I, Tonya: Movie Man Jackson

Why can’t it be just about the skating? If it were only about the skating, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) would probably end up as the best figure skater to ever do it. At the age of four she embarked on this career path, driven by her overbearing mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). The talent is evident from the first time she shows her skills in an older age group. Eventually, she becomes the first woman to land a triple axel.

If it were only about the skating, Tonya’s story would be a happy one. But exposed to the constant abuse from LaVona and her first love Jeff (Sebastian Stan), the volatility of her situation places her down a tragic path of darkness, culminating with “the incident” against competitor Nancy Kerrigan that would come to define her life.

Sure, the world may have gotten the great ESPN 30 for 30 in The Price of Gold, but it is kind of surprising that it took almost a quarter-century for the infamous Tonya Harding incident to be captured onto the silver screen. Jordan years (that’s 23 for the non-sports fans out there) later, I, Tonya officially arrives in the awards season and winds up standing as very, very surprising film.

Sometimes tone and approach can be the most important factors as it pertains to how well a movie’s story is told and whether it resonates or not. Massive kudos must be given to director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Fright Night 2011), writer/producer Steven Rogers, producers Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley, Bryan Unkeless, and even Tonya Harding herself who serves as a consultant for the movie for nailing these two components. There’s an alternate universe where I, Tonya is super dry and told with a straight face. That recipe is likely a forgettable view.

Why? Because the preposterous life story of Tonya Harding—from 4 years old on to her celebrity boxing stint—is too unbelievable not to chuckle or even laugh hard at; it might as well be a fiction except it actually happened. The Office-like format in storytelling takes a little while to find a groove, and the fourth-wall breaking isn’t always smoothly deployed, but necessary to seeing how the main characters’ recollection of the events are not the same. However, using this method allows a more emotionally-affecting look into Ms. Harding herself. Seriously, I Tonya goes there to those dark, icy, and uncomfortable places. Gillespie and company do the right thing in straying away from painting Tonya as a complete victim, but rather, examining how one, even with immense talent, is rather hopeless to beat a self-fulfilling prophecy without a stable environment.

Some biographies—especially around awards season—are rather tepid, absent of any spirit or excitement. Not, I, Tonya. The characters, from major to minor, pop off the screen. A mid-80’s to early 90’s soundtrack envelopes the screen with electricity. Gillespie’s skating scenes are some of the more breathtaking sequences of the entire year, filmed with grace and elegance.This is never a dull watch.

The energy is obviously carried into the performances as well. As mentioned, even the bit players in Julianne Nicholson, McKenna Grace, Bobby Cannavale, and Paul Walter Hauser (a real scene-stealer midway through as Tonya’s bodyguard) make their imprint on the feature. But this film is anchored by its superstar trifecta in Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney. Robbie is firmly a superstar who raises anything she’s in at this point, and her work as the troubled figure skater is her career-best, deftly switching between sadness, anger, and dark humor and remaining a character and not a caricature despite some embellishment. A moment midway through where Robbie asks a judge about what exactly they have against her and why it is not solely about skating is gut-wrenching.

Stan, who ironically was in a vastly movie with clear parallels to Tonya Harding in The Bronze, continues to cement himself as more than the Winter Soldier, and here’s to hoping his Marvel future doesn’t prevent him from doing more work like this. Janney is unrecognizable in her turn portraying Harding’s mother, ruthless, brow-beating, and foul-mouthed and the center of her daughter’s troubles and issues. Undoubtedly one of the definitive standout performances the 2017 calendar year.

What is truth? Jumbled, because everyone has their own version of it, according to the movie. But the truth is that with damn near flawless execution, a ton of energy, and top-notch performances, I, Tonya stands out as one of the more memorable biopics in recent memory.

A-

Photo credits go to vulture.com, usmagazine.com, teaser-trailer.com, and variety.com

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com

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Suicide Squad: Movie Man Jackson

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I’ll just stick to mixing sodas together. To be better prepared for extraterrestrial threats such as Superman who might not be as friendly as the Man of Steel, the government, led by intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), decides to put together a group of talented, yet unstable, individuals.

