I, Tonya (Film)

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I took advantage of a child free, school-work free day off yesterday and used a free movie ticket voucher to go and see I, Tonya by myself. I love the thrill of seeing a movie alone from time to time. There is something liberating in not worrying about what the person next to you is thinking of the film and finding some time to escape incognito into the dark arms of the cinema. This film has been on my “To See” list for a while and I have had plans to check it out in the last month, but each time those plans had fallen through. Before viewing this film I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew almost nothing about Tonya Harding, let alone the dramatic events of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. I’d heard some good things and obviously seen the huge number of awards for which this film has been nominated. I went in not really knowing what to expect and this film completely blew my socks off.

Told in a mockumentary style through interviews with the main characters and flashbacks to events of which they speak, the film tells the pitiful story of American ice skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie). Tonya is raised in a working class, “white trash” family in the poorer parts of Portland, Oregon. Abandoned by her father, she is physically and psychologically abused by her mother, but has a love of ice-skating. Tonya begins training at age four and is eventually taken out of high school to train full time. Looked down upon by the ice skating fraternity for her lack of decorum, home made costumes and questionable music choices, despite being one of the best ice-skaters in the world she finds herself constantly having to prove and re-prove herself by doing things other ice skaters have not been able to achieve (the highly technical and extremely difficult triple axel jump, for example). At age 15, Tonya begins dating Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who she marries soon after, trading her abusive home life with her mother for an even more abusive home life with Jeff.

The film moves us through Tonya’s life and career up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. While training in the lead up to the team trials, Tonya is spooked by a death threat. Worried this will keep her off her game, Jeff comes up with a plan to send some threatening letters to Tonya’s key rival, Nancy Kerrigan, to even up the playing field. Unfortunately, Jeff leaves this task to his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), a dim-witted, delusional loser who instead hires two equally idiotic crooks to bash Kerrigan’s knee caps in one afternoon after a training session.

Despite the effective use of a lot of black humour (it’s not all serious – there are moments that are genuinely funny and satirical), I found the ending of the film and what happened to Harding so unjust it felt Shakespearean in it’s level of tragedy. Whether she was involved in the plot to injure Kerrigan or not, the price she paid was higher than any of the other players in the violent debacle. I left the cinema feeling angry, yet inspired by her tenacity and resilience. This film sometimes breaks the fourth wall by having Tonya speak directly to the camera from time to time. This is used sparingly and effectively, feeling less like an additional intrusion, but more like a comment on the nature of truth, which is interestingly one of the key themes of the film. Screenwriter Steven Rogers interviewed both Harding and Jeff Gillooly about the Kerrigan incident for the film and they both had completely contradictory recollections. Consequently, the film finishes by Harding asserting, “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.” We will never know the truth of what really happened, but we are unsure if any of the players know the truth either.

This film also speaks to class warfare within communities and how that can often be a barrier to success. Harding’s social status and family situation, rather than being regarded as irrelevant as it should, almost robs her of the chance to compete. There are also some thoughtful insights about how psychology plays such a huge role in sport. In one key scene Harding’s mother pays a man to verbally abuse and ridicule her directly before she competes because the anger seems to motivate her – she needs people to think she can’t do it in order to prove she can.

The nature of fame and abuse though are at the heart of the film, and I suppose fame being a form of abuse. Harding comments in her interviews: “America. They want someone to love, they want someone to hate”, and it’s clear through Harding’s story, as well as the clever visual intertextual reference to the OJ Simpson story, that this is often found through celebrity sports men and women. Harding also comments insightfully on the irony of the incident with Kerrigan: “Look, Nancy gets hit one time and the whole world shits… For me it was an all-the-time occurrence.” There is a threat of violence that permeates every scene in this film, and you realise, despite Harding’s talent and achievements, she was shaped to think she always deserved to be a punching bag. Because of this I feel that there is a lot here about understanding victims of violence and abuse – that they often remain locked in psychological war with themselves. I have been dipping in and out of reading the first volume of Jimmy Barnes’ autobiography Working Class Boy (2016) and he reflects on the way in which there really is no escape from violence because it ultimately reprograms your brain, and that the abuse will resurface forever in various forms, be it addiction or depression or something else. I felt that was one of the messages of this film too.

