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.

 

 

Girls Trip (Lee; 2017)

Tell me if you’ve seen this movie before, four people who have been friends since college, and who have drifted further and further away from each other over the years but still keep in touch, decide to take a trip together to a festival in New Orleans to reunite and blow off some steam.  The “leader” of the foursome is successful in both career and marriage and writes self help books on how you too can have it all, the leader had a falling out with the one who had success as a journalist and who now has to pay bills with a celebrity scandal blog, one of the four is a parent, straight-laced, and is uncomfortable with the whole situation, and the final of the foursome is a partier and instigator constantly getting into trouble but is incredibly loyal to the group.  It’s an overly familiar plot with overly familiar archetypes, except this time, the cast is made up entirely of African American women.

The four actresses playing these women are Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish, and the chemistry between the four is fantastic.  It’s not just believable that these four have been friends since college, it seems like practically a given.  The actual performances are a bit of a mixed bag, with Queen Latifah’s being the best of the lot, but the writing is actually top notch for this type of story so this adds some nuance and realism to the foursome and to those who surround them that the performances might otherwise not.

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This script is the reason to see Girls Trip, and is also the reason that it stands among the best of this sort of film alongside movies like The Hangover and Bridesmaids.  For, while all of the characters are an archetype, in addition to those listed above we also have the cheating spouse, the booking agent who seems a bit too friendly, and the old crush from high school, none of them are stereotypes.  The cheating husband, for instance, is always respectful, never loses his cool, and actually has an understandable, if not forgivable, reason for cheating.  He’s not just an asshole philanderer.  The straight laced character does let loose on the trip, but only once and afterward she does loosen up a bit, but doesn’t transform into a different person.  This honesty of character can be seen in everybody on screen, making those in the story relatable not just because we recognize a type, but because they act like and have the motivations of real people, not over the top caricatures.

Most importantly, though, the humor in this movie really hits.  I am not the target audience for Girls Trip, and I was laughing so hard I had to wipe the tears from the corners of my eyes when the lights in the theater came up.  This may have been because laughter is contagious, for I did see the film with the target demographic – I was the only white male in the entire movie theater, and of the women in the theater only a handful were white – and everyone else was in hysterics to the point where I couldn’t hear the final lines of quite a few scenes, but I know that couldn’t have been the entirety of the reason for the laughter.  While the actors in the film may not have been the most subtle when it comes to the portrayal of their characters, they know funny, particularly Tiffany Haddish and Jada Pinkett Smith who steal every comic scene they are in, which is the majority of them.

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Final verdict:  Girls Trip may not contain anything we haven’t seen many times before,  hell we had Rough Night just last month, but it does the best that can be done with its too familiar pretense.  You could probably summarize the plot from beginning to end without seeing the film, and I’d bet you could get pretty close to the real thing, and yet, this is still a movie worth seeing.  These four ladies are hilarious, the writing they are given to work with has a lot more realism then most films of this type, and the subplot surrounding Queen Latifah’s Sasha Franklin may be the most fascinating I’ve seen in a debauchery focused plot.  Girls Trip may not need to be seen in the theaters to be enjoyed, though my audience certainly made my experience better, but it should be one to keep an eye out for when you get a chance.

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And, Hollywood, take note.  I saw three films this weekend at three different theaters, with Girls Trip being the third, and in every single case the lobby of each theater was as crowded as I had ever seen them and 95% of the people in each of those theaters were African American women.  This is not a film you would expect to draw gigantic crowds for, and yet there they were.  You have an audience starving for some attention and representation on screen.  When I did research for an article on racism in Hollywood which I have not yet published, I found that less than 1% of leading roles in Hollywood are portrayed by African American women, or women of any other minority for that matter, and that is criminal.  Love of film is something that can unite us all, but we love it most when we see someone who is a stand in for ourselves, and minority women get that stand in so far, far too rarely.  Sit up, take notice of the box office for Girls Trip on its opening weekend, and do the right thing, which also happens to be a profitable thing.  Win-win.

