Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Fire and Ice: I, TONYA

Yes, I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie's rollicking whiplash darkly comic recreation of Tonya Harding's ice skating career, is a sports movie with an arc of scandal and tragedy. It would have to be, following the inevitable unlikely rise and tabloid-violence fall of an Olympic hopeful. But what the movie is about underneath these grabby trappings is digging into the psychology of a woman in an abusive relationship. She (Margot Robbie) is used to getting hit. Her prickly, chain-smoking, boozy mother (a tough, biting Allison Janney) chips away at her for years with mean-spirited jabs and frequent smacks. When she escapes, as a late teen, into the arms of her first real boyfriend (Sebastian Stan, with a shyly dangerous charisma unseen in his Marvel pictures), he hits her too. "I told myself, my mom hits me and she loves me," Harding tells us with a honey-drip affection in her voice. It's harrowing and sad, a film intermingling the glowing romance she feels with the bruised eyes and raw scrapes of a battered woman. All the while her skating career is taking off, the thrill of her graceful athleticism sitting next to her hard-scrabble poverty as she has to fight classism and snobbery at every step of the way. She sews her own costumes, which are pretty but not quite the pageant-level shine of the fussy rich girls who dominate the sport. It's not just about talent; it's about image. 

By the time Tonya’s handsome dope of an abusive beau -- now her on-again-off-again husband -- gets it in his head, with prompting from a buddy of enormous, stupidly delusional self-confidence (Paul Walter Hauser, with a convincing bovine look), to intimidate Harding's closest rival, the ensuing chaos threatens to snuff out Tonya's life-long dream. By this point Gillespie -- providing a booming jukebox score, overlapping voice over perspectives, and an active, swirling camera with insistent, pushing editing (a very David O. Russell approach for this usually more restrained journeyman) -- has made it clear the whole incident will be no less than the final parting smack of this abusive husband. Steven Rogers’ screenplay skips around between characters’ competing, overlapping versions of events, sometimes even stopping the action to have another character in the scene turn to the camera and say “I never did this.” It creates a swirling triple-axle of tone, allowing Tonya’s pain to be centered in every telling. This neither excuses her complicity, nor lays all blame at her feet. The film overemphatically pushes and prods at the real complexity under the tabloid sensationalism while using it to raucous effect.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Art Attack: THE SQUARE

Ruben Östlund makes thesis movies, films laying out clinical observations about human interactions and then slowly working out a variety of scenarios in response that serve to bolster the central argument. It worked so well in his prickly, icily perceptive Force Majeure – a mercilessly contained film about a ski trip that turns sour when the dopey dad flees an avalanche and leaves his wife and kids to fend for themselves, an act of cowardice that’s even more pathetic when the disaster doesn’t strike – that there’s little wonder The Square can’t compete in focused anxiety. It drifts and wanders where the earlier film bored down with unflinching examination. But Östlund remains an expert dramatist of exceptional awkward encounters, scenes squirming with discomfort. It makes for a compelling watch. Here the plot precariously teeters (wobbling on the line between too-obvious and too-obtuse) on a Stockholm museum of contemporary art where good progressive values and high-minded boundary pushing are all well and good until they’re put to the test in the lives of the curator (Claes Bang) and his staff. This is heightened by Östlund’s stubborn camera, locked down in such a way that often leaves a confrontation bifurcated, half playing out off screen. It’s about reactions, about the complications stirring up distress despite and because of our inability to completely understand what’s going on.

Contained in a gallery – piles of ashen gravel; a wall-sized video portrait of a growling man; a pile of chairs with a scraping soundtrack – it’s fine, even noble, to see provocations. But then a pickpocket’s convoluted scheme interrupts a morning commute, a patron with Tourette’s constantly and profanely interrupts an artist (Dominic West) during a serious Q&A session, a journalist (Elisabeth Moss) interrogates her one-night-stand while a docent peers around the corner to eavesdrop, callow young ad men propose a nasty viral video to promote a peaceful installation, or a performance artist (Terry Notary) monkeying around escalates anxiety in a posh fundraising dinner. Well, that’s another thing entirely. Here’s a world of big money donors and thoughtful artists while beggers sit ignored on the street outside before them. How productive is an interest in being provoked if it’s only to be easily digested and safely squared away? Early in the film, the curator explains a conundrum: will anything become art if placed in an art museum? What, then, about the opposite? Is a provocation only fruitful when safely walled-off? What is a boundary of good taste, of free speech, of proper behavior? This is a fussily meandering movie, slowly interrogating the ideas by knocking the characters out of their comfort zones and then pulling them back, leaving them frazzled. The movie slowly accrues, and ultimately peters out, but moment by fascinatingly uncomfortable moment it’s hilariously sharp. Painstakingly dissected encounters, pulled off with fine deadpan slightly-heightened realism, become, at their best, sustained tremors of pleasurable suspenseful disruption.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


I’d love an all-star murder mystery, which makes it hurt all the worse that Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a good one. He takes Agatha Christie’s classic novel (to both direct and star as the persnickety, mustachioed, world-famous detective Poirot) and runs it through the handsome, high-gloss, literary-toned approach that served him so well in the past. He has treated familiar stories from Hamlet to Cinderella with the same tone of high-minded, playfully gorgeous, deliciously melodramatic classicism. They’re reverent, but impassioned, heavy and light in the same moment. But somehow the translation to screen for this latest adaptation is stuffy and slow, every emotion muted, every turn and twist of the whodunnit plot bungled and stumbled in a ham-fisted clumsiness that never lets the puzzle pieces click together with pleasing precision. Instead, amid the fastidious production design of a luxury train lovingly photographed in 65mm and cramped tracking shots of beveled glass and ornate décor, he somehow never gets a good sense of the space. The characters are indifferently introduced; the investigation develops in fits and starts; the space is inelegantly portrayed – a jumble of close cuts and overhead shots that hardly gives us a window into the layout. The lumbering film neglects good mystery development at every turn. 

The story deals with a mystery of a murdered man on a snowbound train full of trapped suspects (including the likes of luminaries Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer, and on and on). Branagh never gets around to cluing us into who is in which compartment, the order of the cars, the timeline of the night in question. Part of the pleasure in a story such as this – understood by Christie and the best of her imitators and adapters – is to follow the clues as they stack up, then hold the big picture in our own heads as the detective tests theories and develops new leads. Here, the screenplay by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, a better expensive Hollywood detective story) simply asserts and accrues its mystery’s complications rather than presenting them in a more aesthetically or investigatively satisfying process. I barely had a sense of who the suspects were, let alone where there are on the train or with whom they trade meaningful red herrings. The cast is under-utilized, their star power and screen presence used to substitute or shorthand characterization, the film’s dull crackles of wit and tension carried over as best they can manage as little as they’re allowed. Why such a delicious intrigue is left to fizzle is beyond me. Branagh doesn’t even allow his Poirot more than a somnambulant personality. This prime place for some showboating (and, boy, is he one of our best showboats) is given over to soft, dry cracks and sleepy mumbling. There’s no spark of energy or life here, the big, fancy, unmoving train left stuck in the snow slowly turning away from any inherent suspense and into its own conspicuous metaphor.
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