Archive | 2017 RSS feed for this section

I, Tonya (2017)

6 Jan

There are competitive athletes. There are olympic athletes. And then there is Tonya Harding. The infamous American figure skater (played brilliantly by Margot Robbie) gets her own story in Craig Gillespie‘s explosive new film. Based on true events, the film follows Tonya as she first learns to skate and quickly becomes a project of sorts for her neglectful mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson). Shown with a real talent for moving on the ice, Tonya quickly moves up the ranks of early figure skaters – despite her aversion to “play the part” of a skating champion and dress or act like someone she is not. Eventually, Tonya falls in love with her abusive neighbor Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and the two quickly form a toxic, codependent relationship with one another.  This is where the film really kicks into high gear, and we see the couple spiral out control with drugs, booze, money – and eventually – federal crime.

I Tonya is delivered to us in a pseudo-documentary format with characters looking into the 90’s era VHS camcorder reliving certain events, as if they are testifying to authorities exactly how the story of Tonya went down. It’s a refreshingly Brechtian approach to the true-sports-story model, but at times it feels too jarring and uncomfortable. As if the docu-VHS bits weren’t enough –  in the dramatic scenes we occasionally see characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, ala House of Cards style.

This film is so loud (it’s no stretch of the mind to imagine every word of dialogue in Steven Roger’s script being in all caps) and constantly trying to outdo itself. I, Tonya seems to take place in a universe where its characters can’t go 5 minutes without throwing expletives (or sometimes sharp objects) at each other; characters on screen seem so bombastic and dramatic that after a while they begin to feel less like real people and more like characictures. You can’t help but wonder what this story would be had it been written with a bit more character nuance.

One of the great strengths of the film comes with it’s clever use of absurdist comedy. I, Tonya is painfully funny and even the dullest bits of melodrama get sewn in with a clever joke or two.  Compellingly crafted, the film seems designed to appeal directly to the ADD, short-attention-span viewer, and the ferocious editing job keeps the entire thing from spinning off the wheels. Again, I would have appreciated a bit more restraint with the storytelling, but the narrative never becomes dull or disinteresting; somehow the 2 hour runtime feels like minutes. Perhaps I, Tonya deserves some kind of medal for that.

Bottom Line: With an overdose of teenage vitriol, I, Tonya is a firecracker examination of class division and a metaphorical middle-finger towards the cultural ideal of American celebrity.

Rating: 6.9/10 

Film Recipe: Bernie + The Big Short + The Bronze


Molly’s Game (2017)

30 Dec

Entering the 2017 awards season landscape just in time this year comes the debut feature from renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.  Molly’s Game is based around the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former olympic athlete who enters the seductive and dramatic world of high-stakes poker. After dropping out of law school against her parent’s wishes, Molly moves out from her childhood home in Colorado to a small Los Angeles apartment for what she terms “a fresh start” and quickly gets a job hosting a few weekly poker games. What starts out as a side gig to help make rent quickly turns into a obsession for Molly as she discovers the secret to hosting a great poker game is to bring in the game’s most elite and richest players. This includes a variety of Hollywood stars, Silicon Valley CEO’s, Wall Street investors, and – eventually – the Russian mafia. Things get messy.

Sorkin’s film is presented in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards (often narrated by Bloom), allowing us to simultaneously see the events before and after her poker-hosting career.  The narrative cuts here are fast and ruthless, keeping pace with Sorkin’s signature style of fast-talking characters. This is used to achieve a dizzying and something jarring effect, but the film has a lot of fun in letting us know we are watching a movie about a story of a true story (Sorkin’s script is loosely based off Molly’s own book).  A writer known for his impressively glib dialogue, Sorkin’s directorial skills unsurprisingly bring a sense of glitz and gaudiness to the screen. Unfortunately, having such cynically facile storytelling in the film’s first half means that scenes in the latter parts of the film don’t quite have the emotional weight behind them that they should.  Two scenes in particular (one involving a violent criminal act and the other an intimate conversation) feel so artificially shoehorned in, complete with the expected melodramatic score sounding right on cue.  At a bloated 140 minutes, Molly’s Game doesn’t feel nearly as epic as it does exhausting.

