Talking Movies

October 2, 2014

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn streamlines her twisting novel for David Fincher who turns it into a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing that it simply flies by.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) owns a bar in Carthage, Missouri with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). Except, he doesn’t really own it – it’s in his wife’s name. In fact pretty much everything is in the name of trust-fund Amy (Rosamund Pike). So when Amy goes missing on their 5th wedding anniversary, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) find it hard not to suspect Nick of murdering her. Nick maintains that NYC girl Amy had no friends in his hometown, seemingly unaware that shrill Noelle (Casey Wilson) was BFFs with Amy; and has photos to prove it. Nick seems distant with Amy’s peculiar writer parents Rand (David Clennon) and Marybeth (Lisa Banes), and his affair with the much younger Andie (Emily Ratajkowski) only copper-fastens his guilt; as proclaimed by cable anchor Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle).

Gone Girl is like those Ira Levin novels Stephen King praised where there wasn’t a twist at the end, more a pivot in the middle, which made it hard to discuss without ruining. Flynn’s screenplay simplifies her novel without losing its punch, indeed her streamlining improves on its latter meandering. Fincher, particularly in staging parallel reactions to a crucial TV interview, brings out black comedy that isn’t as readily apparent in the book; making this a satire on trial by media. When Amy’s traditional anniversary treasure hunt leads to incriminating evidence Nick as much as confirms his guilt by hiring legendary defence counsel, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry). And comedian Perry’s stunt casting pays off in spades as he brings a warmth to the part not present in the book. Meanwhile Neil Patrick Harris, as Amy’s obsessive ex Desi, leaves his comfort zone for a suggestion of true creepiness. Pike showcases iciness and intelligence, while Affleck is fantastic as the hapless everyman; who we root for despite his flaws. Fincher is the kind of director who, with his endless takes, wrings great performances from actors like Affleck too often content to coast; and this should quash sceptical mutterings about Affleck’s Batman.

Affleck is helped by being half of a great double act. Margo was always going to be a great part, and Coon breaks out from theatre with her glorious turn as the spiky voice of reason. Amazingly, this is the first Fincher movie I’ve ever reviewed, and it’s a prime cut. His regular cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth stages two fever dream scenes of arresting beauty, in a sugar storm and a snow storm, while a pull-out shot at a truck stop is made strangely gorgeous. Otherwise we’re in that under-lit threatening world of The Social Network and Fight Club’s abrasive social commentary. Fincher’s customary editor Kirk Baxter and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross all join him in whooping it up in a grand guignol scene that keeps fading out and returning, again and again, as the music screeches as much as the more squeamish members of the audience. The squeamish are also treated to two other scenes, including some business with a hammer, which are that peculiar Hitchcock-plus of Fincher dark comedy. Reznor and Atticus’s score is dominated by intrusive melancholy piano, and then the electronic clicks and screeches we’ve come to expect – and that perfectly fit Fincher’s unsettling universe.

David Fincher is one of the most distinctive directors working in cinema, and this knockout punch is, with Dallas Buyers Club and Boyhood, one of the movies of 2014.

5/5

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October 24, 2013

Ender’s Game

Wolverine director Gavin Hood redeems himself substantially with this sci-fi effort, but Ender’s Game, despite its celebrated source novel, is still some way from being a film that you simply must rush out to see.

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Ender (Asa Butterfield) is a twelve year old at space academy who shows such promise that Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) cuts him from the programme; to provoke a violent attack by a bully. Ender returns home to his empathetic sister (Abigail Breslin) and psychotic brother. However, his vicious response to bullying was what Graff hoped to see and Ender is dispatched to Battle-School to hone his potential to become the next Julius Caesar. There he quickly falls foul of his older classmates because of his superior intelligence. After clashing with his classmates, and commanding officer Bonzo (Moises Arias), Ender is given his own war game team. With new lieutenant Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) by his side he succeeds so well that he is promoted to the fleet’s command school bordering the planet of the Formics. The Formics were defeated decades before only by the sacrifice of legendary hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). But now their military capabilities have become threatening again…

This is a far slicker outing by writer/director Gavin Hood than his 2009 Wolverine muddle. The CGI work is unusually good, being very crisp looking so that the zero gravity war games are totally convincing. The script, however, is problematic. Far too many major characters are deeply unpleasant. There’s brutally abusive bullies at every level of education, an unhinged brother at home, and the voluble approval of ultraviolent tactics by Graff every step of the way. Hugo star Asa Butterfield’s blue eyes are as fetishised as Daniel Craig’s in Layer Cake, but there’s precious little emotion behind those deadened irises. Ender is a hero that it’s very hard to truly care about. True Grit’s Steinfeld is totally wasted (the script doesn’t ever bother introducing a structural romance with Ender), while Ford and Breslin are mere ciphers. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that the finale recalls The Matrix Reloaded in its subversion of action finales, as anything that recalls Reloaded is doomed.

But then Ender’s Game is a veritable echo chamber of influences. Mazer Rackham defeats the arthropod Formics with Independence Day’s finale. Except Orson Scott Card’s source novel predates it… And so it goes. Deja vu, all over again. How much influence did Card have on that other tale of adults forcing children to be violent, The Hunger Games? But then how much influence did Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers have on Card? Did Card influence Verhoeven’s subversive film of Heinlein’s bug-hunting? I spent far too much time trying to puzzle through the politics of the historical analogies employed by the film. The constant valorisation of ultra-violence as a strategy by Ender is quite troubling, and, I thought very Alexandrian, except that after therefore comparing the factions to Greeks and Persians throughout they turned out to be more Romans and Carthaginians. All of which is probably far too complex anyway given that Harrison Ford actually says Napoleon “conquered the known world.” Ahem…

The high concept of Ender’s Game; teenage children commanding an entire star-fleet while successful adult generals stand aside; never succeeds in making much sense, but despite a worryingly nasty streak it’s a solid movie.

3/5

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