Months in Review: March & April films (part 2)

Continued from the previous post.

Below my thoughts on the films I watched in April.

I, TONYA (2017) [ 2.5/5 ]

After two hours of film, I could not assert whether I, Tonya is an empathetic reevaluation of Tonya Harding, or an exploitative character study. On the surface it seems to try to sympathize with the former Olympian, but every tragic and horrible moment of her early years is accompanied by a snarky attitude or a redneck generalization. So, for every bit of information that expands and dispels the tabloid image of Harding, there is a feeling that the film is having too much fun with the material at the expense of its subjects.

As accomplished, harrowing and multi-layered as Margot Robbie’s performance is as Tonya Harding, Gillespie doesn’t trust it, distracting us with a cinematic construction that is messy. There are voiceovers, in-character interviews, and even a late sequence that connects the film to its source; all of which adds little substance.

As much as I love Alisson Janey in almost anything she has ever been a part of, her performance as Harding’s abusive mother doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. It is something that belongs best in an opera, where large personalities and grand gestures are better served.

RUSHMORE (1998) [ 3.5/5 ]

Wes Anderson’s beloved 1998 film was his most assured and stylistic work to the date. Rushmore has a rich story with quirky and awkward characters that look and behave like cartoonish approximations of real people (a common trait of Anderson’s work). Even then, his direction showed a fondness for theater and opera, with a story set against the backdrop of colorful and playful sets, where each character is a cog to a larger mechanism.

Rushmore successfully weaves a charming coming-of-age story, a teatrise on first love, a metaphor about embracing our differences and an essay about staying in touch with our adventurous side. Rushmore is a labor of love that is easy to enjoy, time and time again.

THE FOREIGNER (2017) [ 3.5/5 ]

A phenomenal Pierce Brosnan and a nearly silent yet effective Jackie Chan star in this surprisingly engrossing thriller set in the midst of old tensions between Northern Ireland and England.

The Foreigner begins rather clumsily though, with a shocking tragedy that feels more exploitative than moving. After that, the film improves, using Chan rather sparingly to give the political conflict a human and emotional dimension.

Brosnan is, however, the reason to watch this film, giving one of his best ever performances playing a politician whose turbulent past bubbles back up and threatens his privileged position at the top of Northern Ireland’s political sphere.

ISLE OF DOGS (2018) [ 4.5/5 ]

Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 Essential Films

It was somewhat surprising to me to see some important critics chastising this beautiful Wes Anderson film for culturally appropriating Japanese culture.

While I am not of Japanese descent and I can speak only from ignorance on that regard; one thing that is clear to me is that Anderson’s intent is noble. The representation of Japanese culture in Isle of Dogs comes from the perspective of a respectful admirer. Anderson is interested in the sound, the colors and the dialectic timing of Japanese people like any other artist would. From the momentous opening scene to the last, the culture is a source of wonder and beauty, even if some of the film’s Japanese characters are villainous.

Aside from the topic of cultural sensitivity, I also want to shine a light on the level of craftmanship and attention to detail that has come to define Anderson’s work, but that is all the more impressive here. The director, using his expanding Hollywood clout and mastery of the medium, has managed to craft ever more complex features and Isle is the zenith of this continuing evolution.

Everything in this tale of friendship between men and women and their dogs is handled with care and precision. The film is funny, charming, beautiful to look at, thrilling and surprising. This is one of those pieces of art that fuels my continued desire to go to the theater and watch movies.

THE LITTLE HOURS (2017) [ 2/5 ]

As a satire on the clergy, abstinence and religious inflexibility, The Little Hours does little more than land a few jokes and consciously cross a few pious lines. It is neither clever, nor original. It seeks to offend, but it does so without an interest in filmmaking and storytelling. It is lazy and half-haphazard. A Saturday Night Live-type sketch that was unnecessarily stretched to make a feature length film.

I expected more.

MOLLY’S GAME (2017) [ 3/5 ]

The most enjoyable thing about Molly’s Game is the sheer force of the performance by Jessica Chastain, her best turn since Zero Dark Thirty. The film is a tale about a strong and audacious woman doing things, good and bad, that are more traditionally associated to men (at least in film). Unlike many Hollywood productions with a female lead, it is also refreshing that there is not a hint of romance throughout, focusing instead on her struggles as a young adult who has mostly misused her many talents while trying to navigate a manly world.

Ironically, the script is penned by Aaron Sorkin, a middle-aged man, who in his first directorial job, has surprisingly written a script viewed from a female perspective (also his first major attempt at doing so) within the male dominated clandestine world of high-stakes poker games.

Sorkin’s camerawork is simple and straightforward, an unobstrusive vessel for yet another of his quick witted and densely packed scripts.

Sadly, for as many wonderful lines as one finds in the film, there are also plenty of moments when Sorkin succumbs to the temptation of overindulgence, choosing to spell his characters’ feelings, rather than trust in our capacity as an audience to understand his goals. There are also big scenes filled with the sort of simplistic moments of revelation that are little more than self-conscious constructs that feel false.

