This week on Fresh Films. The guys debate whether I, Tonya earns perfect 10s. Transcript below.
[“Every 1's a Winner”-Hot Chocolate]
David: Speaking of grandmas, let’s talk about Margot Robbie’s portrayal of a 15 year-old in I, Tonya.
Marco: Not since I had to watch 30-year-olds play high schoolers in High School Musical did I think there was a more realistic –
Elliot: Zac Efron was like 20.
David: Zac Efron was a young boy, he fit right in. He was just held back a few years, Marco.
Marco: OK, and now welcome to Fresh Films. We’re a film podcast devoted to reviewing films that are out in theaters right now in Evanston. I’m Marco Cartolano. And that’s Elliot Kronsberg.
Marco: And David Gordon.
David: Hello there. Today we’re talking about I, Tonya. So I, Tonya is about a figure skater named Tonya Harding played by Margot Robbie who struggles with an abusive boyfriend/husband, an abusive mother and abusive people in general who just fuck up her life, despite her having natural talent for skating. So what do you guys think of I, Tonya?
Elliot: I mean to start we have to acknowledge two things. One, up until very recently, no one cared about Tonya Harding anymore. She had done some boxing at some point. But after the whole “Olympic training” controversy, her celebrity drastically fell. So the fact that this film is getting us to talk about Tonya Harding again – I mean, I applaud the film. Second, this film made me feel for Tonya Harding. I felt sympathy for this girl who had a reputation for not being very nice at all.
David: Yeah, yeah and so without further ado, let’s talk about the movie itself. How about we start with the music because I know you have very strong opinions about the music in this film, Marco. So did you want to start us off?
Marco: In order to start off with the music I have to say that this is a film that is very inspired by the works of Martin Scorsese. Scorsese really popularized having a soundtrack filled with rock 'n' roll, popular music, that sort of thing. The thing I have an issue with in this film is that it takes that influence and decides to filter it through songs that are pretty obvious and pretty standard into the canon of classic rock staples. Like, you’ll hear “Spirit In the Sky”, you will hear “The Chain”, you’re going to hear “Romeo and Juliet” by The Dire Straits during a scene of a love story gone awry. It’s a very on-the-nose sort of soundtrack choice and I don’t know if it’s in isolation in it of itself or the fact that a lot of these songs are really tired at this point, but it was something that was a bit distracting for me.
David: I actually was not bothered by that at all. I thought that the music, though classic and recognizable added to the energy of the film and its pace. I could definitely see if you’ve seen this music used generically in so many films of the same type then you would get tired of it and it would draw you out.
Elliot: I mean, I kind of fall in the middle because I thought some of the music choices were a little too obvious or overused, but I really love a good pop song and when they put on that song, “Every 1's a Winner,” I was just like, “amazing.”
[“Every 1's a Winner”-Hot Chocolate]
Marco: Expanding on the music, my main issue with it is a pet peeve of mine that it’s indebted to the works of Martin Scorsese and sometimes for me, it kind of drowns in that influence. You’ll see conflicting narratives between Tonya Harding, her husband, her mom. There is moment where they break the fourth wall and address the audience in the middle of scenes. There’s wacky shenanigans with criminals and there’s this sense of a critique of America as shallow, as wanting to frame people as bad guys vs. good guys. That, while it has merit, it was sometimes really on-the-nose with Tonya Harding directly addressing the audience at certain points.
Elliot: I mean, even the marketing campaign said it was Goodfellas with ice skating, so we know they were going for this Martin Scorsese aesthetic. But I think it falls in line more with something Martin Scorsese also started but is not necessarily known for: a film about American indulgence. Something you can see in Wolf of Wall Street and recently you’ve seen it as it applies to blue collar situations. It’s usually sort of like a crime-comedy and it’s all about excess. There’s Logan Lucky over the summer about race car driving and wanting to steal more money than one could possibly spend in a lifetime and this film was about someone small trying to achieve a dream that was perhaps a little unrealistic. I mean, people do achieve it, but it’s all about this almost cringey, stereotypical American. A little white trash, a little flashy and rude.
Marco: I don’t have an issue so much with the parts themselves. I just have an issue with the fact that these parts are very associated with this type of story about America through the lens of overindulgent idiots. That has become kind of a shorthand for these types of movies.
Elliot: But that’s what we are.
David: I don’t know if overindulgence is exactly the right word to describe this film because it’s more about trying to make it in this harsh, harsh world of America. Make it as white trash and achieve impossible dreams. Like the big score in some films. And something interesting about this film is the high-energy, super-frenetic aspects of the narrative are kind of slowed down by cuts back to pseudo-documentary filmmaking, similar to what happens in The Big Short – the narrative is structured by a few interviews that we keep cutting back to. So what did you guys think about the structure? Do you think it makes the film flow together well or what? Do you think it caused the film to lose momentum? Because I really liked it.
Marco: There were scenes where you got the two different conflicting narratives of the abuse or when you saw how Allison Janney, who plays Tonya Harding’s mom’s perspective, that point of view really helps. But times when it seems very clever with breaking the fourth wall and such is when it might detract a bit. When it’s as hyper-aware of the fact that it’s a movie, that’s when it kind of irked me.
