I, Tonya


Some mother and daughter relationships aren’t exactly storybook perfect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Neon) Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Suehyla El-Attar, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Joshua Mikel, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Kelly O’Neal. Directed by Craig Gillespie

 

Fame is a double edged sword. It can give you the keys to the kingdom; everything in life you ever could want. It can also turn back savagely on you and make you a national laughingstock.

Those around in the mid-1990s will remember Tonya Harding (Robbie) as a gifted figure skater who had a legitimate shot at Olympic gold. The first (and to date only) woman to complete a triple axel in competition, it all came crashing down on her just prior to the 1994 Olympics in Norway.

This acid-tongued biopic shows Tonya being pushed into the rink by her overbearing mother LaVona (Janney). Single, bitter and ruthless, LaVona pushes Tonya through physical and emotional abuse, explaining it off as “she skates better angry.” A legitimate athlete, Tonya had a hard time winning judges over with her handmade costumes and her rough-around-the-edges charm.

Tonya moves from one abusive relationship to another; she meets Jeff Gillooly (Stan) at the rink. He falls head over heels for the waif who is something of a combination of Miss America and pro wrestling valet to the working class Gillooly. The two end up marrying but the relationship is tempestuous. He has a vicious temper and that temper gets physical.

She’s desperately lonely and wants to be accepted for what she is – one of the world’s best in her sport. However, her crude language and temperament get the better of her and she continues to place lower than she thinks she deserves. Then, she has that one perfect day – nailing the triple axel and winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, making her the odds-on favorite to medal at the Olympics. A combination of bad luck and bad decisions keep getting in her way however, and after separating, then reconciling and at last separating again with Gillooly, she switches coaches and looks to try and make a comeback. Her rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan (Carver) and a death threat that thoroughly plays with Tonya’s head and threatens to derail her chances once again leads Gillooly to conspire with his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Hauser)  to do the same to Kerrigan – except the incompetent Eckhardt decides on his own to take it a step further…

The movie is based on a series of face to face interviews with Harding and Gillooly which are often contradictory. The interviews are recreated with Robbie and Stan standing in. The actors also show the events that are being described, often stopping and turning to the camera and addressing the audience to say “I never did this,” or “She actually did this,” or make some other comment. The breaking of the fourth wall is effective and provides some of the best and most comedic moments of the film.

Several critics have groused that the film seems to be using domestic abuse (and there is a lot of it, starkly and graphically portrayed) as a punch line, but that’s quite the knee-jerk reaction in my humble opinion. Perhaps there are some folks who might find that stuff funny but there weren’t any in the screening I attended. The domestic abuse was in stark contrast to the lighter moments of sheer dumbassery displayed by Eckhardt and Gillooly, reflected by some of the more bizarre “you couldn’t make this stuff up” aspects of the actual events.

Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers make it clear their sympathies are with Harding, who was definitely dealt a difficult hand by life. She came from poverty and had to struggle for everything; to her mom’s credit (and you really can’t give her much) she found a way to outfit her with skates and skating lessons which couldn’t have been cheap. However, LaVona does some pretty awful things; she refuses to allow little Tonya a bathroom break until the poor child pees herself on the ice, which only elicits a disgusted expression from Mommy Dearest who will certainly elicit similar expressions from audience members. Class distinctions are a major theme in the film; Harding often acts like trailer trash (to use an awful expression which is to the poor the equivalent of a slur) because that’s all she knows. Still, she wills herself into success and that’s something she is almost never given credit for, mainly because she became tabloid fodder and the butt of late night comedian’s jokes.

Robbie is scary good in the movie, making Tonya hard-assed but also vulnerable. We see the pain in her face when she gives a smile for the cameras but that smile is as tight as saran wrap on her face and threatens to break at any moment. Robbie captures the attitude and vocal patterns of someone from those circumstances and makes Tonya a living, breathing person instead of a media invention.

Janney, who was so good in The West Wing returns to that kind of greatness with a much different role. There is nothing to like about LaVona and Janney gives us a character who is unapologetic and a little bit whacko. We sense that she’s been kicked in the teeth enough but there’s little context; all we see is that life has made her a ten karat bitch and someone who put Tonya on a collision course with infamy.

