Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Pop Culture Archive

Thursday

21

February 2019

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A Discovery of Witches Is a First-Rate Drama Full of Magic & Romance

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The worldwide phenomenon that the Twilight series sparked created an impression that vampire-themed entertainment was a fad, destined to fade over time. This notion forgets the longevity of bloodsucker-themed fiction, a genre that’s endured for more than two hundred years. Works like Sky One/Sundance Now’s A Discovery of Witches remind us how much the genre has to offer with top-notch talent crafting the material.

Based off of the critically acclaimed All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches follows Diana Bishop, an academic of magical ancestry as she finds a manuscript that holds the secrets to the broader mythical world that includes demons, vampires, and witches. With help from the handsome vampire Matthew Clairmont, Bishop tries to make sense of her findings while avoiding the influences of the powerful Congregation, an Oxford-based group tasked with maintaining order between the various magical factions.

With stellar production values and first-rate performances, A Discovery of Witches is the rare show that nails just about every aspect of a compelling first season. The chemistry of lead actors Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode radiates through the screen, selling their romance alongside all the other world building required to set the stage. Too many first seasons string the audience along with promises of greater things to come later. A Discovery of Witches is extremely well-paced, introducing its cast of characters while always keeping the plot moving.

Though the show is set in contemporary times, the extensive use of estate houses and old libraries makes the show feel at times like a period drama. The supporting cast is fairly intimate, including veteran TV actors such as Owen Teale, Alex Kingston, and Louise Brealey. While most of the drama focuses on Bishop and Clairmont, the show wisely keeps the number of supporting characters to a minimum, allowing the actors to shine with limited screen time.

What really stood out in A Discovery of Witches’ first season was the way it explained its world of magic without ever diving into length exposition dumps. Plenty of shows take an episode or two to go in back in time and explain how all the circumstances came to be. Witches gives its audience what it needs to know without resorting to information dumps. There are questions left to be answered, of course, but that’s true of any narrative. The confidence in its storytelling is quite palpable.

Already renewed for two more seasons, A Discovery of Witches managed to stuff its first outing with plenty of plot and character development while leaving plenty for future stories. They took a concept that many thought was completely worn out and methodically breathed new life into the vampire genre. A lot of shows are guilty of holding back in their freshman efforts, understandably leaving some gas in the tank to keep the audience engaged. It’s relatively rare to see a show unafraid to go into its narrative full-throttle. The result is an immensely satisfying first-rate drama that should be a must-watch for fans of mythical storytelling.

 

 

 

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Thursday

21

February 2019

1

COMMENTS

Alita: Battle Angel Is a Collection of Stunning Visual Sequences That Lacks a Cohesive Story

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Movies like Alita: Battle Angel showcase the sheer power of seeing a movie on the big screen better than most. With breathtaking special effects in practically every scene, the sense of awe and wonder remains present for practically the entire two-hour runtime. Unfortunately, the vision, beautifully put together by director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron, is severely undercut by the absence of a cohesive narrative holding all of that imagery together.

Alita: Battle Angel does not really have a central narrative. There are many subplots present, but none that really stick out as the one to use when giving a one-sentence explanation of the plot. A scientist named Dr. Dyson Ido, played by Christoph Waltz, rebuilds the titular cyborg, played by Rosa Salazar, who is revealed to be a three-hundred-year-old warrior and the last of her kind. Alita befriends a boy named Hugo, played by Keean Johnson, who teaches her about the futuristic game motorball. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connolly also hover around the narrative as Vector and Chiren, two shady individuals connected with the darker side of Iron City, the film’s central location.

Though almost all of the characters are connected to each other through highly implausible coincidences, there is little connecting the various strands of a plotline. The city of Zarem, which hovers above Iron City, serves as a MacGuffin, as Hugo tries to buy passage, but the film only gives this narrative sporadic attention throughout the film. Early on Dr. Ido is revealed to be a “Hunter-Warrior,” Iron City’s mercenary version of law enforcement, a plotline that supplies much of the film’s action. Problem is, the action really isn’t in service to some bigger purpose, leaving the visually stunning scenes with an empty after taste.

