I, Tonya (2017)

I,_Tonya_(2017_film)Sufjan Stevens released a song not too long ago as an elegy to Tonya Harding. Being the modern-day folk poet that he is, he cast her as a tragic hero, championing her as a definitive portrait of an All-American girl, larger-than-life, unapologetic, and ultimately beaten back by society at large.

I will date myself and say that I don’t remember much about Tonya Harding because I was barely born when she was in the public spotlight. So, I come at the events as an “impartial” observer or at least one who lacks any clear understanding of what her story was really like in the heat of the moment.

Thus, Stevens’ song and this film, I, Tonya, were necessary for me as obvious mechanisms of empathy. Emphatically the film proves that Tonya Harding — at least for me — cannot be cast as a hero and I don’t necessarily think that she was expecting that. But what has been done on her behalf is equally vital. Finally, it seems like others have been willing to speak up on her behalf in telling a more multifaceted even sympathetic side of the story.

Her life and times as detailed in Craig Gillespie’s film functions as a nearly absurd black comedy as it plunges into familial discord and moments you could hardly make up if you tried. But what we would do well not to forget is that this is a dramatization of someone’s life — someone with inherent worth even as she’s being berated and abused by a mother and then abused by her husband and finally raked over the coals by the mass media.

If anything, this film is an indication that Tonya’s life does have meaning. The flaws are there but also present is immense trauma and the subsequent tenacity that made her the first female skater to ever land a triple axel.

Screenwriter Steve Rogers’ work employs slightly pretentious talking head moments and fourth-wall breaking monologues that were used in a similar fashion to Experimenter (2015), except it’s hardly a gimmick and there’s a great deal of resonance within the madness of narrative dissonance with a smattering of different perspectives colliding.

Because Tonya’s story really is recalled and remembered in so many different ways by all sorts of people with their facts conveniently conflicting. First, there’s Tonya herself (Margot Robbie) who was the skating prodigy by the age of 4 and despite a lack of education, her enduring work ethic made her one of the finest American skaters to ever grace the ice.

Allison Janney is as acidic and foul-mouthed as they come, pushing the envelope as Tonya’s ultra-vitriolic mother LaVona who never seems content, continually berating her daughter in all regards because every penny she makes as a waitress goes into her lessons. Love is not in her lexicon.

Then there’s the infamous Jeff Gillooly with Sebastian Stan donning that regrettable mustache as the awkward boyfriend who no doubt loved Tonya at one point and yet still embroils her in an unhealthy and abusive relationship. His slobbish oaf of a friend Shawn Eckhart, who fancies himself a counterterrorism expert of some kind, is a surprisingly authentic caricature. He’s got grand delusions of how they will sabotage Nancy Kerrigan’s chances in the Olympics by unleashing an onslaught of psychological warfare.

Jeff condones the plans but soon he’s shelling out $1,000 that disappears after Shawn gives it to a pair of dubious contacts. Little does he know that this will devolve into “The Incident” after Shawn okays a hit and an equally vacuous nobody, Shane Shant, injures Kerrigan with a police baton. They’re so inept that the FBI is soon on their trail. First, it’s Shawn, then his fingers point to Jeff, and finally, Tonya is implicated. Right here we have the clearest embodiment of both the real-life farce the and tragedy of Harding all rolled into one.

The extensive soundtrack is utilized not only as casual character development but an instant accessibility point in denoting either an era or a mood. In fact, it’s one of the few constants in a story that regularly hurtles back and forth between different points of views, time frames, and the like. Hearing Norman Greenbaum, Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp, Chicago, Doris Day and a whole host of others offer instant touchstones throughout.

For these very reasons I, Tonya is the most inventive biopic in narrative terms that I can remember since Brian Wilson’s story told so evocatively in Love & Mercy (2014). There is a similar exploration going on here as we try and make sense of someone who has gained, in this case, so much notoriety whether it was totally deserved or not. And the beauty of the picture is that it never fully divulges the truth because in so many words “the truth” in the lowercase sense is relative and like innumerable pieces of history how are we to say that we have the definitive answer?

The media’s part in all of this feels almost damning and yet we cannot condemn them without condemning ourselves too. Some David Letterman footage articulates the ubiquitous reality that Tonya Harding became a punchline in the wake of the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 even as she received a lifetime ban from skating. Should I feel sorry for Tonya Harding? I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s a sorry affair.

