Jan 17

“I, Tonya”: Role of Domestic Abuse and Society’s

Not only will [I, Tonya] make you think about Tonya Harding again, it will make you do so with unexpected sympathy. Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com, reviewing I, Tonya 

Although not every critic is fond of Craig Gillespie‘s I,Tonya, the reviews definitely skew highward, currently a 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Much praise goes to Margot Robbie in the lead as well as to the supporting characters, including Allison Janney as Tonya’s cold, cruel mother.

The infamous Tonya Harding-related “Incident” against Nancy Kerrigan is presented in the film in light of Harding’s own victimization: from childhood abuse to marital abuse to classism to news media bias.

Leah Greenblatt (ew.com) sets up the story line:

In a sport of princesses, Tonya Harding was the perpetual toad: a trashy, too-brash outsider whose mind-blowing axels and sheer athleticism could never quite make up for the fact that she didn’t fit the demure, spangled mold of an ideal figure skater. Raised but hardly nurtured by a chain-smoking waitress (Allison Janney, a viper in Tootsie glasses and a mushroom-cap haircut), Tonya steadily clawed her way up the junior ranks, thanks mostly to pure willpower and the proxy parenting of a coach (Julianne Nicholson) who tried her best to steer her wild-card charge. What set Harding’s destiny, though, was the arrival of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the dim-bulb paramour and protector whose wonky scheme to take down his wife’s rival Nancy Kerrigan would go down in Olympics infamy.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety: “It’s framed as a fake documentary (it opens with the characters being interviewed 20 years later), and it has a tone of poker-faced goofball Americana that suggests a biopic made by the Coen brothers.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com: “…[Gillespie has] made a movie that’s affectionately mocking—of this theatrical sport, of the idiots who surrounded Harding, of this hideous moment in fashion and pop culture—without actually mocking Harding herself.”

But the intermittent humor isn’t received well by all critics. Richard Brody, New Yorker, for instance, sees “empathy…mixed with condescension; much of the movie’s bluff comedy mocks the tone and the actions of Tonya and her milieu.” And Manohla Dargis, New York Times, titles her review “‘I, Tonya.’ I, Punching Bag. I, Punch Line.”

I’m mixed on this myself. The humorous tone, though sometimes a helpful relief, wasn’t always enough to offset the disturbing effects of physical and emotional abuse continually being heaped on Harding.

How much of I, Tonya is truth? April Wolfe, Village Voice: “Gillespie doesn’t pretend to be definitive. Instead, he spins the tragedy of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan into a searing indictment of America’s obsession with ‘America’ and the ways that public opinion can be irreparably warped by sensationalist news media.”

Our images of both skaters have largely derived, notes Inkoo Kang, Slate, from that kind of media, which “remade the polished, graceful Kerrigan into a ‘princess’ and the brassy, unvarnished Harding into a ‘pile of crap’.”

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service, offers this apt summary:

Toward the end…our heroine…drawls flatly: ‘The haters always say, Tonya, tell the truth. There’s no such thing as truth.’
Throughout the film, Rogers’ screenplay reminds us it’s not just ‘I, Tonya,’ but ‘We, Tonya.’ She endures years of abuse to make it to the top, but fame becomes her plight…In possibly the most searing indictment, Tonya, during an interview segment, looks directly into the camera and says, ‘It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you … you’re all my attackers too.’

Watch the trailer below:

Aug 26

“Tallulah”: Three Wayward Women and a Baby

At its heart,Tallulah is about three women who think themselves unfit for parenthood for wildly different reasons, and while writer-director Sian Heder is unafraid to explore their many flaws, she fortunately refrains from passing judgment or drawing simplistic, moralizing conclusions. David Sims, The Atlantic

Sian Heder, a writer for Orange Is the New Black, is also the creative force behind a Netflix original film, available for streaming, called Tallulah. And for its “(t)hemes of motherhood, abandonment, loss, family and female identity…plumbed to their depths” (Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times), it’s well worth the watch.

More from Walsh about the plot in brief: “Heder…reached into her own life experiences to write and direct the film, starring Ellen Page in the titular role as a nomadic young woman who has no attachments to any place or thing. She does, however, have a knack for attaching herself to people — her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), Nico’s mother, Margo (Allison Janney), and a baby she accidentally babysits, then accidentally kidnaps, in a good faith effort to keep her safe.”

