Monthly Archives: February 2018


Oscar Quest Movie Review: I, Tonya

Nominated for Three Oscars including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Editing

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Though the details have blurred since “the incident,” those of us who were alive in 1994 will never forget the day that Nancy Kerrigan, US Figure Skating Champion, got her knee whacked by an emissary of her arch rival, Tonya Harding. Even after having seen I, Tonya, I can’t remember who won what or beat who when, nor do I particularly care. But the story of the whacking has become a part of American sports lore and most of us can recall some version of it.  At least we can say, “Tonya Harding? Oh yeah. I remember that chick. Wonder what happened to her.”

Well, wonder no more. This film reveals everything you ever wanted to know about Tonya Harding and a few things you’d probably like to forget. And, once again, you can tell by the nomination categories where the strengths of this film lie.

I, Tonya is structured around present day interviews with the key players—Tonya (Margot Robbie), her crazy-assed mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her crazy-assed ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and Jeff’s certifiably crazy-assed best friend, turned bodyguard, turned criminal master(minor)mind Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). These interviews conflict with one another and themselves and send us back in time so that we can see the events unfold for ourselves. Interestingly, they even seep through the action itself as characters regularly break the fourth wall and speak directly into the camera, Ferris Bueller-style, to comment on underlying truths—as they see them, anyway. It lends a lighthearted and even laugh-out-loud air to the proceedings, except when we see Tonya being beaten by Jeff and emotionally abused by LaVona, continually and brutally. Her life is a mess, but she is a fighter and so she pops right back into the fray like Wile E. Coyote, no matter how many anvils land on her head. We have to sort out our own emotions as Tonya keeps putting herself back in abusive situations, refuses to conform to the rules of the society she is trying to break into, never accepts blame for the situations she finds herself in, trusts all the wrong people and has absolutely no one to help her when things get worse than awful—not even her own mother. So many conflicting emotions—for her and us.

The camera work is frenetic and was too much for me in spots—dizzying sometimes. The camera moves a lot, Scorsese-style, in and out of scenes. The skating segments, though, are a testament to the FX team as you can see in this video. Check it out.

http://ew.com/movies/2018/02/01/i-tonya-vfx-video-margot-robbie-tonya-harding/

But the performances themselves are the real attention-getters here. Margo Robbie got a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of Tonya Harding and she worked for it. This is a very physical role and even though she didn’t do the lion’s share of the skating, she did train for some it and so was able to pull off a rendition of Tonya Harding that carries weight. Robbie’s Tonya is tenacious and trash-mouthed and tough. She is also abused and unloved and broken. Every time we may want to say that Harding got what she deserved, this performance makes us look back and say, “Yes, but…”

And Janney? Fearless. She is at once comical and monstrous, with her fur coat and her parakeet pecking at the side of her head as if she has bird seed in her ear. LaVona is motherhood gone awry, a victim of abuse herself who believes that she is giving her daughter a gift by making her tough. Janney’s steely, chain-smoking LaVona shoves her way through the world, kicking her daughter in the ass in front of her as she goes. It’s a hell of a way to live. It’s hard to go through a whole movie and not feel some sympathy for a character, but if you think you might find a way to develop a touch of fondness for LaVona, Janney will squish it like a bug. She’s fabulous.

I’m not surprised that I, Tonya did not get a best picture nod, for many of the same reasons that Harding herself couldn’t break through to the level she sought. This film is never on its best behavior. It seems to be making fun of itself, sometimes treating its characters more like caricatures than real people, so it’s tough to know how to feel. If these people were just movie characters, if it were a piece of fiction, it would be easier to laugh off the bumbling and the idiocy and the blaming and the pain. But we know that, while filmmakers take liberties with the truth, this is, at its heart, the story of real people who were living real lives of disappointment, desperation, discrimination, uncontrolled anger, abandonment and abuse. It’s hard to take those things lightly.

