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Film Review: Annihilation

October 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Annihilation (2018; Directed by Alex Garland)

Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on the first book of a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, picks up the great science fiction tradition of utilizing a fantasy encounter with an utterly alien form of life to shed harsh and revealing light on flaws in the human condition. Like his criticially praised debut Ex Machina, one of 2015’s best films, Garland doesn’t seek to illuminate the hurtful pathologies of modern politics or current affairs but the deeper drives and urges of the human race. Annihilation is ambiguous about the errors of human natures, however, presenting their self-sabotaging stasis as both a danger to people and a resistant, protective armour, especially in contrast to the unpredictable and threatening constancy of change represented by the film’s mysterious alien presence.

Annihilation presents a varied yet all-female expedition-team quintet of damaged individuals probing into the pervasive cellular-resequencing properties of a region known as Area X while also probing at their unseen internal wounds, often of their own making. Created by a meteorite strike on a lighthouse deep in a coastal American state park, Area X is surrounded entirely by a undulating rainbow-prism curtain known as the Shimmer. The Shimmer’s border is advancing gradually but inexorably, and unless halted will eventually consume the entirety of the surface of the planet. Given that everyone who has penetrated the Shimmer has failed to cross back out, figuring out Area X’s secrets and rigging a fix for its all-consuming threat takes on existential proportions.

Our protagonist, Lena (Natalie Portman) is a university biologist and former soldier mourning the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of her Marine husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) as well as dealing with the guilt of an affair with a colleague that may have speeded his mission departure. When Kane returns home unexpectedly (in what presents in initial exposure as a grief-led dream sequence before becoming more tangible) as Lena symbolically repaints their bedroom to the tune of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” (which becomes Garland’s metaphoric anthem for the elusive longing of human desire and connection), Lena’s joy at reunion with Kane is quickly turned to sour confusion at his monosyllabic obtuseness and then sudden, blood-coughing violent illness.

Whisked out of an ambulance by armed troops, Lena and Kane are brought to a facility at Area X where he is treated and she is filled in on the Shimmer by a cryptic and slightly hostile psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Kane, it turns out, had disappeared on a mission into the Shimmer and is the first person to ever emerge from it alive, albeit possibly mortally worse for wear. Driven by both a scientific curiosity about what happened to Kane inside as well as her own continuing guilt at poisoning their relationship with adultery, Lena joins Ventress and three other women – scrappy paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), fellow scientist Cassie (Tuva Novotny), and the fresh-out-of-post-grad Josie (Tessa Thompson) – on a mission into the Shimmer with the lighthouse, and a final discovery of what is happening inside the curtain, as their goal.

What they find is strange and disorienting, sometimes gorgeous but often extremely perilous. They lose days of time as soon as they enter the woods with no memory of what has happened, find strange rhizomatic vine growths with numerous species of flower and plant growing from them, and encounter aggressive Lovecraftian predators like an enormous crocodile and a disturbing, deadly bear (their confrontation with the latter in an abandoned house at night is the film’s highlight sequence of tension, dread, and dark invention). They also learn by degrees that whatever alien life force is directing the Shimmer and its effects is re-sequencing and even duplicating DNA and cells like a spreading cancer, a process Josie calls refraction (as of light through a prism). Locating the eerie, womb-like source of this cancer at the lighthouse, Lena will also uncover a troubling truth about the escaped Kane and pass along an essential self-destructive element of human nature to the extraterrestrial beings that will prove an unlikely salvation for life on Earth.

Annihilation is a tremendous visual experience from Garland, a confident expansion of effects-aided imagination from the excellently-conceived but above all limited chamber-piece vision of Ex Machina. Wonder and terror and the uncanny intermingle inside the Shimmer, as when the team comes across eerie funereal humanlike forms of plant growths created by the refraction process, standing frozen in pastures like the petrified remains of the victims of Pompeii or the nuclear wall-shadows of Hiroshima. The Bechdel Test-exploding squad of warrior scientist women are uniformly superb, with Leigh’s febrile flintiness and Thompson’s mix of keen intelligence and neophyte’s shock standing out particularly. Portman’s brittle strength marks the actress, famous for playing ballerinas and First Ladies and spritely girlfriends, as an unlikely action hero, but she makes the leap ably while also nailing down Lena’s halcyon days of happiness with Kane and her traumatized, haunted interrogation by Area X officials (mainly one called Lomax played by Benedict Wong) after her escape that forms the film’s narrative frame.

What makes Annihilation special beyond its expert refraction of genre tropes and visual imaginings, however, is also what made Garland’s previous film special: it renders complex and difficult moral and existential questions about human choice and intent in simple, resonant terms without surrending their inherent complexity and difficulty. Annihilation also concludes its narrative with powerful finality and thematic closure as Ex Machina did, while further injecting a note of ambiguity and mystery-box uncertainty in its final moments, although the oft-misread doppelgänger suggestion of its stinging last shot is probably more accurately interpreted as a suggestion of Lena’s hard-won acceptance of the necessity of change through her experience in the Shimmer, as an Alt Shift X explainer video suggests. However one interprets Annihilation‘s ideas, it’s an involving, intelligent and compelling visceral sci-fi cinematic experience, a further triumph from the talented Garland and an expansion of his abilities as a film storyteller.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Coco

October 6, 2018 Leave a comment

Coco (2017; Directed by Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina)

The production process on big-budget animated features like Disney/Pixar’s Coco is longer than your usual Hollywood movie, if you didn’t know. So this eye-poppingly colourful and touchingly respectful fantasy of Mexican cultural traditions, family memory, and embracing creative artistry could not have been conceived and mostly made with the foreknowledge of how much more political urgent it would feel upon its release in 2017.

