I, TONYA (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Violence and some Sexual Content/Nudity

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Written by: Steven Rogers

Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver, Bojana Novakovic, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale & Ricky Russert

After headlines about Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband’s penis and before headlines about O.J. Simpson’s double-murder trial, tabloids and mainstream news outlets were talking about Tonya Harding and the scandal regarding an attack on her teammate. It was only a matter of time before someone made a film about Tonya Harding (I’m still waiting on that Lorena Bobbitt film), but I don’t think anybody could have anticipated that the Harding biopic would be a dark comedy. However, this odd genre choice fits right in with the stranger-than-fiction material about trashy people doing idiotic things and winding up as a sideshow attraction for all of society to gawk at.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) is a figure skater who sticks out like a sore thumb among her competition. This is partially because she doesn’t fit the figure skater stereotype at all and mostly because of her hot-headed attitude that frequently gives way to profanity-laden outbursts. Though Tonya might be able to pull off amazing stunts on the ice, her home life is another story entirely as her abusive mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) constantly berates her and redneck husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) beats her on a daily basis. When Tonya’s spotlight progressively begins being stolen away by rival teammate Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), Jeff and his idiotic best friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) decide to take drastic measures…and an “incident” soon gives way to a media circus.

The best thing about I, TONYA is easily Margot Robbie’s performance. Robbie has played bad people in the past with the villainous Harley Quinn (one of the few things in SUICIDE SQUAD that most people agreed was great) and the crime-dabbling trophy wife in WOLF OF WALL STREET. I, TONYA lets Robbie off the leash though and allows her shine on the screen in a performance that just might go down as the most memorable role of her entire career. Robbie injects honest-to-god humanity into Tonya Harding and gives her a sympathetic side, but also constantly reminds the audience that we shouldn’t necessarily feel completely sorry for her. There’s one interview monologue about being a constant victim that really resonated and seemed to have the entire theater audience questioning why we all rushed out to watch a movie about Tonya Harding in the first place.

TONYA’s supporting cast members aren’t slouching either, because it’s a toss-up as to which side performance is the best. They’re all great across the board. However, Allison Janney plays possibly the most despicable human being in the film as Tonya’s super abusive mother. The unapologetic way in which she verbally puts down and physically abuses her daughter is horrifying. Sebastian Stan shines as scumbag husband/ex-husband Jeff. Paul Walter Hauser elicits big laughs as a total idiot who has a huge role in the headline-making incident. Finally, Julianne Nicholson plays the only good person in the entire film as Tonya’s caring coach (who seems more like a mother figure than Tonya’s actual abusive mother).

I, TONYA’s non-linear narrative helps boost its darkly comedic angle as the film frequently cuts back to interviews with the characters (which in turn were based on real-life interviews with the actual subjects). Lots of laughs come from characters downplaying what actually happened or looking back on horrible events with casual indifference. The only film that I can think of that’s similar in structure to I, TONYA is Gus Van Sant’s underwhelming TO DIE FOR. Whereas that film was a bit of an unfocused mess, I, TONYA uses its unusual structure as a huge strength and cuts down any potential slow spots with its frequent jumps back-and-forth in time.

If someone had no idea who Tonya Harding was and what she’s infamous for, they might easily mistake the first half of I, TONYA as a sports biopic with a nasty edge. The film gives us plenty of interesting development on Tonya Harding’s life, her rise to fame, and her struggles on-and-off the ice. However, the film falters in an area that’s distracting enough to take viewers out of the flow for a few minutes. Every single skating scene tends to have a few effects that don’t look convincing, whether they be CGI spinning or Margot Robbie’s head clearly being placed on a stunt skater’s body. These moments aren’t frequent enough to ruin the experience, but they did look weird…to say the least.

Despite a handful of skating sequences that include iffy effects work, I, TONYA is a great film about a not-so-great person. Margot Robbie’s performance alone makes this movie worth seeking out and the rest of the cast deliver awesome acting as well. The story is compelling and its structure allows for lots of sick laughs, along with the more serious side of this idiotic crime story. If you are at all interested in Tonya Harding or in seeing just how phenomenal actors can be in a story that’s populated by irredeemable idiots, then I, TONYA should be right up your alley!

Grade: A

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of Violence, Action and Mayhem.

