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Movie Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya by writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I Love You, Stepmom) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Lars and the Real Girl) is a scathing indictment of American culture. Starring Margot Robbie (The Legend of Tarzan, Goodbye Christopher Robin) as U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding, the film satirizes today’s lynch mob-media culture, tracing it back to its surge in the nasty 1990s, climaxing in the year 1994, when Harding’s winter Olympics contest with teammate Nancy Kerrigan took the country by storm after Kerrigan was brutally downed in an attack.

Of course, 1994 was the year the butcher of Brentwood, O.J. Simpson, took the media by storm, too. One of the best and undersold aspects of I, Tonya is its ability to turn sarcasm and satire upon the audience, public and nation, morphing the movie into a proper reflection of this rotting America. Simpson is a perfect counterpoint to Harding in terms of measuring the injustice of trial by public opinion.

This is a fictionalized movie based on fact, not a documentary, and titles clearly mark the source material. But Gillespie, whose movies tend to take intense interest in the roots of human action, and writer Rogers, whose scripts tend to portray women as intellectually strong and rational, combine their talents with Robbie’s outstanding performance (she’s a producer here as well). The result is an entirely absorbing satire which trims its humor until what’s left is the raw, bitter truth about a victim who is prejudged as a caricature and sent down the media grinder. Bobby Cannavale plays a Hard Copy tabloid type who rightly observes that his tawdry show was disowned by mainstream media — before the media aped trash media and became just like it.

Indeed, trash — the exact term the media and skating subculture tagged to Harding — describes what became of American culture in the Nineties. Hard Copy and CBS hosting the Olympics leading the way, the New York Times and New Yorker now traffic in the same unsubstantiated smut, smearing and insinuation. As Harding, Robbie is simply amazing. She captures every bit of the young athlete’s harsh exterior and wounded interior, qualities which were always apparent and made Harding’s skating and melodramatic behavior so involving to the public. Robbie portrays every physical, mental and psychological development in the Pacific Northwest-based Tonya Harding story; the muscular, frizzy-haired, foul-mouthed skater with braces who tried too hard, ruthlessly schemed and competed and reeked of ordinary insecurities.

Harding also skated a triple axel, which I, Tonya doesn’t diminish. It lets this achievement sneak up and sit there, in front of you, over and over. Eventually, as various characters break the wall in first-person narratives after the facts, the audience realizes they’re laughing at the expense of someone’s ability or attempt to acquire knowledge and develop her ability, to the extent figure skating is and/or should be considered a sport (and one of the issues the movie raises is how Harding’s hard athleticism is subjugated to poise, frills and beauty).

If she’s always spouting lines such as “it’s not my fault”, and she is, her mother (Allison Janney, arch as ever in a butch bowl haircut) explains why. This woman is an example of the worst type of parent. She embodies horrible ideas — self-sacrifice as a virtue, man-hating via feminism, brute strength over rational thought — and she means it. Janney’s terrific as always, and it’s not her fault if critics and audiences find her characterization fundamentally funny. Watch her character from frame to frame for a portrayal of pure evil. Even her musical cue, Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman”, one of many on-target pop song choices in I, Tonya, warns the discriminating audience of what’s to come.

“Kiss yer muther goodbye,” Janney’s working class mother seethes to her daughter early in the picture in another clue about why she hovers over the child. How could Tonya Harding not be drawn to a wife-beater like the man she marries (Sebastian Stan, Captain America, Winter Soldier, Civil War, The Martian)? In scene after scene, Harding is tossed between the two like a punching bag between boxers, ending up as bruised, nasty and embittered as you’d expect. When she spits a vulgarity at a judge, you wonder how she’s kept the anger in check for so long.

But, on some level, with her coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson nailing every scene) as the most rational person in the movie, Tonya Harding loves to skate as sport. Despite the monstrosities of the irrational motivations instilled in her, and the delusions that burrow around her rise to fame and lead to the assault on Kerrigan, this much comes through, complete with end titles and scenes that let the audience decide for themselves what to make of the damaged athlete who did her best.

