Thursday, April 26, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 29

Avengers: Infinity War is just around the corner, which in some way feels like the true beginning of 2018's movie year.  We've mostly wrapped up last year's Oscar hopefuls, and the more experimental action-adventure fare of the year's early months, and now it's time to get down to business.  I'm not feeling terribly hopeful about Marvel's fourth attempt to wring a coherent dramatic work out of mashing all of their characters together (on twitter, I did the traditional thing and ranked all the MCU movies, and the team-up movies all ended up in the bottom half of the list) but I do think it offers a useful opportunity to sum up the last few weeks' movie-watching.  This is probably the last batch of "grown-up" movies to reach my part of the world for several months, so this is also an opportunity to look fondly back before world-destroying mayhem takes over our screens.
  • I, Tonya - A semi-mockumentary about the rise and fall of competitive figure skater Tonya Harding, who was embroiled--to a degree that has never been fully established--in a plot to assault her competitor Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the 1994 winter olympics, the most surprising thing about I, Tonya is that deep down, it is a straight-up sports movie.  Though the climax it's leading up to isn't victory or honorable defeat, but humiliation and ignominy, the beats of I, Tonya are familiar, predictable, and best of all thrilling.  We see Tonya start training as a child, until by the time she's in her teens (at which point she's played by Margot Robbie, very good in the role but also far too old and imposing to play the slight, young-looking Harding, who was only 24 when her saga ended) her entire life is devoted to skating.  We see the key figures in her life, who spur her on but also hold her back with their tangled emotional connections--her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), physically and emotionally abusive but also very perceptive in her judgments of Tonya and the people who latch onto her; her on-and-off husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who initially seems like a perfect, loving counterpoint to the harshness of Tonya's home life, but quickly reveals himself as abusive; her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who nurtures Tonya as hardly anyone else in her life does, but also keeps trying to push her to embody a genteel ice princess type that doesn't suit her rough-and-tumble personality.  Most of all, there are the skates, thrilling sequences at which every bit of work and suffering that Tonya has endured are summed up in a few minutes of performance, encompassing triumph--when she becomes the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition--and defeat--when she can barely make it through her program in the 1994 Olympics.

    It's interesting to note how similar I, Tonya is to Molly's Game, and how different their approaches to their subject matter end up being.  Both movies are about high-powered, talented women who discover very quickly that the line between fame and infamy is razor-thin, who are not innocents, but who also probably didn't deserve the harsh punishment they received for, essentially, being a Bad Girl.  But whereas in Molly's Game Aaron Sorkin runs in horror from the very thought that his heroine is not a completely admirable person, in I, Tonya screenwriter Steven Rogers revels in Tonya's contradictions.  In his hands, she is at once a badass, who trains with total determination and literally marches to her own drum, performing routines to ZZ Top when everyone expects her to be gentle and demure, and an emotionally unstable fuckup, incapable, even in the most charitable reading of her story, of disentangling herself from toxic relationships and habits.  But it's not just Tonya who gets this treatment.  Everyone in the movie is at various points lovable, hateable, pitiable, and kind of a moron.  (This is a bit of a problem in the case of Jeff, whom Stan plays as a soft-spoken nebbish even as he's tossing Tonya across the room.)  None of them deserve a happy ending, but it's also made clear that the bad ending they do get is rooted as much in circumstances outside of their control--in the prejudices of the skating world, the authorities' tolerance of domestic abuse, and the public's need to tear down and hate women who don't live up to an image of perfection--as in their own actions.

