September 8, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “The Death of Stalin,” “I, Tonya” & “Kodachrome”


KODACHROME (no distrib):  AKA that page of the indie movie playbook marked “Dysfunctional Family Road Trip To Redemption.”  Jonathan Tropper (This Is Where I Leave You) wrote the script, and it has his novels’ mix of damaged-man soap and rom-com.  This one features a dying dad (Ed Harris), who has the kind of incurable movie cancer that has no symptoms whatsoever until the plot needs it to.  Dad, while a terrible husband and father, is a celebrated photographer, and he more or less blackmails his estranged, at-loose-ends son (Jason Sudeikis) to accompany him on one last trip to the photo developer in Kansas that will be processing the final rolls of Kodachrome film after Kodak stopped producing the necessary chemical, with some long-neglected photos of his own to process, and can you feel the subtlety of the symbolism?  Also along for the ride:  Dad’s gorgeous young nurse (Elizabeth Olsen, so overqualified for her role that it seemed like there must be a dramatic Act 3 twist to explain her presence–but no).  The actors all do solid work, with Harris finding reserves of feeling amidst the cliches, and Sudeikis smartly underplaying much of the time.  But every supposed twist of the plot is telegraphed far in advance (come on, see if you can guess what’s on those mysterious rolls of film), and while director Mark Raso keeps the vehicle on its track, he doesn’t succeed in making the ride special.

THE DEATH OF STALIN (IFC):  Imagine if the characters on Veep were literally killers.  That show’s creator Armando Iannucci has brought a world very like that into existence with The Death of Stalin, which he directed and co-wrote with David Schneider and Ian Martin, based on a graphic novel.  It’s set in the real Soviet Union of 1953, when the demise of the country’s fearsome dictator led to political maneuverings that were as bloody as they were farcical.  Among the hilariously drawn conspirators:  Secret Police head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin’s second-in-command Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), General Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and government ministers Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi).  These schemers are as ambitious and incompetent as Selina Meyer and her TV cohorts, except that they can and do order mass executions to advance their careers.  That makes the laughs stick in one’s throat some of the time, and Iannucci has adopted a classical film style of visual composition and camera movement (the beautiful photography is by Zac Nicholson) that’s more formal than the look of Veep or Iannucci’s earlier In the Loop.  As a result, the laughs are not quite as non-stop, but the plotting (which follows the real events of the post-Stalin power struggle more closely than you’d imagine) is satisfyingly rounded.  The cast goes to town on Iannucci’s dark wit, with Beale and Buscemi as the funniest and most dangerous among them, and there’s the pleasant surprise of the usually-dour Isaacs’ flair for comedy.

I, TONYA (no distrib):  Steven Rogers’s script is less interested in the play-by-play of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding’s part in it (that portion of the plot doesn’t even begin until the halfway point) than in Tonya herself.  Rogers and director Craig Gillespie see her as a peculiarly American mix of delicacy, striving and violence, surrounded by abusers and no innocent herself.  Margot Robbie gives a ferocious performance as Harding, whose smiles on ice are barely short of snarls, and she’s matched by Allison Janney as her mother, a hopelessly tangled mix of pride and damage.  At its best, I, Tonya feels like something the Coen Brothers might have imagined, a heartfelt comedy about idiots who hurt themselves and each other.  Gillespie and Rogers play with their movie’s form, recreating interviews from the late 1990s (we see some of the real footage under the end credits), breaking the fourth wall from time to time, and shooting Harding’s routines with intensity and some very fine CG.  Bound by the real-life story it’s telling, the film gets somewhat bogged down in its second half, when it has to spend more time with Harding’s husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and co-conspirator Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), and it’s surprisingly circumspect about Harding’s involvement in the Kerrigan attack.  The film’s vision of a nearly feral figure in the most ladylike of sports stays with you, though, and so do Robbie and Janney.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."