DVD of the Week: I WAKE UP SCREAMING – framed by a stalker

Betty Grable, Carol Landis and Laird Cregar in I WAKE UP SCREAMING
Betty Grable, Carol Landis and Laird Cregar in I WAKE UP SCREAMING

As a tribute to the Noir City festival of film noir in San Francisco, my DVD of the Week was just featured at Noir City.  In I Wake Up Screaming, the promoter Frankie (Victor Mature) discovers the hardscrabble beauty Vicky (Carole Landis), and seeks to turn her into a star. She gets her Hollywood contract, but leaves Frankie behind with a pile of nightclub tabs and furrier bills. Vicky turns up murdered, and the cops, led by the menacing Cornwell (Laird Cregar) try to pin the crime on Frankie. Frankie and Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable in a rare dramatic role) try to find the Real Killer. They discover that Frankie isn’t just a convenient suspect, he is being framed – and the stakes get higher as they race the cops to solve the crime.

As befits a noir, we see gritty diners, top end nightclubs, the police interrogation room and an all-night theater. When the light goes on in the den of a stalker, set up as a shrine to his victim, it’s a jaw-dropping moment. I Wake Up Screaming is on my list of Overlooked Noir.

This is Laird Cregar’s movie. Cregar’s hulking and insolent Cornwell dominates every scene that he’s in, and several times he makes us literally jump. Cregar understood how to use his size and looks to intimidate. Cornwell is almost buoyant as he explains to Frankie how he intends to ruin Frankie’s life. But when Cornwell doesn’t know that he’s being watched, he drops his chin and lapses into an open-mouthed stare at Landis. This is a very early and groundbreaking portrayal of a stalker. There are early hints to his unhealthy obsession, but nothing prepares the audience for the revelation of just how unhealthy it turns out to be.

Cregar was an immense acting talent. A closeted gay man and overweight, he was uncomfortable in his own skin. Sadly, aspiring to become a leading man, he died suddenly from damage caused by a quackish, extreme diet. (At the time, no one could foresee Raymond Burr’s path – playing film noir heavies and later becoming a huge star on TV.)

Betty Grable, Carol Landis and Victor Mature in I WAKE UP SCREAMING
Betty Grable, Carol Landis and Victor Mature in I WAKE UP SCREAMING

In her brief career, Carole Landis was usually cast based on her impressive, top-heavy figure. Here, she brings some nuance to the role of Vicky, for whom there is more going on than apparent. She’s far more than the Eliza Doolittle that Frankie thinks she is. It’s later revealed that she can get what she wants from a slew of men and that she can make a canny and ruthless business deal. She cheerfully cuts Frankie out of his Return On Investment with an “it’s just business” attitude. Landis was only 23 years old when she made I Wake Up Screaming. After four stormy marriages, she committed suicide at age 29 – right after boyfriend Rex Harrison refused to leave his wife for her.

The hunky Mature went on to spend an entire decade shirt-free in sword-and-sandal movies. Of course, Grable would soon become the favorite pin-up girl for the US military in WW II. The most unintentionally funny part of I Wake Up Screaming is when the two decide to top off a date with a late-night swim at a NYC indoor pool. It is easy to visualize the studio brass ordering the poor screenwriters to somehow get Grable and Mature into their swimsuits.

Before getting stuck in beefcake roles like Samson, Horemheb the Egyptian and Demetrius the Gladiator, Mature proved himself to be a pretty fair noir hero, especially in 1947’s Kiss of Death. He’s good here. So is Grable, without any singing or dancing (although she did have a song in a deleted scene on the DVD). Film noir favorite Elisha Cook, Jr. has a role that seems small but juicy, until it becomes pivotal.

