Ian Thomas Malone

Pop Culture Archive

Wednesday

18

January 2023

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COMMENTS

Occasionally weighed down by its genre trappings, Corsage is buoyed by an exceptional lead performance

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The female body has been viewed throughout history as a finite commodity with an explicit expiration date. The aristocracy essentially provided its women with one clear mandate, an entire existence defined by one’s ability to pump out a few babies to carry the line to another generation. A lifetime in a gilded cage boiled down to a handful of nine-month stretches.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) nears her fortieth birthday in the middle of the nineteenth century. A curious mind with nothing to entertain itself beyond the tightening of her corset, Elisabeth spends her days idly while the rest of her world moves on. Her husband Emperor Franz Joseph I (Florian Teichtmeister) loses interest right around the moment her body no longer proved up to the task of producing further offspring. Her young daughter Sophie (Lilly Marie Tschörtner) is too caught up in her studies to care about the frivolities of youth, the same joys Elisabeth desperately tries to cling to in the absence of anything else to titillate her mind.

Director Marie Kreutzer leans heavily on her lead actress to carry her sleepy period piece. Krieps wields her greatest power through her mastery of subtle emotions, an empress longing to break free yet keenly aware of the ever-present, though slightly fading, gaze of the palace. Much as one might be loathed to pity a woman who reached the apex of the aristocracy, Krieps manages to elicit plenty of natural sympathy for Elisabeth, a once-powerful comet forced to watch the dimming of its own star power.

Though Kreutzer occasionally deploys modern music out of place with the historical setting, increasingly common with period pieces, Corsage utilizes great restraint with its approach to sound. There are many scenes where the silence is utterly deafening, heightening the sheer loneliness that some of the most powerful people in the world must have felt within the enviable walls of these great palaces. The 112-minute runtime is a slow burn that could have used some trimming around the edges, but you can also see where Kreutzer tried to wield the monotony to her narrative’s advantage.

Corsage wears some of its flaws on its sleeves. The desire for the film to be more than simply competent operates on the same wavelength as Elisabeth’s longing for a breath of life beyond the walls of her existence. You never really shake the idea that this immaculately crafted, well-acted film could have risen above its fairly predictable genre trappings. Krieps’ performance alone begs for nothing but the best, an area where the script certainly fell a bit short.

There is great value in Kreutzer’s subtle commentary on the female body after it has served its purpose in a man’s world. In an age where diet culture and the notion of the girlboss have received their necessary backlash, Corsage offers a damning indictment of the grind. Your body is not a temple for someone else’s legacy. The soul cannot sustain itself as a supporting character in your spouse’s story. A restless spirit cannot learn to love its cage. Only when we accept that truth can we ever hope to make the most of the time we have on this rock, time serving not as a benchmark, but as an unwieldy bastion of the patriarchy to flip one’s middle finger at.

Friday

16

December 2022

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COMMENTS

Avatar: The Way of Water eclipses its predecessor in its breathtaking splendor, albeit with a similarly lackluster narrative

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Somewhere along the way in the years since 2009 came along a theory that no one cared about Avatar, a thesis that any individual could prove for themselves through their own apathy. Putting aside the massively expensive Pandora-themed addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, the idea of staying power for a film that sat atop the all-time box office leaderboard never made a ton of sense. Is Titanic similarly irrelevant because fewer people dress up as Jack and Rose at Halloween than the minions from Despicable Me?

Avatar’s perceived lack of cultural capital can be explained in a few ways. The film failed to immediately establish a connected universe at precisely the same moment that big franchises began to entirely consume the box office, an association that feels fairer to make given that James Cameron already pulled off that feat decades earlier with The Terminator. The 3-D technology that the film dazzled its audiences with failed to maintain a firm stronghold in theatres. Cameron’s technical wizardry could also only go so far as to cover up Avatar’s generic plot that played like a hybrid of FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Dances with Wolves.

What people may have underestimated with regard to the delay between Avatar: The Way of Water and its predecessor is the way that the box office landscape would move away from mandating the kind of technical prowess that made Avatar such a hit in the first place. CGI has undoubtedly become cheaper to produce, but that quality has not always translated onto the final product, with countless superhero narratives settling for bland, gray color palettes projected onto green screens in soundstages that are so tiny the actors can barely even walk around. Awe and wonder was always Avatar’s greatest asset. Modern blockbusters rarely aim for that high of a bar.

The Way of Water does not have a particularly interesting story. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have their happy life among the Omaticaya disrupted when the RDA returns to Pandora ten years later. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has had his conscience cloned into an avatar, along with various other commandos who were in the first film. Jake self-exiles his family to the water-based Metkayina clan when Quaritch captures the human Spider (Jake Champion), his sort-of-son who was adopted by Jake and Neytiri after the events of Avatar. The forest-based Na’vi struggles to adapt to their new ocean surroundings, a sense of belonging remaining elusive until they can truly learn the ways of water.

