Review of “I, Tonya”

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) has been figure skating since she was three years old. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) is a cold-hearted woman that is emotionally and, at times, physically abusive over Tonya’s childhood. Following her parent’s divorce, LaVona pulls Tonya out of school so she can train full time with her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). When Tonya is 15 she meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). What starts out as a sweet romance turns into a rocky and sometimes violent marriage. Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) is a self-proclaimed bodyguard and counter terrorism specialist. As the 1994 Winter Olympics approach, Jeff concocts a plan to frighten Tonya’s main competition Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) by sending threatening letters with the hopes that it improves Tonya’s chances of winning the national championship and being named to the Olympic team. Shawn contacts a couple of guys, one of them being Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), to travel to Massachusetts and mail the letters; but something goes wrong and Shawn begins improvising leading to one of the biggest scandals of the 1990’s: The clubbing of Nancy Kerrigan’s knee.

“I, Tonya” takes a look back at a 20-plus year old controversy with a mildly jaundiced eye but manages to freshen up the subject with snappy writing, great performances and a dash of social commentary. It also makes Tonya Harding sympathetic while not letting her off the hook. It’s a masterful balancing act that is funny while being honest about what a bunch of idiots everyone is.

While all the performances are great in “I, Tonya” there are two that really stand out: Allison Janney and Paul Walter Hauser. Despite playing an evil and heartless woman, it is impossible to not be entertained by Janney’s performance. Janney makes LaVona mesmerizing the way a good villain should be. LaVona doesn’t care what you think about her or what you think in general. She’s the boss no matter what situation she happens to be in. Try to correct her and you will face the wrath of a very cranky god. How much of LaVona’s actions (or any characters’ actions) in the movie are factual is open to debate. What can’t be debated is Tonya Harding had an unconventional and abusive childhood that led to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and that all starts with LaVona. Janney maintains the cold detachment of someone operating on autopilot. She has a set series of tasks and she goes through them clinically and without emotion. While she does flare up into anger on occasion, LaVona is usually in absolutely control. Janney makes that control terrifying and soul-sucking. She deserves all the awards that are headed her way with this performance.

Paul Walter Hauser is amazing as Shawn Eckhardt. Dimwitted would be an understatement when it comes to Eckhardt. He has read enough to know how to throw around a few words and phrases about security and counterterrorism but has no real experience and frequently lies about his travels to other countries and jobs in the field. Hauser plays Eckhardt like he’s just woken up from a nap. He seems to be in a daze and only perks up when the conversation involves something he’s interested in. Eckhardt is an annoying character that everyone involved would be better off without. Looking back I’m sure the real Tonya and Jeff Gillooly wish they had never met him. Hauser has terrific comic timing and turns a repulsive character into one that lights up the screen with just how dim he is.

The story of “I, Tonya” isn’t just about the life of Tonya Harding and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan: It also looks at the social disparity in figure skating. While it isn’t so much the case now, Olympic-level figure skaters are looked at like ballerinas. They are the artistic swans compared to the rest of the sports world’s ugly ducklings. There is a certain expectation about how competitors should look and behave and Tonya Harding didn’t fit into their preconceived notions. In a scene that I’m sure never happened in reality, Tonya approaches a judge after a competition and asks why she is scored lower than other skaters. He tells her it has more to do with her lifestyle than her performance on the ice. The judge is telling her if she doesn’t have a happy family and access to a six-figure income she should just move on and let the rich kids have the ice. It is a sad scene on a couple of levels as Tonya has her suspicions confirmed while also feeling like she has to try and create the façade of a happy and traditional family. She reunites with Gillooly and approaches her mother in an effort to repair a relationship that was broken from birth. Naturally it ends in failure. That is the true heartbreak for Tonya and all the characters in the film: They simply aren’t good enough. It is a revelation that is obvious from the start with some characters but only becomes apparent later on for others.

