Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Film Review - Pacific Rim: Uprising (12A)

Fire everything you've got!
We live in a blessed cinematic era. Computer generated imagery has advanced to the point where virtually any idea - dinosaur theme-parks, dazzling future-scapes, insane alternative dimensions - can be reproduced onscreen. Just because you can create it, however, doesn't necessarily mean you should. Case in point - Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Don't mistake me - I quite enjoyed 2013's original Pacific Rim. Maybe it's a boy-thing, but there's something irresistible about the phrase 'giant robots versus giant monsters'. It's a simple, fun idea... Strange creatures (kaiju in Japanese) have invaded Earth via a dimensional rift in the ocean floor and are wreaking global havoc. All that's between them and our destruction is squads of gargantuan humanoid machines named Jaegers, operated from within by pairs of cerebrally-linked humans. Guillermo del Toro developed the screenplay for the first outing and then directed it, lending all his visual flair to the story. Idris Elba played Commander Stacker Pentecost (top name!), whose job it was to whip raw recruits into world-saving shape. Spoiler - the humans won. 
It was daft. It was the definition of fast-food cinema. But it worked due to an adequate story on which to hang the CGI action, along with zestful execution. Now four years on (ten in terms of the story) comes this entirely unnecessary sequel. Del Toro encouraged it and produced, but frankly he's been off creating real art in the form of The Shape of Water rather than investing time in this flailing mess. It misses his creative input, particularly in terms of the screenplay.
Let me be fair - the opening thirty minutes are okay. John Boyega plays Jake Pentecost (son of Idris), a roguish black-marketeer who makes a living off selling old Jaeger parts. He brings all his Star Wars charm only this time with a Brit accent, and spars entertainingly with Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a fifteen-year-old orphan genius, who has built her own Jaegar from scrap. When both are arrested, they choose enlistment in the Jaeger pilot program over jail and travel to the base in China. Our reintroduction to the place is a reminder of how refreshingly international the first film was - this isn't America rescuing the planet a la Independence Day, it's global salvation through a truly global enterprise. Shortly after our heroes' arrival, however, the whole thing goes to hell - I mean both the world of the film and the on-screen storytelling.
The warning sign comes relatively early. It's when young Amara is walking through the Jaeger-drome, gazing up at the robots in awe and reeling off their names - 'Wow, it's Gypsy Danger, it's Crimson Typhoon, OMG it's Vauxhall Avenger!' (I may have misremembered that last one.) We all know this is primarily a merchandising exercise and that some cinemas will have Jaeger toys ready-wrapped in the foyer, but couldn't the script manage it with a little more style? Or a little more story
Characters established in the first act fail to be developed, while new ones aren't given enough screen time for anyone to care remotely what happens to them. Some turn on a hair from pseudo-bad to good, or from amoral jackass to hero, with no sense of an actual journey taking place (possibly a result of ruthless editing to leave more room for robot/monster smackdowns). There are good ideas for sure - tensions between a Jaeger drone company and the regular pilots could have provided actual drama - along with glimmers of what might have been meaningful character moments. But ultimately this is an excuse for huge screen-cramming robot battles and the laying waste of entire cities. The CGI is quality, I'll grant you that, and it's even well-directed by Stephen S. DeKnight. But it disengages totally from any kind of emotional investment, so that the unending slam-bang action becomes grimly tedious. Who lives? Who dies? Who gives a damn? I can't even remember the pilots' names!
Boyega does his best to add charm, and Burn Gorman resumes his nutty scientist role from the first movie with commendable energy. But these two struggle along with everyone else not to drown in the CGI tsunami that engulfs all - discernible plot included. Oh, the boredom - we're talking Transformers-level mind-bludgeoning awfulness here, a 'Please-God-make-it-stop' kind of deal. (God didn't make it stop, by the way. I had to wait for the end credits to do that.)
I'd never have believed that something with Del Toro even vaguely attached to it could have turned out this dull, but I stand corrected. Because computer technology, however brilliantly used, will always be rendered dull by piss-poor storytelling. It's a lesson that Hollywood studio executives need to learn - fast and well.
Gut Reaction: Engaged for a while, then not. My cinema-going companion fell asleep. I didn't get that lucky.

