Posts Tagged ‘film’

After finding myself considerably more than pleased with writer/director Scott Frank’s 2014 adaptation of modern noir master Lawrence Block’s gritty PI drama A Walk Among The Tombstones, I decided, in spite (or maybe because?) of its 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, to track down the only other cinematic take on Block’s work (and, more specifically, on his legendary protagonist, former-cop-turned-unlicensed-gumshoe Matt Scudder), 1986’s 8 Million Ways To Die. As things turned out, I had to go the Blu-ray route with this one since it’s not available for streaming anywhere so far as I can tell, but hey, things could have been worse — the Kino Lorber Blu (and,I presume, DVD, although I didn’t actually check to see if it’s available in that format) is actually a semi-recent release, dating back to October of 2017, and if I’d been determined to track this flick down before that, I may have been forced to rely on, say, the kind of seedy underworld connections that Scudder himself has to depend on from time to time.

Speaking of Scudder, this earlier celluloid incarnation is brought to life by Jeff Bridges, who’s certainly rock solid in the title role, bobbing and weaving between every sort of psychological polarity possible as he takes on what first appears to be a fairly open-and-shut case of a prostitute named Sunny (played by Alexandra Paul) who wants to get out from under the clutches of her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks), only to suddenly find himself in the midst of  a murder investigation when she turns up dead and he ends up saddled with a self-appointed “partner” in the form of another hooker, Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), whose reasons for putting herself in the middle of such an obviously dangerous situation are as complex and elusive as everything else about this feisty potential femme fatale. All signs point to Chance being the killer right out of the gate, of course, but Scudder is soon glad for the extra help he’s got when it turns out that the actual culprit might very well be coolly sociopathic drug boss Angel Maldonado, played with understated-but-no-doubt-thick menace by Andy Garcia.

Oh, and did I mention that Scudder is barely six months sober, and that the more stressful this case gets, the better the bottle starts looking to him?

Hal Ashby may seem an interesting choice to direct an ostensible hard-boiled thriller like this, given that he’s best known for cult-favorite comedies like Harold And Maude and Being There, but he captures the seedy L.A. underworld of the early-to-mid 1980s with a considerable amount of sleek style and “street-level”authenticity that, fair enough, isn’t gonna make anybody forget about To Live And Die In L.A., much less Vice Squad, anytime too soon, but will certainly do in a pinch — and he undoubtedly gets a series of terrific performances from each and every one of his principal players. This, then, is the point at which you are more or less obligated to wonder this film died at the box office so quickly, has such a lousy reputation (as well as that 0% RT score), and was even unavailable for home viewing, apart from its initial VHS release, until about nine months ago.

My theory? It’s all down to one serious mess of a screenplay.

Oliver Stone made the first pass at it and is, the film historians tell me, the guy responsible for transposing the action from its original printed-page setting of New York to the West Coast, but when his treatment failed to make the studio happy, R. Lance Hall was brought in for another go at things — only to find his version largely re-written by an uncredited Robert Towne. Ashby, however, fundamentally dissatisfied with even this third script, encouraged his actors to simply improvise when and where it suited both them and him, and as a result, we end up with a movie that has a very consistent look and feel that’s constantly undermined by its scattershot, near-pathologically inconsistent tone. A movie that knows what it wants to appear to be, but little to no idea of what it actually is.

In his introduction to the recent, and highly faithful, graphic novel adaptation of his book by writer/artist John K. Snyder III (which retains the original title of Eight Million Ways To Die — no numeric shorthand here! — and is well worth checking out), author Block makes his disdain for this film pretty clear (even while singling out Bridges and Garcia for deserved praise), and I can certainly see why he wouldn’t care too much for it but, unlike most critics, I can’t bring myself to see it as a total loss. The acting is too strong, and the directing too assured, for that. It’s not great, mind you, and maybe not even especially good, but it’s easy enough to see that there was something that probably could have been pretty special hidden underneath all those re-writes (official and otherwise) — and that seems to be the view taken by Bridges in the full-length commentary track included on the disc, as well as in the various on-camera interviews with Arquette, Paul, Garcia, and Block himself that, along with a stills gallery, round out Kino Lorber’s fairly comprehensive extras package.

All told, then, 8 Million Ways To Die is far from the unmitigated disaster that it is, largely, remembered as — to the extent that it’s remembered at all. It’s probably of interest only to the curious, granted, but if you number yourself among that crowd, what the hell — it’s worth at least a rental, although probably no more than that.

Sometimes. you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — am I right?

I know that I certainly was the other night and so, after a bit of browsing, I decided to scratch the particular celluloid itch I was feeling by streaming writer-director Scott Frank’s 2014 cinematic adaptation of legendary hard-boiled crime fiction author Lawrence Block’s popular novel A Walk Among The Tombstones via our local cable service (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD should you choose to go that route), and whaddya know? What I found underneath the typically slick, borderline-“artsy” modern direction and cinematography, and decidedly lurid subject matter, was actually an old-school PI drama, anchored by some very strong performances, that would more than likely make the likes of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and even Humphrey Bogart proud.

