Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?
It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.
This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.
This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.
Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.
BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.
It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.
Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.
Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.
There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.
There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.
All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.
Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.
Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.
BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.
Sorry to Bother You: A-
This review is weeks late after having sat down and watched American Animals, and it’s stuck with me in a powerful way. It’s a movie that pulls back the disparity between crime in the movies, so stylized and slick and carefree, and crime in real life, often traumatic, dehumanizing, and with lifelong complications for both victim and perpetrator. It’s a movie that examines a youthful sense of ennui that their lives are missing out on something extraordinary, and a step too far over a very clear moral line thanks to a fantasy given shape by escapist movies and other media. It’s also a slippery I, Tonya-style look at memory and contradiction but this time from the real-life people involved. It’s an entertaining dark comedy, an unexpected true-crime caper, and most resonating of all, a nerve-wracking thriller that left me morally queasy and unwell, but in a good way. In short, American Animals is one of the best films I have seen so far in 2018.
In 2004, at a small Kentucky liberal arts university, four young men are planning their own version of the “perfect crime.” The school has a rare books section including an original copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species and a large and valuable edition of John James Audobon’s The Birds of America. The books are appraised at $12 million dollars. Spencer (Barry Keoghan), an art student, teams up with Warren (Evan Peters), Erik (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas (Blake Jenner) to plot a daring heist. The men feel like their lives are missing something exciting and a heist is just the ticket. They just have to break in, steal the books, and subdue a librarian (Ann Dowd). Easy stuff, right?
For the first half of the movie, American Animals plays out like a dark comedy. I had no prior knowledge that we were going to get the real-life subjects appearing as themselves in interviews cut throughout the film (their family members are still actors though). The film even plays around with this narrative hook for a few laughs, making quick cuts for punchlines and trying to square conflicting accounts, like having one scene alternate between two locations in dispute of its telling. It also helps set one of the major themes going forward in a nimble fashion, namely the difference between the reality of events and the whimsical, fantasy movie version of what an excursion into crime would be like. Having been bred on cinema’s glorified depictions of heists, the guys come to assume that a heist is sexy and fun and something that doesn’t end up hurting anyone. There’s a charming quality to the fact that Spencer uses his art skills to create models of the rare books room. There’s a laughable ingenuity to the fact that they’re planning on holding the heist in the middle of their class exams, since who would suspect students during that important time? There’s a bemused naiveté about the power of their disguises when they dress as a shuffling group of old men in powdered faces. We’re set up for a funny story about bumbling students falling all over themselves at attempted criminal shenanigans.
I was expecting a relatively light movie just from the plot particulars. It’s a heist film and the goal is to steal a bunch of books. It seemed small-scale in scope and anodyne. What trouble could a group of students get into attempting to steal books? Writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter) seems to know this, lulling the audience into a false sense of security. He even teases the movie version of what the heist might be like, with our characters suavely stepping into their parts with practiced precision, all while music reminiscent of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise hums in the background. This is the cool-movie version, the version the characters have fantasized over in their minds, and the version that the audience is more attuned to expect. What we actually get is something very different. The heist itself plays out in excruciating detail and it runs counter to their planning. The reality of subduing the librarian is upsetting. It’s supposed to be so simple, after all, but the reality is anything but. The characters almost avoid this whole scenario, aborting their heist only to return back to it the next day. You feel the anguish of how close they were to turning away at several steps, the moments this ordeal could have been avoided, and yet fate barrels onward, energized by a misplaced sense of purpose. American Animals doesn’t let you or its characters off the hook either. I was fidgeting and sweating nervously throughout the heist and its subsequent fallout. Again, this is all about a bunch of stolen books, and I was beside myself with anxiety.
