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

The Wrestler


Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

(Fox Searchlight) Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens, Judah Friedlander, Ernest Miller. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The world of professional wrestling is deceptive. While there are “superstars” who command huge salaries and fan adulation, there are hundreds of others toiling in smaller promotions trying to get their big break. Those superstars, however, don’t always stay at the top and once you fall, there’s only one direction to go.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) has gone there. One of wrestling’s top draws in the ‘80s, he is struggling to make ends meet – and not always succeeding – twenty years after the fact. He still wrestles, but out of the limelight for smaller promotions. After a grueling match with an eager young up-and-comer, he comes home to find he’s been locked out of his trailer, so he’s forced to sleep in his van.

During the week he stocks groceries at a local grocery store for a boss who is less than sympathetic (Barry) which pays for most of his bills. At night, he patronizes a strip club where he has taken a shine to a particular girl, Cassidy (Tomei). She is older than most of the girls and takes a fair amount of grief for it from young punks who come to the club, which may be why the Ram likes her so much – in many ways, they’re in the same situation.

She has a young son as the Ram has a daughter (Wood), although he is estranged from his; the constant traveling of his profession kept him away from most of her important moments and all of her birthdays. She wants nothing more to do with the broken down piece of meat that her father has become.

However, the invincibility of the Ram has come into question. After a particularly brutal match in which a staple gun is used on the Ram’s leathery skin (hey, these kinds of matches actually happen) and having the staples painfully removed, he collapses in the locker room. He wakes up in the hospital, where the doctor explains that he’s had a cardiac bypass operation and his wrestling career is over.

Alone, without even the solace of the ring, Randy begins to reach out – to his daughter, to Cassidy, to anyone. He is making some small progress, but his own failings get in the way. His world crumbling around him, Randy agrees to a match – a 20th anniversary match against his greatest opponent, the Ayatollah (Miller) – that could lead to a big payday. It could also lead to the Ram’s demise.

Much has been made of Rourke’s performance, and I absolutely agree – this will be the performance he will be remembered for. While Sean Penn would win the Oscar for his role in Milk (and to be honest, Penn nailed the part), it should have gone to Rourke. Rourke’s Randy “the Ram” is much like a bull in a bullring; magnificent, strong and fierce, roaring at those who seek to skewer him, bellowing to let the world know he is there and should not be taken lightly. His performance is central to the movie’s appeal and shouldn’t be missed.

Kudos should go to Aronofsky for capturing the backstage world of professional wrestling. Accurate by all accounts (pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper purportedly was moved to tears by the movie), one gets a sense of the camaraderie of the boys in the back, of the quiet dignity and the unspoken desperation.

Tomei’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked either. The stripper with a heart of gold is a bit of a cliché in the movies, but Cassidy’s heart is tarnished. A good person, she looks at her chosen line of work as a means to an end. Interacting with customers should be limited to her stage show and the occasional lap dance. She is friendly, but keeps people at arms length. She likes the Ram, but can’t allow herself to become involved with him. Therein lies the road to heartbreak and trouble, and she wants neither. Like the Ram, she wears her loneliness as a protective shield.

This is one of those movies that gets under your skin and stays there. You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to love Randy “the Ram” Robinson or root for him. This is a human story at its very core, more about a man who has made mistakes and has been wounded by them than about leg drops and arm bars. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. When the credits roll, I guarantee that you won’t forget Randy Robinson for a long, long time.

WHY RENT THIS: Mickey Rourke gives the performance of a lifetime in what is sure to be his career-defining role. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll be drawn into the world of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. This is one of the best movies of 2008.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The wrestling violence is pretty graphic, and the depiction of Randy’s heart attack may be a bit much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic wrestling violence (there is a great deal of blood) as well as a high dose of sexuality and nudity make this more of a film for mature sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The final match of the movie was filmed during an actual Ring of Honor card. Several Ring of Honor wrestlers make cameos in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version of the release includes a round-table discussion of real wrestling legends Diamond Dallas Page, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger (who was used as a body double for Rourke in the opening montage of Randy “The Ram” Robinson at his height), Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake about the accuracy and merit of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: This Is England