Gone Girl – 2014

This review contains spoilers, read at own discretion. gone-girl-movie-still-4

As I start this review I am shocked to find that I have never before reviewed a Fincher film. Given that I consider Fincher one of the most talented contemporary directors and rank The Social Network as one of my all-time favourite films I feel that it’s high time to rectify this with a look at Fincher’s newest film, Gone Girl. After the horrific flop that was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Fincher had a lot of ground to make up in Gone Girl. Fortunately he delivers a film with

effortless style and punch.

There’s a kind of formulaic Fincher style that has emerged at this point, twisted scenarios, knife-sharp dialogue and a thumping, buzzing Reznor & Ross soundtrack. Gone Girl is all of these things, with the script adapted from the book by Gillian Flynn herself. Personally, I had not read the book before settling into my cinema seat. A fact which means that, like Fight Club before it, the film revealed itself to me in a totally different way to those already in the know. The film is like a dissertation on the unreliable narrator and, more specifically, the role of the narrator or creator within their own work. Through the whole film we only see as much of the truth as serves the story, there’s no real conclusion, no big reveal and resolution. In the murder investigation covered on rolling news what emerges is a different story, shrouded in a totally different set of half-truths and omissions. Any true knowledge lies inside the head of the eponymous Girl (Rosamund Pike, walking the line between enigmatic and crazed) as Ben Affleck states in the opening and closing voiceover of the film. Gone Girl has this longing futility running through it, the attempts of human beings to understand each other within some natural order. Attempts that cannot help but fail, so long as people are self-contained individuals.

Affleck is equally impenetrable as the accused-murderer cum victim of a psychotic fraud yet you’re never quite sure if this is what he’s going for or not. I’ve found that Ben Affleck’s recent roles seemed to call for a certain kind of strong, silent awkwardness that Affleck is fantastic at but I can’t help but feel that his range may not stretch to encompass many other things. Rosamund Pike however gives a virtuoso performance as Amy, imbuing the film with an uneasy atmosphere despite only really appearing in the second half. Her absence is palpable and unsettling as we catch glimpses of her through memories and the stories she’s told about herself. She casts herself as the infinitely mouldable “cool girl”, a personality that exists only as a foil to their man, the fictional and perfect girl the man always imagined. The supporting cast is solid but the breakout performance comes from Carrie Coon as Affleck’s twin sister Margo. As the voice of sanity caught up in the web of a cheating husband and twisted wife she acts as the viewer’s way in, torn between sympathy and fear, never quite knowing who’s right or wrong and wanting to piece it together.

Despite the slick thriller-esque pace and style of Gone Girl Fincher never quite lets go of the opportunity to make this film about love. It’s a depressing, cynical look on the traditional “loving despite faults”. By the end of Gone Girl Amy proves herself as the ultimate “cool girl”, she’s played her part so well that even as she frames her husband for murder, even as she tortures him and makes his life hell she’s still fascinating. He’s still in love with her, despite everything saying he ought not to be.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Trainspotting – 1993

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For many years now I have noticed “The trainspotting cult”. Unfortunately this is not a cult of violent middle-aged men brandishing perfectly sharpened HB pencils but rather an unavoidable truth that most people who have seen Danny Boyle’s breakout film will extoll it’s virtues to high heaven.

I’m not at all sorry to say that I have joined this cult. Trainspotting is a film that stays with you in the best way that a film can, through its imagery. Danny Boyle is a master of the pure visual art. Anyone who remembers his slightly more sentimental Oscar-winner, Slumdog Millionaire, would be hard pushed not to associate the colour yellow with Latika. Trainspotting is a more radical, stylish attack on cinematic preconceptions. Renton’s (Ewan McGregor) drug withdrawal symptoms become a nightmare sequence incorporating purpose-built sets and Hitchcockian camera techniques.

While often, in cinema, a voiceover narration shows a weakness in the script or a refusal to trust the audience; for example, the painful shoehorning of a voiceover into Blade Runner, here the voiceover acts to tighten up the script. It doesn’t take on the role of exposition, moral judgement or nostalgia but remains within the mind of Renton to express his reactions to what we’re seeing. It’s a neat ploy, where the audience is seeing squalor and misery he is only seeing his friends and day to day life.

