Category Archives: 2017

Hard Surfaces (2017, Zach Brown)

Hard Surfaces is pretty thin. Sometimes it’s translucently thin. The film itself never has any depth, but fairly regularly the actors at least show they could give it some depth, if it weren’t for the thinness. Ostensibly the film’s well-meaning, but that quality comes off as fake. Like writer (and director) Brown is using trying to leverage melodramatic tropes to tell his story, which even he doesn’t care very much about because it’s impossible to care very much about successful cokehead Winston-Salem, North Carolina photographer Shawn Pyfrom (who also produced). He’s such a big hit, he goes to red carpet openings—which later makes no sense when you find out he’s been living a lie in Winston-Salem for years. Surfaces exists in a world without much of an Internet. It’s not even clear the cellphones can text. Pyfrom is dating professional mean girl Julia Voth (who also produced); actually she’s a prosumer mean girl; Voth not being some kind of YouTube influencer is one of Surfaces many misses. She couldn’t be a YouTube influencer, however, and not just because the Internet doesn’t exist, but because Voth’s character isn’t allowed that level of depth. She’s just the bitchy, sex-crazed harpy who seduces Pyfrom whenever there’s a pause in dialogue. Because Pyfrom doesn’t want kids, so all Voth can give him is sex. And enable his cocaine and prescription pill addiction.

Pyfrom’s hit photographs are all of people on drugs. His studio is in his apartment and even though these subjects sometimes make Pyfrom uncomfortable (Sterling Hurst in the film’s only thing approaching a standout performance), he doesn’t worry about it ever coming back on him. His buddy—and the guy who sells pictures—Chase Fein hires the subjects. So they’re paying people to get dangerous high and then Pyfrom takes pictures of them drooling, then Fein sells them. Fein, we later find out, is all about his AA-fueled sobriety. Fein knows drugs are bad, he just doesn’t care about them being bad for other people. He’s even got an overdose story at one point. He’s also a… hipster? I mean, he walks around barefoot all the time, mostly wears long-sleeve shirts and shorts, eats in front of people at a place of business and talks with his mouth full, and does yoga on his desk. Given Brown doesn’t appear to direct his actors at all, it’s impressive how much Fein’s able to get away with when the script and direction aren’t ever there to back him up.

But then Pyfrom’s past catches up to him; his sister and her wife die in a tragic boating accident off Catalina. Because where else does anyone die except in tragic boating accidents except off Catalina. They’ve left him their daughter, who—before they kicked him out of the state and he left in tears, they all promised he’d care for if they ever died. There’s some twenty-first century “not that there’s anything wrong with it” from the two female characters in the film, bitchy girlfriend Voth (who needs to have a kid to validate her existence we later find out) and virginally wonderful social worker Sophie Kargman. Voth can get away with her surprise at lesbians existing because she’s supposed to be playing shallow, but Kargman’s awkward delivery of “partner” instead of wife in a legal setting? It’s a creative decision on someone’s part and a dumb one.

There are a lot of dumb creative decisions in the film, but they’re mostly Brown’s script. It’s not like Pyfrom ever screws up a scene. Quite the opposite. He’s perfectly fine doing this movie all about how sad it is this thirty-something white guy has to take a measure of responsibility–basically, it’s about him realizing it’s not a good idea to get high around tween ward Hannah Victoria Stock. Stock ought to give the movie’s best performance, but she doesn’t because Brown’s so bad at directing her scenes. It’s like they used the worst take in every scene, then cut it wrong. But it’s not like Pyfrom has any arc with Stock. Or, more, the other way around. See, once Stock is introduced and starts eating instead of being locked away in her room while Pyfrom day drinks (it’s okay though, thanks to the coke, he never gets drunk; it’s established in the first scene because the script is all about priorities), she pretty much disappears. Fein becomes her babysitter while Pyfrom and Kargman have this awful courtship then disappointment once someone (psst, it’s Voth) calls into social services he’s a drunken cokehead who probably shouldn’t be caring for a tween.

