I, Tonya (US, 2017)

The burden of representation

Although I remember Tonya Harding’s name and vague details of her ice skating notoriety I didn’t know the detail. Presumably I do now though the playfulness of Steven Roger’s script and Chris Gillespie’s direction allow for uncertainty; Tonya says to camera, when she fired a gun at her husband, “That never happened!”. This ‘kitchen sink’ approach works with the subject matter because Harding was clearly a no-holds barred woman and Margot Robbie portrays her brilliantly. Also impressive are the skating sequences where Robbie appears to be executing the extremely difficult ‘triple axel’ (see here for how it was done) Gillespie’s fluid camera with the sound of skate on ice high in the mix make the routines as thrilling as they should be. However…

In a sense my problem with the film isn’t the film’s fault. Harding was a working class woman who had to overcome economic difficulties, not to mention a monster-mother, and class prejudice: the skating establishment routinely under-scored her because her face didn’t fit (there’s an interesting story in that). I, Tonya, however, is a straightforward – apart from the stylistic tics noted above – biopic and the focus is on the stupidity of her husband and his crony, Shawn. The latter, in particular, is milked for his delusional self regard and the fact his is a ‘fat pig’ (the latter emphasised through close-ups of him incessantly eating). The impression I get is that these are typical working class people who are uncouth, stupid and pathetic; but working class people aren’t typically like that. The absence of the class from films in general means when they appear the burden of representation falls heavily on the text. During the end credits video footage of the actual Shawn shows him to be exactly as he is portrayed; so you can hardly blame the film.

Ultimately I found the representations offensive and even (Oscar-winner) Allison Janney’s mother is no more than an appalling cipher.

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The City and the City (UK, 2018)

Not really there

Is anything ‘unfilmable’? Probably not because everything can be adapted but it was brave of the BBC to put China Mieville’s intriguing novel in a primetime Friday night slot. The premise of his novel, that two cities exist in the same place but it is illegal to acknowledge the presence of the other, is obviously a major challenge for the visual medium. Director Tom Shankland conveys the division brilliantly by blurring the forbidden parts and using the excellent David Morrissey’s troubled expression, in shot-reverse/shots, to indicate he’s trying not to see. Tony Grisoni’s script moves mountains to convey the weirdness of the place whilst keeping the detective narrative going. However, I’m not sure whether audiences without knowledge of the novel will cope.

Mainstream television narratives require momentum because if it stalls the remote is too close to impatient viewers. When reading a novel a stalling narrative is less of a problem because (my tendency at least) it’s easy to put down and have a break; very few of us expect to consume novels in one sitting. The same could be said for pre-recorded television though I suspect few break up individual episodes very often. Apparently the trend is for binge viewing where many episodes can be consumed at once. So in the weird world of The City it is essential that the strangeness does not get in way of comprehension.

I can’t imagine The City in the City being produced, say, 10 years ago. The explosion of ‘quality television’ has shown there is an appetite for complexity; for example, series three of Twin Peaks (2017) was typical Lynch in that events are never fully explained and he does shoot some scenes as longueurs. The second season of Twin Peaks failed because this weirdness was not allowed by the network.

The art direction (David Bowes) is superb, a scuzzy noir world that is a melange of times and places. The mixture of iconography (including I think East Germany (GDR) and Turkey), numerous accents and ethnicities give the programme a modern edge that is beyond postmodern eclecticism. In our world where borders are a key issue The City and the City is a timely and must-see broadcast.

Annihilation (UK-US, 2018)

Entering the uncanny

Apparently Paramount were doubtful about the box office appeal of writer-director Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina so chose to distribute it via Netflix internationally. In commercial terms they may have been right as it’s only grossed just over $30m in North America, but in artistic terms we are missing out in not being able to readily see such an interesting looking movie in the cinema.

Garland’s freely adapted the first of Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Outreach’ trilogy and I enjoyed the film more than the book. He channels the spirit of Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) – both USSR – through a more mainstream sensibility. The ‘Outreach’ is an alien zone where, using a horror movie trope, a group of scientists enter with the expectation of being ‘bumped off one by one’. The group is all female but the gender politics are not the issue; one character points out that they are ‘scientists’ rather than ‘women’.

There is plenty of exciting action but, like Ex Machina, Garland is more interested in the ideas: issues of identity; grief; our place in the universe; evolution and so on. He’s packaged this in a fascinating narrative that features a number of excellent performances. Natalie Portman in the lead and Jennifer Jason Leigh, channelling her ‘slightly-psycho’ persona, are particularly good.