Call them a Suicide Squad, if you will, comprised of Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Slipknot (Adam Beach). Along with de facto special forces leader Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and appointed bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara), the ragtag group is asked to take down not The Joker (Jared Leto), but a threat that could destroy the world. If they succeed, wonderful. And if they fail? Well, there’s a reason the baddest of the bad drew this straw and got called a suicide squad.

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Some popular memes going around the Internet concern Marvel vs DC Comics, and how much the latter lags behind the former. One of my personal favorites is this one here, taken from Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Sam Wilson aka Falcon talks about how he does everything Captain America does but much slower. This is, in a way, a perfect image that defines the struggles the DC Extended Universe has had in getting off the ground since BvS and now with Suicide Squad. The irony is, however, that by hotshotting a multitude of characters in the hopes of creating a big comic book universe fast in two movies has actually had the opposite effect.

The talented David Ayer (End of Watch, writer of Training Day), was tagged to not only direct this next entry in the DCEU. Ayer is one of the grittiest directors, and writers, of today, and with the supposedly dark material that Suicide Squad houses in the comics, that would seem to be up his alley, right? Not exactly. There’s a part of me that understands that with the criticism of Dawn of Justice, there was no way that a following DC movie could be as somber.

But, Suicide Squad does unfortunately feel a little neutered, fragmented, and duller than could be imagined. Perhaps it isn’t Ayer’s fault, but the fault of what appears to be a meddling studio yet again. Perhaps we’ll see an extended cut on Blu-Ray akin to Batman V Superman, though a second time with subsequent films gives off the wrong idea. On a bright note, a pretty good score is found by Steven Price, but the soundtrack drives the scenes more, for good and for bad.

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Ayer does present a nice setup. Though exposition-heavy in a scene that seems to last forever in a restaurant, there likely was no other feasible way to introduce the characters that make up the squad. It does its job. The problem is that after that, the story is pretty rinse-and-repeat. I actually didn’t find it that hard to follow, but there very much is a bait-and-switch element to the proceedings. Pretty much a whole act is devoted to getting through two waves of literal faceless enemies to get to a building to extract someone. There are some cool visual moments, mainly of Deadshot being an expert marksman, but it all adds up to a meh trek to the finale, which is hampered by middling to bad CGI and the cheesiness of slow-motion.

The main reason why Suicide Squad isn’t a complete waste is because it is easy to see that the cast is fully committed to these characters and the movie, even if some do not get the requisite attention or backstory. Will Smith is always gonna be Will Smith to me, never fully bleeding into a character. That is not to say he isn’t entertaining, though, and his Deadshot possesses the most humane storyline of any character. Margot Robbie is the true star, and rightfully so. WB has promoted her crazy person act as the franchise player, and it isn’t hyperbolic to say she may one day rival or surpass Batman’s popularity on the silver screen in the DCEU. More of her, please.

In a film of nuts and psychos, Viola Davis’ role is important, if only just to give some sense to the proceedings. Finally, Jared Leto’s Joker is something I was down on after the conclusion of this film, but after thinking about it more, one has to respect his efforts to do something different. Maybe the real reason I was down was the simple fact that he’s not the real opposition this feature deserves, but it’s the one we needed.

The rest of the squad has a clear hierarchy after Deadshot and Quinn. Jay Hernandez and Joel Kinnaman get some development, the former’s actually a little emotional while the latter’s only serves to propel the movie’s baddie. Jai Courtney gets a few funny lines here and there, and barely edges above worthless. Sadly, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Karen Fukuhara are basically that as Killer Croc and Katana, respectively. Nothing against them as actors, just have no care if their characters somehow turned up dead before the sequel. This really needed a stronger villain than the one given to us played by Cara Delevingne. By film’s end, it’s pretty brutal and not in a good way. 

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Suicide Squad contains a good-to-great foundation for future DC film property in its own universe, but its present is a little bit mucky. Squad goals? Not exactly yet.

