GRINGO (2018)- Unfunny Comedy Can’t Generate Laughs


Gringo poster

GRINGO (2018) is one of the more unfunny comedies I’ve seen in a while.

Interesting, amiable, even amusing, but funny?  Nope.  And that’s just not a good sign for a comedy.

Harold (David Oyelowo) is an honest and rather naive businessman who finds himself in hot water in Mexico when his dishonest bosses Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) put him in harm’s way when they double cross a Mexican drug lord known as The Black Panther (Carlos Corona).  On top of this, Harold learns that his wife is having an affair with Richard, and she’s planning to leave him. Talk about having a bad day!

Sick of playing by the rules, Harold stages his own kidnapping, hoping to extort ransom money from Richard and Elaine. But Richard sends in his militarily trained brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to extract Harold from Mexico so he doesn’t have to pay the ransom money. Of course, the The Black Panther’s henchmen really are trying to kidnap Harold. And when Harold crosses paths with an American couple, Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend Miles (Harry Treadaway), who is involved with a drug deal of his own, things get even more complicated.

Complicated, but not funny.

I’m still in disbelief at how little laughter this movie generated.  I didn’t laugh once, and the audience I saw it with was as silent as if they were taking a nap. Perhaps they were.

First of all, this movie has a fantastic cast, and yet they are pretty much all wasted in a script that for a number of reasons can’t get a laugh to save its life.  GRINGO is marketed as a dark comedy, and that label is somewhat true.  The story is dark, but the tone is light. Screenwriters Anthony Tabakis and Matthew Stone tell a story that has the makings of a riotous comedy, but the jokes and situations fall short time and time again.

David Oyelowo’s Harold is a likable enough protagonist.  He’s definitely a sympathetic character who the audience will relate to and root for, but the situations he finds himself in never rise to the level of uproarious laughter.  His attempts at staging his own kidnapping, for instance, involve hiring a couple of locals to talk tough in the background while he’s on the phone with Richard. Not that comical. Sadly, nearly all of Oyelowo’s comedic scenes fall short. On the contrary, his best scenes are his serious ones, like when he laments to Sunny that the world is upside down as it rewards bad people and punishes the good, a conversation that actually rings true.

Oyelowo just starred in the less than stellar THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018), and he’s probably most known for his powerful performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in SELMA (2014). His role here as Harold is largely forgettable.

Both Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron play two of the more unlikable characters I’ve seen in a movie in a while. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not.  They’re just callous and mean. Plus they’re excluded from the main action in the story. Rather than being part of the storyline in Mexico with Harold, they spend most of their screen time in their offices speaking on the phone and to other characters.

Likewise, Sharlto Copley’s Mitch is yet another unfunny character.  He’s a former military assassin who’s now found religion, but even this twist adds nothing to the humor.

The Black Panther loves The Beatles, and he often kills his enemies based on their opinions of the Fab Four, but this running gag falls short, mostly because it’s not that funny to begin with. And hearing the name Black Panther did nothing but distract me throughout, as every time I heard it I found myself wishing I were in the next theater watching Marvel’s THE BLACK PANTHER (2018) again instead of this movie.

Amanda Seyfried plays it straight as Sunny, and she’s likable enough in this role, but sadly it’s a small role and not terribly important.  She’s a very talented actress and deserves better roles than this.

And Harry Treadaway, who played Victor Frankenstein on the TV show PENNY DREADFUL (2014-2016) looks completely out-of-place here as Sunny’s drug dealing boyfriend Miles.

GRINGO was directed by Nash Edgerton, Joel’s older brother, and he does an okay job. The biggest problem with the film is the script, but still there are some odd choices from the director’s chair.  There are a couple of scenes that end in odd places, like one between Elaine and fellow businessman Jerry (Alan Ruck) in a bar, where Jerry is hitting on her but she turns the tables on him in what looks like a potential hilarious moment but before it reaches this climax it just ends without the expected payoff.  Likewise, there are several scenes between Harold and Sunny where you expect more to happen but it doesn’t.

I certainly didn’t hate GRINGO.  I liked the character of Harold, and his plight in Mexico was fairly amusing, but it’s a story that ultimately plays like a light drama rather than a dark comedy.  The laughs just aren’t there.

As such, GRINGO is probably my least favorite film of 2018 so far.







RED SPARROW (2018) – Cold Spy Thriller Doesn’t Heat Up


red sparrow

RED SPARROW (2018) is as cold as a Russian winter.

