I, Tonya

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Producer / Actress Margot Robbie’s ice skating vehicle is a Rashomon-like tale that will exact a worthwhile toll from anyone who watches it. What is the truth here? The truth is which lie would you like to believe. It may be simpler to figure out who killed Kennedy. But the answer as the song goes is always the same,“♫ You and Me ♫”.  Sports pundit Jim Rome likes to opine — often in reference to the New England Patriots — “The cover up is worse than the crime.” Her cover up cost Tonya Harding the one thing she truly loved, the ability to skate professionally. The crime may have cost Nancy Kerrigan and the US an Olympic gold medal. As for who knew what, when — and how it got out of hand…at some point you realize that in terms of a narrative, the story itself, unless told from multiple points of view in repetitive chapters or in a 4 way split screen (you may recall the Mike Figgis masterpiece Timecode), can only be told in one way…in this case with a plethora of disclaimers, caveats and plenty of fourth wall breaking. The narrative device employed by the filmmakers is documentary. Or here, pseudo-documentary. It’s a perfect 1990s Postmodern reference to itself. Using an original cinematic form that in its pure expression is intended to tell the truth —warts and all— in the end only exposes how each individual believes their own truth.

I am going to shift gears now to mention the outstanding Cinematography. It was as flawless as a patented Tonya Harding triple axel. A mixture of Stedi-cam plan-séquences with seamless cuts a la Birdman, combined with insanely graceful and controlled skating montages that would make Hitchcock choke a dinner guest at a cocktail party combined with gritty handheld work of Tonya getting the shit kicked out of her and her kicking everyone in the balls right back. A truly virtuoso performance for Director of Photography Nicolas Karakatsanis.

As for Tonya…At least in this characterization, she shifts blame for every event onto others or her circumstances. Her basically superhuman athletic prowess could keep her above the fray of her sordid life for only so long. Eventually events, and some of those events caused by her own hand and her own negligence come back to haunt her.

Sports is filled with cheating and cheaters. It’s almost built into the competition…the idea of winning at all costs. Take one look at the Russian Olympic program which is almost entirely banned from this coming Olympics for the systematic and state sponsored use of performance enhancing steroids. The story of Tonya spins out from here as a Shakespearean sideshow. Errors were made. The poison was accidentally taken. The sword was mistakenly plunged. The note was naively jotted, with Kerrigan’s practice arena, and practice times, by Tonya Harding, and tossed thoughtlessly away to become the concern of only the FBI and then the world.

What’s amazing about Tonya Harding is that she is simultaneously a victim, a superhero, a felon, blessed and cursed, you can always root for her and ultimately be disappointed in her choices. And you can be certain that at the same time that she is giving you the finger she also sincerely wants your admiration and respect.

Darkest Hour

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“King George VI is underrated” — D

This seeming Dunkirk prequel is mesmerizing in its cinematography, set and costume design and concept — the power of the written and spoken word. As Viscount Halifax says of Winston Churchill, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Its fatal flaw, like watching an Olympic high diver do a belly flop in super slo-mo, is the story. Darkest Hour is in an uphill fight the entire way in that we all know the outcome. Britain neither negotiated nor capitulated with the Nazis— “NEVER” as a little girl says to Churchill in the London Underground. The film does have many worthwhile and powerful moments. However, it also has something in common with a film we saw last week, All the Money in the World in that the story gets going and then hovers in an endless holding pattern, like Frontier Airlines trying to land at JFK on Christmas Eve. And so we watch helplessly as the brave Elizabeth Layton, played sympathetically by Lily James, tries to spur on a man who doesn’t really need pushing. It becomes tedious watching her float around the periphery of this story. It reminds me of another film we saw recently, The Lost City of Z, where Nina Fawcett, wife of explorer Percy Fawcett, is introduced and a sincere attempt is made to include her but it’s strained in that it is obviously not her story. I think it shows an earnestness on behalf of the filmmakers to be more inclusive in their storytelling but it falls to mere tokenism when the story is actually about someone who is an overpowering character. Theoretically we are supposed to see Churchill through the eyes of his assistant Elizabeth Layton but the story of Churchill is the story of a solitary man who is just as likely to have an epiphany in the W.C. as he is dictating a memo to her. The flat dimension of peripheral characters drag the narrative down to a repetitive, snail-like pace.

I still thought this film was okay. It captures a specific and critical moment in time spectacularly. If you are a history buff or are simply interested in all things WWII, it’s a must see. Also, if you are someone who really grooves on great acting, it is certainly on display here and worthy of acknowledgement. Gary Oldman will undoubtedly get an Oscar nod. Ultimately, Darkest Hour does provoke a lot of feelings about war, the toughest decisions and courage in the face of evil.