This is an Oscar contender on a lot of different levels and one of the best movies of the year. It’s just now hitting a limited release and should be going wide shortly. This is one you’ll want to see; even if the Tonya Harding scandal doesn’t interest you, if good filmmaking and incredible acting are more your thing, this movie covers both of those bases with room to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Robbie and Janney both give award-worthy performances. Some excellent camera work, particularly in the skating scenes. The soundtrack is near-perfect. Harding is turned from a joke into a sympathetic character.
REASONS TO STAY: The biting social commentary seems at odds with some of the humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a scene of shocking violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Janney actually trained as a figure skater through most of her youth until an accident caused a leg injury that effectively ended her career.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Florence Foster Jenkins
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Jigsaw

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Colossal


Put ’em up!

(2017) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Neon) Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens, Hannah Cheramy, Nathan Ellison, Sarah Surh, Haeun Hannah Cho, Carlos Joe Costa, Melissa Montgomery, Christine Lee, Rukiya Bernard, James Yi, Alyssa Dawson, Miho Suzuki, Charles Raahul Singh, Jenny Mitchell, Maddie Smith, Everett Adams, Agamdeep Darshi. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

It is said that within all of us there are both angels and monsters. For the most part, the majority of us try as hard as we can to keep that monster inside and let the angel out but it can be difficult, particularly if we are coping with more than we can handle. That’s when those monsters can show their faces and take control.

Gloria (Hathaway) has some issues. She is chronically unemployed or underemployed. She goes out and parties with friends most nights; sometimes for days. She drinks far too much and often doesn’t remember what she did the night before. Finally, her boyfriend Tim (Stevens) has had enough. While he loves Gloria, he can’t stand being around her anymore. Nothing he can say or do has helped. It’s time for him to remove this toxic person from his life and he not only dumps her, he packs up her stuff and tells her she has to move out of their New York apartment…or rather, his New York apartment.

With no other options, Gloria moves back to her childhood home upstate that her recently deceased mom left to her. While there she runs into childhood playmate Oscar (Sudeikis) who has an inheritance of his own – his parents bar. He offers Gloria a job waitressing there which she gratefully accepts although perhaps working in a bar isn’t exactly the best place to be for an alcoholic. By day, Oscar helps out by buying her things to help furnish her empty home; by night, they work at the bar which has bottomed out in popularity in recent years. Oscar has closed off a huge chunk of it, decorated in cowboy fashion. Gloria resolves to spruce it up and reopen it. In between, there are late nights drinking with Oscar and his friends Garth (Nelson), a philosophical drunk and Joel (Stowell), a handsome local who catches Gloria’s eye.

But things take a turn for the strange when news reports show a gigantic monster rampaging in Seoul, South Korea and then disappearing. Like everyone else, Gloria is amazed and alarmed. Unlike everyone else, Gloria discovers she has a strange connection with the monster. The monster makes strange hand gestures that are very much reminiscent of the same quirky gestures Gloria makes. She also discovers that the monsters rampages take place when she is in the playground at a local park. She begins to realize that she is the monster.

Before too long, a second monster appears – a giant robot and Gloria’s monster is needed to do battle with it. She also finds she needs to do battle in real life as well with someone she trusted who has become abusive and controlling. Can she summon the strength to fight on both fronts and in doing so, save the lives of millions of people in Seoul?

Giant monster or kaiju films have regained popularity recently with the successes of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island as well as dozens of films in Asia. This is a very different take on them. Spanish director Vigalondo has been an up-and-coming name in horror films in recent years and this might just be his best work yet. It’s imaginative and thought-provoking, the latter of which being a rare quality in movies that are as entertaining as this one.

Hathaway gives a marvelous performance as a woman who has lost control of her life and who’s made a ton of bad choices, many of which were informed by alcohol abuse. She is appealing here as she is in most of her films and even though her character isn’t always doing the right thing we still end up rooting for her. Sudeikis is also a very likable screen personality and while the movie begins with him playing a role that is typical for him it changes somewhat as the film progresses. It’s really a marvelous role for him as it allows him to expand his range.

While the special effects reflect the movie’s small budget, the movie explores all sorts of things during the course of its run time from living with substance abusers to domestic violence and taking responsibility. These are some heavy topics for what is essentially a kaiju comedy that turns into something a little deeper.

This played the Florida Film Festival last month and one of the programmers for the Festival reported that a couple of angry ladies accosted him following the screening of this film and complained that it glorifies domestic abuse. Quite frankly with respect to the ladies making the complaint, I believe that their interpretation is quite a bit off the mark. One of the points that the movie is making is that domestic violence can come from people who are the nicest of guys outwardly; that’s why it’s so shocking when it happens in the film. Rather than glorifying domestic violence, the scenes depicting it show it for what it is – a disgusting, cowardly act.

