Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

Somebody, please, tell me : where’s all the hate coming from?

Okay, maybe a better way to put that would be — why is all the hate coming in the first place because, strictly speaking, we know where it’s coming from : just as the gaming scene was disrupted mightily by right-wing trolls who didn’t want any women around and coalesced into a toxic stew known as “Gamergate,” and the comics scene has recently found itself fending off a broadly anti-diversity rump of retrograde fans who have taken to labeling their harassment and intimidation campaign “Comicsgate,” the Star Wars scene has been besieged by an as-yet-untitled, but damn noisy and annoying, group of right-wing ostensible “fans” who have decided that their (again, ostensibly) beloved franchise has been besieged by “political correctness,” and that the films are now loaded with so-called “SJW messaging.”

It’s all bullshit, of course : if anything, the Star Wars films are as obliquely pro-war as ever (hell, it’s right there in the name, so maybe it’s not so “oblique” after all), but that never stopped a bunch of noisemakers aligned with the “alt-right” from trying to gin up a controversy where none exists for the sake of hopefully making a few bucks. To date, actress Kelly Marie Tran has gotten the worst of it, her turn as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi — hell, her very existence — pissing off the troglodytes to the point where she has literally shut down all her social media accounts after getting understandably sick of literally hundreds or overtly racist messages and comments being flung at her every day, but for reasons I can’t fathom, these same douchebags also decided well in advance of its release that the spin-off film Solo : A Star Wars Story was going to suck.

Again, though, as always, the dipshit brigade was dead wrong.

And, again, that hasn’t shut them the fuck up, and at this point it’s worth noting that the crossover between the various “gates” is getting pronounced — not just in terms of their vile politics and their even more vile tactics, but even in terms of the very people involved : noted “Comicsgate” shit-disturber/untalented hack artist Ethan Van Sciver, for instance, has recently been migrating over Star Wars fandom and has made thousands of dollars selling bootleg “Soylo” t-shirts (“soy,” like “cuck” and “SJW,” being favored derogatory terminology deployed by “alt-right” types against their philosophical opponents) that I’m thinking Disney’s lawyers might want to take a good look at being that they use the exact same logo as the Solo film.

Tell you what, though — even if Van Sciver justifiably finds himself getting his ass sued off, he’ll probably still claim a pyrrhic victory : Solo, you see, has been the first legit box-office disappointment in Star Wars history, and the “anti-SJW” crowd is taking all the credit for it.

Which, say it with me now, is also complete BS, as there’s nothing even remotely “SJW,” or even political in any way, on offer in this flick. I don’t know why this movie hasn’t done so well — although it’s worth noting that when all is said and done it’ll probably still turn a healthy profit — but I do know that politics has nothing to do with it. Solo is essentially what any Han Solo “origin story” should be : a space western suitable for all ages, races, genders, ethnicities, and political persuasions. A 12-year-old kid who cried with his mom the night Trump won the election and a crusty 60-year-old in a “MAGA” hat can each find plenty to love here, because the film’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious : Alden Ehrenreich is a pitch-perfect choice in the title role; Woody Harrelson’s rogue-ish Tobias Beckett is a fantastic foil/mentor; his partner in crime and life, Thandie Newton’s Val, is equal parts tough as nails and achingly human; Paul Bettany cuts a genuinely menacing and mysterious figure as chief villain Dryden Voss;  Donald Glover is spot-on stupendous as a young Lando Calrissian; Emilia Clarke is coolly intriguing yet eminently relatable as Han’s love interest, Qi’ra; hell, even Joonas Suatomo seems to approach the role of Chewbacca with a little extra heart. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that all the principal players flat-out nail it in their roles.

I’m thinking this all flows from the top down — veteran blockbuster director Ron Howard was brought in approximately halfway through to rescue what by all accounts had been a flagging production, and armed with a screenplay by old Lucasfilm hand Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan, the air of tonally perfect professionalism established is unmistakable : the humor (of which there is plenty) is well-timed and genuinely funny, the battle scenes and their attendant special effects spectacular, the various subplots compelling — seriously, this is a “popcorn movie” that’s firing on all cylinders all the way through, and more importantly, it has everythingStar Wars fan could possibly want, and nothing they don’t.

