Category Archives: 2017

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).


RELATED

Advertisements

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).


RELATED

Come Swim (2017, Kristen Stewart)

As Come Swim gets under way, the short provokes a couple thoughts. First, it’s not really going to be eighteen minutes, is it? Spoiler, not only is it eighteen minutes, it’s two separate short films stuck together with the first nine minutes or so being a dream sequence. Or is it a dream sequence? Oh, the symbolism and the motifs, so much to parse through.

Second thought. Is it really supposed to be this pointlessly pretentious? Is director (and writer, though not much writing) Stewart going anywhere with Swim? In the first half, she’s got some great special effects. Protagonist Josh Kaye–who’s game in his performance, which is about all it requires–is drowning. Not just in the ocean but when he gets out of the ocean. He sits around the open air of his apartment and is drowning. Water dripping down and so on. Pretty good effects work with it. Jacob Secher Schulsinger’s editing is never better than when giving that impression. He’s also extremely parched, while–in his head–he keeps hearing the same conversation about drowning and dying and blah blah blah. Even though Stewart wrote said conversation and likes it enough to endlessly repeat it over the action, even she drowns it out with the St. Vincent score.

Right after the worst effects sequence–Kaye turning into a human prune, which is the worst effects work in the movie but still disturbing–he wakes up from his dream and turns out to be an office drone slash wanna-be yuppie who spends his birthday (the movie’s set on his birthday it turns out) all by himself at the Waffle House, haunted by the repeating conversation.

When Kaye wakes up and Stewart sticks Swim into his mundane life (he smokes weed, but apparently not enough not to vividly dream, he smokes cigarettes in his bathroom with the window open so the landlord doesn’t find out, he has a MacBook Pro on his work desk next to his regular computer), it becomes pretty obvious she’s not going anywhere with the short.

John Guleserian’s photography–which is never more than competent–takes a real dive with the office stuff too.

Other than the first half special effects, the only thing impressive about Come Swim is its lack of self-awareness. It’s a tedious chore.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kristen Stewart; director of photography, John Guleserian; edited by Jacob Secher Schulsinger; music by St. Vincent; production designer, Margaux Rust; produced by David Ethan Shapiro; released by Refinery29.

Starring Josh Kaye (Josh).


RELATED

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, James Gunn)

I’m going to start by saying some positive things about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It has fantastic CG. Wow is cinematographer Henry Braham truly inept at compositing it with live footage, but the CG is fantastic. Whether it’s the exploding spaceships or exploding planets or the genetically engineered, bipedal racoon, the CG is fantastic. It’s not exception with the other CG character, the micro-sized plant toddler or de-aging Kurt Russell, but, dang, is there some good CG. And James Gunn is usually good with the shot composition for it. So long as he’s in medium long shot or long shot and they shots don’t involve Chris Pratt. Especially not when they involve Pratt and Zoe Saldana. But otherwise, pretty good with the composition.

Other good things? Bradley Cooper’s great voicing the racoon. Yes, it’s a Gilbert Gottfried impression, but… given the amount of dialogue Cooper gets, he’s so much better at delivering than anyone else in the movie, he deserves a lot of credit. He’s got more vocal inflection in four words than Pratt manages in his entire performance. Saldana, well, like Dave Bautista, their lack of affect is part of their characters. There’s an excuse. Maybe not a good one, but there’s an excuse. And Bautista’s fine. He gives one of the film’s better performances. Though, technically, Saldana doesn’t even give one of it’s bad ones. Because she’s always opposite Pratt–who’s downright laughable when he’s got to pretend to emote–or Karen Gillan. Technically, Gillan has one of the film’s more thoughtful character arcs… unfortunately, she’s terrible.

And it’s not like Gunn (who also scripts) can make the family relationship between Saldana and Gillan work. The daughters of an intergalactic would-be despot who spent childhood trying to murder one another in combat for his amusement then reconciling as adults? Given Gunn rejects the idea of taking the setting seriously–you know, the Galaxy–and is downright hostile the idea of doing so (apparently no civilization in the known universe except Earth has come up with iPhones or similar personal technologies), he’s probably the right one to crack it. But he sure does better at it than Pratt finding out his deadbeat dad is Kurt Russell, who’s an interstellar being with the power to create life. Their relationship is a series of terrible scenes punctuated by Pratt’s terrible deliveries and emoting.

