Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

One of the most surprisingly rewarding experiences I had at the cinema all last year was watching Bette Davis devour the scenery opposite Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex. Davis is absolutely feral in that picture despite her regal drag, spending the entire runtime gobbling snacks & hurling vicious insults in intricately designed costumes. It’s fabulous. Returning months later to The Prytania Theatre to see Margot Robbie inhabit the same role in Mary Queen of Scots could only be a letdown, then, as she isn’t given free rein to behave monstrously the way Davis was. Robbie is fully capable of going big & going over-the-top; she also has no hesitancy to de-beautify herself in a role that’s basically Baby Jane Hudson clowning in a royal setting. As the title suggests, however, Mary Queen of Scots has a much smaller appetite for Queen Elizabeth vamping & camp than I, mostly sidelining Robbie’s raving monarch to focus on Saoirse Ronan’s fiery challenger to the throne instead. Elizabeth’s mental & emotional anguish are a background hum in the film rather than a ferocious roar, when her rivalry with Mary should have been evenly weighted on a titular level to save the film from costume drama tedium. Mary Queen of Scots had the potential to function like a one-on-one rivalry on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, but instead quietly passes the time like an especially subdued BBC miniseries. My desire for the former is certainly more a result of boisterous portrayals of Elizabeth from actors like Bette Davis, Quentin Crisp, and Judi Dench than anything to do with historical accuracy, but dutiful scholarship isn’t really this movie’s main concern anyway.

Part of the challenge in depicting the rivalry between Mary (Queen of Scotland) & Elizabeth (Queen of England) is that the two monarchs never met in person, exchanging most of their strategic blows through couriers & letters. The way this movie gets around that challenge is by just making shit up. In an outlandish climactic showdown, both queens meet privately in a rural laundry house to butt heads one final time – in a scene that’s one dove short of being a full-blown John Woo homage. They excuse this anachronism by saying “No one must ever know of this,” swearing themselves to secrecy. It’s a breach in historical accuracy that raises questions of why the film didn’t take even more liberties. Mary Queen of Scots wishes to modernize its tale of two quietly warring queendoms, but is also self-defeating in its timid anachronisms. It’s refreshingly inclusive in its onscreen representation politics, but it also relegates PoC characters to minor servile roles & treats queer sexuality as a death sentence. It openly depicts female sexual desire & cunnilingus in a way most buttoned-up costume dramas would normally shy away from, but the men who oblige those impulses are consistently such dastardly brutes that the entire affair is de-eroticized (and often outright sexually traumatic). Elizabeth is allowed to voice some Girl Power messaging in her choice to live a childless life “as a man” to maintain her throne, but is often depicted mourning her fading chances at motherhood as if it were the only role that could truly fulfill her. Mary Queen of Scots is stuck between period drama tradition & more flippantly modern, history-ignoring impulses; it likely would have been a better film had it pushed itself in either direction instead of hovering in tonal Limbo.

Mary Queen of Scots is a little too silly & preposterous to fully take seriously and yet not silly enough to excel as full-blown camp—a self-conflicted stasis that holds it back as a modern entertainment. Considered in isolation, Ronan’s narrative as the young, titular queen is a perfectly pleasing rise-to-power story of minor eroticism & political intrigue. It’s the exact kind of historical drama that feels custom-built to scoop up Best Costume Design Oscars (if you can see their gorgeous details through the overwhelming Prestige Picture artifice of the dialogue & score). The only problem is that it’s a narrative track that holds a much more interesting movie hostage. Every minute spent alone with Mary is a distraction from Elizabeth’s spectacular unraveling. Stray glimpses of Margot Robbie feverishly crafting in anger, swelling up with small pox, and dunking on the boneheaded men of her court are all welcome, microscopic tastes of the much more fun, rewarding movie that could have been if she were fully set loose. When Mary Queen of Scots allows its two queens to butt heads in a climactic John Woo showdown, it’s not failing its duties to historical accuracy; it’s finally openly being a fully realized version of itself, far too late in the runtime to make much difference. As is, this is a perfectly fine, pleasant-looking addition to the perfectly fine, visually pleasant costume drama tradition. It’s just difficult to not compare it to the over-the-top camp of The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex or the gleefully anachronistic, viscous rivalry of The Favourite and not leave the film wanting more. Margot Robbie was all dressed up for a no-holds-barred Baby Jane brawl, but was unfortunately chained to something much safer instead.

