Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Reviews from gulag: I think I'd rather just watch a movie that was about (choose one) [ice skating/veterinary school/Austin Powers]

As we catch up with the last year, we turn our gaze to I, Tonya, Raw, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle.  One of these movies was worth a shit, I guess.

I, TONYA (Craig Gillespie, 2017)

I, Tonya is so much less than the sum of its parts that it's almost dysfunctional, its narrative and tone constantly pulling it in a half-dozen different directions.  And so, one minute, it really is a proper sports movie, pretending like the one thing it cared about all along was capturing Tonya Harding's (Margot Robbie's) unique combination of resentful blue-collar ambition, enormous athleticism, and idiosyncratic artistry, finding each of these things to be inextricable from her prodigious achievements as the bad girl of 90s' figure skating, especially when she becomes the very first American woman to pull off a daunting triple axel in competition (and, indeed, she remains one of only seven women, worldwide, to have ever done so).

Then in the very next minute, it becomes a nasty, awkward vaudeville show about the domestic abuse which Tonya famously suffered at the hands of her redneck then-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and, less-famously, her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney).  Then the minute after that, it gives up even the slightest pretense of trying to hide its cartoonish predelictions beneath its biographical drama, whereupon the story shifts to the hyper-Coen exploits of its supporting players, focusing particularly upon the high-test delusions of Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser), as he and his team of "operatives" prepare to unleash a singularly poorly-planned hit on Harding's friend and rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) during the run-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics.  And then (for a few seconds, anyway), it's on to its underdeveloped critique of figure skating as a prestige pastime for the wealthy.  And finally, it's right back to where it started, doing what I suppose it wants to do most of all, which is to be a satire of the media, and an examination of how sensationalist media narratives are created; and this, of course, is by far the most boring thing about it, since I don't reckon that anybody alive in 2018 needs to be reminded that the 24/7 news cycle is a force for evil.

If you get the impression that I, Tonya is mired in cruel ironic distance and winking self-awareness, which together tend to ruin it as anything but a pointy object which director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers can use to poke at American culture in their desperate attempt to vitalize a biopic, I'm afraid you might be right.  The cleverest way it situates itself in its decade, therefore—even if it's not entirely intentional—isn't its costume design, or its soundtrack, or even its attempted-throwback cinematography (though I do like its grit).  Rather, it's simply I, Tonya's embrace of the quintessentially GenX idea that "being cool" is exactly the same thing as "being sarcastically detached."

The hardest thing to grapple with about the film is the odd structure that enforces this defining  cynicism, cobbled together, as it turns out, from 2010s-vintage interviews with the principals, which send Tonya, et al, on a fourth-wall-breaking trip down memory lane.  On the one hand, it does vitalize her story: scarcely a scene goes by without Robbie turning to the camera and layering whatever we've seen with Tonya's commentary, either to deny it ever happened, or say it happened differently, or to explain why something that did happen was significant to her.  On the other hand, this isn't fucking Rashomon, and the very, very minor differences between Tonya's story and Jeff's story and LaVona's story don't actually make for much of a case of compelling ambiguity.

Oh, I'm being unfair.  There is one thing that I, Tonya's capable of doing consistently, and that's treating its assembly of white trash like they were animals in a zoo: it allows Tonya to be human only begrudgingly, and mainly because her story can't not be about her life, and because Margot Robbie came to play regardless of the film's own wishes; it only fails to eradicate Jeff Gillooly's humanity completely because Sebastian Stan sneaks around the screenplay to give the man a semblance of credibility, though his character might still mainly be little more than your basic archetype of "the weak-willed wife-beater"; and nobody else is human at all, abandoned in the several one-note joke roles that the film is completely disinterested in interrogating beyond their capacity for ugly, off-center comedy.  (In between her long bouts of profanity, abuse, and parrot-wrangling, Gillespie is presumably of the opinion that Allison Janney does all the character work she needs to in his lingering close-ups of LaVona's face as she watches Tonya on TV.  He is extremely wrong about this, and for all the merits of Janney's commitment-to-the-bit, there's absolutely nothing about her the film wants you to actually take seriously, and you certainly don't.  Instead, I, Tonya banks mostly upon its spurious verisimilitude, distracting you with a humorous recreation of the real LaVona's admittedly-disastrous haircut.)  These people probably are precisely as ludicrous as they appear.  The problem is that I, Tonya doesn't even remotely care why.

