Monday, 6 October 2014
Reviewing David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is like walking on eggshells -- eggshells filled with explosive spoilers set to blow at the slightest crack. So I’m going to have to choose my steps wisely here, lest those shells break open and those spoilers spill out with catastrophic, movie-ruining consequences. Of course, as any film critic should know, discussion of spoilers should be strictly avoided when reviewing any movie, but the sheer mystery-shrouded, whodunit, don’t-fucking-spoil-it-for-me-or-I’ll-kick-the-shit-out-of-you nature of “Gone Girl” means that one cannot review it in full without risking revealing the juicier details of the plot (and indeed getting the shit kicked out of oneself). Rest assured, I will tread with the utmost of care and reveal as little as possible -- that is, if I haven’t revealed too much already.
The first thing that should be said is that the film is, frankly, terrific -- I’d happily place it among Fincher’s best films, and considering his best films are the brilliant masterpieces “Se7en,” “The Social Network,” “Zodiac” and “Fight Club,” that’s no mean feat. The second thing that should be said is that fans of Gillian Flynn’s original book, among whom I count myself, will be pleased to hear the film sticks close to its source material -- it’s a thorough, faithful adaptation, with only a few minimal changes here and there; though considering it was Flynn who wrote the screenplay, that’s hardly a shock. The third thing that should be said is that Rosamund Pike is sensational: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she gets an Oscar nomination for this come February, or maybe even a win. And the fourth thing that should be said is that Tyler Perry is actually, genuinely, properly good in this movie. You read that right: Tyler “Madea” Perry gives a good performance here, and he does it without wearing a wig or a flower-patterned granny frock.
The central mystery concerns whether or not Missouri bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck, on very fine form) killed his beautiful wife, Amy (Pike). On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home to find smashed glass on the living room floor, an ottoman flipped onto its side, and his wife missing. Concerned (but weirdly laid-back about the whole thing), Nick calls the police, who upon close inspection discover that a pool of blood has been mopped up from the kitchen floor. Coming under the watchful, ever-judging scrutiny of the public eye in the midst of a media frenzy, and with investigators poking more holes in his story the longer Amy is missing, Nick becomes the prime suspect of the investigation -- all the while he stubbornly insists that he had nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance.
As in the book, the film jumps back and forth (albeit not as frequently) between Nick’s perspective and Amy’s diary, which, read aloud by Pike, charts her and Nick’s relationship from their flirty first meeting right up to her disappearance. Both are classic unreliable narrators, often contradicting each other: Nick tells investigators he never once struck his wife; Amy’s diary says he threw her into the staircase banister during an argument about them having a baby. Knowing who or what to trust proves difficult, especially with the certain roles certain characters are playing -- though, as per my no-spoiler promise, I will say no more. On a related note, however, I will say that Flynn’s meaty script, like her book, is full of all sorts of sharp, insightful and witty observations on romance and relationships, and the various roles that one must play in order to keep a “happy” marriage. As a depiction of a modern relationship, it’s scathingly cynical, and in typical Fincher style, delightfully fucked up.
Affleck and Pike just sizzle together, be they sharing their first, sugar-coated kiss or screaming bloody murder into each other’s faces -- sweetly charming yet believably screwed up (with one a teensy bit more screwed up than the other), they’re a great screen couple whose relationship we watch crumble to bits. And Fincher has surrounded them with a great supporting cast: Kim Dickens is steely cool as Detective Rhonda Boney, the sharp-minded chief investigator of the case. Carrie Coon has a lovable snark as Nick’s close, ever-supportive twin sister Margo. Tyler Perry boasts a smooth charisma as Nick’s attorney, a suave Johnnie Cochran type whose main method of prepping his clients for TV interviews is flinging jelly babies at them. And Neil Patrick Harris is slitheringly creepy as Amy’s ex-boyfriend and former stalker, a stinkingly rich weirdo who may or may not be a red herring (*poker face*).
