Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Pop Culture Archive

Wednesday

20

October 2021

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Classic Film: Halloween

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Horror movies, particularly those in the slasher genre, exude an aura of indifference with regard to their characters, many of whom exist simply to be killed by the film’s big scary villain. The audience is trained not to get too attached to anyone whose name wasn’t near the beginning of the credits, just as most narratives have plenty of secondary and tertiary characters who don’t play a role in the climax. Gruesome death is largely just a way to pass the time, some warm-up thrills before the big main event.

Many slasher films forget the importance of giving their audiences some morsel of a reason to care about the secondary characters designed to serve as cannon fodder, spending large portions of their runtimes treading water in between murders.  Halloween had different intentions. Carpenter’s meticulously crafted film doesn’t waste a single second, the gold standard of the slasher genre with its most effective score.

Halloween is an intimate film with few characters. Carpenter doesn’t spend much time exploring the backstories for Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), or Michael Myers (Nick Castle), understanding the inherent relatability of the stakes at hand. It’s not that there’s no time for frivolous backstory, but there’s no real need for it either. The gruesome nature of Myers’ villainy more than speaks for itself.

Carpenter can raise his audience’s heartbeat with a simple piano riff. Night or day, the sound of that melody takes hold of the senses, presenting the idea that anything could happen at any moment. Pleasance and Curtis, the latter making her cinematic debut, are top-notch, but Halloween is the rare film that could’ve coasted solely on the strength of its score.

Michael Myers is the very definition of evil, but Carpenter is careful not to saddle his villain with the bulk of the audience’s contempt. There is much reserved for the institutions that failed to safeguard the world from the boogeyman, including the hospital that failed to contain him and the police who didn’t take him seriously. Myers is not exactly a great example of the cover-up being worse than the crime, but Carpenter manages to spread the blame around.

What’s particularly refreshing about Halloween is the way that Carpenter’s fairly narrow scope feels simultaneously conclusive and open-ended. The bogeyman cannot be killed, not when Myers’ services are required for a dozen sequels. There should be no relief at the end of the narrative, yet Carpenter masterfully eases up on the pressure valve, providing a sense of closure where none should exist. For a genre often defined by low-budget direct-to-video releases, Halloween is a shining example of the power of the form when a master of the craft is behind the wheel.

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Sunday

17

October 2021

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New article for Little White Lies

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Ian wrote a personal essay on The Penguin, one of her favorite comic book characters, for Little White Lies. You can read the piece here: https://lwlies.com/articles/the-penguin-batman-danny-devito-trans/

 

 

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Thursday

14

October 2021

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Classic Film: Scream 2

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Sequels are not particularly well equipped to surpass their predecessors. Films are constantly forced to balance their narratives and characters within the confines of a feature-length runtime. Sequels have to do all of that, on top of introducing new characters and a narrative that appeals to fans of the original while also not feeling too derivative or too long in the process.

The existence of Scream 2 was a foregone conclusion, a natural progression for the slasher genre that loves nothing more than sequels. The biggest challenge for director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson is a simple fact that Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) puts so eloquently within the film itself. Sequels suck.

The original Scream took care to lay down the framework for a sequel effort, particularly with regard to Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), who Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) appeared to have wrongly implicated in her mother’s death. With Sidney, Randy, Cotton, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) returning, Scream 2 stood apart from practically all its slasher contemporaries as one of the few sequels to actually try and build off its predecessor’s story rather than simply cash in on its fame.

Craven almost surpasses the original Scream, a top-notch narrative that’s just a bit too overstuffed for its runtime. Scream 2 does a fabulous job building on Sidney, Dewey, and Gale, a return effort that never feels obligatory. The writing and acting are just as good as the first.

The confines of the slasher genre itself may have held back Scream 2 from being able to surpass Scream. Successful sequels such as The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, and Aliens all strongly deviated from the story structure of their predecessors. Aliens switched genres entirely, substituting out Ridley Scott’s suspense horror for Cameron’s action-heavy sequences. Scream 2 still fully belongs to the slasher genre, blunting its ability to top that which had already been done before.

While sequels are often derided as cash-grabs, Campbell, Cox, and Arquette each bring their A-game, approaching their characters with obvious love. The narrative does an excellent job showcasing the ramifications of the events of the first film, aside from some mild erasure of Dewey’s sister Tatum (Rose McGowan). Perpetually confronted by circumstances beyond her control, Sidney remains an awe-inspiring badass reluctant to cede agency over her life.

