Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hitchcock/Truffaut: A Review


In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock fanboy Francois Truffaut got to spend a whole week with his hero, analyzing and examining every film the Master made.  From that came the legendary book Hitchcock/Truffaut or to use the translated French title, The Cinema According to Alfred Hitchcock.  Truffaut's book became a seminal textbook for future film auteurs and did much to elevate Hitchcock, then appraised as a mere entertainer, into one of the preeminent filmmakers of all time. 

I'm being a touch flippant here, but at times I feel the need to knock down artistic pronouncements that run the risk of mummifying film as something to enjoy as well as study. Hitchcock/Truffaut is not so much about the making of the book or about the two respected filmmakers.  It is a well made film about how Hitchcock has more than earned his place in the pantheon of great directors and can be a good primer for anyone interested in the art of cinema.

In 1962, French New Wave director and former Cahiers du Cinema film critic Francois Truffaut came to America, almost in pilgrimage, to pay homage to his favorite director: Alfred Hitchcock.  Truffaut's selection of Hitchcock as a major director and even artist shocked many, particularly the American film intelligentsia, which regarded Hitchcock as a good director but nowhere near an artist, let alone someone to rank alongside someone like a Truffaut.

Nevertheless, Truffaut was adamant about his admiration for Hitchcock's work, and requested an audience.  Hitch, fresh off his success with Psycho, agreed to a taped interview where over the course of a week, Truffaut would ask questions in French and Hitchcock would answer in English, with Helen Scott translating.  Transcribed and published in 1966, Hitchcock/Truffaut became a Bible of sorts to many future filmmakers.  Hitchcock/Truffaut has many of those influenced by either the book or the directors reflecting on both, ranging from Wes Anderson and David Fincher to Martin Scorsese.

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If there is a flaw in Hitchcock/Truffaut is that for all the influence the book had, we do not see it actually reflected in the work of those who speak of it.  We see much of Hitchcock's work, with specific focus on Psycho and Vertigo, but oddly whatever influence direct or indirect he had on Truffaut's work is not delved much into.  The only Truffaut films I recall being brought up were The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim.  Granted, there weren't that many Truffaut films when he did his legendary interview, but one would have hoped that Hitchcock/Truffaut director Kent Jones would have perhaps touched on how strong Hitch's oeuvre was to his future work.

Same goes for any film from any of the interviewees.  I don't think we needed to see say an Anderson or Richard Linklater show where they paid 'homage' to Hitchcock's work, but as much as they talk about how important his work was and how they learned from him or the Hitchcock/Truffaut book, one does not actually see how either found their way into their work.

In a curious way, Hitchcock/Truffaut comes across, as I said in the beginning with a touch of flippancy, a fanboy meeting his hero.  Truffaut comes across as someone who never saw any flaws in Hitchcock's films on any level.  Even as we close out the film, when we see Truffaut speaking at Hitchcock's American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award (which I figure would not have happened without Truffaut among others championing Hitch as a major artist), Truffaut comes across almost as belligerent, demanding we all worship his God as he worships Him. 

"In America, you call him 'Hitch'.  In France, we call him 'Monsieur Hitchcock'", he all but thunders at us as Hitch is tottering on the dais, a feeble old man long past his glory days.

The same goes for the film, which won't touch anything that The Master of Suspense might have done wrong technically or any other way.  Even though such things as gender equity were an unknown subject at the time, Hitchcock's behavior towards Tippi Hedren either on or off-screen were not going to be touched let alone mentioned.  The book and film are not about such things.

We also get to hear a lot about their friendship post-interview, and how they advised each other's work.  One wonders what Hitch told Truffy regarding Day for Night or whether Francois advised Al to go light on Family Plot.  Might have been nice if Truffy had told Hitch to tone down the rape in Frenzy, but that's just me.

However, Hitchcock/Truffaut is a good film to learn about what makes Hitchcock films so extraordinary, a nice Brief History of Hitchcock if you like.  It can serve as an informal film class that is easy to watch and easy to understand.  It even gives strong advise about how in Hitchcock's words, 'there is a tendency among filmmakers to forget the audience'.   I've found that to be quite true.

Hitchcock/Truffaut might also whet the appetite of any budding film critic or filmmaker, and if it serves that purpose, then it is a masterful success.  Short, perhaps slight, Hitchcock/Truffaut is good enough as a history/film lesson to make one interested in such things seek it out.

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Francois Truffaut: 1932-1984
Sir Alfred Hitchcock: 1899-1980


Monday, February 19, 2018

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. A Review


While billed as a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, the global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is not so much about how the first film has been proven correct and how we are hurling down towards the eve of destruction.

