Note- the following mini film reviews were from 2010 on a different blog that I no longer run.
Role Models (***1/2)- This is one of those movies I said I wouldn’t see (because penis and boob jokes usually bore me), but I watched it to appease friends that insist I’m a movie snob. Admittedly, this isn’t too bad, and in parts, I laughed heartily. I also appreciated how the geek culture was both roasted and praised at the same time, as well as the skewering of the ‘energy drink’ industry. I recommend this with a caveat: I want comedies to stop being so formulaic (i.e. immature/lazy characters get drunk/high, lose/almost lose their forgiving girl, turn the corner, make a big mistake, and then go to great lengths to make everything better). I hope the next comedy involving Paul Rudd isn’t so telegraphed.
Step Brothers (*1/2)- Aside from the occasional humorous line (one delivered by a little girl, and one that you can only find in the DVD’s deleted scenes), I’d have to say I was really disappointed with this. Adam McKay (Anchorman– my #3 funniest film) directs, so where does it go wrong? Well, even in silly comedies, I still expect some semblance of sense. This is a jumbled mess that extends a 5 minute idea (Hey! We’re 40 and live with our parents! How sad is that?!) into a feature. I split this up into two viewings and still almost dozed off the second time around. There are two types of Will Ferrell movies: Good, (Anchorman, Stranger Than Fiction, Elf) and really bad (Superstar, Semi-Pro, Talladega Nights). This falls into the latter category.
The Hangover (**1/2)– For all the hoopla, I’m ultimately left wondering what the big deal is. Sure, there are random funny moments (mostly the scenes stolen by Zack Galifianakis), and it wasn’t terrible by any means, but is this all we get for the top grossing comedy of all time? I shouldn’t expect much from director Todd Phillips (‘Road Trip’, ‘Old School’, ‘Starsky & Hutch’), and this is definitely his best effort, but for the praise this one gets, I’m kind of bummed that this wasn’t funnier. There’s too much Mike Tyson (one scene was enough), and I’m worn out with the whole ‘what happens in Vegas’ schtick. Debauchery is only funny the first hundred times. I really wanted it to be legendarily funny.
Tron (**)– In anticipation of the Christmas 2010 sequel ‘Tron Legacy”, I wanted to bone up on the original. I had to remind myself that in 1982 this was something of a groundbreaking film in the area of visual effects (from what I’ve read). However, in contrast to other sci-fi flicks that HAVE stood the test of time (Star Wars), the effects in this film are extremely dated…and it’s also a rather dull movie with dull characters, centered around the idea that computer programs can interface with real people, or ‘users’., and one such self-aware program wants to ‘rule the world’ or whatever. The whole ‘computers taking over’ thing may have originated here (I’m not sure), but the ‘Terminator’ franchise has beat that idea into submission, along with countless other cautionary tales of technology. I saw this when I was younger, but I never clamored to watch this like the other classics of the time, and I think I know why now. The trailer for ‘Tron Legacy’ is far more interesting than any 2 minutes of this film. It was probably way cooler back in 1982, but good movies always stand the test of time, shoddy effects or not.
The Hurt Locker (*****)- The most recent Oscar winner for Best Picture, ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a truly great movie. I say that even though I, like others, have grown tired of the slew of Iraq war movies in recent years. I’ll also admit that I was apprehensive because I hadn’t been a fan of director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous work. However, there’s not a moment that I wasn’t on the edge of my seat. It’s cliché to say that, but I’m not kidding; this is an intense film. I think we all understand by now that ‘war is Hell’, but this film doesn’t concentrate on that. For some, adrenaline is addictive, and for the lead character, played brilliantly by Jeremy Renner, the adrenaline rush war provides is a drug. If there can be such a thing as a ‘fresh perspective’ on war, this film offers it, and does so in great fashion, following a bomb squad on various missions. On a side note, I’m incredibly pleased that this won Best Picture at the Oscars over Avatar. I enjoyed that, but only in the area of technological innovation was it superior to The Hurt Locker. It’s good to know that using politics to sway voters during Oscar season this year didn’t work.
