This week, I’m changing things up a bit. In the previous post, I suggested I’d cover a couple of classic films. But it was Spring Break week here, and after taking a bit of time off, I was thinking I might skip a week. But I did end up watching some films this week, so I thought I would cover them. So this week’s films are:
Craig Gillespie – I, Tonya (2017)
James Franco – The Disaster Artist (2017)
Both films are very recent, and both were players in the award season that just passed. I normally don’t cover films this new, but I figured it was worth it to dive into these and see how they fare.
Let’s get into it.
I, Tonya (2017)
This film is based on the true story of Tonya Harding, a figure skater involved in a plot to injure a fellow skater, Nancy Kerrigan, just before the Olympics. The film is told from the perspective of Tonya, her mother, and her husband Jeff. The film chronicles her entire skating career, from her first steps on the ice, to her downfall and ultimate banning from the sport.
The film stars Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney in an Oscar winning performance. It’s shot like a re-enactment documentary, with interviews from the players intercut with scenes throughout the characters lives. The film claims it is based on interviews with the actual players, and it provides some clips of those interviews. But it also gives each character their own perspective, letting them contradict each other, and disagree. Using this kind of structure is interesting, and allows the film to have it’s cake and eat it too. It can demonize and lionize each character in turn. This is along the lines of an unreliable narrator, but because there are so many narrators, it’s impossible to know who to believe.
The film starts with Tonya as a young girl, with the narrative mostly driven by her mother, played by Allison Janney. Her mother, Lavona, makes her presence felt immediately, forcing her way onto an ice rink to get Tonya a coach. This part of the film mainly gives us a window into the relationship between Tonya and her mother, and how abusive she was. This is one moment where the film tries to have it both ways. Tonya says that Lavona hit her frequently, and Lavona admits to only one beating, but the film shows several more.
We also get our first taste of the skating scenes in the film, which brings me to one of my biggest criticisms. The skating scenes make heavy use of special effects, and it doesn’t quite work. The camera tries to stick with the actress doing the skating. We see the actress playing Tonya(either young or older) in a closeup, and she begins doing a few simple moves, then the camera pans down to her feet, then back up, and we’re looking at a professional skater with the same hairstyle, and a face replacement. Face replacement is a newer special effects technology that allows filmmakers to have a stunt person perform a dangerous stunt, while making it appear that the original actor is doing it. In a lot of cases this works great, but here, it’s done very poorly. The facial replacement looks incredibly out of place. It’s especially bad when the skater is doing a spin move where the face is blurred out because of the speed. But for some reason, the filmmakers insisted on placing a few frames of the actresses face in there. But it just looks bad.
Here’s the thing, I don’t need to be convinced that Margot Robbie is a world class skater. I know she’s not, and it would be way beyond the expectations of an actress playing a part to get to the level of an Olympic athlete to portray them. All I need to be convinced of is that Tonya Harding was a world-class skater. This is a solved problem, films have been doing this for decades. We don’t need to see Margot Robbie’s face during every skating scene to make this work, and in trying to do so, it just calls out how fake it all looks. This totally pulled me out of the film.
There are a couple of parallel storylines for Tonya here, on the one hand, there is her abusive home life, on the other hand is her inspiring sports story, coming from nothing to the Olympic stage. We also see the struggle between those two worlds. Figure skating isn’t like most sports, it is judged, and early on in the film, we see how Tonya’s personality and upbringing holds her back. The judges want to see someone refined and classy, but Tonya is anything but, doing her routines to ZZ Top and refusing to change.
The story changes a bit when Tonya meets Jeff. Lavona moves to the background and Jeff moves to the foreground, but for Tonya, she just trades one abuser for another. Of course, the film again takes a forked path, with Tonya telling us he beat her, and Jeff telling us he didn’t. Jeff comes with his dullard friend Shawn, who plays a big role later on.
The film allows the characters to speak directly to the audience, both in the interviews, and during the re-enactments. I’m not a big fan of characters in scenes doing asides, and it doesn’t work particularly well here either.