David Sims, The Atlantic, with more details:

…As the film begins, [her] relationship falls apart, and Tallulah finds herself in New York, stealing from fancy hotel rooms while posing as a housekeeper. There, she meets Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a permanently wasted socialite who seems obviously neglectful of her one-year-old daughter; in a moment of vigilante justice, Tallulah snatches the baby and begins pretending it’s her daughter…

Margo and Tallulah eventually form a bond, and life lessons are learned—that Margo should take more risks, that Tallulah can see the value of family and more traditional domesticity. But every time it seems that Tallulah is swerving into conventional Hallmark-movie territory, Heder does something unexpected. Rather than dropping Carolyn’s story once her baby is taken, the film zooms in on her grief, letting the audience feel the consequences of Tallulah’s actions. In a film of strong performances, Blanchard is probably the biggest surprise…

The trailer’s below:

Most critics agree that the acting rises above all else. Geoff Berkshire, Variety:

Page is simply superb in a complex role that perfectly plays to her gift for balancing deadpan comedy with surprisingly deep emotional reserves. And while she was a sterling support opposite Page in ‘Juno,’ Janney rises here nearly to the level of co-lead as an uptight control freak whose desire to cling to her family only serves to push them away.

Reliable character actress Blanchard is perhaps the biggest revelation, playing Carolyn at first as a spot-on parody of a certain kind of real housewife of self-absorption, but gradually peeling back her layers — in collaboration with Heder — to reveal the wounded woman underneath.

Neil Genzlinger, New York Times: “…(I)f there were an Oscar for best performance by children too young to know they’re in a movie, the twins playing this baby (Liliana and Evangeline Ellis) would be a shoo-in.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “And when Uzo Aduba of ‘Orange’ turns up as a drily capable (and pregnant) child-services officer, Heder’s portrait gallery of motherhood — good, flawed, accidental, just trying to make it through the day — is complete.”

Autostraddle: “Lunch with Margo’s gay ex-husband [John Benjamin Hickey] and his new partner [Zachary Quinto] is one of the best scenes in the film, sketching a whole universe and providing a window into Margo and her husband’s marriage without trying to give more information than the audience can handle.”

Selected Tallulah Reviews

Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times: “Even if the tale is a bit much to be believed at times, it’s unlikely you’ll see a film more refreshingly honest and incisive about motherhood than ‘Tallulah’.”

Geoff Berkshire, Variety: “Heder’s approach is reminiscent of her terrific work on ‘Orange’ in numerous ways — from a boundless compassion for women’s hidden stories to the graceful mix of smart comedy and human drama.”

Scott Tobias, NPR: “That Heder’s warts-and-all vision of maternal ambivalence lacks focus and concision seems partly by design, a refusal to oversimplify these women for the sake of narrative expedience. They’re screwed up. They’re good-hearted. They’re human.”

Feb 20

“The DUFF”: What Is It? Movie Acronym Explained

Just as I didn’t at first know the meaning of the movie title Laggies (see yesterday’s post), I also didn’t know about the meaning of new film The DUFF. Guess this shows just how out of it I am, as the Urban Dictionary has had entries as far back as 2003.

Turns out DUFF stands for “designated ugly fat friend.” And, now that I know, I’m not unhappy at all that this has never been part of my lexicon.

If Laggies is for the twenty-somethings, The DUFF is for the teen-somethings. In Kody Keplinger‘s YA novel (2010), on which this film is based, the DUFF is Bianca, age 17—who in actuality “isn’t that fat or ugly,” according to Booklist. But among some peers she’s designated as such anyway—that’s just how those mean kids roll.

By the way, the author was a senior in high school herself when she wrote it—and apparently she really gets the struggles of being viewed as a DUFF.

Kirkus Reviews, about Keplinger’s book: “Her snarky teen speak, true-to-life characterizations and rollicking sense of humor never cease in her debut. Teen readers will see both themselves and their friends in Bianca’s layered, hostile world.”

THE DUFF: THE MOVIE VERSION

First, watch the trailer below:

I hear what you’re thinking: That Bianca is neither fat nor ugly! Couldn’t they fill that role with someone more appropriate?!

Seriously? I thought we’d already covered this.

But back when the casting choice was announced many were similarly outraged. Carole Horst, Variety, states that it created “a storm on social media. ‘Only in Hollywood would Mae Whitman be considered the Duff’ was the consensus.”

Among the adults featured, states Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter, is Allison Janney, who’s “effortlessly complicated as Bianca’s concerned yet distracted single mom, a self-help maven spouting mnemonic-device pep talks.”

Like Whitman, Janney also reportedly relates to having been DUFFish—in her case, for being so tall.

Sep 19

“Touchy Feely”: Massage Therapist Averse to Physical Contact

The phrase “touchy feely” has some negative connotations, doesn’t it? Too experiential. Too expressive. Maybe even boundary-crossing bad behavior.

