Tag: allison janney

I, Tonya

I, Tonya (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

How does one take a punchline like Tonya Harding, disgraced figure skater banned for life from the sport she loves due to an FBI investigation which concluded she was connected to the planned attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan, and make the subject interesting without undergoing a redemption arc so typical of biographical dramas? Make it a dark comedy. But not just any standard dark comedy. Make it pitch-black, smart, full of crackling wit, ensure every performance commands electric energy, and force the audience to feel how it is like to wear the shoes of a person whom the public and the media labeled as a villain.

“I, Tonya,” written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, delivers a rollercoaster of emotions which is not typically employed in a mockumentary-style storytelling. For instance, just when we are relishing laughter from the savage verbal affront Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney) delivers to everyone within a ten-foot radius, a scene right after it shows, unblinkingly, Tonya (Margot Robbie) being hit in the face like a punching bag by her dolt of a husband (Sebastian Stan). And just when we think we know how the formula works, rules are turned inside out and upside down. Due to its ability to shift and evolve, what results is a highly watchable project, unpredictable at nearly every turn.

For a good while of the picture, I couldn’t help but wonder about the work’s intended target audience. Surely it must not be solely for those who are familiar with Harding’s fall from grace. While it is understandable to wish to know more about the scandal, I felt that appealing to such a group is too easy, almost painfully obvious. Toward the end, however, it becomes clear that perhaps the target audience is younger people, perhaps middle school or high school students with a dream, youths who didn’t yet exist in 1994.

I reach this conclusion because Harding’s background is emphasized by the material, not only through words but also using images. Harding’s broken family is poor, not only financially but also that of a loving home, and she is surrounded by others who do not aspire to become anything more than what is available around town. There is more aspiration to become famous or recognized or financially successful than there is making sure one works hard to attain and complete an education. There is a wonderful scene, perfectly delivered by nuanced Robbie, in complete control of her range of emotions and facial expressions, where Harding makes a plea to the judge who delivered her sentence. The film is at its rawest here.

Despite the picture’s occasional ability to move the audience from one extreme to the other, the age of the performers cannot be ignored. Robbie and Stan playing fifteen-year-olds up until their characters are in their early twenties, braces and awkward mustaches included, is completely unconvincing. It is most distracting when the dialogue brings up their ages for no good reason. This miscalculation could have been avoided somewhat had the filmmakers relied on the title cards, which depict the passage of time, and left it for the audience to assume the age of the characters.

“I, Tonya” has a rock ’n’ roll vibe that does not fit at all with polished, classy, expensive biographical films—the correct decision because the film’s spirit must match its intriguing and complex specimen. I admired that it is willing to get down and dirty, welts and bruises included, to ensure that we give it our undivided attention. It earns the time we put into it.

Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Jesse (Josh Radnor), working in New York City as a college admissions officer, is invited by his former undergraduate professor (Richard Jenkins) to attend a retirement ceremony in Ohio. Unhappy with the way things are going in his life in the city, Jesse welcomes the opportunity to return to the university he loves. Through Dr. Hoberg, Jesse meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore majoring in Drama. They hit it off right away, but there is a problem: Zibby is sixteen years Jesse’s junior, an age gap that is not easy to overlook.

The tone of the first half of the film is relaxed—too relaxed to the point where it is almost boring. As a result, there seems to be an absence of a central conflict. Although Jesse hopes to get to know Zibby in a more intimate way, both in an emotional and physical aspect, he begins to feel that it is wrong for him to take their friendship further because she is far too young despite how mature she presents herself. There is a funny scene that involves the college admissions officer writing on a notebook and comparing their ages. When Jesse was sixteen, Zibby had not been conceived yet.

Couple Jesse’s romantic struggle to his fears about becoming old and feelings of disappointment with how his life has turned out, the two almost cancel each other. While the latter feels more important, the screenplay does not spend much time exploring it. Instead, focus is spent on cutesy scenes of Zibby and Jesse writing each other letters and smiling as they read them—with voiceovers, no less. While Radnor and Olsen look good together, the only scene that works completely is when their characters’ opinions are pit against one another. After Zibby admits that she likes to read vampire novels, Jesse looks at her disbelievingly, for not having better taste.

It gets better somewhat in the second half, but the characters most worthy of attention are not given enough dialogue. Jesse meets Dean (John Magaro), a student on a full scholarship but happens to be on all sorts of medication due to an emotional disorder. He confesses to the alumnus that he is “aggressively unhappy” in the university. At one point Dean asks, “Why did you love it here so much?” There is impact because for the first time we see Jesse scrambling for an answer. As a college admissions officer, he has gotten used to asking the difficult questions during interviews. With Dean, he finds himself on the other side. That is interesting.