The film is deftly directed by Australian Craig Gillespie, and is so well written by Steven Rogers. The editing is clever and well paced, weaving together the interviews and flashbacks seamlessly. The performances are all great, but my word, Margo Robbie as Tonya Harding and Allison Janney as her mother, LaVona Golden, are each a revelation. Robbie impressed me with her breakout performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, but in I, Tonya, she demonstrates her range and chameleon-like abilities. So sexy and confident in The Wolf of Wall Street, she is ugly and childlike here. I’ve long admired Alison Janney’s work since I first saw her in that tiny role in American Beauty back in the late 1990s, and loved her to death as CJ Cregg in The West Wing, but she gives a knock out performance here. She is grotesquely monstrous as Harding’s mother and I found my body tensing each time she stepped into frame. Both are extremely deserving of all the award nominations they are currently enjoying.

I honestly can’t rate this film highly enough. I stewed on it for hours afterwards and probably will continue to for days to come.

 

 

 

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Lady Bird (Film)

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Tuesdays are often a perfect night for me to catch up with a friend. With meetings until late afternoon at work and my hubby on duty at home, it’s usually a good opportunity for me to get dinner and a cheap ass Tuesday movie with friends. Last night, my bestie and I grabbed some tasty Mexican before heading into see a 6.30pm session of Lady Bird (2017). Written and directed by American Greta Gerwig, and set in Sacramento, California in the early 2000s, the film centres on Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Irish actor Saoirse Ronan) who is in her final two years of school. She’s quirky, vulnerable, tempestuous and warm, longing to experience life and be free of what she sees as the tiny and often embarrassing confines of her school, friends and family. Her final years of high school play out like a series of vignettes – the highs and lows of school life; love/hate relationships with teachers; a school musical; first job; the heights and pitfalls of first love; the difficulties of home life; first sexual experiences; the ebb and flow of friendship; and the difficult decisions surrounding post-school life. Essentially, this is a gentle, light bildungsroman tale, highlighting the plethora of Lady Bird’s ‘coming of age’ experiences.

This film was very charming and funny. Lady Bird herself is an incredibly engaging and likeable character, whose flaws are many and epitomise all the frustrating elements of teenagers. She is played so well by Saoirse Ronan (who just seems to be good in everything), but the supporting cast are equally as fabulous. To the credit of Gerwig’s writing, those surrounding Lady Bird are given as much weight as she is in carrying the story (and Lady Bird) into adulthood. There are some particularly poignant scenes with her and the head nun at her Catholic high school, her best friend, and her ex-boyfriend who is bereft at having to reveal a secret to his family. However, the scenes between Lady Bird and her parents are the most rewarding. Tracy Letts is great as her ever suffering, out of work father, and offers a gentle stability to her emotional turmoil, and the volatility between Lady Bird and her mother. Laurie Metcalf does an outstanding job as Lady Bird’s mother who encapsulates the equal amounts of love and despair parents often feel for their children, and walks a fine line between carefully building resilience and giving her daughter long lasting emotional scars.

I really enjoyed this film – it’s sweet and inoffensive, and as people who graduated from a Catholic high school in the early 2000s and were a bit quirky ourselves, both my girlfriend and I found it very nostalgic.  But, I don’t quite understand the hype that has surrounded this film. It’s a very conventional genre and Gerwig does make it fresh to an extent, but is that enough to make it such a big award season contender? Not really in my opinion.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (Documentary)

