Monday, May 21, 2018

Spring 2018 Roundup, Part 2

With Infinity War Concluded, and May heating up, it's time to polish off what else we saw this Spring.


The General's Post Spring 2018 Roundup, Part 2


Pacific Rim: Uprising

Alternate Title:  That's... Better?

One sentence synopsis:    The son of Stacker Pentacost and a war orphan with her own Jaeger must join the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps to help save the world from a resurgence of Kaiju.



The Verdict:  I... did not like Pacific Rim. I think I might be the only one. I did not like it because it was goddamn boring, a slog of bad characters, piss-poor fights, cringeable comic relief, and no decent ideas beyond the first five minutes of the thing (and the bit with the cargo ship being used as a club, that was pretty cool.) Despite this, I did decide to see the new Pacific Rim movie. Why? Well partly because there was nothing else playing (an empty schedule is the best friend to a bad franchise), but also partly because it looked, trailerwise at least, like they had fixed some of the most obvious problems of the original. They had dropped Charlie Hunnam, the acting equivalent of a jar of mayonnaise, and replaced him with Star Wars' John Boyega. In film terms, this is like comparing the intellect of Donald Trump with that of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an upgrade so fundamental as to defy the term. And that wasn't the only thing they fixed. I objected to the way in which the previous film's love interest plot was hackneyed and useless, and the new film eliminates that entirely, replacing it with an (admittedly pretty generic) story about duty and finding oneself. I objected to all the fight scenes lacking a sense of scale, due to the majority of them being set way out to sea, rather than in settings filled with human-scale objects. The movie obliges by putting all the action in downtown Tokyo and Hong Kong, or in windswept arctic settings amidst massive, calving glaciers. If you took only a bullet point listing of the various elements of this film and compared it to my review, you might conclude that the filmmakers specifically had me in mind when they made the sequel. And for this, they are to be commended.

Does this mean the sequel is good? Um... no. No I'm afraid it does not.

Look, many of you liked Pacific Rim, but I think we're going to meet in the middle on this one and call it "average". Uprising is an average movie, with average action, average acting, average thrills in service of an average plot. It never falls to the level of boring, but neither does it raise more than the occasional twinge of interest as it mechanically moves from plot point to plot point. The original film did well in China, so we have the obligatory censor-pleasing throwaway valiant Chinese government official added into the original mix, the praise of Chinese industrial conglomerate, who always act forthrightly and without corruption in their quest to improve the world, and so forth. Meanwhile our main characters learn well-trod lessons in well-trod manners before getting together for the obligatory fight sequence at the end of the film, wherein only they can save the very world. The result is a movie that feels like Independence Day: Resurgence, but without the camp value that the aforementioned sequel had. Even the comic relief, which last time was insufferable and stupid, now feels just tired and obligatory, and while Boyega does his best with the material he's given, the film patently lacks for Idris Elba and Ron Perlman, who at the very least have the experience to elevate a movie like this one.

Pacific Rim Uprising was worth a shot, but ultimately the movie just isn't about anything beyond milking the Chinese market for all it's worth and moving on with everyone's life, which is what I now intend to do with this franchise as a whole should the PRC decide it's worthwhile to make a third.

Final Score:  5.5/10


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The Death of Stalin

Alternate Title:  Banned in Russia

One sentence synopsis:   Stalin's death in 1953 throws the tightly-wound Soviet Politburo into chaos as the members struggle to determine who will come out on top.



The Verdict: "Dictators are comical," said Charlie Chaplin once. "My job is to make people laugh at them." He said that in reference to his classic "The Great Dictator", which was about Hitler and Mussolini, and now here comes veteran Scottish satyrist Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It, and In the Loop, to do the same with their Soviet counterpart. The resulting film got itself banned from Russia and its satellites for being disrespectful to a murderous dictator, which was all the impetus I needed to go and see the thing. Call this the Anti-Interview.

The Death of Stalin stars a number of wonderful actors, from Steve Buscemi to Simon Russell Beale, to Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, and the absolutely irreplaceable Jason Isaacs, all of whom are playing senior members in the Soviet Aristocracy, craven bootlickers by necessity, who must kowtow to Stalin at all times while maneuvering among one another to stay alive. Stalin's death, early in the film, throws these men up against one another, be it the secret reformer Kruschev (Buscemi) to the psychotic and pederast Beria (Beale) to the utterly weak Malenkov (Tambor), and the movie itself consists of their maneuverings, political and otherwise, as they scheme and plot and try to remain in control of events that are happening more or less automatically. Autocracies all resemble one another in the end, after all, and so the pomp and circumstance provides the backdrop for absurdist humor of a very British sort, where officiousness is the joke, and reality the punchline, and the deaths of thousands of people, which occur regularly in this film, are merely the sticks that the players can use to beat one another and maybe survive until the next day. The only person not playing the game, as it were, is Grand Marshall of the Soviet Union Georgi Zhukov (Isaacs), who is the goddamn best thing in the entire movie, a hard-drinking Russian general who knows himself to be inviolate, and who has no interest in who takes over, which grants him a freedom nobody else in the film has, one he exploits with savagely-hilarious gusto. The movie needs this counterpoint to the tightly-wound businessmen in their identical grey suits desperately trying not to be shot. This is still a comedy after all.

So is Death of Stalin a masterpiece? Well I'm not sure about that. The humor is very British, by which I mean dry as a desert, and that's just not always my taste. Rather than make people ridiculous, it tends to simply portray things as they were and let the absurdity of their situation carry the comedy. This is a bold and stylish choice, but it also results in a hell of a lot of tonal whiplash, which may or may not have been unavoidable, but is still present. Sometimes letting characters be themselves works great. Stalin's children, entitled, spoiled-rotten, delusional, divorced from everyday life to the point of derangement, are played by Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough, two actors I've never much liked, but who find their calling in playing bitchy, dramatic, drunken wrecks with whom our main characters must deal because the alternative could wind them up shot. At the same time though, the film struggles to find something to do with characters whose roles were not that funny, such as Foreign Minister Molotov (Palin), who is basically there because Michael Palin was in Monty Python, and is consequently British comedic royalty. There just isn't a lot of humor to be wrung from straightforward depictions of torture, rape, and husbands publicly turning on their wrongly-accused wives, and so we're back to the tonal whiplash again.

But all that having been said, The Death of Stalin is one of the better films I've seen this year, a movie I was looking forward to since it was announced and am privileged to have seen and supported. I encourage everyone here to do the same, as doing so will aggravate other, less murderous but no less comical dictators with whom we are forced to deal nowadays. And that's really the best thing that can come from any movie, now isn't it?

Final Score:  7/10


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Isle of Dogs


Alternate Title:  Arch-Anderson

One sentence synopsis:    A young boy in Japan searches for his dog on the island that the nation's dogs have been all banished to.



