"Molly's Game" and "I, Tonya"

If Telluride has been the place to find the next Best Picture winner, 11 years running now, TIFF has always been the go-to place to give us a sneak peek at potential acting contenders. On Friday that was just the case. Three indelibly great and promising female performances had people talking.
You’ve most likely already heard about Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical “Lady Bird/”. Funny, tender and heartbreaking, its premiere at Telluride made it the toast of the fest. Last night the film had its TIFF premiere at the Ryerson, where Gerwig’s film was thunderously received. It’s destined to become a coming-of-age classic and is powered by a performance from Saoirse Ronan that feels all too real and humane.
In Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut “Molly’s Game,” Jessica Chastain plays real-life “entrepreneur” and self proclaimed “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom. The narrative structure recalls Sorkin’s masterful use of Rashomon-influenced storytelling in “The Social Network.” Going back and forth between Bloom’s rise, as she arranged secretive multi-million dollar poker games for the rich and famous at luxurious hotels, and her eventual fall that we witness in the opening sequence when FBI agents storm Bloom’s apartment arresting her for fraud, the film is an ambitious attempt by Sorkin to fully flesh out a fascinatingly complex woman. As in every Sorkin screenplay, the dialogue cascades at a frenetic pace, but Chastain nails each beat she’s given with a performance that’s sexy, smart and mesmerizing to behold. Once again, she’s the best reason to watch any movie she’s in.
I, Tonya” is a play-by-play account of what happened during the 1994 U.S. figure skating championship when Tonya Harding and her dead-beat loser of a husband hired a white-trash goon to break the leg of her arch nemesis Nancy Kerrigan. Margot Robbie plays Harding in all her blue-collar, low-rent glory. Harding was the outsider, a figure skater that lacked the class needed in a sport whose judges look for competitors to be elegantly poised. And yet, she was the first female American figure skater to attempt and successfully complete a triple axel in competition. 

The stunningly beautiful Robbie, who admitted at the film’s press conference that before signing on to the role that she didn’t realize the Harding/Kerrigan scandal was real, delivers the best performance of her young career. De-glamming to play a person that most of America found easy to hate in the winter of 1994, it’s not at all far fetched to wonder if Robbie could be rewarded with a nomination come next January. The 27-year-old actress is a superstar-in-the-making and this performance could just bust it wide open for her.

Allison Janney, playing LaVona Golden, her paraqueet bearing, alcohol swigging, chain-smoking and cuss-per-second-swearing mother and she's even better than Robbie here. Every time she's on-screen there's a cringe-inducing pertinence to this character and yt you can't look away. She's the mother from hell. A lot of the abuse that Tonya received at the hand of her mother seems to be the driving force at what director Craig Gillespie seems to be hinting is at the heart of Tonya's drive for success. She wants to prove her mother wrong at any cost.

The story does stick to the looney, incomprehensibly real facts, but refuses to assign any of the blame on Harding. The writer-director seems to be hinting that yes, Harding was typical white trash surrounded by more white trash, but that didn't necesarilly make her an accomplice as much as a naive girl completely aloof of the plot to crush Kerrigan's knees. The implication that it was Sean Eckhardt, played with spot-on schlubiness by Paul Walter Hauser, that concocted the whole scheme with her dead-beat abusive husband Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan, can raise questions about the actual storie's credibility, but there also is no proof to think that Tonya actually wanted it to go down that way. 

Gillespie directs the hell out of this movie, using a 1980's soundtrack to launch his narrative forward. In fact, there barely is a scene were a song isn't frenetically playing in the background. The writer-director clearly took a page out of the Scorsese rulebook as the DNA of "Goodfellas" is imprinted all over his film. There are worse movies to blatantly copy this day and age and, quite honestly, Gillespie pulls it off and makes a highly entertaining film out of the most disturbing of American sports stories.
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