C

Photo credits go to cinemablend.com, ew.com, and screenrant.com

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The Legend of Tarzan: Movie Man Jackson

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You can leave the jungle, but the jungle never leaves you. As a young boy, John Clayton the Third (Alexander Skarsgård) grew up in England with two loving parents. On a trip to the Congo, his parents died, and Clayton had nowhere to turn to, except the jungle. He was raised by it and its inhabitants, and thus, The Legend of Tarzan was born.

Now living back in England with his bride Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan still carries the legend but has no desire to return to his native environment. But, some potential shadiness brought to light by American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) indicates that his environment could be in trouble, as could he. Envoy to Belgian King Leopold, Leo Rolm (Christoph Waltz) has plans on capturing the Lord of the Jungle in exchange for diamonds that can be used to essentially rule the Congo in some fashion. Tarzan must go back, to protect what is sacred to him and others.

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The Legend of Tarzan, in a way, feels like a 21st century postmodern movie on race relations and xenopobia and people from other groups learning to accept outsiders as their own without flat out saying so. This could totally be yours truly overthinking this, or perhaps finding some positive in a movie during the turbulent times in Baton Rouge and Dallas over the past week at the time of this writing. The latest big screen adaptation of The Lord of the Jungle isn’t as bad as most takes paint it to be, but it certainly can be more of a chore to sit through than anticipated, at least through the first half of the movie.

Director David Yates, easily best known for his contributions to the Harry Potter film franchise, sets up the story as a part origin and part adventure story, oscillating between the two. Truth be told, a 100% origin story probably wasn’t needed anyway (how much can really be told or explored about a man who is raised in the jungle?), but the pace never gets going for this period. Visually, almost all of the scenes early on take place in the same dark jungle lighting that’s pretty obscure and just adds to the overall “blahness” of it all. It’s a shockingly serious film, almost one that forgets it is supposed to be a blockbuster.

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But as stated, Yates does get TLOT going in the second half. There’s vine swinging, beautiful lush scenery, Tarzan fighting animals, Tarzan working with animals, basically everything that one would expect and desire with watching a Tarzan film. So, some surprisingly well-looking set pieces are present…it just takes a while to get to. Rupert Gregson-Williams contributes to the score, which also kicks into gear just as the movie does.

From a casting perspective, the movie is filled pretty well. Tarzan’s more of a role where if a person looks the part, they’re gold. Sure there’s speaking involved, but it is generally a physical role. Alexander Skarsgård definitely looks the part, and if there were to be a sequel, he does enough to warrant another turn as the jungle hero. His chemistry with Robbie, who plays a good and strong Jane, isn’t amazing but sound.

A bright spot is Samuel L. Jackson, bringing the humor at times. But, he feels like he’s totally in a different movie as well, with everything and everyone around him being so brooding and heavy and his character being so light, and it ends up making for an odd tonal disconnect in places. Djimon Hounsou, seemingly firmly rooted as a secondary villain in features nowadays, does what is to be expected. Speaking of firmly rooted, Christoph Waltz once again finds himself playing a baddie, and it isn’t all that different from his turns in Horrible Bosses 2, Big Eyes, or SpectreMight be time to take another role?

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The jungle should never be dull, but that is what The Legend of Tarzan is for a good chunk of its runtime. But as the second half shows, Tarzan can absolutely be a fun character to watch. You Jane, Me Tarzan, this movie, OK.

C

Photo credits go to Collider.com, moviepilot.com, comingsoon.net, and moviepilot.com.

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The Big Short: Movie Man Jackson

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A time out is needed every so minutes when watching The Big Short. The year is 2005, and the housing market, and by extension, the economy, is looking pretty damn good. However, there are a few people, like hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) who believe that the housing market is awfully close to collapsing. Through research, he’s come to the conclusion that more loans are being taken out with fewer and fewer returns.

Not everyone feels this way about the market, but a few individuals hop on the bandwagon. Deutche Bank trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) gets in on the action early, realizing that Burry’s doomsday prediction is correct…and also very profitable. By accident, this information about the impending housing market makes way into the ears of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hedge fund manager at FrontPoint (a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley) who is fed up with the system.

