i tonya

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was obsessed with ice skating from the time she was three years old.  Her mother Lavona (Allison Janney) helped her train, but was also verbally and physically abusive to Tonya.  When she was 15, Tonya met Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and although he abused her too, she married him, and continued her skating career.  The abuse got so bad that she put out a restraining order on him, she stayed with him, but after placing fourth in the 1992 Olympic games she divorced Gilooly in 1993 and tried to make the Olympic team.  She tried to reconcile with her mother and Gillooly and made the 1994 Olympic team, but Gilloly and Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) are coming up with a plan to help Tonya win a medal in the 1994 Olympics, what is the plan?  Does it help Tonya Harding or hurt her?

When a movie starts out with essentially a three line disclaimer about the contents of the film, the viewer better buckle up, because there’s going to be a battle coming with the truth.  The problem with this film is that it’s not really a biographical film, it’s more an advocacy film.  From the first frame, it advocates Tonya Harding’s position, and uses the fact that she may have been abused to excuse her attitude and behavior.  It replaces fact with opinion, and that should never happen with a biographical film.  Tonya Harding had talent, but when the time came to show that talent, she blew it.  Even before her free skate which the movie focuses on, she was in 10th place, so her lack of focus betrayed her talent, and that’s what the movie should have been about.  The movie treats the whole fiasco, like a comedy which is tone deaf.  There were a lot of serious issues in this movie, which shouldn’t have been handled so lightly.

The acting is much better than the material deserved.  Margot Robbie almost succeeded in making Tonya Harding a sympathetic character and that is one hell of an acting job.  Harding has the personality of a sour persimmon.  Sebastian Stan is surprisingly versatile in this role, humorous one minute, and menacing the next.  Surprising, since he was kind of a monotone actor as Bucky Barnes.  Allison Janney did her best, but the character is too one-dimensional, no human being is that singularly cruel.  Human beings are complex people, who don’t operate under one set of emotions.  Janney doesn’t get to show any different sides, because the character is written as a mean, spiteful vindictive person, all the time.  Paul Walter Hauser is very funny as Shawn Eckhardt, a man with delusions of being a spy, even though he lives with his parents.  Hauser has excellent timing and a deadpan delivery.

The direction is done much in a fake documentary style, with hand held-video-cam footage, which is meant to boost the humor, but doesn’t do much for the pacing.  The director tries to make the skating sequences more exciting, by zooming in for close-up shots, but how exciting is ice skating anyway? Not very.  There was also a lot of breaking down the fourth wall, or talking directly to the audience, a technique popularized by Woody Allen in his early comedies.  Again, this technique is good for the comedic elements of the movie, not so good for the dramatic elements.

I Tonya.  On thin ice.

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Atomic Blonde

In November 1989, in East Germany, a British agent with MI6, named James Gascione,(Sam Hargrave) is shot by KGB Agent Yuri Bakhtin. (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson)   Gascione, kept a list of allied spies in his watch and the list was stolen by Bakhtin.  Another MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, (Charlese Theron) is brought in to find the list and get out of East Germany alive.  She knew Gascione before he was killed and he told her there was a double agent working for the Soviets.  While trying to track down Bakhtin, she meets another British spy, David Percival (James McEvoy) who has an East German defector named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) with him. Spyglass says he has committed the names of the spies to memory.  The other secret agent is a French novice, Delphine Lasalle (Sophia Boutella) who Lorraine feels protective about. But in a place, where she can trust no one, and where someone is a double agent, can Lorraine afford to develop feelings for anyone?

Atomic Blonde is a standard issue spy movie, with all the elements of all the other spy movies, from Bond to Bourne.  There’s action, sex and even a double agent.  But there is too much violence, not just shooting, but fist fights so intense that the participants end up bloody beyond recognition.  If the difference is that Lorraine is a female spy, there is a vastly better female spy movie called Salt.  The difference is, with Bond and Bourne and Salt, the audience cares about what happens to their characters, Lorraine Broughton is written in such a hard-edged way that it was hard to care for her.  The identity double agent was obvious, and the ending was predictable.

The acting is mixed.  Charlize Theron continues to try to prove she can act and fails again.  She tries speaking with a British accent and it sounds like an odd mix of British and American, which is odd, because she’s South African. Theron apparently thinks that if there’s enough fight scenes in a movie, that’s a substitute for actual acting. This was a movie made for Angelina Jolie, but it seems like she’s been blacklisted.  James McEvoy, who is usually likable in his films, plays such a unlikable character in this movie, that means his acting was good, but it didn’t really matter, because it’s Charlize Theron’s movie.   Sophia Boutella is just eye candy for the men in the audience, and didn’t have much of a character to play. John Goodman is good, he plays a no-nonsense CIA agent.

