Movie Review ~ I, Tonya


The Facts
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Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Mckenna Grace, Bojana Novakovic, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  As I triple-axel my way ever closer to middle age, I’ve started to notice something all-together irritating.  Recently I’ve begun to see that movies based on real events have become less of an educational opportunity for me but more of a memory-jogging excursion into my teenage years.  Yes, I’m getting so old that I can actually remember where I was when Princess Diana died, when O.J. Simpson took that famous joyride in the white Bronco, and I definitely, 100% remember where I was during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Like most of America, I was glued to the tube watching not just the stunning athleticism on display but wondering how the drama of the previous months was going to play out.  We’ll get back to that because while ardent fans will remember who skated their way to the gold, silver, and bronze this is, after all, a spoiler-free blog and the events leading up to these Olympic games are the climax of I, Tonya.

I’ll admit going into I, Tonya with a little prejudice not just toward its subject but also it’s star.  Over the years the name Tonya Harding was equated with the horrible attack on her colleague and competitor Nancy Kerrigan.  While the tabloids were busy painting Harding as an evil conspirator, the makers of I, Tonya (including star and executive producer Margot Robbie) are more interested in showing the genesis of the famed figure skater, her struggle to the top, and her mighty (and maybe ultimately unjustified) fall from grace.

Framed by a series of interviews inspired by the words of the actual people involved, I, Tonya takes a while to stand on its own.  At first the narrative device gives the film a cheapness that isn’t helped by stars Robbie (as Harding) and Sebastian Stan (as her ex-husband Jeff Gilloly) laboring under some troublesome make-up, wigs, and facial hair to age them into their early ‘40s.  It’s when writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) do away with the tell vs. show method and cease with the random breaking of the fourth wall that the movie scores major points and takes on a life of its own.

Skating through Harding’s early years as a child phenom pushed by her chain-smoking foul-mouthed domineering monster mother LaVona (Allison Janney, The Way Way Back) into her adolescence and early marriage to the abusive Gilloly, all of the standard biopic bases are covered.  Harding comes from less than ideal circumstances and soon learns that handmade costumes and skating programs set to rock music aren’t going to win her a place in the hearts of the judges.  Looking for a more wholesome specimen to represent the world at the Olympics, the judges score Harding lower than her peers even though it’s well known she could skate rings around them.  There’s two great scenes where Harding confronts the judges, one ends with Harding hurling a gem of vulgarity and the other that makes you feel even more sorry for the young woman that just wants to be recognized for her ability, not her perceived personality shortcomings.

Harding was surrounded by people that wanted her to succeed not for her benefit but for theirs above all else.  LaVona looks to her daughter to be the bread-winner and save her from her life as a waitress, Gilloly obsessively loved his wife but couldn’t handle her need for independence after being brow-beaten by her mother and abandoned by her father.  Then there’s Gilloly’s friend and Harding’s bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) who hatches a jokey plan for psychological warfare on Harding’s foes that ultimately became the plot to injure Kerrigan.

I’ve struggled mightily with Robbie ever since she broke onto the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street and there’s always a feeling of potential that’s never fully embraced.  While she received much attention for her role as Harley Quinn in the odious Suicide Squad and biffed it earlier in 2017 with Goodbye Christopher Robin, here she made me a believer in the accolades she’s garnered for playing Harding.  Early scenes feel awkward as the Australian Robbie adopts a trailer trash slack drawl but she eventually finds her groove, leading to a supremely satisfying turn in the final ¼ of the movie.  There’s a short scene with her attempting to put on her game face (literally) in a mirror that alone should get her an Oscar nomination.

Robbie’s ably supported by Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Janney, the latter of which goes all out as a nightmare of a woman that doesn’t have a motherly instinct in her body.  Her justification of why she behaves the way she does toward her daughter is hysterical, enlightening, and very very sad.  Playing her first coach and one of her only true allies, Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) is also a strong presence in the film.  Though Robbie and Janney are getting the awards attention, for my money Hauser’s dimwit bodyguard is the one that needs a bigger spotlight for his deliriously droll performance.  It may look easy to do but his excellent timing and perfectly pitched physicality is more memorable for me than anything else.

It’s not all rosy for I, Tonya though.  Relying on some wince-inducing soundtrack choices that are far too on the nose, Gillespie throttles into his audience with too many asides to cameras and leaps back and forth in time.  While Robbie can skate, the scenes where she’s recreating Harding’s famously difficult performances are done using a double with Robbie’s face unconvincingly digitally inserted over the stand-in.  This never, ever, looks good and too often produces laughs as it seems Robbie’s face and the skater’s body are playing two different emotions.

Yet for all its wobbly construction issues I was left reeling by the committed performances and that’s what pushes this one ahead into something worth seeking out.  I’m almost positive this is the best we’ll see Robbie for a while so I’d advise to strike while the iron’s hot and see what all the fuss is about.  While Janney is wonderfully acerbic, I’d favor Laurie Metcalf’s equally troubling mother in Lady Bird over this performance if I was forced to choose in an Oscar pool.  This one might not get a perfect score, but in uncovering more about Harding than most people have seen, it gets top marks.

