Monday, 29 January 2018

TV73: Big Little Lies



I couldn’t wait to finally watch Big Little Lies. A huge winner at the Emmy’s and the Golden Globes, four great actresses (Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern), one of my all-time favourite TV writers (David E. Kelley, who also created the show); an excellent young Canadian director (Jean-Marc Vallée): how could this show be anything less than a likely candidate for my list of all-time favourite TV serials. Sigh.

Big Little Lies starts off promisingly enough, with a unique flashback structure that tells us someone (probably a major character) died horribly under very suspicious circumstances and the police are investigating. But then we begin the long tedious story about mothers worrying about whose kids are bullying whom in the second grade. Having frequently been the victim of bullies in elementary school, I am not suggesting such topics aren’t serious or worthy of attention. But mostly this is the story of wealthy stay-at-home Moms on the California coast who gossip and argue about their kids and their husbands and then argue with their husbands (at least one of whom is abusive). I know it’s supposed to be a satire of sorts, offering some kind of social commentary, but the story and setting are just too cold and empty to be compelling (give me The O.C. already). 

The actors mentioned above all do a great job, especially Kidman (though I think their talents are wasted here). The male actors were adequate, but only Alexander Skarsgård stood out. The cinematography and music are outstanding, and the direction is hard to fault. It’s just the writing. I can’t figure out what Kelley was trying to do with Big Little Lies. Whatever it was, it sure didn’t work for me (many critics obviously felt differently). I felt I had basically wasted my time on this award-winning suspense drama, which was luckily less than seven hours long. Because of its overall high quality, I’m still going to give Big Little Lies ***, but my mug fell over.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Walter's Top Ten Films of 2017

Following Vic's Top 15 and the slightly more famous Oscar nominations, here is my modest list of ten top films of 2017:

As a prelude, though, let's get the bad out of the way - the year's biggest disappointments that I've been calling my "spilled coffee list." Leading it off, we have Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. It wasn't the worst film of the year, but I have to give it this honour in order to contrast with the insane amount of critics who seem to think it was something special. The only thing that I can think is that some critics ask themselves, "Would I have liked this when I was in middle school?"  Other top disappointments of the year were Life, Allied, and Collateral Beauty.

Films that might have stood a chance for me that I haven't seen yet include The Florida Project, Mudbound, Loving Vincent and Molly's Game. And honourable mentions include The Shape of Water, Back to Burgundy, Their Finest and 20th Century Women. 

A fumi-e offered for recanting faith10. Silence - This is a film full of contradictions - one of those contradictions is whether or not it is a great film. In some ways I think it was: it was a well-made film adaptation of an excellent but devastating novel (that I read back in the early 90s). The film succeeds in hitting the viewer with the same turmoil of thoughts and doubts and wonderings that the novel does. But is it justifiable to make this film without the slightest sign of self-awareness that while the Jesuits were being tortured by “The Inquisitor” in Japan, the Spanish Inquisition was carrying on back in Europe? I scoured many interviews with Scorcese and saw no evidence that this irony was in sight. Inexcusable. A contradiction. But so thought-provoking it had to make my list.

9. The Big Sick - This film was recommended to me by many people, and I understood why. It has the fresh intelligence of earlier Apatow comedies without being crass or stupid. Instead it is uniquely humourous and tells a heartfelt story.

Scene from A Kid (older man speaking to younger man)

8. A Kid - (en Francais: Le Fils de Jean) I suspect that not too many people have seen this modest film set in France and  Quebec, and it’s possible that this fact moved it up my list a bit. There is a quiet sense of mystery and tension in this family drama that isn't exploited but remains realistic and true. It’s occasionally funny but doesn’t pretend to be a comedy, and woven through it are themes of commitment, forgiveness and the long term consequences of character and choices.

normal people look down at very small people7. Downsizing -  For me this was a really great “almost.” The idea is wonderful and parts of it worked
really well. The themes are timely and the exploration of them fascinating. What happens when you reframe and sell “saving the world” as “live the American Dream you’ve always wanted”? But it just felt like the film as a whole couldn’t completely bring itself together. Is that just intentionally mirroring the lostness of the “everyman” hero? Maybe.