Though it starts to paint some layers of Harding’s backstory and her working-class roots rubbing up against the protocols of standardized perfectly primped and costumed female figure skaters, that’s not necessarily the film’s allure. It gets its zing, admittedly from the almost soap-operatic twists. And yet with anything, if that is what gets you to stay and kept the media involved in the story for such a long time, maybe it’s good that time has passed.

Even as the script tries to put the pieces together it can hardly succeed perfectly though it does give us something to work with. Again, it all comes down to some form of greater understanding. But then again, Tonya Harding probably doesn’t care about what others think about her or about anyone trying to mount a defense on her behalf. So be it.

Now, all that seems left to make is a Nancy Kerrigan movie. Yes, she was cast as the perfect ideal, Snow White on Ice, but as with any media fixation, it cannot always serve true justice nor capture the hardships in a person’s life. Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and nearly every other person on God’s green earth is a testament of that. As Sufjan puts it only God knows what they are.

4/5 Stars

 

Tonya Harding, my star
Well this world is a cold one
But it takes one to know one
And God only knows what you are

Just some Portland white trash
You confronted your sorrow
Like there was no tomorrow
While the rest of the world only laughed

Triple axel on high
A delightful disaster
You jumped farther and faster
You were always so full of surprises

Are your laces untied?
What’s the frown on your face for?
And just what are the skates for now?
Tell me which is your good side?

Are you lonely at night?
Do you miss all the glory
And the mythical story
Of the Olympian life?

Yamaguchi in red
She had high rise and roses
And red-carpet poses
And her outfit was splendid

Nancy Kerrigan’s charm
Well she took quite a beating
So you’re not above cheating
Can you blame her for crying?

Tonya, you were the brightest
Yeah you rose from the ashes
And survived all the crashes
Wiping the blood from your white tights

Has the world had its fun?
Yeah they’ll make such a hassle
And they’ll build you a castle
Then destroy it when they’re done

Tonya Harding, my friend
Well this world is a bitch, girl
Don’t end up in a ditch, girl
I’ll be watching you close to the end

So fight on as you are
My American princess
May God bless you with incense
You’re my shining American star

~Tonya Harding by Sufjan Stevens

 

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Monsieur_verdoux57Prior to the making and release of Monsieur Verdoux Charlie Chaplin had undoubtedly hit the most turbulent patch in his historic career and not even he could come out of scandal and political upheaval unscathed. To put it lightly his stock in the United States plummeted.

You would think that he more than anyone would have been aware of his current state of affairs. It’s a plausible assumption and yet that’s precisely what makes the release of his latest film during that very climate all the more remarkable.

Chaplin always had a handle on emotional clout and he was the king of pathos but with time as film evolved he did evolve with it and it could easily be said that his sound pictures were imbued with much more prominent political overtones, most notably in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. The first was a blatant lambast of the world’s resident tyrannical dictator and his cronies with a tremendous bite that goes beyond simple comedy. The latter film takes a broader scope that’s not quite as evident at first.

It shares similarities with Shadow of a Doubt, Kind Hearts of Coronets, or even The Bigamist and it took inspiration from a passing whim of Orson Welles. But Chaplin plants his particular drama in the previous decade–the age of poverty and depression and that allows him to relate his protagonist once more to the plight of man as the Tramp did perennially. However, Chaplin’s latest incarnation is a far cry from the Tramp and no doubt on purpose. Chaplin had officially retired the character after Modern Times, but with the similarly depicted Jewish Barber in The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux was a character with no semblance of his predecessors.

For lack of a better term, he is a wife killer, a Bluebeard, a gentleman murderer and there’s no other way to put it. Yes, he began as a bank teller with an invalid wife and little boy who hit hard times following the crash. True, he maintains his pretenses at civility and yet here is a character so vastly different from all others because for once Chaplin is making his hero difficult for the audience to like. At the very least, he’s a conflicted hero and as such the contemporary viewer was not about to pity him given Chaplin’s already muddied reputation. This was another nail in the coffin and it’s probably part of the reason Verdoux was generally scorned by the American Public at the time. But now, with the clouds of the cultural moment dissipated we can look at Chaplin’s blackest of comedies without the established biases.

