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I, Tonya (2017)
Gripping biographical black comedy gave me chills
Over time, I have grown weary of the biopic genre. It tends to yield a lot of films that are by-the-numbers and lack an edge. Enter this film that proves the exception, a fiery account of the renowned U.S. figure skating champion Tonya Harding, whose husband and friends got involved in her career in the most sinister way possible and seriously injured a figure-skating competitor of Tonya, Nancy Kerrigan who, as it turned out was equally impressive on ice.
The film starts out at the beginning of Tonya's development as an ice skater, when she is virtually a child. The film smoothly transitions to her more grown-up years as Tonya morphs from an adorable little girl on ice to a frighteningly edgy teenage competitor. It is then that we meet her boyfriend, who initially seems like a socially diffident young man, but is quickly revealed to by a physically violent nightmare of boyfriend/husband. Their relationship goes through many twists and turns, but it does witness her defiant rise to greatness within her sport.
The film bristles with vivid performances, the most electric of which is Allison Janney who steals the film as Tonya's monstrously cruel mother who shows little regard for Tonya's emotional well-being even as she pushes and pushes harder for her daughter to reach the top. Sebastian Stan is great as her abusive husband/intermittent ally. Margot Robbie finally shows how transformative her acting ability is in this film. She disappears into the role of the figure skating champion whose rise to fame went against the norms of the figure skating sport, that disdained her working class background.
There are no heroes in this story; no one emerges looking even decent. But it's a deeply incisive story of how one person's amazing journey took a radically unexpected turn. It will strike a chord with anyone who had to cope with at least one difficult parent, which might make it difficult to watch, but it's a film of absolutely granite integrity. Enthusiastically recommended.
The Shape of Water (2017)
Enchanting fantasy romance, full of wonder
Although far from flawless, Del Toro's fantasy drama about a mute woman and her unexpected romance with a creature captured from the Amazon by the U.S. government is endearing and sad at the same time. It's a story about two members of divergent species who meet one another by chance and develop a romantic spark. These two beings come to find solace and bliss in each other's company in a world that is cold and heartless. It's a more modern spin on "Beauty and the Beast" and it's well worth seeing.
The biggest stumbling block the film has to overcome is a claustrophobic feeling that settles in after a certain point. The trailers made this look like a great adventure, but it's actually a desperate fight for survival against daunting odds, but one that is riveting. The film is beautifully shot, has a sterling throwback soundtrack and a beguiling storyline milieu. The creature itself is not depicted as a soft cuddly thing at all times, refreshingly. In some instances, it can be quite menacing. Del Toro's realization of this monster-cum-paramour is both wondrous and complex.
Sally Hawkins is utterly splendid as the mute woman who works in a smallish maintenance position at the government facility where the creature is quarantined. Michael Shannon is well-deployed as the government official who views the creature as nothing more than an experiment to be learned from. Michael Stuhlberg is also effective as one of the chief scientists at the lab. And Octavia Spencer, as always, is fun to watch here. The only weak link is Richard Jenkins as Hawkins' neighbor. There's something annoyingly saccharine about his performance and the film winds up having to overcome it, which it does.
There might be some larger metaphors in this film about race and religion, but I would leave that open to interpretation. This is a poignant story in its own right, and one that will stay with you, regardless of what else Del Toro might be trying to say. Gladly recommended.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Summer love discovered, explored and never forgotten
I am usually quick to start focusing on the next film as soon as I've finished one, but here is a rare exception that I prefer to let linger on for a while even at the risk of my memory of it becoming unremarkable. That's because it's one of the most subtly affecting and beautiful love stories that I've seen in years. A low-key pace and a sumptuous musical score build the film to a conclusion that is truly flawless.
The story is of a young American graduate student who stays with a professor in his country house in Italy in the summer of 1983 and slowly develops an intimate relationship with the professor's precocious 17-year-old son. Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer are both brilliant in this film as the two who find companionship in an unexpected place, and Michael Stuhlbarg is wonderful as the professor. The young man and the teenage boy do not interact much at first, mostly because the young man appears detached and unresponsive. But I would be loath to reveal too much after that. Let's just say it's a film that one should absorb slowly and let its quiet power take hold. It's a film that truly captures some wonderful truths about the human condition, about the emotional toll of relationships and about how much one's secrets shape one's dynamic with others.
In terms of cinematography, there is much of the Italian countryside to marvel at. It makes that country seem like one of the most blissful and sublime places in the world to visit. History buffs and linguists will find some welcome material in the professor's dialogues with his graduate student to enjoy. As quiet and austere as the film may be at times, it contains a deeper passion that gradually gets tapped into and colors the mindset despite the taboo nature of the material. Never long or protracted, it will keep you guessing until the end and just leave a haunting feeling after it's over. Gladly recommended to anyone in search of true cinema.
Slog through this mud only if you have to
I can best describe this Netflix film as highly uneven and frustrating to watch. Know this, you will feel the running time here because the film often loses its narrative grip and takes a while to get going again. Although handsomely shot, well-acted and possessing a powerful story at its core, this work nevertheless is too bloated and at times too aimless to leave a lasting impression. I've already forgotten the several stretches here in which seemingly nothing happened.