For all that, though, very little feels forced, there’s no sense a “checklist” Howard and the Kasdans are working from is having its various boxes ticked off : yeah, how the hell Solo became such a good “space cards” player is never really explained and just needs to be taken as a given, and they do rush on pretty quickly from a central character’s death, so much so that it feels downright callous, and sure, the third act contains a bit too much set-up material for a sequel that will now probably never happen (although there’s a real jaw-dropper among these foreshadowings that ties this flick into Lucas’s much-maligned prequel trilogy) — but apart from that, everything here really flows from scene to scene quite nicely.

And speaking of “flow,” the entire film positively flies by, it’s two-hour-plus runtime over with all too soon. But you know what? You’ll be smiling the whole way, because Solo : A Star Wars Story isn’t just the franchise’s best outing since The House Of The Mouse took over (well over 12 parsecs ago now), it’s the best since The Empire Strikes Back.

So, where’s all the hate coming from? Well, when I put the question out to twitter as to where the supposed “SJW messaging” in this movie was to be found, I only got one response, that from a person I recognized as being linked with “Comicsgate” (some of them follow me out of sheer spite, I think), who opined that the “problem” with it was that it featured a “miscegenation relationship” (Harrelson and Newton) and “acted like it was perfectly normal.”

The hate, then? It’s coming from racist fucking assholes. And any movie that pisses them off is probably pretty damn good — this one certainly is.

 

In recent years, micro-budget VOD steaming horror releases have become something of my stock-in-trade around these parts —  and yet, in recent months, as I’ve devoted most of my blogging time to getting a good backlog of material up on my Four Color Apocalypse comics review site, I’ve had disturbingly little time to not only write about, but to even watch them. Still, despite very little “wiggle room” in my schedule of late, once in awhile you just gotta scratch the “homemade horror” itch, and to that effect, last night I was browsing through the new additions on Amazon Prime, and settled on a very recent (as in, 2018) release from writer/director Art Arutyunyan entitled Armenian Haunting, purportedly focused on a family curse that dates back to the days of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in the early 20th century.

This is a crucial, and tragic, bit of history that is often overlooked, chiefly because the Turkish government still does its level best to sweep it under the rug, so it’s good to see a film — particularly an American-made film (hey, don’t let the title fool you) such as this one — shine some light on it, but good intentions don’t necessarily make for a good flick, and I’m sorry to report that’s the case here.

The opening scene is reasonably compelling and well-staged, as we see a man first haunted by voices and then encountering a mysterious figure that causes him to literally drop dead from fright right on the spot, but from there on out things kind of spiral downwards — the dead man turns out to be the cousin of our protagonist, a college student named Maro (played by the obviously unprofessional, but by no means incompetent, Vaneh Assadourian), and is, in fact, the latest in a long line of members of her family who have met their ends under mysterious circumstances, so she does what I guess all people her age do under similar(-ish) circumstances : decides to video-document her investigation into the apparent curse.

Now, this isn’t exactly a “found footage” horror per se, but there are definite “mockumentary” elements to it, and they tend to be somewhat less-than-successfully presented : scenes shot outdoors, for instance, clearly had their sound dubbed in later, and the same is true of the (largely-appropriate) sound effects spliced into the indoor scenes, and some of Mara’s interview subjects — most notably her grandmother (Tamara Grigorian), who has a reasonably compelling story to tell — have an inexplicable habit of not facing the camera directly when they’re being recorded. Some of this is down to the film’s modest ($30,000, according to IMDB) budget, sure, but some of it makes no real sense whatsoever.

The acting’s as uneven as the production values, too : Kyle Patrick Darling does a pretty decent job as gender-fluid supporting character Garo, and Aneela Qureshi cuts a memorable figure as the film’s obligatory psychic, Aida, but beyond them — well, the less said, the better. These people are clearly trying more often than not, but they just don’t have the talent to make their work come across as being believable.

As events play out the genocide looms larger, given that the curse stems back to a perceived betrayal that occurred in its wake, but it’s difficult to remain engaged in the proceedings, even as they accrue real-life import, simply because a series of poorly-realized scenes (especially a couple of the purportedly “scary” ones) are so unintentionally comical that they literally take you out of the flow of events and turn your attention to shortcomings in the production’s execution. Again, some can’t be helped — but too many can. And that really sums up Armenian Haunting in a nutshell — Arutyunyan’s heart seems to be in the right place, but he probably should have waited until he had at least the ability, if not the resources, to tell the story he wanted in an effective manner.