And for a spy thriller that is about forced prostitution, murder, and espionage, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballet dancer who suffers a grisly injury while performing on stage which breaks her leg and ends her career.  Dominika’s uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a higher-up in the Russian Intelligence Agency, and he recruits his niece into the organization, promising her he will take care of her sick mother’s medical bills if she serves Russia as a spy. Ah, supporting the sick mother storyline!  Where have I heard that one before?  In fairness, the plot does take a more believable darker turn when good old Uncle Vanya basically threatens to kill Dominika if she doesn’t work for him.

So Dominika is enrolled in a spy training school which, as she puts it, is really a school for prostitutes, since the candidates are trained to use their bodies to get the information they need. The training includes constant humiliation and degradation. The spies who graduate from this school are referred to as “sparrows.”

Dominika is then sent into the field to make contact with an American C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who knows the identity of a Russian mole who is selling secrets to the Americans.  Dominika’s mission is to extract this information from Nash. Of course Nash being a veteran agent, is on to Dominika from the start, and he believes he can turn her to the American side.

Let the intrigue begin!  And that’s pretty much the plot of RED SPARROW.

In terms of story, RED SPARROW is as bare as an empty bird’s nest.  The main plot is pretty simplistic and not all that believable.  And the early segment involving Dominika’s humiliating training at the sparrow school is so emotionless I hardly cared. And that’s the biggest weakness of the screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews.  I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Dominika is a cold fish–obviously to survive her training she has to be— but the result is a robot-like character who I never warmed up to.

Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash is the more likeable character of the two, but he’s not the main focus here, nor do we ever learn all that much about him.

The dialogue is standard and doesn’t do the characters any favors as most of the folks in this story talk like robots.  Haythe also wrote the screenplay to the horror movie  A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a movie I liked much better than RED SPARROW.

The theme that nothing happens by accident is true here, but not because of a sense of fate, but rather because the characters in this tale don’t allow anything to happen by accident.  They force, coerce, and manipulate everything.

Director Francis Lawrence fares slightly better than his script.  The film looks sufficiently dark and distressing, and the several scenes of torture in this one make their mark— literally— but again, like the movie as a whole, emotions just aren’t all that prevalent. There are some decent fight scenes, but nothing like the ones in last year’s ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) starring Charlize Theron.

Lawrence directed the last three HUNGER GAMES movies, also starring Jennifer Lawrence, and that’s pretty much where this film falls in terms of quality and feel, on par with a HUNGER GAMES sequel, and that’s not a good thing. Plus, as a spy film, it does nothing to set itself apart from other films of its type.

Jennifer Lawrence, in spite of her considerable acting talent, delivers a one-note performance here as Dominika.  She’s cold and she’s tough, and that’s about it. Obviously, Dominika had to be this way to survive the training and her ensuing mission, and so on paper Lawrence is doing what she should be doing to capture her character’s persona. But there’s nothing beneath the surface here.  We know little about Dominika before her conversion into a red sparrow spy, nor does Lawrence give us any insight into what kind of person Dominika is, other than she’s relentlessly strong-willed and resilient. But you can say the same thing about both Wonder Woman and Frances McDormand’s character Mildred in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), two very different characters who we learn a lot about in their respective movies and so we understand where they are coming from and where they are going.  Such is not the case with Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika.

Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Nate Nash, although his character is also under-written, and so  not a lot is known about him either.

The film is peppered with a strong supporting cast which helps keep this film afloat.

Matthias Schoenaerts gives one of the best performances in the film as Dominika’s uncle Vanya. He makes Vanya cold, calculating, and heartless, which pretty much sums up the feel of the entire movie.

Veteran actress Charlotte Rampling plays the Matron, the no-nonsense woman in charge of training the candidates at the Sparrow school. Mary Louise Parker is memorable in a small role as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff of a prominent U.S. Senator who has secrets to sell.

Sakina Jaffrey and Bill Camp are memorable as Nash’s C.I.A. handlers, while Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons play top Russian intelligence officials.

And Sebastian Hulk makes for a frightening Russian torture artist who likes to peel the flesh off his victims. Slowly.

RED SPARROW has strong acting, tepid writing, and by the numbers direction. Combined with an overall emotionless feel, and a focused but uninspiring performance by Jennifer Lawrence, the result is a formulaic and often lackluster spy thriller.

Its frigid tale simply never heats up.



