Category: Film/TV reviews

I, Tonya (2017)

Image result for i tonya

A darkly comedic look at the rise and spectacular fall of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, who became notorious after associates of her and her ex-husband physically assaulted rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.

WARNING: SPOILERS THROUGHOUT

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) is a no-nonsense tomboy who has basically been figure skating since she could walk. Raised in poverty by her chain-smoking, abusive mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, Tonya shows herself to be a prodigy from a young age.

As a teenager, Tonya drops out of high school to pursue her passion full-time, but is continually dominated at every turn by LaVona. Tonya eventually gains some temporary freedom when she leaves home and moves in with her new boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). The two have a mercurial relationship and Jeff frequently abuses Tonya physically. LaVona ridicules Tonya for putting up with it. Tonya and Jeff eventually tie the knot, but have trouble making ends meet.

Image result for i tonya

Concurrently, Tonya becomes one of the best figure skaters in the world under the tutelage of coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) and later Dody Teachman (Bojana Novakovic). However, judges don’t particularly care for Tonya’s garish, handmade skating outfits or the fact that she skates to 80s glam rock instead of classical music like her contemporaries. Because of her lack of education and poor background, she quickly earns the nickname of “Trashy Tonya.” Nonetheless, she makes history in 1992 by becoming the first female skater to ever successfully complete two triple-axel jumps.

Image result for i tonya jeff gillooly

After a disappointing performance in the 1992 Winter Olympics, a discouraged Tonya fires her new coach, Dody Teachman, before hanging up her skates. She moves back in with Jeff after resuming their on-again, off-again relationship.

Eventually, Rawlinson contacts Tonya and convinces her to give skating another shot, with the 1994 Olympics only a year away. The premier skaters at that year’s Olympics will most likely be Tonya and her fellow American, Nancy Kerrigan. On the day of the Northwest Pacific Regional Skating Championships in November 1993, Tonya receives an anonymous death threat. Scared, she chooses not to compete, while Jeff seeks to get to the bottom of the matter.

 

Believing Kerrigan’s camp to be behind the threats, Jeff hires his friend, dim-witted Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), to send death threats by mail in retaliation. Fancying himself as Tonya’s bodyguard, Shawn hires two inept crooks to locate Kerrigan and attack her. The duo find Kerrigan in Detroit on January 6, 1994 and one of them whacks Kerrigan in the knee with a nightstick as she leaves the ice for the day.

The two goons are apprehended fairly quickly, as is Shawn, who is questioned by the FBI. Shawn points the finger at Jeff, claiming he was the mastermind of the operation. An enraged Jeff, who assumed Shawn would only send the death threat letters, confronts him. Meanwhile, Tonya qualifies for the Olympic team, but is horrified when Jeff tells her of what happened to Kerrigan, who has suffered a severe knee bruise and been eliminated from competition.

Realizing she could be found guilty by association, Tonya contacts the FBI and makes a confession, telling them that Jeff and Shawn were behind the attack. Jeff is arrested and later shown Tonya’s interview transcript. After posting bail, he rushes home and attacks Tonya, who escapes and leaves him for good. In response, Jeff implicates his ex-wife, saying she knew about the attack all along. Jeff, Shawn, and the two henchmen are all charged, but Tonya’s trial is postponed until after the 1994 Oympics.

Tonya finishes a disappointing eighth in the competition, while Kerrigan makes an amazing comeback and wins silver. Tonya avoids jail time, but the US Figure Skating Association bans her for life. Heartbroken, she begs the judge to give her jail time, but not to take away the one thing she knows how to do; the judge refuses and tells her his decision is final. Jeff, Shawn, and the two assailants all serve time in prison.

The film ends with a “where are they now” segment (more on that below in the Trivia section) and shows real life footage of Tonya Harding over the end credits.

Image result for i tonya cast

I, Tonya is a brutal, sharply funny take on a notorious event. The film is presented as a pseudo-documentary, interviewing the characters years after the fact, and freely admits that the events shown in the movie are based on “contradictory” and “true” interviews, implying that Tonya, her mother, Jeff, and others could all be unreliable narrators. This, strangely enough, allows I, Tonya to simultaneously keep its distances from the subject matter and also fully emerge itself in it. Director Craig Gillespie adopts an alternately serious and tongue-in-cheek tone for a film that was proclaimed as “the Goodfellas of figure skating.”

Screenwriter Steven Rogers became inspired to write the script after watching an ice skating documentary which mentioned Tonya Harding in passing. He arranged interviews with both her and Jeff Gillooly, both of whom remembered details of the scandal very differently. “I decided, ‘Well, that’s my way in,’ — to put everyone’s point of view out there and then let the audience decide,” said Rogers.

The attack on Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding’s subsequent fall from grace is indelibly imprinted on the minds of everyone who was there in the 90s. While it may not have been as explosive, infamous or memorable as the O.J. Simpson trial, it was a watershed moment in sporting history that still provokes debate to this day. Was Tonya really involved in the attack? Did she deserve to be banned for life? All this and more is presented.

This film really is extremely entertaining and consistently engaging, despite the fact that nearly every character is an unlikable prick (pardon my French). Allison Janney, as LaVona Harding, is only a tiny bit nicer than Satan himself, and she earned a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as well as a Golden Globe.

Margot Robbie is a revelation as Tonya Harding. Apart from the obvious physical resemblance, the Australian actress nails the essence of what made “Trashy Tonya” such a fish out of water. Edgy and brash, but also achingly sympathetic, Robbie’s performance received nominations at the Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG Awards and BAFTAs.

