Movie Review ~ I, Tonya


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Mckenna Grace, Bojana Novakovic, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  As I triple-axel my way ever closer to middle age, I’ve started to notice something all-together irritating.  Recently I’ve begun to see that movies based on real events have become less of an educational opportunity for me but more of a memory-jogging excursion into my teenage years.  Yes, I’m getting so old that I can actually remember where I was when Princess Diana died, when O.J. Simpson took that famous joyride in the white Bronco, and I definitely, 100% remember where I was during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Like most of America, I was glued to the tube watching not just the stunning athleticism on display but wondering how the drama of the previous months was going to play out.  We’ll get back to that because while ardent fans will remember who skated their way to the gold, silver, and bronze this is, after all, a spoiler-free blog and the events leading up to these Olympic games are the climax of I, Tonya.

I’ll admit going into I, Tonya with a little prejudice not just toward its subject but also it’s star.  Over the years the name Tonya Harding was equated with the horrible attack on her colleague and competitor Nancy Kerrigan.  While the tabloids were busy painting Harding as an evil conspirator, the makers of I, Tonya (including star and executive producer Margot Robbie) are more interested in showing the genesis of the famed figure skater, her struggle to the top, and her mighty (and maybe ultimately unjustified) fall from grace.

Framed by a series of interviews inspired by the words of the actual people involved, I, Tonya takes a while to stand on its own.  At first the narrative device gives the film a cheapness that isn’t helped by stars Robbie (as Harding) and Sebastian Stan (as her ex-husband Jeff Gilloly) laboring under some troublesome make-up, wigs, and facial hair to age them into their early ‘40s.  It’s when writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) do away with the tell vs. show method and cease with the random breaking of the fourth wall that the movie scores major points and takes on a life of its own.

Skating through Harding’s early years as a child phenom pushed by her chain-smoking foul-mouthed domineering monster mother LaVona (Allison Janney, The Way Way Back) into her adolescence and early marriage to the abusive Gilloly, all of the standard biopic bases are covered.  Harding comes from less than ideal circumstances and soon learns that handmade costumes and skating programs set to rock music aren’t going to win her a place in the hearts of the judges.  Looking for a more wholesome specimen to represent the world at the Olympics, the judges score Harding lower than her peers even though it’s well known she could skate rings around them.  There’s two great scenes where Harding confronts the judges, one ends with Harding hurling a gem of vulgarity and the other that makes you feel even more sorry for the young woman that just wants to be recognized for her ability, not her perceived personality shortcomings.

Harding was surrounded by people that wanted her to succeed not for her benefit but for theirs above all else.  LaVona looks to her daughter to be the bread-winner and save her from her life as a waitress, Gilloly obsessively loved his wife but couldn’t handle her need for independence after being brow-beaten by her mother and abandoned by her father.  Then there’s Gilloly’s friend and Harding’s bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) who hatches a jokey plan for psychological warfare on Harding’s foes that ultimately became the plot to injure Kerrigan.

I’ve struggled mightily with Robbie ever since she broke onto the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street and there’s always a feeling of potential that’s never fully embraced.  While she received much attention for her role as Harley Quinn in the odious Suicide Squad and biffed it earlier in 2017 with Goodbye Christopher Robin, here she made me a believer in the accolades she’s garnered for playing Harding.  Early scenes feel awkward as the Australian Robbie adopts a trailer trash slack drawl but she eventually finds her groove, leading to a supremely satisfying turn in the final ¼ of the movie.  There’s a short scene with her attempting to put on her game face (literally) in a mirror that alone should get her an Oscar nomination.

Robbie’s ably supported by Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Janney, the latter of which goes all out as a nightmare of a woman that doesn’t have a motherly instinct in her body.  Her justification of why she behaves the way she does toward her daughter is hysterical, enlightening, and very very sad.  Playing her first coach and one of her only true allies, Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) is also a strong presence in the film.  Though Robbie and Janney are getting the awards attention, for my money Hauser’s dimwit bodyguard is the one that needs a bigger spotlight for his deliriously droll performance.  It may look easy to do but his excellent timing and perfectly pitched physicality is more memorable for me than anything else.