Cameron often seems conflicted with the idea that his fun on Pandora might need to function as something resembling a narrative you would find in a movie, a notion that might be a problem if not for the film’s breathtaking beauty. The cinematography continuously feels like footage that would be happier in a Planet Earth-style documentary, where David Attenborough’s voice could quickly remove the need for any pesky characters and those things called storylines. Pandora is such an immersive experience itself that you

The Way of Water largely operates as an ensemble piece, with Saldaña and, to a much lesser extent, Worthington ceding most of the spotlight to the next generation. Their four children, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Kiri (Sigourney Weaver, playing a much different role than Dr. Grace Augstine in the original film), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) form the emotional core of the narrative in a quite satisfactory manner, even if few in the audience will remember any of their names. Cameron manages to carve out complete storylines for practically every character, though Saldaña feels like an odd afterthought. The Metkayina play second fiddle to Cameron’s preoccupation with worldbuilding.

The gargantuan 192-minute runtime largely flies by, Cameron rarely losing his pulse on the pacing until halfway through the third act. There is some unnecessary exposition here and there, the price of admission to see the work of a vision-obsessed man incapable of editing himself. The notorious control freak Cameron can’t be told what to do, but you almost can’t really blame him when he constantly delivers some of the best visuals ever to play in a movie theatre. Cameron’s intense devotion to Pandora seamlessly translates onto the screen, making it easy to forgive the superfluous nature of his storytelling. This man never stops trying to prove he’s the greatest technical filmmaker currently making movies, often making a quite compelling case.

The climax of The Way of Water often feels like a composite of Titanic, The Abyss, and The Terminator, carrying on a bit too long to merely coast on its gravitas. There is a natural sense of audience fatigue after three hours of continuously jaw-dropping visuals, only for a finale to drag its feet toward a predictable conclusion, the only element of the film that’s not a major improvement on its predecessor. Cameron does succeed in making his film truly embody the meaning of the word epic, a movie to be survived on top of being enjoyed.

Skeptics who deem Avatar irrelevant will find plenty to scoff at in The Way of Water. The thirteen-year wait produced one of the most beautiful movies of all time, a feat of tremendous ingenuity, especially regarding underwater motion capture technology. There is a genuine thrill to watching such spectacular imagery on the screen, dazzling cinematography that reminds us all of this medium’s tremendous power when operating on all cylinders. The underwhelming narrative can’t detract too much from the joy of watching Cameron play with his craft. If only more blockbusters could aim for the stars in such a determined fashion.

Monday

12

December 2022

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COMMENTS

Classic Film: Le Bonheur

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The unwritten rules of the social contract that governs humanity have long frowned upon the idea of polyamory, ignoring a key tenant that defines love in its infinite mystique. All the sonnets in the world that hoist up the potential of love to exist forever as undying, eternal flame forget that the beauty of love draws its power from the same impermanence that defines a flower or a poem. Marriage is a union entered into by two people, but it only takes one to alter the basic framework one might hope could govern their idea of a perfect life.

The 1965 French film Le Bonheur captures love on its idealistic precipice, a magnificent house of cards basking in its perfection right up to the moment when it all comes crashing down. François (Jean-Claude Drouot) enjoys a comfortable life working construction at his uncle’s company and a beautiful family. François loves his wife Thérèse (Claire Drouot) and their children dearly but starts to develop feelings for Émilie (Marie-France Boyer), an attractive young woman working at the local post office. François quickly begins a relationship with Émilie, never trying to hide the happiness he feels with his wife and family.

Director Agnès Varda takes great care with each frame of her lusciously shot film while presenting a nuanced perspective on polyamory that eschews the pearl-clutching ethics of non-monogamy that consumes far too many narratives on the subject. Varda isn’t particularly interested in explaining why François, with his wonderful life and wonderful wife, would pursue a course outside his marriage that could put of all that in jeopardy. Plenty of people struggle with the idea that some hearts long for more love than one partner could provide, but Le Bonheur accepts that basic reality while acknowledging that not everyone is built that way.

Working opposite his real-life wife, Jean-Claude Drouot portrays François in a relentlessly upbeat manner, practically challenging the audience to feel anything other than joy at his good fortune. Even as the film takes a more tragic turn, Varda insulates her protagonist from undue accusations of treachery. Le Bonheur never pits Thérèse or Émilie against each other, dispensing with the tired love-triangle trope in favor of a more potent reality. Every adult in the film possesses full agency over their own actions. There are no heroes and villains in the game of love. The Mozart-heavy score underlies this point quite well through its melodic depth that delivers emotions that are hard to put in a box.

