Posts Tagged ‘craig gillespie’

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.

I suppose it was inevitable, really. With the vampire craze in full swing thanks to TV shows like True Blood  and The Vampire Diaries, and with the damn-near-ubiquitous-at-this-point Twilight franchise ruling at the box office and still sitting somewhere near the top of the fiction bestseller lists, it was probably only a matter of time before the creatively-stagnant-powers-that-be in Hollywood turned their attention to a remake of one of the quirkiest, most downright fun vampire movies ever made, namely writer-director (and eventual Child’s Play creator) Todd Holland’s 1985 mini-masterpiece Fright Night.

Here’s the thing, though — any “reimagining” of Holland’s film was doomed to be subpar in comparison to its progenitor almost from the word go because a big part of the original Fright Night‘s charm is that it’s such a product of its time. It’s unpretentiously, unapologetically 80s all the way, not because it was trying to be or anything, but just because, hell, that’s when it was made and they didn’t have much budget to reach for anything greater than they were capable of. It’s from that brief-but-glorious time when Hollywood decided to try to blend equal parts teen horror and teen comedy and see what it could come up with — if there was money to be made halfway between Friday The 13th  and Porky’s, if you will.

The answer, ultimately, was “some, but not enough to keep it going,” but in both the sort and the long runs the fusion-formula gamble paid off , and continues to pay off, for us genre fans with classics like Holland’s film and Fred Decker’s superb Night Of The Creeps.

That, however, was then, and this, needless to say,  is now. And what has the now brought us?

Well, something of a “close-but-no-cigar,” I’m afraid.

Director Craig Gillespie (best known for the indie-hit Lars And The Real Girl) really does seem to have his heart in the right place here, and some of the “modernizing” touches, such as setting the story in a typically barren suburban Las Vegas cul-de-sac, work quite well (Vegas has a transient population and it’s not entirely out of place to see a house with blacked-out windows because so many people work night and need to sleep when it’s light out) — and some of the casting choices are damn-near brilliant, to be honest. Colin Farrell as vampire-next-door Jerry is out-of-this-world menacingly cool and oozes dangerous charisma throughout. When he’s hanging out just on the other side of the doorway of our ertswhile teen hero Charley (Anton Yelchin)’s house because he hasn’t been invited in, the tension’s palpable as he quite clearly is trying to ingratiate himself to the point where Charley tells him “hey, man, come on in” but is also trying to suss out whether our intrepid adolescent has figured out who and what he really is. It’s a highlight-reel moment in a (no shit here people) Oscar-worthy performance from Farrell.

And on the supporting actor front — recasting Roddy MacDowall’s legendary Peter Vincent character as a Criss Angel Mindfreak-type Vegas performer rather than a washed-up TV horror host is another stroke of pure genius, as was casting Doctor Who  alum David Tennant in the role. Essentially he’s just playing the Tenth Doctor with a substance abuse problem (and, it’s strongly hinted, the sexual dysfunction issues that often go along with that), but it works and it’s a hell of a lot fun.

It’s in the rest of the casting, though, that the big cracks in this flick begin to show. First off, Anton Yelchin is just a straight-up bore as Charley, and nowhere near as interesting, or even mildly sympathetic, as a lead needs to be. He just never gives you much of any reason to give a shit whether or not he, and by extension through him everyone he loves, gets killed. So that’s a bit of a bummer. He’s not even so much actively bad as he is just crushingly bland. And the same can be aid for his supposedly too-hot-for-him, entirely-out-of-his-league girlfriend, Amy, played by Imogen Poots (today’s winner of the “celebrity-names-that-are-too-fucking-clever-by-half award, runner-up being Miranda July), who (sorry to be superficial, but) isn’t all that outrageously hot and more importantly isn’t all that good an actress. And finally, we’ve got Toni Collette slumming is as Charley’s mom (quite an international cast here, by the way — Collette’s Australian, Yelchin’s Russian, Tennant and Poots are British, and Farrell’s Irish), who’s serviceable enough, but this role is too blase for an actress of consequence like her to be messing with.

And lastly on the poor casting and performances front, and this one really hurts — Christopher Mintz-Plasee, McLovin himself, absolutely sucks as the 2001 version of Evil Ed. Granted, the script absolutely wrecks the character from the outset, turning a likable geek from the original into an asshole geek in this one, but even still, Mintz-Plasse is so unconvincing as a prick-ish nerd, and even more unconvincing one’s he’s “turned” by Jerry, that even a better-written character wouldn’t have stood a chance.

The other big flaw with this film is the script itself. the pacing just seems off from the start and when the film’s earlier attempts at blending some comedy into the mix, as the original did so effortlessly, are abandoned, we end up with a flick that takes itself way too seriously when at the outset it seemed like it wanted to plant its tongue firmly in its cheek. The massive, cop-out, deus ex machina-type plot device that resolves everything at the conclusion is impossibly lame, too, and probably made David Tennant feel right at home because it’s just the sort of mega-big, but mega-cheap-and-obvious ending that Russell T. Davies used to wrap up every season of Doctor Who with.

All that being said, there’s slightly more good than bad here on the whole, especially if you see it in 3-D (and yes, this was actually shot in 3-D rather than having it added in post-production, so there are some really cool, old-school 3-D style moments), and hey, you even get a cameo by the original Jerry himself, Chris Sarandon, so all is not lost by any means. But it sure comes close. Gillespie and crew seem to either lose sight of, or change their minds about, exactly what type of film they’re making here at right about the halfway mark, and make the rather perplexing choice to bury the fun under the grim way past the point where they ever had much chance of actually scaring us very much,  and the result is a movie that tries to be more than it has any business being, and consequently, and ironically, ends up being so much less. in short, it’s tough to go for pure thrills, chills, and gore when you start off letting us know we needn’t take anything here too seriously. Either stick with trying to blend horror and comedy from start to finish, as the original did so successfully, or just go with one or the other. And hey, if you ‘re absolutely determined to convince us that suddenly,out of nowhere, this now-dark-and-humorless world has consequences, don’t insult our intelligence by telegraphing an obviously consequence-free ending  (remember that deus ex machina I mentioned a second ago?) while there’s still a good half hour left to go.

Don’t get me wrong — as remakes go, this could have been a lot worse (most are), but to see a movie that really does seem to get where it’s coming and have an equally solid idea of where it’s going suddenly become so thoroughly and completely lost thanks to some ill-advised, and out-of-the-blue, tonal shifts just when it seemed to be in a position to really hit its stride is a real head-scratcher. Gillespie just about had a film here that you could happily compare to its predecessor, as with Let Me In/Let the Right One In (just for the sake of a recent comparison in the vampire genre), but the whole thing really loses it focus, and its heart, when it decides to ditch the fun and start taking itself seriously for no discernible reason whatsoever.  Some of the actors, most notably Farrell, who’s just plain dynamite here, really deserve better than to have their self-assured, supremely confident work lost inside a movie that  can’t quite decide what it wants to be.