I, Tonya

Margot Robbie is convinced this film will change your mind about Tonya Harding. Is she a villain or a victim? Abused or abuser? The truth is, your opinion doesn’t really matter and truth doesn’t really exist. What does exist: a wholly funny film that never fails to entertain.

{In the unlikely event you’re in need of a refresher: Tonya Harding was an American figure skater in the 1990s, and competed twice in the Olympics. She was known for two things: for being the first American female to land a triple axel in competition, and for bashing in her Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.}

Margot Robbie is well-cast as Tonya Harding. She’s still just a little too pretty to play elm120117intelmovies-007-1512400299white trash, even with the poofy 90s bangs, but she comes down low and it’s pretty glorious. Sebastian Stan plays Harding’s good for nothing husband, Jeff Gillooly, and he disappears into the role of dumb fuck. Jeff’s dumb ass best friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) pretends to be an international spy even though he’s a grownup who lives with his parents. Not exactly criminal masterminds, but this is the trio that brought us the most delicious scandal of 1994 (until OJ Simpson that is – if you thought Lillehammer was competitive, try being a celebrity fuck up). But for my money, I’d have to say that the real cast stand-out was Ms. Allison Janney, who plays Tonya’s mother LaVonam who, by sheer comparison, makes bathtub scum look appealing. She’s the dirtiest of dirts with not a kind word or intention in the world. If being a crummy mother was an Olympic sport, she wouldn’t have to resort to breaking any kneecaps.

The first thing that may surprise you about this film is that it’s funny. Actually funny, though pretty dark – the kind of laughs you feel slightly guilty about succumbing to, but you’ll need to just embrace the absurdity. It is farcical, in the way only a true story can be when it’s populated with idiots.

The second thing that surprised me anyway, was that it actually does dredge up sympathy for our poor Tonya. Her guilt (or innocence) is not really the point. This is Tonya’s story, hers alone from beginning to end. No one’s trying to excuse what happened, but putting “the incident” within context is actually very interesting.

I, Tonya is funny, dramatic, pumped full of energy, and even the sports angle is well-done. Certainly Margot Robbie can be commended for all the hard work she put in getting skate-ready, but she gets a lot of help from choreographers, stunt people, and CGI – effects that are pulled off almost seemlessly. But it’s the camera work that makes the figure skating extra exciting – you really get a sense of the speed and athleticism, two hallmarks of Harding’s style in particular. No matter your experience of “the incident” at the time, I, Tonya turns tragedy into triumph.

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Assassin’s Creed

assassins-creed-movie-FassbenderThis is probably the most super serious movie that a video game franchise has ever birthed. We are quickly briefed on the thousand-year old struggle between Templars and Assassins, with the two sides warring for control over a magic apple, the Apple of Eden that contains the seeds of mankind’s deceit, yadda yadda, genetic code, yadda yadda, free will, yadda yadda, fate of the world at stake. So Michael Fassbender has to travel back in time, sort of, and find out where that apple is hiding.

Except those stakes are then lowered for no apparent reason because right from the outset Fassbender and the audience are told that nothing can be changed in the past – he’s just observing what’s already happened to one of his ancestors. Which is a bizarre choice for a movie based on a video game that put the player in control of an assassin’s kung fu fighting ancestor, as it leaves the movie’s audience passively watching Fassbender experience a “memory” from the distant past and kind of act it out with the help of a big mechanical harness.

Or, when Fassbender’s recovering from doing his mechanical harness work, we get to watch him fight ghosts (not real, we are assured, just glitches in the Matrix) and also guards (real but gentle because they need Fassbender alive since he’s the last ancestor of some guy, yadda yadda, never mind that this group also is holding Fassbender’s father at the same location [Edit: I just remembered that the ancestry was on his mom’s side but that opens up a whole other set of criticisms]). Admittedly, there are hints of danger, like Fassbender suffering a seizure caused by the harness and then being confined to a wheelchair, but 30 seconds later he is practicing karate moves again so it seems like it’s no worse than a little VR motion sickness.

There is some kind of 1%/mind control through consumerism/uprising by noble freemen underlying all this but don’t even try to find a worthwhile message because the premise of the film’s logic is that violence and free will are tied together, so only murderers and assassins can stand between the 1% and total domination.