There is, maybe inevitably, a bit too much going on. Newcomers Derek Feldman (Jerry O’Connell) and Mickey Altieri (Timothy Olyphant) never really get a chance to make their mark. The narrative naturally can’t recreate the group dynamic of the first film, but even a rather long 120 minute runtime leaves too many strands of plot feeling unexplored.

Reported to have near-daily script rewrites, the whodunit is practically impossible to deduce. Repeat viewings only reveal morsels of clues, a stark departure from the first’s well-crafted mystery. The identity of the Ghostface is less important the second time around, the character growth of the core group serving as a much meatier core.

As Randy notes in one scene, sequels come with a higher body count, ostensibly doubling down on what the people want. Scream 2 features more deaths than its predecessor, but Craven isn’t simply playing for shock value. Ghostface’s spree is hardwired into the film’s pacing, a narrative that rarely lets up on its audience. Few horror films have managed to hit the two-hour mark without a single lull, a quite impressive feat given the production troubles and internet leaks.

Scream 2 is not as good as Scream, but easily stands above any other direct sequel in the horror genre. The death of a certain beloved character serves as the film’s biggest mistake, a poorly executed sequence designed clearly for shock value that’s beneath the quality of the talent involved. It’s easy to see how Scream 2 could’ve been a complete mess, but the cast and crew come together for another first-rate effort that almost succeeds in its most gargantuan task.

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Thursday

14

October 2021

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Classic Film: Scream

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The legacy of a film like Scream (1996) could be defined by the way it resurrected public interest in the slasher genre. Such a truth obfuscates the rawer achievement of Wes Craven’s genius. The film industry’s obsession with remakes and reboots all but ensure that the slasher genre will never truly die, like the monsters that populate its franchises.

Scream’s crowning triumph is the way the film subverted the slasher genre from inside its own walls. Craven crafts an homage to his earlier work that stands above it, a singular feat in filmmaking. There’s so much joy in Kevin Williamson’s screenplay, but Scream doesn’t aspire to be a satire, but rather a continuation of the work started by the genre’s forefathers, with one of its most celebrated icons at the helm.

Reinventing the slasher genre by the 90s hardly required a reinvention of the wheel. Craven himself had played around with the confines of the genre two years prior with the extremely meta Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which brought original A Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp back into the fold, breaking from the longstanding slasher sequel model of relying on unknown actors to keep costs down. New Nightmare’s most radical notion was that invested in its product, striving for more than the low-hanging fruit of the direct-to-video market.

The world of Scream is inhabited by top-notch performers who strive to bring out the most in their characters. Casey Becker is only on the screen for a few minutes, but Drew Barrymore makes every second count, taking such delight in the mechanics of the genre that her character’s death resonates for the rest of the film. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) faces a never-ending cascade of nonsense, yet Campbell’s powerful performance ensures that the audience never pities her or reduces her to a damsel in distress. Sidney’s right hook delivered to the face of Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) plays out like a broader indictment of horror’s misogynistic tendenc2ies, an environment where women rarely have agency.

Craven and Williamson give the narrative such a sense of intimacy that it feels crafted for the stage. The investments in Scream’s characters leave a legacy that’s worth revisiting after the audience knows the answer to its core whodunit. Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) brushes up against the fourth wall in explaining the “rules” of horror, but it’s not delivered like a sly in-joke, but rather as a vessel for Craven to deconstruct the audience’s expectations.

Scream could’ve succeeded simply as a fun love letter to horror made by one of the godfathers of the genre. Instead, Craven aimed for a far more ambitious target. The slasher market was in a rut for little reason other than that its output was pretty terrible. Craven displayed the sheer power of quality filmmaking, a legacy that extends far beyond the film’s value as a meta-comedy.

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Wednesday

13

October 2021

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Classic Film: The Mummy

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A film like The Mummy (1932) confronts modern audiences with the very nature of what it means to be “genre-defining.” The Mummy is one of the most iconic horror films in history, without actually being all that scary. Even putting aside the cultural differences of the past 90 years, it’s hard to really imagine a packed screening full of people in the 1930s clinging together in abject terror. Director Karl Freund’s work isn’t that kind of film.