It really ends up as All About Al, or on how former Vice President Al Gore is now not going to put up with your crap anymore and he's going to fix the world Al By Himself.

The film touches on aspects that An Inconvenient Truth hit on, most contentiously on his prophesy that the World Trade Center Memorial was going to be underwater unless global warming was arrested.  What was dismissed as ridiculous back in 2006 has now come to pass when Superstorm Sandy flooded the September 11th site in 2012.

It's a bit of a misdirection: his prophesy said that the Memorial would be underwater due to rising water from melting ice caps, not from a massive hurricane.  Details, details.

While we get slicker graphics that detail both negative and positive information on the global warming front (no pun intended), most of the film involves Gore's own actions.  The presentations all revolve around his various training sessions where he imparts his information and methods so that they could spread the Gospel of Climate Change.

We then shift to the Paris Climate Accord negotiations, where Gore is a major player.  He's already talked to Indian officials prior to Paris, who scoffed at his suggestion that they go for clean energy given how the U.S. used coal for 150 years.  If it was good enough for the United States, the Indian officials essentially say, it's good enough for us now.

In Paris, Gore plans a 24-hour global special, but those pesky terrorists started attacking all over the city and he is forced to suspend this spectacular.  Once Paris rebounds however, Gore is in the thick of it, meeting Senators, working the phones with environmentally conscious companies, and pulling off a last-minute solution to get India on board.

India, the major stumbling block to the Accord, has finally come around, and the Accord is agreed to.  Pity Donald Trump came along to withdraw from it.  Gore ends An Inconvenient Sequel by continuing his claim that this is a moral issue, and that just like the Civil Rights Movement and abolitionist movements, his will prevail.

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What could have been a strong follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth is sidelined by Gore's own grandiose view of himself.  We see Gore more as a man of action than a man of intellect in this film.  There he is, jumping on glaciers and flying about the globe.  There he is, literally wading into the floodwaters of Miami.  There he is, consoling Filipino typhoon survivors.  There he is, conducting seminars to send his messengers off, though unlike Christ there is no mention if he sent them off in pairs of two.  There he is, all but saving the Paris conference through his personal work with private companies to provide India that clean energy they didn't want, at a discount to boot.

All this has the effect of making An Inconvenient Sequel less about whether climate change, or global warming as it was known back then, has gotten worse or better and more about Al Gore's almost messianic touch saves the planet.

Even Captain Planet had his Planeteers.

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Perhaps the worst moment in An Inconvenient Sequel is when he reflects on the 2000 election, again.  At a certain point, it goes beyond whining into perpetual self-pity over something that happened sixteen years ago.  You think, 'is this guy going to keep going on about 2000?'

If I wanted to hear a Democrat go on about how unfair it was that they lost the Presidential election to an imbecile who 'stole' it from them, I'd listen to the audiobook of Hillary Clinton's What Happened.

Odd how history seems to repeat itself.

The film works best when it takes its focus off Gore and how He is doing all the heavy lifting and instead focuses on uniting people.  There is a scene in Georgetown, Texas, which is according to its mayor, the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas.  Yet, despite the fact that Mayor Dale Ross is a conservative Republican, he has eagerly joined the green revolution, working to get Georgetown to be 100% clean-energy dependent.  Mayor Ross' views are that it is an economic as well as a moral solution, a need to leave the Earth in better shape than how you found it.

Those moments, along with some more information, would have elevated An Inconvenient Sequel to being close to the original.  Some moments are astonishing, like when we see Indian streets almost literally melt, forcing people to leave their footwear in the sticky ground.

Gore could have focused on action from both sides of the aisle, or on what local communities have done to clean up their act.  He could also stop using the term 'deniers' and/or 'denial agents', a loaded term that I am wary of.  I could go along with 'skeptic', but using 'deniers' or the more insidious-sounding 'denial agents' to my mind is meant to evoke someone like a Holocaust denier.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power was a lost opportunity.  It could continue to send out the warnings so desperately needed on climate change, or it could focus on the good An Inconvenient Truth and the growing environmental movement have accomplished, with more to be done.  Instead, by taking so much time to showcase Al Gore in all his Gore Glory, An Inconvenient Sequel ends up shifting attention from the power of solar energy to a different kind of wind energy.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

An Inconvenient Truth: A Review


I am not going to argue whether or not An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary on global warming, is accurate or not.  My job as a reviewer is not the verify the accuracy of advocacy films.  It is, rather, to detail how well or not well a film worked.  An Inconvenient Truth was not set up to be a debate on global warming, let alone be equal in presenting an alternate to its views; rather, it was set up to convince people of what the film's host, former Vice President Al Gore, believes is an impending crisis. As an advocacy film, it does the job of presenting its case well, even if at times Gore comes across as an environmental Cassandra: the truth-teller ignored.

