I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!

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Jane (2017)

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I thought they were like us but nicer than us. I had no idea of the brutality they could show. The true story of Jane Goodall, the English woman who was secretary to biologist Louis Leakey and who went to live among chimpanzees in the Gombe of Tanzania, becoming an expert on the habitat in the world’s longest-running primatological study. I was the Geographic cover girl, she laughs, in a biographical work anchored in her narration and some contemporary interviews but brought to life by the archive footage shot by the man who became her husband, Baron Hugo van Lawick with a typically compelling score by Philip Glass. While she was studying chimp behaviour and learning how to rear their son from her subjects, she was finding that chimps could be as aggressive and war-like as humans and just how distressing the results could be. If you have read her work then you will be familiar with David Greybeard and the colour film of this magnificent animal will be truly heartwarming even if his bitter end is hard to bear. This also offers insights into Goodall’s background, the effect of separation from her husband and the difficulties in bringing up their boy Grub in the Gombe while van Lawick wanted to remain working in the Serengeti. Trips to raise money to keep the eventual research base going are treated with mordant humour. This is a wonderful piece of work with Brett Morgen’s assemblage of van Lawick’s 16mm films (thought lost until 2014) creating a painstaking record of the most important such study we have but also including much home movie footage which clearly demonstrate van Lawick’s growing infatuation with his other subject – Goodall herself. Adapted from Goodall’s books and notes by director Morgen, who also produced and edited this beautiful film. Utterly captivating.

I am a Camera (1955)

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I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.  In the 1950s the writer Christopher Isherwood visits his London club and discovers that he has arrived in the middle of a book launch by a woman called Sally Bowles and regales his friends with stories of their life together just before the Nazis ascend to power in 1930s Berlin. Chris (Laurence Harvey), an aspiring novelist from England and ‘confirmed bachelor’ meets vivacious cabaret entertainer Sally Bowles (Julie Harris) at a nightclub where she’s performing her act and an unusual friendship is born. She moves into his boarding house and their lives become inextricably intertwined as he struggles to write and she tries to make her way with men, a ‘future would-be film star’ as she tells the landlady (Lea Seidl). As Sally feeds her extravagant tastes, Chris goes along for the ride and they are financed by American Clive Mortimer (Ron Randell) until their pal, Fritz (Anton Diffring), encounters trouble after ingratiating himself with Natalia Landauer (Shelley Winters) the daughter of a wealthy department store owner and confesses he himself has been concealing his Judaism. Meanwhile the Nazis bully people on the streets prior to a popular election result … Adapted from the play by John Van Druten, itself based on Goodbye to Berlin, part of the memoirs of writer Christopher Isherwood, this story also served as the inspiration for the later acclaimed musical Cabaret which Bob Fosse turned into a garish and extraordinary fascist-baiting extravaganza. This adaptation by John Collier of Van Druten’s play is of an altogether more modest variety but is entertaining for all that – the charming Harvey (I’m prejudiced, I love him) and the winsomely over the top Harris are wonderful together in their drab bedsits as they try to make their lives fit their pretensions. The treatment got a lot of criticism at the time and you might even be vaguely shocked by what Sally does in the aftermath of her abortion which is characterised as a false pregnancy here. It still ran into censorship problems because there are no moral lessons. Isherwood himself didn’t like it at all and believed Harris to have been ‘mis-directed’ (she had won the Tony for the role on Broadway) but it was his life of course so he could say what he liked. (Me no Leica.) Watch for Patrick McGoohan as a Swedish Water Therapist! Directed by Henry Cornelius.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

