Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Pop Culture Archive

Saturday

16

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

Dead Still Is a Well-Crafted Period Drama with Plenty of Humor

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Pictures carry a degree of disposability in the modern era. Selfies on Instagram or Snapchat can disappear into the void not long after they’re taken. Set in Ireland during the 1880s, Acorn TV’s new drama Dead Still captures an era back when photographs were still a valuable commodity, a luxury that few could afford.

The show follows Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley), a memorial photographer who makes his living taking pictures of the recently deceased. A practitioner of the daguerreotype process, which uses steel plates to capture photographs, Blennerhasset finds himself in an era that is rapidly evolving, with cheaper and easier methods hitting the market. Accompanied by his niece, Nancy Vickers (Eileen O’Higgins), and gravedigger-turned-assistant, Conall Molloy (Kerr Logan), Brock goes about his business as a broader conspiracy involving the illicit photograph trade begins to ensnare him.

Dead Still owes its success to the delightful chemistry between Smiley, O’Higgins, and Logan. The three are absolutely marvelous to watch, elevating each other in practically every scene. Smiley brings an understated dry wit to Blennerhasset that’s well complemented by the more affectionate Nancy and Conall. The show makes a compelling case for why they’re drawn to each other, outcasts who find community in their rather peculiar line of work.

O’Higgins often sets the tone for the narrative, working wonders as the show’s sole primary female character. Nancy is maybe a bit more modern than period drama purists might like, but O’Higgins exudes such emotion in each scene that it’s practically impossible not to like the character. Dead Still looks like the kind of show that’s a lot of fun to work on, with a sense of joy that permeates through the screen.

The show finds a good balance between drama and comedy, frequently using humor to lighten the dark aesthetics. Blennerhasset’s coachman Cecil (Jimmy Smallhorne) is quite amusing, though Smallhorne brings a surprising amount of depth to the character. Dead Still makes great use of the Irish landscape, frequently giving the eyes plenty to feast on with its emphasis on old architecture.

The six-episode season mostly utilizes serialized storytelling, though the front half is a bit more self-contained. The narrative bites off a bit more than it can reasonably chew in six episodes, emphasizing world-building and character development over pacing of the narrative. This approach works pretty well, endearing the characters to the audience while leaving plenty of hunger for more. The season could’ve easily gone on for another four episodes.

Dead Still is way more fun than you’d expect from a period drama about photographing the recently deceased. The acting is superb and the production values are top notch. Acorn TV has a gem on its hands, hopefully one that has a second season in the works.

The entire six episode first season was screened for review.

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Friday

15

May 2020

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Dummy Is a Self-Indulgent Slog That’s Never as Funny as It Wants to Be

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There are countless shows about people who make shows. Hollywood’s longstanding fascination with itself occasionally produces a gem, but the self-indulgence often comes at a cost. For a show like Quibi’s Dummy, based on creator Cody Heller’s real-life relationship with Dan Harmon, narrative is often substituted for an endless parade of winks at its audience.

Dummy follows the adventures of a fictionalized Heller, played by Anna Kendrick, as she develops a budding friendship with Harmon’s (Donal Logue) sex doll, voiced by Meredith Hagner. The sex doll, which Cody names Barbara, serves as a kind of motivational force for her middling career as a writer. Most of the shortform episodes center around the rapport between Cody and Barbara, functioning kind of like a buddy comedy.

The humor is pretty lazy. There are a few scattered laughs to be had from listening to Barbara’s vulgar antics, but the routine wears thin after the first couple of episodes. Heller writes plenty of surface-level jokes about feminism and the MeToo movement that play too hard for shock value. Absent is any sense of deeper truths uncovered from this line of thinking.

Heller displays a weird fascination with the Bechdel test, producing several painfully pedantic takes on the concept. It’s fairly unclear what she’s trying to say about any of this other than the rather obvious point that women can in fact be bad feminists. These revelations are neither insightful nor amusing.

