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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl (2014): Written by Gillian Flynn, directed by David Fincher.  Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Niel Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens.  Running Time: 149 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn. 

Rating: 3.5/4 



            I think I may as well throw up the spoiler warning right here and now, because Gone Girl is one of those movies that cannot be discussed on any level of detail without having to delve into at least some of the major, major story turns that make it such a viscerally effective thriller.  I will try to refrain from specifics as much as possible, but as I write this, I cannot make any guarantees.  For anyone reading this that has not yet had the brutal pleasure of seeing this film, suffice it to say that Gone Girl is a technical masterpiece of suspenseful storytelling framed with remarkable performances from its cast, and is without a doubt one of the year’s better films so far.  If you have not yet seen it, you need to make doing so a priority before it leaves theaters.  For anyone else who knows the gritty details and is ready to dive in with me, let us now turn to the review.   

            Ben Affleck stars as Nick, a frustrated, middle-class writer living out another mirage of the American Dream in a typical postcard-perfect suburban town in Missouri.  We know right away he’s frustrated, and angry, and depressed, as he waltzes in to the bar he runs with his non-identical twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), and asks for a drink at way-too-early-in-the-a.m.  Things then get a whole lot worse (and soon, a lot more dangerous) when he returns to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing, and the house looking as if someone carried out a not-so-convincing kidnapping scheme.  He immediately contacts the police, along with a detective named Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), and an investigation begins immediately. 

            The case does not stay small or local for very long.  It turns out that Amy was used by her oddly passively-manipulative parents as the poster child for a series of wildly popular children’s books during her growing up years called Amazing Amy.  As a result, Amy was already a minor child celebrity, and her disappearance (which very quickly starts to look like a murder case) becomes a national media phenomenon, reported on and followed by millions.  Nick and his sister are besieged by reporters camping outside the house, news pundits take turns trying to find increasingly mundane and insipid details about Nick obsess over, and all the while, an indefatigable Rhonda tries to put together the increasingly odd pieces of the puzzle.  

            From the start, Nick proclaims his innocence, but a series of increasingly strange and, in some cases, mind-jarringly bizarre developments make him more and more suspect in the eyes of both the public and the law.  While we see the present investigation and trial through his eyes, the past is revealed to us only through scattered bits of narrative journal entries done by Rosamund Pike in voiceover.  And it is in those moments, combined with the slow-burning editing, shadow-filled cinematography, and the eerie, heartbeat-like tones and rhythms of the score (more excellent work by Trent Raznor and Atticus Ross) that truly force the audience to question; is this case really as it seems?  Is anything? 

            Most movies bill themselves on a single, very basic premise- that what the main characters say on-screen (and what the editing, camerawork, and use of music suggest) is essentially the Truth, i.e., when a character proclaims their innocence, they are innocent (unless they have pedophilic facial hair and say it over a dissonant, harsh chord in the score, in which case we know they’re lying).  As a result, we can’t help but have certain expectations when seeing any and all that movies that, for the most part at least, what we see (and hear) is what we get. 

            And it is therein that the brilliance of Gone Girl lies.  Like many other great cinematic twisters, this film goes out of its way (at times breaking the bonds of rationality and logic to do so) to take each expectation we are provided with the start, flip it on its head, spin it around, and then toss it back in our face.  Then, it does it again, and for good measure it does it a few more times before finally calling it quits.  It is a commitment of a film to sit through, but the payoff is well worth it simply for the number of times the movie pulls another narrative rabbit out of the hat you probably should have seen coming but, in all likelihood, didn’t. 

            The first great fakeout (and it is here that all must fully heed my Spoiler Alert above), comes somewhere around the middle.  Up ‘til now, the story had presented itself as a not-too-complicated mystery about whether or not Nick actually did the deed.  The culmination of this segment is a properly spine-tingling shot of Nick, after having a sudden realization, finding his sister’s shed full of luxury items he has been accused of ordering, but had never actually ordered himself.  I don’t think I can adequately convey how much the scene chilled me (the frantic nature of the segment music had a lot to do with that).  And the movie immediately starts the one-upping of itself immediately afterwards, by revealing to us that not only was Amy not kidnapped, or murdered, but that she had merely faked her death.  Not only that, she had been planning to do so for ages, and set everything up with the express purpose of having Nick be accused and sentenced to death for her murder. 

