Review – Gone Girl

Anyone with nuptials on the horizon may be best steering clear of David Fincher’s pitch black mystery that takes he said/she said to a whole new level.

Gone Girl may not be the director's finest work, but even B-grade Fincher is better than most

Gone Girl may not be the director’s finest work, but even B-grade Fincher is better than most

Gone Girl‘s tagline – ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ – isn’t the only thing about the film that’s devilishly ambiguous; it keeps you guessing in a manner that would have made Hitchcock proud.

That said, an increasingly ludicrous final act and a missed opportunity to properly end the film, a la The Dark Knight Rises, denies Gone Girl the status of classic Fincher.

Nick (Ben Affleck) woos Amy (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl

Nick (Ben Affleck) woos Amy (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl

Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own bestselling novel, Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a suburbanite and bar owner (of an establishment called ‘The Bar’ no less) who reports that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. What starts out as a straightforward missing person case takes on a far grislier tone as the truth about their seemingly blissful marriage emerges and the finger of suspicion points to Nick.

Fincher has long been one of US cinema’s most accomplished exponents of stylish darkness and Gone Girl gives him plenty of material to work with.

Nick (Ben Affleck) addresses the crowd and the media in Gone Girl

Nick (Ben Affleck) addresses the crowd and the media in Gone Girl

Affleck is perfectly cast as Nick, an everyday middle-class American who seemingly lucks out when he woos the beautiful Amy. The film spends its first act cutting between the spiralling events of Amy’s disappearance and flashbacks to their marriage, which gradually dissolves from romantic bliss (a moment when the two stroll past a bakery through a sugary mist is wonderfully photographed) to mistrust, fear and acrimony.

The film works best when it’s keeping you guessing as to which narrator is the most unreliable; whether it be the words written down by Amy in her diary which serves as the flashback device, or the story Nick tells tenacious Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and his twin sister Margo (a cracking turn by TV actor Carrie Coon in her feature debut).

Missing..? Amy (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl

Missing..? Amy (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl

Perhaps the most pernicious narrator of all, though, is the mainstream media and the film is as merciless as Missi Pyle’s cable TV host in its depiction of just how lurid it can be. It may be relatively easy to lambast the tackiness of so much of what passes as ‘news’ media, but it plays as important a character in the film as Nick and Amy and ultimately serves to define who they are to the millions who tune in.

Linked to this, social media also does its bit to decide Nick’s guilt or innocence. Ghoulish ambulance chasers hang around The Bar as if it’s Dealey Plaza and one particularly pathetic figure grabs a selfie with Nick in order to dine out on the notoriety.

Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) gets to the bottom of Amy's disappearance with Nick (Ben Affleck), Amy's mother (Lisa Banes) and father (David Clennon) and fellow Detective Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) in Gone Girl

Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) gets to the bottom of Amy’s disappearance with Nick (Ben Affleck), Amy’s mother (Lisa Banes) and father (David Clennon) and fellow Detective Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) in Gone Girl

While Affleck does a solid enough job, Pike is both luminous and electric as Amy. It’s a complex role and she makes the most of her juiciest role to date with a turn that Hitch would have loved. Pike goes from knockabout romantic lead to statuesque blonde in the flick of a switch and it’s only later that it becomes clear just how much is going on beneath the surface when she casts a simple glance towards her husband.

Meanwhile, Trent Reznor’s soundtrack, although not as memorable as his Oscar-winning work on Fincher’s The Social Network, does have its moments, most notably in one eye-watching scene in the film’s home stretch.

Gone Girl may not be the director’s finest work, but even B-grade Fincher is better than most.

Ho Ho No – Christmas Turkies

Christmas is the season of goodwill to all men (and women). However, that generosity of spirit need not – and should not – extend to the slew of bad yuletide movies that make a plate of soggy Brussels sprouts look appealing.

For every Elf, It’s A Wonderful Life or Scrooged there are countless turkies seeking to cash-in on our festive cheer that make you want to shout “bah humbug” at their sheer cynicism and ineptitude.

Below are a selection of just some of the many risible Christmas movies I’ve unfortunately come across over the years. Consider this list a warning – don’t ruin your well-earned festive goodwill by subjecting yourselves to them. That being said, I’d love to know:

What are the worst Christmas movies you’ve seen?

