I, TONYA (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Your recollection of Tonya Harding is likely not that she was the 1991 U.S. Champion figure skater and a two-time Olympian. And rather than honoring her as the first female skater to land a triple axel in competition, you likely remember “the incident” in 1994 where she whacked her on-ice rival Nancy Kerrigan on the knee with a club. Only Ms. Harding wasn’t the one who attacked Ms. Kerrigan … and that’s only the beginning to what director Craig Gillespie (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I LOVE YOU, and a bunch of other mushy stuff) detail in this madcap look at a reality infinitely stranger than most fiction.

Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) stars as Tonya Harding, and it’s a career-defining performance … funny, tragic, physical and emotionally charged. This isn’t the expected bleak biopic, but rather it’s a brilliant blend of parody, docudrama, and dark comedy focused on some real life folks that will surely make you grateful for your life. Harding’s abusive, profane and icy mother LaVona is played with aplomb by Allison Janney, who manages to bring some humor to the role of a woman whose approach went far beyond the realm of tough love and straight into cruelty. Sebastian Stan plays Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser is Shawn Eckhardt, his friend and co-conspirator. In regards to these last two gents, we spend most of the film trying to decide if they are goofy, ignorant or downright dangerous (or all of the above).

Director Gillespie expertly weaves together the domestic scenes, ice skating scenes, and “current” interviews with the main characters. The domestic scenes include Tonya and Jeff, Tonya and her mother, Eckhardt with Tonya and Jeff, and Eckhardt with his own parents. The ice skating scenes emphasize how hard Tonya worked and her relationship with Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), while the interviews (recreated from actual interviews) provide contradictory details from the memories of Tonya, Jeff, Eckhardt and LaVona. The film tries not to make fun of them, but they kind of do it to themselves.

Bobby Cannavale appears as a “Hard Copy” reporter who provides some story structure by walking us through the timeline as reported by the media at the time. McKenna Grace plays a young Tonya, while Caitlin Carver is Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya has long been labeled as the most “notorious” figure skater, and a failed boxing career was the closest she came to capitalizing on her notoriety after the scandal. Her life and the incident have been the basis for songs, books, news specials, documentaries, TV parodies, and even a Brooklyn-based museum. The film reminds us that truth and recollections are open to interpretation, and that there is much more to the story than what was reported. Respect is too much for Tonya to hope for, but this excellent and entertaining film might deliver a dose of compassion or empathy (along with incredulity and some laughs).

watch the trailer:

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SPY (2015)

June 24, 2015

spy Greetings again from the darkness. Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Paul Feig are back together in hopes of recapturing their Bridesmaids comedy and box office magic. They are also re-teaming for next year’s all-female Ghostbusters remake.

This time it’s a parody of James Bond films … right down to the elaborate and creative opening credit sequence. Recognizing that combining action and comedy can be a bit challenging, Feig enlists the help of Jason Statham and Jude Law. Statham parodies his well known uber-intense characters with a running dialogue of his bravery and heroism, while Law is clearly having a blast as the ultra-smooth agent Bradley Fine (think Pierce Brosnan’s Bond).

In spite of the gentlemen, this is Ms. McCarthy’s film and she is believable as the frumpy CIA analyst who is the “voice in the ear” of super agent Fine (Law). He maneuvers the front line of dangerous assignments as she provides life-saving high-tech guidance from the relative safety of the vermin-infested basement CIA lab. Of course, we know McCarthy’s agent will end up in the field in her attempts to avenge a mission gone wrong.

It’s McCarthy in the field that will either make or break the film for you. Her scenes with Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz worked best for me, while her Jackie Chan-style kitchen fight scene and her chase scenes were a bit more difficult to buy off on. It can be confusing as a viewer when we are constantly bombarded with PC rules, and then Feig and McCarthy don’t hesitate to use her heft for laughs.

Other supporting work is provided by British comedienne Miranda Hunt, another fish out of water agent; Morena Baccarin as a strutting super agent at the level of Statham; Bobby Cannavale as a would-be terrorist; and Allison Janney as the CIA Supervisor. While each have their moments, it’s McCarthy’s visit to the spy gadget department that provides the best laughs.

The Action-Comedy-Spy Thriller genre is pretty sparse, and as you may expect, comedy is the priority for most scenes. McCarthy does well in her first true film lead, though my prediction is that her value as an actress will ultimately come from playing characters who are more “real” – like her role in last year’s St. Vincent.


THE DUFF (2015)

February 18, 2015

duff Greetings again from the darkness. I was never a teenage girl, and for that, I am quite thankful. By comparison, being a teenage guy was a breeze. No filmmaker was better than the great John Hughes at capturing the challenges of high school … especially for girls. The mysteries of adolescent social hierarchy has long been a favorite movie target, and director Ari Sandel (Oscar winner for his short film West Bank Story) and screenwriter Josh Cagan loosely base their film on the novel from Kody Keplinger.