As always, Fincher’s slick and moody direction is absorbing throughout: despite the whopping 149-minute length, the film never drags. And soundtrack duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, returning from Fincher’s “The Social Network” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” deliver another haunting joy of a score which lingers ominously in the background of almost every scene. The film has a dark energy to it, which works well with its warped sense of humour and especially well when, towards the end, it goes down a spectacularly twisted path. No spoilers, once again, but it must be said, Fincher and Flynn pull no punches with the violent nastiness and disturbing themes -- on three separate occasions, the audience with whom I saw the film audibly gasped in horror (while I giggled internally at the viciousness of it all).
I think I’ll end the review here, before I give the game away. All I’ll say in closing is that the film really is must-see: it's a fabulously enjoyable, brilliantly crafted mystery thriller bursting at the seams with all sorts of dark, delicious secrets. And to think, I almost let slip that it was the butler who did it.
Sunday, 28 September 2014
“Maps to the Stars” is a bleakly funny Hollywood satire from director David Cronenberg, a man who, throughout his whole career, could not be further from Hollywood. From his early body horror in “Shivers” right up to the stubborn impenetrability of “Cosmopolis,” Cronenberg has always been something of an outsider. As such, he’s the perfect man to give Tinseltown an autopsy, to peel off its flesh and expose the dark heart that throbs underneath -- and as we can always expect from him, he does so with a surgical finesse, as well as a delightfully macabre sense of humour.
The film’s setting is the showbiz scene of LA, right under the shadow of the Hollywood sign. It’s a world self-absorbed and cut off from the rest of society, with incessant talk of agents and movie roles and PR tactics. Leading the cast is Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, an aging actress whose star is fading. In some sort of Freudian nightmare, Havana is desperate to play the role of her dead mother, herself a beloved Hollywood icon, in a remake of one of her mother’s old movies -- all the while the memory of her mother is driving her to madness. Havana is a complete diva, in one scene barking orders from the toilet. In another scene, she sings and dances with glee upon hearing of the death of a five-year-old boy (a death which could give her a significant career boost). She’s the kind of character you just love to hate, a nasty, selfish backstabber, and a completely unapologetic one. And Moore’s performance is a powerhouse, bursting with tears and spitting with venom.
And yet, Mia Wasikowska threatens to steal the show right from under Moore's feet. Wasikowska plays Agatha, a young woman who, soon after arriving in LA by bus, is hired as Havana’s personal assistant. Agatha is intriguingly mysterious, with a vague backstory, burn marks covering half her face, and her arms forever hidden behind long leather gloves. Wasikowska plays her with a bouncy excitement and a subtle craziness, and in a moment in which she performs a bizarre little dance routine in her hotel room, she completely owns the screen. Also among the cast are Robert Pattinson as a limousine driver and struggling actor/screenwriter, whom Agatha befriends; John Cusack as a pretentious TV psychologist; and Olivia Williams as Cusack’s wife, with whom he shares a long-buried secret. Evan Bird also does very good as Cusack and Williams’ son, a bratty, potty mouthed teen superstar with nothing but burning contempt for his adoring fans. Basically, he’s Justin Bieber, but worse.
Cronenberg is known for getting the best out of his actors: he did so with Pattinson in his last movie, “Cosmopolis,” squeezing a terrific lead performance from the “Twilight” star. And he does so with the cast of “Maps to the Stars,” who play up the grotesqueness to thoroughly entertaining, if repulsive, effect. Cronenberg is also known for his emotional detachment, for watching his characters like a biologist observing microbes through a microscope. Here, that detachment is a perfect fit. These are, after all, horrible, vacuous people, about whom there is precious little to like, nor care. Looking through the microscope certainly helps us to stomach them, and allows us to observe them with a clinical mixture of fascination and disgust.
Just as the film exposes Hollywood’s twisted underbelly, there are hints that there’s something going on underneath the film’s Hollywood satire surface: characters are curiously linked through fire and water, mental illness is a recurring theme, a famous movie monologue is repeated throughout, and there’s even some supernatural goings-on, with several characters haunted by ghostly visions. With so many weird and wonderful elements at play, the film is thrillingly unpredictable. And while the ending is not entirely satisfying, there are so many dark delights along the way that that doesn’t really matter. Those delights are pretty damn dark, it should be said: there’s murder, suicide, incest, dead children, pyromania and schizophrenia. But I guess that’s Hollywood for you.
