Movie Review – A Fantastic Woman

A powerfully authentic depiction of trans issues, foreign film A Fantastic Woman is not easy to watch, but it is definitely worth it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Michael Philp  

Watching A Fantastic Woman, one gets the sense that the people involved have been waiting to get this ball rolling for a while now. It shows in the ease with which Daniela Vega – herself a trans woman – embodies the character of Marina, and the care that all parties bring to depicting her struggles. The challenges Marina faces feel personal and resonate deeply, creating a sense of cathartic empowerment, with a confident spirit finally being given the spotlight it deserves.

Marina is a singer and waitress in Santiago, Chile. She lives happily with her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who we see first, scrambling to find travel tickets he had planned to surprise Marina with. He will never find them. That night, Orlando suffers an aneurysm and dies in hospital, the swiftness of his death underscoring the degree to which Marina’s life is about to be ripped apart. Within hours, Orlando’s family emerges to reclaim him from Marina’s “grasp” and sweep her under the rug using whatever means necessary.

Orlando’s family are something else. If Marina’s character arc seems stunted it’s because they hold her back, sometimes literally. Son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) lets himself into Orlando’s apartment, an act that dismisses Marina without needing to say a word. Worse yet is ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), who seems “nice enough” until she calls Marina a chimaera and starts using her birth name. If you don’t understand how misgendering someone can be abusive, you haven’t met Sonia; she makes it an art form. Inevitably these slights escalate, reaching their peak with an atrocious act of physical abuse that’s hard to watch.

This escalation is the heart of A Fantastic Woman. You can see it in Marina’s eyes when she speaks to cops at the hospital – she knows that these things are never simple or benign. The cops are just the beginning. Vega brings these experiences to life with authenticity and subtlety. She’s met people like this before, she knows how degrading they can be, and her performance benefits immensely from that first-hand knowledge. It’s empowering just watching her work.

Director Sebastián Lelio is important here as well. He shows himself in select sequences that blur the line between fantasy and reality. A windstorm pushes Marina down until she’s almost parallel to the sidewalk, leaf litter smacking her in the face. Later, a nightclub melts away to give her one last dance alone with Orlando. These breaks from reality express Marina’s grief and frustration in a way that she never could. There are admittedly one too many of them, but their purpose is always clear and admirable, and they are never less than beautiful.

As a powerful portrait of a unique soul, A Fantastic Woman is worth your time. It has an uphill battle for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but there’s enough meat here for the Academy to give it serious consideration. It’s a gracefully told story, and Vega is magnificent in bringing her own experiences to the table. With luck, this will be the beginning of a new era in representation. With stars like Vega and directors like Lelio, that can only be a good thing.

A Fantastic Woman is available in Australian cinemas from February 22 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

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Movie Review – Finding Your Feet

Following a recent rise in Hollywood films about retirees getting a new lease on life, the British are now jumping on board to bring us their own old age comedy.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

When Sandra (Imelda Staunton) discovers her husband has been cheating on her with a friend, she flees to her estranged sister’s house. Faced with the prospect at having to start again when she should be reaching retirement, Sandra blindly follows her sister on her day-to-day adventures and realises that it’s never too late for new beginnings.

Staunton flourishes, as always, in the role of highly-strung snob Sandra. She shows glimpses of a woman who is on the edge of losing control, suggesting Sandra has been unhappy for a long time, but is equally unaware of the depths of her unhappiness. Celia Imrie, who plays Sandra’s eccentric sister Bif, is charming as always, and her comedic timing is a thing of brilliance. Timothy Spall gives Sandra’s love interest a beautiful softness that isn’t often seen from him, making him the standout of the film, and the character you’re rooting for in the end.

