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Posts Tagged ‘Craig Gillespie’

(Split being, of course, the largest city in Dalmatia, which is (duh) the ancestral home of the Dalmatian dog breed. I’m well aware that, normally, nothing is more guaranteed to kill a decent joke than carefully explaining it, but in this case it’s an extra-subtle one that’s probably going to get overlooked if I don’t.)

The pandemic continues to shake its tail, and as part of the fallout from it all I find myself – temporarily – living with family and thus enjoying less control over the domestic media functions than is usually my wont. So far I have managed to dodge the endless YouTube dog and Minecraft videos which makes up the bulk of my younger relatives’ intake, but when it comes to Family Movie Night – oh yes, this is a thing! – I don’t really get any say in what’s on.

Which is why I ended up watching Craig Gillespie’s Cruella, a film which I experienced no actual desire to see during its theatrical release earlier this year. I know you may be thinking, ‘God, this guy is indolent, if he didn’t want to watch the movie he could have balanced his wobbling carcass on those stumpy legs of his and wobbled off away from a screen for just a few minutes’ – and I take your point. I believe my exact words to my hosts were something to the effect of ‘I’m going to see what this is like but I may slip out of the room if it’s not my kind of thing.’ I mean, I’ve enjoyed Craig Gillespie’s films in the past, and I’m not averse to Emma Stone, but it’s a live action Disney brand extension prequel to a story which I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen or read any of the other versions of.

I suppose we could reflect productively upon the reasons for this current run of villain-centric prequels – I’m thinking of the Maleficent films and Joker in particular – it’s a reasonable way of dodging the problems involved in doing sequels to well-loved tales, or indeed doing yet another remake. Not that they don’t come with their own set of problems, though.

This one kicks off in the early 1950s, with the birth of – well, not actually Cruella de Vil, but a young woman who ends up with the monicker Estella Miller. (Here we reach one of those points where a strictly accurate synopsis necessarily involves spoilers, so forgive me if not all of what follows is actually literally true in the context of the plot.) Despite having an unlikely duotonal trichological complexion, Estella has a relatively normal childhood with her mother (Emily Beecham), although she is a bit of a rebel and obsessed with outrageous fashion choices.

Eventually Estella is kicked out of school and the two of them head off to London, pausing on the way to visit the stately home of famous fashion designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Estella’s mum is basically there to hit her up for some cash – exactly what’s going on is kept deliberately obscure – but it results in Estella being chased by some ferocious Dalmatians (some subtle foreshadowing, this) and her mother falling to her death off a precipitous cliff.

Yeah, it goes dark quite quickly, doesn’t it? But not for long; this kind of occasional veer into really bleak territory followed by an equally rapid course correction back to the realm of family friendliness is something the film does quite often. Anyway, Estella runs off to London, hooks up with a pair of juvenile tearaways, and they all grown up to be Emma Stone, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser (Fry and Hauser are playing Jasper and Horace, the henchmen from 101 Dalmatians).

Eventually Estella gets the chance to give up her life of crime and join the fashionista establishment, initially at a department store and then as part of a famous London label. But she gets a bit of a shock when she realises that her boss and mentor is the same woman who was responsible for her mother’s death (Emma Thompson is still Emma Thompson). Estella decides that vengeance is really her only option, but to carry it out she must adopt another personality, that of the outrageous and ruthless Cruella – but is this really a new persona, or simply a new name for part of her which has been lurking away all this time…?

Well, as you probably guessed, I made it all the way to the end of Cruella even though it’s well over two hours long and thus overstays what a reasonable welcome would be. This is not because it’s an unqualified triumph of a movie, but it does have points of quality and it’s certainly interesting.

So what can we say about it that is positive? Well, it certainly looks ravishing, mostly being set in a fantasticalised version of London in the 1970s, and the direction is inventive. It shouldn’t do Emma Stone’s career any harm, either: quite apart from being a very capable actress (here she seems to be doing a Helena Bonham Carter impersonation for most of the film), she also has the knack of looking good no matter what colour (or colours) of hair she is issued with. Emma Thompson is also good value, but then that’s like saying the sun comes up in the morning, while Mark Strong (a touch underused, I’d say) does his usual trick of lifting every scene he appears in.

