Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Is Funny, Heavy, And Challenging

The welcomed return of this Rey of light.

While I loved The Force Awakens more than any Star Wars sequel or prequel since The Empire Strikes Back, I couldn't exactly argue against anyone who criticized its story structure, and how it's as much a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope as it is a sequel. That argument is valid, but that type of movie is what I, and many Star Wars fans burned by the prequels, needed.

So going into The Last Jedi, I was a little worried the story might take the same route, essentially giving us a soft remake of Empire. My worries were unfounded. While The Last Jedi acknowledges the inevitable comparisons to that second (or fifth, whatever) Star Wars movie by setting up some similar scenarios, it then does original and surprising things with those moments.

Yes, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who found the elusive Luke (Mark Hamill, at full intensity) at the end of The Force Awakens, much like Luke finds Yoda in Empire, is all set to do some similar Jedi training with the aging master. And much like Yoda, Luke shows reluctance to be a teacher. But his reluctance isn't a mere test. He really doesn't want anything to do with the Jedi or the Resistance.

And as in Empire, our beloved band of players spend the majority of the movie separated. Finn (John Boyega), after initially recovering from his injuries on board the ship led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, sniffle), ventures on a quest with newcomer Rose (a great Kelly Marie Tran). And Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), demonstrates he's even more of the cocky pilot he appeared to be in his first outing. His first scene in the movie, with Domhnall Gleeson's smarmy General Hux, is also hilarious, and a perfect introduction to the film's comedic tone.

There's a lot of humor in The Last Jedi, and I imagine some may criticize it for it. But it's the kind of smart humor that was also present in the original trilogy, and sorely lacking in the prequels. (Which isn't to say the prequels were lacking in any attempts at humor; it's just that the humor usually relied on Jar Jar Binks saying something stupid or stepping in alien shit.)

Hello comic relief!

But the movie is also surprisingly heavy. Rian Johnson doesn't shy away from some basic facts. Luke and Leia are growing older, and the weight of their experience has them questioning the worth of the Resistance, especially since the Resistance has suffered some major losses. Are more worth it?

Rey continues to question her place in all of it, with the longing to find her parents as strong as ever. And Kilo Ren (Adam Driver), whose inner conflict can't be hidden from Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), begins to question his place as the Supreme Masked Baddie. Almost all of the characters face moments where they must make some pretty tough decisions, and it all adds genuine tension to the film.

More tension than a lot of the battle sequences, to be honest, of which there are more than enough, with most centered on the need to stall the enemy so the Resistance can get something done in time. This is the longest Star Wars movie yet, clocking in at 150 minutes, and it has at least one ending too many, and a middle that sags a bit.

Still, its longer length does allow us to spend some time in some beautiful new worlds, like Luke's lushly green island, which is also home to some native creatures, including Porgs, the big-eyed, pot bellied birds that might convince you to become vegetarian; a gaudy planet filled with the galaxy's equivalent to one-percenters; and my favorite, a salt-covered world that reveals its blood-red center, a color that permeates the film.

It also leaves room for some good cameos. Along with the hyped cameos of Princes William and Harry (who, them playing storm troopers, are impossible to spot), also look out for Chewing Gum's Michaela Cole, model Lily Cole, and Justin Theroux. (I'll also have to see it again to figure out how director Rian Johnson worked the theme from The Long Goodbye, which was co-written by composer John Williams, into the movie, as the song title appears in the end credits)

One of my best movie-going memories is seeing The Empire Strikes Back in 1981. Seeing it on a weekend required standing in line for hours, so my family didn't get to partake in one of those opening weekend showings. But one weekday not long after it opened, my dad woke me up to get ready for school, and when I gave the usual complaint of "Ugh! I don't WANT to go to school" he said, "OK. Do you want to go see The Empire Strikes Back instead?" And we did.

Watching The Last Jedi, despite its faults, still managed to make me feel, more than once, like that excited eleven-year-old ditching school.

Friday, December 8, 2017

I, Tonya, You, America, Us, Guilty

You like me! You really like me!