Where Are the Women?: Spaeny has potential, but her teen Jaeger pilot is just plain irritating. The rest of the female cast are wasted in barely developed roles. So are most of the males, come to that.

Ed's Verdict: 3/10. Technical wizardry, talented multi-national cast and thematic potential - it all dissolves into a great narrative-lite sludge. This sequel is as dead in the water as a slaughtered kaiju.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Film Review - Mary Magdalene (12A)

Mary, you are my witness.
It's tough for me to approach any 'Jesus' movie purely on its merits as a piece of cinema. Having been raised within Northern Ireland's evangelical community, any retelling of the life of Christ resonates with me in a very particular way. Mary Magdalene is too restrained and cerebral to attract a mass audience - the screening I attended was as empty as the Tomb on Easter Sunday morning - but it fascinated me on a personal level from the opening scene, which possibly skews my perception. 
This is very much Mary Magdalene's story, and a version which sets out to redeem her reputation from that of penitent prostitute (as suggested by everyone from Pope Gregory to Rice and Lloyd-Webber). Drawing on both the New Testament and gnostic gospels, and weaving in some imagination of its own, the movie presents Mary as a young woman sensitive to the point of oddness. She is a fisher and a midwife, and also a quiet rebel against the conventional life her family have planned for her. Misunderstood by those around her, it makes sense that she should be drawn to the teachings of a fellow rebel against the norm - a Nazarene preacher-healer, who travels with a group of exclusively male friends. But while Jesus welcomes her into the group, his Disciples are less than enthused by this potentially divisive influence.
Initially this film by Garth Davis (director of Lion) doesn't seem as confrontational as Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Nor does it have the visceral punch of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. But by its closing scenes it has proved powerful and subversive in its own right. Rooney Mara's Mary is at the heart of this. As the 'Magdalene' she radiates a quiet depth and intensity that steals scene after scene, even from Joaquin Phoenix's Jesus. It's a sustained exercise in empathy - for everyone from a terrified girl in labour to the Christ himself - one that I found totally compelling.
The scenes between Mary and Jesus are particularly well-judged; Mary comes without any of the male Disciples' agendas and the sense of honesty and friendship is palpable, nor does the film blunder too far down the 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' route. More tricky is Phoenix's playing of Christ's public ministry. It's a very internalised performance - rather too mumbly to explain this man's power over the multitude. One-to-one we see a sensitivity and spirituality at odds with the more blustering expressions of masculinity surrounding him. But he doesn't quite have the charisma here to carry off a memorable Sermon on any Mount.
Much about this movie is restrained, including the stark quality of the cinematography; first-century Palestine looks a cold and bleak kind of beautiful, the effect enhanced by a score that is utterly, hauntingly gorgeous. It all serves to give this retelling of Christ's ministry its own distinctive feel. The film does much in fact to subvert the cliches of traditional Biblical epics, not least in its expansion of Jesus' philosophy from the canonical Gospels (not likely to impress in conservative religious circles). Its presentations of Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Judas Iscariot (Tahar Rahim) also prove surprising.
More than anything, however, this film keeps Mary and her convention-defying friendship with Jesus at its centre, allowing all else, miracles included, to take second billing. It leads to a denouement that for all my past Bible-reading took me by surprise - and sent tremors down two thousand years of church history. For that alone Mary Magdalene deserves to be watched.
Gut Reaction: Mesmerised throughout, despite the lack of cinematic fireworks. 

Where Are the Women?: There's something about Mary - at least when Rooney Mara is playing her. And the screenplay's writers (Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett) create a proudly feminist Gospel.

