Archive for the ‘overrated’ category

I, Tonya

December 10, 2017

i-tonya-margot-robbie-850x478A rarity for me: I went into I, Tonya without knowing who the director was. As the absurdist black-comedic biopic unfurled, I thought, “Whoever made this, he’s really trying to get his Scorsese on.” (I thought “he” because female directors rarely if ever try to get their Scorsese on — they’ve worked too hard to express their own voices to want to ape someone else’s.) The major tells were the frequent (and frequently ironic) ’70s-rock needle-drops and the incessant trackings in and out — the camera almost never stops moving, except when it’s locked down in “interview segments” wherein Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) or Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) unburden themselves.

As it happens, the director is the nondescript Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), who aside from his Scorsesean gesticulations mostly stays out of the way of the star and co-producer, Margot Robbie. I would like to report that in the reviled Tonya, the media-beloved actress has found something feral, primordial, essential in herself, as Robert De Niro did in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. I would like to, but that isn’t true. Robbie is snarly and entertaining, but except for the grinning-rictus-through-tears bit she does in a mirror — and that’ll turn up in her Oscar reel if she’s nominated — she doesn’t locate any humanity except fear, rage, need. And since Robbie is more conventionally attractive than the real Harding, the makeup she wears to render her skin mottled and white-trashy suggests that, in this context where Tonya’s stupid tragedy is played for black comedy, Robbie is condescending to working-class Harding even physically.

I, Tonya left me in a mildly desolate mood. It says that dreams are shit in a country that turns everything to shit. The movie (rather brilliantly, actually) ends with Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of “The Passenger,” and that’s what Tonya is. Pushed into skating as a toddler, forever connected to a ridiculous crime, she has no agency. (She rides and she rides.) The movie’s concerns don’t seem universal — they’re belittlingly specific. We’re just watching these particular dimbulbs — Tonya, her hapless husband Jeff, his buffoonish friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) — as they fuck everything up. The characters get progressively idiotic, until, by the time we get to Shane Stant, the doofus who actually kneecapped Nancy Kerrigan, he’s so brutally inept we wonder how he manages to figure out his pants in the morning.

It’s difficult to stay engaged in a work that has so little regard for its subjects. Gillespie doesn’t display the freezing contempt of, say, an Alexander Payne, but it’s hard to know what he does feel about these people. The movie hedges its bets more than a little by casting a ringer, Allison Janney, as Tonya’s ghastly mother. Not only has Janney played this sort of role before (as a trailer-trash floozy in Drop Dead Gorgeous, in which, despite the more farcical context, she may have done subtler and more compassionate work than she does here), she’s still playing it every week on Mom. Janney is America’s sweetheart in the division of endearingly fucked-up mothers. When Tonya’s mother is abusive and hateful here, it just seems like Janney doing her usual shtick; the movie is deadpan-sarcastic about it — look at this moron woman throwing stuff at her moron daughter until finally she lobs a knife at her — and Janney hasn’t been directed to make anything real out of it. Real would be sad, sobering, anathema to the sour good time the movie wants to give us.

Eventually Gillespie drifts away from imitating Scorsese and starts imitating Scorsese’s imitators. The last reel or so has the spun-out, dirge-like melancholia of the last act of Boogie Nights, where people wound up beaten up, in jail, dead, soulless. Here, everyone starts dropping around Tonya like brainless flies, whisked off to jail, and the camera lingers on Tonya in her devastation after she is sentenced to life without professional ice skating. Then we see a bit of Tonya’s career as a celebrity boxer spitting blood all over the ring. Ah, finally she’s found an arena that lets her release her rage. But then, stupidly, the movie cuts to footage of the real Tonya skating, and we see, through the context of the life we’ve just watched, the aggression and fury in Tonya’s movements, the fierce determination, the itchy underclass energy that the upper-class skating establishment was never going to be able to accept. Tonya quite elegantly and wordlessly speaks for herself in this footage, and leaves the callow jeering movie in her dust.