The storyline isn’t anything new or particularly exciting, but it is successful in managing to balance the fine line between the lighter and more sombre scenes. Finding Your Feet isn’t afraid to shine a light on the difficulties of getting older and reaching a point when the presence death becomes a very real fixture in your life. Each character deals with the death of loved ones, or the approach of their own death, and each moment is dealt with sympathetically and sensitively. Played against this is the film’s humour, which not only pokes fun at the concept of growing old, but at old versus new attitudes. Some of the characters have embraced societal changes, whereas other characters are very much stuck in an old-school way of thinking and seeing the two types play against each other also creates some very funny moments.

Finding Your Feet is a quintessentially English film that is led by an incredible cast. What the story lacks in originality is made up for by a cast who manage to hit all the right notes in a story about death and love, proving that it’s never too late to start again.

 Finding Your Feet is available in Australian cinemas from February 22 

Image courtesy of eOne Films

Movie Review – The BBQ

An underdog sports movie devoid of tension, The BBQ gets by on charms alone.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Michael Philp

The BBQ will inevitably be compared to The Castle – as all Australian comedies must be – but that contrast seems inappropriate for a few reasons. Chief among them is the fact that where The Castle put a family’s home on the line, The BBQ only endangers a few reputations – and it doesn’t even seem to care about them very much. Ironically, the biggest problem with The BBQ is that the stakes aren’t high enough.

The main reputation on the line is Darren “Dazza” Cook’s (Shane Jacobson). A barbecue addict, Dazza loves telling people he’s related to Captain Cook – the supposed creator of the barbecue – and hosting community get-togethers, much to his wife’s chagrin. After Dazza gains national attention for giving the community food poisoning, Dazza’s work enters him into a cooking competition – a bizarre decision that the film barely bothers to justify. Weirder still, the company simultaneously recognises that Dazza doesn’t actually have the skills to win the competition, so they send him off to be trained by The Butcher (Magda Szubanski), a Scottish woman with a grudge against the front-runner, Andre Mont Blanc (Manu Feildel).

There’s a Karate Kid formula at work here, delivered with delightful colour. Szubanski is particularly memorable, bringing a gruffness to her Miyagi that contrasts brilliantly with Jacobson’s overwhelmed Daniel. The mid-point of their training schedule – where an actual Japanese master (Kuni Hashimoto) teaches Dazza to identify wagyu beef – is easily the high point of the film. At its best, The BBQ is proof that clichés don’t matter if you execute them with skill – tell a story well, and you’ll have your audience enthralled regardless of how many tropes you’re using.

It’s a damn shame then that outside of that formula, The BBQ doesn’t tell its story well, despite having an astonishing five credited writers. Even with all of those people editing the script, it somehow fails to produce any real stakes. The few it has are paper thin and poorly thought out. Dazza’s main incentive to win is two-fold: he wants to prove to his wife that he’s good at what he does, and he wants to humiliate his rival, Mont Blanc. Except Dazza’s wife doesn’t care how good he is, she’s angry that the barbecue takes time away from the family. And Mont Blanc is a foreigner who is doing the competition for publicity, which he gets either way.

What might’ve worked better is if Dazza’s style was built around honest, community barbecuing, something the marketing suggests, but not the film itself. That simple change would contrast him to the pretentious foreigner and put the value of community on the line. Instead, Dazza’s training focuses on high-end cooking that clashes with his suburban setting. Dazza loves feeding people, but you can’t feed a community with wagyu beef, and that disconnect is something the film never addresses. That kind of thinking is the difference between a great film and an average film. For all its wonderful colour and humour, The BBQ is the latter, and that’s a damn shame.

The BBQ is available in Australian cinemas from February 22 

Image courtesy of Label Distribution

Movie Review – Insidious: The Last Key

 A poor copy of James Wan’s signature style, The Last Key will suffice when there’s nothing else on Netflix.