And then there is Dr. Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse holds her in high regard since he loved her class so much. Despite many compliments he sends her way, she gives him a look of disdain, almost disgusted by a pining former student. Dr. Fairfield’s story is touched on but never delved into. It is unfortunate because there are morsels of truth in her cynicism.

But it all goes back to what Jesse and Zibby have. I just could not buy it. This may sound like an odd critique but I felt Olsen is more intelligent than the character she plays. It is distracting. The script forces her to say words like “whatever” and “like” but it comes off forced, a constant reminder that she is still very young. Now, if Zibby had been written as smarter and more insightful than Jesse, the situation might have been more complex, more interesting. However, that is not what is up on screen.

Bad Words

Bad Words (2015)
★ / ★★★★

Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is determined to participate on The Golden Quill National Spelling Bee, a competition for kids, despite already being forty years of age. A silly loophole in the rulebook is a loophole nonetheless and so the people in charge have no choice but to allow him to compete in spite of very angry parents.

Written by Andrew Dodge and directed by Jason Bateman, “Bad Words” is neither as edgy as it premises itself to be nor is it raucously funny that it becomes easy to overlook its shortcomings. Its screenplay is underwritten, its characters are underdeveloped, and its sense of humor is so one-note that it becomes tedious to sit through eventually.

No writer should ever assume that just because his or her main character curses like sailor in front of children does not mean that the subject is inherently funny. Here, while Guy is supposed to be a first-class jerk, he is not interesting enough to warrant our sympathy—which makes the final ten to fifteen minutes especially cheesy and embarrassing. One of the biggest clichés—one of which the film never recovers from—is a jerk on the outside turning out to be not so bad when it comes down to the wire.

Because Guy’s motivation to compete goes unmentioned for so long—and unexplored throughout—we end up not caring so much. Instead, the minutes are padded with fillers such as montages of Guy and a ten-year-old competitor, Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), hanging out or Guy and a reporter (Kathryn Hahn) supposedly not liking each other but almost always ending up in bed. None of these scenes make us want to know Guy on a deeper level despite him being unlikable.

There are only a few very funny scenes. During the early rounds of the spelling bee, Guy is shown sabotaging the kids who end up sitting to his left. The mind games he executes are so cruel but I found myself laughing. Why couldn’t the rest of the picture function on a consistent darkly comic level? Why must the writer feel as though he needed to soften the blows when the story is clearly at its peak, when its sense of humor is rough around the edges? The movie wanting to be liked is the antithesis of the protagonist’s attitude to everyone around him. Is it supposed to be ironic?

Actors like Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall are given nothing worthy to work with. It is always distracting when one can tell that the performer is trying the best she can to elevate the material and yet still being unsuccessful at it. Janney and Hall are so good at what they do. Why not give them material that is challenging for them and fruitful for us?

“Bad Words” is a fake black comedy—or one that completely fails as one. Movies like Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa,” Todd Solondz’ “Happiness,” and even Marcos Siega’s “Pretty Persuasion” shine because they need not compromise their characters’ motivations. They are written to see things through without the need to be liked. We may or may not like them as people but it cannot be denied that we are fascinated with them as specimens. Black comedies, like the best dramas, are about a specific human condition.


The DUFF (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Bianca (Mae Whitman) is informed by a childhood friend, Wesley (Robbie Amell), now a jock and the most popular boy in school, that out of her group of friends, she is considered to be “The DUFF,” acronym for the designated ugly fat friend. A classic symptom: The boys approaching her and asking about Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Styler Samuels), both beautiful and talented in different ways. In order to prove that she is not a DUFF, Bianca separates herself from her two best friends to go after Toby (Nick Eversman), a classmate she has had her eye on for some time.

Based on the novel by Kody Kiplinger and screenplay by Josh A.Cagan, “The DUFF,” is supposed to empower high school students who feel like they are not beautiful on the outside, but the film is so heavy-handed with its messages that it comes across rather disingenuous or fake. It does not help that the protagonist has a proclivity toward whining and moping around when she does not get her way so it makes it difficult to root for her. Regardless, the material has a few sweet moments and clever lines of dialogue to make a tolerable final product.

The heart of the picture is the friendship between Bianca and Wesley. Although they do not look like high school students at all, Whitman and Amell do share some chemistry so their characters’ banters are convincingly fun and flirtatious. The problem with their relationship is not where it is heading but the details of their getting to know one another. Observe the scene where Bianca learns a little bit about Wesley’s home life. It feels like from a completely different movie; the sudden shift in tone made me wonder if we are supposed to like Wesley more just because of issues at home. Even if that isn’t the case, that piece of information is never again brought up for further elaboration.

