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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The Archer (2017)


(2017) Action (MarVista) Bailey Noble, Jeanine Mason, Michael Grant Terry, Bill Sage, Dendrie Taylor, Kyanna Simone, Alexis Rosinski, Timothy Granaderos, Kurt Fuller, Grace Victoria Cox, Anastasia Markova, JoAnna Rhambo, Kalista Dwyer, Kathi Anderson, India’yolanda Collins. Directed by Valerie Weiss

As the war on drugs (and the accompanying war on crime) has created more and more convicts, prison systems throughout the country have been overwhelmed. Most states have turned to corporate prisons rather than building new ones. Keeping those prisons filled has become a priority – by any means necessary.

Lauren Pierce (Noble) is a champion archer with Olympic aspirations. Being raised by a single mom (Taylor), she pals around with Nina (Markova) who is her best friend. Lauren doesn’t approve of her douchebag boyfriend (Granaderos) who is abusive but Nina, like a lot of young girls, makes excuses for the transgressions of her boo. Lauren has ulterior motives; she’s attracted towards Nina as well. However, when she’s finally getting somewhere with Nina, big bad boyfriend shows up at the door and begins roughing up Nina when he doesn’t get what he wants. Lauren tries to intervene and the idiot boyfriend tries the same tactics on her. That wasn’t a particularly good idea; Lauren beats the living snot out of him.

However, beating the living snot out of someone can get you arrested and Lauren is sentenced to a youth camp for an indefinite amount of time. There she’s taken under the wing of the warden, Bob Patrice (Sage) who is a bow-hunter himself and is eager to take Lauren’s training to the next level. However, Lauren soon discovers that the good warden isn’t quite so good after all and that the male guards are all out to get themselves a little bit of young tail, particularly Bob’s son Michael (Terry) who with his bowl haircut you just know is going to be a pervert.

Lauren is befriended by Rebecca (Mason), a kind of Goth girl who has a history of trying to escape but has essentially given up. After Michael tries to attack Rebecca and Lauren once again comes to the rescue, the two women realize they have a real shot of making it out of prison – especially since Lauren has discovered her indefinite stay has just been extended. She and Rebecca find their way to the Warden’s residence where they make a discovery that will blow the whole sordid corrupt situation with the camp completely out of the water – if they can avoid the bullets of the deputies and the arrows of the warden, that is.

If this sounds like a women’s prison movie from the 70s, that’s because it essentially is. Oh, there’s a veneer of social injustice ripped from the headlines (more on that later) but trust me, this is all B-movie exploitation. Why else would you have two beautiful young women, on the run from nutcases and in a situation where time is of the essence, decide to take a long steamy shower – together? I do like Weiss’ instincts when it comes to empowering Lauren but showing Lauren’s hormones taking a superior position to her intellect doesn’t help the cause. Then again, I wonder if I would say the same thing if a male hero stopped to have a sex scene during a pursuit. I would like to hope I would.

Noble does a good job In an action role and I could see her getting more of those sorts of roles in the future. The cast is largely unknown and they at least nobody disgraces themselves; for the most part the performances here are satisfactory or better. They could have used some dialogue that didn’t make them sound like they were being paid by Roger Corman.

I will say that every single male in this picture is either corrupt, perverted, evil or all three. There isn’t a single male role that has a redeeming quality. Given the heavy lesbian overtones of the film (most of the women in the movie are either lesbians or victims) some conservative sorts might connect the dots which again doesn’t do the message that the movie is trying to send any favors. Not all men are evil and not all women are victims. One can be a good person without finding the same sex attractive or having testicles.

There is some beautiful cinematography here and that’s to be commended, but the movie falls apart when you examine the plot too closely. For example, there is an African-American character who appears to have some importance early on in the film but just disappears completely as Lauren makes friends with Rebecca. For another, as the girls are fleeing, they have the opportunity to take a truck and make it to civilization much faster; instead they choose to go on foot. We know they both are able to drive and they’re both intelligent; the only reason they go on foot is so that the pursuit can be more personal. It’s a situation where the plot ditches logic to serve an agenda which in this case is to finish with a face-to-face confrontation. There are a lot of ways that could have occurred without sacrificing common sense.

At times this felt like a Lifetime Movie and not in a good way. While there have been some pretty good Lifetime Movies, for the most part they’ve been cheap parbroilers that appeal to the visceral (much like SyFy original movies in that sense). The issue that the film is dealing with is a real one and an important one, but by coating it in a B-movie exploitation batter and deep frying the lot the message gets lost in all the grease. I suspect that Weiss has more to offer than this kind of stuff. I’m not above enjoying a good exploitation film from time to time – not every movie has to stimulate the cortex but it’s hard to take seriously a movie that wants to be a message movie at the same time taking up the flag for exploitation. You have to choose a side.

