“I, Tonya” Review

i-tonya-poster.jpg

Since starting this website I’ve written reviews for a number of biopics, particularly with the rush of Oscar-bait pictures before the Academy Awards in March. I, Tonya sets a new standard against which they should all be judged, as director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers strive to reinvent the public perception of controversial figure skater Tonya Harding through a fast-paced, comically tragic feature that uses the truth as a toy.

Framed in a mockumentary style, Rogers’s script utilises interviews with Tonya, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, her mother LaVona Fay Golden, and her coach Diane Rawlinson as they all share very different perspective on the events leading up to and including the famous 1994 attack on Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The contradictory narration from each character provides a refreshing twist on a narrative technique that’s often used to hide bad writing, as the main figures of the story will interrupt their own scenes to defend themselves from more outlandish accusations or assure the audience that yes – some of these things did really happen. At times Gillespie’s direction seems to be paying homage to classic Scorsese works, particularly the fourth-wall breaking of Goodfellas or the in-the-ring camera work of Raging Bull, but to accuse him of simple imitation would be a disservice. There’s a tremendous speed to this film, with cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis rarely keeping the camera still as it moves through the Harding household during one of Tonya and Jeff’s violent arguments or follows her through her routines. The camera work and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing operate in tandem to join together various moments of Tonya’s life, with days depicted in single unbroken shots and Tanya’s past and future intercut to demonstrate her highs and lows. Similarly, the comic and the tragic are balanced brilliantly, as the hilariously colourful insults the characters throw at each other turn dark as they move into physical and psychological abuse, or moments of genuine vulnerability are met with audacious responses.

Unsurprisingly the characters in I, Tonya operate in a fairly dark moral plane, ranging from the abusive to the dangerously dumb. The entire cast don’t hold back from showcasing the worst traits of their characters as their performances suggest how they came to get that way – particularly Margot Robbie and Alison Janney as Tonya and LaVona. This is easily the best performance of Robbie’s career, presenting the hard edge Harding has had to build as well as the desperation she feels to prove herself. Her expressions often say more than Rogers’ script ever could, looking directly into the camera in moments of ecstatic triumph, deranged determination, and broken despair. Robbie makes a woman who has been vilified by the media remarkably sympathetic without portraying her as an innocent; she’s not America’s sweetheart and she’s not a monster, but a complicated woman who has been abused much of her life. As she herself states, “for a moment I was loved, then I was hated.” One notable moment has Robbie decrying the media while speaking directly at the camera, and it was as if I could feel the real Tonya Harding’s anger extending out from beyond the movie. Janney, who has been consistently excelling in supporting roles since The West Wing finished, is finally given another part to display her considerable talents and range as she hurls out curses and cutting remarks to anyone who challenges her. Janney displays a world-weariness and anger that she takes out on Tonya with a weak excuse that it makes her a better skater, performed in a way that suggests she doesn’t even believe her own lies but can’t connect to her daughter any other way. Rounding out the cast is Sebastian Stan as Jeff, who alternates between doting on Tonya and beating her, and Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Tonya’s deluded incompetent bodyguard who is so ridiculous that Gillespie has to show footage of the real man over the end credits to make it clear that they didn’t invent some of his more absurd claims.

I, Tonya does a remarkable job bringing together multiple perspectives and accounts of Harding’s life, presenting a multifaceted depiction of a woman who has been treated as a one-dimensional joke for much of her life, and yet there is a significant absence that can’t help but prevent the story from reaching its true potential. Nancy Kerrigan is barely featured at all, and spoken about by others rather than getting to speak for herself. It’s unclear whether this omission was due to a real-life refusal from Kerrigan to take part or simply a decision to keep the story centred around Harding, but a film that aims to redeem her can’t quite pull it off by brushing over a figure who is that important to her life. Admittedly I, Tonya never claims to be the absolute truth about Harding, and by presenting reality as the characters remember it Gillespie is able to make a biopic more entertaining and nuanced that most, but with so many voices being heard the absence of such a significant one is distractingly evident.