That is the main problem in the film: its annoying habit of introducing strands that never come into fruition. Another example: After Bianca gets into a fight with her best friends, we rarely hear from them again until it is time to reconcile. The most successful and memorable movies for teenagers have effortless, effervescent flow: we really feel like we are walking in the shoes of the characters we are supposed to relate with. Here, I always felt like I was an observer, only occasionally relating with the protagonist.

The adults at school (Ken Jeong, Romany Malco) are written as clichés in that they are unable to relate with the young people they see every day. We never get the impression that they genuinely care about their students. It does not make any sense. Worse, the student-teacher relationship likens that of those found on television sitcoms doomed to be cancelled mid-season. Do not get me started on the so-called relationship between Bianca and her mother (Allison Janney). Human relationships are one-dimensional here.

Directed by Ari Sandel, “The DUFF” is portraying edge rather than being edgy. If one looks back to teen movie classics like John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” and Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” they dance to their own grooves. They take many risks that pay off. In this film, the writing is nothing special, often safe, simply recycling ideas from its inspirations.

A Thousand Words

A Thousand Words (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy), a fast-talking literary agent, is assigned by his boss (Allison Janney) to snag a book deal with Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), a very popular spiritual leader, whose most recent work is likely to prove profitable for the company. Pretending to have read Dr. Sinja’s book, the two eventually make a deal and shake hands. That night, a Bodhi tree magically sprouts from Jack’s posh backyard; the deal somehow establishing a connection between Jack and the tree. Each word that Jack utters resulted in the tree losing a leaf. If the last leaf were to fall off the branch, Jack would die.

Written by Steve Koren and directed by Brian Robbins, in theory, “A Thousand Words” is a perfect vehicle for Murphy because he has established himself as an actor who could say about a hundred words per minute, on average, and yet still deliver his lines with wit and clarity. While his performance is consistent, the script is neither as funny nor sharp as it could have been because the logic concerning the protagonist’s decisions in terms of whether to speak during Moment A or not speak during Moment B lacks practicality.

I had no problem accepting the magical elements with respect to the tree, but I struggled in accepting that Jack, a very successful man in the publishing world, lacks the intelligence to choose his battles wisely until the very end. Saving good decisions toward the back half of the story comes across forced. The character arc in connection the lessons Jack learns would have been much more believable if he made good decisions almost every step of the way while still having the tendency to slip back to his undesirable social habits. When it comes to human behavior, we expect change does not occur over night.

The picture does have very funny moments. One of my favorite scenes involves a book deal that has to be done via telephone. It is paramount that Jack is successful because his boss, Samantha, has not been very happy with him lately. In order to not waste words, Jack results to using various toys that can be pressed and a built-in voice is then activated. The idea is creative. Conjoined with quick editing, it creates a manic but fragile energy where a tiny error, like pressing on the wrong toy or the correct toy saying an unexpected alternate programmed message, might ruin the deal entirely.

There are instances of real sensitivity as well. I was touched by the scenes with Jack and his mother (Ruby Dee), the latter afflicted with dementia. I have had the chance to work in a facility with people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and, like Jack, patients have mistaken me for a family member and their sad stories are revealed.

When the film does not try so hard to be sad or funny, the lessons born from Jack’s struggle feels true. There is value in silence as well as choosing the right words while communicating. For instance, many people think that “being real” is saying whatever is on their minds. That isn’t necessarily the case. There is a difference between, say, honesty and rudeness or confidence and arrogance. We all have met people who just cannot stop talking. If only a Bodhi tree would magically appear in their yards.

Touchy Feely

Touchy Feely (2013)
★ / ★★★★

It is difficult to believe that “Touchy Feely” is from the same writer-director as the fresh, funny, and wonderful “Humpday.” While the latter is full of characters that feel very human, the former offers not one believable character, let alone someone we want to get to know beyond the surface level. The figures on screen are nothing but walking caricatures, solely defined by the anxieties that plague them.

Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a massage therapist with happy clients because she is good at her job and she has a personality that makes customers want to return. However, when she develops an aversion to touching people’s skin, her livelihood is threatened and she begins to feel inadequate. This takes a toll on her relationship with Jesse (Scoot Mcnairy), her rebound guy. Conversely, prior to Abby’s breakdown, her brother, Paul (Josh Pais), is barely able to keep his dental practice running due to a lack of customers. Unlike Abby, Paul is awkward, withdrawn, not very good at relating with others. Abby’s misfortune proves to be the beginning of Paul’s great luck: word has gone around that each person he touches is magically cured.

