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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All the President’s Men (1976)

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Where’s the goddamn story? There’s a break in at the Watergate building and a laidback and very green Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is suspicious when the Cuban-American burglars appear in court with high-level representation. Boss Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) teams him up with chippy Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to help out  – Bernstein writes better copy. Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) is not convinced that there’s much there but reluctantly gives the go-ahead.  With the help of a mysterious source, code-named Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), the two reporters make a connection between the burglars and a White House staffer. They encounter dirty tricks, ‘rat-fucking’ and an organisation known as CREEP. Follow the money Despite dire warnings about their safety, the duo follows the money all the way to the top… Part conspiracy thriller, part detective story, part newspaper flick, this only errs on the forgivably smug side that you’d expect if you’d been one of the hacks who’d (mistakenly) stumbled on an Oval Office-level conspiracy in the early 1970s. Part of director Alan J. Pakula’s unofficial paranoid trilogy (along with Klute and The Parallax View) this was adapted from Woodward and Bernstein’s book by William Goldman in the first instance – or actually four – before it was rewritten by Bernstein and Nora Ephron and then by Pakula and Redford, albeit those claims have been debunked. It’s a film that shows you the process of how to get and write the story – the sheer drudgery of sitting at desks, making phonecalls, being fobbed off, meeting strange men in car parks, going to libraries to borrow books, boredom, fear, anticipation, surveillance, and typing, typing, typing, the whole kit and caboodle. But when it’s played by two of the world’s biggest film stars at the time and they make calling someone on the phone so unbearably tense, you know you’re in good hands. As Redford’s biographer Michael Feeney Callan clarifies, Redford’s mind was already elsewhere during production despite the project being his and he was permanently distracted, yet we are carried on this tidal wave of information that started as a local story and became a national scandal – despite knowing the rather fabled outcome. What a way to make your name. Katharine Graham’s role was excised entirely from the action, to be resurrected in the preceding scandal of the Pentagon Papers dramatised in the recent The Post. Remarkable on every level, with the characters becoming at times functionaries of a cannily authentic production design by George Jenkins and a shooting style by Gordon Willis that emphasises light – its presence and absence, its curtailment and its blazing power – amid an ensemble of brilliant players in roles large and small, thrillingly brought to life. Classic.

 

 

Wolves at the Door (2017)

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Some years ago an older friend of mine who is a psychiatrist said that showing another friend A Short Film About Killing had altered that man’s opinion about the death penalty with which he had previously agreedThe story of that film is about a passenger who randomly and brutally murders a taxi driver and is then sentenced to an equally violent death. Apparently this third party now agreed with my psychiatrist friend that the death penalty is wrong. My psychiatrist friend thought I would agree. I didn’t. I argued for my part that it was precisely the callous random nature of the act – a total stranger being murdered for pure pleasure, presumed sexual excitement and on a whim – that justified the punishment. A life for a life, if you will. My psychiatrist friend was duly horrified by my reaction. Nowadays I believe in life imprisonment. And I mean life. Which is all by means of introducing this re-staging of the horrifying so-called Manson Family murders 8th August 1969 of the beyond beautiful heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate (Katie Cassidy), her unborn son Paul Polanski, her best friend Abigail Folger (Elizabeth Henstridge), Tate’s ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring (Miles Fisher),  Folger’s boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski (Adam Campbell), and Steven Parent (Lucas Adams), who wasn’t in the Cielo Drive house but met his end at the gates. If there is a text here that is worth discussion beyond the psychotic violence at the core of this exploitation film, it is about carelessness. How careless people are about their own safety, their presumption of civilised behaviour from others and the means by which a gap between our experiences and our expectations can be filled by the utterly inexplicable hate-filled rage of people we don’t even know, exiled from normalcy, refugees from society, indecent and obscene. There’s a reason we are hard-wired to have a circle of 150 family, friends and acquaintances – survival.It’s why kids are taught as soon as they speak, Stranger Danger. Some of this is expressed in the portrayal of William Garretson (Spencer Daniels) the so-called caretaker on the Polanski property who is portrayed here as a witless drug user with earphones clamped to his brain-dead head throughout. He finally died in 2016. Some of the perpetrators are still breathing. There are some episodes that do not require gruesome and explicit re-enactments. This vile explosion of depraved horror lingers in the communal memory for a reason. It fundamentally altered most people’s view of the death penalty which Manson and his smirking wenches escaped by the pure fluke of timing, unlike their wretched and helpless victims. One of them even got away to live her life in exchange for bearing witness. Other than that, I have nothing to add. Written by Gary Dauberman and directed by John R. Leonetti. Ghastly, tasteless and misjudged, in the truest sense.

