I, Tonya (2017)

I was skeptical about watching Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya mainly because I’m not overly fond of the mockmentary style, but after watching this marvelous, darkly comic  film, I realise that it couldn’t have been made any other way. In case readers don’t remember the scandal, Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband, of Olympian and US Champion Ice skater Tonya Harding was convicted of organizing an attack on another Olympian Nancy Kerrigan. After the 1994 Olympics concluded, Tonya Harding pled guilty to hindering the prosecution and was subsequently banned for life from the US Figure Skating Association.

The film begins with the statement that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly” as well as some archival footage. We see Tonya’s bleak childhood in Portland, Oregon, her acid-tongued mother, and the departure of her father. We also see Tonya’s waitress mother LaVona (Allison Janney) taking Tonya to the ice rink to meet coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Diane doesn’t accept pupils as young as Tonya, who according to her mother is a ‘soft 4,’ but LaVona doesn’t take no for an answer and tells her child to get out there and skate.

By the time Tonya (Margot Robbie) is in her teens, she’s already a phenomenal talent, and it’s at the ice rink that she meets Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and his plump friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Basically, it’s all downhill from there–with conflicting statements about Jeff and Tonya’s relationship and marriage which ended in divorce in 1993.

This is where the story gets weird and versions deviate when it comes to just who knew what. Anyone who watches this highly entertaining film will have their own opinion.

I’ve read criticisms of the brilliantly created and well-acted film with such statements that we are supposed to feel sorry for Tonya Harding, and of course, we all ask ourselves how much Tonya Harding knew. Underneath that big question, for this viewer, the film is about being poor and disadvantaged in America, but it’s also about talent and what we do with it. This is a particularly fraught situation when you are talking about athletic talent in a sport in which you peak in your early 20s.

I loved the scenes with Tonya skating to rock music. Personally, I think it was a shame she stopped that and conformed to the classical routines. This is from the film:

And here’s the real Tonya Harding skating with pure joy to 99 Luftballoons:

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Bad Banks (German series 2018)

I’m old enough to still have images of the old stodgy banker in my head: the stereotypical banker was a solid, pudgy late-middle-aged man, and yes while he may have had a secret mistress who dressed him in nappies and spanked him, this was a man as boring and as no-nonsense as the sternest headmaster. In other words, the Banker was a respectable, middle class, plodding figure who took no risks with your money.

Fast forward to the 21st century: banks make easy targets when it comes to institutional villainy. This is especially true following the collapse of the housing market and the ‘shocking’ revelations that banks  (and the shadow banking system) engaged in the subprime mortgage fiasco. But with all our disapproval of bank-shenanigans, the wonderfully engaging German TV series Bad Banks reveals unmined territory: the pressure, the dirt, the creative accounting behind the scenes of the Frankfurt based Deutsche Global Invest bank.

Ambitious, yet fragile Jana (Paula Beer) is humiliated and abruptly fired from Crédit International in Luxembourg when she speaks out of ‘place’ while working with arrogant, misogynistic Luc Jacoby (Marc Limpach). But luck seems to drop into Jana’s lap when the older Christelle Leblanc (Désirée Nosbusch) offers to help Jana land a new job with the dynamic Gabriel Fenger (Barry Atsma) the head of Investment banking at the rival bank: Deutsche Global Invest. Jana, talented, yet naive, who leaves her boyfriend and his young daughter behind and subsequently moves to Frankfurt, is thrilled by Leblanc’s female mentoring/apparent act of kindness, yet as the story unfolds it’s clear that Christelle expects to be repaid….

The aggressive, charismatic, intimidating Fenger demands the impossible from his ‘team,’ and consequently, the younger bankers lead stressed out lives even as they compete, manipulate and whore their way to the next lucrative deal. Working with Jana is Thao Hoang (Mai Duong Kieu) a young Asian woman who initially loathes Jana, and Adam (Albrecht Schuch), a seemingly quiet, young family man.

Fenger recognizes that Jana has talent but that talent is only as good as the next deal she lands. There’s also a sexual chemistry between Fenger and Jana, but she’s difficult to read. She’s a cipher–easy to underestimate because she shows weakness. This display, though, can occasionally be played for maximum benefit.