Bruno (***)- Right after I watched this, I commented on Facebook that I’d never been so entertained and appalled at the same time. I think that pretty much encapsulates this movie. Sacha Baron Cohen, as the faux Austrian fashion guru, does everything he can to shock the viewer, and succeeds in that arena. Occasionally, the gratuitous nature of the movie was a bit much, but at other times I was in stitches- not ‘Borat’ stitches, but still. Afterwards I was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t as entertained by this as I was ‘Borat’, but considering the bar that Cohen set for himself, anything short of that was going to let me down. Slight spoiler alert: the scenes with the reforming minister and the large crowd at the end are a little too real to be funny. It’s unfortunate how pervasive bigotry can be.
Drag Me To Hell (***)- Full disclosure- I can’t stand the ‘Evil Dead’ movies, or Army of Darkness, the supposed legendary starter films for director Sam Raimi. However, he has made really good movies since then (A Simple Plan, Spider-Man 2), so I know he’s capable. Keeping that in mind, and knowing that Alison Lohman was the lead (big smile), I figured I’d watch this with mild expectations. I had also heard that this was somewhat ‘light’ on the horror and occasionally humorous- which ends up being the case. Lohman’s character is your average girl, trying to ‘make it in this world’, and thus takes a risk that ends with a curse being placed on her. This film takes the curse very seriously. The lengths her character has to go through in an attempt to rid the curse make this an entertaining, and at times, mildly scary film. I’d have preferred that Raimi drop the amusing moments altogether and do a more ominous straight-up horror flick. I think that would have capitalized on the real strong points of the movie, the scary moments. (SPOILER ALERT): I was surprised to have enjoyed it, and was particularly taken aback by the ending, which was timed perfectly…not too much time in between the climax and the end, and thus we aren’t sure if there’s more coming or not. The look on Justin Long’s face in the final shot is one I can imagine myself having.
Moon (*****)- I was so excited to see this little independent sci-fi film that I rushed to the computer to see which one of our theaters was going to carry it when it released. Alas, NEITHER of them did. Very, very disappointing. I’d have thought that a film starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey’s voice would be somewhat attractive. Of course, there must not have been room for this film when theaters had to have 10-15 showings of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen each day. (Sigh) Moon concerns astronaut Sam Bell (Rockwell), who is nearing the end of a three-year mining shift on the Moon when he comes across an odd occurence while out in a rover: himself. Kevin Spacey voices the robot GERTY, who runs things at the moon base, including the medical functions. This is a deeply engrossing film that is part sci-fi, part character study. I’m stunned Sam Rockwell wasn’t nominated for Best Actor; if you see the film, you’ll understand specifically why it must have been a difficult role to pull off, and he was fantastic. Not everyone can show patience with films like this (sci-fi ‘thinking’ movies), but if you can be, it’ll be rewarding. My only beef is with the typeface used during the trailer and credits, which is again the same unoriginal drivel that everyone uses to ‘appeal to a certain demographic’ (sigh x 2).
The Spirit (no stars)- This will be short, mainly because it only warrants a short review. This is an evil, terrible movie, with no direction and no value whatsoever. Even Samuel L. Jackson yelling isn’t the least bit satisfying. I had better check out one of Will Eisner’s comics to see if the source material is better, because this just sucks.
Gone Baby Gone (****1/2)- Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is a well-acted, emotional thriller that basically forces the viewer to examine some of their own thoughts. Based on the book by well-known author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), Gone Baby Gone is a visceral film that deftly runs the gamut from child abduction to police corruption. No scene is wasted, especially those involving Amy Ryan, who plays the drug-abusing mother of the abducted child. After seeing her in ‘The Office’ first, I couldn’t help but be slightly shocked each time she swore or did something despicable. Ed Harris is brilliant (again) as a cop with a unique perspective on justice, and Casey Affleck is surprisingly effective as the street-smart private detective that has to make the tough choices once he’s in over his head. I looked back to see what was nominated for Best Picture the year this film came out, and both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood are films I consider on par with or better than this, but I cannot believe this didn’t get at least a nomination over ‘Juno’, which I couldn’t stand. I’m not sure I should feel comfortable quite yet, but based on this film, I admit I’m looking forward to Ben Affleck’s next directorial venture, The Town, which seems to have a nice little cast. (*note- I’ve since seen both The Town and Argo, and they’re both brilliant)
Zombieland (****)- I like my post-apocalyptic films to be a bit more serious, so I can really get a feel for the desolate nature of a world on the brink of extinction. However, this was just plain fun. It follows two, then four, survivors of a virus outbreak that has, as you guessed it, turned most of the population into flesh-eating zombies. The zombie thing is incredibly overdone, but this film isn’t concerned so much with the zombies as it is with the characters, and how they’ve learned to survive. Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid And The Whale, Adventureland’ is the main character, who suffers from a lack of self-esteem, but has made a list of ways to survive in Zombieland, a list that brought a smile to my face. Woody Harrelson is the gun-loving redneck (no WAY) that has a soft side, and Emma Stone teams up with Abigail Breslin as con-artist sisters. Zombieland is effective in part because it knows not to take itself too seriously. It also has some fun set pieces, like the mansion of a celebrity (I won’t give it away), a grocery store, and an amusement park to play with the zombies. I imagine that if ‘The Sims’ and ‘Resident Evil’ software joined together, we’d probably get something similar to this film.