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - I don't think a Star Wars film has ever made my list (since I wasn't making lists back in '77). Yes, this one has its weaknesses. But for me this revived hope in the saga that lost its way and double-backed on itself in The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi had a lot of thought-provoking bits that actually make me want to watch it again soon: do we still need the Force or have the tides changed?

5. Blade Runner 2049 - Being a respecter rather than fan of the original, I did not go with grand expectations. I found this sequel superior in many ways - infinitely more watchable IMHO. I’d suggest that it was possibly more thought-provoking too, but something tells me that the fans of the original would loudly disagree with that.

Beatriz raises her glass in a toast
4. Beatriz at Dinner - This is an unusual film and may have stimulated more post-film thinking than any of the films on the list. This dark comedy brings a lot of important things to the surface - most uniquely the threat of burning out if working intensely and emotionally for a better world without a community supporting you (or maybe even with).

3. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri - Overall this is a better-made film than Lady Bird. It probably even had more of the best kind of quality than The Post. But its world is too dark for me to rank it higher than this. Yes, it has many bright spots: excellent and unpredictable characters, great acting, great soundtrack, and it is so beautifully filmed; but be sure that you can watch a tough film before you dive in.

2. Lady Bird -  It’s possible that Saoirse Ronan’s acting is enough by itself to make it to #2 on my list. But along with that strength comes a film with a perfect balance of realism and light humour, capturing the gutsy spark, naivete, and very unfinished bits that come with being a high school senior. The film leaves you wanting to be kinder to high school (university?) students even when their actions are frustrating.

All the men gather around the woman who has to make the decision

1. The Post -  I was preparing to write up my top ten list and was feeling that there simply wasn’t a film that was worthy of being #1. There were a lot of good films but none that stood out with enough heft to play this role. Then I saw The Post - the last film I would watch before I made a call on my top ten. I knew it had a chance because I am partial to investigative journalist films, but neither Spielberg nor Streep are normally as esteemed in my book as they are for many.

But this film did it for me. I understand Vic’s disappointment about its not hitting contemporary relevance harder (given the intensity of this relevance in the Trump era), but nevertheless those parallels are still clear, and I think Spielberg was right not to dilute the focus on the bravery of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), a barely experienced woman surrounded by powerful men. I found that theme highly moving and convincing. And there’s just something about the presses rolling with a hard-edged, breaking story - one of the best alternative symbols to a winning battle scene: a victory based on truth, courage and hard work instead of violence. I seriously do not understand how I didn’t get into journalism.

Late Additions - Here in St. Stephen, it's pretty standard that I am behind-the-times seeing great films. So here are some older films that I saw this past year that were top notch but too late to make it for their year: Manchester by the Sea, Le goût des merveilles, Moonlight, Trumbo, Miss Sloane, Fences and a delightful Japanese film called Sweet Bean.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Vic's Top Fifteen Films of 2017







Based on the number of four-star reviews (from me), 2017 was not as good a year for film as the last three years, but it was an exceptional year for women involved in filmmaking (and for women in general). In 2017, I watched far more films which were written and/or directed by women and/or had a female protagonist than in any previous year. This is reflected in the list below. I have never before had a top-ten or top-fifteen list that contained more than one film directed by a woman. This year, my list contains no less than four films written and directed by women and twelve films with a female protagonist. Remarkable! I just hope it’s a sign that a fundamental and permanent change is taking place.

Other observations about my list:
  1. Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has his fourth straight film on my list, just missing the number one spot this year. Jim Jarmusch has his second straight film in my top four, and Andrey Zvyagintsev has his second straight film in my top six.
  2. I have not yet been able to see Phantom Thread, which I am almost sure would have been on my list (maybe next year).
  3. I have not had the opportunity to watch Call Me By Your Name a second time. I have a hunch that I might like this extraordinary film more on a second viewing and that it would then make my list (it just misses my list now, as does A Ghost Story).
  4. Not making my list, but coming close and worthy of mention, are two sequel films that pleasantly surprised me: War for the Planet of the Apes, which had my favourite score of the year, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was much better than The Force Awakens and is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back in 1980).
  5. It was a great year for films that are unlike anything I have seen before. About half of the films on my list are there because they are so original and imaginative.
  6. Since I watched well over 100 films in 2017 (perhaps the most ever), I have taken the liberty of allowing for a tie in the number fifteen spot, which means I actually have sixteen films on my list this year. Here’s the list, counting down from fifteen:
15. The Shape of Water - With its breathtaking cinematography, its 50’s sci-fi feel and the terrific performance by Sally Hawkins (who plays a mute janitor at a secret research facility), this magical original film about love and how we view ‘the other’ could have been much higher on my list. Unfortunately, Guillermo del Toro saw fit to throw in a couple of unimaginative graphically-violent scenes that almost kept The Shape of Water off my list altogether. 