Essentially a slide show presentation mixed in with Gore's memories ranging from his upbringing on his father's Tennessee farm to his sister's death from cancer, his son's near-fatal car accident, and his loss in the 2000 Presidential election, An Inconvenient Truth presents Gore's findings on the increase of the Earth's temperature caused by human action, particularly the United States as the primary culprit.

Gore presents the viewer with many charts and images, drawing connections between the rise of Hurricane Katrina to the rise of the Earth's temperature.  He goes on to discuss his views on how there are three factors involved that have transformed our relationship to the Earth: the population increase, the growth in science and technology, and the politics of global warming.

Gore also touches on three misconceptions about global warming: the idea that there is no full scientific consensus, that the issue is one of economics vs. environment, and that the issue is simply too big to handle.  The former Vice President insists that this is not a political issue but a moral one, and ends with a somewhat hopeful note: that by taking immediate, simple actions now and by becoming more politically involved, the Earth can be saved from ourselves.

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Again, An Inconvenient Truth is not an actual documentary in that it does present both sides.  If you want to call it one-sided, you'd be correct in a certain sense.  Its mission is not to say 'here's what one side thinks, here's what another side thinks, now you make your own decision'.  Its goal is to convince you that it is the absolute, unvarnished, whole, inconvenient truth. 

As such, one has to judge the film based not on how one feels on the subject or even if one agrees with the premise.  Instead, if you judge An Inconvenient Truth based on presentation, you come away with the sense that it is well-crafted by director Davis Guggenheim.  It was a wise decision to use photos and video of the chaos that global warming is blamed for, and An Inconvenient Truth presents its case with passion and sincerity.

At times, Guggenheim goes a touch overboard when presenting Gore as an almost messianic figure.  All politicians to a certain point see themselves in quasi-divine terms, President and Presidential candidates even more so.  It is at times almost amusing to see shots of Gore almost looking down on the Earth and the devastation within it, like a silent deity looking down on His Creation with dismay and worry.  As Gore looks down on this troubled world, He has the answers, and whether intentional or not it does have a very curious effect of making one wonder whether He is a prophet crying out in the wilderness or just a mad prophet.

Suggesting that his warnings on global warning are similar to Winston Churchill's warnings on Hitler does appear to be gilding the lily a touch.

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In terms of information, Gore presents his case ably, with perhaps one misstep.  It is in the inclusion of a cartoon, None Like It Hot!, which while I get the attempt at humor to my mind is slightly flippant, even patronizing.  It runs the danger of undercutting a serious subject by trying to be too cute and witty.

It plays almost as spoof when the last thing An Inconvenient Truth needs to look like is spoof.

Here is the important detail I think people need to remember when looking at An Inconvenient Truth: it is an advocacy film.  It has a point of view, and like most advocacy films, asks the audience to perform tasks: everything from the mundane (recycle) to the extraordinary (run for office to push for legislation).

An Inconvenient Truth presents its case for the impending global crisis exceptionally well, if perhaps a little wonky for some viewers.  Whether one believes in global warming or not is not the issue.  It is instead the opening up of the debate.  An Inconvenient Truth is not that debate because at no point would it ever concede to being wrong on any point. 

However, it is a film that makes its case, and if anyone wants to take it apart, then they should make their own slide show.  An Inconvenient Truth is a well-crafted argument that makes no room for counter-arguments.  I cannot fault it for that. 

It might not have completely convinced me that it is right, but it has made me wonder whether it is right, and that is to my mind, a very positive step.


The Librarians: And the Echoes of Memory Review

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As we close out Season Four of The Librarians, we see something we haven't seen: a recap of past episodes that make me wonder whether The Librarians has opted for a Dallas-like ending: it was all a dream.

On our last episode, Colonel Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn) is left stranded in a dystopian world where The Library does not exist except in her memories.  This world has virtually no color, no variety, and draws parallels to the nightmare world of George Orwell, where "The Company" has everyone living in what looks like a hellish version of Progressive Insurance ads.

Baird works her best to remember the Library and thanks to a message that Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) is able to send her, to contact the other Librarians to help them remember.  Baird finds them in the strangest places: Jacob Stone (Christian Kane) is a used car salesman, Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth) is a nameless, faceless stapler in a world where she and the other staplers are expected to staple right down the middle, and Ezekiel Jones (John Kim) is the host of I Fall Down, apparently the only television show allowed which consists of literally seeing people fall.

