Talking Movies

April 22, 2015

The Good Lie

Quebecois director Phillipe Falardeau makes his first Anglophone feature with a riveting tale of colliding cultures inspired by a true humanitarian crisis in 1980s Sudan.

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Rural Sudan in the 1980s would be recognisable to a Sudanese villager of the 1880s or 1780s. A simple life of cattle-farming is carried on, with tribal traditions intact. Brothers Theo (Okwar Jale) and Mamere (Peterdeng Mongok) bicker over a game of naming ancestors, while sister Abital (Keji Jale) despairs of them. And then civil war erupts around them, with helicopters raining gunfire on the village. As the elders grab spears to repel invasion, the three siblings run for safety. However, safety is a perilous thousand mile trek to a Kenyan refugee camp, during which they meet brothers Jeremiah (Thon Kueth) and Paul (Deng Ajuet). Thirteen years later the adult Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Abital (Kuoth Wiel), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) are sent to Kansas City, Missouri, to be helped successfully integrate by employment agent Carrie (Reese Witherspoon).

Ah, Reese Witherspoon… The Good Lie is an engaging film, but the first 35 minutes are by far the most interesting, because thereafter Witherspoon and Corey Stoll as her taciturn but secretly compassionate boss Jack take the focus away from the Lost Boys of Sudan. Without going into Marxist overdrive, it’s not reasonable to criticise this shift in narrative focus, because it is so self-evident a truth that there is no way this movie gets a $20 million dollar budget without Witherspoon and Stoll being given leading roles. It is though admissible to lament this self-evident truth. The reality that in 1987 a lifestyle belonging to bygone centuries was still alive is fascinating, the realities of growing up in a ‘temporary’ refugee camp intrigues, but these stories are displaced by a ‘Coming to America’ culture clash, played for odd laughs.

Falardeau’s last film, Monsieur Lazhar, showed his enormous skill in working with child actors, as well as his concern (building on Congorama) in exploring collisions between cultures. He elicits wonderful characterisations from his child stars, especially the responsible Theo, and from the adult actors Duany and Jal who are both former child soldiers. But the culture clash feels patronising, even though American culture, much like PC Montreal in Lazhar, doesn’t seem as shining as one might expect when interrogated by refugees. Screenwriter Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire, Warm Springs) doesn’t shrink from portraying the heartless bureaucratic insanity (that only increases after 9/11) of the American government. She also encapsulates the horror of civil war in a tense moment when the young Jeremiah takes a bible from Theo after he joins them, and you’re unsure if Theo’s led his siblings into danger.

The Good Lie is a solid but frustrating movie that makes you wish Falardeau had instead been let loose on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story about literal African-American culture clash.

3/5

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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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