Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Gone Girl

***1/2 out of ****

Gone Girl is based on Gillian Flynn’s critically acclaimed mystery novel about a seemingly perfect couple who cause a media frenzy when the gorgeous wife vanishes and the charming husband starts to lose his charm with a skeptical community in suburbs of Missouri. Is it good? Well, the screenplay duties were assumed by the Flynn herself. Her knowledge of cinema should be rather infinite, given her experience as a writer for Entertainment Weekly. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is directed by the meticulous David Fincher with a moody atmosphere enhanced by his dependable collaborators; cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth and musicians, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Are you getting the idea?

No? Are you one of those people whose disdain for Ben Affleck hasn’t allowed his comeback to win you over to a film in which he stars? Without wasting space, ranting about my belief that star-power is the most superficial aspect to observe when estimating a movie’s quality, I will tell you that Affleck is great for this movie.

There’s a significant point in the film when his character, Nick Dunne stands before the press and the people of his community in order to dispel rumors suggesting his responsibility in his wife’s disappearance. As he wins over some of the crowd, we see two teenage girls. One whispers that he’s hot and the other cringes, arguing that he’s a creep. It is a moment where it seems clear why Ben Affleck, a celebrity who has been loved and hated, took this role.

This is a story that is heavy on drama and contains some implausible twists that work only because they are conveyed through such poetic scenarios and flavorful narration by Affleck’s co-star, Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne.

Let me stop to say that I love this woman. Her acting career hasn’t demonstrated a lot of range, but to call her screen presence stunning would be an understatement. Pike and Affleck have a tough job in this film. They both need to win our sympathies at some point and they need to betray that sympathy at another.

Like most Fincher films, we are given a lot of atypical casting choices that payoff, including Neil Patrick Harris as a sinister ex-boyfriend, Casey Wilson as a gossiping housewife and Tyler Perry as a big-name criminal attorney. Notable choices in the cast are Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit as local detectives. These are two actors who had probably missed out on the attention they deserved due to the understated performances of their careers. The big find for this movie, however, is Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo, who steals a lot of scenes. I had not seen this actress before and hope to see more of her.

As always, I encourage you to see this movie in a dark theater on a large screen with great sound. Fincher films always have a technical power that is in best form at a movie theater. He harnesses so much potential energy through details to seek out in the dim imagery and the surround sound mix. 

Earlier this year, when I got around to binge-watching all eight episodes of True Detective, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be seeing any new mystery movie, anytime soon, that could rival its intrigue and quality. I’m not sure if David Fincher matches the power of that amazing TV show, but it feels pretty close. Like True Detective, Gone Girl has a structure similar to that of a miniseries. Its two-hour and thirty-minute runtime is utilized quite well to deliver more than three acts. There are multiple scenes where a mind accustomed to movie viewing is expecting things to wrap-up and when they don’t you still sit there wondering, with endless curiosity, as to where things are headed.

Gone Girl is essentially a horror movie. Not for its violence and gore (which is brief), but for its psychological journey, similar to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence” where the idea of a private life doomed to unsettling uncertainty haunts us. This movie is dark, cynical, absurd and strange. Is it good? You bet.

For a spoiler-filled criticism from a fan of the novel, check out this interesting AV Club Article.

Need for Speed

** out of ****

This movie is so close to horrible, but unlike a lot of B-movies with A-budgets, it delivers the goods. The story is dumb and never had me invested, no matter how many melodramatic manipulations it used... But damn, it had some great car chases.

No matter how much expensive CGI Disney chose to use in this movie, the car stunts look to be the genuine element on the screen. Aaron Paul and competent co-stars like Imogen Poots and Rami Malek humanize the story to a certain degree and Michael Keaton's Skyped-in hammed-up role varies between funny and lame.

This is potentially a guilty pleasure. If you have a good sound system at home, crank-up the volume and turn your brain down. You will be investing in over two-hours of loud moronic high-speed nonsense. Anyone with a moral compass should question the attempt to portray illegal car-racers as righteous. The best movies in this genre, embrace the amoral sleaziness of that world -even through the protagonists. Its the only way to justify people who have little regard for the collateral damage they cause.

Also, the motivations of the characters are always connected with a problem that could probably be solved more practically by some other means than a high-stakes car-race challenge. Need for Speed has something going for it, but lacks the courage to embrace its characters' illogical deviance and wastes time in a pathetic attempt to rationalize it.

Still. Great stunts.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


*** out of ****

I hope stop-motion animation never goes away, though I won’t be surprised if it does. As long as companies like Laika Entertainment continue utilizing a process, which is almost as old as cinema itself, we can expect a little more life from its unique essence. The special-effect value of stop-motion animation lost its place in live-action movies the day Jurassic Park hit theaters. Since then, it has maintained its traditional value in the realm of fully animated shorts and features where choppy motion is acceptable.

