Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review: Golden Moments Abound In "I, TONYA"

There's a captivating moment of stillness in "I, Tonya" -- the highly anticipated figure skating drama disguised as comedy -- which may just earn the film's leading star some golden awards.

Donning a homemade uniform in a Norwegian ice arena dressing room, Margot Robbie stares into the camera, as through a two-way mirror, to apply a thick coat of dark rouge to her cheeks while her character -- disgraced Olympian Tonya Harding -- prepares to skate in her last winter Games.

As she attempts to fake a "psych-yourself-up-for-the-ice" smile, her emotions -- at last cracked by the pressures of the world's stage, its judgments upon her shoulders, and a lifetime of physical and verbal abuse -- bring forth a single, slow motion tear.

And when the film finally achieves national release next month -- on the 24th anniversary of the events around which Harding's bio are centered (Jan. 6) -- I believe audiences coast-to-coast will cry, too, empathizing with her.

With thanks to the publicists for distributor Neon who sent this Olympic blogger a link to a media screener, on Monday evening I watched "I, Tonya" in my apartment. What a treat!

Much like other recently-experienced award-contender films "Lady Bird," "Blade Runner 2049" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," the skating movie made me want to watch it again right away.

"I, Tonya" is so good.

A theory is that director Craig Gillespie laced "I, Tonya" with subtle homages to a handful of great scenes of '80's and '90's cinema from the years during which Harding's real-life drama took shape.

The tearful solitude during Robbie's makeup application (described above) reminded me of Glenn Close's powerful mascara-removing closing shot, weeping while accepting her fate as the shamed widow at the center of "Dangerous Liaisons."

About mid-film in "I, Tonya," during a scene portraying how competition judges too-often downgraded Harding's hardscrabble performances with low marks, a livid and unapologetically crass Tonya tells a row of officials to "suck my dick!" just like Demi Moore to her master chief while soldiering on as "G.I. Jane."

And a youthful Harding endures paternal abandonment through a tearful and gut-wrenching car-side goodbye to her daddy, just like little Bernice in "Hope Floats."

But first, "I, Tonya" begins with matter-of-fact introductions of Harding, her mother LaVona Golden (expertly crafted by Allison Janney -- more about her later), Harding's dastardly ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), his one-time friend and oafish self-proclaimed bodyguard/espionage expert Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), and a slippery "Hard Copy" producer (Bobby Cannavale) who covered the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan and its aftermath, which Harding later tags as "The Incident" and only reason everyone is watching.

Through documentary-style living room or kitchen storytelling confessionals, members of Harding's five-ring circus each present their version of events. Not surprising, their stories rarely jive.

Janney as LaVona = scary. Here's a woman so grizzled she smoked on the ice while enrolling the four-year-old Tonya in youth skating lessons before kicking her daughter out of her chair while admonishing her crying child to "Answer me when I talk to you!"

"You think Sonja Henie's mother mother loved her?" asks LaVona of her daughter. "Poor fucking you!"


Sidebar: The young actress who skates as a pre-teen Harding (Mckenna Grace) gives a confident child star performance reminiscent of a Hannah Pilkes as Robin in "The Woodsman."

Introducing her exotic bird, who roosts on LaVona's shoulder and pecks at her ear, Janney describes the aviary companion named "Little Man" and her "sixth husband" who is the "best one."

Cute, until she tells a teenage Harding's coach to "lick my ass -- she can do a f-ing triple" as in triple axel, which became Tonya's signature move to win the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Before achieving this pinnacle moment on ice, viewers learn of Harding's awkward introduction to Gillooly (LaVona chaperoned their first date) and the physical abuse that escalated until their 1993 divorce.

LaVona's mother-daughter coaching dynamic, which skews to bullying as motivator, peaks with maternal bribes to fans to psych-out (or toughen?) Tonya before key competitions.

Harding and Kerrigan were friends and roomies during these years, audiences learn. And we learn about Tonya placing out of the medals at the 1992 Albertville Winter Games.

"When you come in fourth at the Olympics, you don't get endorsement deals," said a dejected skater-turned-waitress Harding.

