(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Some biopics are more complex than others. It’s one thing to present a universally loved person … but how do you make a movie about someone widely loathed? That’s the bet taken by I, Tonya, a biography of early-nineties skating villain Tonya Harding. The easy approach would have been to explain that Harding had a tough upbringing, that she never fit within the glamour image of figure skating, that she was surrounded by people with poor judgment and that (she says) she was never involved in the infamous knee-capping incident with Nancy Kerrigan. But that would smack far too much of a basic Lifetime movie with added excuses. What I, Tonya does is far more interesting: Using a collage approach where the main narrative is supplemented by fake interviews with the main players and split-second flashbacks undercutting (or at least seriously questioning) interview claims, this is a sympathetic biography that doesn’t quite manage to bring itself to exonerate its subject. It often breaks the fourth wall with no shame, and even calls out the viewer for their voyeuristic interest. It honestly portrays both Harding’s point of view and tries to match it with the public perception of the events, and while it does correct the record, it remains skeptical about Harding’s version. The result is, frankly, far more entertaining than anything we could have expected from such a project. There’s comedy, empathy, drama and a strong actor’s showcase for both Margot Robbie (completely convincing as Harding, doing a complete 180 on her usual glam persona) and Alison Janney (playing a character in the running for the title of worst mom ever). Screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie each bring a fascinating sensibility to the project—this isn’t your grandparents’ biopic, as is zips from scene to scene and seems to operate on skeptical irony throughout. And yet, and yet, we can’t help but feel some amount of understanding for Harding’s version of the story. It’s not a simple story and it’s not a simple film either—But I, Tonya is an exemplary case study in how to present tricky material on-screen with plenty of style.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) What’s most fascinating about Suicide Squad isn’t that it’s a film that begs for mixed reviews … it’s that some of the worst things about it are usually strengths in other contexts. I like classic rock soundtracks a lot, for instance, but even I felt that the film was trying too hard by the time its third hit song started playing barely five minutes into the movie. I like exploding helicopters, but seeing three of them go down in a single movie was excessive (and who knew such crashes were all easily survivable). I’m a big fan of dense detail-rich editing, but even I was getting tired of Suicide Squad’s opening act, masquerading a dull exposition structure by plenty of fancy cuts. So it goes, on and on, for much of the movie. The script can’t commit to the idea of villain protagonists, and that’s how we end up with even more exposition to soften their edges. Will Smith takes over a film his character had no business taking over, leaving little to his co-stars of what’s supposed to be an ensemble cast. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn runs against nearly everything I usually like about the character, making her an oversexualized strumpet with the special power of … waving a baseball bat around? Jared Leto’s Joker seems self-consciously edgy for no good reason. And let’s not talk about Slipknot, because the film really isn’t interested in him. David Ayer’s direction may use CGI like crazy but can’t put all the pieces of this disjointed film together in a harmonious whole. Tonally inconsistent, the film tries for operatic gritty grandeur but ends up joking around CGI most of the time. Visually, moments of it are nice … but don’t quite amount to anything better than pretty pictures. There are rumors, to be clarified in a decade or so, that the production of the film was marred by reshoots, change of direction and a competitive editing process—who knows where the real problem was? What’s obvious is that Warner Brothers ends up with another ho-hum film in its attempt to compete with Marvel in presenting a coherent shared universe on-screen. I’m not saying that Suicide Squad is a disaster—Michael Jai Courtney here has his best role to date, while Viola Davis is having fun as Amanda Walker. It’s just too bad that the script never used her, or the squad, in ways most appropriate to their characters. As read here and there on fan forums, a far better conceptualized Suicide Squad would have seen supervillains going against superheroes for a noble goal, not fighting another generic super-monster like they do here. Frankly, go watch the “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer of the film again for a purer Suicide Squad experience.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) There’s something tailor-made for Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s brainy-and-attractive protagonist, a bored lifestyle writer who decides to take up war journalism in Afghanistan at the height of the American intervention over there. Before long, the pace of the job has transformed her into an adrenaline junkie, breaking off her relationship back home and leading her to taking more and more risks. This dramatic arc, coupled with the built-in absurdity of life in war-torn Afghanistan, makes for a first half that’s decently comic, renewing with the geo-sardonicism American comedy subgenre that reached its peak in 2005–2010. Fey is great as her character gradually evolves from bemused fish-out-of-water to grizzled war journalism veteran, and as the film keeps up the more comic aspect of its story. Margot Robbie also makes an impression as a mentor/rival of sorts, while Martin Freeman takes on a less sympathetic turn than usual. It’s very loosely based on true events, but the film wisely sticks to fiction more than reality when comes the time to deliver entertainment. Still, its last half gets progressively less amusing, to the point of dealing with kidnappings, deaths, maiming, betrayals and absolution. While the dramatic arc progression is understandable, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t end on the same kind of high notes on which it begins, taking away much of its impact. Too bad, because in many ways this is a good showcase for Fey’s brand of comedy, and a welcome reminder of the impact of the American intervention in Afghanistan—see it with the equally imperfect Rock the Kasbah for another perspective.