Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Blue Collar, Red Neck, Pink Sequins

Film: I, Tonya
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

If you were sentient and aware in 1994, you knew about Tonya Harding. Everyone knew about Tonya Harding. She was a punchline in every comedian’s stand-up routine, a topic of conversation around every water cooler. You couldn’t get away from her. That being the case, it’s almost surprising that it took nearly a quarter of a century for her story to reach the big screen. I, Tonya essentially admits at the beginning that it is rife with unreliable narrators. This is the story of the entire saga of Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, and a hell of a lot more coming from three different people, all of whom have good reason to lie and to implicate each other.

Of course, to tell the full story, we’re going to have to start at the beginning, with a young Tonya Harding (played as a young child by Maizie Smith, then Mckenna Grace as a pre-teen, and ultimately by Margot Robbie) becoming a viable figure skating competitor. We are introduced to her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, who won the Oscar for Supporting Actress for this role). LaVona is a harsh woman who seems to be devoid of any real compassion or genuine emotion outside of contempt. She is most easily recognizable in the film by her ever-present cigarette (which honestly looks more like a cigarillo). What we learn is that despite her evident talent (Harding was the first American woman figure skater to successfully land a triple axel in competition), she never placed well in competition. Why? Image.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Off Script: From Dusk till Dawn

Film: From Dusk till Dawn
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

Readers of this blog should know by now that I will go out of my way to avoid watching a lot of Tarantino films. I get tired of him very quickly, and I’ve said for years that Tarantino would be a lot better if he stopped trying to be awesome and instead tried to be good. So what do I have to say about From Dusk till Dawn, which features him not as the director, but as screenwriter, executive producer, and featured actor? I’ll say that Tarantino is a better director than he is actor, although that’s hardly a shocking opinion.

Anyway, From Dusk till Dawn is from the early years of George Clooney’s movie career and long before he started to get serious about the movies he was making. This is from his pre-Batman & Robin days, when he was just a good-looking actor on his way up. And since this is a vampire horror/action movie, that’s probably not surprising.

Thursday, March 21, 2019


Film: First Reformed
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I find it important, now and again, to remind both myself and readers of this blog about the function of the Oscar posts on Monday and Friday. These are not a celebration of the best of the Academy, but a reckoning of just how poorly the Academy has done historically at both nominating and awarding prizes to films. When I finally catch up with something like First Reformed, which came with huge buzz when it was released, I’m reminded of that mission statement.

First Reformed is far from the first movie of 2018 that I have liked, nor is it the first I’ve seen from last year that I think was worthy of Oscar consideration. It’s not even the first that I consider important from last year, nor is it the one that I found to make the greatest artistic statement. It is, however, the first film I’ve seen from 2018 that made me really want to sit and think about what I had seen for a chunk of time after it ended. Not a lot of movies strike me that way, and so, when it happens, I find myself surprisingly moved.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

John Wick, Taxi Driver

Film: You Were Never Really Here
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

I didn’t watch the Oscars this year for the first time in a good half decade. The main reason I couldn’t really be bothered to worry about it is that, while I am always months behind in my viewing, I do pay attention to what is out and what people are talking about. You Were Never Really Here got a huge amount of buzz in the movie nerd community when it came out, and a lot of people expected that it would be completely snubbed come Oscar time…and it was. This is another reminder that my Monday and Friday Oscar posts are not intended to be a celebration of Oscar, but a reckoning.

Now, having seen this, I get the frustration of many people. There’s not a clear reason that Lynne Ramsay should have been ignored for Best Director, even if the Academy didn’t feel like You Were Never Really Here deserved recognition in the Best Picture category. What Ramsay has made here is a pared-down roller coaster, a film that doesn’t waste a frame on anything it doesn’t immediately impact the story. This is the opposite of the self-indulgent filmmaking that seems to come into vogue every few years, with films bloating into longer “experiences” that frequently have a 20% fat content.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Wednesday Horror: Urban Legend

Film: Urban Legend
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

When someone reinvents a genre or part of a genre, it’s inevitable that there will be copycats. The first successful slasher begat more and more slashers. Some of these were good, many more were terrible, and a lot were simply mediocre. When Scream reinvented the slasher into something post-modern and self-aware, it naturally had its imitators as well. One of those is Urban Legend, a film that gives us a group of college students who know the legends in question and who will die in droves because of them.