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With hubby out for the night with the boys and my son soundly asleep by 7.15pm, I had a night to myself! After the obligatory catching up on work emails and planning next week’s lessons (yes, that is often my Saturday night), I decided to watch Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (2010) which is currently playing on ABC iView. My reasons for wanting to watch this were multiple. Firstly, it fits perfectly into my resolution to engage myself with more contemporary art that challenges me. Secondly, I have heard and read a little bit about Abramovic over the years, but don’t know a lot about her. Thirdly, I regularly listen to a podcast called ‘Chat 10 Looks 3’ where two Australian journalists (who are also best buds), Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb, discuss things that they have been doing in their personal and work lives – from recipes they’ve been cooking, books, films and tv shows they’ve been driving into, interviews they’ve done, articles they’ve read, stuff they’ve been doing with their kids, and work that they are grappling with, etc. The funny, natural banter between the two of them tends to make you feel like you are simply eavesdropping on a conversation between friends. A part from the enjoyment of this alone, they sometimes bring to my attention things I’d like to look into. In a recent podcast, Sales was discussing a reading slump she’s been in for a while as she struggled to find a good novel she would really enjoy. She said what broke this was a novel called The Museum of Modern Love by Hannah Rose, which tells the story of various characters who go to visit an Abramovic exhibition. Sales then mentioned how this documentary gave a great insight to the novel before reading it. Her enthusiasm made me want to read the novel, so researching through this documentary seemed necessary.

Anyway, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present is a documentary directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre which focuses on a 2010 retrospective exhibition Abramovic gave at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. Abramovic is a Serbian artist in her sixties (at the time of filming), who is possibly the most famous performance artist in the world. In fact, one critic in the doco refers to her as the “grandmother of performance art”. Her work is largely seen as a reaction to more traditional, still art, and in and of itself challenges the concept of art as we know it. Abramovic believes that art and performance is life, and that art as humanity, is a reflection of civilisation, particularly though it’s interaction with the audience. Her work explores the relationship between the artist and the audience, as well as the limits of mind and body.

The start of the documentary sets up the design and premise of the exhibition, where, a part from video footage of some of the performance pieces, other artists will recreate some of Abramovic’s most stand out performance works. However, the most ambitious part of the exhibition will be a performance piece titled ‘The Artist is Present’ whereby Abramovic herself will be present in the gallery every day, sitting in a space with a table and chair opposite her, inviting members of the public to individually sit with her in silence for as long as they choose.

The first half of the documentary gives an overview of Abramovic’s life and work, which was both interesting and confronting. She is a fascinating figure, but while I understand her performance art, some of it I really hated. The pieces whereby she carved a pendulum into her abdomen or when she self flagellated or screamed at the top of her voice for an age, just struck me as infuriatingly self involved. To me, the appropriation of these ideas for art seemed to reflect some disregard and offence the people who genuinely experience violence and torture. However, I found the art she did with her ex long-term partner Ulay to be somewhat intriguing. Again, their physical violence towards each other to demonstrate the conflict in relationships seemed naive and just plain dumb. Yet, when the artists chose to part ways after a long time in a personal and professional relationship, they created a final performance piece together called ‘Lovers’ whereby each began walking at opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, only to meet in the middle, hug and shake hands before departing. There was something about that which was incredibly moving and spoke to the enormity of human relationships and their ending.

After this overview, we came to preparations for and the experience of the retrospective itself. Much of this centred on the performance piece ‘The Artist is Present’ and the incredible piece of work that became. Abromovic sits within a cordoned off area, under theatre lights, with a table and chair opposite her. There is a line for people wishing to sit with her, but there is also space around this for others to simply observe the artwork, rather than partake. The reactions of both the artist and the individuals were astounding. Abramovic sat and made eye contact with over 1500 people for 736 hours and 30 minutes of the duration of the exhibition. It really is a feat in self control of the mind and body and allowed me to really understand the impact that performance art of this magnitude can have. For her to have been able to endure that speaks volumes of her control and dedication to her art. What is also amazing is that fact that she gives each person equal attention – being so still and in the process demanding the same of her audience. So much can be learned through the facial expressions and body language of the people who engaged with the exhibition – some conveying joy and excitement at being there in front of an idol, others communicating great pain and heartache, clearly searching for something. One of the most touching interactions was when Ulay himself sat down opposite Abramovic and she began silently crying as he seemed to be saying, “I’m so proud of you.” In the months it was running at MOMA almost a million people came to see the exhibition, many camping out overnight to be able to take part in ‘The Artist is Present’.