Despite it’s setbacks, the film is still a really compelling watch. Narrative moments whiz by at a TV spot’s pace and Chastain’s confidence and resolve in her character keeps you glued to the screen. Equally as good is Idris Elba as her last-resort attorney (it’s not a Sorkin script without a good legal scene in there somewhere) and the two work magic together. It may lack the emotional sincerity of other films Sorkin has penned, but it runs just as smooth and flashy.

Bottom Line: Ferociously entertaining but ultimately shallow at points, Molly’s Game is a 2+ hour onslaught of witty, compelling, and silver-tongued moments glued together by top-notch editing and solid performances.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Film Recipie: The Big Short + A Few Good Men + Rounders


22 Dec

Another year, another list.

With the end of 2017 comes the close of another solid year in cinema. Here is a video counting down my personal favorites from the year:

A few observations:

  • Altogether I saw 92 “new” films this year (not including stuff I saw at Sundance that hasn’t been released yet or older stuff I discovered released from previous years).
  • I only saw 13 documentaries and 12 foreign-language films this year.
  • The actor to appear the most times across the board was Caleb Landry Jones who appeared in 3 movies (Macon Blair, Amanda Warren, Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and Kathryn Newton each appear in 2).
  • Of course, I didn’t get to see all I wanted to from this year e.g. Lost City of Z, Song to Song, Kong Skull Island, Downsizing, John Wick 2, Girls Trip, Battle of the Sexes, Spiderman Homecoming, Flag of Our Fathers, Lego Batman, A Fantastic Woman, Greatest Showman, Coco, Stronger, Darkest Hour, Murder on the Orient Express, and the documentaries Risk, Step, Jane, and Faces Places.
  • As far as distribution goes A24 had another stellar year with 6 entries cracking my top 25. Netflix and The Orchid each had 3 and Magnolia and Focus Features each had 2.
  • Including my honorable mentions, 10 films directed by women made the list this year – the idea of quality filmmaking being a boys-only club is total bullshit.
  • Only in 2017 can an Adam Sandler movie be good.



Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

25 Nov

Personal loss, justice, and forgiveness are central themes to the new film from Martin McDonaghThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriA tragic crime has occurred in this small rural town, and the seemingly apathetic job from law enforcement leaves Mildred (Frances McDormand) no choice but to buy out a series of billboards that specifically call out the local Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his lackadaisical approach. Of course, news travels fast in a small town like Ebbing, and soon the billboards are even being featured on late night news. This spawns a public rivalry of sorts between Willoughby and Mildred, one that soon spirals out of control and quickly consumes a colorful assortment of Ebbing citizens.

Martin McDonagh’s long awaited follow-up to Seven Psychopaths (2012) doesn’t quite hit the same absurdist notes its predecessor did, but it does supply us with an engaging story delivered through an awkward mix of tragic comedy and melodrama. McDonagh is a writer and director who takes great pleasure in manipulating his audiences; one minute we are feeling intimately sorry for a character, the next – they are blowing their own brains out. It’s in the same storytelling vein as someone like Tarantino or Kevin Smith, but delivered with such black comedic undertones that it both welcomely and uncomfortably upsets the narrative flow.  The emotional shapeshifting of a film like this provides us with a plot that is truly unpredictable while being a lot of gaudy fun.

Most of the characters we meet in Three Billboards are variations on well known tropes, with Mildred being the strong exception. McDormand is the obvious standout here, and her jaded ferocity shines through in every scene. Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is also wonderfully bleak, providing Hedges with another notable role under his young acting belt.

Things really become complicated in the film’s hasty last act. McDonagh is an accomplished writer, and though his characters never quite earn the moral sympathy we should be giving them, the story all comes together in a satisfying, singular way.