4 and a half stars.

“All the Money in the World” Review

All the Money in the World.jpg

Where should I even begin on All the Money in the World? This film should have been a fairly simple real-life thriller based around the kidnapping of John Paul Getty the Third in 1973, and his billionaire grandfather’s refusal to pay the ransom. Things got more complicated after Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault allegations, resulting in director Ridley Scott removing Spacey from the role of J.P. Getty and replacing him with Christopher Plummer through a series of reshoots and digital edits. This move bought All the Money considerable media attention and positive press, which quickly turned sour when it was revealed Mark Wahlberg was payed substantially more for the reshoots than co-star Michelle Williams. Chances are that you already know this, dear reader, and indeed it’s hard to watch this film without considering its complicated backstory. It was definitely a remarkable decision from Scott, but does it make for a better film? Or should it be considered on its own merits?

I’m going to say yes, replacing Spacey with Plummer does make the film better. Plummer is a wonderful actor, and in the current climate seeing Spacey play such an irredeemable person would have been too uncomfortable and distracting an experience. Despite all the behind-the-scenes drama Plummer truly does make the role his own, appearing almost genial even as he holds onto his money and power at the expense of his family’s own safety. There is little, if any, moral complexity to a character such as Getty – Scott even desaturates the visuals of many of his scenes so much they border on black-and-white. Considerably more colour, and humanity, is displayed whenever the focus is on Gail Harris, mother to the kidnapped John. Williams brings substantial strength to the role of Gail, who at one point expresses indignation that the press expects photos of her crying over her son, and hides her character’s terror behind a composed and stern expression. Fletcher Chase, negotiator and former CIA operative, bridges the two moral grounds as he deals with both Gail and Getty, but as a character most of his positive talents are informed rather than displayed. It doesn’t help that Wahlberg, who admittedly gives one of his better recent performances, isn’t quite at the same level of actors like Williams or Plummer so is frequently outclassed in their scenes.

One of Ridley Scott’s greatest strengths as a director is crafting atmospheric tension, and All the Money in the World allows him to demonstrate this in a more restrained fashion than last year’s Alien: Covenant or 2015’s The Martian. The impressive thing is how Scott is able to match the stakes between overtly dangerous situations, such as John Paul Getty’s (Charlie Plummer, no relation) fraught interactions with kidnapper Cinquanta (Romain Duris), and subtly sinister moments like Getty looming over the alimony dispute between Gail and his son. John’s famous disfigurement at the hands of his captors is almost casual in execution, with Cinquanta whispering comforting words to the frightened boy as the camera gets up close to all the grisly details like a twisted medical drama. Meanwhile, one of Getty’s monologues about his own power is accompanied by a subtly rising soundscape of insects buzzing, making him seem more monstrous and inhuman than the kidnappers. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between these two groups, even if Gail and Fletcher start to feel like a less interesting pairing stuck in the middle for most of the film.

All the Money in the World is a well made, if unspectacular, picture that would have been almost destined to be lost within Scott’s formidable filmography were it not for the more interesting behind-the-scenes issues. As it stands, the removal of Spacey from the final product does serve to immortalise it – both due to the assured performance of Plummer and the powerful message Scott’s actions send to other filmmakers.

4 stars.

 

“Pitch Perfect 3” Review

Pitch Perfect

The original Pitch Perfect was a surprising delight from 2012, combining a clever script with a talented cast and poppy a cappella mash-ups of hit songs. A sequel was an obvious financial choice, but while Pitch Perfect 2 reunited the cast, gave them new songs to cover, and even an original number with Jessie J’s “Flashlight”, it played it safe by following the structure of the first film a little too closely. For the third and final outing of the Barden Bellas director Trish Sie enables the series to veer in new directions, poking fun at its own conventions even if it does stray a little too off-topic towards the end.