At the end of the doco, I can honestly say, I hated some of Abramovic’s work, but I absolutely loved others. It certainly made me appreciate performance art in a way that I hadn’t before, and the documentary itself was incredibly illuminating for those who are fans of Abramovic, as well as those, like myself, who knew very little about her. And now to get my hands on that novel…

Black Panther (Film)

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I have to admit, I have been growing tired of the super hero franchise films that we have been bombarded with over the last 10 years. While last year’s Wonder Woman (2017) was lots of fun and finally presented a central female character to remind audiences that girls can be superheroes too, I found Justice League (2017) and Batman vs Superman (2016) to be fairly disappointing. However, to the credit of Marvel Studios, they keep trying to keep things a little more fresh. I found this with last year’s Spider Man: Homecoming (2016). It didn’t really steer from convention through it’s special effects and basic plot, but it added light and fun, and authentically presented the highs and lows of adolescence through Peter Parker’s coming of age tale. Black Panther (co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler) offers something completely new again.

Set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, Black Panther focuses on T’Challa, the prince of Wakanda and son of the king who was recently killed in a terrorist attack. Wakanda’s capital is secret and protected by some sort of invisibility shield where the outside world cannot see it’s technological advancement. T’Challa tries to take over where his father left off, but his yearning for peace is quickly dissipated by his ex-girlfriend who questions her country’s lack of foreign aid, and his best friend who questions his country’s lack of conviction when it comes to helping their black brothers and sisters throughout the world. Enter two villains – a South African arms dealer who is stealing and selling Wakanda’s precious metal, vibranium, and Killmonger, a forgotten nephew and heir to the throne, who has spent his life living within the racist, unequal USA. T’Challa has to defeat them both and make some changes to his own world view if he has any hope of sustaining his nation.

This film had a lot to say and I found it impressive that a super hero movie would purposely be so overtly political. There are references to the colonisation of African nations and the unending disasters that have resulted; the more successful African nations doing very little to help those around them; the plight of African Americans who are fooled into believing they are living in the greatest country on earth; and the moral implications of the possibility of seeking vengeance over a predominately white world that has offered you nothing but centuries of cruelty and hardship. The greatest conflict for me came in understanding and sympathising with both the hero and his enemy. T’Challa who wants to find a peaceful solution and move gently towards diplomacy across these areas seemed to channel Martin Luther King Jr., whilst Killmonger who asserts that after nothing else has worked, violence is the only way to gain control and autonomy, firmly represented the ideals of Malcolm X at his most militant.

This film also seems to be finally showing that Hollywood has the capacity to better represent it’s audience on screen for once. This is a predominantly black cast, with a token one or two white actors, rather than the other way around. There are also a refreshing number of strong, female leads – the brains and the brawn of T’Challa’s family, friends and army.  Some of the action scenes are in all too familiar settings – big cities – but the use of African rural land for a key battle scene was a nice change from always fighting in New York or some other familiar battlefield. The costumes and weaponry unite ancient African culture with the latest technology, and the music, produced by Kendrick Lamar, appropriates African rhythms to outstanding effect.

Not without it’s faults, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this film from a genre that has become all too stale in recent times.

Annihilation (Novel)

On an unnamed, abandoned stretch of US coastland, an environmental incident has taken place. We have no real understanding of what has happened or what has caused it, just that the area is now known as Area X and is under the administration of a group called the Southern Reach. The biologist (none of the characters have names), joins the surveyor, the linguist and the psychologist in forming the next expedition to enter Area X to research what goes on there. Few return from Area X and those that do (like the biologist’s husband) are strangely changed. From the start of their expedition the four females are seemingly doomed – their training is ambiguous and wrapped in mystery; they can’t remember how they got into Area X; their provisions are inadequate; and they cannot even agree on what they are seeing. It doesn’t take long before things begin to go horribly wrong for the group.