With scant employment prospects and motivated by a 1993 visit from her first fired-in-a-tirade coach (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya decides to return to the ice for another Games in just a year (in real life, the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympic cycle was determined by the IOC much earlier, with creative license slightly tweaking the timeline to "just today" for "Games in Norway next year").

More choices tip some dominoes, and it's not long before Kerrigan's famous screams of "Why?" echo through a Detroit ice rink.

Fun facts from Tonya's training -- like jogging with a 50 pound bag of Purina Dog Chow a la Sly Stallone carrying trees across his Siberian training in "Rocky IV" -- keep things light along the ride.

I'm not gonna try to describe "The Incident" because all its complexities are either mostly known to those who witnessed them in 1994 or may remain as curiously riveting to new audiences in 2018.

Let's state instead that tabloid journalism cut its pre-O.J. Simpson coverage teeth with the Harding/Kerrigan story, and "I, Tonya" delivers in its unspooling then reconstruction of "what happened."

This is where Hauser as Eckhardt nearly steals the show as a man so incompetent on so many fronts.

It's like watching Larry, Curley and Moe all wrapped up with both characters of "Dumb and Dumber" and a dash, er, 300+ pounds of Richard Jewell ... for the win!

Sheesh, so cringe worthy and funny! And scary, "Oh, my!"

At the risk of disclosing minor spoilers, one of the best scenes that unfolds just after "The Incident" shows Eckhardt instructing Gillooly -- in his best "Deep Throat" or James Bond 007 whisper -- to "meet me at Golden Buddha, at our regular table, at the stroke of midnight."

Which brings me to a cameo by one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in suburban Atlanta.

Yes, The Golden Buddha restaurant on Clairmont Road in Decatur, Ga., is "the place" where Gillooly and Eckhardt share their clandestine conversation that unraveled the Harding/Kerrigan incident as the FBI listened from a parked van outside.

Just after watching "I, Tonya" it was fun to enjoy a late-night meal at "The Buddha" and learn from the owner and manager how a location scout approached them in early 2016 to rent the restaurant for a day.

"They liked our original, authentic look," said proprietor Ben Lee in a brief interview near Table 47 (shown) where Eckhardt attempts to incriminate Gillooly, already guilty by association and by many other measures.

Diners get Gillooly'd at blue Table 47
"We opened in 1977 and they filmed in fall 2016," added Lee. "At first we were reluctant to close for a day because of our customers, but we are glad we got involved [with "I, Tonya"].

According to the film's press kit, filming across Atlanta spanned 30 days. But none of other scenes in "I, Tonya" reveal specific Atlanta destinations.

My guess is the Arena at Gwinnett Center served as the Olympic and U.S. Championships skating venues. Shooting also took place in New York (including venues in Lake Placid?) for key rink scenes. (I later read this article citing venues in Macon, Ga.).

Speaking of the skating surfaces, the set decoration and CGI used in "I, Tonya" does present an authentic look of the Games used in Albertville '92 and Lillehammer '94 including the Olympic rings and logos or graphics used by the official broadcasters of both events.

Archival footage including Connie Chung, Ann Curry, David Letterman and other real TV personalities adds to the authenticity.

I wonder what groans and other reactions may occur as Matt Lauer circa 1994 appears on the big screen. Brought me a wince and chuckle.

The music helps, too. An original score by Peter Naschel and more than 30 crowd pleasing classic rock, pop and techno songs accompany the action of "I, Tonya."

I was jamming mostly with "Every 1's A Winner" (Hot Chocolate) or "Little Girl Bad" (Joanie Sommers) and favorites by ZZ Top, Foreigner, Violent Femmes, Heart, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Supertramp.

Doubtful but fun to entertain the notion that Harding skated in Albertville to La Tour's "People Are Still Having Sex."

Great editing, leverage and crescendo of "The Chain" by Fleetwood Mac.

There's also a hilarious albeit "serious" reference to Richard Marx!

While pondering this film since viewing its trailer earlier this year, I wondered and started asking some figure skating veterans their take.