However, since Pyfrom never has any problems other than, you know, passing out on his counter, and never actually does anything with Stock except maybe feed her and drop her off at Fein’s gallery… it’s hard to see a problem. But then you realize it’s because Brown is manipulating everything to make Pyfrom a victim, even when Fein’s accusing him of playing victim, there’s another layer to make Pyfrom the victim. Because we don’t have all the details. Sure, he lied to pal and business partner Fein and live-in girlfriend Voth about his past and they never found out not just because there’s no Internet but because it turns out the local newspaper, which apparently does multiple stories about Pyfrom’s photography, never did some basic checking into his identity. It’s not like he had his name legally changed, so Voth never looked at the water bill either.

The suspension of disbelief Surfaces requires, not just for plot points but for characters and the ground situation itself… it needs to bring something more than the acceptable acting of a typo-free but insipid screenplay. And whatever screenwriting book Brown read to help with the third act needs to be burned; it’s reveal after gimmick after reveal after gimmick after reveal.

If Brown had some personality as a director, there might be something to Hard Surfaces. If Voth and Kargman had switched roles—Voth implies depth, Kargman never does—it’d be something. If Brown knew how to direct his actors, it’d be something. If Noel Maitland’s photography weren’t so perfectly competent, it’d be something. Hard Surfaces is the kind of thing where the only thing it can’t be is vapid and Brown brings nothing to it but vapid. The way he avoids the female characters is astounding. Like, Stock ought to be the main character. Instead, she gets less to do than anyone else. It’s also weird the sister left him her kid but none of the kid’s possessions.

Pyfrom’s okay. It’s actually surprising how well he maintains that okay throughout the film. Stock’s likable, but should be good. She also doesn’t get to grieve because she’s not given that much character. Voth. Voth could be the film’s secret weapon, instead she’s just as much a drag on it as Kargman. And Kargman’s a drag.

But, hey, Fein’s good in a crap role and that Hurst guy is awesome.

Hard Surfaces has some decent, if insincere, performances, but nothing else. Except director Brown in a bit part where the gag is he stutters.

Wait, wait, I forgot—the Panavision aspect ratio for the DV. Really, really, really, really, really bad idea.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Zach Brown; director of photography, Noel Maitland; edited by Patrick Bellanger; music by Ryan Rapsys; production designer, Kristen Adams and Jayme Helms; produced by Julia Voth, Shawn Pyfrom, and Brown; released by North of Two.

Starring Shawn Pyfrom (Adrian), Chase Fein (Steve), Hannah Victoria Stock (Maddy), Sophie Kargman (Sophie), Julia Voth (Liz), and Sterling Hurst (Dale).


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The Dark Tower (2017, Nikolaj Arcel)

The Dark Tower is the story of unremarkable white kid Tom Taylor–wait, he’s supposed to be eleven? No way. Anyway, it’s the story of unremarkable white teenager Tom Taylor who discovers, no, his visions are real and he is a wizard and he’s going to travel to another dimension and bring a legendary hero back to modern New York City. Once back they will battle to save the universe itself, thanks to the hero’s gunfighting abilities and the kid’s vague magical magicking.

Okay, well, it’s not actually vague magicking. Taylor’s got the Shining. You know, like in The Shining. When they tell him he’s got the Shining, you have to wonder how he got to be fifteen without seeing The Shining. Maybe because he’s supposed to be eleven.

Taylor’s dad died at some point before the movie starts so mom Katheryn Winnick has remarried. She went with astounding tool Nicholas Pauling, who wants Taylor out of there because papa lion? Maybe it’s because Taylor’s got problems–he draws visions of a mythic fantasy world, Idris Elba’s gunfighting hero, and Matthew McConaughey’s creepy man in black. Maybe they sent Taylor to the shrink for drawing pictures of Christopher Walken. At the start, it seems like McConaughey’s going to just do a Christopher Walken impression, which would be a lot better than what he ends up doing. The Walken impression would at least be amusing. Dark Tower is short on amusing.