And by virtue of being in the right place at the right time after a disappointing failure, friends and upstart business partners Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) decide to hitch their fortunes to Burry’s projections, needing the intel of a disenchanted and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get a seat at the front table. There’s an opportunity to get rich, but nothing is certain. And even if it is, is it worth it to benefit if everyone else’s life is wrecked beyond belief?

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The Big Short features a ton of contradictions. It is made for dummies, and yet it isn’t. It is kind of light, yet also heavy. Simply, the film will not work for everyone, and it has issues that prevent it from being a film without issues. But, it is a film that is hard to not stop thinking about after the credits roll, and for it to achieve that with the story and subject matter it is based upon is an astonishing feat in my opinion.

The housing market and its specific jargon is awfully dense, which should, in theory, make for a dry, and perhaps even dull, movie. Director Adam McKay (Step Brothers, the Anchorman series) doesn’t shy away from it, either. This is about the housing market and the economy, and as such, certain terms are used and need to be. But, McKay does do his best to make the concepts approachable, be it the use of Zach Morris-esque fourth wall breaks featuring actual celebrities, and/or characters in the movie who take the time to explain what exactly is going on at a specific point in time, accompanied with actual definitions for the words that the main characters spout off so casually. It’s a cool device/style that McKay uses pretty well, and his usage of it distinguishes The Big Short from other biographies that can often be too “by the numbers.”

“Cool” doesn’t equate to picture-perfect, however. Know how the phrase of “letting the story/script breathe” is sometimes used for directors with a pronounced style who know when to pull back and allow the story to take focus over their directorial style? Good as the script is for The Big Short, McKay’s imprint is always seen…which isn’t always good thing. As alluded to, telling ‘TBS’ in the same straightforward fashion as other biographies and true stories wasn’t the play with the content matter bordering on boring information overload, but yours truly does wonder if a little more restraint employed by McKay would have made for a slightly more thorough cinema piece. But, credit where credit is due. Never once during the 2 hour 34 minute runtime was I bored.

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For every well-used fourth wall break technique, though, there’s one or two (looking at you, Margot Robbie), that either are unneeded, or actually complicate understanding instead of dumbing things down. In addition, it can be hard to ascertain McKay’s directorial goal with this. Is he looking to make this resemble a regular movie? A documentary with a single cam? Maybe even a music video with all of the cuts (literally with the splicing of actual music videos, and figuratively)? Admittedly, yours truly’s thoughts on the film come after Adam McKay’s Best Director nomination, which could lead to a more pessimistic look at the style as opposed to just watching it without knowing of his accolade a few weeks prior. And as said, his style is mostly good for this, if a little overused. While it is an overall impressive job turned in for a man who was only known for doing comedy, I just don’t believe it is Best Director worthy after knowing who else existed as options.

But, a director heavy visual style can’t take away from the acting work submitted by their cast. And make no mistake, The Big Short has great acting. While neither of the four leads have characters that are all that deep, they are still extremely fun to watch. Out of the four, Bale and Carell are the biggest standouts, with the former playing an awkward professional who struggles to connect with people, and the latter tapping into Michael Scott, with all of the zeal that the Dunder-Mifflin manager possessed but none of the stupidity. Gosling and Pitt are great additions and do well with their respective roles as comedic relief and semi-moral center, but get by more with their personas than anything their characters are.

Hardly featured in the marketing yet integral to the story, Finn Wittrock and John Magaro provide the audience with a nice look at how two young guys decided to buck the system. Regardless of how much meat their characters have, what each actor and McKay does do well is refrain from trying to paint characters as do-gooders. Yes, they are nowhere near as evil as those they oppose, but the movie makes no effort to paint these guys as Robin Hood types, either. I found that aspect fascinating.

Left to right: Steve Carell plays Mark Baum and Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett in The Big Short from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises

The collapse of the housing market and ultimately the economy may not seem like a story that would translate well onto the silver screen, but the way it is told in The Big Short makes for a great watch, filled with an unforeseen, sometimes helter-skelter style, and strong cast work. Whether its bubble bursts on Oscar night or not remains to be seen, but in the meantime, take some time to invest in this.