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. I'm tempted to give it more as it struck such a personal chord, but I'm holding back since it's perhaps just too low-key. Still, it's beautifully made, Mara is an understated sensation and the ending delivers an unexpected punch all its own.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Film Review - Game Night (15)

Tonight we're taking game night up a notch.
Remember The Game? It's the film David Fincher made in between Se7en and Fight Club, starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn. The story involved a jaded businessman who paid to take part in a mysterious role-playing game in order to shake up his tired existence. Very soon he was on the run and in fear for his life, no longer able to tell the difference between 'the game' and reality. Well Game Night is a comic take on that premise, with vying couples, rather than a solo guy, immersing themselves in the craziness. And it's a movie that stands or falls on laughter rather than suspense. 
Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a couple who met at a quiz event, recognised themselves as kindred spirits and have been indulging their competitive urges together ever since. Their regular game nights are a hit among their friends. However Max's smug older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler at his smarmiest) intends to up the ante, arranging a bespoke crime thriller roleplay evening for everyone's entertainment. The real, he assures them, will be indistinguishable from the fake, which naturally sets the movie's whole course. What exactly is going on? And if the unfolding events are all artifice, how come they're starting to appear so painfully real?
To its credit Game Night throws enough variables into the mix to keep the plot bubbling, nor does it feel a need to go exactly the same road as the movie that seemingly inspired it. Much of the comedy stems from feeling a step ahead of the clueless characters, rather than being fooled along with them. Thus we get to watch these idiots wade into dire situations, blithely unaware of the peril. Yes the laughs are broad, but enough of them land on target to keep things ticking over.
Of the gamers Bateman and McAdams are the standout, their chemistry sparking continually, not least in a wonderfully judged scene involving a squeaky-toy. Their sheer likability overcomes my personal bugbear with the movie - the America-centric nature of virtually all the trivia this group chuck around with no hint of awareness in the script. Sharon Horgan (yes, the Irish writer/actress of Catastrophe and multiple other TV comedies) is good when she's allowed room by her gormless gaming partner, an admittedly funny Billy Magnussen. However couple number three - Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury - are tied a one-joke shtick through much of the running-time, rather than being developed in any discernible way. (It's not even a particularly good joke.) 
Prepare to see the entire film stolen, however, by Jesse Plemons (Hostiles, The Post), as the awkward neighbour, who's been cold-shouldered by the group and is now desperate to inveigle his way back in. It's an object lesson in less-is-more humour and probably the funniest thing in the show. He also owns a cute dog to which nothing (very) bad happens.
Game Night is a big mainstream crowd-pleaser that would benefit from a bit of script-finessing and a higher one-liner hit rate. It retains its energy throughout, however, even when the plot mechanics inevitably threaten to drain the laughs. If this film keeps hold of its audience, that's largely due to a talented cast - actors who know how to play the comedy game above all others. 
Gut Reaction: Satisfactorily entertained, with a few laughs right from the gut.

Where Are the Women?: McAdams is balanced well with Bateman in their loved-up double-act and provided with room to shine as a comedy talent. Give the other gals the same, though!

Ed's Verdict: 6/10. It does more than enough with its premise to justify its existence and the squeaky-toy scene is a moment of comedy genius. I laughed a lot more at Gringo though.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Film Review - Gringo (15)

