Movie review: “Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson movies are the cinematic equivalent of licorice—a flavor so divisive that its fans are regarded with incredulity, even suspicion by its detractors. If you are in the latter camp, nothing in “Isle of Dogs” will change your mind: Anderson remains as devoted as ever to the twee stylistic idiosyncrasies that define his movies: limited color palettes, fussily symmetrical shot compositions, and deadpan delivery from absolutely every actor, at every moment, always. No other director could make “Isle of Dogs”, because it wouldn’t occur to anyone else to try—it is Anderson’s second film using stop-motion animation, a painfully slow and physically finicky process that takes a certain degree of insanity even to attempt. Think “changing a 737’s oil with an eyedropper” and you’ve about got it. If I were asked to make a stop-motion film, the result would be thirty seconds long, involve two characters in a single room, and take thirteen years to achieve. With Wes Anderson in charge, the result is… different. A dizzying array of backdrops and sets compose Trash Island, a futuristic garbage dump to which the mayor of Megasaki, Japan, has banished all the city’s dogs. It seems Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) is a cat lover. His ward, the twelve-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), feels differently. To find his banished dog Spots, he has stolen a plane, crashed it on Trash Island, and teamed up with refugee dogs Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Ed Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). In any other director’s hands, this plot could threaten to become cloyingly sweet: wisely, Anderson keeps Trash Island bleak and hopeless, a place where the sky veers from dull silver to pollution orange, never pausing on anything resembling blue.

Strangely, the results are beautiful: every frame could be framed, from the compacted cubes of trash stacked in neat geometric arrays to the patterned paper collages indicating cuts to the movie’s many plays-within-plays. Noting the heavy-handed use of lanterns, geishas, outlines of Mt. Fuji, and other classic Japanese imagery, several critics have gently noted that we are, if not in the absolutely clear outfield of cultural stereotype and appropriation, at least skirting its edges. I think that’s very close to accurate, but given that this is a Wes Anderson picture, made with analog technology and an old-fashioned aesthetic, I am going to call his slightly overenthusiastic homage by an old-fashioned word: Japonisme. That’s what happened when the Impressionists got their first look at the art objects flooding out of a newly opened Japan, and went completely apeshit. Van Gogh and Renoir and Manet and Monet and Cassatt and Whistler all went in on the trend, giving their best interpretations of the Japanese aesthetic. Because they were geniuses, the results were some beautiful paintings. However, because they were not Japanese, and therefore lacked the cultural framework with which to fully understand what they were looking at, the results were not Japanese art. They were beautiful, colorful examples of what white Westerners saw when they looked at Japan—blind spots and all. I was reminded of that trend during the scene where Atari, greeting the dogs of Trash Island, enthusiastically explains his predicament in Japanese. The dogs look at each other in puzzlement. “I wish we understood his language,” one says. Anderson’s choice to partially translate the movie—the dogs speak in English, but only about half of the Japanese speech gets translated, by interpreter or on-screen captioning—means that we still get a sense of Japan as somehow unknowable, stubbornly resistant to foreign understanding. That’s an odd thing to emphasize in a movie meant to be an homage. I liked the movie, and found myself carried along on its current rather effortlessly throughout, but looking at it in retrospect, I have to admit that those in the anti-Anderson camp (where I assume they feast nightly on strong licorice) might have a point. I am curious to know what we’ll all think in thirty years.

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“Pacific Rim: Uprising”

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” opens on a group of four men ransacking the abandoned corpse of a Jaeger for spare parts. There is a metaphor here, for those who care to look for it.

Assembled by four screenwriters and directed by Whedon acolyte Stephen S. DeKnight, the second installment in the burgeoning franchise reiterates the stakes of the first, to lesser impact: Jaegers (skyscraper-sized robots) are once again called into service, this time to fight other Jaegers imbued with the muscle tissue, and antisocial tendencies, of the Kaiju (heavily reinforced sea monsters) they apparently only kinda triumphed over at the end of the last movie. In lieu of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba’s character, killed at the end of the first installment), we now have his son, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, being worn by a skimpy mustache), who has been drafted, against his will, into service against the new-ish Kaiju. “I’m not my father,” Jake mentions a time or six. Unfortunately, the screenwriters don’t seem to know how to show that, so they have him mention it another few times. Maybe that will make for a compelling journey!

