Oscar Death Race: I, Tonya

Nominations: 3 (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Editing)

Seen Monday, February 12, 10:10pm, Gateway Film Center

ITonya

It would be impossible, for me at least, to discuss this movie without also discussing my feelings on The Incident, as the film says: the attack on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. They are inextricably linked — the film would not exist without the assault — and while I prefer to evaluate a piece of art strictly on its own merits, in this case it simply can’t be done. Not entirely.

For the record, I believe Tonya Harding was not explicitly involved in the planning or execution of the assault, but I also believe she was not so stupid as to be completely unaware of what was going on around her. She’s not the most refined individual, but she’s not completely obtuse. And you would have to be blind not to pick up on what idiot Jeff and his moron friends were up to. She’s also someone who, no doubt out of necessity and a survival instinct, tends to shift blame away from herself whenever possible. That said, I also believe Tonya Harding was dealt an incredibly raw deal, both before and after The Incident, by the U.S. Figure Skating Association and by the media at large (not to mention her wildly abrasive/abusive mother, local authorities, and society as a whole). I’m sympathetic to the bullshit she’s had to deal with, but I don’t excuse an inch of what happened to Kerrigan. Tonya still made choices, after all.

Incidentally, I also believe Nancy Kerrigan should be a lot more revered than she is. Girl got her knee bashed in and six weeks later went on to win a SILVER MEDAL AT THE OLYMPICS. I still can’t walk up or down stairs with confidence after falling and wrenching my knee three years ago. That chick is a beast.

And so we come to the movie, a twistedly funny, yet not comical, look at the key players in Tonya’s life. It dives right in to all the vulgarity and profanity that was common to Tonya and her community, but it does it with a wink. It acknowledges the sensationalism of it all, but it does so with the clear understanding that these characters are real people living real lives.

There’s a point at which Margot Robbie, as Tonya, mourns the moment she became a national punchline, but Robbie’s performance never treats her as one. She’s portrayed as a perhaps ridiculous person, yes, and one without tact or graciousness or the ability to navigate the extremely classist world of figure skating, but not as a caricature. It’s a performance that’s completely respectful of Tonya as a human being — not a hero or an anti-hero or a princess or a monster, but a person. A flawed, talented, unlucky, driven, combative, hardworking, insecure person with an amazing gift and the will to realize it.

Likewise, Allison Janney takes a role that could be straight-up villainous — that of Tonya’s bad-mouthing, hard-living, chain-smoking mother — and turns in a performance that is ugly and funny and regretful and not entirely unaware of who her daughter is or what she needs.

On a larger scale, the film subtly raises questions about class and gender in our society, about what qualities a young woman “should” have and about who is allowed to succeed. Being a young woman myself at the time, I was painfully aware of the lines being drawn between proper (Nancy) and trashy (Tonya), and how unfair it ultimately was to both of them. (As I said a few paragraphs earlier, Kerrigan was a BEAST — a ballsy, fearless competitor. She didn’t deserve to be painted as a delicate flower any more than Tonya deserved to be painted as rubbish.) It makes apparent the tangled webs that are abusive relationships, and it quietly indicts those who did nothing to save Tonya from hers.

On top of all that, it’s a REALLY enjoyable movie. I liked it a LOT, with Robbie and Janney turning in two of my favorite performances of the year. If not for some clunky CGI and some unsettling Bobby Cannavale tan-face, it might be vying for my favorite movie of the year, and with Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name in contention, that’s saying something.

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Oscar Death Race: Molly’s Game

Nominations: 1 (Best Adapted Screenplay)

Seen Sunday, February 11, 10:15pm, AMC Theaters

MollysGame

Jessica Chastain is electric. She is a blinding, powerful force on the screen. She grabs you instantly and she does not let go. Mostly. But we’ll get to that.

