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!


The Furies (1950)

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I have no stomach for the way you live. It’s the 1870s. Widower T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) rules his sprawling New Mexico ranch with an iron fist, a born-again Napoleon who pays with his own currency, TC’s. But his authority doesn’t extend to his strong-willed daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), who both hates and loves her father with equal ferocity. He abandoned her mother for an inter-racial affair and she died at The Furies, her bedroom a mausoleum left precisely as she left it with Vance fiercely guarding it. Tensions rise when Vance falls for bad boy saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whom T.C. buys off. But the family conflict turns violent when T.C. decides to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) and evict Vance’s childhood friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) from his land… Charles Schnee adapted Niven Busch’s novel and Anthony Mann does quite an exquisite job of staging the action, with his customary mountainous settings providing an objective correlative for a literally furious woman to take revenge. The interiors are no less impressive with the Gothic trappings enhancing the Freudian subtext with both Oedipus and Electra active in the arena of gender identification. There is a mythical quality to this classic narrative and the visuals reinforce a sense of homoerotic voyeurism in a film which constantly veers toward the psychosexual. Stanwyck is magnificent in one of the key roles of her career and the first of her seven western parts in the 1950s which laid the groundwork for her Big Valley matriarch a decade later. There is a domestic scene of horrifying violence that is for the record books. Rivalry was rarely so vicious. Notable for being Walter Huston’s final film performance.  It was shot by Victor Milner with uncredited work done by Lee Garmes and Franz Waxman provides the aggressively tragic score. I write about Stanwyck’s Fifties Westerns  in Steers, Queers and Pioneers, which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/stanwyck-part-1/.






Cool Runnings (1993)

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Peace be the journey. Four Jamaican bobsledders (Leon, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis and Malik Yoba) dream of competing in the Winter Olympics in Calgary despite never having seen snow. With the help of  Irv Blitzer (John Candy) a disgraced former champion desperate to redeem himself, the Jamaicans set out to become worthy of Olympic selection and go all out for glory… The real-life underdogs in the ’88 Games are given a sweetly (fictional) biographical treatment, complete with father-son conflict, rivalry with other teams, a real rackety set-up in an event riven with issues including the late great Candy (an invented character) who has his own past transgression to resolve without damaging his team’s prospects.  As sliding proceedings in Korea come to an end (sob!) this is simply irresistible.  Lynn Siefert & Michael Ritchie wrote the story and the screenplay is credited to Siefert and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg. Directed by Jon Turteltaub.  The last time I saw this was when it was released exactly 24 years ago and Candy died just a fortnight later. What a sad loss.

Second Chorus (1940)

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I said ‘music,’ and Father said ‘bottlecaps.’ Father won. Two New England college music students Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) repeatedly fail their exams so that they can stay in college and play in their band, O’Neill’s Perennials. They change their attitude, however, when they meet Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) who agrees to be their manager and both attempt to woo her as a way of eventually getting a job in Artie Shaw’s band but Shaw woos Ellen to be his secretary and the guys fail their auditions. Ellen tries to persuade millionaire J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth) a wannabe mandolin player to fund a concert which will debut Danny’s song but the guys get in the way and muck it up by pretending to be married to her.  To get things back on track they have to keep this eccentric backer Chisholm from forcing Shaw to have him play at their gig … Astaire and Meredith are the oldest students in movies and if that’s a silly premise in itself (albeit I knew someone who failed for twenty years to avail of a family bequest which lasted as long as he stayed in college) and this occasionally veers on the puerile (even for B-movie standards) it’s still hard to dislike.  Astaire’s masquerade as a Russian refugee performing his nation’s songs is funny and at some point the film has to incorporate his dancing expertise – which it does as he conducts his own composition in the concluding concert number with aplomb and a little tap. Butterworth is drolly amusing. Goddard is luminously beautiful, as you’d expect and acquits herself well in a murderous dance sequence (I Ain’t Hep to that Step But I’ll Dig It) with Astaire but clarinet supremo and band leader Shaw is no thesp. Dig that swing, though! Billy Butterfield dubbed Meredith’s trumpet solo while Bobby Hackett played for Astaire. Musos will recognise several numbers. Frank Cavett wrote the story while the screenplay is by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter with uncredited contributions by songwriter Johnnny Mercer and Ben Hecht. That’s quite the band. Directed by H.C. Potter.