Jake is joined by Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a short and scrappy scavenger who is haunted, conveniently, by flashbacks of her own family’s deaths-by-Kaiju. Both Jake and Amara are bullied, then befriended, then bullied a bit again, then sort of befriended, then flirted with, then ejected, then welcomed back by the other Jaeger pilots, who include a tall one, a short one, multiple interchangeably athletic-looking ones, a kinda scrawny nerdy-looking one, a Russian one, and one who is Clint Eastwood’s kid (you’ll know him because he looks exactly like Clint Eastwood). No further characterization is forthcoming, because personality simply doesn’t matter in “Pacific Rim: Uprising”—the movie has effectively abandoned the concept of “drift compatibility”, which forced the first movie’s Jaeger pilots to get to know each other on an uncomfortably therapeutic level before they could move the big robots in balletic unison. Now, the “neural handshake” which links Jaeger pilots together reads as nothing more than a formality—Jake is called away to discuss something more important during his and Amara’s first drift, and the idea is never referred to again. Jaeger teams are assigned at random, and clunky exhortations like “Let’s move some ass!” and “Now let’s save the world!” stand in for any sense of personal motivation or stakes. In a new low of laziness, the screenwriters recycle the climactic speech from “Pacific Rim” for the final battle: Jake once again reminds us that he is not his father, but that we “probably remember his big speech about canceling the apocalypse”. Who knew screenwriting was so easy? One shudders to think of the cinematic possibilities: perhaps in the next installment of “Star Wars”, the Force-Ghost of Darth Vader can ask if we remember how awesome it was when he told Luke he was his father.

The 27 Club Is Too Damn Small

It’s probably too late to mention this, but I think there’s still a way to save rock and roll. All we need to do is invent a time machine, go back to July 22nd, 1972—immediately after the release of “Never A Dull Moment”—and shoot Rod Stewart in the face.

Additionally, I move we travel to May 21st, 1971, for Joe Cocker; and to March 26th, 1974, for Elton John. I don’t really care how we kill them—machine gun or piano wire or acupuncture needles rubbed against the skin of poison dart tree frogs—but kill them we must, and starting with Rod.

You have no idea how much you would love him if we did.

I know what you’re thinking. That Rod Stewart? The “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” Rod Stewart? With the pink silk shirts and the feathered blonde ‘do? Or worse: the “Great American Songbook” Rod with his pinstriped suit and his vest, looking like an extruded-plastic Tony Bennet melted to a shelf in Goodwill? Would you rather have a Rod Stewart who sings about statutory rape (“Hot Legs”) or a Rod Stewart who sings about building a ladder to the stars (“Forever Young”)? Here’s the thing: there is a third option. Listen to this track, which he recorded for “Gasoline Alley” in early 1970 with Ronnie Wood on guitar:

“It’s All Over Now”:

Spotify : https://open.spotify.com/track/78H0GpZn9EXwEI6gr2FZUA?si=ctPqc74aTS2iyW19uF0ZMQ

YouTube: https://youtu.be/znsFAe7S1rA

 

Or this track, which he recorded in the spring of 1972 for “Never A Dull Moment”:

“Mama You Been On My Mind”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/4T2zZ5Po56xtYq8DXeGYkp?si=zVvH6dprSn2m2G53eBdeVA

YouTube: https://youtu.be/mHoqds0OgnQ

 

This Rod—young, lean, able to project longing and wistfulness and a triumphant sort of sad in one barbaric yawp—bears no resemblance to the lounge lizard of the 80s or the complacent crooner of the 90s and beyond. This Rod is still within sight of bars, soccer fields, the occasional oil change done yourself: in short, ordinary English life. You can hear it in his voice.

And what a voice. This Rod, at only twenty-seven, was able to take a song written by Bob Dylan at the very peak of his power and make it sound uniquely his, adding delicacy and regret and a certain abashed quality, as if he were equal parts embarrassed and proud of his vulnerability. That would be a tall order for Leonard Cohen; for Nina Simone; for Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra or Amy Winehouse or any of the other all-time great vocalists. The fact that Rod Stewart was singing like this at the very beginning of his career means we should all think of him in the same breath as Cohen, Simone, etc. So why don’t we?

