Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Pop Culture Archive

Wednesday

14

October 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Vow peels back the murky, deeply unsettling world of NXIVM

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Everything about NXIVM and its “vanguard” Keith Raniere screams “cult.” From the bizarre sashes, to the late-night volleyball games, to the endless money-suck of classes for their “Executive Success Programs,” the red flags seem pretty damn obvious to any reasonable outsider. Over the course of nine episodes, HBO’s docuseries The Vow peels back the layers to explain how this con took hold of so many lives over the course of nearly twenty years.

NXIVM (pronounced “nex-e-um”) is a complex organization, a notion perhaps best represented by its confusing name. Its surface level operations focus on courses in the vein of “awareness training,” the kind of stuff that appeals to those who fuel the billion-dollar self-help industry. For those seeking community, NXIVM functioned in essentially the same role as a church. Deep beneath NXIVM’s surface are its subgroups, including DOS, which blackmailed and branded women, the primary driver that led to Raniere’s 2017 arrest.

The Vow succinctly explains the “how” and the “why” behind NXIVM’s success, an organization largely bankrolled by Seagram’s heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman. Dissenters were frequently met with various legal threats, providing extensive cover for Raniere’s various cons. As loathsome as Raniere appears, a scraggly looking figure whose sense of style doesn’t appear to evolved past his freshman year of college, it is easy to see the appeal of his snake oil strategy to unsuspecting souls.

Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujam do an excellent job balancing the many pieces of NXIVM. The “sex cult” allegations are by far the most salacious and interesting to see on screen, but the saga of this Albany clique with outposts in Mexico and Canada goes far deeper than that. It is perhaps impossible to calculate the damage caused by NXIVM, from the financial ruin to the emotional turmoil. The series paints with a broad brush, translating the complex theories in an easily digestible manner.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Vow draws its protagonists from the crop of people involved in the film industry who were lured into NXIVM’s orbit. Former members Mark Vicente, a filmmaker, and Sarah Edmondson, an actress, provide invaluable first-person perspectives. Amer and Noujam center much of their narrative on Catherine Oxenberg of Dynasty fame, whose daughter India was deeply involved in DOS right up to Raniere’s arrest.

Part of what makes The Vow so compelling is its use of extensive archival footage from NXIVM’s history, much of it shot by Vicente before he turned on the group. Raniere’s obsession with recording his entire existence backfired in this regard, allowing him to be featured extensively without the agency of his own intentions. One gets the impression that the mere existence of the series must be driving Raniere insane as he currently awaits sentencing after guilty verdicts on multiple charges.

The participation of Vicente and Edmondson, the latter of whom ran the Vancouver branch and describes herself as a former top “earner” within NXIVM, creates an interesting moral quandary that the filmmakers approach with delicate hands. Occupying leadership positions for so long within the company produces a natural sense of responsibility. It is fair to wonder just how guilty either are, an issue that The Vow nuzzles up toward without ever really confronting head on.

Maybe it didn’t need to. Largely shot before Raniere’s arrest in 2017, it is fair to acknowledge the lack of distance between the subjects and their traumatizing events. The series takes a hands-off approach as Vicente grapples with his own guilt, a moving display of emotion that communicates the sense that this is something he’ll never truly recover from.

The same holds true for Edmondson, branded for life with this initials of Raniere and Smallville actress Allison Mack. How much of her victimhood is negated by her leadership role, which encouraged countless people to spend their life-savings on junk courses taught by sexual predators? The Vow has no idea how to gauge this question, perhaps only faltering a bit in choosing to celebrate its leads as heroes. There are no easy answers here. It’s tempting to write off chunks as PR reclamation projects, but perhaps that action isn’t wholly unwarranted either.

Nobody sets out to join a cult, a notion presented many times over the course of the series. The Vow provides an illuminating front row seat to the unimaginable, navigating the murky waters of a cult with dignity toward its subjects. Maybe there aren’t any real heroes here besides Oxenberg, who’s quest to save her daughter provides The Vow’s most emotionally rewarding journey.

Several subjects point out that there was good in NXIVM, even in its monster of a founder. One should not be faulted for not wishing to bother thinking about whether or not Raniere did any good in his life. The sum of his existence will always lie in the red. For the rest, redemption is a long road, one started by the actions displayed in the series. It is important to believe in redemption, the kind of saving grace that affords good people an opportunity for another chapter.