Instead, the narrative largely relies on its villain’s innate ability to get under the audience’s skin. The film starts off at the site of an archeology dig lead by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) searching for the tomb of Imhotep (Boris Karloff). Sir Joseph’s assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher), an archaeologist assistant, reads a scroll which awakens the mummy, driving him insane in the process, instilling a heightened baseline suspense that continues for the rest of the film, set ten years later.

Imhotep, now living as the historian Ardeth Bay, isn’t really looking for revenge on a world that buried him alive. Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) takes over for his father as the ostensible protagonist, though predictably the mummy remains the real star of The Mummy. Karloff delivers the kind of singular performance that carries the entire film. The indomitably cool Ardeth Bay remains one of the genre’s defining achievements.

Ardeth Bay shares some DNA with Frankenstein’s Monster in the sense that both aren’t really villains in the traditional sense, but rather victims of unfortunate circumstances trying to find some meaning in a world that has no real place for them. Bay is a much smoother operator, quickly seizing the means of production for his own goals, namely the resurrection of his long-dead lover to inhabit the body of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann). While certainly self-serving in his murderous intentions, the film is careful not to turn Bay into a figure of cartoonish villainy.

The film’s brisk 73-minute runtime hardly has much room for substantive character development. Johann and Manners put in solid work toward giving the audience someone to root for, but nothing really works without Karloff anchoring the narrative. The Mummy lets you empathize with a tragic figure who’s traversed thousands of years without the woman he loves. There’s no grey area in the film’s morality, but it’s a mature sense of conflict that considers everyone’s individual stakes. 

Few films in the horror genre have delivered such fascinating character studies. Blood and gore might shock a viewer, but The Mummy finds chills that cut much deeper. The humanity of Ardeth Bay still resonates nearly a hundred years later. The film likely won’t make you jump out of your seat, but Karloff’s performance gives the mind so much to chew on long after the credits have stopped rolling.

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Monday

11

October 2021

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‘You’ Season Three Review: The Suburbs Are a Welcome Change of Pace

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The more things change, the more things stay the same. You centers its narrative around a deeply damaged man, unable to completely wrestle control of his life from the trauma that’s acted like an anchor throughout his existence. Joe Goldberg is not a good person, but Penn Badgley plays him with such a purposeful sense of glee that it’s hard not to be captivated by his world.

Season three presents an opportunity for Joe and Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) to move on from their murderous ways. Happily married with a baby and a nice house in Madre Linda, a quiet generic suburb full of athleisure-adorned people constantly checking their gluten intake, the two have a seemingly picturesque life, one that makes it easy to forget how close one of them was to murdering the other last season. You makes a welcome pivot away from Joe’s stalkerish inclinations, but the delectable psychological thriller wouldn’t be the same without some fresh bodies to hide.

The change in scenery works wonders for the show. Gone are the cliched publishing characters and the unintentionally realistic predatory comedians who dragged down the show’s strong writing. Madre Linda is hardly a bastion of originality as a location, ripped straight from a Lululemon fever dream, but the town is populated with grounded, three-dimensional characters. Season three has by far the show’s strongest supporting cast.

As local librarian Marienne, Tati Gabrielle delivers the strongest performance of all the newcomers, one of the few characters who actually feels like a real person and not a walking cliché. The more superficial characters work pretty well too. Neighbors Sherry (Shalita Grant), Cary (Travis Van Winkle) and Matthew (Scott Speedman) break through their superficial introductions. Madre Linda often feels like a Foucaldian panopticon, the depth of the characters giving the town a lived-in quality that conveys its suffocating nature.

Season three works best when Joe and Love are on the same page. Badgley and Pedretti have wonderful chemistry, making it so easy to root for a relationship that should not exist. Even putting the attempted murder aside, the two are not a good fit, but the show sells it so well that you believe in them.

Of course, You is not the story of balanced people looking to put in the hard work toward building a happy future together. Conflict is inevitable for couples, especially within the confines of a television season that needs drama to fuel the narrative. The show has a lot of fun exploring the pitfalls of picturesque lives, demonstrating the challenges of engineering a happy life even when all the pieces seemingly fit together.