The Shape of Water (L)

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When I lived in Hollywood I’d occasionally stop in at a cafe that was frequented by Guillermo del Toro. There were always tales of Guillermo sightings before he would go back to his office across the street. Everyone knew that the great Spanish Director of Pan’s Labyrinth was cooking up something good and The Shape of Water was well worth the suspense.

This morning I was listening to NYC news on internet radio and during the entertainment report just about every other new release for this week was mentioned: Perfect Pitch 3, The Greatest Showman, Jumanji 2 but not The Shape of Water. I think this is mostly because its premise is so absurd on its face that it’s not considered mainstream. Yet the film is inspired by the 1954 classic, Creature from the Black Lagoon. That said, The Shape of Water takes an original spin and is unafraid to deal with aspects of sexuality that society in general feels uncomfortable seeing portrayed on-screen. Not only that, as a period piece from 1961, it calls out segregation and fear of the other — of anyone or even in this case anything that is different.  It’s ironic that The Greatest Showman is about the circus itself and yet The Shape of Water has more in common with Tod Brownings edgy 1932 big top classic Freaks than Jackman’s sanitized vehicle.

With some incredible special effects The Shape if Water is unfettered in its ability to go deep into fantasy, early on paying homage to Dorothy’s ruby slippers and later a full blown black and white Golden Age of Cinema musical number. And like Dorothy, the amphibious creature will do a song and dance here and now but knows that ultimately there is no place like home.

Octavia Spencer, as Zelda D. Fuller, here easily slings the best laugh out loud zingers of 2017. However, as D. noted after the film, her character disappears for a large chunk and then sputters out at the end. Though I will say that the main characters all do have multidimensional lives and concerns. We follow the mute protagonist Elisa’s (an Oscar nomination worthy performance by Sally Hawkins) only friend, Giles (the masterful Richard Jenkins who was incredible in the vampire thriller Let Me In) get rejected from a big illustration gig and then also, in humiliating fashion, from a possible romance. We also follow Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, star of the Coen Bros. A Serious Man), his intrigue with Moscow lackeys and his personal conflict in putting science over politics. Then there is government contractor Strickland, who captured and hates the creature. He wants to eviscerate amphibious man before the scientists even get a chance to fully examine him. Strickland is played by Micheal Shannon in what has to be one of his greatest performances. It. Is. Creepy. Shannon made me squirm and alternately made my stomach turn in every other depraved scene he is in. He makes the audience ask, “Who is the real monster here?” Ironically Strickland wants to kill the one thing that could save him.

Thematically, the film resembles E.T. as a misunderstood being with unimaginable powers is tossed around a lab like a frog in Freshman Bio. Aesthetically, the film draws from Amélie and City of Lost Children with its stylized camera set-ups and movements, oxidized color palette and steampunk sensibility.

The general openness of this film will play much better worldwide than here in the States, where it can’t even make the entertainment section on the radio. However, I think it will become a cult classic and be appreciated when all the other more commercial titles from this week are long gone and forgotten. The Shape of Water gave me chills and may even have opened my mind…just a little.

The Shape of Water (D)

L&D headed out for The Shape of Water Thursday night and boy are we glad that we did.   It’s Beauty and the Beast for the Cold War set, only with a lot more egg imagery and masturbation.    The protagonist is a solitaire, semi-beautiful mute woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who lives in an apartment above the movie theater next to her neighbor (Richard Jenkins), an erstwhile commercial artist, closeted lonely guy, cat lover.  They watch a lot of movies and spend their time being lonely together.  Elisa takes the bus to her work at a top-secret government site, where she works on the cleaning staff alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer),  who provides a running stream-of-consciousness one-way dialog throughout the day.  The site is supervised by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a candy-chomping shitheel who was responsible for transporting an amphibious creature up to Baltimore, and is now in charge of securing the creature for whatever it is the US military and/or its Soviet rivals are going to do with it.

That’s the basic setup, but the movie really isn’t about the story, it’s about a lot of other things.  It’s shot beautifully, with a really cool color scheme.   The acting is brilliant — it’s hard to imagine Hawkins, Spencer, Jenkins or Shannon being better cast or providing better performances.   It has some great writing and some memorable lines (“There is no profit in last week’s fish”).  It is laugh-out-loud funny in spots.   It is uncomfortable and disturbing in others.  It has scenes so excruciatingly painful that I had to cover my eyes, and scenes so beautiful that I forgot how ridiculous the whole thing was.  It reminds me of The Purple Rose of Cairo with its running homage to the great movies, and a main character who can’t help but find herself lost in them.

