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 “Suicide Squad”

Concerned the growing population of metahumans could become a threat to national security, government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) suggests creating a team of supervillains called Task Force X. They would be sent out on the most dangerous assignments and, if things went bad, be disavowed by the government. Initially reluctant, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is convinced when archeologist Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne) releases the ancient witch that inhabits her called Enchantress and steals top secret documents from Iran in an instant. The team is comprised of the residents of the highest security prisons because they are the worst of the worst: The assassin known as Deadshot (Will Smith), the crazy yet deadly Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), jewel thief and all around bad guy Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), pyrokinetic street gang killer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), cannibal Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), assassin and expert at climbing anything Slipknot (Adam Beach). The person put in charge of Task Force X is Col. Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman). By his side is a Japanese assassin known as Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Wielding a sword that traps the souls of its victims, Katana will act as Flagg’s bodyguard. Also for security, each criminal member of the squad is implanted with a micro explosive in their necks. Should they turn against the team or try to escape, their head will be blown off. If dealing with all the crazies in Task Force X isn’t enough to give Flagg nightmares, Harley Quinn’s psychotic supervillain boyfriend the Joker (Jared Leto) is looking for a way to get her back by his side. When Midway City is under attack from a super powered foe, Task Force X is deployed to retrieve a powerful person from a high rise building. Will the team of bad guys be able to stick together long enough to complete their mission? Will they all be decapitated by the explosives in their necks? Will Harley Quinn ever see the pale face and green hair of her puddin’ ever again?

“Suicide Squad” has been ripped to shreds by the real critics. It has been called dull, slipshod, overblown, overstuffed and just plain bad. One reviewer even referred to DC as the Donald Trump of blockbusters. That is harsh! Here’s the thing…I apparently didn’t see the same movie as the majority of critics as I found “Suicide Squad” to be a great deal of fun with a plot that, while at times overly convoluted and under explained, moves at a pleasant pace and filled with several characters that are appealing in various ways. In short, I really liked “Suicide Squad.”

“Short” is the word for this review as I don’t want to give anything away. There are plot points that have been kept under pretty tight wraps that I don’t want to spoil for anyone that hasn’t seen the movie yet. Let me say this much: The film has some problems in the way the story is laid out. Events near the middle don’t make a great deal of sense and there are some issues of timing, as in when some orders are given and how they relate to the big bad of the story. Maybe they were trying to keep the running time down to something reasonable at just over two hours but a bit more explanation would have helped make the story more coherent.

This will be a bit of a spoiler but I also had an issue with which members of the team don’t make it to the end of the film. One of the squad became a personal favorite as the movie progressed. He starts out as a fairly well rounded character with a backstory revealed late in the film. His worth to the team is questioned and he displays what he can do, gaining the team’s admiration. He is also pivotal to the conclusion and he gets killed. Meanwhile, another member of the team is pretty much useless and his actions lead to a second member getting the explosive in his neck set off. He doesn’t do much and is largely comic relief (and precious little of that). Perhaps one of those that don’t make it was selected to provide as much emotional punch as possible while the other is just to let the audience know there are high stakes for not following the rules. Whatever the reason, I would have liked to have seen one of these two lost squad members make it to the next film, if there is one.

While the team is led by Will Smith’s Deadshot, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is the Queen of “Suicide Squad.” Her performance mixes the crazy, silly and dangerous in roughly equal amounts. Harley is a sexpot that will kill you for ogling her despite her dressing in short-shorts and a skin-tight t-shirt. She is as deadly with her hands as with a gun or her trusty baseball bat. Always looking for a way to reconnect with the Joker, Harley is truly the wild card of Task Force X. Robbie seems to be having far more fun in her role than anyone else. While Harley’s trademark Brooklyn accent is at best fleeting, Robbie still manages to embody the best and worst aspects of the Joker’s former psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel.