Because Dark Tower is serious. Director Arcel plays it straight. The screenplay plays it straight. Taylor lives in a New York City infested with disguised demons but it’s still safe enough gun shops have zero security. And no one has cell phones. If Arcel had any personality in his direction, there’d be a possibility for this New York City. The sad thing about Dark Tower is all the missed opportunities. Because, even if it’s short on amusing and McConaughey isn’t as amusing as if he were aping Christopher Walken, none of the principal cast half-asses it. They’re just in an under-budgeted production. They hold together admirably.

Though it gets depressing watching Elba try to do acting while the film’s got no need for him to do any. The script’s got no need for him to do any. All the characters exist entirely through exposition, usually exposing about themselves to others. It’s a weak script. As pragmatic and unenthusiastic as Arcel’s direction gets, it’s nothing compared to the script. Junkie XL’s score does most of the heavy dramatic lifting, just because the script doesn’t have time for it. Of course, the script doesn’t have time for anything while it ought to be doing character development either. Sure, once Taylor gets to Fantasia, he immediately becomes fetching to the opposite sex and finds out he’s a wizard, but it’s not character development. It’s just setup for the finale. Sure, the film’s uninspired and disappointing, but it’s pragmatic as heck.

Taylor’s fine as the Boy Who Lived-lite. Elba’s… potentially good. He’s never near bad, but the part’s crap and Arcel’s got no time for acting. Arcel doesn’t even have time for McConaughey’s ostensible excesses as his evil, magical, maybe Satanic character. It might help if Elba and McConaughey–who have been nemeses for untold ages–had some chemistry. Elba can do lack of enthusiasm, but McConaughey phones it in during their handful of scenes together. Spellbinding acting it ain’t.

Dennis Haysbert and Jackie Earle Haley have glorified cameos. Haysbert is overly portentous but not embarrassing. Haley’s is embarrassing.

Technically, there’s nothing terrible. Rasmus Videbæk’s photography is fine. The special effects are all right. There’s not enough of them–either the budget limitations held back establishing shots or Arcel just doesn’t like them. Given his bland competence as a director, it seems more likely they’re budgetary omissions. There are a lot of budgetary omissions. They’re kind of Dark Tower’s thing–frequent, unexplained, inexcusable absences.

Because with what they had, the filmmakers should’ve been able to turn out a much better ninety-five minutes. The script’s the big problem. And Arcel does nothing to transcend it.

The worst thing about Tower is it actually does end up disappointing. The first half is riddled with problems and always seems absurdly unaware of itself in terms of being a knock-off Neverending Story, Princess Bride, and, I don’t know, Star Wars, but Taylor is sympathetic and compelling. Elba always seems like he’s eventually going to get some great scene. It’s just around the corner.

Only it’s not. A perfunctory ending is around the corner. Because the script, despite being low on ideas from the start, manages to run out of them as things move along.

It’s also–almost–too technically competent to be such narrative slop. Competencies aside, The Dark Tower is poorly written and badly produced. Those lacking qualities sink the picture further than it ought to sink.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel; screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Arcel, based on characters created by Stephen King; director of photography, Rasmus Videbæk; edited by Alan Edward Bell and Dan Zimmerman; music by Junkie XL; production designers, Christopher Glass and Oliver Scholl; produced by Goldsman, Ron Howard, and Erica Huggins; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Taylor (Jake), Idris Elba (Roland), Matthew McConaughey (Walter), Katheryn Winnick (Laurie), Nicholas Pauling (Lon), Claudia Kim (Arra), Dennis Haysbert (Steven), Jackie Earle Haley (Sayre), Fran Kranz (Pimli), Abbey Lee (Tirana), and José Zúñiga (Dr. Hotchkiss).


