GONE GIRL (2014)

October 5, 2014

gone girl Greetings again from the darkness. One of the benefits of seeing so many movies is the ability to readily ascertain whether the appeal is to specific movie-goers (teens, romantics, et al), to mass audiences, or perhaps only to film critics and cinephiles. The downside is that when one of the rare mass appeal thrillers hits theatres, my enjoyment of the twists and surprises tends to suffer. Such is the case with director David Fincher‘s version of Gillian Flynn‘s best-selling novel.

Whether or not you are a devotee of Ms. Flynn’s novel, you are likely to find guilty pleasure in this pulpy, neo-noir thriller featuring Ben Affleck as the man who may or may not have killed his missing wife (Rosamund Pike). This is less “whodunit” and more “did he do it?”, at least for the first half. When Nick (Affleck) returns home to discover his wife (Pike) is missing, we hear Amy’s voice guiding us through her journal as we go from blossoming romance to crumbling marriage. Nick’s perspective is derived from his work with the detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) and conversations with his sister (Carrie Coon).

This story-telling structure is beautifully executed, and when combined with director Fincher’s fascination with the dark side of people (The Social Network, Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club), and the terrific camera work and lighting, we witness elevated   technical filmmaking. Watch how Fincher uses lighting and shadows to change the tone of the film as the noose tightens on Affleck’s character.

Much has been made of the critically acclaimed performances of Affleck and Pike, so I’d prefer to focus on a couple of others. Carrie Coon steals every scene as Nick’s twin sister Margot. She is the moral compass of the film, and gives the absolute best performance. Kim Dickens provides the necessary screen presence and wry humor to prevent the stereotypical detective role from emerging. This is a real person working a complicated case. Also of note is Missi Pyle‘s obnoxious Nancy Grace style TV reporter clearly attempting to build ratings by guiding the sheep (everything we hate about the media, but continues to draw big ratings). Lastly, and most surprising, Tyler Perry‘s slick and slimy headline-grabbing defense attorney provides a punch when the film needs it.

The second half of the film transitions from mystery to anatomy of a scheme, and features one of the most brutal and bloody on screen murders you will ever see. It also provides more excellent support work from Lola Kirke and Brad Holbrook as a couple of trailer park opportunists, and Scoot McNairy and Neil Patrick Harris (against type) as Amy’s former lovers.

The wicked fun in this movie is derived mostly from the misdirection and personalities of Nick and Amy. It’s nice to see a female lead character with some real scene-chewing, even though I believe many actresses would have been better picks. When I hear talk that it could be best movie of the year, I certainly hope that’s off base. This one is at the level of other mainstream thrillers such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, and it’s not difficult to imagine Michael Douglas in the lead, were this 1988. Adding to the fun is the satire and social commentary … especially on the current trend of media speculation in place or reporting. So enjoy the twists and ask yourself just how much you really know about your spouse.

***NOTE: for those who read the book, this would be considered a faithful adaptation … unlike some of the early rumors led us to believe

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you enjoy your thrillers with a dose of social commentary OR you want a glimpse of the new Batman body in progress.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  an exceptionally gruesome and bloody murder scene is something you prefer to avoid

watch the trailer:

 

 


RUNNER RUNNER

October 13, 2013

runner1 Greetings again from the darkness. I can sit in a theater and watch a mediocre movie, but when it comes time to write about it, there is no motivation or appeal. The most positive comment I can make about this one is that it stars two very pretty men.

This one has “paycheck project” written all over it. Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake simply go through the motions as if someone is feeding them their lines through an ear piece. Gemma Arterton should never stoop to such a mundane and lifeless role … though her hair and make-up are terrific. Only John Heard and Anthony Mackie come across as professional actors, and their minor roles are so limited, they barely register.

runner2 Writing partners Brian Koppelman and David Levien co-wrote the excellent Rounders, but this one merely teases the dark underbelly of online gambling with one preposterous turn after another. It has neither the depth, plot or character development that we would expect from a movie with this premise and cast. Director Brad Furman showed promise with The Lincoln Lawyer, but his latest comes across as being rushed through production and dressed up with fake style.

The closest comparison I can come up with is last year’s Savages, directed by Oliver Stone … and even that was more enjoyable than this one. Rather than a MPAA warning for Language, I would prefer a heads-up whenever the filmmaking team really doesn’t care much for the project. At least I could spend my money and time watching a different movie.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: two pretty men and Arteton’s hairstyles are somehow interesting to you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe that the beauty of Costa Rica will overcome the weak story, acting and directing (SPOILER: very little of Costa Rica is shown)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFPqyNvNzvU

 

 


TO THE WONDER (2013)

May 3, 2013

to the wonder1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Terrence Malick makes films that typically fall into the “love it or hate it” genre. He has a very loyal group of fans (of which I am one) who appreciate the unique mental and emotional ride that his projects provide. To say that his films are not accessible to mainstream movie-goers is understandable. His objective is to challenge you to access your own beliefs and thoughts, rather connect with the characters in his movies … they are simply the tools he uses.