The Quibi format hardly does Dummy any favors. The first few episodes contain way too many conversations that feel like they’re playing at 1.5 times the normal speed. This might be more forgivable if it wasn’t an artificial mandate for a show that could in theory be as long as it wanted. The back half of the season does mostly rectify this problem.

The episode runtimes don’t exactly provide much time for character development. Kendrick does a satisfactory job as a foil to the zany sex doll, but Heller as a character lacks any sense of depth. She’s an unmotivated writer in LA who never loses sight of the good fortune that’s been handed to her as a result of her romantic partner. It is unclear why anyone would think that this is a good formula for a protagonist.

Dummy grinds its superficial meta humor into the ground, a shallow inside joke packaged as a television series. Even for devoted Harmon fans, it’s unclear who the target demographic for this show really is, besides maybe their extended families. The fact that Heller does seem fairly self-aware only makes the whole experience even more disappointing.

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Friday

15

May 2020

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Classic Film: For Ever Mozart

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Jean-Luc Godard spent much of the 60s crafting experimental films with limited mainstream appeal. Part of the fun of sitting down to watch a Godard is the feeling of experiencing the director grappling with his thoughts in real time. That kind of directorial approach doesn’t always work, but it’s often very entertaining to watch.

Godard’s 60s output possesses the added advantage of being crafted against the backdrop of its era, full of vibrant color schemes and fashion. There’s always plenty for the eyes, even if the mind has no idea what’s going on. In 1997’s For Ever Mozart, Godard returns to his earlier themes, albeit without the joys that buoyed his art at indecipherable moments.

The film is broken up into four parts, each introduced with its own name. One sequence sees actors auditioning for a film, frequently discarded after only uttering a few words. Another shows a hostage situation during the Bosnian war. There is some continuity in the sense that several of the actors appear in multiple parts, but the film hardly possesses anything resembling a narrative. One’s ability to describe things that look like a plot should not be mistaken to imply that there actually is a narrative.

The acting is stifled and bland. None of this can be blamed on the talent themselves, as it is fairly hard to imagine anyone making good work out of a painfully obtuse script with no obvious sense of purpose. There is nowhere for a performer to direct their energy.

Godard is rarely accessible, but For Ever Mozart is little more than foolish ramblings by a director who seems oddly bored by his musings. At some points, it looks like he’s trying to provide a commentary on the value of art. It could be true that art can’t save the world, but to draw that from this film is to give it credit that it woefully does not deserve.

The scenery in the second sequence is pleasant to look at, something to remember. The complete absence of narrative leaves little for the mind to latch onto it after the credits roll. Godard takes a couple swings at philosophical one-liners here and there, but nothing leaves a lasting impression.

For Ever Mozart is a big waste of time for anyone other than diehard Godard fans eager to complete his filmography. Even then, it hardly holds much value. There is no way this film would have been made if it weren’t for the name recognition of its director, a sad reflection on the medium.

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Thursday

14

May 2020

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Upload Is a Fun Binge with an Underwhelming Story

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Humanity has been telling tales of the after-life for as long as storytelling has existed. Amazon’s Upload builds on the seemingly all-encompassing nature of the Internet to provide an alternative form of heaven than the pearly gates. As one might imagine, its depiction of life after death is hardly full of angels and endless happiness.

After a tragic accident, Kevin (Robbie Amell) finds himself “uploaded” to the Lakeview community, the afterlife in the form of a digital upscale hotel and spa. The scenery is beautiful, but most of the amenities come with a charge, with real-life “angels” working on hand to make sure residents are happy, and spending plenty of money. Kevin’s purse strings are closely guarded by his still-living girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), but he finds comfort in the company of his angel Nora (Andy Allo), toward whom he begins to develop ill-advised feelings.

Upload has fun with its premise, presenting a haunting yet amusing take on the afterlife. Set in 2033, the world-building is pretty solid, rarely letting the narrative get bogged down in exposition. There isn’t a ton of suspension of disbelief required to get on board with its take on the not-so distant future.

