Ian Thomas Malone

Pop Culture Archive

Thursday

1

September 2022

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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power gives Prime Video its streamer standard-bearer

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The modern streaming era churns out more content than any single person would be able to watch. Television has largely moved on from the idea of water cooler shows, collective pop culture consciousness fading away in favor of tribes divided by individual subscription services that families often begrudgingly add to their budgets. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power represents Jeff Bezos’ best effort to reverse that trend, a billion-dollar gamble to produce a television show too massive to ignore.

Spectacle is The Rings of Power’s best asset. For all the money invested in a single television season, the show does succeed in its effort to be one of the most beautiful series ever made. With many of its rivals cutting corners on cheap green screens, The Rings of Power wields its on-location filmmaking and beautiful practical sets to invoke a natural sense of awe and wonder from its audience. Middle Earth feels like a living breathing entity.

Of course, prestige television cannot sustain itself on gorgeous cinematography alone. The original Lord of the Rings trilogy was powered by the true fellowship (pun intended) of its characters. The Rings of Power has a diverse cast that’s fairly spread out over Middle Earth, the show lacking a “Council of Elrond” moment where all the principals were together in the same spot. Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is himself a main character, a wide-eyed diplomat still trying to find his place in the world, but the main elf at the center of the action is the not-yet-Lady Galadriel (Morfydd Clark).

Galadriel, caught in a similar pull between Middle Earth and the comforts of dreamy Valinor as Arwen was in the original trilogy, supplies much of the interesting action in the show’s first two episodes. The Arwen/Aragorn dynamic is on full display with a relationship between Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a human apothecary, and Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), an elvish archer stationed in the Southlands in a posting that’s much to the resentment of the humans in the region. The show’s frantic pacing doesn’t give much time to the colonialist sentiments introduced, but the material is presented in a far more digestible manner than Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or his similarly dense appendices.

The show is lacking a bit in levity, some supplied by the Harfoots (Hobbits in need of a better deep conditioner) and by King Durin IV (Owain Arthur), an eccentric dwarf and estranged friend of Elrond. The Harfoots are probably the most interesting to watch, young halflings Elanor Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) sparking the wide-eyed sense of curiosity that high fantasy tends to elicit when done properly. In keeping with the traditions of the genre, there’s far too much going on to keep up with, but it’s also fairly refreshing to see a massive show not intentionally weigh itself down with too much exposition.

The Rings of Power does suffer a bit from an unevenly defined sense of purpose. Sauron is hinted at as the show’s true big bad, but the show doesn’t have anything like the original material’s clearly stated mission to guide its narrative. The first two episodes don’t exactly do the best job of outlining what this show is about, a dynamic that would be a bigger problem if it wasn’t so beautiful to watch.

The lack of true narrative purpose stands in stark contrast to Bezos’ own mission for The Rings of Power, which carries the heavy mandate of needing to be Prime Video’s standard bearer in the streaming wars. Anything less than global popularity on the scale of Game of Thrones or Stranger Things would essentially represent a billion-dollar failure. Global phenomena can’t exactly be willed into existence, but capitalism is banking on a Lord of the Rings-style booster rocket to try and prove otherwise.

The Rings of Power needs more time to flesh itself out, but Bezos delivered on his mandate to produce the most beautiful show on television. TV is once again shooting for the stars instead of hiding behind hideous green screens to fuel the content mill. This show isn’t perfect, but you do get the sense that it is sincerely trying to be a spectacle. That sheer ambition alone is a sight to behold.

The first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power were screened for review

Thursday

28

July 2022

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Classic Film: The Man I Love

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There is a certain timelessness to the sensation of falling in love with a terrible man. Released in 1946, the film The Man I Love could have easily been released today as a commentary on the vapidity of modern romance, and the innate challenges of resisting the perfect charm even when every red flag is waving right in front of you. Sometimes the heart wants what it wants.

Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) works as a nightclub singer, with a vibrant personality and commanding charisma. Feeling a bit homesick in the big city, Petey returns home to Long Beach, California to visit her sisters, Sally (Andrea King) and Ginny (Martha Vickers). Sally works as a waitress in an Italian restaurant, perpetually harassed by Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda), whose uncle owns the establishment among other mob-connected enterprises.

Director Raoul Walsh’s feature is a train wreck of unnecessary subplots entirely redeemed by Lupino’s mesmerizing performance and the highly effective jazz score. The film has far too many characters for its 96-minute runtime, a narrative that has no idea whether it wants to be noir or a soap opera. The film sort of comes together in the second half, when Petey takes up work in one of Nicky’s nightclubs, striking up a romance with pianist San Thomas (Bruce Bennett) as she becomes embroiled in a murder.

Lupino practically makes it her singular mission to carry the narrative, pouring her heart and soul into Petey’s tortured psyche. Bennett is unremarkable as her primary love interest, though that’s also kind of the point of the film. Petey’s romance with a man who doesn’t deserve her reflects the way Lupino almost singlehandedly saved Walsh’s otherwise mediocre film. Women all too often know exactly what it’s like to have to exert additional labor value to carry the laziness of men, which is pretty much The Man I Love in a nutshell.