There is tremendous value in hearing Vicente and Edmondson’s story, even if you remain a bit unsure what to think of them after the dust starts to settle. The recent nature of the whole NXIVM saga suggests the story is far from over. For now, The Vow encourages its audience to see the complexity in the humanity presented on screen.

The entire nine-episode series was screened for review.

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Monday

5

October 2020

0

COMMENTS

Statement on FOX LA’s Anti-Transgender Conduct

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

Over the past weekend, I broke the story that a Trump campaign flag was flying at the Long Beach City Police headquarters. The news was picked up by practically every major local outlet, including affiliates for NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox, as well as the LA Times and the LAist. I appeared on camera for the NBC4 Nightly News and FOX 11 LA.

FOX LA reporter Rick Lozano filmed me and my partner outside the Long Beach Police Department for about half hour for the news clip, repeatedly violating basic social distance guidelines as he pressured me to AirDrop photos that I’d already agreed to text from a safe distance.

More egregiously, Rick repeatedly misgendered me on air, even after identifying me as a transgender woman. Rick also repeatedly referred to me as “Thomas Malone,” even as a news chyron listed me correctly.

As a post-operative transsexual with two male names, I know the unique challenges that my situation presents. Whenever I do press, I repeatedly make this clarification known to prevent such cringey scenarios. Rick Lozano knew my pronouns. He deliberately chose to ignore them.

The news desk for FOX LA promptly hung up when I called to speak to a producer about this situation. I am calling for an apology from FOX LA and for disciplinary action to be taken against Rick Lozano.

Ian Thomas Malone (she/her)

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Thursday

24

September 2020

1

COMMENTS

Dead is a hilarious buddy cop comedy with a ton of heart

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The stoner comedy genre has taken a bit of a hit in the wake of marijuana’s broader mainstream acceptance. Gradually shedding its counter-cultural image, humor from such endeavors must rely less on shock value. The New Zealand-based comedy/horror film Dead puts forth a strong effort that subverts all genre expectations.

Dane “Marbles” Marbeck (Thomas Sainsbury) is a bit of a hapless stoner who concocts a potion made from pot and his late father’s neurological medication that allows him to see ghosts. One ghost, Tagg (Hayden J. Weal), a police officer who was recently murdered while pursuing a serial killer, presents Marbles with an opportunity to put his gifts to use. In exchange for helping him solve the case, Tagg offers Marbles his life insurance payout in order to buy his family farm from his mother (Jennifer Ward-Lealand).

Sainsbury and Weal, who also co-authored the screenplay, are quite compelling in the lead roles. There’s a depth to Marbles that elevates the character beyond the many stock personality types that can be found in the genre. He’s not just a sad dope, but a kind person with a sense of personal drive that’s easy to get behind. Also juggling director duties, Weal constantly challenges his audience with emotionally resonant material that’s quite funny without ever feeling like it’s playing for laughs.

A scene early on between Marbles and his father Ross (Michael Hurst) comes out of nowhere with its heartfelt sincerity, hardly the kind of approach common in a buddy cop stoner film. Weal packs quite a lot of character development in for Marbles and Tagg, giving their relationship a journey that feels unconstrained by the limits of a ninety-minute runtime. The pacing is superb.

Dead tackles LGBTQ issues quite well in an interesting dynamic. Sainsbury, openly gay, plays the straight Marbles while Weal, openly heterosexual, plays the openly gay Tagg. Tagg’s gayness is integral to the narrative, but the film takes an inclusive approach to its humor. It’s rather refreshing to watch a film where the LGBTQ community actually feels in on the jokes.

The New Zealand landscape is absolutely beautiful. Much of Dead is filmed outdoors, giving global audiences a chance to experience the country, particularly valuable in the midst of a pandemic. While clearly not a big budget endeavor, the strong production values and first-rate cast more than make the case for the film.

Dead is in Select Theaters and Virtual Cinemas on 9/25 and on Digital on 10/6

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Tuesday

15

September 2020

0

COMMENTS

Blackbird can’t overcome its sloppy filmmaking and lackluster screenplay

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The right to die is sadly still a controversial issue in much of the world. For many terminally ill people, the idea of going out on your own terms is far better than the alternative, a few extra weeks spent practically comatose hooked up to all sorts of machines. Agency is not a concept that should be removed from this equation.

Blackbird handles the subject of agency quite well. Lily (Susan Sarandon) chooses to end her life on a specific day, after a long battle with ALS. She and her husband Paul (Sam Neill), invite their family for one last weekend together before Paul delivers a concoction designed to bring her suffering to an end. With a stacked supporting cast that includes Kate Winslet, Mia Wasikowska, and Rainn Wilson, you’d expect the film to tackle the subject matter with the level of grace that it deserves.

