another draft’s worth of revisions, but it’s hard to care much with the cast’s abundant heart. The film pays great homage to its predecessor without using anything for cheap nostalgia, particularly a touching scene with Val Kilmer. There are some moments played for obvious fan service, but Cruise sells them with his signature smile.

There may come a day when Cruise isn’t able to up the ante on his age-defying stunts that push filmmaking to its limits. Some actors make new films to relive their glory days. Cruise is firmly committed to the present, bringing the advances of modern technology to enhance the traditional craft. If only more actors would use their star power to push back on Hollywood’s over-reliance on CGI.

Tuesday

24

May 2022

18

COMMENTS

Ricky Gervais recycles tired grievance nonsense in the odious bore SuperNature

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There is a belief that free speech is under attack in comedy. Subjects such as transgender rights are apparently so taboo to talk about that many of the world’s highest-paid comedians spend most of their new specials saying things they’re forbidden to talk about. Ricky Gervais wants you to believe he’s been canceled for SuperNature, his new show that Netflix paid him millions of dollars to perform.

What did Netflix receive for their money and inevitable PR headache? Early in the special, Gervais returns to the subject of transgender women being rapists in public bathrooms, a topic that had started to lose its edge in 2016. For a man who talks about how comedy evolves, Gervais seems oddly stuck in the past regarding a cultural subject that even the Republican Party has lost interest in fighting, instead turning its attention to targeting mainstream medical care for trans children.

Gervais jokes that the 1%, namely his millionaire buddies are the new Rosa Parks. A thin layer of sarcasm can’t really hide the idea that he fundamentally believes this notion, that comedians are the real marginalized group. He dedicates extended riffs to the “cancellation” of renowned masturbator Louis C.K., who is so canceled that he recently won the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album earlier this year, and Kevin Hart, the A-list martyr who stepped aside from hosting the Oscars in 2018 after refusing to reiterate regret for old homophobic Tweets.

It’s not particularly complicated to see why Gervais is so fascinated by trans people and social media criticism directed at anti-LGBTQ comedians. He doesn’t really have anything else to talk about. SuperNature touches on the differences between cats and dogs, AIDS, abortion, and religion, delivering observations that aren’t particularly original even by 1990s standards. Gervais’ brand of grievance politics exists as a shallow cover-up for the staleness of his material, a Trump rally masquerading as a comedy special.

Gervais loves to frame intersectionality as an “us vs. them” equation, suggesting that LGBTQ people want to ban anti-transgender jokes as a way to drag people like him down to build themselves up. He’s right on the objective, but intellectually dishonest with regard to the motives, denying the real-world harm of a society where it’s socially acceptable to write off an entire group of people as rapists, in the complete absence of any evidence to the contrary. Gervais’ logic only works if your brain is warped enough to believe that stereotypes have never actually affected anyone.

The bitterness of Gervais’ shrill delivery obfuscates a broader truth. Gervais has no moral obligation to be a nice guy. He’s built most of his career off of being the exact opposite. Comedy can be mean-spirited. No one is asking him to stand up on stage and be anything less than the person we expect from Ricky Gervais.

There’s something fundamentally sad about a man with nothing to strive for beyond a cheap cash grab. Far from the first mainstream comedian to dedicate chunks of his act to defending C.K. or Hart, Gervais’ dull blade simply lacks the edge he thinks it wields as he stands up on stage laughing at his own jokes. For a staunch atheist, he’s pretty solely tapping into the spiritual nature of right-wing grievance with his riffs on trans people that don’t bring anything new to the table. He’s not so much trying to entertain his audience as to get them to see him as a general on the front lines, an hour-long gratification of replacement theory nonsense. With millions in the bank, Gervais might get the last laugh, but the whole ordeal is a sad sight to behold.

Friday

20

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

Downton Abbey: A New Era is too stuck in the past to enjoy itself

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Ensemble television shows are not particularly well-suited for film as a medium. Television narratives are open-ended, with plenty of space to breathe over the course of a season. Feature-length runtimes don’t have a ton of wiggle room to balance dozens of characters on top of a movie’s usual plot mechanics. The original Downton Abbey film largely succeeded because it structured itself as an extended version of the show, allowing most of the characters to essentially perform as they might on an episode of the series, particularly its annual Christmas specials.