The general tenor of thing is rather like a superhero origin movie if it were written by Roald Dahl – the main character gradually adopts all the key elements of the persona that will make them famous, with various set pieces and reversals along the way, but all with an element of grotesqueness and (as mentioned) occasional excursions into real darkness. It reminded me quite a lot of Joker, more than anything else.

Of course, my problem with Joker was that I couldn’t quite see the point of a film about a villain without a hero; you can’t really make the Joker sympathetic without destroying what the character’s about. And the same is surely true here: Cruella de Vil isn’t quite in the same league when it comes to homicidal animus, but she’s still the bad guy. Is our knowledge of her origins supposed to make her actions more understandable? Are we even supposed to start sympathising with her? If not, then what is the point of the film?

And beyond this, I don’t think the script quite manages to sell the transition from Estella to Cruella completely convincingly – Emma Stone does what she can, but it doesn’t feel like a natural change, being more a series of abrupt shifts in personality and behaviour. Perhaps the problem is that the film still wants to be a relatively light-hearted caper – not a great fit for a story which appears to depict a relatively good-hearted young woman succumbing to her dark side. You don’t get the sense of loss or tragedy that should come with that particular narrative arc.

It’s ultimately quite a superficial film, then, but then the story hardly lends itself to naturalism. The setting in the fashion world of London in the 1970s, with a rebellious young designer making a name for herself, had me thinking this was a movie in some ways riffing on the career of Vivienne Westwood – and while there’s a bit of a punk aesthetic at work, with (probably anachronistically) the Clash and Blondie eventually turning up on the soundtrack, there’s a real mish-mash of things happening here – music from the 60s is mixed in with glam rock, and so on. The real world is carefully kept at arm’s distance, here and in the characterisations.

I would still like to think that, somewhere, somehow, the Mouse House still wants to make films that have some kind of moral premise and storytelling merit to them, rather than just being immense cash-guzzling brand extensions. There are things about Cruella that do have merit to them, particularly the two lead performances and the visual sense of the thing, and it does pass the time quite engagingly. But as far as the rest of it goes – what’s it about? It’s about the early life of Cruella de Vil. But what’s it really about, on a deeper level? I’m really not sure.

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One of the more ignoble moments of my teaching career came a few years ago when an interesting young woman attempted to strangle me in the middle of a spoken skills lesson. (Relax, I survived.) The casus belli for this particular outbreak of classroom strife was my decision to share with the students my belief that ice dancing is not, when you come down to it, really a proper sport, primarily because it is not objectively scored. (It turned out she had been a fairly serious competitor in this particular discipline in her younger years.) What can I say – never afraid to court controversies on the big issues of the day, that’s me.

I seem to find myself having the same discussion every four years during the world’s premier festival of gravity-dependent sport, a.k.a. the Winter Olympics. Now, it’s not like I’m a particular fan of even the aestival outbreak of this particular event – while the rest of the population of the UK was entranced by the opening ceremony of the London Games, I was locked away in a room by myself watching Gamera the Invincible over the internet – but I generally find myself particularly unmoved by the snowy version, partly due to the arbitrary oddness of many of the events, but also because so much of it is, let’s face it, subjectively scored.

Perhaps it is the very realisation of the dubious nature of their activities that has left so many winter sports athletes prone to outbreaks of sudden, savage violence. Or maybe not. Certainly concerning itself with an act of violence, not to mention figure skating, is Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, which is almost certainly the best Winter Olympics-related movie ever made.

Like many people I was vaguely aware of the scandal at the 1994 Winter Olympics concerning the rivalry between the skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and startling way in which it developed: in the USA, however, Harding became hugely infamous, one of the most recognisable and widely-hated figures in the country. Gillespie’s film does not so much attempt to rehabilitate her reputation as tell her story with a minimum of bias.