    The problem that I, Tonya eventually bumps up against is the one that almost any attempt to depict or sum up the Harding/Kerrigan scandal encounters--there is, ultimately, no lesson that can be taken from this story, because everyone in it is wrong in one way or another (except, obviously, Kerrigan, who is instead a victim).  It is undeniably true that Tonya Harding was unfairly dismissed by the public, the press, and skating authorities because of her looks, her demeanor, and her lower-class background.  It is undeniably true that the public outrage that built around her after the assault was completely out of proportion to what she actually did (if indeed she did anything), and had more to do with her gender, her appearance, and a ravenous press cycle.  But against all that, there is the simple fact that a woman got her knee bashed in.  I, Tonya soft-pedals its condemnation of both Tonya and Jeff, somehow arguing that both of them stumbled into the attack on Kerrigan.  Though at the same time it also pokes at its own assertions by constantly breaking the fourth wall, having characters in the midst of scenes of great emotion and violence turn to the camera and complain that these events didn't happen, that the person telling the story is lying to make themselves look like the victim and everyone else look like a villain.  It's a clever conceit, but the end result is that the film can feel a little centerless, uncertain about what it wants to say about its heroine or story except perhaps that there is nothing to say.  This, however, doesn't change the fact that I, Tonya is massively entertaining, cleverly constructed (it is genuinely baffling that Molly's Game and Three Billboards received best screenplay nominations while Rogers didn't), and truly moving.  Whatever you end up thinking about Tonya Harding and the people around her when you leave the movie theater, I, Tonya wants you to remember that they are people, and at this it handily succeeds.

  • The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro's latest dark fantasy is an homage to old Hollywood, mashing up mid-century romantic melodramas and monster flicks to produce a tale in which the doe-eyed, beautifully emotive heroine falls in love with a fish-monster.  Working as a cleaner in a military research laboratory in the early 60s, mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) befriends the lab's latest subject, an amphibious anthropomorphic creature (Doug Jones) retrieved from the Amazon.  As their friendship deepens, the lab's security officer, Strickland (Michael Shannon) agitates to have the creature vivisected, prompting Elisa to mount a daring rescue.  The film is, as is typical with del Toro and in keeping with his obvious inspirations, a lush visual and auditory experience.  The rich shadows and colors, the evocative imagery (such as Elisa living over a movie theater whose sounds penetrate her dreams), the constant presence on the soundtrack of music, from show tunes to jazz, all combine to create the impression of a setting that is half dream-world, of a movie that knows that it is a movie, whose characters see themselves as movie characters.

    Describing The Shape of Water as a mashup, however, creates the expectation of something that pushes against boundaries, and instead the film feels much more like a retread than the sensational terms of the conversation around it suggest.  The problem, as it has been for several of del Toro's recent projects, is in the script, and while the one for The Shape of Water isn't as underdeveloped as, say, Crimson Peak, it is a story that substitutes bald declaration for any hint of subtlety or complication.  The film is a lovely, surprisingly hopeful (and refreshingly sexually frank) story of seemingly impossible love, but it never suggests what it can loudly say.  Whether it's the parallel between Elisa's muteness and the creature's difference (something that has left disability activists divided), which the film has Elisa spell out in a pivotal moment.  Or the fact that Strickland is literally every sort of evil you'd imagine from a character like him, and spends his every moment on screen reminding us of this fact, from pointlessly browbeating his underlings, to making racist comments to Elisa's friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to drooling over his latest status-symbol-slash-phallic object, a new Cadillac.  Or a subplot about Elisa's neighbor, an aging gay man (Richard Jenkins), who declines to help her because he still hopes to claw himself back to respectability, only to come to her aid when the young man he's been lusting over turns out to be a homophobe and a racist.  The closest The Shape of Water comes to offering a mixed, challenging message is when the only scientist in the lab who sympathizes with the creature (Michael Stuhlberg) is revealed to be a Soviet plant, but even then, we're quickly reassured that his handlers are just as eager to exploit the creature as the American military.

