Movie review: I, Tonya

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I, Tonya is a usually skillfully done and well acted telling of the story of Tonya Harding, the Olympic skater forever infamous for her involvement in a conspiracy to take out one of her competitors, Nancy Kerrigan.

For those of you not old enough to remember, this story enraptured the country, probably the world, as it unfolded. Here was a real-life conspiracy with high stakes unfolding in news broadcasts and tabloids every night, and it was hard not to be drawn into this true crime tale even if you had no interest in skating or the Olympics or if, in my case, you had never heard of Tonya Harding or Nancy Kerrigan prior to a hired goon attempting to kneecap Nancy and get her to hauntingly scream “Why?” in pain on camera for all to see.

The film plays the story as a dark comedy with some harrowing moments of drama–there’s no question Harding had a tough upbringing. She is depicted (by Margot Robbie) as someone desperate for love and acclaim, with two massive and related flaws–a rebellious streak which causes her to reject the council of those wiser and more knowledgeable than her, and an inability to take responsibility. “It’s not my fault,” or “It wasn’t my fault” is her frequent refrain.

While making clear that its narrators are unreliable, I, Tonya seems to come down on Harding’s side regarding the facts of the matter. She took a plea deal for hindering the prosecution of the other parties involved (something the movie confusingly doesn’t make clear, leaving viewers wondering what exactly her sentence was for), and the film has it that that’s probably all she’s guilty of. And maybe it is.

I, Tonya is so skillfully constructed for the most part that its few slip-ups stand out. The aforementioned courtroom confusion, a bizarre scene where the camera’s obsessive focus on a Ronald Reagan poster (who wasn’t even in office at the time) takes the viewer completely out of the movie, and a dumb throwaway line where we’re supposed to think that Olympic-skater Tonya thinks of having a living room as living in the lap of luxury. These minor things will probably stop the film from getting an Oscar nomination for best editing in a few weeks.

But, all in all, a really good film. Younger viewers may assume that the filmmakers have amped up the absurdity of the whole situation, and of course they have. But only by a little–it really was incredibly absurd. I, Tonya captures that absurdity beautifully.

Four stars

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TV review: “Bullet in the Face”

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I’ve got a new review up at The Violent World of Parker of “Bullet in the Face,” a short-lived, absurd, and very violent TV show from the creator of the ’80s cult-classic cop show “Sledge Hammer!”

You can check it out here.

Movie review: The Shape of Water

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An amphibious humanoid resembling the Creature from the Black Lagoon is brought to a government lab during the height of the Cold War. Cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) forms a relationship with the creature and takes action when she learns of plans to vivisect him.

There is a scene in The Shape of Water that demonstrates much of what’s wrong with the film; I can’t write “everything that’s wrong” because there’s a lot more wrong, but much of what’s wrong.

Giles (Richard Jenkins), the friend and eventual accomplice of Elisa is in a neighborhood pie shop that he frequents. He gets into a conversation with the young man behind the counter, Pie Guy (that’s what he’s called in the credits, played by Morgan Kelly) and decides that this is the opportune moment to make a fairly aggressive homosexual play for Mr. Guy. Pie Guy is very uncomfortable with this and rejects the advance, as one might expect a young, straight guy to do in 1958.

The audience, while having sympathy with a lonely older man who is an outcast from society due to his homosexuality, might also have some sympathy for a young man thrust into a very awkward situation. And We Cannot Have That. It needs to be known the Pie Guy’s flustered rejection is because he is pure evil, so at this precise moment, a black couple walks in and Pie Guy rudely lets them know that they have no place sitting in the empty diner and kicks them out. And Giles, of course.

It is important to the film’s theme to establish Giles’ homosexuality and some of the societal rejection that comes with it. But why does poor Pie Guy, who has seemed like a very pleasant young man up until this point, have to be Pure Evil in order to establish these things?

This is a film that, while posing as uplifting, hates humanity. With the exception of a couple of bit characters needed to advance the plot, every character not involved in the plot to extract gill-man is either evil or extraordinarily blasé about the evil around them. (The bit characters might be evil as well, we just don’t get to know them.) The Cold War is nothing more than a dick-measuring between two evil governments. Men don’t care when their wives are being verbally abused, humiliated, and threatened right in front of them. The pleasant man behind the counter at your neighborhood diner is coiled hate just waiting to spring.

The most evil of them all is Michael Strickland (Michael Shannon), the tired cliché of an evil general. General Strickland is not allowed the slightest smidgen of humanity. He isn’t misguided, mistaken, or imperfect. In fact he is perfect! Perfect evil. That critics are praising a film with such a stereotypical one-dimensional antagonist should let future film-makers know that all you have to do to fool these dullards is dress your film up to make it look pretty and pander to the critics’ ideology.