“I, Tonya” is rated R for violence, some sexual content/nudity and pervasive language. We witness the domestic violence that occurs between Tonya and Jeff as well as Tonya’s mother beating her as a child. There are a couple of scenes at a strip club with one dancer visible in the background. Tonya and Jeff are briefly shown having sex once. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

The fourth wall is broken in “I, Tonya” as the characters speak directly to the audience throughout the film. These occur as both recreated interviews and also when the characters talk to the audience during scenes. It’s a refreshing way to involve the audience in the story in a more direct way but it doesn’t always work. In “I, Tonya” it does. The movie also provides some updates on what the characters are doing now. In Tonya’s update it says she is married, has a young child and notes that she insists the update include that she’s a good mother. She certainly learned what not to do so I hope she is. The life of Tonya Harding shouldn’t be interesting fodder for a movie and without the attack on Nancy Kerrigan it probably wouldn’t be. With an amazing script from Steven Rogers and spot-on performances from the cast, “I, Tonya” is a fascinating look back at a tabloid story from before the age of Facebook and Twitter that still managed to mesmerize the public for months. It will also keep you entertained for another two hours in a theatre.

“I, Tonya” gets five stars.

There are several new movies this week. I’ll be review “12 Strong” for WIMZ.

I’ll review one of the following for this webpage:

Den of Thieves—

Forever My Girl—

Hostiles—

Phantom Thread—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan. Listen to The Fractured Frame wherever you listen to podcasts. Send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “Spy”

Bradley Fine (Jude Law) is one of the CIA’s top agents; but he admits he couldn’t do his job without the support of CIA analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) who feeds him information through an ear piece.  Fine is sent on a mission to apprehend Raina Boyanova (Rose Byrne), the daughter of an Eastern European arms dealer that Fine recently killed by accidently shooting him in the head when Fine sneezed.  Boyanova has a tactical nuclear device that is available to the highest bidder.  To keep it from falling into the wrong hands, the CIA sent in Fine; however, Boyanova gets the drop on him and kills him.  She knows someone is listening and rattles off the names of all the CIA’s top agents, warning them to leave her alone or they will meet the same fate.  Susan sees and hears the whole thing and cries because she has a crush on Fine.  During a meeting with CIA Director Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) and other CIA agents including the hotheaded Agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), Cooper offers to go into the field since no one knows who she is outside the agency and track Raina to her meeting with arms dealer Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale) who has contacts with a particularly dangerous terrorist group.  Ford is livid and insists on going in guns blazing to get the location of the bomb from Raina.  Crocker disagrees and puts the wheels in motion to put Cooper into the field.  Ford quits in disgust.  Cooper is given a new identity that is decidedly not as sexy as she had hoped and is paired up with another analyst who is also her friend, Nancy (Miranda Hart), who will guide her through an ear piece just like Cooper did for Fine.

This is going to be a short review because “Spy” is just about a perfect action comedy.  Melissa McCarthy is perfect in the role of Susan Cooper, a behind-the-scenes gal who just needs that one break to shine and show what she’s got.  McCarthy is a fearless performer who doesn’t mind looking goofy and sometimes unsympathetic in order to sell her character.  McCarthy is given more than just humorous moments in “Spy.”  There are scenes where she must express painful emotions and even announce her unrequited love for a spy that she believes betrayed her and the agency.  McCarthy is able to convey a far more nuanced performance than one might expect from a broad and raunchy comedy.

The rest of the cast is also asked to deliver complex performances and they all shine bright.  Rose Byrne as the main bad guy is brilliant.  She’s supposed to be a cold, aloof and deadly socialite who also is taking over her late father’s criminal empire; however, that veneer of icy perfection is always on the edge of cracking if things don’t go exactly to her liking.  This usually leads to a sting of expletives and some very funny business.  Byrne proved her comedic chops in “Neighbors” with Seth Rogen last year and merely added to her humorous resume with “Spy.”

If there is a surprise from any of the performances it comes from Jason Statham as the powder keg of an agent Rick Ford.  Statham’s performance isn’t that much different than what he did in “Fast and Furious 7” or his “Transporter” movies or any other of his films.  That’s precisely why it’s so funny.  Statham’s Ford is constantly bragging about how he has suffered incredible injuries and everyone he’s ever loved has been killed by the object of his investigations and yet he still manages to get the job done.  The interactions between Ford and Cooper after his stories reach a point to extreme silliness are some of the film’s best scenes.  While these two characters are at constant odds with each other the chemistry between McCarthy and Statham is undeniable.  They obviously enjoy playing with each other and I’m sure the DVD will be filled with outtakes featuring the pair.  Those may be the funniest parts of the movie we’ll have to wait for.