Iceman (1984) (****)- An effective film starring Timothy Hutton as an anthropologist who tries to connect with a 40,000 year old thawed out prehistoric man. This could have been silly, but the performances are superb, especially John Lone as ‘Charlie’, the ‘iceman’. I think anyone that can make a 40,000 year old person seem realistic deserves some kudos. Also, there is actual science used and discussed throughout the entire ‘thawing’ process, not just a montage of scenes to move the plot along. Look for Danny Glover in a role as a gamekeeper, and the principal from the Back To The Future films, James Tolkan. I used to watch this often when I was younger, and I just revisited it a couple of weeks ago as a streaming file via Netflix online. The film quality was incredibly poor, but I’m hoping that someday Universal will remaster it on Blu-Ray, and I’ll surely pick it up then.
Bolt (****)- I’ve had the benefit of getting to know this movie’s ins and outs VERY well, as my son wants to watch it…A LOT. Bolt is one of those rare Disney animated films that isn’t in the category of The Lion King or Toy Story. I remember being intrigued by the trailer, which, as it turns out, contains the best jokes from the movie. It’s an easy to digest movie for kids, and interesting enough for adults. Bolt is touching without being forced, and I was able to appreciate the subtle humor. Similar to the ‘Madagascar’ penguins, some quirky pigeons show up for comic relief as well. You won’t mistake this for the Pixar movies, but it isn’t too far behind.
Love Happens (1/2 star)- Why did I watch this? Although I knew everything that would happen based on the trailer, I suppose I got sucked in by the Goo Goo Dolls song playing in the background. Silly me… Anyways, Aaron Eckhart stars as a self-help guru that (big surprise) isn’t quite as strong as he seems. Jennifer Aniston continues to waste screen time as a flower shop owner that makes ‘bad decisions’, even though she OWNS A FLOWER SHOP that is thriving in a big city (Seattle). But I digress- you can tell what happens based on the title of the movie, and nothing interesting is in between. Eckhart continues to confuse me- he’s pretty good in some things (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich, In The Company Of Men), and appears miscast in LOTS of stuff (Thank You For Smoking, The Core, Suspect Zero). That might be the definition of mediocre, I suppose. I also want Aniston to go away. I hope that isn’t too harsh. Do give you an idea of how predictable and bad this is, I had the ‘finger gun’ pointed at my head about a dozen times while watching this. I’ll state the obvious…sh*t also ‘happens’, thus we have this film.
Pandorum (***)- It’s really, REALLY hard to find good science fiction films to watch these days. Usually a film advertised as sci-fi turns out to be a ‘boo’ movie, where things just jump out at characters in between quickly edited shots. Pandorum is a film that I’d generally ignore based on plain old intuition- it has Dennis Quaid in it (strike one), gnarly-looking monsters just to have some (strike two), Paul W.S. Anderson as a producer (strikes three, four, five and six), and the same dreaded, overused, unoriginal typeface for its’ multimedia and credits as countless other movies (strike seven, and I’ll get to the typeface/font thing in another post). Imagine my surprise when I was halfway through the movie and thought ‘wow, this doesn’t suck’. That’s a victory in itself, but the film goes further. To summarize quickly, two confused astronauts/’space military guys’ are on a ship travelling to an Earth-like planet called Tanis with the intention of settling after Earth has crumbled away, (awesome name for all you Raiders Of The Lost Ark fans) and are abruptly brought out of ‘hypersleep’ having to piece together what has happened. They try to accomplish this all while dealing with monsters that have a curious secret behind their existence. There are moments in this film that are genuinely creepy, and some occasional dumb moments that do a disservice to the overall intrigue the story has. When all was said and done, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. I even purchased it, maybe because if a sci-fi film shows any promise at all, I’m so excited that I think it’s better than it is.