Oh, and the knee whacking? This movie’s not really about that at all.

 

 


Oscar Quest Movie Review: Lady Bird 4

Five Nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress,

Best Suppporting Actress and Best Director

Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Ah, mothers and daughters. This is something I know a little bit about. And high school classes, teachers and kids? Yup. A bit of experience there, too. So when I saw Lady Bird, a cinematic bildungsroman that incorporates all of these elements, I felt right at home. This is because, at one time or another in my life, I have played most of these parts—young, old, mother, daughter, teacher, student—even drama coach.

I have never been a nun, though—or a rich person. Full disclosure.

This is a girls’ movie. The women here are all people we know and the boys are mostly stereotypical jerks. Lady Bird’s dad is OK, but even he plays the formulaic pushover dad living in the middle of constant mother-daughter turmoil. He can defy his wife, but not his headstrong daughter. That makes him a good guy in the eyes of daughters everywhere. Moms, not so much.

At the center of it all is Christine who has rechristened herself Lady Bird for reasons only clear to her. She hates her hometown and she wants to have sex. She pranks her teachers and cheats in math. She is the working class kid in a private Catholic school full of rich kids. She tries on an assortment of personae, loves/hates her mom and betrays her best friend. As she slogs through her senior year and applies to colleges, all she wants is to go to school in New York—a feat for which she lacks the money, the grades and the support from anyone in her sphere except, of course, her dad.

All of this sounds pretty typical. So why does Lady Bird stand out? Performance, performance, performance. Gerwig’s script has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, it’s true. And it does work to hoist the senior-year-teenage-angst story up from its seat at the back of the cafeteria, but it’s the performances, mostly that of Laurie Metcalf, that make this film Oscar-worthy. Who knew that Roseanne’s sister and Sheldon’s mom would break out is such a big way? As the long-suffering, overworked mom who’s trying to give her daughter a solid footing in reality, Metcalf’s Marion shines. Marion makes mistakes in her dealings with Lady Bird, for sure, but she is true to her ideals and strong in her stance, even when she is the one most hurt by it. Her love for her daughter is unmistakable and deep. We can see it even though her daughter doesn’t.  Mothers will agree. Daughters—well, they’ll get there.

And herein lies the beauty of the film. It gets you where you live. I can sympathize with mom because, even though she is always critical and sometimes hurtful, I get her. I am her sometimes. Young women who love/hate their moms (or should I just say “young women” and assume that the rest is understood) can sympathize with Lady Bird as she fields the maternal barbs and tries to do things her own way. I was her once, too, only worse, so now I nod knowingly and wonder when logic and understanding will overtake her rebellious, hormone-addled self. Soon, I hope.

Saoirse Ronan is delightfully and maddeningly adolescent. Tracey Letts as her dad is a comfort in the madness. Laurie Metcalfe brings to life a woman who never stops trying to make the truth as she sees it clear to her daughter, regardless of the havoc this wreaks on the family. In one way or another, it’s every family who ever lived.

See Lady Bird. You will find your past, present or future self hiding somewhere in this film. Maybe all three. It’s worth the look.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Oscar Quest Movie Review: Dunkirk 1

Nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Here is the list of Academy Awards for which Dunkirk has been nominated. Read it carefully. Be prepared to answer a few questions when you’re done.

Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

Now here’s your quiz:

  • What do these categories have in common?
  • What categories are most obviously missing?
  • What do you make of this?

Here’s the answer key. (You may grade your own paper.)