Watching I, Tonya, I was reminded how batshit crazy the 1990's were. Along with acid washed jeans, platform sneakers, and crispy hair, the 90's were a golden age for tabloid stories. The internet didn't exist in the way it does now, and despite the emergence of the 24 hour news cycle, attention spans were longer. Tabloid stories were allowed to slowly build over weeks and months into craven dramas that captured the nation.

I'm talking things like Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco; John and Elena Bobbitt; the suicide of Kurt Cobain; Bill Clinton and Monica Lewlinsky; O.J. Simpson; and, of course, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, a story that includes tabloid gold and acid washed jeans and crispy hair.

I, Tonya takes an unconventional approach to that ice skating drama, mirroring the tabloid coverage it originally received. People weren't paying attention to the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan story because of a sudden national love of competitive ice skating. It was because the story was perfect in its symbolism (she tried to break the leg of her competition?!), and at times completely absurd (a key player is named Gillooly?!).

Play the story straight, and you've got yourself a Lifetime movie. But play up the story's absurdities, add a dash of GoodFellas-era Scorsese-style editing and music cues, and you've got yourself a surprising movie that will make you laugh while your heart breaks a little for Tonya Harding.

Set up as a mockumentary of sorts, I,Tonya opens with titles asserting it is "based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly." These interviews with Tonya (Margot Robbie) and Jeff (Sebastian Stan) are reenacted, with both of them in separate locations, both offering their completely unreliable retelling of the story.

Tonya's interview takes place in a dirty kitchen, dishes piled in a sink behind her. It's a nice nod to how an interview's setting can often illustrate an interviewer's intent, an intent often unbeknownst to the subject. From the moment Margot Robbie opens her mouth, and you hear her flat, West coast accent, you can tell this will be a performance that's a far cry from her work in films like The Wolf of Wall Street.

Robbie has at least five inches on the 5'1" Harding, who also had a strong, muscular athlete's build. Harding in her heyday could probably take down ladies a lot taller than herself (and likely did during her short stint as a celebrity boxer). But Robbie manages to make you forget those physical differences by channeling Harding's essence. She's got the trailer trash swagger, paired with the vulnerability of a woman who has been beaten down her entire life, both literally and figuratively.

The story follows Tonya from the age of three, when her nightmare of a mother, LaVona Golden (an Oscar-worthy Allison Janney), insists the local figure skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), take her on as a student. Diane doesn't take girls that young, but can't deny the little girl has a gift.

LaVona's bullying doesn't stop at figure skating coaches. She's an objectively horrible woman, without a nice thing to say about anyone, especially Tonya, who is subject to her verbal and physical abuse throughout her childhood.

Of course LaVona insists it's all for Tonya's good. To her, this is what an effective stage mother does, and she offers no apologies for it during her interview moments, which are some of the best scenes in the film. Allison Janney talking to the camera, smoking, hooked up to an oxygen tank, while a pet parrot on her shoulder constantly badgers her has got to be part of her Oscar reel. (And the parrot deserves an award for Best Supporting Performance by a Bird.)

As Tonya leaves one abusive home she falls into another, marrying Jeff Gillooly, the first man she ever dates. It's not long before he's smashing her face into the wall and pointing guns at her, and while Tonya does fight back on occasion, the cycle of abuse assures she stays in the relationship way longer than she should, especially since it's Gillooly who eventually sets The Incident into motion.

"The Incident" is how the characters refer to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, and seeing the ineptitude of the people involved--Paul Walter Hauser steals every scene he's in as Gillooly's idiot friend Shawn Eckhardt--it's amazing they got away with it for as long as they did, which, granted, wasn't very long. (One of I, Tonya's best choices is to limit Nancy Kerrigan's place in the story, giving her maybe three lines in the entire film, with one one of those lines being "Whhhhhyyyyy??????!!!!!")

The film takes Tonya's insistence that she had nothing to do with The Incident as fact, and makes a compelling case for that as truth. But ultimately, it didn't matter whether she had or not. Harding had a target on her back within the snooty skating profession from day one, never living up to their beauty standards, or their idea of respectability. It didn't matter that she was the first woman to do a triple axle in competition. She didn't fit the part, and they would never let her forget it. Eventually, and with some glee, neither would the world.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Good, The Bad, And 'The Disaster Artist'

A triumphant disaster

I first became aware of the phenomenon that is The Room by reading about it in Entertainment Weekly. Shortly after, Adult Swim aired it for one time only during their late night programming. That was the first time I watched it. It was edited for content, and ironically, that editing actually made it a better movie; there's only so much of director/writer/star Tommy Wiseau's bare ass one should be subjected to before it becomes cruel and unusual punishment.

