The addictively Ill-tempered I, Tonya imagines itself as a wildly speculative critique of the biopic formula. That said, while it focuses on Tonya Harding and is at its best when focused on her, she is not primarily in the film’s crosshairs. It might be more accurately said that the film weaponizes the media frenzy around Tonya Harding as a way to yolk Billy Wilder’s scabrous journalist-carcass scavenger Ace in the Hole with, well, Billy Wilder’s equally scabrous showbiz-psycho-circus Sunset Boulevard. Yolk to effects that, of course, aren’t nearly as monumentally well-crafted or psychologically inquisitive as either of those films. Not to mention effects that are much, much more scattershot. But, to a point, that’s acceptable for Craig Gillespie’s rabble-rouser, which analyzes a scattershot world. Steven Rogers’ script and Gillespie’s direction are punchy and slovenly in equal measure, and there’s a formal combustibility brewing throughout that both mirrors Harding’s cathartically unpracticed, spontaneous rage and animates wider questions about the chaotic instability of memory, journalism, and subjectivity.
Even better, I, Tonya analyzes a society without having to dissect it, without turning Harding into a Parable For Our Times and thereby flattening her particularity with the imposed weight of National Crisis a la the OJ Simpson-focused season of American Crime Story. While the latter strives to ennoble the television anthology with a literary perfectionism and pristine grandeur, I, Tonya, not unlike its namesake, has no qualms hitting below the belt. More accurately, it admits that it hits below the belt, that its characters are sketchy, unformed caricatures, and while American Crime Story back-peddles into its own superficiality, I, Tonya careens into with a virulent gusto that occasionally approximates legitimate thoughtfulness. Continue reading
There is no deer in Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, certainly as cryptic and roughly as zoological as his previous work The Lobster, but there are obvious shadows of the multi-millennia old tale about King Agamemnon, Artemis, and other figures from which the film draws its title. The specifics of that tale don’t necessarily bear on this film outside of imbuing it with a generally moralistic view of eventual comeuppance, a sense of balance in the world rooted in often-painful eye-for-an-eye moral righteousness. But the millennia-old connections are our earliest rumor of another key feature of this film, perhaps its defining paradox: despite its relentlessly modernistic awareness of dissociated subjectivity and uncertain truth, a whiff of extreme classicism suffuses this picture, as it so obviously infuses Lanthimos’ obvious aspirational dreams, his affectations to be part of the canon of Greek Drama with capital letters. Despite his mobilization of hyper-modern techniques and assumptions about the level of punishment his characters can take on-screen, this is a director who clearly doesn’t belong in the 21st century. Continue reading
On the surface, Annihilation, Alex Garland’s adaptation of the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, is the rare blockbuster that seems to be hurtling inward, exposing the furthest reaches of its mind, the darkest corners of its imagination. Every twist and turn desperately in search of composure and truth reveals something much more than added clarity: an erosion of certainty. For Annihilation, the dream would be an endless self-refraction, uncovering new selves and fragmenting the vision until no possibility of a definitive, monolithic, totalizing statement, let alone a “pure” vision, remains. This form of “failure”, although I shouldn’t have to say it, would be no flaw; it’s the mark of any masterpiece of perfect imperfection, a sense of heterogeneity and a will to collide contradictory registers which cannot cohere into a prefabricated whole.