Santa With Muscles (1996)

Santa With Muscles

In an all-too-familiar example of commerce winning over common sense, there was a period back in the 1990s when Terry Gene Bollea, otherwise known by his ring name Hulk Hogan, was something approaching a movie star. The fact he coudn’t act seemed unimportant. Put it down to collective insanity on the part of all involved (including Mila Kunis in only her second film), but Santa With Muscles must figure as one of the most far-out excursions into Christmas movie-making ever seen. Hogan stretches himself by playing a professional wrestler who believes he’s Santa Claus following a bang to noggin and tries to save an orphanage from an evil scientist. I’ll leave it there.

Four Christmases (2008)

Four Christmases

The truly uninspired (and poorly photoshopped) poster for Four Christmases of Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon standing with their backs to each other should tell you all you need to know about this car crash of a film. Christmas should be a happy time of year, but Vaughn and Withspoon turn this tale of a couple visiting their divorced parents’ homes on Christmas Day into one of the most joyless experiences you can imagine. Worse still, the film co-stars Jon Favreau, which only serves to make you want to go back and watch Swingers instead.

Jack Frost (1998)

Jack Frost

No, not the 1964 Russian film (or the 1997 cult horror comedy), but rather the frankly bizarre fantasy flick starring Michael Keaton as the titular Jack Frost, who dies in a car accident and returns to life as a snowman. I’ll repeat that: returns to life AS A SNOWMAN and gets a second chance “to be the world’s coolest dad” to his young son. The classic animated short film The Snowman showed how magically something akin to this can be done; however, Jack Frost simply tugs the heartstrings (and trips the mind) and hopes that’ll be enough for audiences to ignore just what a pile of yellow snow it is.

Surviving Christmas (2004)

Surviving Christmas

Ben Affleck is now enjoying the fruits of a successful directorial and acting career, but there was a time not so long ago when all he touched turned to poop. Alongside such box office bombs as Gigli and his other Christmas-set movie Reindeer Games, Surviving Christmas came and went from cinemas quicker than you can say “Santa”. It’s an appropriate title, as watching Affleck as an annoying millionaire who pays a family to spend the festive season with him feels like an exercise in survival itself. What’s even more tragic is that it also stars the late James Gandolfini.

Fred Claus (2007)

Fred Claus

Vince Vaughn has the dishonour of appearing twice on this list, such are his crimes against Christmas cinema. Here he plays Fred, the elder and less well known brother of Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti), who is forced to make toys at Christmas HQ after being bailed out of jail by his younger sibling – with unamusing results. In spite of a great cast (Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Kevin Spacey, Kathy Bates, Rachel Weisz), the film will leave you as cold as its North Pole setting. Now please Mr Vaughn: stop making Christmas movies. Think of the kids.

Debuts Blogathon: Ben Affleck – Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Debuts Blogathon

Another day, another great post in the Debuts Blogathon hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, this time courtesy of Ruth from FlixChatter. If it’s quality you’re  looking for, look no further than this great site. Each and every post is infused with great insights, as well as Ruth’s unique, conversational style. She brings that style to this analysis of Ben Affleck’s debut feature Gone Baby Gone. I thoroughly recommend that you visit Ruth’s site (if you haven’t already of course) and see what I’m talking about.

Ben Affleck

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

When I first heard about this Blogathon, I was initially going to do The Usual Suspects as I thought it was Bryan Singer’s debut, but I ended up settling with Ben Affleck’s first film instead, which I think is still the top one out of the three excellent feature films he’s done. This is his directorial debut in a major motion picture, although he did direct two other movies that never made it to the big screen.

Gone Baby GoneI saw this crime drama/mystery quite a while ago, but I remember being quite affected by it. Set in Affleck’s hometown of Boston and starring his kid brother Casey, the story centres on an investigation into a little girl’s kidnapping, which turns out to become a professional and personal crisis for the two detectives involved. Based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name (who also wrote Mystic River and Shutter Island), this film has a strong cast that elevates the complex story and gripped me from start to finish.

Casey Affleck, who I think is the better actor of the Affleck brothers, plays private investigator Patrick Kenzie. He opens the story with a monologue as we get a glimpse of the neighborhood where he’s lived his whole life: “I’ve always believed it’s the thing you don’t choose that made you who you are…” It’s an effective opening montage that establishes Casey’s character and puts the grim kidnapping scenario into context.