The Silver Bullet ~ I, Tonya

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Release Date: December 8, 2017

Thoughts: Well this looks like a wild ride. The brouhaha surrounding the infamous conspiracy involving figure skater Tonya Harding’s involvement in the injury of her competitor Nancy Kerrigan was the stuff of tabloid dreams.  Over the years Harding has faded from the public eye but  I, Tonya aims to drudge up events that have been on ice for some time.  Directed by Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours), while the movie looks like a black comedy at its bleakest and darkest (I get shades of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, no?), I’ve already heard buzz that it’s one you’re either going to get a huge kick out of or feel like you need a shower after to wash away the mean grime the film leaves on you.  I’m still nowhere near sold on the overall impact of Margot Robie (Exhibit A: Goodbye Christopher Robin) but if the Oscar rumors are true about co-star Allison Janney (Minions) then all shall be forgiven…for now.

Movie Review ~ The Finest Hours

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Stars: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Eric Bana

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Walt Disney Studios used to crank out their live-action pictures with regularity, keeping the home fires burning while readying their latest animated release.  From shaggy dogs to absent-minded professors to a king of the wild frontier, from identical twins pulling a fast one on their divorced parents to a monkey’s uncle to babes in toyland, the studio cast a wide net of fantasy and more often than not put forth winning family entertainment that weren’t Oscar caliber but have managed to stand the test of time all the same.

In recent years, there’s been a revitalization of Disney focusing on live-action features. Favoring true stories of uphill battles instead of the more fantastical escapism that maybe was more necessary half a century ago, there’s a definite formula at work here and no one seems particularly interested in changing it up.  A few of these films have won me over like McFarland U.S.A. and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day but on the other side of the coin you have disappointments like The Odd Life of Timothy Green and Million Dollar Arm.

The director of the overstuffed Million Dollar Arm, Craig Gillespie, returns to cinemas with The Finest Hours, a drama in real life adventure documenting the brave rescue of a crew on a sinking oil liner by a small Coast Guard boat.  The early trailers may have given most of the movie away, but to their credit they are far more exciting than the finished product.

Coast Guard Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) barely has time to ask his commanding officer (Eric Bana, Closed Circuit) permission to marry his girlfriend (Holliday Grainger, Cinderella, Disney’s excellent 2015 offering) before he’s sent out to rescue the crew of SS Pendleton, a T-2 oil tanker headed for Boston ripped in half during a large weather system felt up and down the New England coast.  Aboard the failing ship, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, Interstellar) overcomes crew resistance to lead the men on a risky maneuver in hopes of buying more time as their rescue vessel draws near.

All the makings of an exciting movie…if only we could see what was actually going on.  Gillespie and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Goosebumps, Blue Jasmine, the remake of Poltergeist) set so much of the film in the whiteout conditions on land or the rain heavy visages on the open sea that audiences will wind up relying on voice recognition to figure out who’s talking and what’s happening.  It doesn’t help that in dark lighting and soaking wet almost every male in the film starts to look alike, further complicating attempts to follow the action.  And did I mention it’s in 3D? And it’s the 3D that doesn’t improve the feature in the slightest, with the only noticeable dimensional change coming during the credits.

Pine makes another bid for dramatic leading man but it’s clear he’s better suited to being the captain of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond.  With so many close-ups of his mournful (and, it must be said, slightly crossed) eyes, Pine emotes enough for the entire cast which is directly countered by Affleck’s barely awake effort.  Reacting to his sinking vessel or a fallen shipmate with the gusto of Rip Van Winkle, Affleck may have been going for laid-back but winds up flat-backed, sleepwalking through most of the film.

If there’s a reason to see the movie, it’s for Grainger as Bernie’s spitfire fiancée.  Determined not to lose the man she loves so soon after they get engaged, she’s got spirit to spare whether she’s standing up to Bernie’s boss or learning the hard realities of signing up to being the wife of a Coast Guard captain.  Alas, Grainger can’t be in two places at once so every time the film shifts back to the sea we feel her absence.  Poor Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) looks absolutely miserable as Bernie’s second in command…and not just because he spends the majority of the film sopping wet.  Foster is known to go all-in with his characters but feels restrained here and it clearly makes him uncomfortable.

Based on the novel The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, the script from Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson dallies around in the first half before rushing through the climactic rescue attempt that should be the dramatic peak of the film.  In all fairness, little weight is given to anything in the film but it’s strange the scene highlighted in all of the marketing materials comes up and is over so quickly.

