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Tonya Harding Bio-Pic Sticks the Landing While Contemplating Truth and Socio-Economics in America

I, Tonya
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours
Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, and Paul Walter Hauser


I was surprised to learn that prior to seeing this film, I had never actually ever heard of Tonya Harding, let alone the controversy she was at the center of in the 1994 professional ice/figure skating scene, almost certainly due to the O.J. Simpson incident taking place immediately afterwards, overshadowing it completely. But I was even more surprised at how timely the story ended up being to today’s crisis. I, Tonya chronicles the rise and fall of world renowned figure skater Tonya Harding and highlights yet another real-life instance epitomizing the fleeting sustainability of Capitalism as a culture.

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Sebastian Stan (right) puts in a stellar performance as Jeff Gillooly, Tonya’s first husband and “accomplice” to the Nancy Kerrigan assault

I, Tonya tells the story of infamous Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) from her beginnings as a skating prodigy at 4 years old to her fame as the only figure skater to successfully complete two triple axels, a notoriously dangerous skating move, in a single competition, to her accusation, persecution, and lifetime banishment from the sport of figure skating. The film is put together like a quasi-documentary, where the main characters are presumably being recorded by a crew as they recall the events leading up to and immediately after the controversy surrounding Tonya Harding and company’s involvement in the physical assault of rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Rounding out the cast is: Tonya’s hateful mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), Tonya’s first husband Jeff Gillooly (played surprisingly well by Sebastian Stan), and Jeff’s moronic friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Everyone here is on their A-game, but the heap of praise should be especially placed on Margot Robbie, who is continuing to prove herself a serious dramatic actress; she easily deserves a best actress Oscar nomination for the film. Sebastian Stan demonstrates that, even though he may be known for being a secondary Marvel character, he’s more of “Chris Pine” than a “Chris Hemsworth” – that is, he’s a pretty face that can excel in hard dramas. Allison Janney puts on her best Fletcher (Whiplash) impression and sells it perfectly. The all around strong performances primarily stem from the strength of the writing and the unconventional structure of the narrative.

Early on, the film introduces the idea that maybe, what these characters are telling us isn’t entirely factual, or are flat out delusions, which really opens the door for some creative and interesting characterization. For instance, a common topic in the film is the domestic abuse Tonya endures at the hand of her husband Jeff, whom both in the present-day footage, claim that the other is fabricating or exaggerating what really happened. Anyways, the film presumes to tell the true series of events and in doing so depicts Jeff as being a domestic abuser who grows to beat Tonya on cue by the slightest stressful confrontation. We spend the bulk of 2 hours watching Jeff beat on Tonya for frivolous reasons, and her occasionally man-handle him back, yet when Jeff’s friend Shawn admits to **SPOILER** intentionally setting the events in motion that led to Nancy’s broken knee, an FBI investigation, and Tonya’s eventual banishment from figure skating, Jeff holds himself back from rationally attacking Shaun the same way he attacks Tonya, for significantly lesser reasons. Jeff’s irrational judgment of who around him is liable for violence and who is not, is not only vivid characterization told by “showing” instead of “telling,” but also previews the film’s primary thread, or theme: truth in the socio-economic hierarchy of Capitalism.

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Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) practices hiding a lifetime of adversity and suffering behind a crowd-pleasing smile

Tonya suffers a lot in I, Tonya. She suffers mostly in part because she is a woman, but she suffers more so because she is a women who comes from the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. And mostly importantly she suffers because she refuses to fully assimilate to the conventions of the fame she threatens to garner. At a handful of points in the film, present day Tonya interrupts the story to point out a damning fact about Nancy Kerrigan, whom Tonya was accused of having hired a goon to break her knee before a competition. These scenes, while seemingly meant to incriminate or propose doubt in the validity of Tonya’s telling of what happened, to me, are actually a demonstration of how despite Nancy behaving almost identically to Tonya in their rivalry, Tonya is the one persecuted by the figure skating institution; because the reputation of the rebellious “redneck” in her justifies her persecution, admittedly because her image “doesn’t sell.” Tonya’s lifetime as a proverbial and literal punching bag by her abusive mother, her abusive husband, the stingy skating judges, the judicial system, the media, society, and by the end, a formidable roster of women boxers, serves as a microcosm for the perpetual oppression of the poor by a culture defined by potential-for-profit, and consequently a world where truth is a matter of prejudice rather than a matter of fact.

I, Tonya is a great film that suffers from some pacing issues early on, but quickly finds a compelling groove to construct an intelligent commentary on the inherent prejudice in American culture, while also being a good sports movie. Definitely check this one out when you have the chance.