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991) [ 3.5/5 ]

When Gus Van Sant’s seminal 1991 film abandons its fondness for Shakespeare and King Lear, My Own Private Idaho finds beauty in even the simplest of acts.

Much has been said about Idaho being the 1990s version of Rebel Without a Cause. After all, we have a young male actor at its center that brandishes the kind of effortless cool and charisma that evokes the unforgettable James Dean. Sadly, the story of the young River Phoenix was also cut short, which has undoubtedly contributed to the mythology around Idaho (in a similar way than Dean’s untimely death did for Rebel).

In Van Sant’s film there are moments, perhaps only a handful, that hint at a greater film hidden between confusing and unrefined Shakespearean reveries.

There is, for instance, a moment shared by Phoenix and a very young Keanu Reeves by a small fire in the desert that is beautifully heartbreaking. Like it, there are others, but the separate ideas that are scattered throughout the film never amount to a consistent enough piece to merit a higher rating.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) [ 3.5/5 ]

One of the finest examples of the then popular 1980s brand of tacky, ridiculous and over-the-top action thrillers. Escape from New York is the kind of film that seems to stem from the imagination of a young child, but with the cinematic craft and flamboyance of John Carpenter to support it.

In Escape, Carpenter teams up again with Kurt Russell after their sci-fi horror classic The Thing. Once again, what we get is more of the alpha male type character, but multiplied several times over. Russell plays the hero, ridiculously named Snake Plissken, who wears an eye-patch, sports all black clothes and prefer to leave his hair long. The plot is a B-movie aficionado’s wet dream: a rescue mission inside New York City, which in this dystopian future, has been transformed to a city-sized high security jail where prisoners roam free and from which no one ever escapes.

The film’s bold and confident choices is something that distinguishes it from most of the inferior self-conscious action driven efforts of today. The point here is to entertain, no more and no less, and it largely does, in spite of, or thanks to, the film’s total disinterest in realism.

KILL THE IRISHMAN (2011) [ 3/5 ]

Loosely based on the real-life story of Danny Greene, an infamous union leader who, after making dirty deals with local crime syndicates in Cleveland, is recruited by the Police Department to be an informant. Green is played by Ray Stevenson (from HBO’s Rome), a tall and corpulent actor who convincingly embodies the scrappy cadence and unfiltered confidence that the role required.

While the performances are solid (including some cameos by some of the most reliably gangster actors in Hollywood) and the script has its moments, Kill the Irishman tries to pack too much with too little. Our protagonist, for instance, psychologically transforms three times. First, he is a humble, moral and well-read man. Then he becomes violent, ambitious and morally corrupt; only to then revert back to a more honorable life. His marriage takes a sizable part of the early scenes, but it then disappears like no more than a footnote. Equally puzzling is the usage of Val Kilmer, whose character promises to be a fundamental part of the whole, only to fade away not having made any sizable contribution to the story.

The film also fails to ring true in the quieter scenes, feeling both rushed and uninterested in the emotional side of Danny Greene.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

The juggernaut of the box office and the most hyped of all of 2018’s blockbusters is a film made up of a great deal of talent. The actors are some of the finest in the Hollywood firmament, able to make the most out of their limited screen time. The Russo brothers, who come back to direct after the success of Captain America: Civil War are, once again, accompanied by the same pair of writers responsible for the last three Captain America films (easily the most consistent saga of the Marvel Universe). Within the confines of a very ambitious and nearly impossible outline, these writers had to craft a single digestible feature film, making sense out of many characters and storylines.

The team behind Avengers makes the right decisions, taking the series in exciting and new directions, trying to give Thanos, the great villain, enough depth and backstory for audiences to care about his perspective in the fight. Though they manage the feat for the most part, it also comes at a cost. No longer do the actors playing the superheroes that audiences have grown to love get sufficient screen time to make Avengers truly masterful. Missing here is the banter between these personalities that, with the skill and charisma of these actors, can be a lot more interesting than the enormous action sequences.

Within the many storylines developing in parallel there are those who succeed and those with uneven results. The talent of Chris Hemsworth is mostly wasted, and so is Peter Dinklage, who serves mostly as a stark reminder of all of characters that are quickly left behind in favor of pace. A similar thing can be said about the early scenes involving Robert Downey Jr.’ Iron Man, when he shares the screen (rather stiffly and forcefully I may add) with Gwyneth Paltrow, whose only purpose is to serve as a faint connection to the past films.

Do let me know your thoughts about the films I reviewed and any others you may have watched lately in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Months in Review: March & April films (part 2)

  1. It’s true I, TONYA is arguably “having too much fun with the material at the expense of its subjects”. The focus is on Tonya yet I’m not sure if the injured Nancy Kerrigan (the actual victim) is happy with being part of an entertaining movie. The film does controversially excuse T Harding to some extent, while also sending a message that cheating has consequences in the court room scene. I wasn’t familiar with the Harding scandal so it was like watching it all unfold for the first time.

    Thanks for the ISLE OF DOGS recommendation. Sounds really good!

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