    Of course, subtlety isn't always something to strive for.  I've seen some reviewers complain about the unmitigated awfulness of Strickland's character, for example, when to my mind he feels like the perfect villain for this moment, in which there's value in reminding people that racism and homophobia and authoritarianism and a complete disrespect for the rights of others often go hand in hand, without any redeeming characteristics.  (If there's a complication of Strickland's character, I'd say it comes from outside of him, in a scene in which his superior makes it clear that there will be no tolerance for his failure to reacquire the creature, and we watch Strickland realize that the toxic system he's bought into has no qualms about treating him as badly as he's treated others.)  But when I compare The Shape of Water to other best picture nominees like Call Me By Your Name or Phantom Thread, it feels thin despite its visual and textural richness.  In a way, the film feels of a piece with other recent "Hollywood does Hollywood" Oscar nominees like La La Land or The ArtistThe Shape of Water is about more than either of these other movies, but its obviousness means that it doesn't quite escape their gravity well.  It's a film that is luxurious to watch, but didn't leave me with very much when I left the movie theater.

  • Mudbound - Dee Rees's historical drama unfolds on a Mississippi farm in the 40s, and charts the growing, racially-charged tensions between two families, one white and one black.  The McAllans, Henry and Laura (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan), buy the farm on a whim, to indulge Henry's fantasy of being a landowner.  The Jacksons, Hap and Florence (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), have been sharecropping the land for generations, with no hope in sight of climbing out of subsistence living.  The early parts of the film skip nimbly between different characters' points of view, letting them narrate to us the subtle currents of power and prejudice that govern the two families' interactions--the fact that Henry feels entitled to call on Hap for help at any moment, and to dictate the terms of their financial relationship; Florence's reluctance to help Laura at home, born partly out of a desire to care for her own children, and partly out of a recognition that if anything were to happen to Laura's children, she would be blamed; Laura's mingled insight and detachment, her refusal to take an active role as a white landowner's wife that might allow her to mitigate some of the injustice she observes.

    Things come to a head when WWII ends and the two families' soldiers return home: Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a rakish pilot, and eldest Jackson son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a decorated tank commander.  Both are having trouble readjusting to civilian life, and they find in each other a sympathetic ear, someone who understands the traumas they've experienced.  Jamie is also struggling with his feelings for Laura, and with his bullying, racist father (Jonathan Banks), while Ronsel chafes against a society where he is seen as barely human after having been lauded as a hero in Europe.  The small oasis from intolerance and inequality formed by their friendship is compelling, but clearly also doomed.

    Even ignoring the long stretches of voiceover, it's easy to see that Mudbound is based on a novel (by Hillary Jordan), and while this might sound strange given that I haven't read it, the adaptation (by Rees and Virgil Williams) feels respectful and faithful.  The way the film slowly develops each of its wide cast of characters, and follows them along tangents that expose their unique point of view, feels novelistic, and unlike what you often find in feature films.  Sometimes the result can shade into melodrama--a scene in which Jamie reveals that his racial prejudices were exploded after his life was saved by the Tuskegee Airmen might have worked on the page, but feels hopelessly mawkish on screen--but for the most part it makes the film's world and characters feel vivid and lived in.  It helps that the film gives its actors a chance to shine, with Blige, Morgan, and Mulligan in particular giving deeply human and touching performances as complicated people hoping for better but not sure how to achieve it, and whether a path is even available to them.

    As Mudbound approaches its climax, however, one becomes more and more cognizant of the fact that there is only one way for this story to conclude, with tragedy, and it's hard not to resent the film for this--for introducing us to strong, hard-working, hopeful people like the Jacksons only to tear them down, because that's how historical dramas about black people in the south have to end.  It feels a little as if Rees shares that frustration, because Mudbound's final act is rushed and more than a little confusing, as if the film were trying to quickly get through the horror that it knows it has to depict.  That this horror is ultimately mitigated, and that the Jacksons find a way to build a better life for themselves in spite of it, is a tremendous relief, but nevertheless Mudbound is stronger in its beginning and middle than in its end.