Of course, this is quite difficult as relations between all the key players in the story are adversarial, to say the least, and their various accounts of what happens differ when it comes to some of the essential facts. The film cheerfully embraces this – this is a pretty cheerful film all round, when you consider it – and ploughs into the morass of trying to establish just who knew what and when, regardless.

Harding is mostly played by the Australian actress (and now, I note, film producer) Margot Robbie (Kerrigan, played by Caitlin Carver, is a fairly minor character). Robbie seems to have figured out that your best chance of winning an Oscar (and thus progressing to a properly lucrative role in a superhero franchise) is to take on a role which requires you to de-prettify yourself. This is certainly one of those – Harding is a girl from, as they say, the wrong side of the tracks, a self-described redneck, described by others as white trash. Her situation is only compounded by the less than maternal influence of her mother (a performance of hag-like monstrosity from Allison Janney), and later an allegedly abusive relationship with her boyfriend-then-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

Despite all this, Harding’s genuine ability as a skater, particularly her unique mastery of the apparently-quite-tricky triple-Axel, whatever one of those is, gets her near to the top of the tree in the world of US skating. This is despite the general contempt she received from the skating establishment because of her deportment, styling and background. The decision to bring the Winter Olympics forward to 1994 provides her with an unexpected second chance at a medal, which she embraces.

And here we come to what the film refers to as ‘the incident’ – an assault on Harding’s chief rival Kerrigan, when she was bashed on the kneecap during a training session by a goon in the employ of… well herein lies the tale. Who was responsible? Was this a premeditated attack ordered by members of the Harding camp (effectively Tonya and Jeff)? Or a bit of private initiative on the part of an enterprising associate?

The film ducks out of attempting a definitive answer, quite properly suggesting that we’ll never be completely certain on this one, until someone owns up anyway. Through a neat bit of cinematic ju-jitsu the film exploits the fact it has multiple, equally unreliable narrators to comic effect – ‘This never happened,’ Harding informs the camera during one scene, while we are told that ‘this next part is completely untrue’ by Gillooly shortly afterwards.

Weirdly, the fact that at least some of it must not actually have happened as presented here does not make the narrative of the film at all confused, and the way it manages to keep its feet on the ground as a drama as well as simply a grotesque, absurd black comedy is also quite impressive. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Harding spent much of her early life in circumstances where domestic violence was a given, and these scenes are (mercifully) not played for laughs. There is even some implied criticism of the skating establishment for its snobbery towards Harding (although given the whole basis of the sport is subjective, it’s not a massive surprise, if you ask me).

Having said all that, events surrounding the attack on Kerrigan is the meat of the film – ‘the part you’ve been waiting for’, in Harding’s words – and this is very much presented as an absurd black comedy, particularly the role of Gillooly and his fantasist buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). In the end, though, the film remains compassionate towards Harding, and the scenes depicting the fall-out of the incident and its impact on her life are unexpectedly moving.

There is, of course, a degree of technical trickery involved in turning Margot Robbie into an Olympic ice skater – that software which digitally pastes one person’s face onto another person’s body may be banned in some contexts, but not movie theatres – but her performance is very strong throughout. Opposite her is Sebastian Stan, an actor who has appeared in many highly successful movies (principally the Marvel series), but not a genuine star in his own right yet – his performance here should do something to rectify that. Neither of them quite match the astonishing awfulness of Janney’s character, but this really is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenarios. Let’s just say the strength of the performances matches the outlandishness of the characters.

I, Tonya studiously avoids sports movie cliches, but then this is not quite your typical sports movie. It’s about sports, certainly, but the story concerns itself more with other things – it’s a character piece about Harding, but also a film which touches upon issues such as the modern media, American attitudes to class and background, and even – fleetingly – the nature of truth itself. It’s also thoroughly engaging and often very funny. I’m not sure it’s quite politically correct enough to really do well at the Oscars this year, but I enjoyed it a lot – always assuming my subjective opinion is worth anything, of course.