Scholars place 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor as the very first film noir. Released in 1941, I Wake Up Screaming is a very early noir, along with The Maltese Falcon, Johnny Eager, Suspicion, High Sierra and The Shanghai Gesture. Director H. Bruce Humberstone and cinematographer Edward Cronjager did not become giants of noir, or even notable noir artists, but their lighting was impressive. Cregar often lurks in the shadows, and when he doesn’t, we usually see his shadow, often dwarfing another character. Cregar also gets the horizontal shadows of Venetian blinds across his face. At least three times, characters turn on the light to find that another character has slipped into their apartment – yikes!

The exposition in I Wake Up Screaming is pretty muck by-the-numbers. The primary appeals of the film is the proto-noir style, the matter-of-fact sexiness of Landis, the easy-to-root-for pair of Grable and Mature, and the amazing performance of Laird Cregar. Incongruously, the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow keeps showing up in this dark and oft creepy movie. I don’t understand how or why, but it is an effective choice.

I Wake Up Screaming plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. The DVD is available with a Netflix subscription, or you can buy it from Amazon. I Wake Up Screaming was featured at the Noir City 2018.

Betty Grable and Laird Cregar in I WAKE UP SCREAMING
Laird Cregar in I WAKE UP SCREAMING

THE FINAL YEAR: a most wistful documentary

A scene from THE FINAL YEAR, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In the documentary The Final Year, we get to peek inside the last year of the Obama foreign policy.  Director Greg Barker’s cameras go behind the scenes to follow Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes as they travel the globe to keep the peace and mitigate conflict.

We see a lot of movies about the military and the intelligence services, so it’s a rare and welcome treat to watch diplomacy in action.

The Final Year primarily depicts and references the Obama Administration’s signature accomplishments – the Iran nuclear deal, avoiding catastrophe in North Korea, the Paris climate accords – along with the challenges of Syria.

We tend to see these folks as talking heads on television, so it’s humanizing to see them in candid moments.  However, this is hardly a warts-and-all expose, and sometimes the tone even reaches reverent or fawning.  Rhodes even gets the chance to evade responsibility for  a basic political mistake – letting a reporter exploit his words.

It’s impossible to watch The Final Year in early 2018 without comparing these folks with the current administration.  Whatever their imperfections, Kerry, Power and Rhodes are serious, competent people trying to implement a coherent foreign policy in our national interest and, in the process, earning the respect of other nations.  The juxtaposition with the clown show of the current Administration is alarming and profoundly sad.

[SPOILER: In the final shot before the closing credits, the very-soon-to-be-former President Obama  says, “Are we done here? Okay, see you later.” and turns down a White House corridor with his security detail for perhaps the last time.  It’s heartbreakingly wistful.]

The Final Year opens in the Bay Area on Friday.

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT: Orson Welles’ Shakespearean masterpiece

Orson Welles and Keith Baxter in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT
Orson Welles and Keith Baxter in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

The great auteur Orson Welles loved Shakespeare and made three Shakespearean movies, of which Chimes at Midnight is the masterpiece.  Welles’ genius was in braiding together parts of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, some Richard III, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor into a cohesive story of what he called “betrayal of friendship”.  You can watch Chimes at Midnight Wednesday on Turner Classic Movies.

Welles himself vividly plays the recurring Shakespearean character of Sir John Falstaff.
Falstaff is a rogue knight, a shameless braggart and robustly debauched.

The young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the future King Henry V, is sowing his wild oats, and he is in the market for a dissolute companion. To the disgust of Hal’s severe father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud), Hal and Falstaff are carousing buddies, their fast friendship forged in taverns with plentiful spirits and women of easy virtue. (Falstaff’s wench is played by Jeanne Moreau.)

Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT
Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

There’s plenty of palace intrigue interwoven with the comic pranks and partying by the rascal Hal and his favorite scoundrel Falstaff. Falstaff even does mocking impressions of Henry IV.

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

Chimes at Midnight features an amazing 12-minute battle scene beginning at the 55 minute mark. Somehow Welles was able to afford 150 extras and was able to use them and his camera to create a battle scene as effective as the ones in Braveheart and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. Welles doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the brutality of medieval warfare. The initial horse charge is followed by the chaos of hacking and clubbing. The combatants become a roiling cauldron of lethal mayhem. In all the fog of war, it’s still easy to follow Falstaff in his size XXXL armor. Welles’ Falstaff believes that honor is merely ornamental and not worth sacrificing one’s life for. No hero, Falstaff.