Society has often scoffed at love that exists outside the normal parameters of convention, whether homosexual, interracial or ethically non-monogamous. It’s easy to judge people who make decisions outside of their own wants or desires. Varda is solely interested in crafting a narrative that dares its viewers not to shake their fists at her characters. One person’s utopia could be another person’s nightmare. Our hearts all have their own individual needs that others may not understand.

Varda throws shade at the idea of a perfect life. Love is not a programmable equation. The heart wants what it wants, even when that doesn’t make any sense to anyone around us. Le Bonheur dazzles with its gorgeous cinematography, but its narrative packs a quiet punch that doesn’t quite hit you until you start to try and unpack all the themes that Varda stuffed into her brisk 80-minute runtime. Sometimes people do bad things for reasons that are neither good nor bad. Life is messy.

Monday

28

November 2022

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COMMENTS

Hadestown celebrates the impermanence of joy against the tides of capitalism

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There is a certain false comfort that modern storytelling aims to provide its audiences. We embrace happy endings not necessarily because we believe that love conquers all or that individual people can beat back the tides of fate or capitalism’s all-encompassing clutches, but because it’s nice to dream that we could. The somber parting emotions that tragedies leave us with at their conclusions can often supersede the joys of the journey that the narrative exists to illustrate.

The musical Hadestown captures the essence of this dynamic perfectly in one of its first act numbers. In the middle of the song “Livin’ it up on the top,” Orpheus raises a toast, “To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now.” The play intertwines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with the romance between Hades and Persephone, dueling storylines that compete for attention in a manner that leaves the former pairing little time for an organic courtship, but that’s also part of the beauty of their story. Too many people struggle with the distance between their grandiose dreams and the reality that consumes their present.

Hadestown’s Orpheus is not an epic hero. He is a charming starving artist, the kind of pretty face who can win you over with his smile and his song, without any existing infrastructure to sustain a life beyond pheromones alone. Eurydice quickly learns that the beauty of spring is not built to survive the brutality of winter. Hades, king of the underworld, functions in the role of antagonist with an easily presentable defense against his own villainy. Eurydice consents to an eternity of indentured servitude not through Hades’ lies or deception, but largely because she is hungry and Orpheus cannot provide sustenance for the body as well as he can illuminate the soul with his song.

Capitalism is the true villain of Hadestown. Hades is not a soulless monster, himself open to the charms of Persephone to remind him of the man he used to be before time stripped him of everything besides the carnal urge to propel the means of production through his factory. America’s entire financial structure is built on an identical premise to Hades’ trial presented to Orpheus, the illusion of choice that covers up the near-impossibility of success.

Each and every day, banks hand out predatory loans to children not even old enough to buy a beer, promising tomorrows no one will ever see under the weight of the student debt they’ll spend a lifetime drowning in. The fantasy that capitalism tries to sell is the idea of agency, a dream of tomorrow hidden beyond the perpetually moving goalposts. Orpheus and Eurydice operated on two different wavelengths, reality and the dream forced to confront their own incompatibility.

Love does not conquer all. Love is not permanent, but a covenant forced to battle the demons of capitalism each and every day. The marching tides of capitalism wait for no one, not Orpheus, not you. Countless souls who dream of a better tomorrow lose that fight as their bodies and souls are depleted in service to the means of production. The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice remains as timely as ever, love taking its best shot against the machine and coming up just short. You can muster up all the wind at your back, the magic and beauty lining up perfectly in your favor, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

The kind of joy that tragedy offers often requires a harder road to travel. One could writhe in frustration at how close Orpheus and Eurydice came to eternal happiness, in doing so overlooking the simpler beauty in the time that did belong to them. Art does not derive its use value by capitalism’s criteria, but through the beauty in its crafting and its execution. Hadestown presents Orpheus and Eurydice’s love in a timespan more comparable to a one night stand than eternity, but there’s great magic to be found in the embrace of the present, even when facing the reality that nothing lasts forever. 

Tuesday

15

November 2022

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The Crown wallows in an annus horribilis of its own making

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The general logic behind rotating the cast of The Crown every two seasons was to give the show a chance to cover the spread of major events in the Royal Family across the long and storied reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The transition in practice is a bit clunkier, with the need to reacquaint the audience with the characters gunking up the narrative flow of the show. A further complication stems from the reality that The Crown is slowly creeping up on recent history, particularly one saga that’s been covered ad nauseam for the past few decades.