I worry, though, that Annihilation succumbs to an altogether different form of failure. Not the kind of failure I describe above, a white whale that sends a film perilously to the hinterlands of thought or tumbling in a head-strong rush of possibility, often in multiple contradictory registers, the mark of a film that sees beyond the cloistered realm of perfect formalism, or at least imagines an alternative biome to it. Annihilation seems to be weaving a tangled web in search of a fabled, crystalline center that encapsulates and defines the whole, as though it needs to clarify itself before it topples to pieces. There is a white whale that forever eludes this film, a sense in which it is doomed to fail, but the predominant question is whether the film is humble – or adventurous – enough to entertain its uncertainties and expose them, to dance with chaos, to admit to its incompleteness rather than to continue down a path toward a facsimile of closure. Or rather, whether its search beyond its own surfaces is merely, depressingly, surface-level. Continue reading
I read somewhere on the internet that it would have been a shame if Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread “won” Best Picture, especially when measured up against other, quote, “quirkier” and “stranger” offerings like the eventually triumphant Shape of Water. A two-character drama set in the secluded lairs of the British bourgeoisie, the aesthetic proclivities and nominally-classical texture of Phantom Thread apparently encase it in the stifling halls of traditionalist, conservative cinema in this framework. This equation, of course, pits the film against its corollary, but also its diametrical opposite, or its positive mirror-image, in Shape of Water, a fellow warped mid-century love affair between unlikely companions. But the assumption that Shape is forward-thinking and Phantom Thread backward-moving is not only a cruel fate for the latter film, considering the beguiling ways in which Paul Thomas Anderson’s work plunges into the artifice and performance of desire and gender and discloses truth within. The comparison, not to mention Shape’s eventual win, also illuminates a much more significant problem with the status of debates around “progressive” and “regressive” cinema and their, in this case, imbrication upon a certain construction of, or false opposition between, a binary of “strange” and “traditional”. Continue reading
Befitting a film so infatuated with the experiential possibilities of considering textures and aesthetics anew with every shot, Luca Guadagnino’s surprise Oscar contender Call Me By Your Name resonates deeply with another classic about Westerners aimlessly adrift in Italy: Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. In that film, the two principals, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, cast themselves errantly through the emotional and moral quagmire of personal disconnection as they wander through a mid-century Italy they feel totally dispossessed of.
At the same time, however, Rossellini resurrects specters of the past, and of art, to eulogize, critique, lament, and play non-verbal Greek Chorus to the central relationship. Each shot of a long-dormant statue or newly-uncovered ruin of Pompeii refracts the central relationship among two living people by uncovering untold reservoirs of cosmic implication. The film suggests not only that this story reverberates through the ages but that the film’s focus on the two characters is both revealing and limiting. In other words, that any film about only two upper-class European people is both reflective of and unobservant to other whispers and murmurs of untold desire, craft, passion, and observation that have passed through channels of history for centuries but can’t be demarcated by upper-class or European issues. That deeply humanist film suggests we must both become open to these channels – moving beyond our own problems – and, contrapuntally, humbled by them, necessarily aware that we approach the outside world with much hubris and without a full grasp of its weight and import. Continue reading
First things first. As with a coalition of other 2017 awards contenders (Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, etc) I’m slightly bamboozled as to why The Florida Project specifically – as opposed to other equally great films that are, to my mind, similar in level of difficulty and comparable likeliness to receive Oscar attention – is being attended to by Oscar. In this case, the appreciation for writer-director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is hard to square not only with the relative sidelining of Baker’s previous films – appreciated on the festival circuit, among critics, but never able to peak into the mainstream – but with David Gordon Green’s equally shambolic, equally hushed, and no less Southern films from the early ‘00s. Great films in The Florida Project’s milieu exist. It’s just that The Florida Project happens to be an especially stellar version of this milieu, mobilized to particularly evocative and fascinatingly self-contradictory conclusions or lack-therof. So, yeah, it goes without saying that it shouldn’t have to singularly bear the burden of Oscar glory and the attendant backlash it has received. But with a film this empathetic to all of its characters, what good is a review that doesn’t grant the film the courage of its empathy simply because people have finally decided to notice that the film is truly rapturous in its own majestic anti-majesty? Continue reading
Neither the safety of the hearth nor the anxiety-ridden but possibility-laden frontier of the homestead, The Lost City of Z is an encounter between firm Old Hollywood cinema classicism and the porous potentiality of forward-thinking modernism. Basically, it’s the best kind of semi-mainstream 2010’s cinema, loosened enough from stultifying Oscarbait propriety by its independence from mainstream “prestige” cinema but never fully disarticulated from convention to the point where it barely reads as a narrative drama. Director James Gray’s film is irreparably sturdy but not chaste and never stodgy or conservative in aims, style, or ambition, creating a film that goes down smooth but burns in the throat and can be felt in the stomach. It’s not out of Gray’s wheelhouse; he’s been stripping various epochs of classic Hollywood cinema for parts for almost twenty years now. But he’s among the only directors to nail the ever-elusive sweet spot between, say, the aesthetically and socially empty, non-directed husks of Edward Zwick – indebted to the worst of classical Hollywood Oscarbait – and the too-pristine, over-directed formalism of David Fincher where mechanical rigor trumps everything and anything, including meaningful interaction with theme. Lost City of Z is a conventional film, but it breathes new life into playing the classics. Continue reading