In the opening monologue Renton pours disdain on the people who choose to live a normal life, unlike the one he leads among the heroin addicts of Edinburgh. Yet throughout the film’s episodes we see Renton repeatedly try to choose the way out, back into the society he claims to hate. Despite the film’s comic, almost uplifting tone, this group of friends does suffer, terribly. It’s a chilling conclusion that Renton comes to. Choosing to conform will end suffering, but at the price of the greatest highs he’s ever known, heroin and the freedom to choose. In this respect the script packs all the right punches. This isn’t a tragic story of trapped addicts seeking redemption. This is a story of rebellion, anti-capitalist ideals and a cry for self-determination in a corporate world.

The soundtrack boils over with 90’s Eurodance music, a genre where even the name screams of a hope of unity and identity. A hope that is undermined by the class barriers Renton finds himself confronted by. When he moves to London a hopeful montage of diversity and prosperity greets him, only for him to end up in even more dire straits than he was before. In the end Renton does choose to conform. As he starts his new life it’s easy to wonder whether he’s really as happy with the new direction he’s taking as he seems or if he, like the people he used to hate, has finally learned to love Big Brother.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            5/5
  • Intellectual:      5/5

Plenty – 1985

 

ISeven years the first performance of Plenty, David Hare’s award-winning script was turned into a screenplay to be directed by Fred Schepisi. The story follows Susan (Meryl Streep) over the course of twenty years, starting with her war service in a sleepy French provincial town. Over time her story becomes emblematic of a changing Britain and the struggle to maintain post-war optimism.

There’s a cinematic style that seems to hover over adapted screenplays, particularly those written by or adapted by playwrights. Betrayal and A Room with a View are some other examples but Plenty certainly has it. The effect this generally has is a kind of redundancy or, more kindly, double impact in the film. Things that have to be specified on a stage, such as the location of the scenes and even remarks about the weather are visual markers. They would do as well to be left entirely unsaid when a camera can point directly at them. This creates a unique atmosphere of verbosity and overstatement. It seems that these characters are moved within themselves to speak so strongly all of the time despite expressing themselves in other ways. However with such beautiful cinematography and performances it’s certainly hard-hitting in combination.

This quirk of script works entirely to Meryl Streep’s advantage. Her portrayal of Susan shows her as a woman on the edge, permanently holding back the floodgates to something. We only glimpse at what she’s keeping hidden inside herself and even then it’s filtered through politics and custom. Streep’s performance is mesmerising, almost charming if she were not playing such a hideously flawed woman.

Other characters come and go throughout the film, memorably Charles Dance and Sting as two spurned men caught in Susan’s whirlwind. However Plenty remains at its core an examination of Susan’s psyche. As such it’s difficult to enjoy in a traditional sense. There’s a desire for reconciliation, happiness or even a moment of piece as you’re dragged along on her vindictive, destructive life but it never comes. Despite Streep’s fantastic performance it’s so difficult to connect to Susan that the film loses its emotional thrust about halfway through. While, of course, people are shaped disproportionately by their early experiences it seems that Susan is just searching for reasons to be unhappy. As if her entire life was a performance put on to excuse herself from living. Destructive and self-righteous are not personality traits that make for sympathetic characters, and so, much like Silver Linings Playbook, I found Plenty eventually leaving me cold, despite the sum of its parts.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Some Like it Hot

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Today my film reviews are travelling back, way back in time, to the golden age of Hollywood Starlets and Billy Wilder’s 1959 Some Like it Hot. I always hear that humour doesn’t transfer well over generations but I can assure you that Some Like it Hot is just as funny today as it ever was.

Starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in an all-female band the form is more like a Shakespeare play than a modern comedy, but once you tune into the genre it’s actually completely charming. The brunt of the comedy comes from a complex series of mistaken identities and mild sexual innuendos. It seems surprising just how racy some of these jokes are despite their obliqueness. Truly, constraints are the father of creativity.

