Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I, Tonya

Aussie director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) never asks for the audience to suspend disbelief while watching I, Tonya. In fact, the film opens with Margot Robbie as an older, spent Tonya Harding announcing that the film is a mix of truth and lies. Each member of the stellar ensemble -- Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser -- goes for broke in this retelling of the low-class horrors that created a world-class figure skater and then all but ruined her life. Janney, an effing scream as Tonya's witch of a mother, cusses and smacks her way through the picture, dragging on cigarillos while abusing her daughter and destroying all goodness in her path. When Tonya finally moves out and in with boyfriend Jeff Gillooly, she simply exchanges one variety of sociopath for another. It's Gillooly and his portly numbskull of a friend Shawn who came up with the idea of sabotaging "America's Darling" skater Nancy Kerrigan. How and when sabotage, which started as sending some intimidating letters to Kerrigan, became bashing her on the knee is disputed but that's the wonder of this madhouse of a picture. It's all a Crockpot of truths, half-truths, mis-rememberings and full-blown lies that the audience is welcome to believe or not. Robbie and Stan are truly inspired as the warring couple, who in the end stopped just short of killing each other.

Sunday, January 28, 2018


In Hostiles, director Scott Cooper (Black Mass and Out of the Furnace) takes viewers on a journey across some beautiful U.S. territory to tell the story of a sad and hollow Army officer in the 1890s (Christian Bale) who rediscovers his humanity while escorting an ailing Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family from a New Mexico prison post to his traditional burial grounds in Montana. Bale's Capt. Joe Blocker refuses the mission at first, bearing nothing but hatred for all Indians, but relents when his pension is threatened. He starts out with a full (and familiar) contingent of men (the clueless private, the untested West Point lieutenant, the loyal black corporal, the world-weary sergeant who is one stiff drink away from self-destruction) but are soon joined by the widowed and childless survivor of a ranch raid and slaughter (Rosamund Pike). As these stories go, Blocker's party is slowly picked off by Comanches and other hostiles along the trail, putting into question whether they will arrive at the destination. Cooper, who directs raw, brutal films about men refusing to give in to untenable circumstances, offers in Hostiles a picture that takes full advantage of the stunning vistas of New Mexico and Colorado but invests most of the movie's impact in quiet moments between these men and women, when they reveal the devastation that violent hatred has laid on them.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


Mary J. Blige's Oscar-nominated performance as the quietly determined, fiercely sacrificial mother of a WWII tank commander (Jason Mitchell) who returns home to the Mississippi Delta is a well-modulated study of power and presence in film. Blige's character, Florence Jackson, is a supporting role but she doesn't just grace the margins of the scenes she's in, seasoning the proceedings with homespun bromides and nods. Instead, she pulls attention to her when she's present because of the weight of the burden she carries: She is caring for her family who live as tenants on a farm that seems cursed while being pulled to tend to the children of the landowners.  Rob Morgan plays her husband, Hap, a farmer who preaches on Sunday about freedom in this lifetime. He's committed to his family's safety, which means entering through back doors and obliging even the most heinous of souls if they're white. This rankles his oldest son, returned veteran Ronsel, who finds friendship and trust in his fellow veteran, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), the younger son of the farm owners. Their perilous friendship eventually leads to disaster for the men but not before helping them both to heal a bit. Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees, deals candidly but also artfully with our country's miserable past; with insatiable desperation; the horrors of race hatred; the lingering, debilitating effects of war. It's a wrenching, difficult picture that does, however, convey the message that love will bring the victory in the end ... and maybe in this lifetime.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Call Me By Your Name

Italian director Luca Guadagnino's beautifully intriguing 2015 film A Bigger Splash was saturated with sensuality, with the film's characters -- an aging rock star, her handsome new stud, her former record producer and his daughter -- often lounging about an impossibly charming villa on an Italian island, nearly naked, bumping uglies and egos, opening old wounds and creating a few fresh ones. Guadagnino's latest film, Call Me By Your Name, is just as evocative but trades the emotional explosiveness for romantic insight and tenderness. It's the early '80s and an archeology professor (how good is Michael Stuhlbarg?) and his wife (Amira Cassar) and their son (the captivatingly Raphaelite young actor Timothee Chalamet) are joined at their Italian villa by an American graduate student (a smoldering Armie Hammer) for a few weeks to help the good professor with some cataloguing and soak up the local culture. Chalamet's young Elio is charged with introducing Hammer's Oliver to the villa, the town and nearby swimming holes and in short order Elio's nascent homosexuality, heretofore suppressed by his interest in a pretty French girl (Esther Garrel), is enlivened, which excites and frightens him. Screenwriter James Ivory's elegant depiction of those first stirrings is masterful, relying on silences, glances and nuance to show young Elio's awakening, uncertainty, frustration, confusion, ardor and, as we might expect, ultimate heartbreak. But when the characters speak, their words can be as lush as the verdant countryside that surrounds them. Call Me By Your Name is a lovely picture that features a marvelous monologue, from father to son, in the last reel that is more splendid by half than it needs to be. Bravo.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Darkest Hour

British director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is an artful and intense treatment of Winston Churchill’s first days as England’s prime minister, as Nazi troops storm through Europe, pushing British fighters to the beaches of Dunkirk. Gary Oldman’s robust portrayal of the maligned Churchill, caught on the horns of a dilemma, is a marvel and fills nearly every frame of this elegantly composed and beautifully written film. A scene that depicts a supremely conflicted Churchill interviewing citizens in a London subway car is a distillation of the man’s indomitable spirit and, as we discover, that of the English people. It’s a stirring, thrilling moment in a movie that packs enormous dramatic power. P.S. Kristin Scott Thomas's performance as Churchill's wife, Clemmie, provides a nicely tempered theatricality to a film that does not lack for big, blustering exchanges between scowling, jowly men.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...