Posts Tagged ‘Sebastian Stan’

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.

Civil_War_Final_Poster

Writing reviews of these Marvel flicks really ought to be fairly easy at this point since they can more or less all be summed up with “if you like this sort of thing, then you’ll like this one, too” — and while that’s as true as ever in the case of the just-released Captain America : Civil War, there’s plenty on offer here worth commenting on in a bit more depth, much of which isn’t taking place on the screen at all. So let’s dive into that first, shall we?

Make no mistake — the latest entry into the so-called “MCU” had a big opening weekend and looks set to make its parent company plenty of money. But a number of box office websites projected it to do considerably more business right out of the gate, and keep in mind that those figures are usually adjusted downwards thanks to pressure from studio executives. As just one example, boxoffice.com was going with a projected figure of $214 million for opening weekend, and you can bet that means their initial, un-publicized projections were more in the neighborhood of $220 million. As receipts started to be tallied up, they revised that figure down to $185 million, then down to $181 million come Sunday evening. Final score once actuals were totaled up? $179 million, good enough for the fifth-best opening weekend of all time, but lower than both Avengers and Avengers : Age Of Ultron. This final figure is certainly nothing to sneeze at, of course, but frankly much more impressive is how the Disney PR machine immediately leapt into action, emphasizing that it was a 90% stronger opening than the previous entry in the series, Captain America : Winter Soldier (which opened on a Wednesday in fucking April), rather than comparing it to the opening numbers for the two Avengers films, which is what they were saying the first-weekend box office take for this one would be more in line with before it, ya know, actually opened.

So, the good news for Dis/Mar is that Captain America movies (although this is one in name only given that Cap is hardly anything like “THE” central character — he’s more “A” central character) keep on making more money every time — the bad news is that Avengers movies (which, they were right, is essentially what this is) keep on doing incrementally worse. To provide some recent context (that also shows the efficacy of Disney’s largely-unpaid internet “spin” legion): the March 25th weekend opening of Batman V. Superman took in only $13 million less than did Captain America : Civil War, and all the talk within X-amount of days was about how that “under-performed” compared to expectations — even though its $166 million take was well ahead of the $140 million-ish figure most of the box office sites were projecting. I know that six weeks is ancient history in today’s world, but the simple truth is that Batman V. Superman was considered a rousing success — for all of about a week. It wasn’t until it suffered a 71% decline in its second week thanks to negative word of mouth (some sincere, some orchestrated by Disney brass) that talk of what a “failure” it was began to be taken seriously. For the record, to date BvS has made almost $870 million worldwide, and while Civil War is currently sitting around $700 million after just two weeks of release (it opened in many European and Asian markets before the US/North America — go figure) and will almost certainly pass Zack Snyder’s blustery-but-stylish romp within a week or two given that its week-to-week dropoff will almost certainly be much smaller, chances still seem fairly good that it also may not make it to a billion during its theatrical run (in fact, I’m betting it tops out around $930-$940 million) — and given that BvS will probably squeak just past $900 million between the few weeks it’s got left at the first-run theaters and its inevitable follow-up stint at the discount houses, there’s a very real chance that less than $50 million will be all that separates the “amazingly successful” Civil War from the “disappointing” Batman V. Superman. Considering that both films had budgets reported to be in the $250 million range and that each studio is said to have shelled out somewhere around $200 million on publicity to hype their product, Disney is still going to come out ahead of Warners on their big-budget superhero mash-ups for 2016, but not by a whole lot. Still — it’s funny how the “spin game” works, is it not? Once again, a few free preview passes and a few empty promises about “potential future visits to the set of one of our movies!” aimed in the direction of the right “opinion-shapers” is all it takes to make one studio look like champs and the other look like chumps.

I’ll tell you what, though — I don’t care how they spin in, the $179 million opening weekend for Captain America : Civil War was a good $30-35 million less than the Disney “suits” had been both hoping for and expecting. They’re hedging their bets a bit by claiming that the Mother’s Day holiday put a little bit of a dent in their business, but funny — BvS opened the same weekend as a holiday, as well : it’s called Easter. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Not traditionally known for being a big day at the movies.

