Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: I, Tonya

Image courtesy of Neon.
Admittedly, I haven't given disgraced figure skating champion Tonya Harding much thought in many years, but my memories of the famous incident in which she was involved recalls to mind how she was portrayed as a villain. So, it's surprising how Craig Gillespie's film, "I, Tonya," turns her into a sympathetic figure - at least, to an extent. Although, this film argues, she wasn't physically involved in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan, her name became synonymous with the event and, as a result, ruined her career and reputation.

Gillespie's film treats the Tonya Harding story partially as a comedic exercise, but also as a white trash "Goodfellas," right down to the dolly shots and breaking the fourth wall in the middle of a scene. And it's oddly compelling, mostly due to the committed and sympathetic performance by Margot Robbie as Tonya, but also the group of clowns with whom she surrounds herself.

This includes her reprobate mother, LaVona (a lively Allison Janney), abusive idiot husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dopey wannabe man-of-mystery buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Bobby Cannavale gets a few laughs as a reporter for "Hard Copy" and he delivers one of the film's best lines in regards to the state of the media.

In many ways, Tonya's story plays as legitimately tragic. She's a backwoods beauty queen who happens to be able to skate circles around her competitors, but judges refuse to recognize her since she isn't dressed as well as the snotty children against whom she competes who are often decked out in attire chosen by their wealthy parents. It also doesn't help that she performs her routines - including the extremely difficult triple axel, which none of her competitors can pull off - to ZZ Top's "Sleeping Bag," much to the chagrin of the judges who sneer at her.

Tonya is also surrounded by abusive figures. Her mother frequently slaps her, kicks her off a chair, beats her with brushes and, in one instance, throws a knife at her daughter that sticks in her arm. Regarding the latter, LaVona deadpans, "every family has its ups and downs." Once she flees her mother's house, Tonya flies straight into the arms of Gillooly, an idiot good ol' boy who is quick to slap, punch and even point a gun at his wife.

There are a few wrong notes struck in the film. During one sequence, Tonya talks about her history of abusers and addresses the film's audience directly, saying that everyone watching the film is also complicit. This wouldn't ring quite as hollow if the entire film hadn't cracked jokes at the expense of the people in Harding's immediate circle, who are portrayed as rubes.

Don't get me wrong, many of those scenes are funny, especially the idiocy employed by Hauser's doofus sidekick to Gillooly and Janney's wildly inappropriate mother figure. But you can't exactly have your cake and eat it too. Also, the scenes that mimic "Goodfellas," especially one in which Gillooly begins speaking to the camera during a court scene, should have been left as a Martin Scorsese trademark.

But all in all, "I, Tonya" is a funny, engrossing and oddly moving account of a person who has been portrayed as a villain - and lumped unfairly with Amy Fisher as one of the 1990's femme fatales - but is more sympathetic than you might expect. According to Gillespie's film and the interviews conducted with Harding and Gillooly, the attack on Kerrigan was planned and carried out by Gillooly and several of his dimwit friends, and Harding, despite her image, played no part in the plot. Regardless of where you stand on the issue - assuming you stand anywhere at all - "I, Tonya" is a surprisingly compelling film.

Review: The Other Side Of Hope

Image courtesy of Janus Films.
The films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki could best be described as deadpan miserablist humanism. The characters in his films are often down on their luck, rarely smile and live seemingly bleak lives - and yet, they often find joy in simple things, play in rockabilly bands and tend to treat others pretty well.

Kaurismaki's latest, "The Other Side of Hope," utilizes some of the typical themes, actors and visual set-ups of his previous pictures and it features a story of an immigrant in need of assistance, similar to his previous movie, "Le Havre," which is most likely my favorite among his works. "The Other Side of Hope" is a gently comedic and emotionally engrossing story that indicates Kaurismaki's belief that people can be inherently good when called upon to do so. It's a movie that counters much of what is actually going on in the world today. In other words, it's a fable.