Because immediately after the release of “Never A Dull Moment”, Rod Stewart entered a decades-long creative nosedive which he never really pulled out of, because it never stopped making money. It wasn’t just the disco, either. To hear his “Great American Songbook” records, of which there were four, is to be subjected to the limpest, safest, least inspired arrangements of classics ever committed to tape. His voice isn’t the problem; it never was. What made Rod Stewart unlistenable from the mid-seventies on were the instincts that lead him unerringly to the safe high center of every road; to platitudinous lyrics and treacly production values; to endless inspirational chimes and backing instrumentals not produced by instruments. Listen, if you can, to this track, off 1991’s “Vagabond Heart”:

“Broken Arrow” (Stewart cover; 2008 remaster):

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/654x2Iik9gYpiUXOA71KRq?si=D6Hq9yFOTHCGv069rhy0dw

YouTube: https://youtu.be/hS5Hp-LFNe0

 

Now, I’m going to admit something that’s going to make you lose respect for me: I’ve listened to this track a lot. In fact, it’s my breakup track. Rod Stewart’s cover of “Broken Arrow” is my go-to when I want to feel sort of vaguely romantic in a soft-focus kind of way, like I’m looking at the world through a shower door. It’s soaring and inspiring and doesn’t challenge me in any way.

But just for reference, this is what that track is supposed to sound like:

 

“Broken Arrow” (Robertson original):

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/3B7Ls05la3sGj1ql53lP8t?si=_aIkytpYQem_SrMvTo2q9Q

YouTube: https://youtu.be/nsZYq-51Njg

 

This is Robbie Robertson’s original recording of “Broken Arrow”, on his eponymous solo album released in 1987. It won him a Juno Award. I think we can agree it’s better, and furthermore that it’s absolutely not because Robbie Robertson is a better vocalist. It’s better because Robertson made more interesting choices with the song than Stewart did; because he aimed for a more complex emotion than just fist-in-the-air triumph; because he layered his vocals over an instrumental background that also had something to say. For his part, Stewart stopped making music that spoke in 1974; everything since then has been pretty, plastic, and vacant.

Speaking of which, what’s Elton John been up to lately?

 

Oh.

 

“Hello Hello feat. Lady Gaga” from the “Gnomeo and Juliet” soundtrack

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/51jloR6rJcBkT1f8n3paRW?si=p23dcPdSTSeoGFbtIxdd9Q

YouTube: https://youtu.be/Hxq8mqLYugI

 

Oh God.

 

“Blue Wonderful”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/5goFdE9LTs1r0JgVvOdMZ8?si=7aQZRXCVTU2-wilknGRmWQ

YouTube: https://youtu.be/7QmgP1hf_Ec

 

Oh sweet Jesus make it stop.

 

“Candle In The Wind 1997”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/3DUcaEvPO72PijivCjtZcU?si=GM_SfHQKR3mneYhorfvbjg

YouTube: https://youtu.be/OefdqK3jKi0

That should be enough. If you didn’t have the fortitude to sample all three, I don’t blame you. Besides, the titles tell you everything you need to know. Blandly commercial, sentimental as Hummel figurines and twice as twee, these songs race through the brain like Taco Bell through a digestive system—leaving much the same byproduct behind. For most people listening to new music today, this is what Elton John has always done. Songs for bad children’s movies, wine tastings, and dead princesses.

But here is what Elton John used to produce:

 

“Amy”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/06jttXe119nc0r9Brkpn8a?si=KCocFBeTRZWT0e-tE8fQHA

YouTube: https://youtu.be/HE1c3li_FxM

 

Listen to how easy he makes it sound; how casually he tosses off that piano line, even as he runs circles around the beat of the song. Billy Joel said of him that “Elton knows what his instrument is capable of. The piano is a percussion instrument, like a drum. You don’t strum a piano. You don’t bow a piano. You bang and strike a piano. You beat the shit out of a piano.” You can still hear that pugnacious attitude in John’s playing, right up to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, an album that goes right to the summit of his abilities—and starts the descent down the other side. There is the immortal banger “Bennie and the Jets”, one of the most remorselessly economic grooves ever laid down; but there is also the mawkishly sentimental “Candle in the Wind”. There’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, a song that could revive drowning victims; but then there’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”, which is exactly as unlistenable as the title suggests. The rest of John’s career is not worth sticking around for—sure, there was the occasional glimmer of his old self (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”; “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”) but the vast majority of it is treacle. “Nikita.” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” “Circle Of Life.” Pre-chewed food for easy swallowing.