It's unnecessarily shallow in virtually every single respect, then—from its nearly nonexistent probing of Tonya's love for her sport, to the penultimate moment that obnoxiously calls the audience out for being interested in her tale—and it's shallow to the extent that it does an active disservice to Robbie's performance, which is terribly great, and which does more to tell you about Tonya's drives and heartache than everything else in the movie combined—despite the fact that I, Tonya is at least as interested with making you titter (ironically, natch) at the fact that Robbie barely resembles Harding and, in fealty to 90s couture, has been savaged from head to chin by the makeup and hair department.  It's maybe even more interested in the fact that Robbie is visibly too much of an adult in command of her own being to play this 23 year-old womanchild naturalistically.  (Yet it does this, sadly enough, without actually committing to the essential slapstick of its single most-visual gag: sure, it's funny that Robbie plays Harding as a 15 year-old.  It follows that it would be even funnier if she'd played her as a 4 year-old, too—and it would've done that crucial little bit more to remind us of the immaturity of Tonya's character as a 23 year-old, and confirm to us the intention behind the silly artifice, and underscore the embittered-yet-unbowed retrospection that is, at the end of the day, the shriveled black heart pumping I, Tonya's cold, curdled blood.)

It does have other compensations beyond Robbie (and, to a lesser extent, Stan).  It is, despite my grousing, still funny.  And when it wants to be, it's a terrifically kinetic study of figure skating as a physical act.  If Gillespie leans upon this aspect of the film gingerly outside of the centerpiece triple axel sequence (and if he only figured out enough interesting ways to film figure skating for one sequence's worth of shots, or if the face replacement is not 100% on point)—well, hell, it's all still pretty great in the moment.  Meanwhile, when Gillespie does find the right register for his mocking tone, he offers up at least one extended bout of legitimately fantastic filmmaking, with the "hit" scene constructed with an air of parodic seriousness and urgency that is no less actually-thrilling for being, in its bare facts, both goofy and hilariously low-rent.  Now, it has other problems besides its structure, of course: for every well-crafted sequence, there's another that relies on the lazy recognition factor of a pop song, or that turns into an undisciplined tracking shot that seems to exist for the pure sake of it before getting away from Gillespie entirely.

Altogether, it's a movie that does a lot to make me not like it.  But I did like it—somebody, possibly just editor Tatiana Riegel, decided that the movie needed to end on a note of forceful emotion, rather than just a summary of its decades-later snark, and that the best way to do this would be to reward Robbie's powerful performance with a powerful conclusion to Tonya's anti-sports-movie anti-arc.  (If I, Tonya ever finds true greatness, it's in its very final image, a pool of blood on a white background that, of course, bears a striking resemblance to the ice upon which Tonya made her name.)  So it's good, I guess, that somebody approached the Tonya Harding story with this much ambition, even if what he wound up doing with it was taking a long, hard look at America that's messier, angrier, and more condescending than it is ever actually insightful.  It is good, also, that somebody's trying to do something different with the biographical form, and that's worth applauding no matter what; but maybe it's not so good that Fargo still feels like more like a true story than this one.

Score:  7/10

RAW (Julia Ducournau, France, 2017)

Raw is good old neo-Cronenberg from France, which goes a long way toward explaining why it's initially intriguing without ever being terribly good.  In true Cronenbergian style—at least, in the style of Cronenberg after he'd already completed his run of classics and masterpieces in the mid-80s—the weirdness of its core concept collides head-on with the weirdness of its world-building, leaving one adrift as to precisely how weird anyone is actually supposed to be within the confines of the story it's telling.  Meanwhile, in true French style, it is psychologically distant and chillily observational, leaving you adrift on moments and events that only obliquely inform you, either about character or about anything else.  And thus Raw comes together to leave you pretty damn adrift indeed.

Raw has a basic shape, however, and it's not too hard to see what it's getting at: it's a coming-of-age tale about Justine (Garance Miller), raised a fundamentalist vegetarian and living this truth as she matriculates to the same veterinary school her parents attended, and which her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) also attends.  Presumably in a nod to the documented morbidity of medical (and, I guess, veterinary) schools, Justine's first couple of weeks at college are the nightmare version of a freshman's first step into adulthood, as the "rookies" are ritually abused by the hazing of their "elders" and indoctrinated into the culture.  In one particularly undermining act of hazing, Justine is pressured into eating the preserved kidney of a rabbit.  And with just this one bite, she gets a taste for flesh that she cannot deny.  If I call this a horror movie, you can probably see where this is going already, and you would not be wrong.

