Gone Girl

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DIR: David Fincher   WRI: by Gillian Flynn  PRO: Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, Cean Chaffin, Joshua Donen  CAST: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry,Patrick Fugit

The sense that David Fincher has a lot of ground to cover is clear from the outset as the zippy credits blink by. Somewhat lost within their muted brevity is the fact that the bestselling source novel by Gillian Flynn was optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company.

Odd then that the lead role of missing wife Amy Dunne was entrusted to Rosamund Pike rather than its superstar producer. On paper, it’s well within Witherspoon’s wheelhouse.  Amy is an all-American sweetheart who deliberately conceals a vat of contradictory behaviour and emotion beneath a placid veneer. As written, Amy is an enigmatic, inscrutable, seemingly fragile figure. It’s a stand-out part and frankly, Pike has been given the role of a lifetime out of the blue.

Her character begins off-screen as her husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns to their palatial McMansion to what looks like the aftermath of a home invasion. The actual incident is rather low key but insidiously disturbing. Especially when Amy appears to have disappeared. As days slip by, Nick slips into a mounting vortex of media and police suspicion. Nick isn’t the most emotive guy in the world and his taciturn nature isn’t synching up with the wider world’s vision of a worried husband. Sadly for Nick, anyone looking for problems within his superficially picture-perfect marriage can find them much more easily than his elusive wife.

Adding layers of confusion via regular revelations and flashbacks, the film shuttles back and forth between the giddy heights of the couple’s courting days while simultaneously chronicling the on-going cooling of ardour within the subsequent marriage.  At the point of Amy’s vanishing, all warmth and affection has drained from the relationship. Instead bitterness, resentment and according to one version of events, outbursts of domestic violence have begun to define a deeply unhappy union.

Even at this late hour, delving too deep into plot still threatens to ruin the enjoyment of those unfamiliar with the novel. Suffice to say, the film depicts the Dunnes’ crumbling alliance from both perspectives but it’s pretty evident from early on whom the (more) unreliable narrator is. Wisely, Affleck’s Nick is no angel. The nasty but deliciously dark notion that Nick is better off without his wife is floated early and often. The significant flaw in that mostly desirable scenario being that Nick could easily face the death penalty for killing his wife. The lingering lack of a body initially saves Nick from the chair but when new and damning evidence starts to surface with alarming regularity, Nick detects an element of intelligent design behind his nightmarish plight.

Naturally, Gone Girl is brilliant in places. This is Fincher after all. He doesn’t come out to play lightly and again credit must surely go to Reese Witherspoon for attaching him to material that could easily be unwieldy and wildly implausible. How she talked him into it in the wake of a rather cool reception for his last adaptation of a literary behemoth – namely The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – is intriguing.  I’m more enthralled by how he talked himself into this. Wrestling massively popular mammoth tomes into mainstream entertainment is starting to become his thing. And selfishly, I want more from him than that. That said, Gone Girl is four fifths a stunning film but the final fifth is deeply unsatisfying and can’t help but retrospectively tarnish what came before.

The problems surely emanate from the source material. Flynn’s adaptation of her own work is a dextrous, slick and skilful job across the board but the worlds of books and films share a universal truth – endings are a bitch. Great stories rarely have great endings. In that context, as an esteemed film buddy remarked to me recently – only obscenely successful books get to keep their utterly bonkers plots entirely intact. Daft developments within novels are seemingly sanctified by vast literary success. Reflect on that after you see this and ponder whether a novice or even a lauded screenwriter could get this ending past a studio boss as part of an original screenplay without being laughed out of the room.

Many observers contend that the film has ventured into satire by then but I don’t concur. After all, the actual story of this film can be distilled into a perfect Hollywood pitch. This is fundamentally an uneasy marriage of Sleeping with the Enemy and The War of the Roses.   Since Gone Girl is depicting an uneasy marriage, you might say that setting a drama in the shared area of that particular Venn diagram may be fitting but both older films knew exactly what they were – however flawed they were. Gone Girl deals with issues of identity but it has an identity crisis of its own. Worryingly the parallel for this film within Fincher’s own back catalogue starts to become The Game – the distant memory of the hollow machinations of that film start to invade as we are dragged deeper into an elongated coda.

