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.

 

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh; 2017)

Mildred’s (Frances McDormand’s) daughter was raped and murdered seven months prior to the events which begin Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which I will from here on out abbreviate as Three Billboards).  The case is cold and Mildred has heard nothing from the police in a long time.  On her drive home one day she notices the three long abandoned billboards which sit aside a road no one uses anymore unless they are lost and gets an idea to get the local police working on the case again.  She rents out these three billboards to send out a message in 20-foot tall letters, “Raped while dying” “And still no arrests?” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”  When the local morning newscast reports on the story of the meaning behind these three billboards, Mildred’s family’s tragedy not only becomes a hot topic dividing a town between those who defend local Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and those who defend Mildred, but also spirals out of control seemingly contagiously spreading tragedy throughout the small town of Ebbing.

The dramedy is an art form which seems to have been gaining popularity since the late ’90’s or so and has now become so popular it is practically trite.  Three Billboards, however, despite its marketing is not a movie I would apply the term dramedy to.  I would call Three Billboards the far less often used tragicomedy.  This is a film in which horrible decisions are made and horrible things happen to people who themselves are not horrible over and over again.  It’s a story about how the way we react to the troubles in our lives can spread and spiral out of control until our own personal tragedies have now inflicted tragedies on those all around us.  Before you stop reading right here wondering why you would ever want to inflict such misery on yourself as entertainment, that is only the beginnings of this film’s wisdom.  The way it handles these tragedies can be heartbreaking or can be very funny depending on the depth of the catastrophe, but Three Billboards always handles the hurdles it throws at its characters with the film’s messages and the character’s personalities and motivations in mind.

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The movie isn’t about torturing its characters for comic or tragic effect, though.  There is a very deep, very needed message behind the suffering going on in Ebbing.  While I won’t come right out and say what that message is, I will say that it is embodied in showing the difference between how Mildred, Willoughby, and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) each handle their own grief.  While this lesson is poignant, the wisdom of the movie surpasses even the knowledge of how tragedy and grief work, beyond the central lesson of its three primary characters, but also manages to show us that writer and director McDonagh understands first and foremost that none of us can ever be perfect and therefore does everything in a completely non-judgmental, non-preachy way.  He simply gives us very realistic, three dimensional, relatable characters in a very recognizable situation and lets it all speak for itself, except with far more clever dialogue than normally comes out of the mouths of normal people.

It will be no surprise to learn that with this cast (in addition to McDormand, Rockwell, and Harrelson, we also have Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Zeljko Ivanek – you’ll know him if you look him up) the acting is incredible.  In a story that demands it has truly real people dealing with truly horrible situations the entire experience rides on the shoulders of the ensemble, not just their personal performances but on how well they work with each other, and they exceed expectations.  Not a single action seems forced, not a single spoken word awkward, and no one tries to steal some spotlight when it isn’t their turn to shine.  Special mention in this department needs to go to Sam Rockwell.  Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson do what they do here, and they do it well, but Sam Rockwell gives the performance of a lifetime so far above and beyond anything I’ve seen him in before, I really had no idea he was capable of this level of performance, and yes, I have seen Moon.  He has to play a character who is seemingly contradictory, who is at times the most loved and other times the most hated person in the entire story, and who for a good chunk of the climax of the film has to carry the movie’s emotional weight on his shoulders, and he not only pulls it off but he does so in a way which doesn’t draw too much attention to himself.

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The visual part of the storytelling in Three Billboards definitely does justice to the phenomenal writing and acting on display.  It’s far from the most spectacularly shot film this year, but its still quite gorgeous and enhances the mood nearly perfectly.  Perhaps even better than the cinematography is the editing.  The film does have a minimal amount of stunts and action, but the vast majority of the film relies on speech and silence for its power, and those who put together the final cut got that pacing exactly with never a moment that seemed like it was dragging, nor a scene which seemed rushed.  We linger on a moment exactly when the emotional power demands it and we move on before that emotion is lost.

Ultimately what Three Billboards does best is give us perspective.  Not all cops are bad, but neither are they saints.  Victims are not always innocent, but neither do they “deserve it”.  Three Billboards examines subjects like domestic abuse, racism, police brutality, and no matter what your political leanings and intellectual and emotional state you will see something from a new, surprising point of view which will make you sit up and realize that nothing in this world is as black and white as we would like it to be.

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Final verdict:  I don’t recall having ever seen a film that understands grief and tragedy quite as well as Three Billboards.  I’ve certainly never seen one that handles it in quite the same manner.  This is a film that understands both the intellectual and the emotional elements of tragedy, and how our reactions to our own tribulations can affect any and all around us.  It’s a movie about the cause and effect of being human and can be heartbreaking one moment while bringing absolute joy the next without ever being judgmental, manipulative, cloying, nor sentimental.  It uses humor not so much to make us laugh but to enable us to keep watching and to ferret out the wisdom which seeps through every element of this fantastic film.  This film may be difficult for some to watch, but even for them, I am labeling Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri essential viewing.  I’m not quite ready to slap the label of masterpiece on it, yet, but it’s close enough that I am very tempted and wouldn’t be remotely surprised if I decide it is in the future.