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He was vulnerable and weak.  It was all I ever wanted and now I had no desire for it. In 1976 San Francisco, a precocious 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) embarks on an enthusiastic sexual odyssey, beginning with her mother’s (Kristen Wiig) current lover the handsome Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). He’s a feckless sort who enjoys their affair with a recklessness to match the girl’s while her distant mother and goofy younger sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) remain somewhat ignorant. The far from pretty Minnie has sex with whomever she chooses to sate her desires, including her BFF Kimmie (Madeleine Winters) who has a penchant for giving blowjobs to black men. When her mother finds her tape recorded diaries she goes underground with cool girl druggie Tabatha (Margarita Levieva) who presents her with a situation that’s too far out even for her and she goes home to face the music …  Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s somewhat autobiographical novel is full of problems, many of which are resolved through the sheer brio and bravery in Minnie’s voice.  Despite my misgivings – which lasted for, oh, maybe the first hour? More? This is ultimately an artistic success. My misgivings have to do with the depiction of a child having a full-on sexual affair with a man twice her age who happens to be her mother’s boyfriend (feel free to contribute your own Woody/Soon-Yi reference but at least we are spared the full-frontal genital photographs of her daughter that greeted Mia Farrow). When he takes her virginity we share the bloodletting but that’s the last suggestion of physical discomfort in the whole sordid tale – a rather unlikely outcome in this scenario. As her story (complete with effects, animations and voiceover) progresses it’s clear that she is the one in charge and finally the most mature person in this massively dysfunctional and promiscuous tribe, documenting her experiences through her chosen artform of cartooning and tape recordings – which out her to her betrayed mother. Gifting this intelligent girl with so much agency is an achievement in itself and perhaps in the context of the times it’s a safer move than it would be in a contemporary story.  There is a point at which you surmise that all the hearts and flowers animations are there to distract from the horrors  – Minnie is so hot to trot she asks, Does everyone think about sex as much as I do? She’s a pederast’s wet dream. This is a film which isn’t afraid to confront the audience. When her stepfather Pascal (Christopher Meloni) returns for a visit with the girls there’s a flashback to a time when he asked their mother (it’s unclear as to who the younger daughter’s father might be) if she didn’t think Minnie’s intense need for physical contact wasn’t sexual.  It’s he who thinks something is awry in this screwed up shacked up situation. This is a comedy drama which never strays from its serious subject matter despite the graphic novel form in which it is presented, reminding us of Ghost World. Minnie’s artistic heroine Aline Kominsky appears in cartoon form and writes her a letter of encouragement. However it is a relentlessly adult story and a cautionary one about growing up much, much too soon in an out of control family where sex is permanently on the menu and the mother admits to her own teenage horniness. Their relationship  is clearly abnormal but the film sidesteps this problem by presenting Monroe not so much as the erotic devil but rather a harmless moron who takes what he can get when it’s presented to him. Minnie doesn’t care, she just wants sex. This is never less than disturbing but it is also a necessary corrective to the male patriarchal perspective about female experience. What’s the point of living if nobody loves you?

 

Ice Bound (2003) (TVM)

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In twelve months there is just one sunrise and one sunset. It’s the end of 1999 and Dr Jerri Nielsen (Susan Sarandon) moves to a new job – working at the Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole: she makes a poor impression on new colleagues when she expresses her shock at the number of people there – far more than she’d been warned. Then there’s the business of their nicknames. And being pushed to sort her recycling trash.  Winter is coming and all flights are cancelled – for eight months. Conditions can reach as low as 100 below zero.  Nielsen is herself responsible for the well-being of all the staff there and slowly comes to a kind of collegial relationship with others despite being pranked. She carries out a biopsy on herself and finds out via satellite link to doctors back home that she has an aggressive form of cancer and requires chemotherapy.   Risking death, rescuers heroically air-drop the necessary supplies to the station and, along with the help of fellow Polies, including close friends Big John Penny (Aidan Devine) and Claire ‘Fingers’ Furinski (Cynthia Mace), Nielsen begins her debilitating chemotherapy treatments… This true story is a resonant piece of work with a standout performance in the lead by Sarandon who narrates. As her condition develops, her uptight character thaws out, helped by her growing appreciation of the landscape – she never knew that there were three kinds of twilight.  Of course what she is really discovering is herself. Adapted by Peter Pruce and Maria Nation from Nielsen’s autobiography co-written with Maryanne Vollers, Ice Bound:  A Woman’s Survival at the South Pole. Distinguished by the use of Sarah McLachlan’s Angel on the soundtrack. Efficiently handled by Roger Spottiswoode even if the location shoot on Lake Ontario might betray a low-ish budget.

Molly’s Game (2017)