More than anything, I, Tonya casts doubt upon today’s Me, Too culture of prejudice, rash, snap judgments and high and mighty moralism. It makes you look at a 23-year-old skater based on facts, transcripts and performance. With a David Letterman Top Ten bit as bait, complete with Letterman’s own brand of vulgar humor at the expense of someone’s race, I, Tonya does so through the lens of your own tendency to fall for sarcasm, cynicism and lynch media-driven mobs.

Is what happens funny when it happens to you? Tellingly, the jaded, young audience I saw this with in hardened Hollywood went from tipsy sneers and snickers to tears during the show.

The movie doesn’t exonerate Tonya Harding and it doesn’t pretend to try. Instead, to the tune of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ version of “The Passenger” as an angry, weary cry against the status quo, I, Tonya depicts the byproduct of bloodlust in realistic terms. What’s left is a downtrodden woman cast out, putting on a mask, with too much rouge, a vulgar mouth and a harsh shade of lipstick. The skater branded a tough tart may have had a hand in doing something very wrong and she certainly accomplished something exceptionally good. I, Tonya shows what making fun of everything costs everyone, especially someone with skill and the desire to be the best.

 

Review: Dodger Stadium

I hadn’t been to Dodger Stadium for years when I decided to watch a baseball game during daytime like I did when I was a kid.

Having childhood memories of watching men play ball from the bleachers at Wrigley Field and with my best friend at Comiskey Park in Chicago, I first came to the home of the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers with high expectations long ago with my friend Randy, who now runs a baseball academy.

I was not disappointed. The place, which opened for business on April 10, 1962, had become less than ideal, however, under previous ownership. Though I live and work close to Dodger Stadium (and I’ve covered sports, including baseball, for newspapers), I hadn’t attended a Dodger game since before I created this blog.

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Dodger Stadium exterior Summer 2016. Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Seeing this summer’s games at Dodger Stadium brings back the joy of attending a baseball game. Los Angeles is the second largest city in America and LA’s Southern California ethos is distinctly American. But the challenge of modern living here is the same as anywhere in the deteriorating United States. Anything run by the government—hospitals, schools, roads—is a bureaucratic mess. This fact only makes a day at Dodger Stadium more of a marvel.

While I’m sorry to say that the ballpark was built after LA’s government demanded that Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley grant the deed to LA’s Wrigley Field in order to move the team to Los Angeles—and Los Angeles violated property rights, invoking eminent domain, to build it—Dodger Stadium remains an outstanding achievement.

Designed, engineered and constructed with tiered levels and entrances and convenient parking for each area, it’s easily accessible, so I choose to drive, park and walk. It is better to arrive early for a chance to explore the clubs, bars, grills, shops, playgrounds and picture spots. Nestled in the hills of northeast LA, Dodger Stadium affords sweeping views. A seat in the upper reserve section puts the Hollywood sign in plain view. Sights of LA’s skyline, hillsides, suburbs, palm trees and surrounding mountain ranges are all included in the price of admission and the sight lines of the playing field are fine. There really isn’t a bad view of the field, though the creep of sponsor signage is obstructive, especially in right field.

Buying tickets online is relatively painless and the admission process is simple. After a security check, show your smart phone ticket and parking pass or print them and follow the signs to your seat. After a safety announcement, ceremonial balls, pitches and the national anthem, and broadcaster Vin Scully’s context-setting pre-game clip, the Dodgers and opponents take the field. Before the game’s over, whenever that happens, visitors are treated to songs (Rodgers’ & Hammerstein’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma!, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), short promotions, occasional gifts and gambling, cheers, replays on ballpark monitors everywhere and the seventh inning stretch. Alcohol is served for a limited time during the game. Concession prices are inflated, of course, though guests can bring regular sized bottled water, snacks and backpacks. Making a video of the game violates team rules and fans can visit Dodgers.com for details and information on tours, etc. If you don’t want to eat Dodger Dogs ($6), healthy food pretty much means eating a salad (they’re good).