Sunday, 14 September 2014
In “The Guest,” Dan Stevens is tasked with playing a mysterious stranger, a super-cool action hero, a charming gentleman, a psychopathic serial killer, a smoldering hunk, and a terrifying boogeyman. He absolutely nails all six, and plays them all with a smoothly charismatic southern twang and a twinkle in his eye (a twinkle that becomes increasingly menacing the more we get to know him). He plays David Collins, a recently discharged US soldier who one day rings the doorbell of the Peterson family. Claiming to be a good friend of the oldest son Caleb, who died on duty in Afghanistan, David becomes the Petersons’ welcome houseguest, sleeping in Caleb’s old bedroom, helping out around the house and fixing family problems. Most of the family fall head over heels for him, but eldest daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) begins to suspect that he’s not who he claims to be.
As David, Stevens boasts serious star quality and astonishing versatility: with a steely charisma, a sexy swagger and a creeping intensity, he’s in full command, and given how many clashing layers he has to play -- badass, friendly, funny, scary -- he manages to create a surprisingly coherent, and captivating, character. And just as Stevens’ performance is one of clashing layers, “The Guest” is a film of clashing styles. I can imagine many going into the film expecting a straight-forward action movie, based on the rather generic-looking trailers -- I know I did. But like their table-turning horror-comedy “You’re Next,” director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s film is full of juicy surprises. Part action movie, part psychological thriller, part black comedy and part horror movie, the film is a delightfully experimental genre mishmash, with Wingard and Barrett playing around with genre conventions along with audience expectations to thoroughly entertaining effect.
You can tell something odd’s going on right from the opening shot, a close-up of a spooky scarecrow with a pumpkin head and a witch's hat. This isn’t the opening shot of an action movie: this is straight out of a horror movie. Combine that with the alarmingly ominous title reveal as David jogs towards the Peterson home, and the film’s off to an unexpectedly chilling start. From there, the film becomes a darkly comic thriller (and a genuinely funny and thrilling one), as David begins solving all the family’s problems in his own special way, coincidentally -- or perhaps not so coincidentally -- while bodies start popping up all over the place. Then there’s the action scenes, most notably a bar fight between David and some school bullies, and a shootout at the Peterson house between David and some men who come looking for him. Both fun set-pieces with style and energy to spare. And then, in the final genre turn, the film goes all-out slasher horror, with a spookhouse finale where David basically becomes a sexy Michael Myers.
Speaking of which, all throughout the film there’s a seriously neat ‘70s/’80s vibe straight out of an old John Carpenter movie. It’s a vibe only enhanced by Steve Moore’s old-school synth score -- a catchy, pulsing joy -- and the raw suspense, the dark humour and the strong heroine in Monroe’s Anna. Not to mention the grinning jack-o’-lanterns scattered all over the place (in another nod to Carpenter, the setting is Halloween). But crucially, it has a firm understanding of genre, something Carpenter excelled at back in his heyday -- the film is four genres in one, and not only is each handled brilliantly, they’re also blended together almost seamlessly. And in Stevens’ David, the film has a fascinating anti-hero/villain. With Sharni Vinson’s badass Aussie heroine Erin in “You’re Next,” Wingard and Barrett created one of the great characters of genre cinema; with David Collins, they’ve created another.
Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Well, this is timely. So timely, in fact, that one wonders if all the nude celebrity pictures currently leaking online are actually part of some crazy marketing tactic for “Sex Tape”’s UK release this week. I mean, I'm sure Sony would never do such a heinous thing, but the film does need all the help it can get: for starters, it flopped in the US, failing to make back its reported $40 million budget. And though this doesn’t tend to have much of an effect on box office figures, it is, it must be said, absolute rubbish. Not unlike the ongoing hacking scandal, director Jake Kasdan’s comedy sees a couple who shoot a sex tape falling victim to the perils of the iCloud. Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz star as husband and wife Jay and Annie, who, in an attempt to reignite their fizzling sexual passion, decide to film themselves doing the dirty using their brand new iPad. Unfortunately, the video ends up synced to several other devices owned by friends, family, Annie’s new boss and the mailman. In a desperate scramble to save their dignity, Jay and Annie run all over town to get the iPads back before it’s too late and everyone sees their three-hour love session.
This should be comedy gold: here we have a smutty, screwball premise with the potential for all sorts of hilarious hijinks, and a talented cast of comedy stars, among them Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper and Rob Lowe. Sadly, with only two or three gags worthy of a chuckle, “Sex Tape” is almost completely unfunny, and its mawkish sincerity in regards to Jay and Annie's dwindling sex life clashes awkwardly with its outrageous plot and goofy slapstick, i.e. Segel fighting off a guard dog with an 11-inch, double-ended dildo and a treadmill (a set-piece which is more sad than funny), and Lowe’s ostensibly conservative boss snorting lines of cocaine and rocking out to Slayer (the highlight). It’s a clash it might’ve gotten away with if it had any kind of charm. But like Kasdan’s “Bad Teacher,” it’s cripplingly bland. It’s a faceless studio product, with no vision, no style, no charm, and pretty much nothing going for it outside of its game cast.
It doesn’t even have the courtesy of being sexy. For a supposedly raunchy, R-rated sex farce, its sex scenes are firmly of the PG-13 variety, with its swearwords naughtier than its nudity: every unclothed private part is hidden behind an intricate arrangement of elbows, bed sheets and coffee tables a la “Austin Powers,” but not played for laughs. And both the opening sequence, where we witness Jay and Annie's early bedroom (and park and library) antics, and the closing sequence, where we finally see the contents of the sex tape, are nothing but cartoonish. Segel and Diaz are at least somewhat likable, but what chemistry they have can’t quite overcome the film’s palpable blandness. The film just kind of sits there, and as its plot becomes more and more unbelievable -- the scene at the YouPorn headquarters is all kinds of stupid -- the only logical response is to let out a long, frustrated sigh. And I haven’t even mentioned the film’s gravest error: Rob Lowe’s in a film called “Sex Tape” and the film doesn’t even make a joke about it. How do you mess that up?
Sunday, 31 August 2014
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller Writers: Frank Miller Studios: Dimension Films, Troublemaker Studios, Aldamisa Entertainment, Miramax Entertainment, Demarest Films, Solipsist Films Cast: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Jaime King, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie Chung, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Meloni, Juno Temple Release Date (UK): 25 August, 2014 Certificate: 18 Runtime: 102 min
Creamy white blood splattering through the night air. Gun-toting prostitutes in bondage gear prowling the streets of Old Town. Shoulder to shoulder drunks drooling over the dancer Nancy at Kadie’s Saloon. And the big brute Marv growling about his “condition” -- right before crushing some punk’s throat with the heel of his boot.
Welcome back to Sin City. It’s been a while: it’s been damn near a decade, in fact, since Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s 2005 neo-noir first burst onto cinema screens in all its twisted, sleazy and hyper-stylised glory. And after year upon year of delay upon delay, a sequel is finally here. So I guess the question is, was follow-up “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” really worth the 9-year wait? In truth, not entirely: back in the directors’ chairs, Rodriguez and Miller essentially present us with more of the same, but not as good -- hardly surprising for a sequel, but after 9 years, it is difficult not to expect, and indeed hope for, something more. And yet, speaking as a big fan of both the first film and the original comic series (and as someone who may or may not own the entire set of “Sin City” action figures, bought from his local Forbidden Planet), it is, I have to admit, quite thrilling to be thrust back into this comic book world full of anti-heroes, femme fatales, crooked cops and limb-lopping ninja hookers once again -- even if it is a clear-cut case of diminishing returns.