Laika (formerly Will Vinton Studios) has made vast improvements in the profession using new technology to improve the handmade process for smoother animation consistency in their films; such as, Coraline, ParaNorman and now, The Boxtrolls. I’ve oftentimes observed that handmade art is about the challenge of polishing while digital art is about the challenge of blemishing. The Boxtrolls has stop-motion so well realized, that its quality meets its opponent at the halfway point with the deliberately clunky digital animation of this year’s wonderful, The Lego Movie.

The story follows a boy raised by bug-eating, junk-collecting yet well-meaning trolls. They dwell beneath the streets of an otherworldly town built on a tall steep hill. The town has a hierarchy of class identified by hat color. The bigwig “white hats” share a love of fine cheeses. A despicable troll exterminator is determined to rise to their status, which he believes will be granted if he hunts down all the Boxtrolls. As his hunt thins out the trolls’ workforce, their adopted boy goes to the surface on a mission to find the missing workers.

The town Lord’s neglected daughter, with a dark obsession for all things grim and dangerous, notices the boy. After learning where he comes from, she helps him under the assumption that he will lead her to see the creatures she has been raised to believe are fascinating vicious monsters.

Based on the children’s novel, Here Be Monsters, Boxtrolls is delightfully strange, channeling the whimsy of old European children’s tales. Some visionary filmmakers made family films like this when I was a kid. Speaking from experience, this is the kind of stuff to which I was exposed during childhood, but grew to like much more in my teens.

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression when I say that this is a kid’s flick with adults in mind, but I felt like I was getting more out of this movie than the children in attendance. I laughed quite loud during a couple sequences when the only child reaction I heard I heard was, “Eeewww!” This was probably out of disgust for the overt grotesque horror that the film’s villain displays when he has allergic reactions to cheese. I was slightly reminded of Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and couldn’t contain myself.

The movie is a fun-spirited story about good ways and bad ways of establishing one’s identity. The bumbling British caricatures are creatively modeled with plenty of personality enhanced by a voice cast that is best left for discovering during the movie’s entertaining end credits (seriously, stick around).

This is an animated movie aimed at a particular niche audience and there is no guarantee that they will help it make a decent box office return. It’s a hard sell to show a family film that most little kids or overprotective parents may not like but its only appropriate that innocent, yet deranged, material should be delivered through the outcast method of stop-motion. I’m happy that this movie exists.

Blue Ruin

***1/2 out of ****

Here is an independent thriller with a surprisingly humble background. Every now and then, you hear about childhood friends who make movies and eventually rise to have great opportunities. Blue Ruin is a rare example of when artists find the right level of financial support, just as they’re coming into mastering their craft after years of practice.

The movie is simple, low-budget but professional and inventive in every admirable way. The protagonist is played by Macon Blair, lifetime friend of the film’s writer/director, Jeremy Saulnier. Blair’s face is not what you’d expect from the lead in a revenge thriller. His awkward nature and expressive eyes do not assure us of any kind of invincibility. The actions he takes in the film are all the more intense because he looks so vulnerable.

The best thing about movies like this is how they tell a story that big studios would gladly tell with big names attached, but this one has no recognizable faces. As much as I appreciate the talented work of famous actors, it is so refreshing to enjoy a story without the distraction of their presence. The more familiar we are with an actor, the less concern we feel for their character. We bring an unconscious comfort that they’re just playing a part and we lose concern for the consequences that their character may face. This character is an intriguing stranger to us and he needs to be.

He is a wandering vagrant, only skilled at sneaking in and out of people’s homes to stay fed, clothed and clean. Upon hearing about a man’s release from prison, he takes measures to commit a murder. What’s unconventional in this revenge movie is the way that the revenge is at the beginning, while the rest of the film is about learning the purpose of the revenge and its dreadfully ugly aftermath.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Drop

*** out of ****

In The Drop, - the latest film to be based on Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) fiction - Belgian film director, Michaël R. Roskam, relishes in the depths of gritty American noir with the excitement of an outsider’s eye. The unkempt blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood is captured with fascination, as are the players who captivate us with their poker-faced intimidation.

The story focuses on a bar, which holds dirty money for Chechen mobsters who have been in control of the place for years since its owner, Marv, fell into difficult financial circumstances. One night, the place is robbed by armed men in masks leaving Marv under suspicion from the gangsters to have orchestrated an inside job.

Marv is played by the late James Gandolfini in his final screen appearance, which feels like a hybrid of many characters he’s played. This one, however, has a sorry edge to his spirit giving us a somber finale performance for this great actor.

Three members of the principal cast, are European actors. While their Brooklyn accents are questionable, their emotional performances are not. Tom Hardy plays Bob, the film’s lead protagonist, who knows how to stay calm under the tension brought on by Marv’s problems as well as his own. Aside from his astounding range as an actor, this British talent continues to have a fascinating screen presence.