When it comes to soft rock for soft people, however, Elton isn’t even close to the king. That crown belongs to someone a little… hairier.

 

“You Are So Beautiful”:

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/1gJOqXpRjz9GeEEwQpcujK?si=VEXUcjeaRH-5zmhuZoI62g

YouTube:  https://youtu.be/WvAr9umnZ54

Joe Cocker’s career, much like Rod Stewart’s, can also be bisected neatly into two parts: about six years of the best blues rock on the planet, and then about five decades of mom-pleasing nonsense like this. The auditory equivalent of a white pillar candle and a bedspread strewn with red rose petals, “You Are So Beautiful” is a cue that you are in for an overplanned and ultimately unsatisfying romantic experience.

Let’s just try for a quickie instead:

 

“Cry Me A River – Live At The Fillmore”

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/track/2Ny4hn5r2Y71lkKbj9TYIS?si=bv0DiIYwTyeOx4k_Ee8cMQ

YouTube: https://youtu.be/gRDe0PIPqj0

 

Hot damn! If this track were a vehicle, it wouldn’t be a Maserati or a Ferrari—it would be one of those long, swinging arms they strap astronauts into to simulate G forces. At least eighty percent of the credit has to go to the backing band Cocker surrounded himself with: when your backup singers are Rita Coolidge and Claudia Lennear, you’ve done something right. But Cocker himself can stand in front of a band where Leon Russell is just the piano player and not seem ridiculous. Listen to that voice, like a match struck off an old boot. Doesn’t it sound like he could light fire to the roof with that thing?

He was twenty-five.

The 27 Club is a figment of our collective imagination. There’s no statistical spike in musician deaths at that age; we just perceive one, because there are a few big deaths clustered together: Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones. Later on, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain. But the idea makes sense, beyond the upsetting similarities of the club’s actual, highly self-destructive members. For most people, twenty-seven is a godawful year. Their parents are starting to noticeably age; their last surviving grandparents are dying off. They are just far enough out from college to be disillusioned in both their careers, and in the first romantic partners they thought would sustain them beyond college. Many of us can easily imagine an alternate reality in which we did not survive twenty-seven, and thank heaven that we lived to see the calmer waters of our thirties. But the flip side of gratitude is forgetfulness—we shudder to think how close we came to self-erasure, then get busy prettifying the memory. We forget our inertia, our selfishness, our self-absorption: we reminisce endlessly about the cheap apartment in which we learned to make soup stock; to roll a joint; to feed ten people on as many dollars. And the farther away we get from that free, indolent, slightly shiftless version of us, the more we romanticize the potential of that person, and forget the pain.

The members of the 27 Club serve as avatars of that remembered, mythical version of us: frozen in amber, fists aloft, as brilliant and self-extinguishing as fireworks, they are everything we tell ourselves we were—or could have been—when we dig up the half-completed novel from the dresser drawer, the acoustic guitar from the back of the closet. Our fascination with them isn’t mourning: it’s envy. By dying at an age when most of us haven’t yet committed to anything more permanent than a bad tattoo, the 27 Club members get to inhabit forever the what-if world that the rest of us eventually leave. They will never have a mortgage, or an aging parent to care for, or a permanently busted knee—or voice. They will never be locked into a career path; an underwater mortgage; a nursing home. They will never confront a gradually diminishing number of possible pathways and options, until the last choice gutters out. So we study their tiny catalogs for clues, imagining the musicians they would have become if granted the chance, pressing down on the bittersweet bruise of our own lost potential. There’s a certain consolation in listening to “Back to Black” at thirty-five, an age Amy Winehouse will never get to be. We may never open our mouths and summon a thunderstorm, but we get to sit on a warm bedroom floor and be consoled by Amy Winehouse, a trick she never managed.