ANNIHILATION (2018) – Natalie Portman Leads All-Female Team in this Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Adventure


The all woman team in ANNIHILATION (2018)

While superhero movies have captured all the hype and box office receipts in recent years, science fiction films have quietly enjoyed a resurgence of their own. The last few years has seen a decent number of science fiction films landing at the cinema, most of them very good high quality affairs.

You can go ahead and add ANNIHILATION (2018) to that list.

ANNIHILATION was written and directed by Alex Garland, the man who also wrote and directed EX MACHINA (2014), one of those recent high quality science fiction flicks, a thought-provoking thriller about artificial intelligence.  Here in ANNIHILATION, Garland takes on a topic that is rather innovative and original.

In ANNIHILATION, biologist and college professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is dealing with the absence of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), an army officer who’s been missing in action for over a year. One night, Kane returns home, but he’s different, distant, but before Lena can find out why, Kane becomes violently ill.  She rushes him to the hospital, but before they can get there, the ambulance is intercepted by the military, and both Kane and Lena are extracted from the vehicle.

When Lena awakes, she finds herself being questioned by a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lena learns the truth of her husband’s mission, that he and his unit had been sent in to investigate a mysterious area called the “Shimmer.” Numerous parties had been sent in, and none had returned, until Kane.

When Lena learns that Dr. Ventress is leading an all female team— a scientific decision because so far the investigators had all been male and they had all failed— into the Shimmer, she decides to join them, believing she owes it to her husband to learn what happened to him and what exactly is going on inside the bizarre area.

The Shimmer began when an unknown object struck a lighthouse on the south coast of the United States, and afterwards the lighthouse began to emit an unusual aura which over the course of the year continued to grow, and Dr. Ventress predicts that unless it is stopped it will continue until it covers cities, states, and eventually, everywhere.  The Shimmer looks like a huge oily wall which distorts one’s vision, and so you can’t really see beyond it.  Those who have entered, have not returned, except, of course, for Kane.

When Lena and the all women team enter, they immediately realize that they have entered a place where the laws of nature have changed, and it’s up to them to find out how and why and to survive its hostile environment.

ANNIHILATION tells a fascinating tale that works on multiple levels. Sure, the thought-provoking science fiction ideas are there, in this case some innovative thinking involving refraction and DNA, but ANNIHILATION works even better as an adventure and a thriller.

There are some very exciting sequences here involving some frightening creatures which live inside the Shimmer, in particular an enormous crocodile and later an extremely intense sequence involving something that was once a bear. There are some definite edge-of-your seat moments in this one.

My favorite part though is the female cast.  It’s a fresh take on a science fiction adventure tale like this to have the main players all be women.

Natalie Portman leads the way with a strong performance as Lena. She gets to express two sides of this character.  There’s the cold, clinical biologist side, as she investigates the strange phenomena inside the Shimmer, and since Lena is ex-military, having spent several years in the army, we get to see her no-nonsense kick-ass side, as she takes on the formidable creatures inside this strange land.  Portman excels at both.

I like Portman a lot, and it was fun to see her in this action role after her meticulous performance as Jackie Kennedy in JACKIE (2016).

Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as Dr. Ventress.  As the leader of the group, she is as tough as nails in her determination to reach the lighthouse in the hope of resolving this dilemma. While Leigh has enjoyed a long career, she’s turned in some particularly impressive supporting performances of late, including memorable roles in GOOD TIME (2017) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

The other three women are also notable.  Tuva Novotny as Cass, Gina Rodriguez as Anya, and Tessa Thompson as Josie round out the cast in impressive fashion. Thompson was also excellent starring opposite Michael B. Jordan in CREED (2015).

And Oscar Isaac is effective as Kane, Lena’s husband who’s not quite the same once he comes home.  Isaac also starred in Alex Garland’s previous science fiction flick, EX MACHINA, and he’s known now for his recurring role as Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

ANNIHILATION is not perfect. It’s slow at times, more so during its third act.  Early on, when the audience is first learning about the Shimmer, the story is so engrossing that pacing is not a problem.  But once we start to get answers, things slow down a bit as the film moves towards its conclusion.

The CGI effects are uneven.  Some of the creatures look fearsome, while others look fake.

The story works if you don’t think about it a whole lot. I couldn’t help but think that if such an event were really happening, there’d be more of a military presence around the Shimmer.  We’re led to believe that there is, but it’s not something we see much of. In fact, we see hardly anyone other than Dr. Ventress and her team.

Still, I enjoyed the screenplay by director Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. The dialogue is strong and the concepts explored in the story rather fascinating.

And the film looks stunning. The mind-boggling world inside the Shimmer contains some memorable cinematic images.