Capitalism is the show’s real villain, tormenting the deceased by tying their fortunes to the purse strings of the living. The show has a lot of fun with this concept, though it’s one of the areas where the broader logistical concerns tend to surface. A few episodes handle this dynamic quite well, but it’s an issue that’s always present even when the narrative tries to kick it under the rug.

The first season does waste a fair bit of time on generic romantic plotlines that follow predictable paths. Kevin is a pretty bland protagonist, with Amell doing relatively little to endear his character to the audience. Allo fares better with Nora, the show’s most compelling character, especially when she’s out in the real world.

Refreshingly absent for the most part is the broader moral dilemma of a place like Lakeview. It’s hardly the kind of place one would want to see themselves confined to until the end of time, yet it’s easy to see the surface level appeal. The show never tries to sell its concept to the audience while also not exactly condemning its hellish version of “heaven.”

Upload leaves a lot to be desired on the storytelling front, but the acting and world-building make for a pleasant experience. With the show renewed for a second season, there are issues that will hopefully be addressed in its sophomore effort. While hardly revolutionary, Upload is an easy binge in these chaotic times.

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Thursday

14

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Un Flic

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Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film is a tough nut to crack. There are parts of Un Flic that feel oddly undeveloped, the product of a director less concerned with plot than the broader themes the narrative spends its time exploring. For a master of the medium, sometimes that’s okay.

The narrative follows a robbery and its aftermath. Simon (Richard Crenna) leads the gang in their efforts to carry out of their thievery while Detective Coleman (Alain Delon) works the case. At the center of their feud is Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), Simon’s mistress who flirts with Coleman. The story and character relationships often exist on two different planes, simultaneously distant and intimate.

The film’s great triumph is a lengthy heist sequence in the second half, where Simon boards a train via helicopter to rob a rival gang of their heroin. Melville pulls off a fantastic technical feat for a film made in 1972, using minimal dialogue while maintaining an intense level of suspense. For a director making his last feature, Un Flic would be worth a watch just for the craftsmanship.

While the heist sequence is the best part of the film, it does come at a broader cost to the narrative. Stealing heroin from a rival gang has practically nothing to do with Un Flic’s broader story. Taking a twenty-minute detour out of a hundred-minute runtime does hinder the character development quite a bit.

Melville creates a rather interesting dynamic where the film operates largely without a protagonist. Coleman appears too infrequently to fit the bill, a gruff man with practically no personality beyond Delon’s irresistible charm. Simon is sort of like an anti-hero, except Melville doesn’t really provide a reason to root for him.

Some of this is rational is explained through the film’s tagline, “The only feelings mankind has ever inspired in policemen are those of indifference and derision.” Coleman isn’t in pursuit of justice, a man who acts oddly cruel to a transgender woman for no apparent reason. He’s stoic without the obvious desire for justice that drives many detectives in film.

Melville concerns himself with very complex themes in Un Flic while keeping the narrative mostly at the surface. It’s not a particularly deep film, though the kind that’s bound to keep you thinking long after the credits roll. It is not Melville’s best work.

Narratives are tricky beast. There’s only so much time for a director to explore contemplative themes once considerations to story and character are given. Melville skimps on those in Un Flic in favor of headier ambitions. He doesn’t always succeed, but the film is worth watching if only to see a master of the craft at work with his thoughts.

 

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Saturday

9

May 2020

0

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World Cinema: Tomboy

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Gender nonconformity in children remains a highly controversial issue in the fight for transgender equality. Supporters of LGBTQ rights are often accused of wishing for the “transing” of children, putting aside the rather obvious point that all transgender adults were at one point, children themselves. Gender-affirming care is a proven method for alleviating gender dysphoria.

The 2011 film Tomboy features a young ten-year old child, assigned female at birth, named Laure (Zoé Héran) who adopts the identity of Mickäel as he plays with new friends in a small French town. Mickäel might be trans, a point the film leaves unclear. That clarity is not really all that important, as Mickäel would be too young for any kind of treatment other than a social transition, which makes up the bulk of the narrative.

Mickäel spends his summer playing with the local kids in his apartment building, successfully integrating himself into their social framework, even earning the romantic affections of his neighbor Lisa (Jeanne Disson). Mickäel lives a happy life, supported by his six-year-old sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) in a highly impressive performance by the young actress.

With school just around the horizon, Mickäel’s secret can’t stay safe forever. Director Céline Sciamma does an excellent job depicting the social dynamics of the young play group, crafting a quite compelling film with minimalist aesthetics. The film works really well for a while without much of a story, powered by some phenomenal acting.

Tomboy falls apart when it comes time to deal with the stakes at hand, an irresponsibly rushed third act that squanders the film’s ample goodwill. Films need conflict, but Sciamma doesn’t seem all that concerned with tackling the issues she presents to her audience so much as she looks eager to wrap the thing up. There’s so much depth to the family construct that goes totally ignored in favor of cheap sequences that play too hard for shock value.

Films obviously don’t need happy endings. Children can experience heartbreak and misery just as anyone else can. Sciamma plays fast and loose with her narrative in such a way that undercuts its beauty. The world is a cruel place, but there should be some semblance of an explanation for depicting such malice on screen. Sciamma throws it out there without bothering to explain or defend her film’s actions.

Whether Mickäel is trans is not really the point, though anyone looking to answer with a definitive no should look no further than a clay appendage inserted into one’s modified swimsuit. The child clearly displayed feelings of gender dysphoria. What comes after that really isn’t the point, as the film only covers brief snippets of Mickäel’s life.

The portion that we do get to see includes a lot of irresponsible parenting, a bizarre narrative decision. Sciamma clearly wants to explore gender diversity, but she’s completely careless in her approach. Tomboy is a well-crafted film, but one devoid of the kind of compassion desperately needed in these types of situations.

 

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Saturday

9

May 2020

0

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Batwoman’s First Season Is a Clunky Ride in Need of Work

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In many ways, Batwoman is the perfect member of the “Bat-fam” to adapt for the small screen. Created in 2006, the comic book version of Kate Kane operates without close to a century of history associated with her cousin Bruce Wayne. Unlike other associates such as Robin or Batgirl, Batwoman has never been the Dark Knight’s sidekick, treated as more of an equal when working alongside the Caped Crusader in arcs such as the post-Rebirth Detective Comics run.

As the marquee film franchise of the DC Comics lore, one would not expect the top tier villains of Gotham to make the kind of regular appearances in Batwoman that holds true for baddies like Lex Luthor or Zoom in the Arrowverse. Kate Kane maintains a healthy degree of independence from Bruce, a smart formula for a weekly television series. Even as Batman’s lengthy absence looms heavily over the narrative, Batwoman has done a fairly good job establishing itself on its own two feet.

Carving an identity independent of Batman is a vital step, but Batwoman has struggled with where to go from there. Like Bruce, Kate is a vigilante driven by tragedy. The reappearance of her long-presumed dead sister Alice, now a maniacal villain, has driven the bulk of the narrative for the show’s first season.

As a character, Alice is an important part of Kate’s story. As a regular presence on a weekly series, Alice is an intensely stifling presence on the narrative. Comic book supporting characters can come and go. Regular cast members need weekly screen time. Rachel Skarsten is one of the more compelling actors on the series, but Batwoman struggles to balance Alice’s arc with that of its titular character.

Ruby Rose hardly helps this dynamic. Her Kate Kane is a reactionary figure, a figure far better suited for a lone wolf than as a leader of a team. The Arrowverse relies on an ensemble formula that clashes with Batwoman’s aesthetics, something that Arrow itself needed time to figure out. Kate doesn’t want to let people in, but of course she’s going to build a group around her. None of this is particularly interesting to watch.

Alice might be Kate’s best sparring partner, but Batwoman’s relationship with her father is the most fascinating of her series’ lore. The show captures the essence of Kate and Jacob’s relationship pretty well, with Dougray Scott softening the rigid comic book character quite a bit. Batwoman desperately needs to figure out the Kane family dynamic, which drowns out practically everything else the show tries to do.

