• I, Tonya



    Released by: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
    Released on: March 13, 2018
    Director: Craig Gillespie
    Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannivale, Allison Janney, and Paul Walter Hauser
    Year: 2017
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    The Movie:

    One of the weirdest, tawdriest, and ultimately saddest tales in the history of sports and media gets the inevitable film treatment as Craig Gillespie’s critically-hailed, Oscar-winning arthouse hit I, Tonya makes its debut on Blu-ray.

    As a kid growing up in the 1990’s with a modest awareness of what was going on in the world (thanks in no small part to a worship of Saturday Night Live), it was tough to avoid the strange saga of Olympic figure skating prospect Tonya Harding and the assault on her professional rival Nancy Kerrigan that chewed up and spit out many a desperate news cycle. I didn’t really care about figure skating or the Olympics, so I quickly grew annoyed by the countless bad jokes and comedy skits about the sordid affair. Eventually, the rest of humanity tired of it all and most of the key players in the tale receded even further into obscurity than they were in the first place - where they belong.

    Gillespie, the director of films such as Lars and the Real Girl and a well-received 2011 remake of Fright Night, and screenwriter Steven Rogers (Hope Floats) take an unconventional, non-linear approach in transforming Tonya Harding’s journey to become the world’s greatest ice skater into a savagely funny and tragic biopic. Using a Rashomon-like structure of exploring the story from the occasionally differing perspectives of the story’s main characters, Gillespie crafts a film that refuses to pass judgment on these people for the benefit of the audience, leaving us to process the information given and make our own decisions as to who is guilty and who isn’t. But even those who aren’t guilty can’t exactly be considered innocent; it’s a case that sucks in anyone who gets too close and makes shamelessly gawking spectators of the rest.

    Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street and Suicide Squad fame is positively revelatory as Harding, the ambitious athlete who emerged from a rough working-class upbringing ready to show the world what she was truly made of. Despite years of rigorous, devoted training under the tutelage of coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya’s dreams of gold medal glory were thwarted at every turn by elitist judges and officials afraid to make the ballsy, uncompromising Portland, Oregon native a representative of the U.S. at the Olympics. The hype-hungry hypocrites much preferred a wholesome all-American girl type with a loving family and an impregnable squeaky-clean image perfect for media exploitation.

    Tonya wasn’t pampered or showered with praise as a child. Her mother Lavona (Allison Janney in a performance unquestionably deserving of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) is a blunt, aloof person incapable of expressing affection for her child except in the form of verbal and physical abuse. Granted, it was Lavona who saw her daughter’s potential and desire to become a great figure skater and worked tirelessly to make those dreams come true, but she believed she owed Tonya no encouragement or support beyond that. She was more of a dispassionate drill sergeant than a loving parent. The relationship between Tonya and Lavona forms the emotional backbone of the film, and their shared arc concludes with a scene so painful it broke my heart – a testament to the power of Robbie and Janney’s deeply committed, superb performances and Gillespie’s strong direction of this pivotal encounter.

    The story gains steam once Tonya’s career begins to take off and she marries her high school sweetheart Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a seemingly harmless dork from a similar impoverished background who shows her actual love at home and support for her professional ambitions but is mostly as abusive to her as Lavona (sometimes more), except Tonya never shies from fighting him back. Their marriage is more of an ongoing brawl with the occasional break for making love. Tonya’s tireless dedication to becoming the best there is starts to get her noticed and it looks like she might have a real shot at going to the Olympics, but the perceived threat to her victory from the more marketable Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) results in this story flying complete off the rails into a miasma of violence, paranoia, and tabloid infamy not dissimilar from Gus Van Sant’s 1995 black comedy classic To Die For, except there isn’t a body count.

    What begins as a death threat made against Tonya mistakenly attributed to Kerrigan or one of her supporters escalates into what the interviewees will only refer to as “The Incident”. Jeff’s delusional friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) plays an unfortunately integral role in the Kerrigan assault for which those involved refuse to accept any real responsibility. This is one of those moments where you the viewer will simply have to decide for yourself what could pass for the truth. Personally, I couldn’t help but side with Tonya, who was at least smart enough to avoid risking her lifelong dream of skating fame by being connected with an attack on a fellow competitor whom she considered a friend.