The Verdict: I do like Wes Anderson and always have, my reviews of Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel have indicated as much, but there has always been a certain sense about him that he risks disappearing up his own ass after a point. Wes Anderson films are so distinctive that other movies with wide-angle perpendicular shots are compared to him automatically, as are films with casts of twenty thousand. There are risks, in establishing such a style, that the accidents of one's typical filming style are going to swallow the actual filmcraft. Just ask M. Night Shayamalan.

Nevertheless, here we are with another Wes Anderson film, for which he has eschewed the temporal plane altogether this time, and decided to proceed with an animated film, done in woodcut Japanese style, in Japanese, with and without subtitles as he deems it appropriate. Anderson himself has described the film as being if Kurosawa made a Rankin/Bass stop-motion picture, and while I would shudder to compare this film to anything Kurosawa ever did, the intention is there and plain to see. Great masses of computers and highly-qualified artists have been employed to ensure that we have a film that looks as cheap and as homespun as possible, and while normally that sort of thing fails, the movie does a bang-up job of producing something that actually looks like an Anderson picture. Wes Anderson's movies have always had a dreamlike quality to them, and animation suits that very well, what with its ability to frame and composite any way you choose. The stylization is unsubtle (determining who the bad guys are in the film is made easier when they look like the Butler from the Addams Family), but it does the job.

Anderson's other claim to fame is for his giant casts, however, and this is both a blessing and a curse, and always has been. Having enormous, highly-talented casts, fills every role, even inconsequential ones, with a tremendous amount of interesting choices and fun. But it also ensures that Anderson movies have to scramble to find things for their various characters to do. Anderson can't ever make a movie about a single character's life, because there would be no room for the eight hundred and fourteen other major actors he needs to squeeze into the movie. It's a dance he's well accustomed to, and has pulled off repeatedly before, but this time it's harder than it was, because Isle of Dogs, at its core, is a "Boy and his Dog" movie, which does not leave a lot of room for meaty roles beyond those of the aforementioned Boy and his aforementioned Dog. Oh plenty of other shit transpires, from political conspiracies and murder, to public health scares, ancient curses, samurai legends, twists of motivation and plot, several love interests that have nothing to do but take up time, and an entirely out-of-place subplot about a foreign exchange student from Iowa who becomes a rabble rouser. But while most Anderson films also have their nested forest of subplots, this is the first film of Anderson's I've seen that felt burdened with them, as though the movie could not get on with it because Scarlett Johansson and F. Murray Abraham hadn't had their scenes yet.

I know I'm being negative here, but that's only because I expect a lot from Wes Anderson nowadays, and Isle of Dogs, while a good film, does not clear his high bar. The movie is enjoyable, highly unpredictable, and has practically every major actor in Hollywood in it, albeit in voice roles. If that's all you want from a film, then Isle of Dogs will do very nicely for you. But if you were hoping that Anderson would outdo himself after the triumph that was The Grand Budapest Hotel, I'm afraid you may need to bark up another tree.

I regret nothing.

Final Score:  6.5/10


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You Were Never Really Here


Alternate Title:  The Taxi Driver's Still Here

One sentence synopsis:    An ex-FBI agent tries to rescue a young girl from sexual slavery.



The Verdict: "Joaquin Phoenix is remaking Taxi Driver." That was basically all I needed to hear to sign on to this one. I can't say I love Joaquin Phoenix, but I have liked a good deal of his work, especially in his older, crazier phase, after the massive and disastrous publicity-stunt/trolling-attempt that was I'm Still Here and his abortive rap career (anyone who can make David Letterman look like a fool has got my thumb's up). As to Taxi Driver, well it's a masterpiece of course, and I was all in for a weird, psychological trip into dark places, especially as written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, the Glaswegian director of Ratcatcher and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Ramsay likes her films dark and twisted and full of weird shit, and this sounded like a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Stop judging me.

So how is the movie? Wellllll... it's weird. It's really weird. Phoenix plays Joe, a combat veteran with terrible PTSD, not the fun or uplifting kind, but the real kind, the kind he has to treat by gargling drugs and beating people who annoy him with his fists. Formerly a cop of some sort, Joe is now a rescuer of young girls, who tracks them to the underground, underage brothels that movies like to imagine exist in every other corner of every major city, brutally murders their staff with a hammer, and takes them back to their families. Hired to do this for a State Senator, whose daughter has disappeared, he vanishes into a web of corruption, politics, and very very unreliable narrators.

And it's just a mess. Joe is a completely broken soul, not on the edge like Travis Bickle, but so far past the edge that he doesn't remember which direction it's in. He hallucinates throughout the film, sometimes in shocking sequences of some power, but usually in sequences that rob the audience of any sense of what in the living hell is supposed to be going on here. In a film like Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream this might have worked, but this is no psycho-drama within the character's head. Not only is he a hallucinating paranoiac, but people are actually trying to kill him, and this undercuts the film's emphasis on Joe's mental state by placing him in a world in which everyone is insane, a world where the cops gleefully murder dozens of people in public so as to prevent them from opposing the Governor of New York's efforts to turn his mansion into a permanent orgy for underaged girls. Even in the 80s, this would have been over the top, and the juxtaposition of an insane protagonist in an insane world is never commented on. We are expected to accept that this is a world in which pedophilia is just fine and dandy, but that the man who hallucinates is insane because the gritty, realistic world he is in has denied him the help he needs.

I tried, I really tried to like You Were Never Really Here, as it's the kind of movie I tend to like. Hell, I had nice things to say about Only God Forgives, for Christ's sake. But a movie I can't follow, which annoys me when I can follow it, is not going to win a lot of points from me. You Were Never Really Here is well made and well acted, but to what purpose, I have no idea.

Final Score:  5/10


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RBG


Alternate Title:  Notorious RBG

One sentence synopsis:    A look at Ruth Bader Ginsberg's life and career as a supreme court justice.



I can't take credit for the alt title on this one, people. If the filmmakers had had any sense, they'd have used it themselves.

RBG is a look at the life and times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Brooklyn-born Jewish jurist who became the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court. Now in her 80s, Ginsberg has served on the court for 25 years, overseeing much landmark legislation, trying and judging cases, and becoming infamous for the number and quality of her dissents from the opinions of her fellow justices. But you all, being erudite persons of culture and wit (I assume you must be so if you read this blog), knew all this already, and are not here to have a hagiography or wikipedia bio-summary dropped on you, but to find out if the biographical documentary made about Justice Ginsberg is any good.

Well yes, yes it is. It's one of those sober, respectful, documentaries that tell us all we ever wanted to know about a person's life, intercut with scenes from their more recent life. Life Itself, the documentary biopic on Roger Ebert, was similar, save that for some reason its filmmakers decided to focus exclusively on Ebert's decrepitude and impending death, rather than on the man's works. No such muddle disrupts the movie here. We get a long list of history on Ginsberg's life, her education at Harvard, her struggles to be accepted as a litigating attorney in New York as a woman, and her gradual push into civil rights law, first as an attorney, then as a judge. We learn, as I did not know, that Ginsberg was a well-known figure at the Supreme Court long before she joined it, having fought six cases there as a litigator and won five of them. I further did not know her centrality to the wider march of Women's rights in the United States long before reaching the bench, her calculated strategy of dismantling patriarchal structures piece by piece, occasionally by means of taking cases where men were being discriminated against to make a wider point. I was tangentially though not fully familiar with the fact that she maintained a long friendship with Anton Scalia, the rock-anchor of the Arch-Conservative wing of the Supreme Court for many years. As the two were political opposites, this was a friendship which mystified everyone for whom political orthodoxy is a prerequisite for human interaction, which is to say, idiots.