            It is the first of a great many upendings, nearly all of which center around the increasingly awful depths to which Amy has sunk in the past, and can and is willing to sink in order to achieve…..actually, it’s rather opaque what it is, exactly, that she wants.  Does she just want adventure?  Does she want to forge her own brand of celebrity, one not controlled by her emotionally wooden parents?  Does she just want petty revenge for the fact that her marriage to Nick never ended up being as spectacularly perfect as it was in the beginning?  Was she always this deceitful, or has she been warped years of trying to live up to societal expectations of what a “real woman” is like?  Like with any great movie, we are offered no answers.  We merely see the end product- a bitter and merciless person that manipulates and brutalizes others out of sheer instinct.  Amy is one of the most fascinating and compulsively watchable villains to appear on-screen in years, and Rosamund Pike is likely an early contender for award nominations come January. 

            Unless, that is, the carrions of controversy scare off the Academy wildebeests, as they are often wont to do.  I consider Amy to be the villain (or at least the primary antagonist in a den of antagonists) of this work, but as I write this, debate is raging over whether or not her character (or even the film as a whole) could be labeled misogynistic by portraying a woman so evil, that it could justify or reinforce sexist or anti-feminist views of many men (and perhaps even of women as well).  One of the major justifications Amy provides for her actions (at least, her actions towards Nick) is how, once they were married, he seemed to very quickly lose interest in her as a person, quickly expecting her to carry all the weight around the house and becoming a deadbeat once he lost his job.  She speaks with barely contained fury over being “used” for sex, and tossed aside once Nick was finished with her.  Her rant against the expected roles set aside by men for women, and the ways she and other housewives are shoehorned into them, while unable to excuse many of her actions (remember, she is actively trying to get an innocent man sent to death row), makes her far more than just a ball of pure evil, and it certainly makes her more complex than I think some critics have taken her to be. 

            That, however, doesn’t touch on perhaps the most inflammatory aspect of her character; namely, that she frames several men for rape, causing one to be marked for society by life, and another to be….well, that’s one of the twists I feel I should not spoil.  Given the continuing problems college campuses, professional sports, and other areas of public awareness have of effectively dealing with rape, and considering how so, so often the defense of rapists is to cast doubt on the motivations of the women making accusations, I can understand entirely why this would set people off.  The last thing any decent-minded person wants is to provide more fodder, however unintentionally, for the ignorant misogynists of the world.  With that said, my interpretation of said moments was that they were intended to merely highlight how drastic Amy was willing to become in order to achieve whatever twisted end she wanted, and not to be connected to any broader discussion of how actual rape cases are treated.  But, given the movie’s ambiguity about so much, misinterpretation is fairly easy, and here too I can’t blame some for seeing the film in a harsher light as a result.  . 

            It must be remembered, though, that Amy’s level of monstrosity is merely a question of degrees.  She happens to reach lower than anyone else on-screen, but it would be a gross mistake to let that absolve the others.  Margo may be the only character on-screen who comes across as anything approaching a decent human being; Nick himself, while quite clearly not a murderer or rapist, is an adulterer, a loafer, coarse and prone to aggression; Amy’s parents seem emotionally dead whenever they’re on-screen; the detective strives for the truth but is clearly eager for the evidence to turn a certain way; the lawyer Nick eventually retains lauds his ability to rescue the innocent from the jaws of the often all-too-blind legal system, but makes no bones about bragging about his 100k retainer fee for doing so.   

            Although, now that I really think about it, perhaps the obviousness of making Amy out to be the villain is yet another red herring tossed our way, because in so many respects, the true force of darkness on display is us.  The people watching and obsessing over every single twist and turn in the case, fueling purely speculative and mean-spirited journalism, chanting hate speech to Nick one day and cheering his Perfect And Awesome Happy End the next, and gathering outside his bar every evening to take selfies (which were probably promptly uploaded to Facebook with the hashtag Killerpub), much like the audience gazing at Leonardo DiCaprio at the very end of The Wolf of Wall Street, are us.  How many murder trials and how many disappearances have we collectively obsessed over, simply to abandon thinking about them ever again once a) no clear answers were ever provided, or b) the incident ended “properly?”  I can remember more than I ever care to count.  We create the conditions that drive (or at least prod) people like Nick and Amy into believing, or perhaps simply wanting, to become falsified, artificial, superficial versions of themselves just for the sake of our approval.  Then, whenever shit really does hit the fan, we rant, and cheer, and rage, and take photos, and wonder tut-tuttingly how people could become so messed up. 