 

⭐ ⭐ ½
Michael Philp

It’s been seven years since the original Insidious stormed the box office. A carnival ride that never felt cheap, Insidious was surprisingly good and made director James Wan the closest thing modern horror has to a household name. In the intervening years, the series has churned out two other films, and Wan has moved from classical horror (The Conjuring) to blockbuster fare like Furious 7. Sadly, the Insidious franchise has failed to move forward in his absence. Instead, it’s become steadily more derivative and frustrating, with The Last Key representing the lowest point of Wan’s well-imitated style.

Following the events of Insidious: Chapter 3 (a prequel to the original film), Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) receives a call for help from her childhood home in Five Keys, New Mexico. Initially reluctant, Elise is drawn in by the desire to right the wrongs she witnessed (and ran away from) as a child. Tagging along are her now permanent sidekicks Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), still as annoying as ever. Once there, Elise digs into her past to confront a demon she accidentally freed as a child – Keyface.

The thing about The Last Key is that it’s noisier than it is scary. Aside from a few genuine shocks, director Adam Robitel seems content to blast sound in place of actual horror. A ghost moves down a hallway? Better shred those violins, that’ll make people jump! Akin to a high school bully who punches people for flinching, Last Key’s tricks are exhausting. Making matters worse is a sequence midway through the film where Tucker uses a microphone with horrendous feedback. The charitable view would be to call the sound design unnerving, but it ends up being more painful than scary.

Wan became famous for walking the audience through his haunted houses and letting them become familiar with the layout before populating it with ghosts and ghouls. Last Key doesn’t need that because the house looks exactly like every other one in the franchise. Robitel hasn’t created a new space; he’s just borrowed the same basement and closet that Wan had so much fun with in the first two films. We’re going through the motions here – the bed, the hallway, the door – it’s all been done before and far better elsewhere.

Where Last Key does differentiate itself is in its subtextual concerns – namely abuse and how silence perpetuates it. Keyface physically locks people’s voices and souls away, and (partially) thanks to Elise he’s been doing this for a while now. There’s rich thematic ground there to explore how both individuals and institutions turn a blind eye to real world ghouls, but unfortunately, Robitel fails to see that potential and instead keeps throwing frustrating noise scares at you.

We live in the era of #timesup and #metoo, but Last Key isn’t thoughtful enough to be included in that conversation. As it stands, it’ll do fine as something to pass the time when it inevitably arrives on streaming services, but will ultimately end up remembered as the low point of the Insidious franchise – the last gasp of a series that was running out of breath two films ago.

Insidious: The Last Key is available in Australian cinemas from February 8 

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Black Panther

Black Panther may not be Marvel’s best origin story, but it’s definitely one we all have to see.

 
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I hate to have to pull up the DC Extended Universe when talking about Marvel, but I’m sorry, the comparisons are inevitable. Here is a movie that will do for the black community everywhere what Wonder Woman (2017) did for women, but while the exhilarating romanticism of our first blockbuster female superhero has already been washed away by the stench of Justice League (2017), Black Panther arrives at a time that could not be more crucial for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the world in general. This is an important film, if not necessarily a great one.

As an origin story, Panther is neither a success nor a failure. It just is. But inherent within this fable is an abundance of joy and innovation; it’s a tried and tested story of a prince who has to fight for his throne, set against a mouth-watering backdrop of an Africa that has been bisected by tradition and the ultramodern.

That is what really works here – the film’s energetic production design. The fictional kingdom of Wakanda is cradled somewhere in the mountains and visually sealed off from the world by some kind of force field, so we’re treated to mud huts and goat farmers before the camera swoops through the barrier to reveal an eye-popping futuristic utopia of towering spires and flying vehicles. It’s a place where the new is built upon the foundations of the old – it can be seen from the magnificent costumes to the graffiti that adorns an underground research lab. We get the sense that this is a city born from African soil and raised in its complex culture, not in the memory banks of a visual effects artist’s computer, and it’s splendid.