To be certain, even though immigration to the United States from Mexico specifically has waned in recent years even as migrants from elsewhere in Latin America (particularly refugees often fleeing for their lives from the volatile nations of the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) have picked up the slack, Mexican cultural influence and political currency remain the most prominent Stateside of any Latin-American country. Americans (particularly White Americans) have simply become more accustomed to viewing Mexicans as the representative migrant group among Latin-Americans, to witnessing those people’s established and rooted communities (some of which, lest we forget, pre-dated white settlement in parts of the country) subsisting alongside their own. For a nation supposedly defined by constant change and frontier-pushing redefinition, America can be as loathe to shift its pre-conceived and well-set notions as any number of less apparently adventurous national consciousnesses.

This prominence has made Mexico, Mexican migrants, and settled Mexican-Americans one of the prime targets for xenophobia, racist fearmongering, and ramped-up border protectionism, even before Donald Trump’s particularly crude amplification of these ugly forces helped to lift him most dispiritingly into the White House. But it has also made Mexican-Americans an increasingly important media demographic, worthy of being pitched a culturally-sensitive and celebratory nine-figured-budget movie from what is perhaps Hollywood’s most consistent and revered studio assembly line of original popular narratives and emotional values. And so Coco stands with more defiance than it might otherwise have done, defending the rich culture and values of a diverse nation of 123 million people from weaponized prejudice and rampant stereotypes, from smears of criminality and children’s detention camps, from “Build the Wall!”

This position is probably far more than this movie has asked for, and if it holds up against the hostility of these forces then that’s because it’s tightly constructed, thematically strong, stunningly beautiful, and even touching (in that heavily-workshopped, factory-of-feelings way that Pixar films set out to move us in emotional terms). Set on and crafted around the traditions and observances of the well-known, visually rich, syncretic Catholic/pagan Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead, Coco follows a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) on a multichromatic quest into his family’s history. Miguel’s family runs a hard-toiling, hereditary shoemaking workshop, but further in its past, his great-great-grandfather was a travelling musician. After this man was accused of abandoning his young family to pursue dreams of stardom by Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), all music was banished from the family, a practice which has continued down to Miguel’s day. Although Miguel loves his clan dearly, this familial tradition causes him great consternation since he cherishes secret dreams of becoming a musician himself, like his idol and hometown hero, the late Mexican superstar Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

Driven to desperation for a guitar with which to play a Día de Muertos talent show in the village plaza after his strict grandmother (Renée Victor) destroys his own instrument, Miguel steals into de la Cruz’s memorial chapel and shrine and snatches the master’s distinctive white guitar. This act sets in motion a fantastical voyage to the Land of the Dead, a glowing rainbow-spectrum stacked afterlife metropolis inhabited by departed people turned into living skeletal calaveras. By the rules of this world, the dead endure as long as someone in the world of the living remembers them, which makes the Day of the Dead, with its ofrenda altars of memory festooned with decoration and mementoes of deceased loved ones, the most important day of the year in the Land of the Dead. The dead are screened through customs gates (a familiar bureaucratic barrier fraught with its own ambivalent cultural memory for generations of Mexican-Americans) and, if ofrendas to their memory have been erected, they may cross an arched bridge made of orange flower petals (one of those lovely poetic images that have become the trademark of Pixar works) to visit invisibly with their living descendants until sunrise ends Día de Muertos.

Miguel is unable to obtain a blessing from his calavera ancestors (including the implacable Imelda) that will allow him both to return to the living realm and to continue to play music. Thus, to avoid becoming a skeleton-person himself or returning to his life without any hope of music in it, Miguel enlists the aid of a shifty, ill-remembered outcast rogue character named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who, in exchange for a ofrenda photo placement to keep him from being forgotten, promises to bring the boy to de la Cruz, a prominent figure in the Land of the Dead as well and potentially the mysterious great-great-grandfather who left Miguel’s family decades before, in search of a music-empowering blessing. What Miguel finds will challenge his family’s traditions and, subtly, his own sense of himself.

For all of its grounding in Mexican Día de Muertos traditions, Coco (written by Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina, who also co-wrote most of the Latin-pop songs and was given a co-director credit with Pixar vet Lee Unkrich) also takes pains to make itself thematically intelligible to the more general audience for Disney/Pixar releases. Hence, the comical animal sidekicks, namely Miguel’s Xolo dog tagalong Dante and Pepita, Imelda’s multicoloured winged tiger spirit animal, or alebrije. Hence, the careful and sanitized but still slightly bold approach to adult themes in a children’s (or at least all ages’) cartoon, namely deaths in the family. Hence, the sneaky wink-and-nudge jokes for the benefit of chaperone parents or young-at-heart adult viewers, namely Miguel’s encounter with Skeleton Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and her side-splitting stage designs for de la Cruz’s annual Day of the Dead concert: a giant papaya that dancers crawl out of, towards their mother “who is a cactus, who is also me!”

Miguel’s core conflict in Coco, however, animates a more identifiable concern for a more bourgeois creative class segment of Pixar’s large audience. Forbidden from the dangerous, homewrecking passionate pursuit of music by his strict but close-knit family, Miguel views his pre-ordained future as a toiling proletarian artisan with barely-disguised distaste. The suggestion that he be brought into the family workshop to cobble shoes all day until the day that his body quits on him is one that fills him with horror. The assumption that pursuing the life of a musician is superior to manual labour is a general one contained within Coco, not merely applicable to Miguel’s motivations and desires, and this is a very recognizable anxiety for Pixar’s majority white upper-middle-class audience (to say nothing of its creative forces).