Those feeling nostalgic for the films made by Walt Disney back in the studio’s live-action golden days were likely looking forward to The Finest Hours.  I know because I was one of them.  So it’s a bummer to report there’s a curious lack of the adventure and magic I had hoped to find in this true life tale of a rescue against all odds on the high seas.  While there were a few beacons of light to be found, should you choose to head out to sea with Pine and the gang the hours you’ll spend in the theater won’t be the finest…they’ll be merely fine.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Finest Hours

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Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Release Date:  January 29, 2016

Thoughts: I’m happy to see that the Walt Disney Studios continues to give a fair share of their time to produce live-action films to balance out their animation division.  True, I think the time has passed for the classic entertainment of their hey-day of the ‘50s and ‘60s but they seem committed to releasing stories that resonate with audiences.  It’s also true that the efforts can be hit or miss.  I loved 2015’s McFarland U.S.A. but was fairly underwhelmed with 2014’s Million Dollar Arm…thanks to Jon Hamm’s lackluster leading man performance and story told from the wrong perspective.  The director of that film, Craig Gillespie, is on board for Disney’s 2016 film The Finest Hours and it already looks like an improvement over his previous effort.

The true life tale of the “most daring rescue attempt in Coast Guard history”, this period piece boasts a nice assemblage of character actors and Chris Pine (Into the Woods) as the leading man.  As usual, I think the trailer is too long and gives too much away for a film of this nature…but if the final product captures that old-school Disney storytelling magic all will certainly be forgiven.

Movie Review ~ Million Dollar Arm

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A sports agent stages an unconventional recruitment strategy to get talented Indian cricket players to play Major League Baseball.

Stars: Jon Hamm, Bill Paxton, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Aasif Mandvi, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Alan Arkin

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Much to my number-minded mom’s chagrin, I was never the math whiz she wanted me to be. With a flick as by the numbers as Million Dollar Arm is I can, however, spot a movie formula without the use of a graphing calculator. It’s a simple equation, really, made simpler by a hokey screenplay courtesy of Tom McCarthy and pedestrian direction from Craig Gillespie. You ready?

True story multiplied by 2 Indian youths divided by 1 Jon Hamm-y performance plus 1 extraneous subplot = Million Dollar Arm

Here’s the thing: I actually think there’s a respectable movie to be made out of the story of an arrogant sports agent (Hamm, ) scraping the bottom of the financial barrel who strikes a deal with the baseball league to sponsor a contest to find the first Indian baseball player.  The problem is that Walt Disney Studios, McCarthy, and Gillespie all made the movie from the wrong perspective. If you see the movie (as a rental, por favor) you’ll understand that it’s the two young men and their baseball loving translator that are the heart of the picture and anything/everything related to Hamm’s agent character drags the film to TV movie of the week levels.

Though he’s popped up in ok supporting roles over the past few years, Hamm sadly doesn’t have the chops that make the type of leading man this type of film needed. Better suited for a Dennis Quaid, Ben Affleck, or shoot, even Casey Affleck, Hamm struggles with Don Draper-izing his small screen handsome features and wardrobe. Taking a page from Jerry Maguire, he can’t even do what Tom Cruise accomplished in that film and make his character likable…even when he’s speaking lines that should do the trick.

It’s puzzling that the film so desperately tries to avoid telling the story at the center of it all with way too much of the way too long 124 minute running length devoted to Hamm’s gradual realization that the woman renting his guest house (Lake Bell, who knows she and Hamm are mismatched) is girlfriend material. Bell, Bill Paxton (Indian Summer), and Alan Arkin (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, who literally sleeps his way the film) do their best to counterbalance the enormous anchor Hamm ties to the film but can’t keep it afloat.

As the fish out of water baseball hopefuls, Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) are winning presences and do much of their own impressive pitching. However, the one person that manages a home run if not an outright grand slam is Bollywood star Pitobash making his Hollywood debut. At first I wrote the tiny bundle of energy off as simply comic relief but as the film went on I wanted to see more of him. To say that he makes a great save in the final inning is to put it mildly as in one short speech he nearly makes up for all the hooey that came before. It’s in this moment that you might, like me, realize how much better a movie was waiting to be made had Disney recognized where the true focus should have been.

Reminding me a lot of Disney’s 90s offering Cool Runnings, Million Dollar Arm can’t complete in the big leagues of other sports related family entertainment (rated PG, parents should know this really skates the edge of PG-13 material) due to Hamm’s not ready for primetime performance and a lack of faith in the material. Instead, take a peek at The Rookie, Disney’s 2002 baseball-makes-grown-men-cry offering.

The Silver Bullet ~ Million Dollar Arm

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Synopsis: A sports agent stages an unconventional recruitment strategy to get talented Asian cricket players to play Major League Baseball.

Release Date:  May 16, 2014

Thoughts: Let me start out by saying that I’m going to see Million Dollar Arm when it’s released in 2014 because I like this particular type of film.  No one makes an underdog story with the right amount of schmaltz quite like Disney and it’s hard to find good PG material that doesn’t pander to tots and doesn’t induce eyerolls in adults.

I will say, however, that this film looks an awful lot like Cool Runnings, Disney’s 1993 film of another American Jo(h)n (Candy) that finds star athletes (a bobsled team) in a most unlikely location (Jamaica).  Jon Hamm (Friends with Kids) seems like the right gent for the job but he’s yet to truly prove he can carry a theatrical film all on his own.  There’s charisma to spare here but it’s not yet made the leap from TV to film…perhaps this sure-to-be feel good-er will seal the deal.