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Posts Tagged ‘Craig Gillespie’

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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