Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Reviews from gulag: I think I'd rather just watch a movie that was about (choose one) [ice skating/veterinary school/Austin Powers]

As we catch up with the last year, we turn our gaze to I, Tonya, Raw, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle.  One of these movies was worth a shit, I guess.

I, TONYA (Craig Gillespie, 2017)

I, Tonya is so much less than the sum of its parts that it's almost dysfunctional, its narrative and tone constantly pulling it in a half-dozen different directions.  And so, one minute, it really is a proper sports movie, pretending like the one thing it cared about all along was presenting, in the most dynamic way it knows how, Tonya Harding's (Margot Robbie's) unique combination of resentful blue-collar ambition, enormous athleticism, and idiosyncratic artistry, and it finds these things to be inextricable from her prodigious achievements as the bad girl of 90s' figure skating, especially when she becomes the first American woman to pull off the daunting triple axel in competition (indeed, she remains one of only seven women, worldwide, to have ever done so).

The next minute, though, it becomes a nasty, awkward vaudeville show about the domestic abuse which Tonya famously suffered at the hands of her redneck then-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and, less-famously, her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney).  Then the minute after that, it gives up even the slightest pretense of trying to hide its cartoonish predelictions beneath its biographical drama, whereupon the story shifts to the hyper-Coen exploits of its supporting players, focusing particularly upon the high-test delusions of Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser), as he and his team of "operatives" prepare to unleash a singularly poorly-planned hit on Harding's friend and rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) during the run-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics.  And then (for a few seconds, anyway), it's on to its underdeveloped critique of figure skating as a prestige pastime for the wealthy.  And finally, it's right back to where it started, doing what I suppose it wants to do most of all, which is to be a satire of the media, and an examination of how sensationalist media narratives are created; and this, of course, is by far the most boring thing about it, since I don't reckon that anybody alive in 2018 needs to be reminded that the 24/7 news cycle is a force for evil.

If you get the impression that I, Tonya is mired in cruel ironic distance and winking self-awareness, which together tend to ruin it as anything but a pointy object which director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers can use to poke at American culture in their desperate attempt to vitalize a biopic, I'm afraid you might be right.  The cleverest way it situates itself in its decade, therefore—even if it's not entirely intentional—isn't its costume design, or its soundtrack, or even its attempted-throwback cinematography (though I do like its grit).  Rather, it's simply I, Tonya's embrace of the quintessentially GenX idea that "being cool" is exactly the same thing as "being sarcastically detached."

The hardest thing to grapple with about the film is the odd structure that enforces this defining  cynicism, cobbled together, as it turns out, from 2010s-vintage interviews with the principals, which send Tonya, et al, on a fourth-wall-breaking trip down memory lane.  On the one hand, it does vitalize her story: scarcely a scene goes by without Robbie turning to the camera and layering whatever we've seen with Tonya's commentary, either to deny it ever happened, or say it happened differently, or to explain why something that did happen was significant to her.  On the other hand, this isn't fucking Rashomon, and the very, very minor differences between Tonya's story and Jeff's story and LaVona's story don't actually make for much of a case of compelling ambiguity.

Oh, I'm being unfair.  There is one thing that I, Tonya's capable of doing consistently, and that's treating its assembly of white trash like they were animals in a zoo: it allows Tonya to be human only begrudgingly, and mainly because her story can't not be about her life, and because Margot Robbie came to play regardless of the film's own wishes; it only fails to eradicate Jeff Gillooly's humanity completely because Sebastian Stan sneaks around the screenplay to give the man a semblance of credibility, though his character might still mainly be little more than your basic archetype of "the weak-willed wife-beater"; and nobody else is human at all, abandoned in the several one-note joke roles that the film is completely disinterested in interrogating beyond their capacity for ugly, off-center comedy.  (In between her long bouts of profanity, abuse, and parrot-wrangling, Gillespie is presumably of the opinion that Allison Janney does all the character work she needs to in his lingering close-ups of LaVona's face as she watches Tonya on TV.  He is extremely wrong about this, and for all the merits of Janney's commitment-to-the-bit, there's absolutely nothing about her the film wants you to actually take seriously, and you certainly don't.  Instead, I, Tonya banks mostly upon its spurious verisimilitude, distracting you with a humorous recreation of the real LaVona's admittedly-disastrous haircut.)  These people probably are precisely as ludicrous as they appear.  The problem is that I, Tonya doesn't even remotely care why.