When it finally gets to ‘the incident’, the film spends a few minutes letting all the characters apologize for talking about it, as if it isn’t the only reason the film exists. It’s pretty cynical and disingenuous. If you’re going to make a comedy about a huge sports scandal, then at least own it. We then see the bumbling duo of Jeff and Shawn plan out a scheme where they are going to send threatening letters to Kerrigan to scare her, after Tonya gets a threatening call (we learn later that Shawn has made the call to try to boost his bodyguard clientele, which at the time only included Tonya). According to the film, when Jeff leaves the details of this plan up to Shawn, he turns it into a hit, planning to break Kerrigan’s leg so that she couldn’t skate. Tonya and Jeff seem to be unaware of the leg breaking plan entirely.
Is that what really happened? Who knows? The film seems to revel in the way it can keep from taking a stand on anything it’s showing us. Margot Robbie does have a few great scenes near the end as she portrays Harding breaking down. In the past she’s played a lot of parts that were mainly about her being beautiful, which of course she is, but in the past few years she’s been able to get some parts that really let her stretch as an actress, and this film is the culmination of all that. She has managed to go from bombshell to serious actress in a very short period, and I’m definitely looking forward to what she does next.
I’ve seen some criticism of this film from the perspective of journalists who covered Harding during her career, that it completely absolves Harding of responsibility, when it seems clear she must have been involved. But the film can absolve itself of this criticism by pointing out that it’s only relaying the words of it’s characters, not endorsing them. But of course, this doesn’t really work in film. If there’s such a thing as a neutral film, I haven’t seen it. Every choice a director makes in a film is guided by the points they’re trying to make. The perspective of this film seems to be that it doesn’t matter who got hurt or how, because Tonya was abused and the people around her were abusive and/or stupid, and besides, it’s kind of funny. That’s really not good enough, unfortunately.
I was entertained enough by this film when I was watching it, and I’m old enough to have memories of the event when it happened, so there was some nostalgia as well, but upon further reflection, I think there’s a lot of problems here. The film doesn’t really make a stand on anything, which ends up being tacit approval of all the characters actions. It seems like a major cheat.
However, Allison Janney is a huge bright spot. There’s a great scene where she explains to Tonya that she gave her a gift by being so abusive and making her what she is, and as the audience, we almost believe it for a second. That’s the power of a great performance. I haven’t seen all of the other Best Supporting Actress nominees, but I think her win was likely deserved.
The Disaster Artist (2017)
This film tells the story of the making of The Room, an infamously bad movie written, directed by and starring Tommy Wiseau, a bizarre character with a strange accent, a bottomless well of money, and a deeply secretive personality. He meets Greg, a young actor in search of fame, and the two go off to Hollywood to follow their dream. When Hollywood doesn’t respond, Tommy writes his own screenplay, which he and Greg make themselves. The result is The Room.
The film is directed by James Franco, who also stars as Tommy. His brother Dave Franco plays Greg. There are a lot of other recognizable actors in the film, like Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Paul Scheer, Josh Hutcherson and others, but the film is really about Tommy and Greg.
The film opens with a series of recognizable actors talking about the film, like Kristen Bell, Adam Scott, and Kevin Smith. They all discuss the merits of the film, and how impressive it is. By doing this, the filmmakers set up the idea that we’re watching the making of an important film, rather than a laughingstock. It’s a good move, as it lets them make a more serious movie, rather than focusing on the ridiculous aspects.
Our first look at Greg is him performing a scene in an acting class, he is completely terrible, and is advised by his teacher to be braver on stage, and really open up. The next person to go up is Tommy, who gives a completely fearless, unhinged performance that makes no sense. Greg decides to befriend Tommy, in order to learn how to be more fearless like him.
They become quick friends, even though Tommy won’t give Greg any details about his past, telling him he’s from New Orleans, and that he is Greg’s age (which he is clearly not). Greg is fascinated with Tommy, and how he pushes him to do things he would otherwise be too scared to do. For example, Tommy encourages him to do a scene with him in a crowded restaurant, and visit the site of James Dean’s fatal car accident on a whim.
Here they agree to move to LA together after Tommy reveals he has an apartment there. Tommy is also fascinated by how well Tommy lives. He drives a Mercedes, and has apartments in two of the most expensive cities in America. But of course, Tommy won’t reveal where this money came from, or anything else about his past. He even reminds Greg several times not to talk about him, or what he says to anyone.