The presence of motorball is Alita: Battle Angel’s biggest shortcoming. The film makes no effort to explain the rules, bringing more attention to the game as a total knockoff of the cult classic Rollerball. It could have had value as a sideshow similar to podracing in The Phantom Menace, but the film thrusts the motorball into the spotlight for reasons that never really add up.

The film also includes a completely unnecessary romance between Alita and Hugo that feels crafted out of obligation to the concept that it should have a love story rather than any narrative necessity. The romance along with Connelly’s character Chiren, who happens to be Dr. Ido’s ex-wife, could’ve been cut from the film entirely with next to zero narrative consequences.

The action sequences are spectacular and the effects are of the high quality that one would expect from a film with Cameron’s name attached. As Alita: Battle Angel, it becomes clear that most of the drama that precedes the fight scenes is there merely to necessitate the battles. Unoriginal conflict can be forgiven in service to stunning visual sequences, but the film suffers from an inability to pick a singular generic narrative to get behind. It’s practically impossible to put aside the incoherent plot when the film is constantly changing gears.

Despite the lack of narrative continuity, the script is occasionally witty, offering a few laugh-out-loud moments. As a character, Alita is very relatable, if not a bit bland. The performances are all fairly strong, even if Waltz, Connelly, and Ali look a bit out of place in a film that doesn’t always know how to utilize their talents.

There is a lot to like in Alita: Battle Angel, which never falls into the territory of boring. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to recommend a film that could never decide what it wanted to be. The film fails to present a cohesive narrative to anchor its visual splendor, giving the audience plenty of entertaining sequences but little to root for.

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Sunday

17

February 2019

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Dead Ant Is a Weirdly Endearing B-Movie Triumph

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Part of the appeal of b-movies lies in their innate ability to redefine the parameters of expectation that audiences naturally take with them when sitting down to watch a film. The “so bad it’s good” trope reflects the fact that entertainment value can occasionally circumvent the typical binary we use to judge art. Dead Ant is a film acutely aware of this sentiment, embracing camp in favor of anything resembling a coherent narrative.

The plot of Dead Ant is fairly straight-forward. A washed-up hair metal band on its way to a music festival runs into a nasty insect problem after a pit-stop for psychedelic drugs. The cast of characters is fairly intimate, mostly featuring the members of the band Sonic Grave, including Sean Astin, Jake Busey, Rhys Coiro, and Leisha Hailey. Tom Arnold, co-star of the 90s hit True Lies, puts in a strong performance as band manager Danny, delivering most of the film’s memorable comedic lines.

The film struggles through its first half-hour, full of dated clichés about political correctness and power ballads. The idea that a hair metal band would be searching for a “comeback” in the late 2010s, decades after the genre’s heyday, is an absurdity that the film could’ve wielded to its comedic benefit, especially since none of the members look old enough to have been in a band in the 80s. Thankfully the jokes start connecting by the second act, timed well with the introduction of the titular ants.

Dead Ant finds its groove once it trades in the clichés for camp comedy, delivering several laugh-out-loud moments. There’s a point where Arnold starts to look more comfortable in his role, dropping one hilarious line after another in rapid succession as the characters start to fight back against the ants. Coiro is another standout of the film’s second half, owning his ridiculous scenes with a healthy dose of charm, like he finally figured out what the film was supposed to be. Dead Ant is the kind of movie that owes its success largely due to its actors’ willingness to embrace the film’s absurdities.

The script is a bit disjointed at times, but the actors find grace even with the occasional tumble through their lines. The plot holes are transformed into amusing comedic moments, embracing its own inconsistent continuity. In a strange way, the errors serve to heighten the film’s replay value, if only to see if there’s more lurking in the ant-riddled desert.