Coco also evokes a very contemporary phenomenon of the prominent public figure falling from lofty grace and into lowly infamy due to an unforgivable past transgression (not to spoil it entirely, but let’s just say that Ernesto de la Cruz did not fully earn his musical legacy, and that Héctor’s pariah state is a profound injustice to him). Indeed, such themes are more at the forefront and active in the bones of the story than any conceptions of Mexican nationalism or Latin-American cultural solidarity of the course-correcting sort detailed in my introductory paragraphs. It’s simply a statement to the dehumanizing vehemence towards poor and vulnerable immigrants (refugees fleeing for their safety, many of them) among the xenophobic American right that a fond and lively portrait of colourful Mexican culture and passionate family connections like Coco can feel like a nearly-revolutionary position-taking.

But it’s precisely by whittling away the implacable ideological diminishment of the rights, agency, and feelings of the marginalized with empathy and emotional understanding that the fractious and hostile polity can mend and heal itself. Coco is a manufactured delight in the best Pixar tradition, but if it rises above that to any extent, it’s probably because it engages in this grander discursive project of fairness, comprehension, and maybe, more distantly, justice and co-existence.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: The Legend of Tarzan

September 29, 2018 Leave a comment

The Legend of Tarzan (2016; Directed by David Yates)

Behold this surprisingly middling film, an interest-probing big-budget reboot of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ hopelessly old-fashioned man-of-the-jungle adventure tales. The Legend of Tarzan is, in many ways, a bold attempt to mitigate the century-long litany of bad politics of the Burroughs-descended multimedia franchise, whose screen history goes back to the formative days of Hollywood and Johnny Weissmuller’s granite pectorals and deep-chested yodelling. In a manner that is peculiar and sometimes difficult to explain, that bold mitigation takes the form of a series of good ideas, crazy ideas, and ideas that are inextricably good and crazy at the same time.

Like a less-inspired riff on Gore Verbinski’s flawed, positively revisionist, but doggedly visionary The Lone Ranger, The Legend of Tarzan (helmed by David Yates, the resident director of the last five films of the cinematic Wizarding World of Harry Potter) asks perhaps the defining popular literary character of the romantic normalization of European colonialism in Africa to instead expose that colonialism for the blood-streaked, greed-driven, exploitative monstrosity that it always was. In an idea that is so brazenly bonkers as to very nearly be compelling, screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have the titular feral-manchild-archetype-cum-reluctant-English-aristocrat Tarzan/John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård) return to the central African wilds where he was reared by great apes as a boy to put a stop to Belgian King Leopold II’s enslavement of the native peoples of the Congo Free State. Accompanied by his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) and African-American Civil War veteran and writer/historian/activist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan will try foil the scheme of notorious Belgian agent Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to extract valuable diamonds from an isolated tribe (whose chief, played by Djimon Hounsou, nurses an old grudge against Tarzan) and use them to pay a mercenary army that will allow Rom and his king to subjugate the vast Congo and strip it of its worth and much of its human and animal populations.

One certainly cannot fault Cozad and Brewer for a lack of ambition in the initial conception of this story; if one must make an attempt to drag the deeply problematic and inherently racist Tarzan into the progressive poses of contemporary Hollywood, one might do far worse than to set him up as an animal-whispering, anti-colonialist warrior-paladin for indigenous African freedom (one might do better to leave him in his problematic past altogether, too). In all fairness, more people in today’s world have now likely heard something about the horrors of Leopold’s sickening Congo project because of this mid-range popcorn movie than from any other source, up to and including Joseph Conrad’s seminal protest novella Heart of Darkness (whose central villainous enigma, Kurtz, is said to have been based on the real figure of brutal interior despot Rom). Would they be better off getting their information on the subject from a sober-minded and devastating work of historical scholarship like Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost? Without a doubt, although one might entertain some desultory hope that The Legend of Tarzan might prove a gateway drug to keen and curious viewers in that regard.

Such a potential introduction to deeper and broader texts about Leopold’s Congo might well be the film’s only conceivable moral salvation, given that it leaves out many of the Free State’s most haunting horrors and does not even approach an honest acknowledgement of the genocidal scale of what happened there in the last two decades of the 19th Century. These elisions and silences are hand-waved away by a fantasy wish-fulfillment action climax that sees a Tarzan-led wildebeest stampede demolish the whitewashed colonial port town of Boma and frighten off the potential armed force before they could commit mass atrocities against the locals. And everyone in the Congo lived happily ever after!

This imaginary redressment of historical wrongs coexists fitfully with the fundamental fidelity of The Legend of Tarzan‘s treatment of its titular hero. Skarsgård’s Tarzan is, for all intents and purposes, the Tarzan of Burroughs: orphaned in wild Africa when his lordly parents die during his infancy, raised by the proud and strong gorilla-esque Mangani, developing superhuman strength and agility as well as an innate connection to the continent’s diverse fauna in the jungles, brought back to Victorian England as a member of the civilized elite where he marries his Jane, but forever feeling the persistent tug of his true African home.

