Sunday, December 10, 2017

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie is outstanding as Tonya Harding, the disgraced figure skater, who in 1994 was at the center of an attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan, resulting in a broken knee sidelining Ms. Kerrigan from competition that year.

The film is biographical and is filled with comedic moments  born out of the tragic backstory of Ms. Harding's life.  We first meet Tonya as a three year old dragged to a skating rink by her overbearing and simply horrible mother, LaVona, played by Allison Janney.  The relationships between Tonya and her mother, and later, with her eventual husband Jeff Gillooley, played by Sebastian Stan are at the core of the film. Tonya is painted as a tragic figure who constantly laments "it's not my fault". The film is told from different viewpoints in a documentary style and occasionally breaks the fourth wall when characters speak directly to the audience. 

Tonya's horrific backstory is intercut with some terrific ice skating sequences, much of them done by Ms. Robbie herself (except for a CGI Triple Axel).  And of course, the centerpiece of the film is the planning and execution of the attack on Ms. Kerrigan, much of it conceived by Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff's best friend and Tonya's self proclaimed "bodyguard".  Mr. Eckhardt is played by Paul Walter Hauser, who bears a striking resemblance to the real Mr. Eckhardt, an outrageous character beyond description.

The film also features Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawlinson, Tonya's coach and in a small role, Bobby Cannavale as an unnamed producer of " Hard Copy".  The film finds much humor in this real life story but you laugh as a response to the ultimately sad tale that was Ms. Harding's life.  An epilogue does explain that things are going better for her now. 

This is a perfectly cast film. Ms. Robbie completely disappears into her role and is bound for multiple award nominations. Mr. Stan has never been better as the dim witted Jeff, and Ms. Janney, as the most monstrous mother ever portrayed on screen, is simply remarkable and a shoe-in for an Academy Award supporting actress nomination.

The Shape of Water

      Co-written and directed by the always imaginative Guillermo del Toro, this new drama is unlike anything you can imagine and is his best since "Pan's Labyrinth". It has an outstanding cast but Sally Hawkins as the mute cleaning woman, Elisa, does her best work ever and is simply amazing.

      An easy description would be science fiction love story but it is so much deeper and richer than that. Elisa works in a government lab somewhere in Baltimore, circa 1962. When she discovers the lab's secret project is an amphibious humanoid creature, she feels a common bond with it and befriends the "asset", as it's called by the military, feeding it eggs and keeping it company whenever she can. The film co-stars Michael Shannon as Colonel Strickland, the head of security and one of the nastiest villains ever to appear on screen. Besides Mr. Shannon, the rest of the cast includes Richard Jenkins as Giles, Elisa's friend and neighbor, Octavia Spencer, as Delilah, Elisa's co-worker and Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Hoffstetler, another scientist studying the creature.

      The creature is not a CGI creation but rather actor Doug Jones, under a ton of excellent makeup. For the emotional core of this film to work, it's important that Elisa interact with a real being and not some digital creation. The film requires a leap of faith but Mr. del Toro's skills make it easy to accept where the story eventually leads. This off beat "Beauty and the Beast" is romantic, suspenseful and even musical. It's remarkable in it's plot, acting, cinematography, and the wonderful direction by Mr. del Toro. It's one of the best films of the year.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Wonder Wheel

          Borrowing heavily from "A Streetcar Named Desire",  Woody Allen's new domestic drama is a starring vehicle for Kate Winslet. The setting is 1950's Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York.

          As he did for Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine", Mr. Allen has created a memorable, tragic character for Ms. Winslet as Ginny, a married waitress in a Coney Island clam bar. It is a wonderful performance in an otherwise mediocre film.

          Jim Belushi co-stars as her husband "Humpty" along with Juno Temple as Humpty's estranged daughter, Carolina, from a previous marriage and Justin Timberlake as the object of desire for both Ginny and Carolina.  While Mr. Belushi and Ms Temple are both well cast and do surprisingly good work, Mr. Timberlake is terribly miscast as an intellectual Coney Island lifeguard who starts an affair with Ginny but later becomes interested in Carolina.

           It's a tangled web that collapses under it's own weight but the saving grace is the powerful performance of Ms. Winslet as a downtrodden woman spiralling out of control. What is remarkable about the film is the fantastic set design by long time Allen collaborator, Santo Loquasto.  The Coney Island of the '50's  is recreated in marvelous detail. A curious experiment for Mr. Allen is the lighting of the film. For the most part the film is awash in bright colors and glowing sunlight but in many scenes the lighting shifts dramatically to purposely underscore the scene. I found it artificial and distracting.

           The only real wonder in "Wonder Wheel" is Kate Winslet.

