Saturday, March 3, 2018

February 2018



      I’ve finally come to the realization that the Oscar nominations are no longer something I need to fret about. It’s taken years of intense disappointment, but it has become clear that any group that believes “Get Out,” “Call Me by Your Name” and “Lady Bird”—to name the most egregious mistakes—are best picture candidates is no longer “my” Academy Awards.
       And I can't even look for support among the mainstream critics; most reaction to the nominations focused on the absence of “Wonder Woman,” an even less qualified film, from the best picture selections. That said, I still reserve the right to complain about them.
      What struck me most was the excitement stirred over director Greta Gerwig's nomination for “Lady Bird,” while no one noticed the biggest snub of the season was the award shutout for female director Kathryn Bigelow, whose “Detroit” was the best film of 2017. This powerful film, as superbly directed as her 2009 best picture winner "The Hurt Locker," speaks to both the intense racial conflicts of the 1960s and the current tentative state of affairs.
        Also missing in action among directors are Joe Wright for “Darkest Hour” and Craig Gillespie for “I, Tonya.” At least “Darkest Hour” earned a best picture nod; “I, Tonya,” easily the most inventive and daring movie of the year, was only recognized for the performances of Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.
      Among the performers who were left off the nomination lists were Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, both superb in the little seen “Hostiles,” a first-rate Western (see below) that got lost among the big-budget holiday releases; James Franco pitch-perfect work as the crazy Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist” (turns out an actor's off-screen character is part of the Oscar qualifications); and Jeremy Renner from another underappreciated film “Wind River.” 
    The biggest shock in the supporting categories was the absence of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, as a distressed couple dealing with their daughter's mysterious illness in "The Big Sick." Also deserving nominations were Patrick Stewart's lion-in-winter turn in "Logan" and Algee Smith's determined R&B singer whose big chance is lost in the wake of street protests in "Detroit." 
      But I am so pleased to finally see Sam Rockwell, an actor I've been championing since the 1990s, earn some recognition. I'll enjoy Sunday's show if Rockwell, Gary Oldman and 14-time cinematography nominee Roger Deakins all go home with their first Oscar trophy.
      See my previous post for my Top 20 and selections for directing, acting, writing and cinematography.