CHIMES
CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

Finally, Henry IV dies and Prince Hal will ascend the throne. Falstaff thinks he’s won the lottery, but a king can’t afford sloppy bad habits. Hal rejects vanity, of which Falstaff is the signal emblem. Hal rebuffs Falstaff with Presume not that I am the thing I was and banishes him. Falstaff is stunned – but then proud of his mentee. Defeated in the end, Welles’ eyes show us his pride and simultaneous disappointment. This high point of Chimes at Midnight is also probably Welles’ best moment as an actor.

The broad, raucous comedy in Chimes at Midnight shows us what it must have like to see Shakespeare’s words performed in the rowdy Globe Theater. Shot in Spain with authentic medieval settings, Chimes at Midnight looks very good for a low, low-budget film. It is narrated by Ralph Richardson.

CHIMES
CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

This is a brilliant film, and it’s high on my list of Best Shakespeare Movies.

Chimes at Midnight was extremely hard to find until very recently, except for a bootleg on YouTube and a 2015 DVD released in the UK.  It’s still not available to rent on DVD.  Fortunately, Chimes at Midnight has become available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and FilmStruck.  And, of course, it plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies where it will be featured on January 17.

CHIMES
Orson Welles in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

IN THE FADE: a moral choice in a revenge thriller

Diane Kruger in IN THE FADE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Diane Kruger gives a brilliant performance in the searing and emotionally devastating German thriller In the Fade.  Kruger plays a German woman whose husband and child are murdered.  Her life essentially disintegrates, as a whodunit carries on mostly beyond her.  Katja is not exactly the German Betty Crocker.   She’s tatted up and has married a Turkish Kurdish man who is a reformed drug dealer.  But her grief is universal, and so is her impulse for revenge.  Her husband’s attorney Danilo (Denis Moschitto) leads her on a quest for justice.  But she must decide whether to take justice into her own hands.  And how. And at what cost.  The final scene in In the Fade is unforgettable.

German writer-director Fatih Akin, like Katja’s husband, is the son of Turkish immigrants.  In In the Fade’s taut one hour, 46 minutes, he has crafted a pulsating page-turner.  It can’t be easy to keep the pace of a movie from grinding down when the protagonist is plunging into a puddle of grief, but Akin pulls it off.  The horror of the murder is not shown on-screen, but Akin funds a way to make it even more horrible than if we had watched it happen.  Akin has made a successful thriller here, not a “message movie”, but he also effectively addresses the topical issues of immigration, racism and terrorism.

Diane Kruger in IN THE FADE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Diane Kruger won Best Actress at last year’s Cannes film festival for this performance.  She creates a fundamentally vibrant Katja, who must react to a horrific loss, and then to a series of indignities capped by brutal gut-punch from her mother-in-law.  This is a profoundly authentic depiction of grief.  When any chance for resolution is jerked away from Katja by a shocking injustice, Kruger takes Katja into steely resolve.

Kruger is an impressively versatile actress.  She’s equally good as an American detective with Asberger’s in the absorbing American miniseries The Bridge and as a whim-driven queen in the French costume drama Farewell, My Queen.

Denis Moschitto and Diane Kruger in IN THE FADE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In the Fade is filled with excellent performances. Besides Moschitto, I’ll point out

  • Johannes Krisch as cinema’s most despicable defense attorney, loathsome down to the prefunctory danke with which he ends each argument.
  • Hening Peker as the earnest-to-a-fault police investigator, doing everything rationally and by the book, but not in a way comfortable for our sympathetic victim, Katja.
  • Ulrich Tukur as a character who has found serenity in doing the right thing, difficult as it may have been.

In the Fade won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign language Picture last Sunday and
opens this weekend in San Francisco.