With most of the Bellas several years out of college (excluding Haylee Steinfeld as Emily) there’s no real excuse for them to sing together anymore, so as one last hurrah former group-leader Chloe (Brittany Snow) manages to get the group into a USO performance thanks to her Army Officer father’s connections. While it seems for a moment like Pitch Perfect 3 will avoid the traditional concert-competition structure of the first two films, it’s soon revealed that DJ Khaled is organising the USO tour and watching the various bands to find a new opening act. This prompts some refreshingly self-aware humour when the Bellas meet their completion, quickly forming a new rivalry against punk-rock girl band ‘Evermoist’ lead by Clamity (Ruby Rose), and realise that the methods they’ve used to distinguish themselves in previous performances fall flat against musicians who use actual instruments. The series staple of the ‘riff-off’ returns and provokes some of the best music and jokes in the film, with stylistic twists on hits such as Beyonce’s “If I were a boy” and Cranberries “Zombie” while the Bellas complain that the other bands aren’t playing according to their arbitrary rules. Scenes such as this and other self-referential moments suggest that Pitch Perfect 3 will provide a playful twist on the franchise’s formulas while staying true to the core themes of female friendship and artistic creativity, but unfortunately it veers wildly into another direction halfway through and loses focus.

After spending three films with the Bellas the characters are pretty well established, and the cast slips back into their roles without a weak link. Even the members who have the defining trait of never being acknowledged by the main characters have their own comedic moments. Unfortunately, as is often the case with the popular supporting role, Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy ends up dominating too much of the main plot’s focus. There was a real opportunity to explore the conflict between the Bellas and more professional bands as they struggle to move on from their origins as a University group, but Kay Cannon and Mike White’s screenplay quickly drops these elements and most of the new characters to instead explore Amy’s relationship with her criminal father. John Lithgow’s appalling attempt to do an Australian accent only demonstrates that Hollywood’s perception of us really hasn’t gone much further than 1986’s Crocodile Dundee, and the bizarre action-comedy climax this plotline provokes feels like a cheap attempt to set up a Fat Amy spin-off film. Even though Pitch Perfect 3 tries to give off the impression it’s in on the joke and aware of its own ridiculousness, the absurdity of the whole thing swallows up the rest of the film. Any adult drama that may have been built up as protagonist Becca struggles with what steps to make in her career is somewhat lost when her best friend is off attacking armed thugs with kielbasa, even if Anna Kendrick is as endearing as ever.

I got the sense that the team behind Pitch Perfect 3 knew how they wanted to end the series but not how to properly execute it. The Bellas are given an appropriately sentimental send-off that is quite sweet if you’ve stayed with these characters over three films, even if the script barely attempts to justify the return of John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks’s commentator roles. The musical numbers are catchy and well performed but lack the creative simplicity of the first film’s famous ‘Cups’ number or the sequel’s emotional Championship Finale. For the third film of a trilogy that should have never been a franchise it’s more fun than it could have been, but hopefully this remains the final curtain call for the Barton Bellas.

3 stars.

“Just to Be Sure” Review

justtobesure-poster-ws_.jpg

Erwan Gourmelon is in a complicated situation. He’s just found out that his Dad isn’t his biological dad, his daughter is pregnant and doesn’t want to find the father of her baby, and the man who might be his real father is also the father of a woman he’s just started seeing. Trust the French to make a romantic comedy that not only displays such dysfunctional relationships, but also uses them to get to the core of what it means to be a parent, to connect with one another, and love selflessly.