Visually, the film is a striking, electrifying joy. It oozes raw style, with its select splashes of colour against stark monochrome, its noirish shadows and white-against-black silhouettes, its splattering bodily fluids, its CG backdrops, and its ragdoll, Looney Tunes physics. If one were to be magically transported into the panels of Miller’s original comics, this is exactly what it would look like: many of Rodriguez’s compositions are even taken straight from those panels. Of course, we saw all this in the first film, so the element of surprise in regards to its outlandish visual aesthetic has long since passed. But there’s still a pulpy verve to it, as well as a delightfully depraved sense of humour to its OTT violence -- though a moment where an unconscious character has his eyeball viciously torn out rang a little needlessly cruel and sadistic for my taste.
As in the first film, we are presented with three standalone, occasionally intertwining stories, plus one mini story. The mini story, based on Miller’s “Just Another Saturday Night,” kicks off proceedings in an unashamedly nutty fashion, with Mickey Rourke’s street thug Marv waking up on the highway, surrounded by a bunch of dead men and a crashed police car, and trying to figure out what happened that night. It’s a wickedly fun little short with a punchline that perfectly sums up Sin City as a place packed full of stories, as Marv looks down at his gloves and growls to himself that he has no idea where he got them from. The title story, based on the second of Miller’s graphic novel series, sees Josh Brolin’s tabloid photographer Dwight (previously played by Clive Owen) receiving a desperate cry for help from his ex, Eva Green’s Ava Lord, who fears for her life. Vowing to save her from her seemingly abusive husband, the multimillionaire tycoon Damian Lord (Marton Csokas), Dwight discovers too late that not all is as it seems.
The other two stories are both originals, not based on comics but written by Miller for the film. The first of them, titled “The Long Bad Night,” stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, a cocky young gambler who enters a backroom game of poker with the menacing and corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). After draining Roark, Johnny discovers that his opponent is one hell of a sore loser and finds his life in imminent danger. The second original story, titled “Nancy’s Last Dance,” continues the tale of Jessica Alba’s Nancy, who’s gone mad since her one love, Bruce Willis’ Hartigan, blew his brains out to protect her from Roark. Haunted by visions of Hartigan and turning to drink, she plots revenge against Roark, making regular visits to the shooting range and getting closer and closer to pulling that trigger.
Of the three main stories, “A Dame to Kill For” is the strongest, and it’s the strongest for one reason: Eva Green. As Ava, Green is the ultimate femme fatale: sultry, deadly and irresistibly bewitching, she’s a manipulative, man-devouring goddess, and Green’s hamming it up in spectacular fashion. Earlier this year, she was the best thing in “300: Rise of an Empire;” she’s the best thing here too, and every moment she’s on screen she elevates proceedings to a whole new level. For “The Long Bad Night,” Rodriguez and Miller make the odd decision to stop the story halfway through and continue it later on, a tactic which worked well with “That Yellow Bastard” in the first film, but then that was a big, meaty yarn which spanned eight years; “The Long Bad Night” is very slight in comparison, and the split makes it feel even more slight. And the shock revelation concerning Johnny and Roark’s relationship falls flat on its face. Still, Gordon-Levitt carries it with his suave charisma, playing Johnny with a man-about-town swagger worthy of Frank Sinatra, and Christopher Lloyd has an amusing cameo as a heroin-shooting doc. As for “Nancy’s Last Dance,” it’s interesting seeing the harsh blow Hartigan’s suicide had on Nancy, and seeing her transform from the first film’s damsel in distress into a badass killer is certainly fun, but the story as a whole feels too brief, and the big finale doesn’t have the emotional punch it should have.