Walsh’s skills as a director occasionally surface throughout the film, though the frantic pacing and indecisive tone frequently hinder the experience. The Man I Love is often a tedious experience, but it’s hard to dismiss the work entirely. Walsh and Lupino work so well together that the atrocious screenplay feels almost easy to forgive.

There is a certain allure in falling for bad men, even if the act itself is not particularly defensible. Film often functions best when it depicts the innate contradictions that comprise humanity. The Man I Love is not a great movie. It is hard to even label Walsh’s narrative as a good film. Lupino deserves better, but that’s also not necessarily the primary concern. Life is not about what we deserve, but rather what we do with the cards that we were dealt. Working in a time when women received fairly mediocre roles, Lupino took that deflated ball and ran with it in a way that’s pretty inspiring all these years later.

Friday

8

July 2022

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COMMENTS

Thor: Love and Thunder is a sloppy collection of gags thrown at a green screen

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Thor is the closest thing the MCU has to a standard-bearer in the post-Endgame era. The death of Tony Stark left behind a void that shouldn’t necessarily be filled at all, with the gigantic, interconnected universe heading in about a million different directions. Thor: Ragnarok demonstrated how much fun the Son of Asgard could have unburdened from both the weight of the Avengers and the budding continuity established in his first two solo efforts. It’s hard to think of a character better poised than Thor to thrive in the Phase 4 climate, free of most obligations to set up future films.

As the first MCU hero to earn a fourth solo outing, director Taika Waititi could have taken Thor just about anywhere in the universe. There have been over seven hundred Thor comic books, a lifetime of material to draw on. Thor: Love and Thunder puts Mjolnir in the hands of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), drawing on the 2014 “Original Sin” arc, a comic book storyline younger than Thor’s first two big-screen films. It is worth pointing out that no one working on the first Thor film in 2011 had any idea that they were setting up the Asgardian’s genius love interest as the heir apparent to his iconic hammer. Waititi doesn’t seem to know what to do with her either.

The entirety of Love and Thunder seems centered around the novelty of the idea that it might be fun to see Jane Foster as Thor. A character whose near-complete absence from the MCU since 2013, unceremoniously discarded from Ragnarok’s narrative, is now once again at the forefront, essentially as a gimmick. There is no imperative driving Love and Thunder beyond its obligations to the gods of content, an empty shell of a film covered up with endless jokes and attractive people standing in front of exceedingly bland green screens.

The plot is almost not worth mentioning. Gorr (Christian Bale) wants to kill all gods with a weapon called the Necrosword, kidnapping a bunch of kids from New Asgard to draw Thor into open battle. The fact that most of the kids were kidnapped while Thor was standing on the battlefield having idle chitchat with Jane is irrelevant to a film that treats its narrative like one big gag. Jane, dying of cancer, comes to New Asgard to seek Mjolnir, forging an unusual alliance between ex-girlfriend and ex-weapon.

Though the characters occasionally mention that kids are in danger and maybe the universe might end if Gorr succeeds in his mission, the film doesn’t really care much about any of that Each line is an opportunity for the script to ram a few more jokes in. Some of the humor is quite amusing, but after a while, it becomes clear that Waititi would rather make a romantic comedy than an action film. Bale does his best to make Gorr into a menacing villain, but there’s little he can do to change the fact that Love and Thunder doesn’t really want to have a bad guy.

The special effects are truly horrendous. Disney’s approach to green screen cinematography as of late has favored monotonic background palettes with stale lighting. One can’t help but look at its overbearing ugliness with a sense of profound sadness that filmmaking has stooped to these lows. Love and Thunder would have been better off using cardboard boxes decorated with crayons than the hideous CGI Disney tries to call state-of-the-art technology. At least there would be some artistic merit to the crayon drawings.

Waititi does do an okay job exploring the on-screen lore that Thor has built over the past decade. Brief cameos from Drs. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) remind viewers of how much the emotional core of this series has shifted since its early days. Trouble is, Thor himself has regressed as a character back to the aimlessness that defined his role in the first movie. He’s learned nothing from the events of Endgame, a film largely irrelevant to this narrative besides a pointless first-act cameo from the Guardians of the Galaxy, including a bafflingly-wooden Chris Pratt who looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. Waititi has absolutely nothing for Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to do, a tragic waste of Ragnarok’s most interesting character.

What does Love and Thunder want to be? Nothing. This is content, mandated into existence by Disney. Waititi spruced things up with some jokes and a nod to a storyline younger than this film series, wish-fulfillment akin to Marvel’s long running “What-If” series. If this is the future of the MCU, maybe Thanos wasn’t so wrong to snap his fingers. A refined output might actually bring some thought back into this content farm masquerading as a blockbuster franchise.

Monday

27

June 2022

0

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Classic Film: Double Indemnity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

25

May 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday

20

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday

17

May 2022

0

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Classic Film: Maurice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

9

May 2022

0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday

4

May 2022

0

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Classic Film: Daisies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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