Movie reviews: 'Call Me By Your Name,' 'I, Tonya,' 'The Post,' 'Molly's Game,' 'Mary and the Witch's Flower'
By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
Check out my thoughts on five acclaimed movies screening in Amarillo or the area.
Call Me By Your Name
In director Luca Guadagnino's lush, masterful Call Me By Your Name, the maelstrom of first love comes sensuously alive over one languorous summer in 1983 in northern Italy.
This is where we meet 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet, in a star-making turn), the son of an American professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and an Italian mother (Amira Casar). Elio's father traditionally brings on a student as a summer research assistant; this summer, it's lanky, confident 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer).
Without knowing what has hit him, Elio finds himself helplessly falling in love with Oliver, overwhelmed by an attraction he never knew he was capable of but wholeheartedly along for the ride.
The film unfolds slowly, patiently. Elio has no idea why he's drawn to Oliver — in fact, at first, he finds him off-puttingly insouciant, always dashing out of the house with a tossed-off "Later." Annoyance turns to desire — reciprocated, finally, but with an expiration date because Oliver's stay is limited.
André Aciman's acclaimed novel is completely interior, set entirely in Elio's lovestruck mind, but Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory open the story up and, just a bit, slow it down, or at least have the patience to let it ripen naturally. Guadagnino's long takes, a trademark, emphasize the sensuality of both their atmosphere and deepening bond.
After reading the book, I wondered how Elio's inner-most thoughts would be clear without benefit of a voiceover, but in Chalamet's hands, his heart is laid bare, every emotion playing out across his expressive face.
And Hammer matches him perfectly, slowly revealing Oliver's own heart to Elio's stunned reaction. It's an intricate dance they perform — two men coming to realize, together, just how much a passion can overwhelm them, can subsume them, can even — as Oliver suggests in an exchange that provides the film its name — make them forget where one ends and the other begins.
And supporting them, in every sense of the word, are Stuhlbarg and Casar — Stuhlbarg more explicitly, in a monologue of all-encompassing parental love, and Casar more understatedly, but just as loving.
This is a spectacular love story, universal and powerfully intimate, all in one. (R for sexual content, nudity and some language; click here for showtimes at United Artists Amarillo Star 14, 8275 W. Amarillo Blvd.)
"It's not my fault."
Over and over, the poorly coiffed, garishly made-up woman staring at us directly through the camera implores us to believe that she's culpable for none of the outlandish mess of what unfolds in I, Tonya.
And she's not exactly wrong, which director Craig Gillespie's pitch-black comedy reveals in its own caustic manner.
Tonya Harding — the pint-sized ice skater with an attitude bigger than an Olympic arena, whose name will always, infamously be tied to that of rival Nancy Kerrigan, whose knee Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspired to have whacked — was born into and then married into a cycle of abuse.
And Gillespie wants us to laugh. I, Tonya isn't a traditional biopic, nor a documentary recounting of events. It's a tragicomedy — emphasis on both halves of the term.
The film — based, its opening titles tell us, on "irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly" — tells us Tonya's story practically from birth. Her slit-eyed, cutting (literally) mother (Allison Janney in a force-of-nature performance) pushes her to excel on skates, thinking that it could turn into a lucrative career with the Ice Capades, if nothing else. LaVona pushes so hard that she forces young Tonya to stay on the ice and pee herself, pushes so hard that she has no compunction about striking her across the face, pushes so hard that she thinks nothing of verbally abusing her impressionable daughter at every turn.
Again, this is a comedy.
The first time we see LaVona strike Tonya, it's played for laughs — more of the shock-value kind than anything else, but laughs just the same.
To be honest, it's a little bit hard to take — not while you're watching it, because it's raucously funny, but later, when you pause to think about it.
I think that's the point, though. Tonya Harding's life — through at least some complicity on her part — became a circus, and aren't we supposed to laugh as the clowns dance? Didn't those of us who breathlessly followed the gossip rags in 1994 forget what was really important — that yes, there was a real victim here in Kerrigan, but damn it, Tonya really could skate. She was the first woman to land a triple axel, after all.
Gillespie somehow makes these wildly contradictory tones work — the black humor, the empathetic look at a life of poverty, the camp spectacle, the interrogation of what "truth" really is.
Everyone has their own truth, Tonya tells us after we've seen the whole sordid saga unfold. But beyond the truth about what actually happened to Kerrigan, which absolutely should not be dismissed (but sort of is in the film, which barely sketches her out as a character), Tonya is going to take us down with her: "I was loved, then I was hated, then I was a punchline. ... You're all my abusers, too." (R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity; click here for showtimes at Alamo Drafthouse, 120 W. Loop 289 in Lubbock)
Even two years removed from my job in newspaper journalism, ink still runs in my veins, so in some ways, it's no surprise how well I responded to The Post.
Watching the presses roll just gets my heart racing every time, and even though the 1971-set movie predates my career (and my birth), even watching the pressmen set the stories in hot type was a visceral thrill.
But well beyond that frisson of nostalgic energy, The Post is practically bioengineered to appeal to me or anyone, really, who values a free press — which should be all of us but, well, you know.
Director Steven Spielberg, with a little time on his hands while post-production work was being done on his upcoming Ready Player One, came across a script by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah about the Pentagon Papers, a government-commissioned study that showed decades' worth of mendacity about the Vietnam War. But instead of strictly focusing on that tale (ably retold recently in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War on PBS), Hannah centered her story around Katharine Graham, the then-new publisher of the Washington Post, and her struggles to come into her own as the paper's leader.