Less than two years ago, I was struggling to put thoughts into words after watching Malick’s The Tree of Life. Now, in record time for him, he releases another film that is even more impressionistic … actually abstract is not too strong a description. It could fairly be called a companion piece to The Tree of Life. The usual to the wonder2Malick elements are present – nature, uncomfortable relationships, minimal dialogue, breathtaking photography, and powerful music. Where The Tree of Life focused on Creation and Family, To The Wonder takes on Love and Faith.

Water imagery is a frequent key as we see the personal relationship mimic the changing of the seasons. Neil (Ben Affleck), an American visiting Paris, meets and falls for Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a free-spirited local filled with light and energy. Their love affair moves to the stunning Mont Saint-Michel before settling in the drab plains of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

to the wonder4 It’s not surprising that the relationship suffers as the newness wears thin. The interesting part is how Malick presents it. We mostly witness bits and pieces … he shows us moments, not events. We easily see that Neil’s aloofness and sullen moods don’t jibe with Marina’s effervescence. When she returns to Paris, Neil easily falls in with an old flame played by Rachel McAdams. When she later accuses him of making what they had “nothing”, we all understand what she means … and why.

While Neil is proving what a lost soul he is, we also meet Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). He has lost the light of his faith and is in full crisis mode, even as he attempts to console and guide Marina. There is no secret that much of this film is autobiographical and that Malick is working through wounds he still carries these many years later. As a movie-goer, there is little to be gained from Alleck’s disconnected character or from Kurylenko dancing in the to the wonder3rain. The real prize is awakening the thoughts and feelings many of us probably buried over the years to hide emotional pain. Malick seems to be saying that it’s OK to acknowledge your foundation, regardless of your ability to deal with these feelings in a socially acceptable manner.

If you prefer not to dig so deep emotionally, this is a beautiful film to look at – thanks to Director of Photograpy Emmanuel Lubezki (a frequent Malick collaborator), and listen to – a blended soundtrack with many notable pieces from various composers. While this will be remembered as Roger Ebert’s final movie review (he liked it very much), it will likely have very little appeal to the average movie watcher – and I’m confident that Terrence Malick is fine with that.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjVDnwGsAF4


ARGO (2012)

October 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Based on a true story” is always a bit unsettling to see at the beginning of a movie. There are so many degrees to truth (especially when told by Hollywood), that we are never really sure how big the dosage might be. With this film, we get the inside track on the all-too-familiar Iranian hostage situation that began on November 4, 1979 and ended 444 days later with the release of 52 U.S. Embassy workers. The story within that story is the focus … six escaped as the Embassy was being seized.

The film begins with a Cliff’s Note history lesson on the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and the assumption of power by Ayatollah Khomeini. The six who escaped were welcomed into the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (played with grace by Victor Garber). Of course, this had to be kept secret or a terrible situation could have taken a turned much worse.

 This story really takes off when the CIA gets involved and drums up a scheme to extricate the six in hiding. Ben Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the real life CIA Agent, who uses the international fascination with movies to create a plan that involves making a fake Star Wars rip-off with the help of award winning make-up artist John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) and a long-time and old school Hollywood producer named Lester Spiegel. These two inject the film with humor and positive energy as played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Their levity is much appreciated given the unrelenting tension delivered by the rest of the story.

 This is extraordinary filmmaking thanks to the script from Chris Terrio, realistic camera work from Rodrigo Prieto and top-notch directing by Ben Affleck … yes, the same Ben Affleck who stars in the film. The team creates a period piece that has not just the look and feel of 1979-80, but some of the most gut-wrenching on screen tension since Three Days of the Condor or Munich. Many thrillers utilize car chases and gunfire. Here, we get personal tension thanks to politics and real life unknowns.

The film is perfectly cast and strong support work is provided by Bryan Cranston as the CIA chief, Kyle Chandler as Hamilton Jordan, Bob Gunton as Cyrus Vance, as well as Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan. There are also brief appearances by Philip Baker Hall, Adrienne Barbeau and the great Michael Parks.

There are only two negatives to the film. First, Ben Affleck is miscast as Tony Mendez. The closing credits show what a perfect job they did with the rest of the cast, but to have a superhero looking American walking around Iran is certain to draw attention where it’s not wanted. Plus, as director, Affleck suffers from Warren Beatty syndrome. He LOVES seeing his face on screen. The number of Alleck close-ups has to push 20. It’s too much too often. Secondly, the final escape scene at the airport is just a bit too Hollywood and really stands out from the rest of the movie. There was no shortage of tension and the Armageddon style chase just looked cheesy.  However, I will admit, the audience with whom I watched, reacted quite emotionally when the race ended how it must.