I refuse to end on a downer. Don’t be put off by my enduring gripes about the ending. There is much to admire and value here. Fincher is on fine almost playful form. Adroitly articulating mostly internal anxieties with real cinematic flair. Precise yet never constrained. Meticulous but as humourous as he’s ever been.  Affleck will surely be a better actor and director after the Fincher experience. Whereas Pike’s improvement is immediate and obvious as she alternates impressively between a brittle survivor and an empowered avenger. Yet for me, the real treasures of the cast reside in the supporting female roles. Carrie Coon is excellent as Nick’s sparky yet snarky sister while Kim Dickens is a true delight as an investigating detective worthy of a film of her own. The quirk factor of the ensemble extends to comedy veterans Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris accepting atypical roles that they clearly relish.

The only audience demographic that should give this film a wide berth are even moderately unhappy couples. Any remotely strained relationships will probably not survive any post-film discussion after witnessing this raw autopsy of a modern marriage turned toxic. Fincher’s films have always kept people awake before and disturbed sleep patterns. Yet, the agent of malevolence has most often been external. Sowing the seed that the real evil is already inside the house, across the bed – that’s true horror. Maybe that’s how he talked himself into this. Maybe he’s right. Maybe.

James Phelan

16 (See IFCO for details)

148 minutes

Gone Girl  is released 3rd October 2014

Gone Girl  – Official Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cinema Review: Runner Runner

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DIR: Brad Furman • WRI: Brian Koppelman, David Levien • PRO: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson Killoran , Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Michael Shamberg , Stacey Sher • DOP: Mauro Fiore • ED: Jeff McEvoy • DES: Charisse Cardenas • Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie

You go the cinema expecting an expose doc on the trainer industry and instead end up with a run of the mill thriller. Fittingly, this film is bizarrely akin to spending an hour and a half on a treadmill. Insofar as it expends a lot of energy but really doesn’t go anywhere. Not anywhere remotely interesting anyway.

Justin Timberlake takes a break from his music to play a Princeton grad student who takes a break from his studies to track down the shady big-wig behind an online poker empire. His crudely named character Richie Furst considers himself a bit of a whizz at virtual cards but takes major umbrage when he is cleared out online. Proving that you have to spend money to get money back, he takes off on a rather whimsical trip to Costa Rica to get his tuition fees reimbursed. Convinced that he has been ripped off, Richie intends to confront the mysterious businessman Ivan Block (Ben Affleck) behind an ultra successful cyber gambling site.

Disproportionally impressed by this bit of brio, Block naturally offers Richie the kind of Faustian pact that even blind blues musicians at a crossroads at midnight could see coming from a million miles away. Richie subsequently appears to develop a kind of ‘crime glaucoma’ where everything is rosy and legit right in front of his eyes but he inexplicably can’t see the major criminal edges of Block’s empire. Even subtle hints like Block feeding lumps of frozen meat to his pet crocodiles on a moonlit jetty fail to raise an eyebrow. It apparently takes a lot to sour Richie’s cheery worldview that mobsters, gamblers and prostitutes are all law-abiding all of the time.

With American law enforcement closing in on the exiled Block, soon Richie’s only choice is whether to be a stool pigeon for the Feds or a patsy for the bad guy. Perhaps his eureka moment arrived in a deleted scene where he rents ‘The Firm’ (the Tom Cruise one – not the Danny Dyer one) and follows its’ step by step guide to getting out of this exact same scenario. In fact, this entire film feels like one particular sequence from that thriller where Gene Hackman brought Cruiser down to the Caymans to corrupt him.

Trying to figure out the motivation of the actors for doing this rather feeble film is kind of fun. Timberlake is definitely committed to being serious about his thespian career. Protected by strong directors like Fincher in The Social Network, he can transmit his inherent charm through the camera with nonchalant ease. Nor is the onus of shouldering the central role brand new territory for him. He has borne the pressure of carrying a movie before and far better than here. Even in fluff like Friends with Benefits or In Time, he stretched himself and, to an extent, proved himself. In this, he looks uncomfortable and even that discomfort doesn’t feed into the nervous energy that the character should emit at pivotal moments.

Whereas ostensible female lead Gemma Arterton needs exposure in big American releases so her agenda is obvious and understandable though the resultant pallid role never taps into her considerable talents. For Affleck, you’d have to suspect the pay cheque was more tempting than the material. An opening speech about exile aside, there’s no depth or context to Block’s villainy. Maybe Affleck got to write Argo 2 on location in the tropics but the outstanding question then becomes what exactly does an audience get out of Runner Runner?