Burroughs’ Tarzan is the prototypical white saviour figure in American popular culture, protecting the primitive African animal and human ecosystems from their own brutality and inferiority while also projecting the reach of white masculine imperial civilization into the most remote corners of the “Dark Continent”. Skarsgård’s Tarzan (who is given neither nuance nor particular depth by either script or performance) does not thoughtlessly kill black Africans like Burroughs’ does and maintains connection and authority with African tribes and animal packs through fond respect and understanding of their practices and customs rather than merely by alpha-male domination. That said, the bedrock of the character’s relationship to both African and European social structures remains essentially the same while never serving as a productive mechanism for exploring or interrogating the terms and nature of those structures.

Neither does The Legend of Tarzan take any concrete steps to transform Jane into anything more than a basically inert personification of idealized and desired white womanhood under symbolic and actual threat. Casting Margot Robbie might have portended a figure of more agency and self-possession, and a self-conscious line dismissing her status as a mere damsel in distress overtly signals a more independent path for Jane. But as is so often the case in Robbie’s blockbuster roles, one can feel her openly-stated feminist bonafides straining against the chains of representational and narrative conventions, which in the case of this text are basically a century old. Early scenes and flashbacks establish her as sharp-witted, empathetic, and brave, but with the exception of a brief escape via an alarming dive into hippo-infested river waters (you go, girl?), Jane spends the majority of the movie as Rom’s prisoner and bait for her physically dominant husband.

She is, at least, not constructed as a symbol of virginal white womanhood under persistent sexual threat by a gaggle of defilers (Burroughs was very much inclined to such pulp turns), but this is largely because her primary antagonist is played by Waltz. An actor of overwhelming refinement, Waltz can certainly (and very often does) play villains who are capable of doing very terrible things (frequently in between cultured dinnertime conversation, as in their best scene together in this film). But those terrible things are never, ever sexual; indeed, it’s hard to think of a performer so inclined towards bad guys who projects less of a sense of rape threat than Waltz does. His watered-down version of Rom (the real man notoriously surrounded his trading-station home with the severed heads of executed Congolese) has approximately the rampant libido of the titular character of Where’s Waldo? Not that he could compete with the ape-man virile erectness of Tarzan, of course, so what would be the point? Only the calculating, small-minded avarice of uncivilized civilization writ large can stand believably in the way of Tarzan of the Apes.

All of this clumsy half-hearted execution of the movie’s ambitious political intentions might be nominally forgivable if its execution of its expected action-adventure genre fodder – hand-to-hand fights, swinging-vine jungle chases, etc. – weren’t also clumsy and half-hearted. Indeed, Yates cannot manage to even match the kinetic canopy-traversing motion of Disney’s animated Tarzan (although his film benefits greatly from a total lack of Phil Collins songs, after all). There is some lovely and striking photography of African landscapes (Henry Braham is Yates’ cinematographer, who put together some helicopter shots of the landscapes of Gabon which are the only real glimpses of Africa in this movie shot predominantly in studios in England) and some of the feature CGI work on the key animals is fairly decent, which only makes the dodgy effects work on some of the bigger sequences look worse. One does wonder if some of the $180 million budget (thanks very much, one-time movie-funder and current Trump apparatchik Steve Mnuchin!) could have been used to bring Andy Serkis or any of his motion-capture movement apprentices in as an ape performance/animation consultant. Wonders may have been worked.

It’s all emblematic of a film that genuinely reaches for a bold re-situating and rehabilitation of a classic (maybe too classic) character, but compromises too often and muddles up the follow-through on too many elements of film craft, from narrative to action mechanics to character to special effects to political subtext. Maybe, like The Lone Ranger, the superficially-laudable effort was not ultimately one worth making. Employing Tarzan as a lens through which to gaze critically at the Scramble for Africa in general and King Leopold’s Congo devastation in specific seems like a fascinating concept at first glance, but disassembles quickly into an intractable minefield of representational and symbolic problems that renders the pursuit therein of any productive result futile, if not outright suicidal.

The consequences for The Legend of Tarzan‘s principal creators are hardly professionally dire: Skarsgård may not be a movie star, but he’ll have good work for a long time yet (he was deadly in Big Little Lies); Yates has an indeterminate number of remaining Fantastic Beasts movies to make; Robbie scored an Oscar nom and can look forward to playing Harley Quinn for a good decade yet (I can hear her cheering from here); Waltz can continue summoning variations on Léon Rom (really, on Inglourious Basterds‘ Hans Landa) for the rest of his career, and we’ll probably even enjoy some of them. But for Tarzan, the implications are not rosy. If he doesn’t work as an (largely inadvertent) anti-colonialist crusader on the big screen in 2016, what else can he expect to do? Perhaps retire quietly. He’s had a good run, and there’s no shame in hanging it up before you’re entirely spent.

Categories: Film, Hilarity, Reviews

Film Review: Swiss Army Man

August 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Swiss Army Man (2016; Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

In a way, Swiss Army Man is an easy movie to describe, textually and subtextually. In its simplest form, it’s a quirky bromantic comedy about socially-awkward loner Hank Thompson (Paul Dano), a man stranded on his own in the wilderness who finds companionship and a kind of salvation in the unlikely form of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a farting, water-retaining, karate-chopping, projectile-spitting, and eventually talking corpse (a kind of “multi-purpose tool guy”, as Hank calls him, the closest the film comes to uttering its own title). On another level, it’s an extended and casually philosophic metaphor for depression and the condition’s often amplified hyper-awareness of social approbation.

