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!"

Yikes!

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

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