And today I reached out to the media relations team for U.S. Figure Skating to ask their stance on "I, Tonya" (also to attempt contact with Harding or Kerrigan -- will trying to contact them put me on thin ice?). Will write up responses as they are presented.

Robbie as Harding speaks throughout the film about truth and personal experience.

The truth is, "I, Tonya" is gonna be a huge hit for its excellent blend of storytelling, acting, drama with laughs, and its Olympic flair.

Sadly, it also reminds viewers that for Harding (and everyone) -- like my Golden Buddha fortune of Monday night -- "life ... is a reality to be experienced."

Photos by Neon, Newsweek and Nicholas Wolaver

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Deep Schmid: Russia NOC's Day of Reckoning

On Tuesday I walked out of a morning meeting to find my phone exploding with Olympic headlines.

The International Olympic Committee finally lowered the boom on Russia's National Olympic Committee, banning the NOC from competing in the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. 

According to the IOC announcement, the decision came after close review of "The Schmid Report" compiled under the leadership of Samuel Schmid, former president of Switzerland. 

That's right: Russia's Olympic officials are in deep Schmid.

The reasons are well documented through amazing reporting by, and brave sources to, The New York Times, which identified and nudged the first, big dominoes on the Sochi Olympic doping scheme last year then kept up with the avalanche of crud, recently showcasing a vast diary of doping maintained before and during the Games of 2014. 

Now it is up to individual athletes, the Russia NOC and leaders in Russia Federation to determine who, if any, Olympic hopefuls from the world's largest nation may travel to South Korea in two months.

The Times published a great graphic of which sports/disciplines are to be most effected. 

I feel worst for the athletes who had no part in the scandal. It feels icky that so many wrongs still need to be righted in the Olympic record books for 2014, and that elite athletes from many winter sports must forge on with or without top clean contenders to push each other to bring their best in PyeongChang. 

Also kinda feel like the IOC finally got some guts after they slapped Russia on the wrist during the eve of Rio 2016. If they had bigger cojones, maybe a ban for Tokyo 2020 would also send a message. Only time will tell.

More personally, the scandal and today's IOC decision, which I think was apt, pretty much nixes the chance that one of my favorite Moscovite friends -- fellow Olympic-big band/jazz-English language-fine arts fan Valentina K., will seek a travel visa to meet me in Seoul in February (boo!). 

Guess we'll have to wait for "jazz hands" in Japan. 

Images via The New York Times, Getty Images and

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Grazie Mille

Thanksgiving ranks among my favorite U.S. holidays. It's the one around which the very best family gathering memories of youth are centered, and for which some of the most fun solo or con amigos experiences resonate.

I am thankful for so many people, places, things and ideas spanning a lifetime to recent weeks and months. It's been an extraordinary year of personal change, mostly positive, and of renewed optimism for the future.

Lots of travel, too, thanks to good timing and the generosity of clients who engage the P.R. team of partners with whom I'm privileged to collaborate.

Through visits with friends and family, some of the top Thanksgiving events spanning 1973 to present (my 44 turkey days) are fresh on the brain, so capturing a few here for posterity and shout-outs to those with whom a shared experience took place.

Love, love, love being thankful.

1978 -- Kindergarten Pilgrim hat, buckle and turkey (cut from the outline of my hand) made of construction paper, and earliest recollection of "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" and consciously comparing female friends my age to the characters on the screen (yes, Lucy and the football). Can't get enough of that Vince Guaraldi soundtrack!

1980 -- Flying a Styrofoam glider and a "pheasant kite" (sort of a sling-shot and paper toy bird) at the big park in Oklahoma City with my sister, Uncle Scott, Grandpa Louis and dad. The first of many cloudless and wonderfully warm Southwestern Thanksgiving Days.

1982 -- The holiday was the eve of my sister's tonsillectomy, teeing up a father-son cooking experience featuring Campbell's alphabet soup and turkey leftovers (the tradition continues!)

1984 -- Thanksgiving in "Big D" Dallas, Texas, during which I learned about Cole Porter and Big Band music, saw "The Karate Kid" on the silver screen and we ate the best damned turkey chili

1985 -- Turkey and ping-pong during our first and only holiday trek to my maternal family's home town, Enid, Okla.