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I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie)

Despite the rather declarative I in the title, I, Tonya, Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding is not the protagonist of the film. Writer Steven Rogers avoids making her the protagonist as long as he can–really, until the third act–and instead splits it between Robbie and Sebastian Stan (as her husband). Allison Janney, as her mother, has a lot to do the first hour, not so much the second. So little, in fact, Janney–in the present-day interview clips (with the actors in old age makeup and a perplexing 4:3 aspect ratio despite, you know, digital video)–comments on how she’s not in the story much anymore.

The distance from Robbie (and Harding) lets I, Tonya get away with things like Robbie making fun of Nancy Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver, who literally has no audible dialogue other than moaning “why” over and over again after her assault, which the film plays for a laugh). Kerrigan, Harding (Robbie) opines, only got hit once. Harding had been constantly beaten first by Janney and then Stan her whole life until that point. What’s Kerrigan got to be so upset about. Ha. Funny.

Whether or not Harding actually made that statement–the script is based, in part, on interviews with Harding and the real-life Stan–is immaterial. Rogers and director Gillespie play it for a shock laugh. But I, Tonya is hardly sympathetic to Harding; Robbie will recount abuse in voiceover–or in scene; the characters occasionally break the fourth wall for effect–and then, next scene, I, Tonya will play her being assaulted for a laugh. Not so much with Stan, whose casual vicious abuse is presented utterly matter-of-fact, but with Janney. Janney’s abuse, physical and psychological, is always good for a chuckle.

Because I, Tonya wants the audience to laugh at its subjects. Bobby Cannavale, in the present day interview clips as a Hard Copy producer (the film doesn’t do anywhere near enough with explaining the Hard Copy coverage for people not somewhat familiar with the actual events), talks about how some of the participants–maybe the guys who actually attack Kerrigan–are the biggest boobs in a story made up entirely of boobs. I, Tonya, despite Harding’s participation, feels no differently about it.

Robbie’s Harding is terrorized and terrified, without an ounce of joy or even the capacity for it. The script’s got to follow a historical timeline–there’s accomplishment the first time Robbie gets away from abusive Stan, but then when she goes back to him, the movie skips ahead instead of examining. Robbie’s not just not the protagonist, she’s not even a good subject. You can’t get too many laughs out of it if you chart her descent into (apparent) alcoholism after returning to the abusive relationship.

Meanwhile, Stan’s a little bit closer to the protagonist. See, the ice-skating stuff–despite a solid performance by Julianne Nicholson as Robbie’s trainer (who simultaneously champions her for her ability and loathes her for being poor)–barely figures in. Robbie doesn’t get to essay accomplishment, just abuse, whether from Janney or Stan. Her character is completely defined by other people. Not much I in it.

But Stan. Until he starts hitting Robbie, he’s a cute boyfriend. Then he’s a scumbag one, but he’s always around in the story. Now, Stan is eight years older than Robbie, but the actual age difference was three years. Even though Stan’s performance is excellent, it might have worked better age appropriate. Because I, Tonya’s Stan is a different kind of creep than the real guy. Of course, they’re both playing characters far younger–starting at fifteen for Robbie–and, well, it’s not like the film’s going for verisimilitude. It’s going for laughs. Often really easy ones.

Like Paul Walter Hauser, as the guy who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan and Stan’s buddy. Hauser’s great. Maybe the movie’s best performance. Because he doesn’t bring any glamour to the part. Janney, despite the makeup and the funny hair and all the affect, is still doing a movie star turn. Hauser’s just this schlub.

He also gets to be the butt of some of the film’s working class poverty jokes. Though there’s a truly stunning one in Robbie’s voice over where you wonder how craven Rogers and Gillespie have to be to spit on the real-life Harding to characterize her as such. And they’re far from gracious to the character–the film conveys Harding’s assertion she knew nothing about the attack and doesn’t directly contradict it… just strongly implies there are possible unknowns. It does the same for Stan. Hauser’s character–the real-life person having died ten years before the film–gets to be the film’s single premeditating villain.