15. Beatriz at Dinner - Miguel Arteta’s film about Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a Mexican immigrant and New Age healer who gets accidentally invited to a dinner with Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a billionaire real estate mogul, has wonderful nuanced performances from the two stars along with brilliant dialogue that asks all the right questions, keeping me engaged from start to finish. 

14. Loving Vincent - The only animated film on my list, Loving Vincent contains 65,000 paintings (one for each frame) based on130 masterworks by Vincent Van Gogh. The paintings are used as backdrops for an intriguing tale about Amand Roulin’s (voiced by Douglas Booth) investigation into Van Gogh’s life and mysterious death, told in a film noir style. This gorgeous mesmerizing masterpiece was written and directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. 

13. Their Finest - As I celebrate the role of women in filmmaking in 2017, it’s appropriate to include a film about the role of women in filmmaking (and about the role of women in WWII Britain generally). Written by Gaby Chiappe and directed by Lone Scherfig, Their Finest stars Gemma Arterton as a screenwriter for a 1940 propaganda film about the retreat from Dunkirk. It’s much more fun, and more insightful, than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

12. Novitiate - This low-budget indie film from Margaret Betts looks and feels like a major production. It follows the trials of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a young woman training to become a nun in the early 1960’s who faces the stern discipline of the conservative Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) during the stressful days of the Second Vatican Council. Great acting, beautiful cinematography and an excellent screenplay.

11. Molly’s Game - Aaron Sorkin is, in my opinion, the best screenwriter out there. This time he also directs. Even without a subject that interests me or a particularly sympathetic protagonist, Sorkin won me over with this riveting, fast-paced and intelligent film. Based on true events, Molly’s Game stars Jessica Chastain in a terrific performance as Molly Bloom, a woman arrested by the FBI for running an illegal gambling establishment. Idris Elba, also terrific, plays Charlie Jaffey, the only lawyer willing to take her case. 

10. mother! - Despised by most viewers and called the “worst movie of the century” by one major critic, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is another totally original and mind-blowing work of art from this mad filmmaking genius. Jennifer Lawrence is great as the ‘mother’, trying to look after a gorgeous mansion in the middle of nowhere while her husband, the poet (Javier Bardem), allows all kinds of visitors to come mess it up. On the surface, this is a pure horror film, but it’s actually a profound biblical allegory about God and mother Earth. 

9. The Post - Steven Spielberg’s latest film is one of the very few he has made with a female protagonist. With Meryl Streep in the role of Kay Graham, the owner/publisher of the Washington Post who goes up against Nixon’s White House in 1971, Spielberg could hardly go wrong. Having Tom Hanks on board as Ben Bradlee, The Post’s executive editor, doesn’t hurt. The Post is another vital film about the changing role of women in the workplace (not to mention the role of the media in holding governments accountable). 

8. downsizing - Perhaps the most underrated film of the year, Alexander Payne’s downsizing stars Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a man who decides to try downsizing (to the height of five inches) and moving to an ideal miniaturized community as a way to refresh his stagnant life. He regrets that decision until he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, who is marvellous). A profound, original and humanizing film about how to live in an unsustainable world. 

7. A Fantastic Woman - Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman stars Daniela Vega in a sublime performance as Marina Vidal, a trans woman in Chile who is treated abominably after the sudden death of her boyfriend. Gorgeously-filmed, this timely heartfelt story is told with wisdom and compassion. 

6. Loveless - Another bleak and thought-provoking film by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the director of Leviathan, Loveless offers a commentary on life in Russia today with this tale of parents hunting for their missing 12-year-old son. This haunting, beautiful, brilliantly-acted film focuses on the trials of the mother, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak).

5. Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig wrote and directed this warm, funny and insightful coming-of-age drama about ‘Lady Bird’ (Saoirse Ronan), a headstrong but insecure seventeen-year-old in her last year of high school in Sacramento who is struggling in her relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Featuring two of the year’s best performances, Lady Bird is full beautifully-drawn and sympathetic characters.

4. Paterson - A 2016 film that didn’t get to Winnipeg until the spring of 2017, thus qualifying for this list. Jim Jarmusch has done it again, making a film unlike any other, this time about an ordinary week in the life of an extraordinary poet (and bus driver) named Paterson (a perfectly-cast Adam Driver) in Paterson, New Jersey. Full of ideas and symbols and empathy and humanization and the joy and necessity of creativity in everyday life, this is inspirational filmmaking at its best.

3. The Florida Project - This gorgeously-shot slice-of-life drama concerns the precocious six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince, who is amazing) and her struggling young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who live day-to-day in a garish motel near Disney World. Willem Dafoe is superb as Bobby, the inspiring motel manager. Sean Baker’s jaw-dropping film is wonderfully humane and humanizing, finding little pieces of beauty in an ugly heartbreaking setting

2. Blade Runner 2049 - Denis Villeneuve continues to impress, making a sequel of one of my all-time-favourite films that is almost as good as the original. This slow-paced, intelligent and captivating sci-fi masterpiece stars Ryan Gosling as K, a replicant (robot) in a post-apocalyptic California whose discovery that replicants can give birth will lead him to Deckard (Harrison Ford) and to questions about what it means to be human. Too much redemptive violence, but such a wonder to watch on the big screen.

1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Described as the angriest film of the year, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards is also the most imaginative, humanizing and redemptive film of the year, with one magical and gorgeous scene after another (and some that are hard to watch). Frances McDormand is sensational as Mildred Hayes, a grieving woman who puts pressure on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) to find her daughter’s killer; and Sam Rockwell is phenomenal as an angry officer who wants to put Mildred behind bars. Three Billboards epitomizes a sentiment found in many of the films listed above: To one degree or another, all of us are flawed, broken and in pain, and yet still worthy of love and respect.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Good Time



Good Time has made quite a number of critics’ top-ten lists (for 2017), so I thought I’d better give it a look. That was a mistake, because this fast-paced stylistic thriller is not worth watching except for its technical merits. 

The one thing Good Time is not is a good time. It is a raw, brutal ice-cold film full of mostly unsympathetic characters. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, who hauls his mentally challenged brother, Nick (Ben Safdie), out of a therapy session to rob a bank. It’s not clear why Connie needs Nick, but the heist goes badly and Nick gets caught. Connie tries to post bail for his brother and finds out Nick is in a hospital after a fight in prison. So Connie breaks Nick out of the hospital, which again goes badly, leading to further crimes that also go badly, this time with a parolee named Ray (Buddy Duress) in tow. 

Pattinson’s acting, as the intense overwhelmed Connie, is very good, with solid support from the other actors involved. The cinematography is (appropriately, I suppose) constantly moving, which only rarely impresses me, and the loud overwhelming music, which got my blood pumping in the early going, and which was one of the best things about the film early on, eventually turned me off. But the biggest problem for me was that the promising start, focusing on Connie’s poorly-displayed love for his brother, faded farther and farther from a story that could engage me, making me feel like cringing during much of the film’s last half hour.

Good Time is the kind of indie thriller that impresses critics because of its style and intensity. If the characters and/or story were more compelling (i.e. if the writing was better), I might have agreed. But Good Time didn’t work for me. **+. My mug is down.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Paddington 2



Having much enjoyed the first Paddington film, we were eager to see Paddington 2. We were not disappointed. Ben Whishaw is back, and excellent, as the voice of our hero, Paddington Brown (a bear), and Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are back as Mary and Henry Brown, the parents in the family that is providing a home for Paddington in London. Jim Broadbent is also back as Mr. Gruber, the likeable antique dealer. 

We get to see more of the Browns’ neighbours this time. With Paddington’s determination to always be kind and see the good in all people (one of his, and the film’s, greatest strengths), most of his neighbours love Paddington and are positively affected by his goodhearted if somewhat accident-prone nature. There are, however, two exceptions: Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the grumpy self-appointed neighbourhood watch person, who sees Paddington as an outsider and a danger to the community, and Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), the popular actor who is a little too interested in Paddington’s talk about the pop-up book in the antique shop that Paddington wants to give his Aunt Lucy for her birthday.

