Gone Girl (Fincher, 2014)

All movies are puzzles. They all share the segmented, jigsaw quality of sutured shots, acquired out of order and over a much longer period than the eventual running time. They are snapshots, in isolation meaningless, and yet miraculously imbued with purpose when aligned in a carefully constructed narrative sequence. Certain films, like those of David Fincher, are more puzzle-like than others. His latest, Gone Girl, aligns its puzzle pieces in a way which deliberately omits salient information, first interweaving two accounts of a possible abduction/murder, accounts we suspect herald more than meets the eye, before exposing their reality when the film ‘flips’, and the actual truth is revealed. While the ‘flip’ comes too early – or what follows is too long, it’s hard to tell – the film is still an engrossing puzzle, on an aesthetic and narrative level, if a largely unemotional one.

The two accounts come from both halves of a dysfunctional (as we shall see, a grossly inadequate description) marital partnership, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), with the latter being the injured/abducted party. The invitation to play with this puzzle comes early in the narrative, with Nick visiting his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) bearing a gift of Mastermind, the classic board-game requiring one player to guess the other’s chosen sequence of colours, a classic puzzle of combinatory logic and guesswork. For the rest of the film, the audience plays guesser to Fincher/Flynn’s (the latter penned both the screenplay and source novel) mastermind, the filmmakers playing coy for the first few acts, presenting an all-too-perfect marriage and its perceived accoutrements.

In this initial presentation, one could be mistaken for thinking that a David Lynch film is playing instead. The opening act features an unsettling sonic atmosphere, said to be inspired by Fincher’s visit to a masseur, where the supposedly comforting music instead came across as creepy. This subtly ‘off’ soundtrack, birthed by long-time Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is accompanied by an all-too-perfect inception of a relationship. Nick and Amy’s origin is too clean, too idolised, not unlike the unsettlingly ‘actor-y’ sense inspired by Lynch’s dual female leads in Mullholland Dr. (2001). They seem like characters playing themselves. Which indeed Amy is; her parents wrote a series of children’s books based closely on their daughter’s upbringing – ‘they plagiarised your childhood’ in Nick’s words. Perhaps it’s because of this suffocating moithering that Amy is as duplicitous and malleable in terms of her identity as she is revealed to be. Hers is a life lived in constant shadow of a fictionalised self, a shadowy mirror, and she eventually chooses to revoke the bounds of her idealised identity.

gone girl

Nick and Amy’s relationship is put under strain: but why? And by who?

Of course her husband has something to with that. It is his viewpoint which dominates the film’s ‘present’, even though the film opens, and indeed finishes identically, with a shot of Amy’s upturned face. It is Nick’s words that overlay her, stifling her independence with its wishes to ‘crack her head open’ and reveal her inner secrets. Nick’s narrative occasionally fades, the image rushing to black like a narcoleptic episode, and the narrative regains consciousness under Amy’s guise with her voiceover reading us her diary entries. These dreamlike interludes loose us from the established time, and we are right to doubt their dubious relationship to the real world.

Amy is calculating, cold and impenetrable, something Fincher’s style might easily be accused of. And there is a Kubrikian standoffishness to his work, but coupled with appropriately distant characters (as in Mark Zuckerburg focused on in ‘The Social Network’) it’s a winning combination. Just don’t expect to care for the characters presented in Gone Girl. Nick is smug and aloof, unappreciative of his multi-talented wife; Amy is icy in her calculating manipulation of self. More so even than in Fincher’s previous films, these characters are cogs in a wheel, not welcoming personas around which an audience may pivot relatable emotion. So we are merely interested, not empathetic. But sometimes that’s ok.

In Fincher’s detective-like attention to detail and shot construction, one might think artistic flourish would be stifled. But it’s still to be found if you look for it: an example being the atypical light emanating from behind the Dunne’s door when the publicity people arrive mimics lightning flashes, a visual indication of the oncoming media storm.