 

Let’s not mince words : Mark Fuhrman is an absolute bastard. Of all the figures of questionable repute to have risen to public prominence in the wake of the so-called “Trial Of The Century” — Chris Darden, Marcia Clark, etc. — Fuhrman is far and away the worst of the lot, a vicious and despicable racist SOB who has been granted a new, and entirely undeserved, lease on life (career-wise, mind you) as a true crime author and Fox “news” contributor (there’s a shock — not). I know the public has a notoriously short attention span, but the idea that this guy isn’t rotting away in obscurity in a cabin in Idaho — or, better yet, in a prison cell (he was, after all, the only person in the orbit of the O.J. Simpson case to have ever been convicted of anything in relation to it) is absurd at best, downright sickening at worst. Good thing, then, for independent filmmaker Brian Heiss, who’s here to remind us of everything about the LAPD’s most notorious former detective that has been either forgotten or swept under the rug with his new, freely-available documentary, The Fuhrman Tapes.

The danger with an endeavor such as this, of course, is that it will immediately be dismissed by many as some sort of niche project aimed at a small and specific audience — namely the hard-core Simpson trial “junkies” who still maintain a fairly active internet presence (and this will appeal to that crowd, no question) — but Heiss, “armed” with nothing more than a whole bunch of archival footage and some basic editing and graphics software, has managed to construct, entirely on his own, a thoroughly compelling no-budget documentary that not only shines a bright and necessary light on a truly sick and disturbed individual and his utterly indefensible actions and statements, but goes one better by drawing a direct line between said actions and statements all the way through to the frankly out-of-control, and frequently murderous, racism we see running rampant in far too many municipal police departments here in the present day. What makes the cops think they can get away with so much of the shit they pull? Probably the fact that, in case after case after case, they do, in fact, get away with it — and that all started with Fuhrman, who got off with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist for perjury despite the fact that he essentially confessed, on tape, to false arrests, planting evidence, torture, police brutality, and even murder.

Fuhrman’s novel “justification” for all this — and this ranks right up there with Dan White’s notorious “Twinkie Defense” — is that he was just blowing off steam in meetings with a screenwriter who was looking to develop a movie script based on actual LAPD cases, that he was “exaggerating” in order to provide her with “compelling” material. Judge Lance Ito (remember him?), who was in the tank for the cops from day one, bought into this probable lie more or less without question, and consequently ended up allowing only a small fraction of literally dozens of hours of Fuhrman’s boastful recordings to be played for the jury, but even that short series of snippets was only ever heard once (on August 29th, 1995, to be specific) — until now.

In that sense, then, what Heiss manages to do best here — and this actually takes quite a bit more discipline than many very experienced documentarians demonstrate — is to get the hell out of the way and trust that the material he’s put together is strong enough to speak for itself. Listening to everything the jury heard, for the first time since they heard it, is absolutely damning for Fuhrman, and there’s simply no need to “snazz it up” with any tricky editing, or even subtle (or otherwise) editorializing. Hearing all of this again (or, as will likely be the case for most viewers, for the first time) is more than enough to remind one of why Fuhrman was “Public Enemy No. 1” for a short while — but more than that, it’s enough to make most reasonable folks wonder why the hell he still isn’t.

Which isn’t to say that Heiss doesn’t place the titular “Fuhrman Tapes” within the broader context of both LAPD history and his subject’s own life (and trust me when I say Fuhrman’s bigotry goes all the way back), but any filmmaker with their salt is going to set the table before serving up the main course. On a purely technical level he’s limited in terms of the tools he’s got at his fingertips — anybody putting together a film on their own time and their own dime is bound to be — and certain things like the utilization of computerized voice simulations give the proceedings a bit of an amateur “vibe” at times, but on the other hand I do sort of understand the dilemma Heiss was presented with here : after all, even if he did have a bunch of money with which to put this thing together, it would be damn difficult to find a voice-over actor willing to repeat some of the verbal diarrhea that came out of Fuhrman’s mouth in the parts of the tapes that have never been released to the public, but which this film still does its level best to fit into its overall narrative thrust, even if “on-the-fly” vocal substitutions were necessary. You could make an argument that Heiss could just have well have left some of this stuff alone and that his film would have been no less impactful — but for my money, I’m glad it’s in there, if only to paint a more fully monstrous picture of a truly reprehensible human being.