It's unnecessarily shallow in virtually every single respect, then—from its nearly nonexistent probing of Tonya's love for her sport, to the penultimate moment that obnoxiously calls the audience out for being interested in her tale—and it's shallow to the extent that it does an active disservice to Robbie's performance, which is terribly great, and which does more to tell you about Tonya's drives and heartache than everything else in the movie combined—despite the fact that I, Tonya is at least as interested with making you titter (ironically, natch) at the fact that Robbie barely resembles Harding and, in fealty to 90s couture, has been savaged from head to chin by the makeup and hair department.  It's maybe even more interested in the fact that Robbie is visibly too much of an adult in command of her own being to play this 23 year-old womanchild naturalistically.  (Yet it does this, sadly enough, without actually committing to the essential slapstick of its single most-visual gag: sure, it's funny that Robbie plays Harding as a 15 year-old.  It follows that it would be even funnier if she'd played her as a 4 year-old, too—and it would've done that crucial little bit more to remind us of the immaturity of Tonya's character as a 23 year-old, and confirm to us the intention behind the silly artifice, and underscore the embittered-yet-unbowed retrospection that is, at the end of the day, the shriveled black heart pumping I, Tonya's cold, curdled blood.)

It does have other compensations beyond Robbie (and, to a lesser extent, Stan).  It is, despite my grousing, still funny.  And when it wants to be, it's a terrifically kinetic study of figure skating as a physical act.  If Gillespie leans upon this aspect of the film gingerly outside of the centerpiece triple axel sequence (and if he only figured out enough interesting ways to film figure skating for one sequence's worth of shots, or if the face replacement is not 100% on point)—well, hell, it's all still pretty great in the moment.  Meanwhile, when Gillespie does find the right register for his mocking tone, he offers up at least one extended bout of legitimately fantastic filmmaking, with the "hit" scene constructed with an air of parodic seriousness and urgency that is no less actually-thrilling for being, in its bare facts, both goofy and hilariously low-rent.  Now, it has other problems besides its structure, of course: for every well-crafted sequence, there's another that relies on the lazy recognition factor of a pop song, or that turns into an undisciplined tracking shot that seems to exist for the pure sake of it before getting away from Gillespie entirely.

Altogether, it's a movie that does a lot to make me not like it.  But I did like it—somebody, possibly just editor Tatiana Riegel, decided that the movie needed to end on a note of forceful emotion, rather than just a summary of its decades-later snark, and that the best way to do this would be to reward Robbie's powerful performance with a powerful conclusion to Tonya's anti-sports-movie anti-arc.  (If I, Tonya ever finds true greatness, it's in its very final image, a pool of blood on a white background that, of course, bears a striking resemblance to the ice upon which Tonya made her name.)  So it's good, I guess, that somebody approached the Tonya Harding story with this much ambition, even if what he wound up doing with it was taking a long, hard look at America that's messier, angrier, and more condescending than it is ever actually insightful.  It is good, also, that somebody's trying to do something different with the biographical form, and that's worth applauding no matter what; but maybe it's not so good that Fargo still feels like more like a true story than this one.

Score:  7/10

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Here I reign


SONG TO SONG

Terry does it again.  (Whether that's a good thing or not remains, as always, a matter of taste.)

2017
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
With Rooney Mara (Faye), Ryan Gosling (B.V.), Natalie Portman (Rhonda), and Michael Fassbender (Cook)

Spoiler alert: mild

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The challenge of the super friends


JUSTICE LEAGUE

We'll see you next time, Zack.  God bless.