Hush (1998)

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Do you see what she’s doing? She wants to be me! Handsome rich guy Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) and Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) are in love and he introduces her to Mom Martha (Jessica Lange) down home in the Deep South. About to have their first child, an attempted robbery and rape prompt them to leave NYC and they move in with Jackson’s mother in order to take care of the family estate which is a horse breeding ranch with a great yield. But all is not well in this household. Martha is jealous of her son’s affection for Helen, and, despite her smile, she’s starting to act strangely. As Helen tries to create a happy home life, Martha attempts to divide the family so that Jackson will become hers alone… Long before she played Joan Crawford in the first hagsploitation horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? pace Feud: Bette and Joan, Jessica Lange was sharpening her claws on Gwyneth Paltrow. Jackson is pretty dumb as sons of controlling mothers go, but Martha lays it on the line for Helen every day even trying to prevent her from seeing her late husband’s mother (Nina Foch) who’s in a wheelchair in an old folk’s home and full of interesting tidbits about her son’s death. When Helen’s departure from NYC is prompted by a burglar who intends raping her but she screams I’m pregnant and he scarpers you just know who’s behind it. Luckily Helen notices a blackened fingernail which leads her to the culprit – after she’s found a very spooky nursery in the stables. And her beloved locket with her late parents’ photo. This wears its influences on its expansive sleeve (Rosemary’s Baby et al) but it never really goes full tilt crazy even during the horrendous childbirth so the finale doesn’t have the delirium of Grand Guignol cacklins you want to see.  Mommie Dearest indeed. Written by Jane Rusconi  and director Jonathan Darby.

How Do You Know (2010)

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Don’t ever listen to me when I drink Guinness. Lisa Jorgenson’s (Reese Witherspoon) entire life has been defined by softball, but at 31, she is deemed too old to play and cut from the team. After being cast adrift, she begins a fling with Matty (Owen Wilson), a charming womanizer who plays professional baseball. About the same time, she goes on a blind date with George (Paul Rudd), a businessman on the hook for stock fraud. Caught in a romantic triangle with the two men, Lisa ponders the meaning of love as she moves in with Matty, has dinner with George and George himself is speechlessthroughout because he has learned that his father wants him to go to prison for a securities fraud that he himself has carried out.  Then when Lisa realises who she’s shacked up with, she moves out – twice … There are a lot of bright moments in this relationship dramedy or romcom with a starry cast getting some fun lines but it’s really Witherspoon’s chance to shine. However auteur James L. Brooks’ storyline comes unstuck – which is a pity because even if it’s about people whose lives are variously derailed, and the most convincing scene in the whole thing is in a birthing ward where George’s secretary (Kathryn Hahn) has just had a son out of wedlock, the narrative has nowhere for any of them to go:  it even concludes at a bus stop, for crying out loud! Nobody here is a completely dim bulb but they’re not gifted with the smarts required for this soft-centred delight to really take off and even the Machiavellian Nicholson’s puppet master fails at the end. Strange – but not an entirely unenjoyable meeting of talents despite Brooks not really caring enough about what makes anyone tick to pull it together. Maybe that’s what gives it the ring of truth.

The Return of Frank James (1940)


I can’t talk without thinking, not being a lawyer. When Jesse James’s murderers the Ford Brothers are set free, his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) who’s been lying low farming, vows revenge and, accompanied by his gang, sets out to track them down. To fund his manhunt, he robs an express office and is subsequently wrongly accused of the clerk’s murder, but an aspiring newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) is determined to find out the truth… Sam Hellman wrote a sequel to the earlier Henry King film and it was directed by renowned German director Fritz Lang, his first colour film and his first western. Notable for also being Tierney’s acting debut, she was appalled at her voice and thought she sounded like an angry Mickey Mouse:  she remedied the problem by developing a lifelong smoking habit. She plays nicely opposite Fonda who returns from the earlier film and has several great scenes, including the theatre episode when he’s watching a dramatic ‘re-enactment’ portray his brother’s murder by the Fords while he runs away – the Fords play themselves – and registers his disgust, drawing their attention to him and commencing a chase with Bob Ford (John Carradine). There’s a very funny scene when he and young brother Clem (wonderfully characterised by Jackie Cooper) imprison a nosy Pinkerton detective who’s alerted Stone to their true identities. When justice is finally seen to be done after a trial, Clem steps in to help and the final scene between them is very touching. Wonderfully staged and played, this is a consummate, straightforward revenge western, well told.