1986 to 1990 -- Trivial Pursuit, home movies and pie

1991 -- Screening "Point Break" then feasting with the Nord Family at Lake Minnetonka, which froze solid in the moonlight as we watched from their cozy living room. This turned into a house-sitting adventure and experiencing my first white-out blizzard later in the weekend

1993 -- Working a double-shift at KMSU-FM in Mankato, Minn., learning about nearby musical hero Prince in detail (the station had a complete collection of his tunes) and discovering radio God of KCRW-FM Joe Frank via his astounding holiday special "Pilgrim" (available via free download through this month)

1994 -- Saint Louis holiday with college first-love, Jenny, with a sumptuous meal hosted by Fran and John at their historic home in suburban University City, Mo.

1995 -- Celebrating my sister's 21st birthday in St. Louis before a day-long road trip to Oklahoma City for one of the last Thanksgivings with most of the elder family members. We enjoyed a cousin-hosted feast before the full family (about 12 of us) drove caravan-style to see "The American President" together

1997 -- My first international flight from Atlanta to Barcelona, eventually enjoying a "borrowed" bottle of red wine on the Mediterranean sands before translating the Burger King menu for a bunch of female U.S. Navy sailors on shore leave at Las Ramblas

2001 -- Buying a $30 round-trip flight to Washington, D.C. (via post-9/11 pricing), to meet longtime friend Joanne on The Mall after a wonderful solo day in several free museums

2003 -- Surprising a special woman in Milwaukee to launch a 12-year romantic adventure and partnership (now evolved into a tremendous 14-year friendship); not long after the meal, she dumped her Thanksgiving date (which I crashed) so we could share our first official date and trek to The Windy City for the third time that year

2004 -- Window shopping, ice skating and absorbing all the sites of Christmastime Chicago for the second consecutive Black Friday (see 2003)

2015 -- Connecticut holiday with newlyweds Jason and Dominick hosted by Faith and Philip. Still looking for a family game rematch (victory was robbed!)

2016 -- Fessler feast in suburban Birmingham with longtime friends, their son and mother, a source of inspiration, strength and perseverance

2017 -- Early pancake breakfast, turkey via Whole Foods Market, and a quiet afternoon packing for a weekend road trip. Destination: Manhattan/Long Island/Middletown, N.J. Enjoyed a record number of calls and messages from friends from coast-to-coast and even a Thanksgiving fan over yonder in Moscow!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo by Nicholas Wolaver

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: Everything You Want To See

In 2001, while on the set of CNN Headline News for a lawyer client interview, it was my great pleasure to shake hands with the legendary film director/producer Sir Ridley Scott.

He was in-studio to promote his latest work of the day -- "Black Hawk Down" -- and during a commercial break, with just enough time to ask one or two questions, I vaguely recall bringing up any potential for a sequel to one of his science fiction masterpieces, "Blade Runner."

He did not say much in response, and honestly his reply is long forgotten by this starstruck observer, but tonight watching "Blade Runner 2049" about 25 years after seeing the original, it was impressive to see Scott's likely touches and influence on the sequel in his role as executive producer. 

WOW, what a show! 

Here's a taste:

"Blade Runner 2049" has more Easter Eggs than a holiday ceremony on The White House lawn. They packed so many minor and major piques of interest and points to ponder the uber-fans will take years to decode and pontificate. 

This film really delivers on all fronts. 

First, the excellent writing/script provides a thought-provoking and shape-shifting story built upon Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" (inspiration for both films). Audiences will savor an enjoy almost three hours of simmering plot and reveals. 

Loved the futuristic touches like a sunroof-turned-drone, wingless stone-shaped cameras, in-home projection units and monolithic video advertising across the concrete landscape of Los Angeles in 32 years. 

There's also outstanding music with movements inspired by Vangelis' work in the original film now treated by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, who brilliantly advanced the score another few decades.

Driving to the theatre, I reflected on the thousands of times my "Blade Runner Soundtrack" cassette and later CD got played, and now that the new film's soundtrack is available, it's likely to get played thousands of times as well. 