The ten-episode season does hit some pacing snags, particularly in the back half, at least two episodes longer than it needs to be. Few shows do a better job answering any plot questions their audience might have. There are several times across the season where the story takes a head-scratching turn, only for the show to confront this dynamic an episode later. You might be the most self-aware show on television, perpetually nimble in addressing its own narrative shortcomings.

There’s a lot of natural goodwill that stems from the show’s ability to gauge its own perception. You may not always agree with the way You structures itself, but it’s the kind of production that clearly values the intelligence of its audience, with a few exceptions. Joe and Love’s marriage in particular is a vulnerable dynamic, relying a bit too hard on the confines of the traditional family structure when there are bumps in the road.

There is another point where Love vents about the burdens placed on young mothers to remain sexually desirable for her husband while also juggling a career and a newborn child. Trouble is, the baby is little more than a prop for either Love or Joe. The bakery that Love opens early on the season is an outlandishly low priority, a new business with few customers and seemingly no overhead. Money is only a problem when You wants it to be, which is to say, rarely.

You occasionally struggles with putting forth a case for why Joe and Love should be together, a lie that countless people have told themselves while in unhappy marriages. The show doesn’t want them to be blissfully in love, for obvious reasons. “Stay together for the kids” isn’t widely regarded as good advice, but it might be for Joe and Love as murderous parents. Season three doesn’t spend enough time exploring this reality, too much else on its mind.

While other shows have avoided mentions of the pandemic, You plots an interesting course. Covid isn’t completely outside the show’s peripheral vision, a forgivably moving target that a massive television production would naturally struggle to adapt. There are some puzzling moments, but it’s admirable to see the show attempt to provide some commentary on this peculiar moment in our collective history.

Backed by strong writing and excellent performances, You isn’t showing any signs of aging in its third season. The story isn’t a perfect fit for the confines of a ten-episode season, but the cast makes up for any lulls along the way. The suburbs are a place where people go to settle down, a calmer form of life than what’s offered in big cities. You finds some of its most creative work smack dab in the environment where creativity is thought to die, where the young go to grow old. This show still has plenty of life left.

The entire ten-episode season was screened for review. Season three drops on Netflix October 15th.

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Saturday

9

October 2021

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Muppets Haunted Mansion is a solid, unspectacular holiday special

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The Muppets have a pretty strong track record when it comes to holiday specials. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987) served as a rare convergence of the Muppet/Fraggle Rock/Sesame Street orbit, giving it far more staying power than your average made-for-tv effort. A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa (2008) demonstrated a strong balance between comedy and celebrity cameos, the latter of which pose the greatest risk to any special’s longevity. It’s hard to watch A Very Muppet Christmas Movie (2002) without cringing at the ample product placement by NBC Universal, including cameos from the cast of Scrubs. Remember Scrubs?

There is an obvious sense of horizontal integration at play for Muppets Haunted Mansion in the pairing of the iconic troupe and one of Disneyland’s most popular attractions. The Muppets are no strangers to being used in Disney theme park infomercials, starring in The Muppets at Walt Disney World (1990), best remembered as the last Muppets production Jim Henson worked on before his death. Capitalism dictates that no one is immune from shilling for their corporate overlords, including Kermit the Frog.

The special follows The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz, Gonzo’s original performer dating back to the 70s) and Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) as they ditch the Muppets’ Halloween party to venture to The Haunted Mansion for a chilling challenge. The plot is ostensibly for Gonzo and Pepe to survive the night, a narrative the 49-minute runtime doesn’t spend too much time establishing. The story mostly serves as a pretense for some songs, celebrity cameos, and the assurance that every child watching would want to visit a Disney park.

The human cast, including Will Arnett, Yvette Nicole Brown, Darren Criss, and Taraji P. Henson, all do fine work in supporting roles. A brief cameo from the late Ed Asner, to whose memory the film is dedicated, is bound to bring a smile to any adult’s face watching. As always, The Muppets supply ample humor both for kids watching and for the young at heart.

The decision to pair Gonzo and Pepe is a peculiar one. Gonzo is perhaps the Muppets’ most versatile, taking the lead in many of their most popular 90s works including The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. Somewhere along the way, Gonzo’s seminal sidekick Rizzo the Rat was unceremoniously kicked to the curb, a reality parodied by The Muppets in Muppets Most Wanted (2014).