Scenes show just how far these young bankers will go to land a deal, and Jana manages to leapfrog obstacle after obstacle, sometimes with questionable ethics while Thao watches on the sidelines oozing malice. Jana, aware of Thao’s dislike, tries to offer friendship, but Thao initially predictably rejects Jana’s overtures. Jana, taking a page out of Christelle Leblanc’s book,  decides to approach Thao differently:

Women don’t work together or form groups. They also won’t go to brothels together. We’d rather pretend to hate each other, destroying each other.

This is a male-dominated world, men have the power and the money, while prostitutes and strippers are just chess pieces to land deals. That leaves the female bankers with a poor hand of cards unless, like Jana and Christelle, they can be smarter.

Lots of drama here–lots of scenes showing how people are driven by various impulses which, inevitably, veer out of control. This is a dynamic, riveting drama, packed with spectacular photography, and while I didn’t care for the A team feel at the end of episode 6, this paves the way for further malfeasance.

I loved this series for the way it explores our relationship with money:

A simple number is a wonderful thing. It can mean something different for everyone. Wealth. Status. Recognition. Addiction. Adrenaline. Greed. Life. Everyone has their own drive. Their own number that they keep wanting to increase, a number they’re prepared to do anything for. 

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The Adulterer (Series 1: 2011)

Since the action in the Dutch series, The Adulterer is sparked by an extramarital affair, it’s easy to see how the series acquired its name. While the title evokes racy images, adultery is just one aspect of this complex crime series. The alternate, much more appropriate title is Betrayal or Overspel. 

Attractive magazine photographer Iris van Erkel-Hoegaarde (Sylvia Hoeks) is married to public prosecutor Pepijn van Erkel (Ramsey Nasr), and they have a young son together. Although both husband and wife have good careers and a lovely home, we know almost immediately that something is wrong in their marriage. Perhaps it’s Iris’s complete inertia during sex, or perhaps it’s her ability to tune out? Whatever it is, Pepijn, who appears to be a milquetoast, seems blissfully unaware that his mis-matched wife is completely disinterested in him.

At a show of Iris’s photographs, she meets married lawyer Willem Steenhouwer (Fedja van Huêt) the son-in-law of the criminal real estate magnate Huub Couwenberg (Kees Prins), and sparks fly.

Willem is married to Couwenberg’s daughter, Elsie (Rifka Lodeizen). Elsie is so busy running her barely-staying afloat restaurant, that she’s also unaware that her family is falling apart. Not only does Willem begin an affair with Iris, but Elsie and Willem’s twin teenagers Marco (Jeffrey Hamilton) and Marit (Sirid ten Napel) begin dealing with crises of their own when Marco brutally attacks one of Marit’s friends.

The various worlds of the inter-connected characters are fascinating. Huub Couwenberg and his brain-damaged son, Bjorn (Guido Pollemans), live together in mal-adjusted domesticity, and while Bjorn leads a privileged, somewhat sheltered life listening to rock music, playing violent video games and visiting the local brothel, he tries hard to please his father, too hard as the series shows. Huub alternates between explosive anger and affection for the son who frustrates him: a child in a man’s body.

Then there’s Elsie and Willem who lead separate lives with discontented teenagers thrown into the mix. Marit wants to talk about the criminal activities of the family and Marco wants to emulate his grandfather.

But arguably the most chilling aspect of family life is seen in the home of Iris and Pepijn van Erkel. He seems so harmless–with an almost Danny Kaye harmless, buffoonishness to him, but look closely. He’s all over Iris at her exhibition, and then lets her know when he’s waiting, in bed, for sex.

Soon adultery is at the heart of a web of deceit, lies and murder, and the characters who were at one point, divided into the good/bad categories become shades of grey as loyalties clash and various agendas emerge.

There are a few false cliff-hanging moments but certainly not enough to mar this well-acted, addictive series.