But in another way, both more and less accurate, Swiss Army Man is a practically indescribable movie. Its humour is utterly idiosyncratic, whiplashing from the gallows variety of its core premise to loopy hipster-ish absurdity to bizarre conversational discourse to furious DIY creative inventiveness. Sometimes, this whiplashing occurs all in a single sequence: witness the deliriously funny central montage of Hank and Manny’s joyous friendship of makeshift civilization-substitutes and discovery of Manny’s myriad wacky and wonderful corporeal abilities, scored by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s hilarious scene-describing pop lyrics, which cross the line between diegetic and non-diegetic throughout the sequence. Swiss Army Man crosses other lines, too, of taste and comfort and seriousness. It basically crafts a tone and even a genre all its own out of discarded elements of other films, just like Hank creates a junkyard simulacra of the world he knew from trash in the forest to show Manny what life is like.

Swiss Army Man is the work of unique and fantastically imaginative writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are credited in the opening titles as just “Daniels”. Add a third Daniel, the erstwhile Harry Potter who has become a left-field indie film spelunker of growing note, and another star with “Dan” in his surname (who has quietly grown into an actor capable of carrying even the most unwieldy cinematic weights), and that’s a great deal of Dan-tosterone for one little movie (and despite its non-traditional adorkable conception of masculinity, Swiss Army Man is a homo-centric film, make no mistake; women are either sex-object magazine pin-ups, or enigmatic passing-glance focuses of desirous idealization like the central figure of Sarah, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

In all seriousness, Radcliffe’s physical performance in this movie needs to be seen to be properly believed (I flashed back to seeing him as Cripple Jimmy in a London stage production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, a precisely-observed use of his body that now looks like a warm-up for roles like this one): when not rocketing on the surface of the ocean like a jetski propelled by his own shuddering flatulence or afflicted with divining-rod erections, his body is flopped around like a filthy ragdoll by Dano’s Hank, unable to move under his own power. He deploys a twisted rictus of a smile with superb occasional effect, and Manny’s blank-slate mind leads him to question Hank with childlike curiosity and idiot-savant-hood about social customs and practices and taboos. Hank’s answers and Manny’s reactions to them often expose society’s rules as the absurdities they truly are, before segueing into Hank’s personal history and the anxieties that stand in between him and happiness.

As mentioned, Swiss Army Man is a compelling text on the subject of depression and social anxiety, embedding Hank’s internality and fear of social judgement into the narrative itself, right up to the ending. Hank’s literal journey out of the wilderness is also a figurative journey out of the no-man’s-land of his crippling anxiety, with the very weird Manny acting as his naïfish inadvertent mentor in the hard-won acceptance of his inherent weirdness, and thus of his own identity as a human being of some worth. Crucially, the Daniels tease a painful closing revelation that Manny’s specialness was entirely in Hank’s troubled mind, a corollary of that most obvious yet often hugely damaging response to displays of depression. But finally, Hank and Manny’s happy yet bizarre experiences are allowed to be real, not merely as a closing note of satisfaction for the audience but also an important recognition of the tangible reality of mental illness. Swiss Army Man is a loopy out-there delight, but it also carries a stronger and more rounded message about these issues than many a more serious-minded film.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya (2017; Directed by Craig Gillespie)

Caustic, fourth-wall-breaking, and unreliably narrated, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is an apt biopic approach to the sordid tabloid tale of American figure skating’s most iconoclastic and controversial figure. Spearheaded by a fiery and spiky but layered and sympathetic turn from Margot Robbie as former women’s singles champion Tonya Harding, who became infamous for her role in a brazen assault on her U.S. skating rival Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics, I, Tonya is a hilarious, scabrous film that cuts deep like a sharpened skate blade and, like its subject, mixes bracing, uncomfortable honesty with clumsy, self-justifying disingenuousness.

Its thesis is that Tonya Harding was a multifarious abuse victim, beat down psychologically and physically by her driven mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her insecure doofus husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), even by her sport’s governing body and its weird, deeply conservative, beauty-pageant-on-ice gender-image assumptions. More than anything, though, it understands Harding as being abused by her country, by its pitiless socioeconomic trajectories, by its wild-eyed, hysterical desperation in pursuit of fame and success, and by its inevitable hairpin turn towards puritanical moral scolding when confronted by a brazen, ambitious fast riser who takes its manifest destiny imperatives all too seriously and besieges its ramparts of class and status with all of the crude self-fashioned weaponry at her disposal. Indeed, Robbie’s Tonya stares down the barrel of the camera at one point and accuses the audience, the ravenous viewing public, of using her, of being just as complicit in her crimes as she herself was, let alone her disavowed idiot operatives.

I, Tonya divides itself between Harding’s personal tumults and skating sequences of kinetic dynamism, showcases of stunning technical and choreographic bravado by Gillespie, his cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, and his Oscar-nominated editor Tatiana S. Riegel (not to mention Robbie, who trained on skates for months in preparation, her skating doubles Heidi Munger and Anna Malkova, and her coach and choreographer Sarah Kawahara). In the later stages, the film is understandably taken over by what is referred to as “the incident”, the hapless Kerrigan caper and its shambolic aftermath establishing infamy for Harding, Gillooly, and Gillooly’s friend and Harding’s sometimes-bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Hauser’s Eckhardt is a ludicrous figure and consistent scene-stealer, a delusional loser living with his parents convinced that he has impressive, clandestine ties to international intelligence agencies and access to a network of secret operators (who prove in the breach to be even stupider than he is). Depending on who is asked about it in mockumentary interview inserts, Eckhardt either went rogue and turned intended psych-out threats into a physical attack on Kerrigan, or this was the plan Harding and Gillooly were making all along. I, Tonya might be criticized for choosing to be ambiguous on Harding’s involvement in the assault and thus absolving her, but its approach feels right, erring on the side of Harding’s self-absolving equivocation and simultaneous excusing and accepting of complicity.