Pepe, the most memorable creation from the decidedly unmemorable 90s series Muppets Tonight, is best enjoyed in small doses. He’s a bit tedious in such a lead role, especially one without most of the principal Muppets. Several character cameos reference their meager screen time, making Rizzo’s absence even odder in an era with ample love for his prior leading work.

A dismaying observation is that the special leans a bit too heavily on Haunted Mansion references that would be lost on anyone who hadn’t experienced the ride. Disney also passed on any references to the abomination that was the 2003 Haunted Mansion film adaptation starring Eddie Murphy. Specials don’t hinge on single jokes, but it’s weird to see so many easy lay-ups passed over in an hour full of inside jokes.

Muppets Haunted Mansion is a passable effort that should have left more of an impression. The script feels like a rough draft in desperate need of editing. The Muppets are well-equipped for streaming, able to perform in any medium with any kind of runtime. In a world light on regular Muppet content, this hour of entertainment should have been more than a glorified infomercial.

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Tuesday

5

October 2021

174

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Preoccupied With Chappelle’s LGBTQ Grievances, The Closer Sacrifices Humor at the Altar of Cancel Culture

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The world has changed quite a lot since Dave Chappelle released his first Netflix special in 2017, further solidifying his status as one of the greatest comedians of all time. The concept known as “cancel culture” rode the wave of Trump’s perpetual victimhood, an attempt to preserve the communal status quo from efforts toward a more inclusive society. The free market, the same system that rewarded Chappelle’s ample talent with a $20 million-per-special price tag, now takes a more critical approach toward actions and language increasingly belonging to a bygone generation.

Dave Chappelle is the most successful comedian alive. That notion might be lost on a viewer of his latest special The Closer, an hour that largely abandons the pretext of comedy in favor of a litany of grievances, many toward the LGBTQ community more broadly, with a special emphasis on his seemingly favorite punching bag, the transgender community, or “transgenders” as he puts it.

Much of The Closer focuses on Chappelle grappling with the concept of empathy. He has plenty for disgruntled rapper DaBaby, widely condemned for homophobic remarks on stage in August 2021, which led to booking cancellations. Chappelle makes an interesting point that DaBaby’s career faced no hurdles after the rapper shot a man in Walmart, implying that homophobic jokes are a bigger offense than murder. The media’s selective sense of outrage isn’t really his target though.

Instead, Chappelle spends much of The Closer building an outlandish case that LGBTQ people possess a set of special privileges that people like DaBaby, J.K. Rowling, Kevin Hart, and himself do not. He suggests a kind of cozy relationship between the police and white gays, putting aside the well-documented history of homophobia within law enforcement. He laughs as he says he’s jealous of the gay community, reinforcing bits from Sticks & Stones, spending an entire special complaining that he can’t make jokes about gays as he makes jokes about gays.

Chappelle presents a similar case against Hollywood’s role in the #MeToo movement, highlighting events of performative allyship such as the all-black attire for the 2018 Golden Globes. He’s not wrong to suggest that the women who donned black dresses could have made bigger impacts by dismantling the industry’s power structure, but his conclusions bend over backward to toss the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a convenient manufactured either/or scenario, one beneath a man of Chappelle’s ample wit.

It’s hard to look past the intellectual dishonesty of Chappelle repeatedly insisting he’s not transphobic, even as he compares trans women to blackface, defends TERFs, and misrepresents Rowling’s long history of anti-trans sentiments. He puts the entirety of the blame for his perceived transphobia on an article from a gay publication from fifteen years ago, claiming that every criticism leveled against him stems from secondhand accounts of his work. Not, you know, the constant transphobia found in Sticks and Stones, or the current special he’s on stage performing.

There’s a certain benign quality in Chappelle’s regurgitation of old trans jokes, often too dated to truly offend, but The Closer takes a truly disgusting turn when he talks about a transgender friend of his who took her own life in 2019, days after the release of Sticks & Stones. Chappelle essentially blames the trans community for Daphne Dorman’s death, suggesting that she was bullied into suicide for defending him. The extended bit is a jaw-droppingly oblivious accusation to level against a community that faces grossly disproportionate levels of online abuse. His own jokes have supplied ample fodder for rampant online abuse of LGBTQ people.