Next thing you know there is a break-in at the antique shop and the pop-up book goes missing. Paddington is seen running away from the shop and is arrested and sent to prison. Even in prison, Paddington is able to see the good in all the men around him and soon has a number of friends. But can his fellow inmates help him clear his name (as his family is trying to do)? Knuckles (Brendan Gleeson), the cook, says he can and he will, but only if Paddington breaks out of prison with him, which is against Paddington’s nature.

The scenes in the prison are absolutely delightful, helped by some excellent acting, especially on the part of Gleeson. The rest of the film is almost as good. Paddington 2 is a very funny, intelligent, innocent and inspiring family comedy-adventure, something that’s far too rare. That makes it all the more sad that, in spite of rave reviews from critics, North Americans are not much interested (as was the case with Paddington). Part of this is the British setting and style of humour.

The acting, cinematography and score are all outstanding. Paul King, the director and co-writer, has done it again, making a sequel that is actually better than the original (not least because of the way it handles the ‘baddie’, something that is again all-too-rare in films made for children, not that Paddington 2 isn’t as much fun for adults as for children). Highly recommended for everyone, Paddington 2 gets ***+ and is even on its way to ****. My mug is up.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Post



Wow?

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks starring in a Steven Spielberg film about investigative journalism and the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the way American presidents and politicians had been lying about the Vietnam War for many years? Should have been an easy Wow! film, and yet …

The Post begins well, with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) coming back from his observations on the front lines of the war in 1971 to steal the papers from his offices at the Rand Corporation. But then we skip past the way Ellsberg released those papers to the New York Times, which then carried the great exposé on its front pages before being shut down by Nixon’s legal system. Instead, we jump to the Washington Post, where Katharine “Kay” Graham (Streep), the Post’s publisher, is trying to keep the newspaper alive by selling shares. Kay talks to her executive editor, Ben Bradlee (Hanks), and hears that there’s a story brewing at the New York Times and Bradlee is trying to find out what it is. 

Too late. The Times prints its story, though the government soon shuts it down. But Bradlee is not to be stopped. He knows there’s a lot more to the story and thinks The Post now has a shot at getting its own headlines. This is where Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) steps in: a writer at The Post, Bagdikian knows Ellsberg personally and suspects he is the source of the Papers. He wants a chance to find out. And so begins what will become a fight between the government and the newspapers and between those willing to risk all for the sake of a free press that holds governments accountable and those who are worried about keeping The Post financially viable. 

The Post is not only set in the early 70’s, it has a distinct 70’s feel, reminding me of the 70’s classics, Network and All the President’s Men. The cinematography, which favours a dark faded look, is key to that comparison, with John Williams’ score helping out. And The Post is clearly trying to be a political thriller, though the thriller content is minimal. But the tension is there, and The Post is always engaging, even when its predictability makes it less compelling. Indeed, I would argue that if The Post was primarily about what I have described thus far, it would fall well short of greatness, not even making it into my top fifteen films of 2017. 

Fortunately, The Post has another key theme, namely Kay Graham’s struggle as a woman in a man’s world. Graham was the first female publisher of a major newspaper, taking over after her husband’s suicide (her husband had been given the position from her father). It’s clear that the men don’t take her seriously, as depicted in one of my favourite scenes, where she is the lone woman at a Post board meeting and the men ignore her even when she knows more about what’s going on than any of them. It’s not just the men’s ignorance that makes the scene work - it’s the way Graham accepts her ‘innate inferiority’ as a woman. But this will change as the film goes on, and that change is, for me, the central theme of The Post and the theme that pushes the film into four-star territory. 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Graham is played by one of the world’s all-time great actors. I wouldn’t say this is one of Streep’s best performances, but it’s worthy of some major nominations. I would actually say the same things about Hanks, who does a very convincing job as Bradlee. The rest of the acting was also excellent. Major roles not yet mentioned were played by Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson and Tracy Letts.