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Lucky

November 24, 2017

luckyAnyone who has ever loved Harry Dean Stanton in one of his two hundred film and TV credits over the last sixty-three years will have to make some time for Stanton’s leading-man swan song Lucky, even though it’s a bit of a chunk of dry toast, a little too knowingly thrown as a low-key vaya con dios party for him. Stanton plays the title character, who passes his ritualistic days drifting from place to place in a small town. A diner in the morning for coffee and the crossword puzzle. Home to the TV set and Lucky’s “shows” in the afternoon. Out to a bar in the evening. Occasionally he ruminates about life and our purpose in it, and how to face death though he’s pretty sure there’s no God, just darkness. That’s about it.

Lucky is about both Lucky and Harry Dean Stanton, of course. Screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja shaped their work specifically around Stanton, his range (not the widest, but often surprising and inventive within it), and his own life. Inevitably, Stanton doesn’t really seem to be acting; we feel that he’s simply being himself in character as Lucky. Sometimes, as when the film contrives to reunite Stanton with his Alien captain Tom Skerritt, it shows its hand as a construct designed for Stanton to thrive in. On the other hand, seeing Stanton alongside Skerritt again is admittedly a kick, and they do beautiful work together, reminiscing about World War II (more details pulled from Stanton’s life).

What makes Lucky worth indulging is Stanton, naturally, but also the way he refuses to insult this feature-length gesture of affection towards him by giving any less than he’s ever given. He could have rested on his laurels here, coasted, stoically accepted his due — but he doesn’t. He brings levels of melancholy and odd anger to each scene; he keeps us riveted physically, letting his wrinkles and eyebags tell eloquent silent stories. We can’t take our eyes off him, but that’s no doing of point-and-shoot actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch. Nor can we say the film protects him by putting him up against boring actors, when Stanton butts heads with the likes of Beth Grant, Ed Begley Jr., and the indefatigable David Lynch. Stanton makes his sweetest music with David Lynch, as those who’ve seen Stanton in Lynch’s own films (Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, etc.) already know.

In and of itself, the movie is arid, visually null. The camera isn’t being used to express much of anything, and so we begin to wonder why, other than to raise a toast to Harry Dean Stanton, this is a movie. Though well-acted, the supporting characters in Lucky’s life feel like supporting characters; with most of them, we don’t feel that they have lives outside the scene and the frame. The exception is Bertila Damas’ store owner, who invites Lucky to her son’s tenth birthday fiesta, leading to a rare and lovely moment in which Lucky, in Stanton’s own slightly querulous but soulful singing voice, croons “Volver, Volver.” It’s a great moment — but we’re aware of it as a great moment, engineered as a great moment for the star.

I don’t begrudge Stanton the apotheosis he receives here. Few artists get swan songs this apropos, this on-the-money. (Who doesn’t despair when reminded that the accidental swan song of Gene Hackman, who has retired from acting, will be Welcome to Mooseport?) Stanton at least goes out with the same level of integrity he’d always had. Even when he showed up fleetingly in a trick of slick whoring like The Avengers, we were absurdly happy to see him, an oasis of rumpled humanity in a desert of plastic. (It spoke well of the director, Joss Whedon, that he apparently bent over backwards to find some way to get Harry Dean Stanton in there.) He elevated any and all material; Repo Man is inconceivable without him. Lucky doesn’t exist without him. Stanton leaves the sort of void that so troubles Lucky. There will not be more of him. The movie itself is aptly named — it’s lucky to have Stanton. He does more for Lucky than it does for him.

Rogue One

April 23, 2017

rogueoneBetween regular “saga” entries of the Star Wars franchise, we can now expect interstitial forays like Rogue One, which tells the story of how the Death Star came to have a weak spot into which Luke Skywalker so triumphantly squeezed laser blasts in the original Star Wars. This sort of “untold story” is symptomatic of the nerdish desire to explain everything, tie everything up neatly. After all, the question of why such a fortified super-weapon should have an Achilles’ heel has plagued the world for some forty years. Now we learn it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, put there by clever scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been pressed into service by the Empire to work on their big new Rebellion-crushing toy.

