I, TONYA (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Your recollection of Tonya Harding is likely not that she was the 1991 U.S. Champion figure skater and a two-time Olympian. And rather than honoring her as the first female skater to land a triple axel in competition, you likely remember “the incident” in 1994 where she whacked her on-ice rival Nancy Kerrigan on the knee with a club. Only Ms. Harding wasn’t the one who attacked Ms. Kerrigan … and that’s only the beginning to what director Craig Gillespie (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I LOVE YOU, and a bunch of other mushy stuff) detail in this madcap look at a reality infinitely stranger than most fiction.

Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) stars as Tonya Harding, and it’s a career-defining performance … funny, tragic, physical and emotionally charged. This isn’t the expected bleak biopic, but rather it’s a brilliant blend of parody, docudrama, and dark comedy focused on some real life folks that will surely make you grateful for your life. Harding’s abusive, profane and icy mother LaVona is played with aplomb by Allison Janney, who manages to bring some humor to the role of a woman whose approach went far beyond the realm of tough love and straight into cruelty. Sebastian Stan plays Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser is Shawn Eckhardt, his friend and co-conspirator. In regards to these last two gents, we spend most of the film trying to decide if they are goofy, ignorant or downright dangerous (or all of the above).

Director Gillespie expertly weaves together the domestic scenes, ice skating scenes, and “current” interviews with the main characters. The domestic scenes include Tonya and Jeff, Tonya and her mother, Eckhardt with Tonya and Jeff, and Eckhardt with his own parents. The ice skating scenes emphasize how hard Tonya worked and her relationship with Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), while the interviews (recreated from actual interviews) provide contradictory details from the memories of Tonya, Jeff, Eckhardt and LaVona. The film tries not to make fun of them, but they kind of do it to themselves.

Bobby Cannavale appears as a “Hard Copy” reporter who provides some story structure by walking us through the timeline as reported by the media at the time. McKenna Grace plays a young Tonya, while Caitlin Carver is Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya has long been labeled as the most “notorious” figure skater, and a failed boxing career was the closest she came to capitalizing on her notoriety after the scandal. Her life and the incident have been the basis for songs, books, news specials, documentaries, TV parodies, and even a Brooklyn-based museum. The film reminds us that truth and recollections are open to interpretation, and that there is much more to the story than what was reported. Respect is too much for Tonya to hope for, but this excellent and entertaining film might deliver a dose of compassion or empathy (along with incredulity and some laughs).

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THE FINEST HOURS (2015)

January 29, 2016

finest hours Greetings again from the darkness. The U.S. Coast Guard has played a role in many movies over the years, but only a few have placed this service branch directly in the heart of the story … most recently The Guardian (2006), which was little more than a cheesy, too-talkative water-based rip-off of Top Gun.  Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, 2007) takes a much different approach as he presents a look at one of the most legendary and heroic real-life rescues in Coast Guard history.

The Oscar-nominated writing team behind The Fighter (2010): Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson have collaborated on the screenplay based on the book from Casey Sherman and Michael J Touglas. It’s a worthy tribute (and clearly Disney-influenced) to what is described as the greatest Coast Guard small-boat rescue. It combines a boat-load (sorry) of tension-filled ocean-based sequences with some pretty interesting character-based sub-plots within a Massachusetts community that has become all too familiar with storm-based catastrophes.

Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, an awkwardly shy and obsessive rule-follower, who has lived under a cloud of doubt ever since a previous rescue mission failed, resulting in the death of a local fisherman/husband/father. We first meet Bernie as he bungles through a first date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger, a young Gretchen Mol lookalike). The film then jumps ahead to 1952 when they become engaged and Bernie is ordered into a questionable mission by his “not-from-around-here” commanding officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana). See, a huge storm has literally ripped apart not one, but two giant tankers, leaving crew members battling for survival. It should be noted that Bana the Australian, tosses out a laughable southern accent that is a joke within the movie and within the theatre (for different reasons).

Bernie and his crew: Richard Livesay (Ben Foster), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), take off against all odds in a too-small boat against too-big waves in a desperate attempt to rescue the tanker crew that includes brilliant engineer (and quiet leader) Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) and characters played by John Ortiz and Graham McTavish. Affleck excels as what can be termed a quiet leader. Of course, we know how the story ends, but the heroic efforts against a very powerful Mother Nature show-of-force make for compelling movie watching.