Away We Go (****1/2)- This might be the most unassuming good movie I’ve ever seen. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph star as 30-somethings who finally decide to get serious about settling down once they learn a baby is on the way. They travel to various locations across the continent in search for a good place to raise their child, hoping that being around friends or family will ease their fears about parenthood. What they discover instead makes this film a worthwhile watch, and dare I say, a great watch. I was surprised once the credits rolled to see that Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) directed. This had such an indie-film quality to it that I didn’t envision the heir to the James Bond franchise as its’ helmer. Some critics have called this a snobby movie that imitates indie films in order to attract a certain crowd. I can see that to an extent- Alexi Murdoch tunes are spattered throughout the film, and the ending was a bit over-played (the only thing keeping it from a straight ‘A’ rating from me), but it doesn’t take away from the fact that it has some important things to say about being a parent and a grownup. I look forward to seeing this again as soon as possible, and I’d really like to see Maya Rudolph do more dramatic roles.
Inglourious Basterds (****)- By now, I think we know what to expect with all Quentin Tarantino films, and this time around, we aren’t left wanting. I wasn’t able to discern whether or not the film had any truth to it (according to history), and even though I doubt it, it doesn’t matter. Set during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, the film centers around a group of Jewish American soldiers charged with the task of killing as many Nazi soldiers and officers as they can, a task for which their enthusiasm has no bounds. As is the norm for Quentin, smaller stories are intertwined and come together towards the end. Also, there are some trademark Tarantino graphic scenes, but I will say this- it appeared to me that he held back just a bit on the graphic stuff, and I appreciate that, because I do believe the movie as a whole benefits. Great performances are abound, but in particular, Christoph Waltz (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) was as deliciously evil as any character you’ll see. All this said, I’m honestly not sure I liked this as much as Pulp Fiction, or either Kill Bill film. I suppose that because it isn’t as quotable, it may not be as memorable for me.
9 (***)- No, this isn’t the recent musical starring Daniel Day-Lewis, or The Nines starring Ryan Reynolds. This is an animated film from last year that I suspect very few people saw. I had been intrigued by the trailer, which showcased a post-apocalyptic world with little canvas-stitched ‘beings’ running around. The trailer also prominently mentioned Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) as executive producers, which didn’t really do anything for me other than convince me that it would be weird. First off, the animation is brilliantly done, and there is a great deal of character in the ‘beings’. Many well-known actors gave voices to the ‘beings’ (Elijah Wood, Martin Landau, etc), further adding to their charm. One may gather while watching this that there are subtle ‘anti-war’ and ‘machines might take over’ messages, and we’ve gone down that road before (see ‘Terminator’ franchise). There are also evil ‘machines’ that may remind some of the sentinels from the ‘Matrix’ franchise. Even with recycled messages and machinery, though, this movie works, at least on the visual level. I applaud director/creator Shane Acker for broadening the scope of his visionary student film, and even if the story isn’t anything new, it’s one of the most fascinating movies I’ve viewed in some time.
How To Train Your Dragon (3D) (****1/2)- Released last Friday, DreamWorks gives us another CG-animated movie in the spirit of Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens’and Shrek. Well, almost. I admit that I haven’t seen the first two, but I have seen the ‘Shrek’ movies, as well as Madagascar and Over The Hedge, so I have a good idea about what kind of movie DreamWorks animation offers. I consider them far inferior in comparison to the offerings of Disney/Pixar, even though they are enjoyable. How To Train Your Dragon belongs in the upper echelon along with the Pixar films. I found it to be visually striking, humorous, touching, and, at times, even unnerving. We’ve seen movies before about a boy and his dragon (Pete’s Dragon), and even a man and his dragon (Dragonheart), but somehow the material seems fresh. There are vikings, dragon training arenas, cool warships, even cooler ‘dragon powers’, and a plethora of ‘fun’ moments. I never felt that the movie talked down to kids or adults, and nary a ‘corny moment’, typical of kid-themed films, was found.