Rogue One follows Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), a hard-bitten young woman very much in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from The Force Awakens. Rarely smiling, much less showing affection for anyone other than her long-lost daddy, Jyn is apparently nouveau Star Wars’ idea of the deromanticized heroine, the brave and driven woman with no lovey-dovey distractions. This is fine with me, believe me, but the film’s screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are credited) forget to humanize Jyn in any other sense. (Her preoccupation with running a mission to realize her father’s plan just defines her in terms of a man anyway.)

The story is simple — Jyn has to get the Death Star plans, which include where the thing’s weakness is, into the hands of Princess Leia — and the movie is much more consistently and consciously a war picture than any other Star Wars film. Things blow up, large objects plummet and fly apart, Stormtroopers and Rebel warriors kill and die by the dozens. After a while, the combat becomes numbing, monotonous, locked into the technology from the original trilogy (the lumbering AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back make an appearance). Despite all this, the plot is needlessly convoluted, involving a variety of ragged grayhats who come together in the common cause of defeating the Empire. If there’s a reason the extremist character Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) really needed to be in the movie, I’ve already forgotten it. Rogue One starts wearing out its welcome at about the hour mark, and there’s another 75 minutes to go; the movie, lumbering like those AT-ATs, feels like it stomps along forever.

Some humanity occasionally peeks over the rubble. Everyone enjoyed Alan Tudyk’s vocal performance as the reformed/reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who tends towards brutal honesty at inopportune times, and I liked him too. The ethnic diversity of the cast is a merit, including the calming Zen presence of Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who feels one with the Force even if he’s not an official Jedi. Oddly, the Stormtroopers, reliably inept and fond of doofus small talk about the latest Imperial tech (someone on this production obviously remembered the goofball Stormtrooper exchange about the VT-16 in Star Wars), seem to be the most relatable characters despite being cannon fodder — but then, almost everyone in Rogue One is cannon fodder.

That’s a potentially interesting thing to do in a $200 million movie that’s part of a multibillion-dollar franchise — a nihilistic, die-with-honor war film. Here, though, it comes off as a little cold. Seeing all those Stormtroopers bite it, I was reminded again that at least a few of them could be like Finn in The Force Awakens, sickened by slaughter and in desperate need of flight and redemption. Rogue One couldn’t care less about that, and cares scarcely more about the Rebel Alliance heroes. The people we’re introduced to in Rogue One will never be seen again in the films (I suppose there might be spin-off comics or novels about them), their ultimate sacrifice known by few and remembered by fewer. Empire Strikes Back had its dark and dissonant moments (I still remember a post-torture Han Solo moaning “They didn’t even ask me any questions”), but at least it wasn’t depressing.

Manchester by the Sea

February 19, 2017

manchesterThere are some awfully good moments in Manchester by the Sea, and there aren’t really any awful moments. The movie is a steadfast and somber swim inside the psyche of a man, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who is stoically shouldering various levels of loss, grief and guilt. To that end, it flirts with melodrama and sometimes downright kisses it, mostly in scenes where the drunken and self-loathing Lee, perhaps seeking someone to punch but more likely needing to be punched himself, starts trouble at a bar. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, generally lauded for his taste, somehow loses track of it in some of the more emotional set pieces, cranking up the music, either diegetic (a song played in a bar) or non-diegetic (classical needle-drops, heavy on the Handel).

Some of the filmmaking is overbearing — a too-conscious choice on Lonergan’s part to meet audiences halfway after the box-office immolation of his cerebral 2011 drama Margaret — but some isn’t. Some of the awkward silences call attention to themselves — look, working-class dudes like Lee have so much they can’t express! — and some seem more organic. Many have pointed to the stop-and-start, inarticulate exchange late in the film between Lee and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Is it a great scene? It’s a great actors’ showcase for great actors, is what it is. Williams in particular sheds blood in the scene. But my irreverent brain kept pasting a neon “ACTING!” chyron over the bottom of the frame. It’s a theater-workshop exercise that does not, for me, reveal much.