I, TONYA (2017)
    Who doesn't dismiss upcoming movies with "that's not something I'm interested in" or "that's not my kind of movie"? It's our way of editing down the seeming endless string of new releases into something manageable. Even for someone who endeavors to see any new film of note, it's simply impossible to keep up.
     But this entertaining, surprisingly insightful and superbly made movie shows that any subject can make for compelling cinema. I can't imagine a subject--competitive ice skating (even at its most controversial moment)--that I have less interest in.
     Even when it was big news in 1994, I remember thinking: who cares, it's ice skating.
    This may be the best written movie of the year as Steven Rogers (previously specializing in feel-good films like "Stepmom" and "P.S. I Love You") has constructed a screenplay that relies on a handful of unreliable narrators who together offer the viewer a semblance of the truth. Meanwhile, director Craig Gillespie expertly balances the film's tone between the hilarious idiocy and on-going tragedy of the early life of Tonya Harding.
    One minute you are laughing at the white trash ignorance of Harding (an unforgettable Margot Robbie), and, especially, her bitter, ruthless mother LaVona (played to perfection by Allison Janney) and the next you are jolted into revulsion at the cruelty and desperation of these characters' fates.
    For those who didn't live though this nutty adventure, one of the Olympic sports most notorious soap opera, Hardy was a young girl with amazing ice skating skills, yet, because she came from poverty and was a bit rough around the edges (I'm being more polite than the film) she rarely received her due by competition judges.
    At one point, she verbally assaults a judge in the parking lot after a competition to get him to admit that she's the better skater, just not the "kind of girl" the sports wants representing it.
     Eventually, she perfects a jump called the triple axel, which forces the judges to started awarding Harding's performances.
        Though the plot keeps advancing toward what everyone keeps referring to as "the incident"--when Harding's boyfriend and others (and maybe Harding herself) conspire to injure rival Nancy Kerrigan to ease Harding chances in the Nationals and Olympic trials.
     Who was responsible, directly or indirectly, was at the heart of the news stories with the tough-girl Tonya vs. ice princess Nancy dominating the headlines.
    In "I, Tonya," as the title suggests, we're getting Ms. Harding's version, portrayed in a contemporary, direct-to-the-camera interview in her kitchen, intercut with the drama of the 1990s story.
    Gillespie, whose comic love story, "Lars and the Real Girl," was one of 2007's best films, delivers a fast-paced mixture of docu-drama, social commentary and screwball comedy; a feat more deserving of a directing Oscar nomination than any of the actual nominees. And his work with the actors is just as impressive.
     Robbie, who played the sexy second wife in "The Wolf of Wall Street," gives the breakthrough performance of the year, bringing out the humanity in Tonya while not shying away from her white-trash roots. As she narrative her  story, Harding never comes off as a victim, even as her horrible ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) beats her bloody and falsely accuses her of crimes and her unrelenting mother treats her like a prisoner of war.
     Janney gives the performance of the year as this misguided single mother who drives her daughter to skating championships but deprives her of the simplest compliment and any hint of love. She commands every scene she's in.
     Janney has done impressive work in the past, including in "Juno" (2007), "The Help" (2011) and "The Way Way Back" (2013), but she achieves a different level of craft in "I, Tonya." The sight of her sitting on her florid-patterned couch,
attached to oxygen tank apparatus while a parquet sits perched on her shoulder as she defends her actions during an "interview" years after the events is nearly surreal.
    Also memorable is Paul Walter Hauser as the hilariously delusional Shawn, Gillooly's buddy who imagines himself bodyguard and major operator while living at home with his parents.
    Maybe I'm still under the spell of Fitzgerald--I just finished reading "The Great Gatsby" with my students--but "I, Tonya" seems to me to be one of the better depictions of the hopelessness of the American dream. Her past, the system that is gamed for a select few, those who are never fully convinced of any transformation--it all combines, as it did for Gatsby, to block her dreams and keep her out of that elusive, exclusive club of winners.
    Harding seems like an unlikely character for such a grand, literary theme, but, as told by Gillespie and his fine cast, this humble, tawdry tale makes for epic tragedy.

     It wasn't hard to predict the positive reviews this first big-budget African superhero film received, in the same way "Wonder Women" earned raves for being a landmark of the genre.
     As an old white guy, I don't have much standing in evaluating the importance of representation in sci-fi action films; in fact, these superheroes movies are so far away from the kind of stories I relate to, emotionally or intellectually, that I can't imagine anyone caring at all about the  race, gender or ethnicity of these fantasy figures.        
     That said, this better-than-your-average Marvel junk is set in the fictional African country of Wakanda that keeps secret the advanced technological society they've created with the help of an otherworldly metal deposit of something called Vibranium. Yet, and this is where the film started to lose me, they have a king (Chadwick Boseman, who was marvelous as James Brown in "Get on Up") who must wrestling  any challengers to the crown on the edge of a waterfall after the death of his father. It's like modern British prime minister candidates fighting a duel.
     In the film's effort to melt historical African life with an advanced culture, it felt as if it was playing right into the stereotypes it was attempting to bust. How had this society, more advanced than any in the world, missed the lesson on democracy or, at least, not moved on from the tribal mentality of another century? Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler is a very talented filmmaker, but I wonder if he thought through that aspect of "Black Panther."
    The plot involves some missing Vbranium, which leads to the American cousin Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) returning to Wakanda to claim the throne and shake up the country's centuries-old policy of seclusion. (I swear, this was also the plot of one of those Maurice Chevalier-Jeanette MacDonald musicals from the 1930s.)
      But this all turns on the incredulous idea that no Wakandian has tried to make a fortune out in the world with even a fraction of this technology the country has possessed for hundreds of years. I can hear you shouting: "It's a comic book movie! Forget logic!" Sorry, I just can't.
     I also wanted to see some representatives of the actual citizens of this amazing country and how they live out their lives, rather than just the royal family and others of high standing. But the most interesting character in the film is the king's sister Shuri (24-year-old TV actress Letitia Wright), who gets all the spunky dialogue and singlehandedly--again, where are the teams of techs?--seems to keep the country running.
    Boseman's King T'Challa, who takes on superhero status as Black Panther when he drinks a bit of the magic formula, has the poise and look of royalty but doesn't make for a very compelling protagonist, coming off as a bit dull compared to Killmonger or tribal rival M'Baku (Winston Duke).
     Jordon, who starred in the director's riveting debut, "Fruitvale Station," and his first-rate Rocky-reboot "Creed," dominates the second-half of the film and makes you seriously question the validity of the Panther's legitimacy.
    It's that dichotomy that gives the film is heft and makes it stand out from the likes of "Iron Man," "Captain American," "Thor" and other CGI train-wrecks. It's not Shakespeare, or even August Wilson, but it stands out in a shallow genre.  