  • Pacific Rim: Uprising - I wasn't a huge fan of the original Pacific Rim, which seemed made up of really compelling pieces that never really cohered into an interesting whole (again, see Guillermo del Toro's perennial problems with scripts--the one for Pacific Rim just gives up the ghost in act three).  But it's genuinely fascinating to see what happens when that film's universe and core concepts are handed to a more conventional director (Steven S. DeKnight, mainly known for TV stuff like Daredevil) and writers.  It's not just that the fleshy weirdness of del Toro's visual worldbuilding is gone, but so is the weirdness of some of his core concepts.  The idea of drift compatibility, for example, which in the original Pacific Rim was such a rich metaphor for empathy and connection, is here turned into just another skill that people need to develop, at which point they can drift with anyone--a way of proving individual fitness, not a connection to a specific person.  (It's not surprising that the first Jaeger we see in the movie is a small model piloted by a single person.)  There are other ways in which Uprising streamlines the original Pacific Rim's messiness, moving it in line with Hollywood's standard template for heroic movies.  Introducing a heretofore-unheard-of son for Idris Elba's character from the first movie, who is a hotshot who doesn't follow orders well, is particularly old hat.  So is a subplot that someone on twitter aptly summed up as "Jaeger Hogwarts", in which a group of aspiring young Jaeger pilots squabble and eventually learn to put their differences aside and work as a team.

    None of this is to say that Uprising is a bad movie.  It's just that it's good (for a given, limited value of "good") in very different ways than the original Pacific Rim, conventional and fun to its predecessor's charming but messy.  And it is a lot of fun, precisely because it wears its conventional plot lightly, and spruces it up with a lot of forward plot momentum.  Not to mention Jaeger and Kaiju fights, which continue to be this series's not-so-secret weapon, cheerfully bashing giant robots and monsters into buildings and each other with utterly delightful abandon.  Tying it all together is John Boyega, without whom this film would totally fall apart (proving this point is Scott Eastwood as Boyega's rule-following counterpart, who barely even registers on screen).  Boyega's charisma is so instantly engaging that he manages to make an underwritten character in an unconvincing situation completely engaging, and that in turn powers the rest of the movie.  Between that, the Jaegers and the Kaiju, Uprising makes for an utterly enjoyable evening out, even if it isn't nearly as soulful as its predecessor.

  • The Death of Stalin - Armando Iannucci's latest black comedy brilliantly dramatizes the days before and after the death of the Soviet tyrant, and the chaos into which the Politburo, the NKVD, and the Russian army are thrown by the sudden removal of a figure who had not only consolidated a horrific amount of power into his own hands, but who erected such a monumental cult of personality around himself that even the people he hurt most don't know how to go on without him.  The historical details are no doubt fudged or even outright invented, but Iannucci's clever script wastes no time in establishing the complex political web that exists around Stalin, and how it's overturned by his death.  We meet Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin's devoted deputy who initially balks at but is quickly won over by the idea of taking over as dictator.  Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the venal, cynical head of the secret police who immediately starts scheming how best to position himself in the new reality, including trying to reinvent himself as a reformer and a friend of the people.  And our point of view character, Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who scrambles with Beria for survival before realizing that he's in position to grab the entire pot.  The cast is rounded-out by a who's-who of British and American comedy actors, all in top form, but standouts include Stalin's drunken wastrel of a son Vasily (Rupert Friend, suddenly reminding everyone how wasted he's been in dour action hero roles like Homeland) and Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs, magnificent), whose WWII heroism is perhaps the reason that he's the only one willing to admit that what's happening in the wake of Stalin's death is not an orderly transfer of power in which everyone has the best interest of the people and the Communist ideal at heart, but a plain and simple coup.