Despite the humor and general tongue-in-cheek tone, I, Tonya certainly has some eyebrow-raising moments, primarily some very colorful language and a few disturbing scenes of domestic abuse. I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone who is easily offended by either. Either way, I, Tonya is an entertaining and explosive film that features an all-around great cast and razor-sharp writing and directing.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Craig Gillespie
  • Written by Steven Rogers
  • Produced by Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie, Steven Rogers and Bryan Unkeless
  • Director of Photography — Nicolas Karakatsanis
  • Music by Peter Neshel
  • Editor — Tatiana S. Riegel
  • Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bojana Novakovic, Bobby Cannavale, Caitlin Carver, Ricky Russert, Anthony Reynolds
  • Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity

TRIVIA

  • Received three nominations at the 90th Academy Awards — Best Actress (Margot Robbie), Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney) and Best Editing (Tatiana S. Riegel).
  • Margot Robbie had no idea the screenplay was based on a true story until after she finished reading it. Prior to filming, she met with the real Tonya Harding at her Portland home. Sebastian Stan also met with the real-life Jeff Gillooly.
  • Allison Janney had actually trained to become a figure skater as a child growing up in Dayton, Ohio. She was forced to give it up at age 17 after accidentally walking through a glass door and severely injuring her leg. “I lost like three-quarters of my blood,” Janney remarked in a 2014 interview on Fresh Air. “I lost an artery and cut a tendon….I was in the hospital for like seven or eight weeks. I missed my first year of college.”
  • Director Craig Gillespie said he was attracted to the script because he thought it was a good opportunity to “revisit the story and make a commentary about how the media treats people.”
  • Rogers never had experience interviewing a real-life subject before the film. He initially called Tonya Harding’s agent to obtain the life rights to her story and interviewed her over two days in a Motel 6. When he finally tracked her down, he found her extremely forthcoming in the interviews. Harding admitted that she didn’t feel like she had anything to lose at that point.
  • Janney received 35 nominations for best supporting actress (or the equivalent). She won 20 awards out of 35.
  • Robbie suffered from a herniated disc in her neck throughout the filming process and had to have frequent MRIs to ensure it was safe for her to continue filming.
  • Sarah Kawahara was Robbie’s skating coach and choreographer. Ironically, she was also Nancy Kerrigan’s former coach.
  • Steven Rogers wrote the role of LaVona Golden specifically with Allison Janney in mind. The two are longtime friends, but had never gotten the chance to work together previously. Janney later commented that the role was one of the most challenging of her career.
  • Although Margot Robbie trained extensively for the role, she was not able to perform a triple axel, nor could a skating double be found to do so, as very few women figure skaters are able to perform the jump. The jump was created using visual effects.
  • Allison Janney filmed her scenes in only eight days.
  • Nancy Kerrigan never saw the film and has no plans to do so, stating in an interview “I already lived through that.”
  • Sebastian Stan has blue eyes, but wore brown contacts to match Jeff Gillooly’s real eye color.
  • Every hairstyle that Robbie wears in the film is a wig. The hair team used beer to achieve the desired permed look when regular hair products didn’t produce the desired result.
  • In reality, Margot Robbie is five inches taller than the real Tonya Harding, who is only 5’1″.
  • Nancy Kerrigan has admitted that she never received an official apology from Harding about the attack, and claimed that Harding had prior knowledge of it. The two agreed to a joint special report for Fox Sports ahead of the 1998 Olympics, which examined the incident and its aftermath on both women. In a 2014 interview with Bob Costas, Kerrigan also stated, “Whatever apology Tonya has given, I accept it. I’ve always wished her well. She has her own family, I have my family. It’s time to make that our focus and move on with our lives.”
  • Premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was runner-up for the People’s Choice Award.
  • In Harding’s 2008 memoir The Tonya Tapes, she claimed that she wanted to call the FBI to reveal what she knew before the attack, but Gillooly threatened to kill her if she did, even raping her at gunpoint. Gillooly called the allegations “utterly ridiculous” in an interview.
  • In another interview in 2013, Gillooly expressed regret for causing Harding’s downfall, saying that although he believes she is haunted by a guilty conscience, he hates that she is “remembered for what I talked her into doing.” “I’ve had it easy, compared to poor Tonya,” he told Deadspin, while again denying the gunpoint rape allegations. “She tends to be the butt of the joke. It’s kind of sad to me.” Gillooly also went on record as saying that he doesn’t begrudge his ex-wife for avoiding jail, and that his own punishment was just.
  • According to Allison Janney, the filmmakers attempted to track down LaVona Golden, but had no luck.
  • Shot in only 30 days, primarily in the Atlanta area.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

  • Tonya Harding pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy to hinder prosecution. In addition to her lifetime ban from figure skating, she was fined $100,000 and given three years’ probation and 500 hours of community service. She briefly had an amateur boxing career, but had to give it up due to asthma-related issues. In 1995, she married her second husband, Michael Smith, but they divorced only a year later. She married for the third time to Joe Price in 2010, and they have an eight-year-old son, Gordon. Harding has worked odd jobs as a welder, painter, deck builder and hardware sales clerk. In April 2018, she was featured on Dancing with the Stars. She now lives in Washington state.
  • Jeff Gillooly publicly apologized to both his ex-wife and Nancy Kerrigan and accepted a plea bargain deal. He was sentenced in July 1994 after pleading guilty to racketeering and later changed his name to Jeff Stone. He briefly owned a hair salon and resides in Washington state with his third wife and their two children.
  • LaVona Golden also lives in Washington state and has been estranged from her daughter for decades.
  • Shawn Eckhardt also pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and served a year in prison. The two assailants he hired, Derek Smith and Shane Stant, were convicted of conspiracy to commit second-degree assault. Upon his release, Eckhardt changed his name to Brian Sean Griffith. He founded a software company in 2001, which later went bankrupt, and later served three years’ probation for a misdemeanor assault charge. He died at the age of 40 in 2007.
  • Nancy Kerrigan retired from professional skating after the 1994 Olympics and later become an ice show performer. She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2004. Like Harding, she competed on Dancing with the Stars and also has a foundation which raises awareness and support for the vision-impaired (her mother is legally blind). Kerrigan is married with three kids and lives in the Boston area.
Advertisements

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Image result for bohemian rhapsody movie

The story of the legendary rock band Queen from their origins in the early 70s to the Live Aid concert in 1985, as well as an unusually deep look into the band’s lead singer, the iconic Freddie Mercury.

