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Everyone’s a Winner, Baby: “I, Tonya”, “The Disaster Artist” and the Modern Biopic

Watching certain genres over a number of years, patterns emerge.

A lot of this is down to success and influence. A lot of studio output is driven by what worked in the genre in recent years. This is why so many studios have tried to fashion their blockbusters into a “shared universe” after the success of The Avengers, or why so many franchise reboots went dark and gritty after The Dark Knight. However, other genres also shift in response to trendsetters, albeit in more subtle and nuanced manners. Some of these shifts can be attributed to critical response or awards success.

For example, following the success of Peter Morgan’s intimate and tightly-focused biographical scripts for The Queen or Frost/Nixon, a lot of biographies adopted a similar approach to their subjects, focusing on one particular incident in a life (or in two lives) that could provide a microcosm through which to explore big issues. This led to other biographies that tended to be built around specific events in the lives of their subjects rather than adopting a more holistic approach, like RushMy Weekend with MarilynHitchcock, Elvis and Nixon, Battle of the Sexes.

In the past two years, an interesting trend has emerged in terms of biographical pictures. Historically, biographies have tended to focus on historically noteworthy individuals who accomplished great things; Gandhi, The Aviator, My Left Foot, Milk. Even more ambivalent biographies were usually defined by the sense that those characters had changed the world; Nixon, J. Edgar, The Social Network. However, the last few years have seen an interesting shift away from characters who actually accomplished tangible change, and those who tried and failed.

To be fair, there have always been biographies that acknowledged the valour of a failed attempt. Cool Runnings was a film about a the Jamaican bobsled team in which the characters did not even finish their Olympic event. Even in terms of fictional sports films, Rocky famously ended with the title character defeated after struggling for the entire film. However, in these cases, the film often acknowledged the valour in the attempt. The Jamaican bobsled team were competing for the first time and changing preconceptions about their country. Rocky was trying to pull himself out of poverty.

In contrast, more modern biographies seem willing to engage with the idea of failure to the point of mockery, exploring characters who have arguably been reduced to pop culture punchlines. Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of a socialite who cannot sing who dreams of performing in front of a rapt audience. Eddie the Eagle is the story of an awful skier who dreams of making it to the top of his profession. The Disaster Artist is the story of an eccentric with delusions of grandeur who through sheer force of will makes what might be the worst movie of all time.

This represents an interesting shift away from many of the conventions of the biographical feature film, providing a sharp contrast with the high-profile prestige pieces that garnered awards and glory in the twentieth century. After all, these movies are not spoofs or comedies. They are not subversions of the biopic in the same way that Walk Hard might be considered to be, nor are they broad comedies adapted from real events like Thirty Minutes or Less. While these films include comedic elements, they are very clearly intended as serious works intended for serious contemplation.

So, what does this shift actually mean?

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Non-Review Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya is a biopic for the post-truth era. It is also brilliant.

The subject of I, Tonya will be casually familiar to most viewers, the figure skater Tonya Harding who was implicated in an attack on fellow figure skater Kerrigan. The incident was a flashpoint for the nascent twenty-four hour news cycle in the early nineties, although most people remember it as a warm-up for the O.J. Simpson case only shortly afterwards. As such, I, Tonya feels like the perfect window through which to examine the modern era’s obsessive celebrity-focused culture and the desire to turn our heroes into monsters for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

Putting her own spin on it.

I, Tonya is fascinating on that level alone. Its characters repeatedly break the fourth wall in an attempt to steer and control the narrative, but occasionally do so to indict the audience for their complicity. I, Tonya is a film that understands it cannot be about this media maelstrom without being part of this media maelstrom. There’s a canny knowingness to I, Tonya, an understanding that a movie about culture’s slipping grip on the idea of reality cannot be too earnest or too sincere.

I, Tonya repeatedly suggests that its story may stray into the realm of fantasy and fiction, but the movie still packs a real punch.

Get your skates on, mate.

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Millennium – … Thirteen Years Later (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

… Thirteen Years Later is infamously silly. That may not be such a bad thing.

There are a lot of details that would seem to weigh against … Thirteen Years Later. It is the show’s first attempt at comedy since Darin Morgan left the staff at the end of the second season; any episode will suffer in comparison to Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” or Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me. It is an episode built around a guest appearance from the rock band KISS to promote the release of their latest album, Psycho Circus. It is also an attempt to do wry self-aware meta-commentary and Hollywood satire, which could easily become indulgent.

KISS was 'ere...

KISS was ‘ere…

To be quite frank, … Thirteen Years Later doesn’t really work. It is messy and convoluted. A lot of the gags are obvious, and a lot of its satire of Hollywood feels somewhat stock. The framing device builds to a pretty lame (and entirely predictable) punchline. Some of the best gags in … Thirteen Years Later are shamelessly poached from better second season episodes – the idea of Frank Black in Hawaiian shirt comes from Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” while the idea of Frank Black critiquing serial killer movies was hilarious in Midnight of the Century.