-Brandon Ledet

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I, Tonya (2017)

I can already tell I, Tonya is going to be bitterly divisive with most audiences, since I’m harshly divided on the film myself. For the first half hour I was totally onboard with the humorously cruel rehabilitation of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding’s public persona. Margot Robbie delivers a phenomenal, humanizing performance as Harding; Allison Janney is even more of a force to be reckoned with as her terror of a mother. Both women are deeply flawed, but recognizably genuine human beings from a harsh economic & social background, portrayals that transform a tabloid sideshow into something resembling empathy. Then the beatings start. I, Tonya aims for a tone similar to early Alexander Payne works like Election & Citizen Ruth, where the mood alternates rapidly between quirky comedy & pitch black cruelty. The film is far too tonally messy and not nearly confident enough in its structure for me to always make those leaps, however. It’s difficult to be in the mood to laugh half a breath after watching your protagonist get punched full force in the face, thrown against a wall, pulled by the hair, cornered with a gun, and so on. The violence leveled on Harding throughout I, Tonya certainly makes her more of a recognizably sympathetic figure than what you’d gather from her news coverage. However, the nonstop beatings are near impossible to rectify with the Jared Hess-style Napoleon Dynamite quirk comedy that fill in the gaps between them. The film either doesn’t understand the full impact of the violence it portrays or is just deeply hypocritical about its basic intent.

I, Tonya is told through several contradictory, direct to the camera monologues that allow characters to reshape public perception through voice-over guidance. As Harding, Robbie delivers two clear mission statements for the film through this device. In one, she complains that she’s been beaten and abused both physically & emotionally throughout her entire life without any public sympathy, while Nancy Kerrigan is America’s Sweetheart for being whacked one time in the kneecap. The dark, matter of fact humor of that statement is representative of the film’s most subversive strengths, which completely flip an outsider’s perspective on the figure skating world’s most infamous controversy. The other mission statement line is where I, Tonya completely loses me. Harding bluntly accuses the audience of continuing her abuse by lambasting her in the press after her husband & his conspirators were caught rigging the competition by bashing Kerrigan’s knee. Pointing an accusatory finger at the audience in this way might work in a more self-aware, tonally sober film, but it feels completely out of line for a black comedy that exploits Harding’s hardships for cruel humor, essentially continuing the sideshow aspect of her story that it aims to condemn. I, Tonya wags its finger by jarringly interrupting its quirky character humor with sudden & brutal acts of deeply upsetting physical violence leveled on its star. The movie continually invites you to enjoy the humor of her situation’s absurdity before telling you you’re scum for obliging. It tosses out free candy only to slap it out if your hand and call you a greedy fuck for accepting it. Separately, I was onboard for Harding’s earnest public rehabilitation and the awkward humor of her working class background. I just found the way violence & audience-shaming editorializing was used to fuse those objectives together to be deeply unpleasant, if not morally repugnant. This is a spiritually ugly film, which might be fine if it were confident enough in its own convictions to own up to that ugliness.

Because I, Tonya‘s moral self-contradiction already had me cornered in a defensive position, I found myself picking at its formal shortcomings in a way I might not have if I were more fully convinced by its tone & objectives. There’s an uncanny valley quality to the CGI of its skate routines that feels both like a distraction & a terror. Its 70s-specific needle drops (despite telling a 90s story) of songs like “Spirit in the Sky” & “Break the Chain” feel as unwittingly cliché as the soundtrack of Robbie’s last major effort, Suicide Squad. The direct-to-the-camera narration is choppily arranged & inelegantly employed, especially as the film largely drops its over-the-top comedic tone in its never-ending third act. Janney & Robbie are uniformly wonderful, but they feel like they’re floating detached from the narrative of their worthy, but mismatched costars. The way real life footage of the conspirators in Kerrigan’s attack is used to justify the continued sideshow aspect of the work soured me even more on the film’s moralistic finger-wagging and sudden bursts of bone-crunching violence. Even the Miramax logo in the opening credits churned my stomach, for reasons that should be obvious. Yet, if I were more convinced by the confidence in the tone & humor of I, Tonya I could totally see myself forgiving or even embracing this scrappy sense of crudeness in craft. Part of the reason I find the film so frustrating is that it’s almost a success, but its self-contradiction is just miscalculated enough for everything to feel like a gut-wrenching failure. I honestly spent most of the picture wishing that I was rewatching the much less prestigious Melissa Rauch comedy The Bronze instead. It’s a trashier, less tonally ambitious version of an Olympics-setting black comedy than what I, Tonya aims for, but at least it doesn’t spit in your face for laughing at its own jokes.