When they get to LA, Greg gets an agent right away, while Tommy has a harder time. Tommy sees himself as the all-american hero type, but when meeting casting agents, they see him completely differently. To them, with his accent and long dark hair, he’s the villain. But he can’t see himself that way. We also see a bit of Tommy’s jealousy, as Greg meets a girl and starts a relationship almost immediately. Tommy isn’t jealous that Greg got the girl he wanted, he mainly appears to be jealous that Greg isn’t spending as much time with him.
After a few years of struggles, the men are ready to give up, but they always manage to keep each other chasing their dreams. Tommy decides to write his own movie, and once it’s done, he asks Greg to play the second lead, and make it with him.
The meat of the film starts here, with Tommy and Greg going into casting and trying to figure out how to make the movie. Tommy is enthusiastic, but doesn’t really know how to make a movie, showing his naivete by buying all his camera equipment instead of renting it, and trying to shoot on both digital and film at the same time. But he does accept professional help from the studio he buys the cameras from, and they build a crew.
The crew acts of something of a greek chorus, pointing out mistakes Tommy is making, but also trying their best to be professional and help him make the movie. This section of the film is full of funny scenes, but underneath, it’s all about the relationship between Tommy and Greg, and how they’re growing apart during the filming. Greg is able to complete his scenes easily, but Tommy is struggling, and he starts to see the crew making fun of him. He is insecure about this, and his behavior gets more erratic, especially as Greg gets an opportunity for a small part on a TV show. The part requires Greg to keep his beard, but he is scheduled to trim his beard for the movie before it shoots. Rather than be generous to his friend, Tommy lets his jealousy get the better of him.
Tommy appears to have a fear of abandonment that runs through the entire film. Once he lets Greg into his life, he sees him as a constant companion, but Greg has his own life to lead. As the filming goes on, and things get harder to manage, Tommy fires everyone, and he and Greg have a major falling out. Tommy and Greg part ways, and Greg moves on with his life, starring in a small production of Death of a Salesman. He thinks the part of his life with Tommy is over, until he sees the massive billboard advertising the film. Soon after Tommy shows up at his play to congratulate him, and invite him to the premiere.
At the premiere, the audience experiences The Room for the first time. If you haven’t seen The Room, you might not understand, but it’s a thoroughly ridiculous movie. The acting is bad, the sets are cheap, and the character motivations don’t make any sense. It is a thoroughly mockable film. The first audience to see it saw it no differently. Of course, Tommy was crushed at the reaction, thinking he had made a serious film. But Greg talks him back into the theater, and convinces him that the huge reaction is a positive, that people are having a great time watching the film. In the end, Tommy embraces the film.
Anyone who has seen The Room knows how insane the movie is. It would not be at all surprising to make a movie that was mean spirited, or portrayed Tommy as a villain, or a complete idiot. But this film doesn’t do that. It shows Tommy as this idealistic dreamer, almost childlike, who just wants to make his dream happen. He doesn’t know how to make a film, but he’s not going to give up until it’s complete. It’s kind of inspiring.
Likewise, Greg is following his own dream, and even when it looks like it’s going to die, he puts his head down and pushes forward, trying to make things happen. They don’t do anything underhanded, or villainous, they just work hard.
The Double Feature
So we have a study in contrasts today. One film takes a serious matter, and treats it as ridiculous, and the other takes something ridiculous and treats it quite seriously. I think that The Disaster Artist did this well, and I, Tonya did not. There’s a lot to like about I, Tonya, but at the end of the day, I don’t think it has anything to say about the events it’s covering. The Disaster Artist on the other hand has plenty to say, and that’s what I’m looking for from a film. Something that takes a stand and lets the audience agree or disagree with that stand.
This is post 52, which would normally indicate a year, but since I did my first 15 or so posts over the course of a couple months so we’re a little off. My 1 year anniversary will be in May sometime. But we’ll talk about that next week.
As far as what to cover next week, I’m not sure. I think I’m going to skip the films I had originally planned to do for this week. I’m not sure it was a good match, regardless. So I’m going back to classic, and going back to Filmstruck for next week. Next week we’ll cover:
W.S Van Dyke – The Thin Man (1934)
Sam Wood – A Night at the Opera (1935)
Two comedies. I considered doing a couple of Thin Man films, since there’s a boatload of them, but I think Nick and Nora and the Marx Brothers will be a fun pairing.
See you next week.