And then bam … I Tonya soundtrack packs a punch

Every time I hear a Bad Company song in some random place I am surprised. I seem to forget about that band and how much I loved their music. And then bam, I hear one of their tracks, and I am flooded with emotion – not quite nostalgia because who would want to go back? – but memories of that time, when I didn’t know anything but thought I knew everything.

I wrote about I Tonya a few weeks ago, but I keep thinking about the soundtrack because it’s a cracker. It is full of tracks from the 1970s and early 1980s – before commercial radio was diced and sliced and when the music was either pop or rock – nothing else. So it’s not surprising that at least among my same-age-friends who have seen the film, one of the initial comments is “great soundtrack”.

From Bad Company’s Shooting Star to Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger and Dire Straits Romeo and Juliet, the songs selected both perfectly capture the cultural musical references of the movie’s time-setting, and give context to the story on screen. I am not sure what kind of deals are done around placement of songs on movie soundtracks – it’s probably fairly cutthroat – who even remembered Souixie and the Banshees did a version of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger?

Ultimately, the music does its job in supporting the audience’s engagement in the film’s story, moving them through the emotional pathway of the story’s arc – the first time Tonya achieves the triple-axle jump in competition (Foreigner’s Feels like the first time) or Romeo and Juliet (althought I am not sure Tony and Jeff’s love was quite star-crossed). In many ways you could imagine some of these songs being written just for the movie, so perfectly do they match up.


Anger and grief driving characters in Academy Award actress nominations

Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) is up against it for the Academy Award nominations for 2018 – Meryl Streep (The Post), Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Saoirse Ronan (Ladybird) and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri) are the other nominees. All are worthy nominees, and as they say, being nominated is the honour.

I have only seen I, Tonya and Three Billboards to date, and am struck by some similarities in the character depictions of the main female characters.

Poor white women doing low paid jobs with no chance of an education, suffering serious and ongoing domestic violence (isn’t it all serious?).  Their lives are affected by poorly educated white men whose portrayed stupidity and delusions of grandeur just get in the women’s way, and there’s no path around these men whose power is greater. With dreadful consequences.

I, Tonya is the more successful movie of the two – despite the story being truly unbelievable. Developed as a script based on what might have occurred in real life (the opening intros are reliant on the Fargo-esque believe it if you can style) when Tonya Harding was at the top of the US ice-skating mountain, it hangs together far better than Three Billboards. McDormand carries that film with her portrayal of Mildred’s anger and grief, and we want her to get to where she needs to go – through the grief’s fire to acceptance. She almost makes it there by the end of the film, and that’s enough. But the supporting characters are somewhat sketchy, especially the female “ditzes”; and the Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) character is just too dumb for words. Has he really only survived so long due to the Sheriff’s patronage?

This lack of worldliness and the insular nature of poor-town US is the theme that stood out most for me in these two films. When the FBI agent is questioning Jason in Three Billboards, and trying to let him know some details about a suspect, without betraying operational information, Jason’s lack of knowledge of US foreign policy shines through. Similarly, Shawn in I,Tonya lives in an imaginary world that allows him to hatch a plot and roll it out – as mind-boggling as it is – under the radar. How did they think he would get away with any of it? Too many episodes of #nameyourcopshow. And yet, they do get away with it – with dreadful consequences for Nancy Kerrigan, the skater supposedly in Harding’s way to glory and a gold Olympic medal.

The real villain in I, Tonya is of course her mother, played stunningly by Alison Janney – all angles and sharp edges to match her tongue and even more cold anger, burning away inside. She reminds me of the buzzards that hang around in old Wiley-Coyote films, watching, waiting for the coyote to fail. But of course her machinations are what has put Tonya in this position in the first place, and if her mean-ness was anything like what is portrayed in the film, it’s no wonder that Tonya was desperate in her desire to prove them all wrong.

Injustice is the other obvious theme – Tonya asks a skating judge why the competition can’t just be about the skating; and the sense of injustice that Mildred feels when the crime against her daughter remains unsolved is what drives her rage, as well as her own guilt, whether justified or not.

(It’s interesting to compare wild-life officer Corey Lambert’s (Jeremy Renner) seeming sense of acceptance in Wind River, another US film about unsolved violence set in the context of crimes against First Nations women – many of whom are not accounted for in community records so the numbers of those crimes are under-reported.

