Ian Thomas Malone

Pop Culture Archive

Friday

29

April 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Northman offers an arthouse spin on an epic legend of vengeance

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Vengeance is an easy desire to rationalize. The injustice of suffering leaves a void that the heart naturally wants to fill. The cost of delivering such retribution often plays second fiddle to the mind’s manifestation of the sweet delight seemingly offered by correcting an egregious wrong. Of course, the world is not a binary of good vs. evil, not that vengeance has to care about such realities.

The Northman follows a life of vengeance. An adaptation of the legend of Amleth, a Scandinavian figure more familiar to Western audiences for inspiring Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the narrative follows the prince (Alexander Skarsgård, with Oscar Vovak playing Amleth as a young boy) as he seeks to avenge the death of his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who also burned his village and abducted his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Prophecy shapes Amleth’s quest, believing himself to be put on the soil solely to take his uncle’s life.

Amleth gives up a promising career as a Viking berserker to stow away aboard a slave ship headed to Iceland, the seat of his uncle’s exile. Becoming enslaved himself in the process, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress and kindred spirit. As Amleth and Olga grow closer, the prince faces a fork in the road, the cost of his quest for vengeance contrasted by the prospects of breaking the cycle, to forge a new path free of the endless violence.

Director Robert Eggers delivers a slow-burn that’s singularly focused in its step-by-step depiction of Amleth’s submission to prophecy. Just as good and evil exist outside a binary, the question of nature vs. nurture is a bit irrelevant when faced with a reality where the two work in almost-complete tandem. Violence may not be the only life that Amleth could choose to live, but it is the only life he knows how to live. Eggers’ every motion hammers that point home.

The cast all seem to understand their place less as characters, but as part of the legend. Eggers seems to understand the weight of epic, the performances and cinematography carrying a soft touch even amidst the narrative’s extreme brutality. Skarsgård never once puffs his chest to assert his place as the hero, in complete alignment with Amleth’s sense of prophecy bestowed upon him at an early age. His approach to character development feels almost more like character actualization than any real sense of growth. Not all boys change as they grow into men.

The supporting cast, also including Willem Dafoe and Björk in bit roles, have quite a lot of fun with the material. The 137-minute runtime is a bit over-bloated, but Eggers never loses his grip on his audience through the cerebral narrative. Larger-than-life material is rarely delivered with such serene execution. Epics are not necessarily meant to feel intimate, yet The Northman carries itself like performers in a black box theatre, welcoming even against a backdrop of endless miles of nothingness.

The Northman demonstrates Eggers’ immense maturity as a filmmaker, a testament to cinema’s power to communicate rich art to a wide audience. In a world full of crowd-pleaser films fighting for their share of the box office, the film instead aims to leave its viewers with a calmer sense of satisfaction by the time the credits roll. It feels good to be challenged in the theatre, to see an epic wrestle with morals humanity has been grappling with for hundreds of years.

Monday

25

April 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a charming, formulaic celebration of Nicholas Cage

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Few actors truly understand the trajectory of American culture quite like Nicholas Cage. The freaks and outcasts vilified through the 90s and 00s have taken over the mainstream. The MCU reigns supreme at the box office, and San Diego Comic-Con rivals Coachella as one of the hottest events of the season. Somewhere along the way, it became cool to give a shit, to be weird, and most important of all, to be yourself.

For all the criticism Nicholas Cage has received for his often-bizarre performances, or his financial troubles, the man has not let anything alter his fundamental approach to his craft. The modern box office does not have a ton of room for the brand of action blockbusters such as The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off that turned Cage into a A-list movie star. Cinemas are now largely powered by franchises, with a diminished need for star power to fill the theatre seats.

While Hollywood has changed quite a bit over the past thirty years, Cage has remained remarkably consistent. Years removed from his own franchise vehicles, such as Ghost Rider (no pun intended) or National Treasure, Cage has kept busy on smaller films such as Joe, Pig, and Prisoners of the Ghostland. The new movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent aims to wield the old-fashioned action hero Cage energy for a modern audience that missed seeing his face up on giant billboards.

Cage plays a heavily fictionalized version of himself, struggling in a Hollywood that’s mostly moved on from his antics. His ex-wife and daughter are also tired of his bloviated ego, heavy drinking, and poor financial restraint. After an emotional “retirement” Cage takes an offer from his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) of one million dollars to attend a birthday party of a diehard fan, Javi (Pedro Pascal), a billionaire with too much money burning a hole in his pocket.