Dodger Stadium Summer 2016. Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are rightly focused on athletic improvement (and taking care of Corey Seaver after he was beaned in the right wrist during yesterday’s game against the Phillies) but, judging by my recent game attendance, the stadium meets the ownership’s goal of restoring a safe, family-friendly spectator sports experience. From upper decks to club, premium and box seating, Dodger Stadium offers a terrific game day of baseball. With driving and exclusive Uber deal options, as well as shuttle bus and bicycling accommodations, transportation is relatively accessible. Seats are comfortable, restrooms are spotless, ushers are helpful and everyone is excited to be there.

The reason: to cheer for men of ability to play this wonderful sport with its sense of being suspended in time—and to watch LA’s Major League baseball team play to win. This season, the Dodgers have been in and out of first place and, from group gatherings of co-workers and families to school field trip students, celebrity guests and honored war veterans, the range of spectators primarily come for the grace, thrill and playfulness of the game.

Big screens show player statistics, trivia games, kiss and tot camera shots, welcome historical clips of Dodgers’ numbers 55 (Orel Hershiser), 42 (Jackie Robinson) and six (Steve Garvey) and, of course, those sharp, pre-game roundups courtesy of reporter Vin Scully in his final broadcasting season. Dodgers’ pride shows, from attentive custodians and parking attendants to vendors, cashiers and on-site Los Angeles Policemen. They make the 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium, the nation’s first privately financed ballpark since Yankee Stadium in 1923, a relaxed, friendly and rational refuge from modern madness.

As with any great American city’s baseball team, Dodger fans make attending baseball at the stadium a unique experience. My favorite part of seeing the Dodgers compete at Dodger Stadium, besides getting seriously if temporarily away from the egalitarian rot wasting the world, is being among decent, hardworking and happy Southern Californians who cheer for the Dodgers to win. Baseball is still the great American sport. LA’s renewed Dodger Stadium is once again one of the best places to watch men play ball.


Related link

The History of Dodger Stadium (April 10, 1962)

The End of The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, who called himself The Greatest, is gone. He was 74 years old.

The Kentucky-born boxer who became a world champion told his story in 1977’s The Greatest co-starring Ali and Ernest Borgnine as his trainer. The film originated “The Greatest Love of All”, the egoistic anthem later made famous by the late Whitney Houston.

Ali’s life was exceptional for his arrogant expression of egoism rooted in superior athletic achievement. I think Ali’s life is likely to be distorted and misunderstood for many complicated reasons, stemming from the times in which he died, this season in which a con man, the fraud who is Donald Trump, claims to be the best and isn’t. Muhammad Ali, whatever else his flaws, claimed to be the best and, in fact, he was.

Ali’s pride in his own ability, not to mention his poetic and often profound musings, commentaries and thoughts, was larger than life.

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He was a poor boy in Louisville, Kentucky, encouraged by a policeman to channel his rage against injustice into training as a boxer, which he did. Soon, Ali, originally named for his father (who was named for an abolitionist) and known then as Cassius Clay, won the Gold Medal at Rome’s 1960 Summer Olympics, appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn and upset the world’s heavyweight champion. He was then mentored by Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the new name and seeking his own set of beliefs, a practice he never let go. He kept winning—Ali lost five bouts—and thinking for himself. He sometimes did so by race-baiting, bluster and dubious tactics.

He eventually left the Nation of Islam and mellowed his anti-white views and practiced his religion in private but not without first citing his personal beliefs as a conscientious objector to being drafted by the state into the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested, lost three years of prime competition due to persecution by the United States government and, long before Apple‘s Tim Cook, he fought a Democrat-controlled Department of Justice and later won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The damage to his career, however, had been done.

Yet Ali had influenced the nation, which turned against the Vietnam War, which was never declared and never won, and the military draft, which was abolished by President Nixon. By the time Muhammad Ali triumphed the last time as world champ, having defeated great boxers such as George Foreman and Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks, Ali had inspired Sylvester Stallone to make Rocky. Future athletes, such as Oscar De La Hoya, would invoke selfishness, too. According to Objectivist scholar Harry Binswanger in 100 Voices, Ayn Rand wanted Ali to play a role in an adaptation of her novel Atlas Shrugged.