Atomic Blonde seems to be a movie interested in style over substance.  The whole movie wants to convince the audience that it takes place in the 80’s.  The movie looks like a bad 80’s music video and there’s a soundtrack filled with 80’s songs.  In fact, sometimes the songs overpower the movie.  Sometimes, the visuals overpower the plot.  The sequencing of the movie is shot in such a way that it gives away the fate of the hero in a matter of minutes.  Why make a spy film and give away the main spy’s fate?  The pacing is slow, and the performances are mixed.

Atomic Blonde:  A bomb of nuclear proportions.

 

jesus christ superstar live

The musical tells the story of Jesus Christ, (John Legend) from shortly before Palm Sunday to his betrayal by Judas Iscariot (Brandon Victor Dixon) and denial by Peter. (Jason Tam) Jesus was eventually handed over to Caiaphas, (Norm Lewis) Pontius Pilate, (Ben Daniels)   and finally King Herod.(Alice Cooper The people who once showered him with Hosannas, now want to crucify him.  But what is Jesus’ crime?  And will Herod find him guilty?

There were two musicals about the life of Jesus from the 1970’s, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.  Jesus Christ Superstar is clearly the superior musical of the two.  The songs in Jesus Christ Superstar are clearly superior songs.  The songs, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice are still powerful and convey the passion story with great emotion and conviction.  One of the aspects of the songs that I didn’t like is the fact that it deemphasized the divinity of Jesus.  I suspect that that’s what made the songs popular in the 1970’s and now. The song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” continues the misconception that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, but it’s still a very well written song.  There are some songs like “What’s the Buzz” “Hosanna” and “The Last Supper”  that sound dated, but the music remained the same in this version and it still tells the story just as well as it did in 1970.The songs have to carry the story because there is very little dialogue.

John Legend stars as the titular character in the latest version of Jesus Christ Superstar, and he mostly does well, especially on the ballads where he adds touches of soul.  But Legend lacks the powerful voice necessary to carry off a song, like “The Temple” he really needed to scream in that song, but his voice is not a voice that lends itself to screaming.  Brandon Victor Dixon is very impressive as Judas, he seems to have the power to sing Judas’ songs, even though his voice falters at times.  It was a live performance.  Sarah Barelles does a decent job as Mary Magdalene, but not as good as Yvonne Elliman  Alice Cooper talks his way through his role as King Herod.

There shouldn’t be any controversy to casting a black man to play Jesus, but it is doubtless that some Christians will have a problem with this.  These Christians would seem to be more concerned with the messenger than the message.  In fact, this was a multiracial, multiethnic cast. The message of love, selflessness, fellowship and eschewing material well-being is universal, so why not have a multicultural cast embody that?  There is no better way to show the universality of these themes.

There is not much to directing this show, the staging is space, and so there’s not many elaborate set pieces to move into place.  The songs aren’t elaborately staged either, but everything goes off without a hitch.

Jesus Christ Superstar:  Can a Legend walk on water?  Almost.

 

 

victoria and abdul

In 1887, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) celebrated her Golden Jubilee, to commemorate the occasion, the royal family mints a mohur, or gold coin, and finds a Muslim clerk named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is chosen to present the mohur to Victoria.  Another Indian Muslim named Mohammad, (Abdeel  Akbar) goes with him.  At the Jubilee, Abdul causes a stir by making eye contact with the queen .  Later Abdul causes a bigger stir, by kissing Victoria’s feet.  Abdul Karim then gets a private audience with the Queen and recommends that he become her munshi, or teacher.  Abdul proceeds to teach her to speak and write in Urdu, the language of Muslims in India. Abdul tells the Queen that it was the Hindus that started a recent rebellion against the British, and Victoria is so taken with Abdul that she takes his word for everything he says.

The sudden closeness between Queen Victoria and Abdul doesn’t sit well with the rest of the royal family, especially Victoria’s son, Bertie. (Eddie Izzard) Bertie told Victoria that the Muslims sparked the 1857 mutiny against the British.  The revelation hurts Victoria to the core because she feels betrayed by Abdul, does she confront Abdul about what she finds out?

