Even lesser Aardman is still worth watching. “Early Man” is decidedly lesser Aardman than the sublime “Wallace and Gromit” series and “Shaun the Sheep,” but that still makes it a pleasant little treat.
The “early men” are Stone Age denizens Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his friends, led by the Chief (Timothy Spall), who appears to be quite elderly, but that’s by Stone Age standards. He’s in his 30’s. These people are extremely primitive. They live in caves and their most advanced technology is Flintstones-style use of animals (beetles as hair clippers, tiny crocodiles as clothespins for what barely, and I mean that literally, qualify as clothes). They are not quite sure what it means to be human, and I mean that literally as well. One “member” of their group is a boulder they refer to as “Mr. Rock.” They barely qualify as hunter/gatherers. While they go out with spears every day to try to get rabbits to eat, they are not very good at communicating with each other, or aiming, or hitting anything they aim at.
And then one day their idyllic little territory is invaded by a group riding armor-clad mammoths. It is the Bronze Age and they want to take over the area for mining. Ultimately, it will come down to an unusual but rather progressive way for solving border disputes: a soccer game (which they call football). On one side, champions who are highly skilled professionals with lots of experience but are arrogant prima donnas. On the other side, a bunch of people who have not yet invented the wheel and have never played before. But they have two advantages: a gifted Bronze Age player who has never been allowed on the field because she is a woman (now you know why we call sexism prehistoric), and, just possibly, the ability to work together as a team.
I am a devoted Anglophile, but got the strong sense that some of the references went past me and are only understandable to true insiders, especially those who follow soccer, I mean football. Some of Aardman’s quirky whimsy flickers in now and then. The opening title cards tell us when and where we are: “The Neo-Pleistocene Era”/“near Manchester”/“around lunchtime”). The message bird played by “The Trip’s” Rob Brydon is very funny, too, and the tactile, bug-eyed goofiness of the Aardman characters is always endearing.
Parents should know that there is some comic peril and violence and threatened more serious violence as well as some schoolyard language and potty humor.
Family discussion: Why did the Bronze Age community develop when the Stone Age did not? Will the Stone Age people try to get some of the advantages of the Bronze Age? Why did learning about the past make them doubt themselves?
If you like this, try: “The Crudes” and the “Wallace and Gromit” and “Shaun the Sheep” series
In one of “I, Tonya’s” most striking scenes, Margo Robbie as figure skating star Tonya Harding looks at herself in the mirror after applying her make-up for a competition. It is stark, garish, clown-like, and scary, less like beauty than like warpaint. Harding is trying to hide the heartbreak of her life when she is on the one place where everything is pretty and perfect, but in trying to make herself look pretty and perfect she has created a monster. That scene exemplifies the movie’s themes about public and private personas and the way they can crash into each other with terrible destructive force.
In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan, one of Harding’s rivals, was attacked by a Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), who had been hired by two of history’s most incompetent criminals, Harding’s estranged husband, Jeff Gilhooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dimwitted friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Though Harding was not involved or even aware of this plan, news reports of the era emphasized the contrast between ice princess Kerrigan, and blue-collar Harding. In reality, Kerrigan was also from a modest background, but her appearance and routines were more elegant and graceful, while Harding adopted a bad girl persona, calling herself the “Charles Barkley of figure skating.” The problem is that figure skating is not just about skill and technique. It is about the show, and it is about the persona. Judges and fans expect more than athletic achievement.
They expect elegance and grace on and off the rink. They want the ice princess.
Allison Janney is incendiary as Harding’s abusive mother, constantly pushing her and demeaning her, often hitting her, too. With no affection or approval at home, she was drawn to Gilhooly, the first male to pay any attention to her, and when he became abusive, that seemed normal, too.
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Stepmom,” “Love the Coopers”), promise us at the beginning a story “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews,” and they deliver. Like “The Disaster Artist,” this film takes us behind the scenes of a real-life catastrophe based on dreams of stardom, hopeless miscalculation about their own abilities, and a distorted, media-fueled idea of reality. We may watch expecting to laugh and feel superior, but the prismatic approach, with characters speaking to us to explain their perspectives (or try to put the blame on each other) is surprisingly sympathetic, grounded, and insightful.
Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking, drugs, smoking, and violence, including domestic abuse.
Family discussion: Who was responsible for attacking Nancy Kerrigan? Why does the movie call itself “irony-free?” Do you agree that Americans “want someone to hate?”
If you like this, try: “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” and “Tonya Harding: Anything to Win”
“You’ve come a long way, baby!” was the 1970’s slogan for a cigarette for women. Virginia Slims were marketed as a badge of liberation and sophistication. They had a woman’s slightly naughty-sounding name and a word with a lot of appeal to female consumers (and a suggestion that they would aid in keeping weight down). They had a kicky advertising campaign. And they were the only commercial product willing to sponsor the brand new Women’s Tennis Association, founded by tennis champion Billie Jean King to protest the pay differential in professional tennis, with women making a fraction of the prize money awarded to the men. When they raised the issue, they were told that women’s tennis was not as interesting (even though they sold as many or more tickets at the same price as the tickets to see the men play) and because the men had families to support. It may now seem absurd, or at least off-brand to have a women’s athletic competition sponsored by a cigarette, but probably no more absurd than the argument that “the men’s tennis is more exciting to watch; it’s biology.”
One-time men’s tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a bit of a sexist and more than a bit of a showman, and much more than a bit of a gambler. And so he bragged that even in his 50’s he could beat the top-ranked women’s player. Margaret Court accepted the challenge, and he triumphed in a humiliating defeat. And so, Billie Jean King agreed to play him in something between a sporting event and a three ring circus, complete with marching band, scantily dressed cheerleaders in Sugar Daddy outfits, and the ceremonial presentation by King to Riggs of an actual pig.
So, not your usual night on ESPN, which, of course, had not been invented yet. This was front-page news in the midst of the fight for what people were still calling “women’s liberation.” This was consciousness raising whether you liked it or not.
It is especially suitable that this film was directed by a female/male team: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”). They found the human story, the vulnerability, the drive, the fear, the resolve behind the hoopla and hyperbole, and they have made a film about real people that is moving and, even though we know the outcome of the game, suspenseful.
Bobby Riggs would have been a public feminist if he could make a dollar at it. (A dollar, by the way, is what the original players in King’s Women’s Tennis Association were paid to sign up.) He would cheerfully admit, except possibly to his wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue), that he was more of a showman and a huckster than an athlete. Billie Jean King was a determined, disciplined athlete at the forefront of the Gloria Steinem era of feminists. She was companionably married to Larry King (not the TV show host), but she was beginning to admit to herself that she was attracted to women. Her hairstylist, Marilyn (Andrea Reisborough), leans in and brushes her hand on Billie Jean’s cheek. The woman who never allowed herself any distractions has met a distraction she cannot ignore.
Faris and Dayton create the environment of the 70’s without any air quotes. The cinematography, the score, the deft use of Howard Cosell’s actual commentary during the match (at one point, he says approvingly that King moves like a man), evoke the era without exaggeration or snottiness. Every performance shines, including Sarah Silverman in the Eve Arden wry sidekick role. The film is generous to all of its characters, even the real and metaphorical pigs.
Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and an explicit situation with some nudity, issues of sexual orientation, some crude language, alcohol, cigarettes, sexism, and homophobia.
Family discussion: What is different today and what hasn’t changed? Why did Billie Jean King decide to play Bobby Riggs?
If you like this, try: Footage of the real King/Riggs game
Interview: American Wrestler’s William Fichtner and Ali Afshar
Posted on May 3, 2017 at 8:00 am
Tonight only! A special event from Fathom: “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” a stirring sports story based on real events. William Fichtner, who plays the coach, and Ali Afshar, who produced the film and plays a character in the film, spoke to me about why these stories are so important and meaningful.
What makes somebody a good wrestler?
AA: Fight, fight, fight and more fight. If you have that burning desire in you, if you’re just one of those guys that does not like losing and you fight and you fight and you fight, that’s what makes you a good wrestler.