But the plot, it must be said, is rather ordinary. We are reacquainted with Prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who, after his father’s untimely demise in Captain America: Civil War (2016), has to assume the throne and ensure the precious vibranium metal that accelerated Wakanda’s growth remains secret from the rest of the world. But there is dissent in the ranks and the emergence of a foreign foe, who has been selling vibranium on the black market for years in an attempt to finally reach the mythical El Dorado and claim the kingdom as his own.

There are deep pockets of delightful moments, as when Black Panther tears through a car chase in South Korea, but for some reason many of the fight scenes take place in near darkness, and it doesn’t help that our hero’s costume is 98% black.

The large cast, in which I counted only two white men, is populated by quite an effective range of personalities, from Danai Gurira’s formidable warrior Okoye, to Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s enchanting younger sister who is apparently proficient at everything, including spinal surgery. Unfortunately, Michael B. Jordan’s villain is awarded pathos and a profound backstory but ends up shouting “BURN IT ALL!” and “I AM YOUR KING NOW!” a whole lot, y’know, like a bad guy. He seems more like a brutish nuisance than an emotional nemesis.

Black Panther is nevertheless a success. It’s entertaining and confidently directed by Ryan Coogler, who has left enough doors open so that we may all discuss his movie’s relevance. What’s left now is to see what Marvel will do next, because it’s imperative, after such a momentous step into the light, that these pioneering characters not be hustled back into the shadows by their white counterparts. They’ve proven they can hold their own.

Black Panther is available in Australian cinemas from February 15

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Movie Review – Fifty Shades Freed

Like an impotent lover that never really attracted you in the first place, the Fifty Shades trilogy limps to an unsatisfying climax that leaves you feeling dirty and ashamed.


Corey Hogan 

Though their relationship pushes the limits of what normal people might consider healthy, average girl Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and kinky billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) finally tie the knot and get married in Fifty Shades Freed. Their obnoxiously extravagant honeymoon is cut short however, when word that Ana’s former boss/stalker Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) has been spotted snooping ominously around Grey Enterprises. Drawn back to Seattle, their relationship is tested once more, with Hyde’s interference spelling the end for the two lovers and their friends and family.

So, here we are at last at the end of the Fifty Shades phenomena that grew from humble beginnings as Twilight fan fiction-turned mummy porn back in 2011. If you’ve followed the series up to this point, then chances are you fit into one of two categories of people; the legions of adoring female fans playing out their fantasy of being swept off their feet by a rich hunk, or the so-bad-it’s-good movie enthusiasts scoffing at the woeful acting, dialogue and general preposterousness of the entire situation.

In that sense, Fifty Shades Freed is business as usual, though this barely half-assed final chapter doesn’t even have the courtesy of remaining consistent in its unintentional hilarity. Instead, it gets the laughably un-erotic sex scenes out of the way early on to focus on things literally no one watches these movies for – the mundanities of a kinky relationship succumbing to dull, everyday married life routine. It’s painfully boring, and a bit depressing to think that all exciting, spontaneous partnerships are doomed to flatline and centre on unsexy things, like renovating houses and starting a family. No wonder divorce is so popular.

In a poor attempt to spice things up a bit, a subplot involving Ana’s aggressive ex-boss Jack Hyde is badly integrated into the main story and could be accused of derailing it, were there anything resembling a plot in the first place. Straight out of a Z-grade action movie, Eric Johnson is dreadful as the motivation-less, cliché antagonist, doing stock bad guy things like breaking into the Grey household and holding a knife to Ana’s throat (why, exactly?), and kidnapping Christian’s sister for a $5 million ransom (huh?). It’s maddeningly nonsensical, but at least gives the filmmakers an excuse to cram in an incredibly lazy car chase sequence.

Meanwhile, our mismatched leads bring their happily-ever-after to its climax with the same lack of flair we’ve come to expect. Dakota Johnson looks even more bored than we are, no doubt relieved she can finally leave Anastasia’s dumbfounded expression behind and continue working with directors like Luca Guadagnino. Jamie Dornan at least has The Fall to back up his claim to a career in acting, because his wooden performance as Christian Grey could be mistaken for impersonating someone with autism, were he not so buff and handsome.