    This throwback Western begins with a brutal scene you don't expect to see in a 21st Century film: a Comanche war party attacks a white homestead in the middle of nowhere, killing a father and his young children and sending his wife running into the hills where she just barely avoids the same fate.
    Meanwhile (there's always a meanwhile in Westerns), Capt. Blocker (Christian Bale, at his most understated), a fierce and determined killer of hostile Indians, is ordered to escort his moral enemy and current military prisoner Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Hollywood veteran Wes Studi)  and his family back to their homeland.
     Along the way, they come upon the burnt-out home and find the barely sane wife, Rosalie, (a terrific Rosamund Pike) still comforting her dead baby.
     This travelling metaphor for white America's incursion into the West adds a man condemned to die for crimes against the Native people (the always intense Ben Foster), who is an old running mate of Blocker, after a stop at a military outpost.
   What makes this Scott Cooper-directed film--who also penned the script based on manuscript by Oscar-winner Donald E. Stewart (for "Missing")--so interesting is the very believable transition that both Blocker and Rosalie make after spending days on the road with the Native Americans.
    I was surprised that the Academy didn't acknowledge Studi with a nomination; he's been so convincing so often as Hollywood's designated Native-American since "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992). Here he has the chance to not only be dignified, but instrumental in showing the whites that the Natives are as diverse (good and bad) as any other people.
      Of course, Bale and Pike both play essentially didactic characters, yet they remain human, filled with impossible contradictions and unforgivable flaws.
     In his short time as a director, Cooper has guided Jeff Bridges to his long-deserved Oscar in "Crazy Heart" (2009); made the gritty urban drama "Out of the Furnace" (2013) with Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson; and directed the underrated mob film "Black Mass" (2015) with Johnny Depp. But this is his best work yet, depicting the brutal violence and hatred of the 1890s West while addressing the uncomfortable complexities that came with the white settlement of western America.