Why do I always get screwed for doing my job?
With Gringo I find myself in the same situation as when I'd watched Downsizing back in January. Here is a film that I genuinely, unambiguously enjoyed, fully expecting that I'd be swelling the reviewing community's huge chorus of praise. Well I'm not, because there isn't one. Gringo has achieved a dire 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a decidedly mediocre 6.0 out of 10 on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). The world is not in love with this movie. I'm cheering for it all on my own. Well, superior discernment can be a burden, but it's one I'm willing to carry. 
The 'gringo' of the title is Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), mid-level employee of a US pharmaceutical company, who accompanies his bosses to help tie up their business in Mexico. Industrious and loyal to a fault, Harold has no clue of the corporation's shadier dealings with certain dubious Mexican businessmen. He does have a gnawing suspicion, however, that the future of the business may not include any place for him. Left isolated south of the border with his world rapidly crumbling, the usually mild-mannered Harold resorts to desperate, ill-considered measures to shore up his situation. And from there things start to get very messy indeed.
The chief merits of Gringo from the start are its intelligence and wit. Dismissed by some as a throwaway crime comedy, this is a dark and often deeply funny satire on big business and its propensity for steamrolling the little guy, if he proves no longer essential to requirements. It also delivers a vigorous stab into the heart of the American Dream. Nigerian immigrant Harold has staked all on the promise that hard work and adherence to the rules will be rewarded. Not so - and his reaction when faced with the grim truth is both painful and funny.
Britain's Oyelowo (so impressive as Martin Luther King in 2014's Selma) is a comic delight in the central role. He engages sympathy from the start, something that only increases the further he sinks out of his depth. Harold is the sincere and righteous man, who has been pushed beyond his limit; the unleashing of his pent-up frustration is a deliciously funny sight to behold, never at the expense of the character's pathos. If you're not rooting for him thirty minutes into the film, seriously - what's the problem?
Nor is Oyelowo shouldering the comedy on his own. Joel Egerton and Charlize Theron are a priceless double-act as Harold's truly horrible bosses Richard and Elaine. Their characters are both hilariously-drawn pre-Weinsteinian caricatures, but played with sufficient conviction to make them believable. In a film-long contest for who can be most entertainingly despicable, Theron steals it. Props too for District 9's Sharlto Copley for his turn as a morally conflicted mercenary, who plunges into the rapidly escalating Mexican fray. Always good value, his exchanges with Oyelowo inject heart and humour into what is a sporadically violent ride.
For those who say Gringo is muddled, well - I had no problem with the storytelling and loved its unpredictability. For others who criticise certain sub-plots, I thought it all tied together, thematically at any rate. And for the misguided individuals who dismissed it as sub-par Tarantino, I say it's written with flair and in possession of a moral centre that Quentin T's films lack. Absorbing and consistently funny, this rates with the best crime comedies I've seen in years. And in the flailing form of Harold, it has that something extra.
Gut Reaction: Impressed by its classiness, loving its protagonist and lol-ing a lot. (The running reference involving carrots and bananas is a particular joy.)

Where Are the Women?: Theron shows impeccable comic credentials and Amanda Seyfried shows up to remind Harold that the world isn't all about scumbags. It is a boys-y film though.

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. More satire than most bloody crime capers, but equally more depth. And its seasoned dramatic actors deliver terrific comic performances. I'm proud to be this film's lonely cheerleader.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Film Review - Lady Bird (15)

Money isn't life's report card.
So quietly has actor-writer Greta Gerwig been building up a name for herself in US entertainment that before Lady Bird I hadn't noticed her. It took sharper, more culturally aware eyes than mine to pick out her career as one to watch. Since its arrival on the festival circuit in September 2017 Gerwig's directorial debut has been charming the socks and pants off critics, gradually building up mainstream attention and attracting a host of award nominations, (even if none were converted into actual trophies). I'd love to go all iconoclastic and tell you the film's not all that... But it's good. In fact it's very good. And from the craft with which it's made, Gerwig is quite the big deal.
Set in Sacramento, 2002, Lady Bird draws on elements of Gerwig's own formative years without being fully autobiographical. Saoirse Ronan plays the eponymous teenager (real name Christine), who in final year at a local Catholic high school, while her white-collar family struggle due to reduced circumstances. Lady Bird has grand ambitions, both artistic and social, that threaten to put her at odds with family and friends alike. 'How did I raise such a snob?' bewails her mother (Laurie Metcalfe), in a memorable car scene early on. There are the usual teenage rites of passage - tentative dates, clashes with teachers and family squabbles - but aspects of this Bird's behaviour threaten to undermine the closest relationships in her life.
This kind of story has been told before, but seldom with this much charm, lack of fuss and attention to the minutiae of school and family interactions. The humour and the drama are never overplayed and are all the more believable as a result. If the first half hour has a patchwork 'where is this going' quality to it, the answers come soon enough. The smartly edited vignettes from Lady Bird's day-to-day existence form into a collage of her whole existence. The film ultimately is about nothing more or less than what we've all gone through - that flailing, desperate period of our lives where we're trying to define ourselves as adults, while still acting like children. And the joy is in the detail.
Ronan is the perfect choice to play Lady Bird, her likability as an actress tempering the more dubious behaviour of the character. (It's confident storytelling that doesn't feel you have to like the protagonist all the time.) This girl is smart and witty and sometimes vulnerable, and she can challenge authority in an entertaining way. But she can also be arrogant and manipulative, while exhibiting terrible judgement. That you stay with her throughout her turbulent learning experience is down to how truthfully the character is conceived and portrayed.