But it’s not all about us. The 27 Club confers certain posthumous benefits on its members. Jim Morrison was talented, but does anyone really believe he would be taken seriously as a rock god if he’d died at sixty-eight, with a softened jawline and a non-existent six-pack? Ditto Kurt Cobain, whose appeal was inextricably tied up with his stringy, blonde-Jesus look. Janis Joplin’s voice might have improved with age, but could it have survived middle-aged contentment? Does anyone really need the collaborative album Jimi Hendrix would have inevitably made with a past-their-prime Aerosmith—or Eric Clapton? (Remember Carlos Santana’s “Supernatural”? Remember how inescapable that fucking album was in 1999? We should all be thanking God nightly that Jimi didn’t live long enough to play backup to Rob Thomas.) Early death saves artists not only from the ravages of time, but from the chance to sell themselves short. And no three have put themselves on the auction block for quite so cheap a price as Stewart, Cocker, and John. It’s difficult to describe to the uninitiated how much we’ve all missed out on as a result. (Though Greil Marcus did, in a 1979 essay on Stewart so good it nearly made my suggestion of time-travel/assassination redundant.)

By burying their best years under a thick layer of sonic mulch, all three betrayed their own legacies, guaranteeing that no one under the age of sixty would ever discover the tiny handful of albums, made by each, that stand among the best and most human works of art ever produced by voice, piano, drum and guitar. No one did this to them—there is no dastardly producer to blame, no flood in a record company basement, no arson amongst the master tapes. Stewart and Cocker and John did this to themselves, and everyone with ears is the poorer for it. It is a reflection of the magnitude of the crime, that I suggest the ultimate penalty.

Movie review: “A Wrinkle In Time”

“A Wrinkle In Time” is the kind of movie that drives people to fan fiction. Full of half-finished ideas, gestures at worlds, and characters missing the “why”, it nevertheless offers enough glimmers of brilliance to make the omissions really frustrating. Watching it feels like being hurried through the Louvre, at high speed, by an impatient tour guide. “Wait!” I wanted to cry. “I want to stare at Oprah’s magnificent dress! Can I get a closer look at what Mindy Kaling is sewing? What’s the deal with this eerily perfect kaleidoscope world, anyway?” The movie, however, had other plans: it wanted me to spend a long scene in a sterile white room, and multiple scenes watching CGI tendrils of black, rootlike “evil” multiplying across the universe, and even more scenes of Chris Pine, face obscured by floppy wings of hair, pretending to be an astrophysicist. I think I might prefer to explore this museum without a tour guide.

 

Unfortunately, the movie has other ideas. Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have performed only a light update of the book’s plot, but seeing “A Wrinkle In Time” brought to life in dazzling high-definition CGI only hangs a lantern on everything that is cheesy and shallow about L’Engle, concealing all that is subtler, truer. I don’t remember much about reading “A Wrinkle In Time” as a child—“An Acceptable Time” was my personal L’Engle preference—but I remember being challenged by adult discussions that felt genuinely academic, by vocabulary that didn’t explain itself. Contrast that to the movie’s scientific breakthrough, in which Chris Pine sighs “The frequency is love! No wonder the United States ranks 35th in math.

 

The goofiness extends to the beloved character Meg (Storm Reid), as she is encouraged to become a “warrior” of light and love by the three Mrs Ws (Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon, in order of gravitas). As it turns out, the first step in becoming a warrior is loving and accepting your flaws, then learning to find balance in the “happy medium”. This bumper-sticker fare is fine if you need to be a warrior in your local hot yoga class, or in the parking lot at Whole Foods, but not so useful if you need to feed your family in the ninth month of post-hurricane blackout, or fight an insurance company for your survival, or shepherd your wife through Alzheimer’s. Real evil certainly exists, but comparing Meg to Ghandi, Mandela, and Marie Curie for having accepted her own impatience is not a convincing retort to it. It may resonate with the self-styled “prayer warriors” who convince themselves weekly that positivity and karma are substitutes for concrete action, but I’m pretty sure even Madeline L’Engle, in all her New Agey-ness, would have taken stock of the world in 2018—and grabbed a fucking shovel.