If the film has a weakness, and it’s tiny, it’s the stunt work during some of the action scenes.  The actual stunts themselves are great; however, when the action is supposed to be carried out by McCarthy’s character and it’s obviously a stunt person wearing a wig and matching outfit, it pulled me right out of the film.  This only happens a time or two but it is so obvious it is jarring.  There is also a stunt near the end of the film where the replacement of McCarthy is far more seamless but the stunt itself makes it clear someone other than the star is doing it.  It’s a tiny quibble but I wanted to point it out so you can be on the lookout for more bad stunt doubles when you see the film.

“Spy” is rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content including brief graphic nudity.  There are several fights mostly of the acrobatic variety.  Some are bloody including seeing a knife stabbed through a woman’s hand.  There is also a fight scene where a man has his ankle graphically broken when it is stomped on.  There are also a couple of vomit scenes.  There are a couple of scenes where a foreign agent gets very handsy with McCarthy’s Cooper.  There is also a sex act briefly shown but there is no nudity.  I cannot remember any nudity in the film at all.  Foul language is common throughout the film.

“Spy” is about the most consistently funny film I’ve seen in a long time.  While there are some action scenes and shots of the skyline of whatever European city the story takes us to, there is very little wasted time getting to the next set up of jokes or physical humor.  The entire cast is given a chance to show off their comedic abilities and no one disappoints.  Even the characters that are playing it as straight as possible deliver significant laughs regularly.  It is the kind of action comedy that should be studied by everyone in Hollywood and copied relentlessly.  Writer/director Paul Feig should receive every possible award for this gem of a film.  See it then see it again so the movie industry knows this is the kind of film they should be making more of if they want to have a nice fat bottom line.

“Spy” gets a very enthusiastic five stars.

Next week only one film opens in wide release, so I’ll be reviewing “Jurassic World.”

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send email to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “The DUFF”

For some, high school was a great time they look back on with fondness. Others view it as years in a dungeon being tortured by bullies. For most, the experience falls somewhere in the middle. Several films over the years have examined high school for the drama and humor that can occur. Movies like “Sixteen Candles,” “Mean Girls,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “The Breakfast Club” examined the power dynamics of the different cliques and how those with perceived power minimized or ignored those they thought undeserving. The latest entry into the genre is “The DUFF,” how a young woman learns she’s her friends’ less attractive friend and how that is used for their benefit. I suppose I would have qualified as the DUFF had not nearly everyone I hung out with also not been a DUFF. In the movie, the Designated Ugly, Fat Friend at first succumbs to the pressure to be “datable,” whatever that means, but learns in the end to be beautiful in her own way.

Bianca (Mae Whitman) is best friends with Casey (Bianca Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels). The three young women are constantly together when not in a class in their high school. Homecoming is approaching and Casey and Jess want Bianca to join them at the dance but Bianca doesn’t have a date and doesn’t feel like being a part of that social scene. Bianca is quirky, dresses sort of grungy, loves horror movies and is somewhat socially awkward; never more so than when she approaches her crush Toby (Nick Eversman) when she can’t put three words together and runs away. Bianca lives next door to Wesley (Robbie Amell), the football star and resident stud of the school. They’ve known each other all their lives and have an uneasy friendship. Wesley off and on dates the Queen B of the school, Madison (Bella Thorne) who knows she is pretty and doesn’t mind letting you know you’re nothing to her. At a party at Madison’s, Wesley tells Bianca she is the DUFF for Casey and Jess. Not knowing what that means, Wesley explains to her it means Designated Ugly Fat Friend who is used by prettier girls to act as a kind of information center. Boys interested in dating Casey and Jess approach Bianca first and find out details they might use in their approach to the girls. Offended and hurt by his suggestion, Bianca throws a drink in Wesley’s face and storms out of the party. Looking up the word online, Bianca begins to think she is a DUFF. That becomes even more evident as she looks back over social media and notices she’s the third wheel in the photos she is in with Casey and Jess. She’s so angry over the situation, she tells the girls she no longer wants to be their friend and blocks them from viewing her various online activities. Wesley and Bianca are in the same chemistry class and he is failing. His grades are getting him pulled off the football team. Bianca, who is great in chemistry, offers Wesley a deal: She will tutor him to help pull up his grades if he will help her shed her dumpy image and make her datable. The deal is struck and soon, Bianca learns there’s a great deal of work involved in being popular.