Without giving up major plot points, I’ll try to summarize: a village of vikings has been at war with various dragons for many years, and one boy, the son of the ‘king’, isn’t really enamored with the prospects of becoming a ‘viking slayer’. In fact, he’s considered too much of a wimp to ever be considered. What he does do is manage to corner the most vicious and legendary of the dragons, the ‘night fury’, and what follows turns out to be one heck of a movie. This was the first film that my son enjoyed in the movie theater, and I can gladly say it was a good choice. At 3 years old, he (mostly) sat still, even while wearing 3D glasses, and managed to deal with everything well. Occasionally, the 3D is distracting (I’m still trying to get used to it), but at other times, it’s brilliant. Also, I mentioned there were ‘unnerving’ parts- I felt there were a few scenes that were a bit too scary for younger viewers, and one in particular that, even in the fantasy realm, was more than I wanted my son to see. On the whole, though, this is a great movie- no surprise once I saw the credits and noticed that one of the co-directors was Chris Sanders, who gave us Lilo & Stitch. Those who have seen the ‘Stitch’ character will undoubtedly see some design similarities with the ‘night fury’ dragon. Highly recommended.
The Best of 2014
What appeared at the beginning to be a down year for blockbusters and good films in 2014 ended up an absolute boon for film lovers like me. From smaller, less recognized gems to the year’s typical blockbuster fare, I can’t help but be rather thankful for all we had last year.
It is time for me to reveal my top 10 list for 2014, as all good and pretend film critics must do. Feel free to comment with a list of your own, or share this story with anyone that wants to catch up.
10. Inherent Vice– The easy comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s California stylish stoner comedy/epic farce would be The Big Lebowski, but there are subtle differences that make Vice stand on its’ own. For one, Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc character’s love for Shasta (played by the stunning Katherine Waterston) grounds the story. Also, the character names alone would make me love this movie- the aforementioned Shasta, Sortilege, Ensenada Slim, Petunia Leeway, and Sauncho Smilax. Those names belong to characters in a stoner dream, which, I suppose, is exactly what this is. Of the ten films on this list, it’s possible that Inherent Vice will be the one I watch more than any of them. It really is that much fun.
9. American Sniper- Clint Eastwood’s docudrama on the life and times of Chris Kyle is an intense film, executed to near perfection. Aside from the skewed opinions of many, the film itself is masterful, crafting a linear story of a complicated man. Allowing your politics to influence how you feel about this film is the wrong choice. Instead, allow Eastwood’s deft direction to guide you through the experience of not just Kyle, but perhaps our whole military for the past 12 years.
8. Under The Skin- Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel is one of those films- you know, the ones that are more atmosphere than content, that suggest rather than elaborate, that rely on the simplest facial movements rather than unnecessary dialogue. The shrill strings that accompany the brilliant score by Mica Levi assist in bringing this film to the ultimate tension level. I also admit to being thoroughly frightened by a particular scene, and even 9 months after seeing the film, it still bugs me. Some may say this drags on, but I’d say watch it again- it got even better the second time around.
7. Whiplash- Director Damien Chazelle’s semi-autobiographical tale of master and apprentice is an extraordinary battle of wills. Miles Teller shows what an excellent actor he is when he’s not involved in Divergent nonsense, and J.K. Simmons’ alpha male gives the year’s best supporting performance as, well, a villain. What truly makes this a great film is Chazelle ‘s ability to place doubt in our mind. Is greatness truly derivative of madness? You might say no, but this film brings a great argument to the table.
6: Chef- Of all the 2014 films I saw, Jon Favreau’s Chef may be the one I revisit the most. The love of food is an important theme, sure, but the life of a brilliant chef, and the relationships he acquires and maintains through the visage of brilliantly prepared food is the focus with this film. It helps that a man I know and care about is the spitting image of Favreau’s character, and his words and actions certainly call him to mind as well. Aside from the focus on Cuban cuisine, the film handles family relationships with a real sensibility, especially between father and son. It’s one of the more enjoyable films in recent memory.
5. Selma- Whether or not Martin Luther King Jr’s family endorsed this or not, this snippet of the great man’s life is a truly powerful and important film. Director Ava DuVernay transports us inside that moment in our country’s history so deftly that the film never becomes a fluff biopic, nor does it shy away from being critical of King, our nation’s leaders, or the ugly, hateful place America has occasionally been. It’s also the best looking film of the year, and David Oyelowo, matching Dr. King step for step, gives one of the year’s best lead performances, Oscar snubs be damned.