Manchester by the Sea — not hyphenated, unlike its namesake town — follows Lee as he deals with being the new guardian of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whose father Joe (Kyle Chandler) has recently died of a heart attack. Patrick is very hooked into his life in Manchester¹; he has school, sports, two girlfriends, and a (terrible) band with a name only pretentious high-schoolers could devise: Stentorian. “We are Stentorian,” Patrick mumbles into the mic before the band kicks into a flailing attempt at guitar pop. The thing is, Lonergan can sometimes be heard announcing that, too. Is he a little embarrassed by the larger, sloppier, more audience-squeezing emotions his film is obligated to attend to?

Lee and Patrick have the kind of combative but ultimately loving relationship — plenty of mutual mouthing off — you generally see in a lot of lesser movies. At times this is a two-handed play, with various supporting characters drifting in and out as needed (C.J. Wilson, as a bearish friend of the family, gives what I may be alone in finding the best performance in the film — solid, credible, alive, human); even a grayer, thicker Matthew Broderick — a Lonergan good-luck talisman from the first — pops in as Patrick’s shiny new Christian stepdad. Casey Affleck burns in his own hell convincingly enough, but bringing in Kyle Chandler for a few taunting flashbacks is unfair to Affleck and cruel to us. Chandler might have made Lee readable and identifiable with an economy of motion. Affleck approaches Lee as a more depressive and less manic version of the Dunkin’ Donuts lout he played on Saturday Night Live, and so Lee is opaque, shut off from himself, his loved ones, and us.

The movie is this year’s Affliction or Precious, a miserablist portrait of the working class, who lack the poetry and wit and vocabulary to voice the upheavals within — according to movies like this, of course. (A corrective: the work of Harvey Pekar.) Lee seems to have little inner life even in the flashbacks when everything is fine — he keeps hopping on top of his sick then-wife, which makes him look like an insensitive twerp. It seems as though this couple were headed for the rocks even without the tragedy that separated them. Manchester by the Sea is not a stupid or poorly constructed movie; its central horror is much more wounding for playing out realistically, almost blandly. It’s not a project that originated with Lonergan, though, and maybe that’s the difference. He does his damnedest with it, and maybe now on the heels of this critical and commercial success he can return to his own playbook.

¹Manchester only became Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989.

La La Land

February 5, 2017

la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-1Is the Hollywood musical worth saving? There may be a compelling argument to be made for it, but La La Land, I’m afraid, isn’t it. The movie is popular and is supposedly on track to win a tub of Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s full of music and color, but otherwise it’s a thin and glittery shell with a lot of hollowness at its center. It’s about two young wanna-be entertainers, actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), trying to make it in Los Angeles. They fall in love, but conflicts about artistic integrity threaten their idyll; during one such squabble, I thought, Jeez, I don’t know that I was in the mood to watch New York, New York again.

That Martin Scorsese musical, a flop when first released, still boasts a level of emotional ambition that seems well beyond La La Land. The story is almost offensively simple and streamlined, even though the movie weighs in at a punitive two hours and seven minutes. Sebastian, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, is set up as the white boy who alone can appreciate good music — he certainly appreciates it more than does the slick Keith (John Legend), whose successful, bland-pop band Sebastian is obliged to join to make some money. Mia shows some acting chops in an interrupted audition, but it’s a measure of the movie’s itchy impatience — and that of its young writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) — that when Mia rents out theater space and performs her one-woman show, we don’t see any of it.