At the beginning of the picture, Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) awakens on a boat in which he is a stowaway. He has fled Aleppo after most of his family was killed and was separated from his sister in eastern Europe and now intends to find her. He pleads his case to the local authorities and has to await a response as to whether he can remain in the country. After finding out that he will be sent back to the war-torn nation from which he has fled, he makes a run for it.

Khaled winds up sleeping in the back alley of a restaurant that has been recently purchased by a man named Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a gambler who wants to put his money toward something useful. When Wikstrom purchases The Golden Pint, it's a dump that employs a constantly smoking cook, austere maitre d' and female bartender. After he spruces the place up, it's still a dump and there's a funny running joke regarding how Wikstrom and his straight-faced employees continually change the place from being a French bistro to a Japanese sushi house and then an Indian restaurant.

Although they first engage in fisticuffs, Wikstrom eventually decides it's the right thing to do to give Khaled some food, shelter and a job. Much like the residents of the titular town in "Le Havre," protecting the powerless - in the case of both films, refugees - isn't just portrayed as a valorous choice, but as the only choice in a humane world.

After Khaled finds himself on his feet, he sets out to find his sister. Along the way, he runs into a pack of skinhead bigots, who consistently make trouble for him. The film ends on a note that I believe to be ambiguous. But there's no ambiguity to Kaurismaki's film otherwise - "The Other Side of Hope" is a charming, funny, poignant and goodhearted movie told in the director's deadpan style and with shimmers of optimism amid all the gloom surrounding his characters. It's a film that calls for empathy during a time in which little can be found.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: Wonder Wheel

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
For more than five decades, Woody Allen has been churning out a movie - occasionally two - per year and a number of them have been great or very good, a large amount of them good and at least a dozen just average or mediocre. It is to be expected that when you're working that much, the quality will not always remain on the same level. So, suffice it to say that "Wonder Wheel," the director's latest, is not among his better films. It's also not among his worst, but a misfire regardless.

That being said, the picture is often visually stunning. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and lighting are beautiful, resulting in one of the most gorgeously shot Woody Allen films since "Manhattan." In particular, there's a sequence during which Kate Winslet - in a rare example of the Woody stand-in being portrayed by a woman - speaks to her step-daughter (played by Juno Temple) regarding matters of love in a bedroom as the lights of Coney Island flash through their window, resulting in an ever-changing color palette, that nearly takes the breath away. It's a moment of visual beauty.

Unfortunately, the story of "Wonder Wheel" isn't as intriguing. Similar to "Blue Jasmine," albeit much less successfully, Allen's latest is a melodrama in which a woman - Winslet's Ginny - begins to come unglued, but this time in 1950s-era Coney Island.

In the film, Ginny is married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a carnival worker, and spends her days waiting tables at a clam house. Her son (Jack Gore) is a pyromaniac and Humpty's daughter, Carolina (Temple), is married to a gangster, from whom she has fled and is now being hunted by two goons (Tony Sirico and Steve Schirippa, both from "The Sopranos"). Neither Ginny nor Humpty are glad to see the young woman, although the latter eventually relents. Meanwhile, Ginny is having an affair with a lifeguard named Micky, a wannabe playwright who also stands in for Allen, although he eventually also sets his sights on Carolina.

While Cate Blanchett got a lot of mileage - and an Oscar - from playing a melodramatic heroine in Allen's much better "Blue Jasmine," Winslet is lumped with a character who can best be described as the Angry Woman Scorned. Winslet is undoubtedly a great actress - one of the best we've got - but here she's forced to play a character whose problems hail from the writing, not the portraying. Allen has long been a great writer of women's characters, from "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters" to "Bullets Over Broadway," "Blue Jasmine" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." In this film, not so much. It doesn't help that much of Winslet's dialogue - and much of the other actors in the film - is delivered via shouting.