My husband read this book in one day and immediately recommended it, so I had no hesitation in launching straight into it. I’m not normally a big fan of science fiction, but the horror and speculative fiction elements in this appealed to me. Written by American author Jeff VanderMeer in 2014, this is the first in a trilogy that examines Area X. The themes of the novel capture the zeitgeist of environmental change that is occurring as a result of human intervention – some of which is predictable, some of which isn’t. For me, Area X represented the flipside of our current world – where we as humanity become afraid of the natural world in it’s overwhelming totalitarianism and its capacity to change us instead of the other way around. There is a constant underlying threat which is at the heart of every observation and interaction the biologist has in this environment. I also enjoyed VanderMeer’s use of the uncanny in this world – it confronts the biologist at every turn, causing her to calmly rely on her scientific training and logical, evidence based thought processes, rather than lose herself completely to fear and despair.

However, while the ideas explored in the novel are topical, I found the style and structure disengaging. The story is retold through the first person narrative of the biologist, and I found the voice lacked a depth of character necessary to really connect us to her plight. In flashbacks, she reveals herself to be surly and difficult, with a far stronger connection to nature than to people, but this was not utilised as well as it could have been in showing her resilience and capabilities within the world of Area X. That connection fell flat to me. Due to her personality type, the book then became disappointingly clinical in its telling of the events of the story, which makes it drag in parts, which it shouldn’t as it is suspenseful. A little more emotional punch could have worked wonders. Area X itself is beautifully imagined and described, awesome in every respect, and an original world that meshes together the old and new.

Despite it’s failings, I’m interested to see where the story goes and may delve back into the world of Area X in the future. I watched the trailer yesterday for the film version of this novel, directed by Alex Garland and starring Natalie Portman, and I have to say that for once, by the looks of it, the film may actually be better.

Pipilotti Rist – Sip My Ocean (Exhibition)

Sometimes I teach students who will say things like, “I hate this” or “this is so dumb” or “what’s the point of this” about whatever novel or play or poem or film that may be the focus of our learning. This is more often than not an articulation of their frustrations at the fact that they are really struggling to understand it and engage with it. And I guess that sort of sums up my experience with modern art. Ashamedly, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Sydney. There is rarely anything that really appeals to me and often times I take a cynical view when perusing the website to see what exhibitions are coming up. However, this year I’m trying to open my mind a bit more to what art is out there and try to connect with that which I find challenging.

I had read a little bit about the Pipilotti Rist exhibition and several people I know said that her use of light and sound would probably appeal to kids. So, on a Saturday morning we meandered our way through The Rocks and visited the exhibition. Rist is a prolific Swiss artist who has been creating experimental video art and multimedia installation for over 30 years and this exhibition aimed to showcase her work from her early videos from the 1980s through to her larger audio-visual spectaculars of more recent years. Rist primarily focuses on the relationship between humans, nature and technology.