Season five centers its narrative on decay. The Crown is quite preoccupied with positioning the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia as a broader narrative for the downward trajectory of relevance for the Royal Family as a whole, a notion that might confuse viewers fresh off the triumphant Platinum Jubilee, as well as the global outpour of affection following the death of Her Majesty in September. The fairly rosy outlook for the monarchy was hardly a given in the midst of 1992’s infamous “annus horribilis,” which saw the breakdown of 75% of the Queen’s children’s marriages as well as a tragic fire in Windsor Castle.

The overabundance of doom and gloom illustrates season five’s predominant shortcoming, a textbook example of showing without telling. Bad things happen to the monarchy and the Queen (Imelda Staunton) is very sad about it. She loses her boat, her kids get divorced, and Diana is tricked into going on national television to pull back the curtains as to what an uncaring and unsympathetic family the Windsors really are. That’s kind of it. The Queen doesn’t really do anything other than mope and cling to the past, even with regard to her choices in cable television. 

Previous seasons of The Crown, particularly the third season, struggled with Her Majesty’s place in a narrative that often found her relatives far more interesting to depict. Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and Margaret (Leslie Manville), once primary focuses of the series, are reduced to idle background characters, the former seeing his primary arc consumed with carriage riding and a friendship with Penelope Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) that the show rather openly wishes was more than that. The Crown retains its contempt for the Queen Mother (Marcia Warren), one of the most interesting members of the family who’s been reduced to a window draping for the entire course of the series.

The Crown also refuses to let its fascination with the Duke of Windsor slip away, giving the long-dead former monarch an epilogue in the form of his valet Syndey Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), who later served Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) in his efforts to ingratiate himself to the Crown. Episode three perhaps best highlights the main issue for the season as a whole, a narrative so strapped for plotlines that it would dedicate a full episode to the father of the man who died in the same car crash that killed Princess Diana. Such screentime might have been better deployed to the Queen’s three other children. After a season of relative prominence, Anne (Claudia Harrison) is reduced to almost complete obscurity, while Andrew and Edward barely exist at all.

Unsurprisingly, season five dedicates much of its runtime to the end of the marriage between Charles (Dominic West) and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki). The biggest problem with this dynamic is the reality that the show brought upon itself. The irrevocable breakdown of the marriage was already defined throughout season four, leaving this season with little but the epilogue. There are interesting moments here and there in the saga, particularly toward Diana’s mindset heading into the Panaroma interview that was solicited under false pretenses, but there’s not enough meat here to carry a season. Debucki does a fabulous job as Diana, but she’s hardly given many moments to define the Princess of Wales as her own like Emma Corrin was able to manage.

West is perhaps in the most strenuous position among the leads, portraying the future King of England in the midst of his most unlikable era. Along with Pryce, West suffers from an inability to truly sink into the role, neither actor able to deliver an accent that sounds much like their subject. Charles is fundamentally correct in most of his concerns about the future of the monarchy, but nothing can change how insufferable and entitled he fundamentally comes across as. Late-season remarks by Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) lay out the challenges with Charles quite well.

The Crown spends its own annus horribilis oddly bored with itself, a meandering season without the passion it once evoked toward its privileged subjects. There’s nothing new to explore and nothing fresh to say about Diana and Charles. As much as stagnancy may have defined this chapter of the Royal Family, it’s hard to forgive the show’s exceedingly boring delivery. As an institution, The Crown will always have to deal with the “why” of monarchy, an existential moral question with real-world implications. As a show, The Crown might want to take a more deliberate approach to its own execution and present a better thesis for its own existence. 

Friday

11

November 2022

0

COMMENTS

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever pays tribute to Chadwick Boseman while setting its own course for the future

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The death of Chadwick Boseman left a void in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that can never be filled. The triumphs of the first Black Panther gave director Ryan Coogler an abundance of material to craft a follow-up that not only paid tribute to Boseman’s legacy, but built on the foundation he helped establish. The show must go on, not just for capitalism’s sake, but for the proletariat who were inspired by the original film’s mature themes that were far more substantive than typical Marvel fare.

Coogler’s most impressive achievement with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is his innate ability to give the narrative space to shape its own story while never losing sight of the grief at hand. The film starts off with T’Challa’s death, Shuri (Letitia Wright) unable to use her ample brilliance to save her brother’s life. A time jump moves the narrative up a year, where Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is struggling to contain the fallout of the events of Avengers: Infinity War, which revealed Wakanda’s vibranium supply to the rest of the world, America in particular uncomfortable with a world power possessing weapons out of its reach.

Phase Four has largely focused on elements of the world at large, previously unknown to the heavy hitters across the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an ocean of possibilities from the heavens or the broader multiverse. The ocean itself carries more than a few secrets, particularly with regard to one of Marvel’s oldest heroes/antiheroes/villains. Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) rules Talokan deep beneath the ocean, a civilization reliant on vibranium for basic necessities such as light itself. The comics have often pitted Wakanda and Talokan against each other, two isolated superpowers with vastly different governing ideologies.

