Friday, October 3, 2014

Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

Warning: contains spoilers

Give David Fincher some credit: he may have cemented his name as the man who converts grim bestsellers into self-consciously removed, “arty” films, but he loads an early shot of Gone Girl with board games like Mastermind, Sorry! and Let’s Make a Deal, portents so obvious that they can only be taken as a self-deprecating lark. Even when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) plays a quick game of Life with his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), their overly precious exchange—”Life. I don’t remember the point.” “Hmm, deep Hasbro thoughts.”—is too silly to give the impression that anyone means it seriously.

The sense of playfulness surprisingly holds even after Nick returns home on the morning of his fifth anniversary to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing, kicking off an investigation that only ever points in his direction. Soon, Nick is constantly flanked by Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), forever debating amongst themselves not so much the question of Nick’s guilt but how much evidence they need to accrue before confidently arresting him. Affleck’s star power is hilariously used against him, casting his All-American good looks, stiff performance, and inoffensive charm as inherently suspicious, fleets of trailing photographers evoking memories of the actor’s own relationship-based ordeals with constant media surveillance. This slippery distinction between actor and character is only compounded when Nick eventually turns to sleazy lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) for help, leading to a scene in which Bolt, played by the director Perry, resembles director Fincher as he coaches Nick for an interview, conducting numerous “takes” to erode Nick’s normal behavior and delivery in order to remold it to his liking.

The usual Fincherian tics are all on display. Jeff Cronenweth’s sickly yellow hues infect perfectly ordered scenes in the present scenes along with the memories visualized from Amy’s diary, heightening the sense of toxicity as Nick deals with his wife’s absence as well as perverting the usual, sepia-toned wistfulness of Amy’s interspersed recollections. It gives the sense that something is off, as much as the too-tidy crime scene left in the Dunnes’ living room, not to mention the irritating buzz of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, which replaces the vaguely clubby beat and textural flavor of their Social Network and Dragon Tattoo soundtracks, respectively, for an intrusive, willfully banal composition. Kept at the sidelines of the surround system, the score is the sound of a refrigerator humming, or an HDTV left on after a cable box or Blu-Ray player is shut off, something you don’t register until, all of a sudden, it’s the most grating, distracting thing in the entire world. The antiseptic crispness of everything allows unease to build less at the expense of Nick than an unplaceable feeling of malaise that cannot quite be articulated until the rug is pulled out from under the viewer.

Yet if the common line on Fincher is that he wrests paperbacks to his will, it’s worth noting how sharply this film diverges from his other work. Where his films often unfurl through a procedural collection of clues and raw data, Gone Girl reduces its knottiest Rube Goldberg plans to swift montages, and it rushes the book’s endless series of precisely timed twists and reversals to steamroll past revelations of infidelity, fabrication, and any other clues that make its characters look worse and worse. Instead, the film creates a kind of emotional process, propelling the film less by its series of clues than by the private and public response each revelation entails. You could even argue that the defining moment comes not with the twist that upends the film at the halfway mark but Nick’s early, awkwardly smile for photos in front of an inflated poster of his missing wife, the slip-up hammered home with a blink-and-miss-it insert shot of Margo seizing up with dread at how the media will spin it. Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter draw out the film with dissolves that slightly protract otherwise brief scenes, the slurred transitions helping to obscure the line that separates early reminiscences of kissing in a fogbank of baker’s sugar to Nick’s later outbursts as he comes to grips with how thoroughly his life has been ruined. For all the talk of the director’s usual iciness, this is perhaps his most intimately stylized work.

I made no secret after I read Gillian Flynn’s novel that I hated the book, but in fairness, her self-adapted screenplay deserves as much commendation as Fincher and the cast for the quality of the film. First on the chopping block of necessary cuts is the majority of the Dunnes’ first-person thoughts, a change that drastically improves both characters. In the book, Nick’s every single thought and utterance served to make him look guilty, which primes anyone who has ever read a mystery to immediately dismiss him as a red herring, and thus his terrifying character defects, including outright misogyny roiling just under his thin veneer of polite calm, were ultimately subsumed by the pity the story inadvertently forces a reader to feel for him as he is pilloried for a crime he didn’t commit. However, by reducing any knowledge of Nick’s personality to fleeting images of his almost imperceptible chauvinism, dejected sloth, and obliviousness toward his wife’s feelings and desires, it is actually far easier to hate the man.

Even better, Amy has been pared down from a complete psychopath at war with anyone who crosses her into a woman who restricts her chessmaster torture to the men who presume to understand her. This revised Amy makes good on the phenomenal “Cool Girl” monologue she gives to the reader when the extent of her deceit is unveiled, an extreme, avenging spirit who who turns all the preparation, observation and self-discipline needed for women to live up to men’s warped and unreal standards into a weapon against that casual sexism. The character always represented this, of course, but the excision of muddying ideas and even whole characters maintains Amy’s formerly blunted edge. Once again, simplification paradoxically leads to complication, and Amy 2.0 comes closer to the villain of Takashi Miike’s Audition, a young woman who attracts an old widower with her beauty and supplication but who reveals a ruthless, wrathful side when lovers fail to uphold their own image of commitment. Still, Pike does not play Amy as a monster, instead reacting in each moment to the men around her, whether it’s trying to please Nick while taking tabs, or dealing with the unctuous hanger-on Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), a rich man-child still nursing a crush, promising to take Amy away from Nick’s neglect and abuse while gently insisting that she exist as his own hallowed image of her.

Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Gone Girl novel suffered from a plurality of half-formed ideas: satire of speculative punditry, hat-tip to laid-off colleagues in the publishing industry, resentment for a generation of yuppie parents who profited on their children’s childhood and left their kids a world of debt, and a muddied, high/low attempt to illustrate a grotesque exaggeration of the pitfalls of marriage. And as with the movie version of Tattoo, this film either removes or redirects all these miniature themes to focus on a single essence, in this case the surface tensions between people either trying or willfully refusing to live up to their partner’s idealized vision of them. It is a mordant comedy about the battle of the sexes, one that redefines the term “bloody climax.” (“He came and went at the same time,” as the old Pryor bit goes…) But battle is too soft a militarized term for the endless war that the film envisions, divided between women who know the gains and losses that will accompany every slight gesture and vocal inflection, and men too safely ensconced in fortresses to realize they’re even being shelled. Perhaps the funniest joke in the movie is how overwhelmed Nick feels at having to compete with Amy’s sick genius, when in truth he’s closer to the hare who suddenly snaps awake from his nap during the race to see the tortoise about to cross the finish line.

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

Filled with Nic Roeg-esque montages and a finale that repurposes Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as some sort of metaphysical chase sequence, Luc Besson’s Lucy certainly attempts to add more visual flavor to its trim 90 minutes than most blockbusters can achieve at twice its length. But what should be a refreshing dip into trash-art instead plays out as an incoherent, tonally inconsistent chore that, among other things, plays on regressive Asian stereotypes to fuel its suspense.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Love Streams

One of two pieces I wrote recently about John Cassavetes' not-quite-swan song, his masterpiece Love Streams. An excerpt:

The film’s title alludes to an idea Sarah has as she reels from losing her family, a notion that “love is a stream; it’s continuous, it doesn’t stop.” If it does not stop, however, it can slow and divert like a stream, and contrary to the feverishly over-complicated efforts of Sarah to push love forward and Robert’s own attempt to dam it, it will always take the path of least resistance. At its heart, the film is a comedy: in an oeuvre filled with all-time classic drunk scenes, the sequence of Cassevetes throwing himself in the car of club singer Susan (Diahnne Abbot), driving to her place, crashing, then being unable to get out of the vehicle is a mini-masterpiece. The physicality of Cassavetes’ acting in this moment could be a precursor for Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘luude scene in The Wolf of Wall Street: Robert turns into an assembly of arms and legs all connected to a mass of nerves without an organizing brain, and about the only thing he accomplishes as he tries to get out of the car is to cause noise, from leaving the door open until an alarm goes off to flipping on the radio and sending jazz blaring around the neighborhood.

Read the rest at Spectrum Culture.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Blu-Ray Review Round-Up (08/10/2014)

Here's a few months worth of Blu-Ray reviews from Slant and Movie Mezzanine.

Movie Mezzanine

Sleepaway Camp (Scream Factory)
Rollerball (1975) (Twilight Time)
Lewis Black: Old Yeller (Image Entertainment) [DVD]
Cheap Thrills (Drafthouse Films)
Hell Divers (Warner Archive) [DVD]
Ravenous (Scream Factory)
The Unknown Known (Anchor Bay)
Deadly Eyes (Scream Factory)

Slant Magazine

A Hard Day's Night (Criterion)
Under the Skin (A24)
Pickpocket (Criterion)

The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2014)


By the same token, it’s also a fitting summary of everything that hinders the film’s aspirations to a singular vision. The highly chromatic, ill-fitting series of tableaux admirably abandon the illusion of objectivity (or even a rationally viewed subjectivity) to celebrate the role imagination plays on memory. Yet for a film intended to reflect both its maker’s personal experience and unorthodox aesthetic, so much of The Dance of Reality feels old-hat, begging the question whether something can be surreal if you feel like you’ve seen it before.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.

Music Reviews

I'm trying my hand at more music reviews this year, mostly for the site Spectrum Culture. Here's links to my music-related pieces:

Nas, Illmatic
Miles Davis, Miles at the Fillmore—Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series Vol. 3
Lily Allen, Sheezus
Marc Ribot Trio, Live at the Village Vanguard
The Human League, Dare
Fucked Up, Glass Boys
Various Artists, C86
Led Zeppelin, I, II and III
Hole, Live Through This

Finding Fela (Alex Gibney)

A greater sin still is how the film saps Fela’s music of its energy. It’s not entirely Gibney’s fault: no documentary about an artist has ever captured the thrill of personal discovery of that artist’s work. Being flatly informed of the military raid on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic compound after hearing a snippet of “Zombie” pales in comparison to hearing all of “Zombie” first, being galvanized by it universal anti-military lyrics, then gradually filling in the context around that composition. When it is served to a viewer already wrapped in significance, the whole progression of immersion is thrown out, teaching detached admiration instead of passionate discovery.

Read my full review at Spectrum Culture.