It’s only afterwards and looking back that you realize how masterfully Layton has built up his scenes and the necessary information to make you squirm. With every heist, the particulars of the setting, the challenges and tight window need to be established, and once that occurs, we’re hoping for unexpected complications. But in order for those unexpected consequences to really hit hard, we have to be trained with what Plan A was going to be, and American Animals does this superbly. People have their designated roles and areas they refuse to partake in, like Eric makes it clearly known he will not be responsible for subduing the librarian in any way. Of course, you can expect what will eventually happen, pushing his character to an even more uncomfortable place. I was very appreciative that there’s an extended resolution after the heist, where the guys try to unload the books to a seller, and the further complications. You really feel the screws being tightened and the overwhelming feeling of dread. It’s another confirmation for me that I’m just not cut out for a life of crime. The day-to-day anxiety is just too much.
I left this movie feeling a strange mixture of jubilation and sadness, still reeling from the expertly developed and executed moral tension. The technical skills are just as strong, each working in succinct harmonious sequence to bring about Layton’s vision to startling effect. The editing is extremely tightly constructed. The smooth cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland frames the tension and comedy expertly, and the ominous music by Anne Nikitin kept me on the edge of my seat. It’s almost like a full-blown David Fincher film by the end. The acting is another strong point, with each actor initially relegated into a stock role (“The Muscle,” “The Wheelman,” etc.) we’ve come to associate with these kinds of movies. The film nicely pushes the characters beyond a casual, cursory understanding, blurring the lines of who they are as they blur lines of their own. A surprise standout is Blake Jenner (unrelated to the Kardashians/Jenner clan) who joins the team the latest, seems like a stereotypical rich jock lunkhead, but when he breaks down and articulates why the team is as screwed as they are, his clarity can catch you off guard. He’s the first to realize they’ve trashed their lives and are doomed and for nothing. Also deserving of praise is the always-wonderful Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale); your heart hurts for this poor woman who is confused, scared, and undeserving of her harrowing ordeal.
American Animals hasn’t been able to leave my thoughts for weeks, which is usually the sign of a pretty good movie. It upset me. It rattled me. It entertained me. Most of all, it made me think, about the lines people cross in the name of missing out on some vague sense of grand experience, of the differences between the reality of crime and our appealing fantasy versions of crime, and why those stories appeal to us in general. I kept thinking about the pain these four men had caused themselves and others and their regrets. I kept thinking about how smartly Layton utilizes documentary storytelling techniques to enhance his film as well as better examine the disconnect of reality-versus-movies. It’s a movie that could have been told as a documentary but excels best as a hybrid of the two, one that challenges our conception. I’m shocked it wasn’t credited to a book or news article as its source material, meaning Layton compiled all of this impressively on his own. This is a movie that got under my skin, that made me uncomfortable, but also thrilled me and entertained me from its first minute until its very last. I highly advise looking for American Animals once it becomes readily available.
Nate’s Grade: A
The John Gotti biopic has become somewhat notorious because of its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not that this is the first film to hit that dubious mark. It is bad, though not quite 0% bad. The biggest crime of this movie is that it at no point solidifies a reason why we should find John Gotti interesting. As played by John Travolta, he’s a ruthless leader who beat so many prosecutors that he was nicknamed the “Teflon Don.” He’s also really really boring, spouting stereotypical bromides about the importance of family, never giving an inch, never turning on your family (both capital F and lowercase f). It’s a cock-eyed worldview I’d expect, however, at the very end of the movie, the movie itself adopts this cock-eyed justifications, presenting the federal government as the real villains and inserting interview footage of real people eulogizing Gotti, saying he made their streets clean and cared about his community and was, essentially, a hero. It’s amazingly misguided, like director Kevin Connolly (“E” fro HBO’s Entourage) has suffered Stockholm syndrome from his lunk-headed, murderous criminals. That same sense of misjudgment is never more adamant than in the musical score by