Director Tom Gormican’s film essentially follows two separate tracks at the same time. Much of the film is an homage to Cage’s colorful career, full of nods to his more eccentric roles, and his bizarre behavior. Cage also plays a younger version of himself, “Nicky,” to play devil’s advocate on occasion. The rest of the film aims to be a by-the-books action-comedy, relying heavily on the chemistry between Cage and Pascal.

The film’s first half is remarkably strong, tightly-paced with more than enough time for Cage antics while Gormican lays out the actual plot, centered around arms dealers who kidnapped a politician’s daughter. Cage is more than willing to poke fun at his career and cult status, frequently noting his decline in star power even as his workload increased. Gormican pulls off the impressive feat of blending the various stages of Cage’s career together, albeit through remarkably tame execution that’s beneath the absurdity of his star.

The meta-humor overstays its welcome around the halfway point. The script gets way too defensive when it essentially tries to justify its pivot toward mundane, practicable action. Gormican is way too self-conscious in his mainstream work. It wouldn’t be much of a problem if he didn’t let his narrative drag in the process, a few sequences that essentially regurgitate the same point.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is an immensely entertaining film, the kind that deserves to be enjoyed on the big screen. Everyone involved seems to understand the sheer value of bringing Cage back to the blockbuster format he enjoys so much. Pascal is the perfect companion to help anchor the whole experience.

As part of Cage’s overall portfolio, Gormican’s work leaves a bit to be desired. This film could have been a perfect encapsulation of Cage’s career, a mainstream triumph of the man’s eccentricities. The third act plays things far too safe. The film is well-worth the price of admission, Cage superfans deserve better than the end result.

Wednesday

13

April 2022

1

COMMENTS

Still brimming with mediocrity, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is an improvement over its predecessor

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Video game superfans should generally temper their expectations toward big-screen adaptations of beloved works. Sonic the Hedgehog was a bit of an anomaly in this regard, a generic plot constantly uplifted by Jim Carrey’s nostalgia-heavy performance as Dr. Robotnik. Audiences generally don’t see a film play simultaneously to the generic kids movie crowd alongside older viewers who grew up with the source material.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 remains acutely aware that many of the kids who grew up blowing into their Sega Genesis cartridges now have children of their own. The script for the sequel is laden with popular culture references that no one under the age of ten would understand. The efforts toward recreating iconic Sonic boss levels often sharply contrast with the otherwise abundant laziness toward just about every other aspect of the film.

The sequel mostly picks up where the first film left off. Sonic (Ben Schwartz) has the Wachowski residence to himself while Tom (James Marsden) and Maddie (Tika Sumpter) attend the Hawaii wedding for Rachel (Natasha Rothwell) and Randall (Shemar Moore), the latter serving as the film’s sole primary newcomer among the live-action cast. Longtime sidekick Tails (Colleen O’Shaughnessey) joins Sonic to take on Robotnik and fan-favorite Knuckles (Idris Elba), who seek to harness the power of the Master Emerald.

The plot is about as silly and generic as the first film. The script does little in terms of world-building regarding the Emerald’s power or Knuckles’ beef with Sonic, but it also doesn’t really need to. The chemistry between the pairs of Sonic & Tails, and Knuckles & Robotnik supplies most of the narrative’s best moments.

Director Jeff Fowler has no idea what to do with his live-action performers outside of Carrey. The middle of the film dedicates far too much time to Rachel and Randall’s wedding. The actors work hard to endear themselves to the audience with limited screentime, but that doesn’t really change the fact that the film is pretty boring whenever there isn’t a CGI character on screen.

The script is once again laughably bad, projecting a bland hero’s journey onto Sonic, who’s still quite the loner. You get the sense that someone is trying to say something about the power of self-confidence, but the narrative doesn’t have the attention span to stay on any one strand for very long. Elba’s top-notch voice work is undercut by the silly lines he’s expected to deliver with a straight face, lacking Carrey’s innate ability to work magic with amateur-level screenwriting.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is way messier than it should have been, full of cheap filler like a lazy dance-off in addition to the pop culture references that already feel dated. Fowler does nail the interactions between his principal players. Sonic benefits immensely from the presence of Tails and Knuckles, inching the character closer toward his rightful place as the epitome of cool.

