I, Tonya (Gillespe; 2017)

The purpose of a biopic, next to entertainment, is to show the audience how the writer and director of the film view a particular person and their story or place in history.  Normally, the view is positive, though some of the best biopics focus on some of history’s more nefarious individuals, and often the film’s creators try to be as objective and realistic as possible, but when Steven Rogers was interviewing the main figures involved in Tonya Harding’s career and found that none of them were telling the same story, he found his hook that would make the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya unique.  These interviews would actually be staged inside the film (with the actors playing the characters acting out the interview, not the actual interview subjects) and as the story plays out Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would break the fourth wall and let the audience know exactly what they think of the particular interpretation of the scene they are currently partaking in as if they were still in mid-interview.  Every character, while they were a part of the story, has their own version of it.  In I, Tonya truth is subjective.

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That subjectivity is the focal point of the writing in I, Tonya, and makes for an exceptional take on the biopic.  While fourth wall breaking and self-awareness in film is hardly new, in fact, it’s becoming something of an overused trope, the fact that the story of I, Tonya is not only true but also one most of the people seeing the film witnessed via television news at the time of the events brings a new life to the tropes which keep them from being overly cutesy.  It also means that the film ends up taking on a tone which is as much comedy as drama and this is important to the themes of the film, as well.  As Harding herself says at one point in the film first she was loved by everyone, then hated, then she became a punchline.  I, Tonya uses the world’s perception of her masterfully by alternately playing to those perceptions then subverting them, using the punchline perception of her and her companions to get us to laugh, then using the love and hate perceptions to peel back the curtain and show us just what it is we’re laughing at.  It’s a masterfully written film which uses subjective truths to allow for a story which is comic and tragic, inspirational and incriminating, beautiful and repugnant all at the same time without ever feeling inconsistent nor without ever breaking stride.

We generally tend to equate a great performance with embodying and understanding a character, and this is definitely an element of performance which has to be covered in order to be great, but the very best performances go beyond character and show that the actor understands the themes, tone, and message of the entire film.  That being the case, I, Tonya gives us a trio of truly remarkable performances.  Margot Robbie is the anchor embodying a Tonya Harding who is charming and sympathetic, but who we can also see is constantly making excuses for the fact that she allows others to control her life and probably isn’t even conscious of the fact that she does this.  Sebastian Stan is a great Jeff Gillooly who truly loves Tonya but is unable to recognize his own immaturity which causes him to lash out whenever it seems he may be in danger of losing her or whenever he comes close to recognizing his own failings.  Allison Janney may be best of all as the mother who both loves and resents her own child, who wants the best for Tonya but also despises her for the sacrifices Tonya is forcing her to make.  All three of the primary cast members give us not only fully realized people, but people that embody the themes of subjective truth in the way they are only able to see the half of their own reality which makes them out to be a good person and not the half of themselves which the world would consider ugly or a weakness.

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With one of the greatest scripts of the year and three of the finest performances, it’s almost like I, Tonya’s director of cinematography Nicolas Karakatsanis and film editor Tatiana S. Riegel decided they wouldn’t be outdone and on top of everything else gave us one of the most visually beautiful and intricate films of the year, as well.  From the sweeping shots of Tonya on the ice rink to the more intimate conversations shot from the perfect distance and angles with perfectly timed cuts to the long seemingly unbroken pans which must have involved some trickery in order to work.  While there were a few visuals which had me immediately gasping from the incredible talent on display, most of the film’s visual genius crept up on me later as I thought over certain performances and the film’s overall message and realized just how much the camera work added to both of those elements.

That’s actually a good way to describe I, Tonya overall.  It’s a film that creeps up on you with its genius.  Leaving the theater, I knew I had seen a really good movie, but I wondered at how authentic it was.  Was Tonya really such a tragic figure or is that just the filmmakers manipulating their audience to make their story more digestible?  Could the people involved in one the most famous crimes of all time really have been that stupid and/or ignorant or was it played up for comic effect?  As I thought more and more about what I had seen I realized that most of the usual questions one asks about a true story were questions that missed the mark.  This wasn’t meant to be half education half entertainment as most biopics are, but instead is an honest to goodness art film which also manages to be hilarious and crowd-pleasing in a way very few art films are.  It never intends to be authentic, it never intends to tell us the truth.  What it intends is to show us how each of us makes the truth a personal thing and that objectivity is an ideal which can never truly be achieved even if it’s something we should strive for.  But, it sugarcoats this rather depressing message in a true crime story about the world’s worst criminals so that we can take this message in in its entirety without even noticing that’s what’s happening.