And that's... really all there is to RBG. It's a victory lap by a public figure who has won great plaudits from the country as a whole. It does not sidestep the stridency of the political times we live in now, but neither does it speak in woeful, hand-wringing terms, about how noble politics and justice "used to be". It simply tells of the life of a woman who has shaped our times, and who, God willing, will continue to do just that into the future. If that sort of thing interests you, then my recommendation is that you go and see it. And if it does not, then my recommendation is that you wait for Deadpool 2.

Sorry, did I just spoil my next review?
Final Score:  7/10



Next Time: Hmmm... I wonder what it could be...

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War


Alternate Title:  Not Fucking Around
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  The Avengers and their allies gather to try and stop Thanos from obtaining all of the Infinity Stones, and slaying half of the universe's life.




Things Havoc liked: For eleven years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been giving us movies, and for most of those eleven years, I have been reviewing them. Starting with Thor, back in 2011, I have reviewed fourteen of the fifteen Marvel movies that have been deployed since I began reviewing, skipping Civil War only due to personal reasons. And yet despite the multitude of movies I have reviewed, and the heaps of praise I have typically poured forth upon them, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the universe to turn bad in some kind of cosmic balancing act against the glories that the MCU has given us. Cinematic Universes like this just don't work. They can't work. Universal and Warner Brothers and a host of other examples dating back a hundred years have shown us that. This sort of thing just isn't sustainable long term, right? This has to come to an end. One way or another.

Infinity War, the culmination of a decade-plus work on the part of Marvel and Disney and directors and actors and filmmakers great and small, was, as a friend of mine put it, yet another chance for the entire project to fall apart. Every film is, of course, in one sense, but this one, a crossover involving more than two dozen major and twice that in minor characters, had every chance to blow the entire enterprise by proving that movies like this could not be made, for all the thousands of reasons obvious enough to anyone casually familiar with the making of movies. Though the eighteen Marvel films leading up to this one have all served as opportunities for failure, this was perhaps the greatest chance for Marvel to blow it yet. This was where they had to lay all their cards down and determine if the iron laws of filmmaking applied even to their lofty ambitions.

So did they pull it off? Well of course they pulled it off, you idiots, this is Marvel!

Infinity War is amazing. It is fantastic. It is glorious. It is an act of pure, cinematic arrogance deployed in praise of itself and the accomplishments of a studio that has conquered the cinematic world. It is a wonderful film that all but dares you to hate it, a movie full of glories (and a few missteps), replete with bone-shattering action and wonderful moments of characterization for characters we've all come to know so well, and even a few that we haven't. I enjoyed the hell out of it because I have always enjoyed the MCU, and this is the MCU throwing itself a party, while reducing its entire fanbase to shocked gasps and, according to the reports of many others who have seen the movie, blubbering tears.

This review is not going to be long enough to recap where we are in the MCU at this point, nor go through what I thought of all the characters therein. I've reviewed fourteen Marvel movies to this point, go look them up. But in a cast this large, the filmmakers manage to deftly grant everyone who needs it a moment of their own, even for characters I had previously little-to-no use for. So it is with Scarlett Witch and Vision (Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany), who turn out to be more interesting than I had expected them to be, having formed a couple offscreen and contriving to bring some actual warmth to the scant time we are given to establish it. So it is with the characters set up between the last team-up movie and this one, with Spiderman, still expertly played by Tom Holland as the protoge/sidekick, willing or otherwise, of Tony Stark, himself a man trying desperately to keep himself together in the face of a truly world-shattering apocolypse. So it is with Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange, who has matured considerably since the beginning of his film, and brings a cynical wit to the occasions to bounce perfectly off of Robert Downey Jr.'s own masterful performance. I loved Cumberbatch and Holland in their respective films and I loved them here, but Downey's Tony Stark/Iron Man has always been my favorite, and this time we get a Stark who is truly desperate, throwing everything he has of himself and his ingenuity at the problem in the knowledge that it may simply not be enough. But better than any of that is Thor's part, Thor who got shortchanged in Avengers 2 by any account, but who here turns back up off the momentum of last year's superlative Ragnarok, and flows effortlessly into the Guardians of the Galaxy universe, and takes the whole "space-viking" theme that Thor's world had blended into to a whole new level. And so it is that we get space-dwarves forging space-weapons for space-gods so that they can do space-deeds worthy of space-sagas. And it is fucking awesome, though to say much more would involve spoilers that should not be spoken of.

All this, and I still haven't spoken of a good half of the cast, but that's because I have no time to. Suffice to say that all of them are awesome (though Chadwick Boseman still can't manage his goddamn accent), with even bit characters like Winston Duke's M'Baku livening the moments they are given. But all this I expected, I expected the cast to work wonders for they are the greatest cast of actors ever assembled for any cinematic project ever. What I didn't expect, what I thought could well sink the entire movie, was two other things, the first of which is Thanos.

You see, Thanos has been looming in the background of the MCU for nearly a decade, but we have seen nothing of him, and nothing would be easier than to make this arch-force of malevolance into nothing but a looming, monstrous, character-free CGI-fest, an excuse to punch something large for a while while reciting portentous dialogue about the inevitability of doom. Last year's Justice League apparently did just that. But Thanos as realized in this movie is nothing of the sort, instead forming a fully-realized, three-dimensional character laden with weight, emotional turmoil, and his own twisted internal logic, a charming, philosophizing psychopath who believes that the universe demands that he use semi-divine power to cull its population lest Malthusian catastrophe overcome it. Thanos is fascinating in this film, consitent, driven, warped, and yet very human, the protagonist, in a strange sense, of his own story, as though this film were another introductory movie bringing another character into the wider MCU world (which in a sense, it very much is). I've never been wild about the Malthusian-catastrophe-as-excuse-for-genocide plot device but this film, this comic book movie about magic rocks and a twelve-foot purple alien who wants to collect them, might be the best use I've ever seen that tired trope put to, and while plenty of the praise for this must go to the scriptwriters (veteran MCU duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), plenty more belongs to Josh Brolin, an actor I have never loved, but who with this role has finally won me over. I know the MCU has a reputation for bad villains, but Thanos exorcises that demon almost effortlessly. He is the most interesting villain Marvel has come up with since Loki, and he almost forces the movie to work around him.

I say 'almost', because of the second thing I thought would sink the project. The simple mechanical fact that a movie with nearly thirty main characters cannot be made. That to make such a thing is in defiance of all rules of screencraft, and that movies as varied as 13 Assassins and X-Men Apocalypse have shown why this is. But apparently nobody bothered to let the Russo brothers know about this, because they tried it anyway, and somehow, they made it work.