Performance-wise, outside Hauser’s kickass supporting (practically bit) turn, Stan, Robbie, and Janney are all excellent. They’re all caricatures to some degree, though Stan gets to be super-likable in the interview sections, which is problematic. Especially since, initially, Robbie doesn’t. And even after Robbie gets to be more sympathetic, she never gets to be likable. The end credits of the film exemplify three of the film’s major fails. First, the real Tonya Harding–in Hard Copy footage perhaps–is immediately more likable and sympathetic than Robbie ever gets to be. Worse, than Robbie ever tries to be. A sincere smile wouldn’t hurt. Similarly, when the film shows Harding’s heavy metal skate recitals? It’s unimaginable why Robbie, as Harding, would make that creative choice. She’s utterly joyless. The real Harding, in footage, is clearly exuberant.

Final big fail? The skating. Director Gillespie uses a lot of digital help with the editing–so again, why does the film pretend contemporary cameras for the interviews would be 4:3, but whatever–so lots of digital help for editing. He gets these long, obviously digitally-aided shots–Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing is technically outstanding, regardless of content. He also uses digital help for the skating. Presumably to put Robbie’s face on a figure skater, but also to recreate Harding’s actual skating.

You’d think, given CGI technology, they would’ve been able to make that skating a tenth as impressive as Tonya Harding’s actual skating ability. They don’t. All the camerawork, all the digital help, all the editing… it’s nothing compared to the television footage of Harding skating during the end credits. I, Tonya’s Harding is as feckless about her skating as the film is about presenting her story. It would’ve been nice if the film didn’t do a constant, active disservice to itself just for some laughs.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Craig Gillespie; written by Steven Rogers; director of photography, Nicolas Karakatsanis; edited by Tatiana S. Riegel; music by Peter Nashel; production designer, Jade Healy; produced by Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie, Rogers, Michael Sledd, and Bryan Unkeless; released by Neon.

Starring Margot Robbie (Tonya), Sebastian Stan (Jeff), Allison Janney (LaVona), Paul Walter Hauser (Shawn), Julianne Nicholson (Diane Rawlinson), Bojana Novakovic (Dody Teachman), and Bobby Cannavale (Martin Maddox).


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Voyeur (2017, Katharine White)

Voyeur has five shots. Maybe six… but I think five. The main shot is of star (and writer and producer) Stephanie Arapian’s front door. A little of the apartment interior is visible, but mostly in shade. Or, during the night shots, it’s just a lighted window. Over the film’s six minute run time, Voyeur explores Arapian’s life (as it relates to her parents). They live on the other side of the country, they’re getting older, they’re getting sick, they’re not communicating well. The short starts on Arapian’s birthday (or thereabouts) and ends just before Christmas. In between, a lot happens. The viewer hears about some of it, some of it is just implied in the dialogue, some of it is just on Arapian’s face and in her expressions, as the time wears on her.

The short is a showcase for Arapian’s acting. Even though there are only five (or six) shots and most of it is that one shot, Arapian does a lot, often when she’s on the phone. Even more than when she and her friend (Kate Volpe) are sitting outside talking through a particularly emotional scene, nothing feels quite as voyeuristic as those times Arapian is on the phone. Because in the conversation, her expressions and the emotion in them aren’t private–Volpe’s there–on the phone? Those moments are when the short is peeking in.

Of course, there’s also a phone scene where Arapian’s in the apartment and only visible–occasionally–walking past the window. That scene showcases Arapian’s acting from just voice alone. Again, it’s a great showcase for her.

Great photography from director White; nice editing from Tiffany Gibson. Voyeur’s simple and direct and rather affecting.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Photographed and directed by Katharine White; produced and written by Stephanie Arapian; edited by Tiffany Gibson.

Starring Stephanie Arapian (Lynn) and Kate Volpe (Eva).


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