For the most part, the acting is strong, too. Of course, Harrison Ford makes a dramatic and impressive entrance and, come to think of it, a near-miss exit, each reminiscent of his early action star work in "The Fugitive" as well as "Patriot Games" and "Star Wars." 

Ryan Gosling is a rock as the protagonist Replicant named "K" assigned to exterminate Nexus 8 Replicants on the lam. More on the story in a few lines. 

I enjoyed many of the cameos in this version, including Edward James Olmos still divvying out origami creations (a Taurus in place of a unicorn ... any guesses as to why?). Sean Young's character Rachel returns -- some of the film's most creative, memorable and intense lines of dialog set up her reunion with rolling cameras. 

The strongest newcomer is Mackenzie Davis, sort of Part II's answer to Daryl Hannah's knockout "Pris" of the original. Robin Wright impresses as the stern top brass of the LAPD. 

The film's early sequences take "K" to a stretch of rural pasture that looks like snow-covered farmland from a bird's eye view, quickly revealed as a maze of "farmland" completely covered by synthetic greenhouses. Elements of nature like trees, grass and other flora and fauna are all but extinct -- small pieces of genuine wood command top prices by collectors, it is later revealed. 

Gosling quickly puts down a fellow Replicant before answering the fugitive's question "Have you ever seen a real miracle?" To reveal the answer to this leading question would be a giant spoiler; let's just say, discovery of a buried body under what's left of an ancient tree -- and a race to find a person related to that corpse -- sets in motion the adventures ahead. There's both crime and genetic sleuthing, visits to incredible sets (filmed in Hungary, Iceland, Spain, Mexico City and the deserts of Nevada), and great action.

I can't even start on the astounding and seamless special effects, but noted a team of 56 CG artists collaborated on the film. They take the audience from desolate arid lands to new wetlands behind a new Pacific Coast Sea Wall, across endless miles of favela-style urban neighborhoods to the most massive rust belt junk yard one can imagine. 

Most interesting visual: A surprising tech-infused threesome with Gosling, Davis and one of the film's other starlets, Ana de Armas. 

Most moving scene: Swiss actress Carla Juri -- cast as a specialist in creating Replicant's false memories -- as she engages Gosling in an updated version of the "Voight-Kampf" exam. 

Best line (one of several): "There's a bit of every artist in their work." 

Runner-up best line: "This moment is beautiful, isn't it?" (for me personally the context in which this line of dialogue appears is reminiscent of an introduction to my own "Rachel" of days gone by). 

And yet another great phrase: "Sometimes to love someone you've got to be a stranger." 

Watching this gem, I was on the lookout for architectural cameos like The Bradbury Building and Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House of the 1981 edition. No such luck, but there was a brief cameo by what may be a Wright-designed office chair. 

For Jared Leto's villainous corporate tycoon of "Blade Runner 2049" there's a breathtaking all-wood indoor platform surrounded by a fish-filled pond, showcasing his fabulous wealth as if to project, "Ahhh, to own that much authentic wood and real koi, not to mention an army of on- and Off-World servants!" 

Ford's splash pad turns out to be an entire floor of a decades-old Las Vegas high rise with his own in-hotel theater and jukebox that play virtual reality Elvis and Frank Sinatra concerts, respectively (nice touch).

It's rare to see a new release in a theatre and wish to view it again right away. "Blade Runner 2049" is one such film, and like the towering billboards peddling unknown products to its inhabitants, enjoy "Everything You Want To See" when you screen it. 

Images via Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Lose Yourself at LUZIA

Over the years, it's been my good fortune to experience an equal measure of international Olympic treks and Cirque du Soleil live shows: Ten each.

The current "big top tour" just arrived locally, and audiences are in for a treat under the grand chapiteau in Atlanta as "LUZIA" performances continue through at least mid-November at Atlantic Station in Midtown.

I'm not into proclaiming favorites, but "LUZIA" easily cracked my personal Cirque Top Five also inclusive of  the mostly-aquatic "O" and mostly naked "Zumanity" in Las Vegas as well as the steam punk-themed "KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities" and bugged-out "OVO" tours of recent years. 