It's more insensible than it ever has a right to be, given how terrifically straightforward it is both as a literalist narrative (Justine wants meat) and as a metaphor (Justine wants meat), and while the perilous wonder of incipient womanhood is a worthy theme for any horror movie to take on, it's an incoherent take on the subject here, and the occasional flash of solid body horror simply isn't enough to make it fun by the other metrics by which we tend to judge our horror movies, even our artiest ones.  Raw cares about nothing beyond Justine's immediate perceptions, and when it has to depict the world she lives in (a world where colleges give you co-ed roommates and doctors smoke in their offices), it does so solely to the extent it needs to in order to explain that Justine is in a place where she can act out as she feels her way into physical maturity—emotional maturity presumably coming later—and, despite her newfound freedom, that she's nevertheless in a milieu designed to oppress and humiliate her.  I concede that this is all the film should care about, but it's so structureless in the way it allows poor, gross Justine to fail that the very absence of explicability draws far more attention to itself than it would've if Raw had simply gone through the motions of actually creating  a baseline "normal."  And I suppose that the arbitrary punishments Justine suffers at the hands of her peers and teachers is a metaphor for womanhood, just in itself, but it'd take a surer hand than the one Raw has to hang a movie off them.

Ultimately, it's very unsatisfying, its inhumanity expressed in mostly-dull ways, while the film indifferently alternates, in that contemporary European fashion, between austere, grimly-lit still-camera compositions and bumbling handheld, and if it does achieve something of the spareness of the behind-the-camera style that even the best Cronenberg movies have, that's not, actually, an accomplishment to brag about.  What you're left with is an ugly, dour, boring movie with a headache-inducing droning score, exclusively about a pseudo-person kind of growing up on an alien (and alienating) planet.  I get it.  That's great. Nice ending, too, yeah.  Would I watch another Julia Ducournau movie?  Probably.  But if this specific kind of thing is your bag, you can have it.

Score:  5/10

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (Matthew Vaughn, 2017)

Matthew Vaughn movies aren't made to have sequels, and neither are Mark Millar comics, as they tend to be parodies, sometimes affectionate, usually not, and almost always pitched as a reductio ad absurdum which doesn't even pretend to leave room for continuing stories.  (I give you The Ultimates 2: both an exception to the rule and its proof.)  I assume this is the case for Millar's ongoing Kingsman: The Secret Service, anyway—in fairness, the films are pretty loosely based on the comics—but I don't need to assume anything whatsoever about Vaughn's movie.

I want to assure you that Vaughn's first Kingsman really does hold up, despite my fears that it would not, and it holds up on precisely the criteria we just mentioned: it was a parody of James Bond that took a different tack than the usual Bond parody (most famously, the Austin Powers movies), by dramatically inverting the tropes of the Bond movie rather than simply comedically subverting them, and then playing itself more-or-less completely straight even as it degenerated into the most indulgently, stupidly cartoonish version of James Bond possible.  It was punched up with some wonderfully kinetic, out-there filmmaking, and was clearly in love with its own excess.  And then it ended, pretty much, with the end of the fucking world, and this is neither mentioned in, nor seems to even slightly impact the plot of, the second one.

The Golden Circle, then, is basically the worst-case scenario for a sequel to a movie that didn't need or want for a sequel in the first place.  It continues onward with The Secret Service's protagonist, Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), who has taken on the mantle of "Galahad" from its former bearer, Eggsy's mentor (Colin Firth), after he died in the first film, the victim of a villain's uncharacteristic refusal to enter into a monologue, or employ an easily-escapable deathtrap, instead of simply shooting the hero in the head.  And we'll get back to Eggsy, but there's plot to get to first, involving another world-beating villain, or in this case, villainess: Poppy (Julianne Moore), an expatriate American who's become the cartel boss in charge of Every Drug, and used her untold riches to fund her own nostalgia habit, in the form of the gross-looking simulacrum of 1950s smalltown Americana she's built in the middle of the South American jungle.  She's even gone so far as to capture Elton John, for the sheer pleasure of having a piano-playing slave.  You'd think Poppy would be happy, but she's not, because she has a bone to pick with the establishment's hypocritical attitude toward her industry.  Kicking off her strategy by decapitating Kingsman, leaving only Eggsy and tech-guru Merlin (Mark Strong) alive (sorry Roxy! no good girls allowed), she presents her ultimatum to the governments of the world: unless her enterprise is legalized, she won't give them the antidote to the poison she's put in Every Drug, which shall kill all the worlds users in a gruesome fashion in just a few days if she doesn't.  This is met with deep ambivalence by the POTUS (Bruce Greenwood), who kind of doesn't care.  Commentary.  With Kingsman crippled, they seek the aid of their American sister organization, Statesman, and everything goes mostly awful from here on in.