I’m being cagey on the plot details because the less you know before watching the better, but I’ll try and discuss my issues with the film’s turning point without giving too much away about what it is. It is necessary that a ‘flip’ of a kind be included in murder mystery stories, and the one Fincher/Flynn present elucidates an unbelievably strong female character, whose active agency is never doubted, and for this they deserve credit. I have concerns however about specific methods she uses to achieve her ends – specifically (spoiler) faking rape – as she includes what might as well be a guidebook on how to emulate it. While it would admittedly take someone of comparable intelligence, malevolence and motive to make the endeavour even remotely possible (or desirable), it is still problematic for a potentially impressionable audience. I would complain about the method’s inclusion even if it only gives voice to it being used as a mechanism in society; a minute section of women who, unfortunately, have influenced rape cases such that a man may claim an innocent woman is faking/leading him on in a similar fashion, a detestable situation whose original aggravator is given explicit, reasoned voice here. This image should not be propagated in any form, even if the character concerned is condemned afterwards.

On a more intrinsic level, the film is far too long. The flip comes halfway instead of the more convention timing of after Act 2 (in a 3 act structure). It’s almost as if it becomes another film at this point, one concerning the narratives we tell ourselves and the ones the media construct about our lives. A fair and intriguing enough subject, and one which is semi-justified by the couple’s respective careers as writer/journalist (therefore excellent at constructing narratives), but one which ultimately belongs to a different film. Either that, or shorten the murder mystery which is allowed to play out for nearly an hour and a half, the run time of many more successful films.

So while not without substantial issues – the runtime, and to some extent justifying (spoiler) faking rape as a means to an end  – Fincher’s 2014 effort is an intriguing and masterfully constructed puzzle, visually inventive while also maintaining the director’s distant, clinical gaze. It postulates marriage partners as con artists of the most insidious degree, and overall it is a con of which we the audience are gladly, voyeuristically implicit.

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Thoughts on…A Perfect World (Eastwood, 1993)

Two Oscar winning directors, Clint Eastwood (who also takes the reins here) and Kevin Costner, make a return to acting in A Perfect World. The film is an underrated instalment in Eastwood’s behind-the-camera canon, and features one of Costner’s most nuanced performances. Costner’s ‘Butch’ Haynes is Eastwood’s subject, a character whose past and psychology is a constant moral grey area. He is a petty criminal turned murderous fugitive, a contrast to his obvious intelligence and strong moral stance, an ideology he asserts tactfully in the issue of child rearing, and in ironically violent fashion to refute domestic violence. Through his moral turmoil, he remarkably remains likeable, funny and fatherly in his interaction with abducted hostage Philip (T.J. Lowther), affectionately known as ‘Buzz’.  In addition to Butch’s violently paradoxical character, we have Eastwood’s ‘Red’, a more ambiguous but equally conflicted figure, who was responsible for elongating Butch’s prison sentence, an act of corruption committed out of concern for his welfare at home, an alluded-to environment which explains the convict’s hatred for domestic violence.

A Perfect World slots itself neatly in line with a long cinematic history of dual-headed road movies, particularly recalling Paper Moon and Bonnie and Clyde, the former in the central child/adult comic relationship, and the latter in its continuation of counter-culture sensibilities. The Butch/Buzz relationship is repeatedly touching and cute, all the more so for its unlikely aspect. It makes us forget that Butch is a convicted felon and not a perfect paternal influence, despite the shared experience of both characters with their absent father figures. As the title suggests, this is not a neat or ‘perfect’ relation of character, situation and events. It is, like most of life, an approximate patchwork of imperfect personas and unfortunate cases, an inconsistent line of best fit that callously disregards the outliers. In A Perfect World, these anomalies are given voice, and their relatable, humorous interaction is humbling. While it has nothing like the bite of Bonnie and Clyde, the aversion to government still resonates – government officials are shown to be inefficient, money-squandering, bribe-accepting, spin-doctoring manipulators of resources and media. Against these inauthentic bureaucracies, we’ll take Costner’s loveable rogue any day.

Eastwood’s sensitive rendering of Philip’s character, an indoctrinated Jehovah’s Witness who relishes letting his hair down with the unadulterated Butch, is one of the film’s major triumphs. There’s several extended close-ups on Philip in the midst of a particularly emotional moment, a technique which could feel manipulative in less genuine hands but instead they feel like authentic, key junctures in Philip’s steep learning curve.