What we have here, then, at the end of the day is a fine (ultra-) independent documentary that presents a largely-obfuscated — perhaps even intentionally buried — part of our collective history, and exposes it not as some moment frozen in amber, but as a tragically necessary pretext to the excesses and abuses of law enforcement that happened (and continue to happen) in its wake. The Fuhrman Tapes is by no means an easy film to watch, but it’s gripping, smartly-constructed, and painfully relevant. Check it out at https://ojsimpson.co/mark-fuhrman-tapes-documentary/

 

Just when I thought the MCU might be getting somewhere —

About the only person more surprised by just how fucking much I loved Black Panther than a regular reader of this site was — well, me, but love it to pieces I did, and it’s an opinion I still stand behind 100% and then some. I’m not sure how much of the credit for its artistic success is down to the studio “suits” simply allowing Ryan Coogler to do something different, to break the mold, and how much was him actively wanting to while other directors remain content to serve up more of the same, but whatever the case may be, it was the first Marvel Studios flick that had a distinct look, feel, and personality all its own. It stood out, then, not just for its frankly profound cultural significance, but for its ambition and its quality. It wasn’t a two-and-a-half-hour episode of “Superhero TV,” it was something altogether more. Altogether different. Altogether better.

Say it with me in unison : ” but you knew it wouldn’t last.”

And maybe it couldn’t last. The strictures placed on an “event” film such as Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers : Infinity War are, after all, stifling at best, suffocating at worst. I mean, this is “The Big One,” right? The one they’ve all  been leading up to, and consequently (almost) all hands are on deck : Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa, Chris Henworth’s Thor, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Robert Downey Jr. — sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange (I get them mixed up because they’re the exact same goddamn character just with different powers), Karen Gillan’s Nebula, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis — they’re all present and accounted for, as are Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in their voice-over roles as Rocket Raccoon and Groot, respectively.

Even most of the “big-time” supporting cast members from prior films/franchises are here, albeit for pretty cursory “check-ins” : Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Tom Hiddlesont’s Loki, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Benicio Del Toro’s Collector, William Hurt’s Secretary of State Ross, Benedict Wong’s — uhhhmmm — Wong, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, Danai Gurira’s Okoye — hell, even Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury puts in an appearance if you hang around through the end of the credits. If you like ’em, chances are they’ll turn up just long enough to make you happy.

Which means, of course, that there’s little room for anybody new — the “Big Bad,” Thanos, has made some brief-ish some cameos in some of the lead-ups to this, but by and large this is the first time we’ve seen him take center stage (and Josh Brolin actually does some interesting things with the character, portraying him as more dispassionate and calculating than outright menacing), so I guess we can call him kinda “new,” but the only semi-major player we absolutely have never seen before is Peter Dinklage in the role of Eiti, and ya know? He’s pretty damn good. But then, he always is.

So the story goes something like this : Thanos is out to assemble the six all-powerful “Infinity Gems” so he can place them all inside this big, fancy gauntlet and wipe out half the living beings in the entire universe, thereby insuring that the half who survive can have it good what with less competition for resources and the like. But not so fat, the re-grouped Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Wakandans, and the heroes who usually go it alone are all going to join forces to try and stop him, because that’s what they do. Big fights ensue. Big moments occur. Big conversations are had. And it all leads up to a big third act that changes everything forever. Really. The whole course of the MCU is altered. It’s momentous. It’s gargantuan. It’s the most hitherto-unimaginable thing to ever go down.

Unless, ya know, you’ve ever read a comic book at any point in your entire life. In which case you’ll know that nothing really happens that can’t, well, un-happen.

The reason Avengers : Infinity War might be said, in purely technical terms, to “work” — and why so many people are leaving theaters all over the world in a state of absolute shock — comes down not to anything in the film itself, but to a clever advance marketing ploy, and that’s it. Ya see, early on it was announced that this was the first of a two-part story. Then Marvel seemed to backtrack on that and say, no, it’s not, we’ve re-worked this a little bit and now it’s a stand-alone film. And if you go into the flick believing that, then yeah, this is the gut-punch to end all gut-punches. But it’s all bullshit.

