Skip to main content

Review: "I, Tonya"

On one level, Craig Gillespie has grown into a director with an agreeable work ethic. Specifically, I mean that in how he adapts his sensibilities into whatever project he is working on, for better or worse. The first film I saw of his was Lars and the Real Girl during the 43rd Chicago International Film Festival. Gillespie was there for the post-screening Q&A where he mentioned his background in commercial work before transitioning to feature films. Lars was an assured piece of filmmaking; quiet, introspective and smartly laced with delicate humor. I looked forward to seeing how the Gillespie film canon would grow. Unexpectedly, the next film Gillespie made was the remake of the 1980s horror comedy Fright Night, starring Colin Farrell. It in no way shared anything close to the special subtle drama of Lars (although I admit I enjoyed Fright Night on a superficial level, mainly because of my soft spot for vampire films). Since Fright Night, Gillespie switched gears again and did two forgettable live action Disney family films, Million Dollar Arm and The Finest Hours. Alas, after nearly a decade's worth of studio feature filmmaking, I still had no inkling into what the artistic voice of Gillespie was (or is).

I mention this directorial history because his newest film I, Tonya is a very distinct motion picture, one filled with a visual bravado and energy that's tonally messy at times but nevertheless feels thrillingly alive. It certainly doesn't come across as another one of Gillespie's "for hire" directing gigs. Is this the filmmaking voice we've been kept from this whole this time?

Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad) stars as the titular real life antihero and famed figure skater Tonya Harding. Harding, as everyone probably knows, fell from grace and the public eye after she was banned from the U.S. Figure Skating Association in 1994 for being (knowledgeably?) involved in the physical attack on her skating peer Nancy Kerrigan. I, Tonya tells Harding's life story all the way up until that banishment (and then some after through flash forward talking head testimonies spliced throughout the film). When we first meet Tonya as a child she's being crudely sales-pitched into a skating rink by her cold and abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney, sure to be Oscar-nominated); the sales pitch is directed at trainer Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) and even though Rawlinson is reluctant to take Tonya on initially, she's quickly won over with the enthusiastic talent the young prodigy conveys. Much of LaVona's contempt for her own daughter stems from the fact that Tonya is in love with a sport that is catered to and practiced by an upper class; LaVona has already had her failures in life (e.g. a failed marriage) and having to use her modest income from waitressing to meet her child's sole passion only fuels the ongoing toxicity of their modest domestic dynamic. Rawlinson's charitable time and mentorship is key to Tonya's professional upbringing but it only adds another dark cloud over the head of LaVona, a woman who probably should never have been a mother in the first place. Janney is so good at mixing this look of failed love and boiled spite in her eyes. It's really something.

I, Tonya has already drawn comparisons to Goodfellas, and though it's not on the level of that film's greatness, it does share some structural similarities: the colorful voiceovers, the greatest hits soundtrack of the era, the kinetic editing, the exceptional camera operation and also, the thorough display of violence. And here's where things get murky on the reception this film will have with mainstream audiences. Tonya grew up with domestic violence. Violence is very much a part of the life she knows and is integral to how she makes sense of other life events that follow (especially when she marries the sociopathic main squeeze of her life played by Sebastian Stan). I admit, when I first watched the film back in October, I winced and struggled with how enthusiastically the domestic violence was portrayed. At first, it's horrific but then after awhile, it became an unintended dark punchline in certain scenes. It's a problem the film has, but it's also one that I don't know if it could ever avoid. You see, if Gillespie slows down the tempo of the film to dive into the seriousness of domestic violence, then he risks losing the speedometer magic his movie skating on (pun very much intended). As a result, by glossing over every punch, stab and gunshot, I, Tonya at times seems to not care about some of the despicable people it's presenting and that risks allowing us not to care either.