All three principal players never miss a beat in this film. It’s hard to review Marilyn Monroe’s performance since she acts exactly as the pop culture canon trains you to expect. She’s sweet, a little ditsy and hopelessly, tragically romantic. However I will congratulate the costume department for having found new and innovative ways to drape fabric in such a way as they leave nothing to the imagination. Both Lemmon and Curtis are impressive, switching between distinct personas on screen within seconds. Curtis particularly, pretending to be two different people as Joe is spellbinding in all three incarnations. His characterisation is, naturally, humourous and caricatured but consistent to the point of incredibility.

What’s great about this film is that it hasn’t aged one bit. While, of course, it now feels like a period piece, the humour and archetypes employed are so timeless that it doesn’t feel alien like many of the films contemporary to it. It’s still a living, breathing piece of cinema rather than a dusty, odd museum piece that can only be appreciated through contextual knowledge of the time. That makes this raucous comedy all the better in my eyes.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             2/5
  • Intellectual:      2/5

Good Morning, Vietnam – 1987

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Earlier this week, knocked somewhat sideways by the news of Robin Williams’ sudden death I discovered that a very good friend and fellow fan of Williams’ work had never seen Good Morning Vietnam. In our best attempt to honour a huge contributor to cinema we sat down to watch it. For my part it has been several years since I watched Good Morning, Vietnam and I’m always interested to find out whether my early cinematic leanings have any value to me when I rewatch them.
Good Morning Vietnam is one of those great films that can be described as “hard-hitting comedy” or “lighthearted war film”. What this basically means is that it succeeds in having a mature and sophisticated enough script to land its message without melodrama. For a film about the Vietnam War this is one hell of an achievement since I’m not sure anyone could give Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket points for subtlety despite both being very good films. It seems that even though, in real life, you will probably hear a joke about the most recent crisis or disaster, filmmakers shy away from humour in favour of sombre reverence. This is not to say that such events do not require respect, I wouldn’t trust this kind of film in the hands of, for example, the creators of MTV’s Jackass. Yet the tendency to romanticise and dramatize historical events can often alienate an audience rather than give them a window to empathy.
Good Morning, Vietnam completely undercuts this trope. Between an excellent script and an excellent performance from Robin Williams we are presented with Cronauer (Williams) the ultimate everyman. He’s technically a military man but really he just seems like a normal guy whose job got transferred to a warzone. It’s difficult to imagine another actor who could so perfectly carry off witty DJ repartee and carry the emotional thrust of the film. On the subject of good performances this film takes on a surreal tone when you realise that Forest Whitaker is is fact playing the klutzy Garlick.
Structurally, Good Morning, Vietnam pulls a fast one on the audience. You are lured into a sense of security with this charming parody of the army. A goofball everyman befriends some locals while classic rock and roll accompanies cheery young soldiers on duty. Everything slowly spirals from there as the viewer, concurrently with Cronauer discovers that they have in fact stumbled into something far bigger and far more dangerous and important than they could ever have imagined. The film champions the understated values of consistency and temperance. By the end there’s a sad feeling of helplessness. No one seems to have done anything wrong and yet people are dying. The war continues to only hurt the people who can do nothing to change whether the war exists at all.
I have met some people who disputed that this was a war film. I think to deny that would be a great injustice. The human imagination is a very powerful thing and, as the monster is always scarier before he is seen, so the death of the young soldiers is all the more awful for the fact that we don’t even see it. Good Morning, Vietnam shows us the soldiers as human, laughing and enjoying themselves. The script doesn’t bolster their characters with any heroic or noble acts of war, as if that would make their death more tragic. Truly, Good Morning, Vietnam says more about the human condition by being a fun film to watch than many films will ever achieve.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      4/5

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Robin Williams 1951 – 2014

Boyhood – 2014

Boyhood_2Richard Linklater’s twelve year production was always going to be a very different viewing experience to the run of the mill coming of age story. Personally I experienced an additional level of strangeness while watching since I realised about halfway through that I am the exact same age as the protagonist. The music and culture is contemporaneous and roots Boyhood into a generation. The generation who stayed up for midnight Harry Potter releases and listened to Cobra Starship during a “rebellious” phase. I guess this made the story hit me even harder since it ends with Mason (Ellar Coltrane) going off to college, a milestone I’m just about to pass. But enough about me, onto the film.