Baird manages to get the three of them to remember elements of who they were and that those 'dreams' they had were really memories.  However, Nicole Noone (Rachel Nichols) so hates the Library that even dreams are outlawed.  She is able to maintain reality in this alternate universe, and manages to capture Baird, whose memories are fading fast.

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Baird is sent to the looney bin, where she meets a familiar face calling himself Flynn.  In echoes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Flynn undergoes a 'treatment' that will temporarily block out the truth.  Still, the truth will not be denied, and Baird follows him to his padded cell, where she sees the hidden drawings of his own dreams.

A kiss unlocks their memories of the Library and of each other, but Nicole now sees that they are dangerous.  She decides to have Flynn undergo the lobotomy he needs to erase his past permanently.

The other Librarians now appear to have come to their senses and start using their various skills to rescue Flynn and Baird.  As they find their efforts at escape foiled by Nichole and her goons, they find they are trapped.  Here, Baird unites them to restore the Library to reality.

She has them in a circle and encourages them to remember: to Stone, his love of art, architecture and history, to Cassandra, her love of math, science and magic.  For Jones, she tells him he's a thief, which disconcerts him, until she points out that as a thief he knows the value of an artifact, knows how to find it and doesn't let anyone stand in his way.

It looks like while the Library is restored, the Librarians are still doomed to fall under The Wrath of Nicole.  Flynn, however, finds Nicole's biography in the Library shelves and uses The Toaster of Albuquerque to transport himself back to the moment where she first became Immortal.  He begs her forgiveness about not having returned the first time to save her and asks her to be The Library's Guardian rather than a Librarian's Guardian.  Accepting his apology and realizing Flynn and Eve are forever a couple, she agrees.

Flynn returns to the Library at the time of the rehearsal for the Tethering Ceremony, essentially back to the beginning.  As in It's A Wonderful Life, Flynn is delighted to find all the other Librarians alive and well, with no memory of what had happened and all confused as to what he is saying.

Baird, however, appears and remembers it well.  Not only that, but both are delighted to find that Caretaker Jenkins (John Larroquette) is both alive and Immortal.  He too has no memory of what has come before, and certainly not his surrendering of immortality and death.  Both are so happy to see him that they opt not for a rehearsal but for a full Tethering, despite it not being the Equinox.

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After finishing And the Echoes of Memory, I got a particular Dallas vibe.  I just kept wondering, 'is this The Librarians version of Dallas' 'it was all a dream' ending"?

I imagine many Librarian fans are far too young to remember Dallas, but in one of the most infamous moments in television, this primetime soap opera's cliffhanger involved a character essentially 'dreaming' an entire season's storylines. By having the season turn out to be a dream, they could reboot the series without having to worry about pesky story threads.

And the Echoes of Memory, to a point, did the same thing as Dallas' "It Was All A Dream" ending.  By going back to fix the past, Flynn (and The Librarians' production crew) erased those pesky story threads of a dead Jenkins.  Given that the other Librarians have no memory of And the Dark Secret, because now it has never taken place, does that mean that the other episodes too did not take place?

And the Graves of Time could not have happened because Nicole was not an antagonist, and especially since Jenkins did not give up his Immortality.  Jenkins' Immortality also played a role in And the Trial of The One, so that didn't happen either.  Now, did And Some Dude Named Jeff happen?  Given that the other Librarians explained False Jenkins' oddball behavior to him being mortal, how could that work now that time has been rewritten and he never was not Immortal? 

What about And A Town Called Feud?  At least certain things could not have happened, since High Tea would not have elicited Jenkins' human side to love Cassandra's cucumber sandwiches.

Am I overthinking things?  Perhaps.  I know things like The Librarians are not meant to be taken as seriously as the Zapruder film, but something about this resolution struck me as amiss.  It resolves a thorny issue (the dead Jenkins) but does it do it at the expense of logic both internal and external?

If it weren't for the excellent cinematography on And the Echoes of Memory where we see how color creeps into this dystopian universe (shades of Pleasantville?), the strong world-building, and the work of the cast and guest star Nichols, exuding evil through every pore, I imagine I'd be far more likely to dislike it.

Some of the humor worked, and some was unintentional. Given that the 5'11" Romijn towers over the 5'7-8" Kane, hearing him call her 'little lady' is oddly amusing.

There were elements that I think might have been more deeply explored.  There's the mention of 'The Thought Police', the face that everyone in this world wears glasses, and the various Orwellian signs and slogans in this world such as "Thinking is Toxic for Your Brain".

And the Echoes of Memory was not a bad episode.  It was a pretty good one, with good performances and a fascinating world.  It's just that 'it was all a timey-wimey dream' bit that troubles me...