All the performances, under Gerwig's eye, are convincing, with a few standing out. Metcalfe more than earns her Oscar nomination as the mom,  full of sardonic wisdom and attitude; the constantly overlapping dialogue between mother and daughter is brilliantly authentic. Manchester by the Sea's Lucas Hedges finds real depth in  love-interest Danny, while Timothy Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name - and no, I still haven't seen it) is eminently slappable as pretentious teen musician Kyle. And Beanie Feldstein is sweetly touching as Lady's bestie Julie. Ultimately this is a whole-group effort. The home scenes have a genuinely ramshackle domestic quality and the school life is captured with seeming precision. (The ups and downs of the drama society are particularly entertaining.)
Lady Bird is no shouty film, crammed with dramatic fireworks. It succeeds by finding its comedy and its drama in the very ordinary. The girl of the title may not be Gerwig herself, but this is a world that the director knows inside-out. And spending time there with her turns out to be a slow-burning delight.
Gut Reaction: Smiled a lot, laughed aloud several times. Got teary twice. Wasn't expecting that.

Where Are the Women?: It's Greta Gerwig's project through and though. And both Ronan and Metcalfe do her writing proud.

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. A beautiful distillation of one year in one teenager's life. Great writing splendidly performed, then crafted via the editing suite into a little gem.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Feature - Filmic Forays Oscar Round-Up 2018

Well the movie Awards Season hoopla has abated, the 90th Academy Awards having rounded it all off nicely and with none of the wrong-envelope faff that turned last year's event into a fiasco. 
This year's Oscar ceremony attempted to draw a line under the past twelve months' momentous events in Hollywood. Whereas the Golden Globes were full of edgy jokes about Harvey Weinstein and institutionalised sexism, Oscar seemed to do much more looking forward - to a US film industry that celebrates diversity and has something approaching gender balance, both behind and in front of the camera. The broader the range of creatives involved in making cinema, the better viewing for all of us, right?
I argued this time last year that the whole point of film awards in general, and the Oscars in particular, should be to help promote truly innovate movies - ones that provide a quality alternative to the tide of sequels, remakes and reboots, which sometimes threaten to clog up our cinemas. So, to what extent did the 2018 nominations serve up the best of last year, and were the winners of the top awards truly worthy? And to what extent did they hint at some of that much hoped-for diversity? Let me take you on a quick jaunt through them...

Best Picture - The Shape of Water
There was no juggernaut film this year - no Schindler's List or The Lord of the Rings trilogy closer to sweep the boards. Instead we had a batch of wildly different films dividing attention and acclaim between them. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Dunkirk or Get Out - any one of them might have clinched it to my satisfaction. Even Lady Bird was viewed by some as a contender. As it worked out, The Shape of Water won over more hearts than it alienated, and I was happy with its success. Even if you're not a fan of its girl-meets-fish whimsy, you can't deny the sheer craft in every frame. This is one gorgeously made film. Besides, Three Billboards picked up the top gong at both the Globes and the BAFTAs, so it's good to have the honours shared. Just a shame there wasn't an equivalent award for the magnificent Dunkirk.

Best Director - Guillermo del Toro: The Shape of Water
I'm a bit of a del Toro fan - Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone are both superior films - so I was glad to see him receive this accolade. The Shape of Water was the Mexican director's baby from first to last and had his visual stamp all over it, so it would have been weird had he not picked this up along with the Best Picture award. It's always good to see a distinctive voice in cinema being rewarded, so well done the Academy on that one. Actually none of the nominated directors had received before, and acknowledgement for both Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan is overdue. But this was still a worthy choice.