-Brandon Ledet

Suicide Squad (2016)

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three star

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I don’t know if it was the two weeks of brutal, tear-it-down reviews or the flattering comparison points of Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel, but the much-maligned third entry in the so-called DCEU (a title that certainly has not been earned at this date) actually wasn’t all that bad. High praise, I know. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it. A lot of the narrative surrounding Suicide Squad‘s critical shortcomings centers on the idea that the film’s messy tone is a result of post-production studio meddling in which DC & Warner Bros. attempted to right the ship by punching up Zack Snyder’s nü-metal glowering in Dawn of Justice with some edited-in comedy after seeing the wonders a sense of humor did for *shudder* Fox & Marvel’s successful Deadpool gamble. The frequent comparisons of Suicide Squad with the MCU’s dark-but-fun Guardians of the Galaxy in particular (most of them citing Suicide Squad as a cheap knockoff) are not off-base, but I do think that the wrong lesson is being learned in the two films’ contrast. To me, both Suicide Squad & Guardians of the Galaxy stand as clear advocates for the virtues of major studio meddling, particularly for the way it can reel in certain directors’ most unseemly sensibilities while still maintaining their sense of style for an amalgamated compromise that affords the resulting films a better chance at wide commercial appeal & likability. Suicide Squad is not nearly as good or as enjoyable as its best MCU comparison point, but it’ll do in a pinch.

The director of this major studio film-by-committee byproduct is one David Ayer, perhaps best known for penning the less-than-subtle exploitation thriller Training Day in the early 2000s. Ayer is ex-military and it shows in his aggressively masculine action schlock, typified in works like the bull-headed tank movie Fury & his nasty Schwarzenegger drug running monster Sabotage. After the dour boredom of Snyder’s two DC entries, though, a subtle hand is the last thing the franchise needed & I have to admit I sort of appreciated Ayer’s bull in a china shop approach to the material here. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for some interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. If the MCU’s dreaded “house style” had not tempered the sadistic sensibilities James Gunn brought to his other comic book movie, Super, there’s no way Guardians of the Galaxy would be nearly as watchable or endearing as it is. Likewise, the studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was much more haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise.

Suicide Squad‘s opening credits smear the screen with a presumably after-the-fact splash of neon color that recalls recent works like Nerve & The Neon Demon. Each of its “bad guy” characters is then individually introduced like an overstuffed roster of pro wrestlers. You learn one quick fact about them (what wrestlers would call a gimmick), their corresponding theme music plays, and then you move onto the next contender in this year’s Royal Rumble. The only participants in this endless parade of heels that register as even halfway interesting are the stars of Focus (Is it time for me to churn out a Buzzfeed-worthy “fan theory” about how this film is an unofficial sequel?): Will Smith as the reluctant assassin/sad dad Deadshot & Margot Robbie as the damaged sexdoll/homicidal Jersey Girl clown Harley Quinn. Knowing very little about their characters’ comic book backstories & judging them solely by what’s presented onscreen, I can at least attest that the actors are just as entertaining as a pair here as they were in their comedic conjob thriller past and what’s particularly smart about Suicide Squad‘s post-production meddling/editing is that the movie seems to know it. All other members of the titular squad go by in a wash, outside an occasional flashback to their horrific pasts, but their collective presence as a team of single-gimmick anti-heroes reminded me of the “Attitude Era” of the WWE. For instance, I didn’t need to know any more about Killer Croc other than he’s a crocodile man who likes to watch BET and scuttle into dirty water to enjoy seeing him exterminate faceless baddies and the movie didn’t feel the need to supply me with much more information than that anyway. Smith & Robbie have an interesting father-daughter/killer-murderer dynamic; everything else is background & attitude. The movie does a decent job of letting that formula work itself out onscreen in what I assume mostly came from a damage control-focused editing room.