Next: And the Complete Fourth Season

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Aida's Secrets: A Review


There is a reason why Aida's Secrets is plural.  Even after her death, the story of Aida Zazasinka and her sons is still a tangle of mystery and confusion.  It makes one wonder not just about whether our parents have a right to keep things to themselves, but also whether what people want to take to the grave should remain there.  However, Aida's Secrets, which might have been shameful then, also robbed others of family and may not be a scandal now.  It's a strange thing, keeping secrets.

Alon Schwartz, the writer/director/producer of Aida's Secrets, knew a secret of his own, something kept from his uncle Izak in Israel all these nearly sixty years.  Izak knew his mother Aida sent him to then-Palestine when he was a baby after the Second World War, while for reasons unknown she went to Canada after leaving Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp. 

At long last, Izak is told the truth, the first of many secrets: Izak has a younger brother.  Whether the fact that his brother was blind was the reason for this being kept a secret we do not know, but after some searching Izak learns that his younger brother is alive in Canada.  An overwhelmed Izak flies from Israel to Winnipeg to be reunited with his little brother, Shepsel, better known as Shep.

Shep has made a life for himself in Canada and his blindness has not been a hindrance.  He is happy to meet his long-lost brother, and in a strange turn he lived with their father Grzegorz, or Grisha, or Gregory. 

Part of the difficulty of locating family was that many names and spellings were used for one individual.

Gregory was no saint to Shep, but he isn't going to tell Izak that.  Shep learned as a teen that the woman he thought was his mother was actually his stepmother, but now also learns that his actual mother, whom Izak kept in contact with, was not only alive but a few hours from his home.  Shep never knew how close he was geographically with Aida, also known as Jadwiga or Jadza.

A reunion is arranged at Aida's nursing home, and Aida seems genuinely moved to see both her sons at last.  However, the story is not over yet.

The tangled nature of life now makes them try to find out the truth about just how close Izak and Shep are biologically.  It comes from a statement someone made, that Grisha 'could' be Shepsel's father.  Now things become more complex and convoluted.  Alon and Shep now start digging into archives and DNA tests and asking ever-so-gently Aida questions to find out the real story.

Aida may be a Polish Christian and not a Jew herself, at least that was the reason why her application to move to Israel was rejected and she had to immigrate to Canada instead.  This despite having sent Izak to Israel, which was her wish for him to be brought up in the Jewish faith with a Jewish education.

Moreover, life at Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp was rather active socially.  Grisha was a major Don Juan, having married Aida, then had a South African kindergarten teacher named Tippi as a mistress, then having a fling with a secretary, before marrying a German widow named Margaret, who was Shep's stepmother.  It's all very convoluted.

We find that DNA shows that Izak and Shep are only half-brothers, sharing the same mother but not the same father.  Of Shep's parentage there isn't doubt: it's Aida and Grisha.  Of Izak's parentage, now there is room for doubt.  A man in a photo of Aida's collection, taken at the same time as the only one of the whole family, which we have seen before in Aida's Secrets, may be Izak's father.  However, is Izak's father actually German?

As if all this is not already quite a muddle, we get near the end a third twist: researchers have found a third brother born in 1949!  Shep, ever so gently, makes inquiries of to his elderly mother, but she insists softly but firmly that she does not remember anything.  Whatever she knew of this she literally takes to the grave.

A post-script tells us that shortly after Aida died, the third brother was located in Toronto, but he opted not to meet with Shep and/or Izak.

Aida's Secrets is a fascinating story filled with interesting people in their complexities.  There are some particularly touching moments that will really touch you emotionally.  At the midpoint of Aida's Secrets, after being reunited with Shep, she sings You Are My Sunshine to her second-born, and it shows that whatever flaws or mysteries there were, a mother and child reunion is among the world's most beautiful things. 

We also get unexpected turns.  Once Shep and Aida are brought together, we wonder why the film would continue.  At this point, most stories end, with Izak tearfully joyful to have found his brother and united with their mother.  However, as we dive deeper, we see the story go out into unexpected places, trying to untangle this situation.

As we learn about the history of the post-war chaos and life in the DP camps, we find that the adults, for reasons they thought good, kept things from the children.  The rightness or wrongness of their decisions are simply not known, or perhaps logical to us now.  There was something that drove them then and drove them until their dying days. 

It seems a wild stretch to say you cannot remember having given birth to three children unless you suffered from dementia.  You sense that Aida may not have wanted to talk about these things, but you also sense there was no anger or dismissal of it either. 

It's a strange and complicated world we see.