I... have seen lots of movies in my time, ladies and gentlemen. I've reviewed more than three hundred of them for you all here on this blog, and I have no idea how Infinity War worked at all. Maybe it didn't, and I simply have bad taste, but I think it did, and I think it has something to do with a screenplay and a direction style that just has no time to waste. There is no fat (almost) on this movie, every minute of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime is justified carefully and with great precision. This isn't to say I couldn't call out one choice over another, but the movie in and of itself is a doctoral thesis in how to make a film out of something unfilmable, in a way that only the most daring adaptations and films are. Like Fellowship of the Ring or 2001 or Watchmen, Infinity War's simple existence, its functional structure which bounces between half a dozen settings and three dozen characters without ever losing us or becoming nothing but a paceless mess, is itself a miracle. There is fighting in this movie, lots of it. There is pathos and loss, and humor and moments that are even touching. But every second of the film has been placed with precision and care, for if the Russo's, veteran MCU directors though they are, had done anything else, the entire movie would have imploded like a soap bubble.


Things Havoc disliked: None of this is to say that the movie is perfect, indeed there are moments that will drive viewers absolutely around the bend. Most of these are, I believe, intentional, but some are not. The juggling act to give each of the characters their defined characterization does slip once or twice, particularly in the case of Starlord, who is written a bit too buffoonish, contradicting some of the character growth we saw back in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. A single scene near the end (you'll know it when you see it), is a bit much, even for a man-child like Peter Quill.

But the big issue, for any movie that has to rely so heavily on narrative shorthand (in this case because there's no physical way to fit the narrative structure in otherwise), is telegraphing. A lot of this movie is pretty heavily telegraphed, either for events to happen later in the film or to happen in the followup. It's not so bad as to make the movie obvious and rote, but it has moments where you simply know what is to happen next and need to wait for the characters to come to the same state of awareness that you have. Granted, for most of the film, the pace is so damn fast that there isn't a lot of time to dwell on such things, but it still comes up, and not for the better.


Final thoughts:   'Infinity War,' another reviewer claimed after walking out of it, 'was as good as it possibly could have been', and this sentiment is one that I wholly agree with. It is difficult to gauge it in the context of the other Marvel films, partly because it is incomplete, with a sequel due next year, and partly because it resembles none of them, not even the other team-up movies which led up to them. I adored it, but I can be counted upon to adore most Marvel films, and so what I give you as a final thought is simply my awe that such a project could have worked at all, that someone could have brought it into being after all this time and build-up and produced something that did not suck, did not disappoint, did not bring the characterization so painfully-crafted by its predecessors crashing to the ground, and even contrived to characterize more. The filmcraft, the staggering filmcraft on display in Infinity War is breathtaking, leaving aside the questions of nostalgia or excitement, or the joy at seeing beloved characters come to life.

Infinity War is the best film I have seen so-far in 2018. That itself does not say a great deal of course, but it remains true nonetheless. And when it comes to films that had no right to be as good as they were, there are few examples worthy of citing above this one, for this is the film that once and for all time proved that insofar as the MCU is concerned, the rules just don't apply.

Final Score:  8/10


Next Time:  With Infinity War concluded, time to look at the remaining movies that Spring was heir to.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Spring 2018 Roundup, Part 1

Howdy everyone!  It's been quite a while.

So yes, The General has been taking it easy for a month or two, taking some time to decompress, unplug from the review machine a little bit, recharge my creative batteries for praising great movies or cursing terrible ones.  Three hundred films is quite a lot, and it was time for a little bit of a break, especially following the great year that was 2017.  I decided it was a good opportunity to just relax a bit and concentrate on other projects.

Also, I contracted SARS.

Yeah, The General's Post became The Quarantine Post for a good portion of the early parts of this year, with an onslaught of respiratory illness that took a good month to resolve itself.  The act of catching up with my life after that particular bout of unpleasantry was not something I'm in any hurry to repeat, and is one of the main reasons why none of you have heard from me for the last bit.

Nevertheless, I did manage to go and catch a number of films this spring, and I would not feel right if I didn't sit down here and share my opinions on all of them with you.  So for all of you patient little boys and girls who have been waiting for my sainted opinions on recent films, I present to you.


The General's Post Spring 2018 Roundup, Part 1


12 Strong

Alternate Title:  Charge of the God-Mode Brigade

One sentence synopsis:    A dozen special forces soldiers are inserted into Afghanistan during the first days after 9/11 to help local insurgents fight the Taliban.



The Verdict:  So let's start things with a movie none of you have ever heard of.

January releases are a messy lot, as most of the time people are either busy returning to work or watching Oscar films, and have no time to deal with any new releases not good enough to be deployed during Oscar season proper. As such you get a lot of films from genres that are famously not very good, banking on the fact that their audiences will not go see anything else. Christian message films, bad horror ripoffs, foreign imports of no general interest, and also the subject we have before us today: Military wank films not good enough to get a fall/winter release. So it is with 12 Strong, a movie about a very cool event in military history, but that was not regarded well enough either by critics or by its studio to merit anything beyond a January release.

So was that a mistake? Well no, not really. But there are virtues to the film.

12 Strong is about the US 5th Special Forces Group, Operational Detachment Alpha 595, a very boring name for a very tough group of hombres who did some very insane things in the first two months after 9/11 in Northern Afghanistan. Those of you old enough to remember it, might recall pictures of US special forces soldiers fighting on horseback in the Afghan mountains, and these are the men in question, the first American horse cavaliers since 1942, who battled the Taliban alongside an alliance of warlords and guerilla fighters, calling air strikes in from B-52s while galloping into battle with armored vehicles. This event, this concept, is goddamn amazing, and ripe for a badass movie to be made about it, and the filmmakers (primarily Danish documentarian Nicolai Fuglsig) assembled one of the better casts I've seen in a war film to make it. Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, and Michael Peña are all actors I have tremendous love for, as any regular reader knows, and all three star in the film as the officers and NCOs in command of the 12-strong unit. There's not a great deal of material for any of them to sink their teeth into (especially Shannon), but these are the sorts of actors that elevate any role their in, be it through Hemsworth's charisma, Shannon's world-weariness, or Peña's general hilarity. Small touches, like the running joke of the soldiers' ever-more fantastical descriptions of how much they love the barren shitholes they are in, add a good deal of humanity to a movie that could easily be left without. Smaller roles go to the indispensable William Fichtner, the completely out of place, but somehow still decent Rob Riggle (what in god's name is Rob Riggle doing in a movie like this?), or to German-Iranian actor Navid Negahban, who probably gets the best role of the bunch, playing a veteran Northern Alliance commander which the movie takes some pains to humanize.