Though each story is enjoyably pulpy, none of them are nearly as engrossing as “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill” or “That Yellow Bastard.” There’s a reason Rodriguez chose those stories for the first film: they’re the best and most full-blooded in the whole series. And because “A Dame to Kill For”’s storytelling isn’t as strong or engaging as the first film’s, it too often feels like empty style. But what style! It genuinely feels like you’re walking inside the panels of Miller’s comics, which, for a fan of the comics, is alone worth the price of admission. If you’re going to see the film (and you’d be one of the few, judging by the box office figures), see it for the stylish visuals, the pulpy verve and Eva Green’s magnificent performance -- combined, they’re almost everything a “Sin City” movie should be; it’s just a shame that the stories themselves are rather lacking. It should be stressed, by the way, for those worried, that this is absolutely nowhere near as bad as the Frank Miller-directed “The Spirit;” though to be honest, few things are as bad as the Frank Miller-directed “The Spirit.”
Wednesday, 27 August 2014
“Into the Storm” has lots of great big, swirling, town-flattening tornado effects, but not much else going for it. Its characters, who in the small town of Silverton find themselves at the mercy of an unprecedented onslaught of massive-scale whirlwinds, are uninteresting and forgettable, a borenado of empty stereotypes and cliches: there’s a group of unstoppably stubborn storm chasers, a shy teenage boy and his stern, workaholic dad, the shy teenage boy’s love interest with whom he inevitably becomes trapped until dad comes to the rescue, and of course a pair of comic-relief hillbillies. Its script is dumb and without wit or imagination, and it’s never quite risible enough to be enjoyed ironically. As for the shaky-cam, found-footage gimmick, it’s been used for no discernible purpose: director Steven Quale fails to take advantage of it in any way, shape or form, and it’s constantly undermined by random cuts to regular old third-person shots.
Basically, the only thing worth watching in the whole film are those effects, which to their credit are spectacularly destructive -- there’s a great sequence in which a bunch of grounded jumbo jets caught in the path of a gargantuan super tornado are lifted up into the air like dandelion seeds floating away in the breeze (a shot understandably used in all the trailers and TV spots). But giving a hoot about anything other than the VFX, and indeed feeling involved in the story, ultimately proves difficult when our heroes are such dull bores. My advice: if you’re looking for some thrilling tornado mayhem, watch “Twister” instead. It’s not what I’d call a great film, but it has a sense of humour about its own ridiculousness, and its characters and story are much more engaging than what we’re presented with here. Plus, it has Bill Paxton and a flying cow, both always a plus.
Tuesday, 19 August 2014
In “Deliver Us From Evil,” what starts off as an intriguing mix of a gritty, urban police procedural and a supernatural horror soon descends into a boringly typical succession of routine bumps in the night and well-worn demonic possession cliches. Inspired by the accounts of a real-life NYPD sergeant, it stars Eric Bana as cynical New York cop Ralph Sarchie, whose paranormal skepticism is called into question following a series of freaky, seemingly inexplicable investigations. When a rugged, unconventional priest (Édgar Ramirez) convinces him that the cases are demonically related, they join forces to defeat the evil, which begins to target Sarchie’s family and his mind.
Director Scott Derrickson does good in cooking up an eerie sense of dread as Bana wanders through dark hallways, armed with a flickering flashlight and being startled by felines of varying sizes (at one point a little pussycat, at another point a zoo lion). But the resulting scares, though reportedly based in truth, are so lacking in originality they’re more likely to elicit yawns than shrieks, and the big mystery surrounding the ghostly goings-on is uninteresting and largely incoherent. In his previous horror movies, Derrickson has shown an interest in asking thoughtful questions about morality and religion, as he did in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” as well as executing simple but effective spook house thrills, as he did in “Sinister.” “Deliver Us From Evil” sadly has very little of those, though as a blending of the crime and horror genres it’s not without interest.
Inevitably, it ends with the kind of exorcism scene we’ve seen a thousand times before, with a screaming match between a priest reciting Bible verses and a thrashing demonic entity. The only difference between this and most other exorcism scenes is that instead of a bedroom or a barn, this is set in a police interrogation room; I did laugh when the camera pans to an onlooker staring through the one-way mirror in bewilderment. In this scene, Bana and Ramirez prove themselves a good team-up: the brawny Bronx cop and the devout Hispanic priest. I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel where they do further battle with the forces of evil together, though the forces of evil would have to be much more interesting than they are here.