The rest of the cast isn’t given much of an opportunity to shine the way Robbie is. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc gets a few good lines and a chance to be heroic while Will Smith plays more of a father-figure to both the team and the young daughter he hopes to see once again. Cara Delevingne plays her dual role as Dr. June Moone/Enchantress in two modes: Frightened and horror movie kitsch. Neither is terribly entertaining. The rest of the cast is fine. Jared Leto’s Joker is teased in the trailers as a major character but in fact is more of a bit part. His actions are pivotal to some parts of the plot but otherwise he’s just a flashy cameo.

A few words about the Joker: After Heath Ledger’s performance as the clown prince of crime in “The Dark Knight,” taking on the role of Joker for the next actor was going to be a thankless job that could only be compared unfavorably to what came before. While Leto certainly puts his own spin on the villain it can only pale in comparison to Ledger’s masterful, grounded yet clearly damaged Joker. Perhaps if he is the main villain in Ben Affleck’s solo Batman movie we’ll get a better chance to judge is green-haired lunatic. As it stands right now, the jury is still out as to whether Leto is a worthy successor.

“Suicide Squad” is rated PG-13 for disturbing behavior, action throughout, language, sequences of violence and suggestive content. All of the suggestive content involves Harley and that is all pretty mild. There are various acts of violence committed against humans and non-humans. We see one member of the squad get his head blown off by the explosive implanted in the neck. It isn’t terribly graphic but you know what happens. A couple of helicopters and fighter jets get taken down by various means. Foul language is fairly common but is no worse than the word s**t.

Perhaps I’m judging “Suicide Squad” against the last entry into the DCEU, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” I found that film to be plodding, dull and devoid of joy. By comparison, “Suicide Squad” is like a springtime meadow full of brightly colored flowers and playful puppies. It moves at a brisk pace and is a great deal of fun. It even has a couple of good guy cameos just to let us know the two films are connected. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to find the flaws as devastating as the real critics. See it yourself and make up your own mind but, despite the problems, I liked it.

“Suicide Squad” gets four stars out of five.

Three new movies open this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Florence Foster Jenkins—

Pete’s Dragon—

Sausage Party—

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

Review of “Focus”

I have always been told and believed taking a short cut was no way to be successful. It was drummed into my head I should be honest, hardworking and dedicated. Those who tried to avoid hard work were just cheating themselves and those around them. Their successes would be meaningless and fleeting. Apparently I was in the minority of people who listened to that speech as athletes, coaches, stock brokers, lawyers, Fortune 500 CEO’s and more show up on TV being accused and convicted of taking shortcuts to achieve success and wealth. One must assume that for every person caught cheating or skimming or lying or stealing there are likely many more that get away with no repercussions. It’s almost enough to drive a law-abiding person into a life of crime…almost. At heart I’m a coward and far too disorganized to ever come up with a good plan and put it in place without catastrophe. Also, I’m far too pretty to go to prison. The subjects of this week’s film “Focus” have no such qualms about breaking the rules and possibly facing punishment and they are all far prettier than me.

While eating dinner at a high end hotel restaurant, Nicky (Will Smith) notices a beautiful young woman at the bar fending off the advances of a drunken businessman. He doesn’t pay it much mind until she comes to his table and asks him to pretend to be her date. She introduces herself as Jess (Margot Robbie) and the two share a pleasant evening which ends in Jess’s room at the hotel. As they are kissing on the bed, a man breaks in who Jess identifies as her husband. He has a gun and is threatening to kill Nicky. Nicky is calm as he has seen through the shakedown attempt. He critiques their style and soon leaves the room unharmed and with all his money. Later, Jess tracks Nicky down and asks him to teach her all about the con game. Nicky is from a long line of con men and is something of a legend himself. At first reluctant, Nicky gives in after she follows him to his next job in New Orleans. After running a few pickpocket and other cons in New Orleans, Nicky decides to make Jess part of the crew. They also become lovers. Nicky leads a gang of thieves, swindlers and con artists around the country to major sporting events like the championship football games going on in New Orleans. Their work pays off big time with over one-million dollars in profits that will be divided up amongst the gang. Nicky has all the money in a bag and takes it and Jess to the Superdome to watch the game. Nicky and Jess play a little game putting small wagers on the outcome of the next play or things going on in the crowd. A Chinese businessman named Liyuan Tse (B.D. Wong) overhears their bets and asks to become involved. Nicky loses all the gang’s money but makes one more bet double or nothing…and wins. Afterwards, Jess learns Liyuan was a mark and everything that happened was planned. Leaving the game, Nicky tells Jess she’s out and gives her $80,000 and tells the driver to take her to the airport. Three years later in Buenos Aires, Nicky is working for Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a formula one race team owner, who wants to sabotage the only other team that might beat him with some phony software they think is helping their fuel mileage. At a party to celebrate the start of the race season, and where the groundwork for the con will be laid, Nicky sees Jess across the ballroom at Garriga’s side. Later, Jess slips away and meets with Nicky on a balcony. She explains she’s out of the con game and is currently with Garriga. She asks Nicky to keep her past and her relationship with him a secret. As the con plays out, Nicky is losing focus because of his feelings for Jess. In his business, that can be deadly.