Tonya Harding’s psychology and personal associations are tied into her persistent abuse by LaVona (Janney, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA for the supporting role, is a verbally vicious fireball with a streak of ends-justify-the-means self-righteousness) and by Gillooly by Steven Rogers’ screenplay. She repeatedly says that events as they unfolded were not her fault, but also blames herself for her mistreatment by others, in the commonly-observed way of abuse victims. But Robbie’s incandescent performance, at once iron-hard and heartbreakingly brittle, makes the skater’s experience and perspective compellingly real. Even in a movie like the horribly misbegotten Suicide Squad, Robbie showed a keen interest in women’s experiences of abuse. If David Ayer’s film proved unwilling (or more likely constitutionally unable) to explore Harley Quinn’s deformation of personality and Stockholm Syndrome manic-obsessive investment in her clown-painted abuser, it wasn’t because Margot Robbie was unwilling to do so. That willingness pays dividends here with a character and thematic package that deserves it.

While Harding’s domestic-abuse-ridden on-and-off relationship with Gillooly plays more directly into the collapse of her promising skating career, her relationship with her mother is the more important one in formative terms. Even after Harding cuts ties with LaVona after years of mistreatment (and a last-stray knife in the arm), they each seek the other out once more apiece, but the hint of reconciliation is in both instances a mere pretense, only pursued because they need something specific from the other to get what they want. Every relationship in I, Tonya operates on these transactional, acquisitional grounds (with the possible exception of Gillooly and Eckhardt’s strange friendship, which doesn’t much benefit either of them, ultimately), predicated on fulfilling some requirement that is basically never love.

Harding’s figure skating prowess is tied up in and ultimately poisoned by these abusive relationships and the public-eye glare that results from them, as the film’s depiction of her meltdown during the 1994 Olympic competition firmly implies: her purported skate-lace problem is suggested to be a pretense to disguise the roiling psychological turmoil that she ineffectually attempts to forcibly bury and that truly hijacks her performance (Robbie is tremendous through this entire sequence, carrying the weight of communicating all of these subtle and complex implications). But before she falls apart, skating is her passion and her love, her refuge in the glittering stars from the wearying mud of a painful life. I, Tonya‘s peak skating sequence is its dynamic take on Harding’s skate at the U.S. Nationals in 1991, when she became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition (the movie takes the time and effort to explain why this is a big deal in the context of the sport and even in fundamental athletic-mechanics terms, which is good because I can’t really be bothered). It’s presented as her high-water mark, her signature accomplishment, the best things ever got for her in spite of the worst she had to deal with. It’s meant to be inspiring, and it is, if fleetingly.

But I, Tonya understands figure skating as more than an escape or an outlet for dedication and accomplishment amidst a dearth of meaningful opportunities for Tonya Harding. It’s a conduit for aspirational wish-fulfillment, a fast-track to an exalted plateau of idealized, privileged American femininity for a young woman denied other routes to that promised land by circumstances of birth and nurture. This is keenly symbolized by her father (Jason Davis), unable to afford a real fur coat to emphasize his daughter’s femininity in the milieu of a sport that unspokenly requires such image-making, shooting rabbits to make her a fur coat from their skins (his departure upon separation from LaVona is young Tonya’s first and perhaps deepest trauma).

Robbie’s Harding is abrasive and confrontational, a cussing, drinking, smoking tomboy who attacks the ice with feral energy. This is what she knows from her upbringing, yes, but she also leans into these touchstones of the salt-of-the-earth white working class as a reaction to her lack of access to the upper echelons of her athletic discipline, which are (or were, at least in the period she competed in) defined as much by effective projection of a sort of elite gender ideal as they are by pure technical athletic performance. The latter might be democratically accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic level, but the former is more ephemeral and a function of assumptions of privilege, thus effectively policing the boundaries of access. Harding’s resentment towards the elegant ice-princess Nancy Kerrigan, and thus eventual focus on her as a despised arch-rival who stands in the way of her success, is merely a function of giving this more generalized frustration and resentment a specific individualized target.

I, Tonya is a tad reductive when it comes to the heteronormative imperatives and in-born gaudy weirdness of the figure skating world, probably because that isn’t where its interest lies (the Will Ferrell-led farce Blades of Glory is far more invested in the deeply bizarre insular world of this quasi-sport, even if it can’t always effectively negotiate the pervasive politics of gender projection therein even for comic effect). What it is much more interested in is American women’s figure skating as a stand-in for American society, with its limiting expectations of its competitors as only a slightly cartoonish exaggeration of American social and cultural expectations of women. Tonya Harding does not make for the purest and least problematic working-class countercultural heroine, for sure. But in the hands of director Craig Gillespie and star Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, she’s a lens filtering pervasive conceptions of beauty, class, and conduct that all women, prodigious ice athletes or not, must negotiate every day of their public and private lives.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Wind River

Wind River (2017; Directed by Taylor Sheridan)

Grim and stark like its snowy, spartan setting on a Wyoming Indian reservation, Wind River is the third and least of double-Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s heavy, violent crime dramas set amidst the socioeconomic margins of America. This is a bit unfortunate, as the core political issue that it seeks to spotlight – missing and murdered Indigenous women, an epidemic made worse by the complete lack of statistics about its frequency Stateside – is given far less attention than the push button issues of previous Sheridan scripts Sicario (the Mexican cartel drug trade at the border with the U.S.) and Hell or High Water (the financial system capitalizing on the struggles of poor whites).