Watching The Room is like watching a film created by an alien who is desperately trying to mimic human emotions and interactions. It's actually kind of an accomplishment for an actor to deliver every bit of his dialogue badly, but somehow, Wiseau manages it. That he can turn something as simple as "Oh, hi Mark" into a memorable line borders on amazing.

The closest I ever came to a communal viewing was watching the DVD while listening to its RiffTrax (recommended!), but maybe one day I'll actually check out a midnight showing (it still plays regularly in San Francisco) because watching The Room alone is something that shouldn't really happen more than once, and seeing it again is a hard urge to resist after watching The Disaster Artist, James Franco's ode to the legendary cinematic disaster.

Based on the book of the same name, written by actor and The Room costar Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), The Disaster Artist opens in the late 1990s "San Francisco," (like The Room, it is set in SF, but not actually filmed here), with a meet cute between Greg and Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) in an acting class. Greg has just finished a terrible scene reading, and Tommy volunteers to go next. He chooses the "Stella" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, and proceeds to chew the scenery, almost literally. He wails. He flails. He starts to climb the rafters. Greg, who has just been criticized for being emotionless, is enraptured. Maybe he can learn something from this nut!

While James Franco will always be better looking than the real Tommy Wiseau, even with the fake nose and wig he dons, he does manage to capture Wiseau's other-worldly essence; that accent that can't be placed (Tommy insists he's from Louisiana); line delivery that makes it sound like he's perpetually stoned or bored, even when he's screaming; and the feeling that he's only ever half listening to anything anyone says to him.

Tommy and Greg become fast friends and decide to move to Los Angeles to pursue their acting dreams. That Tommy has apartments in both San Francisco and Los Angeles doesn't go unnoticed by Greg, nor his white BMW. But where Tommy gets his money remains as mysterious as his origins.

Once the inevitable happens, with them both failing to land any substantial gigs, that mysterious money proves to be a potential savior when Tommy decides to make his own movie. He pounds out a script on a typewriter, insists Greg take the supporting role (the lead is Tommy's, of course), and then purchases all the equipment needed to film the movie, instead of renting it. Oh, and he also decides to shoot it on both video AND film.

Up to this point, The Disaster Artist is a pretty standard "Hollywood hopefuls" story, albeit one with a character who says he's from Louisiana, sounds like he's from Poland, but might actually be from another world. But once it gets into the actual filming of the movie within the movie, it gives the majority of the audience what they've been waiting for: a glimpse into just how something like The Room came to be.

The cast that makes up the film's crew is filled with comedians and Judd Apatow alums, including Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, and Hannibal Buress, and most of the scenes centered around the filming are very funny. But we also get a glimpse into what a nightmare The Room must have been to work on, with Tommy refusing his actors water, insisting on walking around the set naked while shooting the love scenes, and a shooting schedule ("Day 52 of 40") that drags on and on.

You can't make a "good" bad movie on purpose. The best bad movies had every intention of being good movies from the start. But at this point, I don't even know if The Room really is a "good" bad movie. Parts of it are unbearably boring, and I could barely make it through the sex scenes once, let alone the multiple times the movie's biggest fans are able to stomach. Unlike the grassroots emergence of the cult following that followed a film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Room's cult success owes a lot to word of mouth from Hollywood insiders, those who stumbled upon it because of the enigmatic billboard that set up to advertise it, and the continuing existence of Tommy Wiseau himself, who, once he saw how crowds were responding to his movie, began to hype it as a black comedy. (Be sure to stay till after the credits for Wiseau's cameo.)

And I wonder if James Franco was drawn to the story because he felt some affinity to Tommy Wiseau. While Franco has now directed eighteen movies (18!!), he has never received the accolades I bet he feels he deserves. After that many flops, I can certainly imagine a director emerging from a screening of The Room filled with the fear that he's been making the same kind of movie this whole time. Maybe it just took a terrible movie to finally inspire James Franco to direct a good one.