However, in spite of all that, … Thirteen Years Later has an energy and momentum that is sorely missing from much of the season around it. The third season has seen a return to the mood and aesthetic of the first season, which occasionally wallowed in gloom and self-importance. … Thirteen Years Later completely skewers that sense of self-importance. Its best jokes seem to be affectionate jabs at Millennium itself, demonstrating that the show still has a great sense of humour; even if it has gotten quite effective at hiding it.

The camera never lies...

The camera never lies…

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The X-Files (Topps) #24 – Silver Lining (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

After the wacky and delightful excess of Donor, John Rozum steers the comic back into much more traditional fare.

There is little in Silver Lining that the comic hasn’t touched on quite recently. Guest writer Kevin J. Anderson already wrote a “vampiric object” story about a killer camera the two-part Family Portrait story only a few months earlier. John Rozum had already drafted a “haunted object drives a man to kill, but the voices are only in his head” story for The Silent Blade, a short story written specifically for The X-Files Magazine. As a result, Silver Lining feels a little overly familiar. There is nothing here that the reader hasn’t seen before; and recently, too.

Fashioning a story...

Fashioning a story…

Silver Lining reinforces the sense that Topps and Ten Thirteen are making a conscious effort to frame The X-Files as a classic horror comic book. Certainly, Silver Lining adopts the same basic storytelling elements associated with those pulpy adventures from the fifties; there is a scientist who unwittingly unleashes a horror upon the world, a physically deformed villain, a moral about how beauty is only skin deep and that vanity is called a “deadly” sin for a reason. There’s even a poetic justice to the story, where the guest villain finds themselves tormented in an ironic fashion.

There’s nothing particularly objectionable about Silver Lining, beyond how repetitive it feels. It feels like The X-Files has taken something of a step backwards since Topps and Ten Thirteen decided to part ways with writer Stefan Petrucha. The first sixteen issues of The X-Files felt like something of a Vertigo comic book, an ambitious horror anthology with no shortage of big ideas. Now the comic feels very much like an old E.C. comic without the nostalgia factor. The decline is quite striking, but no less disheartening for it.

Moral decay...

Moral decay…

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The X-Files – Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose is a masterpiece.

It is one of the best episodes that The X-Files ever produced. It is the only episode of The X-Files to win the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. It was the first episode to take home an Emmy for a performance on the show, with Peter Boyle winning the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series. It was Boyle’s only Emmy win of ten nominations. It was the only episode of The X-Files to air on the 13th October, a symbolically important date for Carter (“1013”). It was also Friday the 13th.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

As part of the recent resurgence in interest in The X-Files, the story has enjoyed even more focus. It was one of three episodes voted by fans to air as part of the Los Angeles Times Hero Complex Film Festival in 2013 as part of the series’ twentieth anniversary celebrations. Chris Carter himself chose it to represent The X-Files at the Austin Film Festival in 2012. It is very frequently ranked among the best the show ever produced.

And all of that praise is very well earned.

Crystal clear...

Crystal clear…

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X-Statix Omnibus by Peter Milligan & Mike Allred (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

There’s been a lot written about how fiendishly clever Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Statix was when it was published by Marvel in the early part of the last decade. Spanning two titles (beginning in X-Force and then spinning into its own title in X-Statix), it offered a forty-issue re-examination of the core X-Men thesis. Published at approximately the same time, it actually serves as something of a spiritual companion to Grant Morrison’s equally controversial, challenging and provocative New X-Men run. Both series dared to consider that Chris Claremont’s once revolutionary idea, casting mutants as a feared minority because they were inherently “different” might need revision in the early years of the twenty-first century. Both series have been attacked by critics for not conforming to the model that Claremont designed for the franchise three decades earlier. However, I’m going to be controversial, and I’m going to state that both Morrison and Milligan were more faithful spiritual successors to Claremont than any X-Men writers since the nineties.

Nobody’s Doop…

Note: You can read my review of Milligan and Allred’s initial X-Force run, collected in the hardcover “Famous, Mutant & Mortal” here. This is a review of the recently-published omnibus, which collects all their work on the characters, so I won’t go into too much depth on that initial run.

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Non-Review Review: Scream 4 (Scre4m)

Alright, Kirby, then it’s time for your last chance. Name the remake of the groundbreaking horror movie in which the vill…

Halloween, uh, Texas Chainsaw, Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, Amityville Horror, uh, Last House on the Left, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street, My Bloody Valentine, When A Stranger Calls, Prom Night, Black Christmas, House of Wax, The Fog, Piranha. It’s one of those, right? Right?

(beat)

I got it right. I was &@#!ing right.

– Ghostface and Kirby redefine the frame of reference

In many ways, Scream 4 feels like a fitting end to the Scream franchise. In fact, it feels like it has come something of a full circle from the first film, which was envisaged as something of an obituary for the dying slasher genre. In the years since, prompted in a large part by the success of the original Scream, the genre has been resurrected. Watching the grind of horror films released, it seems that Hollywood has been churning out nothing but empty roman-numeral-denoted sequels and hallow remakes, with very little thought or creativity. Scream 4 feels a like a reflection on the “success” that the first film wrought, and actually feelings like a fitting closing act.

It's going viral...

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