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) As post-apocalyptic thrillers go, Z for Zachariah plays things more intimately than most. There are only three characters in the story, hence the drama: Margot Robbie initially stars as a young woman who has almost unexpectedly lived through a global nuclear disaster, her universe now limited to a small valley where the radioactive fallout can’t enter. She’s managing to hang on, but her world is turned upside down when she comes across another survivor, a scientist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Their relationship is difficult to begin with, yet things get even more complicated when a third man, much younger and friendlier (Chris Pine) also makes his way in the valley. The resulting tension isn’t pleasant for anyone, especially when science and religion are set up as mutually incompatible pursuits, and an unhealthy rivalry begins between the two men, leaving our heroin scared and disturbed from her lonely life. Far from being cheerful, Z for Zachariah works well as an acting showcase for all three actors (with Robbie earning a chance to prove the kind of dramatic talents that don’t fit with her persona in blockbuster movies) but get annoying when it aims for simplistic allegory. As a feminist twist on post-apocalyptic stories, it’s inconclusive—another five minutes of definitive resolution may have helped matters, especially given the liberties taken from the original novel. It amounts to a film that qualifies as mildly interesting but not essential, unless you’re a post-apocalyptic junkie or a fan of the three actors. At least it does a few unusual things in the sub-genre, and it handled with some competence.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Con-man romantic comedies (con-rom-coms?) are, by now, such an established sub-genre (The Thomas Crown Affair(s), Duplicity, Confidence… and that’s from memory alone) that they can work on recognition rather than surprises, even if surprises are the point of the film. We already know that such con-rom-coms will end with the romantic leads driving off into the sunset, that we’ll witness elaborate triple-cross confidence tricks, that the entire thematic structure of the film will be the tension between greed and love, and the trust issues in all human relationships, whether they be romantic or criminal. So, when Focus comes along, it feels as if we already know how it’s going to play out, and a proper appreciation of the film can be boiled down to basic questions: Are the lead actors sympathetic? Is there some romantic chemistry between the leads? Are the confidence tricks interesting? Does the film hold our attention from one moment to the next? Fortunately, Focus succeeds even when it’s not being particularly original. The showcase sequence of the film, a high-stakes gambling sequence in a stadium luxury box, may not be original, but it clicks perfectly. The film’s two biggest assets are Will Smith, playing his usual brand of charismatic confidence (his best such role since Hitch, and a substantial return to form after the After Earth debacle), and Margot Robbie, making another serious case (after The Wolf of Wall Street) as to why she’s more than Today’s It Girl: her role is a tricky mix of deception, sexiness, vulnerability and mixed agendas, and she hits all of the right notes. With both of them playing off each other, Focus feels like an old-fashioned movie-star vehicle, far more worthwhile for its slick execution than any conceptual boldness. And it works. Sometimes, behind the analytical façade and the numerous references to trends and industry terms, the critic abides and simply repeats the obvious: it works.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) Presenting the grandiose life story of a criminal isn’t new grounds for veteran director Martin Scorsese, and that may explain why he has chosen to pile so much excess in a film that could (but probably shouldn’t) have been told far more economically. Centered around Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort’s short-lived (but lucrative) career in the waning days of the twentieth century, The Wolf of Wall Street does make an attempt at the usual tragic structure of such films: The introduction to a life of crime, the excessive fun and games of the high-flying protagonist, the enemy forces closing in, and the final disgrace as the protagonist loses everything. But the proportions are different of the norm: The introduction is frantic, the downfall takes less than two minutes and the rest of the film is pure excess piled upon pure excess: Drugs, sex, nudity, profanity all jostle for screen-time in this three-hour paean to the utter corruption made possible by a multi-million-dollars annual salary and an enabling environment without restraints. Leonardo DiCarpio is simply magnificent as the protagonist: Smart, driven, charismatic, absolutely corrupt and unable to stop himself. He directly addresses the audience as the revelry is unleashed around him, reassuring us that this is all illegal and that we wouldn’t understand all of the details. Not that we need to: At a time where Wall Street excesses are well-known and even celebrated, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t need to waste its time giving us a moral lesson: It would rather give us a full-throttle ride through decadence without false reassurances that sociopathic behavior always gets what it’s due. It makes for a lousy Sunday-school example, but an absolute marvel of a film: The Wolf of Wall Street is rarely less than hypnotically compelling, the work of a director working at his best. Many actors get their chance to shine here besides DiCaprio: Jonah Hill gets a ton of laughs (especially during a Qualuude-fueled scene with DiCaprio that already ranks as a classic bit of physical humor), Matthew McConaughey continues his white-hot acting streak in a pair of film-stealing scenes, while Margot Robbie gets a plum role that requires as much sex-appeal as honest acting talent. It amounts to a terrific thrill-ride of a film, slick in all the right ways and unusually respectful of its adult audience. Frankly, I’d rather see this film a second time than have a first look at many other films in my playlist.