If you think about it, it’s not difficult to see why. Amid today’s numerously preached and accepted contradictions and confusions, with scoreless sports games and entrenched egalitarianism, Muhammad Ali stood out as one—against the mob, the intellectuals and the state—proudly proclaiming his own excellence. He was arguably often tactless and vulgar, sometimes animated or even cartoonish and occasionally his means and ends were in legitimate dispute. But, in asserting with pride his own superior ability, Muhammad Ali was never wrong. Unlike today’s frauds, he dared his detractors to check the record. Ali earned his poetic and prideful proclamations.

It turns out that Ali, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, paid a high price for his fierce and determined, possibly overlong and overzealous, competition. But Muhammad Ali was right. He was, in fact, the greatest. As the song from his movie says, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”

This is fundamentally true. As the nation once in turmoil during Ali’s blustery, arrogant and triumphant youth goes into a violent new era ominously threatened by a blustery, vacant and bankrupt power-luster who would be president, Ali leaves a magnificent legacy which calls upon Americans to differentiate between the proud man whose pride is based in reality and the loud man whose bullying and boasting spews from raw, unchecked emotions.

Ali once said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Repeatedly, consistently, he did. This is what makes a man great. This—authentic self-esteem realized by human action—is what makes Muhammad Ali a great man.

Movie Review: Concussion

How the mind works, recalls and knows is the main theme of the alternately disturbing and stimulating Concussion starring Will Smith as the doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the deadly condition caused by playing football. Sony‘s movie, which tries to bundle too much into the story, is imperfect. But it absorbingly depicts one man’s singular quest for knowledge and judgments which arguably ought to end football.

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Concussion is anti-football strictly as facts allow. Smith’s Dr. Omalu, a pathologist in Pittsburgh, the industrial American city of champions in business, sports and medicine, eventually acknowledges what others regard as the beauty, grace and power of pigskin’s professional sport. But the film is about the effects of football, not an examination of what drives everyone to it.

The field play happens in game clips, conveying an essence of its brutal competition. But the characters play in Salvatore Totino’s gleaming photography, which captures Pittsburgh’s arenas, bridges, buildings, inclines and airplanes in the glory of glass and steel against green hills and gray skies.

Concussion‘s mind versus muscle clash in this ideal setting portrays a uniquely American contest—pitting the man who thinks against the man who refuses to think. Watching it is as gripping as watching a well done scoring drive.

In Will Smith’s characterization of coroner’s office neuropathologist Dr. Omalu, with fine supporting performances from Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks, Concussion delivers what one character rightly calls “an American hero” who at his core seeks to end the killing of an innocent man. He is practicably spiritual in an almost Greek sense, though he goes to church, hangs crosses and speaks of God. This self-made African doctor who earned both a master’s degree and a medical degree in addition to getting his MBA from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University is devoted to his chosen profession and reverential about practicing medicine in (pre-ObamaCare) America, which he tells another immigrant is the only nation where one is free to be the best.

Concussion‘s prolonged set-up begins with a patient zero, Pittsburgh Steelers‘ center Mike Webster (David Morse) the first of many tortured, diseased football players who are doomed to die from complications related to CTE, most by suicide. This figures uncomfortably and prominently into the forensics-driven plot, which dips and curves like the roads in Pittsburgh’s hills. When Omalu’s mentor, Cyril Wecht (Brooks in another excellent turn), backs Omalu’s investigation with the line that he never leaves a lead alone, adding that “that’s why people hate me”, it is both a piece of advice and a warning. Idiosyncratic Dr. Wecht encourages idiosyncratic Dr. Omalu to find romance, which blooms when a nurse (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) appears at church.

The good doctor embarks on the noble inquiry, based on a proprietary theory with the blessing of the seasoned sponsor, followed by a first dance and a first kiss in the doctor’s steady and messy pursuit of happiness. As he does, of course, having persuaded the best medical minds in Pittsburgh and that’s saying something, he faces the obstacle that Americans both fixate on and have faith in: football. The object of worship’s receptacle: the cartel—or is it monopoly—known as the National Football League (NFL). What Concussion does not show is the NFL’s affiliation with the shady sports press and other various conflicts of interest, but at least Concussion shows fans’ mindless complicity in the widely held gladiator spectacle—or is it slaughter—with pictures of people cheering as men pulverize one another. I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious. I used to do that, too.