Seriously. This is no more a “one-off” than any of these things are. The status quo has been re-set in a very big way, no doubt, but who are we kidding? It’s only temporary. There’s one major-ish development involving the demise of a character (and that’s all I’m gonna say) that occurs before the balls-out climactic finale, and in theory I suppose that could stick, but everything else? Like Stan Lee infamously once said, “how much do you charge for a quick hand —” sorry, “don’t give them change, give them the illusion of change.” And that, friends, is precisely what this is. An illusion. A big, bold, brash, jaw-dropping illusion, to be sure —but at the end of the day, an illusion nonetheless.

For my part, what can I say? This hustle stopped working on me when I was about 12 years old. I need something more. And that’s simply not on offer here. This is a film that exists for the sole purpose of hoodwinking you into thinking that nothing will ever be the same again — and when you turn around in, I dunno, two years’ time, guess what? It’s gonna be like it never even happened.  So enjoy the re-arranged interiors while you can, because everything, minor window dressings aside, is gonna end up right back where it’s always been — and always will be.

This is what audiences want, though, and while that’s perfectly fine and dandy on the most obvious and liminal level — different strokes for different folks and what have you — when you spend any time thinking about it, actually it’s kind of depressing. Like Trump, Avengers : Infinity War (and, really, the entire MCU in general) is one big con job, and it’s a con job that’s winning. Once the initial shock of this film’s ending wears off, there won’t be a soul left wondering “oh my God, what did they just do?,” but there will be legions of people wondering”oh my God, how are they going to reverse all of that?” And I really don’t care what the answer to that question is.

Maybe I got overloaded on micro-budget horror back in October when I plumbed the depths of Amazon Prime’s offerings in the sub-genre for my customary “Halloween Month” reviews, maybe I’m just too damn busy at work to follow all of my interests (cinematic or otherwise) lately, or maybe trying to build up a solid backlog of content on my new(-ish) comics blog is eating up every spare moment I have for writing so I’m just not watching as many movies since I don’t have as much time to write about them — I dunno, but whatever the case may be, it had been a good few months since I’d watched a cheap-ass indie fright flick, and their absence from my existence was starting to be felt on, like, a goddamn cellular level. Something needed to be done.

So, yeah, last night I ended my impromptu fast and returned to combing through Amazon Prime for something weird (and weirdly-made) to watch, eventually landing on a 2010 Pittsburgh-lensed number called Necro Lover, originally released (to the extent that it even was — it went straight to DVD, and it’s not like that was heavily promoted) under the far less salacious title of Stiff. Certainly the premise sounded suitably amoral : depressed office drone Troy (played with no skill whatsoever by a guy named Bill Scott who’s — get this — trying too hard to look bored, which I never even conceived of as being possible) calls the suicide hotline one night and speaks with a “counselor” named Lori (speaking of lousy acting, Lulu Benton is flat-out terrible in this part, but she at least proves that calling this thing Stiff was apropos) who, picking up on his deep-seated unhappiness, decides that what she really needs to do is breach every single ethical standard of her ostensible profession and give this guy her personal phone number. Huh????

Fear not, though, dear reader : writer/co-director Jim Towns and his partner behind the camera, Mike McKown, have ensured that there is a method to her madness — she doesn’t want to “help” Troy at all, she wants to convince him to kill himself so that she can (yes, you’re reading this right) fuck his dead body. Ahhh, yes, now it all makes “sense” —

I’m not sure how to tip-toe around this, so I’ll just come right out and admit that I’m in no way averse to watching a film about necrophilia. Jacques Lacerte’s Love Me Deadly is one of my all-time favorite tasteless exploitation features, I found Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed bizarrely fascinating, Martin Weisz’s Grimm Love is a dark, haunting, and emotionally complex film that has stuck with me ever since I first saw it, Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik and Nekromantix 2 are legit underground gross-out classics — and who are we kidding? As far as abnormal sexual compulsions go, corpse-humping is about as harmless as they come. After all, what the hell does the other person care what’s being done to them? It certainly says something really weird and disturbing about the person who’s “into” it, there’s no denying that, but at least necrophiles are good at picking out partners who don’t judge them. In fact, they don’t do anything at all.

So, yeah, if “sick and wrong” is your bag, this flick should, in theory, have plenty to offer. Unfortunately, all the good intentions in the world — even if those good intentions are in service of something most well-adjusted people would consider to be “bad” — don’t matter for shit if you have no idea what you’re doing, and all evidence on offer would suggest that no one involved with Stiff on any level had the first clue about how to make a movie.

