Film and Television

I, Tonya: ’90s Nostalgia-Fueled Docudrama

Turns out talent and hard work might not be enough to succeed in this faux-docudrama based on the life of former competitive figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya (2017). Written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie in the titular role. The film re-creates interviews with the principal characters involved in a controversial attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.

Gillespie is a veteran director with several films and television episodes under his belt, so it comes as no surprise I, Tonya is competently handled. Rogers is mainly known for writing romantic comedies, so this film is quite a departure from his usual repertoire. Like the directing, the writing is solid but the fact it’s based on actual interviews and recordings probably made it easier.

Tonya Maxene Harding (Margot Robbie) grew up in poverty in Portland, Oregon. Her overbearing mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), pressured her into ice skating at a young age, eventually taking her out of school to pursue a career in the sport. In 1991, she became the first woman to successfully execute two triple axels in a single competition. She married Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) as a teen and their relationship quickly became abusive. Meanwhile, Gillooly’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), appointed himself as her unofficial body guard.

Harding finished fourth in the 1992 Winter Olympics and went home to be a waitress, where Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) convinced her to begin training for the 1994 Winter Olympics. Gillooly, now her ex-husband, allegedly concocted a plan with Eckhardt to intimidate Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Eckhardt hired two hapless thugs to smash Kerrigan’s knee. The event became a media sensation, resulting in Harding being banned from competitive ice skating.

(more…)

The Disaster Artist: An Interesting Character Study

James Franco directs and stars in this character study of filmmaker Tommy Wiseau, based on the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (2014) by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. There’s a tendency for biopics like this to pack all the entertaining content into the first half and then they drag on and on, struggling to tell the rest of the story. The Disaster Artist mostly avoids this pitfall.

The Disaster Artist (2017) traces the rise of mysterious and eccentric actor and filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and his tumultuous friendship with the much younger Greg Sestero. Wiseau and Greg meet in an acting class, where Greg is drawn to Wiseau’s fearlessness and determination.

The two decide to move to Los Angeles and pursue acting careers. While Greg is able to land a few bit roles, people are turned off by Wiseau’s strange behavior, accent, and overconfidence. Frustrated by lack of forward momentum, Wiseau decides to write, produce, and direct his own film starring Greg and himself.

The project begins with promise, but things quickly go south as it becomes apparent Wiseau has more confidence than skill or experience. He continually references Hollywood to justify his bizarre behavior (“we’re making real Hollywood movie!”) and refers back to other directors’ outrageous behavior to excuse his own. Ironically, what he produces is so bad it goes down in history as one of the worst films ever made.

I never watched The Room (2003), and I don’t understand people’s fascination with bad movies or why they become cult classics. I guess it’s a way to live vicariously or somehow feel attached to something unique, similar to why reality TV is so popular.

(more…)

Tinker’s Shadow is now available!

My first documentary, Tinker’s Shadow: The Hidden History of Tinker Swiss Cottage, is now available on Amazon Video Direct! Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum and Gardens in Rockford, Illinois has long been rumored to be haunted, but what do its ghosts teach us about the past?

Join host Amelia Cotter as she takes you inside and reveals the hidden history of this beautiful museum. This 60-minute film features interviews with museum staff, visitors, volunteers, and researchers. It is a fun and unique way to learn about Rockford’s past.

It’s available in HD to rent for $2.99, buy for $9.99, or watch free with ads. Click on the Amazon button below to watch:

My Friend Dahmer: Am I Missing the Point?

Based on a graphic novel of the same name by Derf (John) Backderf, My Friend Dahmer (2017) traces infamous Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school years, as chronicled by a former friend. Written and directed by Marc Meyers, this moody and hauntingly subtle film won best picture at Austin Fantastic Fest. Despite competent performances by its cast, My Friend Dahmer fails to leave a lasting impression. It lacked an over-all plot, and the poorly-mixed sound was barely audible.

Jeffrey Dahmer committed his first murder three weeks after graduating high school. As a teen, he coped with his parents’ failing marriage with alcohol abuse and acting out at school, and developed a fascination with death. He went on to kill sixteen people, preying mostly on young gay men in Milwaukee. He dismembered and ate some of his victims. He was finally caught in 1991, and a fellow inmate murdered him three years later.

Out of what I assume is a strict adherence to the source material, the film never goes below the surface or attempts to explain why Dahmer became a monster or what could have been done to stop him. It subtly hints at his aberrant sexuality without confronting it. What remains is a stark depiction of events without drama, tension, or conflict.

Ross Lynch gives an admirable performance as the wannabe serial killer (although the movie doesn’t give him much to do). This is certainly a departure from his other roles in Disney films and TV shows like Austin & Ally (2011-2016). His brooding, deadpan performance couldn’t contrast more with his usual upbeat, teen heartthrob characters. Such a dramatic acting range bodes well for his future career in film, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in more dramatic roles.