This is a woefully bad film, filled with gushy sentimentality, but absolutely no emotional intensity at all.  Abdul is portrayed as a sycophantic servant, bowing and scraping and even kissing her feet, which in real life would have got him shipped back to India in a box.  Victoria is first seen as on death’s door and then after one look at Abdul, she miraculously springs to life.  Victoria is written not as the prim and proper queen of history, but as part mother, part lover of Abdul.  This movie sometimes resembles British revisionist propaganda, because Abdul is completely subjugated and seemingly loving every minute of it.  Whatever the veracity of the story of the friendship of Victoria and Abdul, and there is really no objective way to know how close they were, it is undeniable that their relationship had no bearing on the relationship between their two countries, which continued to be one of colonizer and colonized for another 60 years.

The acting is subpar, Judi Dench who was nominated for an Oscar for this role, tries her best, but is vanquished by a confusing script, which makes her sickly to the point of having others clothe her in the beginning of this film, yet spry enough to dance in the middle of the film, not to mention her confusing relationship with Abdul.  Eddie Izzard gives a strong performance as Bertie, the power hungry ruthless future King Edward.  Izzard plays Bertie as a man with no conscience or empathy, it’s a great performance. Ali Fazal is terrible, he plays Abdul like a child trying to please his mother, that’s partially the script’s fault, but a more experienced actor would have added some nuance to the role.

Director Stephen Frears brings very little to this movie even though he is well-known for his period pieces like Dangerous Liaisons, and Elizabeth about Queen Elizabeth II.  Other than the pacing which is pretty good, the rest of the direction is unremarkable.  There is nothing visually arresting about this film, and he gets lackluster performances from most of the cast.

Victorian and Abdul:  Royal flush it in the toilet.

lady bird

Christine (Saoirise Ronan) is a rebellious high school senior who is dissatisfied with almost every aspect of her life, she thinks her hometown is boring, she doesn’t like going to Catholic school, hates being poor, she’s ashamed of her parents, and even is tired of her own name.  She wants to be known as Lady Bird.  She is adept at acting and singing and while trying out for a play, she meets and falls for Danny O’Neill. (Lucas Hedges) They  have a platonic relationship, until Lady Bird finds out something about Danny that makes a relationship with him impossible.  Before she can say heartbroken, Lady Bird meets Kyle  (Timothee Chalamet, a local guitarist.  After playing a prank on a nun in her school she befriends Jenna Walton, (Odaya Rush) a rich, superficial classmate.  With her new rich and popular friends, Lady Bird seems to forget her best friend in school, bubbly, perky Julie Steffans, (Beanie Feldstein) but that doesn’t seem to bother Lady Bird in the least.  More than anything else, she wants to leave Sacramento, and go to college on the East Coast.  Does she get her wish, to be admitted to an East Coast school, does she leave Julie in the rearview mirror as well?

This movie is terrible, mostly because of its trite, hackneyed, storyline.  Everything from the rebellious teen girl, trying to befriend the rich teens, bored with school, ashamed of her parents, trying to ditch her best friend, all these issues have been dealt with in every John Hughes movie ever made. Don’t be fooled by the indie panache, or the A-list cast, Lady Bird is Pretty in Pink.  The secondary characters aren’t even well developed, the viewer knows next to nothing about Julia, or Kyle, or Danny for that matter, these are single characteristic characters, without any depth to them.  And Lady Bird glides too easily from one relationship to another, when she’s done with Danny, Kyle is waiting for her, that’s not how teenage life works, nothing happens so quickly and effortlessly.   The ending betrays everything that the movie was trying to say in the first hour and 15 minutes, it’s disappointing,

Despite the cliché ridden script, the acting is very good. Saoirise Ronan is very good at doing an American accent, although she has trouble saying the word Sacramento.  She imbues her character with the mercurial emotions of a teen, volcanically angry one minute, deliriously happy the next. Laurie Metcalf is also very good as Marion, Lady Bird’s mother, who tries  discipline mixed with coddling, and she is flawed and human, and wonderful.  Metcalf lets the character’s humanity shine through. Tracy Letts is also very good as Larry, Lady Bird’s relentlessly good-hearted dad, who only wants to help his daughter.

The direction is not very good.  Greta Gerwig tries some funky camera angles, but it’s not a very visual movie.  The pacing lags at times, and despite good performances, she should and could have done more to move the story along. Lady Bird was nominated for 3 Oscars, it didn’t win any, I think Laurie Metcalf could have won, but Allison Janney beat her out.