So what else does the film have? Well... not a whole lot to be honest. There are battle sequences of course, many of them, but they all sort of run together into one giant mess. Our heroes are invincible supermen, riding directly into machine gun and cannonfire and coming out unscathed while accurately gunning down their foes with perfectly-placed shots from a rearing horse. There are moments that liven things, like a confused sequence wherein hundreds of Taliban troops try to surrender simultaneously to four American soldiers, but these are few and far between. Discussions between Hemsworth's character (the commander of the unit), and the General played by Negahban never go beyond the whole "learning how to be an effective leader of men" stage of military speech-making. The film does dot itself with some moments of self-awareness, such as a riotous moment where Hemsworth, demanding to see proof that the troops he's about to carpet bomb belong to the Taliban, gets an answer in the form of the General calling up his opposite number on the radio, calling him the son of a flea-bitten dog, and telling him to confirm his identity to the Americans so that they can all go kill him.

There's nothing really wrong with 12 Strong beyond a certain lack of ambition, for the movie is competently enough made and the shots of whatever more commodious terrain passed for the mountains of Afghanistan are striking and beautiful in their rugged, barren way. As an excuse to watch good actors ride horses and shoot machine guns for a while, there are far worse films than 12 Strong out there. Just don't expect too much else from it.

Final Score:  6/10


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The Insult

Alternate Title:  Another Day in the Middle East

One sentence synopsis:   A Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee's confrontation over a minor grievance turns into a massive political setpiece in modern Beirut.



The Verdict:  I try not to be a snob on this project, I do, but it's a basic fact that my enjoyment of the movies is almost directly proportional to the amount of weird shit I get to see. I can overdo it, certainly, like I did in the early part of 2015 (to the point where sitting in traffic for an hour and a half to go see Maggie seemed like a good idea), but in the spring, when movies suck, it's not a bad idea to look for what you can catch at the smaller theaters, and what did I catch this time but Lebanon's contribution to the Best Foreign Language Film category, a little film called The Insult.

The Insult is a movie that serves as both a primer on Middle Eastern politics (at least those of Lebanon), while also serving as a simultaneous send-up to Law and Order and to Crash, the 2004 Paul Haggis film about race relations in Los Angeles, and a short list candidate for the award of "worst film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards" (fight me). It comes to us courtesy of Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, a man who recently achieved the feat of being banned from Lebanon for being too pro-Israeli, while also being banned from Israel for being too anti-Israeli. Any man who pulls that off is deserving of respect and attention, and his film is one of the better things I've seen in this young year, a polemic of sorts (in a good way) about race and nationality and the wounds of civil strife in a poly-ethnic society like that of Lebanon.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) is a Lebanese Christian auto mechanic, and an asshole. He supports hyper-partisan politicians (most politicians in Lebanon fit this description), and regards immigrants to his country, particularly refugees from Palestine, as dogs. This is a problem, because the foreman of a construction project in his neighborhood, Yasser Abdallah Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is himself a Palestinian refugee, a man of considerable expertise and education, but who must work under the table and live in a refugee zone because he is a Palestinian, a group not well regarded in Lebanon since the violent events of Black September. A minor altercation between the two men over the code status of a leaking drainpipe results in one insulting the other, and kicks off a chain of gradual but believable escalations that lands both men in court to try and prove that they are the aggrieved party and the other an unreasonable menace to public safety. Heedless to the pleas of loved ones and friends to let things go, the men proceed with their dispute, until, almost inevitably, it blows up well beyond their control, breaking open the hastily papered-over fault lines in Lebanese society, a society which as little as thirty years ago was a full-fledged war zone, and which has not recovered therefrom by any stretch.

And yet rather than turn the movie in another parable about how bad sectarianism is, The Insult strangely goes the route of a courtroom drama, wherein lawyers stand up and give impassioned speeches regarding how terrible the life of their client was, and how many horrible things the other party has done or said in their lives, until both men are grudgingly left on the sidelines of their original conflict, their deepest wounds brought to the surface to be probed by the legal system. Hanna, it turns out, despises the Palestinian people because of the annihilation of his village during Black September at the hands of a screaming Palestinian mob, which executed his family and burned his home, while Salameh is forced to relive all the moments in his life when, pushed to the edge by indignity heaped upon indignity, he snapped and lashed back. Arguments are leveled about subjects that sound all too familiar to us Stateside, from affirmative action to free speech to incitements to hate crimes. And of course, being as this is the Middle East, even as the participants speak of high-minded ideals and racial tolerance, they layer every sentence of every accusation of wrongdoing with a thick coating of un-examined antisemitism.

The Insult isn't quite a great movie, the courtroom antics quickly begin to feel early-90s-era Law and Order, with lawyers basically allowed to recite dissertations at infinite length because the filmmaker said so, but it is, all in all, a very good one, buttressed by excellent acting by the two leads and most of the supporting cast. It's a small film with a big topic and one that handles things deftly, and if it's available on a streaming service or a showcase of foreign cinema, I would strongly suggest undertaking it. The alternatives from early this year are not encouraging.

Final Score:  7.5/10


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Black Panther


Alternate Title:  Anti-Marvel

One sentence synopsis:    Newly-crowned King T'Challa must defend his crown and country against the machinations of an international arms smuggler, and a warmongering figure intent on claiming his throne.



The Verdict: I am an unapologetic fan of Marvel's work. You all know this. I have lauded them time and time and time again for all of the myriad reasons that their films are heir to. You all know this. Eighteen movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and with the most ambitious one yet being seen by yours truly the day after I write these words), there is no doubt in my mind that this universe of cinema they have created is, to-date, the crowning film achievement of the 21st century, a fountain of staggering creativity, enjoyment, fun, and splendor, even with the occasional stumble here and there. I love the MCU as I have loved few things in cinema, and there have been times in the past where it alone represented the only reason I continued to do this. Nor has the series been getting worse, not by any long shot. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy 2. I loved Spiderman. I adored Thor Ragnarok. And I was desperately excited for Black Panther, which looked supremely awesome, starred a half dozen actors I adore, and was being made by one of the better directors working. I wanted this film to be great. You all, if you know me at all, know this.

So when I criticize Black Panther, please understand that I do it from a place of love. Because no matter how I slice it, Black Panther is not great.

Now don't misunderstand me, Black Panther is not bad either, nor even close to it. It is always adecent, frequently good, and occasionally very good, but never does it rise to greatness, and in the company it keeps, within the lofty heights of the MCU, that does not suffice to obtain my unquestioning praise. There is a great deal to love about Black Panther, and yet something is missing from it, something fundamental and hard to elucidate. So let's give it a shot.