There have been articles comparing The Post’s depiction of the Nixon White House with the current administration, highlighting the need for today’s newspapers to keep Trump accountable. But the low-key way The Post handles the scandal of the Pentagon Papers makes me think this film could have done much more in talking about the role of the media in relation to government scandals (e.g. All the President’s Men). An interesting point to consider is how Bagdikian became one of the major critics of the media, one of the first to write about the way media ownership has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy men. 

As an advocate for the role of the media today, The Post needed to be much more hard-hitting, and much more aware of how the mass media continue to be restrained by wealth and power. But as a classic drama about the changing role of women in the workplace, and at home, the film works well. So I’m giving The Post **** and a place in my top fifteen films of the year, though not as high a place as I had hoped. My mug is up.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Coco



The most popular animated film of 2017 is a gorgeous film, full of great voices, lots of music and powerful positive messages about the importance of family and memory. Unfortunately, Coco isn’t particularly original or compelling (though it has its moments!).

The young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzales) is an aspiring musician. He wants to be the new Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous singer in history, now long dead. But Miguel’s family has a ban on music of any kind, thanks to his great-great-grandfather, who left his young family to pursue a music career and was never seen again (despite promises that he would return). Even the photo of Miguel’s great-great-grandparents’ family is missing the head of his great-great-grandfather. It does, however, show a photo of the man’s guitar. When, on the Day of the Dead, Miguel finds the guitar of Ernesto de la Cruz in his crypt, he realizes that the famous singer must be his great-great-grandfather. When he tries to steal the guitar, Miguel ends up entering the Land of the Dead.

Desperate to find his great-great-grandfather, whom he hopes will support his dream of becoming a musician, Miguel explores this colourful, eye-popping new world. Along the way, he will meet his ancestors and the sketchy Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who offers to help Miguel if he will take a photo of Hector back to the land of the living. 

There are many wonderful and funny scenes in Coco, especially near the beginning and the end of the film. The overall story, with its focus on family, is a good one, if a little superficial. I particularly appreciated the Mexican setting, the positive depiction of Mexican culture and all the Latin American voices, especially coming at a time when the Trump presidency is in a state of tension with its southern neighbour. I was not surprised to learn that Coco has become the most popular film of all time in Mexico.

What I did not appreciate was the incredibly stupid scene of violence near the end of the film, though what followed was so well done that I am tempted to overlook the stupidity.

Coco is a very entertaining if lightweight Disney film that gets somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

I, Tonya



My memory of the Tonya Harding affair (back in 1994) is so vague that I was able to watch I, Tonya with almost no idea what was going to happen next. But I knew from the start that whatever was going to happen, it wouldn’t be good. That’s because the film begins with brief interviews with all of the major players (years after the events) which make it clear that not one of them is to be believed. Indeed, the only sympathetic characters in the film are Tonya’s two skating coaches, whose patience must have been extraordinary.

Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a very sad, almost horrific, story of abuse and lies told as a dark comedy by the many unsympathetic characters involved, not one of whom can be trusted. Besides not knowing whether the film is telling anything resembling a true story, the fact that this story is based on actual events involving one of the greatest American figure skaters of the time makes it hard to view as a dark comedy. Imagine watching the O.J. Simpson story as a dark comedy. Wouldn’t work. The Tonya Harding story is much less horrific than that, and the comedy was often hilarious, but I’m still not sure it worked. It was, however, endlessly fascinating, with some of the best performances of the year.

Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, is a young woman with an incredible skating talent. She was on her way to becoming perhaps the greatest figure skater in the world. But to get to that point she had to overcome two abusive relationships: one with her overbearing mother (LaVona, played by Allison Janney), who forced Tonya to practice from the age of three; and one with her partner, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who hit Tonya regularly (something she was used to). Then there’s Jeff’s close friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), a man who believes he’s actually a spy and is capable of doing and saying the most ludicrous things imaginable. Only Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya’s long-suffering coach, seems to live a normal life. 

Would Tonya have gone as far as she did without LaVona and Jeff? We’ll never know. But I, Tonya makes it clear that her relationship with Jeff was a pretty bad idea from day one, as was Jeff’s relationship with Shawn. Through it all, no matter how unsympathetic Tonya can be, one can’t help wanting her to get away from these people and succeed with her life. That’s because Robbie’s performance is spot on.