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Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

(based on the CAPTAIN AMERICA comics by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, Martin Freeman & Marisa Tomei

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the thirteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has hit varying degrees of quality throughout the years. While a couple of MCU installments have been disappointing, none of them have been downright bad and Captain America currently has the best entry with THE WINTER SOLDIER. CIVIL WAR is very much a CAPTAIN AMERICA film and never loses sight of that, but also happens to feature most of the Avengers and even introduces a few new faces into the mix. With all of these characters, lots of action, and a fast-paced narrative, CIVIL WAR is a hugely entertaining ride for superhero fans!

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Set a year after AGE OF ULTRON, we open with a handful of the Avengers botching a mission to wrestle a biological weapon away from havoc-wreaking terrorist Crossbones (Frank Grillo). In the chaos, some innocent civilians are accidentally killed. This disaster results in 117 countries coming together to establish the Sokovia Accords, which would give the United Nations control over the Avengers. While Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and other Avengers (Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany) see this as a bittersweet necessity, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the remaining Avengers (Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves at odds over the potentially unethical side to this political deal. When Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) re-emerges, the Avengers literally fight amongst themselves and Captain America discovers that other dangerous forces are also at work.

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Seeing as this cast of characters contains a whopping twelve superheroes and ten of those are returning faces, I’m only going to mention my personal points of interest so we’re not here all day. It was nice to see Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) receive better treatment here than they got in ULTRON, while Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) delivers a stand-out moment that generated thunderous applause from the audience in my theater. The already established rivalry between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers becomes even more heated and fists are thrown. CIVIL WAR does a fantastic job of forcing the viewer to understand the two differing points of views and sympathizing with both of them. There were multiple moments where I was emotionally confused as to who I was rooting for, because I loved these characters so much and didn’t want to see either of them get hurt (let alone by each other). You’ll probably have your loyalties tested and I was certainly switching sides during a couple of key scenes.

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CIVIL WAR also introduces two hotly anticipated superheroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these being: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). I didn’t know much about Black Panther walking into this movie, but enjoyed seeing this clawed hero in action during a handful of stand-out moments, including one very tense chase. As the third big-screen incarnation of Spider-Man, Tom Holland is far and away the best Peter Parker we’ve seen yet. Besides a great-looking suit and trademark webbing, Holland’s version of Spidey is armed with the perfect amount of quips and a smart-aleck sense of humor. Though he has a short amount of screen time (three scenes), Holland definitely stands out as one of CIVIL WAR’s biggest highlights and I’m very excited to see him  take center stage in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

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CIVIL WAR falters when it comes to the antagonists, because all three of them are undeveloped. William Hurt reprises his role as a bland government official who sees the Avengers as a potential threat and wants to exert some form of control over them. Frank Grillo shows up for a glorified cameo as Crossbones, which was a disappointment when you consider the character development he received in WINTER SOLDIER. I won’t say much about Daniel Bruhl’s character for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the film dishes out little details about him until one big exposition dump. While I liked his character’s motivation and plan, these were both revealed in a heavy-handed manner that opened up a few minor plot holes.

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One of CIVIL WAR’s most impressive qualities is that it never comes close to overstaying its welcome. This is the longest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and never feels like it. Packing twelve heroes into one script might signal a potential overcrowding problem, but that is far from the case here. Even brief side characters receive their time to shine. CIVIL WAR gives me faith that the Russo brothers will pull off INFINITY WAR with more skill than Joss Whedon utilized in the overlong and overcrowded ULTRON. My only other complaint with this third CAPTAIN AMERICA outing is evident in earlier scenes, which rely on quick editing and annoying shaky-cam that slightly obscure the action. These problems are quickly remedied during the second half, when the camera becomes steadier.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is my third favorite film of the thirteen established Marvel Cinematic Universe entries thus far (falling behind WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Early action scenes and underdeveloped antagonists keep the film from reaching perfection, but the sheer amount of hero on hero conflict and strong writing cement CIVIL WAR as another winner for both Marvel and Captain America. You probably already know if you’ll be seeing this film and it’s bound to be one of 2016’s biggest money-makers (if not the biggest). It’s great to see a summer blockbuster that relies on more than special effects and fan service. CIVIL WAR contains both of those, but they happen to be executed with smart storytelling and emotional weight behind them. In the end, that makes a world of difference.

