Directed by Craig Gillespie who is best known for 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl and 2016’s The Finest Hours, I, Tonya is an incredibly entertaining dark comedy and compelling drama that is full of brilliant acting performances and shines as a result of its creative storytelling. The story revolves around the life of the infamous figure skater Tonya Harding, played by Australian actress Margot Robbie in her best performance, and her association with the brutal attack on fellow American ice skater Nancy Kerrigan. The filmmaker quite effectively reinforces the often ridiculous nature of the story by interspersing conventional film narrative with the mockumentary format by including interviews with the characters and the characters directly interacting with the audience. We first meet Tonya as a young girl forced to enter the world of competitive ice skating by her chain-smoking abusive mother LaVona, brilliantly played by Emmy Award winner Allison Janney. As Tonya progressively moves up the ranks of United States figure skating, her mother becomes increasingly vicious and does everything and anything to make sure she stays competitive at the expense of living a normal life. She eventually escapes her mother and moves in with her boyfriend and future husband Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan, who is more supportive but ultimately turns out to be a bad influence. Coming from a rough background filled with abuse and poverty, Tonya feels she is unfairly judged at the competitions despite her almost technically perfect performances. As a result of her frustrations, she finds herself in a whole heap of trouble with the FBI after it is discovered that Jeff’s best friend and her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt orders a pair of petty criminals to injure her fiercest competitor Nancy Kerrigan only a few weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Although it presents a rather tragic and complicated downfall of a truly talented athlete, the film brings a certain level of levity through the recreated contemporary interviews with the main characters who come off as either cruel, naive, or stupid. Furthermore, the preposterous circumstances and events portrayed make for some darkly hilarious moments, especially the actions of the dim-witted Shawn. Overall, I found it to be one of the most entertaining films of the year that paradoxically paints a sympathetic picture of the notorious Tonya Harding with the help of a stellar cast, particularly Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.
Based on the true story that inspired the Rocky films, Chuck is a boxing biopic about Chuck Wepner, the sports folk hero from the working-class town Bayonne, New Jersey and known as The Bayonne Bleeder, and his struggles in life following his fifteen minutes of fame, boxing Muhammad Ali. A small-time professional boxer who lives paycheck-to-paycheck as an alcohol salesman, Chuck, terrifically played by Liev Schreiber, gets a once-in-a-lifetime offer from the famous boxing promoter Don King to fight the reigning heavyweight world champion Muhammad Ali in 1975. In typical fashion for a boxing movie, the scenes preceding the much-hyped match follow his strict training regimen with encouragement from his manager and trainer played by Ron Perlman. Although he ultimately loses the fight, he is praised as a underdog hero after valiantly holding off Ali for fifteen rounds, which everyone thought impossible. Already a drunk and overall mess, he gets into further marital problems with his wife Phyllis, played by Elisabeth Moss, after his sudden rise to fame. His wife and kids eventually leave him, and he begins a relationship with the local bartender Linda, played by Naomi Watts. With the release of the hugely successful film Rocky in 1976, Chuck constantly brags about being the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone and even attempts to contact Stallone despite not receiving a penny from the movie. He finally gets to meet Sylvester Stallone, and he is offered a small role in Rocky II set to be released in 1979. His increasing minor celebrity status leads to more alcohol and a severe cocaine addiction, which further wreaks havoc in his already chaotic life as he is having trouble finding work. Overall, I thought it was a good, albeit a rather cookie-cutter boxing film whose redeeming qualities include the strong acting performance of Liev Schreiber and the fascinating and largely unheard of story about the man who inspired the great Rocky character.
Directed by the critically acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair, Queen of Katwe is an inspiring underdog story of a girl from the slums of Kampala, Uganda who becomes an unlikely international chess star. Selling corn on the streets of the poor neighborhood Katwe from a young age to help support her family and widowed mother, Phiona Mutesi feels her life is hopeless as an impoverished, uneducated young woman. Eventually, she sees a glimmer of hope after a local missionary named Robert Katande, played by the Golden Globe-nominated actor David Oyelowo, teaches her how to play chess. Interestingly, the film has a certain degree of realism by having Phiona impressively portrayed by Madina Nalwanga, an Ugandan actress in her first movie who also happens to be from the same slums as her character. The movie follows Phiona as she and her teammates compete in progressively harder chess tournaments against more privileged competitors throughout Uganda and eventually even in Russia. The film also effectively presents the more personal side of Phiona’s life. For instance, Katande becomes less of a coach and more of a father figure despite himself struggling to find a steady job to support his wife and infant daughter. Despite her successes on the chessboard, she must face the harsh realities of her life and be there for her single mother played by the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. Her mother fears Phiona will become jaded and used to a more comfortable life that may not continue after her chess career. Overall, I found the film to be one of the more inspiring stories of how a girl against all odds is able to overcome her extremely difficult life and excel at a game associated with the highly educated and privileged. It is also refreshing that Disney decided to make a mainstream movie defying the cinematic stereotypes of Africa: it is comprised of an all black cast and is set almost exclusively in the real neighborhoods of Uganda. There is no archetypal white savior who single-handedly saves the impoverished black child from a life of crime and misery.
Now 20 years old and considered one of the top chess players in the world, Phiona Mutesi originally had to drop out of school at the age of 9 due to a lack of money and following the death of her father from AIDS. In 2010, she returned to school and participated in her first major international tournament at the 39th Chess Olympiad held in Russia. By 2012, she was the Uganda junior girls champion three times and represented Uganda at the 40th Chess Olympiad where she became a Woman Candidate Master along with her fellow teammate, becoming the first females with titles in Ugandan chess history. She also became the first girl to win the open category in the National Junior Chess Championship in Uganda in 2012 and followed the next year as the overall champion. She was able to support her family after getting paid as the subject of a biography about her inspiring story written in 2012 by the Sports Illustrated journalist Tim Crothers entitled The Queen of Katwe, which is the basis for the film.