So, this should be on our top movies list for the year, but that ship has sailed.  I’m pretty sure it’s not for everybody, but for us it was over the $6 bar for sure.   I might even see if the misses wants to check it out.  I’m better looking than the leading man for a change.

Justice League

cvjhk3hbdisxm6vsdgukI find I have a lot to say about Justice League, though I will admit to having slept through a pretty good chunk of what was undoubtedly a CGI-tastic battle action extravaganza.  I did wake up in time to find out who won and to see the two end-credit bits, which were two of the best parts of the evening for sure.

I’ll start with what I liked best about the movie, and that will pretty much tell you what’s wrong with it.  First off, The Flash is great.  He has some really funny lines and he physically plays the role conceived for him brilliantly.  He really feeds well off the other characters and there are a half dozen memorable moments there.  I am pretty certain that the success of this character will lead us to a stand-alone movie, and maybe we’ll get to see what’s happening in his super-cool studio!  The big downside here is that his back story rushed and confused and not particularly interesting — contrived is the word I’m looking for.  Aside from that, big ups to the Flash.

Second up, the Aquaman character isn’t too bad, either. Jason Momoa is all tatted up and hip and is the big sexy male in this one (when Ben Affleck isn’t strutting around in his $1000 suit pants, that is), and they also feed him some great lines — one monologue in particular —  that set him as more than an appendage to the big three.  The Aquaman component of the story isn’t bad, though his back story is even more contrived than Flash’s.  At any rate, his charisma is such that there is definitely a marine-based superhero film in our future (and probably more “you talk to fish” jokes, as well).

And that’s pretty much the deal with the movie – the best parts are peripheral elements.  The Justice League is about Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman, and what they bring just isn’t that compelling.  What’s worse, the main villain, Steppenwolf [insert Born to Be Wild joke here] is terrible.  Here’s the thumbnail sketch:  he’s really big wrinkly dude, he wears a viking helmet and wields a big battle axe, and he’s a mama’s boy.  His interests include jumping city blocks in a single bound and ruling with absolute power, and his biggest turn on is watching Nordic television adaptations of Oedipus Rex.  Or something like that.  The best part of the Steppenwolf angle is that there is a partial answer to the question of whether vikings wore helmets with horns.

In terms of action, I would compare it to an average James Bond movie franchise on that front, particularly in terms of the forgettable villain.  There was certainly some enjoyable action, like the “pissy Superman” sequence and Batman frying one of those bug things, so, yeah.  Gal Gadot is really the best of the big three here and my guess is that the Wonder Woman franchise will thrive as long as she wants it to and so far as the powers that be don’t overdo action at expense of letting her act.  Henry Cavill as Superman is meh and Ben Affleck as Batman just makes you shake your head and wonder what could have been with him in that role.

The main story was ok enough.  It was certainly the most successful as a playful and funny DC film that I can remember.  I was also kind of feeling it with J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon.  On the other hand, poor Amy Adams and Diane Lane, big stars trotted out for pretty much nothing, and Jeremy Irons is also pretty much worthless.  In terms of acting, it was like watching a pre-season game where the people with established acting chops are sitting on the bench and we get to watch to see if the new guys can get it done (that might not be a bad metaphor for the entire project).  Maybe these stars will come out to shine in one of the many future movies that are evidently planned.

So there it is from the L&D, watchable, pretty enjoyable, funny in spots, and more than enough to make you go out and buy a Flash t-shirt. On the other hand, it was loaded with underdeveloped and mostly contrived backstories to set up future movies (though probably not for the Cyborg character, oh brother) and a worthless villain.  My guess is they will follow Marvel’s lead with having some of the League in supporting roles, such as the Iron Man presence in Spiderman: Homecoming or the Hulk in the latest Thor incarnation.

Overall, enough to get L&D’s coveted “not terrible” tag.  But it’s not great, either.  Justice League has all the drama of watching a breakout star dominate a pre-season football game: the action is there, the established players are hanging around mostly watching, and nobody really cares about the opponent or who wins.  In other words, we’re really just passing the time until Lex Luthor shows up for when they play the game for real.

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Market Madness:  It’s not clear how much buzz there is about this movie.  We were in a 9:50 showing with about six people total, including one guy we continue to see and is either a kindred spirit or an L&D stalker.  We will keep you posted as more information becomes available. Recent opening nights for Thor and Spiderman played to packed houses.   Just sayin.