            This review has become far more extensive (and far more spoiler-filled) than originally planned, but I feel no regrets, because this movie is every bit as much of a think piece as some of this year’s other great works like Under The Skin and The Grand Budapest Hotel.  David Fincher is a technical genius at taking the most average and seemingly unnecessary shots and making them work together so tightly, and so seamlessly, that you can’t imagine the movie being stitched together any other way.  I don’t love it as much as I loved The Social Network, and it is by no means flawless- Amy only avoids a trial of her own through a spectacular jump in logic that causes a whole team of FBI agents to overlook some very massive holes in her story- but that is no matter, because the point of the movie isn’t to answer itself clearly or make straight statements.  It is there to make us jump, to make us laugh and cringe at the same time, and maybe – if we let it- cause us to look a little longer and little harder at ourselves the next time we pass a mirror. 


-Noah Franc 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: Phoenix

Phoenix (2014): Written by Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki, and Hubert Monteilhet, directed by Christian Petzold.  Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, and Nina Kunzendorf.  Running Time: 98 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4



            I have long felt that movies centering around (or whose stories are in some way connected to) WWII, Holocaust, and/or other atrocities associated with that era of human history are among the easiest kinds of movies to make.  For clarity’s sake, before anyone reading this gets upset, let me stress that I do not mean that confronting the hard, terrible truths of that time are easy, or simple, or quickly dismissed.  I do not mean to come across as dismissive of the agony and suffering caused by the megalomaniacal, greedy, cruel, angry, or just plain frightened men that drove events, and obviously I am not saying that such acts can or should be easily forgiven.  Nor am I implying that the level of talent and effective collaboration necessary to make a good film about WWII is in any way less than that necessary for any other kind of film. 

            What I mean is that, since nearly all kinds of stories rely on conflict of some kind, WWII-related films are easy in that, when trying to tell a story about that time period, a conflict and/or readily identifiable bad guy (or bad guys) arrives practically gift-wrapped at your doorstep.  There is no need to embellish the acts of Hitler, or Stalin, or the SS, or the Japanese government.  There is no need to invent a villain or conflict.  The true events themselves are heinous enough that simply showing (or referencing) them as they really happened will inevitably cause anyone with a properly-functioning moral compass to recoil in horror, and to automatically sympathize with whichever victims said film has chosen to focus on.  I am not saying that this is a good or bad thing, simply observing how so many films/books/plays/video games/whathaveyou are able to easily lean back on the Nazis as go-to bad guys, almost automatically guaranteeing audience sympathy with their main characters (except, obviously, in cases where the film in question is deliberately upending or deconstructing this tendency, like in Saving Private Ryan or Inglorious Basterds).     

            It’s one small aspect of our continuing Western cultural obsession with the Nazis, a much broader topic of great enough importance to me that I am already considering how to tackle it more directly in a later series of posts.  The reason why I bring it up here is because Phoenix, a German film that centers around the post-war experiences of an Auschwitz survivor, is remarkable in part because of how it uses none of the now almost standard images of Nazi atrocities or the horrors of war to win us over to the heroine’s side.  Although we know the main character is a camp survivor, we are offered no memories, flashbacks, or nightmarish dreams (ala Shutter Island) that show exactly what she saw, suffered, and experienced.  Everything we need to know can be found in her tortured performance, in the pain etched into her eyes and in her shuffled, beaten walk.  No further explanation or display needed.    

            Said woman is named Nelly, (Nina Hoss), a German-Jewish singer who survived the camps, but not without having her face horribly ravaged.  A friend and fellow survivor, the angry and sadly bitter Lene, brings her through the American lines to the Western area of Berlin for reconstructive surgery.  In a strange metaphysical twist, the doctor who handles the surgery is played by Michael Maertens, who happened to play another doctor working with skin (albeit in a far creepier manner) in last year’s surreal Finsterworld.  She is offered the chance to take on a new face and a new identity, but her response is a shaky-but-firm no; she wants to look as much like she did before as possible. 