Lion (Davis; 2016)

Lion is the true story of Saroo Brierly (played as a 5 year-old by Sunny Pawar and as an adult by Dev Patel), an Indian boy who after being lost and ending up thousands of miles away from home was eventually adopted by an Australian family.   This very well acted and written movie really is two different films, the first half a sort of thriller about a young boy desperately trying to survive and get home in a culture so overpopulated that people are practically disposable, and the second half about a young man trying to figure out his place in a world in which he feels he is betraying the people who love him when he becomes obsessed with his past and who also feels guilt over his luck in becoming a privileged person through no work on his own part when he knows he would have lived a life of complete and abject poverty were it not for a quirk of fate.

Both Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman (as Sue Brierly, Saroo’s Australian adoptive mother) have been nominated for Academy Awards as supporting actors in their respective roles, and while I don’t see either performance as necessarily worthy of winning, they are both definitely worthy of their nominations.  These two roles are the largest in the film, and have to carry more of the themes and the story than any others, but are considered supporting purely due to the fact that the film takes place over such a large period of time with such a large cast that even these largest roles are around for only roughly half the running time.  Still in that half we get to see both of these actors at or near their best.  Patel particularly gives us a truly realistic and memorable character as he starts out a confident, cheerful man very pleased with his life but ultimately becoming more and more anxious gradually, losing that confidence and eroding his relationships as he becomes consumed with both his guilt over his luck and his desire to discover what happened to his birth family.  Nicole Kidman doesn’t give perhaps her best performance here, her career is so long and celebrated that that would be quite a stretch to claim, but it does rank among her greatest at least.  Her Sue is a character that brings out the empathy in us all with her long suffering cheerfulness and her desire to make the world a better place.  There is one scene between Kidman and Patel in particular when Saroo reveals to Sue that he feels guilty for her having to raise him that I guarantee will get under the skin of even the most unsympathetic of us and will make you ponder the way you think of family and its purpose.

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The cinematography in Lion was also nominated for an Academy Award, and this nomination is a little more sketchy.  It is well done, there is no doubt about that, and a handful of scenes here and there show true inspiration, but for the most part the camera work in Lion is nothing more than consistently proficient.  There is nothing at all wrong with that, and it makes for a strong viewing experience when the camera work never interferes with and often enhances the story, but to say it is one of the five best instances of cinematography this year is an overstatement when there are far more stylish and more difficult to film works that did not get nominations.

The writing in Lion is, however, worthy of its nomination.  It not only gives a gripping, multi-layered, well-paced true story, but it also manages to say a lot about family, privilege, overpopulation, and a great many other topics in its 2 hour running time and all of it current, relevant, and very thoughtful.  Young Saroo’s trials as an orphaned child in India show a culture which is so overstuffed with people that it’s all one can do to just survive day to day, and being noticed is not only not a concern, but can often be a detriment as the only reason someone would want to deal with a stranger is to use them to further their own survival by whatever means are necessary.  The sharp contrast with the wealthy Australian family is night and day, and says a lot about not just first world privilege and how we take it for granted, but also about what altruism and love truly are, or at least what they can and should be.

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Final recommendation:  Lion is an excellently put together story.  It has a wealth to say about the world we live in and how very different our cultures can be.  It says just as much about love, family, our personal ties, and what it is that ultimately makes us human.  However, as well done as it all is, it isn’t overly creative nor artistic.  It’s a film you appreciate and respect more than be awed by.  You will often get caught up in it, but will also just as often lose that connection when Lion moves on to a scene not so pivotal.  If you are an Oscar junkie, or if great performances are your favorite part of a movie, then this gets a whole hearted recommendation.  I give the same recommendation to those who are moved by stories about love and family.  For the rest, I will say there is nothing here which will be particularly off putting nor intriguing.  It is a wonderful story, and a good movie, but it is not a masterpiece and it is not one of a kind.