I’ve already taken both lead actors to task, albeit briefly, but in truth I take no real pleasure in piling on either of them since they’re clearly not professionals and have each probably returned to call center or retail store work by now — if they ever even left it. Who I’m not going to let off so easily are Towns and McKown, who have constructed a slow and sloppy and utterly flat finished product out of what should have been at least an interesting premise.  Little gaps in logic like Lori living in a big, fancy house on a middle-class-at-best salary I can forgive, but predictability and lack of inspiration I can’t, and when it’s revealed that she became fixated on not letting sleeping corpses lie due to a traumatic childhood experience, and when Troy starts falling for her and re-discovering his will to live — well, that’s just indicative, to my mind, that these are two filmmakers who don’t have the guts to follow their own disturbing ideas to an equally-disturbing conclusion. In other words, what we’re looking at here is one big cop-out.

Fit me for a padded jacket now if you must, but I really did want to like Stiff. The raw ingredients for something that you’ll definitely remember, like it or not, at all here. Instead, what we get is the most eminently forgettable film about necrophilia ever made. I guess that pulverizing the combustible and shocking down into the staid and safe takes work, but then so does digging your own grave — I’m in no particular hurry to do it, though, and I know you’re not, either.

Although, hey, Lori would probably give you a hand with that.

 

A fair number of the films nominated for one or more of the just-awarded Oscars for this past year have begun to pop up on our local cable system for the pretty-damn-reasonable rental rate of $5.99, so now is a good time for folks like me, who didn’t make it out to the theater nearly as much as we’d have liked over the past 12 months (or thereabouts), to catch up on the stuff everyone’s been talking about — and in the category of celebrated acting specifically, they don’t come much more-talked-about than director Craig Gillespie’s biopic of notorious-but-perhaps-misunderstood figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya. Allison Janney went home with the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her turn as the one-time-phenom’s mother, LaVona, and Margot Robbie received rave notices for her take on the film’s troubled protagonist, so what the hell? On a low-key weeknight, have you got something better to do than to check this out? I don’t.

For those who lived through the early-’90s melodrama that was the Harding/Nancy Kerrigan dust-up, the general details — perhaps even the specifics — are still floating around somewhere in our syrupy collective memory, but for those who either weren’t around for it or had something better to do, it goes something like this : Harding, a rough-and-tumble gal out of small-town Oregon, who hailed from a decidedly working-class background that could generously be described as “atypical” when contrasted with most in her sport, found herself at the center of one of the 24/7 news cycle’s first wall-to-wall stories when one of her primary competitors, media darling Nancy Kerrigan, had her leg bashed in with a tire iron by a masked assailant who, as it was quickly discovered, was in the employ of Harding’s ex-husband, an incompetent loser named Jeff Gillooly who tended to surround himself with folks no smarter or more savvy than he was himself. But there’s a whole lot more to the melodrama than that, of course.

Harding’s place in figure skating history was already well-secured by the time all this shit went down : she was the first woman to successfully complete a Triple Axel in competition, she’d been a national champion and an Olympian, she was the first woman to successfully project a “bad girl” aura in what had previously been a genteel and refined sport. How and why, then, did she find herself mixed up in a Keystone Kops-style fiasco that ended with her being banned from competitive skating for life when she probably should have been milking lucrative endorsement deals and participating in “Champions On Ice”-style exhibition tours for at least a half-decade, if not longer? Believe it or not, that’s probably the wrong question to be asking.

The right question, as it turns out, is how Harding could have possibly gone as far as she did given her disastrous upbringing and abusive domestic life. Janney’s every bit as compelling as everyone claims and nearly steals every scene she’s in — LaVona was a nightmare of a mother, callous and cruel and emotionally distant and manipulative and antagonistic in the extreme, a literal cauldron of seething bitterness and resentment split between being driven to push her daughter to the top of her field and being deeply envious of the success that she goaded her toward achieving, and it’s testament to Robbie’s own acting abilities that she’s able to stand toe-to-toe with her co-star and still make her own presence felt. When the two are going at it, they really go at it — and when they aren’t going at it overtly, the tension is never more than about a centimeter from the surface. This is meticulously-crafted interpersonal dysfunction that drips of years of slow-burn mutual  destruction, some of it aimed outward, much directed inward. LaVona, in particular, seems to hate herself and her lot in life every bit as much as she despises her offspring, while Tonya has internalized so much of the psychological trauma she’s been subject to that you just know she’s doomed to sabotage her own success because, after being told you don’t deserve it long enough, you begin to believe that’s true — no matter how hard you’ve worked for what you have. On the surface, the idea that Tonya Harding could be waiting tables in a greasy-spoon diner within months of reaching the pinnacle of her profession appears absurd — but when you see how her life played out, such a fall from grace (one in a series of them, truth be told) seems not only natural, but inevitable.