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Final verdict:  I, Tonya is a movie that after a few days contemplation I have decided is not just really good, but is, in fact, a borderline masterpiece and one of the very best films of 2017.  Every single element of the film, except perhaps its too on the nose score (I liked it, but I know it will annoy more than a few), is near perfect.  It’s a film that uses many different forms of dishonesty in an attempt to not just expose the truth but to actually teach us what it means for something to be true.  This is one I not only recommend, this is one I ask you to rush right out and see so you can see the gorgeous visuals in larger than life proportions while simultaneously laughing and pondering things you thought you knew were true.

 

 

Detroit (Bigelow; 2017)

Before I begin the review proper, I’m going to allow myself a bit of a tangential rant on the way the actual city of Detroit is used, or rather not used, in fictional portrayals of the city.  It seems that if a film is set in the city of Detroit it is nearly always filmed somewhere else.  Robocop was filmed in Dallas.  Assault on Precinct 13 and Detroit Rock City were filmed in Toronto, as was Four Brothers.  Don’t Breathe was filmed largely in Hungary.  There are a few films that take place in Detroit which were actually shot in Detroit such as the Detroit scenes in Beverly Hills Cop and the Red Dawn remake, but for the most part Detroit is used as a generic city which won’t be recognized such as in Regarding Henry, Batman v. Superman, and the Transformers movies.  As a resident of Detroit, to find out Detroit was shot primarily in Boston was a bit of an insult.  Rant over.

Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most interesting directors in Hollywood right now giving as dramatic critical darlings that border on action films in that they deal with subjects that are normally considered hypermasculine but she often eschews the pure action you would expect from her subject matter to give us gripping, often downright brutal, drama instead.  Her latest film Detroit does just this using an unusual five act structure in which we don’t even meet our characters until the second act nor delve into the main focus of the film’s plot until the third.  Detroit takes place during the 1967 Detroit riots in which 150 blocks of the city had to be shut off from the world outside, and the entire city had to be put on a curfew and patrolled by Detroit and State Police as well as the National Guard for 5 days.  Since it is coming out on the 50th Anniversary of these events, and not by coincidence, of course, Detroit is being marketed as the story of the Detroit riots, but it really isn’t.  Detroit uses the riots as its backdrop and setting, but the story focuses on an incident which occurred at the Algiers Motel in which three black men were found murdered and many others beaten.

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The screenplay for Detroit, as mentioned earlier, uses a five act structure which makes for some unusual story telling.  The first act is devoted entirely to setting up the mood and the situation by showing us how the riots began and how they spread.  This means we don’t even meet the focal characters of the story until the second act, and a lot of time is spent on them before we get to the real meat of the story in the third act.  This methodology makes for a film in which you aren’t really sure what the film you are watching wants you to focus on for a large chunk of its running time, but I believe all this set up pays off in how immersive and gripping the story ultimately becomes after you really get to know both the main characters and the level of lawlessness and fear going on around them.  I won’t spoil the story by going on at length about the focus of the last two acts, but I will say that I also don’t believe there is any way they could have gripped our attention the way they do if we didn’t have an intimate connection with the characters involved by the time we get to this part of their story.

Detroit is a brutal, unrelenting, and unfortunately very contemporary movie.  I would say that the film has more in common with a horror film than an action movie or thriller, in fact, though this horror is one that actually happened and could still very easily actually happen today.  Bigelow’s film shows us either that history repeats itself, or that very little has changed in the past 50 years, as the events on screen are ones we could imagine seeing on the evening news any given night.  The story is brutal and modern enough that I imagine Detroit is going to trigger anger in a great many people of many different races and beliefs bringing up cries of racism, reverse racism, injustice, distortion, and many, many other sensitive buzzwords which lead to loud arguments and worse.

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The acting and camera work are both top notch featuring a very large ensemble cast.  You’ll recognize John Boyega (Finn from the new “Star Wars” series) as a security guard trying to diffuse racial tensions, Hannah Murray (Gilly in “Game of Thrones”) as a party girl from Ohio who gets caught up in the events at the hotel, and Anthony Mackie (Falcon from the Marvel Studio movies) as an ex-veteran staying at the motel right away, and most of the rest of the large cast will at least seem familiar (and probably are).  All do a fantastic job making us believe that we are really reliving the intense events which took place 50 years ago, and all give us three dimensional real characters we can recognize and relate to.  As for the visuals, I do have a minor issue with the amount of shaky cam used throughout the film, but for the most part it was competent to excellent cinematography which captured both the action and the moods of the film unobtrusively which is saying something since so much of the action takes place in constrained bordering on claustrophobic environments.