The film really has four characters, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), their mother (Patricia Arquette) and their father (Ethan Hawke). With the parents divorced Ethan Hawke and two other men make regular appearances as lovers and/or father figures. The neatly avoided trap is not to delineate the years too clearly. Instead the years slip by as if they were part of your own memories, sometimes you’re not too sure if the characters have grown, other times you see a shocking leap in style, voice and maturity. It’s odd to see the marked contrasts in the children every year while the adults seem to remain completely constant. It’s only when you see pictures of the actors at the beginning and end that the aging process becomes apparent in the older half of the cast.

There’s an interesting progression in the directing as the film continues as well. The earlier sections are less slick, a little more out of focus and less subtle than the later parts. It’s hard to tell whether the enjoyment increases due to the improvement in style and acting or due to how hugely emotionally invested you become in the characters by that point. Either way, you can feel the heartbreak deeply when Mason’s relationship, which can’t last more than twenty minutes on screen, breaks apart after two years. By the end of three hours these people seem more like old family friends rather than characters in a film. Bizarrely the exception to this is Lorelei Linklater who seems to give Samantha a more and more distant and cold air every time you see her. This characterisation works in context, since it keeps the spotlight firmly on Mason and his emotions, rather than an ensemble family drama.

Boyhood makes a bold statement about the nature of film, a respect to time and continuity that is gathering momentum and breeding a new generation of filmmakers. Linklater is a master at catching the natural, unguarded and deeply important moments of childhood.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      4/5

X-men: Days of Future Past – 2014

xmen-days-of-future-past-hd-trailer-stills101After the wildly successful X-men First Class in 2011 Bryan Singer takes up the mantle as director of the second-largest group of Marvel heroes. The general concept of this film is that the timeline needs to be fixed in order to change the future. If anyone remembers the 2011 Star Trek you’ll know that from now on X-men has a carte blanche to rewrite the entire canon in a parallel timeline. In their defence, X-men do this a lot better than Star Trek, retaining the philosophical and moral issues at their core. However, all of that preparation you did of reading the comics and even watching the previous films is now totally useless. Also if you were a fan of the previous Wolverine films good luck to you, very good luck.

Given that there is time travelling we now have two Charles Xaviers and two Magnetos. The older pair played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, the younger by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, reprising their previous roles. Obviously these roles couldn’t have been changed from their established actors but it somehow never becomes believable that James McAvoy grows up into Patrick Stewart and that gets rather distracting at several points. The script continues to linger on the ambiguous bond shared by Xavier, Magneto and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) creating an emotional thrust for the film far more captivating than the need to save the world. While their older and wiser counterparts are trying to put an end to a massacre, the only weapons they have are their younger selves, filled with angst, love and sexual tension. As such most of the film serves as an experiment in just how much cathartic rage and pain can we watch in two hours? The answer: an awful lot.

Hugh Jackman has the burden of carrying the film here by connecting both timelines. The exposition nearly exclusively comes from him yet he keeps his devil-may-care characterisation, which is a difficult and delicate balance to strike, and one Jackman pulls off with surprising skill throughout. Truthfully the majority of the other characters seem like cameos in Days of Future Past making this film feel very different to the ensemble camaraderie of First Class. The cinematography is a little clumsier here than the previous film and falls back on unnecessary gimmicks and clichés a little too often especially in the big action sequences. By contrast the CGI is handled very well, almost never breaking the suspension of disbelief.

In conclusion Days of Future Past offers exactly what you’d want from an X-men film, the emotions of every character being played out on a global, political and highly destructive stage. And of course some wise warnings against social Darwinism, eugenics and vengeance for it’s own sake.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             3/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5