As good as Robbie is, it was Janney and Hauser whose performances were jaw-dropping. [Janney deserved her Golden Globe, though Laurie Metcalfe was at least as good in Lady Bird.] The music was loud and effective (though why the songs were mostly from the 70’s is a mystery), the cinematography was well done, and the style was both original and captivating. All in all, a very entertaining film with some good things to say about media frenzy. Too bad I couldn’t help feeling that the film was also, at times, part of the problem. But what puts I, Tonya into the ***+ range is the way it reflects on the lies we all tell ourselves to create our own versions of the truth. My mug is up.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

downsizing



Wow!

And now for something completely different. It’s always such a joy to say that, assuming the film it refers to has been a satisfying viewing experience. In the case of downsizing, directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, my experience was more than satisfying, perhaps all the more so because most film critics thought it was a mediocre film. I can only guess that downsizing was such a different kind of film that critics, and average viewers, who gave the film a “C” score and a 5.8 score on IMDB, had no idea what to do with it (this wasn’t helped by trailers which I can only guess intentionally misled viewers to expect a silly comedy instead of a profound sci-fi drama). At least ten people (out of about 75) walked out of our theatre once they realized their mistake.

Ironically, people walked out during some of the best moments of the film (for me, at least), leaving me once again wondering why so few people want more than just escapist fare when they go to the cinema. Of course, I almost walked out  myself (not seriously) early in the film when the protagonist (Paul Safranek, played by Matt Damon), a forty-something man married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), questioned my self-worth by saying, to indicate his own failures in life, “I’m still living in the house I grew up in.” Sigh.

One day, Paul, an occupational therapist whose life feels stagnant, sees that his high school friend is much happier as a man who is only five inches tall. That’s right, scientists in Norway have discovered a way to make people 0.0346% of their original size, thus providing an answer to the many ways the earth’s growing population is destroying the planet. By consuming only a tiny fraction of the earth’s resources and creating only a tiny amount of waste, downsizing everyone may be the answer to a sustainable life on earth for millennia to come. Paul is convinced, though Audrey is more hesitant until she sees the size of the mansion they can afford to live in in Leisureland, the home of the downsized, not to mention hearing that they’ll never have to work again.

Unfortunately, things don’t work out too well for Paul (a common theme in the film) and he ends up in a miniature world where he is even less happy than he was before, living in a small apartment and doing a job he hates (telephone salesperson) because he allowed his license to expire. It doesn’t help that his new neighbour, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), keeps having noisy parties. But when Dusan invites Paul to join one of the parties, Paul’s life will change forever, not least because of his encounter with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese protest leader who was imprisoned and downsized against her will, then almost died in an illegal journey in a TV box, and is now a cleaning woman (working for Dusan, among others).

Perhaps that’s enough of an introduction. I’ll just mention that Rolf Lassgård (last year’s Ove) has an important role as Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen, the man who discovered downsizing. The acting of all those mentioned above was excellent, with a special nod to Waltz and Chau. Chau’s character, Ngoc Lan Tran, is one of the most original, refreshing and endearing characters I’ve seen in a long time, and Chau makes it work.

Then again, downsizing as a film is one of the most original, refreshing and endearing films I’ve watched in a  long time. Nothing is predictable, the relationships/friendships are fascinating but credible, there’s a strong humanizing message throughout, there are numerous profound conversations about climate change and the future of our planet, not to mention scenes dealing with issues like gender, class, wealth and power, and, above all, it provides clues to what it means to live our daily lives in a world that is becoming unsustainable. Marvellous stuff!

I should mention that there is a fair bit of comedy (including lots of social satire), but to call downsizing a comedy (as many do) is, I think, missing the seriousness of this imaginative and profound story. A final note to say that downsizing also features gorgeous cinematography and lots of appropriate music. So, like Gareth, I’m giving downsizing **** and a place in my top ten films of the year. My mug is up for perhaps the most underrated film of the year.

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Greatest Showman



Back-to-back Michelle Williams, this time in a very different role, with some singing and dancing thrown in. Williams shows herself to be quite capable of doing both very well, and her performance may be the best in The Greatest Showman, where she plays Charity Barnum, the wife of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman).