4. Nightcrawler- Director Dan Gilroy’s moody, satirical melody of American journalism and capitalism is hard to watch, sure. The film’s “throwback-to-the-80s” score, the focus on “dirty L.A.”, the take on today’s sexual politics, and the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic performance steal the show. Even Rene Russo deserved awards talk for her portrayal of a news director having to push the limits to stay viable. This is another one of ‘those’ films- the atmospheric, dark type of comedy that boosts my confidence, knowing that I’m smart enough to understand what it has to say, and mature enough to enjoy the ‘adult’ of it all.
3. Wish I Was Here– Zach Braff’s funny and deeply emotional ‘thirtysomething’ version of Garden State hit home for this ‘thirtysomething’. It’s a crisp study of a character at a crossroad in his life, and the emotion necessary to get someone to transition from one point to another. The real relationships on display in this film carry it, but on a personal level, I feel Braff is the cinematic voice of my generation. I simply wish he didn’t need a decade to get what he has to say to his followers.
2. Enemy- Jake Gyllenhaal gives two, yes TWO, Oscar-worthy performances in this “paranoia-du-force” thriller. Every camera angle, every color wash, every piece of music in this film seems right in place to present a very Hitchcock-style film. It’s a real shame that critics everywhere forgot about this, but not me. Denis Villeneuve’s film is nearly perfect- he misleads his audience, or so we think, only to pounce on us in the end. Few films in the past number of years have kept me thinking “what just happened” as this one does- and that ENDING. Seriously, just see it, and tell me that it isn’t incredibly thought-provoking.
1. Gone Girl– This is a flawless film. How does a pulpy, Lifetime-esque subject become a masterpiece? David Fincher, that’s how. He crafts Gillian Flynn’s script into glorious intrigue, laced with multiple narrations, twists, gore, gender role commentary, and even murder mystery. It has that Fincher-sheen, that all-too-familiar camera focus, and such a wit that you can’t help but grin, even as awful people are doing awful things. It’s the best film of the year, and to be honest, it isn’t all that close.
*Honorable mention to: Boyhood, Begin Again, Birdman, The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Life Itself
“Gone Girl” ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, and Casey Wilson
Written by: Gillian Flynn (screenplay), based on her novel
Directed by: David Fincher
The taste of love is sweet; when hearts like ours meet. I fell for you like a child; oh, but the fire went wild.
– Johnny Cash, “Ring of Fire”
Let’s be honest- “love” is a specific and occasionally exhilarating form of psychosis. After all, the emotions and actions of an individual in love exhibit many of the same qualities as a person diagnosed with a mental illness. The ups, the downs, the joys, the sorrows, the praise, the harsh words, the intimacy, the lack thereof- it can be a whirlwind from which some are left literally or figuratively scarred for life. From the viciously stated opening line to the equally bold coda, Gone Girl is a masterpiece portraiture of a relationship gone awry, perfectly capturing that inherent madness of loving, then possibly hating someone with your entire soul. David Fincher, like he is wont to do, elevated potentially sordid and flaky material into a dark, intelligent, ‘mad’ film. The result is the year’s best thus far.
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike star as Nick and Amy Dunne, a pair that initially appears to be the perfect couple. He’s the handsome guy with the acerbic wit, and she’s the quasi-famous trust fund baby, anxious to live a quieter life. The first act of the film juxtaposes scenes from their happy past with increasingly disturbing scenes from their ‘present’, and catches us up with a particular morning- the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Nick arrives at a bar to see his sister Margo (Carrie Coon), and has a morning drink. We get the hint that he’s not enthralled with the marriage, and he returns home to find that Amy is gone, and there appears to have been a break-in. Nick, for all intents and purposes, is calm, cool, and collective about the situation, as it rapidly becomes a city-wide, then nationwide search for Amy. The preponderance of evidence, neatly woven with the narrative from Amy’s diary, gently suggests that Nick may be involved- or is he?