The narrative is comprised mostly of Verdoux cycling from wife to wife, town to town, identity to identity with such fluidity it’s mindboggling. Our only indication that he’s moved is the ubiquitous image of the locomotive always chugging along to the next destination. But we’re introduced to this whole charade through the most curmudgeon, bickering household ever known to man in the Courvais.

The only reason they matter for this story is that Verdoux has married their sister who has just recently taken all her money out of the bank and vanished. Only the culprit knows what happened but presently he busies himself with tidying up his affairs in one location so he can check in on his other “business endeavors.” To Annabelle (Martha Raye) he is a sea captain away months at a time which explains his frequent absences.

Consequently, his Pigeon also has to be one of the most annoying chatterboxes of all time. It makes sense he’s crafting a poison to kill her even if it’s not quite forgivable.  He also calls upon his second asset the rightfully suspicious Lydia while looking to woo the affluent Marie Grosnay who happens to be less of a boob than the rest of his conquests. Though he is a persistent devil. Soon enough wedding bells chime again and that becomes the fateful day when his many strands get tangled in one brief moment at his latest marriage ceremony.

If nothing else it suggests that the time is running out as global tensions rise and Verdoux finds his fortunes dwindle in the wake of his imprisonment. But now on trial, he’s allowed to be up on the stand and mount his final defense–his rebuttal against the indiscretions of mankind. Ultimately, it’s an invariably cynical take on the ways of the world comparing his spree of mass killing to the prospects of the very scientific mass destruction of the world at present. It’s all business, war and anything else you can imagine, merely profiteering endeavors to get ahead. As he walks off to the guillotine the Priest asks him if he has anything to confess and strikingly he asserts, “I am at peace with God, my conflict is with man.”

This is where we overtly see Chaplin’s stance once more as he stands up on his soapbox as it were but he gave us some indications earlier on as well. Verdoux’s most telling interactions come in the form of chance encounters with a particular young woman. At first, he sees her as a test case for his poison, but soon he’s taken with her words, the way she sees the world. It affects him deeply (You better go before your philosophy corrupts me ). And in a striking parallel to Limelight several years later, Chaplin’s character falls to his demise as this young woman’s fortunes increase. She doesn’t forget him. But the rest of the world isn’t quite so kind.

Monsieur Verdoux goes to the chopping block deservedly so as did Chaplin but the verdict’s still out on whether he deserved it all. Perhaps that’s what his film is getting at. He was full of faults as a human being but then again we all are. It makes sense that God is other, perfect, and outside of our messiness. It’s the rest of us that cause ruin, pain, and suffering. That’s where the blackness of this comedy finds its source and it’s something to ponder and then resolve to allay with doses of love and compassion.

4/5 Stars

Blue Velvet (1986)

bluevelvet1It’s certainly not a news flash that I often have immense troubles dealing with black, satirical comedy. I think the difficulty for me lies in the dividing line between comedy and tragedy. Oftentimes, although I’m not always fond of violence or profanity, I can make a concession if there’s something deeper behind it. With Schindler’s List, this means watching the scenes of the Holocaust, because there are vital realities to be gleaned from that. In a Scorsese film, aside from being well made, I often see them utilizing profanity in such a way that shows the corruption and baseness that lies within mankind. Take Goodfellas for instance.

All this to say, Blue Velvet was hard to pronounce a verdict for. Without a doubt, David Lynch is a worthy director with his own surrealist vision, that is nevertheless polarizing to the viewing public. There is no doubt that his films are fascinating and in moments mesmerizing; there’s no arguing on that account.

However, Blue Velvet is a dark and brooding film, as are many others, but the big difference here is that all of that is buried under a thinly layered caricature of suburbia. These scenes are so superficial; almost stupid, because the dialogue seems torn off some billboard or magazine cover. There are flowers, white picket fences, and robins denoting the changing seasons. It reminded me of some precursor to American Beauty, except the ending was brighter and the depths seemed darker.

Under the surface lies something sinister and it all comes to a boil when Jefferey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to visit his injured father in the hospital. The college boy comes across a severed ear, and it leads to stakeouts, and eventually brazen attempts to break into a mysterious woman’s apartment.