That means it comes with one fairly big downside, though — for all attempted twists and turns it’s actually pretty predictable, but we’ll get to that in a bit more detail in fairly short order. First the good : bucking his post-Taken typecasting as a middle-aged “tough guy,” Liam Neeson reminds us all that that he’s actually a multi-faceted and cerebral actor in his lead turn as troubled former-cop-turned-unlicensed gumshoe Matt Scudder, a guy who is haunted by the memory of a little girl one of his stray bullets killed back when he was “on the job,” and is now (okay, fair enough, seemingly constantly) struggling to maintain his fragile newly-found sobriety. Not exactly looking for work, he’s nevertheless intrigued enough by an offer that comes his way when his old pal Howie (portrayed by Eric Nelsen), acting as a “go-between,” lets him know about a potentially-unsavory character who needs some strictly “off the books” assistance — and soon enough, Scudder is back in action after first refusing the gig, cajoled into the stereotypical “one last job” by smooth-talking (and ominous as all hell) drug dealer Kenny Kristo (brought to life with considerable aplomb by Dan Stevens, who’s a million miles away for his Downton Abbey role with this one), whose wife has been kidnapped by a couple of psycho thugs — who, it seems, may have gone ahead and killed her even after their ransom demands were met. In due course, Sudder’s investigations leads him to conclude they may also have done the same to several others, all of whom seem to track back to Kristo’s unsavory life and business in one way or another, and then — they strike again. While Scudder is on the case. And, of course, there’s no way he’s gonna let that stand.

Speaking of those kidnappers/potential killers, they’re a couple of seriously fucked-up dudes, and actors David Harbour (who plays Ray) and Adam David Thompson (who plays Albert) definitely both reek of psychotic menace. What they’re really up to, and why, is pretty well spelled out far in advance of being stated/shown explicitly (told you we’d get back to the predictability), but it almost doesn’t matter because it’s so fucking unsettling that it could easily be argued that knowing — or suspecting — what this deranged duo’s “game” is might just make things even worse.

There’s plenty of solid acting on display from the more “minor” players here, as well, with special accolades due Maurice Compte as Scudder’s long-suffering sidekick/foil Danny Ortiz, and Brian “Astro” Bradley, who not only goes toe to toe with heavyweight talents such as Neeson, but arguably even manages to steal evey scene he’s in as smart-but-cagey street kid T.J. Each and every role is straight from the “genre archetypes” playbook, it’s true (although, curiously, no “femme fatale” is on hand), but who’s gonna argue when they’re all fleshed out with this much style, skill, and depth? I’m certainly not — and neither should you.

Throw in some well-realized “period piece” authenticity that really makes you feel the grit and grime of what remains of New York’s seedy underbelly circa 1999, and what you’ve got here is a film that more than makes up for by means of execution what it lacks in originality. A Walk Among The Tombstones may not be terribly (okay, what the heck, even moderately) innovative, but like I said, sometimes you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — and the next time you are, you could do a hell of a lot worse than this one.

I honestly feel halfway guilty about including a film shot only about a six-or seven-hour drive from my own house as part of my occasional “International Weirdness” series here on this site, but when you live in Minneapolis and the flick in question was made in Winnipeg, well — that’s how it goes, I guess. There isn’t much geographic distance between our towns, but there is that US/Canada border.

Winnipeg’s independent film scene has been fairly robust in recent years, as most know — comparisons to the 1990s “Toronto New Wave” have abounded — but our northern neighbors like their genre stuff, too, and 2015’s Dark Forest, brainchild of writer/director Roger Boyer, seeks to do something a little different with the classic “slasher” premise, namely : deconstruct it and turn it on its head at the same time. How best to do this? Well, how about by making it plain as day that’s what you’re up to from the outset?

The identity of the killer is never in question here, nor is a hockey or Halloween mask necessary — Peter, our villain du jour, is the kind of psycho we know all too well : a domestic abuser, and his “motivation” is equally “ripped from the headlines,” in that he’s pissed off about his girlfriend, Emily (played by Laurel McArthur) splitting for a weekend of camping in the woods with her girlfriends Michelle (Veronica Ternopolski), Jolene (Weronika Sokalska), and Francine (Jalin Desloges) and not inviting his deranged ass along. In fact, he’s so mad about the whole thing (as well as wise to the obvious fact that some kind of “intervention” will probably be taking place) that he’s gonna head out to the (dark) forest to find them and kill anyone and everyone who gets in his way — before doing in the ladies, of course.

Yeah, as you’ve probably guessed, the ’80s influences are apparent here, even beyond the basic “teens in the woods” set-up —we’ve got a “hot” car, “hot” girls, a nerd, even a synth-music score. But Boyer, despite having (obviously, if we’re being honest) very little money to work with finds a way to mix the old and the new by ditching the “damsels in distress” paradigm in favor of the  modern “strong female protagonists” we are, thankfully, becoming more accustomed to. So we’re not looking at anything entirely original by any means, but we’re not strictly mired in yet another “throwback,” either. That, my friends, is what I call a relief.

The film — which, incidentally and before I forget, is available free for streaming to Amazon Prime members and has also been released on Blu-ray and DVD —has its flaws, to be sure, but all the principal players are at the very least competent, and Scullard positively relishes his chance to ham it up as a homicidal maniac, while giving his performance just enough “real world” gravitas to avoid becoming a caricature. The supporting cast doesn’t necessarily fare as well, largely being as unprofessional as, let’s face it, we should expect from a bare-bones production such as this, but even there, the occasional standout — such as Genevieve DeGraves as Kim — punches above their weight class and manages to make a solid impression.

Now, I do recall saying something about Scullard also turning the classic “slasher” formula on its head, as well, but we won’t give away too much about that. Suffice to say these ladies are no shrinking violets and that leads to some — interesting things happening. Which is a pretty fair summation of Dark Forest on the whole, come to think of it : yes, you’ve seen most of what’s on offer here done before, and you’ve seen it done better, but it’s ambitious enough to want to at least do them differently, and it’s well-executed enough to get more than it probably should out of what it has to work with.

 

 

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.

 

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.