The tangles of family secrets, from why Izak was not told for sixty years that he had a brother, to Aida's final secret revealed of a third brother, are all things that we cannot fully understand or figure out.  Perhaps because some things will perhaps now never be known, we leave Aida's Secrets with the knowledge that we will always have some questions unanswered.  Was Aida really a Polish Christian and not a Jew?  Who was Izak's real father?

Ultimately, does it matter?  Izak is happy to have found his 'little brother', and Shep too now has someone new in his life, and has made peace with his mother.  I think that matters most of all.

Family is a strange thing, even for those who know the connecting ties between oneself and those related to us.  Aida's Secrets perhaps should not have been, but at least some of the mystery and shame is gone.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

I, Tonya: A Review


It has been short of quarter-century since the demure and elegant world of figure skating faced a tawdry scandal.  The assault on Nancy Kerrigan and the ensuing discovery of the attack's connections to her rival, Tonya Harding, created not just a firestorm but fodder for mockery.  Harding was portrayed as at the very least a white-trash villain versus the sweet American Princess Kerrigan, but the story grew so bizarre that even Kerrigan found herself knocked down, her comment about a Disney Parade being 'so corny' seen as a sign that she was an Ice Princess in more ways than one.

I, Tonya takes a wry and humorous approach to this stranger-than-strange, truer-than-true story, but it also shows that behind the headlines Harding was not a woman of shame but a woman much abused.

Taking the form of faux-interviews and much fourth-wall breaking, I, Tonya tells Tonya Harding's (Margot Robbie) life up to the events that led to the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and shortly after. Tonya Harding's mother LaVona (Allison Janney) was going to get her daughter into ice skating.  Tonya showed great talent in it, but LaVona has no patience for the skating world and for Tonya herself.  She is the bitch mother from Hell, one so horrifying that she gives the Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest a run for her money.

LaVona does not shrink from forbidding Tonya to leave the ice to go to the restroom, then can only complain when she ends up soiling herself.  LaVona also beats her daughter repeatedly, which makes her opposition to Tonya's first real boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) a bit strange since he beats Tonya too.  Tonya has great skill on the ice, but being from the wrong side of the tracks (her financially poor parents make her a fur coat by literally hunting rabbits and skinning them themselves), along with her more contemporary musical choices in ice skating constantly derail her chances.  These 'rednecks on ice' are generally rejected by the more posh figure skating world, and despite their differences all three in their own way chafe at this.

Tonya struggles to make ends meet and deal with her abusive husband, leaving him and trying to get him out of her life with varying degrees of success.  As she wryly observes, fourth place winners don't get endorsements, they get the morning shift at a diner.  Gillooly for his part wants to help, but he finds his help in the worst way.  A sudden change of fortune comes her way when the Olympics change the schedule of the Winter Games, moving them up two years so as to not compete with the Summer Games.  Tonya now has a chance to fulfill her ultimate goal: to compete in the Olympics.

During her training, she is startled and upset to learn a death threat against her was issued, and more surprised that for once the police are not questioning her or Jeff for any wrongdoing themselves.  She gets a 'bodyguard', Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walker Hauser), and she and Jeff decide psychological warfare is in order.  Deciding that Kerrigan's team is behind the threat, they decide to retaliate by sending a series of threatening letters to Kerrigan in order to spook her.

What everyone refers to as 'The Incident', however, shows that people who thought themselves master strategists were in really shockingly and idiotically and hilariously inept.  Shawn, fancying himself a criminal genius, insists the plan is to attack Kerrigan, and the goons he gets are mindbogglingly dumb.  After whacking Kerrigan's knees, the attacker escapes by using his head to smash the locked glass doors open, then decides to tackle someone running away from him before jumping into the getaway car.

Exactly how much Gillooly and/or Harding actually knew of the attack will always be a mystery save to them.  I, Tonya shows that Gillooly is astounded at how stupid Shawn is and that it was only meant to be letters, not actual violence.  Harding, for her part, is kept further in the dark until she confronts him.  The scandal takes an immense toll on Harding, her great dream turning into a living nightmare.  LaVona herself appears to finally be a source of comfort, but like the press hounding her at her home she is only in for herself.

Once finally at the Olympics she all but crashes and burns, then observes that Kerrigan got a silver and looked more angry than grateful.  Now, with her banned for life from figure skating, she finds that Gillooly and Shawn faced lighter punishment for actually attacking and plotting an attack than her for finding out about it after the fact.  For Harding, not being able to skate is worse than death.  She reluctantly embraces a new career as a boxer, noting that this is America.

I, Tonya is hilarious and heartbreaking.  We laugh at all the craziness, all the bitchiness, all the really outlandish circumstances and situations they all face, but we leave with great sympathy and sadness for Harding.  If I, Tonya has a theme, it is something that Harding says in one of the faux-interviews.