    I'm not sure what Iannucci's reasons were for embarking on this project, but in our current political moment it ends up feeling utterly essential.  At the heart of the film's comedy is the denial, sometimes necessary and sometimes self-serving, that the characters need to deploy in order to survive and advance in their increasingly irrational world.  They must pretend to live in a worker's paradise, because to acknowledge Stalin's tyranny, the cruelty of his whims, and the capriciousness of the state's organs of policing and punishment, might be more than their lives are worth.  After Stalin dies, the Politburo pretend to be working together to stabilize the Union, even though they all know that a purge is coming, either from the people or the military or each other.  When they gang up against Beria, they pretend to be rooting out a cancer afflicting the purity of Communism, even though, as he indignantly insists, they've all committed atrocities and abused their positions.  Most importantly, they pretend that this latest round of violence is the last one, and that after it they'll be able to set things right, and put a stop to the arrests, executions, purges, and gulags.  It's all very, very funny--standout scenes include a Politburo meeting in which the veneer of free discussion quickly crumbles under the need to make every decision unanimous; or a scene in which Khrushchev and a barely-hanging-on Molotov (Michael Palin) compete to see which one of them can more fervently denounce Molotov's wife, imprisoned for allegedly plotting against Stalin, while Beria keeps trying to interrupt them so he can spin the new narrative in which she was wrongly accused; when we meet Vasily, he's desperately trying to whip into shape a Russian hockey team made up of replacements after the previous team was killed in a plane crash, which he can't acknowledge because Soviet planes aren't supposed to crash.  But underlying it all is a deadly serious, and horrifying, truth: that all it took to erect and maintain this system of abuse and oppression was the cowardice and selfishness of these thoroughly unimpressive men, and that none of them will do anything to make things better.

    The Death of Stalin also feels essential in the context of the conversation about how comedy can function in the era of looming fascism, and whether mocking dictators does anything but normalize them and minimize their potential harm.  Iannucci offers a master-class in how to ridicule totalitarianism without losing sight of its dangers, as well as a demonstration of how hard that is to do.  The film doesn't always keep a steady grip on its tone.  It occasionally slips from exposing its characters' absurdity to a more generalized gawping at the Russian people's acceptance of their deranged situation--as in a minor subplot about a young man who directs the secret police to his father's location to save his own skin, only for those prisoners to be released as part of Beria's attempted reinvention.  But in its best moments, The Death of Stalin knows who it's meant to be laughing at, and it laces that laughter with palpable anger and disdain.  Its primary focus is in revealing its characters' paltriness, their desperate need to have someone to blame for everything that's gone wrong around them--Stalin, then Beria, then Melankov, and eventually Khruschev--in order not to see that it's the system they've created and are propping up that is to blame.  Even as it mocks their weakness, The Death of Stalin keeps reminding us that we allow such weak people to rule us at our own peril.

3 comments:

Ian Sales said...

The dialogue in I, Tonya was taken from words actually spoken by the various people in interviews. The film also suggests that Kerrigan was no angel, whatever her public persona. And her injury was minor - bad bruising - and did not prevent her from competing in the Olympics, where she took silver. The one thing I felt the film did not do was place Harding in terms of her skill. Admittedly, it used their own words, but it implied throughout that she was the best female ice skater in the US - so why did she only come 8th in the Olympics?

Chris said...

Reading your last review, I'm trying to decide if it's the similarities or the differences with the GOP that stand out the most. Because yes, as you say, everything you describe about Stalin's royal court resonates very much with the way American elites have been treating the Trump phenomenon. But you can at least sort of understand why the commies would indulge the lies and not rock the boat; they live in a context where one wrong step is very likely to get you killed. Our Republicans manage the same cowardice and selfishness even though in their case, doing the right thing carries almost no risk: the worst that can happen is that they lose the next election and then still get to spend the rest of their lives in wealth, comfort, and freedom.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Ian:

I wouldn't say the film suggests that Kerrigan was "no angel" - the worst (and most) it has to say about her is that she was insufficiently appreciative of having won the silver in the 1994 Olympics. Which is appropriate, because she wasn't a party to this scandal except for being its target. Even if she was "no angel", there was nothing she did to set it off except existing.

Chris:

Yes, that's a good point. Not unlike the observation many have made that comparing the rise of Trump to Hitler being elected in 1930s Germany speaks very poorly of Americans, because the Germans turned to fascism after losing a horrific, costly war, having also watched their economy crater, and having much weaker and younger democratic institutions.

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