I, Tonya

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity
Profanity: Extensive very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including attack
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017

Copyright 2017 Neon
In one of “I, Tonya’s” most striking scenes, Margo Robbie as figure skating star Tonya Harding looks at herself in the mirror after applying her make-up for a competition. It is stark, garish, clown-like, and scary, less like beauty than like warpaint. Harding is trying to hide the heartbreak of her life when she is on the one place where everything is pretty and perfect, but in trying to make herself look pretty and perfect she has created a monster. That scene exemplifies the movie’s themes about public and private personas and the way they can crash into each other with terrible destructive force.

In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan, one of Harding’s rivals, was attacked by a Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), who had been hired by two of history’s most incompetent criminals, Harding’s estranged husband, Jeff Gilhooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dimwitted friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Though Harding was not involved or even aware of this plan, news reports of the era emphasized the contrast between ice princess Kerrigan, and blue-collar Harding. In reality, Kerrigan was also from a modest background, but her appearance and routines were more elegant and graceful, while Harding adopted a bad girl persona, calling herself the “Charles Barkley of figure skating.” The problem is that figure skating is not just about skill and technique. It is about the show, and it is about the persona. Judges and fans expect more than athletic achievement.
They expect elegance and grace on and off the rink. They want the ice princess.

Allison Janney is incendiary as Harding’s abusive mother, constantly pushing her and demeaning her, often hitting her, too. With no affection or approval at home, she was drawn to Gilhooly, the first male to pay any attention to her, and when he became abusive, that seemed normal, too.
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Stepmom,” “Love the Coopers”), promise us at the beginning a story “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews,” and they deliver. Like “The Disaster Artist,” this film takes us behind the scenes of a real-life catastrophe based on dreams of stardom, hopeless miscalculation about their own abilities, and a distorted, media-fueled idea of reality. We may watch expecting to laugh and feel superior, but the prismatic approach, with characters speaking to us to explain their perspectives (or try to put the blame on each other) is surprisingly sympathetic, grounded, and insightful.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking, drugs, smoking, and violence, including domestic abuse.

Family discussion: Who was responsible for attacking Nancy Kerrigan? Why does the movie call itself “irony-free?” Do you agree that Americans “want someone to hate?”

If you like this, try: “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” and “Tonya Harding: Anything to Win”

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Darkest Hour

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017

Copyright 2017 Focus
A bitter debate is going on in Parliament. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has responded to Hitler’s invasion of other countries with appeasement and many of the politicians are with him. A combination of denial and sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire smugness of those who have colonized a quarter of the planet and are situated on the other side of the Channel makes them confident that they can work with Hitler. But it is increasingly clear to at least some of the politicians believe it is time to take a stronger stand. Is there someone they can call on to lead them in that direction?

There is, and he is still in bed, “insuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.” He is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, disappearing into the character and giving a dazzling performance worthy of the real-life man he portrays). The very inevitability of Churchill’s selection, no one’s first choice, a man who “has a knack for drawing out the very worst in those who are trying to help him,” according to his devoted but perceptive wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), increases the frustration of the elected officials around him, who continue to plot to undermine his determination to to go to war, if necessary, to fight Hitler’s takeover of Europe. “I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking,” he says glumly but grimly. “It’s not a compliment. It’s revenge.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” gave us a bracing look at the turning point that ends this film, when certain catastrophic defeat was turned into a victory just by escaping, rescued with the help of a citizens’ armada of boats. That film paid tribute to the ordinary men who retreated to come back stronger. This film gives us another side of the story in a more traditional “great man” portrayal of history and it could not have a better subject. Churchill was a master of language, grandiloquent at a time when people needed to be inspired by a leader of vision, a deep knowledge of history, and shining integrity. The benefit of having a central character in Churchill is that he pretty much spoke in movie dialogue, hyper-articulate, wryly witty, and with an underlying patriotism rooted in compassion, not jingoism.

Churchill knows that it is not enough for him to be right about Hitler. He has to get the support of the other politicians and he has to get the support of the population. He knows what he will be asking them to do will involve unimaginable sacrifice. And there is no time. “We are looking at the collapse of Western Europe in the next few days,” says a general. “Should the public be told?” There is no time. And, as yet, there is no plan for a counter-attack and Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill’s good friend in the United States, tells him that Congress has prevented him from being of help.

Churchill also knows what it is to fail, publicly and miserably. Will he make mistakes again? Clementine assures him that he is wise because he has doubts. Even if Hitler wins, Churchill knows it is better to give him as much of a fight as possible. “Countries that go down fighting come back.”

