“ Mary, Queen of Scots”

It may help one’s enjoyment of screenwriter Beau Willimon’s movie “Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018 ) if you brush up on those Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth personages before you enter the theatre. Having not read the book on which the screenplay is based, John Guy’s “Mary, Queen of Scots”, I do not know how much the first thirty-five minutes conform. But, they are deadly, cold, and dark, and that includes the screen. This being said, as one sorts out the two Tudor Marys, one being “Bloody”, and our star, Mary Stuart ( Saoirse Ronan), the film picks up and splendid acting ensues.

A brief factual history helps. Mary Stuart ( 1542-1587) is tolerant and portrayed as such. She was beheaded, and Director Josie Rourke begins here. The rest is flashback.

Our Mary is not to be confused with Mary Tudor (1516-1558) “Bloody Mary” (so called by her Protestant opponents) daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Nor is she to be confused with Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who married Louis XII of France in 1514.

Our Mary Stuart married a French King,too. And we see, via the flashback,a young eighteen-year-old widow after the death of France’s Francis II. The scenes where Ronan plays coy with her ladies-in-waiting are meant to stress her youthful sexuality, her playfulness, and lack of hautiness. She soon is swept away by her cousin’s amorous intentions and marries a second time. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley,( Jack Louden) is father of her son, James. In 1557, a year later, Lord Darnley is murdered by the Fourth Earl of Bothwell. As plotted by Queen Elizabeth’s make regents, he becomes Mary’s third husband. The Queen and her lords believed that they had to separate this marriage between two Catholics.

Margot Robbie is amazing in her supporting role as Queen Elizabeth I. She must protect her crown, and a Papist must not again sit on the throne. Her overt confidence, interwoven with self-effacing admittance of jealousy and the belief that Mary is the better woman, is well-scripted.

Mary is just as perceptive. Ronan just as brilliant in her portrayal. Her missives fly for the cousins\ sisters to “resolve our destinies”. She is honest, strong, and able to tell her husband that he is not her master, even at eighteen. Later, when Lord Darnley ( her second husband) sleeps with a man. Mary dismisses him from her bedchamber, but tolerantly tells him that she “can not fault him for his nature.”

The back and forth screen time between Mary and Elizabeth further separates any meshing of womanly accord. When they finally meet in person, we are taken by the weight of both Elizabeth’s and Mary’s decisions. Mary will not declaim her people though she asks for Elizabeth’s protection. Elizabeth and her regents believe that they must control Mary’s claim. When Elizabeth’s advisors propose civil war in Scotland to aid their cause, she tells Mary, “ I choose to be a man”.

Willimon’s television-drama sensation “House of Cards” ( 2013-2017) shows that he understands the political arena, and at forty-one, he does not dispute that woman have had it rough. The “Me, Too” movement shines through in his revisiting of history. In one card playing scene, a knife is put to Mary’s pregnant stomach. This is where men think her power grows. By the way, my favorite visual was the shadow of Mary’s bountiful profile.

“Mary, Queen of Scots” takes one to a period I don’t wish to return to, though I loved the four ladies praying at Mary’s bedside. Basically, any woman thinking and planning is seen as whimsical and foolish by “wise” men.

Mary endures gossip, name-calling, and subterfuge. She is called a “polecat”, betrayed by her half brother, the Earl of Moray ( James McArdle), and humiliated by at least one husband. Other male personages seem to be fuzzily identified. John Knox is played by David Tennant, and advisor, William Cecil, is played by Guy Pierce. Both are good in their parts, but a knowledge of English history would assuredly help in following the historical arc.

Queen Elizabeth controls her conscience by rolling paper into flowers and embroidery. She muses that “ when we are dead nothing matters”. Her sigh of “How cruel men are!” thrusts the sub-theme forward. This film seems to champion Mary Queen of Scots’ reputation. Guillotined, Mary is poryrayed as loyal, dutiful, and tolerant, rather than ambitious. She believes that to relinquish the throne is against God’s will.

We wish Queen Elizabeth did not yield so to her male regents’ bridle. When she burns her artful paperwork, she symbolically succumbs to a man’s world. The red flowers melt into blood between her legs. Another nicely graphic touch, yet makes one think that only women who give birth are true women. Robbie beautifully and understatedly emotes that “we could do worse than put her (Mary) on the throne of England.”

The second half of the film is far superior to the first. I loved the thatched wash house scene, where the pock-marked Queen plays peek-a-boo with the lovely Mary. Both women seem utterly alone. Robbie, again delivers remarkable lines: “ Your gifts are your downfall…I was jealous of your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood”.

