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.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A New Hope: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI


I didn’t know they had it in them, but I’m grateful to be proven wrong. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is the first great Star Wars movie since creator George Lucas sold his company to Disney. Though run by Lucas collaborators and acolytes – from an ILM and Skywalker Sound stocked with Wars veterans to a story group built out of the prequel days, to a longtime producing partner in Kathleen Kennedy overseeing it all – the results thus far have been mostly successful recreations of franchise sensations past. They were nostalgic, fleet, and fun enough. JJ Abrams managed to introduce a handful of bright and promising new characters along the way in Episode 7 – the searching Rey (Daisy Ridley), stewing dark-sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), turncoat stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and hotshot pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac). Gareth Edwards and company cobbled together a decent margin note in the franchise’s canon with the heisting of the Death Star plans in Rogue One. But for all that potential, it took writer-director Rian Johnson (whose Brick and Looper marked him as an original voice to watch) to return the sense of surprise to the galaxy. He makes a movie following Abrams’ new characters and some of Lucas’ classic ones into a roller coaster of creative developments.

Where Johnson succeeds is in his molecularly precise evocation of the Star Wars style, not by simply copying faithfully what’s come before, but by returning to the source. He realizes the series is a suis generis blending of Westerns and World War II movies, gangster pictures and samurai films, high fantasy and low serialized sci-fi. He returns to these inspirations for whip-smart visual language, spirited tone, and adventurous spirit, shot through with zen portent and seriousness of mythological import. So once more unto the Star War we go, the sinister First Order seeking to crush the rebellious Resistance once and for all. General Leia (the late, great Carrie Fisher), hoping for the return of her brother Luke (Mark Hamill, soulful and unpredictable), leads the surviving rebels across space, pursued by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The usual sturm und drang of space battles and aliens worlds follows, with a healthy dose of Jedi mysticism on a far-flung planet where a Master hides from his mistakes and an earnest would-be Padawan desperately seeks his help. He’s their only hope. The Rebels assemble for dogfights and showdowns; the Dark Side and the Light ready their laser swords with patient, spiritual connections in The Force; nefarious characters plot backstabbings and pure-hearted beings become the sparks that will light up the darkness. In the middle is Rey, an ever more exciting new hero movingly unmoored from a sense of destiny, hoping to find her place in all this while Kylo Ren, similarly lost, circles with roiling bad vibes. 

This is rich emotional territory mined with crisp, clear storytelling in painterly precision and elegantly lensed filmic cinematography. It’s big, broad, immediately satisfying storytelling in the tradition of the series’ best moments. Every step of the way, Johnson finds visual invention for his gripping sequences and compelling settings – a bombing run is so crisply, efficiently unfolded, the fate of a character we’ve never before met and who hardly speaks is intensely felt; a dazzling casino world drips in military-industrial power and is larded with slimy monsters of all sorts (and a jazzy alien band to boot); a colony of frog-like nuns caretake a crumbling village surrounded by a sea of squawking bird-beings; a salt-covered planet is streaked in billowing red dust as a battle rages; a red-walled throne room is draped in ominous Dark Side intent; a hyperspace jump shatters plans – and minds. In these thrilling images and places are a host of creatures and more new characters, from a mysterious pink-haired admiral (Laura Dern) to a big-hearted rebel recruit (Kelly Marie Tran) and a slippery thief (Benicio Del Toro). Johnson imagines fun adventures, tense escapes teetering on massive stakes, and pleasing grace notes – First Order office politics, a melding of prequel lore in sequel minds, loving glamour shots of vehicles and tech – while never stepping wrong. 

What a deeply felt outpouring of the finest Star Wars anyone not named George Lucas has managed to get on the big screen! This isn’t a film entirely coasting on old nostalgia (though the familiar sounds of lightsabers, TIE fighters, and the like are powerful generators of it). Nor is it content to simply doodle in the margins of the expected. Johnson uses the old as a runway for new adventure to take off. In the end, I found it poignant to consider how he’s skillfully built in an old franchise a space for new imagination, while connecting to the childlike wonder at the sense of grandiose unfolding mythology that makes it evergreen. Johnson has pulled off a perfect balancing act – a reverent brand deposit that pushes all the right nostalgic buttons while fearlessly unfurling satisfying surprises. It’s a sensation as pure and as real as a kid, head swimming in the galaxy far, far away, picking up a broom and, for a fleeting moment, imagining it a lightsaber.

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.