I really like poker. I started playing in 2005, and while I no longer get to it as much as I used to, or as much as I would like, I have a permanent affinity for it — an eye and ear for the game. And Molly Bloom, the subject of this film, is a legitimate poker legend. Not for playing the games, but for hosting them. Unbelievably high stakes games, played by the biggest stars and the richest guys (it’s usually guys) in the world.

So the subject and the lead actress playing her had my full and undivided attention right away. That may be why I afford it the leeway I do, despite some cringe-inducing script elements.

Aaron Sorkin has built a lot of goodwill for himself over the years, with writing and projects that are some of the best in entertainment. Like they did with early Tarantino, it makes sense that the Academy would single him out for his work here. But you know what you’re getting with Sorkin, and while some of it is undeniably great, he has a regular habit of proselytizing. Couple that with his weird insistence on metaphorically hand-holding (and often chastising) his women characters, and he can sabotage his work before he even gets through the door.

The character of Molly Bloom is a force of nature, with unflinching confidence and drive. She does not suffer fools, she does not simper or whine, and she doesn’t make apologies for who she is or what she does. Why, then, does Sorkin require her attorney (Idris Elba, yes please) to make this dramatic savior speech on her behalf? And why does it all come down to freaking Daddy Issues? I haven’t read the real Molly’s book that Sorkin adapted the screenplay from, but come on. The movie is a solid two hours of character Molly kicking ass and taking names — even in the midst of federal indictment she doesn’t cower once — but Mr. Lawyer makes a speech and then she has to have the Ice Skate of Frustration before her father shows up out of nowhere to scold her for not realizing she’s always wanted to punish him? Please excuse my eye-roll.

This was two hours of a movie I really enjoyed, and then twenty minutes of a sort of idiotic fizzle of an ending that I audibly scoffed at in the theater. But Jessica Chastain is electric.

Oscar Frontloading: The Disaster Artist

Nominations: 1 (Best Adapted Screenplay)

DisasterArtist

This is a tough one. I saw this a couple months back, before the Golden Globes, before the Time’s Up pins, before the allegations about James Franco’s disturbing behavior toward women. Back then it was in the thick of the race, with talk of nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor at a minimum. And really, it deserved it. Despite all my (many, many) misgivings about a film goofing on another film — famous for being terrible, by the way — made by a couple of notorious goofs in the Franco brothers, one of whom is playing the very bizarre and mysterious Tommy Wiseau, The Disaster Artist is fantastic. It’s funny and breezy without being disdainful. It lovingly embraces the enigmatic Wiseau and his numerous oddities and makes him a lovable inspiration, champion of following your dreams. And really, that’s the greater film’s message; The Disaster Artist wants you to know that even if you make something terrible, even if it doesn’t work at all, the important part is putting yourself out there and creating something. The quality of what you create is all a matter of perspective anyway.

It’s a great message, and a really wonderful film. And perhaps if everyone had found out James Franco was a creep at some other point in time, it wouldn’t have made a difference. Lord knows countless men before him have been lauded and revered despite all sorts of revelations about them ranging from the inappropriate to the criminal. But this came out at the exact time Oscar voters were filling out nomination ballots, and it clearly colored their feelings. It’s unfortunate, to me, that fewer people will see the film as a result of this exclusion, but if James Franco hadn’t been an asshole it wouldn’t have been an issue at all. Sometimes things just come back to bite you.

Oscar Death Race: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Nominations: 1 (Best Documentary Feature)

Seen Saturday, February 10, 4:00am, VOD

AbacusSEtJ

Similarly to Strong Island, this documentary features a personal family story (though in this case the filmmakers weren’t also the subjects) of what seems to be a failure of the American justice system.

Abacus is the name of a small, family run bank in Chinatown in New York City — the only bank in the country to be prosecuted for activities leading to the financial crisis of 2008. (The title is the clever inverse of the oft-repeated phrase of the time “too big to fail.”) While the family in question is ultimately exonerated of wrongdoing — a matter of record that the prosecuting attorney still stubbornly refuses to acknowledge on camera — it’s the prosecution itself that is presented as a miscarriage of justice.