The compressed time period and the urgent conversations with Clementine, member of Parliament, and the king (superbly played by Ben Mendelsohn) are riveting, bolstered by an urgent score by
Dario Marianelli and masterfully sinuous camerawork by Bruno Delbonnel and editing by Valerio Bonelli. The camera maneuvers through Churchill’s legendary wartime cabinet rooms (a must-visit for London tourists), showing us the cramped quarters and the fierce energy of what is going on.

Oldman disappears into the role, a performance like the famous Karsh portrait come to life. His Churchill is crafty, sometimes impatient, sometimes uncertain, but compassionate, and always sure of what his values are. The Churchills had a famously devoted love match, and Kristin Scott Thomas is impeccable in showing us Clementine’s elegance, and resolve.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” a character says. And with this film, director Joe Wright mobilized the language of film and presents us with an uplifting reminder of what the right person at the right time can do even under the direst circumstances.

Parents should know that this is a wartime story with tense peril and reference to violence and loss, some strong language, and smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: What should be factors in deciding when to intervene and when to negotiate? Why did the king change his mind? Read My Early Life, Churchill’s autobiography of his youth. Which self will you be today?

If you like this, try: “The King’s Speech,” “Dunkirk,” and some of the other movies about this towering figure of the 20th century, including the “First Churchills” miniseries about his ancestors.

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Copyright A24 2017

The Disaster Artist

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Fictional depiction of suicide and violence, some scuffles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017

Copyright A24 2017Let’s face it. Failure is more fascinating than success. There are innumerable movies based on true stories about real people who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles with determination, vision, and talent to accomplish extraordinary achievements in sports, the arts, and shaping public policy. Movies like “Schindler’s List” and “The Big Short” help us to understand huge, complicated tragic failures through the prism of small victories. But there are also movies like “Florence Foster Jenkins,” with Meryl Streep as the legendarily awful singer and “Ed Wood,” with Johnny Depp as the legendarily awful movie director, that explore with some affection the stories of terrible failures, and they do it with vastly more skill than the people they depict could have imagined.

In fact, that is part of what led to the failures in the first place — Florence Foster Jenkins and Ed Wood were exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that the less competent people are, the more likely they are to be unable to evaluate their own competence. It isn’t the terrible end product that enthralls us as much as the buoyant optimism and imperishable self-regard that keeps these people going while the rest of us are consumed with doubt and insecurity.

The Room,” from writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau, has been called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies.” It is in that rare category of films that transcend “so bad it’s good” and “suitable for Mystery Science Theater commentary” into genuine hit, with well-attended midnight showings filled with fans who come to see it again and again. Like the midnight “Rocky Horror Show” screenings, fans come in costume and with props. An arty picture of a spoon in a frame that appears in many shots provokes a flurry of plastic spoons thrown at the screen. The crowd yells “focus” whenever someone should have reminded the cinematographer that the camera needed to produce a sharper image. And some people get happily tipsy taking a drink whenever any of the movie’s characters say “Hi.”

The film is based on a book co-written by Greg Sestero, who co-starred in “The Room.” For multi-degreed master of literary analysis James Franco, who directed and stars in the film, “Disaster Artist” is not an oxymoron. In his mind, Tommy Wiseau is an artist because he has a singular vision so urgent that he will realize it, no matter the cost, in the most literal terms. Wiseau is said to have spent six million dollars in making “The Room,” much of it as poorly decided as every other choice that went into making the film.

“The Room” tells the story (I use the term loosely, as the script is a mishmash of many unexplained developments and characters, with a plot even more out of focus than the camera) of Johnny (played by Wiseau, and Franco as Wiseau in this version), a successful banker who has a fiancee named Lisa (portrayed by Ari Graynor), a best friend named Mark (played by Dave Franco as Greg Sestero), and a teenage protegee of some kind named Danny (played by Josh Hutcherson). Lisa is bored with Johnny and begins an affair with Mark, though her mother pushes her to stay with Johnny because he is rich and treats her well. The film has extended soft-core-style sex scenes, a weird, inexplicable confrontation between Danny and a drug dealer, and another odd scene with guys in tuxedos tossing a football.

“The Disaster Artist” begins with Greg and Tommy meeting in acting class in Northern California, becoming friends in part because of their shared love for James Dean (coincidentally once played by Franco himself in a breakthrough performance) and dreams of being stars. They move to LA together, with Greg staying in Tommy’s apartment. Tommy is quite mysterious about his background (he has a strange eastern European accent), his age, and his source of income. He is supportive of Greg but also possessive. The decision to cast his own brother as Greg is Franco’s exploration of a mirrored duality in their relationship and there is more than a hint of some boundary issues that may reflect homoerotic feelings.