We start with a bang, with college student Michelle Mancini (Natasha Gregson Wagner) driving back to campus one night and having a scare from a stuttering gas station attendant. What she doesn’t know is that there is someone in her back seat, who soon rises up and beheads her with an axe. And the urban legend parade begins.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


Films: Unsane
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

One of the realities of the horror genre is that if you look hard enough, you’ll find something that will really play on the fears of just about anyone. Being locked in an institution wrongfully is, I would guess, a pretty significant fear of a lot of people. Being locked in an institution with your stalker would be hundreds of times worse. And that’s exactly where we are going with Unsane. Don’t worry—this isn’t a spoiler. All of what sounds like it should be revealed over the course of the film is in the trailer.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) has moved from Boston to escape a stalker named David Strine (Joshua Leonard), who attached onto her when she took care of his father during his hospice care. The experience has left her scarred enough that she sees David in places where she is sure he can’t be. Deciding that she could use a little help, she books an appointment for herself at a place called Highland Creek Behavioral Center. She fills out a number of forms and is then taken to an examination room where it is revealed that she has just voluntarily committed herself for 24 hours.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Style over Substance

Film: Fellini’s Casanova
Format: DVD from Quincy Illinois Veterans Home Library OCLC Interlibrary Loan on The New Portable.

Years ago, when I was working on a BA in English, my brother sent me something about how to be a really good English major. It was a joke, of course, a piece of satire that naturally included a great deal of truth. One element of it was that you should pick a particular author and hate all of that author’s work. I suppose the film equivalent of that is to pick a director that is widely acclaimed and hate all or most of that director’s output. For me, that director is Federico Fellini. I know he is lauded and well-loved, but I find virtually all of his work completely self-indulgent and navel-gazing. I didn’t have a great deal of hope that Fellini’s Casanova would be any different.

And…it’s not. Fellini’s Casanova is a riot of mise-en-scene and enormous, elaborate costumes desperately in search of being something more than just a series of events connected by a single character. I know that there are people who like this stuff. I know that Fellini has people who adore his work. I’ll I see, though, is a whole lot of style and virtually no substance.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Wednesday Horror: In the Mouth of Madness

Film: In the Mouth of Madness
Format: DVD from River Valley Public Library through OCLC WorldCat on The New Portable.

I didn’t realize until In the Mouth of Madness started that it starred Sam Neill. It’s at this point that I consciously realized that Sam Neill has been in some freaky shit. He was in Possession, which is a serious head trip and he was in Event Horizon, which never gets the love it deserves. And he was in In the Mouth of Madness, which also goes by John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness if you were wondering who directed and scored it.

There is a loose connection to the work of H.P. Lovecraft here, much more tangential than full-on homage. There’s a sort of feel to the story and the location that knock on Lovecraft’s door. It’s probably a good thing that this doesn’t really go any further because there aren’t a lot of directors who could come close to producing something that would work for Lovecraft. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Guillermo del Toro, although Carpenter moved in that direction with The Thing. Still, I’m not entirely sure that Lovecraft really translates to film well, so “inspired by” is probably more than enough.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Off Script: The Mothman Prophecies

Film: The Mothman Prophecies
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

I always, or at least often, appreciate it when a horror movie really attempts to do a lot with its atmosphere. The Mothman Prophecies is entirely about the atmosphere. The entire movie is really a long series of events that are all designed to get the audience to buy into a feeling that something going on in the world is just slightly off. There’s no gore here and no real jump scares. Instead, what we get is a slowly building sense of dread. It’s done pretty well, and I’m always happy when that works.

Washington Post reporter John Klein (Richard Gere) and his wife Mary (Debra Messing) make an offer to purchase a house. On the drive afterward, Mary sees a huge apparition and their car skids off the road. John is fine, but Mary ends up in the hospital. A few tests later and she’s been diagnosed with glioblastoma, and she succumbs to it soon after, leaving John alone.