While Allen mined living under the Cyclone in "Annie Hall" for comic gold, the foibles of his characters on Coney Island's boardwalk in "Wonder Wheel" give the impression of bits pasted together from his other films. Winslet's problems seem too familiar to Blanchett's character in "Blue Jasmine," the mob story feels like a riff on "Bullets Over Broadway" and a decision made by Ginny late in the film that negatively impacts another reminded me slightly of "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Allen has made some very good films in the 21st century - most notably the great "Match Point," but also "Midnight in Paris," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Blue Jasmine" - but a few of his lesser works have also been released during the past 17 years. "Wonder Wheel" ranks fairly low in his oeuvre. As I've mentioned, it's not a bad film - it features beautiful photography and a great cast, albeit one whose talents aren't utilized to full capacity - but a relatively forgettable one in the director's long - and mostly very good - filmography.

Review: The Shape Of Water

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
In the years since his masterpiece "Pan's Labyrinth," director Guillermo del Toro has primarily focused on big budget action films ("Pacific Rim") and horror movies ("Crimson Peak"), most of which have been good, but - to be honest - merely well-made genre exercises as opposed to the revelation that "Pan's Labyrinth" turned out to be. I'm glad to report that "The Shape of Water" is not only a delightful fantasy with sumptuous visuals, a number of excellent performances by great character actors and an effectively subtle take on prejudice, but also del Toro's best film since "Pan's Labyrinth." 

In the film, a terrific Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, a mute maid who communicates solely through sign language and works in an underground laboratory in Baltimore, circa 1963. Her only friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who is her partner in cleaning the laboratory, and a gay neighbor named Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is addicted to eating pie and watching old musicals with Eliza.

One day, a stern man known as Strickland (a frightening Michael Shannon) turns up at the laboratory with a large container. Both the man and container will make a brief stay at the lab for an experiment of a mysterious nature. As Eliza soon finds out, the container holds a being from South America that bears some resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon and is apparently worshipped as some sort of god. Strickland and the creature clearly hate each other, which is exemplified when the latter bites off two fingers of the former.

Eliza becomes attached to the creature, feeding it eggs and playing old Benny Goodman records for it, and the two form a bond. A doctor named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), also takes a shine to the monster and wants to study - rather than destroy - it, although he has a few skeletons in his closet. But Strickland is hell-bent on killing it and ripping it open to find out how it could benefit the U.S. space program - this is the only story element that remains frustratingly vague. Eliza enlists a few of her friends for a jail break and, in the process, a romance - well, at least something to that effect - blossoms between her and the creature.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, which is clearly used to comment upon Strickland and his military pals' fear of the creature - which represents the unknown. In the backdrop on Giles' TV, black protesters are seen being sprayed by police hoses and Giles witnesses a black couple being refused service at a diner where he'd previously admired - and had a crush on - the owner. The film also lampoons the chauvinist American male ego, especially during a scene in which Shannon's character is sold a Cadillac (that is later hilariously wrecked), another in which he robotically has sex with his wife and asks her to remain quiet and, during a not-so funny moment, sexually harasses Eliza.

Del Toro has a vivid imagination and is a filmmaker who can bring his dreams beautifully to life onscreen. There are a number of lovely moments in this film - a scene in which Eliza fills her bathroom with water to allow her and the creature to float together, an imagined musical number in which her voice is finally heard and a scene in which the creature befriends Giles' cats, that is, after eating one and then feeling sorry about it. "The Shape of Water" is at once an intense thriller, a beautifully shot period piece, a story about tolerance, a romance and an espionage picture. It juggles all of these elements gracefully and ends on a mythic note. I'd highly recommend it.

Review: The Disaster Artist

Image courtesy of A24.
It should come as no surprise that James Franco's "The Disaster Artist" is good for some laughs, especially considering the source material. But what might surprise you is that it is also emotionally engaging and not just a one-note joke that pokes fun at a particularly peculiar subject. Yes, the film takes some easy shots at a character - Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), who is responsible for the disasterpiece "The Room" - who is clearly an oddball. But the picture never comes off as cruel as it seems clear that Franco, who also doubles as director, has affection for his subject.