2017
Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon
Written by Chris Terrio, Zack Snyder, and Joss Whedon
With Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince), Ezra Miller (Barry Allen), Ray Fisher (Victor Stone), Jason Momoa (Arthur Curry), Henry Cavill (Clark Kent), Jeremy Irons (Alfred Pennyworth), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), and Ciaran Hinds (Steppenwolf)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Sunday, January 7, 2018

And here's to Nagasaki, always a bridesmaid, never a bride


IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD

A microscopic take on the defining tragedy of modern Japan, In This Corner of the World combines great beauty with great horror; but it turns out, in the end, that its chiefest concern all along was just telling a story about life.  Sounds lame, I know, but it was pretty great.

2016 Japan/2017 USA
Directed by Sunao Katabuchi
Written by Chie Uratani and Sunao Katabutchi (based on the comic by Fumiyo Kono)
With Rena Nounen (Suzu Urano), Yoshimasa Hasoya (Shusaku Hojo), Keiko Kuromura (Minori Omi), Harumi Kuromura (Natsuki Inaba), San Hojo (Mayumi Shintani), Entaro Hojo (Shigeru Ushiyama), and Tetsu Mizuhara (Daisuke Ono)

Spoiler alert: mild; spoilers are severe for a famous anime made in 1988, however

Thursday, January 4, 2018

King of kong


WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

2017 was a pretty great year for movies about primates other than people.

2017
Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves
With Andy Serkis (Caesar), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Terry Notary (Rocket), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Amiah Miller (Nova), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Ty Olsson (Red Donkey), and Woody Harrelson (The Colonel)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Darren Aronofsky, part IX: Darren Aronofsky

I. π (1998) II. Requiem For a Dream (2000) III. Below* (2002) IV. The Fountain (2006) V. The Wrestler (2008) VI. Black Swan (2010) VII. Noah (2014) VIII. mother! (2017)

For a brief little while, Darren Aronofsky was something close to the predominant force in the indie scene.  Exploding out of nowhere in 1998—"nowhere" being only imperfectly synonymous, I suppose, with "Harvard University" and "the American Film Institute"—the 28 year old came to Sundance with Pi and got himself a shiny Best Director award.  Two years later, Requiem For a Dream made an even more enormous impression (almost two decades on, I can't remember which I saw first, though I would bet it was Requiem), and, with those two films under his belt, Aronofsky had found the theme that would power the larger part of his career.  Amongst his fellows, he was one of the few true-born artists, in the deep sense of the term; and, as an artist, he had an obsession.  That obsession, of course, was obsession.

In turn, he would look at different kinds of obsession and always—every time—find the same thing: the mathematician, searching for the master equation of the universe, and finding destruction; the addict, searching for happiness, and finding misery; the scientist, searching for immortality, and finding death; the wrestler, searching for a family, and finding strangers.  Aronofsky reckoned with the hunger and beauty of obsession, but only on his fifth try, did he permit his obsessive the mercy of a happy end to her struggles, with the ballerina, searching for perfection, and finding perfection—though, once again, solely in annihilation.  (I guess it's true what they say about happy endings: Black Swan remains Aronofsky's most profitable effort by an egregious margin.)

Those five films, implicitly or (more often) explicitly, were about humans striving for knowledge and grace, and, therefore, to either join God in His Heaven, or to have a taste of His power and glory.  It's possible that the only filmmaker in the English language who might be more in awe of creation's mystery, and (unless I'm mistaken) the only other English-language filmmaker able to communicate that awe with anything like the same level of artistry, is that pantheist pseudo-Christian, Terrence Malick.

The difference is that Aronofsky—raised Jewish, and now an atheist, whom I suspect wishes he were still religious—strives toward the divine with the promethean arrogance of a desperate adept (or angry apostate) rather than with Malick's own humble, sincere yearning; this is the biggest contrast between their films.  (Well, that, and the fact that Aronofsky movies do always have characters, and usually have plots.)  In a sense, Aronofsky's first five films are about the human need to pretend there's a meaning to any of this nonsense.  It's not always God-qua-God in Pi or Requiem or The Fountain or The Wrestler or Black Swan; but, you know, it might as well be.