Mae Whitman (from TV’s “Parenthood”) stars as Bianca, a very smart student who enjoys hanging with her two best friends Casey (Bianca Santos, Ouija) and Jess (Skyler Samuels). That all changes one evening at a party when Bianca’s neighbor, and the school’s alpha-jock, Wesley (Robbie Amell, Firestorm in TV’s “The Flash”), informs her that she is the titular “DUFF” … Designated Ugly Fat Friend. The term itself is quite offensive, but the movie does its best to soften the blow by explaining that it doesn’t necessarily mean ugly or fat – a confusing turn, but fortunate since Ms. Whitman is neither.

As you might imagine, the familiar terrain of teen angst movies is covered and any hope of real insight is dashed pretty early on. However, it does spend a significant amount of time driving home the point that social media plays a dominant role in every aspect of teen life these days, including cyber-bullying. It’s no wonder that insecurities abound … one never knows when their trip to the mall or make-out session with a mannequin will become a viral video.

There are familiar aspects of such classics as Pretty in Pink, She’s All That, and Mean Girls. Robbie Amell even looks very much like Michael Schoeffling from Sixteen Candles. However, the film features two of my movie pet peeves. First, Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell are both in their mid-20’s – entirely too old to be playing high school students. Secondly, Mr Amell plays a jock but clearly cannot throw a football like one – and he does it three cringe-inducing times.

Mae Whitman has excellent screen presence and comes across as a blend of Janeane Garofalo, Ellen Page, and Aubrey Plaza. That’s pretty high praise, but she elevates a script that needs it, and holds her own with screen vets like Allison Janney (as her distracted mom) and Ken Jeong (as her slightly loopy journalism teacher).

The film is a commentary on today’s high school life, but the predictability and obvious gags prevent it from ever going too deep or appealing to any audience other than “tweeners”. Still, any film that smacks down the nasty people (here played by Bella Thorne) and advises to be true to one’s self, can’t be all bad.

watch the trailer:

 


THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

July 13, 2013

way way1 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those indies that has all the pieces in place to be not just a terrific “little” movie, but also a surprise box office hit.  It played well at festivals, critics love it, it has a very talented cast, it mixes humor with human emotion, and the co-directors and co-writers won an Oscar (with Alexander Payne) for writing the script to The Descendants.  It even offers the often effective coming-of-age story line in regards to Duncan (played by Liam James) as a miserable 14 year old stuck at a beach house with him mom, her obnoxious boyfriend and his snobby daughter.

The movie has a touch of “The Wonder Years” (without the narrator), but it’s a bit more caustic thanks to Steve Carell, who plays Trent, the condescending and bullying boyfriend who has no redeeming qualities that we can see (other than an inherited beach house and a nice tan).  It’s very unusual to see Carell in the “bad guy” role, but once you accept it, his lines and way way3lies cut through each scene.  Duncan’s mom is played by Toni Collette, and her character Pam is a divorced, insecure single mom trying to balance her own happiness with that of her teen-angst-filled son. Pam and Duncan are the outsiders in this beach community as we quickly learn when next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) barges across property lines (and personal space) with drink in hand and gossip flying.

Feeling further humiliated by his encounters with Betty’s cute daughter, Duncan finally gains a ray of hope thanks to Owen, the man-child manager of the Water Wizz park.  Sam Rockwell plays Owen, and quickly becomes a mentor to him by offering him a job and what I call … Water Wizzdom.  Of course, Duncan keeps the job a secret from the others in his life, and since they are mostly oblivious to his long absences, it proves again how self-centered the adults are in this little would-be family.

way way2 The well worn movie signs are all here … we recognize the characters and their struggles, in fact, we all know someone like each of the people that co-writers and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash present to us. We understand quickly that this is yet another coming-of-age tale with mostly clueless adults, and kids trying to cope on their own. Despite that, this one still mostly works. The writing and acting are such high quality that even though we are living in movie cliché-land, we still find ourselves caring about Duncan and Pam, laughing at Owen, and tossing tomatoes at Trent (Carell).