Grade: B+

Photo credits go to youtube.com, vanityfair.com, and collider.com

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Focus: Movie Man Jackson

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“You get that focus, you can take whatever you want.”

All people watch other people. Some people make a career off of watching people and exploiting their weak points. Focus is about those people. For basically his entire life, Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) has been exposed to the world of con-artistry, learning the trade from his father and his father’s father. Nicky’s one of the best—maybe the best—in the business, building a medium-sized empire on small-scale thefts and jobs.

Nicky’s world changes when he is the target of a botched con job by a woman named Jess (Margot Robbie). Immediately recognizing that her intended mark is someone she can learn from, Jess begs Nicky to take her under his wing, to which he acquiesces to. The more time the two spend together, the more feelings begin to crystallize and guards begin to be let down. In this life that Nicky and Jess partake in however, mixing love with business only makes things complicated.

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Con-artistry. Whenever it appears prominently in a film there should be one rule of expectancy: Never trust anyone, or anything. It is all a game within a game within a game. Does that get repetitive eventually? To yours truly it does, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a joy-free ride to be had. Focus will likely not anything to remember years down the line, but if a hunger for who’s playing who is desired, it may satisfy it.

Directed by the tag team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (Crazy.Stupid.Love), Focus has a notable look and feel to it that meshes with the elements of the plot. Visually, the film is mellow and cool, super slick and effortless. The same can be said for the score and soundtrack which is real subtle and blends in with the background, whether it be the jazzy brass found in the New Orleans-set scenes or the softer rock and acoustic instrumental sounds lingering in the more personal scenes.

This approach feels reflective to the career of a successful con-artist. One never brings attention to themselves or makes their intentions known, but their presence still has to be present in order to capitalize on their mark. Even when the plot becomes dull and sort of convoluted, a level of interest was still had on my end simply because of the scenery and sound.

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The plot does work initially though, especially in the first half. There is intrigue in seeing how these capers hit their targets, and the actual science used to do so. It is exposition and used heavily, possibly a bit too much, in spots but there’s no denying the fact that hearing Smith talk about the pull-off of the job is entertaining. Near the end of the first half, there is a Super Bowl sequence that is without a doubt the best thing about this movie, unpredictable and full of suspense. As close to describing it without spoiling, it is what The Gambler should have been in its high-stakes moments.

Unfortunately, this moment serves as the climax for not just the first half, but the movie as a whole. It would be wrong to say Focus completely drags the rest of the way when the locale shifts to Argentina, but it does feel like it is in a holding pattern for a prolonged period of time, and the whole “Grand Prix” race job has nowhere near the interest of the Super Bowl ones. Near the end the pace ratchets up again with a few nicely pulled-off twists that help to clarify a some of the jumbled second half, but a point arrives when an extra few of them occur and it becomes hard not to start racking the brain as to how they work.

Issues with the plot or not, Will Smith and Margot Robbie do solid enough work to mitigate them somewhat. Yours truly has never been the biggest Smith fan even in his heyday, but it is clear the man has star power. Obviously, his character of Nicky isn’t one to really connect with, and as such it is hard to in many ways care for him. There are bits here and there but nothing to really latch on to. But with that said, Smith’s character is supposed to be a poised, composed, never flustered individual with supreme confidence, and Will brings that to the table here without trying. About the only way where Smith, and Robbie for that matter, fail is with the humor. So many lines falls flat (subjectively) and there’s a feeling that Requa and Ricarra believe this film is funnier than it is.

Still, he shares a noticeable amount of chemistry with Margot Robbie. Robbie is more than fine here, but she doesn’t get the material (in my opinion at least) to work with like she did in say, The Wolf of Wall Street to be more than a generic romantic interest. Still, being here and starring with Smith lays a nice foundation chemistry-wise for something called Suicide Squad.

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Endless twists abound, Focus is held together together by a game Will Smith, Margot Robbie, their chemistry, and an effective technical presentation. Never trust a con, or a con movie for that matter.

Grade: C+

Photo credits go to movietalkies.com, variety.com, and aceshowbiz.com.

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