APW

Butch supports Buzz, his hostage, both physically and emotionally

Eastwood skilfully weaves Butch’s fugitive tale with those chasing him, a motley crew featuring a reliably annoying turn from Laura Dern (when is she anything less than mildly irritating?) and Josh from The West Wing before he was Josh from The West Wing (Bradley Whitford). It’s a strange mix, made stranger by their vehicle of choice: a politicised mobile home helmed by old grisly stare himself. It’s a choice of setting which ensures the government, even when diluted to lower-level groundwork, still has a constant air of the ridiculous.

On the remaining sidelines, we have the film’s opening sequences featuring Butch’s detestable partner, a rare case in the film of an unequivocal case – Szarabajka is the moral black to Costner’s grey. Even Philip is shown to be far from white, shoplifting under Costner’s influence and making a climactic decision I’ll leave ambiguous for fear of spoilers, but which he eventually regrets. The film’s conclusion more widely seems to strike an anomalously tragic note given the soul-searching, semi-comedic preceding narrative content. It’s a bold move, but one which feels a tad overplayed, searching for the great tragic demises of cinema (of which Eastwood has played a few) and falling well short. Other than this last overreach, the film is an engaging, character driven drama with believable characters who align with life’s messy, lovable imperfections – a somewhat forgotten film, worth remembering.

Paddington (King, 2014, UK)

Update: You can also read this review in The Saint, St Andrews’ independent student newspaper, at http://www.thesaint-online.com/2014/12/quintessentially-british-paddington-reviewed/

Paddington: a word steeped in as much British heritage as a rich tea submerged in a mug of Earl Grey. It conjures images of tube stations, London Streets, and of course the eponymous Peruvian bear. This year’s film adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved books sticks, in typical stoic fashion, to this initial Anglophilic impression. Its humour is unequivocally British, a blend of surrealism, slapstick and self-deprecation which manages to endear the little brown bear to another generation; a generation this incarnation recognises as infinitely more cosmopolitan than any previous.

The story, well known to many, elucidates the adventures of Paddington Bear (Ben Wishaw) in London, where he finds, after a tumultuous beginning, a home in the form of the Brown Family. The surrealist element to the film comes as no surprise once the writer/director is revealed as Paul King, whose past work includes the irrepressibly strange TV series The Mighty Boosh. The film has an understandably absurd sensibility therefore, its outlandish elements made more so by their inclusion next to the mundanely everyday: King’s London is a coexisting world of ubiquitous pigeons and murderous taxidermists, of bookish risk assessors and bathroom tsunamis, and, most centrally, of a nuclear family and a talking bear.

Paddington’s inseparability from London, coupled with the narrative’s seamless acceptance of this most unusual immigrant, provides the film with an unprecedented political undercurrent. It’s a beautiful updating of an old story, made relevant by its wider message, one which whole-heartedly celebrates multi-cultural variation and assimilation while also managing to be quintessentially British. For me, King strikes a tone not dissimilar to Danny Boyle’s triumphant Olympic Opening Ceremony, no mean feat, in his shameless celebration of British quirk tempered with a knowing, absurdist self-ridicule. Matt Lucas’ cabbie pokes a jibe at extortionate drivers; Paddington interprets literally the officious rules of the Tube Station in hilarious fashion; the Geographer’s Guild flashbacks parody the well-spoken, outdated colonials to surprisingly acerbic effect. Paddington recognises London and, more widely Britain’s inadequacies while simultaneously celebrating its rich cultural heritage – in the magnificent backdrops of London architecture, in the enduring intrigue of institutions like the Natural History Museum, in the distinctly English wit and pompous pretence of Bonneville’s bumbling Mr. Brown.

An additional delight comes in the form of King’s script, which is full of literary prowess. It features a proliferation of puns utilising British idiom (rain alone provides a plethora: ‘it’s a brolly-buster’ my personal favourite) and exposes the inadequacies of euphemism (Mr. Brown’s attempts to sugar-coat an Orphanage proposal fall flat) in what is a consistently charming, chortle-inducing manner.