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the theatre to watch “Focus.” I knew it looked pretty and had lots of attractive people attached; but I also noticed its middling reviews. I was about as blank a slate as any movie could want when the lights went down. When the room brightened again, I was impressed with a pretty standard caper movie that managed to keep me guessing all the way.

While there are some moments that stretch credulity to the limit (like Jess and Nicky both being in Buenos Aires at the same time), overall the storytelling is pretty tight and manages to keep things interesting. The colorful locations and attractive people help keep the eye entertained while the machinations of Nicky and his con crew are constantly teasing the mind with now-you-see-it tricks. A couple of times, the audience is completely in the dark as to the game being played until everything has come to fruition. It’s a twisty story that will have some in the audience confused if they don’t pay attention. I was riveted to the screen and there were times I wasn’t sure what was happening but in a good way as the movie doesn’t show all its cards until the right time. The writers had to walk a fine line between believable deceptions and impossible scams. To do that, they brought in a con artist consultant to create some original ruses for the film. Most of that shows up in the pickpocket cons which appear to be works of art using timing, distraction and misdirection to work their magic. The larger cons are based on human nature and knowing how to manipulate people into giving you what you want. Greed is the prime motivation for both the con man and the target as huge sums of money are involved.

The cast is stellar with Margot Robbie outshining Will Smith. Robbie, who was so impressive in “Wolf of Wall Street,” is given another role in which her beauty is used as part of her character. While it seems sexist to make her looks so much a part of her character, Robbie is so good you quickly accept her character for her skills and ambition. Robbie is able to play both the innocent victim and conniving femme fatale with equal believability. Jess is sexy and average, brash and demure, guilty and innocent. It makes for a fascinating character to watch as she becomes more a part of Nicky’s world.

Will Smith turns in a fine performance as the cold and calculating Nicky. He takes a complicated character and makes us understand his conflict in dealing with his feelings for Jess even without saying anything. While his façade of cool breaks down somewhat in the second half of the film, Smith still gives a performance that is multidimensional and shows us a character that is learning and changing despite his desire not to. Smith has had a run of bad luck and bad movies over the last several years. Some of his films have divided audiences while others have been expensive flops. Smith used to be guaranteed box office success but some of that shine has worn off. While “Focus” won’t set any box office records, it should give Smith some boost that his acting talent hasn’t diminished.

“Focus” is rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. The sexual content is brief but very intimate. We get a very brief view of a topless Margot Robbie. A few punches are thrown, we see an intentional car wreck from inside one of the vehicles and one character is shot in the chest. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

“Focus” is not only a theme of the movie but a command for the audience. If you aren’t willing to invest some of your grey matter in the following of this story, stay home. While there is some beautiful scenery and attractive people, the real strength of the film is the stories of deception and deceit. Some of these require some effort on the part of the audience. If you make that effort, you’ll find a rewarding movie going experience.

“Focus” gets four stars out of five.

Just two new films open this week. I’ll see at least one of them and report back what I think.

Chappie—

Unfinished Business—

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