I’ve always wondered about wrestling — you are so intensely involved with your opponent more really than any other sport. Are you able to really kind of feel what the opponent’s strategy is while you’re in the middle of it?
AA: Yes. When he is kicking you in the butt, has you in a headlock, his elbow in your face? Yes, you definitely feel it but yes, you are right, it’s very intense. Any sport that lasts six minutes, that’s it, you can just imagine how intense it is, only six minutes long. So, it’s a full on, we used to call it legal fighting, this is before MMA and all the stuff you see now. So for us it was literally like — you are young, you’ve got all this energy, you’re male, you just want to fight. So it was the way to get out all our aggression but learn lessons, learn strategies, kind of like in life. If you try something, if you try a move, if you take a single leg takedown and it doesn’t work, you don’t give up. You go for a double leg. You don’t give up, you go for a switch. You don’t give up, you do a fireman’s carry. I think that’s the story for life where life will knock you down, life will not accept your first try, you’re going to have to try and fight and try and fight again and again and again. You don’t give up; you will succeed. I think it’s very parallel with the stuff that you have to do in the real world.
What makes somebody a good coach?
WF: I think great teachers, which coaches are, are the ones that you hear. You know the best teacher that I ever had, the best acting coach that I ever had wasn’t the person I was trying to see in the studio, he had too long of a waiting list so I went to the fallback guy. But the best was the one that I heard when I was a kid, the one whose voice speaks to you, that you understand. It’s communication. If you have that, than anything is possible. And I think that’s true in just about every facet of life. So to me those are the ones that made the difference, those are the ones you never forgot. I wasn’t a math wiz when I was a kid but one of my security questions that we all have to do these days is, “Who’s your favorite teacher?” And I still remember my seventh grade math teacher, that is my security question and he was the one, he was the one that I heard his voice, I heard what he was telling me and he was a great guy so I think that makes a great coach.
I just talked to for the first time in 20 years, I spoke to him a few months ago because word got to me that he wasn’t feeling well and I reconnected and had a whole hour on the phone with him, it was great.
This movie is set in the past and yet with its focus on suspicion of immigrants it seems to be very relevant to what’s going on today.
I experienced it and even though it’s 30-40 years ago it’s still a lot of the same stuff today especially with all this immigration stuff and the ban and the wall and all this tough stuff that’s going on right now. It’s really like not much has changed in certain ways and people need to realize people are people regardless of where you’re from. Yes, there’s going to be government and politics that aren’t representative of everyone. So, we have to really take it by a person by person basis, we can’t just say, “hey, this guy looks like this,” or “he’s that religion” or “he wears this kind of clothes,” “your skin tone is this way.”
Clearly I still think that’s an issue. I don’t think; I know it’s an issue. They might not come out and say it much but it is still there, it’s still underlying, it’s still boils up there. Being from a country like Iran which unfortunately right now is like the worst country to be from in America, you still want to be an American. When you actually sit down and talk to people, you just realize people are people, you just make friendships. So, I think that acceptance and anti-prejudice is really what I’d love to have people feel when they watch this movie.
What advice did Mr. Fichtner give you about acting?
AA: He used this word “rhythm.” Do you still use it?
WF: Every day of my life, brother.
AA: He has a certain rhythm and he elevates the game just by who he is in his craft and his talent to what he brings to it. George Kosturos, our lead in this movie did a fantastic job. This is pretty much his first real big acting job and being under the wing of Bill, being under the wing of Jon Voight in certain scenes, working with myself — you’re present and you’re connected.
Mr. Fichtner, what was it that brought to that role?
WF: I was living in Prague at the time, two years ago and my wife was over there with my younger son, I came back like a week before spring break because I had a meeting and I came back here. I got a call from my manager. I read the script on this Tuesday had a conversation with Ali on a Wednesday traveled on a Thursday and started shooting on a Friday. It was not a story that I needed to read over and over to be talked into, that’s for sure. It only took one read. I knew Jon Voight was involved with it and I read it and I just absolutely loved it on a first read. I just trusted everything about it, just one of those, you go with your gut feeling. Two days later we were shooting in Petaluma,in his hometown on a very limited budget, on a 18 days schedule and it definitely was 5 pounds of bologna in a 2 pound bag but three weeks later the film was wrapped and here we are two years later.