The exhibition was organised into nine spaces. The first space contained two of her works – an installation of lights against a collection of white packing materials (The Innocent Collection, 1985), and a video of a woman in the back seat of a car philosophising about the relationship between humans and nature (Small Suburb Brain, 1999/2007). While my son excitedly ran up to try and touch and play with the moving lights, my husband and I both gave a shared eye roll. But to me, this room and room 3 (The Room, 1994/2007) were the low points and probably just went over my head a bit. I loved Sip My Ocean (1996) and Ever Is Over All (1997) in room 2, which offered large video projections, encompassing floor, wall and ceiling, with an excellent music accompaniment by Chris Isaak, and Anders Gunnisberg and Rist herself. There were cushions and carpet to sit and watch these which really transfixed me and made me reflect on our culture’s obsession with the projection of large images on large screens. Rooms 4 (Administrating Eternity, 2011), 5 (Pixelwald Motherboard, 2016), 6 (A La Belle Etoile or Under The Sky, 2007) and 7 (Sleeping Pollen, 2014) offered gorgeous light installations and sculptures with images that somehow captured the intersection between nature and technology that occurs all around us without us knowing it. The final two rooms offered a climax of sorts though – more of an experience than simply an art work. In order to access room 8 (Your Room Opposite the Opera, 1994-2007), you needed to travel through a short curtained corridor which opened up to a large room which contained a smorgasbord for the eyes – floor to ceiling video projections on one side of the space and a cluster of smaller, domestic rooms and objects placed on the other side of the space, which all projected moving images and sounds themselves. The room felt like it was alive, and as my son bonded with the other kids who were mesmerised by the large projections, carpet and large cushions, I wandered through the rest of the space, admiring Rist’s imagination and attention to detail. The final space, room 9 (4th Floor To Mildness, 2016) was also entered through a short, curtained corridor, mirroring that of the entrance to room 8. Here we found another large space that was dark and quiet. Videos were projected on the ceiling, with a range of single and double beds underneath that we were encouraged to lay on to watch them. We easily found a double bed for the three of us and lay there, peacefully mesmerised by the images above us of underwater life and decay – a contemplation of life and death coexisting. It was a serene experience, despite the company of an energetic toddler who found bouncing and flopping on the beds almost as intriguing as the images projected above.

Overall, the exhibition left me with a greater appreciation of this style of art, and reminded me that, rather than being a passive experience, art can also be incredibly interactive as well.

The only downside was that whilst the staff were friendly and helpful, some patrons displayed a snobby contempt for those of us visiting the gallery with small children. I overheard one nastily say to a gallery attendant that the “creche is in full swing” as he tut tutted the excited children taking delight in Rist’s moving images and gorgeous sound. I appreciate that kids can be noisy and disruptive, particularly if you are wanting a quiet and contemplative time of it, but surely it speaks to the success of an artist whose art can appeal so broadly – from the adults who critically interpret the realisation of her ideas through to the youngsters who love the method with which she’s chosen to convey them. And ultimately, they are the future of art appreciation anyway, surely?

The Big Sick (Film)

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A rainy Saturday night. A pile of ironing. A chick flick was in order. According to many critics The Big Sick (2017) was one of the stand out films from last year and was on my list, but being a small, independent American film it wasn’t easily accessible in cinemas, nor was it out for long. So I missed it completely at the cinema and was more than pleased to see it come up as an option on iTunes for rent last night.

The Big Sick is about a Pakistani immigrant, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), an uber driving, stand-up comedian who is trying to get his big break. He’s kind and sweet, but suffocated by the life his strict Muslim parents have mapped out for him. Kumail starts dating Emily (Zoe Kazan), a smart, white College student studying psychology. They seem like the perfect couple in lots of ways, but soon their cultural differences become a huge hurdle for them and they break up. A few weeks later, Kumail is called to the hospital when Emily is admitted with what doctor’s assume is a bad flu. When her condition deteriorates and she is placed in an induced coma, Kumail finds himself having to spend time with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) and contemplate what he really wants in life.

This was a refreshing departure from most romantic comedies, which are often funny and suitably escapist, but ultimately formulaic. The Big Sick was written by Kumail Nanjiani and his real life wife Emily V. Gordon and is loosely based on their own love story. It’s because of this that the film has a realism to it that is largely missing from most films from this genre. It isn’t a laugh a minute sort of film and there are very few cutesy moments. There are funny lines, but these don’t feel manufactured, but more a reflection of real life. The arguments and conflicts are pointed because they reflect that in the heat of the moment people do say incredibly hurtful things that are hard to take back. There are some genuinely heart breaking moments, not just about romance, but mortality and the relationships between parents and their children. The film has a lot to say about dating and relationships, but more about the difficulties for immigrants who are caught between wanting to embrace the culture of their new home, yet be loyal to the expectations placed on them by their family’s tradition and love of their homelands. And without giving too much away, the ending also offered hope without it being conclusive that the couple ends up together and lives happily ever after.