So… what else is there to say, really? We’re treated at the conclusion to a montage of clips from Ana and Christian’s most “romantic” moments across the trilogy, right from their meeting at the very beginning. It puts into perspective just how forgettable this journey has been, and confirms that it was never really the story or characters that had any impact on society, it was the idea itself; a kinky wet dream that somehow escaped the trappings of erotica novelisations to cross into the mainstream consciousness. Love it or loathe it, Fifty Shades has shaped and impacted modern culture, for better or worse. At least this one manages to get the title right – we’re finally freed from restraints of one of history’s most atrocious franchises.

Fifty Shades Freed is available in Australian cinemas from February 8 

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – Phantom Thread

Being a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis certainly requires years of patience, fortunately they make it worth the lengthy wait. 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan 

Famous London fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is renowned for his incredible garments tailor-made for high society people. His creative genius stems from his notoriously controlling and massively obsessive-compulsive personality; each activity of his day follows a strict regime down to the tiniest detail. Any slight disturbance or disruption can unhinge Reynolds completely, unleashing his temper and aggressive nature. When he meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) on a trip to the countryside, he pursues a relationship, but once she moves in with him, her more impulsive, emotional behaviour clashes with his ordered world, and a great power play begins.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s distinguished career has given us great variety with ensemble comedy dramas about porn’s golden era (Boogie Nights), a mosaic of depression in L.A. (Magnolia), and a drug-fuelled crime caper (Inherent Vice). He’s explored the extreme highs and lows of gambling (Hard Eight), a mental illness love story (Punch-Drunk Love), the monsters of greed and corruption in the old west (There Will Be Blood), and the seductive horrors of joining a cult (The Master).

Once again, PTA goes into completely new territory with Phantom Thread. His second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis comes at the ten-year anniversary of their masterpiece There Will Be Blood, making Phantom Thread one of the most anticipated period piece gothic romances ever.

PTA’s unpredictable storytelling and filmmaking methods are on full display here, and the result is something compulsively watchable. The trailers and posters have wisely revealed little of the plot; it is best to head in with a blank slate and let the intoxicating beauty of PTA’s version of a 50’s London wash over you. Complete with stunningly recreated costume work (consider designer Mark Bridges a strong bet for the Oscar) on dazzling 16mm-shot film, Phantom Thread is essentially a slow-burning, unique spin on the eccentric older male prodigy and his younger female muse trope, but again, its curiosities are best discovered for oneself.

On top of the fact that PTA and DDL’s last team-up gave us one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of the 21st century, Day-Lewis has announced that this will be his curtain call from acting. He has, of course, threatened retirement in the past, and given his films are more infrequent these days than even Paul Thomas Anderson’s, it’s difficult to know what to believe. But if this is to truly be his swansong, he’s bowed out with a brilliant performance that’s not his usual show eruption, but instead a contained masterclass in restraint.

As Reynolds Woodcock, he brings obsessive compulsive genius to a new level; a mad tyrant wrapped in a calm, charismatic personal charm – that is provided his strict daily routine goes exactly as planned. It’s entirely possible that Day-Lewis has decided to leave us with a performance that mirrors his own creative process, given his famously intense preparation and methods in completely embodying his characters.

And then, there’s an even bigger surprise. As both the light of his life and bane of his existence, newcomer Vicky Krieps perfectly forms the yin to DDL’s yang as his young lover Alma. It’s no mean feat for an unknown actress to share the screen with a legendary actor and match him compellingly. Though Lesley Manville earned the Supporting Actress nod (also deservingly, as Reynolds’ subservient sister), Krieps is the true powerhouse and driving force of a deliciously twisted romance for the ages. As DDL’s career ends, hers begins – it’s quite poetic.