As its title suggests, Downton Abbey: A New Era charts a bit of a different course. The narrative mostly splits itself in half, with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) opening the great house to a film crew led by Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), and Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) leading most of the family on an expedition to the south of France to examine a villa gifted in mystery to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), herself too ill to travel. Lady Mary and company have their fun with the crew, the lead actors Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna (Laura Haddock) making quite the impression on the servants, most of whom are looking to lives beyond service.

Series creator and writer Julian Fellowes bit off far more than he could chew with the screenplay. The film’s pacing is perpetually rushed, scenes awkwardly written to accommodate characters with nothing else to do, the supporting bench overstuffed with far too many returnees. It makes obvious sense that characters introduced in the first film such as Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), now married to Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) would come back for the sequel, but Fellowes also makes time for a few recurring characters from the show that missed the previous feature.

It’s unclear how many fans were desperate for the return of Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) or Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), two characters who have no business sucking up air in a film that’s already far too bloated to accommodate the series regulars. Much time is also made for a character who isn’t even in the film, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), whose consistent unavailability makes you wonder why he was selected to be Mary’s second husband in the first place. One can’t help but wonder if it might have been a good idea to write out several of the characters rather than let their awkward presences in the narrative distract from the fun.

Fellowes recycles a few tired plotlines from the show, namely the question of infidelity and mysterious poorly defined life-threatening maladies that appear out of nowhere. Director Simon Curtis is so awkward with the camera work that he transforms one of the film’s more dramatic twists into unintended comedy. The film is far too preoccupied with subplots that don’t receive enough attention to land with any sense of meaning.

The film’s biggest crime lies with the third act’s bizarre need to serve as a kind of second finale for the TV show. The first Downton Abbey film largely succeeded through its function as a light-hearted epilogue to the show, which already spent much of its fifth and sixth seasons tying loose ends together. For whatever reason, Fellowes decided to tie many of them up again.

The constant meandering, unfortunately, hinders the film’s strong core, namely the production at Downton, a not-so-subtle nod at Highclere Castle’s own history. The film’s newcomers are an absolute joy, meshing wonderfully with the characters who aren’t fooling around in France. Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) predictably supplies much of the film’s humor, easily the best character arc among the supporting cast. A New Era finds its best moments when it actually lives up to its title and focuses on the narratives present.

The strong showing of the fresh faces creates much frustration toward the film’s preoccupation with the past. The narrative was never going to be everything to everyone, but Fellowes sure tried to set up that dynamic. Downton Abbey was a series about change. Old-guard characters were frequently reminded that change is supposed to be a good thing.

As a film, A New Era doesn’t really believe in change. Instead, the narrative tries to function as a film season of television jam-packed into one feature. It’s rather astonishing to see how much Fellowes messed up the screenplay after pulling together such a delightful film the first time around. With our current climate of remakes and reboots, it’s hard to imagine this is the last we’ve seen of Downton. Lighthearted fun should have been so easily dragged down by an unnecessary attempt at closure that will make even less sense by the time the next film inevitably rolls around.

Tuesday

17

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Maurice

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The major advances in the fight for LGBTQ equality can make it easy to forget how much of a death sentence being gay used to be in a so-called polite society. Prior to 1967, male homosexuality was punishable in the United Kingdom by prison sentences with hard labor, a lifetime of shame, and ostracization to follow. As history has demonstrated time and time again, punishing people for being gay does not in fact stop anyone from being gay. The gay cannot be whipped, beaten, or prayed out of the individual, a reality that much of the world is still, unfortunately, grappling with.

The 1987 film Maurice adapts the E.M. Forster novel of the same name, published posthumously after the author’s death undoubtedly to shield his own homosexuality. Set at the tail end of the Edwardian era, Maurice (James Wilby) is a lazy affluent student at Cambridge, not very adept at concealing his own sexuality. A fellow gay classmate Risley (Mark Tandy) catches on, playing matchmaker between Maurice and Clive (Hugh Grant), the two possessing instant chemistry, the kind of effortless passion that fuels countless romance narratives.

Of course, gay people are not supposed to fall in love, especially not in pre-World War I England. The breezy lifestyle of the leisure class serves as an exceptional incubator for Maurice and Clive’s romance, picnics in the grass, and nothing to worry about except one’s attire for the evening. That, plus England’s egregiously regressive punishments for homosexual conduct.