            Her reason for doing this is so that she can find and reunite with her husband, Johnny, who apparently survived the war as well (some of her other friends did not, and others, she is shocked to learn, were active Nazis).  This horrifies Lene, who sees emigration to Israel as the only option for Europe’s remaining Jews, but despite her fears, Nelly cannot conceive of doing anything else.  Wandering alone at night through the crime-ridden and waste-filled ruins of Berlin (as dreary a dystopia as one can imagine, filled with mountains of debris and lights that cast long, misshapen shadows), she eventually does find him working at a bar called the Phoenix (that this is the nominal inspiration for the film’s title is clear, but the obvious symbolic overtones will be lost on no one).  Unsurprisingly though, since her appearance was somewhat altered by surgery, he does not recognize her when they first encounter each other.  That said, he does admit that she bears a close resemblance to his “late” wife (his certainty of her death may be a psychological reason he does not realize it’s her), and immediately hatches a plan.  He will provide her with some of Nelly’s old clothes, teach her to walk and act like her, and have her memorize key facts of their marriage together.  Once that is accomplished, they will go to the authorities to show them that Nelly Lenz has returned. 

            Why all the chicanery?  Since Nelly had several very rich relatives, themselves Jewish, and since all of them died, she has quite an inheritance attached her name (said inheritance is, in fact, what she and Lene are living off of while she tries to get her husband to recognize her).  Johnny is aware of this, and as he has been down on his luck since the war’s end, he tells Nelly that once they win over the authorities and she receives the inheritance, they will split everything 50/50, and she will be free to go along her way. 

            It is a horridly pessimistic and cynical scheme, made hard to watch by how painfully and obviously Nelly yearns for her husband to recognize her.  Nina Hoss gives a stunning performance, conveying the right mix of utter brokenness with her hard-to-contain hope that somehow, someway, things can be as they once were.  Her only wish is to be able to sing once more with “her Johnny.”  Even her most fervent hopes, however, begin to be tested as she grows less and less certain of what really happened that led the authorities to her hiding place.  She had been secluded away near a friend’s house, and the family husband seems less than enthused when she returns.  Could they have turned her over?  Or perhaps there is a grimmer reason why her husband seems so, so certain that his wife is dead and gone?  The inevitable possibility that that thought leads to is never spoken, but you can see its implications creep into her eyes and demeanor over time. 

            The final moment of true realization, for both characters, is a moment of pure cinematic perfection.  Christian Petzold knew exactly how to utilize the cards in his hand, and he reveals them each, one by one, in perfect sequence.  I was a little unsure halfway through where, exactly, the film was going, and it can be somewhat aggravating how dense the husband is; once you’ve acknowledged how closely resembles a loved one, someone who automatically called you by a pet name, wouldn’t the bells start ringing once they show they can perfectly mimic that person’s handwriting without needing a sample beforehand?  That, however, is part of the point- even without a definitive answer to the questions posed above, the degree to which Johnny is unable to recognize his own wife in front of him can’t help but make one wonder. 

            Phoenix is a film that goes small but hard, dedicating itself wholeheartedly to the story at hand.  Like I wrote at the beginning of this review, not once does it feel the need to directly allude to the events of the Holocaust; all the suffering we need to see is in Nelly’s eyes.  And in a way, the film’s silence on the past mirrors the silence towards the war displayed by nearly everyone in the city, an unspoken critique of the brief postwar period of German amnesia towards Nazism.  As Johnny himself says, when Nelly worries about how detailed she should be in describing the camps to the authorities, he merely replies, “No one will ask.”    


-Noah Franc 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: Calvary

Calvary (2014): Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.  Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach de Bankole, M. Emmett Walsh, Marie-Josee Croze.  Running Time: 101 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4



            Taken collectively, many of the plays and films of Martin McDonagh  (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and his brother John Michael, whose new film Calvary is a thematic sequel to his first full-length feature The Guard, present a rather bleak image of their home county of Galway in Ireland; a place of tiny towns occupied by every stock type of human cruelty, cynicism, amorality, and apathy you care to name, set amongst the most stunning vistas of green hills and gently curving beaches imaginable.  Several recurring themes from his brother’s plays are either front and center in this film, or are tucked away in the corners for those who know what to look for, including, among others, a hopelessly genuine priest, furiously repressed young men stifled by their country surroundings, pets as curious symbols of the paradoxes of human affections and aggressions, the institution of the Church as a catch-all metaphor for impotent failure, and a pervading sense that the veneer of Irish pleasantness draped across every scene is nothing but a wafer-thin fa├žade, concealing a steely brutality of character just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself. 