Saturday, November 25, 2017


           Co-written and directed by Dee Rees, this period drama tells the story of two families, one Black and one White in the 1940's Mississippi Delta.  Henry McAllen, played by Jason Clarke buys a farm in the Delta and moves there with his wife, Laura, played by Cary Mulligan, his father, played by Jonathan Banks, and their two daughters. A tenant farmer, Hap Jackson, played by Rob Morgan, his wife Florence, played by Mary J. Blige, and their family also work the same plot of land.

            Henry's younger brother, Jamie is a pilot overseas at the same time Hap's oldest son Ronsel is a  tank sergeant fighting in Germany. Jamie, played by Garrett Hedlund and Ronsel, played by Jason Mitchell return home after the war and bond over surviving the horrors of war. Their friendship, however, remains a secret due to the racial divide that exists at the time.

             It is a fine ensemble cast that provide a depth of human emotion in every scene. The film shows the everyday struggles of life for both families at home while cutting to scenes of Jamie and Ronsel fighting respectively overseas. It is an uncompromising look at the racially charged south at the time as well as the social order of the day.

              Ms. Rees explores the microcosm of the day to day for both families and is at it's best capturing the smallest details, good and bad that cross the social and racial borders of a particular time and place.  I can't say enough about the cast and and the terrific work they do bringing life, in all it's beauty and flaws, to these characters. The film reflects the raw and sometimes brutal honesty of the period, with no easy answers. It is an artistic achievement in storytelling.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

              Denzel Washington outdoes himself in this new drama from  writer/director, Dan Gilroy ("Nightcrawler"). Mr. Gilroy has created a unique and memorable character and Mr. Washington disappears into the role which is unlike anything he has ever done. 

              Mr. Washington enjoys good dialog. He chewed up the scenery with verbal gymnastics in last year's "Fences". With Mr. Gilroy's intelligent and surprising script, he once again gets to show off his verbal skills but this time, the words come out honestly from the depths of the character and not Mr. Washington himself. Mr. Israel, Esq. is a lawyer, who as the film opens, is the man "behind the curtain" of a two man law firm, preferring to do the background work while his partner appears in court. Circumstances force him down a different path which is the central plot of the film.

               Colin Farrell co-stars as the head of another firm and while the film is about lawyers, it is not about "the big case" but rather about the characters themselves, their ethics and belief system that drive them through the legal system and the choices they make navigating that complex world.

               The film is continuously surprising and there are so many quotable lines, I wish had had brought a pad and pen to keep track. The less said about the plot, the better. It's a terrific film and Mr. Washington will surely garner another Oscar nomination.

Justice League

            After the critically panned Batman vs. Superman, DC tries again with it's follow up "Justice League". Using the first film to set up the characters and eventual storyline, director Zack Snyder (and later an uncredited Joss Whedon) tries hard to correct the mistakes of the earlier film. Unfortunately some things cannot be undone.

              Ben Affleck is not a credible Batman. His acting does not help the film at all and Batman is the central character bringing all the other pieces together.  The first part of the film is the recruitment phase where we meet the rest of what will become the Justice League. Aquaman, played by Jason Momoa, is the first of the underwritten characters. For a superhero who is master of the oceans, he spends most of the film literally a fish out of water. Hopefully his proposed solo film will feature character development as its main strength. Then we have Cyborg, played by Ray Fisher. Cyborg is a combination human/robot with angst as his main character description. Flash, played by Ezra Miller, brings the most humor to the film and is enjoyable enough (Marvel still did a better job with Quicksilver showing off his super speed though). And then we come to Wonder Woman, once again played by Gal Gadot. Ms Gadot is the best thing about the film. Her acting, action sequences, and beauty through it all belong in a better film. (Hopefully that film is "Wonder Woman 2").

                Since his name comes up in the opening credits, it's no surprise that Henry Cavill as Superman will eventually be resurrected to help save the day from the horde of CGI monsters led by a CGI villain named Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). I imagine they are saving the bigger bad guy, Darkseid, for the next installment. Since Superman does return, we have the requisite cameos by Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Diane Lane as Martha Kent. And of course, if Batman is in the movie we need his loyal butler Alfred, played by a droll Jeremy Irons and Commissioner Gordon, played by the always dependable J. K. Simmons.

                 Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon are credited with the screenplay based on a story by Mr. Terrio and Zack Snyder. They try hard to lighten the tone but much of the humor seems forced.  Thankfully they managed to keep the film to a tight two hours and while not up to the successful Marvel formula, it's not a terrible superhero movie. An extended sequence after the credits sets up the next film so expect these characters to be around for a while. Maybe next time, they will even get it right.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Last Flag Flying

 The latest film from director Richard Linklater (who also cowrote the screenplay) is a meditation on friendship, loss, and patriotism. It is a very loose sequel of sorts to "The Last Detail" with both films taken from their respective source novels by Darryl Ponicsan.