For those unfamiliar with "The Room" and its director, the film has become a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" cult phenomenon that has sold out midnight screenings for years and its creator - Wiseau - is a man of mystery. Well, sort of. His accent is vaguely Eastern European, although he has claimed to hail from New Orleans, and nobody knows where he obtained the $6 million to make "The Room." All of this is mined for comic gold in "The Disaster Artist."

But what differentiates "Rocky Horror" from the latter is that the former is clearly aiming to be camp, while the latter was made in all seriousness. Wiseau had originally set out to make a melodrama of the Tennessee Williams variety, but later changed his tune after "The Room" became a cult hit due to its terribleness and started calling his film a "black comedy." Regardless, if you haven't seen it, by all means do - I doubt you'll ever forget it.

"The Room" follows a fairly straightforward scenario in which a man named Johnny (played by Wiseau) comes to believe that his girlfriend, Lisa, is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark. In between, there's a scene in which Lisa's mother comments on a breast cancer diagnosis that is never mentioned again, footballs are inexplicably tossed back and forth during conversations between characters, a drug dealer torments a kid pal of Johnny's, the same ridiculous sex scene pops not once, but twice, and Johnny goes on a hilarious tirade after being accused of hitting Lisa ("I did naaht hit her, I did naaht do it, it's bullshit, I did naaht hit her"). Conversations often begin with characters noticing each other offscreen and transitioning into a new scene of dialogue with - for example - "Oh, hi Mark."

One of the elements that makes "The Room" so hilarious is that Wiseau seemingly has no clue how Americans - maybe people, in general - speak to one another. Franco's film focuses on the friendship between Wiseau and Greg Sestero, who wrote the book on which this film was based and starred as Mark in "The Room," and how the decline of their friendship played itself out on the screen in Wiseau's film.

In other words, this is a film about the making-of-a-movie - but one that is particularly bonkers. A number of well-known faces - a deadpan Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Alison Brie, Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson - have bit parts in Franco's film and all of them deliver. James' brother, Dave, gives his best performance to date as Sestero, a guy who is clearly thankful for the assistance that Wiseau gave him that enabled him to move to Los Angeles and break into acting, but also unnerved by the strange behavior that Wiseau shows on the set - especially during a scene in which he belittles a female cast member - as well as his possessiveness regarding their friendship.

I've seen two recent movies - this one and the odd, but charming "Brigsby Bear" - that ended with screenings of DIY films in which the kooky creators of the films being screened received a standing ovation after bearing their hearts and souls on the screen. And that's really one of the reasons that "The Room" is so endearing. It's a terrible movie, but to the extent that it's almost a great one. It is clear that Wiseau poured himself into the film and has the passion - if not necessarily the skill - to connect with viewers. "The Disaster Artist" is funny, but like Tim Burton's wonderful "Ed Wood," it's also a film that proves that dedication can often make up - to an extent - for ability and, therefore, it's a film that has its heart in the right place. Franco's picture pokes fun at its hero, but it loves him just the same.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Darkest Hour

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Similar to Ava DuVernay's terrific "Selma," Joe Wright's entertaining and rousing "Darkest Hour" ditches the Great Man Biopic approach to historical drama, opting instead for telling a true story of a momentous period in history during which a specific historic figure made decisions that altered history. In other words, Winston Churchill is the lead character in "Darkest Hour," but this isn't a straightforward biopic that tells its subject's story from early age to career peaks and death.

As the film opens, British Parliament is calling upon Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to step down after its members have lost faith in his ability to lead as Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party ravage their way across the European continent, causing nation after nation to fall to the Reich. Churchill, played brilliantly by Gary Oldman, ends up being his replacement, although much to the consternation of many of England's leaders, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) included.

Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) want Churchill to broker a peace treaty with Germany through Italy to prevent what they see as unnecessary English bloodshed as Hitler romps across Europe. Churchill, accused of warmongering by some members of Parliament, declares that he intends to do no such thing, setting him up to butt heads with Halifax and Chamberlain and, occasionally, the king.