Spielberg saw a film (with a new script draft by Spotlight Oscar-winner Josh Singer, credited as Hannah's co-writer) that was extraordinarily timely, despite telling a 46-year-old story. With President Trump's regular broadsides against the First Amendment, echoed by his administration and other Republicans in office or in media, not to mention increased political polarization on all sides, the parallels to Nixon's years in power were hard to miss.
The resulting film, completed in about seven months, doesn't feel the least bit rushed, but there is a delicious urgency to it, which can sometimes be lacking in Spielberg's more serious projects. He's on a righteous mission here — to defend and champion the free media — and the resulting movie is like a sounding trumpet signalling the start of a war.
He's abetted by a marvelous cast. At the top, there's Meryl Streep as Graham, depicting the neophyte publisher as someone almost frightened by the sound of her own voice, used to being regularly overlooked by the men in her life, until she has a reawakening as the newspaper that has been in her family for decades comes under fire. At her side is Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, the hard-nosed editor she hand-picked to run the newsroom, though she comes to fear his take-no-prisoners attitude.
But beyond two of the most talented and popular movie stars working today, Spielberg has assembled a killer lineup — Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe, Graham's most-trusted adviser; Carrie Coon as Meg Greenfield, the paper's editorial page editor; Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, the dogged reporter who gets the Pentagon Papers for the Post after the New York Times' publication of them was halted; Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary and close friend of Graham; and more.
What struck me throughout was the film's persistent message that truth-telling is hard business, whether it's the reporters struggling to nail down the details of a story or Graham standing up to threats both internally and externally. Like Singer's Spotlight, there's a deep respect for the work done in the trenches, for the care and the craft involved. It was enough to make me want to stand up and cheer. (PG-13 for language and brief war violence; click here for showtimes at Amarillo Star 14 and Cinemark Hollywood 16, 9100 Canyon Drive)
Aaron Sorkin's new drama Molly's Game is like a queen-high flush — a killer hand, but not as strong as it could be.
Based on the autobiography of competitive skier turned high-stakes poker maven Molly Bloom, the film has all of the elements of Sorkin's best work — in particular, the celebration of highly skilled, highly intelligent people and the mellifluously written monologues, effortlessly delivered by its stars. But it also has Sorkin's weaknesses — the daddy issues that always seem to plague his characters, and his urge to have one wise male deliver a monologue that diagnoses the central woman's problems.
But until then, the movie crackles.
Jessica Chastain stars as Bloom, who reinvented herself after a career-ending fluke accident on the slopes. She relocated to Hollywood and found a job as the assistant of a wormy rich dude (Jeremy Strong), who eventually tasked her with running his high-end poker games. Bloom, smarter than any of the men around her, soon sees that she could run her own games, legally making a fortune off others' vices.
But as the nesting-doll structure of the story reveals, Bloom is eventually caught up in an FBI sting of some of her regular players. Just what her culpability is and why she refuses to make a deal that would get the feds to ease up on her unfolds throughout the enthralling but too-long film.
Her sole ally is her attorney, Charlie, played by Idris Elba in a performance that matches Chastain's step for step. Their energy and their connection keep the talky movie in high gear throughout.
The film — the screenwriter's debut as a feature director — is at its best when Bloom is riding high in Hollywood, making money off of ridiculously wealthy moguls and celebrities whose misadventures can go from slightly wacky to painfully tragic on a dime. At the center of it is a composite character, Player X, who stands in for several of the high-profile stars who played in Bloom's games. He's played by Michael Cera, who's magnetic despite playing against his character's supposed charisma.
Bloom's downfall, telegraphed all along, starts to drag the movie down, but I lost all patience when Kevin Costner, playing her therapist father, arrives at the end to deliver that diagnostic monologue. The film didn't need this moment at all — Chastain's performance and Sorkin's script had already shown Bloom clearly enough, both strengths and flaws alike. (R for language, drug content and some violence; click here for showtimes at Hollywood 16)
Mary and the Witch's Flower
So, imagine if Disney had folded up shop, and a new batch of animators, trained by the master but starting their own studio, was stepping up to take the lead.
That's kind of the situation anime fans are seeing with the new Studio Ponoc, stepping into the void let in 2015 when Studio Ghibli, the animation powerhouse behind such classics as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, announced that it would close. Ponoc's lead animators trained at Ghibli, and they haven't been shy about saying that they're carrying on the old studio's legacy.
Mary and the Witch's Flower, which will screen at 7 p.m. (English-dubbed) and 8 p.m. (subtitled) at the Amarillo Star 14, is the new studio's debut, and while it shows great promise, it doesn't quite live up to Ghibli's best.
The film is based on the 1971 British children's novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart — I hadn't heard of it either — which plays out like a girl-power precursor to the Harry Potter series. Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill of The BFG in the English-language dub) is a lonely girl who finds a broomstick and some mysterious blooms in the forest; the glowing flowers give her magical powers for one night at a time, and on her first night, she's whisked off to a witches' school that's floating in the clouds.
There, she's an immediate success with the headmistress, Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), and eccentric professor Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), thanks to the hidden assistance of those strange flowers and to her red hair. But soon, Mary learns that something is amiss at Endor College, and she takes it on herself to set things right.
The story itself is familiar, so I'd hoped for a more imaginative film, but there are too many echoes of earlier, much stronger Ghibli films, especially Castle in the Sky and Mononoke. Mary's story is intriguing and certainly worth watching, but here's hoping Ponoc finds its own way soon. (PG for some action and thematic elements; click here for details)