Stream of the Week: HARD EIGHT – the indie neo-noir that launched careers

John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall in HARD EIGHT

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is topping a good many critics’ top ten lists. So it’s a good time to revisit Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight, a neo-noir from 1996.

In Hard Eight, the down-on-his-luck simpleton John (John C. Reilly) encounters an older loner, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) in a diner.  The 60ish Sydney, who Has Seen It All, takes pity on the 20-something John and offers to help him get some money.  Sydney takes John to Las Vegas and downloads Sydney’s casino expertise.  John becomes Sydney’s mentee, and eventually gains confidence, some financial security and the hope of a non-trashy future.

But, alas, this is a neo-noir and John can’t leave well enough alone.  He starts making some stupid decisions.   He falls for the cocktail waitress (and trick-turner) Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). He starts hanging out with security guy Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), who turns out to have a scary side.  Soon these folks get themselves into a dangerous situation WAY over their heads.  Perhaps Sydney knows a way out…

John C. Reilly in HARD EIGHT

Hard Eight works largely because of the characters of John and Sydney and the  performances of John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall.  Reilly is especially gifted at playing a goofy naif.

Hall is brilliant as Sydney, the wise loner.  We imagine that Sydney has operated in cynicism for decades, but something, perhaps some fundamental, accumulated loneliness, causes him to reach out and adopt John as his protege.  It’s as if Sydney suddenly feels the need to father  someone.  Why does he pick John as his son-figure when it’s clear that John has a limited ceiling?  Is it that John is just available when Sydney gets the urge?

Philip Baker Hall in HARD EIGHT

Paul Thomas Anderson’s career exploded with his next movie Boogie Nights, also with Reilly, Hoffman and Hall.  Then Anderson went on to make Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master and, now, Phantom Thread.  That’s a body work remarkably filled with originality.

Boogie Nights was also the breakthrough movie for both Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hoffman, of course, was later nominated for an Oscar in Anderson’s The Master after winning one for Capote.

Just before Hard Eight, a 23-year-old Paltrow had a part in Se7en.  But in the two years after Hard Eight, she was cast in Emma, Great Expectations, A Perfect Murder and her Oscar-winning role in Shakespeare in Love.

Jackson had already broken through with his performance as Gator the crackhead in Jungle Fever and defined his career as the iconic hit man Jules in Pulp Fiction.  But Jackie Brown, Star Wars, Shaft, The Hateful Eight and 70 more feature films were still ahead.

By Hard Eight, Hall had been working steadily for 26 years – almost all on TV.  He was best know for his Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s 1984 Secret Honor.  AfterHard Eight, he went on to roles in Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Rules of Engagement, The Matador and Zodiac.  And, in his 80s, he became instantly recognizable as Walt Kleezak in Modern Family.

Hard Eight is available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Philip Seymour Hoffman in HARD EIGHT

PHANTOM THREAD: rapturous and witty

PHANTOM THREAD

Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is Paul Thomas Anderson’s rapturously beautiful and unexpectedly witty story of a strong-willed man and two equally strong-willed women.

Reynolds (Day-Lewis) is a dressmaker to the rich and famous in 1950s London.  His unmarried sister Cyril (Lesley Manvilla) runs their home and takes care of business affairs.  On a foray to a provincial resort cafe, Reynolds is taken by the breakfast waitress Alma (Vivky Krieps), and brings her back to London with him.  Barely tolerated at first by Cyril, Alma becomes Reynold’s muse – until she isn’t.

In the movie’s first two minutes, Anderson establishes Alma as vibrant, Reynolds as fastidious and Cyril as commanding.  Phantom Thread is about the three characters’ relative power in the interpersonal relationships.  Alma starts at the very bottom, but changes the power balance in a quite novel way.

Daniel Day-Lewis creates a wonderfully watchable character in Reynolds.  He uses his creativity as an excuse for license to get his way in every regard.  Cyril indulges Reynolds and keeps him in a cocoon.  He says that a distraction at breakfast can ruin his productivity for an entire day.  Anderson heightens the volume of breakfast noises to show how grating the sound of buttering toast is to Reynolds.  It’s very funny.