Precious little is the answer unless you’re in the most forgiving form of your life. It may just suffice as a sun kissed slice of distraction but in reality, there’s not a beat of this story that isn’t predictable or even tries to subvert the overly familiar.

Admittedly this is glib but if someone suggests going to Runner Runner, do a runner in the opposite direction.

James Phelan

15A (See IFCO for details)

95 mins
Runner Runner is released on 27th September 2013

Runner Runner – Official Website

 

http://www.runnerrunnermovie.com/index.html

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Cinema Review: To the Wonder

 

DIR/WRI: Terrence Malick  •  PRO: Nicolas Gonda • DOP: Emmanuel Lubezki • ED: A.J. Edwards, Keith Fraase, Shane Hazen, Christopher Roldan, Mark Yoshikawa • DES: Jack Fisk • CAST: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) love one another in France.  They visit Mont Saint-Michel and spend time with Marina’s daughter in Paris.  Difficulties arise following their move to Oklahoma and prompt Marina to seek help from the parish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem).  The priest struggles with his faith in the face of contemporary troubles.  Marina goes back to Paris, but unhappiness provokes her stateside return, while Neil engages in a brief affair with Jane (Rachel McAdams).

Summarising the plot for a Terrence Malick film is perhaps superfluous.  He favours meditations and asking unanswered questions in whispered voiceovers over conventional narrative structure and character development.  Dialogue is sparse.  Natural lighting, thoughtful sound design and classical music, the elements of his familiar style, create a veritable cinematic experience, providing reprieve fromthe bloody violence and banal histories offered by other commercial fare.  His films constitute one of the most distinctive bodies of work in cinema history.

The Thin Red Line heralded Malick’s return, he having disappeared after directing two classics in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven.  His take on the Pocahontas story, The New World, developed his wonder at the natural world and his questioning of divine presence.  The Tree of Life proved his boldest film yet, with the most daring chronological shift since 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Whythe dinosaurs?  That film confounded or baffled many.  To the Wonder follows the path Tree laid down.

The tall buildings in which Sean Penn’s character remembered his childhood in The Tree of Life marked Malick’s first foray into a contemporary setting.  To the Wonder shares that film’s fluid camerawork, with few static shots, but Malick updates the suburban and household settings of his 1950s piece to the 21st century.  Again working with DOP Emmanuel Lubezki, he lights kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms so as to make them enchanting.  Their hair blowing in the breeze, Malick’s female characters dance and run in wheat fields bathed in sunlight; now they also dance in supermarkets, where Tatiana, Marina’s daughter, exclaims, ‘Everything is beautiful.”’ Images of trees and running water that recur throughout his work feature in To the Wonder, though perhaps less prominently than in The Tree of Life.

Though his style and determination to work on his own terms distinguish Malick as perhaps the ultimate auteur, he employs a remarkably collaborative approach to film-making.  Along with Lubezki and regular production designer Jack Fisk, he works with five credited editors.  Daniel Lanois contributed to the sound design, and Hanan Townshend, whose music featured in The Tree of Life, contributes original tracks that blend in seamlessly with music by the likes of Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt.

Actors contribute through improvisation, working without a script.  They perform dramatic situations in vignettes, often wordless, where gesture, facial expressions, glances and touches are more significant.  Characters develop plot points in voiceover, but more frequently they ask questions that Malick sees arising from the situations his troupe enact.  Lacking the complex flashbacks, time shifts and dream sequences of The Tree of LifeTo the Wonder is easier to follow.

Malick shifts his focus within family life from childhood and parenthood to relations between man and woman, love and marriage.  He provides no inexplicable surprises (no raptors here), but there is evident wit in alluding, for example, to the contemporary world’s spiritual emptiness by having convicts act as witnesses to the couple’s civil marriage in a busy court.  Malick explores these themes with questions that echo those asked in The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life:  ‘What is the love that loves us?’

Malick deploys his extraordinary visual flair in enlivening the most banal events:  clearing dishes, shopping, a family enjoying a day out.  Improvisation with actors underpins his search for authenticity.  “Stop being so serious,” Marina calls out.  Neil plays with lamps in a motel room.  The couple engage in flirtatious tomfoolery on a train.  Ponderous voiceover detracts from the desired spontaneity, but his approach is naturalistic, showing events that we can easily relate to.