An ongoing discussion of the plot following that last line would reveal far too much about the film, so allow me to focus instead on what this film says about men, women, their interactions, their relationships, and in essence, gender roles. While watching this, I felt a connection with the two leads (having understood the madness myself a time or two), and how their words perfectly framed the dissolve of their union. Nick spits out his truths like “I’m so sick of being picked apart by women”, displaying his gargantuan insecurity whilst simultaneously proving their point. Amy ‘s diary contains sharp revelations such as “I forged the man of my dreams” and “What did he expect- unconditional love?” whilst expressing confusion and frustration about why Nick wasn’t the man he used to be. I was transfixed by this fictional couple, and how their relationship ran the gamut of love’s emotions, resulting in what you might call the ‘anti-love story’. As opposed to living happily ever after, Gone Girl appears more interested in the possibility that it’s not possible. Nick and Amy created idealized images of themselves in their heads and to each other. Over time, the pressure of upholding those images led them to a place of deep resentment, springing forth undesirable behaviors, and ultimately, well, you’ll have to watch. Fincher and Flynn may or may not have meant to have all of those issues come through in the film, but I certainly interpreted it that way. Sometimes, I wonder how men and women actually get together at all, considering the vast differences in presentation and interpretation the two sides have. I believe this is a film that understands that, on a primitive level.
Gone Girl isn’t all about Nick & Amy, however. Fincher, again as he is wont to do, goes to an uncomfortable, dark place in order to resolve this story, and as is typical with his films, I was happy to plunge alongside him. There are a number of unexpected and harsh occurrences in the film’s third act, laced with a biting satire of today’s media frenzy surrounding any sort of story that attracts viewers. A man suspected of killing his wife is such a story, and I love how Flynn and Fincher ape the sadistically pointless cable news shows (looking directly at you, Nancy Grace) and their insatiable quest to suck the life out of journalism. I also love how Affleck is able to embrace a character that is nearly a mirror image of himself, distinctive chin and all. Naturally, there’s also a part of this film that deals with an actual investigation, which is handled with intelligence and wit, mostly thanks to the relentless curiosity of Kim Dickens’ homicide detective.
Aside from Dickens, there are standout performances throughout. Relative newcomer Carrie Coon is flawless as Nick’s twin sister, and even Tyler Perry shines. Perry’s casting is an especially smart choice, for when he shakes his head in disbelief at the sensational nature of the happenings around him, the audience, aware of his existing sensational nature, buys the words even more. I’ll reserve a grand heap of praise for both Affleck (whose skill as an actor I’ve doubted many times before) and Pike, for they deserve it- both have never been better. Affleck is at once both chill and possibly menacing, a difficult balance to achieve. Pike is asked to pull off an incredibly varied range of performances, and aside from an interesting take on an American accent, is flawless. Their portrayals are both daring enough to seriously merit awards consideration, if not a complete lock for Pike.
I admit to a modicum of bias toward this film, as Fincher creates films with a distinct visual style that I’m drawn to in a ‘fanboy’ sort of way. On the other hand, independent of my preferences, there is a menacing, psychological genius to this movie like none before it. Oh sure, there are the films of Adrian Lyne, or The War of the Roses, and I’m sure a plethora of other pictures that I haven’t begun to understand that tackle the madness of love, but I haven’t seen anything as bold or ego-piercing as Gone Girl. Fincher’s work continues to take chances, and he varies his subjects ever so slightly. He may just be the best working director. This latest effort is the best film of the year at this point, leaving the audience exhausted from their own whirlwind of emotions. It is almost as if we’re the ones that had to experience the Dunne relationship- for I was left just as charmed, then roused, then complacent, then emotional, then enraged as the characters on-screen. Madness, I tell you.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” *** (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Adam Cozad & David Koepp, Tom Clancy (characters)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
**CAUTION- POSSIBLE SPOILERS**
It used to be that ‘origin’ stories were reserved for those in spandex. Now, any fictional character can get the reboot treatment, whether it’s Alex Cross, James Bond, or the late Tom Clancy’s recurring hero Jack Ryan. With classically trained British legend Kenneth Branagh at the helm and cutting his villain chops, and charismatic everyman Chris Pine taking the role, we should expect, at bare minimum, an efficient machine of a film. That’s exactly what “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is: formulaic, safe, but still fun and well-made, resulting in a middling-to-good action/espionage film reboot.