No, Chazelle would rather stage elaborate musical numbers, many of which glisten with unmistakable flop sweat. In classic musicals, we didn’t feel (though we could infer) the hard labor that went into the music and the choreography. Here, I kept imagining how many brutal takes must have been necessary to nail such sequences as the meant-to-be-a-wow opener, set on an L.A. freeway. The movie keeps stopping dead for numbers that seem meant simultaneously to honor and to outdo the musicals of yore, with crescendos and fireworks; for a while, we get one climax after another, so it’s not surprising that the film burns itself out fairly quickly, with an hour or so left to go. Gosling and Stone try, but they just don’t speak the language of musicals natively or fluently. We’re put in the position of assessing their crooning or belting as talented amateurs.

La La Land is being predicted (even by its detractors) as the big Oscar winner because, like the equally meretricious The Artist of a few years ago, it pays loving, moist-eyed tribute to The Magic of Movies. (A clip from Rebel Without a Cause provides a few seconds of reprieve from this movie’s faux-classic scheme.) It’s comparable to old Hollywood in at least one significant way: its vision is blindingly white, with John Legend brought in to play a black music star who just isn’t as serious about black music as a white man is. This, apparently, is the sort of thing that passed muster over the six years of writing and revising that it took Chazelle to bring La La Land to the screen. For all that, for all the time and effort the movie took, very little passion comes through. Technically it’s whiz-bang — sometimes it unavoidably comes off as “Hey look Ma, I’m a director!” — but it’s an empty truffle, all sweet surface but nothing inside. A white-chocolate truffle, at that.

A Man Called Ove

December 18, 2016

a_man_called_ove_-_2For some time, I’ve wondered why Fredrik Backman’s Swedish novel A Man Called Ove, a huge international bestseller, has captured so many imaginations. Having watched the film adaptation, which hits DVD in America next week, I think I know. Which is not to say it deserves all those imaginations, or knows what to do with them. The film stars Rolf Lassgård (Wallander) as Ove, an irascible widower pushing sixty and yearning to follow his wife Sonja, who died of cancer six months ago. Ove tries various methods of suicide, but life — in the form of his neighbors — keeps intruding. This wounded old man must, of course, learn how to rejoin the human community. And that’s about all there is to it.

The movie jerks its tears tastefully; there’s a minimum of schlock, because the tone takes its cue from the film’s astringent, taciturn protagonist. There seems to be a trend in recent Swedish pop culture to lionize the grouchy and rumpled; witness the success of the novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared and its film version, or for that matter the detectives Wallander and Backstrom and many others. Ove slouches through the Swedish chill and fog, growling at everyone he looks at, lording it over his condo association, browbeating clerks and youths and, at one point, a clown. He’s the sort of joyless asshole who can only be enjoyed from a distance — men like him make life hell for retail workers the world over.

Of course Ove has a lot of pain in his past to explain his behavior. (So do the targets of his scorn, quite likely, but the movie isn’t interested in that possibility.) He grudgingly — always, in these movies, grudgingly — forms a bond with a new neighbor, Iranian immigrant Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), who has two cute-as-a-button daughters and is carrying a third baby. In no time he’s giving her driving lessons as well as agitating for the rights of a disabled friend and taking in a young gay man whose father has disowned him (this plot thread gets forgotten).

In this construction, a man filled with rage and despair can be healed by the warm touch of the well-meaning. (Ergo the story’s popularity from sea to shining sea.) Fredrik Backman packs his narrative with neatly relevant thematic elements, and the movie, adapted and directed by Hannes Holm, tries hard to include them all. The block association that Ove dominates and resents comes together to help him. Even a foofy old fussbudget of a cat follows him around. It’s as though dear departed Sonja had arranged for a micro-society to close ranks around her husband and keep out that Swedish cold and angst.        