8.9/10

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Movies Takes

‘Sicario 2’: the Birth of a Sub-Genre?

Over the historical span of the film industry, we’ve seen certain film genre trends come and go. For instance, the mid-20th century saw the prevalence of the western. The late-20th century saw the proliferation of macho-action films like Die Hard, Rambo, and Predator. Today in the early-21st century, superhero films and raunchy R-rated comedies dominate their respective genres. And almost all of these industry trends can be traced back to one or two early films that opened the existential floodgates for films of a similar make. The superhero mania as it exists today, which has taken over a substantial portion of the action/adventure and Sci-Fi genres, owes itself to 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man. The modern mainstream R-rated comedy continues to be made off of the initial success of the early American Pie films. By the initial looks of 2018’s upcoming sequel to the critically-acclaimed film Sicario, the unique sequel is positioned to do for the action genre what American Pie did for the comedy genre.

The trailer for the sequel to 2015’s drug war epic Sicario released not too long ago and with it a rise in collective interest by fans and non-fans alike. The unexpected sequel to the 2016 Oscar nominee has flown, for the most part, under the radar for the past 2 years when it was first announced. At the time, the studio revealed that the film would abandon Emily Blunt’s protagonist from the first film, and instead follow Benicio Del Toro’s show stealing titular character as he continues to battle the Mexican cartels under the guise of Josh Brolin’s task force. 

Sequels to quality films like Sicario are virtually unheard of for the very reason that typically, these films do not have mass appeal from a financial standpoint. That is, films like Sicario are made purely for the sake of the art, with no expectation of significant returns. However, considering the first Sicario film made roughly 3 times it’s $30 million budget, one could argue that a sequel is financially feasible. But all the capitalistic inspection aside, the contemplative and thematically esoteric nature of the narrative told in the first film does not seemingly lend itself to a sequel (franchise?). By the looks of the first trailer for Sicario 2, they may have pulled it off, and then some. And that “some” could be very interesting.

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Firstly, we have to acknowledge that judging a film by its trailer should always be a dubious effort. We’ve all seen good trailers for bad movies and vice versa. But we’ve also seen good trailers for good movies, and the trailer for Sicario 2 is quite good. Now it’s perfectly possible that come June 29th, the films ends up being terrible; however, I’m more inclined to believe the film will be good due to screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water and Wind River writer) returning to pen the script. But at the same time, director Denis Villeneuve is not directing the sequel, so there is no way to know 100% at this point if the film will click with critics and audiences like the first one did.

With that being said, the Sicario 2 trailer is very fascinating. It sustains the same Oscar-nominated cinematography from the first, and with it the same brooding, contemplative tone and thematic personality that made the first one so good. Even more surprisingly, the film looks to be marketed as more of an action film instead of the crime thriller the first one was, if not only by nature of its identity as a sequel. The visceral violence of the first film has seemingly been expanded to embody a more confident genre category. However, when comparing the trailers of the first film and the new sequel, you will see that the former also implied a film with abundant action, which is not what Sicario necessarily ended up being. It’s very likely that Sicario 2 will not actually end up being an “action” movie per se and will instead follow thematic suit after the first film, maintaining a balance between jarring violence and intrigue. Regardless, the very existence of a major studio produced sequel to what was technically a violent “art” film is worth paying attention to because if it connects with audiences in way that’s reflected in the box office, we could be living in a new era of action film, or more precisely, a new niche within the action genre defined not by gratuitous violence, sex, and other shallow content, but by rich, contemplative narrative and purposeful violence.

To inject the typically oblivious action genre with the moral ambiguity and complexity commonly reserved for art house or “Oscar bait” films is not only a fascinating prospect, but a cultural necessity, especially in the current state of the world. As much as people would like to deny it, every film no matter the genre have an impact on how we, the audience perceive ourselves, each other, and the world around us. At a time when collective empathy, self-awareness, and accountability is in dangerously short supply and our supposed leaders have no intention of addressing such shortcomings, it is up to the arts to foster progressive, sustainable ideas that audiences can digest, wrestle with, and hopefully incorporate into their respective worldviews. As we see with movies like Get OutThe Shape of Water, and mother!, the mere act of subverting a film’s native genre effectively pulls audiences out of their established expectations and forces them to relearn what they thought they once knew, in the case of these films, about the horror genre or the monster-movie genre. Should Sicario 2 prove accessible and favorable with moviegoers while also maintaining the same level of quality and richness as the first one, there is a good possibility that the major movie studios will seriously start reconsidering the previously accepted content ratio of art to fluff for action movies going forward.

Or the film will come and go, and business proceeds as usual. [This is what happened lol]