The year is 1970. Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara is an art school grad who works a monotonous job as a baggage handler at London’s Heathrow Airport. While hanging around the music scene in his neighborhood, Freddie takes a liking to a band called Smile, which features up-and-coming guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor. When Smile’s lead singer quits following a gig, Freddie offers his services. Surprised by his boldness, Taylor and May agree, and upon hiring bassist John Deacon, start calling themselves Queen. Around this time, Freddie develops a liking for fashion worker Mary Austin, who frequents the same clubs as him. Freddie also finds it difficult to explain his new life direction to his ultra-conservative Zoroastrian family and changes his name to Mercury as a way of concealing his exotic origins.

Image result for bohemian rhapsody movie

Queen soon develops a strong following on the pub circuit due to their unique, energetic blend of old school rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock, blues and arena rock, with Freddie as their charismatic front man. May, Taylor and Deacon, all highly-educated people, are continuously impressed with Freddie’s musical influences (although his chronic tardiness to rehearsals causes friction). After cutting a record deal with EMI and releasing their first album, Queen goes on a whirlwind tour of America. While still keeping in contact with Mary, the self-proclaimed love of his life, Freddie begins questioning his sexuality.

By 1975, Queen are becoming one of the most popular and acclaimed rock bands in the world, but Freddie isn’t satisfied. He wants their next album, A Night at the Opera, to be more ambitious and experimental, centered around the six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody.” After butting heads with EMI president Ray Foster over the song’s complexity and running time, Queen leaves the record label, taking managers Paul Prenter, John Reid and Jim “Miami” Beach with them. During this time, Paul makes a pass at Freddie, who spurns his advances.

Upon returning to England, the band is awash in the commercial success of A Night at the Opera, although “Bohemian Rhapsody” itself receives mixed reviews from critics. Mary confronts Freddie about his long absences and he eventually reveals that he’s bisexual. Emotionally conflicted, he tries to remain friends with her, but they begin to grow apart. Freddie and Paul eventually have a casual fling, while Taylor, May and Deacon begin to bicker with Freddie about the direction of their music. Despite this, Queen still has a long run of success with crowd-pleasing singles like “We Will Rock You”, “Somebody to Love” and “Another Ones Bites the Dust.”

After tensions with the band (and Reid’s tumultuous firing) make to difficult to continue, Freddie moves with Paul to Munich and informs the rest of the band that he wants to go solo. During this time, Mary gets engaged to someone else and Freddie becomes more and more emotionally withdrawn. However, a unique opportunity arises in 1985 with the Live Aid concert. The list of performers is staggeringly large and Queen have been written off as has-beens by many music critics, particularly in the US. However, the band wants Freddie to perform at the concert. Will he defy the odds, shrug off the naysayers and cement his place as a rock legend?

Image result for bohemian rhapsody movie

“I’m so powerful on stage that I seem to have created a monster. When I’m performing I’m an extrovert, yet inside I’m a completely different man.”

–Freddie Mercury (1946-1991)

If Bohemian Rhapsody does one thing well, it accomplishes all of the above quote: capturing the enigmatic Freddie Mercury as the absurdly talented musician that he was, while also showing his quiet, loner nature that made him such an intriguing and iconic figure. And the film also succeeds as a fairly by-the-book — albeit massively entertaining — retelling of the story of Queen itself.

Indeed, Queen’s legacy continues to be incredible a full 25-plus years after Mercury’s AIDS-related death in November 1991. “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” remain fixtures at football and soccer stadiums the world over. And you can venture into any pub in America and I can almost guarantee you you’ll find a group of drunken sorority girls trying to sing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

As for me, I’ve always adored Queen for their fun, creative and ambitious approach to classic rock. They’ve been one of my all-time favorite bands ever since I discovered them as a pre-teen, and I had honestly been waiting for this movie for years. Bohemian Rhapsody had a troubled production since being announced all the way back in 2010. At one point, Sacha Baron Cohen was cast as Freddie Mercury, although May and Taylor (who co-produced the film) eventually decided against it. Director Bryan Singer also didn’t get along with cast and crew and was replaced halfway through filming by Dexter Fletcher (although Singer got sole directorial credit in the end).

Image result for bohemian rhapsody movie

Despite all the well-documented production issues, I remained optimistic that Bohemian Rhapsody would be a smashing success, and to a large extent, I was right. The film, while receiving mixed reviews from critics, has beaten out Straight Outta Compton as the highest-grossing music biopic of all time, grossing over $550 million on a budget of $52 million.

Rami Malek is straight-up fantastic as Freddie Mercury. Not only does he have the exotic looks (as an Egyptian-American) to play the part, Malek also shows himself to have true leading man charisma. Freddie Mercury was such a complex person — his bandmates and managers recall a funny and charming guy who also experienced bouts of loneliness and had only a handful of other close friends. Freddie famously gave very few interviews and never talked about his personal life, his sexual orientation or his ethnic origins. The film does a very good job at showing Freddie’s complexities while also not oversimplifying them.

I should note that Bohemian Rhapsody does occasionally gloss over some notable moments in Freddie’s (and Queen’s) story and contains some historical inaccuracies, but dramatic license was generally needed in this film, just like any other biopic. It’s a two and a half hour movie, after all, although I do wonder which scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

Ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody is a highly entertaining film which shows the idiosyncrasies of a larger-than-life rockstar while also telling the compelling story of how Queen became the legends that they are.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Bryan Singer
  • Produced by Graham King and Jim Beach
  • Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
  • Story by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan
  • Director of Photography — Newton Thomas Siegel
  • Editor — John Ottman
  • Starring Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Joe Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Lucy Boynton, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker
  • Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language.