That should have been the most insulting part of Assassin’s Creed, but it’s not. The most insulting part is that a decent cast (including Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling) is totally wasted in a blockbuster that lacks any semblance of blockbusting.  My ancestors would be ashamed I ever watched this trash, and I’m right there with them.

Battle of the Sexes

In 1973, a tennis has-been named Bobby Riggs thought of a great way to become relevant again: he challenged current champion Bobbie Jean King to a game. No, not just challenged her: assured the world that he would win, because he was male, and that was enough. Bobby Riggs probably didn’t truly believe in most of the chauvinistic slogans he chanted, but he knew they’d get him attention in the era of “burning bras” and “women’s libbers”, and he was right. He was a Kardashian of his time; he knew how to work the media and how to gain attention for himself. It just so happened that the women’s movement generally, and women’s tennis particularly, needed exactly this kind of opportunity.

Battle-of-the-Sexes-posterSteve Carell does an excellent job of making the buffoon Riggs more than just a brash loud mouth; in fact, Carell was probably my favourite part of the film. And that’s maybe a little sad considering this really should have been Billie Jean King’s story to tell. And to some extent, it is. It’s just that I thought Emma Stone’s version of her was pretty beige. She’s more than just a prominent pair of glasses with a side of closeted lesbian.

But at least the film is layered and tries to establish the game within the context of its time, not just within the characters’ lives but societally as well. The film may bear the name of The Battle of the Sexes but directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris seem to know that the most interest part of the conflict happened off the court.

This film hit theatres in a very timely fashion – a reminder of how incredibly not very far we’ve come. Now that it’s available to rent, why not watch it as a drinking game, and take a shot of female empowerment every time a Grand Slam title champion is referred to as a “little lady.” On the press circuit, the real Billie Jean King reminded us that at the time, a married woman couldn’t hold a credit card in her own name. But here we are in 2018 (happy new year) and you just know this movie didn’t get made without someone getting sexually harassed. In 40 years, what will the #MeToo movie say about us?

The Little Hours

What if nuns and priests were foul-mouthed and raunchy? Writer-director Jeff Baena apparently has these kinds of thoughts all the time, and he decided to write a whole movie about it, a 30-second punch line stretched to an agonizing 90 minutes.

Three young nuns are having an unhappy time in a convent in the middle ages. the-little-hours-still-1_31377951785_o-1200x520Alessandra (Alison Brie) was placed there by her father (Paul Reiser), because it’s cheaper than paying her dowry, but no amount of needle point can replace the touch of a man. Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) is secretly a witch who thinks a nunnery is a great place to recruit vulnerable young women into the coven she shares with her her lover (Jemima Kirk). Ginevra (Kate Micucci) is generally pretty oblivious but when a sexy deaf-mute (Dave Franco) is brought into the enclave by Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), it shakes things up quite a bit.

Despite a pretty talented cast, I think my review could have ended after the first paragraph. There’s just not enough here for a whole movie. I didn’t laugh once. You have to do more than cuss anachronistically to earn my praise. It seems to think that the genre is joke enough in itself but the farce has no target and the film has no point.

Stronger

Stronger could easily have leaned on its ultra handsome movie star to sound off a few patriotic one-liners while heroic cliches were ticked off one at a time, and that movie would have made money – possibly more money than the actual Stronger did. Instead, the real Stronger takes a much more interesting approach: it admits that its central character, real-life survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing Jeff Bauman, is not a hero. He’s just a guy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, but a picture of him captured at that wrong time made him an icon and helped unite his country in a time of grief and confusion.

Jeff Bauman was just an ordinary guy. He worked at Costco, he lived and was bullied by his Mom, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend. Erin broke up with him repeatedly because he was just never really there for her, and so of course the one time that he does show up, he gets blown up to bits.