Bottom Line: Tonally inconsistent but always entertaining, McDonagh’s latest delivers his signature affinity for black comedy in an emotionally challenging but deeply uncomfortable manner. 

Rating: 7/10 

Film Recipie: A Serious Man + In Bruges + Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead 

Mother! (2017)

15 Sep

Move over Lars von Trier, there is a new provocateur in town.

Darren Aronofsky‘s latest film Mother makes a return to the psychological horror the director made a name of himself for with Black Swan, Piand most notably Requiem for a Dream.  Never one for subtlety, Aronofsky enters full-bore, envelope-pushing mode here and, in turn, creates one of the most ambitious and boldest films to be produced by a major studio this decade.

Playing the role of Mother and Him respectively, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are a seemingly happy couple living in a remote countryside house so he can focus on his poetry. From the film’s opening moments however, we realize that the couple isn’t quite as happy together as they ought to be. He has an empty frustration sustained from a lack of creative inspiration and Mother seems disillusioned and dissatisfied with the lack of romance in the relationship. This is where the mysterious doctor (Ed Harris, whose character is referred to simply as Man) makes an appearance and becomes the first in a series of unwelcome visitors.

The series of narrative events that follow seem to ping-pong between a haunted house mystery, domestic melodrama, psychological thriller, and allegorical horrorshow that escalates to madness as the film progresses. Aronofsky is a master at diving deep into the headspace of his characters (often with disturbingly nihilistic results) and we witness the chaotic events unfold from Mother’s point of view without missing a beat. Scenes are beautifully shot by frequent Aronofsky collaborator Matt Libatique and stitched together by editor Andrew Weisblum. The film seems to take on a time and space of its own making; events don’t necessarily flow from one to the next as much as they seem to be taking place all at once simultaneously – or perhaps not even occurring at all. It’s obvious that Aronofsky is trying to provoke the hell out of his audience, and he has a masterful knowledge of film language to do just that with tremendous effect. As with any great piece of cinema, every aspect of the frame and beyond works in conjunction with the whole of the story to accomplish a specific vision. Here, Aronofsky’s goal is to deliver a tour de force of Mother’s ever-changing perspective to the audience in a brazen, unrelinquished fashion.

Bottom Line: Mother! is an unflinching allegorical nightmare running on all cylinders and a masterful showcase for Aronofsky’s audacious and unapologetic vision.   

Rating: 9.6/10 

Film recipe: Dogville + Repulsion + copious amounts of chaos, nihilism, misogyny, and anxiety


Best of 2017 (So far)

27 Aug

Yes, I know it’s well past the halfway point of the year, but I’m lazy and have been splurging too much on TV instead of at the cinema so have patience with me. Looking back on the year we have seen a lot of good, bad, and ugly films hit theatres (looking at you, Emoji Movie) and so now it’s time to separate the wheat from the tares and give a rundown on what has stood out for me so far.  I’m not taking into account documentaries here – just narrative stuff and, as always, I’m counting anything that had a widespread theatrical release this year (so you might see some stuff leftover from late-2016 awards season):


10 –  Silence (Director: Martin Scorsese

Scorsese again brings his A-game to the table and creates a meditative, profoundly moving drama about the nature of faith. 7/10 


9 – Okja (Director: Bong Joon-Ho

Director Bong Joon-Ho puts a fresh spin on the human vs animal story trope and gets amazing performances from Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Seo Hyun-Ahn. 7/10 

8 – Raw (Director: Julia Ducournau)  

Blistering performances delicately combine with top-notch direction and impressive visuals to create a compelling and intimate take on teenage sexuality. Not for the faint of heart. 7/10 

7 – Wind River (Director: Taylor Sheridan)

A western thriller set deep within a Native American reservation, Wind River delivers the goods and once again proves Taylor Sheridan as one of the most powerful storytellers in the genre. 8/10 