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The United States versus Molly Bloom. The true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) a beautiful, young, Olympic-class freestyle skier trained by her father (Kevin Costner) who had a terrible accident that stopped her in her tracks aged 22 and she turned to running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game for a decade in LA then NYC before being arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Her players included Hollywood royalty, sports stars, business titans and … the Russian mob which she didn’t know about but she’s indicted all the same. She’s broke, her money’s on the street, she has no friends. Her only ally is her criminal defence lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who learns there was much more to Molly than the tabloids led people to believe… This should be a screwball comedy but the stakes aren’t really high enough and most of the time Molly isn’t the protagonist, she’s more of a stooge to several men whose power she threatens.  Aaron Sorkin turns his own poker hand to directing with this adaptation of the well-publicised book by Bloom. What it has aside from a woman with daddy issues and an incredible brain are some insights into one vastly overrated charming pillow-lipped actor (I’m lying, obvs) who isn’t named here but everyone knows his poker habit and that he married the studio boss’ daughter (they’re now divorced, he’s not been onscreen for ages) and what he does to Molly is … what you’d expect. So this devolves into sexist power-playing and cheating. The difference between sport, playing poker, gambling and cheating is the axis on which the narrative rests, and those slim timings between winning and losing and trusting what you know rather than letting the other fellow game you with a duff hand. I’m agnostic about Chastain although as critic Tom Shone has it, she doesn’t care whether we like her. In real life, Bloom is a very interesting woman. Here, despite her smarts, it takes her psychologist/nemesis father to give her the dimestore truths about what’s screwed her up (and it’s very obvious, just not to her). It’s just a shame it takes 125 minutes to get the three-year diagnosis in the three minutes it actually takes. However it’s structurally relevant because she has undercut him as a kid by issuing her high school teacher’s critique of Freud in an attempt to undermine his profession over family dinner. There is a good supporting cast:  Michael Cera is the Movie Star, Chris O’Dowd is the Irish American schmuck who turns informer for the FBI, Brian d’Arcy James is the idiot loser who turns out to be something else entirely, Bill Camp is the serious player who loses everything. The voiceover narration (somewhat unreliable, given that it’s from an addict suppressing her memories) is both irritating and enlightening. The exchanges with Elba are problematic – as ever he has diction issues so he’s not as fluid as Chastain and you take cover for fear of his spittle reaching beyond the screen. However as long-winded and prolix as this is (and thank goodness there’s very little time spent in court and none walking/talking) it’s almost a relief to see a film that doesn’t require the female to have sex with the leading man, even if he’s permitted to win a verbal battle concerning The Crucible and she has to take a horrible beating courtesy of some very nasty Joisey mooks. What this probably needed is the conclusion that the real (literary) Molly Bloom has courtesy of James Joyce, referenced here several times: a final, stinging monologue that takes everyone down. But even Sorkin knows he can’t outplay the master and Molly has learned what she knew all along – trust nobody. The only problem is after 140 minutes it really doesn’t amount to a hill of poker chips.  Adapted by Sorkin from Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker.

Tea With Mussolini (1999)

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Writer/director Franco Zeffirelli is one of the storied Italian auteurs, whose personal life and origins serve as the inspiration for this screenplay by John Mortimer, an Italophile of long standing. It’s 1935. Little Luca (Charlie Lucas) is the motherless boy who is taken care of by a group of expat English women in Florence, known as the Scorpioni, led by Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) who is the secretary to the boy’s businessman father. He has no interest in the illegitimate fruit of his liaison with the late dressmaker and his wife makes the boy’s wife hell when she sees him. We are introduced to Arabella (Judi Dench) a keen artist but more effective at restoration who spends most of her days at the Uffizi;  Lady Hester, the obstinate widow of the British Consul (Maggie Smith); and wealthy American and serial bride Elsa Morgenthal (Cher) who returns to Italy after years away, keen to pay for Luca’s education and puts together a trust fund for his future:  she owes his mama a great deal. She’s a flamboyant art collector, despised by Hester. The Fascists destroy the daily afternoon tea that these ladies of a certain age enjoy but Lady Hester is convinced that Mussolini’s personal promises to her ensure their safety. Luca is sent to school in Austria by his father who no longer wishes him to be an English gentleman, but a German businessman. When he returns (in the form of Baird Wallace) in 1940 the ladies are rounded up as enemy aliens. Only Elsa and Lesbian archaeologist Georgie (Lily Tomlin) are spared due to America not entering the war yet. Elsa secretly helps Jews in the district and gets the ladies out of their prison-like conditions in San Gimignano and pays for their hotel accommodation – where she winds up with Georgie after Pearl Harbour and Americans are enemies now too. She hooks up with a lawyer who has her sign over everything to him to save her life – she thinks. Lady Hester’s grandson (Paul Chequer) cross-dresses as female to be spared getting shot by the fascists and lives with them until he can’t take it any more and joins the partisan gang of which Luca is now a part… There is a gracious ensemble of actresses here and the trick of the screenplay is to shift focus to each in turn while Luca is mostly an observer, growing up with difficulty as he sees Elsa with her lover and reacts with jealousy, leading to her being endangered. Baird Wallace doesn’t convincingly play the role but since his scenes are underwritten he probably does as well as he can. However, all ends well, with some amusing interaction with Nazis (believe it or not) when Arabella protects her beloved Uffizi from their bombs. When Lady Hester has to eat crow with Elsa, she does it in the most stylish way possible – saving her life. This may be Zeffirelli’s recollection, but it’s mostly fond vignettes with no real sense of the murderousness of the fascisti and their acolytes. It’s nice to see Dench returning to the scene of A Room With a View, and with husband Michael Williams in tow. Perfect entertainment for a day dripping with fog, frost curling at the windows.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016)