On the one hand, it does feel frustrating that so many banks got away with predatory behavior on such a large-scale, but the fact that major perpetrators like Chase and Citibank got off with fines and received billions in government bailout dollars while members of this local community institution are hauled into jail literally in chains is shocking in its inconsistency. (That’s not to say Abacus even committed the acts it was accused of; it’s presented that whatever fraud that was committed was done at the hands of individuals — one of which was convicted and served time — without the knowledge of the owners, a theory backed up by their firing of said individual and reporting the malfeasance according to protocol the moment they learned of it.)

The film is fascinating in its simplicity. This is a normal American family, in love with It’s A Wonderful Life and interested in serving their community and it feels irrationally unfair that they should be put through a years-long trial. At the same time, it’s understandable, for example, the opinion of one of the featured jurors, who feels there must have been at least some level of wrongdoing at the upper echelon of the bank and some sort of restitution needs to be made for that.

On the other hand, the overtly snide attitudes of prosecutors (including New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance), in addition to certain aspects of the prosecution itself, reeks of — if not racial bias — a certain racial injustice that targets minority, immigrant communities for not conforming to a more homogenized, white-washed sensibility.

It’s a film that has a clear opinion but still manages to exist in gray areas, an accomplishment of delicate balance and precision I really appreciated. It may not have the emotional punch of some of the other entries, but it’s clear why it’s nominated.

Oscar Frontloading: Coco

Nominations: 2 (Best Animated Feature, Best Original Song)

Coco

My husband and I took our five-year-old to this on Black Friday, just a day or two after it came out. There’s always a lot of anticipation for Pixar movies, but this one, I think, exceeded all expectations.

Coco is phenomenal. From the breathtaking scenery, to the lovely embrace of Mexican culture, to the songs that were instantly memorable and touching, it does literally everything right. The story takes a familiar theme (wanting to follow a dream your family doesn’t support) and magnifies it with ancestral lore, a cowardly betrayal, and a desperate quest from the afterlife. The art, meanwhile, is beautifully rendered in both the realms of the living and the dead, featuring indelible, unforgettable images. And the key to the whole thing is in the title, as Mama Coco, the elderly great-grandmother of central character Miguel, holds the answers.

“Remember Me,” the nominated song from the film, is definitely the best, and by the third or fourth time you hear it in the movie, my daughter was already out of her seat singing along. It has some steep competition — the Academy loves honoring a legitimate music star like Mary J. Blige, and the song from The Greatest Showman has already been appropriated as an anthem of the Winter Olympics, in addition to being a top download on digital music services — but I think it’s got a great chance to win.

I’d say Coco is the odds-on favorite for its big prize as well.

Oscar Death Race: The Square

Nominations: 1 (Best Foreign Language Film)

Seen Wednesday, February 7, 4:00pm, Gateway Film Center

Square

I am fully convinced this movie is so bizarre it tricked voters into thinking it was profound. It revels in the uncomfortable and the surreal. It sneers — mockingly, derisively — at the entire concept of modern art, at so-called political correctness, at anyone and everyone. The movie has zero regard for your lifestyle, whatever it is.

It feels like it wants to say something significant in a wry, snide way, but it’s too enamored with its own supposed cleverness to accomplish its goal. It’s paced horribly, it builds to no conclusion, and its central character is self-centered and asinine even when he’s trying to be inclusive and open-minded, essentially failing to travel any sort of narrative character arc.

So based on my utter disdain for this interminably long, irritating film, it’ll probably win.

Oscar Death Race: Faces Places

Nominations: 1 (Best Documentary Feature)

Seen Tuesday, February 6, 4:50pm, Gateway Film Center

FacesPlaces

This film is thoroughly delightful. It’s essentially an art project, a collaboration between famous French photographer of the ’60s, Agnes Varda, and famous French photographer of the now, JR, as they travel the (French) countryside meeting people, learning their stories, and taking their pictures.