Four solid to very good films featuring the character were made before this, not to mention the multiple Tom Clancy novels written from 1984 to the present featuring the Jack Ryan character. It has always been a film franchise in a state of flux, however, with the lead never committing long-term, Paramount never quite satisfied with the middling-to-positive box office returns, and an inconsistent story line. With this reboot, they have a chance to start from scratch, and there is a plethora of rich source material to pluck ideas from (I enjoy the meticulously detailed Tom Clancy novels). Of course, it stands to reason that they would choose to film from an entirely original screenplay instead of adapting one of the novels. In a way, it makes sense, considering the novels describe Ryan’s history over various stories, with nothing concrete in the way of an origin.
It also stands to reason that an espionage film set after 2001 would have to take into account the heightened tension level in the intelligence community. Ergo, the creative decision is made to have the 9/11 attack be the onus for Jack Ryan joining the military, where he excels in seeing patterns develop, and being a leader. While rehabbing after his chopper goes down in the Afghan mountains (definitely a nod to the novels), he meets spirited medical resident Cathy Muller (Knightley), who seems to give him the “right motivation” to heal. Also scoping out Ryan is Thomas Harper (Costner), who gives him the extra push to finish his doctorate and go to work for the CIA as an analyst. Harper is the classic mentor character, something Costner is becoming more familiar with as he ages.
Of course, being an ‘analyst’ is rather vague, and we know that Jack is basically going to become a field agent- not just because we’re familiar with the character, but the plot needs him to be more than that. A lot more. We’re quickly shifted in the film to ten years after his rehab, and Jack’s living with Cathy (now a practicing physician), well-entrenched in Wall Street working for a firm, and in the thick of things as a CIA analyst. I guess we’ll have to assume that Jack and Cathy had a magical courtship, as the film doesn’t bother. Jack has done what he does best- discover a pattern, and a disturbing one at that- there are multiple hidden accounts with large dollar amounts belonging to a Russian corporation headed by Viktor Cherevin (Branagh). We know this is dirty money, because Branagh is a name actor, and thus his intentions must be evil.
Boy, are they. Almost to the point of overkill, the Jack Ryan novels are excellent at ‘raising the stakes’ of danger for the reader. There’s always a regime somewhere about to be overthrown, or a sinister terrorist plot, or a “sleeper cell” in a far-away country that needs to be taken out. Not much different here, but I won’t get into specifics for the purpose of keeping something under wraps. The idea is that the CIA, or the U.S. government, is always putting out a fire, whether it has started or not. Jack Ryan is the guy who sees the spark in these stories, or leads the charge to put it out. In keeping with the spirit of the novels, the film does do a good job of giving us a character that we’re familiar with. Those new to the story will at least be able to gather that Ryan is an ultra-bright, resourceful, kind, and valuable boy scout of a character. He’s the reluctant spy.
In essence, that’s what this film does well- it sets us up for future Jack Ryan outings by giving us an incredibly likable character played by an incredibly likable actor. It’s debatable whether or not we should buy into Chris Pine as a borderline tactical genius, even if he’s also Captain Kirk (which I don’t necessarily buy, either). I do buy him as a charismatic good man, though, which sells more movie tickets. Branagh does all he can to breathe some evil nuance into the Cherevin character, whose motivations are typical (he even sneaks in a “Mother Russia” for good measure). The one who seems out-of-place here is Keira Knightley; she’s a fine actress that I’ve enjoyed in many different roles, but something about her version of Cathy Muller (Ryan?) isn’t right. She’s just so lithe. Perhaps comparing her to Anne Archer’s take on the character isn’t the best idea, but I sensed someone like Rachel McAdams belonged in the role instead.
I sense there will always be a crowd for films like this- the international espionage thriller. I for one am a sucker for them (and an unabashed fan of the Ryan character), and even done half-heartedly (I’m looking at you, “The Bourne Legacy”) I’ll be inclined to enjoy them. When the stakes are higher, it lends a gravity to a film, and all of the Jack Ryan stories have that specific weight to them. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is not special by any means, and compared to the best in the franchise, “The Hunt For Red October”, it pales in comparison. You’ll have to suspend some disbelief to enjoy this film (how would the world NOT notice if Russia bought up all the U.S. currency and then dumped it right after a terrorist attack?). However, as an origin story/reboot/franchise starter, it’s effective enough in its’ mechanical nature to make me recommend it, based on the relative sharpness of the script, the decent action sequences, and in what it does best- exist as an international espionage film. People are constantly looking over their shoulders in this film, which is right at home in the genre, and a solid set up for the future.