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‘I don’t think vampires are frightening any more… we know the rules so well.’ Sir Christopher Frayling

Or, if you prefer a pithier quote from someone less respectable, how about ‘Vampires have become Horror’s equivalent of Star Trek,’ from Kim Newman? These days I think a better comparison would be with McDonalds, and not on the grounds that both are questionable on dietary grounds. But they’ve both become vaguely disreputable, while remaining very popular and continuing to dish up more-or-less exactly the same fare.

Nevertheless, when launching a new vampire story into a fairly unforgiving marketplace, it helps to have an edge, even if that edge solely consists of being a remake. Which brings us to Craig Gillespie’s version of Fright Night, the original of which hit our screens in 1985.

Former Buffy scribe Marti Noxon has relocated the story to Las Vegas, a smart move given it’s a city where everyone’s up all night as a matter of course and abnormal behaviour is, er, normal. Our protagonist is Charlie (Anton Yelchin, possibly best known for playing Chekov in the Star Trek re-do), a recovering geek living with his mum (Toni Collette, possibly best known for Muriel’s Wedding) and doing improbably well with his beautiful girlfriend (Imogen Poots, possibly best known for 28 Weeks Later). However, his old friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, possibly best known for Kick-Ass) breaks surprising news to him – his new neighbour Jerry (Colin Farrell, possibly best known for his remarkable ubiquity over the last decade) is a bloodsucking undead predator!

As you’d expect, Charlie is initially very dubious about this but events convince him otherwise (one of his other neighbours goes on a date with Jerry then explodes when the sun comes up the next day, for one thing). Jerry does not take kindly to having his secret exposed and soon Charlie’s loved ones are also in peril. In desperation, Charlie resorts to asking for help from Goth-styled stage magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant, possibly best known for… um… er… I expect it’ll come to me), little suspecting that he is really about as much use in this situation as a rubber stake…

The original Fright Night was part of a slew of vampire movies that came out in the mid Eighties, appearing just after The Hunger but before The Lost Boys and Near Dark. I don’t think it’s as accomplished as any of those, but it did make a pile of money which is probably why it’s been given the remake treatment. That said, elements from some of those movies make an appearance here, and the new film is tonally fairly different too. You could argue that this refers to Eighties horror in the same way the Eighties version was a homage to a still earlier era, I suppose – although the way the rewrite changes Peter Vincent from a fading movie actor to a magician sort of disconnects the gag that he’s named in honour of two legends of horror. Hey ho.

Things get off to a slightly wobbly start due to the plot’s demands that Charlie be simultaneously best friends with an enormous geek and possessor of an amazingly hot girlfriend, and the script does not negotiate around this issue with tremendous deftness. It also seems for a while as if everything will degenerate into knowing self-referentiality and wearisome irony – though there are also some very neat moments, such as a scene where Charlie desperately tries to avoid inviting Jerry into his house without making it too obvious.

However, once the story picks up pace the film stops trying to be clever and actually becomes a rather engaging piece of knockabout schlock. Some showing-off from the director doesn’t help, and the rather naturalistic atmosphere is slightly at odds with some of the excesses involved. But the performances are very good throughout – David Tennant resists the temptation to steal the entire movie (it was clearly a close thing) but is clearly having a lot of fun, while Colin Farrell manages to find a way of playing a vampire that isn’t obviously influenced by anyone else.

It’s actually a bit of a pleasure to find a vampire movie that’s so resolutely old-school in its treatment of the beasts – as someone says, Jerry isn’t lonely or tragic or heartbroken, he’s the shark in Jaws! On the other hand, the movie’s reading of the vampire myth isn’t especially profound – apparently the vampire symbolises a cooler and richer older guy out to steal your girlfriend. Not a lot of material there for Freud to work with.

Anyway, while the new Fright Night isn’t anything very special, I would say the same was arguably true of the first one too. Nevertheless, it’s a nicely put-together movie with lots of good performances and a solid understanding of the conventions of vampire movies. It’s not actually scary in any but the most mechanical of ways, but it’s frequently amusing and often very nearly thrilling. A good bet for a fun trip out, always assuming you like this sort of thing.

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