The special effects are stout, though not be as spectacular as The Perfect Storm (2010) or In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and it’s the human-factor that provides more than enough thrills, excitement, and tension. In fact, the biggest issue I had was that I saw a 3-D version which is an absolute disservice to the film. Most of the story takes place at night and at sea, so the 3-D consequence of dimmed light and muted colors results in a far too dark and dull look to the film. I spent much of the movie sliding the 3-D glasses down my nose in a simple attempt to enjoy a bit more brightness. The recommendation would be to skip the higher-priced (money grabbing) 3-D version and take in the more pleasing “standard” version.

Disney makes feel-good movies. Their target market is not cynics or the overly critical among us. The romance pushes the “corny” meter, but keeps with tradition of other Disney movies based on true stories like The Rookie (2002) and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005). Keep this in mind you’ll likely find this one pretty entertaining. Stick around for the closing credits as a slew of real photographs from the actual 1952 event are displayed, as are photos of the real heroes from that night.

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FRIGHT NIGHT (2011)

August 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. We can’t really discuss this movie without referencing the 1985 original. Writer Tom Holland was involved with both (including directing the original) and gets credit for updating the story while maintaining the look and feel. It seems as if vampires are everywhere these days, but the Fright Night recipe expertly mixes suspense, danger and campy humor.

Charley (Anton Yelchin) and his single Mom (Toni Collette) live in a quiet Las Vegas suburb. Charley’s nerdy friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) notices the place is getting quieter everyday … people are disappearing! These disappearances correspond with the arrival of Charley’s new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell). Yep … Jerry the Vampire.

 Charley at first ignores Ed’s investigative skills and concentrates on Amy (Imogen Poots), the out-of-his-league girlfriend whom he desperately wants to get to know better. And then … Ed disappears. Charley tries to push Amy aside and solve this mystery. It doesn’t take long since he breaks into Jerry’s house and discovers where he stores the bodies of his victims. As you might expect, Jerry doesn’t take well to the invasion.

Charley goes to Vegas showman Peter Vincent (David Tenant) to seek help in destroying Jerry. See, Peter Vincent’s crazy Vegas show is all about fighting the evil dead among us. Of course, Vincent isn’t quite as tough off stage.

 There are plenty of moments of campy fun as Charley pursues Jerry. Not the least of which is a fender bender which includes Chris Sarandon, who played Jerry in the original. While it’s a nice homage, it just made me miss Roddy McDowall, who originated the role of Peter Vincent. Still, watching McLovin as a tough-talking vampire is quite a bit of fun as are the few moments of doubt from Collette and Poots.

Craig Gillespie directs the film, and his success a few years ago with the indie hit Lars and the Real Girl brings an added touch of class to the film. He really does a nice job of balancing the terror of the story with the humor necessary to make this one enjoyable and a bit different.

 A tip of the cap to the casting of the movie. Yelchin (Star Trek, The Beaver) is a real up and comer. Ms. Poots was very effective in Jane Eyre and it will be interesting to follow the direction of her career. Collette is a real pro. Colin Farrell seems to really enjoy his turn as a vampire and adds some subtleties and quirks that make it fun. David Tenant (“Dr. Who”) really captures the Vegas Peter Vincent. Mintz-Plasse is one of the few who can effectively bounce from high school nerd to powerful vampire. Must also mention some hidden gems: singer Lisa Loeb makes a quick appearance as Ed’s mother, Charley’s friend Mark is played by Dave Franco – brother of James (you will spot the resemblance), and Peter Vincent’s girlfriend Ginger is played by Sandra Vergara, sister of Sofia from “Modern Family” (again, you can’t miss the resemblance).

In this day and age, it isn’t easy to assemble such a strong cast, script and director for a movie that isn’t centered around alien action, terminal disease or toilet humor. If you enjoy campy horror films done with an acknowledged tongue planted in cheek, then I recommend this one. It delivers exactly what you hope and expect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the 1985 original OR you get a kick out of campy vampire flicks

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your vampire movies to be dark and mysterious OR you are convinced no one can ever be a better vamp than Robert Pattinson

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