pop star Pitbull. Read that again. There’s a sequence where Gotti goes out on furlough and is escorted to kill an associate, and the musical score is jaunty and uptempo. There were several moments where the score just took my breath away, so tonally disjointed was this mostly modern-day musical score. The movie is structured as an ongoing series of interviews between Gotti Sr. (Travolta) and his adult son, with choice flashbacks interspersed. We don’t even get a rise-and-fall sort of formula. It never provides sufficient evidence why Gotti was interesting at all and worth a big screen biopic. The dialogue feels like it was written with all exclamation points. Nothing is subtle or left to the imagination here, and that extends into the scenery-chewing acting as well from a bunch of unmemorable stock roles. There is also a 1996 TV movie about John Gotti starring Armand Assante. Sight unseen, it must almost assuredly be the better movie and more worth two hours of your precious time.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Tag is based on the true story of a group of grown men who continue to play a highly competitive game of tag for 30 years. There are even real clips of the real men before the end credits, raising the hope for a potential documentary on the subject. The Hollywood version is a sprightly ensemble comedy that’s not afraid to go silly or dark in its pursuit of laughs. Given the nature of its premise, there is a lot of slapstick to behold, but it was cleverly staged, routinely netting some big laughs from me. This is a definitely adults-only R-rated venture and the movie proudly wears this identity on its sleeve, finding strange and exciting comic detours that can walk a fine tonal line, like an ongoing bit about miscarriages that had me wincing as much as I was laughing. The main characters are all relatively familiar types; Ed Helms is the high-strung dweeb, Jake Johnson is a sarcastic stoner, Jon Hamm is a smarmy exec, Hannibal Buress is as laconic as his standup persona. There are a string of supporting characters (often female) that add very little, including a rekindled love triangle with Rashida Jones, a journalist who tags along on the game and adds nothing, and Isla Fisher as the grating, always-yelling, intense wife to Helms. Surprisingly, the funniest member of the movie is Jeremy Renner, an actor who heretofore had never shown much comic ability in movies. He’s a formidable opponent, and every time he went into his Sherlock Holmes-styled voice over detailing the steps and mistakes of his friends, I loved it. Also, strangely, Renner’s arms are actually CGI arms since he broke them days into filming. You would never be able to tell. I appreciated that Tag is directed as a comedy even during its action set pieces. It looks at action through the lens of comedy and taps into the absurdity. Overall, Tag is a fun, rambunctious comedy with some dark impulses yet it still finds room for sentiment that doesn’t feel entirely out of place. 2018 is shaping up to be the year of the hearty, enjoyable R-rated comedy with Tag joining the ranks of Blockers and Game Night. Catch it while you can if the prospect of men behaving like overgrown children appeals.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s one part survival-at-sea drama, one part relationship drama, and you get an equal slice of both until an unforeseen ending explains why the narrative was so divided. Based on a true story, Adrift tells the journey and survival of a couple (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin) lost at sea for 41 days after getting too close to a hurricane. Woodley takes the lead to fix the sailboat, gather supplies, tend to the grievous injuries of her boyfriend, and plot their treacherous path to Hawaii. If they’re off just a few degrees, it will be life and death. The survival half is viscerally entertaining and steady with its details, allowing the audience to get comfortable in following the steps and reasons. The camerawork by director Baltasar Kormakur (Everest) is sweeping and methodical, pulling us into the danger and isolation while creating a sterling sense of verisimilitude. The screenplay vacillates between the present and past, supplying flashbacks to fill out the romantic relationship. It’s a smart move because it allows us to immediately get into the stakes of survival while also finding room to develop the characters in a more normal setting. Plus it also makes more sense by the Tully-esque end. This is pretty much Woodley’s (HBO’s Big Little Lies) show; her secondary co-star might as well be her nipples poking through her character’s swimwear and tops. As readers may know, I’m a big fan of Woodley and the naturalism she brings to her performances, and Adrift is no exception. She can say so much through her smiles. She’s a great anchor for a storyteller. Ultimately, Adrift is a survival drama that takes a while to get going but leaves a favorable impression thanks to the acting and technical merits.