There are a few bright spots for the season. The supporting cast is pretty fun. As Luke Fox and Mary Hamilton, Camrus Johnson and Nicole Kang provide much needed levity, balancing out Rose’s monotonous acting. The show is the perfect vessel to eventually debut Fox’s Batwing for the first time in live action.

Batwoman’s sexuality has been a milestone for LGBTQ superhero representation. The episode “How Queer Everything Is Today!” did a masterful job addressing how a lesbian superhero is both a big deal and something that should also not be as noteworthy as it currently remains. Hopefully in the future this kind of revelation won’t seem like such a big deal, but for now it is most certainly something to celebrate.

Batwoman is a salvageable show, but the first season has been a bumpy ride to say the least. Plenty of series need time to figure themselves out. Of all the shows in the Arrowverse, only The Flash had an inaugural effort that can be safely described as great. Batwoman can be a family drama alongside its other ambitions, but it has to do a better job in balancing its many moving pieces.

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Friday

8

May 2020

0

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The Musical Treatment Works Well for a Charming Rebooted Valley Girl

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A film like 1983’s Valley Girl seems an obvious choice for the remake treatment. Somewhat complicating that proposition is the idea that practically every 80s homage that’s been crafted in the decades since its release has at least in part borrowed from the classic teen comedy. The 2020 version of Valley Girl is tasked with not only adapting its source material, but also distinguishing itself in a crowded very space.

The bulk of the 2020 Valley Girl is told via flashback, as an older Julie (Alicia Silverstone) fondly reflects on her younger self’s (Jessica Rothe) high school days, hanging out at the mall and practicing aerobics with her friends. With her daughter deciding between an abroad trip to Japan and the boy she’d be leaving behind, the 80s serve as a backdrop for Julie to demonstrate that she’s not as dated as some of the “Valleyspeak” the region popularized.

The big distinguisher between the remake and the original is the presence of many elaborate musical numbers set to covers of 80s classics such “Kids in America” and “I Melt with You.” Choreographed by Mandy Moore, the sequences work pretty well, even though the covers are pretty terrible, the kind of stuff you’d hear on Kidz Bop. The film makes practically no case for why the music should be there, except in the sense that it’s fun to see people dancing in vibrant colors.

A refresher on the derivative nature of the original Valley Girl’s narrative, which borrowed heavily from Romeo & Juliet might be helpful going in to the 2020 version. Remake or not, Julie falling for a guy, Randy (Josh Whitehouse), her parents don’t approve of is a fairly generic plot. Rothe and Whitehouse have pretty good chemistry, a romance that is more satisfactory than compelling.

Putting aside the fact that none of the cast look young enough to be in high school, they’re quite entertaining to watch. As Julie’s friend Stacey, Jessie Ennis gets the most time to shine out of the supporting bunch. Mae Whitman is a bit overqualified as Randy’s bandmate, but makes the most out of her limited screen time.

The big casting disappointment is Logan Paul, tasked with the role of antagonist as Julie’s jock boyfriend Mickey. Paul’s detestable public makes him perfect for the role of loathsome blowhard, but he’s simply not a very good actor. For the most part, Paul fails to make an impression, a missed opportunity for a bit of self-deprecation.

Valley Girl treats the 80s like an Instagram filter, a film without a single drop of originality. An unapologetically fun guilty pleasure that’s pretty perfect for light summer fare. People who actually grew up in the 80s will likely hate the tropes the film traffics in, but it’s pretty clear that this remake is designed more for millennials, the kind of people who knew who Logan Paul was before he started getting in trouble on the news. The presence of Silverstone, a 90s teen icon, probably doesn’t help much either, though she’s very fun in a bit role.