It’s not all rosy for I, Tonya though.  Relying on some wince-inducing soundtrack choices that are far too on the nose, Gillespie throttles into his audience with too many asides to cameras and leaps back and forth in time.  While Robbie can skate, the scenes where she’s recreating Harding’s famously difficult performances are done using a double with Robbie’s face unconvincingly digitally inserted over the stand-in.  This never, ever, looks good and too often produces laughs as it seems Robbie’s face and the skater’s body are playing two different emotions.

Yet for all its wobbly construction issues I was left reeling by the committed performances and that’s what pushes this one ahead into something worth seeking out.  I’m almost positive this is the best we’ll see Robbie for a while so I’d advise to strike while the iron’s hot and see what all the fuss is about.  While Janney is wonderfully acerbic, I’d favor Laurie Metcalf’s equally troubling mother in Lady Bird over this performance if I was forced to choose in an Oscar pool.  This one might not get a perfect score, but in uncovering more about Harding than most people have seen, it gets top marks.

Movie Review ~ Molly’s Game


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd, Rachel Skarsten

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 140 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There’s some good fun to be had in Molly’s Game, a true story based on the bestselling novel that’s been adapted by award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin…but sadly the good time doesn’t last.  It’s not that Bloom’s life isn’t a fascinating character study because her rise and fall tale is so outrageous it’s hard to believe it’s all true.  There’s value in seeing a woman rightfully taking a piece of the pie in a traditionally male fronted field but under Sorkin’s sleepy eye as a first-time director he can’t find the same type of balance that’s propelled his previous screenplays into first-class features.

It’s easy to see what drew Sorkin and his star Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) to this project.  Bloom was a former skier on her way to the Olympics tragically sidelined by a freak accident just as she was coming into her own.  Having trained her whole life for this pinnacle, she’s untethered without much to fall back on.  Her father (Kevin Costner, Man of Steel) always pushed her but never truly supported her and by the time she winds up crashing on the couch of a friend in Los Angeles, Bloom isn’t sure where her life is headed.

Making ends meet by waitressing and running bottle service in a popular LA hotspot, she connects with a man that offers her an office job.  This day job turns into a lucrative gig hosting weekly poker tournaments for the very rich and very famous in the backroom of a unassuming bar.  Building relationships and getting on the job training with each passing hand, Bloom makes the leap to running her own ritzy poker game and that’s when she realizes how high stakes her cash flow business has become.  Running afoul of a famous actor (a nicely nasty Michael Cera, This is The End) looking to profit off of her hard work, she moves the game to NYC all the while keeping things on the up and up.

Forced into making an illegal choice in order to protect her bottom line, Bloom loses everything and then gets arrested by the FBI in their crackdown of a gambling ring she was involved with that, unbeknownst to her, had mafia ties.  Enlisting the aid of a defense attorney (Idris Elba, Prometheus) she doesn’t entirely trust, Bloom has to decide whether to tell the FBI all she knows and avoid jail or keep her secrets safe and pay further penalties for decisions that weren’t entirely hers to make.

Sorkin’s dialogue is, as expected, laser sharp and barbed with the best of intentions.  He knows his way around a tricky turn of phrase and his script is filled with his trademark quick wit.  If only it had also been populated with real characters.  Save for Bloom (aided by Chastain’s fierce performance), all of the supporting players feel like alien creations of people pretending to be human.  It’s fine when one character has a sharp comeback or humorous exposition but when each and every person is battling to be the smartest in the room it all starts to get muddy.

Elba is usually a slam dunk in movies but here Sorkin has cast him as a caustic man trying to play a father figure to Bloom as well as his own daughter that he regularly assigns reading material to.  Instead of being a lawyer passing judgement on his client, Sorkin has him upbraiding her for her actions like she’s being reprimanded like a child and that feels a bit icky.  Same goes for Costner as Bloom’s real father, a typically Costner-esque creation that’s cool to the touch and rather unlovable.  He shows up again late in the film for a sequence that was so strange in its composition I kept waiting for it to be revealed it’s all in Bloom’s imagination.