Nate’s Grade: B
Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler were three ordinary servicemen taking a train ride into Paris when they found themselves in the middle of an armed terrorist attack. The three men rushes into danger, disarmed and subdued the attacker, and treated the injured on the scene. The 15:17 to Paris is a big screen movie directed by Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) that tells their life stories played by the men themselves. It got some of the worst reviews of Eastwood’s storied career (mine won’t be better). There are two gigantic miscalculations when it comes to 15:17 to Paris: 1) having the real-life subjects play the adult versions of themselves, and 2) that there was enough material here to fill out an engaging, enlightening, fulfilling film experience.
I assumed telling this real-life story as a movie was going to be a challenge to produce enough meaningful material to eek out a feature-length running time, and within the first five minutes I knew that I was doomed. We’re sitting down to two single moms discussing their boys with their classroom teacher, and that teacher literally says, “If you don’t medicate them now they’ll just self-medicate later. Statistically, boys of single moms are more likely to have problems.” My response: “What the hell, lady?!” This character was obviously engineered, from her very foundation, to be a walking, talking point of exposition and disagreement. No real teacher would ever utter these words so callously. It was this rude awakening that made me realize what a terribly written slog I was in for. At no point were these supporting characters going to come across as authentic human beings. Instead, it’s a world populated by robots with bad social skills or unshakable faith played by familiar actors (Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, Jaleel White of all people). Also, what little kid has a Full Metal Jacket poster in his bedroom? Did he not understand what that movie was about?
These men can rightly serve as an inspiration, rising to the occasion in a true test of courage. No one will challenge the heroism. But what else is there to this story? The attack is presented as the framing device and as it plays out we segue into lengthy flashbacks about their lives leading up to this pivotal point in time. It’s just that these three men lived fairly uneventful, normal lives until finding themselves in a unique situation. We don’t seem to trace any significant, formative moments. Spending time with them as kids, then teens, and finally as adults doesn’t so much provide greater understanding of them as people as it does pad out the running time. We watch them get in trouble twice at school for not having a hall pass. We watch them watch football. We watch them endure training montages. We watch the trio tour the sights of Italy and eat gelato. We watch an Army team retrieve a backpack. We watch Spencer get demoted for not stitching properly. Seriously, this is given time. It’s not even until a full hour-plus into the movie before they confront the attack on the train.
Chronicling the lives of normal, real-life people under extraordinary circumstances is not by itself a fatal flaw, as evidenced by the masterful and mournful United 93. The power of empathy allows us to leap into a multitude of perspectives. However, with United 93 there was an ongoing story that could unfold because of the scope of events. There were developments, deadly complications, and the slow realization of what was happening, what was going to happen, and what needed to be done. With 15:17 to Paris, the attack is uncomplicated and over relatively quickly. There’s a reason Eastwood saves the train attack for the end because it cannot function as a sufficient movie plot on its own. Eastwood had a similar predicament with his previous film chronicling the heroism of the pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River. The plane crash was thrilling and Tom Hanks added some layers to the portrayal of a man uncomfortable with the spotlight. 15:17 to Paris doesn’t even have that much. It’s a tedious trek to an all-too swift climax.
The other large miscalculation was having the real-life actors portray themselves. These guys just are not actors. I suppose Eastwood felt the real-life figures would best understand the emotions of each scene, in particular the attack, but another approach would be simply teaching actors. The forced verisimilitude feels like a marketing gimmick meant to appeal to a select audience. Making things more difficult is that these guys just aren’t that interesting as subjects. Sure there are broad strokes of characterization applied here and there but it’s with very minimal effort (see above for some of the just-had-to-include plot moments). This is another reason actors would have been preferable, because these guys’ lives don’t have to be interesting for my benefit. Their lives were not destined to one day entertain me on the big screen. They can simply be normal people. On the other hand, watching normal people do normal, boring things without a more enriching sense of introspection, personalities, or depth is like being trapped watching someone else’s home movies on a loop. Spencer Stone performs the best of his buds but none of them should expect a second career as an in-demand thespian.