What do the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ members look for in a best actress performance: an emotional response to the character? Consistency? Physicality? A sense of being inside the character’s head? Believability? Both of these actresses pull this off (although Margot Robbie clearly trained hard to ice-skate for I, Tonya).

And being up against Meryl Streep who’s in a film about press freedom – in the time of Trump – is going to be hard to beat. So I wouldn’t want to pick the winner. Why should we? They’re all brilliant.


Do the sins of the fathers revisit the sons?

The Place Beyond the Pines is a mesmerising film; a long, convoluted story of cross generational responsibility, corruption, the break down of moral codes, the value of an education and the connections it can offer, and the importance of both apology and absolution before things can move on.

Told in two parts over a 17 year period, the credibility of the story line is sometimes stretched.  But mostly, this saga of the impact of fathers’ behaviour on their children’s lives is moving and powerful.

Ryan Gosling plays a heavily tattooed, carny motor bike rider, Luke, a drifter and a grifter, who is surprised when he learns that he is the father of a one year old son, conceived a year earlier when the carnival had been in Schenectady (New York State).  Wanting to do the right thing by the baby’s mother, Romina (Eva Mendes) and possibly yearning for some kind of stability himself, the almost illiterate “Handsome Luke” decides to stay in town to get to know his son and to try to provide for him and his mother.

Gosling Mendes

But in the year gone by, Romina has taken up with Kofi, and she lives with the baby and her own mother in Kofi’s house.  Luke is not welcome, despite Romina’s feelings for him, and his best efforts fall short of his aim of providing a stable income that can buy things for the baby.

Luke comes across the greasiest of grease monkeys, Robin, played by Ben Mendelsohn.  They meet after Robin sees Luke riding his motorcycle at breakneck speed through the pine forest.  They race along together, reminiscent of the forest chase scenes in The Empire Strikes Back, with branches and leaves thwacking the cameras as they speed by.  But there are no special effects here.  Just full throttle speed, dare devil moves and a recklessness born from a tough-arsed attitude to life. Needless to say, Robin soon develops plans for Luke’s riding skills and those plans are on the wrong side of the law.

The subsequent story arc leads us to newby beat cop, Avery Cross, played by Bradley Cooper.  Handsome, clean, fit, Avery is injured in the line of duty and called a hero, then learns first hand how easily others’ corruption can trick you, catch you off guard, and reel you in.  Avery turns to his judge father for advice, for whom he has previously expressed some disdain.  Together they plot a way for Avery to take on the corruption head first, and he goes on to build a political career that leads in time all the way to the top.

The compare and contrast of the two story lines is simple – Avery has privilege and education versus Luke has poverty and homelessness, and all of the attendant social and emotional baggage in both stories is played out.  But when the two sons of these men meet up at school, the third act of the film (in itself a free-standing story) seems to be showing us just how the sins of the fathers and mothers are visited on their children, despite their best efforts for this not to be the case.

Avery’s son, AJ is a selfish, manipulative thug, who only knows how to have a good time.  Jason, the son of Luke, has grown up without knowledge of his father (although Kofi does a good Darth Vader impression – “I am your father” – and it’s true – he was there when Jason was born and has stayed with Romina, and had another child with her).  Regardless, Jason goes looking for answers about his father, and after learning the story, the denouement sees him swapping his pushbike for a new motorbike. Although he’s never been on one before, his natural, inherited talent sees him through.  He heads off beyond the pines.

The establishing shots of Schenectady’s town hall clock surrounded by pine forests place the story and are used several times.  The pines are shown surrounding the town, and bad things happen in that pine forest – it’s almost primordial, reminiscent of when “monsters” lived in the deep, dark woods.  Avery refuses to go deep into the forest with a colleague due to his fear of what might happen to him in there. And later on he again ends up in the forest, in danger.

On taking responsibility for his actions, though, he is able to escape, and to move on in his life, both in terms of his relationship with AJ, in which is he absent much of the time, and also in relation to the actions that affected Luke.  This seems to break the nexus, and allows Jason to move on, beyond the pines.

The acting is strong in this film, and it’s possible to believe in the characters and their motivations, despite the convoluted storyline. The women’s roles are minor – this is about boys and their dads, is blood thicker than water, what do we inherit and what do we learn, what makes a good dad, and ultimately, at what time do we take responsibility for our actions, accept the past, shake off its consequences, and move on to the next phase.  Avery tries to protect Jason, but is the apology he offers the key that unlocks Jason’s future? Will it be bright and shiny beyond the pines?

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