Gone Baby GoneI’m not going to go into the plot as I feel that if you haven’t seen the film, the little you know about this film the better. What I can tell you is that, initially, you might think the film is about one thing, but slowly but surely, as details unfold it becomes even more devastating than what you think it is. Another missing person case in the second half of the film inexorably shines a light to a darker world of corruption within the force. It’s not something new that we see stories about police corruption; how those who’re sworn to protect us end up betraying that trust, but the way things play out here certainly makes you stop and pause. Despite some hints along the way, the ending managed to still hit me out of left field. It’s such a simple scene, but once you see it in context, Casey’s expression in that scene is just so gut-wrenching. In fact, as I re-watched it recently, it hit me how much of an emotional roller coaster this film was.

What makes this a worthy debut?

Gone Baby GoneIt’s quite a bold choice for Ben to tackle as his first film, considering how complex, twisty and morally-ambiguous Lehane’s novel is. This film stays with me for quite a long time after the end credits roll. It left me speechless as I pondered: ‘OMG! What would I have done? Would I have chosen to do the right thing? And what is really the right thing?’ What if the people you consider ‘righteous’ do unthinkable things because they believe they’re doing something for the greater good? Does that justify the act? Things aren’t always so black and white in our world and this film certainly made a good case for that.

The way he filmed the underbelly of Boston feels authentic and raw; it’s not the typical glamorous-but-impersonal shot of the city. It turns out that the people in the backgrounds in a lot of the scenes are real local Boston actors and members of the local town. Ben made a deliberate choice not to cast professional extras for authenticity and it certainly worked. It’s clearly a personal project for Ben all round, as Gone Baby Gone is also his favorite novel. Now, that doesn’t automatically translate into a good film, but Ben has quite a keen eye behind the camera and he certainly has a way of getting great performances out of his actors.

Gone Baby GoneI love how layered the characters are, beautifully realised by Casey and the stellar supporting cast, especially Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, Michelle Monaghan and the oh-so-underrated Ed Harris. Ryan was Oscar-nominated, but I think Casey and Harris were both robbed that year.

What I admire about this film, and it’s become a signature of sort in Ben’s direction, is the lengthy dialogue. They can be as thrilling and tense as any action scenes, in this case, the well-written script is fully realised by the terrific performances of the cast. The conversation between Casey Affleck and Ed Harris in this clip is a great example, take a look:

Ben Affleck – the auteur?

Ok, so maybe he hasn’t earned that label yet, but he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with as a director. It’s interesting to note that Ben was at a low point in his career a few years before this, starring in forgettable-to-downright awful films likePaycheck, Jersey Girl, Gigli and Surviving Christmas. He did ok in Hollywoodland, but his career wasn’t exactly in the up and up. I think Ben made the right choice to not star in this film and just focus on his work behind the camera. He did work on the screenplay, which is his first screenwriting credit since his Oscar win with his BFF Matt Damon inGood Will Hunting.

Gone Baby GoneI’ve seen all three of his feature films and all of them are excellent. I think if I were to rate his films, I’d go Gone Baby Gone, Argo and The Town in that order. Yes, I know Argo won Best Film at the Oscars last year and I’m good with that, but in the degree of how a film affects me, I think his first film still tops it for me.

That said, Ben’s work has improved over time as he’s become more confident behind the camera, and I like that he still maintains a certain degree of intimacy in the way he shoots his films. They don’t become ‘Hollywood-ized’ for lack of a better term, as his films are always story and character-driven. I hope he continues that trend in the future. I like how he chose characters who are caught in situations out of their depth; they certainly make for an intriguing protagonists. Though the budgets he’s worked with have gone up steadily from the $19m he got for this film, his films are still relatively small. The Town was only $37m, while Argo had a $44m budget.

Gone Baby GoneIt’s interesting that after the film came out, “…[it] was perceived either as a fluke or too dark to make Affleck a candidate for bigger films”, according to an interview piece Affleck did with The Hollywood Reporter. Affleck states in the interview that only Warner Bros executive Jeff Robinov pursued him with absolute conviction despite the lack of financial success: “… Robinov brought me into his office and said: ‘I think you’re a hell of a filmmaker, actor. What do you want to do? Tell us, and we’ll do it.’ And I wasn’t having those meetings with every studio”. He settled on doing The Town, which ended up earning nearly three times its budget.