The Great Gatsby (1974)

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You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can. Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) is a young man from the Midwest living modestly among the decadent mansions of 1920s Long Island. He becomes involved in the life of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), a rich man who throws the most lavish parties on the island. But behind Gatsby’s outgoing demeanor is a lonely man who wants nothing more than to be with his old love, Nick’s second cousin-once removed, the beautiful Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). She is married to the adulterous and bullheaded millionaire Tom (Bruce Dern), creating a love triangle that will end in tragedy when a misunderstanding leads Tom’s lover Myrtle (Karen Black) to her death in a road accident and her cuckolded husband seeking revenge … We hear all about Gatsby long before we meet him, even if Nick imagines he sees him on the end of the dock early on, with that green light winking on and off. It’s the perfect way to introduce a character who is a self-made myth. Everyone has a different idea about the protagonist of a novel which itself is a masterpiece of sleight of hand storytelling:  it tells us on page one just how. There are a lot of things to admire about this film which is as hollow with the sound of money as Daisy’s voice:  the design, the tone, the casting, which is nigh-on perfect, but the writing leaves the performances with very little to do. Redford, that enigmatic, elusive, evasive Seventies superstar is the ultimately unknowable, uncommitted actor trying to revivify his past love, even as Daisy cries out to this now-multi-millionaire Don’t you know rich girls don’t marry poor boys? Waterston does his best as the writer/narrator who knows far less than he lets on. Dern probably comes off best as the unfiltered louse Fitzgerald wrote but overall Francis Ford Coppola’s script while faithful cannot replicate symbolic effect and the entire novella represents in the most eloquent language ever written class gone wrong in the ultimate American tragedy. Directed by Jack Clayton.


Blind (2017)

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We’re all just trying to get home I suppose. Suzanne Dutchman (Demi Moore) seems to be a happily married trophy wife. Her husband Mark (Dylan McDermott) is a wolf of Wall Street. At a dinner party Mark speaks to his client Howard (James McCaffrey) who is then caught by an undercover female agent for using and dealing cocaine and does a deal for immunity in exchange for information on Mark’s insider dealing. Mark is then arrested and Suzanne is facing charges and she is sentenced to 100 hours of community service.  She begins reading for visually impaired Bill Oakland (Alec Baldwin) a famous one-hit-wonder author and now a writing professor who is guilt-ridden over his wife’s death in the car crash that blinded him.  They take an instant dislike to each other. But she can’t leave and he needs someone to read his student’s work to him. During her time with Bill, Suzanne develops feelings for him and also finds out about her husband’s affair which leans her towards Bill even more… This is carried mostly by star power by three very likeable performes – although McDermott’s violence is foreshadowed in his presentation of a diamond necklace to his wife in the first scene, as though he’s imprisoning her. We understand the title isn’t just about Oakland, it also serves as a metaphor for Suzanne’s entrapment, blind to her husband’s flaws – and they become very problematic indeed. Her massive wedding ring also signifies the situation – writ large in the first scene with Oakland. Her arrival supplants volunteer Gavin (Steven Prescod) who is really a superfan looking to get into Oakland’s writing class – but even when he takes the job of houseboy he takes advantage and makes off with Oakland’s unfinished second novel. This is really a story about writer’s block, and then some. It has some lovely visuals and interactions but lags a bit in pacing. Still, it’s nice to see these actors who don’t get in front of the cameras enough, as far as I’m concerned. Based on a story by Diane Fisher, this was adapted by John Buffalo Mailer (who also acts here) and directed by Michael Mailer, sons of that very pugnacious writer, Norman.


Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.