    The interview segments, which were shot in the pillar-boxed 1.33:1 aspect ratio (as opposed to the rest of the film, which was shot in the anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen ratio), find some very tired and bitter people telling conflicting versions of what happened. In addition to Tonya, Jeff, Lavona, and Shawn, we’re also treated to bemused commentary from Diane and the self-congratulatory bile of hack Hard Copy producer Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannivale), who cheerfully admits to having Tonya’s pick-up truck towed just so he could get a shot of her coming out of her house. Kerrigan is more of a background player in the film, never getting any dialogue outside of her famous post-assault howl of “Why?”, and the actual assault is over and done with in a matter of seconds about midway through the film. What follows is bleak and extremely painful to watch. While Jeff and Shawn got off light with a little prison time, Tonya was banned from competitive figure skating for the rest of her life. Even if you don’t sympathize entirely with her, Robbie’s performance in the climatic courtroom scene will no doubt have you taking Tonya’s side as she stands helpless before the slow death of the dream she has followed since childhood.

    Robbie and Janney are the stars of the show and they deserved their raves and awards, but Stan also delivers a noteworthy performance as Gillooly, ably making his transitions from loving husband to terrifyingly abusive beast convincing and organic and is matched by fine work from Nicholson and more comedic turns from Hauser and Cannivale. Gillespie and Rogers juice their fact-based narrative with frequent fourth wall breaking and some welcome meta-commentary. They also juggle the various perspectives of the infamous events and give each its own semblance of truth even if actual truth is nowhere to be found.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    I, Tonya comes to Blu-ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment in a 1080p high-definition transfer encoded in MPEG-4 AVC video and presented in the film’s original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Picture quality is nearly flawless, with the image appearing crisp but never pristine. The color palette favored by director Gillespie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (Triple 9) uses muted, naturalistic light and dark browns to emphasize the drab surroundings of Tonya’s lower-middle class world, while saving the brightest blues, reds, and whites to bring true vitality to the ice skating sequences and provide a memorable visual contrast. Skin tones and details look authentic and the digitally-shot scenes boast a richness of detail in the location footage and downtrodden set design.

    The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a doozy, providing a spacious and audible recreation of the theatrical Dolby Atmos sound mix with special attention paid to the voluminous dialogue and ensuring that it doesn’t clash with or become overtaken by the wall-to-wall soundtrack of jukebox-friendly tunes and the soulful original score composed by Peter Nashel (Carriers). Sound effects also receive a highly effective spotlight here; you can hear the scraping of the skate blades against the ice with such clarity and depth you might feel like you have a front row seat to the event. English subtitles are provided.

    Bonus features kick off with an entertaining and informative audio commentary that finds director Gillespie ably flying solo and discussing I, Tonya’s long journey from concept to celluloid with welcome candor and little dead air. Five deleted scenes (17 minutes) can be viewed separately or as a single uninterrupted reel via the “Play All” option and may provide some nice additional moments with the main characters but were justifiably deleted.

    In the section titled “Behind the Scenes”, we have five featurettes exploring various aspects of the production. Before you get excited, just know that each one runs only a few minutes and are highly promotional in nature. Cast and crew interviews are reduced to soundbites, so don’t expect much pertinent info. This section also has a “Play All” option and the featurettes break down as follows: “All Sixes: The Perfect Performances of I, Tonya” (4 minutes); “Irony Free, Totally True: The Story Behind I, Tonya” (4 minutes); “Working with Craig Gillespie” (2 minutes); “The Visual Effects of I, Tonya” (4 minutes); and finally, “VFX: Anatomy of the Triple Axel” (2 minutes). The featurettes rarely get any more in-depth than their titles.

    Closing the extras are a teaser trailer (1 minute) and both green-band and red-band theatrical trailers (2 minutes each). Previews for Ingrid Goes West and Beach Rats play before the main menu screen loads. A DVD copy and digital download code have also been included.

    The Final Word:

    Scathingly funny, energetically directed, powerfully acted, and unexpectedly touching, I, Tonya is a terrific true-life comedy-drama brought to life by stand-out performances from Margot Robbie and Allison Janney and assured, empathetic direction from Craig Gillespie. The main feature is great enough, but the outstanding picture and sound quality and decent supplemental material make this Blu-ray/DVD combo set worthy of a recommendation.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!