How Russell was able to keep a straight face through the film… well, professionalism. Pass it on.

I did not dedicate all the bad and stupid things in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to memory. I gave up somewhere before the first act finished, but a lot of the problem is Pratt. And Gunn. Both as a writer and director. As a director, Gunn could give a crap about performances. Everyone mugs through bad jokes. Or pop culture references. The pop culture references are concerning, not just because Gunn uses them instead of giving Pratt’s character any interiority, but also because they imply some really dumb things about the character. Pratt’s got an arc in Vol. 2. It’s one of the many concerning things about the film, if you give the film any thought, which Gunn doesn’t want you to do and you don’t want to do because it just reminds you of the very, very long two hours plus you’ve already put in.

Needless to say, Pratt’s “finding his father” arc–involving Russell and intergalactic mercenary Michael Rooker (who speaks entirely in B-movie colloquialisms even though he’s an alien)–is pretty weak. Rooker does better than the other two, but… only because he’s not godawful. Pratt’s bad, Russell’s not good, but the writing for both of them is lousy. Rooker’s got dumb dialogue, but Gunn definitely gives him the best male arc. Again, Rooker’s professional. It helps. A lot.

The chaste romance between Pratt and Saldana is terrible. It only gets one real big scene and it’s one of Pratt’s worst, which is something because it comes after his previous low of the “Dad? You wanna have a catch?” scene. There’s no floor to Pratt’s inability to essay, you know, sincerity in this film. He’s not good mugging through the jokes but at least then it’s only not funny, not a crime against filmed dramatics.

Other macro terrible things… oh. Yeah. Pom Klementieff as Russell’s empathic pet. She’s around to give Bautista someone to talk with for much of the second act and to engender suspicion regarding Russell’s true intentions. Gunn’s writing for her character is frankly hostile. He uses her as the butt of jokes, he emotionally manipulates her (usually only to objectify her–or not objectify her), and to act as… well, he needs someone to mock and particularly redeem. He makes fun of his brother (Sean Gunn plays Rooker’s sidekick) but eventually redeems the character. Klementieff’s treatment just gets worse as her character “development” progresses.

It’s truly astounding Bautista is able to rise above the material in his scenes with her, since he’s usually the one crapping all over her. The joke is, she doesn’t know better because Russell’s keeping as a combination of pet and slave. It’s fine. He’s got cool hair. Though, maybe in one of the most telling plot holes, Russell has absolutely no interaction with Klementieff after their introduction. Her name might as well be Malcolm Crowe as far as Russell’s concerned… though, wait, Russell doesn’t really interact with anyone except Pratt–maybe he wasn’t available for filming. On one hand, it’s narratively nonsensical, on the other, it saves from (different) bad scenes.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is ostentatious, self-congratulatory dreck. It’s impressively executed on its scale in terms of set pieces. The editing of them is bad. Gunn and editors Fred Raskin and Craig Wood choke through every single action sequence in the film, whether it’s a space battle or fist fight. There’s a lot of emphasis on the soundtrack, which has some great songs, terribly set to scene. Of course, Tyler Bates’s score–with a couple actual good tracks–is lousy too. It’s a lose-lose. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a lose-lose.

Even when the third act is so impressively executed (though not in terms of dramatic tension); there’s a lot going on, some of it dumb, sure, but still a lot and Gunn is able to play it through. Shame none of the acting is good, outside maybe Rooker. Cooper’s “arc” doesn’t amount to much in the end, other than him still giving a better performance with his voice than anyone else in the movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is hostile to even momentary thoughtfulness, critical thinking, or–god forbid–actually being able to contextualize what the pop culture references would actually mean… It’s not even tripe. Regardless of the technical compentence of the third act (I mean, where was it in the first). It’s not fluff. It’s not popcorn. It’s a $200 million rubber dog poop gag.

With bad cinematography and terrible acting. Like. The most interesting question the film raises is how did they get the tears in Pratt’s emotion-free eyes? Visine or CG?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Gunn; screenplay by Gunn, based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning; director of photography, Henry Braham; edited by Fred Raskin and Craig Wood; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Scott Chambliss; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Dave Bautista (Drax), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Sean Gunn (Kraglin), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha), Chris Sullivan (Taserface), and Kurt Russell (Ego).


RELATED