At the centre of Wind River is a hard man acclimatized to the remote wilderness. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a Fish & Wildlife hunter and tracker, separated from his wife (Julia Jones) and son (Teo Briones) by the solitary demands of his job but also by a painful family tragedy in his past. Called onto the Wind River Reservation (the deprivations of its inhabitants are seen in standard-issue drive-by panoramas, one of which includes a heavy-handed upside-down U.S. flag) by his former father-in-law (Apesanahkwat) to track down livestock possibly snatched by a mountain lion, Cory finds a young woman’s dead body frozen in the snow, miles away from any human habitation.

There is evidence of rape and murder, which would constitute a criminal investigation beyond the stretched resources of the Tribal Police (their chief is Ben, played by veteran Aboriginal-Canadian actor Graham Greene, and it is noted that he has only five further officers to keep the peace in an area the size of Rhode Island, a true fact). FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, Renner’s Avengers co-star) arrives to evaluate the case, but is disappointed to learn from the medical examiner that the woman – named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), daughter of Cory’s good friend Martin (Gil Birmingham, who was in Hell or High Water) – died from the cold and that her death cannot be classed as a homicide. Procedurally, this means that no investigative team will be sent from the Agency to take over. If Jane wants to find the perpetrator of Natalie’s death, she’ll have to solve the case herself, with Ben’s team and Cory as her only collaborators.

Sheridan no doubt learned from the directors of his previously-penned pictures, probably Sicario‘s supremely skilled Denis Villeneuve in particular, how to stage a tense and visceral bloodbath of a shootout scene. Wind River includes two, first a nailbiting sequence of Jane creeping through a reservation junkie flophouse, then the centerpiece, a memorable massacre in the snow between law enforcement and the bad men behind not only the death of Natalie but of her boyfriend Matt (Jon Bernthal) as well. Unfortunately, Sheridan’s hand is not as steady with the use of flashback, utilizing one to reveal the circumstances of the murders at a juncture that he no doubt thinks is clever but comes off as clumsy and awkwardly placed.

Cory’s intervention in the big shootout with his high-powered hunting rifle is graphic but satisfying, if rather telegraphed. Indeed, Cory’s role in the proceedings is always realistically couched in terms of his hunting and tracking capabilities, and Renner gives a strong performance as a man used to a hard life of hard choices who has nonetheless not abandoned his sensitivity, empathy, or moral compass. But he’s a bit too much of the rugged plain-spoken hero with a heart of gold, a stock figure that Sheridan has thus far avoided deploying so uncritically in his work.

The events of Wind River are based on the foul-play deaths of three teenaged girls on the reservation about a decade ago. These deaths were similarly borderline murders, but with drug-use involvement, with both the victims and the responsible parties being Native American. Sheridan crafts Wind River‘s murder mystery as not an internal tribal matter but a case of outside forces (colonizers, if you will) both bringing predatory violence and redressing the wrong done in the name of justice. Government agents avenge the most obvious ills visited on the reservation residents by subalterns of acquisitive corporate capitalism, but as with many social problems in America, they can do little to alleviate base-level suffering and struggling to survive in parts of the country that make majority-Caucasian Appalachia – that locus of demonstrative political hand-wringing over endemic poverty in the States, the place where it counts to be poor, unlike reservations or majority-black or Hispanic urban communities – look like the Hamptons in comparison.

Wind River, its good intentions interwoven with unflinching but vaguely nihilistic hard-edged realism, can do little either. Canada’s First Nations reserves face similar problems as those of the U.S., but concerted efforts by Indigenous groups and political activist allies in this country have at least convinced the federal government to convene an official inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women (albeit an inquiry rife with problems already). The situation for American Indians seems that much more dire for the lack of government resources and concern, especially in a time of a federal administration actively engaged in worsening the conditions for anyone who isn’t identified as white (and plenty who are too, while they’re at it).

Still, Wind River might have at least lessened that burden with a story of Native American agency and self-reliance, with representational casting at its core. As good as Renner is in the role, did Cory need to be white? Could not a Native American actor (Zahn McClarnon, a mixed Lakota-Irish actor currently doing superb work in prestige television, would have been inspired casting) have played Cory, adding a further element of personal cultural conflict to the character by having him be caught between two worlds, on and off the reservation? Far be it for a mere internet critic to question the creative decisions of a twice-Oscar-nominated screenwriter, but such a choice might give an opportunity for meta-commentary about and deconstruction of the common Hollywood western stock character of the Native American tracker.

The possibilities are fascinating, but Wind River is a movie closed off from fascination. More than competent and often tense and evocative, with some lovely widescreen cinematography from DP Ben Richardson, Wind River comes across as too grim and paternalistic. Opening with a chest-puffing piece of grandiose poetic voiceover and closing with pulpit-ascending onscreen titles lecturing about the ignored issue of missing Native women, it’s a movie that can’t get out of its own way. Given the representational, thematic, and narrative good its messaging could have done if presented better, Wind River has to count as a disappointment.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys (2016; Directed by Shane Black)

The opening sequence of Shane Black’s rough and rowdy action/comedy/neo-noir is a sort of initial thesis statement for the project of subversion of genre violence and sly confrontation of audience perspective and expectations that The Nice Guys (like most of Black’s work) represents. On a clear night in Los Angeles in 1977, after ensuring that the dog is safely inside and the family is securely asleep, a boy named Bobby (Ty Simpkins) sneaks off excitedly to ogle a nudie magazine featuring popular adult-film star Misty Mountains (Murielle Tellio). The lurid pubescent rush of Bobby’s horny yet detached voyeurism becomes uncomfortably real and immediate, however, when a car carrying Misty herself crashes with sudden devastation through his house. In the aftermath, face to face with the idealized object of his youthful desire’s naked but torn and broken body, Bobby is overcome with sobering shame and covers her corpse with his nightshirt.