If there’s one niggle it’s the somewhat impotent outcome to their magnetic relationship, though it’s a conclusion to be debated rather than scorned. And that’s how PTA, DDL and VK leave us; deep in thought and certain of only one thing – that this is a triumph for all involved.

Phantom Thread is available in Australian cinemas from February 1

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is one of this generation’s richest coming-of-age tales.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Michael Philp

“Some people aren’t built happy”. Spoken by Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf), mother to Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), those 5 words encapsulate one of Lady Bird’s main concerns: the pervasiveness of depression. The message hits hard coming from Marion – a woman who has struggled her entire life. Appropriately, she spends most of the movie struggling to impart her wisdom to her belligerent teenage daughter, mostly via ill-conceived tough love. In response, Lady Bird spends most of the movie being passive-aggressive and rebellious.

Lady Bird is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, and she dislikes every one of those descriptors. Frustrated with her family’s money problems, and the tedium of working-class Sacramento, Lady Bird yearns to break free of the restraints she feels other people have put on her. Hence her ‘given’ name (given to her by her) of Lady Bird. In that regard, Lady Bird is your typical coming-of-age heroine: hungry, awkward, and blind to the lessons she needs to learn. Lady Bird follows her for just over a year, beautifully capturing every hilarious and heart-breaking situation that comes with burgeoning adulthood.

Lady Bird is the product of writer/director Greta Gerwig’s unique worldview. Striking out on her own after several excellent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, Gerwig uses autobiographical details to build an honest portrait of working-class Sacramento. Her characters are unhappy, but good-hearted people trying to work with the hand life has dealt them. They are authentic and approachable, and it is an enormous pleasure to watch them bounce off each other, especially with dialogue as sharp as Gerwig’s. The film is at its best when its characters are arguing – snide comments blending with stubbornness to create comedy gold.

All of this praise extends to the film’s secondary characters, who flesh out Lady Bird’s themes with satisfying subtlety. Many of them – such as Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson) – serve to illustrate the masks we wear around other people. In its removal of those masks, Lady Bird proves graceful and generous, offering sympathetic portrayals of complex emotional issues.

None of this would work half as well without Gerwig’s assured direction. She’s crafted Lady Bird remarkably well for a debut feature. Like the dialogue, the film moves to a unique rhythm without ever missing a beat. The result is something that’s distinctly Gerwig’s, marking her as someone to watch. One’s mind races with the possibilities of what Gerwig could do with a meaty, adult drama.

That’s not to invoke the cliché that Lady Bird is the start of something; it isn’t. It’s more of a continuation of Gerwig’s work on Frances Ha, which she co-wrote with Baumbach. She’s been honing her style and skills for years. Lady Bird is just the first time she’s had a director’s credit attached to those efforts. What Lady Bird does prove is that Gerwig is someone with the necessary talent to expand beyond her current repertoire. If she keeps writing characters of this quality – and directing them with this level of confidence – there’s no telling where she might go.

Lady Bird is available in Australian cinemas from February 8

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2018

Movie Review – Molly’s Game

Aaron Sorkin and Jessica Chastain hit the jackpot with Molly’s Game.

 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Adapted from the exposé memoir of the same name, Molly’s Game heralds the first directorial effort of acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs). The film centres on Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a failed Olympic skier who finds herself caught in a tangled web of underground Hollywood poker games and the target of an FBI investigation. With lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) fighting in her corner, Molly recounts her fall from grace, from promising athlete to drug addict and poker pit boss.

As this is a Sorkin joint, you know straight away what to expect from the screenplay; machine gun dialogue, lengthy, dynamic monologues, whip-smart characters and a shrewd storytelling angle that keeps you engaged. Here we have three stories told in parallel, with Sorkin flitting between the beginning (Molly’s short-lived skiing career), the middle (the climb from preppy assistant to gambling godfather) and the end (her inevitable arrest and trial).