1-4Stronger doesn’t care much about the crime or about the terrorism; it follows a lone survivor who struggles to put his life back together afterward. Had Jeff Bauman lost his legs in a car crash, no one would call him brave, or a hero, because no one would be watching. But as the face of Strength and Hope in the war against terror, Bauman has to handle public scrutiny even on his darkest days.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the most versatile actors of his age working today, and this is another unglamourous, conflicted character that he pulls of winningly. The anguish and painful contradictions he manages to convey make the movie sometimes hard to watch. But Gyllenhaal isn’t alone. Tatiana Maslany plays Jeff’s on again, off again love interest, Erin, and Stronger is as much her story as it is his. Unlike Patriots Day, Stronger isn’t about an act of terrorism, it’s about two people scraping their lives back together after a major, seismic event, and about how that catastrophe doesn’t really erase the problems that existed before it, even though it kind of feels like should. Most movies wouldn’t bother to make Maslany’s character so important, so human, but Stronger doesn’t take the safe route or the obvious one. Jeff Bauman became a symbol when he appeared in a photograph that day, but in every moment before the camera’s click, and every moment after it, he is just a man, and Erin is the woman too conscientious to abandon him in his time of need, but too smart to buy into the hero nonsense. When everyone else sees him as an emblem of Boston Strong, she sees him as the same old flawed guy he’s always been.

A brilliant ensemble cast fleshes out Stronger in surprising ways. This isn’t about flag waving or triumphing over terrorism, it’s a relationship drama that dares to peer down dark corners unflinchingly.

 

Call Me By Your Name

Seventeen year old Elio is facing another season at his parents’ summer home somewhere in boring, idyllic Northern Italy when the clouds part, the angels sing, and a yellow ray of sunshine pools on the golden head of a god, arriving by taxi. Actually it’s Oliver, a grad student about to spend the next 6 weeks helping out Elio’s father, a professor. Elio is immediately smitten.

It’s complicated, though, and it’ll take those full 6 weeks for the two young men to reach the peak of their affair. It’s the summer of 1983 and neither one is ‘out’; what we see is their friendship, the confidences they share, the fumbling flirtation. It’s a quiet movie, as 913a movie must be between two characters who are still learning about themselves, and in some cases, learning to repress. The pace is languid, but after 132 minutes, I’m thinking more about what’s left out than what is covered. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) share a mostly silent passion. Have they ever been attracted to men before? Are they afraid of being seen? Their affair exists within a bubble – isolated in a small village, surrounded by intellectuals, sheltered. But there’s always a sense that the affair cannot last.

We feel the blush of their first love. But director Luca Guadagnino does not want us to see much more than that, does not want the reality of gay sex to change the tone of the movie. Why doesn’t he trust us? In an otherwise beautiful film about desire, theirs is the only physical intimacy that we don’t see. When one of them hooks up with a woman, we eavesdrop on their thrusting and grunting. We even get fairly graphic with some person-on-peach sex. But when Elio and Oliver come together the camera looks away. The only real nudity is female.

And that has left me feeling off-balance. I can only praise the performances by Hammer and especially by Chalamet – his energy, his wit. Although Elio is the younger of the two, and voices more self-doubt, we actually see them negotiate a balance in their relationship that feels very healthy and mature. And though Oliver is adamant that he wants neither of them to get hurt, we see how woundable Elio really is, how vulnerable. This isn’t just love but self-discovery, mutual discovery, only some of which will be lasting.  Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) counsels him to stay this way, thin-skinned, to not close himself off to pain, even in heartbreak. And Oliver wonders if that’s the real difference between the two: not their age or experience, but their parents. And we’re left to think on that as the credits roll. Who might they have been had they both had supportive families? It is in these final minutes of the film when we finally feel emotionally connected to the material, and to the characters. This is the beating heart of the film. It’s just too bad it’s saved for last.

Bright

bright_unit_06597_r_wide-67b1f15cb792c81ccc1359a7e8a2e6c0bce7b718-s900-c85What’s worse than being flat, derivative and uninspired? Being all those things, showing a tiny bit of promise in spite of them, and then throwing the interesting parts away in search of a flashy climax and tidy resolution. That’s Bright.

The concept is sound – what if there were Elves and Orcs and magic in our world? It’s not a new idea and that’s fine. The hodgepodge of fantasy elements forming the basis of this world are standard fare as well, straight out of Tolkien or World of Warcraft. Orcs are brutes with sharp teeth, Elves are beautiful and rich, magic wands are super powerful but not everyone can use them. The script, complete with minority and 1% allegories, practically writes itself.