The same, sadly, can also be said of Harding getting into, out of, and then clinging around the margins of, a shit marriage. Sebastian Stan steps into Gillooly’s no-doubt-cheap shoes and inhabits the character with tremendous authenticity : he’s a fuck-up, sure, but a fuck-up capable of slapping the shit out of his wife at the drop of a hat, apologizing for it afterwards, and then doing it again. And again. And again. The sheer banality of the domestic abuse in this film is particularly disturbing — Gillsepie doesn’t swell the music and pull in the camera for tight and frightened facial close-ups, he just goes the naturalistic route, and it offers no safe dramatic distance for audiences. One minute Harding is putting groceries away, the next she’s getting a black eye. It’s abrupt, it’s shocking, it’s direct, it’s real. And yet you can also see why the Gillooly/Harding relationship made a kind of sense in the way that so many of these dead-end pairings in dead-end towns do : he was interested in her, she was interested in getting out from her mother’s thumb (not that she really did, but that’s another matter), and neither of them had anything else to do. Harding ended up getting the “upper hand,” so to speak, only when she finally dumped her old man’s sorry ass and he slid into the typical “I’ll do anything to get her back” mindset — but that came back to bite ’em both where the sun don’t shine, because what he would “do for her” turned out to be as stupid and disastrous as you could possibly imagine.

Of course, with a “bodyguard”/hired goon like paranoid, delusional, grown-man-living-with-his-parents Shawn —a part that probably looked like little more than comic relief on paper but is elevated to a kind of queasy believability by Paul Walter Hauser — at the center of a Gillooly’s grand scheme to prove his “worth” to his estranged spouse, said scheme never has a chance, and the minute the FBI starts poking around a guy of Shawn’s “fortitude” is gonna squeal like the proverbial stuck pig, so the only real surprise on offer in the film’s final act is the speed at which the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. It’s actually kinda breathtaking to consider that these clown thought they’d get away with the assault on Kerrigan, but again, that deep-seated sense of inevitability that Gillespie has so masterfully channeled from the outset (with no small assist in that regard coming from the admirably less-than-flashy screenplay by Steven Rogers) is what’s most compelling about watching this all go off the rails. Everyone’s so broken, so ill-equipped to handle the situations that they themselves have gotten into, that you can feel the walls of the universe itself closing in around them. This is the way it has to be, and even though you’ll fight against it, you’ll be doing so in full knowledge that your efforts are doomed to fail.

All of which makes I, Tonya a tragedy, of course — but one most people can probably relate to. There are no “heroes” in this flick, but there are no real “villains,” either — not even LaVona, who really just finds herself at the end in the same place she’s always been, namely a hell of her own making. Harding’s short-lived career as a boxer is touched upon not for laughs, nor for sympathy, but as just another thing that happened. That was bound to happen. As is also the case with her lifetime ban from figure skating — yeah, it’s a punitive punishment, but what else did anyone really expect? The die was cast the minute that Kerrigan’s kneecap cracked.

If you’re looking for redemption, then, or for a ninth-inning (sorry, wrong sport) comeback, or even for any of these folks to forgive any of the others for anything — sorry, not in the cards. Tonya Harding overcame a hell of a lot to make it as far as she did, absolutely, but in the end everything and everyone she had a chance to escape from pulled her right back down to their level — and not through any Herculean effort on their part, but simply because she never had the tools to learn to how to break their grip. Seriously, you have to wonder — what good is having a vehicle but no map of how to get where you want to go? Gillespie’s remarkable film — anchored by genuinely compelling performances — reminds us that even the brightest and flashiest of rocket-ships will crash and burn if it doesn’t achieve proper velocity at liftoff.