Special recognition to Sam Rockwell. Even though Duncan is the key character, it’s Rockwell’s Owen who recognizes that a little faith and encouragement goes a long way. Behind the facade of rapid-fire banter and laugh-inducing one-liners, Owen is coming to grips with a life of reality and shattered dreams. While never stooping to the typical Hollywood “win one for the Gipper” speech, Owen manages to instill a bit of confidence in Duncan … to the point where he refuses to let his mother pretend everything is OK with Trent.

way way4 AnnaSophia Robb plays the cute girl-next-door who recognizes potential in Duncan, but the filmmakers never allow this to turn into some ridiculous fairy tale. Instead we get characters who are each flawed, but real and recognizable. While all the typical pieces are present, there is enough crackle to the dialogue and quality acting to help this one rise above the usual muck. It’s a nice “little” alternative to the giant summer blockbusters. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have shown again that they have a gift for dialogue and now a talent for guiding actors.  In this, their directorial debut, they prove that they also have skills as filmmakers. We should expect the next one to be even better!

**NOTE: you may think this looks like another Little Miss Sunshine, but it really flips the percentages in comedy vs drama

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: quirkiness and caustic dialogue mixed with some humorous and familiar coming-of-age moments are what you are looking for this summer movie season OR you want to see Steve Carell play something other than a nice guy

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: if you are seeking light-hearted summer fluff … this one is filled with uncomfortable family drama

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qoaVUdbWMs


THE HELP

August 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based on the controversial best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. It was controversial because it is the story of Jim Crow-era maids written by a white woman. Yes, the book is actually the fictionalized story of a white woman getting black maids to discuss their lives as maids for white folks. Rather than get into some politically correct dissertation on the book, movie or story, I will only comment on the film itself … this very entertaining movie that also manages to deliver a timeless message.  I would call it this year’s The Blind Side, only I like this one more.

 Let me first start by saying that this movie is incredibly well acted. It is quite rare to have so many developed characters in one movie. There are some characters we immediately connect with, while others draw our ire each time their face appears or their mouth opens to speak. The script and these fine actresses utilize humor to point out the shameful behavior of those who saw themselves as superior. The humor doesn’t soften the ignorance or abuse, but it does make the film infinitely more watchable and entertaining. Please know this is not a documentary.

Ms. Stockett’s novel has a very loyal following in addition to the naysayers. A two hour film must, of course, take short cuts and trim story lines. Still the key elements are present. Based in Jackson, Mississippi during Governor Ross Barnett’s term, we see the social shark, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), in her full glory of ignorance, entitlement and superiority. We see her minions and followers emulating her moves while trying to gain her approval.

 The story takes off when Skeeter (Emma Stone) graduates from Ole Miss, returns home and takes a job at the local newspaper. Possessing observation skills and humanity that her lifelong friends can’t comprehend, Skeeter desperately wants to tell a story from the perspective of the maids. As expected, the maids are hesitant, but Aibileen (Viola Davis) finally relents. The stories begin to flow and soon the robust Minny (Octavia Spencer) joins in. Others soon follow their lead and Skeeter’s education goes to an entirely new level.

 That’s really all of the story I care to discuss. The brilliance of this one is actually in the details … individual scenes and moments of acting genius by most of the cast. In addition to those mentioned above, Jessica Chastain plays Celia, the “white trash” outcast who so desperately wants to be allowed back into the girls’ club. Ms. Chastain was seen a few weeks ago in the fabulous Tree of Life in quite a different role … I would venture to say no actress will have two roles of such variance this year. Also, Allison Janney plays Skeeter’s cancer-stricken mother, and Sissy Spacek is Hilly’s mother who gets tossed aside before she is ready to go! The great Cicely Tyson makes a brief appearance as Constantine, Skeeter’s childhood maid who was done so wrong after 29 years of service. Mary Steenburgen has a couple of scenes as a big NYC book publisher.

 As I said, this is pure acting heaven, but I must single out Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Viola is so powerful at the beginning and end of the film, and Ms. Spencer is a force of nature during the middle. This movie is really their story and these two ladies make it fascinating, painful and a joy to behold. They both deserve recognition at Oscar time.

There are so many fantastic details to the film. At times, it is like watching a classic car show … the late 50’s and early 60’s models are works of art. The wardrobe, hair and make-up are perfect in setting up the class differentials. The TV and radio segments provide context and timing with the deaths of Medger Evers and JFK. Even the books on Skeeter’s shelf make a statement: To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, Native Son, and Gone With the Wind.

This story takes place 50 years ago and director Tate Taylor does an admirable job of bringing Stockett’s novel to the big screen. Mr. Taylor is a longtime friend of Ms. Stockett’s and was quite fortunate to get the directing rights. He doesn’t disappoint. Sure the story is a bit glossy at times … it is geared towards the masses. If you are looking for more depth, there are numerous documentaries and books available on the Civil Rights movement. If you are seeking a very entertaining movie that uses humor to tell a story and send a message, then this one’s for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the book OR you enjoyed The Blind Side OR you want to see quality entertainment presented with humor and a message.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an in-depth history lesson OR you are the type that worships all things politically correct.

watch the trailer: