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Stranger than Fiction Oscar Contenders in Theaters This Weekend

Hope Madden Hope Madden Stranger than Fiction Oscar Contenders in Theaters This WeekendPhoto via IMDb.
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A January release date can mean terrible, awful, unwatchable things. It can also mean Oscar. You just have to choose carefully. The first week of the new year treats CBUS moviegoers pretty well, with at least one sure-fire Oscar contender in the mix. Maybe two.

I, Tonya

Director Craig Gillespie, armed with a whip-smart script and a stellar ensemble, comes at the Tonya Harding 1994 Olympic soap opera from the perfect side: all of them.

As Harding, Margot Robbie is electric. She plays Harding as an unapologetic fighter, clinging to a sport that doesn’t want her while battling a cruel mother (certain Oscar nominee Alison Janney), an abusive husband in Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), an idiotic “bodyguard” with 007 delusions (Paul Walter Hauser) and eventually, a rabid public.

Or, maybe she was an ungrateful daughter and a scheming wife, in on the plan to hobble rival Nancy Kerrigan and eager to play the victim at her first opportunity.

Gillespie makes it a fascinating and darkly funny ride, with an undercurrent of bittersweet naivete. As the 1994 Winter Olympics get underway, we see Tonya’s drama play out alongside the birth of reality television, the rise of tabloid journalism and the start of the O.J. Simpson tragedy.

We would never be the same.

I, Tonya embraces the surreal nature of this tale but never mocks or condescends, even in its most comical moments. There’s poignancy here, too, plus tragedy nearly Greek in nature and a damn fine mix of real skating and visual trickery.

Never mind that East German judge. I, Tonya deserves the podium.

Grade: A-

Molly’s Game

As screenwriters go, few have as noticeable a presence as Aaron Sorkin. A Sorkin screenplay = smart people saying smart things really quickly, over top of each other, often while walking. Want to see what he can do when he also directs?

Sorkin’s struggling hero this time around is Molly Bloom, played by the always-sharp Jessica Chastain. Bloom became tabloid fodder after her arrest made her high stakes, celebrity-filled poker games big news.

This is clear movie-of-the-week stuff elevated to something worthwhile because Sorkin is more interested in the evolution and entrapment of a brilliant mind than he is in movie stars playing poker. Although there is some of that, too, and it is provocatively handled by Michael Cera.

The always underused Idris Elba is underused but excellent as Bloom’s reluctant-but-coming-around attorney Charley Jaffe. His slower, looser style counters Chastain’s machine gun cadence and the chemistry helps to keep the courtroom preparation interesting.

Appreciating Molly’s Game helps if you are a Sorkin fan. He has a particular style and, since he’s directing this one as well, there is no getting away from that style. There’s no David Fincher or Danny Boyle to supply a bit of visual flair to offset all of Sorkin’s writerly tendencies. Sorkin is everywhere, which is not necessarily a bad thing if you like sharp performances about smart people doing fascinating things.

Grade: B

Insidious: The Last Key

The Insidious franchise—like most horror series—began missing a step about two films in. The fourth installment, Insidious: The Last Key, starts off with promise, though.

Thanks in large part to a heartbreaking performance from Ava Kolker, the newest Insidious opens with a gut punch of an origin story.

Can Insidious: The Last Key deliver on that promise?

No.

Is it the tedious jump-scare-athon with none of the exquisite delivery we’ve come to expect from James Wan (director of the original Insidious, producer here)? Is it the mid-film move from spectral thriller to police procedural and back?

Yes—it’s all that and more. The film is a jumbled mess of backstory and personal demons, clichés and uninspired monsters. All of this is shouldered by the veteran Lin Shaye, who is, unfortunately, no lead.

Shaye has proven herself to be a talented character actor in her 40+ years in film, often stealing scenes out from under high paid leads. (Please see her in Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary, she’s a genius.) But she doesn’t have the magnetism to carry a film, and The Last Key feels that much more untethered and pointless for the lack.

Grade: D+

Also opening in Columbus:
Devil’s Gate (NR)
Intent to Destroy (PG)
No Stone Unturned (NR)
Porto (NR)
Tom of Finland (NR)

Reviews with help from George Wolf.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF, and follow her on twitter @maddwolf.

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