While few b-movies are known for their stellar special effects, Dead Ant actually exceeds expectations with plenty of pretty believable ants. There are a couple scenes where the digital ants hardly line up with the havoc they’re supposed to be causing, but in a way that’s part of the fun. The film never lets the effects distract from other comedy it’s trying to deliver, maximizing its assets in the process.

Clocking in at just under ninety-minutes, Dead Ant provides plenty of laughs without ever overstaying its welcome. The first half-hour is regrettably underwhelming, but the film course corrects with enough time left to provide an entertaining experience. If the idea of a b movie filled with hair metal and giant killer ants seems like your cup of tea, you won’t be disappointed by this weirdly endearing film.  

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Monday

11

February 2019

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PEN15 Is One Of Hulu’s Best Original Shows

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The first episode of Dawson’s Creek garnered much controversy all the way back in 1998 for daring to talk about subjects like masturbation and premarital sex, airing at a time before premium cable changed the television landscape. Two decades later, shock value just doesn’t carry the same weight. The idea of a TV show set in middle school starring two adult actresses covering similar subjects in a far more graphic manner barely raises an eyebrow.

PEN15 sets its sights on the most cringe-worthy chapter in many people’s educational experience. As much as high school can be defined as a time full of awkwardness and poor decisions, middle school offers an environment with far less freedom and a lot more puberty. The sexual tension that fuels so many high school dramas essentially begins in middle school, though television has been reluctant to cover that period for obvious reasons. The material is too graphic for child actors, and adult actors don’t exactly look convincing playing thirteen-year-olds.

While co-creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle hardly look like children, both actresses are immensely effective in sidestepping that issue completely. PEN15 crafts its own funhouse version of reality that allows Maya and Anna to navigate its halls with relative grace, considering the heavy dose of cringe comedy offered in practically every scene. Suspension of disbelief is hardly needed, as PEN15 eloquently captures the zeitgeist of adolescence in the early 2000s.

Though the adult actors carry the bulk of the drama, PEN15 does have an impressive cast of child actors in supporting roles. Each episode is mostly self-contained, allowing the show to thoroughly cover a wide variety of topics in its first season. There isn’t a single episode that reeks of filler, a rarity among streaming shows, especially in their first seasons.

What sets PEN15 apart from many shows that depict childhood is its unapologetic refusal to force resolution. For many, if not most, middle school is a cringe-worthy time that we’d like to forget. All the efforts made by ABC’s Afterschool Specials and shows like 7th Heaven and Boy Meets World to turn each conflict into a teachable moment seem to forget how often bad things happen that don’t serve some broader purpose. Kids can be mean. Often, justice isn’t served. The bad guys win all the time. Shows can pretend like there’s some silver lining hidden in bullying, but PEN15 deserves a lot of credit for throwing conflict out there in a way that doesn’t try to package it all up by the end of the episode.

Back in 2015, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp crafted a hilarious prequel that worked around the fact that actors in their 40s were playing teenagers. PEN15 deployed a similar approach, wielding the surreal to offer some brutally honest commentary on the struggles of growing up. The show has quickly become one of Hulu’s best original series. Few shows dare to take on middle school, but Maya and Anna prove how powerful such a journey can be while providing a hilarious experience along the way.

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Monday

11

February 2019

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Following the Same Instruction Manual as Its Predecessor, The Lego Movie 2 Is Hilarious & Sweet

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The worst sequels are the ones that are too self-conscious about their own existence, straining the narrative with an unnecessary mandate. The world didn’t need The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, but of course that was never going to have any bearing on whether or not the film was made. The success of the first made a follow-up inevitable. The notion of whether a follow-up could resonate in quite the same way is the only question that should be asked.

The Lego Movie’s biggest strength was its ability to blend silliness with thought-provoking realism. The film wielded a broad spectrum of human emotion, leaving the audience with much to chew on by the time the credits started to roll. That kind of experience is hard to recreate for many reasons, chief among them being that the viewers walk into the theatre knowing what’s in store for them.

