This Is a Movie Review: ‘I, Tonya,’ You, Enthralled Audience

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Neon

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2017.

Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Canavale

Director: Craig Gillespie

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: R for Rinkside Potty Mouth and Redneck-Style Violence

Release Date: December 8, 2017 (Limited)

Every story needs a villain, but that’s not always how life works. Even when somebody gets clubbed in the knee leading up to the Olympics, separating the good guys from the bad guys is not always so clear-cut. This is all to say, Tonya Harding has lived a very colorful life, and some pretty illuminating details often get left out in the telling, so she deserves for us to hear her out. It would help, though, if all the parties involved could actually agree on what happened. Nevertheless, I, Tonya, the spirited biopic pieced together by director Craig Gillespie is a record of fantastically entertaining recent tabloid history that is can’t-look-away tawdry but also fair-minded and humanizing.

Harding is one of the all-time greats in American figure skating, but her reputation has forever been marked by the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan in the lead-up to the 1994 Olympics. In the popular imagination (and in a gleefully sadistic fantasy scene in the film), Harding was the assailant herself, but it was actually some guy hired by her ex-husband and her bodyguard, and it is questionable how much she ever knew about it in the first place. All of I, Tonya is building up to “The Incident,” but it takes up a relatively small portion of the runtime. After all, Harding’s life was enough of a whirlwind before then for her to already be the wild child in the public eye.

Betting that his big hook is conflicting testimonies and fluffing of image, Gillespie frames the film as a mockumentary consisting of interviews with the principal actors in character, disputing the accounts of the others as they see fit. This is a recipe for raucous storytelling, as every character is oozing with personality to spare. Margot Robbie is dangerously feisty and undeniably winning as she absolutely gives Tonya a chance to redeem herself and just let her voice be heard. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), accompanied with a parrot on her shoulder (credited as “LaVona’s Sixth Husband”), is a piece of work, egging her daughter on with profanity-laced tirades and motivational negging. Ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) has mellowed a bit in the present day, but his fiery, mustachioed presence of yore gets a lot of mileage. And an unnamed producer (Bobby Canavale) of the ’90s tabloid news show Hard Copy fills in the blanks with maximum slickness. Not interviewed, but looming large, is Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff’s close friend and Tonya’s supposed bodyguard, who earns the biggest laughs of the film, occasionally by just repeating verbatim some of Eckhardt’s most ridiculous claims (like how he is an expert in counterterrorism).

According to Tonya’s telling, there is one big constant: nothing is ever her fault. And certainly she has been a major victim, suffering at the hands of an abusive mother, an abusive husband, and a father who left her. Plus, there is the figure skating establishment that never accepted her, that would never hold up a white trash girl who performed to ZZ Top as their crown jewel. But for all the ways she has been wronged, it is so clear that she needs to shoulder some responsibility herself (as does anyone who wants to have peace). Yes, her ex beat her up, but she also pulled a shotgun on him (though she disputes that part). And sure, the stuffy figure skating establishment probably never gave her a fair chance, but she was intimidating and probably scared a few judges away from reasonability. Ultimately, Tonya implicates everyone watching in creating the monster she has come to be. To which I say: I don’t think you’re a monster! If Margot Robbie has portrayed you accurately, then I like you, Tonya! Chances are I won’t be the only one, as we all get to see the human within this crazy delicious mess.

I, Tonya is Recommended If You Like: The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, Tyson, Thelma & Louise

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Triple Axels

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Novitiate’ is the Latest Harrowing and Also Inspiring Peek at the Inner Workings of the Catholic Church

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Denis O’Hare

Director: Margaret Betts

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for Sexuality and Profanity-Laced Anger That Can Be Suppressed for Only So Long

Release Date: October 27, 2017 (Limited)

An institution as massive and long-lasting as the Catholic Church is bound to be filled with corners that many of its members are completely unfamiliar with. Sometimes those areas are not even the ones that are shamefully hidden. They may actually be intrinsic features, but if allowed to function independently, they can involve into a weird hybrid of both doctrinaire and renegade. I was raised (and remain) Catholic, but I was born decades after the reforms of Vatican II, which rendered the most extreme practices of convents as seen in Novitiate verobten. But even if I had been a churchgoer in the ’60s, I doubt I would have been familiar with the ins and outs of the nuns’ rigorous training. And yet, this story does not feel fully alien, nor should it feel so to anyone of any background who has ever desired feelings of deep love and devotion.

This examination of religious life is mainly told through the story of Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who in 1964 is one of the convent’s new class of postulants (candidates to become nuns) who eventually become novitiates (nuns-in-training). Margaret’s ready acceptance of the convent’s extreme practices, e.g. self-abnegation, has nothing to do with lifelong indoctrination, as she comes from a family of bitterly divorced, agnostic parents (at least Mom is agnostic, Dad is never much around). Her attraction to marrying God is perhaps a desire for stability, but it is also more than that. Stirring in her is an aching for transcendence that cannot easily be explained by nurture (or lack thereof). Setting her up as the novice character to follow in this secretive world is crucial, because otherwise the convent’s frightening elements would feel almost abstract and theoretical.

As the convent is resisting the reforms of Vatican II that were then being enacted, the message is clear that this is not the right way to practice religious devotion. But that historical background of rebuke is unnecessary to make that point, except perhaps for viewers with the most hardened of souls. The training and practices – oppressive silence, avoidance of eye contact, asceticism, confession in a group setting – are reminiscent of the auditing of Scientology, so memorably approximated in The Master. Ostensibly designed to make its adherents better people and closer to God, its true effects are vulnerability and surrender to authority. Overseeing all this is the Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), who while sitting on her throne of a central chair, is reminiscent of Pan’s Laybrinth’s Pale Man.

Novitiate is powerful grist for the mill for those who decry the problems inherent to all religions and for those who remain religious but point to this as an example of the wrong way of doing things. And quite frankly, it may very well also make such a connection to the ultra-traditionalists and reactionaries, who might see this as a lament for the old, better way. It is a fascinatingly human look at all those urges, appealing both to a desire to connect to a higher power and a desire to not be wrong.

Novitiate is Recommended If You Like: Spotlight, The Master, Silence

Grade: 4 out of 5 Grand Silences