Since this is a warts-and-all bio film, Churchill is first introduced as a bit of a crank, shouting at the young typist (Lily James) whom he has just recently hired. The only person who is able to talk sense to him is his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has good reason to worry that others won't respect and appreciate him as she does.

Once in power, Churchill attempts to hold steadfast in his promise to fight Hitler, but not without Halifax and Chamberlain attempting to exert pressure to make him relent. A pivotal scene during which Churchill rides the underground train in London and solicits the opinions of the working class people onboard threatens to become too Hollywoodish, but ends on a note that is stirringly effective.

It helps greatly that Oldman disappears so completely in the role enough to sell it. Not only is the actor weighted down with makeup that nearly renders him unrecognizable, but Oldman also nails the prime minister's vocal tics and accent. It's one of the best performances of the year and one that is sure to draw some awards attention, for those who care about such things.

Every year around this time, studios with their eyes on Oscars release movies about British royalty or leaders that occasionally are great ("The Queen"), often enough good and, at other times, stuffy. "Darkest Hour" is more tense and has higher stakes than your typical film about British monarchs or prime ministers. It's primarily set during a period of days when Churchill must decide whether to capitulate to Hitler or take up the fight.

Near the film's end, the prime minister gives his famed "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech and, at that point, it's a cathartic and rousing - especially considering the dark forces currently at play in our world and the fact that Nazism is not a distant specter of the past - moment in an overall very good film.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: Call Me By Your Name

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Attentive to detail, composed of gorgeous visual imagery, patient in execution and romantically melancholy, Luca Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name" is not only the best film to date by the Italian director, whose previous work includes "I Am Love" and "A Bigger Splash," but one of the most tantalizing of this year so far.

Set in 1983 in a rustic area of Northern Italy, the picture follows the story of 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet in a great performance), who is spending the summer with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a renowned professor of Greco-Roman culture, and mother (Amira Casar), a translator, in their seasonal home. Elio often switches back and forth flawlessly between speaking English, French and Italian and knows his way around a piano. However, the cultured and sophisticated persona that he likes to give off masks his unease regarding other things - namely, his sexuality and still existing virginity.

A doctoral student from New England named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives for a summer internship and Elio is, at first, put off by the mysterious American, who often fails to join the family for dinner and frequently bids adieu with a seemingly dismissive "later!" But from their first meeting, there is obvious chemistry between the youth and more experienced - but also secretly awkward - older man.

If you're guessing that "Call Me By Your Name" is one in a long line of films about a young person learning the ways of the world, shedding their innocence and becoming wiser in the process, well, you'd be correct. But as in all things - especially movies - the how is often more important than the what or why. This is a gorgeously rendered film, from its terrific performances and beautiful cinematography - particularly in the manner in which natural light often plays across a shadowed room or the faces of its characters - to the terrific script by James Ivory and excellent use of music - including the Psychedelic Furs and Sufjan Stevens.

There are several sex scenes in the film - involving the two aforementioned lovers as well as Elio's brief fling with a French girl - and they are all tastefully erotic. Each one is also utilized to deepen the relationships of the various characters, rather than simply put bodies on display. However, there's a scene involving a peach that I'd imagine nobody will forget any time soon.

There's an excellent sequence near the film's end during which Stuhlbarg's character puts into words the overall thematic crux of the picture and it's a lovely moment. Often, when a director literally spells out what they are trying to say - rather than showing - it's a bad sign. But in this case, the scene during which Elio's father talks to him about friendships and love that can transform one's life is, perhaps, this film's finest moment.

The movie ends on a hauntingly melancholic note that anyone could see coming from a mile away. The thing that makes the relationship between Elio and Oliver so poignant all along is that it's obviously doomed to be fleeting. Guadagnino culminates the picture with a long-held shot of Elio's face after he has received a piece of news that is shattering in its obviousness. But it's not a depressing way to end the film. Just around the corners of Elio's mouth a smile can be glimpsed. This is a film about an experience that shape's a person's life - and it's one that has been made with great craft and care. I'd highly recommend it.