TRIVIA

  • Rami Malek worked extensively with choreographer Polly Bennett to perfect Freddie Mercury’s mannerisms and stage persona for the film.
  • After the unsuccessful previous castings of Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Whishaw, Malek sent a videotape of himself singing various Queen songs to Brian May and Roger Taylor. When he met them in person shortly thereafter, Malek discovered that May and Taylor hadn’t seen the video yet due to a downloading problem, so he got to see their real-time reactions to his performance. They were stunned and recommended Malek immediately.
  • Mike Myers, a huge fan of Queen, accepted the role of EMI executive Ray Foster without even reading the script. The character of Foster himself is fictional, but is largely based upon real EMI chief Roy Featherstone.
  • Sacha Baron Cohen left the project on good terms with the filmmakers. Both May and Taylor admitted in subsequent interviews that Baron Cohen wanted a grittier, R-rated look at Mercury, and wasn’t open to focusing on other members of Queen. While appreciating Baron Cohen’s enthusiasm for the film, both May and Taylor disagreed with his approach to the character. They also thought that Baron Cohen was so well-known as his erstwhile comedic characters that his presence would be a distraction.
  • The Rock in Rio concert was actually held in January 1985, not the late 70s, as the film suggests.
  • To help prepare for the role, Rami Malek studied Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie’s live performances, which were allegedly also an influence and inspiration for the real Freddie Mercury.
  • The band Smile, which May and Taylor were a part of before Queen, is portrayed early on in the film. The name came from Roger Taylor himself, who studied dentistry.
  • The formation of Queen was not as clean-cut as it was portrayed in the the movie. Freddie Mercury and Smile frontman Tim Staffell actually attended Ealing Art College together, where they studied graphic design. In reality, Mercury had his own band, Ibex, at the time as well, and when Staffell left Smile, Mercury jumped at the chance to start his own band with Taylor and May.
  • In real life, Queen was not a last-minute addition to Live Aid, although they did agree to take part without Jim Beach’s knowledge.
  • While not technically an inaccuracy, the film implies that John Reid got Queen its first American tour in the early 70s. However, he actually didn’t become the band’s full-time manager until 1975.
  • The film correctly shows all the band members as college grads. Freddie Mercury had a degree in graphic design, Brian May in astrophysics, John Deacon in electronics and Roger Taylor in dentistry. In real life, Mercury was always self-conscious that he didn’t have a prestigious degree like his bandmates.
  • Mercury did, in fact, write “Love of My Life” as a tribute to Mary Austin. Austin was at Mercury’s bedside when he passed away and he left her half of his estate. She once called Mercury “the most confident man I ever met.”
  • The movie shows Mercury meeting his future long-term boyfriend, Jim Hutton, after a party in which Hutton is a waiter. While the film correctly states that Hutton was a hair-dresser for many years, he and Mercury actually met at a gay club in London in 1985 and then began a relationship after a chance encounter about two years later. They remained together until Mercury’s death. Hutton later wrote a book about their relationship called Mercury and Me before passing away in 2010 due to lung cancer.
  • One definite accuracy in the film is the corrupting influence of Paul Prenter on Freddie. May, Taylor and Beach have all said in retrospect that they all felt Prenter was cramping their style, musically and otherwise, and blamed him for getting Mercury involved with drugs.
  • John Reid’s firing did not happen the way it’s shown in the movie. Both Jim Beach and the band agreed that they wanted to manage themselves. But Reid was also busy at the time managing Elton John, so he understood and there were minimal hard feelings involved.

 

Antichrist (2009)

chaos_reigns

Following the tragic accidental death of their toddler son, a man and woman retreat to their picturesque cabin in the woods, where disturbing visions and aberrant behavior take hold of them.

A unnamed married couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainesbourg) lose their toddler son after he falls out a balcony window to his death while the couple themselves are having sex. After collapsing at the funeral, the wife remains grief-stricken and disconsolate for months until her husband steps in. Skeptical of the psychiatric care his wife is receiving, the husband, a trained therapist, offers to take her to their secluded cabin in the Eden Forest  where they can get away from it all.

The husband believes that exposure therapy is the right tool to help his wife cope with their loss, and makes her face her biggest fears, including nature and the supernatural. His wife, a writer, had taken their son to the cabin the previous summer, where she had attempted to develop her new literary ideas, specifically about gynocide. Her husband finds some of her papers in the attic and is greatly disturbed by their illegibility and disturbing content. During their therapy sessions, the wife becomes more and more unhinged, showing abnormal behaviors and becoming increasingly aggressive when they have sex. Meanwhile, the husband starts having strange visions of the wildlife around them in the Eden Forest. Is it long-repressed grief? Supernatural occurrences? Or something even more sinister?

antichrist_lars_45

I’m gonna come right out and say it: this movie is batsh*t insane. And it’s hard to recommend. I can’t say I hate it, but I can’t say that I love it. It’s undeniably unsettling, messed up and difficult to watch. But it’s also darkly beautiful in parts and has valuable emotional and spiritual themes.

Are you confused yet?

To truly understand Antichrist, you must first understand its director: the acclaimed, controversial and intriguing Lars von Trier.

Von Trier has been a big deal in Europe for sometime now, regularly being a fixture at festivals like Cannes or the Venice International Film Festival. The 62-year-old Dane has a prolific filmography of arthouse films dating back to the late 80s. He’s very controversial at times and his films vary widely in subject matter and tone, unabashedly broaching topics such as religion, mental health, politics, suffering, mercy, and justice. Von Trier considers several of his films unofficial trilogies, but not in a narrative sense; i.e. they touch on similar themes and contain similar messages. Examples of this are his “Land of Opportunities” trilogy (DogvilleManderlay and the yet-to-be-released Wasington) and the “Depression” trilogy, which contains Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac.