Bob is a quiet bartender whose demeanor is similar to Sylvester Stallone’s lesser-known role from Cop Land. He’s hard to read but he’s humble and would rather avoid trouble. In the days following the suspicious robbery, a local detective, played by John Ortiz, senses decency in Bob and digs for information to no avail.

When walking through his neighborhood one night, Bob finds a beaten pit bull puppy yelping in a garbage can. He alerts the owner of the garbage can, who cautiously lets Bob into her house with the pup where she tends to its wounds and encourages the lonely Bob to take it in.

The woman’s name is Nadia, who is played by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tatoo). A simple romance blooms between the two, which proves to be troublesome when a neighborhood thug (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts), who may be connected with Nadia’s past, takes a strange and threatening interest in their puppy.

Lehane’s screenplay, based on his own short story originally titled Animal Rescue, lacks any unnecessary complexities, keeping its characters mysterious and provokes us to regularly second-guess their intentions. While the twists in its conclusion felt a little predictable to me, they also felt rather welcome. Roskam’s direction and composer Marco Beltrami’s score also have the kind of hypnotism necessary to make a slow story like this one so enthralling.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

They Came Together

***1/2 out of ****

New on Blu-ray and DVD, They Came Together is a film that stars Paul Rudd as an executive at a heartless conglomerate and Amy Poehler as a small business owner at risk of losing her store to the major competition. The two soon meet one another, where rivalry ensues –and then romance –and then rivalry again. That’s a surface-level description. If it sounds familiar, it’s intentional. This movie is the latest comedy from the hilarious David Wain who borrows from You’ve Got Mail and countless other yuppy-centric movies to do a rather funny lampoon on modern romantic comedies.

Instead of a bookstore, it’s a cute little candy shop and the evil corporation with a high-rise tower is completely devoted to monopolizing the business of candy. In the pursuit of romance, Poehler’s character has a co-worker/best friend who is an unrealistically giving person. Rudd’s character confides in bunch of bros down at the basketball court who play (badly) while offering conflicting advice, based on whichever male archetype they literally claim to be.

Along with Christopher Meloni, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Max Greenfield, Ed Helmes, Cobie Smulders, Michael Ian Black and way too many people to list, this New York-set rom-com mockery swells with brilliant delivery of absurd exchanges.

I laughed throughout this whole film, but I won’t be quick to give it a broad recommendation. For a guy who sees way too many movies, a flick like this feels like a liberating escape. To someone else, it may come across as obnoxious. There are also people who don’t get this kind of humor, sadly lacking the capability of understanding a movie that refuses to take itself seriously in any way.

There are other movies, which have honorably spoofed a genre using similar tactics. Black Dynamite spoofed blaxpoitation better than any other film that tried. Down with Love was a very clever take on the Doris Day and Rock Hudson sex comedies of the Kennedy era. One of my absolute favorites, however, was David Wain’s first film, Wet Hot American Summer, which was a send-up of summer camp comedies of the 1980s.

Wain’s material, with the help of his longtime co-writer Michael Schowalter has a knack for following the path of formulaic entertainment only to address every cliché as it is met, by either overplaying it or subverting our expectations in an outrageously inappropriate way.

One of the most unforgettable examples of this can be found in Wet Hot where the teen counselors go into town to get away from the campground for a bit. What follows is a joyous montage with happy eighties rock playing as they party a little while engaging in the benefits of being away from their responsibilities. They eat a little McDonalds and then score a pack of beer, some cigs, and a little weed… Before you know it, they steal a purse from an old lady, buy some heroin in an alley and are then seen passed out in shambles while lurking in a crack house. Then it shows them return to camp, all smiles, in perfect health with the implication that only an hour has passed.

Watch that scene here

His comedy trio Stella, with his co-creator Michaels (Ian Black and Showalter), was also an energetic abandonment of logic or any seriousness. In the form of stage show, internet shorts and a short-lived TV show, the three well-dressed men try to fit in with society while their hijinks leave a path of destruction, but will always inexplicably find reward in the end. 

Wain later moved on to do a trio of movies with co-writer/actor, Ken Marino. The first was sketch comedy movie called The Ten, which was a series of short films -all supposedly reflecting each of the Ten Commandments. Their oddball comedy was followed by Role Models and Wanderlust, which were both comparatively grounded with a more standard comic narrative. They both had a good deal of hilarity but I felt as though Wain and his The State alum were falling into a less adventurous format in favor more conventional comedy.

While They Came Together isn’t nearly as funny as Wet Hot, I still felt a good deal of satisfaction watching a film where Wain gets back to the style that best suits him. I’ve always had a weakness for irreverence when it comes to getting a laugh. From The Marx Brothers to Monty Python and the Holy Grail to the Naked Gun movies and even Alex Winter's little-known insane feature, Freaked, I will always favor comedy that has the courage to abandon all reason.