The Second Part doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, or the brick. The narrative is largely another medley of light-hearted humor set against a real-world backdrop, this time in the form of Finn struggling to get along with his younger sister. The jokes continue to come at a rapid-fire pace, delivering plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. The film does an excellent job offering jokes for audiences of all ages, alternating gags with plenty of references aimed at older viewers, including some memorable lines on Chris Pratt’s career and the state of DC Comics.

Sequels often mess with their characters’ personalities in an effort to manufacture new drama. Thankfully, The Second Part doesn’t fix what isn’t broken, playing to its characters’ strengths without forcing any unnatural conflict. Emmet is still an unrelenting optimist, Lucy is still afraid to open up, and Batman is still a raging narcissist. There are little bits of character development here and there, but the movie as a whole is content to keep the dynamic of the first film in place.

The musical numbers don’t pack the same punch and the plot wins zero points for originality, but the film has more than enough heart to make up for its lack of imagination. The Second Part is a lot of fun. Unimaginative concepts can still be entertaining, just as plenty of films are made each year that are completely derivative of earlier classics. The idea that a sequel should bring something new to the table can exist alongside the notion that it might just be okay if one doesn’t.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is a well-paced comedy that knows exactly when to tug on the heartstrings. It’s not as imaginative as the first, but that’s practically a given for any sequel. When it comes to providing an experience well worth seeing on the big screen, the movie hits every note that matters. Maybe that won’t be enough for a future installment, but for now, everything is still pretty awesome.

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Wednesday

30

January 2019

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Breaking Down the Fyre Festival Documentaries

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Are two Fyre Festival documentaries in the same week too much, or not enough? Having watched both in one day, I can’t honestly say I’ve had my fill of Fyre just yet. The horrors of the event provide more effective scares than most fictional narratives could hope to achieve. The sheer absurdity of the event, one that practically everyone involved knew would be a disaster, hasn’t lost any appeal after two feature-length films.

There’s something timeless about Billy McFarland. Hulu’s Fyre Fraud makes the mistake of using McFarland as a conduit to criticize millennials, forgetting how many carnival barkers make their living off the same antics. He’s insufferably caught up in himself, for no apparent reason other than the faint idea that he could exist in proximity to the rich and famous.

Fyre Festival was a dream concocted in service to nothing other than the idea of a dream. The documentaries give about as much focus to the music as MTV does these days. You get the sense that it was never about music, but rather the idea of being on a tropical island with a bunch of famous people. In that regard, the attendees kind of got what they paid for, an experience to remember.

Neither documentary presents much cause for sympathy for the ticketholders, much in line with the internet’s initial reaction to the disaster as it unfolded. The notion of a “once in a lifetime” experience exists in on the surface level with regard to something like the Fyre Festival, but falls apart when you consider the unspectacular music lineup. McFarland sold the dream of exclusivity, the chance to live a real-life Instagram story. In many ways, all the media surrounding the disaster gave the attendees exactly what they wanted, an event unlike any other in music history. Surely the stories of surviving Fyre are worth more cultural capital than a Blink-182 concert.

The Fyre Festival documentaries have captured an impressive slice of media attention, especially when you consider how much new content debuts each week. The entire saga was the perfect blend of millennial-centric catastrophe, a lightning rod used to indict an entire generation. Just like the Tide Pod Challenge that followed a few months later, there’s nothing inherently illuminating about Fyre Festival, an obvious con that fooled the kind of people who spend their days on Instagram looking for the white rabbit beyond their reality.

If you’re wondering which documentary is more worthy of your time, the Netflix one gives you a much more satisfying front-row seat to the disaster as it unfolded. For the true Fyre experience, watch them both back to back. You’ll wonder how so many people could be fooled by one man, but maybe you’ll also think about why we as a country delight in these train-wrecks.