Such intense realism provides the first element of Paul Schrader’s ‘transcendental style’.  Schrader identifies disunity between man and his environment that culminates in decisive action as the second part.  In To the Wonder, Neil investigates problems with the soil and water table in Oklahoma.  Industrial complexes loom in the background, and machines seem to attack the earth.  Neil, an easygoing, earthy character, is caught up in an environmental crisis that threatens the community in which he lives.  Fr Quintana struggles to reconcile his absolute belief in God with his difficulty in finding evidence of His existence as he deals with the decrepit world inhabited by single mothers, prostitutes and prisoners.  Malick’s films are not about resolving such disparities, but transcending them.

Bardem’s troubled priest voices a Christian/Catholic perspective less obvious in Malick’s previous works, which can be read as more general metaphysical ruminations.  Fr Quintana quotes from the Lorica of St Patrick.  He believes God is present everywhere but struggles to see him.  He wonders where Christ leads him and calls on Christ to teach him how to see.  Such pleas resemble Pocahontas’ calling on Mother, Private Witt’s belief in the beautiful light and ‘all things shining’, and young Jack’s asking to see what He sees.  Malick posits the priest’s need for reassurance from God with Marina’s search for love.  ‘If you love me,’ she says in thevoiceover, speaking of Neil, ‘there’s nothing else I need.’ Is Malick suggesting that the love for and of another human being and thepriestly love of god reflect aspects of the same divine presence?  Who knows?

Malick’s films, though incredibly beautiful, can leave contemporary audiences bewildered and dissatisfied.  More audience members walked out of a screening of The Tree of Life than any other film I’ve seen.  Filmgoers unfamiliar with Malick’s work probably expected something quite different from a film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.  That Malick’s films exist in commercial cinema is perhaps awonder.  An admirable companion piece, To the Wonder should appeal to those who liked his earlier films.

John Moran

12A (see IFCO website for details)
112mins
To the Wonder is released on 22nd February 2013

To the Wonder  – Official Website 

 

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Cinema Review: Argo

DIR: Ben Affleck • WRI: Chris Terrio • PRO: Ben Affleck, George Clooney,Grant Heslov  DOP: Rodrigo Prieto • ED: William Goldenberg • DES: Sharon Seymour • CAST:  Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Michael Cassidy

With tensions increasing in the Middle East as Iran comes ever closer to developing the bomb, this quite brilliant, witty political thriller seems very timely, despite being set over 30 years ago.

Argo, the latest from one-time Hollywood poster boy/laughing stock Ben Affleck, now a respected director of punchy, entertaining, if until now slight films, tells the so-improbable-it-must-be-true tale of a CIA operation to evacuate six American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis of ’79-’81 by pretending they are members of a science fiction film crew. In its unlikely fusion of genres, the film manages to lampoon the audacity of Hollywood while also racking up the tension as the crisis escalates.

Affleck himself plays CIA consultant Tony Mendez, a so-called ‘Moses’, whose expertise is in extracting American civilians from international hotspots. During the crisis which follows the Iranian Revolution, six of the staff members at the American Embassy in Tehran escape the embassy, the centre of the crisis, and hole up in the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran.

With no hope of smuggling them across the border into Turkey, Mendez comes up with the plan of sneaking them out in broad daylight through Tehran’s airport, by coaching them to pose as a Canadian film crew doing a reccy in ‘exotic locations’ for a sci-fi B-movie, called ‘Argo’. To sell the deception, Mendez teams up with (fictional) one-time Hollywood big leaguer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and real-life Oscar-winning make-up effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who worked on Planet of the Apes and the original Star Trek series. Hosting gala events in service of their Star Wars knock-off (which most closely resembles 1980’s Flash Gordon movie), the trio land an ad for Argo in Variety and generate buzz for the fraudulent film. All that has to be done then is for the terrified embassy staff to keep their nerve.

Full of punchy one-liners, especially from Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston as CIA boss Jack O’Donnell, Argo’s script jets along at a very enjoyable pace before its nerve-wracking finale. Editing tricks cut between the film and documentary footage to emphasise the remarkable reality that lies behind the story. The almost excessive period detail, shot in bright ’70s colours, sells the movie to its audience even better than Mendez sells his film to the Iranians.

Acting is mostly solid across the board, although Affleck is perhaps not the strongest actor who might have fronted it, and he fluffs some of his best lines. Goodman and Arkin have remarkable fun as the pair who see through the ‘bullshit business’ while also doing remarkable pro bono work for their endangered countrymen. Cranston, so hot right now it burns the eyes, has a strong go at the ‘disapproving chief who’s actually incredibly proud of his renegade underling’ role, and it’s a treat to behold. The rest of the exhaustive cast is assembled from some of the best TV and movie character actors out there; Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver… the list goes on and on.