Wakanda Forever never quite settles on a single figure to replace T’Challa’s position as the primary protagonist, instead relying on a combination of Romanda, Shuri, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) to carry the load. The ensemble dynamic works quite well for the narrative, though the mechanics of geopolitics cut quite a few corners to establish the conflict. Wright and Gurira’s chemistry does wonders for the film’s levity, delivering moments of much-needed humor. Shuri holds much of the film together, working marvelously off Namor and in some touching scenes, M’Baku (Winston Duke), building off the bonds established in the first film. Mejía is a superb Namor, embodying the underwater ruler’s signature cynicism while serving out the unenviable task of following Erik Kilmonger, the MCU’s best villain. 

Overstuffed is quickly becoming the default setting for Phase Four Marvel movies, with the last two cinematic releases spending large chunks of their runtimes meandering with uncertain senses of purposes. Coogler keeps his film focused throughout its 161-minute runtime, but the narrative does occasionally buckle under the weight of its lofty expectations. Newcomer Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) meshes instantly with the cast, largely occupying the position of Wakanda outsider that Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) possessed in the first film, but the scenes set in America felt a bit superfluous to all the other far more interesting stuff going on in the film. There’s little Coogler can do to mitigate the clunkiness that stems from the obvious setup for Williams’ upcoming Disney+ series Ironheart.

Oddly enough given its title, Wakanda never really gets its moment to shine in Wakanda Forever. Scenes shot in the country are largely limited to interior stages such as the throne room, along with a handful of sound stages that barely give a proper glimpse of the majestic cities. Absent is the sprawling beauty of the country’s landscape amply featured in both the first film and Infinity War. The special effects never quite give Talokan the same sense of awe and wonder, the cinematography unable to compensate for the film’s heavy use of green screens.

The fight scenes also leave more than a bit to be desired, an increasingly common trend across the MCU. Talokan’s beef with Wakanda is a much more interesting political discussion than a military conflict, but it wouldn’t be much of a Marvel movie without explosions. Coogler puts all the pieces together in a way that makes Wakanda Forever feel like more of an epic than its predecessor, even if the special effects don’t necessarily support that thesis.

Wakanda Forever could have easily succumbed to the weight of expectations dictated by forces outside of the artistic process. Coogler and the cast ensured that the film wouldn’t solely be defined by Boseman’s death or by obligations to set up the broader MCU. Wakanda Forever is a beautiful film that builds off its predecessor instead of merely mourning what could have been. What could have been a feature-length memorial service instead dared to rival the greatness of its predecessor. It might not surpass the quality of the first Black Panther, but Wakanda Forever is easily the best MCU film in years. 

Thursday

27

October 2022

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Dracula A.D. 1972

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Canons cannot be constructed contemporaneously, an academic construct that takes on a life of its own, even as plenty try to influence its narrative trajectory through the annals of time. Dracula A.D. 1972 was not a film crafted with careful regard to how its place in Hammer Horror lore might be viewed fifty years down the road. Few could have predicted that its leads Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would grow to become iconic figures in the broader genre, with extra attention given to the few releases where the pair appeared together. Legacy and inception serve two different masters, the latter understandably preoccupied with its present, unconcerned with how its overwhelming mediocrity might be perceived by future generations.

Dracula A.D. 1972 presents an interesting premise, taking its title character out of his accustomed period setting, at least in theory. Dracula (Lee) doesn’t really engage with the seventies at all, largely kept confined to a deconsecrated church that housed his resurrection proceedings. A group of bohemians gathered inside the decaying St. Bartolph’s Chruch, which conveniently housed the gravesite of Dracula’s iconic nemesis Lawrence Van Helsing (Cushing), to do drugs and maybe resurrect a long-dead vampire. Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), with a cringe-inducing last name that’s merely Dracula spelled backward, manages to succeed, though terrifying his hippie posse in the process. Among them is Van Helsing descendant Jessica (Stephanie Beacham), who lives with her grandfather Lorrimer (also Cushing), an occult expert.

The film largely follows the investigation of the death of Laura (Caroline Munro), killed by Dracula shortly after his resurrection. Inspector Murray (Michael Coles) enlists Lorrimer’s help to piece things together, while the hippies, unaware of Laura’s death, return to their nightclub for 1970s antics. The narrative never quite settles on a definitive lead, initially positioning Jessica as its clearest protagonist before later favoring the tandem of Lorrimer and Murray. Horror movies are not necessarily known for their character development, but the film never makes much of an effort to get its audience to care about a single one of these characters.