The film fares better at serving its dual audiences of children and adults than most of its contemporaries, but that reality doesn’t change the fact that Sonic 2 is quite content with mediocrity for most of its bloated 122-minute runtime. Fowler delivered a stark improvement over the original film, but he did not craft a particularly impressive feature, once again leaving Carrey with far too much cleanup duty. Sonic diehards will find much to enjoy, but everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog deserves better than this half-hearted attempt at filmmaking.

Monday

28

March 2022

0

COMMENTS

Uncharted succeeds in spite of its laughably awful script

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A film like Uncharted is not really designed to spark broader conversations about the nature of entertainment. Based on the long-running adventure video game franchise of the same name, it is certainly fair to label the whole affair as a cash grab designed to appeal to fans of both the series and of superstar lead actor Tom Holland. There’s something more at stake for the action genre as a whole in this era defined by massive budges and connected universes.

The film is largely a paint-by-number swashbuckler that borrows heavily from 90s genre tropes. Nathan Drake (Holland) is a skilled pickpocket desperate for news of his long-lost brother Sam (Rudy Pankow), the two separated at an orphanage at an early age. Savvy fortune hunter Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Walhberg) quickly enlists Nathan’s help in locating the lost treasure of Ferdinand Magellan, both displaying a knowledge of history that highlights their proficiency at reading half a Wikipedia page.

Nathan and Sully are joined in their quest by Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali), a fellow thief with an arsenal of one-liners and a weird backstory with Sully. Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), a spoiled heir desperate for treasure, and his chief enforcer Jo (Tati Gabreille) supply the necessary cartoon villainy that every globe-trotting treasure hunt needs. There are plenty of predictable character twists that anyone can see coming from a mile away, but the actors all showed up to engage in earnest to bring a semblance of seriousness to their one-dimensional roles.

The laughably atrocious screenplay is perpetually buoyed by the film’s tight pacing and strong cast chemistry. Though it often seems to have happened completely by accident, Uncharted manages to be a pretty entertaining summer action flick. It’s not good, but it’s too fun to be bad.

Other actors might try and phone in their performance when faced with a script as clunky as this mess. Holland is his earnest self, doing his best to give the audience a fun time, playful banter with Wahlberg and Ali that does grow on you after a while. Drake does not seem terribly likely to be Holland’s next blockbuster vessel, but the role does showcase his A-list credentials. Uncharted is a good testament to the power of a strong leading man in today’s franchise-heavy age.

Director Ruben Fleischer deserves a lot of credit for his technical skills. The special effects won’t necessarily blow anyone away, but Fleischer’s camera work does elevate the material above plenty of other video game adaptations. The narrative could do without about ten minutes of its 116-minute runtime, but the pacing does have a way of keeping things fresh in a way that the script never seems to understand.

Uncharted is overly content in its commanding mediocrity, but there’s a certain joy in watching the film that’s hard to ignore. Some lines and plotholes are so terrible that they make you laugh out loud. The action sequences are completely over the top in their resounding absurdity. Fleischer’s work begs to be watched on the biggest screen possible, a throwback to the days when visiting the cinema felt like something you did just to sit in those comfortable seats and turn your brain off. Uncharted should have been a better film, but it’s too enjoyable not to recommend.

Monday

21

March 2022

1

COMMENTS

Big Brother Canada is the best reality show on television right now

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Most successful reality television works best when operating in the realm of mindless escapism, beautiful people doing terrible things to each other in luscious locations. Big Brother stakes its territory out in the pages of Foucault’s seminal classic Discipline & Punish. The Panopticon comes to life within the confines of the Big Brother house, where the world can tune at any hour of the day to watch a bunch of strangers stuck together with nothing to do but stab each other in the back.

Season 10 of Big Brother Canada followed shortly after the conclusion of the third season of the American Celebrity Big Brother, a golden opportunity for those of us who felt more than a bit underwhelmed by the poor quality of play in CBB, where many of the contestants barely understood what show they were on, leaving themselves easy marks for winner Miesha Tate and her primary ally, runner-up Todrick Hall. Big Brother is anything but easy, months of isolation from the outside world, unstable nutrition, and terrible sleeping conditions.

The Big Brother Canada house sets itself apart from other iterations of the show with its commanding beauty. Canada gives its houseguests significantly more space than its neighbors to the south, the season 10 buildout looking like a postmodern casino warehouse pop-up. With plenty of rooms to plot schemes, “BB Can,” as it’s affectionately referred to, manages to keep the drama elevated without the sense of claustrophobia favored in other versions. 