Mark Digby’s production design is fabulous, the landscape ranges from being subtly altered, and therefore uncanny, to the bizarre and beautiful.

Annihilation is another reason why Netflix may be becoming indispensable which, alongside Amazon Prime releasing Suburbicon (2017) a month before the DVD, is a concern for cinema distribution. Whilst blockbusters continue to make cinemas a viable business, niche movies are increasingly squeezed and no matter how much I’m impressed by the picture on my television IT’S NOT CINEMA!

Do the Right Thing (US, 1989)

I’ve just published a guide to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Here’s the introduction:

In Florida on February 26th, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who had been shopping at a convenience store, was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman. Zimmerman had called ‘911’ to report Martin’s apparently suspicious behaviour and was told not to follow him. However the vigilante did so and claimed self-defence after shooting the boy. Florida’s ‘stand your ground law’ meant, as officers accepted Zimmerman’s version of events, he was not charged. After a national outcry he was eventually sent to trial where he was found ‘not guilty’. For many this outcome was another example how the American legal system discriminates against ethnic minorities and, in response, the activist movement Black Lives Matter was created.

This lack of concern about black lives certainly wasn’t new: in 2009 Oscar Grant was shot and killed, when he was lying face down on the ground being arrested, in Oakland, California; the killing was dramatised in Fruitvale Station (2013). The officer, Johannes Mehserle, was prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter and served very little time in prison.

Initially Black Lives Matter seemed to have no effect as African American lives continued to be lost in contentious circumstances. Michael Brown, an 18-year old, was shot in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and several days of protests followed. Earlier that year, in New York, Eric Garner died after being held in a chokehold by officers even though the NYPD had banned the use of this method of restraint. Nearly 30 years after Do the Right Thing featured the death of a black man at the hands of the NYPD using a chokehold, it is clear that the sore of racism, with its roots in slavery, still festers.

Spike Lee’s emergence as a high profile filmmaker wasn’t simply due to the quality of his films but also because he became, for a time at least, an African American voice that mainstream media could not ignore. Although Lee’s messages were often misrepresented, the success of his films and skill in promoting himself led him to be considered to be a spokesperson for African Americans. Due to the institutional racism that restricts Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) access, non-white voices are heard relatively rarely in mainstream media. Hence Lee, one of the few high profile African Americans in the film industry, became the conduit through which the mainstream media and audiences heard an African American perspective. Although his ambition was to be a filmmaker, not a spokesperson for his race, he hasn’t shirked the responsibility and has ensured that, in most cases, he has control over his films so he could say what he had to say.

However putting the burden of representation on one person’s shoulders is not only unfair but also impractical: one person cannot speak for a variegated group. One of the consequences of this is that Lee became a focus of criticism from African Americans because his films didn’t represent black culture the way they understood it.

At the other extreme, racist critics attacked Lee simply as a tactic to shut up a ‘diverse’ voice. The burden carried by Lee, and other ethnic minority artists who have mainstream appeal such as Beyoncé, is their art is inflected by race in a way that white artists’ work rarely is.

In 2017 Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for killing, when a police office, African American Walter Scott. Maybe this is a sign that the Black Lives Matter movement is working. As Do the Right Thing suggests, it is vital to continue fighting against racial oppression.

 

Available at Amazon here.

Lady Bird (US, 2017)

Teen conventions

I’m getting slightly worried about my mental health as once again I’m finding my judgement on a film in the first few shots to be correct. Could it be that I’m allowing my first impressions to dominate the rest of the film? If my response is negative in the first 60 seconds should I leave the screening and ask for my money back? Lady Bird was trailing plaudits and promised a female perspective, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, so I was anticipating a good experience but…

I don’t believe Lady Bird is a bad film, unlike Phantom Thread, but it struggled to engage me in its modest 90 minute length. I’m struggling to understand why: it’s not the performances; the 22-year-old Saoirse Ronan is a convincing teenager. Gerwig’s direction is fine as is the script. Maybe it’s the autobiographical element; I just didn’t find the life portrayed as interesting. It’s not the female perspective that’s off-putting as I enjoyed The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

On the plus side it’s good to see Gerwig reaping success both in terms of awards and box office. It is the type of small film, budgeted at $10m, that struggles to get a hearing amongst the behemoths of Hollywood that absorb most budgets and screens. Parlaying $10m into $68m and counting worldwide is decent business and hopefully will encourage independent producers and audiences for small films.

 

Dark River (UK, 2017)

Outsider trying to get back

Spoilers ahead!