What the film does that no amount of perusing declassified State Department documents can do is truly get at the heart of the movie business, and give it a deserved ribbing. From the moment the film opens with the red Warner Bros logo from the 1970s, you can tell this is a film gleefully in love with a different age of moviemaking. Much of the opening preamble, bringing clueless audiences up to speed on the history of Iran (think Persepolis, but less sweet), is explained using storyboards. When Mendez reaches Hollywood, the hokey sets, ridiculous costumes and obnoxious self-promoters seem far more alien than Iran itself.

While Iran is the villain of the piece, so to speak, Argo is not overly critical of the nation, refusing to demonise it as it underlines the need for change that resulted in the Iranian Revolution. Using Istanbul as its shooting location, it paints the country as one of massive contradiction, where US flags are burnt while Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants are found on the high street.

Despite its energy, Argo slumps a little in the middle, as it struggles to define the characters of the six refugees, who are even more over-shadowed by the titanic performances of Arkin and Goodman than Affleck is. As the nail-biting finale approaches, the film blatantly goes beyond the real history and artificially raises the tension without any need. Yes, it’s intense, but for the only brief moment in its two-hour run-time this impossible story becomes unbelievable.

Affleck’s finest film to date, Argo is an endlessly witty, powerful and thrilling drama. With skilful craft in recreating an age almost out of memory, it has a unique honesty to it that is far more interested in the individual figures involved than flag-waving patriotism. A spy movie without guns or sex, Argo is nothing less than a ridiculous adventure with fine, clever characters and a fist-chewing climax like few others.

Be sure to stick around during the closing credits where actual photos from the real-life Argo exodus are placed side-by-side with images from the film. It is a final testament to the remarkable work Affleck and his team put into telling this story.

David Neary

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details) 

120 mins

Argo is released on 9th November 2012

Argo –  Official Website

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The Town

The Town

DIR: Ben Affleck • WRI: Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard • PRO: Basil Iwanyk, Graham King • ED: Dylan Tichenor • DOP: Robert Elswit • DES: Sharon Seymour • CAST: Ben Affleck, Blake Lively, Jeremy Renner

At last, those two charming young boys that wrote Good Will Hunting have come of age. Ben was a little slower in his maturation but his is all the sweeter for it. After the suspiciously good Gone, Baby, Gone; Affleck has cemented his gifted directing chops with The Town. The days of ‘bennifer’ are gone, baby, gone and Matt and Ben have (separately) earned their collective moniker of ‘men’.

The Town is based on Chuck Hogan’s acclaimed novel Prince of Thieves and Affleck is able to build a solid feature atop these foundations. The town in question is Charlestown; a square-mile neighbourhood in Boston, which has produced more bank robbers than anywhere else in the world. Our story centres around one particularly talented team, masterminded by local boy Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck). The film opens on one such masked bank robbery where they are forced to take the manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage while they escape. When Doug’s team mate and close friend Jem (Jeremy Renner) discovers that Claire lives nearby and could potentially identify them he wants to take care of her in the Tony Soprano sense. Doug intervenes and falls for her which puts his whole team in jeopardy. All the while the FBI led by Adam Frawley (Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm) is building a case which could spell an end to the team’s clean run.

Having co-written, played the lead role and directed this film, Affleck has really excelled himself in each department. Given that Affleck grew up in Boston himself, the script feels suitably authentic and natural. In a high tension film about bank robbery is it all too easy to end each sentence with an orchestral jolt and have your actors chewing through bank vaults but Affleck manages to maintain the humanity of his characters. The direction is highly impressive and the influence of Michael Mann’s Heat in undeniable but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The cityscape of Boston resembles the clean lines of Mann’s Los Angeles and The Town’s robberies are equally reminiscent of Heat‘s with exhilarating and realistic shoot-outs. Affleck even manages to hold his own on the acting front amid a very strong cast. Renner is particularly memorable as the unpredictable and violent Jem.

Following the remarkably well aged Good Will Hunting and more recent Gone, Baby, Gone; The Town continues Affleck’s successful partnership with Boston. The Town is a thrilling story of community and crime. Watch this space because I predict big things in this director’s future.

Peter White

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
The Town
is released on 24th September 2010

The Town Official Website

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