Of course, Jackman is the big star here and he also performs very well (that he sings and dances is no surprise; we’ve seen him do these before). Jackman, a natural charmer, is a perfect fit for the role of Barnum. The Greatest Showman chronicles Barnum’s rise as a showman in the mid-19th century, moving from the purchase of a museum of oddities to creating a show featuring living oddities like dwarfs, giants and bearded women, to launching a tour by Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who was a huge hit. While The Greatest Showman focuses on Barnum’s successes and how he uses dangerous investments to make his dreams come true, it also shows the toll that his self-centred ambition made on his family.

Lind is played well by Rebecca Ferguson, but Loren Allred sings for her, something that never impresses me. The other primary characters in the film are Barnum’s partner, Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), the woman Carlyle falls in love with (allowing for the opportunity to show how difficult a mixed-race relationship was in the mid-19th century).

The Greatest Showman, which is directed by Michael Gracey, certainly has its share of flaws. Even for a musical, the story is superficial, even hollow at times, giving us far too little story to make the film truly engaging. Outside of Williams and Jackman (and the small role for Ferguson), none of the acting or singing is worth noting. The songs themselves vary from excellent to way-too-poppy for my liking (especially near the end of the film; earlier songs were much better). All-in-all, The Greatest Showman is a far cry from the somewhat similar musical, Moulin Rouge

Nevertheless, The Greatest Showman is beautiful and fun to watch (i.e. it’s entertaining), offering gorgeous cinematography, some excellent songs, a good score, some good performances and a heart that’s in the right place, with, for example, a focus on humanizing the circus performers (though with minimal character development and no historical credibility, given that the real Barnum was more interested in exploiting the marginalized than in helping them). The bottom line is that The Greatest Showman is a musical and musicals don’t need to follow the same rules as other film genres in order to provide a solid entertainment. And I’m a sucker for musicals. That’s why I’m giving The Greatest Showman ***+ in spite of all of its flaws. My mug is up.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

All the Money in the World



It seems almost uncanny that, thanks to the controversy surrounding Kevin Spacey, Christopher Plummer gets to play a role way too similar to the role he played in a film I watched just a month ago: The Man Who Invented Christmas. In that film, Plummer was excellent as Ebenezer Scrooge. Now he plays J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World. The title of that film refers to the fact that Getty was (back in 1973, when most of the film’s events took place) not only the richest man in the world but the wealthiest man who had ever lived. But all the money in the world wasn’t enough for Getty, nor was it sufficient to pay a ransom for the release of his kidnapped grandson, John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer - no apparent relation), known as Paul.

At the age of seventeen, Paul is vacationing in Rome in the spring of 1973 when he’s kidnapped and held for ransom ($17 million at first). His grandfather refuses to pay a penny of it (supposedly on the grounds that this will lead to further kidnappings), which understandably makes his mother Gail (Michelle Williams) very angry. Gail, who is divorced from John Paul Getty II, has almost no money of her own, so she is left with little recourse until she meets Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg), the man hired by Getty to find and recover his grandson (without paying a ransom). Chace and Gail fly to Rome, where they meet with the police and spend months negotiating with the kidnappers and trying to locate Paul. I shouldn’t say much more than that about the plot.

All the Money in the World is directed by Ridley Scott, which alone should make the film worth watching, but I was disappointed in Scott’s direction as well as in the writing by David Scarpa. There are many good things about All the Money in the World, such as some gorgeous cinematography (especially in Italy), some excellent acting (more below) and some wonderful scenes, but the final result was lacking in spite of this. I think I was particularly bothered by the fact that the story of Getty (Plummer was perfect and almost certainly better than Spacey would have been) fails to become a meaningful part of the narrative thread of the film. Indeed, the film suffers from a variety of structural problems which make it difficult to focus on the story and the characters and hinder any chance at making the film truly compelling.

As I mentioned, some of the performances were outstanding. Williams is as good as Plummer, giving us a very credible Gail Getty, but my favourite performance was that of Romain Duris as Cinquanta, one of the kidnappers and the most sympathetic character in the film. He is the primary reason I felt All the Money in the World was a film worth watching. As for Wahlberg, well, all I can say is I think he’s probably a really nice guy, but I have just never enjoyed his acting. 

All the Money in the World could have been a great film, but to do so, it needed to focus on Getty in a different way, have a clearer ending and have a little more to do say about the horrors of having great wealth. ***. My mug is up.