Movie review: “Black Panther”

When was the last time you got dressed up to see a movie? If you are one of those rarities who teases their hair into tufts for Wolverine movies and paints their face blue to visit the planet Pandora, note that I don’t mean costumed. I mean dressed up: ready for a wedding, or a funeral, or some other occasion of spiritual import. And if you are one of those even rarer birds who still irons their Sunday best to sit in the popcorn-scented darkness: when was the last time you weren’t the only one?

 

This Sunday, in a sleepy suburban theater at a not-so-popular time for movies, I sat surrounded by people who were dressed the fuck up to see “Black Panther”, a superhero movie set in Wakanda, a fantasy African nation not eaten out of its substance by a rapacious West. Its newly minted king, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), doubles as its spiritual defender, the Black Panther. Counselled by a coterie of female advisers, including his mother (Angela Bassett), ex-girlfriend (Lupita Nyong’o), mischievous younger sister (Leticia Wright), and trusted bodyguard (Danai Gurira), T’Challa is faced with a splintered tribal base and a timely conundrum: continue his late father’s defensive policy of strict isolationism, or risk exploitation by opening Wakanda and its high-tech riches to the world? It’s a good question that deserves plenty of chin-stroking thought; unfortunately for T’Challa, a brash challenger (Michael B. Jordan) is prepared to take the throne, and he would like Wakanda to come to the rescue of the less fortunate sons and daughters of Africa right now, please. If the measure of a villain is how close they get to becoming the hero of the story, then Jordan’s Erik Killmonger (sorry, but that is the character’s name) belongs in the pantheon of all-time great antagonists. Squint even a little, and you will find yourself seeing his point.

 

Surrounded by these high-powered actors, Chadwick Boseman underplays his hand, melting into the background of scenes he’s capable of dominating and creating a wide-open space in the movie for other characters to flourish. The result is an abundance of delights: Winston Duke, as mountain tribe leader M’Baku, whose impassive mask melts into sly humor. Letitia Wright as Shuri, crowing over her older brother’s unfashionable sandals. Daniel Kaluuya, fresh off the triumph of “Get Out” and scoring another direct hit to the heart as conflicted warrior W’Kabi.  American treasure Forest Whitaker as wise elder Zuri. You want to get to know these characters better; to spend hours admiring the brilliant details of their world; in Shuri’s case, to buy her a drink and spill all your secrets. Knowing that they are fictional smarts; but the movie’s point is not to lament what Africa could have been. It is to celebrate, in dazzling saturation, the joy and complexity of what is. Wakanda walks among us daily. Put on something nice before you see it.

Movie review: “Darkest Hour”

OK so “Darkest Hour”.

 

How cooked would you like your history? Depending upon your answer, there is a wide range of WWII movies to suit: on one end lies the rawest documentary, such as “Shoah”. In the middle, movies like “Dunkirk”, “Paradise Road”, and “Saving Private Ryan” advertise bloody centers of realistic and harrowing violence, but deliver palatable crusts of hope. On the well-done end of the spectrum lies an increasingly crowded cottage industry of inspiration. “Darkest Hour” belongs here, along with “The King’s Speech”. Oddly, the two movies mirror each other; “Darkest Hour” focuses on Winston Churchill’s struggle to overcome the doubters among his war cabinet and his own private fears, both of which he vanquishes with a rousing speech. “The King’s Speech”, for those of you who missed it, centers on King George VI’s struggle to overcome the doubters of his competency and his own private stammer, both of which he vanquishes with a rousing speech. When, in “Darkest Hour”, the two men come face to face at last, you wonder if they realize they’re in the same movie.

 

None of this is to take away from Gary Oldman’s remarkable performance as Winston Churchill—it is every bit the chameleonic transformation you’ve heard. I found myself staring at the fleshy wattles around his neck, wondering how on earth they’d managed to make prostheses appear to quiver and flush with every breath. Only the eyes retain the feral glint of Oldman, peering out at us from behind a blue wreath of smoke. An extraordinary amount of “Darkest Hour” takes place right up against Winston Churchill; we gaze through his spectacles and at his moistened lips and once, thrillingly, straight up his bathrobe. Perhaps director Joe Wright aspired to be Boswell to Churchill’s Johnson; fair enough, except that the endless close-ups don’t shed much light on why Churchill was the way he was. They only assert, at great length, that he was, which is not a fact much in question.