Whenever a film is based on actual historic events there is nearly always some doubt as to its accuracy, and Detroit is no exception, but two of the survivors of the Algiers Motel that night 50 years ago were actually on set for the filming of Detroit working with the cast and crew to give their take on the events.  Both have given their stamp of approval to the film, so if it isn’t completely authentic, it’s at least close enough that two of those who the film really portrays are happy.

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Final verdict:  Bigelow does yet again what she does so well, takes what in different hands would be an action/thriller and turns it into compelling character driven drama.  Detroit is going to be a controversial film as it is brutal, unrelenting, and focuses on themes which are incredibly divisive in the here and now, but that is what makes it so important.  Detroit is not light entertainment, I also would not call it educational as its story is more narrowly focused than you would expect from a historical drama, but it is powerful and it makes an equally powerful statement about race, entitlement, power, and desperation.  Detroit won’t be easy for many to watch, both due to subject matter and its unusual story structure, and even more difficult for many to confront, but its powerful and insightful message is one that demands your attention.

 

 

Don’t Breathe (Alvarez; 2016)

The summer movie season of 2016 closes out on a high note with this taut little thriller from writer and director Fede Alvarez, the same man who brought us the Evil Dead remake from a few years back in 2013.  This very low budget follow up focuses on a trio late teen/early twenty somethings from Detroit who break into people’s houses to rob them using the security codes and keys provided by Alex (Dylan Minnette) whose father works for a security company.  Money (Daniel Zovatto) sells the items they steal to a fence he knows, but when the fence offers less money than they would like and when Rocky (Jane Levy) the girl both of the guys are in love with wants to get more money more quickly, Alex comes up with the idea of hitting the house of a local Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) who supposedly has a lot of cash holed up inside his house due to a settlement from a famous law suit years back.  Saying more is starting to edge into spoiler territory, but I don’t think it’s much of a shock to say that if things go according to plan with their heist, we wouldn’t have much of a film.

Don’t Breathe is a series of good decision after good decision made by all those involved with the project.  The pacing is near perfect, the camera work does a great job of capturing the claustrophobic setting without sacrificing clarity of vision, and the actors make their characters sympathetic despite (or perhaps because of) their intense character flaws.  Don’t Breathe is far from flawless, the climax starts to tread into unbelievable territory, the dangers the characters are exposed to do get repetitive, and the dialogue is nothing memorable.  Still, the good outweighs the bad here and we’d have a fun if forgettable end of summer tale if not for one factor which could make the movie very memorable for better or worse depending on your take, and that is the morality presented in both the plot and themes of the movie.

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Don’t question my morality or I’ll have to blow your ass away.

Don’t Breathe gives us an entire cast of completely flawed characters.  The best of them are thieves that would rather not be thieves, but still do it, and this brings up a plethora of moral quandries by film’s end that can make the day of someone with a more philosophical bent, but for someone who just wants to see a movie about good overcoming evil will almost certainly leave at least partially outraged as there is no one here that one can wholeheartedly endorse as a hero.  The film really is a series of bad things happening to bad people and can be taken at that level or it can become a sort of treatise on crime, punishment, justice, and human rights.

As to the movie’s hook, the fact that the primary antagonist is a blind man, the conceit of  a handicapped person taking on a trio of perfectly healthy young people and still being very intimidating works quite well.  It’s established that the blind man is a war veteran, that he’s still in good shape, that he’s on his home turf, and that the robbers are purely robbers and are actually afraid of the idea of actually hurting someone.  Put all these factors together, that and the blind man’s Rottweiler, and you absolutely can believe that it is the young trio who are in the most trouble, and not vice-versa.

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No trouble here.  I don’t know what you mean.

If you’ve ever found yourself saying the phrase, “I didn’t like the movie because I didn’t like any of the characters.” then this may be a film to pass over.  If you’re just looking for a well paced thriller, then this is definitely one to look for eventually on streaming media, but not necessarily in the theater unless you have money burning a hole in your pocket, but if you have a bit of sophist in you, Don’t Breathe is one that can be quite thought provoking while also being very entertaining, and I highly recommend you seek it out sooner rather than later.

Rating:  6.8 out of 10