Lady Bird:  Never really takes off.

darket hour

In May of 1940, England faced an existential crisis, posed by Adolph Hitler and his armies, which were rampaging through Europe with their Blitzkrieg, or lightning war campaign.  The British Parliament had a no confidence vote, and dismissed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) but they had no more faith in his replacement, Winston Churchill. (Gary Oldman)  Churchill faced a number of problems.  He had to form a coalition government with Chamberlain, and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who both wanted to negotiate with Hitler, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn)  preferred either Halifax, or Chamberlain to be PM.  To add to his worries, he had British troops in Calais and Dunkirk, and he couldn’t evacuate them because the British navy was bottled up by the German air force, and American help was not anywhere on the horizon, even though Churchill pleaded with Roosevelt (David Strathairn) for any help he could provide.  What does Churchill do?  Does he fight for England to remain free with whatever troops he had, or does he negotiate with the madman tyrant Hitler?

Any World War II movie is compelling, because this is probably the only time that one man came close to world domination. The narrative is especially urgent in Darkest Hour because in 1940 the desperation in England is palpable. The narrative loses a bit of urgency because some of the story is told through Churchill’s secretary’s perspective.  And one of the scenes is made up out of whole cloth, and that scene was completely unnecessary, so while the writer felt it necessary to add to a superb story, it is still a story worth telling.  Watch Dunkirk and Darkest Hour together, it’s a great double feature.

The acting is superb, Gary Oldman won an Oscar for this role and deserved it.  Oldman conveys both the confident public persona of Churchill, and the private doubts that England can help France, never mind defend themselves.  He portrays Churchill masterfully, and it’s not just the makeup, Oldman becomes Churchill.  Kristin Scott Thomas is comic relief as Clemmie, Churchill’s wife, who cheers on his victory, and gently chides him to stay strong while Prime Minister.  It’s a nice departure for Thomas, who usually plays very serious roles.  Ben Mendelsohn plays King George VI, very well, as a strong king with lots of resolve, deemphasizing the stutter, and emphasizing his role in Churchill’s eventual decision.  Lily James is very good as Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s secretary, playing both the light comedic scenes, but also the pathos that is eventually revealed in the character.

The direction,  by Joe Wright is very visual, and I like that.  There are shots zooming out from where Churchill is standing.  Parliament is visualized as a dark, dank, sinister place where backroom deals are made.  Before Churchill made a speech on the radio, he is bathed in the red light of the warning signal, making the speech look ominous.  The pacing is good, he gets good performances, this is great direction, from what could have been a pedestrian effort.

Oldman plays an old man to perfection.

 

Marshall

At the beginning of his legendary legal career, Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) worked as a lawyer for the NAACP, and took high profile cases to illustrate the organization’s continuing fight against racism. In 1940, Walter White, (Roger Guenveur Smith) Executive Secretary of the NAACP suggests a case where African American chauffer Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) is being accused of rape by his employer, wealthy Connecticut socialite, Eleanor Strubling. (Kate Hudson)  The defense is hamstrung almost immediately because Marshall is forced by Judge Foster (James Cromwell) to act as co-council with Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) because Marshall didn’t have a law license in Connecticut.  Spell proclaims that he never touched Eleanor, but his story has as many inconsistencies as hers does.  So who is telling the truth?

The most important decision the writers make is concentrate the story on one case argued by Marshall that focusses the viewer’s attention on both Marshall’s legal strategy, and the perniciousness of racism, even in the North.  Another important aspect that this movie illustrates is the economic consequences of a rape accusation.  Many black servants who had no connection to Joseph Spell, were fired because of the fear that this case created.  The only downside of the script is that it tends to subjugate co-council Friedman to emphasize Marshall’s genius, the writers didn’t have to do that, they were both able lawyers and should have been shown that way.  The story is a compelling one, and the script stays mostly true to the facts.

The acting is only so-so, and for this the casting is to blame.  Chadwick Boseman is great.  He plays the role with intensity, urgency, and gravitas.  He is building a nice career for himself.  Josh Gad is more a comedic actor in musicals like Frozen and Beauty and the Beast, and the way the role is written Friedman is treated like comedy relief, like Thurgood Marshal and Sam Friedman are in a buddy movie. Try as he might Gad can’t quite pull off the more serious aspects of the role.  Kate Hudson also goes through the motions as a snooty, upper class, society woman of means, but it feels so perfunctory, there’s no emotion in her performance, and so it’s hard to feel anything for her.  Sterling K. Brown, best known for his role in This is Us, lays on the poor black southern voice a little too thick, to the point of self-parody, it was not a good performance.

Reginald Hudlin was the director, he broke through in Hollywood shortly after Spike Lee, but there’s nothing visually notable about his direction here, he does keep the pacing going, and gets at least one strong performance from Chadwick Boseman, so it’s a better than average job of directing.  If he oversaw the casting, some of the blame for the miscasting falls on him as well.

Marshall:  Not just good, Thurgood.