Like the early 1900s, 1987 was not a particularly easy time to be gay either. With the AIDS epidemic sweeping the globe, Reagan-era puritanism looked to the virus as a way of punishing homosexuals for our perceived vile way of life, the exertion of God’s will upon the wicked. Decades before HIV’s discovery, Maurice’s generation had a similarly dismal prognosis on life.

Director James Ivory understands the political implications of his film better than anyone. Maurice rises above its predictable narrative through its resounding commitment to the idea that happiness will always triumph over a life in the closet, no matter the cost. Maurice isn’t a particularly interesting character. Wilby’s wide-eyed optimism bails out the messier aspects of his performance, particularly his clunky intimate scenes with Grant.

Gay happiness remains a radical idea, over a century removed from the events of the narrative, and fifty years after Forster’s death. Ivory does right by the source material, making great use of his locations to highlight the contrast between the freedom that all the space a country house allows, and the reality of the unsustainable cost of retaining who you are as part of that society. The punishments for homosexuality were severe, but repression is itself a death sentence.

Laws banning homosexuality attempted to craft an easy outcome for gay people. You’re not supposed to want to sacrifice everything, but that’s also a fundamental point that anti-LGBTQ legislators fail to understand time and time again. You can threaten someone with the worst consequences imaginable. You can take everything from them and strip away every fiber of their dignity, but no amount of homophobia can squash that basic human desire to be fulfilled.

Countless countries have committed egregious atrocities against their LGBTQ citizens. Maurice is a needed reminder of how irrelevant the stink of hate can feel to a mind at ease with itself. Love cannot be conquered by society’s efforts to legislate it out of existence.

Monday

9

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness is a bloated mess with no sense of purpose

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The MCU has changed quite a bit in the six years since Doctor Strange’s first film was released. The arrogant sorcerer, masterfully played by Benedict Cumberbatch, first came on the scene just in time for the major crossover Avengers: Infinity War that tied the whole universe together, now finding himself among its few true elder statesmen in the post-Endgame landscape that’s still very much in the process of defining itself. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness doesn’t just need to balance the awkward layover period between its predecessor and the events of Endgame, on top of the game-changing revelations in Spider-Man: No Way Home, but also a television show like Wandavision that its star wasn’t even in.

The first three phases of the MCU carried a steady stream of interconnectivity that the franchise doesn’t necessarily need anymore. There is no Infinity Saga to spend the next ten years planning for. As a team, the Avengers only really exist as an easter egg reference. As much as it might feel like The Multiverse of Madness is carrying all this weight of exposition, Doctor Strange has never been freer to enjoy his own movie.

As a character, Doctor Strange is not happy. Saving the world did not bring him peace. It didn’t bring him love either, as Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) moved on from his endless antics. The arrival of multiverse-traveler America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) gives Strange a moment to care about someone other than himself. Unfortunately for the world, another magical selfish superhero Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) needs America’s powers to reunite herself with her non-existent children that she previously conjured up while enslaving an entire town.

Director Sam Raimi helped usher in the modern superhero era with Spider-Man back in 2002, a franchise that didn’t need to worry about the sticky webs of connectivity. The Multiverse of Madness is stuck in a weird no man’s land, following far too many unnecessary strands of plot from the first Doctor Strange, while barely paying lip service to the themes presented in Wandavision, which anchor the entire motivation of this film’s antagonist.

Wanda Maximoff has been an important part of the MCU since her 2014 debut in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange are two of the most powerful superheroes in Marvel canon, a fact that is easy to forget on screen, as most of the characters tend to just shoot the same kind of laser beams at each other, a dynamic that negatively impacted Wandavision’s own finale. The Multiverse of Madness strips Wanda of anything that made her a compelling character, reducing her complexity to that of a shrill Karen throwing a cosmic level tempter-tantrum.

To say that this film does Wanda dirty is kind of an understatement. Raimi, the man who played a pivotal role in crafting Xena: Warrior Princess, helmed this absolutely disgusting hatchet job of the MCU’s most compelling female character. The Multiverse of Madness is a disgrace to the idea that the MCU actually cares about building characters, a slap in the face to anyone who dared invest themselves in the idea of Wanda as anything more than a disposable commodity for all these years.