I feel bad saying this but I really just didn’t care, and that’s because the movie gave me no reason to do so here. Yes, these three men are heroes and their sense of normality might lend itself toward a larger theme about the everyday capabilities of heroism, but there isn’t enough here to make me care beyond the train attack. The screenwriting does not present them as multi-dimensional characters and perhaps that’s because of the guys’ limitations as actors, exacerbating a spiral that only makes 15:17 to Paris less involving as it chases after the idol of authenticity. Eastwood is known for being an economical filmmaker but it feels like he should have been even more judicious here. The adherence to strictly the facts strips the film of some of its larger emotional power. There’s far too much filler and not enough substance to balance out 90-plus minutes. You’ll grow restless. If there’s a lesson to be learned from The 15:17 to Paris, let it be that every story needs a reason to exist and, when in doubt, trust actors to deliver that story.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.
Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.
In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.
I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.
Molly’s Game: A-
Call Me By Your Name: B-
All the Money is the World used to star Kevin Spacey as the prolific oil billionaire John Paul Getty, that is until director Ridley Scott elected to reshoot the part, replacing Spacey with Christopher Plummer after Spacey’s unsavory history of sexual assault came to light. In only ten days, Scott changed his movie with only a month to spare before its release. It’s an amazing feat, especially when you consider Plummer is in the film for at least a solid half hour. He’s also the best part as the mercurial, cruel, penny-pinching magnate who refuses to pay his grandson’s ransom even though he’s the richest man who ever lived. In 1973, John Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) was kidnapped by Italian criminals. With the miserly grandfather offering no help, Gail (Michelle Williams) tries to negotiate with the criminals and her father-in-law to secure the release of her son. I didn’t know anything coming into this film, but afterwards I felt like it focused on the wrong characters. The mother stuck in the middle is not the most interesting protagonist here and seems like a go-between for the two more immediate and intriguing stories, the elder Getty and the youngest Getty. Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is acceptable as the strong-willed, put-upon mother, though her mid Atlantic accent made me think I was watching Katherine Hepburn. Mark Wahlberg (Daddy’s Home 2) is completely miscast as a former CIA agent that helps Gail. He succeeds in converting oxygen to carbon dioxide and that’s about it. The central story is interesting enough, though there are points that scream being fictional invented additions, like a last act chase and a kindly mobster who undergoes reverse Stockholm syndrome. John Paul Getty is an interesting character, and Plummer is terrific, though I am quite curious what Spacey’s performance would have been like under octogenarian makeup (Plummer already happens to be in his 80s). All the Money in the World is an interesting enough story with decent acting but I can’t help but entertain my nagging sense that it should have been better even minus Spacey.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Even with the added timely benefit of championing a free press in the era of Trump, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a movie held together by big speeches and Meryl Streep. It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers but it’s told from the wrong perspective. It’s told through the reference of whether the owner of the Washington Post (Streep) will or will not publish and how this endangers her family’s financial control over the newspaper. Plenty of dismissive men doubt her because she’s a woman. It’s simply one of the least interesting versions of an important story. Streep is her standard excellent self and has a few standout moments where you can actively see her character thinking. I just don’t understand why all these talented people put so much effort into telling this version of this story. I missed the active investigation of Spotlight, how one piece lead to another and the bigger picture emerged. There was an urgency there that is strangely lacking with The Post. The question of whether she will publish is already answered. It feels like the screenplay is designed for Big Important Speeches from Important People. Tom Hanks plays the gruff editor of the newspaper and Streep’s chief scene partner. They’re enjoyable to watch, as is the large collection of great supporting actors (Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and a Mr. Show reunion with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk). This is a movie that is easier to admire than like, but I don’t even know if I admire it that much. The film has to call attention to Streep’s big decision and the stakes involved by underlining just what she has to lose and reminding you how brave she’s being. When Streep leaves the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a bevy of supportive women lined up to bask in her accomplishment. It’s a bit much and another reminder that The Post doesn’t think you’ll understand its major themes. It’s a perfectly acceptable Oscar-bait drama but it sells its subject short and its audience.