  • These nominations all draw attention to the sensory aspects of the film—how it is that we see and hear what we see and hear. Cinematography is the key to what we see, what the camera is doing, where the lens goes and how it focuses our attention. Nothing on any screen is accidental. A good cinematographer/director team has a plan and successfully executes that plan in every, single frame. Film Editing is how the shots are attached to one another—the sequence, the pace, the transitions, the continuity. It puts the finishing touches on what we see and how we perceive the story. Rumor has it that the best films are born not on the set but in the editing room. The Production Designer is in charge of the elements within the frame—props, set pieces, backgrounds, historical accuracy, etc. This, combined with the cinematic elements, is how a film gets its “look.” A good Score manipulates our emotions in ways we are probably not even aware of. Sound Mixing gets the tones just right and Sound Editing puts them all together—again: sequence, pace, transitions, continuity. Audio elements underscore and reinforce the feel of a film. Sometimes they are wholly responsible for it.
  • Dunkirk received no nominations for its actors or its scriptwriters.
  • What do I make of this?

I’m glad you asked.

While plot and character are obviously present, while we get attached to characters, root for them and want them to win, Dunkirk is not dependent on them in the way films usually are. Instead, this film uses its sensory elements in a very literary way.

It reminds me of the old adage that we hear on the first day of every creative writing class we’ve ever taken (or taught)—show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me that John is an idiot. Instead let John reveal his idiocy by saying and doing idiotic things. That way, readers can see and hear it for themselves—they can be a part of it. They don’t have to take your word for it.

Dunkirk is like that. Its narrative approach tries to let us in on the event as it unfolds on several fronts without telling us much of anything. Instead we see it and hear it. Then we can decide for ourselves what it might have felt like to be a part of it all. Nolan shows us Dunkirk—he doesn’t tell us about it.

It’s a story built in images and sounds—like a poem. It’s a risky way to make a movie. Risky like the image-building in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent classic The Battleship Potemkin. Risky like the sound design (and everything else) in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. Risky because these films all require some effort on the part of the viewer to put the pieces together—sort of like real life. Or poetry.

If you want the details about what happened at Dunkirk with maps and strategies and arguments and generals and political criticism, see Darkest Hour. If you want to experience what it might have been like to be at Dunkirk, to be one of the soldiers, one of the civilian boat captains, one of the officers, one of the unsung heroes—then see Dunkirk.

Better yet, see them both.

(Psst! Hey! Whadja get on the quiz?)

 

 

 

 

 


Oscar Quest Movie Review: Darkest Hour

Six Nominations including Best Actor and Best Picture. Directed by Joe Wright.

Darkest Hour reveals an episode in the life of Winston Churchill as he is called upon to lead his nation in the fight against the imminent attack of an unstoppable Nazi force. The period covers several days in May, 1940, when Churchill replaces Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister of England. His party is against him, King George is afraid of him and the British forces face complete annihilation on the French beaches of Calais and Dunkirk.  He is confronted with the choice of negotiating peace with Hitler or fighting to the death. As is the case in most historical films, we already know what choice he made and the consequences of that choice. But, as I’ve said in other such reviews, it’s not the ending that makes a film like this film so compelling—it’s the getting there.

One thing that I really enjoy about films featuring historical figures is the revelation of the differences between the public persona and the private one. Of course, I realize that filmmakers do take liberties with the truth in this regard (as evidenced by the disclaimers as the end), but we should be able to accept the overall portrayal as accurate. In this case, Churchill (Gary Oldman), while he cleans up nicely in public, is something of a lout in private, spending much of his time in his bathrobe, often working from bed, barking orders, scaring people and drinking—always drinking. His edges are softened by his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) who lets us know that there must be something about him that is lovable. She sees it even if we can’t.

Wisely, director Joe Wright didn’t feel that it was necessary to tell Churchill’s entire life story. So much can be revealed about a person when you see him react to a single crisis—short story writers have known this forever. By concentrating our attention on one brief, tension-ridden period of time we can see many facets of the man and the world he helped to shape. We, as viewers, have a lot to do as watch this film. We must unravel the political and personal alliances, appreciate the production design, get swept away by the performances, let ourselves be emotionally manipulated by the editing and camera work and revel in the victories of this film on so many levels. Just enough for a satisfying two hours.