So, obviously, it was only ever a matter of time before Aronofsky started making movies that were literally about God.  The results of his full-force dive into atheist mysticism have been mixed.  Noah, Aronofsky's biggest-budget endeavor (and somehow weird in its gestures toward making the Bible "normal," in the context of a blockbuster actioner), backs off on all the hard, impossible questions it raises, satisfying itself instead with one hell of a too-pat answer.  Those results are less-mixed, at least, in mother!, Aronofsky's most anti-populist endeavor, and which is just stuffed to bursting with big ideas that still don't entirely go together well.  Mother!, you understand, co-stars God—though primarily as a stand-in, once again, for human obsession.  But I guess that's almost always been the case whenever "God" has been involved; and Aronofsky's seven directorial efforts are, taken as a whole, one man's attempt to reconcile humanity to the fire that drives us and, if we are not careful, will burn us alive.  Maybe there isn't a God, but Aronofsky's pretty sure there's nonetheless Judgment.

But as his themes stayed at least equally grandiose, Aronofsky's own fire as an artist has perhaps dimmed somewhat.  The roaring aesthetic of his early days was driven by the best collaborators any director could ask for: by thunderously-meaningful editing, particularly when Jay Rabinowitz was doing the cutting; by musical accompaniment that could rival an opera's, courtesy Aronofsky's favorite composer, Clint Mansell; and by the experimentalist, intense, and often-drop-dead-gorgeous cinematography of Aronofsky's usual DP, Matthew Libatique.

It all came to a head with The Fountain, his third film and, by my lights, his unrivaled peak as a director.  Aronofsky's greatest work combined the multi-layered elegance of an accomplished master with the sheer urgency of the neophyte who'd thrown Pi together just eight years before.  But The Fountain, as you know, failed with both critics and audiences—the two most detestable factions in all of cinema, if you asked me.

And so the masterpiece was to be succeeded by The Wrestler (shot by Maryse Alberti), a very good film that also has the distinction of being its director's worst; and, with it, Aronofsky settled into a far more comfortable (and far less exciting) rut.  His films had always been deeply caged within the subjectivity of their heroes, but from The Wrestler onward this was accomplished much more quietly.  (Incidentally, it's really strange that those rad Snorricam moving close-ups ever became synonymous with the filmmaker, isn't it?  After all, he only used 'em in his first two flicks, and that was so long ago.)

Aronofsky tends to conserve his energy for the key sequences now—the sublime retelling of Creation and the Fall in Noah; the apotheosis of Nina Sayers in Black Swan; the stroke-inducing cinematic assault of mother!'s final twenty minutes—and it makes for movies that are simply less interesting just to look at than they used to be, even though they may be, in a technical sense, more rigorous.  Nevertheless, don't let me fool you!  Aronofsky's films still have more imagination and verve within them than most directors ever demonstrate.  And if Aronofsky never makes another Fountain, that's not exactly a tragedy; there are maybe a dozen movies in the whole world better than The Fountain anyway.  On the other hand, if twenty years from now, we're still watching Libatique follow the back of an actor's head around... well, I'm sure it'll still be worth watching, even if I am equally sure I'll be bitching about it, too.

Oh, let's not end it on a sour note.  Aronofsky is one of the youngest filmmakers we've taken a look at; only 48, surely he'll be following his own path and making weird shit for many years to come.  Needless to say, we'll be looking forward to seeing whatever it is he comes up with next.  But, for now, let's look back one more time at what he's done so far—and rank those fuckers, because nothing says "art" like "cold, merciless hierarchy."

7a. BELOW* (5/10)
7. THE WRESTLER (7/10)
6. NOAH (7/10)
5. MOTHER! (8/10)
4. π (10/10)
3. BLACK SWAN (10/10)
1. THE FOUNTAIN (10/10)

Entries marked with one asterisk (*) indicate films Aronofsky helped write, but did not direct

Monday, January 1, 2018

Darren Aronofsky, part VIII: Home invasion


MOTHER!

Overstuffed, overindulgent allegory sometimes gets better than this, true, but it doesn't usually get this grasping, and I choose to interpret that as a point in mother!'s favor.  You, of course, can choose however you want.

2017
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (based on The Bible by God)
With Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, and Javier Bardem

Spoiler alert: moderate, though its relevance is a dubious proposition at best