And I’m so proud because a lot of times little films like this, they may not see the light of day. The folks at Warner Brothers really got the film, we do have a limited release and so on May 3rd we get a single day release in scattered theater throughout US. So, I can tell you one thing, I know I always said from the beginning please have it playing in a theater in Buffalo, New York, my hometown because I’m going to pack that theater and I’m hoping that some people see it because it could make a difference on the future like being in theaters after that depending on how we do on that day. But no matter what happens with the film, I love this movie as much as any film I could have ever worked on and I don’t say that lightly, I think it’s a very special story, I think it’s an incredible period piece.
I’ve seen a half of dozen screenings of it over the last year. I’ve taken friends and representatives to this film and I’ve yet to have anybody have a reaction that is different from anybody else. People walk out of this movie and go, “What an amazing story, what a timeless thing, what an important film for people to see right now.” It’s truly inspiring. I just love sitting back — I don’t say anything, I just let them all say it and I just say “Yes.” It’s kind of a great feeling. I think that was the intention and it does not fail to deliver.
Sports stories give us heroes whose determination and courage is constantly tested. The athletes who face those challenges — who live for those challenges — can help us understand and face our own. Vinny Pazienza was a great boxer, but what made him heroic was not his skill in the ring or his unprecedented wins in three different weight classes. It was his comeback from injuries he got in a deadly car crash, including a broken neck so severe that it was not clear whether he would ever walk again. He was given the choice between spinal fusion that would guarantee that he could walk but would prevent him from getting back in the ring, or six months in a Torquemada-style halo contraption literally screwed into his skull, where the slightest bump could paralyze him forever but, if everything went perfectly he might regain enough mobility to fight again, he chose the halo. He ended up resuming his training — against the advice of his doctors — and removing the halo after three months, then returning to boxing. Let me put it this way: knocked down worse by life than by any opponent in the ring, he was up by 9.
For his first film in more than ten years, writer/director Ben Younger (“Prime,” “Boiler Room”) tells the true story of one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Miles Teller, himself a survivor of a serious car accident, plays Pazienza, known as Vinnie Paz. We first see him sweating out the last few minutes before a weigh-in, swathed in plastic wrap, on a stationary bike, determined to make weight so he can still qualify as a lightweight. He just makes it, stripped down to a thong. That night, instead of getting some rest, he stays up most of the night playing blackjack and having sex. But the next day, he wins.
Vinnie loves his fights. After each one, he’s ready for the next. His mother listens from the next room, holding her rosary and lighting candles as his sister watches the fights on television. But his father (Ciaran Hinds) is literally in his corner, urging him on and arguing with his fight promoters. Vinnie switches to a new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), who has a sometime drinking problem but who has taken fighters all the way to the top. Kevin persuades him to stop trying to qualify for the junior welterweight class and put on some extra weight to fight as a junior middleweight. Things go pretty well until the car accident.
And that is how he learns who he is. Vinnie has never stopped for anything and nothing has stopped him. He worked hard at boxing, but never considered why or whether it mattered to him. Literally and metaphorically immobilized, he discovers that the combination of recklessness and determination gives him a way to get back in the ring.
Teller is one of the best young actors working today, and he makes Vinnie’s physicality real. His chemistry with Eckert gives what could be yet another boxing story hold our attention, even without the usual romance. Younger makes the family scenes of a rowdy middle class Italian vibrant — you can almost smell the oregano. And the story of resilience and redemption is always welcome, especially when it is as well told as it is here.
Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, brutal fight scenes, and graphic and disturbing images including a fatal car accident, surgery, and other medical procedures. Characters smoke and drink, including alcohol abuse.
Family discussion: Who helped Vinnie the most? Why did fighting matter so much to him?