In Dutch with subtitles

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Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great (2014)

For fans of Russian history or for those who love a good biopic, then don’t miss the 10-part Russian miniseries:  Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great. The series opens with a sixteen-year-old Frederica (Marina Aleksandrova) travelling to Russia along with her mother, Princess Johanna (Isabel Schosnig). Frederica is to marry the heir to the Russian throne Pyotr (Aleksandr Yatsenko), the nephew of Empress Elizabeth. For this impoverished German family, this is a match that must work, and the family’s survival rests upon it. In the eyes of Frederica and her mother, marriage to the heir seems to be a done deal, but scenes with Empress Elizabeth (Yuliya Aug) and her advisers show otherwise. Plus there are those intent on stopping the heir’s marriage to a minor German princess.

XiveTV EkaterinaFrom the beginning of this miniseries, character is emphasized, and while Elizabeth is, undeniably, an incredibly strong-willed woman, she’s met her match in Frederica, whose name is rapidly changed to Ekaterina. Many in the court are only too happy to disrupt the match between Ekaterina and Pyotr, but Ekaterina’s determination to prevail and to adopt Russian culture and religion win the day. Plus, there’s the definite sense that Ekaterina knows this is a waiting game…. and wait she does.

I’ve seen the Marlene Dietrich version of Catherine the Great, which I loved incidentally, but historically it had its flaws. Pyotr in that film was portrayed as a lunatic, but in Ekaterina, Pyotr is seen as damaged, possibly because of his many social constraints and also because he knows that once he’s produced an heir, he may well suffer the same fate as Ivan VI, who is imprisoned and going mad.

We see some of the scheming behind the throne and the intrigue rife in the German and and Russian Courts (where walls have ears). Also we see how Ekaterina begins to emerge from her role of submissive wife and subject and seeks love through various affairs. The characters of Elizabeth and Ekaterina bookend this marvellous biopic series as these two women battle it out: one powerful woman in decline and the other ascending.  At the moment, this mini-series is free on Amazon prime.

Ekaterina is a marvellous spectacle, a delight for the eyes. Looking forward to series 2.

 

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Black Widow (Penoza)

Not to be confused with the Swedish series Black Widows, the Dutch export Black Widow (singular) is a look at Amsterdam’s criminal underworld through the life of Carmen van Walraven. When series 1 opens, Carmen (Monic Hendrickx) is married to Frans (Thomas Acda) and they have three children together: Natalie (Sigrid ten Napel), Lucien (Niels Gompert) and Boris (Stijn Taverne). Carmen is one of three siblings with younger brother, Irwan de Rue (Fedja)) and sister Marleen (Maartje Remmers).

Black widow

When the series opens, Frans who is, according to his wife, a dealer in hash, becomes involved with the heavy world of cocaine trafficking when business partner Irwan rips off a shipment belonging to Belgian Schiller (Filip Peeters).

Soon Irwan, Frans and the third partner  of the “shop,” volatile Steven (Marcel Hensema), are up to their eyes in trouble. When things turn ugly, Carmen tells Frans that she wants him to leave the Life or she wants a divorce.

All this comes on top on younger sister Marleen’s wedding–an event which causes no small amount of turmoil in the family. Carmen’s mother, the very sour faced Fiep (Olga Zuiderhock) refuses to attend if father André (Tom Jansen) brings along his latest ditzy mistress. We get the first glimpse of Carmen’s strategic thinking when she manipulates the situation in her favour.

Of course, as we all know, noone leaves the life, or if they do, it’s either through the witness protection programme or in a wooden box. All hell breaks loose when Frans, pressured by Carmen tries to leave his criminal life (along with their fantastic waterside home).

To say too much more about the plot of this fantastic crime series would potentially spoil it for other viewers, so instead I’ll say that the plot shows the thorny path to acceptance of violence, and this is shown so well in the character of Carmen, who finds herself doing things she has no taste for, and yet she shows a great deal of skill in strategic planning, leadership and intimidation.

On one level, Carmen is a mother trying to ‘save’ her children, and yet by ensuring their safety, she creates a moral abyss which surrounds the lives of her children, and we see how each of the three children must find their way through a world of corruption and death. Yes, they are privileged: doors open for them, and yet it all comes with a cost. There’s also danger, as we see as the series progresses in not telling them some of the salient details of what she’s up to, so it’s a dilemma: should she tell them the truth to protect them from potential dangers or does the truth present moral difficulties which she will have to explain?