6 – Free Fire (Director: Ben Wheatley

I haven’t had this much fun watching a shoot em’ up since I first saw the epic finale from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Director Ben Wheatley heats up the action gradually over the film’s run time, but the juicy dialogue and impressive action never take a backseat to the consistent suspense and well-timed bits of humor. 8/10 


5 – Get Out (Director: Jordan Peele) 

It would be so, easy for this film to go bad. Creating an original and genuinely spooky horror flick is tricky enough, but Jordan peele outdid himself with his directorial debut and dared to spice up the genre with just the right amount of nuanced racial satire. Looking forward to seeing what Peele does next.

4 – It Comes At Night (Director: Trey Edward Shults) 

Speaking of horror, nothing all year had quite the same terrifying effect on me as It Comes At Night. A post-apocalyptic psychological drama that seems deep into your skull with the help of it’s claustrophobic cinematography and eerie-but-subtle score. 8/10 

3 – I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (Director: Macon Blair

There are few things everyone can seem to agree on in 2017, but one of them is the notion that people are becoming less and less nice to each other. A genre-infused piece that shows Macon Blair’s inherent directorial sensibilities,  I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a deliciously clever and innovative take on the vigilante revenge story. It’s also incredibly suspenseful and drop-dead hilarious.

2 – The 4th (Director: Andre Hyland) 

Besides being the funniest movie of the year so far, The 4th might also be the most honest. Taking place over the course of 24 hours and shot on location in the streets of Los Angeles, the story unfolds around our hero Jamie as he tries to fight the increasingly unlucky happenstances around him in order to throw a cookout for Independence Day.  It’s also a brutal examination of the effects our modern passive-aggressive attitudes have on one another. 8/10

1 – Person to Person (Director: Dustin Guy Defa) 

An interconnecting film structured by many distinct stories and characters, Person to Person is reminiscent of great independent NYC films from the past while still containing a fresh spark of modernity that resonates long after the credits. play 8/10

Person to Person (Sundance 2017)

19 Aug

New York City has been an integral part of American cinema for decades. One only has to look through the films of Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch or Martin Scorsese to see how powerfully the historic and iconic city is put on display – sometimes even becoming a character within itself. In Dustin Guy Defa’s new film Person to  Person, the city provides a backdrop where a colorful bunch of characters are let loose. An impressive ensemble piece, we first are introduced to Bene (Benne Coopersmith), a music enthusiast and record collector who is tipped off to connect with someone selling a limited edition vinyl.  Then there is Wendy and Melanie (Tavi Gevinson and Olivia Luccardi respectively), a pair of high school girlfriends who talk about weather their romantic flirtations with men collide with their feminist ideals. Claire (Abbi Jacobson) and Phil (Micheal Cera) are a pair of journalists who are investigating what is either a murder or suicide, and then Ray (George Sample III) is suffering the repercussions of having just broken up with his girlfriend (the reasons being are too good to be spoiled here). There are an assortment of other characters as well who come and go, providing the narrative surprises that coalesce over a single day in the city.

Dustin Guy Defa has a real talent for dialogue, and the characters he creates all feel so fresh and genuine. Shot on stunning 16mm, Person to Person looks stunning, and paired with the groovy jazz and neo-soul soundtrack, the film feels like it was lifted straight out of 70’s television. Luckily, the film never leans too hard into nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, and the interconnected stories are interesting enough to keep us invested without the vintage aesthetic.

Seamlessly edited from one moment to the next, Dustin Guy Drefe creates the type of experience that seems directly aimed at anyone who has ever watched an older Woody Allen film and thought “man, they sure don’t make movies like this anymore.”  Well – now they do.

Bottom Line: Taking the form of a vintage love letter to New York City, Person to Person is a beautiful cinematic examination of the intricacies of various human relationships.

Rating: 7.7/10 

Film Recipe: Coffee and Cigarettes + Magnolia