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Wednesday

30

January 2019

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Shameless Doesn’t Have a Clue What to Do with Its Characters

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Ensemble dramas like Shameless are built for the long haul. Every single Gallagher child had departed the original UK version of the series by the conclusion of its ninth season. Assuming no additional cast members leave in the coming episodes besides the departures already announced, the U.S. version will reach that same point down only two Gallagher children. With much of its original cast intact, the U.S. version hasn’t needed to pivot its focus in quite the same way. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t really know what to do with its characters.

For the first few years of the show, Emmy Rossum carried the weight of the show’s emotional core on her back. Fiona’s downward spiral back in season four showcased Rossum’s talent as an actress, offering a heartbreaking depiction of the difficulties of upward mobility out of poverty. In between underwhelming romantic storylines, the show spent much of season eight with Fiona back on the rise. While another fall from grace seems inevitable given the natural arcs of television, it’s sad to see season nine send Fiona out with such pathetic a whimper, embodying the very worst traits of her father.

Season nine has little to say about any of the Gallagher children. With his alcoholism under control, Lip is without a storyline that gives any hint of where his future might lead. Cameron Monaghan’s departure from the series left Ian in jail, thankfully away from the horrendous “gay Jesus” plotline, a concept that might have seemed edgy for cable television back in 2001. After years of struggling to get her act together, Debbie has a stable job, left only with throwaway storylines mining homosexual experimentation for no reason in particular. Liam finds himself kicked out of his private school for no apparent reason, left to play second fiddle to other Gallagher plots. Carl is the only one with any sense of direction in his life, though he’s spinning his tires for the most part with “ripped from the headlines” gags like the electric scooter scheme.

Nine seasons in, Shameless feels tired. The show is content to use current political topics like the #MeToo movement and family separation at the border as weekly plot points without ever really presenting anything interesting to say. Kevin & Veronica have felt like filler for years, rarely factoring into what the Gallaghers are doing at large. Frank’s antics are mildly amusing, if not a waste of William H. Macy’s talent.

Shameless used to be pretty good at multi-season arcs. Fiona, Lip, and Ian, in particular, all had storylines that didn’t play out like high octane roller coasters, moving from high to low with each passing episode. For some reason, the show essentially gave up on that stuff in favor of hitting the reset button every year. The substitute plots can be hit or miss, but there’s little emotional weight behind any of it.

As good an actress as Emmy Rossum is, it’s hard to get emotionally invested in Fiona’s farewell arc. She’s been increasingly isolated from the main Gallagher clan over the past few seasons, repeating a cycle of toxic relationships and bad business decisions. Given the bleak outlook of the show in general, a happy ending was hardly in order, but the lazy planning robbed Rossum of the chance to go out with a bang.

Shameless used to provide a unique look at Chicago’s working class. Now the show is a shell of its former self, wandering from episode to episode without any clear long-term direction. To a certain extent, the show was hindered this season by a need to wrap up storylines for two main characters, but these problems have existed for a while now. There are still plenty of competent actors on the show, but Shameless needs to figure out something worthwhile for them to do.

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Tuesday

22

January 2019

1

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Fyre Fraud Loses Sight of the Scandalous Festival In Pursuit of Millennial Bashing

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Millennials are a frequent punching bag for the media. Apparently, we’re selfish, superficial, and we ruin everything, claims that we’re supposed to believe have never applied to any other generation. Hulu’s new Fyre Fraud documentary, one of two films released about the disastrous festival in the Bahamas, builds its premise based on the notion that such a grift could only work in modern times. Such a thesis seems to forget that America’s luxury class has always pursued community through exclusivity.

Social clubs have been popular for hundreds of years, granting access to those deemed worthy of membership in the eyes of the elite. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club was built around the same premise, mainstreaming a sense of community through a shared interest in seemingly refined tastes. People frequent cigar lounges not for smokes, but for the chance of a fraternal bond blossoming beneath the fumes.