A melodrama about a white family and a black family on a Mississippi farm before, during and after the Second World War is a well-intended premise, but this film definitely could have used more editing. The characters are introduced quite well and there are some genuinely well-executed scenes, especially the heart-wrenching climax. But getting there takes so long and during these intervals I was wondering what the whole point of it was. Another sign that the story was not told very well: I actually forgot that the farm was struggling until one of the characters mentioned it. An important plot thread like that wound up feeling more like a footnote.
Some of the performances, although high quality, are wasted. Carey Mulligan is the best example of this. She starts out as a relatively central protagonist before fading into the background. In the end, she's an ill-defined character. Jason Clarke starts out strong, but he's also something of an afterthought by the end. On the plus side, Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell play well off each other as two war veterans who come to grips with the institutional racism of 1940s Mississippi and who both realize that life was, in some ways, better in the military. Jonathan Banks gives a committed performance as the aging grandfather who deplores any indication of social change.
But despite the strong performances, this is a film I would only remember as one that took long to get through. To put it bluntly, I was snookered by the reviews. They praised this film as brilliant and I bought it, hook, line and sinker. Regrettably, I cannot recommend this film because then I would be joining them in that lie.
Darkly comic morality tale, and one that deserves respect
Many have referred to McDonagh's film as a black comedy and it does have a lot of grim humor. But it's also a film about grief, revenge and ultimately about doing right by others. Harsh is the most apt way to describe the film's mentality. Nobody emerges from this story pure. You will come away battle-scarred but also grateful at having absorbed a refreshingly blunt take on human nature. I wish I could say more, but this is a film where one should go in knowing as little as possible, as I did.
Frances McDormand absolutely shines as the mother of a murdered teenage girl. She has watched for months as the police department in her local town has not come up with any arrests. She takes matters into her own hands by putting up billboards demanding answers from the authorities. From there on, the town swells into a maelstrom of rancor, vendetta, recrimination and, if I gave away more it would spoil too much. Sam Rockwell is equally impressive as the dim-witted cop with supposedly little self-discipline and a short fuse. And Woody Harrelson is great as the highly-regarded police chief who suddenly finds a roiling controversy on his hands.
In terms of cinema embracing a dark, cynical point of view, this is the hardest film I've seen since "Nightcrawler". It takes its bleak view of the world and splashes it all over the screen from start to finish. There are scarce moments of rejuvenation and optimism. For the most part, the film revels in its dark sarcasm all the while keeping the audience guessing about the its resolution and making no guarantees. The themes of grief and anger at the system's lack of results and thus taking matters into one's own hands are powerfully rendered here. The sense of victimhood takes a back seat to up-from-the-bootstraps empowerment. Love it or hate it, this film makes its points with conviction and sincerity, however rough around the edges. Strongly recommended.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Does Kenneth Branagh think he's Baz Luhrmann?
The most conspicuous aspect of this misfire is that right out of gate, it comes at you with full force, over-the-top, fake-looking performances. It's the kind of rare style that very few directors, let alone films can do to good effect. It was like "Moulin Rouge" only not done well. It poked me in the eye in that regard. And it made me wonder just what Branagh's intentions were with this version of Agatha Christie's novel. Was he trying to make it more light-hearted? More comical? More campy? In the end, he only succeeded for sure in making it more boring.
A film that goes from absurd to dull will not earn much recognition for anything other the sheer acting talent that it wastes. Michelle Pfieffer and Willem Dafoe are both slumming it in this dreck. Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz are the only ones who don't embarrass themselves here but then their screen time is short. I've seen worse films in my life, but this one gets a big thumbs down and is not recommended.
Lady Bird (2017)
Alternately incisive and plodding, coming-of-age film gets a passing mark
I always appreciate a film about the personal upheavals of reaching young adulthood. To be honest, I found this film mildly annoying at times. Maybe because it's a film that just doesn't hold back on the raw emotion of growing up. The characters are very real and therefore the taste it leaves is not always palatable. The story of a 17-year-old girl growing up in Sacramento and her personal travails with her parents, with school, with her friendships, with boys and with her hopes and dreams didn't exactly grab me initially.
The good news is that it's so superbly acted that I was able to absorb it and enjoy the wonderful moments of truth in terms of one's relationships with those you've grown up around. In that regard, this film cuts very close to the bone. I just wish the narrative had been more brisk and not as deliberate. For a film with this short a running time, it feels long. Toward the end, it drags a bit. Perhaps Greta Gerwig in her directorial debut is still figuring how to end a film on the perfect note.