As always, I like to start with what does work, and the list is admittedly long. The film is gorgeous, vibrant and brilliant of color, with all the sweeping glories and rich palette that an African setting can offer. The styling of the film is even better, an Afro-Futurist riot of brilliant design-work, African-inspired of course, but with unexpected twists to the atmosphere that the film pieces together, turning it into a wonderland cornucopia of non-western design often without (to my western eye, at least) obvious source. Elements of the Wakandan world, such as the Dahomey-inspired Techno-Masai stylings of the "Dora Milaje", a kind of all-female royal guard regiment comprised of shaven-headed Amazonian Hoplites is goddamned brilliant, and serves more than adequately to ground the film in comic awesomeness while remaining true to its inspirations. Several of the new characters we are introduced to, particularly Shuri (Letitia Wright), the younger sister of T'Challa, a technophile genius who steals the best lines in the film, Okoye (Danai Gurira), the stoic (to a fault) head of the aforementioned royal guards, and Killmonger (Michael B. Freaking Jordan), the villain of the piece, who gets waaaaaaay more backstory and interesting material than any Marvel villain not named Loki has ever gotten. Indeed, Killmonger might be the best thing in the movie, a villain with a comprehensible, timely, and well-fleshed out backstory, one that encourages sympathy even as it paints him as a violent extremist prepared to wage worldwide race war to right the wrongs he and his people have suffered. That Michael B. Jordan can pull something like this off should be no surprise to anybody who's seen the rest of Ryan Coogler's work, and the screen is enlivened whenever he is on it.

But for all of these virtues, Black Panther is a deeply uneven film, and this is primarily due to a problem I don't think I've ever seen before: Accents.

You might be wondering how a bad accent can ruin a film. It can't (usually), but what I mean when I say this isn't that someone has a bad accent, it's that someone is unable to perform their role because of it, and that someone is Chadwick Boseman himself, an actor I have desperately tried to like in movies from 42 to Get on Up to Draft Day, for he is a likeable guy whom I assumed would use this movie as his coming out party. Instead, he falls completely flat, and the reason he does is because he cannot fathom that pan-African accent that they gave his character. I don't mean that his accent is unconvincing, though it is. I mean that it actively stops him from emoting, from project force and volume with his words, from acting, in short, restricting his entire performance to an awkward monotone that kills the movie's momentum whenever the main goddamn character has to speak for any length of time. This isn't a problem unique to Boseman. Other actors, good actors, from Angela Bassett to Lupita N'yongo, have tremendous difficulty reciting the dialogue they have been given, this despite the fact that Bassett is a phenomenal actress (go watch Strange Days if you don't believe me), and N'yongo (also a phenomenal actress) is actually Kenyan, but is not allowed to use her native accent for the role.

Obviously not everyone is unable to overcome this issue. Leticia Wright manages just fine, as does Daniel Kaluuya (whom I didn't even recognize). Forest Whitaker basically retreats into his Idi Amin impression, which is fine by me, and the portion of the cast that is actually African (N'yongo excepted) has no trouble. But while I don't care that the accent is fake, nor that some people can't manage it, I definitely care when major actors the film are so busy struggling with it that they can't actually act. Boseman is not terrible uniformly, but he is the weakest element of a movie that is the also the star of. This is a problem.

And it's not the only one. The movie is structured very strangely, with two distinct halves that effectively represent completely different stories, tied together with editorial duct tape and bungee cord. Killmonger's character is well established, but considerable chunks of that establishment are thrown out around the midway point of the movie so as to re-establish him with other, different establishment. This second establishment is indeed stronger than the first, but it leaves one wondering what the point of the initial material was. The plot, meanwhile, is overwrought to the point of melodrama (admittedly, so is about half of the MCU), and less-forgivably, is entirely predictable, beat for beat, being one of the most convenitionally-plotted films the MCU has yet to give us. The other films in Marvel's canon are hardly the stuff of Neo-Noir, but many of them, even relatively bad ones, include interesting twists and developments, either in the characters' fortunes or the machinations of the bad guys. Black Panther meanwhile, plays like a first draft, uninspired in its plotting and with very little in the way of character significance for anyone concerned. It's a fun outing, don't get me wrong, but it tells us relatively little about anybody except the villain of the piece, and leaves most of the characters exactly where they started. This might be fine for a proof of concept popcorn flick, but it is not the stuff of great cinema. And contrary to the opinions of those too stuck up to care, much of the MCU is great cinema.

I did not hate Black Panther, nor even dislike it, and there are moments and even entire scenes that are fascinating, if only for the richness of the setting and the novelty of the world. It is also worth noting, of course, that I am a white guy reviewing a movie that is probably not entirely made for me. But while I acknowledge this factor, and do not seek to denigrate the experience of others who have seen the movie, the flaws in Black Panther are much more fundamental than those that afflicted last year's Wonder Woman, and do not, I believe, represent some kind of special coding which I am unable to perceive, as some of Wonder Woman's did. A flawed film remains a flawed film no matter who is making it, and Marvel's movies, being the product of an international media conglomerate the likes of which find few parallels in history, are explicitly intended as universalist efforts, whether or not they attain such heights. Black Panther too attempts to appeal to everyone, and in many cases succeeds, but as MCU films go, it is unavoidably one of the weaker efforts, providing us with the rare example of a Marvel film whose hero is weakly drawn, and who is propped up by its villain, when almost every other Marvel film is the precise opposite.

And now you know where that Alt-Title comes from.

Final Score:  6/10


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A Wrinkle in Time


Alternate Title:  A Platitude in Script

One sentence synopsis:    The daughter of a missing astrophysicist must embark on an adventure with her younger brother and school friend to save him from the forces of darkness.



The Verdict: I receive criticism on occasion that I do not watch enough bad movies. This is generally criticism from those who enjoy my pain (which I assume to be true of all of you), and who want me to go and watch and then review some horrific piece of cinematic excrement that was obviously going to suck from the get-go. I reject these invitations, partially because I have a working brain, but also because there is no need. As I continuously remind people, I do not need to go looking for bad movies to see. By simple means of attempting to watch one film a week, and gauging their qualities purely on their trailers, the bad movies will find me eventually.

For example, we have A Wrinkle in Time.

Oh yes, A Wrinkle in Time is a bad movie, in fact it's an awful movie, a meaningless, smarmy, intensely boring piece of cinematic waste excreted by a director I had previously thought competent and must revise my opinions of accordingly. Brainless, stultifying and stupid, it is to children's films what Interstellar was to adult science fiction, a repudiation of whatever qualities its source material had and a strong incentive to seek for diabetes medication upon watching it. This is not a controversial opinion. I have seen this film compared negatively to Tomorrowland, and I'll remind you that I am the only person on Earth who liked Tomorrowland. Well even I couldn't stand A Wrinkle in Time. If it were not for the demands of my reviews, I would have left after five minutes.

I have nothing against children's films. Hell, I love good children's films, they can touch our souls the way that few things can, but a good children's film demands that someone have a sense of what the difference between whimsy and saccharine is, and Ava DuVernay, whatever her actual qualities are as a reasonable filmmaker, is not this person. The film is aggressively annoying, written in a disbelief-shatteringly on-the-nose fashion, a place where child and adult actors alike are forced to recite dialogue so wooden that I am currently re-enforcing my writing desk with one of the monologues. No character acts human in this movie, instead they stand around and use "As You Know" phrases over and over and over because the scriptwriter can't figure out how to shovel exposition into the audience's heads any other way. The children meanwhile do not act like kids anywhere, not even in the Disney sitcom land that this world takes inspiration from, but like pastiches of "bright-eyed eager youngsters", so squeaky-clean and inhuman that Leave it to Beaver would have rejected them as unrealistic. I understand that six-year-old Charles Wallace (the repeated name is never explained) is a super-genius. I should prefer that he also be a six-year-old boy than a robot programmed to spout "affirmations" every five seconds whilst others look on in rapt awe at how precious he is.

