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 ~ August: Osage County

5

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham

Director: John Wells

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: By the time the stage version August: Osage County premiered to thunderous acclaim on Broadway in 2007, it wasn’t hard to see the possibilities of Tracy Letts’ play making the move from the Great White Way to Hollywood.  I mean, just think of the rich casting potential for the wonderfully complex and flawed characters that Letts created…it was an actor’s feast.  And when Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Hope Springs) was announced as playing the matriarch of the Weston clan the only thing I could think was ‘Of course.’.  It made perfect sense for Streep to be attracted to such a whopper of a role and even more sense for producers George Clooney (Gravity) and Grant Heslov (Argo) to lock her in as the star on top of the twisted Christmas tree that is August: Osage County.

Over the next months as more cast members like Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Mirror, Mirror), Ewan McGregor (The Impossible, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Chris Cooper (The Company You Keep), Abigail Breslin (The Call), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear),  Margo Martindale (…first do no harm),  Dermot Mulroney (Stoker),  and Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Steel Magnolias, Mud) were announced the stakes just kept getting higher and higher and the expectations soared through the roof.  After all, with a multi-award winning cast gathered together for some good old fashioned family dysfunction there was no way this could miss, right?

Well…

I’ll say that if you’ve never seen a production of August: Osage County on stage you may like this a little bit more than I did.  Though I enjoyed the film overall based mostly on several key performances/scenes I was more underwhelmed than I thought I’d be because the film version was missing that lightening rod indefinable IT factor that made the stage version pulsate with life.  Whatever magic happened when you saw the dark secrets of this family exposed in the darkness of live theater just didn’t transfer over the same way to film.

Not to give the impression that this cast doesn’t toss themselves whole hog into trying, though.  Streep (sporting an appropriately ratty brown wig and huge sunglasses that make her look like Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gets down and dirty with her eldest daughter played by a refreshingly earthy Roberts who wasn’t vain enough to hide her faded graying roots.  Gathered together in the days following the disappearance of the patriarch of the family (Shepard, who interestingly enough played Roberts boyfriend in The Pelican Brief), the Weston brood return to their dusty hometown toting all kinds of baggage.

While they eat, drink, and avoid being merry, pretty much every kind of family squabble breaks out and usually during a large family meal.  These dining room scenes were quite effective on stage and they work nearly as well on screen with arguments that start small erupting into knockdown, drag out fights.  Audience members that avoided recent holiday arguments with their own families will get their quota of bickering when they sit down to dine with the Westons.

Adapted by Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, the author finds acceptable ways to open up the cinematic interpretation of his work that allow the characters time away from home.  That’s all well and good but part of why the stage version felt so claustrophobic was the fact that the action took place entirely in the house…so we were as trapped as the family was.  Giving the actors on screen some breathing room winds up taking air out of the tension that Letts attempts to build.

It doesn’t help things that television director John Wells is behind the camera for only his second feature film.  His direction is exceedingly pedestrian, though I can’t imagine these actors needed much help from him.  Still, one wonders what a more seasoned director (like Gus van Sant, for instance) could have done to shape the film better.

I saw the film at a screening back in October and at that time the ending wasn’t set in stone.  I know that two endings exist, one that stays closer to the stage play and another that adds a coda many feel unnecessary.  I saw the second ending and agree totally that the film didn’t need it…it’s only there to placate audiences that need resolution, lessening the overall impact of all the maladies that came before it.  From what I’m hearing the ending I saw is the one that stuck so take stock of when you think the movie should have ended and see if it aligns.

It’s likely that Streep and Roberts will be Oscar nominated for their work here and it wouldn’t be off the mark to say they’ve earned their spot in their categories.  It’s extremely doubtful they’ll win with the quality of the other actresses they’d be competing against but the work here is demonstrative of Streep’s good instincts and that Roberts is more than just America’s sweetheart.  The two make the film worth seeing and the source material itself is brilliant…if you can’t see it onstage then the film version of August: Osage County will have to do.

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The Silver Bullet ~ August: Osage County

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Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts: An all-star cast has been assembled for the big screen version of August: Osage County, based on the searing Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Seeing the play, I was riveted and while I’m not sure a film version can create that same immediacy there’s a wealth of strength in the material from playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts.  Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) is an interesting choice for the boozy matriarch of the troubled Weston family but knowing Streep she’s going to knock this one out of the park and wind up with another Oscar nomination or win for her troubles.  When they announced Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror) was to play opposite Streep some turned up their noses but our first look at Roberts in action suggests that the A-List star is readying for a powerhouse performance.  The rest of the cast is top-notch too with some spot-on casting to look forward to.  Unless something goes majorly wrong, this is a film that will factor heavily into the next Academy Awards…I can’t wait to see it.