Just to Be Sure is a charming story that brings a sense of whimsy to its deeply human and emotional themes. It’s a simple film, with director Carine Tardieu allowing the strength of the characters and wonderful performances to speak for themselves. François Damiens displays a kind heart and protective spirit as Erwan, who left his previous job as an officer to work in bomb disposal in order to look after his daughter after the death of his wife. Erwan’s job was a playful touch on behalf of the screenwriters, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a romantic comedy with as many explosions as this one. It’s also a nice metaphor for Erwan’s situation, as he spends much of the first act wandering around somewhat shell-shocked after receiving the bombshell reveal that Bastien Gourmelon (Guy Marchand) isn’t his real father. Instead he hires a private detective to find Joseph Levkine (André Wilms), the most likely option to be Erwan’s biological father. The scenes between Erwan and his two Dads were, for me, the strongest moments of Just to Be Sure. Marchand is heartbreakingly innocent as Bastien, unaware as to why his son seems to be pulling away from him yet still deeply proud of Erwan. As Joseph, André Wilms presents an affable man aware of his declining years and surrounded by loss, so seeking companionship wherever he can find it. When Erwan begins showing an interest in him, he’s delighted to find someone to spend time with – even before he figures out why. The theme of fatherhood purveys throughout the film, as Erwan encourages his daughter Juliette (Alice de Lencquesaing) to let the father of her unborn baby into his child’s life, and by doing so has to come to terms with what being a father really means. Is it just the biological connection, as may be the case with Joseph, or is the emotional support provided by Bastien over the years?

This exploration of what it means to be a parent is so effective that I found the romantic subplot between Erwan and Doctor Anna Levkine somewhat disconnected from the main themes. Shortly after Erwan and Anna’s disastrous first meeting they run into each other again and he asks her out, only to discover almost immediately that she is the daughter of Joseph and, possibly, his half-sister. Cécile De France is screen stealing as the confident, no-nonsense Anna, but the connection between her and Erwan was never quite believable. He is understandably hesitant to pursue the relationship after realising who she is, and I couldn’t find a reason for her to become infatuated with a man who becomes so clearly disinterested with her. The uncomfortable nature of their relationship does provide some of the best jokes in the film, but that doesn’t stop it from being, well, uncomfortable in an otherwise wholesome film.

Just to Be Sure is a light, fun movie that uses the dysfunctional and often cartoonish characters to explore universal truths about family and parenting, demonstrating the strength of French cinema to bring together the quirky and the important moments of life.

3 and a half stars.

“Darkest Hour” Review

darkest-hour-poster

Genuine question: How many films about World War 2 can possibly be made? It feels as though the war has been covered from every angle and perspective imaginable, yet around December/January each year there seems to be a new picture about the conflict and the struggles endured by those who lived through it. Admittedly, having director Joe Wright team up with actor Gary Oldman elevates Darkest Hour to a higher quality than most WW2 dramas, but I found it difficult to shake the feeling that I’d seen much of it before. It doesn’t help that the evacuation of Dunkirk plays a major role in the climax of Wright’s film, which only served to make me think about Nolan’s Dunkirk instead of the images on screen. This exemplifies the problem I have with historical dramas and World War 2 biopics: No matter how well made and performed they seem while watching them, when they’re finished they all just seem like one part of a much larger tale.

Fortunately Wright and Oldman manage to make the story of Darkest Hour feel somewhat fresh through the strength of the expressionistic direction and a commanding performance. Oldman loses himself in the role of Winston Churchill throughout the first month of his role as Prime Minister in a warts-and-all depiction that emphasises his brashness, insecurities, arrogance, and eloquence. Many of Churchill’s iconic speeches are recreated in full, but it’s astonishing how Oldman doesn’t just sound like he’s imitating the originals. Instead he delivers each speech with such emotional conviction that it’s as if we’re hearing them for the first time. It works to strip away the iconic status of a historical figure like Churchill, and enable us to consider him as a man. Wright emphasises Churchill’s sense of isolation over any other quality, with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography regularly positioning him boxed into small frames of the screen and surrounded by a black void. Combined with a soundscape that magnifies the impact of each plodding step, the shadowy and ominous look of the Halls of Parliament, and Dario Marianelli’s militaristic soundtrack, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the world on Winston’s shoulders. With the German invasion of Europe getting closer to swallowing Britain each passing day, Churchill’s decisions often mean life or death for British soldiers – and Wright doesn’t shy away from depicting how they impact both the men on the field and the man himself.

