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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

All the Money in the World (Scott; 2017)

Even if you have no idea what this film is about, or don’t even recognize its name, you have probably heard about the controversy surrounding it, so I’ll start by addressing that.  All the Money in the World is based on the true story behind the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s, the richest man in the world and that time ever, grandson John Paul Getty III.  Kevin Spacey played the role of the eldest Getty, the film was all but finished and very near release when the news of Kevin Spacey’s scandalous past surfaced.  So, director Ridley Scott reshot every film Spacey was initially in with Christopher Plummer recast in the role and re-edited the entire film in nine days in the reports I’d heard.  It’s an incredible achievement and had the story not been so widely known there would be no way of knowing from watching the film that major changes had ever been made to what was thought to be the final cut.  It was probably a smart decision from a business standpoint, and an ethical one as well, but it can’t have been an easy one to make nor an easy task to pull off, and even after seeing how well it was done I couldn’t help but wonder throughout the entire film what the film would have looked like with Spacey in the role.

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All the Money in the World lets us know how J. Paul Getty amassed his oil fortune early on in the film while using the same time to establish the Getty family dynamics.  The kidnapping of John Paul Getty III happens very quickly after the necessary exposition and from that point on the film focuses almost entirely on four characters in three storylines.  One storyline is that of the kidnapped Getty’s mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and the elder Getty’s chief security officer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) working together to find where young Getty has been taken and why.  Secondarily, we have the story of what Getty III (Charlie Plummer) and what happens to him under the care of his kidnappers.  Finally, we have the story of John Paul Getty himself and his attempts to remain in denial of the entire situation and his refusal to pay any kind of ransom.

We will most likely never know how close to the truth the events captured in All the Money in the World are, but we do know that the broad strokes of the story, at least, are almost entirely accurate.  The kidnapping did occur, the divorced single mother and the agent did work together to find the son, Getty did refuse to pay the ransom, and kidnappers did use certain means which are now infamous to let the Getty’s know they were serious.  Past that, a lot of it is conjecture on the part of the film’s writer David Scarpa.  To its credit, though, it seems like conjecture which is very interested in remaining factual as it never takes an easy route where dramatic effect is concerned and seems very intent on keeping the story grounded in reality.  The most over the top elements of the story we know actually did occur, and the relationships between characters which is the part which had to have been filled in the most seem natural and honest.

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Michelle Williams gives a fantastic performance here making me wonder why in the hell Hollywood doesn’t use her more often in larger roles.  Perhaps it’s her choice and she prefers to work in smaller budget films that let her really sink her teeth into a meaty role, and if that’s the case she gets all the respect in the world from me.  If it’s not, start giving this woman more love and attention, Hollywood, she is never anything less than amazing.  The other actors can’t match the same level Williams gives us, but they are still all solid.  Wahlberg sells us his agent character and the transformation he has to go through, and while Christopher Plummer doesn’t come anywhere close to giving us a performance we know he’s capable of, he does give us one strong enough to allow us to forget the circumstances under which he’s playing the role.

If I were to call out one major problem with All the Money in the World it would be the movie’s pacing.  There are far too many scenes which seem to be glamour shots meant to show off all the time and money spent on the grandiose sets in the piece, and while I know I have praised films for not being afraid to do this exact same thing in the past, there is an art form in the cinematography and the editing of a film to make these long lingering scenes work, and it isn’t captured well here.  Rather than establishing tone and pace, the camerawork in All the Money in the World seems to be a choice made by Scott more because he personally loved the way a certain set looked instead of making that choice because it would help the dramatic flow of the story.  That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have some gorgeous settings and cinematography, it absolutely does and should be commended for both, but the choice of how to incorporate those visuals do as much to hurt as help the story making the viewer wish the director would pick up the pace.

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Final verdict:  All the Money in the World is yet another true story for 2017, though its focus on a story rather than a character means it isn’t yet another biopic, and it absolutely deserves to be recommended in a year overflowing with good movies based on true stories (and which still isn’t done, as I have yet to see and review Molly’s Game, I, Tonya, nor The Post).  While I firmly believe that this film will be remembered more for the circumstances surrounding it than for the content of the film itself, that doesn’t mean it’s not a film worth watching.  It manages to toe the line between gripping drama and a commitment to the facts quite well most of the time, and Michelle Williams is always worth watching in anything she does.