 

Murder on the Orient Express

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For all the reasons I thought Murder on the Orient Express was great you might hate it or at least feel lukewarm about it. This is a tour de force for the star, Producer and Director, Kenneth Branagh. Stellar. But if you hate Kenneth Branagh, or feel lukewarm about him, I would suggest you steer clear. As D pointed out, the other star of the film (he would say the main star) is the train itself.  The Orient Express is brought to life with incredible CGI vistas of Istanbul and the Alps. The cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos leaves nothing to be desired and is as complex as the intricate place settings in the dining car. Ultimately, Branagh and Producer Ridley Scott understand cinematic storytelling and use the adventurous scope of this widescreen epic to their advantage.

The film does not lack in zingers or in unearthing human truths, foibles and frailties. Humanity has a lot to be ashamed of and these traits are most visible when stories of people living in extreme situations are depicted. It’s safe to say that it doesn’t get more bougie than the first class car of the Orient Express in the 1930s.

Strong performances are turned in by Johnny Deep, Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley of Star Wars: The Force Awakens fame. The acting here by the entire cast feels alive and organic.

There might well be another reason you might not like this film. Perhaps you feel that the previous versions, for example cinematic genius Director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version, which was nominated for 6 Oscars, including a win for Best Supporting Actress for Ingrid Bergman, was good enough for you. And that’s valid too. That said, if you’d like to see these particular performers do their thing within the realm of the greatest production value our current cinema has to offer, then I would say go for it, you will enjoy the ride.

Blade Runner 2049 (D)

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The Running Man, Running Scared, the other Running Scared, Cool Runnings, Cannonball Run, even Chicken Run.  These are movies where run in the title, often the gerund form of the word, means that the action moves along at a running-like pace.  So, if you are looking for a fast-paced action movie, you might be excused if you think Blade Runner 2049 will fit that mold. But, I am here to tell you that that is not the case, and the pace of the movie is more like that of metal rusting.  Many critics have mistakenly cited 2049 as the year when the story takes place, when it is actually the approximate running time…

It’s not that there isn’t any action.  Indeed, the title character, “K” (Ryan Gosling), travels from a farm outside of L.A., back to the inner city, to a dump back out yonder, and even off to Sin City, getting his head beaten in at every stop.  But the movie sure takes its sweet time between stops.  In this sense — and probably in more senses I’m willing to admit — the movie is reminiscent of another sequel from earlier this year, War for the Planet of the Apes, where the technical aspects were overwhelmingly awesome, but we spent a lot of time watching the actors emote rather than actually do anything.  Instead of people in ape costumes pretending to be human, we have humans pretending to be robots trying to be human.  On the other hand, if your idea of a good time is watching Ryan Gosling lay down and take a nap in a snowstorm, then you are in for a real treat.

Aside from my objections about the pacing, I loved it.  The Blade Runner this time is indubitably one of these very humany “replicant” robots, so much so that he doesn’t really even have a name: “K” is short for KD9-3.7, his model number or somesuch.  This is a change from the original, where it doesn’t even seem to be a question as to whether the title character, Deckard, (Harrison Ford) is a human or a replicant.  Then that question sort of insinuates itself into your consciousness and all of a sudden it’s like, holy crap, what did Edward J. Olmos just do?  What he did was drop a truth bomb that makes it rather obvious that Deckard himself is a replicant (though L remains in denial on this point), and you are left sitting in a stupor as the ending credits roll.  But, if you didn’t believe it coming out of the first movie, this movie is unlikely to clear things up for you.

What is certain is that the world is hurtling towards an apocalypse.  Blade Runner 2049 finds us in some sort of post-apocalyptic state stemming from a 10-year blackout.  Whatever happened left cities empty and laid ecosystems to waste, leaving us without any flowers or trees or things that grow, farming worms for protein.  The movie alternates between foggy mist and various shades of rust, and I don’t remember seeing the sun once.  The settings weren’t as convincing as they were disturbing, and the movie reveals more than enough to be disturbed about.

This all seems bad enough, but the movie’s real thesis is that the apocalypse will take another form, with technology and robots and artificial intelligence insinuating themselves in such a way that pushes the human race towards irrelevance and, ultimately, obsolescence. One endpoint, for example, is that we have a ridiculously good looking robot (Gosling) hanging out with a ridiculously good looking hologram of a young woman.  In this case that hologram is a young “product” aptly named Joi (Ana de Armas), who is tasked with keeping K company and sporting whatever fashion captures the replicant’s fancy these days.  At some point, technology will be able to replicate and exceed the best (and worst) humankind has to offer, and how are we mere mortals supposed to compete with that?