There have been more than 500 different seasons of Big Brother across the world since the show’s launch in 1999. Patterns tend to develop with that kind of longevity, even putting aside the fact that the American and Canadian versions follow a different set of rules than the rest of the world. The jocks of the house tend to align early on, making easy targets of the lone wolves, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Efforts to introduce a more inclusive cast of houseguests haven’t done all that much to fundamentally alter the status quo of this reality.

What sets Big Brother Canada apart from its American counterpart is the relentless way its houseguests actually engage in the game. It’s easy for the flow of the house to feel inevitably pointed in one direction, where the strongest competition players are able to control the tempo until the time comes for them to turn on each other. Twists rarely happen early on.

Season 10 of Big Brother Canada delivered some of the juiciest drama in BB history, just in its third week. Head of Household Kyle Moore sat pretty on top of his alliance, the wind at his back. HoH Icarus took one look at the sun and decided to take his chance to cement his reign as one for the ages. In a game where no one should trust anyone, Kyle began to target his own alliance for no apparent reason.

Tolstoy wrote with great skepticism about the power of generals to use their sheer force of will to conquer throughout War and Peace. Reality spares little time for the whims of men who sit in cushy chairs far removed from the action. The proletariat houseguests are used to falling in line, lest they find themselves next on the chopping block, but emperors cannot simply force their will into existence.

Kyle reaping the fruits of his disastrous HOH run. Courtesy of Big Brother Canada live feeds.

Big Brother Canada finds such beauty in the simple mechanics of the game. Kyle initially nominated Stephanie Paterson and Moose Bendago, both key allies, for eviction. When Moose won the Power of Veto competition, Kyle saw a chance to go down in history by turning his fire on another ally, Josh Nash, widely viewed as one of the strongest competitors in the game. The seeming inevitability of Josh’s fate came up against his sheer force of will to stay. Campaigning for his life, Josh pulled off a stunning upset in the eviction ceremony, a 9-2 vote that sent a visibly shocked Stephanie home. Season 10’s eighth episode seems destined to go down as one of the most thrilling episodes in the entire franchise’s long and storied history.

How often is reality TV capable of genuine excitement? BB live-feed diehards find joy in the often-mundane nature of the game. Big Brother is a marathon, not a sprint, but for large chunks of the time, it can barely feel like much of an actual competition. That’s where Big Brother Canada distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack. The houseguests came not merely to survive Big Brother, but to play Big Brother. 

A game based on treachery and deception deserves houseguests willing to perpetually sharpen their knives. Big Brother Canada is vastly superior to its American counterpart through its commitment to engaging in the ugliness of humanity’s baser instincts. Americans aren’t used to being bested in the reality-TV category, but our neighbors to the north certainly have us beat on this front. BB diehards should not sleep on this amazing season. 

Wednesday

16

March 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Job of Songs makes the case for good old-fashioned human connection

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There are a lot of narratives centered on the hardships of moving, being forced to leave your homeland behind in pursuit of a better life. There’s an additional, often underrepresented burden placed on the communities that bear the brunt of these exoduses and the people left behind. Culture is a living, communal entity, forces of gravity that reflect the people who gravitate toward its orbit.

The documentary The Job of Songs explores the heavy burden that change places on culture to keep the spirit of a people alive. Centered on the village of Doolin, a small town on the western tip of Ireland, the narrative follows the people who stayed behind as the demands of the modern world laid their burdens on these tight-knit communities. Known for its breathtaking scenery, Doolin is the kind of place that’s been elevated by social media platforms such as Instagram that reward such geographical beauty.

Director Lila Schmitz is perpetually wary of the one-dimensional portrait crafted by a tourist selfie that hardly tells much of a story about a community. Doolin’s true vibrancy resonates from its people, particularly the musicians that populate the airwaves and the pubs each night. The songs they sing each night supply the glue that holds everything together.

The documentary supplies plenty of context into Doolin’s history, but Schmitz’s work really comes alive during the interviews and extended sequences featuring local musicians. The Job of Songs constantly recognizes the ace in the back of Schmitz’s pocket in the form of the beautiful music that frequently accompanies the imagery on the screen. There’s a vibrancy to the pub life that makes you feel a part of the room. After more than two years of a global pandemic, that kind of spirit resonates more than ever.