Fyre Fraud paints Fyre Media CEO Billy McFarland, currently serving a six-year prison sentence for crimes related to the festival, as a kind of genius capable of manipulating the easily-fooled millennial masses. The younger generation somehow deserves some blame for falling victim to the con, which hired hundreds of influencers to create an aura of luxury before any infrastructure was put in place to deliver on such promises. The documentary hoists McFarland up as a natural symptom of a narcissistic generation, hailing him as the spiritual successor to The Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort.

The documentary is less about the festival than it is about McFarland, who was paid to appear in the film under ethically dubious circumstances. Billed as a “true-crime comedy,” Fyre Fraud uses frequent animated cutaways to poke fun at the disaster. There’s a lot to laugh at about Fyre Festival, as social media at the time collectively mocked the hoards of rich kids stranded in the Bahamas after being denied the luxuries they overpaid for. For some reason, the documentary felt obliged to play the role of standup comedian rather than to let the contemporaneous jokes speak for themselves, laughing off serious material that deserved closer scrutiny.

There are a few scenes where the interviewers hold McFarland’s feet to the flames, but can’t manage to shake anything substantive from his slick hands. There are natural reservations on his part to not reveal any information that could add to his prison sentence, but he isn’t forthcoming about much of anything at all. It’s hardly uncommon for a subject to not appear in a hostile documentary, which begs the question of why the film felt the need to pay him to appear at all. Such time could have been spent providing a fuller picture of how the festival was doomed from the get-go, or to showcase the many Bahamians who were conned out of payment for their services.

The documentary does shed some much-needed light on the involvement of Jerry Media, the company behind the infamous “fuckjerry” Instagram account that helped market the festival. Jerry Media produced the other documentary on Fyre Festival, a conflict of interest that deserves to be called out, but Fyre Fraud handles this footnote in a way that seems driven less out of journalistic obligation than as a dunk to claim moral superiority over a competing narrative. There are certainly other people to blame for Fyre Festival than simply McFarland, but this documentary doesn’t spend much time on any of the other perpetrators beyond those who dared to make their own film about the experience.

Fyre Fraud hoists Billy McFarland up as a straw man indictment against millennials, casting aside a thorough examination of the festival in favor of cheap laughs. Grifters like McFarland have been around for thousands of years, robbing Peter to pay Paul. The only difference between McFarland and Charles Ponzi is that none of Ponzi’s victims were able to post an Instagram picture of their experience. The documentary allows McFarland’s charms to suck the air out of the room, lazily criticizing millennials at the expense of exploring the greatest con in festival history.

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Tuesday

22

January 2019

2

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Free Solo Presents a Balanced Portrait of Alex Honnold’s Superhuman Life

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A documentary about an athlete like Alex Honnold faces an inevitable, and somewhat unattainable, objective beyond its purpose as a film. The question of why anyone would ever free solo when the stakes are literally life and death persists long after the audience is forced to accept the idea that there isn’t going to be a satisfying answer. Fortunately, Free Solo found plenty of alternative courses that depict its subject in a way that effectively circumvents the core of the mystique.

Honnold has been making headlines for a little over a decade for his free solo feats, rock climbing without a rope, but Free Solo sets its sights on a more intimate scope. The buildup to Honnold’s climb of Yosemite Valley’s El Captain, to be the first person to free solo the immensely difficult formation, gives the film a sense of purpose beyond a mere biopic. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin cover many aspects of Honnold’s life, but the film constantly returns to El Captain, allowing the historic nature of the achievement to serve as a placeholder for any notion that the audience might begin to understand why anyone would want to embark on such a perilous adventure.

Free soloing is not without its detractors, who worry that climbers like Honnold are not only recklessly risking their own lives, but also inspiring others to do the same. The film never paints Honnold as a hero or a role model, despite the obvious cozy relationship the directors enjoyed with their subject. Honnold is immensely likable, an awkward individual without an ego one might expect from his stature, but he’s also clearly not someone meant to be emulated. He’s a singular force of nature, one whose predecessors in the field of free soloing have pretty much all met grim fates. Free Solo manages to celebrate his career while constantly flashing big “don’t try this at home” warnings to the audience, best illustrated through a montage of deceased free solo climbers who lost their lives in pursuit of their passions.