Rather than laying all his cards on the table, Sorkin keeps them close to his chest; like the crafty players seated around the poker table, he lays out the details of Molly’s story like breadcrumbs for the audience to chase after. While the story is trashier and less reverential than say Steve Jobs, it does what it sets out to do – entertain – and then some. It’s like Sorkin’s take on The Wolf of Wall Street, albeit with more heart and wit and less outrageous nudity.

So we know Sorkin can write, but can he direct as well? Yep, turns out he can. Sorkin’s approach recalls Martin Scorsese or Oliver Stone at their most energetic, with lots of provocative visuals, frenetic editing and lively camerawork. Narration plays a big part in recounting the bulk of the story, and Chastain, bristling with steely composure and sex appeal, strides through it all in style. Similar to her take-no-prisoners performances in Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane, Chastain is committed, fiery and frankly, a mesmeric presence.

Despite its length (Molly’s Game clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours), I never once felt bored. Partly because Sorkin’s punchy screenplay never ceases to entertain, but also because all the actors are keen as anything to sink their teeth into the meaty wordplay. Elba lands a couple of straight flushes with emotive monologues, Kevin Costner leaves an impression in his limited screen time, and Michael Cera has never been more punchable as a smarmy player who excels at reading other people.

Loaded with zingy repartee that crackles like fireworks, and a cast that brings its a-game across the board, Molly’s Game is fun, frisky and feverish.

Molly’s Game is available in Australian cinemas from January 25 

Image courtesy of EntertainmentOne Films 

 

Movie Review – I, Tonya

Tonya Harding’s reputation has been on thin ice since the infamous Kerrigan knee incident. Now, almost 25 years later, the American figure skater has been offered some redemption in new film I, Tonya.

 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

Where does one begin with I, Tonya? Based on the stranger than fiction life events of US figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the film explores the controversial assault on her rival Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 national championships. Although the attack was conceived by her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (San Sebastian), the scandal ultimately ended Harding’s career. I, Tonya looks into Harding’s experiences before and after this life altering event, bringing a fresh perspective to a vilified sporting icon.

Director Craig Gillespie brings us a very different kind of biopic in I, Tonya by cleverly constructing a mockumentary style that’s complete with faux interviews and narration from Harding’s mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). At key moments, the characters pause mid-action to deliver tongue-in-cheek commentary and chip in their own 2-cents, often to great comic effect. It’s an unusual technique, but given the bizarre nature of the story, it all works together seamlessly.

Known for quirky films like Lars and the Real Girl, Gillespie is able to deftly balance this darkly funny, yet equally tragic story. He also doesn’t shy away from the domestic abuse experienced by Harding, first at the hands of her mother, then her ex-husband. The film is startlingly honest, but while it’s sympathetic towards Harding’s background, it doesn’t let Harding off scot-free. It does, however, give Harding a bit more humanity than was ever seen during the media coverage of the incident.

All of this is carried by a cast of brilliant actors that have undergone radical physical transformations for their respective roles. Janney is hardened and downright vicious as Harding’s mother, and given her background in mostly comedic roles, she is almost unrecogniseable here.

At the end of the day, Robbie steals the show in the lead role, transitioning from a vulnerable girl to a highly ambitious young woman who is acutely aware of her reliance on her figure skating success. Robbie brings a real emotional core to Harding, shifting from feisty and hot-tempered, to fragile and disillusioned. It’s this wide range that Robbie portrays with a natural ease that really propels this film forward, and keeps you grounded in the fact that this is someone’s life you’re watching.

Working alongside the incredible performances is some outstanding cinematography from Nicolas Karakatsanis. I’m very disappointed he didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination for his work; the skating scenes are incredible, especially given this is a sport normally viewed from a distance. Karakatsanis gets up close and personal, zooming in and around Harding as she moves across the ice, making you feel like you’re performing with her, rather than simply spectating.

Overall, I, Tonya is a memorable offering that pushes the bounds of traditional biopic filmmaking.

I, Tonya is available in Australian cinemas from January 25

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films