Indeed "precious" is a good word for this movie. Calvin, the boy next door to our main character Meg, looks and acts like he's auditioning for a younger version of One Direction, and spends the entire fucking film telling Meg over and over and over again that she's beautiful on the inside. I have nothing against the sentiment of wanting to teach such morals, but I have seen greater nuance in instilling them on episodes of Veggie Tales. Meg, meanwhile, must put up with the gamut of lazy scriptwriting cliche middle-school problems, from random, unexplained bullies, to stern, unfeeling principals, to teachers who gossip openly about the failings of their students in the hallways like a Greek Chorus. Once the adventure begins however, it's simply an unending barrage of positivity quotes taken from someone's page-a-day calendar on the subject, many of which come with attributions designed to be "quirky". If you removed from the movie all of the scenes in which Oprah (who I will remind you all, is a phenomenal actress) scolds Meg for not being sufficiently perky, happy, or positive (all without giving her any reasons to be perky, happy, or positive), then the film would be about thirteen minutes long. As it stands, generic "evil energy" must be combated by the power of... I don't even know. At least Interstellar had the balls to claim that love was the most powerful force in the universe. A Wrinkle in Time awards that distinction to generic contentedness.

A Wrinkle in Time is a truly wretched movie, one that was difficult, at least for me, to sit through, and inspired many a forlorn look at my smartphone as I desperately tried to determine how much of it was left. Whatever point I was through the film, the answer was always "too damn much", and the movie itself stands as a reminder that nobody, no matter how well praised or liked, is incapable of making a complete piece of crap.

Final Score:  3/10



Next Time: It's time to do this, ladies and gents.  It's time for the Infinity War.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Worst Films of 2017


I hate to be the bearer of bad news, fellow moviegoers, but the worst films of 2017 were nowhere near as awful as the worst films of years before.  That is not a bad thing, not by a long stretch, in fact it was nice beyond description to finally go to the theater and discover good movies were waiting for me.  It does, however, cast all the more of a shadow over the films that did not live up to their counterparts.  And while the bad films that 2017 had to offer were by no means as bad as those of years previous, they were no more pleasant to sit through for that fact alone

As such, the moment you've all been waiting for is here.  The General's Post proudly presents:


The Worst Films of 2017!!!




Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Best Films of 2017

And so another year ends, a year full of tumult and chaos, but also full of a whole host of great movies.  2017 was one of the finest years that cinema history records, with an absolute deluge of excellent films barraging moviegoers all year, from the hidden gems of Doldrums season, to the sparkling triumphs of Blockbuster season, to a searingly-good crop of award films in Oscar season.  All throughout, whatever the season or weather, we could count on staggeringly good films in a dozen different genres and styles.  And we're going to talk about them now.

So join us, once again, as General Havoc and Captain Corvidae gather to discuss the finest movies that the year 2017 had to offer us, and reminisce over the best times to be had in a movie theater in the year now past.  This is:


The Best Films of 2017!!!






Next Time:  2017 was, without question, the finest year for film I have ever seen.  But even the best year ever has its dark side...

Sunday, January 28, 2018

I, Tonya


Alternate Title:  Abuse: A Comedy
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  Tonya Harding deals with her abusive mother and husband, all while trying to win acceptance through figure skating before and after the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.



Things Havoc liked: Like everyone else who was alive and above the age of eight at the time, I remember the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident from the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. It was, in many ways, the perfect scandal, filled with lurid details to titillate and thrill a news audience, women fighting one another for supremacy, America's sweetheart attacked by a violent thug, lurid plots among stupid people, overtones of classism, one of the first big media frenzies. I was there man, every one of us ate it up with a spoon. Following the Olympics, in which Kerrigan won a silver medal, and Harding won such infamy, Tonya Harding disappeared into the tabloids, popping up on news feeds periodically in celebrity boxing matches, in sex tapes, and in one trashy thing after another. I cannot say that I thought much about her in the intervening years, but all of a sudden, here we have a movie about the story of Tonya Harding from beginning to end, a film I ultimately decided to see purely because I felt I owed its main actress another shot.

You see, I didn't see I, Tonya, because I really desperately wanted to know more about Tonya Harding, I saw it because of Suicide Squad, a movie so bad I still suspect it to have been the result of some gruesome experiment in human psychology. Margot Robbie, who had the singular misfortune of starring in that film as Harley Quinn (a misfortune only slightly lesser than those of us who had to watch her) is an actress I have seen in nothing else to date (save a cameo in The Big Short), and while she was pretty goddamn awful in Suicide Squad, that much could easily be explained by the fact that everything touched by Suicide Squad turned to galvanized shit. After all, Viola Davis and Will Smith are both charismatic actors of considerable skill, and neither one of them could salvage any dignity. I therefore felt, given her increasing prominence, that I owed it to Margot Robbie to find out if she could act at all, an exercise I try to engage in when I encounter actors or actresses who have had the misfortune of making their major debut in a film so bad that nothing positive could be gleaned from it. The ur-example here is Twilight, a film that forced me to seek other examples of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart's acting efforts, determining empirically that while Pattinson can act, Stewart cannot.

So with all that preamble aside, can Margot Robbie act? Ohhhhh yes. Yes she can, in fact Margot Robbie, playing a character that none of us ever got to know except in the pages of a tabloid, is phenomenal this time around, a treasure of a performance that fully justifies all of the faith that people placed in her following the atrocity that was Suicide Squad. Biopics are a dangerous game, as apt to win you condemnation as they are an Oscar, but Robbie, playing a character nobody really knows anything about, is exceptional, bringing all the classless rancor, the bitter devotion to her craft, the wounded patched-together pride of a victim of nigh-constant abuse, the serially-unreliable mentality of someone trying to make sense of her own life, bringing all of it together into a performance that merits the Oscar nomination that should be (and at time of writing, has been) forthcoming. It's a career-making performance, comic and tragic all at once, while still retaining the essence of what the public remembers of the character, and if that wasn't Robbie performing the fantastically-difficult skating maneuvers studded throughout, then the movie certainly fooled me.

