I, Tonya

Tonya Harding strikes a pose in I, Tonya

“America. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate. I mean, come on! What kind of frigging person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?”

Biopic films have, to me, always seemed like pieces of a far-off history, far removed from my actual life. It’s very rare that one hits as close to home as I, Tonya did. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) and starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney, this tells the real-life story of Tonya Harding, the infamous figure skater whose scandal rocked the world in the 90s. It’s a story I got a periphery glance at, through media headlines and rumors passed around school, but I never knew Tonya—only the scandal. This film lets you know Tonya, and it does an amazing job of bringing her to life in a way that’s not only sympathetic but also tragic. In-between tragic events are darkly funny happenings and self-aware humor that keep this from getting too depressing. This is a great story that adds some depth to events that I remember from my childhood, and it’s definitely one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

“I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch, or faster than the Kid, but you’re still nothing but two-bit outlaws on the dodge. It’s over. Don’t you get that? Your times is over and you’re gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.”

The 60s were a time of great growth and change in film, and no genre shows that more than the Western. Films like 1966’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly shook things up a big, and censorship loosened up in 1967, opening the doors to explore new territory. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katharine Ross, seems pretty straightforward by today’s standards, but was a huge jump forward for the genre. It’s also a fun Western with great characters and lots of effective humor. I’ve honestly never been a fan of the old classic Westerns, but I had a lot of fun watching this one.

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Schindler’s List

Schindler's List

“This is very cruel, Oskar. You’re giving them hope. You shouldn’t do that. That’s cruel!”

Schindler’s List is, without a doubt, one of the most important films of all time. If you don’t know, it’s probably the best and one of the most accurate films about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany (and Nazi-occupied Poland) in World War II, and it’s based on real people and events. It’s one I had always known about, but had never seen—partly because I was intimidated by it. The Holocaust is not an easy thing to watch, and I was worried it would be, well, a bit too much. I’m happy to report that, while there were some awful things portrayed, it remains very accessible and I actually loved this powerful film. Director Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jurassic Park) had a tremendous amount of respect for the subject and was careful to make a film that stays true to history, no matter how dark, and honors the survivors, some of whom make an appearance in the final scene. There are some heartbreaking scenes, but this is a truly great film that doesn’t just rely on the historical significance of its subject matter.

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Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia

“Undisciplined… unpunctual… untidy. Knowledge of music… knowledge of literature… knowledge of… knowledge of… You’re an interesting man, there’s no doubt about it.”

Lawrence of Arabia is widely heralded as one of the greatest epic films of all time, and it certainly is that, but it goes a level deeper with its exploration of heroism. Directed by David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai) and starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, and Anthony Quinn, this World War I epic captures a unique little corner of history and makes an interesting comment on what heroism really means. This film really embodies what epics are all about, especially considering that this film was released in 1962 and uses all practical effects. It’s stood up well over the years, and this film could hold its own against just about any other epic film out there.

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Goodfellas

Goodfellas

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

Since The Godfather basically defined the crime genre in 1972, there have been a lot of imitators and followers, some good and some bad, but nothing ever came close to the original. It’s hard to compare, but I’d say that Goodfellas came pretty close in 1990. (Legendary critic Roger Ebert actually preferred Goodfellas to The Godfather.) Directed by Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street) and starring Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco, this is a mobster story with as much depth and humanity as The Godfather, but it shows a different side of the story. The Godfather shows the view at the top—the big boss and his family calling all the shots. Goodfellas shows the working man’s view of organized crime—a kid trying to break into the business and make a name for himself. The film is actually based on real-life mobsters, one of whom consulted on much of the film, so there’s a real authenticity to the film that’s missing in most crime films. It’s a great entry in the crime genre that I believe deserves a place right next to some of the biggest names in the genre.

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Walk the Line

Walk the Line

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

There are a few things in life that rarely impress me. Biopics, musical performances in movies, and country music are on the list. So you’d think I would hate Walk the Line, a musical biopic about country artist Johnny Cash—but I didn’t. Directed by James Mangold (Logan, Girl Interrupted) and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, this film does everything right. Its musical performances move the plot forward and aren’t just for decoration. It focuses on real-life characters without relying on nostalgia and idealized, romanticized versions of them. The music is excellent (Phoenix and Witherspoon performed all numbers live and did an amazing job), the characters are deep and fascinating, and the plot, while not wholly original, walks a careful line between dark and sweet. This is a biopic that would work just as well as a work of fiction, and that says a lot about the level of art involved.

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