Much of Dracula A.D. 1972’s shortcomings can be blamed on its failure to deliver an adequate follow-up sequence to the excellent 1958 Dracula that first paired Lee and Cushing. The film opens with an interesting 1872 battle sequence between Dracula and Lawrence, hinting at an eventual showdown between Dracula and Lorrimer, that never quite comes to fruition. Lee and Cushing barely share the screen together, a shortcoming that sinks the entire experience far more than its forgivable campy aesthetics.

Lee and Cushing, two of Hammer Horror’s most iconic talents, appeared opposite each other three times in Dracula films. Dracula A.D. 1972 fails to recognize its best asset, keeping the two apart for no apparent reason, a wasted opportunity to add to the rich Hammer Horror canon. The then-modernity of the narrative could’ve aged remarkably well over time, if the film had done the basic work of crafting a passable story. Instead, the audience is handed a half-baked detective narrative spliced with some hippies, and its title character marginalized in a location sorely lacking the rich gothic beauty seen in Cushing and Lee’s original Dracula appearance.

Dracula A.D. 1972 could have been fun camp. Countless B-movies have been forgotten in time, but audiences fifty years down the road continue to engage with this turd because of its star power, hoping in vain for another showdown between two titans of the genre. The canon keeps Dracula A.D. 1972 relevant despite its tedious attempt at a narrative, lacking the confidence to elevate itself above the bare minimum required to call itself a film.

 

Monday

24

October 2022

2

COMMENTS

House of the Dragon delivers a gripping finale that brings its first season full circle.

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House of the Dragon headed into its first finale with one simple mandate. All the chaotic time-jumps and recastings that threw ample hurdles at an audience just trying to learn its characters’ names served the singular purpose of getting all the pieces in place for the main event, the last dance, to borrow a phrase from Michael Jordan’s documentary that saved America from boredom in the early days of Covid. Episode ten, appropriately titled “The Black Queen,” had to deliver a suitable rationale for letting a family squabble devolve into a realm-shattering war.

The absence of the Dragonstone crew from the previous episode embodied a broader problem for the show’s back half. Rhaenyra functioned early on as the closest thing to a definitive lead for House of the Dragon, lacking a clear counterpart like the dynamic between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, the ice and fire. House of the Dragon had to clear over a decade of backstory before it could introduce characters like Aegon and Aemond, vital figures for the rest of the events of the series. “The Black Queen” gave the show a chance to come full circle, resolidifying Rhaenyra as the emotional core of the series.

Emma D’Arcy showed off their range repeatedly throughout the episode, Rhaenyra contending with the deaths of her father, stillborn daughter, and second son all while preparing for war in the infancy of her reign. Rhaenyra’s coronation was easily the most moving scene of the season. The acting, score, and cinematography demonstrated the Westerosi sense of awe and wonder at its best, a high point for the entire franchise. Matt Smith beautifully captured the reverence that Daemon holds for his wife, even as he bristles with restraints on his appetite for control.

The episode did highlight the show’s broader disconnect toward how its own characters might be received over the course of its sprawling, chaotic season. The defection of Kingsguard member Ser Erryk Cargyll delivered an emotional moment when he revealed the crown he spent much of the previous episode acquiring, putting himself in opposition to his brother Arryk. There’s easy sympathy to be had in the idea of twin brothers going to war against each other, but Erryk and Arryk have received such little screen time that it’s hard to care much about them as characters.

A similar predicament befalls the scene between Corys Velaryon and Rhaenys Targaryen, the former lamenting the current state of his family. House Velaryon has had a mess of a season, with plotlines such as Corys’ effort to marry his prepubescent daughter to an old man, the marriage of his closeted homosexual son to Rhaenyra, and the execution of his younger brother for stating the blatantly obvious reality that his grandchildren from that marriage did not possess an ounce of Velaryon blood. It’s hard to take House Velaryon seriously when the show remains so hellbent on making them the patsy for every storied Westerosi pastime such as incest and adultery.

Anyone who’s read the novellas that make up Fire and Blood would be excited for Lucerys’ ill-advised trip to Storm’s End, a plan so stupid that House of the Dragon wisely chose not to spend much time explaining it. After an extended sequence where Daemon hurled excessive amounts of exposition into Westerosi geography, the show wisely didn’t try to explain Rhaenyra’s senseless decision to send her young children as envoys to anyone other than reliable allies. Lucerys did not really travel to earn the support of House Baratheon, but to get killed by his uncle, giving his mother a worthy excuse to go to war against the Green’s.

Lucerys didn’t make much of an impression in his limited screen time, but Ewan Mitchell seized every opportunity to endear Aemond to the audience. The beautiful sequence of the behemoth Vhagar chasing down the much smaller Arrax represented some of the best special effects we’ve seen from either House of the Dragon or its predecessor. The audience doesn’t need to care that a young boy was senselessly murdered, not when his uncle is the far more compelling character.