The Multiverse of Madness has no idea what it wants to be as a movie. Raimi throws some impressive horror visuals around, without fully committing to the idea of this being a horror film. Like Strange’s relationship with Peter Parker, itself modeled off Parker’s dynamic with Tony Stark, Chavez forces the crabby doctor to open up as a person. The chemistry between Cumberbatch and Gomez is entertaining to watch, but it’s not really in service to the same narrative wavelength as Wanda’s antics and Raimi’s horror aspirations. The 126-minute runtime feels way longer with a third act that’s so sluggish that it’s never quite clear what this movie is trying to be.

Raimi’s technical skills as a director do help buoy the experience. Marvel is still way too enamored with green screens, but the visuals are a sight to behold. Wong (Benedict Wong) is tragically underused, especially after a few cameos in other films. Palmer and fellow Doctor Strange returnee Karl Morto (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are well-utilized in a narrative that has far too many compelling characters already.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is an entertaining film. That should be a given considering the talent involved. The script is a disaster, full of painfully boring exposition that can be hard to parse even for those of us who’ve read most of the Doctor Strange comics dating back to the 1960s. The film loses its own train of thought time and time again, leaving the narrative to be carried by the cast and the special effects department.

This is not a good movie. This is not a good sign for the direction of the MCU. No one expects a massive crossover like Infinity War, ten years in the making. What might be nice is a standalone movie that understands how to function as a cohesive narrative. The Multiverse of Madness is not in fact over-encumbered with the weight of the franchise. It doesn’t need to plan for anything. This movie is just bad at juggling its pieces. A charming mess fine, but everyone here is capable of so much more.

Wednesday

4

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Daisies

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Countless films have examined the futility of capitalism to deliver its promise of a meaningful existence onto the proletariat. The exertion of labor may keep a roof over one’s head, but the use-value of being a cog in the machine rarely provides that elusive sensation called happiness. Life has got to be more.

The 1966 film Daisies (original Czech title: Sedmikràsky), examines the lives of two women, both named Marie (Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová), who are seemingly unmoored from the mechanics of society. Living lives of decadence and idle play, the Maries frolic through their village, rolling down hills and convincing old men to buy them extravagant dinners. Life is what the Maries make of it, assuming there’s an easy mark around to foot the bill.

Director Věra Chytilová makes great use of the full sensory arsenal at her disposal as a filmmaker. Daises includes numerous sequences that rely solely on color and sound play, the idea of a narrative barely entering the equation. There is no real plot or single concrete idea anchoring the film, but Chytilová works with such a careful sense of deliberation that she manages to keep the audience thoroughly engaged through the brisk 76-minute runtime.

The two Maries exist both as individual characters and two sides of the same coin. Much of Daisies’ charm stems from Cerhová and Karbanová’s impeccable chemistry, often moving in complete synchronicity with one another while their characters remain fundamentally unaligned with each other. The Maries’ brand of self-centered living leaves little room for each other, but the desire for companionship is a natural human phenomenon. The two actresses do a remarkable job exploring their unusual dynamic against the backdrop of a film that is never particularly concerned with telling a story.

Chytilová pulls off the impressive feat of deconstructing capitalism without succumbing to the natural urge to offer a replacement. The system is not designed to crumble at the hands of a single arthouse film, even one designed solely to poke the eyes of the kinds of conservative governments that spent decades trying to censor such material. The wheels of capitalism will keep churning long after the credits roll.

The Maries do not live particularly meaningful lives, occasionally unwittingly playing a part in capitalism’s unending game. Anarchy, almost by definition, has no better alternative. Daisies is an amusing romp through a myopic fairytale. The Maries only pay lip service to the idea that they should be worried about tomorrow. Their antics, while amusing, do not plant any grandiose ideas in the audience’s head about alternatives to the endless cycle. The best lesson that Daisies leaves behind lies in the value of deviating from the norm, if only for a little while. We cannot exist independently from society, but we can challenge the status quo at every turn.

