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.

i-tonya-red-band-trailer-2017-margot-robbie-tonya-harding-biopic-youtube-2-600x246

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.

i-tonya-margot-robbie-sebastian-stan

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.

hbz-tonya-index-1509550044

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.

 

 

Suicide Squad (Ayer; 2016)

Suicide Squad is the third film in DC Universe series of films which is obviously trying to capitalize on the popularity of movie franchises which are becoming ever more omnipresent in our local multiplexes, and in particular, on the superhero franchise which Marvel and Disney have seemingly perfected as much as something as fickle as pop art can be perfected.  For their third movie, Marvel brought us Iron Man 2, a safe movie considering the massive success of the first Iron Man, but also the movie that is the nearly universally agreed upon worst movie in their entire canon to date.  Suicide Squad, a film that focuses on villains that are foes of heroes and sidekicks to other villains who haven’t even been introduced into the DC movies as yet is a far bolder choice, and it sort of works in the sense that it is not an obvious choice for their worst movie in the canon, but it doesn’t in that it really isn’t terribly obvious that it’s any better, either.

Marvel has managed to corner the superhero and blockbuster market so well largely because each film builds just enough on the last one to keep you invested in their shared world, but make each film enough of their own individual story that you don’t need to know every single detail.  They have been able to build long term character and plot over long periods of time without sacrificing smaller individual plot lines, and the films that are the least well regarded in the Marvel canon are those that did a little too much set up for future movies rather than focusing on what their characters had going on in front of them.  What DC has not yet realized in their attempts to play catch up to Marvel by bringing out character after character fast and furious with already developed back stories we don’t know and with motivations we don’t understand is that they have not earned it.  They have not earned the epic story lines they want to tell, yet.  By skipping the smaller character set up stories and jumping right to the major events, they are sabotaging their own franchise before it really gets a chance to get off the ground.

suicidesquad-0-0

And, I know a thing or two about sabotage.  I think I do.  I’m not really given any backstory.  I just sort of do evil stuff.  I laugh a lot, so I guess it’s evil.  Ah, hell if I know why I’m here.

Suicide Squad does a bit to avoid falling into this trap by giving a dossier on each of its main characters early in the film, but it’s really through a lazy form of story telling barely more dynamic than the sending an email bit introducing the Justice League members in Batman v Superman.  Even that isn’t enough, either, as most of these characters are connected in some form to a more major player in the DC canon that isn’t yet fleshed out themselves, leaving a loose thread just like before, just one a little farther down the line.  We see how Harley Quinn and Joker met, for instance, but without knowing anything of the Joker’s backstory we really don’t understand why they have such a deep connection.  You can say these are iconic characters, and we don’t need yet another origin story movie, and I would absolutely agree with you, but there is a huge difference between an entire origin film and dropping in a years old relationship and just expecting us to know every detail of what makes them tick right off the bat.  While the Joker is an iconic character (as an obvious example, there are others in this movie that get similar treatment) this is a new interpretation of him by actor, writer, and director and we’re dropped into his life an unmentioned amount of years, but seemingly many, as a supervillain and we just have to run with it.  DC, you have to earn it.

The writing in Suicide Squad is quite hit or miss.  The dialogue is for the most part quite fun.  The words our characters string together can be quite witty and rarely out of character, and never stand out as a writer trying too hard.  The pacing, structure, and logic of the story, however, does suffer.  Aside from what I’ve already mentioned about being dropped into the middle of story in which we missed the entire first act (or more) in the DC movies in general, we have a story with strange breaks to catch our breath, when there was no breath to be caught in the first place, poorly worked in exposition, and characters with motivations that are entirely unclear and seem to conform to what the plot needs at the time rather than any internal character logic.  When the Earth needs saving bad guys just stop being bad guys, apparently, and not just out of necessity, but because their entire personality magically transforms even when it doesn’t really need to just so the audience won’t hate our protagonists.  Deadpool is considered an anti hero, but what he did in his movie was far more ethically questionable than anything these supposed villains do on their mission.  Not only does this make someone wildly question the characters’ motivations in the first place, but also undermines the originality of the film’s premise that a bunch of supervillains have to save the world when those villains are as heroic as The Justice League themselves.

suicide-squad-trailer-screenshot-50-0

How can I really be evil with the face of an angel?

The acting here is also a plus overall for the film.  Most do at least a solid job in their role, with Will Smith as Deadshot and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn both being quite exemplary.  I may not agree with the way the characters were written, but I can’t argue with the talent behind delivering those characters to the screen.  Jared Leto as the Joker is perhaps the one standout in the bad category.  Other than laughing occasionally, and only occasionally, I saw nothing in Leto’s performance that suggested a character like the Joker, at all.  In fact, he seemed to be more of a cool, collected crime boss.  More of a Penguin type character, or even Lex Luthor.  He has white skin and green hair, yes, but there was nothing else even remotely Joker-like about him.  In fact, switch Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor from Batman v Superman with Leto’s Joker, and we may have the actors and characters in the correct spots, even if their make up is a bit off.

The visuals and action sequences in Suicide Squad are perhaps the best elements of the film.  The action pieces do start out a little slow and uncreative, but they really do pay off by the end once all the characters start getting involved.  The camerawork never approaches work of art level, but it is always competent, always makes it easy to follow the action and frames what we need to see adequately, if never elegantly.  What you see on the screen never approaches the heights of a master, but it rarely if ever lets you down, either.

Suicide Squad is one I recommend more for eventual Blu-Ray or streaming viewing, but if you really feel the desire to go catch this one on the big screen, I won’t dissuade you, either.  It’s a film I would say is slightly better than Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, but only very slightly.  Here’s hoping that Wonder Woman with its plot that begins long before the current DC movie storyline can fix many of DCs mistakes and can get their franchise on track, because DC definitely has not earned Justice League, yet, and that is their last chance to do so.

Rating:  5.4 out of 10