The problem is, it feels like no extra effort was put in to creating Bright. Like, at all.  Like, I’m pretty sure Will Smith was quoting himself from Men in Black every time he let a sarcastic quip fly. Not incidentally, well over 90% of his lines in Bright are sarcastic quips. Either stop phoning it in or stop being in movies, please.

Joel Edgerton doesn’t phone it in like Smith but he is totally unrecognizable and totally wasted here as the sensitive Orc sidekick. He had no chance of saving this mess. Full disclosure: this is a recurring exchange between Jay and me:

Jay: We should go see [small indie movie]. Joel Edgerton is in it.

Me: Who’s Joel Edgerton again?

Jay: The guy from [slightly older small indie movie that we saw a few months prior].

Me: That was Joel Edgerton?

Jay: We literally just had this conversation when you made me watch the Star Wars prequels.

Me: JOEL EDGERTON IS IN STAR WARS?

Jay: I hate you.

It happened again in Bright only I swear, this time it was not my fault. It was David Ayer’s, and Bright is proof that we should have cut Ayer off long before Suicide Squad. Thanks for writing Training Day, really, but that goodwill was used up long ago.  A glimmer of promise and then an avalanche of mediocrity and disappointment – just like Bright.

The Greatest Showman

Phineas Taylor Barnum was a showman first and foremost. His legacy includes a best-selling memoir, museums, philanthropy, and a circus who just closed its doors earlier this year, after something in the neighbourhood of 175 years of success. The Greatest Showman is the story of his life, only not: it’s the fictionalized, glamourized, told-in-an-entertaining-and-succinct-105-minutes version that somewhat resembles his life, or at least a rags-to-riches edition of it. It’s not historically or personally accurate but it IS beautiful and breath taking and fun. In fact, it’s the most excited I’ve felt at the movies all year.

Hugh Jackman has already established himself as a versatile actor: he makes Logan, a veritable man of steel, seem both tough and vulnerable. Here he straddles Barnum’s pursuit of fame, money, and success with his more modest but fulfilling tumblr_os9fxwinjy1qd4rf5o2_500.gifgoals of happiness and family. Ultimately we see Barnum find both fame and family in the circus. He collects ‘freaks’ and ‘sideshows’ and gives them purpose and a platform. People pay the price of admission to look on in sensational horror.

The film is glossy, a glory to look at, and a wonder to hear. It’s a musical, with lyrics by Tony-winning (Dear Evan Hansen) and Oscar-winning (La La Land) duo, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. A mashup of modern-sounding, toe-tapping, pop and hip hop, the music reflects an aesthetic that isn’t so much true to the time period, but more a tribute to Barnum’s constantly being ahead of his time. With dazzling, daring cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Life, Nocturnal Animals, Atonement) and buoyant, irrepressible, vibrant production design by Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk, Interstellar, The Dark Knight trilogy), The Greatest Showman is a work of art by veteran professionals – except for its director. Michael Gracey had in fact never directed any movie at all before – why, then, did 20th Century Fox trust him with 80 million dollars and a promising script, co-written by Bill Condon, Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay for Chicago, and winner for Gods and Monsters?

Hugh Jackman met Michael Gracey 8 years ago when Gracey directed him in a TV commercial in Rio de Janiero. The two hit it off creatively, and within months Jackman was suggesting him as the director a passion project of his, and with Jackman on board as star and producer, it only took about a hundred pitches or so before someone finally said yes. Yes! And true to the Barnum name, the movie wouldn’t just be a musical, it would be over the top, larger than life, bursting at the seems with spectacle.

In addition to Jackman, the cast boasts the likes of Michelle Williams as his long-tumblr_os9no4BmGt1qk2b83o5_r1_540.gifsuffering wife, Charity, Zac Efron as his business partner, Zendaya as a talented trapeze artist, and Rebecca Ferguson as the songstress who legitimizes his success (though credit for her amazing voice goes to Loren Allred, who dubs her in the film).

The Greatest Showman is like the best parts of Big Fish and Moulin Rouge smooshed together. It lit my heart aglow. If you’re looking for a true account of PT Barnum’s life, read a book. What The Greatest Showman offers is a damn good time at the movies, so see it in theatres, on the big screen, the way it was meant to be seen. Hugh Jackman will thank you for it.