Basic Instinct (1992)

 

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I think she’s the fuck of the century.  Paul Verhoeven’s film was notorious even prior to release – 25 years ago! – when word of the highly sexualised story got out.  Then it caused an uproar with a shot of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs:  she’s not wearing any underwear. And the gay community in San Francisco in particular (where it’s set) didn’t like the portrayal of a psychopathic bisexual writer Catherine Tramell (Stone) – albeit we don’t know if it’s her, or her former and slighted lover, police psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who’s the murderess in this tricky, explicit neo-noir. That sub-genre really had a moment in the 90s, with this and the films of John Dahl – remember Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction?! Wow. Stone goes all-out here as the millionaire authoress whose books have a basis in true crime. Michael Douglas is the controversial ‘shooter’ detective Nick Curran who’s assigned to investigate the violent death of an old rock star – a murder we see in the opening scenes, bloody, sexy and ending with an ice pick applied to his neck. It’s the plot of one of Catherine Tramell’s lurid thrillers – she writes them under the surname Woolf.  Everything points to her being the guilty party. Now she wants to study him too. He got his nickname after accidentally killing tourists while he was high on cocaine. Catherine hangs out with jealous girlfriend Roxy and an old woman called Hazel Dobkins. Both of them have an interesting past. After Nick avoids being killed by Roxy when she sees him and Catherine having sex, he finds out she killed a bunch of kids when she was 15. And Hazel?  She murdered her children and husband back in the 50s. The fact that she’s played by Dorothy Malone gives you the meta-picture here:  this is practically a dissertation on the Hollywood blonde, a Hitchcock film with extra sex. Nick’s also been involved with the police psychiatrist who it turns out knows Catherine too, from when they went to college together a decade earlier.  And they may have had a relationship. This knotty tale of seduction, deception, copycat killing and betrayal leads cleverly to two very clear – and alternate – conclusions. It’s wrapped in extraordinarily beautiful and brutal imagery and the narrative ambiguity merely compounds its legend. Written by Joe Eszterhas in 13 days it earned him a record-breaking $3 million.  Yet as he stated so lucidly in his memoir, he is a militant screenwriter-auteur and the most memorable bit of the film was shot without his knowledge – and apparently Stone’s. Interpret this how you will. Some people might say that the real crime here is one against fashion – Douglas’ v-neck at the club is really something. Stone is stunning: she’s something else!

The Wizard of Lies (2017)(TVM)