Still, the film has a lot to say about what it takes to be in the public eye as well as the timeless strain that is the class divide, which is the most important thing that prevents Tonya from ever reaching true acknowledgment from her arena of colleagues and superiors. I, Tonya is a film that resembles its main character -- tough, talented, imperfect, passionate, funny, misunderstood, violent, out of control and achingly American.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

VIDEO ESSAY: Film Fidelity: Beyoncé's "Lemonade"

Beyoncé knocked the wind out of the Internet when she dropped her nearly hour-long visual album Lemonade on HBO this past Saturday night, April 23rd. The inspired film is a remarkable piece to be sure--even for the Queen Bee herself. And while everything from the sound design to the collective creative direction from the team of filmmakers, editors and art department is exceptional, much of the receptive chatter online has instead circled around the implied infidelity that spurs the narrative of Lemonade; the idea that hubby Jay Z did Beyoncé wrong with a certain "Becky with the good hair." Which is too bad; that's the kind of fodder for tabloids and it marginalizes how much great film art is packed into this thing.
So, as a reactionary cinephile, I thought I'd redirect the public's attention to the striking images that Lemonade presents, the ideas behind them and, more pointedly, where these vignettes drew inspiration from. In contrast to the possible off-screen…

VIDEO ESSAY: Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

"He's making all this up as he goes along."

NOTE: I was fortunate enough to attend a rare 70mm screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master on Thursday August 16, 2012 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. In attendance were writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and one of the film's actors, Kevin J. O'Connor (both of whom are pictured with mehere).


--

The key to the success of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master doesn't come in its mammoth achievement of being shot on 70mm film or its carefully constructed parallel origin story of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology practices. Rather, that success is embedded in an intimate scene: a single shot close-up on alcoholic war veteran Freddie Sutton (an unforgettable Joaquin Phoenix) during a "process of time" session with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in prime Hubbard form). Up until this scene, the character of Freddie dutifully performed the task of delivering the film's dark lau…

Winnie the Pooh Mashup Trailer: "Christopher Robin & Ted"

"Sooner or later, your past catches up to you." That's the tagline Disney is going with for their live-action Winnie the Pooh movie Christopher Robin, starring Ewan McGregor. While watching the teaser trailer (which debuted today) and getting my first look at a real life Winnie the Pooh talking bear, I couldn't help but be reminded of Seth MacFarlane's Ted, the R-rated comedy which featured a protagonist who's a foul-mouthed talking teddy bear. Ironically enough, MacFarlane's talking bear Ted has a much more cuddly and lovable look to him. Disney decided to give Winnie the Pooh a crude and homely-looking appearance -- not exactly what you'd expect for their intended child audience. So I decided to create this mashup trailer, which rewrites Christopher Robin's (McGregor) backstory to suggest that Ted was his original bear and he just sewed up the teddy bear's parts to look like Winnie the Pooh.

Talk about your past catching up to you! Watch my…

The 30 Best Films of 2013

Anyone who tells you that 2013 wasn't a spectacular year for movies is either lying through their teeth or is someone who spent most of the year cooped up in their apartment watching episodic television on Netflix. Here go the 30 best films of the year.


30. Fruitvale Station - Directed by Ryan Coogler
29. Post Tenebras Lux - Directed by Carlos Reygadas
28. Side Effects - Directed by Steven Soderbergh
27. Room 237 - Directed by Rodney Ascher
26. Before Midnight - Directed by Richard Linklater
25. Lenny Cooke - Directed by Joshua and Ben Safdie
24. The Place Beyond The Pines - Directed by Derek Cianfrance
23. Blue Jasmine - Directed by Woody Allen
22. Nebraska - Directed by Alexander Payne
21. Mud - Directed by Jeff Nichols
20. Gravity - Directed Alfonso Cuarón
19. The End of Love - Directed by Mark Webber
18. American Hustle - Directed by David O. Russell
17. Inside Llewyn Davis - Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
16. Her - Directed by Spike Jonze
15. 12 Years A Slave - Directed by

Far From Heaven: Studying The Headroom In Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida"

Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida tells the quietly haunting story of a young nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who sets out to find her family origins in 1960s Poland. At the beginning of the film, the once-orphaned Anna learns that she still has one living relative: her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a revered court judge in the city. As Anna sets out on her journey of self-discovery, Pawlikowski, and cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, announce their visual strategy for conveying their protagonist's hopeless and essentially powerless role in the world: by dwarfing the screen figure of Anna with a maximum amount of screen headroom.

Look at how the following shot makes Anna look insignificant against the towering institution of the convent.