House of the Dragon concludes its first season on an extremely high note. It is more than fair to acknowledge the reality that this season would have worked better with two or three additional episodes given the amount of ground it covered. Ten episodes is an arbitrary number, and the cost is hardly a concern for a flagship HBO offering.

The highs of “The Black Queen” ultimately demonstrate House of the Dragon’s ability to stick the landing. Things may have been rushed, but the show delivered in its efforts to set the stage for the dance. Time will provide a better rubric to evaluate the pacing issues throughout the season, but the show did a fantastic job establishing the stakes of its premise.

Saturday

22

October 2022

2

COMMENTS

Black Adam can’t overcome its atrocious screenplay

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Part of the beauty of the Justice Society of America in the nearly forty years since the genre-defining comic book crossover event “Crisis on Infinite Earths” erased their home planet Earth-2, itself largely a creation designed to differentiate older Golden Age heroes from their more modern Silver Age counterparts, was the way that the team came together to fight the good fight even as the world had largely passed them by. There’s something inherently relatable in watching more obscure, less powerful heroes battle back the tides of time and their own declining relevance. Ironically, given the frantic explosion-laden extravaganza that defines Black Adam’s attempt at a narrative, the JSA represented a quieter time for superhero storytelling.

Superhero filmmaking has come to embrace the obscure, making household names of characters such as the Peacemaker or the Guardians of the Galaxy that few people outside of diehard comic fans would have heard of just ten years ago. Characters like Black Adam and the JSA don’t completely fit under this bill, having achieved mainstream success back in the 1940s, but the idea that Shazam/Captain Marvel’s archnemesis’ live-action debut would come through a solo effort lacking Billy Batson entirely is still a bit hard to believe. The champion of Kahndaq has straddled the lines between villain and antihero for years, a fascinating, sly figure ripe for the greying morality of the post-9/11 era.

Dwayne Johnson has largely avoided villain-type roles throughout his career. His approach to Black Adam displays a puzzling amount of apprehension toward playing an antihero as well. The Kahndaq that Teth-Adam is awakened into is occupied by a force called the Intergang, which the film essentially presents as a Blackwater-type oppressive military force with an ill-defined mandate in the complex geopolitics of the Middle East. Leaning heavily into antipathy, Johnson’s best effort to sell Adam’s reluctance to rid the Intergang with a snap of the finger is the fact that he’s been asleep too long to care anymore, a lazy excuse indicative of Black Adam’s larger shortcomings as a film.

Black Adam squanders the DCEU’s meatiest moral quandary with an atrocious script hellbent on saying absolutely nothing interesting about its narrative or stacked roster of characters. It’s quite astonishing how boring this movie really is. Johnson’s wooden performance is largely a hodgepodge of the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax the Destroyer mixed with T2-era Terminator, a god with too much power that sucks the soul out of his film.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has no idea how to balance the film’s large cast of characters. The rapport between the JSA is established at breakneck speed, veterans Hawkman (Aldis Hodge) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) are joined by newcomers Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), an awkward team dynamic, especially in a movie serving as an origin story to a completely different character. Black Adam spends much of the film alongside his liberators, Adrianna (Sarah Shahi), her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), and brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), a bloated collection of protagonists that leaves little room for the film’s breathtakingly underwhelming villain.

The humor in the film is largely a derivative mess, Johnson stumbling over his badly written lines whenever he tries to crack a joke. Brosnan is the only actor present with an understanding of the comedy he’s expected to deliver. Hodge delivers the best performance of the film, working quite well off Johnson and Brosnan, though the film suffers from its emotional overreliance on Carter Hall in a narrative that’s supposed to be Black Adam’s moment to shine. The decent CGI is rendered moot by the lifeless fight choreography, a further waste of Johnson’s immense talents as one of the most dynamic performers in the history of professional wrestling.

The politics of Kahndaq are the film’s biggest failing. The narrative comes close to hinting that it wants to take a side against America’s propagation of the military-industrial complex, a game of footsie that it never follows through on. Further puzzling the situation is the presence of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), whose efforts in service to the exact same cause were scrutinized in last year’s The Suicide Squad. There is not much difference between Waller’s antics in that movie and the Intergang here, not that anyone working at DC appears to notice or care. After years of Zack Snyder’s Ayn Rand ramblings soiling the DCEU, it’s a little disheartening to see such a waffling from a film that clearly understands its lead’s anti-imperialist ethos.