Reynolds is so obsessive that, when he brings a date back to his place, he DRESSES her instead of undressing her.

The formidable Cyril is as chilly as February in the Yukon.  She is a woman of very few words, but her cutting observations and acid reactions are very, very funny.  The great actress Lesley Manville gets the most out of very brief lines – and, often, a mere silent look.  Manville’s performance is reason enough to see Phantom Thread.

The Luxembourgian actress Krieps (never thought I would write the adjective Luxembourgian) has received much critical buzz.  She is adequate as Alma, but I wouldn’t cross the street to see her next movie.

Reynolds adorns women in impressive dresses throughout Phantom Thread – the costume design is stellar. Anderson’s frequent collaborator, Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, supplies a beautiful score.  The total effect of visual imagery and music is opulent, so opulent as to remind me of Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de… and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard.

I saw Phantom Thread at a special SFFILM screening (70mm print!) with Paul Thomas Anderson in attendance.  Anderson said that he set out to make a gothic romance like Hitchcock’s Rebecca.   The kernel of the story was a strong-willed man who becomes nicer when laid low by illness – and his wife prefers him that way.  Anderson said that he was further inspired by the period British films The Passionate Friends and I Know Where I’m Going.

In a very nice touch, Anderson dedicated Phantom Thread to his late friend, the director Jonathan Demme.

Phantom Thread is a beautiful and witty film – one of the best of 2018

THE POST: riveting thriller and revelatory personal portrait

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in THE POST

The Post may be a docudrama, but it plays as a thriller and an astonishingly insightful portrait of Katharine Graham by Meryl Streep. It’s one of the best movies of the year – and one of the most important.

Essentially, this movie is about a corporate decision, but master storyteller Steven Spielberg sets it up as a tick-tock, high stakes thriller.  Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) must decide whether to publish the Pentagon Papers at a moment when her company is most vulnerable to market forces and government intimidation.  Nothing less than the American principle of freedom of the press hangs in the balance.

The Post also delivers the personal and feminist transformation of Katharine Graham, learning to move beyond her Mad Men Era roles as wife/mother/socialite andto , for the first time, assume real, not titular, command of a business empire.  And she goes All In on the ballsiest gamble any CEO could make.  To say that Streep brings Graham to life is inadequate.  Streep IS Graham. It sometimes seems like Streep can get an Oscar nomination without even making a movie, but this performance is one of Streep’s very best.

Spielberg surrounds Streep with a dazzling cast.  Tom Hanks lowers the pitch of his voice and becomes the swashbuckling editor Ben Bradlee.  Tracy Letts gives us another fine performance, this time as Graham’s financial guru Fritz Beebe.  As Bradlee’s second wife Tony, Sarah Paulson ignites a monologue with her piercing eyes.

Bruce Greenwood is quite brilliant as Robert McNamara, Graham’s old friend and the architect (and unwilling sta) of the Pentagon Papers. Greenwood is such an overlooked actor, and he’s so reliably good (he was even good in Wild Orchid, for Chrissakes).

The Pentagon Papers was the 7,000-page secret official history of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Commissioned by then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the Pentagon Papers chronicled the years of bad decisions by the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations and, especially, the deceitfulness of JFK’s and LBJ’s public optimism about the War.  The truth was that the US government knew that the war was unwinnable and that it was only prolonged because nobody knew how to get out while saving face.  The US President in 1971, Richard Nixon, was following the same course, unnecessarily wasting the lives of another 20,000 Americans during his term of office; the ruthless Nixon and his henchman Henry Kissinger were desperate to keep the Pentagon Papers secret.  A private sector defense expert, Daniel Ellsberg, had access to the Pentagon Papers and sought to have them published, and The Post tells this story, which takes the audience from a jungle firefight into the courtroom of the US Supreme Court.