In 1995, von Trier and fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterburg developed a grassroots auteur movement known as “Dogme 95” — which was an effort to return more power and artistic control to directors rather than studios. The movement eschewed special effects, green screens, or animations and preferred a nuts-and-bolts, experimental style of filmmaking with an emphasis on countercultural themes. While many of von Trier’s movies have not been critical or commercial successes here in the States, he’s worked with a wide variety of established A-listers, including Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Uma Thurman, Chloe Sevigny and the late John Hurt.

lars_von_trier_cannes_2011_crop

Born in the suburbs of Copenhagen, von Trier had a highly unusual childhood. Both of his parents were staunch communists and committed nudists and took him to nudist camps throughout his childhood. They did not discipline their children (viewing it as “reactionary”), refused to make any rules for their kids either, and were also militant atheists. Von Trier once remarked that his parents did not allow any room in the house for “feelings, religion or enjoyment.” When von Trier’s mother was on her death bed in 1989, she admitted that his father, Ulf Trier, was not his biological father, and that he was the result of an illicit affair she had with Fritz Hartmann, who was from a prominent family of German-speaking classical musicians and was a notable figure in the Danish resistance during WWII.

Von Trier has been open about his struggles with severe depression and bipolar disorder, both of which nearly caused him to quit filmmaking more than once. He’s not afraid to shock people, as evidenced by his now-infamous Nazi joke that got him banned from the Cannes Film Festival for a year. He’s been quoted as saying, “my films should be like having a stone stuck in your shoe.” He has complex views on politics and religion — despite being raised atheist, von Trier converted to Catholicism as an adult, although he later quipped that since Denmark is a very Protestant country, “perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen.”

Lots of his movies have controversial themes or explicit violence and sex, and Antichrist is no exception. Speaking of which, now that we (kind of) understand von Trier’s idiosyncrasies, let’s get back to analyzing the film itself.

Antichrist Movie

Antichrist is, technically speaking, an experimental horror flick, told in four separate chapters as well as an epilogue. I can honestly say that I’ve never been freaked out in the way I was when I watched this movie. It’s unsettling in such a unique way that it’s hard to describe. It’s highly disturbing and has some very graphic moments that I do think go too far sometimes. With all that said, the film has such a visceral and intense atmosphere to it and absorbs you in completely. Gainesbourg’s character is becoming so creepy and so deranged throughout the course of the film that it’s hard not to wonder if the forest has had a demonic or supernatural effect on her. In addition, the film’s technical elements are just superb, specifically cinematography and sound design.

I should clarify that Antichrist does a fairly good job at leaving things to the audience’s interpretation, but it’s also very clearly a kind of spiritual allegory. It poses the idea that the husband and wife are being driven mad by natural forces, asking the question, “what if Satan created the natural environment rather than God?” while also not being heavy-handed about it. Film scholar Magdalena Zolkos interprets Antichrist as an “origin story,” citing its unnamed characters and setting — a woods called Eden — as primary reasons.

I should also clarify that von Trier was dealing with some of the worst depression of his life during this time period; in fact, he wrote the majority of the script from his hospital bed after an unusually bad manic depressive episode. Von Trier later commented that it was both fun and cathartic to exorcise his inner demons by making a new film.

antichrist

Film critic Robert Sinnerbrink believes that Antichrist is an examination of how humans respond to psychological trauma and loss, comparing it to the other two films in the Depression Trilogy: “In each case, there is a central female protagonist whose melancholic responses to this central trauma open up a space of subjective but also aesthetic-expressive engagement. In Antichrist, it is evident in the woman’s intense anxiety and depressive withdrawal expressed through the neo-romantic landscape and supernaturalist elements of the forest to which she and her partner have retreated.”

Despite its creepy tone, I do believe that Antichrist is valuable viewing that improves after you watch it more than once, although I can’t say everyone will enjoy watching it more than once. As such, I feel like this review is a bit incomplete; I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but I also recognize that people will either love or hate the majority of von Trier’s filmography. As for me, I think Antichrist has some powerful emotional messages as well as some very disturbing ones, both of which are equally compelling. Judge as you will and check it out if you’d like.

Grade: B-

  • Written and directed by Lars von Trier
  • Produced by Meta Louise Foldager
  • Director of Photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
  • Music by Kristian Eidnes Andersen
  • Edited by Åsa Mossberg and Anders Refn
  • Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainesbourg, Storm Acheche Sahlstrøm

Note: this film did not receive a wide release in the US and therefore was not assigned a rating from the MPAA. For comparison, Antichrist was given a R rating in Canada and an 18 rating in the UK for sexual content and disturbing violence. 

Big Eyes (2014)

big_eyes

The true story of 1960s plagiarist Walter Keane, who manipulated his wife Margaret into passing off her popular paintings as his own work.

Single mother Margaret (Amy Adams) is starting life anew with her young daughter in 1950s San Francisco. A talented artist, Margaret’s simple-yet-evocative paintings of doe-eyed children gain notice in the Bay Area art community, but it’s not until she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) that her career begins to truly thrive. Charming, worldly and manipulative, Walter falls in love with Margaret and a quick wedding follows.

Walter thinks Margaret’s paintings can make a profit, to the dismay of local gallery owners and highbrow art critics, who view Margaret’s creations as cheap and kitschy. Walter believes that the paintings will be taken more seriously if he attaches his own name to them, and the timid Margaret refuses to object. Walter’s showmanship eventually earns them a small fortune and international fame, so Margaret — timid by nature — goes along with the ruse. The paintings gain serious popularity and begin to spread worldwide, even gaining the attention of art legends such as Andy Warhol.