Schmitz’s greatest skill as a director is the way she tackles heavy subjects without getting melancholic or giving into the trap of nostalgia. It might be easy for people to reminisce about the idea of “the good old days,” but the people of Doolin aren’t adverse to change. Change is a part of every single community on the planet whether we like it or not. You have to grow with the times, while also maintaining the culture and history of the plots of earth we call home. Life happens in the present, not the past.

The film has a lean runtime of 73 minutes, a well-paced narrative that knows when it’s made its points. While The Job of Songs makes a compelling case for why someone should want to visit Doolin, Schmitz is more concerned with making sure that her audience understands why travel needs to be a more immersive experience than the kind of stuff that appeals to social media followings. Plenty of musicians came to Doolin for various reasons, choosing to stay after engaging with the magic that song provides.

People matter. Song brings us together, not just in merry times, but also to remember the moments that weren’t as fun. Ireland has faced plenty of hardships in the not-so-distant past, with plenty still alive who remember the catastrophic effects of famine and war. The simple beauty of perseverance comes alive so vividly when a group of musicians huddles together in a crowded pub. The Job of Songs captures all of that for anyone to enjoy from the comforts of their own home.

Monday

7

March 2022

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: Kuroneko

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The horror genre yields its greatest triumphs when able to crawl under the audience’s skin. A rational mind can understand that ghosts are not exactly real, but a skilled director knows how to craft tension so palpable that reality can be tossed right out the window. Fear needs no justification.

The 1968 film Kuroneko deals with tragedy on a level that you almost feel claustrophobic watching the narrative unfold. Yone (Nobuko Otowa), a mother, and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) are brutally raped and murdered in their home by samurai, a black cat serving as the only witness. Though the samurai burn the house down, a mansion later appears in its place. Subsequent samurai who seek respite on the premise are greeted by Yone and Shige, who seduce them before tearing their throats out.

Yone’s son Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) is off fighting battles elsewhere in Japan. The narrative reveals that he was conscripted to fight at an early age, eventually rising to samurai during the events of the narrative. Gintoki hopes to return home to see his wife and mother, unaware of their gruesome murder, or their plans to punish any samurai who cross their path.

Director Kaneto Shindo offers a sleek take on the kaibyō genre with a chilling exploration of vengeance’s corrosive effect on the soul. Gintoki finds himself in the midst of a nature vs. nurture debate that’s so warped that it doesn’t really care about justice. Morality hasn’t exactly exited the equation completely, but the sheer brutality of the events that set off the narrative makes it hard to attach the villain label toward spirits who maybe got a little too caught up in their efforts to right an egregious wrong.

Kuroneko is often quite uncomfortable to watch, but the beautiful Tohoscope style cinematography makes for a captivating viewing experience through the 99-minute runtime. Shindo shows off his technical prowess repeatedly with subtle moments that jump out of nowhere. The film’s scares never make you jump out of your seat, but the dramatic tension leaves you feeling quite drained by the time the credits roll.

The screenplay keeps its characters at arm’s length from the audience. Gintoki is so influenced by those around him, both the spirits and his commanding officers, that he never quite settles into the role of the protagonist, instead the object of his family’s carnal rage. Taichi’s Shige is essentially the true emotional core of the film, caught between the spirit world and the memory of her true love.

Some deeds are so tragic and unthinkable that they can never be made whole. Film is often reluctant to explore that reality. There are no easy outcomes for the events of Kuroneko. Shindo delivers a triumph of the horror genre as he explores his painful themes.

Monday

7

March 2022

0

COMMENTS

A bad scripts sucks all the air out of Ultrasound

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The success of a magic trick largely hinges on the performer’s ability to keep their audience engaged in the theatre of the moment rather than its mechanics. The thriller genre works in very much the same way. A director can orchestrate all the mind games they want, but the puzzle only works if the viewers have bought into the premise long enough for it to land.

Glen (Vincent Kartheiser) finds himself stranded late at night after running over some pesky nails with his car. A local, Art (Bob Stephenson), takes him in for some hospitality and a strange amount of alcohol before suggesting that Glen sleep with his wife Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez). The situation gets much weirder when Art pops up at Glen’s house a few weeks later, claiming that Cyndi is pregnant with his child.