Statesman really is terrible: much as Kingsman's agents dress like Harry Palmer (Michael Caine was even in the last movie), as filtered through a few decades' worth of nostalgia for Britain in the 60s, Statesman's agents dress like... cowboys.  It's deliriously unsubtle and stupid—and they're led by Jeff Bridges, who might as well have been replaced by an acting robot programmed by watching True Grit over and over, based on the evidence of this and R.I.P.D.—but then, none of it's as stupid as their weapon of choice, which are, of course, lassos.  I'll grant this at least allows for some almost-fun action choreography, albeit action choreography that isn't as good (or even "as much") as the action choreography in Secret Service.  (The "Statesman" parts of the movie also involve Halle Berry playing a nerd.  It's just as dissonant, but not as dryly amusing, as Mark Strong playing a nerd.)

It really just has nowhere to go but down, regardless of which particular flavor of "down" it chooses.  Its villain is worse, effectively a parody of Moore's characters in Far From Heaven and elsewhere, and none of them characters well-remembered (or, in this instance, sharply-evoked) enough to actually justify the gag; its setpieces are even more telegraphed and garishly computer-generated than Secret Service's (if they're not just exactly the same thing entirely); its silly gore is less enjoyable; its celebrity cameos are outright cinematic murder; and while it apparently has access to Elton John's catalog of songs along with Elton John himself, it chooses to set a fight to, get this, "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting."  Really pushing the envelope.  Worse than that, it rests its narrative upon the straining shoulders of Egerton's Eggsy Unwin, and while it's hard to blame Egerton for anything, Golden Circle does nothing but confirm that his character was only ever interesting in The Secret Service because his hidebound Hero's Journey was fun and relatable, and because the contrast between the chavviness of his origins and the poshness of where he wound up was worth two hours of your time.

And when Golden Circle tries to do anything with Eggsy, it flails spastically in the wind; the best it can come up with is revealing that he's up and made a conjugal thing of his Anal Sex Prize Princess from the last movie, and that his duties as a sexy super-spy are hard to square with his desire to be a good partner.  Maybe there's something funny or fascinating to mine from this kind of anti-Bond conceit, but The Golden Circle can't come close to  finding it, retrenching instead into Millarian crassness that only surprises in how unsurprising it is.

The damnable thing is that Golden Circle effectively concedes that it can't work up much enthusiasm about Eggsy either, and in doing so it becomes one of those reviled sequels that isn't just unnecessary, but actually makes the original worse.  It brings back Harry Hart, our old Galahad—and hence the first film's biggest star, Colin Firth, in the process—and this "twist," of course, presents itself with a downright negative quotient of shock (it was in the trailer, and that says all you need to know about the awful desperation of movie marketing in 2017).  But that's the least wrong thing about this brutal betrayal of the first film's admirable take-no-prisoners ethos.

It's part and parcel with a movie that's disrespectful of its audience in basically every way it can be, in fact: Golden Circle has the temerity to ask you to feel actual feelings about these cartoons, despite their fundamental feature being that they exist solely to make fun of extrinsic ideas, like the idea that Bond's Q is to be played by a doddering, comical old man, or, more recently, a smug, twinkish Millennial, rather than a hardass.  The feeling you're most likely to demonstrate, therefore, is only a certain bitter resentfulness toward Vaughn's handsy efforts towards manipulating your emotions, especially once his film's maudlin streak comes fully into its own, and Kingsman's Q, old Mark Strong, bursts out into a mordant, impromptu John Denver number in a scene that (and this is the truly resentful part) probably would have worked pretty well, if only it was in a series that wasn't exclusively about flashy CG violence and wallowing in the upended expectations of a metanarrative.  Yes, it's fair to say I kind of hated it.

Score: 3/10


  1. I really never would have guessed that Anal Sex Princess would be a major emotional figure in The Golden Circle, considering that she was the worst part of the original film. But now that we have Elton John as the official worst part of the franchise, maybe that evens things out a little bit.

    1. I'm still of the opinion that bringing Harry Hart back is the worst, but even if it's not, it's the Statesman costume design.

      Anyway, why the hell didn't I make these three separate posts?