Everyone from casual horror fans to hard-core “found footage” aficionados was sufficiently impressed with co-writer/co-star/director and co-writer/co-star Mark Duplass’ 2014 indie horror effort Creep — this armchair critic included — to form a sort of impromptu “whisper campaign” in its favor that saw it end up punching well above its weight class and really leaving a strong and distinct mark among the always-bulging throng of low-budget horror offerings overpopulating the various streaming services we’ve all come to rely on to meet our entertainment “needs” on a monthly basis. It became, in short, a nice little success story. But I’m not sure that anyone — even, and perhaps especially, Brice and Duplass themselves — figured that an honest-to-God sequel would ever be in the offing. And yet here we are, three (okay, closer to four now) years later,  and Creep 2 is upon us — backed by Netflix and Blumhouse financing, no less.

Don’t fret, though — this is still very much a bare-bones effort shot on HD video with limited sets, an even more limited cast, and a decidedly “faux-amateur” vibe throughout. Brice’s videographer character Aaron is dead, of course, but his name lives on, assumed by Duplass, who had been calling himself “Josef” last time out, but seems to shift identities as easily as he does frames of mind. Since you can’t have a movie with just him, though (or, hell, maybe you could), the secondary, “foil” role in this one is filled by Desiree Akhavan as would-be  documentarian/struggling YouTube host Sara, whose show, entitled “Encounters,” is saddled with single-digit numbers of “hits” for most episodes. Her shtick is responding to weird or fetishistic online personal ads, and she’s looking for something really special for her self-declared “season finale,” but the minute she hooks up with Josef/Aaron/Whatever, she knows she’s very possibly in over her head — or is she? It’s always so fucking hard to tell with this guy.

Right off the bat “Aaron” confesses to being a serial killer — the most prolific one no one has ever heard of, in fact — albeit one who has lost his passion for his “vocation” and is ready to spill his guts prior to hanging up the “Peachfuzz” mask and either retiring or, uhhhhmm, retiring in a more permanent sense, but Sara struggles throughout the film to decide whether or not he’s simply full of shit. We know what’s up, of course, but that’s a big part of the fun here and gives this sequel a frisson of underlying tension the first one just plain didn’t have — and up-and-coming filmmakers would do well to take note of this rather ingenious method for keeping audiences on their toes even when the element of the utterly unfailiar that the first flick in a series has is removed from the equation by default. When your premise becomes a known quantity, use that knowledge to your advantage.

Sara’s hungry, that’s for sure, and figures she can’t lose either way here — if dude’s a real killer, she’s got the scoop of a lifetime, and if he’s just some nutcase who gets off on pretending to be a killer, then that’s still gonna make for some compelling viewing, too, right? It certainly makes for compelling viewing for us — and Duplass is, again, all kinds of dangerous and disarming and charismatic. He’s stripping buck naked for Sara one minute, dodging even fairly straight-forward questions the next, keeping her wildly off-guard at all times. Not that she shows it, mind you — Akhavan is a superb actress who puts on a mask of jaded near-nonchalance no matter what, and parries the metaphorical blows of Duplass’ “Aaron” with a kind of resigned “got anything new for me?” coolness that not only allows her to stand toe to toe with him, but literally gives her the upper hand on many occasions. It’s definitely a new and interesting dynamic when contrasted with the prior film , watching Duplass in the “uneasy” position, trying to impress his co-star.

Gaining his confidence, though — that’s another matter, and one Sara struggles with figuring out how to navigate. To call “Aaron” simply “mercurial” would be to sell the nature of his all-over-the-map mental landscape short. He gets his jollies out of fucking with people, keeping them off-guard, but when his act is up against a careful pose of un-flappability, he ups the ante considerably. How do you shock someone who can’t seem to muster up any sense of surprise? Well, he figures out how to do it eventually, and it works — but when he gets back into his more comfortable position as the guy holding the cards, that’s when events steamroll toward a “triple-whammy” conclusion that leads you to wonder who’s going to kill who. Then wondering it again. And again. And again. Hell, even when they both appear to be dead, or as good as, there’s no punctuation mark on anything until the credits roll.

I can’t help but feel, though, that even then we’re still in no way out of the woods. Some may view this as a natural ending point for the series given how shit plays out, but in truth the finale points to some quite intriguing possibilities for things to move forward, should Brice and Duplass choose to make a genuine franchise out of their little concept. A third installment would be vastly different to either the first or the second for reasons I’ll refrain from “spoiling,” but this is a premise I’d definitely love to see explored even further.  Watch Creep 2 on Netflix and I’m fairly certain you’ll agree with me.