And as you would expect Jefferey gets in too deep, getting sucked into a twisted, subversive spiral that includes singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini), a sociopathic maniac named Frank (Dennis Hopper), and a whole lot of ambiguity. All things return to the status quo in this suburbia and we can go back to singing “Blue Velvet” and “In Dreams” in peace. But there’s this nagging sensation that Lynch’s treatment of this topic is utterly cruel. Isabella Rosellini gives a stellar performance that is a constant emotional roller coaster, while Dennis Hopper is the definition of a screwed up, drugged up, lunatic. These individuals have so much darkness and twisted caverns in their characters that it’s hard to leave them like this.

After all, this isn’t a big joke, and it shouldn’t be, but it’s hard to get away from that idea since the dichotomy between the two is separated here by a hair’s length. However, for others who find it easier to parse through the tonal problems I have with Blue Velvet, there’s undoubtedly a lot to take note of. This is one of those enigmatic films we leave with more question than answers; more confusion than clarity. It’s not always the easiest, but it can certainly be rewarding.

3.5/5 Stars

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

punchdrunk1When Paul Thomas Anderson said he was making a comedy with Adam Sandler, people undoubtedly scoffed at him. I know I would have if I had known about this film back then. However, he proved that you should never question him as a director. Much like a Kubrick or a few other auteurs, I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of Anderson, but you have to admit his films are interesting and very much their own entity.

Punch-Drunk Love is a comedy certainly, but not in your typical sense. It’s a romance, but it’s not quite like any romance I’ve ever seen. Thanks to the bolstering performance of Adam Sandler, it’s whimsical and odd. He plays Barry, a rather passive and antisocial type, who seems constantly quelled by the dominating personalities of his many sisters.

He’s obsessed with buying up pudding for a chance at frequent flyer miles, he picks up a harmonium tossed on the road-side, and most of all he’s lonely, but he’s not comfortable going on dates. His sister tries to set him up with a nice friend of hers who happens to be British (Emily Watson). Barry rejects an offer to go out to breakfast with them and out of loneliness calls a phone sex line. Out of stupidity, he hands over his credit card info, and the rest becomes a big scam that he can’t escape.

Thus, his work phone at the office is ringing off the hook from a girl trying to steal his money. His sister is continually trying to set him up, and Barry seems to live in his own little weird world at times, overflowing with his own personal odd ticks and quirks. He also has an anger problem, meaning he’s bad news if you give him a hammer.

punchdrunk2At times the film is thoroughly unsettling and nervously, uncomfortably funny, thanks in part to Sandler, but also the pervasively weird sound design that utilizes the harmonium. At his core, Barry is a lonely and confused man, aren’t we all, and it reveals a depth to Sandler that many probably have not seen before. It helps that the sweet Emma Watson makes us believe he is likable and in truth, he is somewhat endearing in how he can get lost in an apartment building or always wears the same blue suit. He even follows her to Hawaii for the sake of love. But don’t get any wrong ideas. This is nowhere near the realm of 50 First Dates.

3.5/5 Stars

Fargo (1996)

fargo1The Coen Brothers have always been an interesting case for me. I admit that there are still a lot of their films that I wish and need to see. Films like True Grit and Fargo I find thoroughly enjoyable or at least passable, but they do not completely resonate with me. However, I certainly respect them as writers, directors, and auteurs, because they know the lineage of film as a medium and they have their own unique way of approaching movies. It’s often clever, unique, and carries a wickedly funny tone no matter their subject matter.

Fargo is arguably their greatest work, following a kidnapping and murder investigation that involves Fargo, North Dakota and Minneapolis. William H. Macy is your standard Midwestern dupe Jerry Lundegaard, who makes an honest living selling cars. However, there’s another area of his life that’s not so honest. He’s in desperate need of money; we don’t know the reason, but he has resolved to hire two men to kidnap his wife. It doesn’t make much sense to the audience or the easily agitated crony Carl (Steve Buscemi). However, Jerry has a rich father in law with the necessary funds to bail out his daughter. And so it goes.

Except after the deed is done Carl and his taciturn accomplice Gaear get stopped by a highway patrolman and things are downhill from there. Murder, and blood, and more murder, all on a snowy Minneapolis evening.

The next morning pregnant cop Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) leaves her hubby and heads to the scene of the crime where she quickly pieces together the turn of the events. The search is on for the vehicle, and she questions a couple of prostitutes who aren’t much help except pointing out one of the men was “funny looking.”