Fortunately, that isn’t what the new film Touchy Feely by writer/director Lynn Shelton is all about. Here’s what Rotten Tomatoes says:

TOUCHY FEELY is a closely observed examination of a family whose delicate psychic balance suddenly unravels. Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), is a sought after massage therapist and a free spirit, while her brother Paul (Josh Pais) thrives on routine and convention, running a flagging dental practice and co-dependently enlisting the assistance of his emotionally stunted daughter Jenny (Ellen Page). Suddenly, transformation touches everyone. Abby develops an uncontrollable aversion to bodily contact, which not only makes her occupation impossible but severely hinders the passionate love life between her and her boyfriend (Scoot McNairy.) Meanwhile, rumors of Paul’s ‘healing touch’ begin to miraculously invigorate his practice as well as his life outside the office. As Abby navigates her way through a soul-searching identity crisis, her formerly skeptical brother discovers a whole new side of himself. TOUCHY FEELY is about the experience of living in one’s own skin, both literally and figuratively. The film, written and directed by Shelton, and co-starring Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, and newcomer Tomo Nakayama (of the indie rock band Grand Hallway), is filmed on location in Shelton’s hometown and urban muse of Seattle.

The Title

Andrew Schenker, Slant: “The title of Lynn Shelton’s Touchy Feely, which literally refers to lead character Abby’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) profession as a massage therapist, serves as a guiding metaphor for the film’s exploration of human connection and emotional estrangement. As far as ruling metaphors go, it’s a rather obvious one, but Shelton overcomes the base literariness of the conceit by crafting a film of astonishingly sustained mood and by tying this beguiling atmosphere to the mental states of her characters.”

The Trailer

You can see (and touch-y and feel-y if you really want) the preview below:

What’s Really Abby’s Problem?

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “…a conventional soul who’s hiding her anxiety — even from herself. Abby gives tantric massages, and also gets them from Bronwyn, an aging hippie (Allison Janney, acting mellow for a change), all to keep herself centered. But when Jesse (Scoot McNairy), her boho bike-shop-repairman boyfriend, asks her to move in with him, and she agrees, she falls apart. She suddenly can’t touch anyone’s skin, because she’s so uncomfortable in her own.”

Not really sure what happens to Paul, but relationships in this film at the very least tend to be interesting.

The Therapies Involved

Ella Taylor, NPR

What’s different here is Shelton’s joshing affection for practitioners of the flannel-shirted New Age healing therapies of her beloved Pacific Northwest. ‘Your energy’s off,’ Abby’s serene, dirndled mentor Bronwyn (Allison Janney) tells her — and for once, we’re invited neither to snicker nor particularly to believe in the innate powers of reiki massage. You just have to believe, rather, that these walking wounded believe — and that their commitment to weird signs and portents might spur them to take control of their faltering destinies.

Overall the reviews are not exactly “ecstatic” (the drug Ecstasy is used in the plot’s climax). One concluding comment from Ella Taylor, NPR: “…Not since Jane Campion’s wonderfully warped Sweetie has a movie so artfully demonstrated that a little magical thinking, or some creative appropriation of pop-culture symbols, or a bit of attention to the signals of the body can propel a lost soul to feel her way toward renewal. In Touchy Feely, faith – and hey, maybe a little therapeutic drug abuse — doesn’t have to be justified. It just has to get you up and running.”

Dec 28

“Juno”: Teen in Trouble Gets Love and Support from Her Family

The comedy/drama Juno (2007), starring Ellen Page, with J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as her dad and stepmom, presents a pretty functional family, something we don’t often see in films.

There’s also an issue of an unplanned pregnancy in adolescence. As is so often the case, the review by Roger Ebert is spot on: “Juno informs her parents in a scene that decisively establishes how original this film is going to be. It does that by giving us almost the only lovable parents in the history of teen comedies: Bren (Allison Janney) and Mac (J.K. Simmons). They’re older and wiser than most teen parents are ever allowed to be, and warmer and with better instincts and quicker senses of humor…”

Here’s the scene in which the teenager announces her news:

In the next clip, stepmom Bren and Juno’s friend Leah accompany her to her ultrasound:

Juno has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A sampling of reviews:

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “Horrors — was this yet another soulless indie movie in which all the characters are deadpan and ironic and way too clever, accompanied by the kind of songs you might hear at an open-mic coffeehouse? But director Jason Reitman made a pretty great movie last time (‘Thank You for Smoking’), so I stayed in my seat. By its end, ‘Juno,’ in its guilelessly chatty way, touches the heart — and yes, I had tears in my eyes. This movie works, on its own terms.”

Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “It transcends its own genre. Only superficially a teen comedy, the movie redounds with postmodern — but emotionally genuine — gravitas.”

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer: “What kind of movie is Juno? The rarity that plucks your heartstrings while tickling them.”

Roger Ebert: “Jason Reitman’s ‘Juno’ is just about the best movie of the year. It is very smart, very funny and very touching.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “…respects the idiosyncrasies of its characters rather than exaggerating them or holding them up for ridicule. And like Juno herself, the film outgrows its own mannerisms and defenses, evolving from a coy, knowing farce into a heartfelt, serious comedy.”