    Paul Thomas Anderson's unruly collage of sex, drugs and bad disco, "Boogie Nights," remains the centerpiece of his reputation as one of American finest filmmakers. Yet since "Magnolia" (1999), another crazy quilt of a movie, his films have been overtly focused on self-centered, obsessive men who strive to create their own private world.
   "Punch-Drunk Love," "There Will Be Blood," and "The Master" all felt like exercises in bloodless filmmaking, in which minimal acting and ill-defined motivations robbed the stories of any connection to real life. Anderson's other film this century, "Inherent Vice," is the opposite, a shaggy dog comedy that is nearly incoherent.
     Though "Phantom Thread" is yet another study of one man's tightly controlled world, the film revolves around the woman who attempts to let some air into that world, refusing to be deterred by this haughty, 1950s London fashion designer.
     Daniel Day-Lewis, who took home the Oscar for his over-the-top Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood," plays Reynolds Woodcock, a British clothing designer whose demand for perfection extends from his work to his everyday life. While his clients, the rich and famous, adore him, he goes through companions like flimsy socks.
      He demands a life so orderly that only his humorless, sour-faced sister Cyril (a superb Lesley Manville), who handles the finances of the business, knows how to manage him.
    Then Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a naive younger woman working as a waitress in a small restaurant near his country estate and takes her in as his latest muse.
      What she finds is a very different world made almost impenetrable by Reynolds and Cyril. But she persists, sometimes in most unusual ways, to maintain her relationship. She truly loves him, for reasons that are difficult to phantom; but then isn't all love nearly impossible to understand from the outside?
     Of course, Day-Lewis is the main attraction here, giving yet another precisely calibrated, nuanced performance that apparently will be his final screen appearance. I don't think any British actor has ever retired from the screen, let alone at the age of 60--I fully expect a grand return in five or six years.
      But if it is his final turn on the big screen, then he goes off with one of his top performances, in a career filled with amazing work that has earned him three best actor Academy Awards (only Katharine Hepburn has more acting wins).
      "Lincoln" and "The Age of Innocence" are his finest performances and place him near the top in any argument over the finest film actor of the past 30 years
      What is most impressive about his Reynolds Woodcock is the way Day Lewis makes every hand movement, every raised eyebrow, every quick peek over his reading glasses, every slight turn of his body into a meaningful layer of this complex, needy man. It adds to the actor's legacy that began in the 1980s with "My Beautiful Laundrette," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and, giving him his first Oscar, "My Left Foot."

   In general, I enjoy any film connected to the "Star Wars" franchise more than most sci-fi action pictures (though episodes I-III were tough sledding), but I miss the time when they were special.
     Now that they pop up as often as Marvel superhero films, the stories don't have that "I've been waiting years for this" resonance. It's a simple case of diminishing returns.
    In this episode, part XIII in the original series, the story picks up right where "The Force Awakens" left off with Rey (Daisy Ridley) trying to convince Luke Skywalker (a sullen Mark Hamill) to join his sister, General Leia (Carrie Fisher, in her final performance) as the rebellion fights for its life. Who would have guessed?
    Rey also experiences some kind of mind-melt connection with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), one-time Skywalker protégé and son of the late Hans Solo and Leia, along with being the grandson of, well, you know who....
   Though there is plenty of blasting and spectacular space battles, the story of Rey and Kylo is at the heart of this new cycle of "Star Wars." Yet, it seems to be stretching both actors well beyond their range.
    Ridley was perfect as the no-nonsense, resourceful action figure in "The Force Awakens," but her unending psychological confrontations with Skywalker and Kylo feel unconvincing and forced. And Driver is worse.
      Though he gave solid performances in two 2016 films, "Paterson" and "Silence," he comes off in his "Star Wars" role as a nerdy high school student trying to act tough. Not once in these two films have I found his traitorous villain  convincingly menacing or a worthy foe for the earnest rebellion. (He's not quite Hayden Christensen bad, but that's a very low bar).
    Fisher, who died in December 2016 at age 60, has a surprisingly substantial role, a memorable screen farewell for this child of Hollywood, while Oscar Isaac and John Boyega return as Rey's loyal men of action, doing their best to stop the evil First Order. Though the most spiky performance of the film comes from Benicio Del Toro, an untrustworthy mercenary, doing a very funny Jack Nicholson impression.
     That it was written and directed by Rian Johnson, best known for the quirky high school noir "Brick" and the sci-fi labyrinth "Looper," raised my hopes. Yes, it's entertaining, but then so will the one they'll release in May and then in December and then in.....

1 comment:

Dana King said...

As another of those older white guys, I feel you. The only film discussed here that even remotely interests me is HOSTILES, which I'll queue up on Netflix. Not that the others aren't fine films. I'm just not their audience. It seems there are fewer that speak to me--or care about me--all the time. So it goes.