Elizabeth was forty years on the throne. She thought women ruled better without discord, but her signing the death knell for a despairing, but resolute, Mary did not finish the deal. Mary’s son, James, became James VI of Scotland and James I of England after Elizabeth’s death. Oscars for the female leads is here reason enough to see “ Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018), and revisiting the possibilities of historical-could-have-beens is fun, too.

“I, Tonya”

What a delightful surprise! The film’s trailers had left me cold , but “I, Tonya” may just turn out to be one of my favorites of 2017. Its title “I, Tonya” assuredly reflects “I, Claudius” in the plotting, scheming, and poisoning arena. More than a “mockumentary”, this superbly fresh film forces us to rethink our initial judgments on the event that banned Tonya Harding from ever again competing on ice.

Steven Rogers’ screenplay is pitch-perfect. And the same can be said of Craig Gillespie’s seamless directing. The tension build-up shows all the ways to disable people, making us as sympathetic to Harding as we were initially to her Olympic teammate, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 when she was purposely kneecapped. We are all implicated in our talk show laughter at “trashy Tonya”, and while Tonya is never glamorized or completely exonerated in this film, she is shown as the abused, feisty underdog~the polar opposite of the reigning figure-skating elite.

Though five inches taller than Harding, Australian actress Margot Robbie captures the fiery swagger and spirit of a little girl with ice princess dreams. Robbie, herself an amateur ice hockey league skater, was helped by skating doubles Heidi Mungy and Anna Malkova. Visual effects and actual footage of Tonya’s routines also serve to bolster Robbie and celebrate the beauty of the sport.

The film does not move chronologically, but begins with interviews. Flashbacks serve emotional purpose. One by one, the principals tell their truth, or not.  Most alarming is Allison Janney’s portrayal of LaVona Golden, Tonya’s mother, for which she won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress with Cruella De Vil flair.

Not since “Mommy Dearest” has a birth mother shown such villainous disregard for the well-being of her child. Yet, until the final coup-d-etat, she believes she is raising a strong, self-sufficient child with her “hair brush and knife throwing methods”. Her scathing admonition to Tonya contributes to her portrait as a rancorous bitch: “ You fuck dumb: you don’t marry dumb.” The irony is not lost coming from a women who has had six husbands. Tonya is the fifth child of husband number four.

On the ice at three and a half, Tonya (here Maizie Smith) proves her mettle and wins the coach who will drive her to be the first American woman skater ever to do the triple axel. The talented McKenna Grace has a few extraordinary scenes where she plays  the eight to twelve year-old Tonya. She will steal your heart as she did in “Gifted” (2017).

Robbie, while a standout and worthy of the Oscar here,  has an awkward time playing a fifteen year-old (as does Sebastian Stan as Tonya’s boyfriend, and soon to be husband, Jeff Gillooly. ) Putting braces on Robbie’s  teeth did not erase the years, or Robbie natural poise. And Jeff’s, “You Like food?” for a first date icebreaker seems forced. LaVona accompanies them to the diner, by the way.

Domestic violence, guns, and alcohol all play out with lawyers, restraining orders and reunions. The tone of “laugh til you cry” is modulated to have the viewers’ emotions roiled. It works big time. Director, cast and writer mesh to amazing effect.

Margot Robbie’s face is unforgettable as she applies her blush-like war paint before high-stepping it onto the ice. She is a powerhouse in purple.

Julianne Nicholson plays the sensible coach, Diane Rawlinson. She is a foil to the sleazy and the irrational; yet, she demands that Tonya play the game for her second chance: drop the metallic blue nails and the unconventional music, spit out the gum, watch the foul-mouth tirades, and ease up on the cigarette smoking. Tonya’s asthma inhaler is often seen on the ice. A favorite close-up shot is of her skate blade slicing the butt of her tossed smoke.

The score is well-matched from “Dream a Little Dream of Me” to “Barracuda”. The last shots of the 2003 Tonya being punched in the boxing ring  are horrendous. When she states that “violence is what I knew anyway”, we get the irony. She had become a punching bag, spitting blood as blue-collar scrapper, and staring at us from the mat’s surface.

Gender, class and politics, all play a role in mirroring and satirizing a fallen star, her associates, and the expectations of the era.

Shawn Eckhardt, the “bodyguard” and delusional emasculated male, is another sad, damaged character. “None of my women get the last word.” , he chortles as he stuffs his caramel corn into his mouth. As the perpetrator of much of the racketeering, psychological warfare, and assault, actor Paul Walter Hauser eases naturally  into the role. Docu-drama never looked easier.

