I, TONYA (2017) Examines Assault On Truth As Well As On The Ice

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The best part about I, TONYA (2017) is it takes a story we all think we know— Tonya Harding and the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan— and gives it depth and resonance, fleshing it out to the point where Harding is portrayed as a flawed sympathetic human being rather than just a stock villain and a punchline.

The script by Steven Rogers is exceptional.  It breaks the fourth wall as characters address the camera at opportune moments, and it makes full use of an interview style where characters have their say about events, often contradicting each other, and makes a concerted effort to— no pun intended— hammer out the truth.  In fact, truth is one of the central themes of the movie, which is exceedingly relevant today where basic truths and facts seem to be challenged every day, as things like “alternative facts” are rolled out by government leaders as if they are real and valid.

I, TONYA begins with Tonya Harding’s childhood.  She’s skating on the ice when she’s just three years-old, pushed by her demanding mother LaVona (Allison Janney, in a performance that is every bit as good as advertised).  We follow her as she grows up in poverty, a self-described “redneck,” and it’s as a teenager that Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets the man she will eventually marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

It’s a tough life for Tonya.  She’s constantly abused by her mother, both verbally and physically, as well as beaten by her husband, all the while thinking these actions towards her are her fault.  And she snarkily says at one point that Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and the world cried, yet she was hit nonstop her whole life and no one cared.

She faces similar obstacles on the ice.  She’s a phenomenal skater yet struggles to earn top scores from the judges, as they admit off the record that it’s not the skating but her persona.  Americans want their Olympic skaters to represent family, their county, and wholesomeness, and with her crass rough demeanor, Tonya espouses none of these things. Tonya responds that if someone gave her the money to buy her clothes she’d at least look the part, but since she can’t afford the expected wardrobe she has to make her own.

And when Tonya receives a death threat that leaves her shaken and unable to perform, it gives her husband Jeff the idea that if they did the same to Nancy Kerrigan, send her some threatening letters, for instance, that it might shake her enough to give Tonya a competitive edge, a misguided plot that leads to the infamous “incident” where a man smashes Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.

Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. It’s a spirited performance that has the desired effect of evoking sympathies for Harding.  We really get to see the kind of life that Harding grew up in, making her successes on the ice all the more impressive. We also see, at least according to the movie, that she really didn’t know what her husband and friends were truly up to, that she believed all they were going to do was simply send some threatening letters.

And at the end, at her sentencing, you can’t help but feel the injustice as the judge imposes a lifetime ban on Tonya from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.  As Harding points out, the men involved received short prison sentences, and she argues that she’d rather do prison time instead, but the judge is undeterred.  As we learn, her husband Jeff received an 18 month sentence, but only served eight months.  Tonya remains banned for life.

My favorite Margot Robbie performance remains Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) mainly because it was such an energetic and inspired performance that lifted that otherwise mediocre superhero movie to higher heights, but Robbie is every bit as good here as Tonya Harding.

The other impressive item about Robbie’s performance in I, TONYA is she did most of her own skating, as she trained extensively for the role.  Of course, she couldn’t do Tonya Harding’s signature move, the triple axel jump, which only a handful of skaters have ever been able to do.  In an interview, director Craig Gillespie explained that he learned there were only two skaters on the planet who could perform that stunt today and they were both training for the Olympics and were thus unavailable, so he had to resort to some CGI help to pull off the stunt in the film.

Sebastian Stan is also excellent as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly.  Like the other characters in the movie, he’s fleshed out and comes off as a real person.  He’s a rather unlikable fellow, and yet he’s not a one-sided cardboard cliche, as we catch glimpses of his humanity, as with a later admission that he knows that he was responsible for ruining Harding’s career, and it’s something he says with profound sadness.  Stan has been appearing in the Marvel superhero movies as Captain America’s troubled best buddy Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, and Stan’s work here in I, TONYA resonates much more than his work as Bucky.

Of course, the performance of the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona. It’s as good as advertised, perhaps better, and she definitely lives up to all the hype her performance is generating.  She makes LaVona absolutely relentless, from her first scene to her last.  She is a complete monster of a mother, and she’s one character you won’t feel much sympathy for.  But the amazing thing is in Janney’s hands this lack of sympathy doesn’t make LaVona any less real.  She’s also absolutely hilarious, her vulgar remarks producing loud laughter from the audience.  Janney has enjoyed a long and productive career.  I most remember her for her longtime role as C.J. Cregg on the TV show THE WEST WING (1999-2006).  Her role here is probably the best performance I’ve seen her give in a movie.

Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious as Jeff’s friend Shawn, the man who cluelessly orchestrates the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. Shawn lives in his own fantasy world, and the ease and confidence with which he believes his own lies, in all seriousness, frighteningly, reminded me of a certain President of the United States. The two sound eerily similar.