 

When it comes to whys and wherefores, I regret to say that “Darkest Hour” hasn’t got a clue. The movie takes place during the treacherous period directly after Neville Chamberlain’s ouster, when Churchill (a relatively unknown and untrusted quantity) decided that he alone would steer a panicked Britain on an apparently suicidal course of action: away from peace treaties and negotiations, and straight towards the Third Reich at the height of its military domination of Europe. It happened to be the correct course of action, but no one at the time thought so—except, of course, for Winston Churchill. What did he perceive? Why was he able to grasp Hitler’s threat when so many others were not? What formative experiences guided him to stick to his guns so religiously? What made Churchill, in short, Churchill? The movie leaves these stones unturned, and is the poorer for it. Instead, director Joe Wright invents a tipping point out of whole cloth—the patrician Winston leaves his car in traffic and descends into the London Underground, where he polls a subway car of ordinary Londoners about the “national mood”. When all express a hearty desire to sock Hitler in the jaw, he returns, full of renewed vigor, to Parliament, where he delivers a barn-burning, off-the-cuff address, employing as an aid a matchbook on which he has carefully inscribed the names of the helpful civilians. This is groan-worthy theater, as loathsome as the moment (now cliché) when the President looks up into the balcony at the State of the Union, furrows his brow, and gestures to his ordinary guest, inevitably an electrician from Iowa with three kids who’s fallen on some hard times recently. I might have forgiven the scene if it really happened—after all, every cliché starts somewhere. But it didn’t, and served only to make Churchill look like the one thing he wasn’t: a weathervane.

Movie review: “I, Tonya”

Most of all, I remember the wailing. You probably remember it, too: Nancy Kerrigan, sitting in her white beaded leotard, clutching her kneecap, teeth bared in feral agony. “WHYYYYYYY?” she roared, launching the question again the moment it was done. “WHYYYYYYY?” The clip got played on a near-endless loop on CNN; if you were growing up in the early nineties, it got burnt into your brain the way earlier generations memorized the Zapruder film. Unlike the Kennedy assassination, however, we found out the WHYYYYYYY of Nancy Kerrigan’s mysterious schlonking pretty quickly: it was rival skater Tonya Harding, along with her husband Jeff Gillooly and a motley assortment of clownish acquaintances, each of whom withstood about three milliseconds of police and national scrutiny before giving up every detail of their involvement. The story took a surreal turn when the Winter Olympics fell right in the middle of the investigation, and both schlonker and schlonkee went to Lillehammer. We were all glued to the tube, wall-eyed on the drama—watch them share a practice rink! Watch them go in circles studiously not looking at each other! I didn’t know anyone who was rooting for Tonya—maybe a few deeply disturbed hometown fans in Oregon? Prison blocks? The International Federation of Disney Villainesses? She placed eighth, Nancy placed second, and the story was over. Until this week, I still didn’t know any Tonya fans.

 

That shit’s about to change.

 

“I, Tonya” is that rarest of movies: a biography that gets at the thorny complexity of a real live human being, flaws and brilliance given equal and loving dimension. And the human being they’ve chosen is a handful: crude, belligerent, wildly self-contradictory, clutching an asthma inhaler in one hand and a cigarette in the other, still wearing the regrettable barrel-rolled bangs of the 1980’s, Tonya Harding (brilliantly played by Margot Robbie) is no one’s idea of easy to love. The razor-sharp script, written by Steven Rogers, imitates the SNL treatment of famous buffoons like Sarah Palin, adding little embellishment to the already incredible on-the-record statements of Harding’s abusive mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and loutish self-proclaimed “bodyguard” Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Instead, Rogers’s script splices their statements together in a clever braid of past and present that encourages us to question first the characters’ memories—and then our own. As it turns out, while we were all watching the wailing woman in white, there was a terrifying, aggressive, embattled woman in neon who might have needed our attention even more. This weekend, I strongly suggest you give it to her.