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What’s good about this? It’s not actually Potterworld. So, no ugly children (well… maybe a few, but briefly) and no long-drawn out battle between Good and Evil. Maybe…. Because this moneymaker is now the first of goodness knows how many sequels due to the gazillions it’s already earned within a week of release. And it’s good. It’s not really what you’d expect. It’s got a muted palette with occasional jolts of monochrome to indicate who might be bad (that’s you, Colin Farrell) amongst the hoi polloi thronging the machine age streets  which are being subjected to some serious beast-action chopping through the bricks and cement. Meanwhile Eddie Redmayne is Edwardian magizoologist Newt Scamander, arriving at Ellis Island with some cute platypus-like creature called a niffler who has a magpie-like yen for silver and disappears in a bank looking for coins where a wannabe baker Jacob (Dan Fogler) takes his case by mistake after being turned down for a loan. Scamander is the future author of the eponymous book, which is found by Harry Potter, in other words he’s a former student at Hogwarts. He didn’t fight in WW1 – too busy fighting dragons, as it happens. NYC is on lockdown against magic and in denial about it so it’s not really a good time to arrive. Witches are on the menu and wicked foster mother Samantha Morton has her charges out campaigning against the subculture of which her eldest Credence (Ezra Miller doing Buster Keaton) is a part, which is very  unfortunate for her. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) wants to haul Newt in to the Magical Congress for importing his funny little creatures to the country but he needs to return one of them to the desert –  which he magicks with a Mary Poppins-like flourish out of the suitcase which has been retrieved: problem is now there’s a Muggler baker in on the secret only here he’s called a No-Maj.  There’s a race against time, as we are warned by the clock at the Congress which tells us of an impending doom-like scenario. There’s an extremely funny sequence at Central Park Zoo which you have to see to  believe but it involves a mating situation. And there’s a sidebar romance between Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) who likes this chubster.  And a scummy nightclub scene rather like one we know from Star Wars. And there’s the big issue: a certain angry teenager who might just … explode, as PO’d adolescents are wont. A politician suffers the consequences of his rage. And Graves (Farrell) wants to find him….  and Newt. This is an enjoyable wallow in nostalgia but instead of seeing those huge offices worked by people in Vidor’s pre-Depression classic The Crowd we have darkened rooms filled with typewriters which are … typing automatically! It’s a vision for those of us amused by gadgets and tricky machines, a steampunked 1926 filled with huge department stores and smog where women wear trousers and men are either brave eccentrics or weapons of the state. More than that, beneath the vision is a message about persecuted minorities and cults and the measures they take – not very nice betimes – to secure their own existence. Including white-out chambers where people are being lobotomised, or its nearest equivalent (‘obliviated’ as they call it here). So much for human rights under self-appointed dictators, eh? And this underground lot are led by a black woman, Carmen Ejogo. Will she turn out to be Fidelia Castro?! If I have any problems here it might be to do with casting – there’s enough money floating around this world so can someone please give Eddie Redmayne (wearing Benedict’s Sherlock coat or something very like it) assistance with his diction?  He could at least enunciate correctly now that he’s not confined to a wheelchair or concealing his male parts. I can’t decide whether he’s adequate to the task, really good in an underwritten part or just plain wrong. The relationship with beady-eyed Waterston is barely worked out:  in a way you don’t care because she’s not right either. But you should . This efficiently-tooled behemoth of parallel realities comes from the mythical Potter universe ie producer David Heyman and director David Yates. It’s oddly like Ghostbusters, but … different. And there are enough plot threads to function as a preview of several coming attractions.  The screenplay was conjured by the godhead herself, JK Rowling:  is there nothing she can’t do?

The Gambler (1974)

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Comparisons may be odious – but this suffered somewhat in comparison with Robert Altman’s California Split, released just a couple of months earlier. James Caan was certainly a hot ticket at the time following The Godfather (and TVM Brian’s Song) and this semi-autobiographical story by James Toback about a college professor in thrall to his gambling addiction is rich in allusion and emotion, since it is vaguely adapted from Dostoevsky’s eponymous novella.(The Great Sinner, 1949, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, comes from the same source.) A fantastic supporting cast of Lauren Hutton and Paul Sorvino enhance this modern morality tale, which is directed by Karel Reisz and edited by future director Roger Spottiswoode. Toback went on to become a director himself. Look sharp for Antonio Fargas and James Woods down the ensemble. Caan was really terribly good in the role and one can only regret that he wasn’t always making the best choices for his particular onscreen qualities:  this was originally intended for Toback’s friend Robert de Niro but Reisz didn’t want him. This was remade with Mark Wahlberg a few years ago. Watch this instead.