I, TONYA**** Miracle on Ice

THE DELIGHT OF this movie (apart from Margot Robbie’s and Allison Janney’s compellingly well acted portraits) is that it’s a master-class of tone.

The first delight is that it’s a refreshingly anti-sports movie (And perhaps it needed an Australian -Robbie- to have the guts to produce such). Hollywood continues to force feed its catharsis-hungering audiences with an abundance of sports movies in which plucky underdogs triumph against all odds (and accompanied by soaring scores).

I Tonya is a wonderful round-up of (actual) no-good, staggeringly stupid scumbags who formed the dubious eco system of Tonya Harding’s failed bid to win an Olympic ice skating Gold.

It’s a “bio pic” of Harding’s troubled life leading up to “The Incident” in which her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was assaulted in the run up to the games. Tonya didn’t herself assault Kerrigan, but the shocked world blamed her. That was their truth of the matter. Finally, here was a moment of real, newspaper-selling drama in a sport whose only drama comes from the odd fall now and again.

Though the movie is punctuated by the skating and the competitions (with extraordinary CGI that makes you really, really believe that Margot Robbie is herself an Olympic quality ice skater) its focus is on Harding’s bone poor, red-neck life. As a child, she’s horribly emotionally abused by her mother…an unsmiling, bitter, chain smoking, potty- mouthed harridan, whose idea of encouragement is to denigrate and insult her daughter. (It’s a great role for Allison Janney and well deserving of her Oscar).

Mom’s emotional abuse soon turns physical with Tonya’s boyfriend/husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan, Logan Lucky) with whom she shares a destructive, violent relationship. He cuffs her around; she tries to shoot him; they break up, they make up. She bleeds, masks it with make up and still she skates on, wooing audiences with her 3 1/2 turn pike. Hers is a world of relentless violence.

As she says, “I’ve been beaten up all my life; she (Kerrigan) gets one small touch and the whole world goes berserk”

It’s funny.

The narrative flow of the story is tied together with interviews (based on their actual words) of the key players and pitch-perfect asides from Tonya, who turns to the audience from time to time to comment on the action. The characters and their actions are so outlandish, so irony-free, so out of whack with the Happy American Family idea the Olympic committee is looking for, that the heart-breaking trauma and tragedy of their lives is served up in a tone of absurdist, sometimes slapstick, comedy.

The typical Hollywood fare would have played this story for all the gut-wrenching lachrymose drama it could muster. But that would be a false truth. For Australian director Craig Gillepsie (Million Dollar Arm), the truth is more like Theatre of the Absurd. For at its heart, this retelling of the Tonya Harding story is her story…her search for or at least her retelling of her version of the truth. In one of her asides, Tonya says: “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants”

The truth (in life?) is certainly not the typical cliché of “achievement despite adversity”. Truth perhaps lies in the desperate need for the powerful to exercise their power over the powerless: mother over child, husband over wife; even the Olympic committee over its athletes.

I Tonya is also story about the need for love (Tonya dearly wants to be loved…by her mother, her husband, her fans) and the thin partition that separates it from hate. The writing (by Steve Rogers of Kate and Leopold) is very clever. It never caricatures its characters: Jeff is a violent wife beater…but he’s also a man whose ambitions were thwarted by his sense of responsibility to Tonya and who will do anything to help her win (including of course, breaking the law). Tonya’s beastly mother is a person cursed by her inability to express tenderness but whose Dragon-mom’s devotion to her child’s extraordinary talent was clearly an expression of love.

And what a coming out party for Margot Robbie, who up until a year ago seemed just another puff of eye candy (About Time, Focus, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Legend of Tarzan). 2017 was definitely her year…first in Goodbye Christopher Robin and now this, which story she identified and shepherded to production. Robbie manages to hide her radiant beauty completely in the tough, me-against-the-world, battered scragginess of her character. The surprise is that she too wasn’t even short listed as an Oscar nominee.

Let’s see what 2018 brings for her


I, TONYA. Dir: Craig Gillespie, With: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson (Masters of Sex). Writer: Steven Rogers. Cinematographer: Nicolas Karakatsanis. Production Design: Jade Healy (A Ghost Story)






ANY REMAKE OF Tarzan, the legendary ape man unleashed into the world in 1912, has to deal with the awkward politics of a superhuman white man saving the lives of (weaker) black men. Edgar Rice Burrough’s assumptions of white (moral, intellectual, physical) superiority is a heavy burden for any modern film-maker and any (non-racist redneck) audience to stomach. The writers of this latest incarnation of the lord of the jungle (Adam Cozad of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Craig Brewer of Black Snake Moon) are all too aware of this; they dance through hoops to avoid any charge of even unconscious racism or neo-Colonial sympathy.

And they accomplish the feat with grace and style. Turns out Jane (Margot Robbie) was also brought up in Africa (daughter of missionaries) and so has a deep affinity for the people and the land, quite independent of Tarzan. She can’t quite leap from vine to vine, but, if only in her displays of animal passion, is a fitting mate to her jungle lord.


The story of The Legend of Tarzan centers around the imminent enslavement of the Congolese by the heinous Belgian King Leopold and his local man of business, Leon Rom (Christopher Waltz reprising his villainous Nazi character from Inglorious Basterds). Rom (like Leopold) was an actual person. Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), now married to Jane and happily living in aristocratic splendor as Lord and Lady Greystoke, is tempted back into the jungles by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), another real life person, whose mission it is to root out slavery everywhere and for whom Tarzan would be an extraordinary ally.