Pacific Rim

Some sort of portal opens up in the ocean’s floor, and the aliens that flow through are immense monsters called Kaiju. A war ensues that humans seem poised to lose until they develop humongous robots called Jaegars controlled neurologically by two synched-up pilots. The world’s resources are devoted to these specialized weapons, but the Kaijus only up the ante. Now, with resources dwindled and the world seeming defenseless, we’ve got one last chance, with a fallen, washed up pilot in Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and a complete novice in Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).

Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) runs the last-ditch program but even he doesn’t have confidence in the only option they’ve got left. And two wacky scientists (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman) on his team are devoting their time and energy to connecting neurologically to the Kaiju, which is either a brilliant idea that will reveal the Kaiju’s plans or a terrible idea that will spoil the only thing the human race has going for them – the element of surprise.

Pacific Rim is a send-up to the fantastic monster movies of yore with the benefit of tumblr_mgeodlgqPl1qcga5ro1_500.gifmodern effects and technology – and yes, it looks slick as hell. It’s basically Transformers fighting dinosaurs, which appeals to the little boy that exists surprisingly near the surface of nearly every man I know. This movie was released just before my dear sweet nephew Ben was born, but it strikes me now as made especially for him. I know one day we’ll watch it together, and my old bones will creak for the next six months as we painstakingly recreate every battle scene without the benefit of CGI.

I may prefer del Toro’s smaller films, but his visionary genius means that when  you give him a pile of money to make a monster movie, he’s going to make you feel every inch of the enormity on screen. The scale is astonishing. Del Toro likes to create huge sets, giving his actors plenty of real stuff to react to, so though this movie is of course effects-heavy, it’s probably not as heavy as you think. There’s loads of practical stuff in there too – miniatures, and models, whole sets built on hydraulics so things will jostle exactly as they should when a mega monster stalks by. Guillermo del Toro is a world builder, and Pacific Rim has a lot of his usual hallmarks, just swathed in the gleeful fantasies of his inner 10 year old child.

This is likely the movie that keeps Michael Bay up at night, eating too much Häagen-Dazs: it’s the movie he always means to make but never knows how to.

You may have heard that a new Pacific Rim sequel (“Uprising”) is about to drop – without del Toro at the helm. He’s still producing but declined to direct in order to make The Shape of Water instead (good call, Guillermo!). Charlie Hunnam isn’t returning either (opting to do Pappillon instead, with Legendary’s blessing), so instead John Boyega fills his shoes as Stacker’s son and Mako’s new partner. Are the monsters back? Substitute director Steven DeKnight will attempt to answer – but as a noob, he seems at an immediate disadvantage. I mean, he did direct one episode of Daredevil and 2 of Smallville, so as a white male, that more than qualifies him to have a go at a $150M project. I can’t imagine that he’ll replicate anything like Guillermo’s instinct and soul, but we’ve not got long to wait: Uprising drops in March 2018.

 

PTU

PTU follows a group of police officers charged with patrolling the city of Hong Kong, who are asked for help by another officer who lost his gun in the area during a fight with a street gang, but is hesitant to report the loss to HQ, worried it will affect his upcoming promotion.

I really don’t know what to make of PTU. It’s not at all the movie I was expecting (having seen Heroic Trio last month, I thought someone would have superpowers here) but at the same time it didn’t defy my expectations, plowing along without any real direction. PTU is almost farcical at times yet it’s so straight-laced as to make me wonder whether the silliness is by design or whether this is intended to be a straight procedural drama whose seriousness has been lost in translation.

Because when a cop slips on a banana peel, it’s hard to take him seriously.  When he does it more than once, I have to take the second fall as a “shame on me” moment. And yet, to view that cop as incompetent brings everyone else’s competence into question too, since they take him seriously to the point of taking his advice.

PTU’s slow, deliberate pace might have fit well with a different police drama, but it quickly became a problem here by giving me time to raise these questions of competence for every character involved. And they all failed the test. A more action-oriented film may have kept me too busy to get bogged down in the details, but with PTU having such a slow pace, none of the characters looked good in the end. I couldn’t invest in any of them and couldn’t connect with PTU as a result.