Frustrated by his lack of success in Hollywood and jealous that Greg is getting some work, Tommy decides to write and produce his own movie. And so we see how many bad decisions go into creating the “Citizen Kane” of terrible cinema. But we also see a very rare example of a film, usually the ultimate artistic reflection of teamwork, that is a genuinely singular vision. As muddled and incoherent as it is, it is exactly the movie he had in his head and exactly the movie he wanted to make. Franco clearly respects that, as Tim Burton did with “Ed Wood” (with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Orson Welles as his stand-in showing one director saluting another). The audiences in the midnight shows are there to jeer and feel superior. Franco, in his performance and direction, is sympathetic, giving Wiseau and his story the film he was not able to give himself.

NOTE: Be sure to stay through the credits for some uncanny side-by-side re-creations of scenes from “The Room” with the cast of this film.

Parents should know that this film includes nudity, sexual references and situations, depiction of suicide and violence, alcohol, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What does it mean that something is “so bad it’s good?” What does this movie tell us about the decisions that go into making a work of art?

If you like this, try: “The Room,” of course, and the book by Sestero, and the bonkers “Beaver Trilogy” documentary

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AWFJ’s Movie of the Week: The Dancer

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The Alliance of Women Film Journalists has picked “The Dancer” as the MOTW (movie of the week). The recreations of Loie Fuller’s stunning performances are dazzling.

Betsy Bozdech writes:

Chances are, even people who wouldn’t describe themselves as “into dance” have heard the name Isadora Duncan and know something about her career and tragic death. But what about dancer and performance artist Loie Fuller, the innovator of modern dance who helped propel Duncan to superstardom in the early 20th century? Stephanie Di Giusto’s drama “The Dancer” remedies that by telling the story of Fuller’s complex, fascinating and often-heartbreaking life and career.

I’m proud to be one of the critics quoted by AWFJ in support of the film.

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The Man Who Invented Christmas

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Ghosts, some scary surprises, child labor and abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2017

Copyright 2017 Bleeker Street
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and decorating the tree. It was written in just six weeks and the entire first printing was sold out in five days. There are innumerable performance versions, plays, audio, and movies, even operas. It has not just become a part of Christmas celebrations; it has influenced them as well, as we see from “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” based on the best-selling book by Les Sanford.

The story is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is difficult to recognize how revolutionary it is. The idea of time travel was considered an enormous innovation in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published more than 40 years later, but Dickens had Scrooge go back in time to see his past. It is based on the idea that a man could change and would want to change based on an honest look at his childhood trauma and choices made over the years, half a century before Freud. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” gives us a sometimes light-hearted but always warm-hearted look at the man who created Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. We see how the story came together based on what Dickens saw and felt and how writing the story helped him to understand and reconcile his own past.

Dickens (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” and “Beauty and the Beast”) is one of the most critically acclaimed and popular authors in the world, touring America to cheering audiences. Or he was, until he had three flops in a row, just as bills are mounting for renovations on his house, his wife tells him their fifth child is on the way, and his charming but feckless and irresponsible parents arrive for a visit. He desperately needs money, but worries that he is completely out of ideas. His hand remains poised over the paper, its only mark a blob of ink that drops from the feather pen to reproach him because no words are appearing.

It is always difficult to portray the work of a writer because it is all internal and you run the risk of boring the audience with scenes of someone sitting at a desk. Director Bharat Nalluri, working from a script by Susan Coyne, wisely takes our hero out into the world and we have the pleasure of seeing the hyper-alertness artists bring to the world. Whether it is jotting down the name of the waiter (Marley), eavesdropping on the new maid telling ghost stories to his children, watching his young nephew, whose leg is in a brace, or listening to complaints about the poor from a wealthy man exiting the theater, Dickens is constantly creating his characters from life. And when he conjures them up, he makes them real for himself before he makes them real to the reader. Christopher Plummer first appears as a lone mourner at a burial, sharply reminding the clergyman that he isn’t paying by the hour so there’s no reason to drag out his remarks. And then he reappears in Dickens’ wonderfully vivid imagination as Scrooge.

This is not the gritty, grimy Victorian world we have seen in many films, including those based on Dickens’ books. Nalluri echoes the magic lantern shows Dickens’ father enchanted him with as a child in the glowing colors of wintry London. As he did in “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” he shows a deft skill in moving a large, colorful cast in and out of the story, maintaining a slightly heightened, romantic, but still grounded tone. Stevens holds the center together ably, often on the edge of being frantic but with a joy in storytelling. One especially sweet scene has him delighting his children with the same imagination that continues to thrill audiences and makes this lightly fictionalized peek at him filled with charm and delight.

Parents should know that this movie includes some mild language, mention of pregnancy, drinking and drunkenness, and some child labor and abuse and bullying.

Family discussion: What people and situations around you can inspire your stories? Why did he change his mind about his father? Whose burden can you lighten?

If you like this, try: the many films of the story, especially the Muppet, Mr. Magoo, Alastair Sim, and MGM versions.

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