The whole film has a sort of LOST (2004-2010) vibe to it, and if you mix in a little bit of ZOO (2015-2017) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (any version you’d like) you’ve got ANNIHILATION, a nice mix of edge-of-your-seat thrills and thought-provoking science fiction.

But its strongest attribute is its all-female team, which by far is the most refreshing part of this exciting fantasy adventure.



PHANTOM THREAD (2017) – Meticulous Period Piece Romance Tells Unusual Love Story


phantom thread poster

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) puts an exclamation point on the idea that you have to work hard to make a relationship last.

Make that two exclamation points.

In 1950s London, dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is at the top of the food chain for dressmakers.  He designs dresses for the most important people in England, from the wealthy to celebrities to royalty. They all come to the House of Woodcock for quality dresses. Reynolds is firmly set in his ways, loves his routine, and avoids all distractions in order to remain completely focused on his work.

He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who sees to it that his routine is not disturbed any way. He is also a confirmed bachelor, and we witness early on a scene over breakfast, where his current young girlfriend laments that she no longer has his attention.  He admits that she is right, and Cyril promptly dismisses the young woman to live somewhere else.  Thus is the daily life of Reynolds and Cyril.

But when Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) and brings her home, things are different. Alma is a strong-willed woman who, when inevitably asked by Cyril to leave, refuses. Alma loves Reynolds, she loves his work, and she’s not ready to leave him. And when she realizes the main problem with Reynolds is that he doesn’t need her, she takes it upon herself to remedy that situation.  She takes a drastic action, with the intention of seeing to it that when all is said and done, Reynolds will indeed need her, and she will be there for him.

And it works. But for how long?

PHANTOM THREAD is one strange love story. It takes several twists and turns where you’re simply not sure where the story is going to go, how certain characters are going to react, and in doing so it’ll make you uncomfortable as you are going along for the ride. But by the time it is over and you see how it ultimately turns out, you kinda nod your head and acknowledge “I kinda liked how that all turned out.”

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson sets the tone early on with meticulous scenes of Reynolds at work. The dressmaker is so focused on his craft watching him work is akin to watching an artist painting a portrait or a master chef in the kitchen. The attention to detail is second to none.

The entire film looks great, from the sets to the costumes, Anderson brings 1950s London to life.

But the strongest part of PHANTOM THREAD are the performances.

Daniel Day Lewis is masterful as Reynolds Woodcock. He brings this eccentric character to life, and better yet despite Reynolds being a complicated person, Lewis makes him someone who the audience understands.  You pretty much know throughout what Reynolds is thinking and feeling.

And while I also enjoyed Vicky Krieps as Alma, her take on the character is less clear, and this may be a fault of the writing more than Krieps’ acting,  because as Alma, she’s fantastic.  Alma is this quiet unassuming young woman who Reynolds meets waiting tables at a restaurant, and when she comes home with him, she seems to absolutely love him.  She’s also very strong-willed in her own quiet way, and as such, she is not intimated by Reynold’s eccentricities or Cyril’s cold orders.  She more than holds her own.

But what’s less clear is when things go south, and Alma decides it’s time for action, is she still in love with Reynolds, or is she fed up with him?  Now, the movie eventually makes this crystal clear, but for a time, her intentions are murky, and that’s because unlike Reynolds who the audience knows very well, Alma is less understood until later in the movie.

Lesley Manville is wonderful as the icy cold Cyril, and in Manville’s hands she’s more than simply a one note cold-hearted enabler of her brother.  She’s a three-dimensional character with her own thoughts and goals. In fact, one of the better sequences of the film comes when she admits to Reynolds that she’s “rather fond of Alma” and shortly thereafter shifts loyalties much to the surprise of her brother.

Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville have received Oscar nominations, Lewis for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, and Manville for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.  Both are deserving.

Paul Thomas Anderson has also been nominated for Best Director, and the film itself is up for Best Picture.

That being said,  I can’t say I really enjoyed PHANTOM THREAD all that much.  I loved the costumes, the cinematography, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ exquisite performance as Reynolds Woodcock. But the love story didn’t exactly work for me.

For a long time, close to two-thirds of this movie, while I knew where Reynolds was coming from, I was far less clear about Alma’s motives and intentions. Did she really love Reynolds? What would she do when he pushed her away like all his other girlfriends? These questions are not answered until late in the film, and when they are answered, the film is better for it, but as a result of this ambiguity the movie is rather uneven.