While the movie’s final third is a little less impressive than the first two, it maintains interest throughout. Vigalondo has the annoying habit of having the onscreen characters visibly react to things that the audience can’t see which after having been done a few times gets to be a little bit annoying, but that’s really small potatoes. This is an inventive take on the giant monster movies that is both retro and modern. It’s cinematic fun of the highest order and should be a must-see for anyone who likes good entertainment with a dash of perspective.

REASONS TO GO: It’s definitely a different take on kaiju films. Hathaway makes an appealing drunk. Sudeikis is so charming to begin with his attitude change is all the more shocking. It is refreshing for a movie this entertaining to be this thoughtful as well.
REASONS TO STAY: It loses steam about 2/3 of the way through. The film has the annoying habit of showing actors reacting to things not revealed to the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and scenes of mass destruction and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hathaway was in the second trimester of her pregnancy while she filmed this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big in Japan
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Unrest

The Perfect Husband


A walk in the woods.

A walk in the woods.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Gabriella Wright, Bret Roberts, Carl Wharton, Tania Bambaci, Daniel Vivian, Philippe Reinhardt, Maria Ester Grasso. Directed by Lucas Pavetto

 

Who knows what goes on behind bedroom doors? The relationship between a husband and a wife is largely unknown to the world other than to the two people in it; the things they choose to share with close friends and family may shed some light on at least the perspective of one member of the couple, but at the end of the day, the truth is known only to the husband and the wife.

Nicola (Roberts) and his wife Viola (Wright) have been going through a very rough patch. After a family tragedy had left her wallowing in grief and him trying to resurrect their marriage from the strained doldrums it’s fallen into, he decides that maybe the best thing for them would be a change of venue. Accordingly, he drives the two of them out into the Italian countryside where his Uncle has a cabin up in the mountains. It would seem to be a good place to reconnect and rekindle.

The problem is that Viola seems diffident to any kind of reconciliation; she’s high-strung, sneaking smokes when she thinks her husband can’t see her, and refusing any sort of sexual advance by him. His frustration is growing; he is trying to be as perfect a husband as it’s possible to be but she won’t give him even an inch of slack. Something has got to give…but when it does, what will be the cost?

The plot here is pretty simple and could be extremely effective in the right circumstances. Sadly, these aren’t them. The acting here for one thing is extremely inconsistent. The two leads are required to carry nearly the entire film and I’m not sure if the case here is that they’re not equal to the task, or if they didn’t get the direction they needed to turn in the kind of performances that the movie needed – and didn’t get. Roberts, in particular, seems particularly stiff; at times he looks like he would rather be anywhere but in this film. His character changes drastically about two thirds of the way through; the change comes off drastically with little warning and makes one feel as if they are lurching on a train that is in the process of derailing; there are no subtle hints as to why his character changes or any indication that he’s going to change. I suspect that is more the director’s choice than Roberts’ idea. Wright fares little better, but at least she conveys some modicum of feeling.

Pavetto is an Italian director who is working on an English-language film and that might have hampered him somewhat; the dialogue is a bit flat-sounding to my ears, and quite frankly, the tension that the movie needed to succeed isn’t always there. The last 30 minutes of the movie should be tense and pulse-pounding but at this point the viewer is checking their watch or loading up another movie to watch.

But the movie isn’t completely without merit. One thing that Pavetto does nicely is combine the genres of 80s slasher films and Italian giallo into a nice little mix of styles that actually works, or would have worked with a little more realism in the acting department. Cinematographer Davide Manca gets full marks for setting up some beautiful shots that seem to indicate that there is someone watching, occasionally giving some startle scares with half-glimpsed figures that make one wonder if there is more to the story than meets the eye. As it turns out, there is – but you have to sit through the entire film to discover what it is.

Therein lies the rub; the movie has an ending that does have quite the twist involved, but in order to suss it out you have to sit through a movie that doesn’t do the twist justice. It is incumbent upon the viewer to determine whether that payoff is worth sitting through the rest of the movie for and to be honest, I can’t really advise you one way or the other whether you should; it will depend on your tolerance for subpar acting. I found it enough to give the movie a very mild recommendation, but you might not agree. The gore ‘n’ guts crowd will probably appreciate some of the violence but will bemoan the lack of nudity. The rest of us will likely bemoan the lack of passion.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice mash-up of giallo and 80s slasher-films. There’s some nice cinematography here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is a bit stiff. The film could have used a little more tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence, some of it graphic and brutal; some sexual scenes, rape and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pavetto originally made a short by the same name, but later fleshed it out into a feature with a new cast and filming in English rather than Italian which the original was in.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The original short film is included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping with the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Captain Fantastic

Deliver Us From Evil


Eric Bana is impressed by Edgar Ramirez' iMDB page.