(more…)

Novitiate: An Intimate Portrayal of Cloistered Nuns During Vatican II

A young woman feels called to become a Catholic nun during the tumultuous period of Vatican II in Novitiate (2017). Written and directed by Margaret Betts, Novitiate is an intimate portrayal of the personal struggle and sacrifices these women made to pursue a religious calling, while others felt abandoned by the institution that gave their lives meaning. This was Margaret Betts’ first feature film, and is a genuine and heartfelt effort with outstanding performances by its cast.

The film opens in 1954. Though non-religious, Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson) takes her young daughter Cathleen to church. Her marriage is falling apart and her abusive husband leaves. Later, religious sisters visit their home and offer Cathleen a scholarship to attend a newly-opened Catholic school, where she feels the presence of God. At 17, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) believes she has been called to become a nun and enters a convent as a postulant, over her mother’s objections.

At the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose, Cathleen befriends her fellow postulants, Sissy (Maddie Hasson), Emily (Liana Liberato), Evelyn (Morgan Saylor), and others, and meets Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a stern headmistress. As the girls progress towards becoming novitiates, Reverend Mother becomes alarmed with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. She believes the changes will destroy their way of life, and tries to resist them despite warnings from Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare).

Things get complicated when Cathleen feels an awakening sexuality, to which she responds by starving herself. This drives her into the arms of a newcomer, Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan). Also starved for physical affection, the two share a forbidden moment of tenderness. Meanwhile, Reverend Mother grows despondent as she is powerless to stop Vatican II from liberalizing their religious order, undermining her authority and resulting in a mass exodus of nuns.

(more…)

Worst Academy Awards in History

To no one’s surprise, most Americans decided not to watch a bunch of pampered, virtue-signaling millionaires pat themselves on the back at this year’s Academy Awards. With an average of 26.5 million viewers, it was the least-watched Oscars in history, down 19 percent from last year.

The raw numbers don’t even tell the whole story. 26.5 million viewers today are a lot smaller percentage of the population than forty years ago. In 1970, 43.4 percent of U.S. households tuned in. Forty-three percent!

What do you expect when literally hundreds of people in Hollywood knew about Harvey Weinstein’s outrageous behavior for decades, did nothing about it, or worse, helped to cover it up. Then they have the audacity to get up on stage for four grueling hours and lecture all of us about how we need to be more virtuous? Give me a break!

I’ve read plenty of excuses about how declining interest in the Academy Awards parallels declining interest in award shows or live events generally. That may be true, but do you really think an Oscars focused on entertainment, popular movies, and which was a reasonable length wouldn’t have pulled in a lot more views?

I guess I can only speak for myself, but I love movies and I’m staying away from the theater because it’s overpriced, the movies are crappy, and I’m constantly annoyed by having social and political messages shoved in my face in every film. So I have even less desire to watch an awards show in which everyone congratulates themselves over that sorry mess, and I think a lot of folks would agree.

Jessabelle: Mediocrity Lurks in the Bayou

A woman torments her wheelchair-bound daughter from beyond the grave with VHS tapes in this voodoo-themed supernatural thriller. Written by Robert Ben Garant and directed by Kevin Greutert, Jessabelle (2014) keeps you guessing until the end, but an engaging mystery and attractive lead isn’t enough to save this mediocre horror film from Blumhouse Productions.

Tragedy strikes pregnant Jessabelle “Jessie” Laurent (Sarah Snook) when her fiancé Mark is killed in a car accident, which also causes her to miscarry and become paralyzed from the waist down. Now wheelchair-bound, she returns home to Louisiana to live with her father, Leon (David Andrews). For some reason Leon has kept her mother, Kate’s (Joelle Carter) old bedroom sealed and reopens it for Jessie. Neither Jessie nor their housekeeper seem to think this is odd.

Jessie, who believes her mother died of a brain tumor, discovers tapes her mother recorded as a message for her eighteenth birthday. This instigates several disturbing encounters with a dark-haired phantom (Amber Stevens West). Leon tries to destroy the tapes but ends up burning to death. At his funeral, Jessie reunites with her childhood sweetheart, Preston Sanders (Mark Webber).

Together, Jessie and Preston investigate the strange events and their connection to a local voodoo church. They discover a baby’s skeleton buried in the bayou with the same name and birth date as Jessie. The local sheriff (Chris Ellis) discovers the child’s origin too late to save Jessie, who is attacked by the ghost of Kate and a voodoo priest named Moses (Vaughn Wilson). I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a crazy plot twist that might have been interesting if it was developed a bit more.

(more…)