Kristen Scott Thomas brings light into the bleakest moments of the picture as Clementine Churchill, who’s unafraid to challenge her husband while recognising what he’s working towards. Thomas does such a fine job of bringing out the tenderness in Oldman’s performance while demonstrating Clementine’s own strength that it’s frustrating how Anthony McCarten’s screenplay prioritises the role of Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s new secretary, as the one to humanise him. It’s not a flaw in Lily James’ performance, who brings her usual amount of charisma to the lower-class ingénue, but the scenes between Thomas and Oldman demonstrate such a compelling shared history and understanding between the two characters that the relatively new relationship between Layton and Churchill is less investing as a result. A much more interesting partnership is the one that develops between Churchill and King George VI, magnificently portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn manages to present George as a man relatively powerless in his new position as King without feeling as though he’s in the shadow of Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning role from 2011’s The King’s Speech, displaying great dignity even while apprehensive of Churchill’s actions.

Yet ultimately the comparisons to other films couldn’t help hanging over Darkest Hour for me, as the events and characters on display have been presented countless times before. Darkest Hour stands on its own merits as a superbly acted and stylishly directed recapturing of one of the most uncertain moments in British history, but the inherent issue with a story so famous is there’s never any uncertainty as to what will happen next. It’s hard to be surprised by something we see recreated year after year.

4 stars.

“The Post” Review

ThePost_1.jpg

It’s arguable as to whether or not Steven Spielberg is the best living director, but he is indisputably the most successful. It’s hard to imagine a director who’s had a greater influence on film history, popular culture, or the very structure of Hollywood, excepting perhaps Walt Disney. While not all of Spielberg’s films are perfect, he has always had a remarkable knack for making nearly any topic entertaining and cinematic – a skill he demonstrates yet again with The Post, as a dry, wordy, and complicated real life story about journalists in the 1970s is turned into a tense and exceptionally relevant summer release.

The Post is centred around the publication of the Pentagon Papers, confidential documents concerning the role of the US Government in the Vietnam War, and the conflict between the media and the Presidency that emerged as a result. Spielberg’s favourite leading man Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, who is determined to continue reporting on the papers even after the New York Times has been served a court injunction preventing them from further publication. Bradlee’s determination puts him in opposition with Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), who has inherited ownership of the Post from her husband after his suicide, and is hesitant to allow the story due to the damage it could do to both the value of the paper and her own relationships with members of Nixon’s administration. It’s incredible to think that Streep had never worked with Spielberg or Hanks to this degree before, as the three A-listers seem like such a natural combination and are all on top-form here. Refreshingly, the two leads seem to invert the roles they most commonly play. The famously affable Hanks brings a brashness and bull-headed determination as Bradlee, and Steep brings a nervous vulnerability to the out-of-her-depth Graham that’s a far cry from her more forceful depictions of figures like Margaret Thatcher or Miranda Priestly (even if she is too versatile an actress to ever truly be typecast). As would be expected with such a prestigious film the entire supporting cast is filled with famous faces, from Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Sarah Paulson, and for those of us who are too young to remember this moment in American history it can be overwhelming to keep up with all the characters and names at first. Once the main story picks up, though, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay keeps things fairly focused to the main editorial staff, simplifying the story to just a few central figures who have to decide whether or not to publish.