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Do you think I’m a sociopath? I’m not a psychiatrist, Bernie Madoff, but I do know you’re a thief who committed larceny on a grand scale that specifically targeted Jewish retirees, most of whom ended up living hand to mouth in trailer parks as a result of your actions – if they were lucky.  You can understand the attraction of this project – looking at the man behind the biggest Ponzi scheme in history – and the family structure behind him. This after all is the guy whose own sons turned him in. When it happened it was at the height of the financial ‘mismanagement’ that caused the world’s economy to crash.  When Madoff pleaded guilty nobody  – certainly not the POTUS – wanted to see his friends in the major institutions jailed. Diana Henriques is the New York Times journalist who had access to Madoff and interviewed him in prison and her book provides the basis for a screenplay by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum and John Burnham Schwartz, with Henriques playing herself, opposite Robert De Niro. This is a despicable man with absolutely no redeeming features. There is no explanation as to what drove him. His behaviour to everybody is horrendous, rude, arrogant and nasty, even to waiters. The narrative chooses to focus not on the bigger context – or the horrors inflicted on his victims – but on the humiliation meted out to his sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andy (Nathan Darrow) who apparently didn’t know what went on on the 17th floor – a destination that has almost horror-story significance. In reality it was a crowded office populated by undereducated sleazes who kept the accounts of all the little people whom they sandbagged and robbed blind, led by Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria) an utterly reprehensible character. Wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer, looking a little different again, as is her wont…) is another supposed innocent, whose relationships with her sons suffer because she keeps visiting one-dimensional Bernie in jail. Bernie simply refuses to offer any explanation for any of his actions and Mark trawls the web to find offensive comments (the one called ‘Weekend at Bernie’s was blackly ironic) while Andy’s wife urges distance between the brothers. Nobody sees Mark’s suicide coming. Then Andy succumbs to lymphoma. Ruth simply changes her phone number. Confining the drama to a dysfunctional family dynamic may have seemed like clever writing – even an attempt to make it some sort of Shakespearean allegory – but in doing so it totally misses the bigger picture:  not on the scale of fiscal destruction purveyed by the Madoff Advisory of course but it seems irresponsible and kind of pointless storytelling with nothing new that we all don’t know.  Look at The Big Short for a really stylish and shocking interrogation of this scenario;  or The Wolf of Wall Street:  this can be tour de force filmmaking in the right hands.  What a shame. Directed by Barry Levinson.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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Judge not, that ye be not judged. Spencer Tracy arrives in the rubble of the great city of Nuremberg after the bombs have fallen:  this is what remains of a once-proud metropolis in the wake of Hitlerism. He’s the chief military judge in one of the trials taking place there in Abby Mann’s adaptation of his TV play and Maximillian Schell replays his role as the German defence counsel. The case involves four judges in the Nazi courts who had people executed and sterilised and otherwise punished for not being Party members: it’s a representative slice of what actually occurred aided in no small part by what we might call stunt casting.  Burt Lancaster is the one judge who acknowledges what he’s done is wrong. Marlene Dietrich is the widow of the man already executed whose home Tracy occupies and after whom he hankers a little. Judy Garland and the incredible Montgomery Clift testify in court. Clift is a former Communist whom one of the judges had sterilised. His scene in the stand is unforgettable. Schell does a great job as the frustrated counsel, eager to prove the overwhelming logic of the judges’ work;  Richard Widmark has his day in court showing the films shot by Allied troops liberating the camps. Naturally the Germans think this is a cheap shot. This film shocked me as a child and it shocks me no less today, particularly when Tracy, having sentenced the men, is asked to visit Lancaster and has to explain to him why he came to his decision. He is our conscience, arguing for the value of a single human life in the face of ruthless German logic. The end credits include the reminder that by the time this film was made not a single Nazi convicted at Nuremberg remained in prison despite life sentences handed down. That’s right, they’re all running the Fourth Reich in a Germany that’s been on the rise ever since. Be afraid. Directed by Stanley Kramer.

True Deception (2016)

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Aka The Adderall Diaries. Written and directed by Pamela Romanowsky this James Franco-starrer (he also produced) is an adaptation of a misery memoir by ‘orphaned’ writer Stephen Elliott whose inconveniently live father shows up to wreck his reputation and publishing deals. At the same time he becomes obsessed with a murder case involving millionaire Hans Reisner (Christian Slater) who’s accused of killing his wife;  and sexually involved with a journalist (Amber Heard) who’s had a bad childhood herself. Much of the story is compressed into conflicting montages and competing flashbacks squeezed into a relatively short running time of 83 minutes so it’s hard to reconcile the somewhat wasted star power with the narrative. The mirroring idea of the villainous murdering father on trial is a rather obvious metaphor, real or not, and the writer’s block being solved by a true crime is verbally compared with Capote and Mailer. But the writing process remains mysterious and the scenes with Slater are fairly perfunctory. Cynthia Nixon shows up as one of the few drug-free actors in this narcissist’s psychodrama. One wonders why Franco was drawn to playing this role following True Story (2015). However the main interest here and maybe for him is seeing two very pretty people in an S&M relationship with some scenes rather reminiscent of Madonna’s great embarrassment, Body of Evidence. Memories are made of this. Sigh.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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How innocent do JR’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door fantasies appear in the welter of sexual spectacle on display here. Stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s memoir of his outrageous drug and sex-fuelled exploits on Wall Street at his firm Stratton Oakmont are pure outrage:  nothing succeeds like excess. It’s in your face from the first moment in Terence Winter’s adaptation for director Martin Scorsese, his last film to date. Leonardo DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with the NYC filmmaker is nothing if not exact:  he shepherded the project into production over a prolonged period and his performance is extraordinary – and he’s matched by Jonah Hill as Donnie the totally crazed acolyte who has married his own cousin and publicly masturbates upon first sight of Jordan’s new crush, Margot Robbie, whom he marries after cheating with her on his wife. The scene when Jordan and Donnie ingest out of date super ludes has to be seen to be believed:  DiCaprio’s voiceover explaining his trip straight to cerebral palsy is just … beyond description. Trouble is, FBI agent Kyle Chandler and the Securities Commission are onto Jordan and people start getting careless in their sales methods and there’s so much money they’re running out of hiding places. The viewer is effectively subjected to an onslaught of nudity, sex, drug-addled mania and hilarity in this horrific inversion of Horatio Alger. If your eyes don’t explode your brain will. (Remember all the little people whose money they took…) Nothing less than brilliant.