The narrative gets quite confusing when Katie (Rainey Qualley) seemingly subs in as the new protagonist, a supposedly pregnant woman caught up in an affair with Alex (Chris Gartin), a senator in the middle of a re-election campaign. Glen, Cyndi, and Katie are shown to be part of a medical study run by Shannon (Breeda Wool) and Dr. Connors (Tunde Adebimpe), both carrying the aura of professional gaslighters. The warped sense of reality is equally baffling for the audience and the characters ostensibly set up to serve as the leads.

Director Robert Schroeder and writer Conor Stechschulte, who also authored the graphic novel Generous Bosom that serves as the source material, never really find themselves on the same page. Schroeder impresses with his sleek feature, but Ultrasound suffers from a wooden script and poorly developed characters. The actors, particularly Kartheiser and Wool, do their best to breathe life into one-dimensional people, but they’re never really given much to work with.

The first act is quite boring, a missed opportunity to bond the characters to the audience. Things pick up around the halfway mark, with Schroeder able to show off his talent in a genre that’s ripe for his skillset. The cinematography can only carry things so far though, like being at a boring dinner party in a house with beautiful curtains. Distractions can only fuel you for so long before you’re forced to confront the empty hole where there should be an engaging story.

A leaner cut might produce better results. Ultrasound doesn’t have a strong enough foundation to carry its 103-minute runtime. Psychology aficionados might find plenty to enjoy in Schroeder’s interesting themes, but the narrative can’t sustain the puzzle long enough for a general audience to care.

Friday

4

March 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Batman honors The Dark Knight’s humble origins as The World’s Greatest Detective

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Batman has earned his fair share of nicknames since his 1939 debut. Film has made plenty of time for the parts of Bruce Wayne’s persona that fit monikers like “The Caped Crusader” or “The Dark Knight,” but cinematic depictions of Batman rarely center on the work that earned him the title of “The World’s Greatest Detective.” DC Comics itself owes its name to the impact of its flagship title, Detective Comics, where Gotham’s first son cut his teeth on procedural work rather than punching matches with superpowered villains.

Director Matt Reeves finally provides Batman with a noir mystery fit for the man’s reputation. A Halloween-themed series of murders by The Riddler (Paul Dano) leaves a trail of clues for Batman (Robert Pattinson) and James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to follow, hoping to foil the puzzle master’s grander ambitions.  The Riddler sets his sights on Gotham’s elite, hoping to snuff out of the corruption of Gotham’s political institutions and police department at the hands of organized crime, particularly Carmine Falcone (John Turturo) and his right-hand man Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), better known as The Penguin.

The world does not need another Batman origin story, but Reeves breathes so much life into the early days of the Detective’s early career. Set about two years into his mission, Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is not the “billionaire playboy” often depicted on screen. Bruce is hardly much of a person at all, a shell of a man struggling to find his identity outside of the costume, much to the chagrin of his butler and confidant Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis).

Reeves strikes closer to the core of Batman’s ethos than any other live-action depiction, a noir mystery ripe for Gotham’s murky confines. Bruce Wayne lives his life based on a vow he made in the wake of unimaginable horror, before he was even a teenager. There’s a certain absurdity to that reality that Batman films are reluctant to explore. Batman is not someone to idolize, forever doomed to his unwinnable war against crime. He is less a hero than an addict.

Pattinson puts forth an absolutely delicious performance. Carrying the weight of uncertainty that hangs over most thirty-somethings trying to find their places in the world, his Bruce chases the high of crime-fighting while slowly grappling with the reality that life cannot be sustained by mere thrills alone. While the film offers Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) as a potential romantic interest, Batman’s true love in the film is James Gordon, the sole cop to buy into his vigilante mission, not yet the commissioner that Gotham needs him to be.

The film moves with a breezy pace through an overstuffed 176-minute runtime. While Farrell and Turturo make the most of limited screen time to establish their mob underworld, Kravitz barely gets a chance to make her mark as Catwoman, lacking Kyle’s signature suave sense of confidence. While Reeves is clearly saving some powder for future sequels, the third act is far too lackadaisical in its delivery, excessively circling the runway before the credits finally roll.

While all of the principals deliver top-notch performances, Dano’s Riddler begs for a larger piece of the pie than Reeves is ever willing to offer. The overstuffed cast of villains denies its meatiest player much of a role, an interesting take on the idea of less being more. Dano absolutely crushes every single second of his screen time. Batman villains are often defined by excess, but Dano delights in a minimalist take that finds genuine terror in his grounded reflection of reality.