Spielberg has never been a subtle director, and there’s no question that this is a film firmly on the side of journalistic freedom. Characters repeat their belief that the press exists to challenge the government so often that the only way Spielberg’s intended message could have been clearer is if Bradlee slipped up and referred to ‘Nixon’ as ‘Trump’ in a scene. Yet just because a message is obvious doesn’t mean it’s ineffective, as The Post demonstrates how relevant the lessons from decades ago still are today. At times The Post feels like a spiritual successor to 1976’s All the President’s Men, with the former ending right where the latter takes off, but while one film was made only two years after Nixon’s resignation the other is released one year into the Presidency of a man with his own reasons to combat the media. It exemplifies how tuned in Spielberg is to the zeitgeist, and how the entire purpose of making historical pictures is to encourage the audience to question whether or not anything has actually changed.

The Post tells an important story, and Spielberg knows it. There are a few too many grand speeches, even if they are excellently delivered from the faultless cast, and John William’s grandiose soundtrack threatens to overpower the performances at times. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński has the camera rushing through the frantic offices of the Washington Post and up close to the printers, so we feel the impact of each word being pressed onto the paper and see how much work it took to get them there. It borders on being too much, but when the history on display in The Post feels so familiar to current events it’s hard to not see the need for a film like this.

4 stars.

“The Shape of Water” Review

the-shape-of-water-logo.jpeg

Guillermo del Toro loves monsters, and he wants you to love them too. Much of his filmography has been a testament to this love, with Chronos, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and Pacific Rim all containing beautifully detailed and complex monstrous creatures, but no film has embodied this passion as much as The Shape of Water – a love story between a monster and a mute woman.

Sally Hawkins is exquisite as Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor for a mysterious government facility who is very much stuck in her own daily routine. Her desire for companionship alternates between watching old musicals with her closeted gay neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and listening to her workmate Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as she complains about her husband. It’s not until she discovers the Amphibious Man (Doug Jones), a fish-like creature being kept for study in the laboratory, that she finds a creature that seems to truly understand her. The remarkable thing about The Shape of Water is how it makes a love story between two silent characters so expressive – the connection between them was so evident through the performers’ faces and body language that it almost never registers that the characters never share a word. Hawkins brings fragility to Elisa without ever weakening her, creating the impression of a woman who has been hurt so badly that she’s yet to discover her own strength. Eliza’s frustration at being unable to properly express herself to those around her is evident in nearly every scene she shares with another human, even those who speak sign language, and makes her relationship with the Amphibious Man all the more impactful as they transcend verbal communication.

Doug Jones and Guillermo del Toro have created a number of iconic monstrous characters together, such as the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth and Abe Sapien from Hellboy, and the Amphibious Man is possibly their best one yet. It’s a beautiful, intricate costume that turns into something remarkably emotive and powerful through Jones’ movements. There’s a constant air of mystery around him, a creature that is alternatingly magical and dangerous. Del Toro’s script, co-written with Vanessa Taylor, plays off a typical ‘Beauty and the Beast’ structure in a manner that feels familiar at times yet constantly manages to surprise. Only a director as unique as Del Toro could deliver a film that merges stylistic influence from Cold War inspired B movies with Golden Age Hollywood musicals, and deliver a fantasy romance prestige picture such as this. Under a lesser director it could have seemed a tonal mess, but Del Toro’s graceful and passionate direction brings out the best qualities from a myriad of genres. The Shape of Water comes across as an ode to the unappreciated most of all – the main cast consists of a mute woman, a gay man, a black woman, and a foreign creature. Each character has a moment where they are attacked or feared for being who they are, yet Elisa’s message that “If we do nothing, neither are we” speaks to a refusal to have their voices or actions silenced.

There’s something magical about The Shape of Water from the very first scene, as the camera slowly moves through the flooded sets while Alexandre Desplat’s ethereal theme plays, and that spell stays unbroken until the credits finish rolling. Del Toro has always had the peculiar gift to make all of his films feel like passion projects, whether they’re intimate Spanish ghost stories like The Devil’s Backbone or spectacle-driven blockbusters like Pacific Rim, but The Shape of Water is constructed with such tender care and beauty that it’s impossible to not feel the love Del Toro’s put in – and impossible not to reciprocate.

5 stars.