REASONS TO GO: There are some beautiful vistas of the mountains of Southern California. Kind of a women’s prison movie with an indie lesbian bent.
REASONS TO STAY: Also a bit of a Lifetime Movie to be honest. Way too many plot holes to overlook.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of scenes of sexuality as well as some disturbing images and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was inspired by actual events in Pennsylvania.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Caged Heat
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke

Eddie the Eagle


The thrill of victory.

The thrill of victory.

(2016) Sports Biography (20th Century Fox) Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Jo Hartley, Keith Allen, Tim McInnerny, Edvin Endre, Iris Berben, Mads Sjøgárd Pettersen, Rune Temte, Mark Benton, Daniel Ings, Christopher Walken, Ania Sowinski, Graham Fletcher-Cook, Paul Reynolds, Jim Broadbent, Matt Rippy. Directed by Dexter Fletcher

Sometimes the whole of something can be greater than the sum of its parts. Movies definitely fit within that realm. Sometimes you watch a movie and realize that the individual elements you’re seeing aren’t particularly noteworthy, but when the movie’s over you realize that you enjoyed it a lot more than you thought you would.

Michael “Eddie” Edwards (Egerton) has dreamed of being an Olympian ever since he was a boy. Not terribly gifted athletically, he trained as hard as he could but was usually sniggered at and told to give up by anyone who had a mouth – which is a lot of people in Britain. Determined to achieve his dream much to the exasperation of his dad (Allen) who is a good-hearted soul who can’t understand his son’s crazy obsession, he decides that because there were no British ski jumpers that if he could master that skill, he could make the Olympic team that way.

There’s just one little roadblock; Eddie has never ski jumped before. That’s not a problem though; he heads to Austria to train and while there meets Bronson Peary (Jackman), a champion American ski jumper who was himself once an Olympian but had messed up a promising career much to the disgust of Warren Sharp (Walken), the legendary coach who was Peary’s mentor and to whom Peary was his greatest disappointment.

Now having crawled inside a bottle, Peary is at first uninterested and downright hostile about the idea of coaching Eddie but his goofy charm and sheer determination to risk everything for this one dream eventually wins Peary over. And the obstacles set in front of Eddie at near-impossible, even though early on he sets the British record for a 70m jump.

However, he has no choice but to make it on his own since nobody is going to help him and against all odds, he must scratch and claw his way to Calgary for the 1988 games. He knows it will be his one shot at Olympic glory, even if not everyone has quite the same definition of what glory might be.

On paper, there is no way I should be liking this movie. Every sports underdog movie cliché is here, from the bromance to the lead character apparently giving up, to the triumph of the final moment. Everything is here almost to a T without a whole lot of variation. These are usually the kinds of movies I can’t stand, for heaven’s sake. And yet, I found myself reeled in by its offbeat charm.

Egerton, who hadn’t really impressed me much in Kingsman: The Secret Service, is far more powerful here. It’s a difficult job because Edwards is such a hero in Britain and his look and mannerisms are well known there; here in the States, not so much. I get the sense we get the spirit of Eddie Edwards much more than the actual person here.

Which leads me to the most serious issue here; almost all of the information here about Eddie Edwards is untrue. Portrayed here as a complete novice, he actually had been skiing for some time and had been the last person eliminated from the men’s downhill team; he saw ski jumping as an alternate way to make the team. There was no Bronson Peary, no Warren Sharp and the unorthodox training that is portrayed here is a far cry from the way Edwards actually trained. His life story has been so filtered and fictionalized that they might as well have made it a fictional character; it must be somewhat demeaning to find out that you are not interesting enough to have your real life story told in your biography.

And yet I still ended up enjoying the movie. This isn’t the Eddie Edwards story, no – but it is a story that appeals to all of us, those of us who think that by wanting something badly enough and by being willing to work hard, overcome every obstacle and always stay true to your own dream that you can accomplish anything. That part of the Eddie Edwards story they got right.

REASONS TO GO: Hits all the right notes. Egerton and Jackman both have charisma and charm.
REASONS TO STAY: Fudges with the facts way too much. Carries every cliché in the book.
FAMILY VALUES: Some partial nudity, a bit of sexually suggestive material and a fair amount of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Edwards failed to qualify for the 1994 and 1998 Olympics once the BOA raised the standards of qualification for the event; those standards were nicknamed the “Eddie the Eagle Rule” by the committee that instituted them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invincible
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Wave