I can’t finish this post without mentioning the friendships Carmen maintains with two women: Hanneke (Peggy Jane de Schepper) and Sandrina (Medina Schurrman)–a woman who, as the series progresses, shows a history of poor choices in men. These friendships are tested when loyalties shift.

There’s also “Baldy,” or Berry (Loek Peters), a criminal whose role (and loyalties) shift throughout the series, but in spite of the many questionable things he does, there’s still, at the heart of this character, a sort of tarnished chivalry towards woman. It’s this facet of his character which makes him so interesting to follow. There’s also faithful henchman Luther (Raymond Thiry) and finally there’s the dogged, underappreciated policeman Jim Leeflang (Hajo Bruins). The plot plays with his motives at many times. He plants himself outside of Carmen’s house 24-7 but what is he driven by: attraction or at the desire to stick this woman behind bars.? Carmen is seen as a desirable woman who gains the respect of everyone who deals with her (well almost everyone).

As the series continue, you can’t help but get involved with the characters. The plot wobbles a bit at times, but overall, this is great entertainment, and Carmen’s mother Fiep remains one of my favourite characters.  I’ve watched series 1-5 so far and there’s another on the way. In N. America, this is available on Walter Presents. 

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Roberto Succo (2001)

You can’t predict crazy

The film Roberto Succo from director Cédric Kahn, based on a true story, takes a hard cold look at the crime spree of an escaped Italian mental patient. Roberto Succo slaughtered his parents and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for a ten year sentence. He escaped, traveled to France and then embarked on a life of crime: stealing cars, and committing rape and murder along the way.

When the film opens a wild-eyed Roberto (Stefano Cassetti) who calls himself ‘Kurt,’ meets 16-year-old schoolgirl Léa (Isild le Besco), who’s on holiday in Southern France, at a seaside disco. He drives a flashy car, has wads of cash, is full of glamorous tales of his exploits, and Lea gets caught up in the drama of their romance. Kurt claims to be English, yet his accent seems Italian to Léa. There’s no sex between them-just some groping and the odd dry hump,  and when she returns home to the Savoy Mountains, he promises to see her again.

roberto succo

The film is largely episodic, and at times the narrative picks up as Roberto commits another crime or drops back into Léa’s life. In one scene, the police respond to a missing person’s report, and it’s at this point that police detective Thomas, (Patrick Dell’Isola) begins to piece together that a series of seemingly random crimes have been committed by the same individual who’s running amok across France.

After speaking to a few witnesses and putting together a crime spree map, Thomas concludes, correctly as it turns out, that they are dealing with a madman. Unfortunately Thomas’s superior doesn’t think the case is that serious….

While some of the film follows the dogged investigation, when scenes switch to Roberto, the tempo changes dramatically.  His victims will be leading their normal routines when suddenly Roberto bursts into their lives with his erratic, manic behaviour. Whether he’s ranting about endocrinology, Stendhal or Marxism, he’s clearly terrifying insane. Some of his victims are able to play cool while others aren’t so fortunate. In terms of violence, we see a post slaughter scene and photos of a slaughter scene. Not too gruesome in its distance but certainly dire enough to place a heavy weight on the narrative. The most terrifying aspect of the story has to be the sheer randomness of his attacks.

Meanwhile as the police dig for clues, Robert visits Léa. They have a relationship of sorts with him spinning various versions of himself and Léa either largely swallowing or deciding to ignore the glaring inconsistencies in his tales.

Roberto is clearly a fantasist and the film shows that well. At times he brags he’s a terrorist, a Marxist, and when given attention he’s caught in the moment as he spews out various elaborate, grandiose versions of his life. Stefano Cassetti delivers a convincing performance as the mercurial madman who doesn’t seem to have a goal other than ‘freedom.’ His victims exist to help him achieve that careening, elusive ideal. Towards the end of the film, he rants his insane version of the fate of one of his victims, and while we know his version is twisted, the horrifying fate of the victim haunts the scene.

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Luz Casal

High Heels

 

Luz Casal sings two of my favourite songs from High Heels, an Almodovar film

 

Luz Casal

Piensa en Mí

 

WOW!

 Un año De Amor. (with scenes from the film)

(Sorry about the ads on the videos)

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