A trust fund Chappelle started for Dorman’s daughter is flaunted as evidence of his allyship, using charity as a shield as he continues making transphobic jokes. He’s seemingly incapable of processing criticism through anything other than the prism of “us vs. them,” using that false binary to paint a portrait of people simply becoming trans to win the oppression Olympics, a tired trope completely detached from the realities of the trans experience.

Chappelle’s rampant transphobia doesn’t need to be a problem as long as the jokes land, but his obsession with grievances supersedes any pretense of crafting actual humor. He doesn’t look like he’s having any fun on stage, an audience that seems to pick up on this reality halfway through the special. He’s weirdly paranoid for a man being paid twenty million dollars for an hour of his time, afraid of a community with no foothold in the world he dominates.

There are fragments of a conciliatory message echoed in The Closer, often at odds with the rest of the special. Chappelle suggests he’d like a world where LGBTQ people felt included in his comedy rather than as the butt of the joke. That’s a hard proposition to consider when so much of his work these days isn’t really about comedy, but “cancel culture” and the perceived censorship by some of the world’s loudest voices. If Chappelle is sincere in his desire to make inroads with the trans community, he might want to start by crafting some more original material. Chappelle’s Netflix tenure started with a bang. With The Closer, the world’s greatest living comedian ends this chapter of his career with a resounding whimper.

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Tuesday

28

September 2021

0

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Classic Film: Closely Watched Trains

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Capitalism sticks its fangs in the worker by convincing them that they are part of a bigger machine. The worker is supposed to take pride in their work, functioning not as an induvial but as part of a collective. The fantasy exists to keep one’s attention on their assigned tasks, wandering minds serving little purpose toward the means of production.

The 1966 film Closely Watched Trains (original Czech title Ostre sledované vlaky) follows a young man Miloš Hrma (Václav Neckár) as he begins a new job as a train dispatcher in German-occupied Czechoslovakia toward the end of World War II. Miloš comes from a family of oddballs, taking great pride in his father’s ability to avoid labor-intensive employment. There’s not much to Miloš’ job besides opening and shutting a gate, plus the occasional salute to passing trains.

The bulk of the narrative centers around Miloš’ efforts to lose his virginity. He quickly strikes up a relationship with train conductor Máša (Jitka Bendová), forward in her intentions for sexual intimacy. A sleepover at Máša’s house is complicated by a tragic case of premature ejaculation. Aided by his supervisor/mentor Hubička (Josef Somr), Miloš embraces his sexual odyssey as his singular life’s passion.

Based on the 1965 novel of the same name, director Jirí Menzel marches to the beat of his own deadpan drum. Set primarily at the station, the cinematography frequently relies on wide shots, giving the effect of a fairly sterile environment only livened by the passing trains. Initially presented as a misfit, Miloš’ sardonic demeanor is a perfect fit for his profession, full of outlandish characters aware of their good fortunes.

The great triumph of Closely Watched Trains is the film’s subtle damnation of capitalism’s desecration of the individual for the sake of productivity. The dispatchers are free to pursue their own passions, as their countrymen toil away in factories and coal mines, the fruit of their labors being guzzled up by a hostile foreign nation. The station staff retain agency over their bodies, liberated to pursue their own sexual passions instead of exerting themselves for someone else’s gain.

The act of losing one’s virginity is seen as a coming of age moment where a boy becomes a man. Menzel flips the script a bit, unconcerned with refining Miloš juvenile demeanor even as he experiences great leaps in his own sense of self. Miloš is less a man than he is an individual, a far more powerful achievement in a world that tried so hard to mold him into a commodity.

At only 92 minutes, Closely Watched Trains breezes through its narrative while giving its characters plenty of moments to shine. Neckár is absolutely delightful in the lead role. Menzel’s work keeps you laughing throughout its runtime, but the film carries its strongest impact when the credits start to roll, giving the audience a chance to unpack its ample findings. Satire provides an important lens to see the true absurdities in reality.

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Wednesday

22

September 2021

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Film Retrospective: Birdman

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Few film narratives operate quite so symbiotically with their stars as Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s pretty impossible to imagine Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s black comedy working at all without Michael Keaton in the lead role. Crafted in the early days of the modern box office takeover by the superhero genre, the film manages to examine the effect of capes and tights on its stars’ sense of ego without looking down on those who fuel their popularity.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is not a particularly good man, forever haunted by an internal voice that manifests itself in the form of his most famous character. The entirety of Riggan’s public legacy can be summarized in that one single word. Birdman. A life defined by three blockbuster popcorn flicks.