Unfortunately, Blackbird is a mess almost straight from the get-go. Director Roger Michell crafts the film like a stage play, using extensive wide shots in the majority of the film’s first half. The camera often remains fixed for full scenes, showcasing rooms of the house essentially from the perspective of a security camera. There’s some initial novelty in the idea of making the audience feel like a wallflower, but the whole approach is clunky and distracting.

Despite the talent involved, Michell essentially kneecaps his cast by restricting the audience’s access to them. You can hear the words coming out of the characters’ mouths, but often you can’t see their expressions. If he truly wanted to mirror the stage, he made the rather puzzling decision to place the audience in the back row.

Worst of all, Michell conveys the wrong message with his stagnant camera. There’s a scene between Wasikowska and Winslet early on where they’re preparing a guest room. The conversation is to some degree meant to take a back seat to their actions, possibly a commentary on mundane chores in the face of imminent tragedy. Instead, the whole sequence leaves you envious of the characters, lost in something other than this boring mess.

What makes this whole dynamic even more confusing is that Michell essentially abandons this approach halfway through. Ensemble scenes in the back half feature plenty of close-ups. It’s as if he realized that the early scenes weren’t working and decided to call an audible, without going back to fix his mistakes.

Blackbird does an absolutely terrible job of conveying the severity of Lily’s illness. There is talk of her not being able to move her right hand, though she’s shown several times to have mobility, occasionally when Sarandon’s left arm is the one left still. Anyone familiar with ALS might find that this portrayal leaves quite a lot to be desired. A scene meant to convey her illness features Lily dropping a wine glass, except the whole setup is pretty outlandish.

Lily is shown sitting in a chair eating a piece of cake off a plate on her lap, with no side table in sight. It would seem practically impossible for anyone, terminally ill or not, to eat the cake while holding a wine glass. The audience is supposed to take this moment as a sign that she should be put out of her misery, but it’s so lazy and careless that the whole sequence earns little more than an eye-roll.

The screenplay is very bad. Early on, some of the awkward small talk seems designed to capture the spirit of the moment. As the narrative meanders along, it’s clear that the mediocrity wasn’t intentional. The sloppiness grows tiresome after a while. There’s a sequence where Winslet’s Jennifer asks for gin, only to be immediately handed a glass of wine. Some of this stuff could be forgiven, errors are a part of film, but sloppiness seems to define Michell’s approach to Blackbird.

The bad writing and directing puts a burden on the actors that none of them seem particularly eager to carry. Neill and Wilson in particular look bored out of their minds, phoning in their performances. Sarandon, Wasikowska and Winslet fair a bit better, though the material doesn’t give them much to work with.

Overburdened by a terrible screenplay and sloppy filmmaking, Blackbird makes a mess out of its sensitive material. People deserve to die with dignity, a surprisingly controversial issue in this modern age. Unfortunately, this film is not a good messenger.

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Wednesday

9

September 2020

0

COMMENTS

Mulan is a step in the right direction for Disney’s live action remakes

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Disney has an identity problem when it comes to their live-action slate. Efforts like The Lion King and Aladdin are too tethered to their source material to craft their own voices. Others such as Dumbo fall apart in the absence of any clear sense of purpose. Mulan removes the talking animals and musical numbers from the equation, plotting its own course through the ancient Chinese folklore.

Armed with a $200 million budget, a record-setting sum for a female director, Niki Caro crafts a visually breathtaking experience. The New Zealand landscape is beautiful, if not a bit distracting for a film set in China. CGI can bring practically any concept to life, but other Disney efforts have suffered from an over-reliance on green screens.

Mulan is competently acted, though it’s hard to say that any particular talent steals the show. Yifei Liu brings grace and a sense of determination to the title role, but she’s a bit too reserved. The absence of a confidant figure such as Mushu who is in on the ruse puts some strain on Liu’s ability to express the struggle at the core of the narrative.

Unlike it’s animated predecessor, Mulan puts its supernatural elements at the heart of the conflict. Mulan is basically turned into a superhero, exhibiting “chosen one”-type powers that diminish the feminist message that the film is trying to convey. Here, women can do anything, if one has special powers to dodge arrows and transform into animals.

The screenplay is pretty lackluster. While following the same basic trajectory of the source material, swapping out the Huns for Rouran warriors, the film never quite finds its heart. Mulan never really clicks with her fellow warriors, a fairly forgettable bunch who never receive much attention.