Nate’s Grade: B
Back in 1994, popular culture was rabidly obsessed with figure skating thanks to Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the “bad girl” who was accused of coordinating an attack on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya’s skuzzy husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), had hired a friend to “intimidate” Kerrigan, and the end result was a broken knee and the world-famous outcry of, “Why?!” I, Tonya takes a look at the players of this media circus and lets them tell their own stories in their own words.
I,Tonya feels brazenly like a Scorsese movie populated with kooky Coen brothers characters. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) cribs from the best and uses all those propulsive camera moves, voice over leading to fourth-wall-breaking, and music needle drops to draw an audience into this crackling crime story. The biggest decision made by screenwriter Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You) is the dueling perspectives of Tonya and Jeff being given equal treatment. They both sit for a series of on-camera interviews and will even interrupt the flashbacks to object. Jeff will recount a time Tonya chased him around with a loaded shotgun, and then Tonya will turn to the camera and argue that this moment never happened. I, Tonya doesn’t tell you who to believe and who to doubt. The account will purposely contradict one another, often demonizing the other party and painting themselves as a larger victim of fate. The movie is steadily entertaining as it mixes moments of light and dark. Tonya breaking the fourth wall to talk about her domestic abuse is another way of showing just his disassociated she’s become to a life of abuse. It turns fourth wall break into coping mechanism. I was laughing at the buffoonery of Jeff’s goons and moved by the relentless torment of Tonya. It’s a story that’s worth revisiting and is given an invigorating sheen of inept crime thriller. Gillespie goes a little too hard with the Scorsese speed ramp zooms and quantity of literal song selections, but it doesn’t detract from the film’s overall entertainment impact.
This is a film about reassessing preconceived notions about who the characters are, what the story exactly is, and where the truth lies amidst all the madness. Tonya scoffs, “There is no such thing as truth,” as if she were channeling the forty-fifth president of the United States of America. This becomes a foundational thesis of the movie as we’re presented with conflicting personal accounts where characters will break the fourth wall to criticize the validity of what they are doing or saying. All of these conflicting accounts force the audience to constantly reconsider what we are seeing and being told. We have to consistently think about the source and how there might be bias at play. As expected, Tonya and Jeff’s differing versions of events paint the other as more knowingly duplicitous. Tonya flat-out accuses Jeff of years of physical abuse, the kind of relationship Tonya’s vicious mother had primed her for. LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would say all of her cruel hostility was valuable in an ends-justify-the-means crucible. Through fighting to earn the approval of an abusive authority figure, Tonya became one of the greatest figure skaters in the world, the first to achieve the vaulted triple axle. LaVona shouts that “nice” doesn’t get you anything in this world (her own mother was nice and LaVona became a waitress). People throughout I, Tonya are reshaping worldviews, angling for sympathy, and spinning history for personal advantage. Everyone wants to be a victim, a martyr, or at least the person who was right in the end. By the end, you don’t know what exactly to believe and whose truth is closest.
This was a media scandal that the public gladly gobbled up every new morsel, bringing out the knives to carve up a villain served up on the Olympic stage, but I, Tonya is a very empathetic portrayal that still doesn’t take the edge off of its title heroine. She grew up poor and scrappy and had to make her own costumes for her skating performances. From a technical standpoint, Tonya Harding could out skate anyone, but she didn’t fit into the cookie cutter beauty pageant image of what a wholesome girl should represent. The same bias against her, the trailer trash girl who couldn’t catch a break, was still dragging her down even when her skating was superior to her competitors. It definitely helps to paint a sympathetic portrayal for the woman, and that’s even before the years of abusive relationships, and a husband she may have returned to in order to appear more “wholesome family.” It’s easy to castigate Tonya Harding as a villain, but it’s even harder to see the person inside the caricature that was sold for mass media consumption.