Riggan seeks to seize control of his own narrative through a stage production of a Raymon Carver short story, financing the project in addition to starring and directing. The theatre world has its own collection of neurotic egos, none more tedious than famed method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), the boyfriend of lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) brought in as a replacement after an accident incapacitated the original actor.

Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki both won Academy Awards for their efforts in shaping Birdman’s unique aesthetic, which gives the appearance that the entire 119-minute feature was recorded in a single take. Iñárritu has a keen sense for the claustrophobia and loneliness of theatre life, small crews sequestered from the madness of downtown Manhattan all around them. While most of the narrative takes place indoors, the film uses the city wisely to capture its gravitational pull on the stars in its orbit.

While the film’s technical prowess gives the audience much to digest from scene to scene, Birdman largely succeeds on the strength of its cast. Keaton gives the best performance of his career, eliciting ample sympathy for the fairly odious Riggan. On the surface level, the two have a bit in common, both known by the public at large for their superhero franchise work. Keaton isn’t keen to coast off his well-deserved reputation, instead transporting the audience into the mind of a man grappling with his own crumbling ego.

Riggan is not Michael Keaton, but the character can’t exist outside the aura of a man who Hollywood never truly trusted as a lead talent, writing him off as a comedic actor when directors such as Tim Burton and John Hughes first saw the genius of his abilities. To some extent, it can be tedious to listen to a big name talent whine about their conflicted sense of perception, with 99% of actors never even coming near that level of fame. It is hard to listen to Riggan speak about being forgotten without feeling compassion for the man. No one wants to be forgotten.

Iñárritu does not spend much time talking about what the superhero genre has done to the industry, but his few bits of wisdom hold up in the years since 2014 even as the environment has evolved. Films like Birdman have a harder time breaking through well before the pandemic changed the way we engage with the medium. Riggan’s inner-Birdman voice isn’t inherently misguided in lobbying for him to return to the cape. The public wants the cape.

Keaton himself has returned to the superhero genre twice since Birdman’s release, first in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and next in 2022’s upcoming The Flash, where he’s set to reprise his role as Batman for the first time in thirty years. While Riggan resisted the allure to return to the role that put him on the map, Keaton demonstrates no such inhibitions.

The superhero genre has permeated into more of the public consciousness than even Birdman could have predicted in 2014. Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards just four years after the former took home the top prize. Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor at the following year’s ceremonies for The Joker, further solidifying the comic book villain’s status as an awards show kingmaker. The 2021 Emmy Awards saw Wandavision competing for Best Drama, a far cry from the days when so-called prestige dramas ruled the world.

This reality has fundamentally changed the way we look at Birdman, particularly the relationship between Keaton and Norton. Within the film, Riggan envies Shiner’s ability to generate publicity, revered for his outlandish behavior operating under the guise of “method acting.” Shiner is everything Riggan wants to be, above all else, respected.

Like Keaton, Norton has a history in the superhero genre, starring in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Norton’s Bruce Banner remains the most high-profile recasting case in the history of the MCU. Even putting Keaton’s subsequent superhero work aside, it’s hard to line up their post-Birdman filmographies and not give him the upper hand over Norton in terms of career success. Just as audiences initially went into Birdman thinking of Keaton’s past with Batman, it’s hard to revisit the film without thinking of Norton and Keaton’s inverted fortunes as of late.

If there’s one primary flaw of Birdman, it’s that the film didn’t heed its own advice with regard to its ending. An early scene between Riggan and Shiner showed the latter urging some script revisions, arguing redundancies in the former’s prose. The same does hold true for Iñárritu, who crafts a climax that repeats itself multiple times through a few unnecessary closing scenes.

Iñárritu’s work is a rich film to revisit. Keaton’s scenes don’t carry the same sense of melancholy as they once possessed, a reality manifested to existence by the film itself. Birdman isn’t just a case of art imitating life, but art changing the realities of the industry. Hollywood’s obsession with sequels and nostalgia make it likely that we would have seen Keaton as Batman again, even without Birdman, but Iñárritu’s film makes the prospect all the more satisfying. Doctor Manhattan’s seminal lines in the closing pages of Watchmen come to mind. Nothing ever ends. 

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