Allison Janney

Troop Zero (2019, Bert & Bertie)

Troop Zero is heartwarming but not too heartwarming. It doesn’t promise the stars as much as it promises a gradual slide to fairness; it promises redemption to some but not the ones who really need it. It avoids any seriousness to instead provide consistent, constant entertainment. Often in the form of amusing montage sequences with good soundtrack accompaniment and excellent editing from Catherine Haight. But as anything other than consistent, constant entertainment? Troop Zero’s got a lot of problems.

The film’s the story of a girl living poor in rural Georgia in the late seventies (Mckenna Grace, who’s likable and perfectly fine but has any great moments; she’s a solid child actor, who isn’t doing anything special). She finds out if you’re in the Girl Scouts (they’re called something else, obviously), you might be on the gold record NASA is shooting out into space on a Voyager spacecraft. If you’re wondering why there’s not a Star Trek: The Motion Picture reference right about now, it’s because it’s too hard. Needless to say, I tried.

Anyway. Grace gets her neighbor, pre-gay Charlie Shotwell–Troop Zero has that heartwarming Hollywood take on poor rural Americana when it comes to marginalized people: everyone’s poor and no one cares if you’re gay or Black. There’s a lot of awful bullying in Troop Zero and a bunch of horrific female characters—which is all good because the directors and writer are woman but also maybe not a great look because it implies a lot more seriousness than the film’s ever willing to engage with—but there’s never any overt racism, homophobia, or even sexism. There’s some subtle racism but it’s just to make the main mean girl (Ashley Brooke) even meaner. Sorry, tangents again, which is particularly inappropriate for Troop Zero. It doesn’t have any tangents. When its subplots get attention, it always sticks out because the moments seemed forced in—like top-billed Viola Davis’s law school ambitions or her bonding with stuck-up school principal Allison Janney (who’s redemptive moments seem contractually obligated for all the good they do). So… sorry.

Grace and Shotwell set about getting enough kids for a new troop. See, the manual, which Grace can read and understand because her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a lawyer who never wins his cases but because the clients are always guilty and encourages her critical thinking skills, never specifies gender requirements. They get Christian girl Bella Higginbotham, then bully and extorter Milan Ray, and Ray’s enforcer, Johanna Colón. To varying degrees, the kids are all entertaining. Colón and Shotwell get the most situational comedy, Ray’s got a decent sort of subplot about unexpectedly bonding with Grace (which gets mostly forgotten in the third act), and Higginbotham’s always sympathetic. They never quite bond with troop leader Davis, which makes sense as boss Gaffigan ordered her to take the gig. Will the troop get over their differences and band together to take it to the finals? Will they defeat the mean girls?

Those questions might be important if Troop Zero needed them to decide anything. There’s a definite lack of conflict in the film outside the bullying. Gaffigan’s a sweetheart and in permanently in the red with his law practice, meaning Davis can’t get paid, but they’re always okay. There’s never much narrative danger. Often there’s none at all. So when the film fails to muster enough enthusiasm to seep through on the grand finale, it’s not unexpected. Troop Zero, despite the energetic montages and the directors adequate inventiveness as far as composition—cinematographer James Whitaker ably assists—never has much directed energy. Never much focus. Grace gets scenes to herself, Davis gets scenes to herself, Janney gets scenes to herself. Grace is the de facto protagonist because she narrates the film; otherwise, she’d be sharing focus with Davis, Janney, and maybe even Gaffigan.

And Grace has got a kids’ story arc. It’s got some real depth to it, but it’s still a kids’ story arc. The film’s handling of Grace clashes with its handling of the adults. Davis and Janney, for example, they don’t have kiddie arcs. Widower Gaffigan wouldn’t have a kiddie arc. My pejorative use of kiddie here is just to mean non-confrontational. Bullying aside.

Davis is great, Gaffigan’s great, Janney’s great. Grace is okay. Ray’s good. Colón’s adorable. The kids are all fine—Higginbotham, Shotwell—when something doesn’t work out for them, it’s just as often the script or direction versus the kid.