But again, the performances here are tour de force, especially Saoirse Ronan who is exceptional as the teenage girl who spends most of the film coming to grips with a sense of self and an independent identity, something hard-earned in a difficult family. By the end of the film, we've come to know her completely. Recommended to those looking for a good character study.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Arresting film that brings the cruelty
Creeping, frightening and altogether clinical and cold, Yorgos Lanthimos' revenge thriller about a surgeon whose family is suddenly confronted by a peculiar but utterly vindictive teenager will slither into your consciousness in a serpentine and occasionally unsavory way. There are times when this film might feel like an endurance test, but it's worthwhile in the end, because it's such a beautifully acted and vividly directed work of cinema.
Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are excellent as the husband and wife physicians whose lush suburban lifestyle initially looks insular and beyond disturbance. But the real standout in this film is Barry Keoghan, who gives a malevolent performance as the nonchalant teenager whose father was a patient of Farrell's character. Initially, his presence seems merely peculiar and offbeat. But as the boy encroaches more on the family's life, the story takes on a more unsettling tone. Lanthimos' use of deadpan, nondescript dialogue masks something sinister and roiling underneath and the whole cast plays it exquisitely. And while this is not quite the black comedy that some have categorized it as, there are discreet moments of depraved humor.
The film has a soundtrack that is classical and mournful but gradually becomes more violent and disquieting as it dots the storyline with dread and despair. As the sense of hopelessness starts to build up, the film ever so briefly becomes a touch static. This brief lapse is forgotten as the climax draws near. What I thought would end with shock and perhaps ambiguity, ends instead with a sense of relief and almost moral victory. It's as if after putting us through this labyrinth of horror and torment, Lanthimos gift-wraps it with a bow. It's a devilish touch. I first got acquainted with his filmmaking style with "The Lobster", a film that I reluctantly acknowledged as a good work. Here, he surpasses that achievement with something much closer to the bone and deathly scary. Recommended to the highest degree.
The Florida Project (2017)
Compelling film about innocence and poverty
Sean Baker's film about a small group of children who live in a seedy hotel with their impoverished single young mothers near Disneyland doesn't always live up to the hype. It's a solid, but curiously flawed work. It has opening credits that feel like closing credits and the editing is awkward almost from the start. The pacing of the film is not its strong suit; it can seem lackadaisical and sometimes downright aimless, although admittedly that barren backdrop might be in keeping with a film that depicts children growing up with little or no structure. At occasional moments, one might wonder where the film is even going.
With all of this being said, however, the film does go on to finish strong. We find out that these are not well-behaved kids early on and their near absolute freedom is derived from the young women who raise them and who have a ways to go in terms of adult responsibility themselves. There is a frequent sense of angst for the children's safety as they reap the benefits of minimal adult supervision and haphazard discipline. Baker's film is about growing up on the fringes of society where fathers have virtually no presence.
Performances here are nothing but exceptional. Willem Dafoe is excellent here as the kind but hardened hotel manager who has to balance his sympathy for one of the mothers with his steadfast refusal to tolerate criminal behavior in his establishment. He looks out for the children vigilantly even as they test his patience. Newcomer Bria Vinaite makes an impression as a troubled young woman who will do anything, including engage in prostitution, to provide for her daughter. Although the film ends on a very uncertain note, it is in keeping with a compelling portrait of innocence toddling through a squalid adult world of poverty, crime and despair. Almost anyone one who watches this attentively will compare it to his or her own childhood, no matter how dissimilar. Recommended.
American Made (2017)
Mundane, misbegotten Tom Cruise rejuvenation vehicle
How many more of these boy-wonder performances is Cruise going to give before he finally acquiesces to something more... normal? Don't get me wrong, he still comes across as youthful and dynamic on-screen despite being well into his 50s. But if you've followed his career for decades, this kind of film becomes something of a fraud on his part. Generally, I'd rather watch a bona fide young actor make the endeavor in the type of performances Cruise continues to strive for even though he's now within shouting distance of 60. Because Cruise is an age-battling Hollywood movie star, his presence lacks depth. Notwithstanding the film's brisk, carefree tenor, it's a stunning miscasting.
In this film, Cruise attempts to give a performance as Barry Seal, the TWA pilot who quickly becomes a hired gun for the CIA in the drug smuggling era involving the South American drug cartels and the Sandinistas. He basically flies loads and loads of drugs into the United States and in the process becomes a very rich man. He works for the CIA and provides a service to the drug lords. It's fairly interesting and decently executed for a while. Domhnall Gleeson is the bright spot in this film as the shadowy CIA operative who becomes Cruise's demanding, unapologetic boss.
But maybe the filmmakers should have done their homework before putting this together because Cruise, evidently trying to capture a young protagonist, doesn't look anything like the corpulent Seal. Ironically, this miscasting makes Cruise's effort even more ridiculous. Not only was Seal not as athletic as Cruise, he wasn't particularly youthful-looking either. This central misrepresentation is really what kills the film, not to mention a relatively rote screenplay that we've come across a million times before. None of this is going to be too egregious to most viewers. Many people would probably never even know who Barry Seal was, if not for this film. Still, it's kind of silly for Cruise to continue to perpetuate a desperate jump into the fountain of youth in a role that doesn't even call for it that much. But perhaps stardom is the ultimate source of self-delusion. Not recommended.