When The New York Times and several other high-profile media outlets begin to probe into Walter’s past, Margaret becomes increasingly worried. Eventually, both husband and wife are forced to untangle the web of lies that they’ve created, and Margaret attempts to extricate herself from Walter’s control.

big-eyes-amy-adams-christoph-waltz-slice

Directed by the acclaimed Tim Burton, Big Eyes is an excellent film that shines light on a long-forgotten, controversial story. It also allows Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz (two of my favorite actors) show off their ludicrous amounts of talent. This film is extremely well acted and the cinematography is gorgeous. While Burton has been up-and-down in the 2010s, this is another very solid addition to his catalogue. The script was written by the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who previously wrote the script for Burton’s Ed Wood.

It took many years for the real-life Margaret Keane (now age 90) to agree for her unique life to be put on the big screen. Humble by nature, Margaret didn’t think of her story as anything special or “film-worthy”, but liked what Burton & Co. were willing to bring to the table story-wise and offered to make a brief cameo in the film. She also spent many hours with Amy Adams and the two became quite close during the filming process. After Big Eyes was released, Margaret’s paintings enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.

The story of Big Eyes captures a passive woman who eventually develops a strong sense of worth through her husband’s illegal machinations. The versatile Adams shines in yet another fantastic performance — one that won her a Golden Globe Award for best lead actress. Meanwhile, dual Oscar winner Christoph Waltz is superb as usual, using his characteristic charm to play a fraudster whose out-of-control ego led to his downfall. It’s an absolute treat to watch these two share the screen.

big-eyes-5

With all that said, the film does have a few flaws. I felt like some supporting characters in Big Eyes weren’t very well developed, and there are some occasional pacing issues here and there. I also felt like there were a couple of unrealistic moments in the latter half of the movie that may have been put in for dramatic effect. Ultimately, Big Eyes is a riveting, intriguing film that features stirring performances, gorgeous cinematography and sharp direction.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Tim Burton
  • Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Poltio, Terence Stamp, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur
  • Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
  • Produced by Tim Burton, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski and Lynette Howell
  • Director of Photography — Bruno Delbonnel
  • Music by Danny Elfman
  • Edited by J.C. Bond
  • Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.

TRIVIA

  • Tim Burton originally became interested in Margaret Keane’s paintings back in the 90s, when he commissioned her to do a portrait of his then-wife, Lisa Marie.
  • Burton’s first film not to be produced by Richard Zanuck, who passed away in 2012.
  • Amy Adams liked the script when it was offered to her, but she originally turned down the role of Margaret because the character lacked “a stronger sense of self”. After playing a more confident character in American Hustle, Adams felt she got a new perspective of Margaret Keane, and the character’s quiet dignity won her over. Coincidentally, Adams won Golden Globe Awards for both performances.
  • This is the first Burton film not to feature actors with whom he had previously worked. While Batman was the first Burton film to feature a recurring actor in a major role, his early films still featured recurring actors in minor parts.
  • Burton and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel originally wanted to shoot on 35MM film, but had to abandon the idea due to budget concerns.
  • The movie is Burton’s second biopic, after Ed Wood, which was also written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
  • Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson were considered for the role of Margaret, while Ryan Reynolds and Thomas Haden Church were once attached to play Walter.
  • The doe-eyed paintings that Margaret made were the primary inspiration for the popular children’s animated TV show The Powerpuff Girls.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

rji-vert-poster

An experienced lawyer struggles to transition to his new position after his longtime partner dies unexpectedly.

Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) is a veteran lawyer who primarily focuses on preparing briefs for civil rights cases. His longtime partner and mentor, William Jackson, is a respected figure among the black community in Los Angeles who has elevated the plea bargain deal to an art form. While naturally introverted and socially awkward, Israel has a brilliant legal mind and is well-regarded by his peers.

When Jackson passes away of a sudden heart attack, his firm goes bankrupt and Israel is forced to take a new job with an up-and-coming firm run by Jackson’s former assistant, George Pierce (Colin Farrell). While initially skeptical of Pierce’s motivations, Israel needs the money and Pierce believes that the veteran lawyer has the potential to make a real difference. Israel has a passion for authentic justice, but he doesn’t fit in well at the new firm, being viewed as a dinosaur by the other lawyers, and faces an uphill battle to prove himself in a new environment. However, Israel manages to take on a few cases that could dramatically influence the future of his career — perhaps sooner rather than later.

brody-roman-j-israel-esq

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an intriguing film. As usual, Washington is outstanding in the title role. It really is unlike any character he’s played before, and Washington earned his eighth career Oscar nomination off the strength of his performance.

However, the movie itself is a mixed bag. It doesn’t have a traditional me-against-the-world mentality that its plot might suggest, but it’s still fairly well-shot and well-written. Colin Farrell gives a solid performance as George Pierce, but his character is a little underdeveloped. The plot lacks depth overall, and I felt like some of the subplots were either resolved too quickly or didn’t really affect the rest of the story. Additionally, some viewers might not be compelled to watch a film in which Washington doesn’t play one of his usually charismatic roles.

The director/writer of the film, Dan Gilroy, is a veteran screenwriter who first began branching out into directing in with Nightcrawler, the 2014 thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal which I really enjoyed. Gilroy does a solid enough job with the material, but the unusual tone might not be good enough for hardcore fans of legal thrillers. Unfortunately, Roman J. Israel, Esq. doesn’t quite do enough in order to capitalize on yet another stellar performance from Washington.

Grade: C+

  • Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
  • Produced by Todd Black, Jennifer Fox and Denzel Washington
  • Director of Photography — Robert Elswit
  • Music by James Newton Howard
  • Edited by John Gilroy
  • Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren, Lynn Gravatt, Hugo Armstrong, Amari Cheatom, DeRon Horton, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, Niles Fitch
  • Rated PG-13 for language and some violence.