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned several films that are considered classics of the high school, teenaged angst genre. All these films treat high school students with a level of respect that lesser films don’t. The same can be said for “The DUFF” as it views its subjects as more than the expected caricatures of the pretty but shallow girl, the dumb jock and the nerd. It sees these young people as just that…people. People who have good points and bad points but, for the most part, try to be good and decent to each other; that is until something happens that is an embarrassment for one student, then it’s like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Kids can be cruel but they aren’t always out to belittle others. “The DUFF” understands that and has created characters that aren’t the typical cliché. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also very funny as well.

The script, written by Josh A. Cagan and based on a book by Kody Keplinger, is chock full of great jokes. Some are the kind based on reactions and quick responses while others are actually set up’s and punchlines. “The DUFF” delivers more laughs per hour than most other comedies. This is in no small part due to Mae Whitman. The young actress is fantastic with a snappy quip. What makes her even better is that it all seems very natural for her. Whitman, who just completed her role in TV’s “Parenthood,” never appears to be hamming it up when she’s in a comedic film. Her natural charisma and “every-woman” attitude makes her an appealing actress in a wide variety of roles. She played one of the exes in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” a movie I really liked, and despite the over-the-top nature of the character, never looked like she was trying too hard. When given a role that is very outside the box, some actors (like Tommy Lee Jones in “Batman Forever”) are obviously working hard at being wild and crazy. Whitman can pull that off effortlessly. She is the kind of actress you would think would be great to go to lunch with and just talk. She seems like she’d be a great deal of fun and completely accessible. I think I have a crush on her. Did I just type that?

The rest of the cast is also very good to great with a special commendation for Robbie Amell. While he’s the head jock of the school, Wesley hasn’t abandoned his old friends. Amell, cousin of Stephen Amell from the TV show “Arrow,” is a very handsome, well-built young man; yet he is able to seem friendly and not full of himself, at least in this role. Wesley can be dumb and slow-witted; but is also capable of pushing past that and applying himself when he must. Amell has an easy smile and a laid-back attitude that is unthreatening. He comes across on screen like just an average guy who happens to look like he was chiseled out of marble.

Also deserving of an honorable mention is Ken Jeong as Mr. Arthur, a teacher at the school. While his role is small, Jeong usually makes the most of his screen time. Jeong is a gifted comedian and it appears he was allowed to improvise in some of his scenes. When we first meet Mr. Arthur, he goes on a little rant that is extremely funny. Jeong’s performance must be seen to truly be appreciated. He has made a career out of scene stealing in several movies. He’s one of the best things about “The Hangover” and is the only really good performance in the third “Transformers” movie. He also has some of the best outtakes that are shown at the beginning of the closing credits.

Despite all the good in “The DUFF,” there is a little bad as well. The story is too Pollyanna in the way it wraps up. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I bet you can figure out what I mean. It follows a predictable path that gives the hero and the villain the endings they appear to deserve, not one that rings true. I suppose the target audience for the movie would rush away in droves if “The DUFF” ended in a way seemed logical and realistic; but a little truth and honesty would have been appreciated.

“The DUFF” is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, teen partying and some language. As one would expect for a high school movie, sex is discussed in a crude and borderline pornographic way. There are also a couple of scenes of people kissing passionately. There is a large party where teens are seen drinking from the ubiquitous red plastic cups. What they are drinking is not discussed and no one is shown being drunk. Foul language is common and the film uses its one ratings-allowed “F-bomb.” However, it is used very well.

While it wraps up too neatly, “The DUFF” gives us as accurate a look at high school life in the age of social media as a PG-13 rated comedy probably can. Thanks to a funny script, a respect for its subjects and a very likable cast, “The DUFF” may one day be viewed as a classic teenage film the way some of John Hughes movies are. If you have a chance, see it before it leaves theatres.

“The DUFF” gets five stars out of five.

Two new movies open this week and I’ll see at least one of them. Check out their trailers below.

Focus—

The Lazarus Effect—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.