It’s also a rather bizarre love story.  If you have to go to the lengths which Alma does to get your lover to pay attention to you, is it really worth it? In this case, the answer seems to be yes, but it seems so far removed from reality that admittedly I had trouble completely buying into this plot point.

Also, for a love story, it’s not really that emotional of a movie.  In fact, it does a far better job of getting you to think than getting you to feel.  It’s the thinking person’s love story. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s the best formula for a movie romance.

At the end of the day, PHANTOM THREAD is a meticulously crafted period piece romance that also happens to be a very unusual love story. It leans heavily on Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant performance as Reynolds Woodcock, much more so than on Vicky Krieps’ Alma, the result being an uneven tale that gets better when it finally decides to let its audience into the minds of both its lead characters.




THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018) – Clint Eastwood’s Decision To Cast Real Life Heroes Ultimately Fails


1517 to Paris poster

There’s a reason movies employ professional actors.

In Clint Eastwood’s latest film, THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018), based on the true story of how three Americans thwarted a terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris, the iconic director made the curious decision to cast the three men who performed this act of heroism to play themselves in the movie.  And it was a decision that certainly caught my curiosity, as this unusual casting idea was the main reason I wanted to see this one.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the final ten minutes of the movie, where we witness the intense fight aboard the train, the lack of acting experience from the three leads really hurts as they simply can’t carry the story, even with its brief 94 minutes running time.

We meet the three principal characters right away- Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, and they tell us they have been best friends since middle school and that to understand their story they have to tell it from the beginning.  And so the story jumps back in time to show us how they met in middle school, and then it continues through their adult lives, leading all the way up to their fateful decision to take a road trip together through Europe, a trip that eventually led them to being on that train that day.

As you can see, the bulk of the movie is back story, and so to ask these three men to play themselves is asking a lot.  They never really seem comfortable with the whole thing until the climactic reenactment of the terrorist attack.

It’s a funny thing to say because after all, they’re playing themselves.  Who would know better what they thought and felt than them?  But that’s where things get interesting. See, this is a movie, an art form, and as such that’s why you need professional actors who make it their living to be able to convince an audience exactly what their characters are thinking and feeling.  Halfway through this movie, it dawned on me that these three guys were rather boring. Don’t get me wrong.  I liked these guys a lot, but I didn’t buy a ticket just to see three friends chat and re-enact their life stories.  I bought a ticket to a movie, which is not real life, and as such, has to work through the artists who make them to come off as more true than real life.  That’s not the case here.  These three gentleman, as likable as they are, simply don’t possess the charisma to carry a movie or to make it a convincing 94 minutes.

And there is more that is wrong with THE 15:17 TO PARIS.  The script by Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Jeffrey E. Stern is incredibly dull.  There’s just not much to this story of how these guys became friends.

That being said, the three boys who played Spencer, Alex, and Anthony when they were in middle school, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, and Paul-Mikel Williams were very good, and I really enjoyed watching them.  Their scenes worked.  Although the school they attended was horrible. If the boys’ school was as bad as it’s depicted in this movie, it’s one of the worst schools going.

Judy Greer plays Spencer’s mom Joyce, and she too is very good in the role of the single mom who struggles to raise her son on her own.

But the film never becomes truly watchable until its final reel.  The climactic scuffle on board the train is by far the best part of the movie.  Eastwood does a terrific job here, and it’s also the one sequence where the three real-life characters seem to come to life.

Is it enough to save the movie?  Not really.

It would have been a far more suspenseful film had it been all about the train ride and the subsequent attack, but that is clearly not Eastwood’s purpose here. His purpose, which is highly commendable even if the film doesn’t really work, is to honor and celebrate the heroism of these three men. I think it would have worked better had this been shot as a documentary, where the story could have been told through interviews and anecdotes rather than flat reenactments.

I also appreciated Eastwood’s decision to pretty much exclude the terrorist from this movie.  It’s clear that Eastwood is saying that this is not the terrorist’s story.  It’s the story of the three Americans.  As such, we barely see him until the end, and his face hardly at all.

On the other hand, the main theme here of one’s inevitable fate didn’t really work for me. The three friends constantly talk about the feeling that they were born for a singular purpose, which of course turns out to be their successful thwarting of a terrorist attack. But the screenplay hammers this point home nonstop, and the result is nothing more than stating the obvious.

Clint Eastwood made an intriguing decision to cast the real life heroes in his movie, THE 15:17 TO PARIS, but it’s a decision that ultimately doesn’t work, as these three young men simply can’t carry the movie on their backs.  The best part is the final ten minutes, which chronicles the actual terrorist attack, but what comes before this exciting finale is tedious and mundane.