Besides its cartoonish pro wrestling simplicity, Suicide Squad also reminded me of a very particular campy art piece from recent memory: Southland Tales. Much like Richard Kelly’s technophobic mess of a sci-fi action comedy, Ayer’s comic book movie is a work of sheer excess & a pummeling sense of pace. No idea in either film is allowed to fully sink in before the next dozen line up to bludgeon you in the head in rapid succession. After the endless wrestler gimmicks are introduced, you’re sucked into a standard doomsday device plot in which an ancient witch & her sleepy brother plan to blow up the world with a literal doomsday device because “Now [humans] worship machines, so I will build a machine that will destroy them all,” or some such bullshit. You’d never guess it was as simple as all that, though, not with the nonstop assault of betrayals & abuses from Viola Davis as the shady federal agent Amanda Waller (a steely performance that’s just as much of an oasis of competence as Smith’s or Robbie’s), Ben Affleck’s cameo-relegated Batman (who we were generously kind to in our Batman rankings on the podcast), Jared Leto’s half-Nicholson/half-Ledger with a sprinkle of Spring Breakers Joker (more on him in a minute), lovelorn army officials, and bubble-faced goons made of witchcraft tar. Just like with Southland Tales, I had to struggle to grab hold onto any single idea or individual player in Suicide Squad during its massive flood of content until I just sort of gave up & let it sweep me away. By then, I realized that the movie was already 2/3rds over and it became clear how smart it was for the studio to employ Ayer’s brawn over brains battering ram to get through all of this glut & bloat in the first place.

That brutish sense of cannonball pacing is what Ayer’s aesthetic brings to the table, but I don’t think the film would’ve worked at all if it weren’t for the studio’s after-the-fact meddling that tempered it. The value of the studio-director compromise is not only readily recognizable in the tacked-on jokes & bright, fluorescent colors. It’s also deeply felt in the narrative throughline of the Harley Quinn-Joker romance. In the film Harley Quinn is a flirtatious sadist with clown makeup, a baseball bat, and wildly fluctuating accent. She takes a shining to Will Smith’s occasionally-masked assassin Deadshot, whose wrestler gimmick is aching to be a father figure to someone, anyone, but her closest association is obviously with the wildcard Leto character The Joker, whom she lovingly calls Mr. J. In both the comics & the film, Harley was an intelligent, mentally-stable doctor who lost hold of her sanity when she fell in love with The Joker, a patient. In the comics & the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series, their relationship is portrayed as abusive, both physically & spiritually damaging, with the once self-sufficient Quinn now unable to tear herself away from the psychotic brute and becoming a glutton for his punishment. The movie, which already features two shots of women being punched in the face without that domestic abuse element, smartly trades up in the Quinn & Joker romance angle. Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness, it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their “art”, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.

Look, Suicide Squad isn’t some overlooked indie production that needs someone to stand up for it. It made a killer profit in its opening weekend despite its brutal critical reception and I feel like its inevitable sequel would’ve been automatically greenlit even if it didn’t, so the movie’s doing just fine. Besides, there’s plenty of things I did hate about it: the aforementioned woman-punching (at least one instance of which was played for a laugh), its relentlessly on-the-nose soundtrack (which included the distasteful likes of Eminem, my eternal pop music enemy), a continuation of Deadpool‘s inane inclusion of unicorns for easy gender-contrast humor meme points, its big bad killer witch’s stupid undulating dance moves, etc. Enough complaining has already been piled on this movie already, though, especially considering that overall it’s just okay, Grade C, trashy action movie fluff. With Dawn of Justice, the DCEU tried to do a dozen MCU films’ worth of bricklaying in a single go, building an entire franchise’s foundation on the back of an overstuffed, overworked snoozefest helmed by one of Hollywood’s least interesting big name directors. Suicide Squad was tasked with the same groundwork-laying burden of setting up future storylines at breakneck speed, except in this case the director’s aesthetic was both more suitable & more entertaining for the job at hand. Ayer does what he always does here & delivers a grimy, trashy action flick with an overtly sexual fetish for firearms & ammunition, as well as human cruelty. The studio that hired him found a way to hitch its thankless superhero workload to that director-specific, hyper-masculine schlock vehicle and after cleaning up some of its rougher edges the resulting product was an easily digestible two hour movie trailer with a handful of memorable performances & a few opportunities to sell some Monster Energy drinks & HotTopic fashion line tie-ins along the way. I’ve paid to see much worse than that in the theater before and one of the most glaring examples came just a few months ago from the very same studio & franchise. If every one of the DCEU’s missteps were a little less depressive glower Snyder & a little more tactless brute Ayer the idea of following this series of bloated action fantasies would be a lot less exhausting. Then again, it just took me 2,000 words to defend a film as “not all that bad,” so maybe exhaustion is just a natural part of the territory.

-Brandon Ledet