Eric Bana is impressed by Edgar Ramirez’ iMDB page.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Screen Gems) Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris, Joel McHale, Chris Coy, Dorian Missick, Mike Houston, Lulu Wilson, Olivia Horton, Scott Johnsen, Daniel Sauli, Antoinette LaVecchia, Aidan Gemme, Jenna Gavigan, Skylar Toddings, Sebastian LaCause, Steve Hamm, Sean Nelson, Tijuana Nicks, Lolita Foster. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Usually when you hear things that go bump in the night it’s a sign that it’s time to move. In horror movies, most people who hear such things tend to go looking around for what’s causing those noises and that’s never a good idea.

Ralph Sarchie (Bana) is an NYPD detective stationed in the Bronx. His partner Butler (McHale) is an adrenaline junkie who relies on his partner’s “radar” to figure out when real bad stuff is going down. Ralph, a lapsed Catholic,  thinks of himself as having a “hard hand” as a cop and he has the scars to prove it. He’s a family man too, with his wife Jen (Munn) pregnant with their second child – adorable moppet Christina (Wilson) is their first. However, as of late he hasn’t exactly been present at home.

The truth is Ralph is beginning to crack a little. Finding dead babies in dumpsters doesn’t do a lot to maintain your faith in humanity. When he arrives on a scene where a disturbed mother (Horton) throws her infant into the lion pit at the Bronx Zoo, he has an odd confrontation with a painter who turns out to be an Iraq War vet named Santino (Harris) who had a strange and frightening encounter in the Middle East.

Taking an interest in the case is Father Mendoza (Ramirez), an unorthodox Jesuit priest (which is something of an oxymoron) who has seen true evil in his time. He knows that what Ralph is facing isn’t run of the mill evil perpetrated by deranged or amoral men, but something more primordial and far-reaching. Ralph is skeptical of this at first, but when his daughter starts hearing scratching noises under her floorboards and her stuffed animals begin to menace her, the pragmatic cop begins to realize that he might be in way over his head.

Derrickson, who also helmed the horror hit Sinister has got the creepiness factor down. He orchestrates an excruciating terror that begins early on and never lets you out of its grip for the remainder of the movie. A good horror film requires the proper atmosphere to work properly and Derrickson supplies that.

Bana is a very underrated actor, one who has done impressive work in films like Munich but has never really crossed over into superstar territory. He probably won’t with his work here, but it’s very capable which is a standard with Bana. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn in a bad performance even in films that are not very good.

There is a real Ralph Sarchie and this is based on some of the cases that he has been involved with. As with most horror movies that use real life events as a springboard, this takes an awful lot of liberties with Sarchie’s story (he wrote a book with Lisa Collier Cool entitled Beware the Night). There are elements of a lot of different cases in this single case and the character of Father Mendoza is an amalgam of a couple of different Catholic clerics. Take the “based on a true story” thing with a grain of salt; true stories are rarely as exciting as they are portrayed to be on the big screen.

This is equal parts police procedural and gross-out supernatural scare film. Some of the scares are legit here, and there’s plenty of squirm-inducing images. Cat lovers, be forewarned – there are some scenes that you will find quite disturbing and there are a couple of gruesome murders shown in detail onscreen. While there’s nothing here that is particularly standard-setting, neither do the make-up and special effects disgrace themselves either.

This movie is a bit of a metaphor for the overall summer season; while it has a lot of elements that could have made it a great film, it goes the safe route in a lot of ways and ends up being just a solid, entertaining film. I will say the climactic exorcism scene is pretty nifty, but it lacks the sheer on the edge of your seat tension that the similar scene in The Exorcist possessed (no pun intended). From my point of view, this is solid but unremarkable horror entertainment for the summer months.

REASONS TO GO: Bana always delivers and Ramirez is an interesting priest. Some legitimate scares and uninterrupted creepy vibe.

REASONS TO STAY: The usual horror movie cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, a good deal of violence that is generally bloody and gory, salty language and yes, terror. It’s a horror film after all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ralph Sarchie role was originally offered to Mark Wahlberg who declined. Eventually Bana accepted the part.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil Inside

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Tammy