Also, the movie is as utterly predictable. By maybe twenty minutes in, the only major plot point that viewers may not be able to guess in this formulaic movie is the very end, and even that can be guessed if some not-terribly-subtle foreshadowing is paid attention to.

Three things elevate this film to the whopping two-star level: The performances are fine, with even poor Michael Shannon doing the best with what he has to work with; the pacing at least keeps things moving; and the art direction is beautiful. None of that is enough to make the film worth seeing, but if you do see it, you’ll at least have those things to distract you.

two-stars

 

365 days, 365 short stories – 1/7/18-1/13/18

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As I continue my effort to read 365 short stories in ’18, I find that I’m really enjoying it and that it isn’t as difficult as I was afraid it was going to be. I’ve already gotten in the habit of grabbing the odd twenty minutes in between one obligation and another.
This week I read:

“A .45 to Pay the Rent” by Charles Bukowski. I haven’t read a lot of Bukowski, but I’m starting to think that he is noir for people who don’t read noir.

“Spurs” by Tod Robbins. The story that inspired the Tod Browning film Freaks, and as messed up as that implies. From The Best Noir of the Century, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler.

“In the Forest of Villefère” by Robert E. Howard. A three-page trifle, only notable for introducing the character of de Montour and Howard’s concept of lycanthropy. Both would reappear to much better effect in his story “Wolfshead.” From The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard.

“The Guilty Party” by Richard S. Prather. My first experience reading Shell Scott. It’s as if Bruce Campbell narrated a private detective story. This is from The Shell Scott Sampler, with its infamously bad cover.

“Sea Curse” by Robert E. Howard. Exactly what it sounds like. First published appearance of Faring Town, which would appear in other Howard Tales. A pedestrian story elevated by Howard’s style. From The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard.

“A Case of Identity” by Arthur Conan Doyle. A lesser Sherlock Holmes mystery. From The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The Shining Pyramid” by Arthur Machen. Who is leaving strange symbols in the English countryside? A classic tale of the supernatural.

Book review: My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

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It was 1982 when Abby Rivers met Gretchen Lang, becoming fast friends when Gretchen saves Abby from what looked like was going to be the most horrible, awful day in insecure Abby’s whole life. They build a world of inside jokes, shared loves, favorite songs, forbidden books and movies, and anything else fun as they move through junior high into their high school years.

It’s now 1988, and Gretchen vanishes from a lake party with enough illicit activities going on that her friends are too scared to immediately call in authority figures. She shows back up the next day, naked and acting odd.

Abby knows something is wrong inside her friend, but everyone else wants to blame an outside culprit–the natural changes of the teenage years, drugs, or the bad influence of Gretchen’s social circle. Abby is at a loss as to what is going on as Gretchen spirals downward until an unexpected diagnosis comes from an unexpected source, and is the only explanation that seems to make sense–Gretchen is possessed.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism is probably about as charming a book about demonic possession and all the horrors that come with it as could possibly be written. Grady Hendrix captures growing up in the ’80s extremely well–I track the characters age-wise exactly, so I was in the same grade as the characters the same year, and, yep, this is what it was like. Anyone in my cohort will get a kick out of it just for that. And anyone can understand the emotional highs and lows of those high school years, also captured extremely well.

All of which easily overrides the book’s few flaws. I think Hendrix deliberately made his authority figures as shallow as the ones in Rock n’ Roll High School, and I do wish he would have given them a little more depth–that would be possible and have them still not be willing or able to understand what is going on around them. And the book does drag in the middle, but not for long–when the vomit starts flying, you won’t want to put it down.

Those are minor complaints about a book that is right in so many other ways, from small things like the fact that no one actually understands what the Go-Go’s are singing in “We Got the Beat,” to big things like the importance of friendship in surviving the very worst of times.

And, among other things, it’s a book about doing the right thing. Against all odds.

Movie review: The Big Sick

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Pakistani immigrant and stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley,” playing himself) falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a white American girl, but the relationship falls apart because he is afraid of being disowned by his family if things go any further.

When Emily falls gravely ill and needs to be placed in a medically induced coma, Kumail gets to know Emily’s sometimes-eccentric parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) and needs to decide how much of the American lifestyle he is going to embrace and how much he is going to honor his traditional culture to please his parents.

While the humor in The Big Sick is, if possible, maybe a little too self-deprecating as one begins to wonder how Emily could have fallen for this schlub to begin with, and, like most films these days, it could have used some trimming, The Big Sick is an enjoyable and touching exploration of love and the immigrant experience. The characters are well-developed and the performances are without exception excellent. Come for the romance, stay for the (yes, quite interesting) cultural exploration.