Black Adam is a disheartening failure for the DCEU. Johnson embodies the awe and wonder Black Adam evokes, but he doesn’t do any interesting with his subject. There’s nothing at the core of this film besides tropes and plot holes, a predictable third act that unravels the film’s earlier tight pacing. The JSA is brought to life with obvious love, though clearly established with the intention of setting up their own spinoff down the road.

It’s a sad kind of train wreck to watch. Words are easy things to write. We shouldn’t live in a world where expensive blockbusters are completely undone by atrocious screenplays. Black Adam has plenty of talent and first-rate special effects, neither of which can cover up just how bad this screenplay truly is. The studio executives should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this easy layup to go completely off the rails.

Tuesday

18

October 2022

0

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House of the Dragon soars above its vacuous source material

Written by , Posted in Blog, Game of Thrones, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

House of the Dragon may very well be the most expensive television show ever born out of a procrastination project. Largely based on the novella The Princess and the Queen and its prequel The Rogue Prince, published originally in the anthologies Dangerous Women and Rogues respectively, both edited by George R.R. Martin and his late friend Gardner Dozois, the depiction of the Dance of the Dragons was less a fully realized world than a side project by an author hellbent on doing anything other than finishing The Winds of Winter. The repackaging of said novellas along with some other material as Fire and Blood gives the whole project a sense of grandeur that covers up what’s largely a shameless cash grab by Martin’s publisher, understandably thirsty for some new Westeros content.

The main books in A Song of Ice and Fire presented their chapters through varying point-of-view characters, giving the readers an intimate first-hand perspective into the people we’d grown to love and hate, sometimes both. The novellas that make up House of the Dragon were presented through the lens of Archmaester Gyldayn, an elusive unreliable narrator. The execution of the text put a fair bit of distance between such legendary figures in Westerosi lore as Daemon and Aemond Targaryen, and the audience gobbling up these morsels of story. House of the Dragon has far less concrete substance to work with than its predecessor Game of Thrones.

 Part of the beauty of Thrones was the show’s need to juggle seemingly countless strands of plot within its ten-episode seasons. Fans scoured the opening credits to see which characters would appear in the episodes, screen time serving as the ultimate limited commodity. House of the Dragon couldn’t be more different, with a limited cast of characters predominantly set in King’s Landing. Without the benefits of Thrones’ frequent changes in scenery, HotD has had to double down on the gritty mechanics of television storytelling to fuel its narrative, wisely sparsely deploying its greatest asset in the realm of spectacle, the titular dragons that prompted HBO to favor this narrative over competing spin-off concepts.

House of the Dragon is less a Game of Thrones spinoff than a Westerosi adaptation of Succession, another HBO crown jewel. Like Succession, HotD features a large family wielding capitalism’s most nepotistic instincts in service to selfish goals no reasonable human being should care about. Television doesn’t need to care about right or wrong. It’s fun to watch attractive bad people doing naughty things. HotD isn’t an existential fight for survival against unthinkable evil like Game of Thrones, but a petty family squabble between people with the fantasy equivalent of nuclear weapons.

Showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik pulled off an immensely impressive feat with season one. House of the Dragon lacks practically every defining attribute that made its predecessor great, but the steady narrative pacing and first-rate acting allowed the show to succeed on its own merits independent of the broader spectacle. The show managed to get its audience invested in characters even amid a clunky time jump that saw two of its leads, both its princess and its queen, recast midway through the season.

The early first-rate performances by Milly Alcock and Emily Care as Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower might have presented a lot of problems for Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, tagging in midway through in a confusing narrative with a cast of characters with oddly similar names. House of the Dragon is the rare kind of show where you actually feel for the characters without necessarily needing to identify them all. The legend of Daemon Targaryen manifests itself through Matt Smith’s uncannily minimalistic performance, commanding all the attention in a room with a single smirk.

One doesn’t need to pick a side between the “Greens” and the “Blacks” to feel for the patriarch ushering in his own family’s demise. King Viserys Targaryen slowly withers away over the course of the season, but Paddy Considine delivers every line with the grief of a dying man faced with a horde of relatives who hate each other. It’s surprisingly easy to relate to this collection of selfish incestuous royals and the oligarchs who feed off their scraps.

Unlike its predecessor, the audience can tune into House of the Dragon knowing how all of this is going to end, who’s going to kill who, and who’s going to lose an eye for implying their cousins are bastards. There is a surprising level of dramatic tension for a show without the benefit of natural suspense. HotD is a lot slower than its predecessor, but there’s ample beauty to be found in the ways that the cast manages to bring its meager source material to life. Game of Thrones was a great show based on a great series of books. HotD is a great show based off Martin’s various procrastination musings thoroughly content with their own mediocrity. The latter is unlikely to leave a lasting impression on popular culture, but it might end up being the more impressive piece of work when all of this is said and done.