"I was loved," she remarks on the early, heady days after her Olympic qualifying triumph before her world imploded.  As portrayed by Margot Robbie, she is terribly human and not a caricature, a woman abused psychologically and physically by her mother and husband who yearned to be seen as worthy.  Constantly rejected by the world she fought to get into, knowing she has the skills to be great but also knowing her background and manner keeps her out, Harding does not so much lash out as she does fight a Sisyphean battle.  In the end, you feel great sadness for her, and the film is surprisingly sympathetic towards her.  Robbie makes Tonya humorous and heartfelt, a person who can be tough but also highly vulnerable and sad.

It is just a wonderful performance.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers takes an interesting approach with I, Tonya, using fake interviews with the participants who often times comment on the various situations.  What makes I, Tonya successful in this front is that the film balances dark humor but drops the commentaries when the situations need to be serious.  Sometimes as we see Gillooly beat Harding, she looks straight at us to remark on how she was treated; this is that dark humor, but when there is another fight with her mother and LaVona ends up throwing a knife at Tonya which lands on her arm, there is dead silence.

The shock of this moment stays there, and there isn't any laughter, just disbelief.  You know that LaVona did not actually mean to try and kill her daughter, but LaVona has been so monstrous that it fits into her manner.

It's a sign of Janney's talent that LaVona, despite her at-times crazed and cruel nature, is not seen as thoroughly inhuman.  In her own way, LaVona is knowing about human nature, about how bad Jeff is for Tonya, and seeing her daughter go through the media barrage, Janney shows a glimmer of sadness for her. Still, her behavior so shocks you that one feels Joan Crawford is owed an apology for being seen as a Mother From Hell.

I admit to not being a fan of Sebastian Stan, at least of his Bucky Barnes.  Here, Stan is excellent as the abusive yet also inept Gillooly, a deeply flawed man.  Hauser, however, steals the show as the fatheaded Shawn, someone who is so comically inept and delusional about his own genius the audience marvels at just how stupid he is.

I think it was a conscious choice of director Craig Gillespie to almost always show Shawn eating, his appetite a substitute for his intelligence.  We also see how Gillespie makes wry commentaries about contemporary American life, particularly with regards to how starved for scandal America is.  Near the end, Harding observes the news vans packing up and leaving, while on a television screen we see footage of O.J. Simpson in the early days of the investigation into the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend.

The message is clear: the news media, portrayed by Bobby Cannavale as a Hard Copy employee who serves as an oddball Greek chorus, has moved on to the next story, leaving those it had devoured to pick up the pieces.

As a side note, the subliminal commentary can get a bit much, for there has to be a reason why Gillespie focused on a Reagan poster in the Eckhardt home.

In parts comedy and tragedy, I, Tonya is a tale that sounds outlandish, and one figures elements were placed for comedic effect.  The film itself acknowledges that it is based on contradictory but true statements.  The film has masterful use of music, using it to show the undercurrent of a situation or the nature of a character; its use of Fleetwood Mac's The Chain is better here than in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

You leave the film with great sympathy for Harding.  She was no saint, but she was not the monster she was made out to be.  A level of class snobbery and elitism was against Harding, who believed talent and talent alone should be the deciding factor.

I, Tonya has you laugh and cry at the insanity and tragedy of it all.

Tonya Harding, we hardly knew you...

Born 1970


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Promise: A Review


No Turkish Delight...

The Promise does something good and does something bad.  The good is that it draws attention to a little-known bit of history that needs more exposure.  The bad is that it drowns in a second-rate love story that pushes the film to be almost boring, insipid and predictable.  Fortunately, The Promise inches towards barely being tolerable, ironically when we actually forget about the 'love story' and focus on the situation the characters must suffer.

Young Armenian Michael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is an apothecary in his village in Turkey, but he dreams of becoming a doctor.  As a poor lad, he cannot afford medical school in distant, exotic Constantinople (now Istanbul), so he does what many poor lads do: gets engaged to a pretty girl he is not in love with to get the dowry.  Said girl, Maral (Angela Sarafyan, and for what it's worth one of the few actual actors of Armenian descent that plays an Armenian) is pretty but has to wait for her betrothed as he goes off to the big city.

Once in Constantinople, he goes to his rich uncle Vartan (Kevork Malikyan, another actual Armenian). 

At this point, I'd like to ask why the Boghosians didn't just ask Vartan to sponsor his distant nephew instead of basically pimping himself out, but quibbles.