The good news is that Sorkin has finally done something he hasn’t been great at before…writing for a woman.  His male-heavy scrips for television and film have also felt like they were deliberately excluding the fairer sex so perhaps Molly’s Game was a chance for him to challenge himself.  Working with Chastain helps a great deal, even if the movie could have been tightened by a full 20 minutes if the aforementioned Costner scene had been trimmed and other flashbacks excised.

A decent hand of adult entertainment for those not ready to commit to the history lesson of Darkest Hour, the pitch-black comedy of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or those that find their screening of The Post is sold out, Molly’s Game might be created by a one-eyed Jack but it’s ruled by a commanding queen.

Movie Review ~ All the Money in the World

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III and the desperate attempt by his devoted mother to convince his billionaire grandfather Jean Paul Getty to pay the ransom.

Stars: Michelle Williams, Kevin Spacey, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: The first thing we should do with All the Money in the World is applaud director Ridley Scott for having it ready to release in the first place.  Originally the film featured now disgraced Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey (Working Girl) under heavy make-up to play J. Paul Getty but after his headline-making nosedive in the midst of scandal Scott made the almost unheard-of decision in late November to replace Spacey with another Oscar-winner (Christopher Plummer) and still have the movie ready to go by its Christmas Day release date.  Well, applause is definitely warranted for the 80-year-old director because the movie is finished and it looks great…but is it any good?

The answer to that question lies in your willingness to see the story of the prolonged kidnapping and ransom of Getty’s grandson for the stylish period thriller Scott wants it to be and not the par-baked soapy drama it winds up resembling.  Sure, Scott knows his way around these throwback tales with their washed-out colors and extraordinary eye for detail, but there’s so little heart and soul to the proceedings that it’s hard to find anyone to sympathize with or, in my case, stay awake for.

Yes, it’s true. I feel asleep for a good ten or fifteen minutes in the first half of the movie and while I’d like to attribute my heavy lids to seeing it the day after Christmas, the honest truth was that the glacial pacing in that first hour is enough to lull even the most Red Bull-ized audience member into dreamland.  I just wasn’t interested in the initial investigation into the disappearance of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to the other present Plummer) or the strange bonding that happens between the victim and his kidnapper (Romain Duris).  Informed by my movie mate that I didn’t miss much, even taking a few winks it wasn’t hard to pick up where I left off.

The film starts to be something to worth remembering when all hope seems to be lost and Getty’s mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Willaims, The Greatest Showman) begins to be a more active player in getting her son back.  Working with a hired gun (Mark Wahlberg, Ted) originally employed by her former father-in-law, Gail gets in on the action by negotiating not only with the kidnappers that have her son but with her imposing in-law that quid pro quos her every step of the way.  Williams is in a strange mode here, doing her darndest to maintain an Eastern accent and playing deep despair without ever looking like she really is invested in what’s happening around her.  Wahlberg is coasting too, his entire role is so low-impact I’m wondering why they needed him at all.

It’s hard to look at the film now and even consider Spacey playing J. Paul Getty.  Sure, early trailers invoked some curiosity into how the 50-something actor would play the octogenarian, but Plummer is such an impressive force in the role I’d bet top dollar studio executives didn’t bat an eye when Scott proposed his reshoot plan.  Plummer’s aces in every one of his scenes and Williams and Wahlberg (both wearing wigs that don’t quite match scenes directly before and after) graciously give him the floor and recreate their emotions as if this was the plan all along.

Scott (The Martian, Prometheus) has never been dormant for long but he’s enjoying a nice little renaissance at this late stage in his career.  Earlier in 2017 his misguided Alien: Covenant was a big bummer for me but this one feels more in his wheelhouse and he’s breezily operating within his comfort zone.  The script from David Scarpa adapted from John Pearson’s book doesn’t have anything remarkable to say so the movie is left to create interest based on the characters and the impeccable production design.  On those merits, it’s a success, but performances and set-dressings can’t be the main source of recommendation for a movie so All the Money on the World winds up with a buyer beware notice.