Perhaps the situation is supposed to be mildly amusing because it certainly does not work as a drama. First, it lacks a dramatic core. While the central relationship involves a pair of siblings who cannot be any more different, we never believe that they care for one another. When they sit to have dinner together, I saw actors spewing out lines instead of a family who is trying to make it work. Second, the screenplay fails to provide good reasons as to why we should care about its main and supporting players. As a result, sitting through the picture is like listening to a bunch of strangers whining about their problems. I thought they all needed to see a counselor.

The subplots are awkward and lack energy. Jenny (Ellen Page), Abby’s niece, has a crush on Jesse. But then there is an appendage involving Jennt wanting to leave the nest to go to school but feeling guilty that her father will not approve. One or the other requires focus. If she has no interest in being a dental assistant, then what is she interested in? Where does she see herself after college? If the material chooses to explore the crush, what does Jenny see in Jesse exactly? How might her feelings for Jesse change her seemingly close relationship with Abby? The screenplay does not bother with specifics and so there is no drama worth looking into.

When not even Allison Janney, playing a woman who can detect people’s energy, can save the movie, then that is saying something. “Touchy Feely” is a complete misfire—an interminable bore. I was mystified as to what the writer-director, Lynn Shelton, hoped to accomplish. I wondered if she watched the movie and was absolutely convinced that her work was worth other people’s time.

A note to all filmmakers: If you want to make a personal project that you think will touch the viewers or connect with it somehow, write beyond skeletal characteristics. Provide specifics. Do not rest on irony or a one-note joke. However, if you wish to make a personal project for sake of getting it out of your system without it being cinematically qualified, feel free to do so. But keep it in your house.

Struck by Lightning

Struck by Lightning (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Carson (Chris Colfer) is a high school senior whose goal is to attend Northwestern University and then later work as a journalist for The New York Times. In the meantime, however, he is stuck being the editor for his school paper, The Clover High Chronicle, with members who do not share his enthusiasm for writing. In fact, he ends up writing all of the articles in the weekly publication. Frustrated with his jaded peers, he partners with Malerie (Rebel Wilson), a girl with a penchant for plagiarism, and they blackmail their classmates into writing for the paper. While walking to his car, lightning hits him. He is dead.

Although it has a fun premise, the elements in “Struck by Lightning,” written by Chris Colfer, do not quite come together in order to create a memorable portrait of teen angst. Carson is not a unique character but he is interesting enough. Beneath his snarky persona and sarcasm, he hungers for control: in the politics of his school, the situation with his alcoholic mother, and what he feels he must do to maximize his chances of getting into his dream university. The half a dozen subplots often serve as distraction.

Most frustrating is the relationship between Sheryl (Allison Janney) and Neal (Dermot Mulroney), Carson’s mother and father. Despite the actors’ attempt to make something out of the material, they can only do so much with an underdeveloped screenplay. There are many scenes that show them apart. When they finally end up in the same room, the scene is supposedly moving but it is executed with minimal energy, like it is preferred not to be dealt with. What could have been a very important scene is interrupted by another. Then it cuts back to Sheryl and Neal having finished their conversation. What exactly did they say to each other after not having seen one another for five years?

The blackmail does not reach full throttle until a little over halfway through. Carson and Malerie going around school and finding out about everybody’s secrets are joyful, funny, shocking, a bit naughty, and sometimes downright wrong. It is the best part of the film so it is curious that is rushed. The only reason I can come up with is that the extortion needed to have been palatable to most audiences. Since it cops out, the comedy’s power wanes.

Colfer shines in playing someone who is so smart and so determined to get out of the small conservative town that he considers a prison. We believe that he feels it is absolutely necessary for him to do crazy things, even going as far as blackmailing a teacher, to have a chance at freedom. I liked Carson because he fights for what he wants while others learn to accept that where they are now is where they will always be. I want to see more characters like him on screen. Unlike in so many high school comedies, the protagonist does not have silly romantic problems. We do even know his sexual preference. His ambitions come first and he will do anything to get that much closer.

Directed by Brian Dannelly, “Struck by Lightning” strives to make a statement about high school life and what is beyond it, but it lacks the jagged edge of Alexander Payne’s “Election” and the hot pink snarky humor of Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls.” It is either stuck or on autopilot for about half of its running time. So when the narration starts to utter lessons to be extracted from the story, they end up evoking a strain of mechanical generalizations rather than true insight.