You might want to skip THE 15:17 TO PARIS and take the next train instead.





I, TONYA (2017) Examines Assault On Truth As Well As On The Ice



The best part about I, TONYA (2017) is it takes a story we all think we know— Tonya Harding and the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan— and gives it depth and resonance, fleshing it out to the point where Harding is portrayed as a flawed sympathetic human being rather than just a stock villain and a punchline.

The script by Steven Rogers is exceptional.  It breaks the fourth wall as characters address the camera at opportune moments, and it makes full use of an interview style where characters have their say about events, often contradicting each other, and makes a concerted effort to— no pun intended— hammer out the truth.  In fact, truth is one of the central themes of the movie, which is exceedingly relevant today where basic truths and facts seem to be challenged every day, as things like “alternative facts” are rolled out by government leaders as if they are real and valid.

I, TONYA begins with Tonya Harding’s childhood.  She’s skating on the ice when she’s just three years-old, pushed by her demanding mother LaVona (Allison Janney, in a performance that is every bit as good as advertised).  We follow her as she grows up in poverty, a self-described “redneck,” and it’s as a teenager that Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets the man she will eventually marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

It’s a tough life for Tonya.  She’s constantly abused by her mother, both verbally and physically, as well as beaten by her husband, all the while thinking these actions towards her are her fault.  And she snarkily says at one point that Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and the world cried, yet she was hit nonstop her whole life and no one cared.

She faces similar obstacles on the ice.  She’s a phenomenal skater yet struggles to earn top scores from the judges, as they admit off the record that it’s not the skating but her persona.  Americans want their Olympic skaters to represent family, their county, and wholesomeness, and with her crass rough demeanor, Tonya espouses none of these things. Tonya responds that if someone gave her the money to buy her clothes she’d at least look the part, but since she can’t afford the expected wardrobe she has to make her own.

And when Tonya receives a death threat that leaves her shaken and unable to perform, it gives her husband Jeff the idea that if they did the same to Nancy Kerrigan, send her some threatening letters, for instance, that it might shake her enough to give Tonya a competitive edge, a misguided plot that leads to the infamous “incident” where a man smashes Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.

Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. It’s a spirited performance that has the desired effect of evoking sympathies for Harding.  We really get to see the kind of life that Harding grew up in, making her successes on the ice all the more impressive. We also see, at least according to the movie, that she really didn’t know what her husband and friends were truly up to, that she believed all they were going to do was simply send some threatening letters.

And at the end, at her sentencing, you can’t help but feel the injustice as the judge imposes a lifetime ban on Tonya from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.  As Harding points out, the men involved received short prison sentences, and she argues that she’d rather do prison time instead, but the judge is undeterred.  As we learn, her husband Jeff received an 18 month sentence, but only served eight months.  Tonya remains banned for life.

My favorite Margot Robbie performance remains Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) mainly because it was such an energetic and inspired performance that lifted that otherwise mediocre superhero movie to higher heights, but Robbie is every bit as good here as Tonya Harding.

The other impressive item about Robbie’s performance in I, TONYA is she did most of her own skating, as she trained extensively for the role.  Of course, she couldn’t do Tonya Harding’s signature move, the triple axel jump, which only a handful of skaters have ever been able to do.  In an interview, director Craig Gillespie explained that he learned there were only two skaters on the planet who could perform that stunt today and they were both training for the Olympics and were thus unavailable, so he had to resort to some CGI help to pull off the stunt in the film.

Sebastian Stan is also excellent as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly.  Like the other characters in the movie, he’s fleshed out and comes off as a real person.  He’s a rather unlikable fellow, and yet he’s not a one-sided cardboard cliche, as we catch glimpses of his humanity, as with a later admission that he knows that he was responsible for ruining Harding’s career, and it’s something he says with profound sadness.  Stan has been appearing in the Marvel superhero movies as Captain America’s troubled best buddy Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, and Stan’s work here in I, TONYA resonates much more than his work as Bucky.

Of course, the performance of the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona. It’s as good as advertised, perhaps better, and she definitely lives up to all the hype her performance is generating.  She makes LaVona absolutely relentless, from her first scene to her last.  She is a complete monster of a mother, and she’s one character you won’t feel much sympathy for.  But the amazing thing is in Janney’s hands this lack of sympathy doesn’t make LaVona any less real.  She’s also absolutely hilarious, her vulgar remarks producing loud laughter from the audience.  Janney has enjoyed a long and productive career.  I most remember her for her longtime role as C.J. Cregg on the TV show THE WEST WING (1999-2006).  Her role here is probably the best performance I’ve seen her give in a movie.

Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious as Jeff’s friend Shawn, the man who cluelessly orchestrates the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. Shawn lives in his own fantasy world, and the ease and confidence with which he believes his own lies, in all seriousness, frighteningly, reminded me of a certain President of the United States. The two sound eerily similar.

Julianne Nicholson adds respectability as Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson, the one person in the movie who consistently seemed to care for Tonya’s well-being, and not surprisingly, was often the person Tonya listened to the least.  And Bobby Cannavale is amusing as news host Martin Maddox, who through interviews, explains how the media of the time covered the story.  He also gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he says his show HARD COPY was the exploitative news program that the respected news outlets of the time condemned and then later became.

Director Craig Gillespie gets nearly everything right here with I, TONYA. He takes full advantage of the chatty, conversational style of the script.  The film is light and witty throughout, and the movie flies by, but make no mistake, in spite of the humor I, TONYA is no comedy.  Sure, there’s laughter, but it’s from things people say, and the conviction and honesty with which they say them.  But at its heart, I,TONYA is a sad, tragic story with no happy ending.

Gillespie also handles the skating scenes with relative ease which all look amazing and authentic.  Gillespie’s success here comes as no surprise.  I’ve been a fan of his relatively small body of work.  He previously directed THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated rescue drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck about a 1952 Coast Guard rescue that sadly flew under the radar that year with little hype or fanfare.  It’s an excellent movie. Gillespie also directed the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) which wasn’t half bad.

I, TONYA also has a rocking soundtrack which captures the period from Tonya’s teen years in the 80s to her competitive skating years in the early 90s.

I, TONYA tells a remarkable story in a way that enables its audience to understand the motivations of its principal players to the point where it’s not unusual for even the most despicable people to come off as sympathetic.  That’s clearly the case with Tonya Harding, a person who was vilified by the press based upon actions that were clearly horrific, but yet here she’s portrayed as a real person with a horrific upbringing that makes her success on the ice all the more impressive.  As to the “incident,” it still remains horrible, but how much of that horror was of Tonya Harding’s doing gets a fresh hard look in this movie.

On top of this, the film also tackles the broader theme of the truth, as multiple characters all have their version of the truth as to what really happened that day.  The theme fits in perfectly with events of today, where truth is being attacked on a daily basis by those who feel completely comfortable with their own version of the truth, expressing little regard for those with opposing views, often labeling those folks as “enemies of the state.”

It’s an assault that is far more disturbing than the attack portrayed in this movie.  In fact, you could make the argument that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan as portrayed in this movie is symbolic of what happens when people who make their own truths get carried away with their own fantasies.

People get hurt.








THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) – Exceptional Love Story Mired by Meandering Plot, Characters



I had heard and read very good things about THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), the new movie by writer/director Guillermo del Toro, and since the inspiration behind del Toro making this movie was CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), one of my all-time favorite horror movies, I was eager to see this one, and admittedly, I had high expectations for it.

Sadly, those expectations were not met.

THE SHAPE OF WATER tells a poignant love story.  Mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) makes the best of her uneventful life in 1962 Baltimore.  She enjoys a sweet friendship with her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a man struggling with his own aging process and who can’t hold a job, due as we learn later to a drinking problem, but he is tender and caring towards Elisa.  When she leaves her apartment, she’s off to work as a janitor at a secret government laboratory, where her friend and fellow cleaner Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) looks out for her.

When Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) he captured in the waters of South America and houses it in the part of the lab Elisa cleans, she finds herself instantly drawn to the creature and soon begins secretly meeting with it, as she quickly discovers that it is highly intelligent and can communicate with her.  Since both she and the creature are mute, they immediately bond with each other, so much so, that in the classic Beauty and the Beast tradition, they fall in love.

This creative love story is the main story told in THE SHAPE OF WATER, and it’s the one that works.  Everything about the relationship between Elisa and the creature worked for me, and it’s the best part of THE SHAPE OF WATER.  But it’s everything else about this movie, from its supporting characters to its subplots that I found seriously lacking, and as such, dragged this movie down several notches.