This scene is not the example from the film cited by the Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak, in his video-essay consideration of Black’s unique and defamiliarizing application of “awkward violence”, but it is a fuller summation of Black’s treatment of the elements of the film noir genre. Black delights in staging the dark, anti-social, vicarious thrills of hypermasculine action/detective movies with a sort of eruptive, direct realism that presents them as more painful and less safe than the generally empty spectacle of Hollywood blockbuster destruction. In this way, he challenges the audience to shake loose their assumptions about (and above all their numbness to) depictions of violence, to confront their voyeurism and realize its fundamentally problematic nature.

The Nice Guys overturns those assumptions and destabilizes Black’s favoured detective noir genre at every turn. The death of Misty Mountains (a perfect fake-pornstar name, complete with amusing cultural reference, from Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi) and the expanding conspiracy around it becomes the central mystery probed into by a mismatched duo of private dicks. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an aging hard man who beats up and threatens people for money, and takes a commission from a young activist protestor named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to dissuade a strange man from following her. This man is strange and is also Holland March (Ryan Gosling), an alcoholic ex-cop P.I. and single father to Holly (Angourie Rice), a teen girl who is probably more savvy than her father. Looking for Amelia in connection with Misty’s demise at the behest of the latter’s elderly half-blind aunt, who he is milking for as much money as he can while making a bare pretense of investigating, March is beaten and left with a broken arm by Healy.

Despite this inauspicious beginning to their acquaintance, the two men soon semi-reluctantly join forces to find Amelia and learn more about her connection to Misty via an porn flick with potentially inflammatory information about collusion between the government and the big Detroit automakers. From a indie filmmaker’s burnt-down home to a porn producer’s fanciful house party, from a Burbank Airport hotel to a final confrontation at the LA Auto Show, Healy and March, reluctantly with Holly’s aid, chase down Amelia and the film just ahead of a trio of criminal henchmen (Beau Knapp, Keith David, Matt Bomer) of increasing levels of competence and deadliness.

Black’s plot, like his application of violence, is surprising and even subversive, leaning into sharp turns and ironic reversals. As detailed by Puschak, March’s early genre-standard attempt to punch through a glass pane to open a bar’s back door in order to obtain Amelia-related information leads to a sliced wrist and a rollicking ambulance ride. Holly attempts to subdue an armed antagonist by throwing coffee on them; the coffee is unexpectedly cold, but her enemy slips on the spilled liquid and knocks herself out anyway. And a spectacular shootout with Bomer’s menacing hitman John Boy in defence of Amelia is made suddenly, stunningly moot after its conclusion.

The script’s jokes are fine-tuned, and its call-backs in particular are a joy, especially one involving Richard Nixon’s face being the last thing a man once saw before dying. References to gas shortages, the growth of the porn business, media-fed anxiety about killer bees (a man-sized version of which hilariously appears in the backseat of March’s car in a dream), and anti-smog die-in protests ground the film in its historical milieu while imparting a sense of instability and decay of morality and security that make the period and place an ideal setting for the stress-tests of noir. Crowe is solidly in his element as a gruff, violent man whose best years are behind him but who fleetingly wishes to be better. But Gosling’s unethical, grifting, mostly hapless and quietly guilt-ridden March, with his perpetual Chinatown-like injuries, lack of a sense of smell, and high-pitched, unmasculine shriek of alarm, steals the show, while also carrying Black’s reflections on the difficulty of moral conduct in a societal setting of dishonesty, exploitation, violence, looting, and subterfuge.

Shane Black understands well the appeal of violently transgressive content in such a genre setting, and could very well summon it in a manner commensurate with expected convention, pumped full of triumphant testosterone and audio-visual adrenaline. But from its opening scene, The Nice Guys dares its audience to interrogate their own complicity in the lies, danger, and violence of this cinematic milieu. It complicates the veneer of the ideal by making the violence on display and its clear costs undeniable and even difficult to digest.

This approach goes compellingly beyond mere screen violence into an open challenge to American idealized self-conception. The eventual object of the detective characters’ quarry is not Amelia but her film (How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?), an exposé in more ways than one that outlives those who made it. Its sociopolitical challenge is explicitly targetted at the car culture of the auto-centric metropolis of Los Angeles and its notorious smog (killing birds and threatening public health), and by extension at the centrality of the automobile in narratives of American freedom, mobility, and gender hegemony. Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), Amelia’s mother and the nexus of the corrupt government-automaker conspiracy, states that Detroit’s power and permanence cannot be challenged (a winking irony is obvious in this argument, given the city’s precipitous urban degradation and depopulation in our era), and that “what is good for Detroit is good for America” (a paraphrase of a former Secretary of Defense and major stakeholder in General Motors). Big gas-guzzling automobiles, like violent Hollywood action movies, are consistently sold by corporate interests as being good for you, but Shane Black’s The Nice Guys stops you in the midst of your consumption to suggest, without pedantry or tiresome lecturing but with crisp, funny subversion, that they’re as bad for you as you would imagine, and that you think twice about the choice to consume them.

Categories: Film, Reviews