For the actors’ sake, it’d be really nice if Troop Zero was more successful, less uneven. It’s got a good (albeit unrealistic) heart and a very likable cast. And the grand finale talent show is true delight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bert & Bertie; written by Lucy Alibar; director of photography, James Whitaker; edited by Catherine Haight; music by Rob Lord; production designer, Laura Fox; costume designer, Caroline Eselin; produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Kate Churchill, Steve Tisch, and Viola Davis; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Mckenna Grace (Christmas Flint), Viola Davis (Miss Rayleen), Jim Gaffigan (Ramsey Flint), Allison Janney (Miss Massey), Charlie Shotwell (Joseph), Milan Ray (Hell-No Price), Johanna Colón (Smash), Bella Higginbotham (Anne-Claire), Mike Epps (Dwayne Champaign), Ashley Brooke (Piper Keller), and Ash Thapliyal (Persad).


I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie)

Despite the rather declarative I in the title, I, Tonya, Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding is not the protagonist of the film. Writer Steven Rogers avoids making her the protagonist as long as he can–really, until the third act–and instead splits it between Robbie and Sebastian Stan (as her husband). Allison Janney, as her mother, has a lot to do the first hour, not so much the second. So little, in fact, Janney–in the present-day interview clips (with the actors in old age makeup and a perplexing 4:3 aspect ratio despite, you know, digital video)–comments on how she’s not in the story much anymore.

The distance from Robbie (and Harding) lets I, Tonya get away with things like Robbie making fun of Nancy Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver, who literally has no audible dialogue other than moaning “why” over and over again after her assault, which the film plays for a laugh). Kerrigan, Harding (Robbie) opines, only got hit once. Harding had been constantly beaten first by Janney and then Stan her whole life until that point. What’s Kerrigan got to be so upset about. Ha. Funny.

Whether or not Harding actually made that statement–the script is based, in part, on interviews with Harding and the real-life Stan–is immaterial. Rogers and director Gillespie play it for a shock laugh. But I, Tonya is hardly sympathetic to Harding; Robbie will recount abuse in voiceover–or in scene; the characters occasionally break the fourth wall for effect–and then, next scene, I, Tonya will play her being assaulted for a laugh. Not so much with Stan, whose casual vicious abuse is presented utterly matter-of-fact, but with Janney. Janney’s abuse, physical and psychological, is always good for a chuckle.

Because I, Tonya wants the audience to laugh at its subjects. Bobby Cannavale, in the present day interview clips as a Hard Copy producer (the film doesn’t do anywhere near enough with explaining the Hard Copy coverage for people not somewhat familiar with the actual events), talks about how some of the participants–maybe the guys who actually attack Kerrigan–are the biggest boobs in a story made up entirely of boobs. I, Tonya, despite Harding’s participation, feels no differently about it.

Robbie’s Harding is terrorized and terrified, without an ounce of joy or even the capacity for it. The script’s got to follow a historical timeline–there’s accomplishment the first time Robbie gets away from abusive Stan, but then when she goes back to him, the movie skips ahead instead of examining. Robbie’s not just not the protagonist, she’s not even a good subject. You can’t get too many laughs out of it if you chart her descent into (apparent) alcoholism after returning to the abusive relationship.

Meanwhile, Stan’s a little bit closer to the protagonist. See, the ice-skating stuff–despite a solid performance by Julianne Nicholson as Robbie’s trainer (who simultaneously champions her for her ability and loathes her for being poor)–barely figures in. Robbie doesn’t get to essay accomplishment, just abuse, whether from Janney or Stan. Her character is completely defined by other people. Not much I in it.

But Stan. Until he starts hitting Robbie, he’s a cute boyfriend. Then he’s a scumbag one, but he’s always around in the story. Now, Stan is eight years older than Robbie, but the actual age difference was three years. Even though Stan’s performance is excellent, it might have worked better age appropriate. Because I, Tonya’s Stan is a different kind of creep than the real guy. Of course, they’re both playing characters far younger–starting at fifteen for Robbie–and, well, it’s not like the film’s going for verisimilitude. It’s going for laughs. Often really easy ones.

Like Paul Walter Hauser, as the guy who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan and Stan’s buddy. Hauser’s great. Maybe the movie’s best performance. Because he doesn’t bring any glamour to the part. Janney, despite the makeup and the funny hair and all the affect, is still doing a movie star turn. Hauser’s just this schlub.

He also gets to be the butt of some of the film’s working class poverty jokes. Though there’s a truly stunning one in Robbie’s voice over where you wonder how craven Rogers and Gillespie have to be to spit on the real-life Harding to characterize her as such. And they’re far from gracious to the character–the film conveys Harding’s assertion she knew nothing about the attack and doesn’t directly contradict it… just strongly implies there are possible unknowns. It does the same for Stan. Hauser’s character–the real-life person having died ten years before the film–gets to be the film’s single premeditating villain.