Julianne Nicholson adds respectability as Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson, the one person in the movie who consistently seemed to care for Tonya’s well-being, and not surprisingly, was often the person Tonya listened to the least.  And Bobby Cannavale is amusing as news host Martin Maddox, who through interviews, explains how the media of the time covered the story.  He also gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he says his show HARD COPY was the exploitative news program that the respected news outlets of the time condemned and then later became.

Director Craig Gillespie gets nearly everything right here with I, TONYA. He takes full advantage of the chatty, conversational style of the script.  The film is light and witty throughout, and the movie flies by, but make no mistake, in spite of the humor I, TONYA is no comedy.  Sure, there’s laughter, but it’s from things people say, and the conviction and honesty with which they say them.  But at its heart, I,TONYA is a sad, tragic story with no happy ending.

Gillespie also handles the skating scenes with relative ease which all look amazing and authentic.  Gillespie’s success here comes as no surprise.  I’ve been a fan of his relatively small body of work.  He previously directed THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated rescue drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck about a 1952 Coast Guard rescue that sadly flew under the radar that year with little hype or fanfare.  It’s an excellent movie. Gillespie also directed the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) which wasn’t half bad.

I, TONYA also has a rocking soundtrack which captures the period from Tonya’s teen years in the 80s to her competitive skating years in the early 90s.

I, TONYA tells a remarkable story in a way that enables its audience to understand the motivations of its principal players to the point where it’s not unusual for even the most despicable people to come off as sympathetic.  That’s clearly the case with Tonya Harding, a person who was vilified by the press based upon actions that were clearly horrific, but yet here she’s portrayed as a real person with a horrific upbringing that makes her success on the ice all the more impressive.  As to the “incident,” it still remains horrible, but how much of that horror was of Tonya Harding’s doing gets a fresh hard look in this movie.

On top of this, the film also tackles the broader theme of the truth, as multiple characters all have their version of the truth as to what really happened that day.  The theme fits in perfectly with events of today, where truth is being attacked on a daily basis by those who feel completely comfortable with their own version of the truth, expressing little regard for those with opposing views, often labeling those folks as “enemies of the state.”

It’s an assault that is far more disturbing than the attack portrayed in this movie.  In fact, you could make the argument that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan as portrayed in this movie is symbolic of what happens when people who make their own truths get carried away with their own fantasies.

People get hurt.

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Superhero Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look at the superhero movies from 2016, ranked from worst to first:

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7. BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE – By far, the worst superhero movie of 2016. The script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer doesn’t work. In spite of the fact that Batman and Superman do not trust or like each other, a big part of the plot revolves around Lex Luthor’s plans to pit them against each other.  Why?  They’re enemies already!  Also, the big moment where Batman and Superman change their tunes about each other is both unbelievable and anticlimactic.

Both Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman are fine, but the story they are in is not.  Also unimpressed with the action scenes by director Zach Snyder.  Best Part:  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Worst Part:  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.

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6. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN- Tecnically, not really a superhero movie, but growing up I always considered Tarzan a superhero of the jungle.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a serious good-looking production by director David Yates that suffers from one fundamental problem:  it’s boring.

Alexander Skarsgard is terribly uncharismatic as Tarzan, Margot Robbie somehow doesn’t wow as Jane, and Christoph Waltz thinks he’s still playing Bond baddie Blofeld, hamming it up as villain Leon Rom.  The liveliest lines go to Samuel L. Jackson as Tarzan ally George Washington Williams.  The movie would have been better served had it given this oomph to Tarzan.

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5.SUICIDE SQUAD –  The DC superhero movies continue to struggle, but that being said, I liked SUICIDE SQUAD.  Somewhat.

Whereas she didn’t wow in THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, Margot Robbie more than makes up for it here as Harley Quinn.  Robbie’s electrifying, sexy performance as the bad-girl-turned-good-maybe easily steals this movie.  It’s easy to understand from Robbie’s performance how Quinn is the Joker’s girlfriend.

While I’m not a Will Smith fan, he’s really good here as Deadshot, and his and Robbie’s performances were the main reasons I enjoyed this movie.  The rest of the cast is simply average.  The plot less so.  The screenplay by director David Ayer has all this build up to this squad of misfits only to see them square off against one of their own, a supernatural witch, no less.  This one simply lacks vision.

Also, Jared Leto’s Joker is ultimately a disappointment, partly because of his performance, but mostly because the role is under written.

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4. DOCTOR STRANGE – The first of the superhero movies on this list that I consider excellent.  It’s no surprise that all four of the top superhero movies from 2016 come out of the Marvel Universe, the studio that continues to churn out one superhero hit after another.