The directors do an excellent job explaining the fundamentals of rock climbing to the audience, as well as the particulars that make El Captain such a monstrous wonder. Capturing Honnold’s climb in progress was an impressive feat itself. Featuring the crew in supporting roles allowed Free Solo to give an added sense of gravity to the journey, as it’s clear that all care about Alex on a deeper level than their obligations as filmmakers.

The film dedicates a large portion of its runtime to Honnold’s love life, which was deliberately presented as nonexistent in one of the first scenes but gradually blossoms over the course of the narrative. Honnold’s girlfriend Sanni McCandless is put in an unusual position for a documentary, in many ways functioning as the film’s antagonist by token of her understandable apprehension toward free soloing. The complexities of their relationship give Free Solo a sense of personal depth that might otherwise be missing, as Honnold is less than forthcoming about the motives behind his wildlife.

At times, their relationship does appear to be used as a plot point, exacerbated by the fact that they started dating after the narrative began. McCandless’ reservations are also contrasted by Honnold’s mother, who takes a completely non-interventionist approach to his free soloing. As the film progresses, it’s clear that her feelings serve as a suitable conduit for the larger issue of why anyone without an apparent death wish would keep attempting such dangerous feats. Honnold seems unbothered by the sentiment, even as he ages and adds more real-world stakes to his life. After a while, the film does an effective job convincing the audience that such motives need not be explained.

Free Solo captures one of the greatest athletic feats in history while never losing sight of its much more human subject. There is a lot to admire in Alex Honnold’s achievements. He makes for a fascinating film subject, a kindhearted man who has dedicated his life to his dreams. There is a real-world danger in idolizing his career, as free soloing often leads to perilous results. Directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin crafted their film responsibly, showcasing Honnold’s superhuman talents while making clear that admirers should not leave the film hell-bent on free climbing up the first large object they see.

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Tuesday

15

January 2019

0

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Mahershala Ali Brings True Detective Back to Form

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The TV landscape has changed quite a bit in the half-decade since True Detective’s debut in 2015. The novelty of seeing big Hollywood names on the small screen has diminished in the wake of new series featuring A-list talent such as Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Michael Douglas. “Peak TV” exists as much as a cliché as a universal truth in this current era. There are more good shows on right now than anyone, even critics, has actual time to watch.

True Detective has always embraced the slow burn, a concept increasingly harder to sell in this bloated environment. After squandering much of its cultural capital on a forgettable second season, the show finds itself needing to balance suspense with the notion that its audience doesn’t necessarily need to accept that anymore. Mystique is an increasingly tougher sell, especially for week-to-week series.

Casting Mahershala Ali in the lead role was perhaps the best decision the show could have made. Ali has the power to mine intrigue from the mundane, an expressive actor capable of playing the same role across three time periods in a way that makes each feel fresh and unique. We don’t learn all that much about his character, Wayne Hays in the early episodes, but he plays the minimalism to his advantage. His ability to captivate in each scene makes the episodes fly by in a way that was sorely missing from season two.

The time jumps also provide some interesting commentary on the nature of America’s current cultural obsession with true crime series. Unsolved crimes, particularly ones involving children, remain alive years after their cases have gone cold through podcasts and Internet message boards. The unsettling nature of these heinous acts exists in a puzzling contrast with their status as entertainment symbols, something that essentially applies on a broader scale to fictional series like True Detective that deal with brutal murders.

Season three marks a return to form for True Detective, even if though it fails to reach the highs of its freshman effort. America seems less enthralled by anthology series in recent years than it has in the past, perhaps an inevitable development for a medium pushing its saturation point. A strong performance from Mahershala Ali keeps things interesting enough to wash the stink of season two away, even if the series isn’t likely to capture the country’s attention in quite the same way again.

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