David: Okay, okay, when they break the fourth wall directly. Yeah, that’s very fair.
Elliot: I think it’s a recent thing that the moviegoing audiences and Hollywood have become obsessed with breaking the fourth wall. But we’ve been conditioned to both follow and appreciate the story told through flashbacks and pseudo-documentary reporting for decades. I personally didn’t have a problem with the structure. I was more taken out of it by the form. Specifically, the pseudo-documentary footage was shown in a 4:3 aspect ratio that was different from whatever the rest of the film was. It’s not a major flaw because it was so purposeful. I just didn’t particularly love it.
David: You think it took you out of the film or not really? Like what about it didn’t you like? Do you think it slowed down the narrative?
Elliot: I don’t know if it slowed down the narrative as much as just the aspect ratio change.
David: Very disjunctive.
Elliot: Yeah, it’s disjunctive and other films have been able to change aspect ratio in less disjunctive ways. I knew from the trailers that there would be this aspect ratio change. And it set these little interviews apart from the rest of the film. Perhaps it affected the pacing a little bit. But, this film is over two hours and it didn’t necessarily feel like two hours. So it didn’t do too much damage.
Marco: Well, I’ll move on now to some aspects that I actually liked more in the movie. So I’m going to talk about performances now. Margot Robbie is really great in the role of Tonya Harding. She has a rebelliousness and this white-trash pride almost that makes her both kind of detestable to a metropolitan perspective but also like really relatable as well.
David: I, too, find detestable characters very relatable.
[Clip from I, Tonya]
Marco: And Allison Janney, who has been getting a lot of awards buzz for her performance, was great. I think that she was a bit underutilized in certain ways but she was great as this abusive, horrible mother figure.
[Clip from I, Tonya]
Marco: Sebastian Stan also really effectively portrayed how a person who is abusive can also have aspects to his personality that would make a person still attracted to them and still want to be in a relationship with him, in spite of how horrible they treat you a lot of the time. I think that that aspect of the film, the abuse aspect, played out very respectfully and honestly with how these sorts of things tend to happen in real life.
Elliot: I just wanted to say, I don’t know why no one’s talking about him. But, Tonya Harding’s bodyguard was hilarious. It’s an actor I’ve never heard of before, Paul Walter Hauser, playing this guy, Shawn. He was just such a quirky character and when they showed the actual interview footage of him, from the FBI I think, the performance was so spot on. I don’t know how much it adheres to what he actually said, but the amount this guy invests in his own made-up little world, where he’s a secret agent and he’s the bodyguard and he’s got a whole spy network. It was just fascinating. I almost wanted to see more just about him. Like what’s going on with Shawn these days.
David: I too want a biopic about Shawn, Tonya Harding’s bodyguard and how he got to where he is today.
[Clip from I, Tonya]
David: So let’s move into final thoughts. So, Elliot.
Elliot: So, I, Tonya is an above-average black comedy biopic with great performances all around – highlights being, of course, Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding and Allison Janney as her mother. And, of course, Paul Hauser as Shawn the bodyguard. It’s very high energy and fun. I think the film suffers a little from repeating the successful aspects of previous films and its music choices are on-the-nose. Overall, it’s a pretty good movie. I would recommend it to a general audience. Especially if you were around when the whole Tonya Harding case occurred and you remember her, because I grew up not knowing about Tonya Harding, except from the scant information that was passed down from people remembering it. So, it probably had less of an effect on me as it would on my parents who would remember her performances and her skating.
David: Marco, what did you think of this film?
Marco: So this film, I think, is a part of a growing tradition of films that are black comedies about America and use very similar tropes with narratives and fourth-wall-breaking and music choices. I, Tonya is above average in that regard because it has great performances, it’s high energy and it speaks truth to abusive behavior. So I would recommend this to any sports fans interested in the Tonya Harding story and big fans of black comedy about America.
David: Cool, so touching briefly on the technical aspects, I didn’t have the same issues with the music as Marco and Elliot did. And in terms of cinematography and editing, I think they both complemented the frenetic pace of the film which also parallels the pace of the main character’s life and the performance supplements that really, really well. In terms of formal aspects, I didn’t find the aspect ratio changes to be distracting, I thought it was fine. But something interesting that might be personal to me for this film was I found it very emotionally resonant. Like I was very emotionally invested in this film, whereas normally I can view movies with more of like a detachment. However, this film doesn’t really do a whole lot that is new or unique. You can pull a lot of the things that this film does from very recent traditions. So you could pull the pseudo-documentary elements from something like The Big Short and you could pull the fast-paced unreliable narrators from Wolf of Wall Street or anything along those lines by Scorsese. So I would recommend this actually to everyone. Especially to those with an interest in the sport of figure skating specifically. Because this film, I think, does a decent job of portraying Tonya Harding as well as the life of a professional sportsperson and the struggles they have to go through with both family and media.
Marco: I’m Marco Cartolano.
David: And I’m David Gordon.
Elliot: And I’m Elliot Kronsberg.
David: This was Fresh Films.
Elliot: From NBN Audio you can find us online at northbynorthwestern.com under the audio section. We’re also on Apple Podcasts.
Marco: Thank you for listening. Bye.
[“Tonya Harding”-Sufjan Stevens]