The film stars Steve Carell as Larry "Doc" Shepard, a Vietnam Vet who is on his way to recover the body of his son who was killed in Iraq. He enlists the aid of his old Marine buddies, Sal, played by Bryan Cranston and Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne. While they haven't seen each other in years, the three quickly reunite and Sal and Mueller agree to accompany Doc to help bury his son.

This is a heavy drama but the character of Sal acts as the comic relief and Mr. Cranston is just terrific as the foul mouthed, unfiltered Vet who refuses to back down from anything. Mr. Carrell plays against type and is stoic in his grief and pain throughout the film. And of course, Mr. Fishburne is a towering presence as the now, man of God who holds the trio together on their unlikely road trip. 

Mr. Linklater's script does starts to grow weary as repetition creeps in. It could have benefitted from tighter editing but the final act is so beautifully conceived and executed, any excess baggage is forgiven. This is truly a power trio of actors in a thought provoking, heartbreaking story, filled with sadness and unexpected humor.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

       I must confess to be a huge fan of Martin McDonagh. Whether it's his plays or his movies, his dark comedies and tragic characters have always affected  me in many ways. This new film, written and directed by Mr. McDonagh may be his best work yet. To call it a dark comedy is an understatement.  It is a serious drama filled with dark comedic moments designed to either break the tension or make it worse. It is politically incorrect, filled with unexpected violence, and most certainly not for everyone.

     Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who has lost her daughter to an act of horrific violence and her murder remains unsolved. Woody Harrelson is Police Chief Willoughby, the target of her pain and grief. Sam Rockwell, is deputy Dixon, a racist screwup that Willoughby is convinced has some redeeming qualities. Ms. McDormand is ferocious and wears her pain in every facial movement and gesture. Mr. Rockwell's character is so easy to hate and yet he carefully conveys a potential for redemption that you end up rooting for him. And Mr. Harrelson brings a quiet strength filled with a overwhelming sadness to a role like nothing he has played before.

    Co-starring are John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, and Caleb Landry Jones. It is a great cast all doing fine work but the film is fueled by its three leads and they are just remarkable. Emotions run deep in this town as the unsolved murder of Mildred's daughter haunts everyone in different ways. The film cuts deep exploring all their anger and pain. But it's Mildred's pain that cuts the deepest.

     Mr. McDonagh's great script is filled with surprising dialog that will, at times, have you squirming in your seat for laughing during the most inappropriate moments. And his "no holds barred" direction takes chances that work. There is no justice if the film doesn't garner multiple award nominations.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

          The third film in the Marvel Comics Thor trilogy is by far the best in the series.  It takes the gravitas of the others seriously enough but infuses it with so much humor, the tone is lighter and more akin to the "Guardians" films set in the same Marvel universe.

             Chris Hemsworth is back as Thor and he seems to be enjoying himself almost way too much. Also returning are Tom Hiddleston as his brother Loki, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Idris Elba as Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. The villain of the story is Hela, Goddess of death played by Cate Blanchett, also having a ball and possibly having the most fun of all is Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster, ruler of a planet where Thor is forced into fighting The Hulk. Additionally, Tessa Thompson is Valkyrie and Karl Urban as Skurge. The les said about their characters, the better. There are also some fun surprise cameos.

               The film is big, bold, exciting and very funny. Directed by Taika Waititi, what we see on screen is the closest thing to reading an issue of the Thor comic. The look and feel of the production captures that world perfectly. The tone may be lighter and more humorous than the comics but that only helps make it more enjoyable. The action sequences are loud and violent but it's all comic book violence. Unlike the Avengers films set on earth in a more realistic way, this film takes us to other worlds that make it easier to accept the collateral damage and mayhem brought on by it's characters. 

               Since it's a Marvel brand, of course look for two short clips during the credits that both act as a tease for "The Avengers: Infinity War", coming next year and a comedic coda to this film.

Lady Bird

        Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, this coming of age dramedy is a terrific first time project for the actress. While we've seen the basic plot hundreds of time, there is something so vividly original and refreshing about the film that it's easy to succumb to it's charms.

         The film stars Saoirse Ronan as "Lady Bird", am eighteen year high school senior in Sacramento California who dreams of a better life upon graduation. Ms. Ronan continues to impress with every film. She has a wonderful chameleon like quality to disappear into every role and illuminate the screen with confidence and natural ease. Her family dynamic is beautifully written with fully formed characters played by wonderful actors. Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts  play her parents and the mother/daughter relationship is the center of the film.  The chemistry between Ms. Ronan and Ms. Metcalf is fantastic.

           Co-starring are Beanie Feldstein as Julie, Ladybird's best friend, Stephen McKinley Henderson as a priest directing the school play, Lois Smith as the kind but stern head nun of the high school, and Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird's first crush. It's a wonderful cast who bring these characters to life. 

             The story, at once familiar and yet original as well, takes unexpected twists and turns but stays on a course you will want to follow. Ms. Gerwig, already so good in front of the camera, has found a new home behind it and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.