They return to an Edenic setting: old friends, the undisturbed home where their romance blossomed and the lush, animal-dense beauty of central Africa. The bliss is shattered by Rom and his troupe of ruthless mercenaries who must capture Tarzan in return for a king’s ransom of diamonds guarded by one Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) a vengeful tribal King (The result of ancient bad blood after Tarzan, defending his ape ‘mother’, killed his son).


And when all hell breaks loose, the movie’s gentle pace swings into high gear. Jane has been captured as bait for Tarzan. And absolutely nothing and no one, not even an entire battle-ready tribe will stop her man getting to her.

It’s pretty exciting seeing Tarzan swinging through the trees, hearing his famous battle cry and following stampeding herds of wildebeest as they demolish the fortressed might of the Belgians. The good guys win (surprise surprise!) and the hissingly nasty Ron gets a jaw chomping cumuppance.

As the story’s moral conscience (and through whose startled eyes we see much of the incredible action) Samuel L Jackson delivers his usual compelling, if thankfully subdued, presence. Director David Yates (Lots of the Harry Potter movies) handles this story of George Washington Williams (who I’d never heard of before, and who could easily overshadow Tarzan) with a delicate touch. It’s a story that deserves its own, a less trivial telling.

Yates’ vine knotted Africa with its growl of menacing apes and thunder of war painted warriors is a visual delight. There’s never any real sense that Tarzan could possibly be in danger and his fight scenes feel a bit paint by numbers, but no matter, they’re engaging enough.

Margo Robbie (it was Jane who, truth be told, really drew me to the movie) is a convincingly badass heroine. It was good of Tarzan to rescue her, but, I suspect, given enough time, she’d have rescued herself.

The weak link is Tarzan. He certainly looks great, but Skarsgard, who tries for a brooding, introspective Tarzan never quite manages to convince either as a gentleman repressing the animal within or as an animal barely restrained by his gentlemanliness. He was better as a broodingly nasty vampire in True Blood. And, since the story hangs on his finely sculpted pecs, his weakness is almost the film’s undoing

The writing also is shoddy. The Legend of Tarzan has a neatly worked out story line, but it’s lazy writing: various themes about slavery, colonialism, Leopold’s massacre of elephants, friendship, honor etc are scattered here and there without a unifying idea. Too bad. It allowed a wonderfully researched story to end up as a movie that’s pleasant, eye-candy but just another forgettable entry into the canon of Tarzan


The Legend of Tarzan: Dir: David Yates. With: Alexander Skarsgard, Christopher Waltz, Samuel. L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbet. Writers: Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. Cinematographer: Henry Braham (The Golden Compass). Production Designer: Stuart Craig (Harry Potter’s)




“THE WOLF OF Wall Street” is as brash, loud, excessive and debauched as its subject – the amoral, testosterone fuelled, coke snorting, pussy lusting, money addicted, gangster world of Wall Street. The, um, street that basically controls the world. It’s also occasionally, very funny, deliciously well-written (thank you Terrence Winter who also wrote most of “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire”), but overall, despite the outsized talent of its director – Martin Scorsese – not very good.

It’s the story of the real wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, who conned millions of people from millions of dollars and who was subsequently found out, ratted on his friends and served the grand time of thirty six months in prison (about a quarter of the time a Black youth would have served had he or she been caught with a joint). The movie is based upon Belfort’s book (more ka-ching for the criminal), so it’s, let’s say, one-sided. In “The Wolf…” Scorsese takes the bold step of mirroring the life-style of excess with a filmmaking style of excess. The acting is broad (it’s “Wall Street” meets “The Hangover”), the ironies obvious, themes are hammered in (money is a drug like Coke or Quaaludes; brokers are fundamentally amoral and dishonest; to this misogynist world, women are no more than their anatomies and an easily accessible service) and, despite it’s so called factual content, the credibility, non-existent.

Call this money porn.

Samuel Johnson accused Milton in “Paradise Lost” of siding with the devil, this dark, fallen angel, who was a far more attractive personality than that of God. So it is here. Despite his overt mockery of the culture of excess, you can’t help but feel that Scorsese is fully indulging his inner Lothario in this wild romp of coke-sizzling nudity.

And yet, and yet, it’s not boring, though the middle was repetitive and sagged somewhat. As I noted, it’s often funny, such as when a Quaalude doped Belfort (Leo DiCaprio channeling Chaplin) drags himself down the steps of a country club to snake into his car and bump, crash and smash his way home; there are many vignettes that work brilliantly and there’s a stand-out cameo from a gaunt Matthew McConaughey as the very embodiment of the drug-fuelled, slightly crazed culture of Wall Street.

It’s just that, as a whole, in its mockery, parodying programs of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” it’s as empty as them. It’s a movie that slaveringly describes a kind of lifestyle even as it mocks it. It’s a dishonest movie that wants you to be revolted even as it seduces you to lust… after the cars, the homes, the wealth, the glamour, the nakedness, the sex.

Leo can be a fine, compelling and nuanced actor. But the demands of “The Wolf…” – part slapstick, part pathos – confirms that he’s not a natural comic. For in the end, he appears more of a stock character: a baddie we’re supposed to hiss at, and not a fully rounded person. Jonathan Hill, as his partner, Donnie Azoff, pulls off his role with greater subtlety…but by far, the most watchable actor in this porno-fest was Margot Robbie as Belfort’s increasingly cold, high maintenance pin-up bride, Naomi. In this very man-oriented flick, she was the one to watch.


The pity of it all!

As a parable of the culture of excess, it lacks the subtlety to convince. Far from recoiling with “the horror, the horror” of it all, it never reaches up above the navel long enough to deliver any intellectual resonance, not to mention, hint at the lives of the poor folks who were suckered in by this charlatan.