I’m looking forward to Ben’s next directorial effort. It’s listed that he’s doing another Lehane adaptation, Live By Night, where he’s going to direct and star. Not sure what’ll happen to that project now that he’s been contracted to play Batman/Bruce Wayne in multiple films. I do think he’ll always be a better director than actor, but really, that’s really not a bad place to be in.

So yeah, if you haven’t seen this film yet, I can’t recommend it enough. I think it stands as one of the best directorial debut by a young director. We’ll see if one day Ben Affleck would indeed earn his status as an auteur.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, it’s the turn of Nika from The Running Reel. Nika covers Sam Mendes’ multi-Oscar-winning American Beauty. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Tomorrow, I’m thrilled to welcome Tyson from Head in a Vice, who’ll be covering a biggie; it’s Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs. You won’t want to miss it.

Review – Argo

It’s frankly remarkable Argo has taken this long to reach the big screen – a film with a you-just-couldn’t-make-it-up storyline in which Hollywood comes out smelling of roses.

More than 50 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after Islamist protestors and militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979.

Argo is the kind of superior political thriller that all-too-rarely gets made these days

The story of their long ordeal has been well documented. What isn’t as well-known is the plight of six Americans who made it out of the country as a result of an extraordinary CIA plot led by operative Tony Mendez in which an elaborate cover story was hatched to pass the group off as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie called Argo.

It wasn’t until 1997 when President Bill Clinton declassified the CIA files that the story officially came to light and only now do we have the movie ‘based’ on Mendez’s historical account courtesy of actor/director Ben Affleck.

Much like Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), Argo adopts the look and feel of such classic 1970s nail-biters as Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), right down to the old Warner Bros logo at the front end of the movie and the use of old film stock to provide a suitably grainy look. Affleck also mixes things up with fast zooms, long lens shots and close-ups to crank up the tension.

The use of handheld cameras during the scenes in Iran give the action a confused, panicked quality that is effectively handled and works as a parallel to the comical exchanges between Mendez (Affleck), make-up artist and CIA contact John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) as they work against the clock to put flesh on Argo‘s bones.

This is most powerfully demonstrated during the scene when a speech given by a spokeswoman for the militants outlining to the world’s media their political position is intercut with a script reading of Argo featuring actors in ridiculous costumes.

CIA agent hatches a so-crazy-it=might-just-work scheme to save a group of Americans in Ben Affleck's Argo

CIA agent Tony Mendez endeavours to save a group of Americans in Ben Affleck’s Argo

In lesser hands you would have heard someone dramatically declare “it’s crazy, but it might … just … work”. However, Affleck has matured as a director since his admirable 2007 debut Gone Baby Gone and shown he can helm claustrophobic action in his follow-up The Town (2010).

Affleck makes emphatically clear the life or death stakes facing the group and the paranoia and queasiness that fear can exert. You get a very real sense that one false step by any of them will mean the game’s up for all.

That being said, the wheels begin to fall off somewhat in the film’s final third. Lest we forget, this is a Hollywood picture, and as the embassy staff and Mendez make their tortuous way through Tehran Airport it’s difficult not to feel like you’re being deceived just as much as the security guards.

"It's so crazy it might just work". CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) teams up with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman)

“It’s so crazy it might just work”. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) teams up with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman)

That’s not to say Affleck doesn’t handle the group’s final escape well – it’s a masterful, pulse-quickening action sequence that pushes all the right buttons. But the contrivances of the plot (plane tickets being confirmed with seconds to spare and other moments I won’t spoil) are hard to swallow (in fact they’re plain inaccurate) and bring to mind the over-the-top denouement to the otherwise enjoyable The Last King of Scotland (2006).

With Iran having rarely been out of the news for the past few years, Argo‘s politics are inevitably going to be put under the spotlight. Affleck doesn’t let himself down here. While we’re under no illusion who the heroes of this tale are, from the opening sequence (filmed as a movie storyboard) where we get a short history lesson on the brutality of the Shah’s rule and the subsequent revolution that saw the birth of an Islamic republic, we are asked to  understand the anger of the Iranian people and why the embassy was stormed. This is no Black Hawk Down (2001) with an implacable, faceless and one-dimensional enemy.

While Affleck won’t win any prizes for historical accuracy (what Hollywood film does?), Argo nevertheless stands on its feet as the kind of superior political thriller that all-too-rarely gets made in Tinseltown these days.