The year 2017 ended with a box-office lift thanks to Star Wars: The Last Jedi crossing the billion-dollar mark. Indeed global receipts rose three per cent to US$40 billion, even as movie attendance in North America dropped to its lowest level in 27 years. Looking beyond the blockbuster spectacles, here are a handful of movies for adults worth making the trip to the theatre. All are based on actual persons and events. I’ll review The Post and Phantom Thread in next week’s column.
Director Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, working from David Scarpa’s screenplay based on the John Pearson book, achieved a certain notoriety even before its Christmas Day release. Scott had cast a heavily made-up Kevin Spacey in the role of the villain of the piece, the aging miserly billionaire J. Paul Getty whose teenage grandson, John Paul Getty III, was kidnapped off a Rome street in 1973. Trailers out in October that featured him had to be hastily pulled after Spacey was outed for past sexual misconduct in the flood of post-Weinstein scandals. More dramatically, Scott decided he had to be replaced. He got 88-year-old legendary Canadian thespian Christopher Plummer to agree and in a relative handful of days at a cost of $10 million all the key scenes were reshot.
Did it work? Emphatically yes. Plummer as Scrooge was the best thing about the pre-Christmas release The Man Who Invented Christmas. As the famously flinty “scroogey” Getty patriarch he is completely convincing. It’s among his most memorable performances, which is quite amazing under the circumstances.
The young Getty is played by Charlie Plummer (no relation, excellent in Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete). He’s the son of Getty senior’s estranged wastrel drug-addled son Paul (Andrew Buchan), who is divorced from his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), with whom he is living in Rome. At the time of the kidnapping the oil tycoon, then reputed to be the richest man in the history of the world, was her only recourse when a ransom of $17 million was demanded for his supposedly favourite grandson. But, while continuing to amass more treasures for his vast estates, the elder Getty refused to pay anything at all.
Williams is excellent as the mother who never gives up her increasingly desperate efforts to get her son back, often hounded by the paparazzi attracted to the high-profile case. Getty hires an ex-CIA operative, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to both manage her and get to the bottom of the kidnapping by a Calabrian gang, of which a man known as Cinquanta (French actor Romain Duris) is the main interlocutor.
There are suggestions of possible involvement by the far-left Red Brigades, though in the end a mafia kingpin calls the shots. When the kidnappers send evidence of their captive’s mutilation, it’s clear the boy’s life is at stake and the tension keeps rising toward an end game. The only question is whether Gail can ever get the grasping grandpa Getty to relent. It won’t be for lack of trying as her strength of will proves equal to his.
The movie holds our attention by how well it captures both the icy isolation of Getty, surrounded by all that money can buy, and the feverish atmosphere of the case driven by a mother’s love.
Veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) takes the director’s chair in Molly’s Game, an absorbing dramatization of the stranger-than-fiction story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), drawing on a 2013 memoir she published while under criminal indictment. (Molly isn’t Irish even if she bears the name of a famous character in James Joyce’s Ulysses.)
The intrepid Molly grew up in a family of high-performance competitive skiers pushed by their hard-driving father, Larry (played by Kevin Costner who appears in several brief flashbacks and one later scene). She overcame major obstacles as a youngster, but a crash during a qualifying run for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics ended a promising career. (That took place at Deer Valley in Park City where I’ve stayed during the Sundance film festival, which is on now.)
Moving to Los Angeles, Molly became a personal assistant to Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), a rather sleazy character who ran a weekly high-stakes poker game that attracted celebrity participants. Catching on fast to all the tricks of the trade she eventually took it away from Keith until a falling out with a dominant “Player X” (reputed to be actor Tobey Maguire, played by Canadian Michael Cera) caused her to fold and move to New York City.
Soon Molly was back in the game of high rollers and living a roller-coaster lifestyle (she’s frank about her addictions), until the appearance of mob connections threatened her life and brought in the FBI. Molly’s assets were seized, but she managed to convince a high-priced lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), to represent her in fighting the charges against her.
Beyond the poker slang around the gaming table — narrated by Chastain in voiceover flashbacks — much of the movie revolves around their unusual relationship that began after the memoir was published, and that ultimately succeeded in getting her off very lightly thanks to a sympathetic judge (played by Canadian indigenous actor Graham Greene). Chastain shines at the centre of this cautionary tale as a woman driven since youth to play to win in the company of powerful men.
A controversial female character is also the focus of director Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, a quite remarkable portrait of former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, who fell from grace following a notorious 1994 assault on another skater, Nancy Kerrigan. The revelatory way it unfolds the bizarre back story of what really happened and why is indicated by the editorial headline in the Cineplex magazine, “Skating the Truth.” Australian actress Margo Robbie excels in the role of Tonya from age 15. Also a co-producer on the film, she credits Gillespie with pulling off “that balance between comedy and tragedy of a situation but in a subtle way without ever making fun of the people that are in the scenario.”
Tonya did not have a “wholesome family” upbringing In Portland; more like “white trash” from the school of hard knocks. But she was a genuine child prodigy (played by Maizie Smith and Mckenna Grace) on ice (winning her first skate competition at age four), who was driven mercilessly by her acid-tongued mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). She met her first boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), in her mid-teens and would later marry him even though he was physically abusive. Their tempestuous and sometimes violent relationship would become a major factor in her downfall.
Tonya resented how judges marked her down for a less than perfect image despite her technical prowess, but in 1991 she skated into the spotlight as the first female American skater to land a triple axel in competition and seemed bound for Olympic glory. After finishing a disappointing fourth in 1992, she made a comeback reunited with her first coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). By then she had divorced Gillooly, but made the mistake of having him join her as she prepared for the U.S. nationals in the lead-up to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.
A phony death threat led to a harebrained scheme to use psychological warfare via threatening letters to her rival, Kerrigan, who had been a friend and roommate. Except Gillooly entrusted it to a slobby sidekick, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), who claimed to be her bodyguard. He’s the loser who got an even dumber accomplice to strike Kerrigan on the knee as she came off a practice session. As Tonya tells it, this scandalous “incident,” which occurs well over an hour into the movie, sparked a media furore (Bobby Cannavale appears a few times as a scuzzy reporter for the Tabloid Hard Copy) that turned her from a loved and admired star into a reviled “punchline.”
Tonya and Jeff have divergent versions of the story, though hers is much the more credible and sympathetic. Gillespie makes clever use of different narrative techniques: personal interviews with the key subjects; split screens; sometimes breaking the “fourth wall” as characters address the camera.
After an FBI investigation Jeff, Shawn, and the attacker were arrested and received criminal sentences. Tonya was allowed to compete at the Olympics (where Kerrigan won a silver medal), but her dream was shattered. Although she adamantly denied knowledge of anything to do with injuring Kerrigan, her tie to Gillooly proved toxic. She faced charges that resulted in a lifetime ban on competitive skating. A “celebrity” for the wrong reasons, she went on to earn money by participating in boxing matches. Still, the movie closes with an affecting tribute, noting that she now wants to be known as a “good mother” and showing several minutes from one of the real Tonya’s thrilling performances on ice.
There was another poignant real-life moment during the Golden Globes awards ceremony when Allison Janney, a deserved supporting actress winner for her role as Tonya’s formidable and fearsome mother, made a shout out from the stage to Tonya, seated beside Robbie.
Robbie seems assured of an Oscar nomination (announced today) for her brilliant portrayal of Tonya (and she is nominated). She had some skating experience, but underwent months of training to meet the demands of the role. And by the end the tone, which starts almost as a mockumentary looking back on the whole sordid affair, has shifted to one that makes us appreciate Tonya’s lifelong struggle. Bravo.