Now safely in Constantinople, Michael makes quick friends with Emre Ogan (Marwan Kenzari), a Turk who has no interest in being a doctor but was pushed into it to please his father.  That, and to avoid the army.  Ogan is not like other Turks who have a hatred for Armenians, and as a rich man he squires Michael about.  Michael also meets Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), an artist who has returned home to reestablish her roots.  Her French sojourn may have given her a French accent, but she is proudly Armenian.

She also is involved with Christopher Meyers (Christian Bale) an American reporter who is quick with a quip and a drink, and who detests the Turkish/German alliance.  Now comes the First World War, and the Ottoman Empire has sided with the Germans.  Michael and Emre try to stay out of the fighting, but that soon becomes impossible as the Ottoman Turks are beginning their purge of the Armenian people in what became a genocide.  Michael and Ana struggle with and against their feelings, but eventually have a liaison, while Chris is busy documenting the Turkish assaults on the Armenian people.

Michael is eventually forced into slave labor, but thanks to a suicidal fellow prisoner manages an escape and a return to his village.  He reunites with his father and mother Marta (Shohreh Agdashloo), and also with Maral, whom he marries as a way to save his life.  Despite his passion for Ana, Michael feels a loyalty to Maral, and they consummate their marriage, eventually leading to a pregnancy.

This is the worst time to be giving birth to an Armenian baby, as the campaign of extermination by the Turks not only continues but intensifies. 

Ana and Chris manage to spirit away Vartan's wife Lena (Alicia Borrachero) and daughters to safety with Marta, but she tells them Michael is dead, suspecting Ana is the woman her son fell in love with.  Chris and Ana continue their own work in documenting and helping Armenian orphans respectively, but time is against them.  Chris' work gets him in trouble with the Turkish officials who threaten to execute him as a spy.  It takes the personal intervention of U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau (James Cromwell) to save him.  It does not save Emre, who is discovered to have tipped off Morgenthau and is summarily executed.

Ana, Michael, and many other Armenians are making a fierce last stand in the mountains, pushed against the sea.  Chris gets a ride on a French ship steaming towards their rescue, and ultimately, many lives are lost, including the linchpin of this love triangle.  Of his whole family, only Michael and his niece Yeva survive to find refuge in America.

What ultimately weakens The Promise is what the film imagines is its strongest point: the love story.  The Promise all but drowns under its own lushness and embarrassing efforts to be sweeping in this somewhat tawdry love triangle.  You cannot get more lush and embarrassing than when Michael and Ana finally give in to their desires.

After surviving a riot where Turks were attacking Armenians on the streets, they take refuge in a hotel.  There, with the flames of burning shops lit in the windows, they too experience the flames of passion.

One can be poetic in imagery, but this goes into downright parody.

It's clear that Robin Swicord and director Terry George's screenplay was cribbing from such films as Doctor Zhivago (with Michael going from his mistress' bed to his wife's bed, loving his Tanya while dreaming of his Lara), Titanic (Ana's final moments) and even the miniseries Holocaust (how the Armenian community, well-integrated into the dominant society, is quickly overrun by Turkish Armenian-phobia).  One could almost call The Promise a mash-up of these and other films.  Even the title makes a desperate plea to make this story oh so passionate.

It's also clear that it was making a mighty mess of it.

This is because as a triangle, it is neither interesting or believable.  Isaac, Le Bon and Bale all act if they are fully aware they are in a sweeping love story in a critical moment of history.  They do not behave as actual people, at least when they are all attempting to make us feel as passionately about these conflicting romances as they were directed to.

The Promise as a title is a bit of a misnomer, since the main 'promise' in The Promise is that of Michael to Maral, when he refuses to end his betrothal despite not being in love with Maral because he made 'a promise'.

It's a curious thing that The Promise works best when the characters and movie have no interest in their love lives.  Some of the scenes of the Armenian Genocide fill us with horror and shock, and the Armenian plight to survive and escape the Turkish extermination plans, particularly as they make their stand on the mountains and flee to the French ships, are when The Promise gets exciting, interesting and moving.

Perhaps this is what hampers our actors, as so much time is taken up in an effort to be sweeping that it did not have much time to be good.  Isaac got that look of forlorn angst as Michael.  Bale was all righteous indignation as Myers.  Le Bon was better than them as the more assured Ana, and I admire how her French accent was explained away in a virtually throwaway line.

The Promise could have been more.  It could have worked as a film commenting on the present by drawing lessons from the past.  I could not help thinking of how the Yazidis were driven to the mountains by ISIS when I saw the Armenians deciding to fight rather than surrender or be driven into the Syrian desert. 

The horrors and evil of the Armenian Genocide, which all Turkish governments refuse to acknowledge or admit, deserves to be told.  It certainly deserves to be told in a better film than The Promise.