Meanwhile, everything is falling apart on Jerry’s end with his father in law and he even gets paid a visit by Gunderson. When the drop finally does take place, Carl is livid when he is met by Wade instead of Jerry. He’s not messing around and neither is Jerry. Crime scene number 2 is set up. Carl finds a snowy locale to bury the payoff and heads back to the cabin, but he’s about had it with Gaear and the feelings are mutual.

Meanwhile, after a disturbing meeting with an old high school classmate Mike Yanagita (a rather troubling performance by Steve Park), Marge decides to question Jerry once again, and this time she gets somewhere. The reunion with Mike sets something off in her head.  Another tip eventually leads her to Gaear and his friendly neighborhood wood chipper. Being the pro-cop that she is, Marge subdues the culprit and gets an ABP out on Jerry which leads to his arrest. After a successful day at the office, it’s back to fast food and tv in bed with her loving husband Norm.

Fargo, to its credit, exudes a Midwestern charm thanks to all its colloquial “You betchas, darn tootin’s, heyas”, and so on. Perhaps most effectively it mixes the mundane and the violently shockingly in one pot of inspiration. The two-pronged story following two very different worlds somehow meets in the middle amidst all the improbability. The Coens start the film off labeling it as “based on a true story” and that opening statement had many people tricked. I myself was taken in the first time I saw it because however outrageous the following events are we trust the words of the filmmakers guiding us. And in the characters of Marge, Jerry, and most everyone else there is a charm or normalcy that feels so familiar. Thus, the Coens could get away with such outrageous plotting, because it so often felt grounded in truth.

4/5 Stars

A New Leaf (1971)

0a2a4-anewleaf1Elaine May garnered fame in the early 1960s as the female half of the comedy duo alongside Mike Nichols, who later directed such classics as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate. This was May’s film debut, and she did everything; directing, writing, and of course acting as Henrietta Lowell. Interestingly enough, the film we see is not necessarily the film she wanted, but it is what it is I suppose.

Obviously, Elaine May did a lot for this film, but the story starts with Walter Matthau who gives another memorable turn playing a variation on his prototypical grumpy grouch of a character. This time he’s stuffy Henry Graham who lives beyond his means riding horses, driving a Ferrari, and keeping servants. But he is very bad at what he does…which is nothing. His Ferrari suffers from carbon on the valves, his latest check has bounced, and Mr. Graham is not a happy camper much to the chagrin of his long-suffering lawyer Beckett (William Redfield). His only hope is to get his uncle to bail him out one last time, but it does not come without a price. $50,000 with interest unless Henry can find a wife lickety-split. The prospects seem grim and both men know it. On the urging of his faithful manservant Harold it becomes a mad race against the clock to find a lady with money to spare.

At a social gathering, he finds the perfect object for his mock affection. Clumsy, bespectacled, messy, and filthy rich botany professor Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May). The courtship is quick and as clumsy as ever because Henrietta is present. Henry only has one objective: get the girl and get the money with her. A little glass in the knee and wine on the rug means little. The wedding happens and what ensues is strangely comedic. Henry has outwitted his uncle and Henrietta’s shady lawyer with his own intentions ahead of him. Soon he is running his wife’s home, firing her servants, putting her life in order and generally being condescending. He even dabbles in toxicology over their honeymoon, because a nice simple murder would be nice.

But in a sentimental moment, Henrietta names her new species after her hubby who actually is touched by the honor. On a camping and canoe trip in the Adirondacks, Graham is as miffed as ever as he prepares to get rid of his wifey. Their canoe capsizes and it’s the opportune moment since she cannot swim. In a moment of weakness, he goes to her rescue and resigns himself to be a professor as she has always dreamed. He’s a married man now. He’ll need to leave the pesticides alone at least for awhile.

This is far from your typical comedy and yet Walter Matthau is quite enjoyable as he navigates the upper echelon with an air of snootiness and bother. In some strange sense, I suppose it’s even a love story because in a weird way Henry Graham needs Henrietta. She for one fell in love with him. But as Harold notes, she has caused Henry to be far more competent than he has ever been in his life. By the end, we’re not really sure what to think. In some indirect way, they are a perfect match because they seem oh so wrong.

3.5/5 Stars