Dr. Omalu, making his way to realizing the American Dream and blissfully single-minded about CTE after getting published and corroborating his theory to the point of missing that the Dream is barely alive, personifies that medicine is a serious, fact-based business which requires supreme autonomy—and, by contrast and implication, that football is the opposite. Players are used and discarded in a meat grinder that treats men as flesh made only of muscle, to hell with their minds. Dr. Omalu pushes on, explaining that man, unlike other animals, has no shock absorbers and cannot withstand the “unremitting storm of sub-concussive blows” without serious risk of injury.

Mike Webster received an estimated 70,000 of those blows. He ended up with the misery that’s peculiar to CTE. He was dead by the age of 50.

Concussion demands to know why. With writer and director Peter Landesman overusing closeups of eyes, heads and faces, this movie, which is based on a magazine article, expresses that to know is to live. The script and performances ardently add up to a powerful scene with Dr. Omalu standing before the players association as if he’s in a church—the church of pro football—experiencing something like a resurgence of man’s spirit. Concussion insists upon treating men as men and naming the consequences of either seeing the living as pawns in a game or as individuals with the right to life. None of this is obvious in the picture, which is neatly scored by James Newton Howard.

I grew up watching and playing football for fun and I was once a fan. I once waited for hours to meet the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers and get their autographs—I did and I’m glad I did—and I met the late Mike Webster and the late Dave Duerson (who is somewhat vilified here) and others depicted in Concussion. When chronic traumatic encephalopathy became known, the fun ended and I am no longer able to enjoy the sport. This was true long before this thoughtful movie was released. Despite having too much plot, religion and Sony’s requisite out of place product placement, Concussion does more than dramatize an argument against football. It dramatizes how to hold knowledge of existence—expressly for the advancement of man’s life on earth—above all fetishized and romanticized notions of sport, city and country. It never leaves facts alone. It asks the same of the audience.

President Carter on the Kiss Camera

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President Carter

When he was first elected president in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, Jimmy Carter was seen as a reaction to the downfall of disgraced President Richard Nixon; while Nixon was repressive and cagey, Carter was open and transparent. He walked during his inauguration, he let his child Amy into important meetings, he indulged his mother Miss Lillian and his brother Billy and he’s the first U.S. president to have talked to Playboy.

The peanut farmer, former naval officer and Georgia governor was also America’s first born-again Christian president and he ineffectually presided over a downturn in the economy and an attack on America by Iran. President Carter (1977-1981) struggled to regain his relaxed, jovial popularity as an outsider to Washington. But he never recovered. He was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. He has since been relatively unwelcome in his own party, the Democrats, relegated again to being the outsider and writing books when he’s not denouncing Israel or making a short statement about a certain policy, controversy or issue. As a former U.S. president, Carter’s been irrelevant for a long time.

This makes his recent appearance at a baseball game one of his best moments. As many readers know, 90-year-old President Carter of Plains, Georgia, disclosed last month that cancer has spread into his brain and liver. He’s being treated with drugs and radiation therapy and I wish him well. In the face of this grim diagnosis, he did something especially American for which I think he deserves credit: he took his wife Rosalynn to a game of the most distinctly American sport, baseball, and, when the “kiss camera” or kiss cam came to him, he smiled that famous grin and kissed Mrs. Carter. The kiss (watch the video clip here) was a simple gesture, and, whether it was planned or not, in both his and today’s cultural contexts, it is wonderfully American.

A kiss in the midst of adversity is a potentially powerful act, as I wrote about here, and cancer patient Jimmy Carter’s choice to take his wife to the ballgame and be as jovial and accessible as possible—with such a cheerful display of passion for his wife—is an example of good leadership. While other former presidents with shameful records, such as George H.W. Bush, underscore the difference between themselves and the American people they once pledged to serve, President Carter’s act of love, in a uniquely American setting with a uniquely American display of immodesty, ought to remind Americans of one of his best qualities—Jimmy Carter’s sense that being an American president means being cognizant, not contemptuous, of what it truly means to be among the American people.