Performance-wise, outside Hauser’s kickass supporting (practically bit) turn, Stan, Robbie, and Janney are all excellent. They’re all caricatures to some degree, though Stan gets to be super-likable in the interview sections, which is problematic. Especially since, initially, Robbie doesn’t. And even after Robbie gets to be more sympathetic, she never gets to be likable. The end credits of the film exemplify three of the film’s major fails. First, the real Tonya Harding–in Hard Copy footage perhaps–is immediately more likable and sympathetic than Robbie ever gets to be. Worse, than Robbie ever tries to be. A sincere smile wouldn’t hurt. Similarly, when the film shows Harding’s heavy metal skate recitals? It’s unimaginable why Robbie, as Harding, would make that creative choice. She’s utterly joyless. The real Harding, in footage, is clearly exuberant.

Final big fail? The skating. Director Gillespie uses a lot of digital help with the editing–so again, why does the film pretend contemporary cameras for the interviews would be 4:3, but whatever–so lots of digital help for editing. He gets these long, obviously digitally-aided shots–Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing is technically outstanding, regardless of content. He also uses digital help for the skating. Presumably to put Robbie’s face on a figure skater, but also to recreate Harding’s actual skating.

You’d think, given CGI technology, they would’ve been able to make that skating a tenth as impressive as Tonya Harding’s actual skating ability. They don’t. All the camerawork, all the digital help, all the editing… it’s nothing compared to the television footage of Harding skating during the end credits. I, Tonya’s Harding is as feckless about her skating as the film is about presenting her story. It would’ve been nice if the film didn’t do a constant, active disservice to itself just for some laughs.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Craig Gillespie; written by Steven Rogers; director of photography, Nicolas Karakatsanis; edited by Tatiana S. Riegel; music by Peter Nashel; production designer, Jade Healy; produced by Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie, Rogers, Michael Sledd, and Bryan Unkeless; released by Neon.

Starring Margot Robbie (Tonya), Sebastian Stan (Jeff), Allison Janney (LaVona), Paul Walter Hauser (Shawn), Julianne Nicholson (Diane Rawlinson), Bojana Novakovic (Dody Teachman), and Bobby Cannavale (Martin Maddox).


The Way, Way Back (2013, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash)

At a certain point during The Way, Way Back, it became clear the film was never going to do anything interesting. Then, all of a sudden, writer-directors Faxon and Rash get to their “realistic” ending–by realistic, I mean it doesn’t resolve the most important story lines–and even though the film isn’t going to reward the viewer, at least it’s doing something different.

Then they go back on it. And given both Faxon and Rash appear in the film, when they show up, it almost feels like they couldn’t make that bold a move. Back is a film without any bold moves. It’s about a teenager (Liam James) who goes off to spend the summer with his mom, her boyfriend and the boyfriend’s daughter.

Steve Carell’s a great jerk as the boyfriend, but there are no layers to his character. Toni Collette plays the mom; she’s similarly shallow, though Faxon and Rush seem to get she shouldn’t be.

Thanks to the cute girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) and the awesome, immature water park owner–Sam Rockwell in just as much a type-casted role as Collette’s–James eventually comes into his own. Yep, it’s a standard growing up story.

I won’t spoil if Collette gets her act together thanks to her kid.

A lot of the film is appealing. James is good in the lead–he plays it hostile, which is cool. Robb’s good, Alison Janney’s fun as her partying mom, Rockwell’s great.

But there’s nothing to it.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Tatiana S. Riegel; music by Rob Simonsen; production designer, Mark Ricker; produced by Tom Rice and Kevin J. Walsh; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Liam James (Duncan), Sam Rockwell (Owen), Toni Collette (Pam), Steve Carell (Trent), AnnaSophia Robb (Susanna), Allison Janney (Betty), Maya Rudolph (Caitlin), Rob Corddry (Kip), Amanda Peet (Joan), Zoe Levin (Steph), Nat Faxon (Roddy), Jim Rash (Lewis) and River Alexander (Peter).


Walk and Talk the Vote (2012, Michael Mayers)

Walk and Talk the Vote reunites the “West Wing” cast–including Martin Sheen as President Bartlet, which I wasn’t expecting, but a lot of it feels like it could have just been impersonators.