People have fallen for the book and will fall for the movie. It could be worse. The film’s flashback structure is smoothly fastened together by editor Fredrik Morheden, its present-day gloom and past-glory color clearly captured by cinematographer Göran Hallberg. Bahar Pars is appealing as the voice of life, and Lassgård anchors the movie with his sad, churlish gravitas. But things are made a little too pat (for instance, Sonja is a bit idealized, and the subplot about Ove’s trying to keep his disabled friend out of a home lacks credibility), which makes this entertainment, not art, and simplistic, familiar entertainment at that. A Man Called Ove is harmless, I suppose, except for its assurance that all a miserably suicidal person needs is a family of friends. Well, the many grieving friends of the many depressives who have attempted suicide — and succeeded at it, not semi-comedically failed — might beg to differ with that diagnosis.

The Love Witch

December 4, 2016

lovewitchEvery frame of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is lavishly loved and fussed over, and every frame is unquestionably Anna Biller’s: she directed it, produced it, wrote the script, edited it, designed the sets, handmade the costumes, and composed the music. The movie has a luscious dreamlike look, too, shot (by cinematographer M. David Mullen) on 35mm in radiant tribute to the Technicolor Euro-horror of the ‘60s. I would love to award it high marks in areas other than the purely technical, but the troublesome truth is that The Love Witch, while stubbornly idiosyncratic and unmistakably a vision, is also dawdling and hollow and kind of awful, really — difficult to sit through, once the creamy visuals lose their novelty. It’s a long two hours, and it could have been worse: “If I had not cut any lines out and I just kept it the way it was in the script,” Biller has said, “it would have been three hours.” Jesus wept.

The narrative, such as it is, follows lonely witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) as she sets herself up in a new town and goes about finding men to seduce and lure to their deaths. There’s a good deal of talk about how men and women differ, and all the men are blinkered or pathetic or both, which may be what the film’s supporters are talking about when they call it “feminist.” Elaine does seem to be trapped, stylistically as well as in the script’s context, in a reality in which she is defined solely by her appeal to men and her power over men. But it’s Anna Biller who traps her there, and I couldn’t work out how the polymath director felt about her heroine or her struggles. Biller seems content to photograph the externals.

Some of the movie comes close to camp or just falls in, as when Elaine is assaulted by former friend Trish (Laura Waddell in the film’s only genuine performance), whose husband Elaine has stolen. “Skank! Whore!” Trish yells, slapping Elaine while wearing a wig cap — the movie helpfully provides its own drag-show re-enactment. A sequence in which Elaine is confronted in a bar by a mob of superstitious goofballs (“Burn the witch!”) is frankly terrible and staged with incredible clumsiness. The Love Witch will be worshipped as a fetish object by a certain breed of film nerd who luxuriates in its DIY retro aesthetic, but it isn’t really a movie — it would have to move first, and the pacing is leadfooted. The plot’s pairing Elaine with a stolid detective (Gian Keys) just leads to a handfasting scene at a local ren faire that seems to go on for six, maybe seven years.

I wonder if any of the hipsters cooing over the film have seen George A. Romero’s 1973 effort Jack’s Wife (also known as Hungry Wives or, on video, Season of the Witch). It tells a bleak and discomfiting story about an abused wife who finds, she thinks, acceptance and family in a coven. Romero’s film is technically uneven but feminist in a way The Love Witch isn’t — it grapples with reality vs. ideals, and ultimately presents its heroine as trading one form of domination for another. The Love Witch isn’t nearly as complex or, really, as dramatic. It seems transfixed by its star, who acts in the same arch, artificial manner everyone else does (and I wish Biller had been as obsessive about the sound as she was about other things in the production — the dialogue sounds tinny, hollow, amateurish).      

Truly, witch narratives can get deep to the heart of this country’s Puritanical weirdness about women and the Other. Robert Eggers’ masterful The Witch, from earlier this year, carries an oblique (and therefore more powerful) charge of blasphemy and transgression against patriarchal force. But The Love Witch has no inner life, no deeper meaning beneath its attractive surface. People will appreciate it, if they do, on an aesthetic level or even an ironic one, but I don’t anticipate it touching anyone’s heart in the way that even teen junk like The Craft did twenty years ago. Its smug, lacquered beauty walled me off from feeling anything about it except impatience.