Bozos hanging out at “The Golden Buddha” at the stroke of midnight fuel the humor. One only wishes that virtual reality gaming might keep RL ( real life) safer for the next generation. With avatars there may be  less infiltrating in the real world. Shawn’s brags of being four steps ahead of the FBI. And Tonya mimics her own mockers as she smirks: “ a secret agent who lives with his parents”.  As the lyrics are sung “ How can you stop the sun from shining, how can a loser ever win”, viewers will think that the disgraced Tonya won with this movie. And we will think that we did, too: A must see.

“Whiskey, Tango, FoxTrot”

This symbolically and kicky titled film, “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot” was produced by Tina Fey and dedicated to her Korean-veteran father who died in October. The movie which also stars Fey expects viewers to know something about the “Forgotten War”. Viewers will be amazed at Fey’s acting depth and the wide breath of the film’s themes.  Go, girl! And kudos to screenwriter Robert Carlock, Fey’s oft time collaborator.

This is a film about female empowerment and career versus traditional life choices. It shows the emotional strength of our wounded and is provocative in the way many dramatic war films are, but here directors Glenn Ficarra and John Reua use absurdist humor to say, “This war is like fucking a gorilla. You keep going until the gorilla wants to stop.” Unlike Kim Baker,or Kim Barker, I could not paraphrase that.

Based on a true story documented in Kim Barker’s book, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, this deceptively deep film changes Barker’s name to Baker and shows a rookie war correspondent with interviewing and listening skills to rival intricate  military tactical charts and strategies. Granted there are some naive missteps, fueled by whiskey and false dance steps, but Fey shines as savvy and grounded in an off-beat way.

The situational humor is ironic and at times scorching. A small example is  one of those ten-inch long adhesive size labels left on the front of Fey’s pants. In the midst of this wind, sand and blinding-sun war, a soldier is bothered to distraction by this fashion faux pas. Fey’s initial orange backpack draws more ire, as a sergeant barks: “Even the Dutch Army does not wear orange  in combat.” When a Kabul woman screams: “Cover your head, shameless whore” we wince. Yet, fashion police are fashion police. There is a hilarious scene where in her burka-blue prison, Fey draws turbaned and unturbaned heads. Sexiness is made ubiquitous.

The supporting actors are real and affecting. Billy Bob Thornton as Commanding General directs the cool imperative: ” Do not distract my marines.” But there are lots of distractions from hookah dens and disco dancing;  to hunky, personal security guards, to signs reading NYC 6881 miles this way.  Let alone the betting on insect fights and the viewing of bestiality porn. Everyone is free to tag along as long as one stays hydrated. When a battle is filmed or an eighty-thousand-dollar shot at a car is taken, all the foreign press celebrate the aired story. Margot Robbie, Austrailian beauty of “Wolf Of Wall Street Fame”, plays Tanya Vanderpoel, a fellow female reporter whose  sophisticated carriage has the tyro-like Fey using  a phony French accent to upgrade her background as ” domestic reportage”. Alfred Molina is hysterical as the hypocritical Minister Of Vice and Virtue, and Martin Freeman is arresting as the Scottish photojournalist and Fey’s love interest, even though initially she tells him that ” the Irish accent is not to be confused with personality.”  “Scottish” he tells her, “actually.” Josh Charles, Will Gardner in the television series “The Good Wife”, is the unfaithful boyfriend back home. His dalliance is briefly recorded during a Sykpe conversation where Kim ( Fey)  asks him to come visit her in Kabul. Christopher Abbott as Fahim Ahmadzai is brilliant and constant. Kim’s wild behavior is explained by him. ” You are not yourself anymore. You are in “Kabubble”: it changes your perception of who you are.”

The score is so effective that a few scenes elicit tears. “Can’t live without you” lyrics detail the depth of Kim’s involvement in Iain’s  ( her boyfriend’s) release.  Goats bleat, lambs are slaughtered, but Kim does her best. One such scene is where Iain MacKelpie ( Martin Freeman) is released from the Taliban. Another is where bomb-melted crayons on a child’s desk pressage scrawled graffiti stating ” No education for women.”  Another is  when Kim is leaving Kabul, and she tells her driver and  friend that in her culture she would hug him. Fahim’s stoic demeanor is offset by his hand slowly touching hers on a suitcase handle. Be prepared for some horrifyingly gruesome imagery, a double amputee who you will love, and an egg-boy whom you will admire  as he begs in the street. Women bombing wells in order to socialize and a Middle Eastern wedding round out events.

At the film’s end, Kim asks Fahim about his new family. He reports that his son is strong. Kim counters with ” I bet his twin sister is, too.”  Fahim whispers that she is stronger, and we believe him. I loved this nuanced film with its “Embrace the suck, and move forward” theme.