Certainly the most imaginative superhero movie of the year.  Not only does it tell a captivating story, but it’s also a visual treat. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Doctor Strange, the obnoxious neurosurgeon turned superhero after a devastating injury ruins his career and sends him in search of healing through the Far East mystic arts.  What he finds is new life as a superhero.

As usual with the Marvel movies, it struggles with its villain, as Mads Mikkelsen really doesn’t get to do a whole lot as bad guy Kaecilius.

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3. X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE –  My sleeper pick on the list.  Critically panned and not really loved by fans, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE nonetheless entertained me from start to finish.

The main reason I enjoyed this one?  The performances by James McAvoy as Professor Xavier, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Since taking over these roles when the series rebooted with X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011), McAvoy and Fassbender have made them their own.  It’s difficult to dislike a movie when these two talented actors are helming it.

Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is here, too, as Raven/Mystique, but in all honesty I’ve enjoyed Lawrence in most of her other movies more than here in the X-MEN series.

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2. DEADPOOL (CKF) – For many, DEADPOOL was the best superhero movie of 2016.  For me, it was second best.  That being said, it was certainly the most unusual superhero movie of the year.

Foul-mouthed Deadpool— played by Ryan Reynolds in a role he was born to play— lets loose with an abundance of raunchy language not even George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Eddie Murphy combined could match.  As such, this R rated superhero movie is not for everyone, but if you don’t mind raunchy language, you are in for quite a treat.

The liveliest superhero movie of the year, as well as the funniest.

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1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016 is easily Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.  This one plays more like THE AVENGERS 2.5. Its story about a rift between Captain America and Iron Man is much more believable and emotionally satisfying than the rift between Batman and Superman in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.

This one is so good, that even though it’s the third Captain America movie, it belongs in the conversation as one of the best superhero movies ever made.Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo direct this one with high energy and lots of style, and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is a genuine crowd pleaser.

Also features a phenomenal cast which has no business being in a superhero movie. You’ve got Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Paul Bettany as Vision, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier.  And with all these folks doing their things and doing them well, the movie is almost stolen by young Tom Holland in his debut as Spider-Man.

An awesome movie.  Marvel has been churning out one quality superhero movie after another going back to IRON MAN (2008), and they show no signs of slowing down.  I’m looking forward to their upcoming releases in 2017, starting with LOGAN on March 3.

And there you have it, my list of the superhero movies from 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) – Cool Characters Stuck In A Not-So-Cool Movie

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Things are so bad— how bad is it?

Things are so bad, it’s no longer enough to have superheroes fighting for you.  Nowadays you need supervillains on your side.

That’s the premise behind SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), the latest superhero movie from DC comics. Unlike its rival Marvel comics, whose superhero films have been for the most part high quality flicks and box office hits, the DC movies have struggled.  The previous film in the series, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) was a dud and struggled with believability, as its rift between Batman and Superman was forced and contrived.

Today’s movie, SUICIDE SQUAD, struggles with a similar problem.

SUICIDE SQUAD opens after the events of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE and finds government officials increasingly wary of the unchecked powers of superheroes, or as they are called in these movies, metahumans.  Officials are worried that the next Superman might not be so friendly.

Enter government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) whose solution to this problem is to assemble a group of supervillains— a suicide squad— who she claims she will control by injecting each of them with a chip containing a miniaturized bomb.  They cross her in any way, and she’ll blow them up.

They will do the nasty work of the government– defeating super bad guys— because they will have no choice in the matter, and if they fail no one will know because the entire operation will be kept under wraps, nor will anyone care since these guys are all villains.    For Waller, it’s a win-win situation.

For me, it’s a head-scratcher.  Wouldn’t you rather just hire Batman and some of his friends?  It seems like a lot less trouble.

The SUICIDE SQUAD consists of Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin who never misses; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who happens to be the Joker’s girlfriend, and she’s just as crazy as he is; Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Australian who uses razor sharp boomerangs as weapons; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a monstrous creature with crocodilian abilities; Diablo (Jay Hernandez) a guy who uses fire as a weapon and makes the Human Torch seem like a puny match; and a few others.

Among these others is Waller’s trump card, the Enchantress, an all-powerful witch who Waller controls by keeping her heart in a brief case.  In human form, the Enchantress is scientist June Moone (Cara Delevingne).

But Waller’s plan falls apart when she loses control of the Enchantress, who then summons her all-powerful brother to join her in conquering the human race.  Waller is forced to use her Suicide Squad to take down the Enchantress and her brother.  In effect, their first mission is to attack one of their own.  So much for taking on outside threats.