Caro largely keeps romance out of the equation, a refreshing dynamic for a Disney film. Mulan’s journey is one of the self, determined by her own actions rather than gauged in relation to the feelings of a man. It might have been interesting to see how the film addressed plotlines from the original in a world with larger LGBTQ equality, but Disney has demonstrated no grace in this area anyway.

Mulan is a flawed movie. The action sequences help buoy the film through its less compelling sequences. The brief attempts at humor do little than serve as reminders of how much heart Eddie Murphy brought to the original. With that in mind, it’s easier to forgive the lack of comedy. It seems absurd to think that a live-action effort could have ever surpassed its predecessor in this regard.

With Mulan, Disney shoots for more than a shot-for-shot remake of the past. The result is a little clunky at times, but compelling enough to justify its existence. Skeptics of Disney’s live-action genre may not be completely convinced, but Caro brings something fresh to the conversation. It is an entertaining film. That might not feel like high praise, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Friday

28

August 2020

0

COMMENTS

#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump is too unfocused, light on expert analysis

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The idea that Donald Trump has a mental disorder is nothing new. Five minutes spent watching him speak could give any reasonable person that impression. #Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump seeks to provide substance and depth to the claims about the state of our president’s fitness for office. For the first half hour or so, it succeeds on this front.

Director Dan Partland assembled an array of doctors and psychology experts who eloquently present the case for Trump’s malignant narcissism. Equally important, the doctors describe why these disorders pose a grave threat from the Oval Office. Politicians are often egomaniacs by nature, but the film effectively presents a case for why Trump is a unique threat to democracy.

There are many who disagree with the basic premise of the film, the idea that anyone could diagnose the president from his behavior on television. Such an endeavor falls into the very wheelhouse of armchair psychology. Partland examines the “Goldwater Rule,” that established the precedent against diagnosing public figures, while explaining how Trump exists apart from all of these norms. The deep dive is fascinating.

Trouble is, Partland does away with the psychology aspect of the narrative fairly early on, an odd dynamic considering the title of the film. Thirty minutes in, the film mostly trades its compelling psychology analysis in for a tired retread of the 2016 election featuring a collection of cable news pundits. Anthony Scaramucci, White House Communications Director for a mere eleven days and former Celebrity Big Brother contestant, pops in to share some perspectives as to why Trump won that bring nothing new to the table.

Similar interviews with MSNBC stalwarts such as Malcolm Nance, Richard Painter, and Bill Kristol repeat the same talking points they use on TV. Trump has upended every rule of Washington. We all know this. Painter and Kristol have nothing to offer as to the psychology of Donald Trump. So why are they here?

Many people have legitimate anxieties over Trump possessing the nuclear launch codes. It’s scary to think about. #Unfit spends a fair bit of time on this subject, without really presenting anything new. It is not particularly hard to explain why Trump shouldn’t be allowed to order nuclear strikes.

Partland is clearly positioning his film as a call to arms, encouraging people to vote Trump out of office with a film released in the home stretch of the 2020 election. #Unfit steps on its messaging by allowing people like Scaramucci time to defend Trump supporters from charges of racism, even as the film shows examples of broad racism at Trump rallies. None of this has anything to do with psychology.

#Unfit squanders its interesting premise by spending too much of its runtime on things that are totally unrelated to its thesis. As a persuasive piece, Partland robs his work of its impact by bloating its message. There could be some value in showing an undecided voter the first twenty minutes of this film. The subsequent hour undoes any of that good will.

 

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Thursday

27

August 2020

0

COMMENTS

Lingua Franca leaves too much on the table

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Transgender undocumented immigrants face unfathomable levels of discrimination. It is hard to imagine the feelings of terror and isolation that such a vulnerable population endures each and every day. Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca aims to provide a lens through which one can understand the unique plight that trans people experience within America’s broken immigration system.

Olivia (Sandoval) is a live-in caretaker for an elderly woman, Olga (Lynn Cohen) suffering from dementia. Olivia has a stable job and a supportive group of friends, who help her as she tries to find someone willing to marry her in order to obtain a green card. The arrival of Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) presents a romantic opportunity for Olivia, though complicated by Alex’s alcohol abuse.

Juggling screenwriting, directing, and acting duties, Sandoval impresses with her versatility. She’s a skilled director, delivering plenty of ambitious shots that heighten the experience in an otherwise fairly mundane indie film. She has a gift for drawing power from quiet moments.

