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.
Finest Hours, The (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Craig Gillespie’s “The Finest Hours” depicts an exciting, suspenseful, and seemingly impossible rescue mission that is based on actual events that took place in 1952. It works because it is interested in specific details of the jobs at hand—both from the U.S. Coast Guard perspective and the men stuck on a sinking ship during a terrible storm.
The screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson ensures that we understand the tasks at hand. Notice that when something needs to be explained because many of the viewers are likely to be unfamiliar when it comes to the particulars of rescue efforts and keeping an oil tanker afloat, vivid dialogue is employed coupled with a relatively calm background. It takes its time so that we are able to construct images in our heads.
Our expectations are slowly developed—and either upended when things go horribly awry or a sigh of relief fills the air when something goes right eventually. There is an efficient balancing act between action-thriller sequences, particularly of a small motor lifeboat led by a crewman named Bernard “Bernie” Webber (Chris Pine) that must make it past a barrier of enormous waves, and its dramatic core. We are reminded constantly that the characters on screen are real humans who are flawed, fragile, and determined.
I also appreciated the details of how the environment takes its toll on its subjects. For instance, inside of the oil tanker that had been split in two, we notice the increasing level of fatigue of and amongst men from having to work for many hours straight not only in order to keep the ship afloat but also to steer it in the right direction and be on the lookout for rescue. Their energy is inversely related to the rate of the ocean water swallowing them whole.
Casey Affleck plays Ray Sybert, the SS Pendleton’s engineer whose first task is to convince about half of the crew that taking the lifeboats as a means of survival is a bad idea. There is a growing but subtle weariness to his performance that I found compelling. We understand that he does not see himself as a leader but one who is forced to lead nonetheless because the others do not know as much as he knows. He has doubts in himself and it does not help that a few others have doubts about him, too.
“The Finest Hours” is likely to be criticized for embracing a more traditional approach of showing a rescue mission. While the picture is not adventurous in terms of form or structure, it is nonetheless comparable to those considered to be superior films within the sub-genre because it is constantly grounded in reality, it presents many specific details of what a certain occupation entails, and there is increasing level of anticipation throughout. It is not simply about getting from Point A to Point B. It is concerned with the process.
Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.