Disclosure: Cirque du Soleil was a PR client'o'mine and the agency teams on which I worked for "Corteo," "KOOZA," "Dralion" and the Immortal Tour celebrating the legacy of Michael Jackson was my fifth client as an independent publicist in 2012.

"LUZIA" takes audiences south of the border to explore an array of personalities, flora and fauna of Mexico's diverse landscapes. As with some of Cirque's other tours, the "guide" or pseudo-narrator is a good-natured and oft astounded clown, this time arriving by parachute to explore and collect experiences.

¡Y quĂ© grandes experiencias comparte el payaso!

Along the trail there are contortionists, acrobats, jugglers (of bowling pins and, in a sports-themed segment true to the region, soccer balls), giant swing and hoop riders and all sorts of other spectacular performers.

For this heterosexual male writer, the troupe of female pole dancers captivated me most; some women who attended had to put their eyes back in their sockets, too, when a Tarzan-like and washboard-stomached male performer dangled and twisted on his rope trapeze through the show's in-venue waterfall.

Did I mention "LUZIA" features water? This show is like one extended scene (yes, that scene) in "Flashdance" with hundreds of gallons of hair-soaked H2O sprayed into the stands by all sorts of hard-bodies.

Que sentimiento.

The soundtrack of "LUZIA" impressed me as well -- Spanish guitar, horns, percussion and haunting lyrics really set the scenes. Always performed by live musicians, one Second Act segment featured a group of percussionists going to town on some of the largest xylophones ever to meet my ears and eyes.

This video showcases some of the great brass and vocal work also on stage.

And as in "OVO" the costumes and puppetry of "LUZIA" are as astonishing as the jungle and desert scenery. The menagerie includes all sorts of insects and creatures del mar, as well as over-sized butterflies, tigers and stallions. Just wait for the trio of cacti.

In a word, "LUZIA" = Excellente.

Photos by Matt Beard for Cirque du Soleil

Monday, September 25, 2017

Wintry Mix At Team USA Media Summit

It's fun to be back in Utah for the first time in four years. 

As in 2013, the U.S. Olympic Committee organized its Team USA Media Summit -- now underway through Wednesday in Park City -- to introduce reporters to more than 100 Olympians and Olympic hopefuls looking ahead to the 2018 Winter Games at PyeongChang

Flying into SLC International Airport brought back five-ringed anticipation for a some fun days of networking and gathering story ideas. Driving into the mountains brought a rush of memories from my first visit here in 1997 and, of course, 10 days here during the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics. 

It's always fun to pull off Interstate 80 and spot the ski jumps, then pull into downtown Park City, the village that in some ways remains as decked out for the Games as it was 15 years ago.

The biggest surprise so far: SNOW in September! 

A few miles up the slopes from Salt Lake City, a blizzard welcomed my rental Toyota, and most of the evergreens in and around the city have a great coating of fresh powder. 

Only two weeks ago I was taking sun at Sandy Hook's beaches in New Jersey, juxtaposed with a snow and fog gondola ride up one of the Rocky Mountain's greatest ski resorts.

Day one's press conferences and athlete or official interview opportunities included (as of early Monday afternoon) the U.S.O.C.'s top brass and announcements, a briefing by the PyeongChang committee's media operations team, a star-filled stage featuring top U.S. female ski and snowboard champions, and roundtables with athletes from biathlon, bobsled, speedskating and Para nordic disciplines. 

Enjoyed getting reacquainted briefly with Elana Meyers Taylor, a fellow Georgian and Olympic silver and bronze medalist who got married since her trip to Sochi. She also provided the welcoming remarks at a Sunday evening mountainside party to kick off the Media Summit. 

Also enjoyed a follow up conversation with Mikaela Shiffrin, first interviewed at the last Winter Olympic Media Summit before she went on to win gold in Sochi. We talked briefly about how her P.R. savvy and ability to speak "on message" evolved in recent years. 

I'll post more specifics from these and other athlete interviews in the days and weeks ahead on the road to PyeongChang. For now, it's time for some USA Hockey and USA Luge Q&A.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

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