I must admit I had reservations when it became clear that the trauma suffered by Alice (the excellent Ruth Wilson) was being sexually abused by her father when a child. There is a danger that such a horrendous breach of trust will become a cliché if it is wheeled out too often; I first felt this when seeing Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. However, in the film Clio Barnard does manage to add to our (my) understanding of the lingering effects of the abuse.

Ruth returns home after the death of her father, played with brooding presence by Sean Bean in the flashbacks. Her brother, Joe, a slightly unhinged character played by Mark Stanley, is less than welcoming but the film is nuanced in its portrayal of characters that – dad aside – can mostly be seen to also have a ‘good side’. Ruth is a character of immense strength who single-handedly looks to be capable of turning the farm around but the absentee landlords ensure that profit comes before the land.

What makes Barnard’s film interesting is the way the flashbacks are integrated, like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, into the continuity editing so that the past is integral to the present. The scene shifts back many years with an eyeline match editing; Ruth’s memories momentarily seem as if they are happening now. This shows how the abuse Alice suffered 15 years earlier is still ‘present’ in her existence.

Adriano Goldman’s cinematography captures the ‘it’s grim up north’ beauty of the moors more effectively than God’s Own Country (UK, 2017). The farming community is unsentimentally and sympathetically portrayed. In one scene Joe eulogises about the millions of insects that can be hosted on one field in stark contrast to this week’s report that bird populations in France are plunging because of insecticides.

The Shape of Water (US, 2017)

tOgeTHER

I hope you’ve seen this film but if you haven’t don’t read this: go see.

I was uneasy about Phantom Thread a few shots in but I was sold on The Shape of Water during the first shot that ‘steadicams’ through Elisa’s (Sally Hawkins) underwater apartment. The beautiful (throughout) set design becomes magical as the ripples of water wobble our vision. We are in a fairy tale land where it appears that there will be a happy ending but, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, the reality of the time – the early ‘60s – threatens political violence.

Del Toro loves monsters; he apparently made a pact with them that he would love them if they allowed him to go to the toilet and so avoid wetting his bed when a child. Misunderstood beasts populate his films, most obviously in Hellboy 2 where the hero tells his girlfriend that it’s great in the troll market because no one stares at him. The monster in The Shape of Water is based on ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’, an early 3D movie released in 1954.

Paul D. Austerberry deserves plaudits for the production design, it almost trumps the narrative, but there is no doubt that it is Guillermo del Toro’s vision we are seeing. His colour schemes are always calculated – green dominates here – and always beautiful to look at. As is Sally Hawkins’ magnificent performance as Elsa, a mute whose loneliness leads her to the ‘monster’. Richard Jenkins, as a closeted gay man, is also excellent in his heart breaking portrayal of being a man ‘out of his time’. Not only does his homosexuality make his life difficult his commercial art has become unfashionable.

It’s 1963, Cold War paranoia and civil rights protests are ongoing in a country under siege from, as the film suggests, itself. The civil rights protests are only referenced in passing but the hatred of the ‘Other’, intensified by the Cold War, is the focus. Michael Shannon, the film’s real monster, plays the security man who wants the ‘creature’ dissected. The Russian spies are played for laughs but are – apart from the sympathetic scientist – as culpable as the Americans.

Elsa’s apartment is above an Orpheum cinema, with is showing the Biblical epic ‘The Song of Ruth’, and it is as if all the ideas of cinema have percolated through the roof to infiltrate her life. Of course, cinema infiltrated del Toro’s life as a boy and his films are on-going homages to films he loves but he manages to avoid pastiche, in the way Tarantino has no wish to, and so offers a rich dish of layered meanings. The poster for The Creature from the Black Lagoon featured the titular ‘monster’ carrying out the pathetic female lead; del Toro reimagines this to make the female a protagonist of verve and resource. Her silence is contrasted with the loquacious Zelda (Octavia Spencer on great form) who also representsAfrican Americans; both are also working class cleaners in the government research institute.

Shannon’s stricken Strickland’s middle class life, with its burgeoning consumerism epitomised by his purchase of a ‘teal’ Cadillac, comes across as a ‘Stepford Wife’ hell and is particularly disturbing when he has sex with his wife. Strickland is literally rotting, his injured fingers turn black and he constantly eats sweets, and his soullessness is only matched by the ‘five star’ general who isn’t impressed by loyalty. Strickland’s shown putting into practice the manifesto of The Art of Positive Thinking and we see how its philosophy to be empty.

At the heart of the film is Hawkins’ Elsa whose pathos, particularly in the musical sequence when she imagines finding her voice, is moving. Doug Jones’ creature is a magnificent costume brilliantly embodied. The film requires more than one viewing to revel in its cinematography and marvel at the marvellous.