I, Tonya (Gillespe; 2017)

The purpose of a biopic, next to entertainment, is to show the audience how the writer and director of the film view a particular person and their story or place in history.  Normally, the view is positive, though some of the best biopics focus on some of history’s more nefarious individuals, and often the film’s creators try to be as objective and realistic as possible, but when Steven Rogers was interviewing the main figures involved in Tonya Harding’s career and found that none of them were telling the same story, he found his hook that would make the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya unique.  These interviews would actually be staged inside the film (with the actors playing the characters acting out the interview, not the actual interview subjects) and as the story plays out Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would break the fourth wall and let the audience know exactly what they think of the particular interpretation of the scene they are currently partaking in as if they were still in mid-interview.  Every character, while they were a part of the story, has their own version of it.  In I, Tonya truth is subjective.


That subjectivity is the focal point of the writing in I, Tonya, and makes for an exceptional take on the biopic.  While fourth wall breaking and self-awareness in film is hardly new, in fact, it’s becoming something of an overused trope, the fact that the story of I, Tonya is not only true but also one most of the people seeing the film witnessed via television news at the time of the events brings a new life to the tropes which keep them from being overly cutesy.  It also means that the film ends up taking on a tone which is as much comedy as drama and this is important to the themes of the film, as well.  As Harding herself says at one point in the film first she was loved by everyone, then hated, then she became a punchline.  I, Tonya uses the world’s perception of her masterfully by alternately playing to those perceptions then subverting them, using the punchline perception of her and her companions to get us to laugh, then using the love and hate perceptions to peel back the curtain and show us just what it is we’re laughing at.  It’s a masterfully written film which uses subjective truths to allow for a story which is comic and tragic, inspirational and incriminating, beautiful and repugnant all at the same time without ever feeling inconsistent nor without ever breaking stride.

We generally tend to equate a great performance with embodying and understanding a character, and this is definitely an element of performance which has to be covered in order to be great, but the very best performances go beyond character and show that the actor understands the themes, tone, and message of the entire film.  That being the case, I, Tonya gives us a trio of truly remarkable performances.  Margot Robbie is the anchor embodying a Tonya Harding who is charming and sympathetic, but who we can also see is constantly making excuses for the fact that she allows others to control her life and probably isn’t even conscious of the fact that she does this.  Sebastian Stan is a great Jeff Gillooly who truly loves Tonya but is unable to recognize his own immaturity which causes him to lash out whenever it seems he may be in danger of losing her or whenever he comes close to recognizing his own failings.  Allison Janney may be best of all as the mother who both loves and resents her own child, who wants the best for Tonya but also despises her for the sacrifices Tonya is forcing her to make.  All three of the primary cast members give us not only fully realized people, but people that embody the themes of subjective truth in the way they are only able to see the half of their own reality which makes them out to be a good person and not the half of themselves which the world would consider ugly or a weakness.


With one of the greatest scripts of the year and three of the finest performances, it’s almost like I, Tonya’s director of cinematography Nicolas Karakatsanis and film editor Tatiana S. Riegel decided they wouldn’t be outdone and on top of everything else gave us one of the most visually beautiful and intricate films of the year, as well.  From the sweeping shots of Tonya on the ice rink to the more intimate conversations shot from the perfect distance and angles with perfectly timed cuts to the long seemingly unbroken pans which must have involved some trickery in order to work.  While there were a few visuals which had me immediately gasping from the incredible talent on display, most of the film’s visual genius crept up on me later as I thought over certain performances and the film’s overall message and realized just how much the camera work added to both of those elements.

That’s actually a good way to describe I, Tonya overall.  It’s a film that creeps up on you with its genius.  Leaving the theater, I knew I had seen a really good movie, but I wondered at how authentic it was.  Was Tonya really such a tragic figure or is that just the filmmakers manipulating their audience to make their story more digestible?  Could the people involved in one the most famous crimes of all time really have been that stupid and/or ignorant or was it played up for comic effect?  As I thought more and more about what I had seen I realized that most of the usual questions one asks about a true story were questions that missed the mark.  This wasn’t meant to be half education half entertainment as most biopics are, but instead is an honest to goodness art film which also manages to be hilarious and crowd-pleasing in a way very few art films are.  It never intends to be authentic, it never intends to tell us the truth.  What it intends is to show us how each of us makes the truth a personal thing and that objectivity is an ideal which can never truly be achieved even if it’s something we should strive for.  But, it sugarcoats this rather depressing message in a true crime story about the world’s worst criminals so that we can take this message in in its entirety without even noticing that’s what’s happening.