TRIVIA

  • Director Dan Gilroy decided to re-edit parts of the film after initial test screenings at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, resulting in the removal of 12 minutes of footage.
  • In the film, Israel has a noticeable gap between his front teeth. In reality, Denzel Washington had this gap filled when he was in high school, but chose to remove the dental caps for the filming.
  • Dan Gilroy’s second collaboration with DP Robert Elswit and editor John Gilroy (his twin brother). The trio all worked on Nightcrawler together.
  • In addition to the Academy Award for Best Actor, Washington was also nominated for the same category at the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and the NAACP Image Awards.
  • Washington’s nomination made Roman J. Israel, Esq. the only 2018 Oscar nominee for acting that was not also nominated for Best Picture simultaneously.

All the Money in the World (2017)

m-allthemoneyintheworld

Based on real-life events, this film chronicles the account of billionaire J. Paul Getty and his refusal to pay ransom money after his teenage grandson is kidnapped in Italy.

In 1973, American oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) is the wealthiest man in the world, occupying a sprawling estate in rural England and running a global empire bearing his family name. His 16-year-old grandson J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) — known as Paul to his friends — is kidnapped in Rome by Ndrangheta, the notorious mafia group.

Paul’s traumatized mother, Gail (Michelle Williams), appeals to her former father-in-law for help. It is revealed that she divorced Paul’s father due to his substance abuse problems, and rejected any alimony in order to get full custody; therefore, she has no means to pay the $17 million the mafia is requesting.

The billionaire Getty, known as a notorious miser, refuses to pay the ransom, arguing that doing so would make him appear weak and/or vulnerable, as well as potentially encourage copycat kidnappings of his other grandchildren. The media frenzy becomes increasingly intense, as they don’t know that Gail is unable to pay the money herself. This leads Getty to arrange for his advisor, former CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to further investigate the kidnapping and negotiate Paul’s release.

Meanwhile, Paul’s captors are surprisingly courteous towards him at first due to his quiet and passive nature, but as the weeks go on, they grow increasingly impatient and continue to demand the ransom money. With Getty still unflinching, it seems that it’s up to Chase and Gail to get creative — and fast.

all-the-money-in-the-world2

All the Money in the World is loosely adapted from John Pearson’s book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, published in 1995. The film, directed by legendary Ridley Scott, contains a footnote that some events in the movie were changed for dramatic purposes, as per usual with these types of films.

Scott had reportedly been interested in directing the project, as the script (written by David Scarpa) had been a hot commodity in Hollywood. “I just consumed it,” Scott said. “I knew about the kidnapping, but this story was very, very provocative….there are many facets of the man Getty that make him a really great study. There’s this great dynamic. It was like a play, and not a movie.”

The 80-year-old Scott shot the movie mostly in England and Italy during the summer of 2017. With an all-star cast of Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Williams and Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty, the movie was being pegged as a serious Oscar contender.

And then disaster struck.

As we’ve all heard by now, Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual assault by former teen idol Anthony Rapp when they did a show on Broadway together in 1986 (Rapp was 14 at the time). Shortly thereafter, a number of other male celebrities accused Spacey of similar misconduct.

Disgusted by the Spacey revelations, Scott immediately cancelled the movie’s pending premiere at AFI Fest and planned to reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes.

Scott’s producers — and the studio executives — thought he was nuts. After all, the film was already shot and edited, it had already started its Oscar marketing campaign, the movie’s premiere was less than a month away, and the trailer featuring Spacey had already been released.

Nevertheless, on November 8, Scott announced publicly that All the Money in the World would be reshooting all of Spacey’s scenes (a good chunk of the movie) and replacing him with Christopher Plummer, while still getting everything done in time for the film’s initial premiere, December 18th.

All of the reshoots were done in just over a week during the Thanksgiving holiday at a cost of $10 million. Coincidentally, Plummer had actually been Scott’s first choice for the role of Getty, so the venerable Canadian actor had little difficulty memorizing his lines and getting comfortable with the role.

allthemoneyintheworld1200

I really enjoyed this movie. While a bit long (two and a half hours), All the Money in the World features some incredible acting and cinematography. It’s an intense true story that highlights the desperation of a woman trying to find her son, while also showing what the film’s title itself — having all the money in the world — does to people.

All the Money in the World allows its entire cast to shine; I’ve long been fans of both Wahlberg and Williams. Wahlberg is a versatile actor who always brings a lot of depth and charisma to his roles, while I’ve always felt that Williams is seriously underrated, despite typically choosing very good scripts and working with many different directors. And quite frankly, Christopher Plummer is Christopher Plummer — an absolute legend — and he got an Oscar nomination out of it at the age of 88.

All of Scott’s movies are beautifully shot, and this is no exception. The use of music was also pretty solid and gave an otherwise slow-paced film a real sense of urgency and drive. I also thought that Charlie Plummer (no relation to Chris) gave an earnest and restrained performance as 16-year-old Paul Getty that felt both appropriate and believable.

Despite some minor flaws, I really enjoyed All the Money in the World and I have to give a serious hats-off to Ridley Scott for rescuing a film — and simultaneously, letting it reach a much higher level, when it could have been much easier to shelve the project altogether and forget about it.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Ridley Scott
  • Produced by Ridley Scott, Chris Clark, Quentin Curtis, Dan Friedkin, Mark Huffam, Bradley Thomas and Kevin J. Walsh
  • Written by David Scarpa
  • Based on the book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty by John Pearson
  • Director of Photography — Dariusz Wolski
  • Music by Daniel Pemberton
  • Edited by Claire Simpson
  • Starring Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Williams, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton, Andrew Buchan, Romain Duris, Marco Leonardi, Giuseppe Bonifati, Nicolas Vaporidis
  • Rated R for language, some violence, disturbing images and brief drug content.