True Story (2015)

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Michael Finkel was an acclaimed New York Times journalist when he was fired for obscuring a story about slave children in Africa to make a better story (combining five stories into one for dramatic and emotional effect – kind of what screenwriters get paid to do.) A man accused of murdering his wife and three children, Christian Longo, was caught hiding out in Mexico using Finkel’s identity. When Finkel was told he started visiting Longo in prison and became enmeshed in his story – getting a book deal in exchange for the true story and teaching Longo how to write. There doesn’t seem much at stake – until an hour in, when at the pre-trial hearing Longo pleads guilty to just two of the murders. And during the trial uses language that Finkel used. Jonah Hill plays Finkel, James Franco plays Longo. Finkel’s wife (Felicity Jones) fears that her husband is being played.The chill of recognition eventually hit me when prosecutor Greg Ganley (Robert John Burke) asks Finkel, Who’s using who? Because Longo could be set free to murder again. When I was a kid a neighbour murdered his wife the night that Fatal Vision was screening on TV, the mini-series about how journalist Joe McGinniss was used by a marine surgeon to vindicate him when he was supposedly wrongly accused of the murder of his wife and children (in writing about him and digging deeper, JMG discovered he was guilty – there’s a whole slew of books about this.) My neighbour was also reading the book at the time. When he was released a few years later (political pressure, allegedly) he was found to be diarising his plans to murder his children, who still lived at the family home. Every woman in the neighbourhood was terrified of him until he died a few years ago. There is of course an element of similarity here to the JMG Fatal Vision situation – it was no accident that Longo picked on Finkel’s name – he knew he was someone who needed redemption. These men are in a sense mirror images of each other but somehow the powerful story gets lost in translation in the screenplay adapted from Finkel’s memoir by director Rupert Goold and David Kajganich. An opportunity missed.

The Face of an Angel (2015)

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The films of Michael Winterbottom tend to be either of two varieties – good or verging on the unwatchable. This … falls between those two stools. It concerns a filmmaker (Daniel Bruhl) who goes to Italy to use a court case as the material for his new film. The court case is obviously based on the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox farrago and he finds himself ’embedded’ with journalists who have already made up their minds, for the most part deciding the lack of motive or circumstantial evidence convicts the angelic Knox, the American teenager who found herself in the eye of a very unpleasant storm with her new Italian boyfriend just a few weeks after moving to Italy on a gap year. He has a personal hell to deal with concerning his ex-girlfriend, a famous actress, a daughter who lives with her and a cocaine habit which he indulges courtesy of an English student (Cara Delevingne) on a gap year herself and who leads him into the Inferno, angelic face ‘n’ all. Then he sleeps with the journalist (Kate Beckinsale) who’s written about the case and sides with Kercher/Elizabeth. This is not a great film about filmmaking nor does it enlighten us as to why the Italian police are so inept and corrupt or their press so utterly mediaeval (Knox was called a witch and a whore on a daily basis). Likening the filmmaker’s personally indulgent druggy paranoia to Dante’s meditation on love is just stupid. There are great films about filmmaking and they are made by Fellini and Truffaut. This is not one. Quite degrading for all involved. The fact that it is dedicated to Kercher indicates what motivated the production. A travesty.