I, Tonya, comes to us courtesy of Craig Gillespie, an Australian director who has yet to feature on this project, due to his propensity for mostly doing projects that don't look particularly interesting. The only movie of his prior to this one that I know anything about is 2007's exceedingly-odd Ryan Gosling vehicle Lars and the Real Girl, a movie that was effectively a weirder version of Her, and if you remember Her, that's quite a statement. This one is a bit more accessable than that one was, but is done in a fourth-wall-shattering style that emphasizes just how unreliable the various stories that the characters involved tell of the Kerrigan incident and everything that led up to it are. The result resembles The Big Short, or other movies that use unconventional directing techniques as a tool to emphasize the artificiality of the concepts they're attempting to get across, and in retrospect, it's probably the only way to do something like this without turning the entire thing into a Rashomon-style philosophical treatise, which would be highly unsuited for the material. It does, however, require a superb cast to be able to pull something like this off, and fortunately Gillespie has assembled one. Sebastian Stan, Bucky Barnes from the Marvel films, is utterly unrecognizable as Jeff Gillooly, an abusive loser who Tonya falls for due primarily to the fact that she has been conditioned by her upbringing to expect nothing but abusive losers to be interested in her. It's deceptively difficult to play a loser on screen, if only because most successful actors are charismatic, and the camera introduces such tremendous bias in their favor, but Stan pulls it off, giving us a character by turns entirely loathsome and yet completely believable, not a screaming monster but a person whose life is what it was always fated to be, and whose worst traits go utterly unexamined by himself or even his victims. But the best performance of all is Allison Janney's, because she gets to play a true monster. Tonya's mother LaVona, expertly portrayed by the one-time West Wing alum, is a vile, twisted, hyper-abusive harpy, an utterly loathsome creature whose every action and thought drips bitterness and resentment. And yet even here, Janney puts together a character that isn't just a caricature of an abusive single mother, but simply a person who is missing parts of their soul, who acts as she does because she thinks it the only way to properly act. We hate her all the more because we understand where she is coming from, and is that not the definition of an excellent villain?

If it sounds like the theme of abuse is coming up a lot in my description so far, that is because the movie is rife with it, not sensationalized, not dialed up to some unwatchable level, but inculcated into its very bones. The story of Tonya Harding, the movie claims, is a story of long-term abuse, not always cinematic and violent, and not always unreciprocated, but always there, poisoning everything it touches until actions that would seem unthinkable to any normal, rational person, are perfectly normal and indeed not deserving of comment to the characters that inhabit this world. Tonya is abused by her mother, by her husband, by the Media, by the US Figure Skating association which is made to look, probably with very good reason, like a bunch of classic snobs who never even considered giving Harding a real shot. Months and years of brutally-difficult work are rewarded time and again with "stylistic" point deductions and low-seeded rankings, despite Tonya being an exceptionally gifted technical skater, the only American woman to perform a Triple Axel jump. Without ever calling things out explicitly, the movie effortlessly places you in a mindset wherein anything, even attacking a rival with a retractable baton, seems reasonable, given that nobody else is playing fairly either. Moreover, despite everything I've just finished saying, the movie is also riotously funny at parts, mostly due to just how stupid so many of the participants in this little farce of a conspiracy were. Paul Walter Hauser, whom I've never seen or heard of before, plays Shaun Ekhart, Tonya's bodyguard, a loser among losers, who fancies himself some kind of CIA-trained espionage expert while living in his mother's house and plotting the dumbest caper in the history of dumb capers. Bobby Cannavale, whom I love dearly, gets the job of narrating most of this to us as a spray-tanned Hard Copy producer, describing in breathless glee how dumb the plan to assault Kerrigan actually was, with one conspirator staking out Kerrigan's training arena for three days, parking in an empty parking lot, and moving his car around it every fifteen minutes to avoid suspicion! Why only for three days? Because that's how long it took him to realize that Kerrigan was actually training in a different arena entirely in another state.


Things Havoc disliked: The film goes to some lengths to ensure that you know just how unreliable all participants in this absurd farce are. Everyone has their own version of what happened before and during the Kerrigan assault (the movie calls it "the incident"), and none of those versions stack up at all, particularly those of Harding and Gillooly themselves. This is fine, indeed it's only to be expected, nor is it surprising, given how much time it spends humanizing her, that the film ultimately winds up taking more of Harding's perspective than anyone else's. But the problem is that about two thirds of the way through the movie, without mentioning it or otherwise indicating, it basically hews entirely to the notion that Harding knew nothing about the impending attack, and if she did know something about it she didn't understand it, and if she did understand it she thought it was a joke, and if she didn't think it was a joke she thought the plan would involve threats, not violence, and if she did think the plan involved violence well it was only to be expected given her upbringing.

Um... right...

Look, nobody but Tonya Harding herself really knows how much she was or wasn't actually involved in the assault on Kerrigan, and given the nature of human memory and rationalization, probably not her either at this point. And it is certainly possible, though not much more, that Harding had nothing to do with the planning of the assault that put her back in the Olympics after her career was largely over. But for the movie to turn around so far into a story that is being told from multiple directions, and suddenly claim authoritatively that not only was the entire prosecution of Harding nothing but a political witch-hunt on the part of a classist Figure Skating world looking to finally be rid of her, but that it knows this for a fact is just ridiculous on its face. I don't demand that all movies represent nothing but the unvarnished truth, especially when that truth is open to interpretation, but when the movie's central thesis is that nobody knows the truth, it's a bit churlish to suddenly reframe everything that's happening as the truth because it casts your sympathetic protagonist in a more flattering light. And if you're going to do that, suddenly pivot from an unreliable to an authoritative viewpoint on the events in question, it's probably a good idea not to misrepresent the few actual facts that are known about the case. The movie's climax involves a tearful court hearing, where a barely-controlled Harding begs and pleads for her life after a stern, unsympathetic judge bans her from figure skating for life. Powerful stuff, if it had actually happened, but it did not. It doesn't take much research to know that criminal courts have no bearing on who can and can't participate in Figure Skating associations, and Harding was never so-sentenced. Instead, after she pled guilty to obstructing justice in the investigation of an assault on one of her competitors, the US Figure Skating association banned her for life, after their investigation concluded that she knew about the attack before it happened. Call the investigation a witch-hunt if you like, but please don't make up criminal penalties that never happened, framed to make your unreliable protagonist look sympathetic, and then wrap yourselves in the mantle of the one true arbiters of truth.


Final thoughts:   But I have to say, whatever the film's authorial bent or pretensions of truth and honesty, I, Tonya is an incredible film, a tightly-crafted, instantly-compelling, and brilliant-acted piece of 90s absurdity, taking a story we all knew and giving us even more salacious details about it, assuming we're willing to acknowledge that doing so makes us no better than the other people who tried to exploit Tonya Harding for our own purposes. It is a fantastic movie across the board, one that is entirely deserving of its buzz, and a fitting place to leave off the greatest single year I have ever experienced at the movies. With Awards season finally upon us, I, Tonya, along with many other fine films, is once more being re-released in theaters, and you all owe it to yourselves to give it a shot, whether you know the story or not.

Thank you to everyone who has followed these reviews over the course of the year now past. It has been quite a run, and I hope you are all ready to hear about it again, because it is finally time to evaluate the best this year offered us, and the worst...

Final Score:  8/10


Next Time:  Ladies and gentlemen, IT IS TIME!!!

Spring 2018 Roundup, Part 2

With Infinity War Concluded, and May heating up, it's time to polish off what else we saw this Spring. The General's Post ...