The duo are adorably charming together, so much so that I walked out of the theater wishing some studio big wig would book them for a six-picture deal. They understand each other, respect each other, and truly enjoy each other. They share an unfettered whimsy, but also a keen artistic sensibility and eye for images.

There’s such a beauty to their appreciation of faces, of the stories within them. And it’s clearly a sincere appreciation, too, borne out of an honest interest in different lives. They see people, in all their complexity, and they value them. It comes so strongly through them and through their work that I felt a great desire, as a woman who has shied from cameras ever since she gained body insecurity, to have my picture taken by them, to see is plastered on a building and viewed as a work of art. I think they could make anyone see the beauty in themselves. That’s a powerful gift.

There’s a lovely sentiment, early in the film, when Agnes says she loves meeting people and taking their pictures so the memories of them won’t fall out of her head. It made me want to take more pictures, to appreciate and savor my surroundings more. It made me want to be Agnes Varda when I grow up. At the very least, I’m now her fan.

And JR’s too, even if he doesn’t want anyone to know who he is.

Oscar Death Race: The Breadwinner

Nominations: 1 (Best Animated Feature)

Seen Monday, February 5, 2:30pm, Gateway Film Center

Breadwinner

The Breadwinner falls somewhere in between the traditional children’s fare animated movie and the more adult-themed films like Loving Vincent. It tells the story of a child, of several children actually, who like to play and tell stories and wear pretty dresses, but they are living in untenable circumstances, built by and for the corrupt and dangerous men that surround them. (Within the current feminist movement, it’s also a stark example of the many mundane, tedious ways women can be terrorized by men — written and directed, it must be noted, by several women.)

It takes place in Kabul, Afghanistan, after the Taliban has taken control, just before the U.S. goes to war against them. It’s a charged atmosphere, but the film is more concerned with the impact of those vulnerable Afghanis most likely to be hurt by both sides — children, mothers, and fathers who want to live peacefully, reading and writing and teaching, earning money to support their households. It’s social commentary on both a micro and macro scale which, combined with the beautiful artwork and the driving motivation of the central character, fuels a story that is gripping and heartbreaking and powerful all at once.

Props as well to wonderful female characters, from the girl at the center to her cowed mother who finds courage when she needs it most. It’s a lovely film.

Oscar Frontloading: Boss Baby

Nominations: 1 (Best Animated Feature)

BossBaby

I’ll admit, the only reason I saw this one before the nominations came out is that I have a five-year-old and I picked it up on Redbox. However, I’m grateful I saw it before because that saves me from having to see it now.

In truth, it’s not as bad as all that. It’s not nearly as bad as I feared it would be. I mean, it’s not great, and the logic is still a little muddled even after you watch the whole thing, but it had some sweet and funny parts that we enjoyed.

Regardless, it’s not anywhere near the league as the other three contenders I’ve already seen, which makes the obligatory five slots seem needlessly arbitrary.

Oscar Death Race: Ferdinand

Nominations: 1 (Best Animated Feature)

Seen Sunday, February 4, 12:45pm, AMC Theaters

Ferdinand

This was very cute.

Adapted from the classic children’s book, Ferdinand the bull is still not interested in fighting. He still would rather smell the flowers. But as a movie his story grows to include a loving family of flower growers, a daring rescue, a subversive commentary on the cruelty of bullfighting, and a triumphant denial of violence.

There’s also a therapy goat, some vain German (?) horses, and a quartet of pilfering hedgehogs who’ve lost one of their number.

It’s a little bit madcap, and very silly in parts, but it made me laugh a lot, and I enjoyed it. Kate McKinnon is an honest-to-god national treasure, and John Cena is on his way to joining The Rock as another former wrestling badass who became a solid comedic actor. And if you could’ve predicted that twenty years ago, then please give me some investment advice. Or maybe some lottery numbers. I’m easy.