In the city, Anna meets her aunt Wanda and there Anna learns that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. After Wanda tells Ida of her parents' horrific death during WWII, the pair set off to find out what exactly happened and perh…

The 25 Best Films of 2014

Under The Skin - Directed by Jonathan GlazerWhiplash - Directed by Damien ChazelleSelma - Directed by Ava DuVernayJoe - Directed by David Gordon GreenA Most Violent Year - Directed by J.C. ChandorThe Immigrant - Directed by James GrayGoodbye To Language - Directed by Jean-Luc GodardInterstellar - Directed by Christopher NolanInherent Vice - Directed by Paul Thomas AndersonNightcrawler - Directed by Dan GilroyBirdman - Directed by Alejandro González IñárrituFoxcatcher - Directed by Bennett MillerGone Girl - Directed by David FincherLife Itself - Directed by Steve JamesDawn of the Planet of the Apes - Directed by Matt ReevesBoyhood - Directed by Richard LinklaterSnowpiercer - Directed by Bong Joon-hoIda - Directed by Peter PawlikowsiAmerican Sniper - Directed by Clint Eastwood

The Motion Picture Superimposed

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) 
In its earliest days, the superimposed image was used mainly as a special effect, most notably in Victor Sjöström's 1921 film The Phantom Carriage, where it created the illusion of ghosts in the afterlife. These days, the superimposed image is almost everywhere, from an editing dissolve that suggests a continuation in mood (e.g. the transition from a saddened Don Corleone in bed to his home country of Italy where his son Michael has sought refuge in The Godfather) to a literal visualization of a character's inner psychology (e.g. the face of death on Norman Bates in Psycho). For me, I find the superimposed image to be one of the most powerful visual strategies for conveying an idea or a feeling. In fact, last year I created a video essay on the works of Wong Kar-Wai that heavily relied on the use of superimposition to demonstrate the filmmaker's trademark visual fervor. Below, I've curated some standout superimposed images from over the years,…

Trailer Alert: "Ready Player One" - 'Come With Me' features King Kong, Halo and "Jurassic Park"

The latest trailer for Steven Spielberg's upcoming futuristic epic Ready Player One (based on the popular sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline) gets the Willy Wonka treatment with an updated cover of the song "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate FactoryIMDb provides a synopsis for Spielberg's film:

"When the creator of a virtual reality world called the OASIS dies, he releases a video in which he challenges all OASIS users to find his Easter Egg, which will give the finder his fortune. Wade Watts finds the first clue and starts a race for the Egg."

Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) stars as Wade Watts, along with a cast that includes Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) and Lena Waithe (Master of None). Previous teasers for Ready Player One showed us popular screen characters like The Iron Giant, The Joker and Freddy Krueger. This latest trailer gives us exciting glimpses of King Kong, the Spartans from Halo and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. Check out…

VIDEO ESSAY: Behind You

That moment when it feels like someone--or something--is standing behind you. But then you turn around and find nothing.


For the cinematic narrative, the point of view (POV) shot is a high-powered filmmaking aesthetic that thrusts the viewer from omniscient viewer to dynamic player within the context of the screen. Whether it's a subjective POV (where the camera/our field-of-view takes the place of the screen figure's own line-of-sight) or an objective POV (where the camera/our field-of-view exists alongside the screen figure, a la "cheek-to-cheek"), the POV shot invades the frame's axis, breaking the 180-degree rule, taking the visual rhetoric of the film to the next level. And as technology and filmmaking tools (e.g. the advent of 3D) continue to push the boundaries of audience-to-screen immersion, one thing remains constant: the audience sure enjoys their God's eye view in the universe of the movie.


Which is why the follow shot (sometimes called the "…

Review: "Loveless"

Some people should never get married. Likewise, some people should never become parents. Crudely enough, the protagonists of Andrey Zvyagintsev's new film Loveless fit both of those descriptions. The Leviathan helmer returns with another bleak and unflinchingly honest portrayal of family dysfunction and social politics. Loveless is also a commentary on modern Moscow. Zvyagintsev uses the car radio as the film's cultural master of ceremonies, informing the audience of the state of Russia, the political climate and expected societal norms. In fact, the only other time the car radio isn't used for exposition, is when a character turns it into an aural weapon to antagonize another character, by blaring loud metal rock during an inappropriate time. The coal-hearted characters in Loveless listen to the radio, but hardly to each other.

Early in the film we learn that Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in the final steps of finalizing their divorce. While Zheny…