            The center of this story is Brendan Gleeson’s Father James, a character not unlike the hapless Father Welsh in Martin McDonagh’s play The Lonesome West in that, for all his efforts, he seems unable to truly reach anyone in his willfully sinful little flock.  Included in this film’s gathering of social cast-offs are an ironically bitter Buddhist barkeeper, a butcher with a dismally dark sense of humor (Chris O’Dowd in an intriguingly serious turn), a young woman set in her carnal ways and her African boyfriend, a sexually desperate young man, a seemingly ancient American author, a defiantly unethical former banker, and an acerbically atheistic doctor (played by Aiden Gillen, instantly recognizable to any devoted GoT fan as Littlefinger).   

            That things have been spiritually trying for some time is clear.  However, things get vastly more complicated at the start of the film, when an unseen parishioner steps into the confessional only to inform Father James that he intends to kill him in a week’s time, as vengeance for the horrid abuse he suffered at from priests as a child.  Not that Father James himself is guilty of anything.   In fact, the unseen would-be murderer explains, that’s exactly the point; what surprise would there be killing a bad priest, when killing a good would send a much more jolting shock through society’s collective spine?  Understandably, this sets off an excruciating spiritual and emotional crisis for Father James, one that consumes the days he is given to organize his affairs.  Should he involve the police, or even the Church itself?  Should he actually wait out the week and go to the beach at the appointed time, or flee while he has the chance?  And if he does go, should he arm himself and fight back, or offer himself up to the vagaries of fate? 

            This film is strangely beautiful in how tragic it is, a sense of tragedy that is inevitable given the subject matter.  One scene in particular reminds the viewer that travesties of humanity like the child abuse scandals in the Church carry a terrible weight that reaches far beyond those immediately affected. About halfway through the movie, while Father James is wandering along a country road, he begins to idly chat with a girl picking flowers along the same path.  After a few minutes, their conversation is abruptly interrupted by the girl’s father, who whisks her away while shooting the well-meaning Father a look filled with pure venom.  Only after they leave does the full realization of what just happened seem to hit him, and the look that crosses his face is heart-rending.  Ultimately, though, the movie’s final thesis statement, a searing condemnation of both the Church and ourselves as an audience, of our tendency to ignore hard truths and to forget those we do acknowledge as quickly as possible, is contained in a few short lines within the film’s last scene.  It reminded me strongly of the final shot in The Wolf of Wall Street, a final flourish meant as a sucker punch for anyone in the audience who mistakenly believes they are about to be let off easy. 

            The cast in this film is magnificent from top to bottom.  Brendan Gleeson is one of the best screen presences in the business today, able to bear so much on those broad shoulders of his.  Kelly Reilly adds quiet grace as well as his daughter Fiona (he only joined the priesthood after his wife died), a brief visit of sanity from the outside.  And that fact alone- that Fiona seems to be the only person on-screen aside from Father James with her head screwed on straight- is an ironic twist in itself, since she herself is still recovering from a suicide attempt following yet another failed relationship.  In fact, all of the characters, including Father James, are emotionally and/or spiritually damaged in one way or another, be they male or female, young or old, priest or layman.  The film is not only an indictment of a particularly dark moment in Church history (which, I need hardly remind most people, is littered with dark moments), it is also a broad and humbling meditation on our inherently broken nature as humans.  In a phone call with his daughter after she leaves, Father James remarks that there’s probably been all too much talk about sins over the years, and not enough about virtues.  “What virtue is your favorite?”  Fiona asks.  “I think forgiveness has been given a short stick,” he replies. 

            I don’t know if I can lay the same amount of praise on the screenplay as I do on the cast.  John Michael has not given us something as tightly cohesive as his brother’s masterpiece In Bruges.  And the final reveal of who the intended killer is, meant as a plot twist of sorts, will probably pose no difficulties or shock for some.  Not that the film really tries to surprise us anyway- the shot telling us who it was in the confessional at the beginning is handled quickly, and without fanfare.  No, this movie has other things on its mind, things far more important than telling a simple story about a hellish-yet-pristine town in the Irish countryside.  It tries to pry open the box of collective silence, to let the cries of anguish and pain, hidden for decades (and perhaps for centuries), ring out into the open air.  They are cries that demand to be heard, and that should never be silenced. 


-Noah Franc