By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Reviews of The 15:17 to Paris and I, Tonya.
The 15:17 to Paris
In life, the ratio of banality (our daily ration) to heroism (our rare hero) is very high. Clint Eastwood respects that, in his padded but moving The 15:17 to Paris (that’s 3:17 p.m). It is about the Aug. 21, 2015 episode on a French train terrorized by a fanatic, Ayoub El Khazzani (acted by Ray Corasani as a generic, nut-eyed maniac). Three young Americans with military training (skin-headed Spencer Stone was an active USAF staff sergeant), further bound by boyhood friendship in Sacramento, rose to the occasion by disarming the gun-wielding villain and rescuing a severely injured civilian. It’s all over in about ten well-staged minutes, with two bits of curious foreshadowing: Stone had felt that life was “catapulting” him to a special event, and one guy’s mother talked of hearing God’s vague promise.
Eastwood probably felt he had to include such stuff, as part of the cinema verité approach defined by casting Stone, Alek Skaulatos and Anthony Sadler as themselves. Hired actors, including kids and teens cast as the heroes in youth, plus their moms and various other figures, are TV standard-issue, but that eases the burden on the amateur stars (playing yourself is no ticket to Brando). They are likeable, all-American dudes who say “man” a lot, enjoy beer and wine, pizza and smiling women. Only Stone, a sort of apprentice Woody Harrelson, has much camera charisma. Their shared, zip-zap tour of Europe might as well be luggage labels, with Venice a rush of selfie shots, Rome overlaid by a kitsch version of “Volare,” and a little wit in Berlin – the perky guide who shows them the marker for Hitler’s bunker strides away chirping “Springtime for Hitler.”
There are brief flashes of coming mayhem, which arrives with credible power and compensates for flat stretches, like two of the pals being taken out of public school (after a teacher presses meds as a quick-fix for ADD problems) and put in a Christian school. However factual, some elements have an implied agenda (only Christians and the military can shape “real” men). Eastwood, who gave one of the dumbest speeches ever at a Republican convention (which is really saying something), saves the heart-grab for last: the classy ceremony where President Francois Hollande of France gives the three Americans the Legion of Honor. It’s like a splendid echo of 1944 and ’45, when most of the French were thrilled to see Americans. And a deft rebuke to the current, lousy phase, with France so high on Trump’s f-you list.
A sharp, speeding skate blade cuts into ice less than an inch deep. I, Tonya cuts about that deeply into its subject (admittedly, a shallow one). It shows Tonya Harding, whose 1990s skating career was ruined by scandal, as a gifted but miserable athlete lost among losers. The film stacks its social analysis like igloo blocks. Tonya, from a scratch-patch section of Portland, Oregon, is her mother’s “fifth child, by husband No. 4.” Her Vegas-babe skating offends judges who have a damsel princess ideal of what makes a champion. Tonya likes working on motors, flaunts epaulettes of rebellion, and rocks on the ice to ZZ Top (after a more delicate girl swans to Vivaldi). Adored by some, reviled by others as white trash, Tonya is queen of the dangerous triple axel jump.
Flashback to childhood: dorky dad shoots rabbits for meat, giving tiny Tonya the fur for costumes. He soon exits, leaving the adorable doll with mom, played by Allison Janney as a chain-smoking witch of control mania. Made-up homelier than worn linoleum, with a cold laser stare and a nail-gun voice that could make a drill instructor weep for mercy, Janney brings deadpan precision to her snarky f-bombs. She is up for an Oscar. So is Margo Robbie as pretty, rage-packed Tonya, who falls into the sexy but then abusive arms of a preening dodo, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Mom’s disgust achieves Zen clarity: “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb.” Jeff comes with a fat bonus: conspiracy addict Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), a slob Rupert Pupkin with G. Gordon Liddy aspirations. Shawn’s insight on undercover work is one that John Le Carré never considered: “Remember, if your mind is a blank, nobody can pick up your vibes.”
Nudged along by Jeff, Shawn and a cohort contrived the insane ambush of Tonya’s rival, picture-perfect skater Nancy Kerrigan, given a wicked leg blow before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers reach for elliptical irony, raising but also smudging how much Tonya knew. The story melts into the media slush of an Geraldo Rivera “investigation.” Some confiding close-ups appear in reduced frames, surrounded by black, evidently a gift to fans of square peepholes. I, Tonya has no evolving “I” or “we,” just a floating crap game of pathetic people making bad choices without imagination. Inside this cranked-up wallow, a new Capades show struggles to be born: Duh on Ice.
SALAD (A List)
Movies with Outstanding Train Sequences:
The General (Buster Keaton, 1926), Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934), The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock. 1938), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), The Narrow Margin (Richard Fleischer, 1952), Daybreak Express (D.A. Pennebaker, 1958), North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), Flame Over India (J. Lee Thompson, 1959), High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963), The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964), The Incident (Larry Peerce, 1967), The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1968), Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973), Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974), The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007) and Lion (Garth Davis, 2016).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson expostulated on why he preferred Jack Lemmon’s TV performance, as flop comedian Archie Rice in The Entertainer, to Laurence Olivier’s more acclaimed stage original: “Larry can’t bear to fail, even if he’s supposed to fail. So when he played the comic onstage, he played for real laughs from the audience, instead of giving a feeling that he was in a half-empty theater where nobody was laughing … Success to Larry demanded being an effective comedian, even though it made no sense!” (Welles to Henry Jaglom, and Lemmon, in Jaglom’s My Lunches With Orson. To be fair, Olivier got a little more flop sweat into Tony Richardson’s movie of the play.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Many intro “scrolls” for movies are trite filler, but if more people, including critics, had seriously absorbed the one for Steven Shainberg’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus in 2006, they wouldn’t have fallen into dull, literal rejection of his poetic film: “This is a film about Diane Arbus, but it is not a historical biography. Arbus, who lived from 1923 to 1971, is considered by many to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century … What you are about to see is a tribute to Diane: a film that invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus’s inner experience on her extraordinary path.” (From the Nicole Kidman/Fur chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Johnny (Buster Keaton) is cinema’s definitive train man, in The General (1926; director Buster Keaton, with Clyde Bruckman; cameramen Bert Haines, Dev Jennings).
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