Baby Boomers will appreciate being transported back to quaint 1971 technology: typewriters, one-page-at-a-time Xerox machines, rotary pay phones, real typeset and ink presses.  (And cigarette smoking in restaurants and cigars in the workplace.)

I’ve also written an essay on some of the historical figures and events depicted in The Post: historical musings on THE POST.

The Post is worth seeing for Streep’s performance, for the history (incredibly important at this moment in the nation’s history) and for the sheer entertainment value.  One of the year’s best.

 

historical musings on THE POST

Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts and Tom Hanks in THE POST

Watching The Post kindled some thoughts on the historical figures depicted in the movie.

Fritz Beebe, played by Tracy Letts in the movie, was a valued business advisor to Katharine Graham. Decades later Katharine Graham told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that Beebe made a half-hearted argument against publishing the Pentagon Papers; his intentional lack of forcefulness gave her the space to make the decision to publish. This dynamic is captured perfectly in The Post.  In the same interview, Katharine Graham gives her own version of the Pentagon Papers publication by the Washington Post; the movie hews closely to this account.

Watching Bruce Greenwood’s fine performance as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reminded me of the Errol Morris documentary: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. In 2003, Morris got McNamara to sit in front of a camera and spill the “lessons learned” from his Vietnam War mistakes. It was an exercise in confession for McNamara. But when listening to McNamara’s “if we had only known then…”, I kept remembering, enraged, that we DID know then. And the Pentagon Papers showed that McNamara, especially, knew most of this stuff then. I have never been so infuriated leaving a theater.

Now Tom Hanks in The Post and Jason Robards in All the President’s Men are wonderful as the swashbuckling editor Ben Bradlee. If you want a dose of the real Ben Bradlee, search YouTube for “Ben Bradlee Charlie Rose” – you’ll find a 53-minute 1996 interview with Bradlee, including his first-hand account of the Pentagon Papers episode.

If you perform a Google Image search for “ben bradlee antoinette pinchot”, you’ll find the real photo of Ben Bradlee and Antoinette “Tony” Pinchot Bradlee with Jack and Jackie Kennedy.  In the movie, Tom Hanks and Sarah Paulson are Photo-shopped into the picture in the Bradlee’s Georgetown townhouse.

Daniel Ellsberg (portrayed in The Post by Matthew Rhys) is still around and has written a new book. Last month, Ellsberg agave his own Fresh Air wide-ranging interview, in which he detailed the painstaking process of Xeroxing the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers one page at a time and cutting the “Top Secret” off each page with scissors.

And to nitpick, here’s the one historical inaccuracy that I could find in the movie – some New York City hippie protester in 1971 gives Mario Savio’s famous “bodies on the gears” speech, which Savio actually delivered seven years earlier in Berkeley .

I, TONYA: we can laugh, but must not judge

Margot Robbie in I, TONYA

The riotously funny docucomedy I, Tonya relives the tawdry story of figure skating star Tonya Harding, brought to disgrace when her supporters injured her competitor Nancy Kerrigan.  Margot Robbie (significantly glammed down) is exceptional as Tonya Harding.

Harding, of course, came from scruffy working class roots in Portland.  With disadvantages of class and poor education,  Tonya was unequipped to navigate a world dominated by middle and upper classes.  In I, Tonya, she refers to herself as a redneck and acts like trailer trash – really unapologetic trailer trash.

But I, Tonya adds another level to Tonya’s story.   In I, Tonya, Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney) is more than a driven, severe stage mother – she’s unrelentingly abusive, both emotionally and physically.  To make matters worse, Tonya escapes LaVona’s perpetual nastiness by running away into the arms of Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his chronic domestic violence.  At one point, Tonya reflects, “All I knew was violence“.

The beauty and effectiveness of Steven Rogers’ screenplay is that we can laugh at misadventures of these folks while deeply sympathizing with Tonya – scarred and shaped by abusive experiences.  The characters all break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience – very effective here.  Rogers and director Craig Gillespie maintain a perfect balance between the laughs and the abuse – sometimes at the same time.  This is the Aussie Gillespie’s best work.