The movie actually provides something of an answer to this question.  It’s not that humans are worthless, far from it.  Human ingenuity is the straw that stirs the drink here, at least for the time being.  Modern technology can take the best of what we have to over, bringing the greats back to life – Elvis, Sinatra, Carrie Fisher – now and whenever.  The only thing modern technology can’t do is bring back the nature that is so dearly missed.  And, like in the first film, the replicants soak up as much rain and snow and trees and flowers as they possibly can, because feeling the rain and snow on your face is pretty awesome, even if watching someone else do it gets a little tedious.

The great irony here is that the main human character is a police lieutenant (Robin Wright) who sees it as her purpose to “maintain order.” The irony is that the order of the day is the slow march to human extinction at the hands of its own creations.  We saw this story not too long ago in Alien: Covenant, with Guy Pearce playing god in that one, and the notion of a creator was no small part of the original Blade Runner.  This theme simmers throughout the movie, as after Wright and Olmos, I am not sure how many characters are in the definitely human category.   The upshot is that this movie is not so much about what it means to be human as it is about what happens when technology methodically pushes humans to the brink of extinction.  If you are on the human side of this one, “maintaining order” seems like the wrong choice.

The movie had a lot of other cool stuff going on, the visual awesomeness being the most obvious.  Talk about setting the tone.  We watched the 3D reel and it was beautiful and pretty seamless.   And there really were some interesting characters and some reasonable action when they got around to showing it. The big story is that Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, and once again he shows why he is our greatest American movie icon.  He, too, takes his turn kicking the crap out of K and then gives his dog some booze. Incredible.  It is also not clear whether the dog is a robot or not, and, once again, it doesn’t really matter.  I will go back just to see that part of the story arc.  Sean Young also returns from the original, and she hasn’t aged a day.

We also get some new characters, of course.  Jared Leto is appropriately creepy and objectionable as the creator of the new class of  replicant.  He makes Tyrell from the first movie seem like St. Francis of Assisi.  One of Leto’s creations is his love interest, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who is exceedingly convincing in her role as the evil robot bagman, making Leto of secondary interest.  We also get to see a rather unusual sex scene involving K, Joi, and Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), possibly the most original thing in the entire movie.  Upon reflection, I don’t think it makes one bit of difference to the story line if Mariette is a human or a replicant.  I am guessing she’s human, but she certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to the spectacular Daryl Hannah replicant character from the first movie. So, who  knows? And, ultimately, who cares?

And so it goes with this one.  More questions than answers as far as the details go, but the big picture is clear enough.  It’s only a matter of time before the robots take over;  we will just have to wait to see whether it’s the good or the bad ones in charge when all that orange dust finally settles.

Blade Runner 2049 (L)

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JUST FYI – POSSIBLE SPOILERS so go see it first if you are worried about SPOILERS.

L & D watched Blade Runner 2049 in 3D. I thought that the epicness (wiktionary: The quality or state of being epic.) of the film merited the 3D treatment and it was handled extremely well. Even what you might normally call a cool shot like a birds eye view from a tree limb was brought to life with the effect. Speaking of epic, the storyline of this film seemed directly out of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament story of Moses, a child who is hidden, adopted by the oppressor and would become the leader of a revolution.

I did enjoy Blade Runner 2049 but if you are not a fan of the original film or are unfamiliar with it, I highly suggest watching that one first. Only a Blade Runner fan, or I suppose anyone with a serious thing for Ryan Gosling (which yeah, is a lot of people but still) could sit happily through so much silent acting. I am certain that if one was to cut out all of the seemingly endless stares and deep thoughts moments at least an hour of this 2 hour and 43 minute behemoth could be cut back. I was disappointed by the lack of action but not as much as in another Gosling snoozer, so-called Drive. To say the pace is plodding would be an insult to turtles everywhere. Worst of all, the philosophical implications of androids and AI have been covered much better in films like Alien: Covenant (not accidentally directed by original Blade Runner Director Ridley Scott), Her and Ex Machina. Even visually, director Villeneuve went into his bag of tricks as the final scene with Harrison Ford putting his hand on a glass wall was an exact copy of the scene in his 2016 sci-fi gem Arrival, when Amy Adams makes contact with the alien heptapods Abbott and Costello. For me, and this was an L & D split decision, Arrival was intellectually stimulating and original. As for 2049, one could argue that as a sequel originality is not the foremost concern but rather being respectful to the first film. I would agree to a point but at the same time, homage and originality should go hand in hand. To ironically steal a line from the political drama NO, Blade Runner 2049 feels like, “A copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.”

Still, I love this aesthetic so much and my nostalgia for how mind blowing it was in the 80s kept me rapt as I watched 2049. Even over the audible yawns and snores of the few people in the audience.

Yes, I would watch it again. I’m still not convinced, or maybe I don’t want to believe that Deckard is a replicant.