The Batman is a triumph for comic book diehards. Reeves treats his source material with such obvious affection. His depiction of Gotham isn’t quite as cartoonish as Burton’s beautiful sets, nor overly reflective of the real world like Nolan’s. Reeves’ Gotham has a distinct sense of ugliness to its grit, the kind of careful consideration that colorists strive to maintain on each page. There is no “singular” take on Batman, whether on screen or in the comics, but Reeves is clearly striving to be counted among the many artists who have built up Detective Comics over its more than one thousand issues.

Bruce Wayne forever tries to hide his own vulnerability, while never really growing out of the child who watched his own parents’ murder in Crime Alley. Pattinson wears that anguish with every expression, a rare sensitivity sheathed from most leading men in blockbuster films. The world could use with more vulnerability from its costumed adventures. The Batman is a powerful show of force for the genre, displaying the artistic heights one can achieve when deviating from the cookie-cutter formula. You don’t need a shared universe, not when there’s a perfectly good story to soak up the runtime.

Friday

25

February 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Book of Boba Fett never makes the leap from product to art

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Science fiction often carries its greatest impact through the genre’s ability to invoke a sense of awe and wonder. The cantina scene in the original Star Wars practically changed cinema all its own, a dazzling display of creativity and world-building. Throughout his time at the helm of the franchise, George Lucas placed a heavy emphasis on world-building, to take his audience to places they’ve never seen before.

Disney loves its piles of rocks and sand. As if Tatooine wasn’t enough of a remote desert wasteland, Star Wars threw cheap knockoffs Jakku and Navarro at the audience to switch things up. There’s a certain obvious joke to be made at how Boba Fett saw the show that bears his name co-opted by The Mandalorian, but it was never really his show in the first place. The Book of Boba Fett was always The Book of Tatooine.

Why go to another planet when you can film a whole season using only a sandbox and a green screen? Seven episodes is hardly a long season, but Disney struggled to come up with enough plot for even that amount for its empty shell of a show, choosing instead to give up halfway through in favor of The Mandalorian season 2.5. Apparently that’s life in the streaming era. When things aren’t working, just make episodes of a different show and pretend it’s still The Book of Boba Fett. The whole mess is certainly fitting for a character who had four lines in the original trilogy.

Temuera Morrison can hardly be faulted for an occasionally wooden performance. The Book of Boba Fett never laid out any clear vision for what it wanted Fett to be, a menacing bounty hunter turned morally righteous crime lord. Ming-Na Wen gets even less to work with as Fennec Shand, an alliance seemingly born solely out of the idea that she might be fun for the spin-off.

It’s easy to see the logic. Morrison and Wen have a natural, easy chemistry that was pretty apparent from their first pairing. The premise of the show should have followed suit, staying out of its own way to let two bounty hunters do what they do best. Instead, the gang plot often played second fiddle to Fett’s silly Sarlacc and Tusken Raider flashbacks, dragging down a narrative that never seemed to find its footing. The show even managed to botch introducing a character like Black Krrsantan, popularized in Kieron Gillen’s excellent Darth Vader and Doctor Aphra comics, neutering the wookie in service to absurdly silly Mos Espa politics.

There was something oddly depressing about watching Fett and Mando stand in a wide-open street being shot at during the finale, a fitting metaphor for the state of Star Wars under the Disney regime. Both men could easily use their jet packs to seek more advantageous tactical positions, but they don’t, for no reason at all. Too often, The Book of Boba Fett comes across as the product of a brainstorming session that lasted five minutes, with no critical thought or pushback applied to a single decision.

Disney left its content farm out in Tatooine’s suns for far too long, a wilted mess of a commodity masquerading as a television show. What a sad showing, not just for Star Wars, but for art itself. There is no reason on the planet why this show needed to be this bad.

Boba Fett is not the most interesting character in the world. He barely qualifies as an actual character in the original trilogy, an enigma that lent itself well to stories children play with their action figures. That kind of dynamic could have worked well for The Book of Boba Fett, especially with the Nikto gang and their ridiculous speeder bikes that look like toys from a different playset. You could probably make better Boba Fett stories in a local playground sandbox, which just needs a green screen to complete the Tatooine look.

All blockbuster franchises are products, even the ones that are crafted with love. That’s the problem with The Book of Boba Fett. It never looks like something anyone enjoyed making. Star Wars doesn’t need an artistic mandate, but maybe a little effort would be nice. It’s hard not to feel sad that this abomination exists.