Wednesday

4

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

Our Father sheds an important light on the ease of medical misconduct within the fertility field

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DNA testing companies such as Ancestry and 23andme cater to a base instinct within humanity. Most of us know the natural sensation of wanting to trace back our roots, to learn more about who we are and how we came to be. No one necessarily embarks on that journey of self-discovery hoping to find a bunch of skeletons in the back of their ancestral closet.

There are abstract privacy concerns about handing over one’s literal cells to a for-profit DNA testing company. The documentary Our Father presents a far more horrifying scenario. No one mails in their 23andme kit expecting to learn they have dozens of half-siblings, but a fertility doctor in Indiana probably didn’t expect to have his handiwork traced back to him decades later either.

The documentary centers its narrative on the biological offspring of Donald Cline, a doctor who used his own sperm for years without his patients’ consent, women who expected to give birth to children fathered by their own partners, or donors of their own choosing. Under the guise of his fundamentalist religion, Dr. Cline committed countless acts of sexual assault over the years. Our Father is every fertility patient’s worst nightmare.

Cline fathered over fifty-confirmed children through his insemination methods, with the real number believed to be at least around a hundred. A few serve as the centerpiece of Our Father, namely Jacoba Ballard, who spearheaded the efforts to connect her half-siblings and expose Dr. Cline in the process, both to the media and to the Indiana Department of Justice. An only child, Ballard initially sought out a DNA test to explain the biological anomalies that set her apart from the rest of her family, never expecting the web of lies she’d uncover.

As a documentary, Our Father struggles to balance its fascinating story with some limitations of such a visual medium. The Blumhouse release is guided with an extremely heavy hand, using actors to recreate some events set against a musical score that feels lifted from a horror movie than a serious documentary. To some extent, it’s hard to fault director Lucie Jourdan for not having access to better archival footage to put on the screen, but the film is hardly very confident in its own delivery.

The documentary works best when exploring the human toll of the ordeal on the victims. The American legal system is hardly well-equipped to handle these kinds of sexual assault cases, with only a few states possessing laws on the books to prevent such disgusting medical misconduct. Some injustices can never be made whole. The film does a good job exploring that reality, never trying to pretend like Dr. Cline will ever truly be punished for his actions. The best anyone can hope for is that laws are strengthened to prevent similar misconduct from escaping with little more than a slap on the wrist.

The story is powerful enough to justify the experience, but Our Father hardly does right by the material with its overproduced delivery. The stage pieces and score serve as little more than distractions. There isn’t much here that couldn’t be summarized in a five-minute piece on the evening news, but the victims do deserve to have a chance to tell their story.

Friday

29

April 2022

0

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The Northman offers an arthouse spin on an epic legend of vengeance

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Vengeance is an easy desire to rationalize. The injustice of suffering leaves a void that the heart naturally wants to fill. The cost of delivering such retribution often plays second fiddle to the mind’s manifestation of the sweet delight seemingly offered by correcting an egregious wrong. Of course, the world is not a binary of good vs. evil, not that vengeance has to care about such realities.

The Northman follows a life of vengeance. An adaptation of the legend of Amleth, a Scandinavian figure more familiar to Western audiences for inspiring Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the narrative follows the prince (Alexander Skarsgård, with Oscar Vovak playing Amleth as a young boy) as he seeks to avenge the death of his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who also burned his village and abducted his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Prophecy shapes Amleth’s quest, believing himself to be put on the soil solely to take his uncle’s life.

Amleth gives up a promising career as a Viking berserker to stow away aboard a slave ship headed to Iceland, the seat of his uncle’s exile. Becoming enslaved himself in the process, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress and kindred spirit. As Amleth and Olga grow closer, the prince faces a fork in the road, the cost of his quest for vengeance contrasted by the prospects of breaking the cycle, to forge a new path free of the endless violence.

Director Robert Eggers delivers a slow-burn that’s singularly focused in its step-by-step depiction of Amleth’s submission to prophecy. Just as good and evil exist outside a binary, the question of nature vs. nurture is a bit irrelevant when faced with a reality where the two work in almost-complete tandem. Violence may not be the only life that Amleth could choose to live, but it is the only life he knows how to live. Eggers’ every motion hammers that point home.

The cast all seem to understand their place less as characters, but as part of the legend. Eggers seems to understand the weight of epic, the performances and cinematography carrying a soft touch even amidst the narrative’s extreme brutality. Skarsgård never once puffs his chest to assert his place as the hero, in complete alignment with Amleth’s sense of prophecy bestowed upon him at an early age. His approach to character development feels almost more like character actualization than any real sense of growth. Not all boys change as they grow into men.