And Gary Oldman—who knew? I never paid much attention to him before. My mistake. He is a man transformed in this film. Taking on the roles of well-known people requires so much more than just good acting. It requires an almost supernatural channeling of souls. Think Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote or Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking—all Oscar-winning roles. I think that Oldman could very well take his place among them. We’ll see.

Darkest Hour is a film that depends on so many things to work. It needs a script that creates tension by choosing and balancing just the right details from the million possibilities. It needs make-up and costuming, important in any film, but absolutely crucial here. To play Churchill, one must look like Churchill, not a parody of him—no easy feat. It requires a faithfulness to history and an understanding of its necessity in our lives today. It requires quality on all levels. All of these things are present here. Darkest Hour is a quality film. Whether or not it wins the Oscar, it is a film that is well worth your time. Go see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Oscar Quest Movie Review: Phantom Thread

Six nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

     This movie is exquisite. The acting, the script, the set design, the costuming, the music—transcendent. I could babble superlatives all day long about Phantom Thread. I’ll try to be more specific.

First, I was swept away by the music. This is not the first thing I usually notice about a movie. (So many times I have watched the final music credits roll by and wondered how I missed so much of it .) But the piano piece that opens and closes this film is the most beautiful movie music I have ever heard. Unforgettable. It ushers us in and out of the film on a cloud, its ethereal nature bookending this story of elegance and the creative soul. In most movies, you’re not really supposed to notice the non-diegetic music. It’s just there for mood. But here it is as important as the characters themselves as it weaves itself like smoke in and out of the action. I would love to experience this film with my eyes closed one time just to savor the soundtrack.

The camera is a busy entity as well with close-ups the norm. We get in so tight to faces that we feel as if we can touch them ourselves. It’s like a Hitchcock camera sometimes with many masterful moments—some that made me uncomfortable when characters, particularly Lesley Manville as sister Cyril, seemed to invade my personal space right where I sat. The camera keeps us close to the action always, as if we are in the work room, at the breakfast table, tiptoeing around the fabulous handmade wedding dress for her royal highness, figuring out how to get the man’s attention, wondering how to butter our toast without scraping the knife against the bread.

All of this, along with the period set design and the costuming, lay the groundwork for a story whose main focus is the development of character. This is what matters most to Phantom Thread. And who better to star in a film of character than Daniel Day-Lewis? No one.

Everything centers, it seems, on the character of Reynolds Woodcock, the designer, owner and creative force behind the fashion house that bears his name. His customers are the wealthy, the royal, the well-connected. His work is not work to him. It is life. He is working always, just as he breathes. He even lives in the house where the work is done and his employees enter his home every day to make his creations come to life. His customers come here to do business and to marvel at the finished products and the man who makes them. It is a world within a world.

If you are close to Reynolds Woodcock, you may find that it is difficult to hold his attention. Such is the nature of the creative spirit. It is at its happiest when it is productive. And it is at its most productive when it can escape all distraction. Difficult to do when there are other people in the world.

Enter Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, who strives to make a life for herself in Reynolds Woodcock’s self-involved world. This is Alma’s story. She is our entry, our focus and our eyes and ears. It is her quiet steadfastness, her unwavering determination to claim and hold her place in this world that makes this story possible.

Phantom Thread is a film that I would like to see again. There is so much to experience here—the fabrics, the faces, the sounds, the choreography of elements in the frame. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is so nuanced, so beautiful, that his every movement bears watching. He says that this will be his last film. Too bad for us if that’s true.

Phantom Thread is a film about how to live and how to love. It’s about finding ways to make alterations–to make things fit. It’s about discovering what works.

Sometimes, to do it right, you just have to figure out how to get someone’s attention.

This movie has mine.

P.S.  Frasier fans—look for Harriet Sansom Harris, better known (to me, anyway) as Bebe Glazer, Frasier’s vulture of an agent, in a small role as Barbara Rose, an unconventional customer of the House of Woodcock. She rocks it!