Best Actress - Frances Mcdormand: Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri
A slam-dunk, and one I wouldn't argue with. It is appropriate, as some have said, that the award go to Frances McDormand's Three Billboards performance. As Mildred Hayes she is a strong woman, apparently failed by the system, who goes on a quest for justice (albeit one that takes things to a worrying extreme). It was a role very much in tune with the times, and she played it magnificently. I did harbour a sneaking hope, however, that Sally Hawkins would steal it for her sublime turn as Elisa in The Shape of Water. She was the film's emotional core without speaking a single word. And there are few actors who could pull that off to such amazing effect.

Best Actor - Gary Oldman: Darkest Hour
Oldman was great in this, and it was about much more than the prosthetics that transformed his face. Even if the film dropped the ball in the final stages (if you've seen it you'll surely know what I'm talking about), he never did. The other nominees have either bagged their Oscars already or will have plenty of time to do so in future ceremonies, so this was Gary's year.

Best Supporting Actress - Allison Janney: I, Tonya
I saw Lady Bird last weekend and Laurie Metcalf was excellent. Likewise Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread. Octavia Spencer breezed her Shape of Water role and to Mary J Blige I extend an apology - I haven't seen Mudbound yet. Allison Janney transformed herself for I, Tonya, however, and not in a Gary Oldman/Winston Churchill kind of way. If you've seen Janney in both The West Wing and in the role of Tonya Harding's mother, you'll appreciate what a stretch of a performance this was. Proper immersive acting. Good call.

Best Supporting Actor - Sam Rockwell: Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri
It was a shame to have to choose between Rockwell and Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water). Jenkins is an unsung hero of acting and his friendship with Sally Hawkins in the del Toro movie is a high-point. Christopher Plummer was a phenomenal J P Getty in All the Money in the World, but his genius was happily acknowledged back in 2012 for sterling work in Beginners. And I can't comment on Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project, that film being one of my great 2017 oversights. But much credit to hard-working, always impressive character-actor Rockwell, for finding depth in a slow-witted racist like Deputy Dixon. 

Best Cinematography - Roger Deakins: Blade Runner 2049
Fourteenth nomination for Torquay's Roger Deakins, and his first win. This man has overseen photography on numerous Coen Brothers films including Fargo and No Country for Old Men. He worked on Scorsese's Kundun, on Skyfall and on Sicario. His first nomination was for The Shawshank Redemption, for heaven's sake. Seriously, give that man an Oscar. Oh - yes, you did! About damn time. He's the reason why the Blade Runner sequel looks so gorgeous. Got there at last, mate, and you're not yet 70.

Best Original Screenplay - Get Out
This was contested by an outstanding group of scripts including several of the Best Picture contenders and my beloved The Big Sick. So it's wonderful that Jordan Peele picked up the award for the brilliant and provocative Get Out. Actor/writer Peele also had a Best Director nom for his debut behind the camera, but this is a significant win in itself for a rising star in cinema. This is what the Best Original Screenplay award is for - rewarding the challenging and the innovative. Again well done.

Best Adapted Screenplay - Call Me By Your Name
I haven't seen it. I have nothing to say. I am sorry. One trusted friend tells me it's the best thing ever, another that it's not worth my time. So that's par for the course. I enjoyed Molly's Game very much, likewise The Disaster Artist and Logan, so does it truly stand up to all of them? I'll give you my thoughts later in the year along with those on Mudbound and The Florida Project. Well I can't live in a cinema... (Update: I've now scene two more of the above films and turned the titles into review links.)

As ever there are films and performances, which probably should have received nominations, but never made the cut (Lady Macbeth, anyone?). That aside, Oscar is embracing a wider range of projects these days, so that even a few genre pics - Get Out being the prime example - gain proper attention. With no single behemoth movie to grab the awards, a handful of edgy, imaginative or technically ground-breaking titles divided the spoils between them. (The Cold War woman-fish romantic fantasy bagged the big two, admittedly.) The traditional 'Oscar-bait' movies were scarce, and innovation was as high a priority as it's probably ever been before.