One of the reasons the love story works so well is the tender performance by Sally Hawkins as Elisa.  Even before she meets the creature, Elisa is a likable character, from the way she interacts with her friend Giles to the way she does her job.  And when she connects with the creature, it’s a natural connection since in spite of her bright disposition, she still feels alone, without someone to love.  More so, when suddenly the feelings between Elisa and the creature become deeper, I completely bought into the relationship, mostly because Sally Hawkins’ performance convinced me her feelings were genuine.

It’s an impressive performance by Hawkins, especially since she plays a character who cannot speak.  She is probably the most expressive of any character in the movie. She’s certainly the most memorable character, and her performance is the best part of the movie.

The other reason the love story works is the writing by screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. The idea of taking an amphibious/human hybrid creature and showing off its intelligent and emotional side rather than turning it into just another movie monster, is a good one and one that I applaud.  I enjoyed the Amphibian Man here, and I was completely into the love story between this creature and Elisa.  Both the concept and the writing was refreshing and thought-provoking. My only wish is that they would have taken it even further and allowed us to learn even more about this mysterious creature from the sea.

And the Amphibian Man looks cool as well.  However, as played by Doug Jones, I was certainly reminded of a very similar character Jones played in another Guillermo del Toro movie, Abe Sapien in HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008).  The Amphibian Man here is clearly reminiscent of Abe Sapien, and so as much as I liked his look, it’s not entirely original.

Jones makes his living playing creatures and aliens, as he also played The Bye Bye Man in the dreadful horror movie THE BYE BYE MAN (2017), as well as the ghoul in OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016), among others.  He currently stars as Saru in the latest Star Trek TV show, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), again hidden under extensive make-up.  Jones is fine as the Amphibian Man, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before.

But the rest of THE SHAPE OF WATER simply didn’t work for me.  Neither the rest of the characters or storylines drew me in.

Michael Shannon’s villain Colonel Richard Strickland is far too one-dimensional to be convincing.  He’s your standard military bad guy.  Even scences showing him at home with his wife and kids do nothing to lighten his Neegan-like portrayal of a vicious, close-minded bully.

Now, Richard Jenkins’ Giles was a character that I did like, but the story spends far too much time on his back story, when he’s simply not as integral to the main plot as Elisa. During the first half of the movie, a lot of time is spent on his visits to a diner, because he’s attracted to the young man working there, and we follow him as he tries to get his job back.  The point seems to be to show that like Elisa he’s a fellow outcast, but the story tends to meander off the main path and would have been better served to remain focused on Elisa and the creature. When the focus is on them, the movie is much more compelling.

Which brings me to the story. As much as liked the screenplay when it relayed the story of Elisa and the Amphibious Man, I found myself scratching my head about its other choices. The presence of Octavia Spencer in the role of Elisa’s friend Zelda immediately brought to mind Spencer’s work in THE HELP (2011) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two superior films which dealt with racism.

THE SHAPE OF WATER also plays the race card, but only superficially.  We see Octavia Spencer’s character dealing with it, and we also see a couple of other scenes showing prevalent racist attitudes in 1962.  The point again seems to be that the cruelty which villain Richard Strickland shows the Amphibian Man wasn’t specific to rare aquatic creatures but to fellow humanity.  But in this movie these scenes seem so out of place, I think mostly because one thing we do not see is Elisa’s reaction to them.  It’s not part of her story, here.

Likewise, since it’s the height of the Cold War, Soviet spies are actively trying to steal U.S. secrets and are very interested in stealing the Amphibian Man from the Americans, and so we are introduced to as it turns out a sympathetic Soviet scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who, like Elisa, finds himself wanting to help the creature rather than turn it over to his Soviet contacts.  But these scenes don’t really work either. Like the other subplots, they seem out of place and take away from the movie’s main focus, the love story.

I know this will sound like sacrilege to a lot of movie fans, but I’m not the biggest fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work.  I loved both his HELLBOY movies, but for me, that’s about it. Even his well-regarded PAN’S LABRYNTH (2006) didn’t do a whole lot for me. So, in a way, I’m not really surprised I didn’t love THE SHAPE OF WATER.  I’m just not a fan of the way del Toro tells a story.

That being said, the love story between Elisa and the Amphibian Man is touching and extremely well-done.  It’s everything else in this movie that doesn’t really work for me.

To make the love story here the centerpiece of the movie, the supporting characters and story should be built around this main story in order to support it, but that’s not what happens here. Instead, the other characters and storylines seem out of place and do nothing but distract from the main and much better love story in the film.

As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a mixed bag.

Its love story is exceptional. If only the rest of the movie had been the same.