1747

Of course, Civil War‘s (weird as this may sound) “soft” opening shouldn’t be taken in any way as a reflection on the film itself. Plenty of great movies have absolutely tanked at the box office, while plenty of shit ones have made hundreds of millions — and in the final analysis (which I’m getting to, I promise), this one falls somewhere in between. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo seem to have a bit more free reign here, stylistically speaking, than previous MCU directors have been given, and the end result is a flick that doesn’t start to ape the “big-budget TV episode” look of, say, Joss Whedon’s Avengers flicks or Jon Favreau’s Iron Man flicks until — oh, I dunno — about halfway through its two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime. Frankly — and hard-core Marvel fans are gonna slap me for saying this — given the keen eye they show for shot composition in the early going (and again during some parts of the movie’s purportedly “climactic” final battle), Civil War often looks more like a Zack Snyder film than it does a Marvel film, and that at least goes some way toward keeping a person’s eyes glued to the screen. The story, sadly, is somewhat less engaging, revolving as it does (in case you didn’t already know) around a bunch of heroes falling in line behind Captain America (played, as ever, with a reasonable amount square-jawed heart by Chris Evans) and another bunch falling in line behind Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) as they take opposite positions on a bill to sanction, approve, and essentially regulate all super-hero work being advanced by the US Secretary of State (portrayed by a gaunt and sickly-looking William Hurt). “Team Cap,” which is opposed to the new legislation,  consists of The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), while “Team Iron Man,” which is in favor of it, has The Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (the preposterously-un-Russian as ever Scarlett Johansson), and newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in its ranks. The battle lines are drawn, one character will definitely get the worst of it, the MCU will supposedly change forever — you know the drill.

CaptainAmericaCivilWar_Trailer2

Of those just-mentioned newcomers, Holland’s Spidey is getting all the hype, but it’s Boseman’s Black Panther who is far and away the more impressive. He’s sleek, silent, calculating, and even-keeled, and his forthcoming solo movie might just be interesting (as opposed to his newly-relaunched comic series, which is off to a truly risible start). Holland, by contrast, seems a bit too youthful and, to be brutally honest, wet behind the ears to be an effective Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and his origin story looks like it’s going to be a rather revisionist, or “retconned,” one, with a lot of Stark Industries influence, and constant references to how “hot” his Aunt May ( played by Marisa Tomei — who, I’m sorry to sound like a pig, has certainly looked a lot better in other films than she does here) is. We’ll see how that goes, but his role here essentially boils down to being the first bit of  comic relief in a film that frankly has none until he shows up just past the halfway point (if you really want some fun, though, add up the number of critics online and in print who have said that BvS was too “dark” and “joyless,” then turned right around and extolled the virtues of Civil War‘s  “serious” and “mature” tone). To Holland’s credit, his character’s comic relief shtick at least works, which is more than you can say for the flat, forced “humor” on offer from Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man — the less said about which the better.

You already know the two sides won’t stay at each other’s throats forever, of course, and that they’ll team up to fight a bigger threat (a cliched non-twist that BvS  was, again, panned for but that Civil War is, also again, being praised for) before all is said and done — the problem is that said “bigger” threat here is, in the end, just a guy. Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo character (who bears precisely no resemblance to the Baron Zemo created by Jack Kirby) is certainly manipulative and all, but on the whole he’s a decidedly un-menacing bad guy. Granted, previous MCU films have set the bar for “villain quality” amazingly low, but this clown is small potatoes compared even to the bog-standard CGI alien invaders of The Avengers or the laughably incompetent Loki from the Thor flicks. In all honesty, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier seems a more pressing danger than Zemo ever is, and we know from the outset that he’s being manipulated/impersonated and doesn’t really mean anyone any harm. I don’t know how an entire fucking commitee of screenwriters couldn’t manage to come up with a better “evil mastermind”-type character than the one we’re served up here — unless they weren’t really trying. The only thing that might be more lame than this is Cap’s wooden “romance” with Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) — who just so happens to be the niece of his first love from back in the 1940s. Nothing creepy about that.

3054002-poster-p-2-enjoy-the-captain-america-civil-war-trailer-if-youve-seen-every-marvel-movie

If you’re getting the impression that I found Captain America : Civil War to be something of a mixed bag on the whole, hey, you’d be exactly right — the plot has a bit more thematic depth to it than most MCU fare and it’s a more appealing package visually (until it gets all “point-and-shoot” later on), but it suffers from all the usual flaws these things do, as well, the largest being that it exists more for the purpose of selling audiences on the next two or three films in this “universe” than it does for creating a truly memorable and “game-changing” viewing experience this time around. The Russo Brothers seem to be getting a more effective “hang” on this whole “blockbuster thing,” which is a good sign given that they’ll be heading up the next two films in the Avengers series, but if current patterns hold — and at this point there’s no reason to believe that they won’t — even those “tent-pole” releases will continue to promise that the best, biggest, baddest, and coolest thing ever is just around the corner. It would be nice if, for once, it actually arrived — but Disney studio execs (and I’m sure the same will be true for their counterparts at Warners as the so-called “DCEU” progresses) have no real reason to give audiences the “steak” rather than the “sizzle” as long as these two-and-a-half-hour “teaser reels” for future films continue to make money — even if they’re starting to make less money than they used to.