I call that a good year.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Film Review - I, Tonya (15)

That girl is your enemy. You're not here to make friends.
If you'd asked me what I knew about Tonya Harding, I would probably have replied, 'Wasn't she that American ice-skater who broke her rival's leg, pre-competition?' Which is precisely the kind of media misinformation addressed by this rough and ribald drama. I, Tonya centres on the incident in which Harding's husband arranged to have Nancy Kerrigan taken out of the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships by nefarious means. The movie doesn't defend Harding, nor does it pass particular judgement on whatever role she may have played in the attack (no leg was broken, but the injury to Kerrigan was brutal nonetheless). It presents the truth, in fact, as decidedly muddy - a strategy as frustrating as it is fascinating.
The film, it should be said, is about more than the so-called 'incident'. It's the story of an anomaly - a self-labelled redneck girl with a bolshy attitude, making her way in that most prim of sports, ice-skating. Her angst is fuelled by two relationships - with her pathologically ambitious mother and volatile first husband. The movie's narrative is based on real-life (and mutually contradictory) interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, both characters speaking regularly on camera to question the truth of what we have just witnessed. The result is a turbulent ride, as Harding's astonishing talent does battle with both outside influences and her own fiery nature. 

I, Tonya is more than anything a complex character study, and it thrives on the grit of its central performances. Margot Robbie (most recently seen in Goodbye, Christopher Robin) is truly impressive as Harding, well worthy of her Best Actress Oscar Nomination. She plays the eponymous Tonya from a raucous fifteen years old, through the turmoil of her years in competition to the sardonic thirty-something looking back at it all. Whatever level of ice-skating expertise she achieved, the scenes are edited seamlessly, Robbie capturing the zest and rebellious spirit that enthralled audiences and antogonised judges. 
Sebastian Stan is also fine as the angry and bewildered Jeff, unrecognisable from his Bucky Barnes role in the Captain America movies (well I didn't recognise him at any rate). There's a shiftiness to both him and Harding throughout, so that we don't entirely trust either of these unreliable narrators. And speaking of untrustworthy, The West Wing's Allison Janney is utterly transformed as Harding's bitter chain-smoking mother LaVonda. Think a wildly over-zealous skating mom with a bitter redneck twist and you're someway to visualising the kind of viciousness portrayed here. Again, her Best Supporting Oscar nom is a no-brainer. If this film is about anything, it's about types of relationship dysfunction - and the mother-daughter dynamic here is jaw-dropping in its destructive nature.
This is a tough-minded film with an unflinching portrayal of domestic violence, both physical and psychological. It's also full of grim humour, much of which stems from the relationship between Jeff and his deluded friend and co-conspirator Shawn. (Paul Walter Hauser sheds all dignity in an unflattering and painfully funny performance). If the movie has a flaw it's the amount of time the story takes to wrap, once the 'incident' has played out. Since the screenplay is reluctant to pass final judgement on Harding, it would benefit from seriously tightening up the denouement. 
Whatever the truth behind I, Tonya's conflicting accounts, this is a bleak tale with nary a flicker of redemption. Reports that Tonya Harding is treated too sympathetically are overstated; the film's tone is far too frank for that, the story too laden with ambiguity. It cuts through the media bullshit surrounding the events, but leaves key questions unanswered. Nancy Kerrigan was demonstrably a victim of the whole affair, while her opponent remains inscrutable. The girl from the underclass background, who almost made good. Whether guilty or innocent, Tonya's story is a kind of American tragedy.
Gut Reaction: Engrossed for the most part - alternately appalled and amused. And left feeling a bit tainted at the end.

Where Are the Women?: In the forefront and your face. As I post this review, Alison Janney is probably still celebrating her Best Supporting Actress Oscar. 

Ed's Verdict: 7.5/10. A successfully dark and edgy comedy-drama, with terrific performances throughout. But as a trawl through the murkier aspects of our humanity, it's the very opposite of uplifting.