Final verdict:  I, Tonya is a movie that after a few days contemplation I have decided is not just really good, but is, in fact, a borderline masterpiece and one of the very best films of 2017.  Every single element of the film, except perhaps its too on the nose score (I liked it, but I know it will annoy more than a few), is near perfect.  It’s a film that uses many different forms of dishonesty in an attempt to not just expose the truth but to actually teach us what it means for something to be true.  This is one I not only recommend, this is one I ask you to rush right out and see so you can see the gorgeous visuals in larger than life proportions while simultaneously laughing and pondering things you thought you knew were true.



Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Gilroy; 2017)

The film Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens with the titular character (Denzel Washington) typing up a court transcript in which he is making himself both the prosecutor and the defendant, and apparently also the attorneys, the judge, the jury, and everyone else involved with his imaginary case.  It’s an opening that does grab your attention.  Who is Roman J. Israel?  What did he do that would make him feel he needs to be put on trial?  What sort of person would go to all the trouble of actually typing out an entire false trial in judgment of himself?  This fantasy trial transcript never goes past the point of declaring the plaintiff and defendant at any point in the film, however, and so this transcript becomes an allegory for the entire film.  It’s an interesting premise that is ruined by the fact that it never explores any of its ideas past the introductory concept and even then it doesn’t seem to understand much about people, law, nor storytelling.

First and foremost of the things to talk about in this film is the central character Roman J. Israel, Esq. himself.  After the short introduction is finished, we flashback a short period in time to find that Roman starts the movie a law savant working in a very small criminal defense law firm in which he does all the behind the scenes work while his partner appears in court and performs all the other duties which involve contact and conversation with people.  The savant angle of Roman’s character is the focal point of the film as we a watch person who has entire volumes of legal decisions and case law memorized down to specific subsection numbers but understands next to nothing of the arts of politics and diplomacy which are also so essential in the legal profession.  Yet, we never learn what makes him this way.  Is it a form of high functioning autism?  Is it a form of OCD?  A combination of factors?  Is it just the way he was raised?  We never learn any of these answers and they could very well have a strong influence on how the audience perceives him and his actions in the film.


It should also affect Washington’s portrayal of the role.  You can tell that this film is more than just a paycheck in the passion he brings to the role.  This is Denzel at his most magnetic and intense.  You can tell that he loves this character, and wants to do everything he can to make us love and understand him, as well.  This is a case, though, of the devil being in the details.  If he’s playing an autistic savant, then there are far too many cases of suave, smooth Denzel making its way to the forefront.  If he’s playing OCD, we never see any of the habits or tics which would define such a person.  Even in the things we know for sure about the character he seems to miss details, making for a character we really want to like and appreciate, but can’t due to a lack of understanding who he is and his motivations from inconsistencies.

These inconsistencies are not solely the fault of Washington, though, the script and direction from Dan Gilroy not only do him no favors but are actually the real source of the majority of this film’s woes.  It’s a script that doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be.  It’s sort of a character piece, sort of a legal drama, sort of a crime drama, sort of an activist statement, but it never manages to commit to any one plot nor theme so we’re ultimately left with a film full of half-realized plots and thoughts.  These problems extend into every element of the film, from Roman himself to every supporting character and subplot.  Which is too bad, because like Denzel you can tell that Gilroy is passionate about this subject matter, but his passion overrode his common sense and objectivity it seems as he wasn’t able to recognize his film for the inconsistent mess it is.


Putting the plot and characters aside, though, the technical elements of Roman J. Israel, Esq. are well handled.  The camerawork adds a lot to the tone of the film, showing us Los Angeles through the eyes of Roman himself and how his view of the city and himself change as he makes his own major life changes throughout the film.  The art direction and costumes also add an impressive amount to the atmosphere with the choices of costume in particular almost doing more to let us understand these characters than the writing and the acting do (and, the film seems to know this on some level with the amount of time spent commenting on what Roman is wearing).  It’s a movie that knows when to be pretty and when to be ugly, and obviously loves Los Angeles for its flaws just as much as its glory.

The film’s fatal flaw, though, even worse than its handling of its characters and plot is its handling of its themes.  It’s a movie that seems to want to be an even-handed film showing that people have layers and that an evil act does not make an evil person and vice versa or perhaps that being successful does not make one unethical or perhaps its meant to be a simpler don’t judge a book by its cover style of message.  Due to the fact that its characterizations are so messy, though, I don’t know.  Compare Roman J. Esquire to a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or Lady Bird (review forthcoming) and you will the difference between characters and story which are complex and realistic and those which are merely inconsistent and not well thought out.


Final verdict:  Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a mess of a passion project.  It’s a movie that I really want to like because you can tell that the people behind it really believed in what they were doing.  That very belief, however, seemed to blind them to the reality which is that this movie was trying to do so much that it couldn’t accomplish much of it effectively.  As a visual testament to the city of Los Angeles and to the maxim of clothes making the man the movie hits, but aside from that, it spins its wheels never letting us really understand who these people are nor what they are trying to say.