Sandoval is less effective with her screenplay, which is pretty lackluster. The dialogue is wooden, with clunky exposition dumps. The acting isn’t much better, often quite inconsistent from scene to scene. The natural feel of her direction is not at all replicated through the performances.

Further frustrating is the heavy-handed nature of her approach. Sandoval depicts ICE officers arresting a person, capturing Olivia’s anxieties in real time. For whatever reason, Sandoval decides to include audio footage of Donald Trump and Joe Rogan that come across as extremely clunky in the shadow of her more powerful demonstrations. Lingua Franca repeatedly struggles to balance the show vs. tell dynamic.

Transphobia is a terrible thing that practically every trans person, certainly myself included, have experienced. Often, transphobia exists for no broader purpose than the bigotry itself. “The cruelty is the point,” is a line often used to explain the Trump administration’s policies.

Except in Lingua Franca, the transphobia serves a very specific purpose, integral to advancing the narrative. In one sequence, an addict friend of Alex’s rummages through Olivia’s drawers for valuables, in the process finding her passport with its unchanged gender marker. This action proves to be a vital catalyst for the plot, wielding transphobia as a weird plot device that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The narrative could have functioned exactly the same without it.

Lingua Franca isn’t a plot heavy film, but Sandoval uses practically every scene to drive the narrative instead of investing in her characters. Despite these efforts, she doesn’t really reveal a whole lot about either Olivia or Alex. We spend a fair bit of time with Alex, without gaining an understanding of whether he’s actually a good guy, robbing Olivia’s story of its full impact.The film loses all of its steam in the home stretch as a result of the haphazard investment in the leads.

Sandoval shines as a director, but Lingua Franca suffers from wooden performances and a screenplay that rarely knows where to concentrate its attention. There are pieces of a good story here, certainly a timely subject, but it never quite comes together. We can feel sympathy for Olivia, but as a fictional narrative it lacks the depth that a story like this one deserves.

 

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Thursday

20

August 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Blech Effect squanders its runtime with a one-note premise

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A film like The Blech Effect forces one to recognize the confines of the space that narratives occupy. Even documentaries that cover decades-long spans can only cover small snippets of a person’s life within a ninety-minute runtime. The impact of a documentary lies in its ability to capture the essence of its subject, not necessarily to paint a full portrait.

David Blech, once dubbed the “king of biotech,” could have been a billionaire, founding several companies within the field, including the makers of Cialis. Blech was involved with numerous controversies, eventually pleading guilty to two counts of criminal fraud, which earned him a lengthy prison sentence. Rather than be remembered as a man who helped cure cancer, Blech’s legacy is instead defined by his greed and criminal activity.

Director David Greenwald sets the film mostly in Blech’s large apartment in New York City, a luxurious space at odds with his dire financial situation. The narrative takes place before Blech served a thirty-month prison sentence. Understandably, Blech is very tense, worried about his family and the burden that his time in jail will have on his wife, left alone to care for their autistic son.

The film spends barely any time on Blech’s broader career. Greenwald is practically solely concerned with Blech being sad about having to go to jail. Blech’s gambling addiction receives a lot of attention, framing that helps paint him as fairly sympathetic. Trouble is, it’s not very interesting.

The Blech Effect spends its time throwing a lackluster pity party instead of offering any substantive insight into its subject’s career. There’s little time spent explaining biotech, leaving the impression that Blech is little more than a bad stock trader. Even the phrase “the Blech effect” isn’t really described all that well. Blech repeatedly talks about all the companies he started, never once stopping to consider how he might want to explain this shady-sounding business practice to a general audience. Anyone looking to learn more about David Blech as a person would be sorely disappointed.

What’s further puzzling is Greenwald’s efforts to garner sympathy for his subject. David is mildly likable, a father who clearly loves his son. So what? Greenwald lets Blech suggest that he’s only settling because he doesn’t have the resources to fight back without pushing back on this puzzling dynamic. The whole thing plays out like bad PR.

Greenwald essentially expects his audience to feel sympathy for a figure responsible for those annoying erectile dysfunction ads on cable television. Blech isn’t particularly remorseful, just sad. There is a fair degree of sympathy that one can extend to a figure who’s clearly an addict, but it’s hard to keep this up for an entire feature-length narrative.

To some extent, The Blech Effect might have value as a wake-up call for gambling addicts, but that idea is hampered by Blech’s singular status. David Blech has lost more money than most people will ever see in their lives. That premise could have made for an interesting documentary, but instead Greenwald spent his time panhandling for sympathy toward a disgraced, not all that remorseful, venture capitalist.

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Monday

17

August 2020

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: The Widow Couderc

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The thought of stumbling upon another family’s internal drama is quite frightening, yet this dynamic supplies much of the fodder for reality television. To watch others hurl proverbial feces at each other can evoke a certain desire to turn inward, to take stock of one’s own life and character. Decades away from any installments of The Real Housewives, 1971’s The Widow Couderc (original French title La veuve Couderc) strikes at the messy nature of family relationships.

Jean (Alain Delon) is a simple man trying to escape from prison. A quiet village next to a canal in Burgundy offers a place to lie low from the police, where Jean finds work in the service of an older woman named Tati (Simone Signoret). Tati doesn’t have much to call her own besides the roof over her head, land coveted by her late husband’s family. For Jean, caught between Tati and her young niece Félicie (Ottavia Piccolo), the feud invites the kind of attention he’d be wise to avoid.

Much of the film is fueled by the sexual tension between Delon and Signoret, two immensely talented actors who bring out the best in each other. Both are on the run in a way, Jean more literally than Tati, two souls desperate for more than what life has to offer. Neither one of them are particularly good people, both using Félicie as a foil for their worst instincts, but the film presents a compelling perspective on logic clashing with desire.

The sleepy canal town, with a manually operated drawbridge, functions as a town in its own right. Hardly a place anyone would wish to visit, the quiet community only comes alive when something dares to disrupt its peaceful existence. Property is fought over not because it’s valuable, but seemingly because there’s nothing else for one to occupy their time with. The drama fills the void.

The Widow Couderc is a contemplative narrative, one more concerned with raising questions than presenting answers. The acting is top notch, with Delon and Signoret in peak form. We often don’t get to pick the circumstances in our lives, only the way we choose to react. Decisions don’t always need to make sense, reflective of the humanity that guides us for better or for worse.

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Monday

17

August 2020

0

COMMENTS

Solid performances can’t buoy the muddled Tesla

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As a director, Michael Almereyda brings the right kind of energy to Tesla, recognizing the pitfalls of the biopic genre. Nikola Tesla is a figure whose contributions to electricity do not receive the widespread credit that others such as Thomas Edison enjoy. Almereyda subverts his subject, offering an irreverent depiction of Tesla that sadly is never quite as fun as it wants to be.

The film jumps around quite a bit through Tesla’s life, presented through the eyes of Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), who functions both as an ahistorical omniscient narrator and as a figure within the story. Tesla (Ethan Hawke) spends much of the film feuding with Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), though plenty of the time is spent on absurdist antics that hype up its protagonist’s perceived genius.

The acting is quite competent. Hawke plays the mad genius trope well. MacLachlan is a great cold-hearted rival destined to steal Tesla’s thunder. Hewson is cool and collected functioning as the narrator, guiding her audience through the history. There aren’t really any complaints to make, except that none of them really take the ball and run with it. Absent are any truly standout performances that might make the whole experience more memorable.

Hawke’s Tesla is more of an object of the film than its subject. Almereyda is less concerned with exploring Tesla as a person than he is exploring the idea of Tesla. Tesla rolls around on rollerblades, often in sets that look pretty modern, and it’s kind of cute to watch. For a little while.

The idea loses steam as Tesla struggles to present anything except for the blatantly obvious as its findings. Anyone reading a brief description of the film could probably accurately assume that Almereyda wants to present Tesla as an under-appreciated genius. In that regard, Tesla feels very safe as a narrative, despite presenting itself as an outlandish dark comedy.

What’s further unclear is what exactly Almereyda expects his audience to feel about Tesla. History can be corrected in a sense, but the experience isn’t compelling enough to entertain the kind of critical thinking Tesla’s legacy deserves once the credits have rolled. The whole ordeal evokes a shrug, and not much more.

Almereyda’s pitfalls are best represented as the narrative rollerblades toward its climax, using a karaoke sequence of a song that’s been played many times in film, in nearly identical settings. Tesla might be appealing to anyone who’s never seen an artsy movie, but too often it plays notes that have already been deployed in more compelling efforts. Here, it just looks kind of weak.

Tesla fails both as a biopic and as a work of entertainment. The absurdist sequences feel quite bland in the absence of any substance regarding Tesla’s life. Tesla may be a misunderstood genius, but Tesla doesn’t do a good job making anyone care. The whole thing may have worked better as a series of vignettes, with a shorter runtime better masking the absence of substance.

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