 Those two things noted, this is Oscar material for sure. If you remember this era, the yellow ribbons and news clips featuring Cronkite, Koppel and Brokaw will bring back a frustrating time in U.S. history. If you are too young to remember, this acts as a reminder of just how powerful and quiet the CIA can be when it is doing its job properly.  Plus it’s nice to see the CIA doing something right, instead of being the bad guys from the Bourne movies.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a fine score, but the story provided plentiful suspense, so the musical guidance wasn’t as crucial.

Don’t miss the final credits as we hear Jimmy Carter narrate his memories as President, and we see real life photos of the six escapees.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wish to see one of the finest Political thrillers in years OR you need proof that the CIA can be the good guys

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the Iranian hostage ordeal is still too fresh

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w918Eh3fij0

 


THE COMPANY MEN

January 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. With a successful TV writing background (“ER” and “West Wing”), writer/director John Wells tackles the economic downturn in his first feature film. The story offers perspective on how a corporation’s blind focus on profit wins out over employee loyalty when times get tough.

Craig T Nelson stars as James Salinger, who along with Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) started the GTX company years ago. The company made its name in ship-making and is now a conglomerate charged with shareholder return despite the economic recession. No mystery how to do that … start cutting employees. Hundreds of them. Get the lawyers involved so the perfect balance of elder statesmen and young guns can be established – gotta avoid those lawsuits!

The initial focus is on Bobby Walker, hotshot salesman played by Ben Affleck. When he gets laid off, his initial reaction is anger followed by denial. While his wife, Rosemarie DeWitt, starts making practical plans on how to get through the crisis, he continues playing golf and driving his Porsche … foolishly believing this makes him look “successful”. He expresses near disgust when his brother-in-law played by Kevin Costner offers him a job on his home remodeling team. Of course, he can’t picture himself “banging nails”.

Next up is self-made man Phil Woodward, played with total annoyance by Chris Cooper. He is the first to realize that the image he had of his value to the company and his family was a total facade, and his reaction is not pretty.

As the film moves forward, we see how the strength of DeWitt’s character not only holds her family together, but also helps her husband realize his self-value is not in his job, but rather with his loved ones … including his parents.

The film is beautifully photographed (Roger Deakins is DP) but really doesn’t offer much other than a reminder that what makes us who we are is really not tied to a title or job description. It’s also an example of how tough times bring out the best and worst in people, and can draw a family much closer … or drive a wedge. Character is revealed when tough choices are forced.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for another reason to despise what big business has become OR you just want to laugh at Kevin Costner’s Boston accent

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are one of the many unfortunate ones who have lost their job … you are already living this nightmare.


THE TOWN (2010)

September 20, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ben Affleck proved himself to be a talented director with Gone Baby Gone. Here, he once again shows he is best suited behind the camera. He has a real feel for setting, scenery, actors and camera angles. Unfortunately, this story based on the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves is just a bit too formulaic to stand out from the crowd.

We are told upfront that the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown has more bank robbers than any other … in fact, in some families it is a proud tradition, passed on to the next generation. Ben Affleck got the guide book from his dad – an incarcerated Chris Cooper who has only one scene, though it’s very dramatic. Affleck’s lifelong pal and crime partner is played by Jeremy Renner. Renner’s character, Jem, is downright psychotic next to the meticulous Affleck’s Mr. Sensitive. If after Hurt Locker you have a difficult time imagining Renner as a bad guy, you should check out North Country. That’s a very bad man.

As seen in the preview, Affleck’s merry band of bank robbers take a hostage played by Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Affleck, in the course of duty, falls for Hall. She is the light that shows him the way to a better life. The film’s best scene is at a sidewalk cafe where Renner suprises Affleck and Hall with a visit.  The scene dramatizes just how delicate the line is for Affleck between his old life and the new one he dreams of.  Unfortunately, that story line leads us right back to more crime … with FBI mad man Jon Hamm hot on the heals of the local bad boys.

The neighborhood crime lord, played superbly by Pete Postlethwaite, controls the every move of the gang and takes his “fair” share while leading through intimidation – all while trimming roses! Renner’s sister and Affleck’s previous squeeze is played alarmingly (and surprisingly) well by Blake Lively. She appears to have a nice little career ahead of her.

The frustrating thing with this film is that we have seen it all before, just without the heavy bean-town accents. Tons of automatic weaponry lead to very few actual injuries or deaths – always the sign of a cheesy shootout. The finale for Renner, Hall and Affleck are all advertised well in advance of the actual occurrence, which pretty much ends the suspense. On the bright side, the film is well made and entertaining enough. For a much better film on the culture of local/family crime check out this year’s Animal Kingdom.  Here is my review of that film: https://moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/animal-kingdom/

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you grew up in a rough neighborhood within a large city OR you want a peek at the bowels of Fenway Park.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you think everyone should speak with the flowery cadence of Cary Grant OR you believe automatic weaponry is actually dangerous