The 80s aesthetic also provides an unintended benefit. Set in an idyllic period before cell phones, Valley Girl doesn’t need to work social media into its narrative. Few films understand that less is more with regard to portraying technology on screen. Valley Girl feels distinctly modern in its delivery, a trait bound to anger nostalgic viewers but one that ends up working pretty well for a young audience. For a film using bright spandex and catchy covers to masquerade as a period piece, Valley Girl is actually a lot of fun.

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Thursday

7

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Orlando

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Virginia Woolf’s Orlando carries plenty of natural appeal for transgender people. What’s not to love about a gender-bending aristocrat who travels through time to confront history’s perplexing relationship toward women? Two years before Forrest Gump won plenty of awards using a similar premise, Sally Porter’s Orlando beautifully adapted Woolf’s material for screen.

As the titular Orlando, Tilda Swinton crafts a remarkable performance that tosses the notion of gender right out the window. Pure elegance, she moves about the screen confident in their sense of being, even if Orlando frequently finds themselves a fish out of water. Orlando is a sexual being who defies all notions of sexuality.

Swinton understands that the key to understanding Orlando as a character requires one to strip down every single conceived notion about gender. That kind of process is inherently contradictory, for none of us can discard our frames of reference. The act of trying is the point.

Porter brings Woolf’s imagery alive through the film’s elaborate costumes. The sight of Orlando exquisitely dressed in lace and frills with a palette of foundation, regardless of gender, provides a layer of subtext that the written word simply cannot provide. The aristocracy is a performance, a spectacle to be seen and delighted in.

There’s a line late in the film’s second act where a nude Orlando boldly professes, “Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex.” The eyes and the mind operate on two separate planes, seemingly in conflict with each other. The point is not to be equal, but to look at an individual beyond the stereotypes to see how women have been denied that basic sense of decency over the course of time.

Orlando is a story about agency. Women in England’s society lacked much to call their own, with little in the eye’s of the law to distinguish the entire sex from that of the deceased. Women were seen as little more as objects, muses to titillate the senses as long as they don’t step out of line. Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) is just about the one man in the film who understands this contradiction, though as a product of the status quo he struggles to introduce a satisfactory resolution that the Lady Orlando faces as a result of her change in sex.

Few films understand the value of gender as a spectacle better than Orlando. The elegant tapestry with which Porter paints is delightful to return to with each viewing. Many of the problems that Woolf first introduced almost a hundred years ago still remain, but the very act of engaging with these complex questions presents some optimism for a world where a person like Orlando could be embraced regardless of their gender.

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Wednesday

29

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: So Dark the Night

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Nobody likes to be told they’re too old for anything, let alone love. Finality has a way of sucking all the hope out of a soul, leaving little but the regrets of missed opportunities. Humanity needs something to live for.

So Dark the Night explores the mindset of Henri Cassin (Steven Geray), an aging Parisian detective on holiday in the countryside, where a young girl Nanette (Micheline Cheirel) becomes infatuated with his talents and sense of worldliness. The sudden death of Nanette and her boyfriend/betrothed wreaks havoc on the small town. Henri’s efforts to uncover the killer lead to shocking discoveries that bring about many questions as to the nature of human consciousness.

Director Joseph H. Lewis does a remarkable job crafting each scene, often relying on uncomfortable camera angles. Many shots are partially obstructed by various points off the inn, creating a sense of claustrophobia as Henri struggles to search for the truth. The audience is frequently made to feel like a fly on the wall from room to room, listening in on intimate conversations.

Geray carries the narrative with his performance as the awkward protagonist. Henri is a strange man, a gentleman with a pleasant demeanor who leaves you feeling more uncomfortable in each passing scene. He’s a hard figure to root for, without leaving any obvious reason why.

So Dark the Night is a brisk noir gem that meticulously builds suspense over the course of its short runtime. There are no subplots. Lewis weaves character development in on the fly, always with his eye on the mystery.

The payoff has grand ambitions in its depiction of mental health, perhaps a bit lofty for 1946. Whether its diagnoses are fair or not, the film presents plenty for its audience to chew on long after the credits have rolled. So Dark the Night is bound to make many uncomfortable, but fans of noir will find plenty to enjoy.

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