Alison Janney in I, TONYA

LaVona’s spiteful bile is so extreme that it’s darkly funny.  Allison Janney, who is superb as this poisonous woman,  is probably America’s least vain actor. And nobody has ever had a better sense of comic timing.  She made me laugh out loud the first time I saw her, in 1998’s Primary Colors, and she keeps the audience guffawing in I, Tonya.

Jeff’s friend Shawn (a brilliant Paul Walter Hauser), who “masterminds” the attack on Kerrigan,  is so catastrophically stupid that he is unable to comprehend the profundity of his own stupidity.  In the closing credits, we get to glimpse the real LaVona and the real Shawn.

Julianne Nicholson is excellent as Tonya’s hyper-polite coach.  In a very brief role, Ricky Russert brilliantly brings out the glorious combination of panic and idiocy of “hit” man Shane Stant.

Once Tonya has been hounded by the media and suffered complete public humiliation, she faces the camera and says to the audience, “you have been my abusers“.  It’s not preachy or overdone, and this brief moment is crisp and unforgettable.  We have been laughing at her, but who are we to judge this survivor of family violence?

I, Tonya is captivating combination of sympathy and hilarity – and one of the year;s best films.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME: first love in a luscious Italian summer

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Call Me by Your Name is an extraordinarily beautiful story of sexual awakening set in a luscious Italian summer.  The film is gorgeous and magnificently well-acted, but flawed.

Each year, the family of 16-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends the summer in a villa in Northern Italy.  Elio’s father is an American professor of ancient Greek and Roman culture, and each summer he invites a different grad student to live in their villa and work on scholarly pursuits.  In this summer of 1981, that lucky grad student is the 26-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer).  Elio is attracted to Oliver, who is a closeted gay man. Oliver is attracted to Elio, but initially resists Elio’s overtures.  What follows between the two of them is an enthralling and authentic exploration of first love.

Timothée Chalamet is really perfect as Elio, a musical prodigy who is beating off the girls with a stick.  Even really handsome and talented 17-year-olds have some awkwardness, especially while they’re trying too hard to be cool.  Chamalet captures that perfectly, along with the obsessive longing of a first romance.  (Chalamet is also in Lady Bird, where he plays the dreamy kid who plays in a band, the object of Lady Bird’s desire.)  Armie Hammer is also superb as the more worldly Oliver, whose external confidence masks inner conflicts.

Timothée Chalamet in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

The story of the two main characters would have made a perfect film, but famed screenwriter James Ivory adds some distracting implausibility with the other characters.  First, there are Elio’s impossibly cool and understanding parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) who practically push their teen son into the arms of an older man; nobody has parents like that, especially TWO of them.  (And, yes, I did understand the dad’s motivation, made almost explicit in his final monologue).  Second, Elio hurts the feelings of a girl (in a way that almost every male has hurt some girl).  Later, she forgives him and it’s all made to be okay.  This is just too convenient for Elio, and I didn’t buy it.

And then there’s one of my own movie pet peeves.  I generally despise musical interludes in movies, when the dialogue is suspended and a song is played over a montage of imagery.  This usually indicates a lack of imagination in the story-telling.  A movie gets negative bonus points from me when the music is an insipid pop ballad.  In Call Me by Your Name, there are two such Euro-pop interludes.

On the other hand, the depiction of the Italian countryside, with its rustling breezes, orchards heavy with fruit, ancient buildings and  is pure travel porn.  I think that The Wife would have walked out of Call Me by Your Name – not because she wouldn’t have liked it – but to make reservations for a return to Tuscany.  Director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love) has a gift for making his native Italy unbearably attractive on the screen.  Between the work of Guadagnino and Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), Italy has been well-celebrated in recent films.

Call Me By Your Name is a very good movie, and the core story of Elio and Oliver is great cinema.