The only time the commercial–for Mary McCormack’s sister, Bridget Mary McCormack–gets any energy is when characters are actually talking to each other and the actors are visibly getting in rhythm with each other. It happens especially with Allison Janney and Bradley Whitford and a little with Sheen and Lily Tomlin. Poor Richard Schiff, who doesn’t talk with anyone so much as at them, looks a little lost.

Also lost are Joshua Malina and Janel Moloney. They literally disappear after their initial appearance.

It’s a neat idea and not a bad commercial to encourage people to vote the non-partisan portion of the ballot, but John Cockrell’s script is really forced.

Whitford and Janney save it.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Mayers; screenplay by John Cockrell, inspired by a television show created by Aaron Sorkin; director of photography, Mayers; edited by Greg Arata; music by Kyle Newmaster; produced by Mary McCormack and Michael Morris.

Starring Allison Janney (C.J. Cregg), Janel Moloney (Donna Moss), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman), Mary McCormack (Kate Harper), Joshua Malina (Will Bailey), Melissa Fitzgerald (Carol Fitzpatrick), Lily Tomlin (Deborah Fiderer) and Martin Sheen as the President.


Piccadilly Jim (2004, John McCay)

Not too long ago, I used to get excited when good actors would make movies together. They didn’t have to be great movies, Barbet Schroeder could have directed them or Sandra Bullock could have starred in them–I’m fairly certain this period was known as the 1990s. It’s taken me three years to see Piccadilly Jim, which never got a domestic release, so it’s not as far out of the 1990s as it could be. It’s an absurd comedy, using an overblown emphasis on the popular conceptions of the 1930s to attempt to endear itself on the audience. Essentially, it’s the same concept as Radioland Murders, only successful. It’s successful for a few reasons. I’ll get the least exciting ones out of the way. First, the scope. Whether it’s London or New York of the 1930s, the scope is wonderful. There’s some extra-glossy, CG-enhanced scenery, but mostly it’s interiors. McKay does it beautifully. It’s exploitative, how interesting he makes the film look. It’s probably to distract from how confusing it is to understand and how unbelievable it is. Second, the script. Julian Fellowes essentially takes a Marx Brothers movie, removes the Marx Brothers, removes the songs, changes the focus to the young couple in trouble and runs with it. He assigns the Marx Brothers’s tasks to the young couple, it’s an interesting way of doing it and it works. Of course, it might have worked that way in the source material. I don’t know.

Now, the gushy part. While Piccadilly Jim is not the finest exhibit of Sam Rockwell’s acting abilities, it’s fun. He’s funny, he immediately engages the viewer. It probably was not a hard role, but he does it perfectly. Frances O’Connor, who’s constantly appearing and disappearing from cinema–rather frustratingly–is fantastic. Watching her and Rockwell together, the verbal sparing, the rapid-fire back and forths, it’s wonderful. Her role ought to be impossible, because it’s so absurd, but she really makes it work. The other great performance is Tom Wilkinson. He and Rockwell as father and son is great to watch, because it’s probably Rockwell’s talent at something besides being charming in an odd way comes through. The only disappointing performance–Allison Janney is fine but nothing spectacular–is Brenda Blethyn. O’Connor plays an American and she’s great, but Blethyn seems like she’s uncomfortable doing it (odd, Piccadilly Jim‘s a British with Americans playing Americans and British playing Americans and whatever, never mind). She’s not having any fun. It might be the constraints of the character, but it’s Brenda Blethyn. She’s usually outstanding.

I wasn’t expecting much from Piccadilly Jim because it never got the U.S. release and, in an interview at the time, Rockwell didn’t seem very excited about it. But it really reminded me, movies can be fun and intelligent and good without necessarily being great. The sad thing, of course, is in the 1990s, Piccadilly Jim was closer to the norm than not.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John McCay; screenplay by Julian Fellowes, from the novel by P.G. Wodehouse; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by David Freeman; music by Adrian Johnston; production designer, Amanda McArthur; produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Andrew Hauptman; released by United International Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Jim Crocker), Frances O’Connor (Ann Chester), Tom Wilkinson (Bingley Crocker), Brenda Blethyn (Nesta Pett), Allison Janney (Eugenia Crocker), Austin Pendleton (Peter Pett), Hugh Bonneville (Lord Wisbeach), Tom Hollander (Willie Partridge), Geoffrey Palmer (Bayliss), Rupert Simonian (Ogden Ford) and Kevin Eldon (Wizzy).


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