TRIVIA

  • Plummer said that he was prepared to play J. Paul Getty on short notice because he had previously been considered for the role and had read the script. He had less than two weeks to memorize his lines, but did have the advantage of having met the real Getty in London at a couple of parties during the 60s.
  • Ridley Scott elected not to show Plummer any footage of Spacey in character, or even tell him how Spacey played the scenes. When finished, Scott found both performances to be quite different and equally effective in their own particular styles.
  • The film’s reshoots took eight days to film at a cost of $10 million.
  • Michelle Williams said that she would have been unable to promote the film if Kevin Spacey had stayed in it, because she felt so much sympathy for the people that he had hurt.
  • This was the second time Scott was faced with drastic re-shoots during his career. Previously, he almost had to abandon Gladiator due to the untimely death of Oliver Reed.
  • Scott said an interview that one of the more interesting aspects of the reshoots was the fact that Spacey played Getty as a more explicitly cold and unfeeling character, while Plummer’s take on the role showed both a warmer side to the billionaire and the same unflinching refusal to simply pay off his son’s kidnappers.
  • Scott has gone on record as saying that Spacey or his representatives had not contacted him since the news about Spacey’s history of sexual harassment came out, and added that he had no plans to ever release the footage with Spacey to any public viewing forum.
  • Mark Wahlberg had already lost 30 pounds for his next role when the reshoots happened; as such, his costumes had to be refitted.
  • Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman both turned down the role of Gail Getty before Michelle Williams was cast.
  • Although it is extremely rare, this was not the only time a major character had to be recast in a Hollywood film after the filming was almost or entirely completed. For instance, after more than half of the movie Solomon and Sheba was done, the film’s star Tyrone Power, who played Solomon, suddenly died and had to be replaced with Yul Brynner. All of his scenes were then re-shot. Also, Michael J. Fox had to replace Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in the first Back to the Future movie, even though at least one third of the movie was already completed with Stoltz in the role. In that instance, the filmmakers thought that Stoltz’s version of Marty was simply coming off as too serious.
  • Michelle Williams was paid over 1,000 times less than Mark Wahlberg for the reshoots. Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million, while Williams received just $1,000 for the week’s work. Many reports used this in order to highlight the perceived gender wage gap in Hollywood, neglecting to mention that Williams herself requested to go without the pay entirely, or that Wahlberg shot many more of the reshoot scenes with Plummer than she did.

 

Raw (2017)

raw_28film29

A first-year vet school student — despite being a lifelong vegetarian — develops a craving for human flesh after a series of bizarre hazing rituals.

Justine (Garance Marillier) is a young woman who has spent her entire life as a vegetarian. Her parents met at a veterinary medicine school and expect her to attend as well, just like her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Naturally reserved and mild-mannered, Justine is reluctant to enter the intense environment of vet school, but is soon forced to participate in various hazing rituals alongside fellow newcomers.

The first day of school, Justine and her incoming class are splattered with blood during their class photo and are forced to eat rabbit kidneys. Justine initially refuses, citing her vegetarianism, but Alexia goads her into it. That evening, Justine breaks out in a severe rash and goes to a doctor, who diagnoses it as food poisoning and prescribes a cream for it.

Justine soon begins craving meat, but feels ashamed and tries to confide in Alexia about her problem. As it turns out, both sisters are hiding dark secrets. In the midst of more partying and hazing, Justine becomes increasingly unstable, lashing out at both Alexia and her bisexual roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella). It seems like the sinister environment of the school is rubbing off on everyone….

raw-movie-eee1c409-b62c-4982-ae01-a31f7e751b1d

Raw is a nasty little shocker in the best sense of the phrase. Shot by a rookie director (Julia Ducorneau) on a minuscule budget of 3.5 million Euros, this French language film debuted at Cannes in May 2016, but didn’t get a theatrical release until March of last year.

In addition to being a fresh, original horror film, Raw is genuinely unsettling and creates an eerie atmosphere, particularly with its cinematography. While it’s clearly a low-budget endeavor, the acting and directing are overall very good. Ducorneau handles the provocative material effectively, knowing how to portray visceral shock value with artistic flare and symbolic moments. Only 34 years old, Ducorneau cut her teeth by writing and directing a couple of shorts, as well as serving as a script consultant on larger European productions. I think she has potential and I’m excited to see what she does next.

 

As mentioned previously, Raw was critically acclaimed at Cannes, as well as the Toronto International Film Festival and the London Film Festival, taking home the Sutherland Award (for most original debut feature) at the latter. Mark Kermode, the noted BBC film critic, went so far as to declare Raw the best film of 2017, while Rolling Stone‘s David Fear also raved about it.

While certainly not for everyone, Raw packs a punch and succeeds due to its eerie cinematography, immersive storytelling, and surefire originality.

Grade: B+

  • Written and directed by Julia Ducorneau
  • Produced by Jean de Forêts
  • Music by Jim Williams
  • Director of Photography — Ruben Impens
  • Editor — Jean-Christophe Bouzy
  • Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss
  • Rated R for for aberrant behavior, bloody and grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug use/partying

TRIVIA

  • Ducorneau really wanted Marillier to work on her body and posture. You can see a drastic change between the beginning and the end of the movie; Marillier’s posture changes as her character transforms.
  • At a screening at the Gothenburg Film Festival in Sweden, several audience members fainted and/or vomited.
  • Primarily shot in and around Liège, Belgium.
  • Halfway through the film, there’s an intense psychological scene in which the character of Justine goes through withdrawals. Ducorneau made Marillier watch a similar scene from Trainspotting in order to prepare herself for it.