SUICIDE SQUAD is full of cool characters, but it’s not a cool movie. Far from it, it’s silly and contrived, and it has one of the more ridiculous superhero plots I’ve ever seen. A wicked witch who wants to take over the world?  Puh-lease!   Still, it’s not all bad, and there were some things that I liked.

It’s two strongest characters are Harley Quinn and Deadshot.  Of the two, Deadshot is far less interesting, but Will Smith delivers a strong performance nonetheless.  I’m not much of a Will Smith fan, but this is one of the better characters I’ve seen him play.  When he’s on screen, the movie is that much better.  He also has some of the best lines in the movie, which is a rarity, because surprisingly, there aren’t many memorable lines in this film.

Even better than Smith is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.  By far, she’s the best part of SUICIDE SQUAD.  Quinn is the most interesting character in the film, and she also has the best story, a love story between her and the Joker (Jared Leto).  It’s the one story in the entire movie that works.

Margot Robbie is phenomenal as Harley Quinn.  She makes her as zany and unpredictable as she’s supposed to be, and she also instills her with a wild and potent sexuality that pulsates off the screen.  Robbie played Jane Clayton earlier this year in the tepid Tarzan tale THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016).  She was also in WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) with Tina Fey, and she also starred in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013).  Her work here in SUICIDE SQUAD is better than anything I’ve seen her do before.

Remove Will Smith and Margot Robbie from this movie, and it’s a complete mess.  They pretty much carry the film, but since it’s entitled SUICIDE SQUAD, and not HARLEY QUINN MEETS DEADSHOT, they don’t entirely save it.

The other members of the squad are simply not as developed as Deadshot and Harley Quinn, and as a result, are not as interesting.

The villains here are the worst part.  Enchantress?  A witch as the villain?  Seriously?  I half expected to see Chris Hemsworth show up as the Huntsman!  Things were so bad I was almost pining for Loki.  Almost.  Her dialogue is also laughable.  Seriously, I challenge you to listen to her lines in her final scenes and not laugh out loud.  She also does this bizarre hip movement thing which looks like Elvis animated by Ray Harryhausen.

Government Agent Amanda Waller as played by Viola Davis is a ruthless despicable character.  It’s clear she hates the Suicide Squad.  It’s also clear she’s out of place in a superhero movie.  She’d be more at home as the heavy in a Jason Bourne film.

Jared Leto plays the Joker, and he has enormous shoes to fill. The last time we saw the Joker in a movie, he was played by Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), and his performance as the Joker is arguably the greatest performance by any actor in a superhero movie.  I thought Leto was okay, and given more to do, he may have been even better than okay, but sadly, the Joker remains a secondary character throughout this movie, and as such, Leto never really grew on me, nor did he have a chance to make this role his own.

SUICIDE SQUAD was directed by David Ayer, and I can’t say that I was impressed.There aren’t really many memorable action scenes, which is not a good thing in a superhero movie.  I also wasn’t that impressed with the look of the film.  Most of it is shot on dark rainy streets, and visually it didn’t do much for me.  Even the 3D effects weren’t that impressive.

The weakest part of SUICIDE SQUAD, as was the case with BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, is the script, here written by director David Ayer. First off, I didn’t like the way it told its story.  The backrgound stories to the Suicide Squad are revealed in staccato flashbacks which play out like a series of YouTube videos.  There’s no sense of pacing or drama.  They’re just played to us as if we’re clicking on a computer screen.  The result is a rather disjointed and slow opening third to this movie.

When things finally do pick up, the Suicide Squad immediately is thrust into the ridiculous storyline of defending the city against an all powerful witch and her brother. It’s a story that just doesn’t work.

I also didn’t like the way the members of the Suicide Squad were forced into working for Waller.  They obey her or they die.  The result here is they are not allowed to exhibit much of their personalities.

The only story that works is the love story between Harley Quinn and the Joker.  It’s the only part of the film that resonates and that doesn’t come off as forced.  I really hoped the Joker would become more involved in the main plot of the movie, but alas, this film is not that ambitious and he remains largely in the background.

Likewise, an uncredited Ben Affleck plays Batman here, but again, he’s only in the background, as he only appears in the flashbacks.  It’s kind of a waste.  I wanted to see Batman involved in the action, seen from the perspective of the Suicide Squad.  That would have been interesting.

But a film that contains two powerful performances like the ones that Will Smith and Margot Robbie deliver cannot be all bad, and SUICIDE SQUAD is not a complete clunker by any means.  It has its moments, most of them when Smith and Robbie are on screen, and while the other members of the suicide squad are chock full of potential, sadly, they’re all stuck in a story that is about as compelling as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The difference being that Harley Quinn is no Snow White.

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