The use of humor has to be very delicate because of all the controversial material. We have naturally offbeat characters doing incredibly stupid things, and then we have a husband repeatedly hitting his wife. This seesaw of tone means that the comedy needs to be precise or else it will undercut the drama or, worse, cross into gross mitigation of abuse. LaVona is a popular source for verbal abuse, and it’s meant to be shocking, but at no point do I think the film trivializes the conditions of Tonya’s childhood for ironic comic fodder. It’s presenting an abnormal treatment of an abnormal upbringing, and the later detours with “The Incident” are highlighting the naturally cracked criminals. These people were not good at what they were doing and were easily caught. The nimwits-try-their-hands-at-crime subgenre is ripe for laughter, in particular Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and his self-professed masterful skills at counter terrorism planning. The Tonya Harding scandal is so inherently sensational and with so many bizarre, colorful characters that to treat it without its penchant of natural humor would be a disservice. Crazy people doing dumb things are going to tend to have some humor value. Where the film falls short is in the realm of media satire. There are a few tasty morsels sprinkled throughout, like LaVona forcing reporters to stand behind a rope line if they wanted to snap her picture, but overall the media satire feels flat. Bobby Cannavale (Spy) feels completely wasted as a Hard Copy reporter/exposition device. He offers few insights and fewer colorful anecdotes. The most pointed the film gets with media commentary is when Tonya looks directly into the camera and accuses each person of being her abuser. It’s a stark turn that stops the action cold, and the audience has to think about their own tacit approval through media consumption. By rewarding this coverage and the easily packaged version of events, have we all played a part in Tonya’s suffering and shame?
Robbie (Suicide Squad) is sensational in the role, eliciting so much emotion that it can instill whiplash. One moment you’re impressed by the depth of her vulnerability and the next you’re whistling at her hard-as-nails persona and sheer tenacity. It’s an unapologetic performance that goes dark places and serious places, but Robbie doesn’t stoop to pander. Tonya wants your empathy but she doesn’t want your pity, and she sure as hell isn’t going to pretend to be somebody she’s not. The tricky part is the question over who is Tonya Harding. With Robbie, she’s a profane firebrand who is impatient with a world that refuses to accept her and her talents. The scene where Tonya is stripped of ever competing again in professional figure skating is a dazzling piece of acting on Robbie’s part. Tonya has sacrificed much of her own life for this sport, and by her own admission she doesn’t know how to do anything else. To see it all go away with the pound of a gavel, she pleads for jail instead as a more humane punishment. This feels like Robbie marking her grand entrance into the next acting echelon in Hollywood.
The supporting roles nicely serve their purpose, with Janney (The Girl on the Train) being the obvious standout. Her hellish mother is overpowering in every sense. Janney is abrasive and fierce and a crutch for the screenplay when it needs something shocking. I do not doubt the voracity of what the Tonya and other participants have said about LaVona, but the filmmakers don’t know when to leave enough alone. There are insights to be had through LaVona’s relationship with her daughter but it’s too often one-note. She’s the angry older woman berating people for shock, comedy, or a transition.
I, Tonya might change your mind about Tonya Harding. She’s definitely unrepentant in the movie while at the same time asking you to view her with an empathy that was lacking during the parade of 1990s tabloids. She’s an abuse survivor who had to claw for every advantage she could earn. You might not like her, or maybe you’ll grow to appreciate her, but you will understand her better. Robbie is outstanding, Janney is highly memorable and perfectly cast, and the direction provides plenty of jolts, from electric camerawork to the energetic propulsion through its diverging viewpoints. The dark comedy works, the serious drama works, and the domestic violence is not trivialized with so many ironic winks. I, Tonya is an unflinching expose that forces you to question the validity of everything. It’s a movie that dares you to question your perceptions while you’re keenly watching. Perhaps twenty years later, Tonya Harding will get whatever she is due.
Nate’s Grade: B+