The supporting cast, also including Willem Dafoe and Björk in bit roles, have quite a lot of fun with the material. The 137-minute runtime is a bit over-bloated, but Eggers never loses his grip on his audience through the cerebral narrative. Larger-than-life material is rarely delivered with such serene execution. Epics are not necessarily meant to feel intimate, yet The Northman carries itself like performers in a black box theatre, welcoming even against a backdrop of endless miles of nothingness.

The Northman demonstrates Eggers’ immense maturity as a filmmaker, a testament to cinema’s power to communicate rich art to a wide audience. In a world full of crowd-pleaser films fighting for their share of the box office, the film instead aims to leave its viewers with a calmer sense of satisfaction by the time the credits roll. It feels good to be challenged in the theatre, to see an epic wrestle with morals humanity has been grappling with for hundreds of years.

Monday

25

April 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a charming, formulaic celebration of Nicholas Cage

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Few actors truly understand the trajectory of American culture quite like Nicholas Cage. The freaks and outcasts vilified through the 90s and 00s have taken over the mainstream. The MCU reigns supreme at the box office, and San Diego Comic-Con rivals Coachella as one of the hottest events of the season. Somewhere along the way, it became cool to give a shit, to be weird, and most important of all, to be yourself.

For all the criticism Nicholas Cage has received for his often-bizarre performances, or his financial troubles, the man has not let anything alter his fundamental approach to his craft. The modern box office does not have a ton of room for the brand of action blockbusters such as The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off that turned Cage into a A-list movie star. Cinemas are now largely powered by franchises, with a diminished need for star power to fill the theatre seats.

While Hollywood has changed quite a bit over the past thirty years, Cage has remained remarkably consistent. Years removed from his own franchise vehicles, such as Ghost Rider (no pun intended) or National Treasure, Cage has kept busy on smaller films such as Joe, Pig, and Prisoners of the Ghostland. The new movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent aims to wield the old-fashioned action hero Cage energy for a modern audience that missed seeing his face up on giant billboards.

Cage plays a heavily fictionalized version of himself, struggling in a Hollywood that’s mostly moved on from his antics. His ex-wife and daughter are also tired of his bloviated ego, heavy drinking, and poor financial restraint. After an emotional “retirement” Cage takes an offer from his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) of one million dollars to attend a birthday party of a diehard fan, Javi (Pedro Pascal), a billionaire with too much money burning a hole in his pocket.

Director Tom Gormican’s film essentially follows two separate tracks at the same time. Much of the film is an homage to Cage’s colorful career, full of nods to his more eccentric roles, and his bizarre behavior. Cage also plays a younger version of himself, “Nicky,” to play devil’s advocate on occasion. The rest of the film aims to be a by-the-books action-comedy, relying heavily on the chemistry between Cage and Pascal.

The film’s first half is remarkably strong, tightly-paced with more than enough time for Cage antics while Gormican lays out the actual plot, centered around arms dealers who kidnapped a politician’s daughter. Cage is more than willing to poke fun at his career and cult status, frequently noting his decline in star power even as his workload increased. Gormican pulls off the impressive feat of blending the various stages of Cage’s career together, albeit through remarkably tame execution that’s beneath the absurdity of his star.

The meta-humor overstays its welcome around the halfway point. The script gets way too defensive when it essentially tries to justify its pivot toward mundane, practicable action. Gormican is way too self-conscious in his mainstream work. It wouldn’t be much of a problem if he didn’t let his narrative drag in the process, a few sequences that essentially regurgitate the same point.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is an immensely entertaining film, the kind that deserves to be enjoyed on the big screen. Everyone involved seems to understand the sheer value of bringing Cage back to the blockbuster format he enjoys so much. Pascal is the perfect companion to help anchor the whole experience.

As part of Cage’s overall portfolio, Gormican’s work leaves a bit to be desired. This film could have been a perfect encapsulation of Cage’s career, a mainstream triumph of the man’s eccentricities. The third act plays things far too safe. The film is well-worth the price of admission, Cage superfans deserve better than the end result.