Grade: A-

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence, Gunplay and Action throughout

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

(based on the CAPTAIN AMERICA comics by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson & Toby Jones

The first wave of the Marvel Cinematic Universe mainly consisted of origin stories to lay ground work for THE AVENGERS. Since the studio has gotten all of those background stories (that seemed to follow the same general formula) out-of-the-way, there’s a new creative freedom that’s come with the latest Marvel sequels. The writers seem to be allowed more room to take bigger risks. This ups the stakes to huge levels for each new superhero release in this long-running series (this is the ninth installment of the MCU canon). IRON MAN 3 easily surpassed its two predecessors. THOR: THE DARK WORLD was a giant step up from a film that was so-so to begin with. Now, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER reaches the levels of being the best stand-alone MCU superhero movie and second only to THE AVENGERS in this cinematic world. This film wisely plays out like a conspiracy thriller that just happens to have superheroes.

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Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) has been taking on mission after mission to help the good cause of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, he’s still struggling to adapt to the modern world, especially when his old love lays wasting away in a nursing home and all of his other friends are buried six feet deep. His latest mission to subdue armed pirates that took S.H.I.E.L.D. agents hostage is a success, but there’s something underhanded going on. A superhuman assassin, known only as Winter Soldier, is in Washington D.C. with an assignment to kill. As Captain America and Black Widow investigate, deadly secrets are unearthed. There’s something bigger going on than either of them anticipated and they simply don’t know who they can trust.

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That’s about as much as I can give in a vague outline, because the multiple twists and turns take the story in terrifically exciting (as well as sinister) directions. The script does a fantastic job of keeping the viewer off their guard and I was riveted throughout the entire film, especially as things went further down the rabbit hole into truly unexpected areas. There are plenty of daring ideas incorporated and nice call-backs to the original film. Unlike THOR: THE DARK WORLD or IRON MAN 3, you really need to have seen the first film (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER) to pick up on a lot of details interwoven into the complex story.

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As with most of the cast seen in THE AVENGERS, these actors and actresses truly have become their roles. Scarlett Johanssen is Black Widow and nobody will be able to replace her as the character. Chris Evans is, most definitely, the noble Captain America. It’s not always easy to love the boy-scout type of hero on a team of other more colorful superheroes (e.g. Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Hemsworth), but Evans sold me on this man being a courageous guy worth rooting for. Captain America has now become my favorite member of The Avengers. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, but I’ll be looking forward to seeing Captain America the most in the upcoming AVENGERS sequel. Other appearances from the previous entry include Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Sebastian Stan coming back in a big way, and Toby Jones (who was probably my favorite reincorporated character, you’ll know why when you see how they bring him back into this installment).

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A couple of newcomers make their way into THE WINTER SOLDIER as well. Anthony Mackie (PAIN & GAIN) appears a fellow veteran and a character who will hopefully be essential in AGE OF ULTRON. Mackie’s portrayal of Sam Wilson (a.k.a. Falcon) provides a best friend for Steve Rogers. Both Rogers and Wilson served in war, albeit different time periods, but have a chemistry as good friends who can confide in each other. Robert Redford plays the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I especially like his reasoning for joining the cast. He said that he “wanted to experience this new form of filmmaking that’s taken over where you have kind of cartoon characters brought to life through high technology.” That’s a good way of putting it, because THE WINTER SOLDIER is basically a terrific superhero cartoon translated to the big screen in live-action form and that’s not a knock against it in the slightest.

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The action scenes themselves (there are plenty) are beyond exciting to watch. The finale continually ramps up the tension with every given moment. It kept me (and the entire auditorium of viewers) literally on the edge of our seats in excitement. The effects look amazing. This is no surprise given the high-caliber quality we’ve come to expect from Marvel, but they are still extremely cool to behold. No scene feels wasted or pointless, the pacing keeps things at a brisk momentum. I was captivated from beginning to end, which is even more impressive given the films over-two-hour run time. My one nitpick comes in a bit of a gap that equips a certain character a very specific item (that could be seen as a plot hole by some), but that comes with the superhero movie territory (e.g. the gripe of how did Batman got back into Gotham in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES?).

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER stands tall as the second-best movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series and as the best standalone hero story featured in that line of films. For a ninth(!) entry in a long-running franchise, this shows just how phenomenal these superhero movies have gotten. Risks are taken. Stakes are raised to incredible heights. Surprises wait around every corner. Fight scenes will keep the viewer on edge. With one minor nitpick aside, I absolutely loved THE WINTER SOLDIER! It’s a summer blockbuster that’s arrived a month early. Definitely see this one on the big screen, especially if you love the Marvel superheroes!

Grade: A

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