Paddington journeys from lost to found

Paddington’s journey from lost to found

It’s a credit to the film’s script, direction, cinematography and surprisingly original visual style – a flickering Lost and Found sign in the station’s background illuminates ‘Found’ when Mrs. Brown takes pity on Paddington; the Brown’s branch-laden wall-art blossoms and sheds its leaves impossibly to illustrate the passage of time – that the supreme acting talent on display can afford to be unmentioned until my penultimate paragraph. It’s almost as if they don’t need to excel given these other successful elements, and yet excel they do. Hugh Boneville’s Brown is the root of many guffaws, the former Earl of Grantham putting himself through the comedic ringer here in admirable self-parody. Julie Walters’ hard-talking housekeeper is wonderfully homely, as is Sally Hawkins’ more bohemian, slightly-spaced-out mother figure. The relationship between Nicole Kidman’s Millicent and Peter Capaldi’s Mr Curry struck the film’s only bum note for me; a residual reaction, perhaps unfair, in response to the similarity between Millicent and a previous Kidman role, her like-minded Mrs. Coulter in the bitterly disappointing The Golden Compass.  It seems more than personal revulsion though; her sequences are not as funny or engaging, an unfortunate side-effect of the wholly successful Brown/Paddington family dynamic. Perhaps another British thespian could have swayed me round better than Kidman’s erroneous American tones.

But this is a minor issue. Paddington overall is a riotously funny, loyal and yet innovative updating of a beloved character’s narrative, making a social point it need not have attempted, and yet pulling it off in a cohesive and convincing style, aided by excellent art and acting direction. It is sure to be a surprise entry on many critic’s films of the year lists, as well as a new favourite for youngsters (and indeed families) worldwide.

Thoughts on…Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Black, 2005)

There’s something about detective stories that always foregrounds the artifice of an artwork. Perhaps it’s the essentially interrogative nature of the protagonist that bleeds into the work more widely. The cinema has its own techniques, a medium where the detective story is most readily associated with film noir. From the conspicuous behind-the-scenes commentary on Classical Hollywood, Sunset Blvd (1950), to the unreality of the chiaroscuro visual style adopted by the genre more generally, these films seem to stand outside of verisimilitude. They favour instead stylised characters and set designs, drawing from an established roster of gruff detectives, femme fatales and insidious money-men. In a modern update of the genre, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (KKBB), the narrator is ready for more than Gloria Swanson’s ‘close-up’; Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) magnifies further the false narrative, inverting the camera’s gaze so that he appears to join us in the audience, thereby amplifying the genre’s tendency to reveal artifice.

Shane Black’s KKBB makes for ideal alternative Christmas fare: instead of the snowy fluster of homely Bedford Falls, why not try the beating sun of a depraved, money-grabbing LA? It’ll be a welcome change of pace, although perhaps not one for gathering the family round (constant profanity and cases of mutilation ensure this is late-night, post-kids’-bedtime viewing). The story is an update of classic 50s noir, full of obscure film references and acerbic comments on the industry itself. It focuses on petty criminal Lockhart, who falls, in a mimicry of contrived plot devices, conveniently into the voracious world of sub-strata Hollywood. At the film’s opening party scene, Lockhart and the audience are introduced to the film’s foul-mouthed array of characters, including quick-witted PI Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), beautiful but troubled Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan), and mysterious moneybags Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen). Lockhart is quickly taken into Perry’s homicidal line-of-work for ‘research’ relating to his next audition. What follows is a complex, intertwining tale of murder, impersonation and above all the relationship between, as Perry muses, ‘reality vs. fantasy’.

This theme comes to the fore repeatedly, Lockhart’s stumbling and imperfect narration making the dichotomy an unavoidable presence. The 4th wall is not so much broken as violated here, Downey Jr.’s sardonic prose dancing freely atop its usually unbreached barrier, often encouraging the film to jump off the reel while he quickly explains something he has forgotten to tell the audience. His fast-talking persona is perfect in its updating of the pensive, hard-nosed detective from Classic noirs. Its new takes on genre stereotypes like Lockhart’s bastardised narration that make KKBB so successful. Its conspicuous flaunting of Hollywood clichés makes the drama unpredictable, and by the end the audience have had the rug pulled from under their feet so many times that even experienced movie-goers will have a hard time predicting upcoming plot developments. Add to this the mise-en-scene of cinema’s underbelly – the countless aspiring movie-stars, the LA setting, script readings, breathless auditions, shady financiers – and the result is a self-reflexive, subversive comedy which raucously violates genre convention and audience expectation.

A sum of parts one might not expect from the writer of Lethal Weapon (1987), but Black uses his expertise in the buddy-cop dynamic for a more fast-paced, niche purpose – the Kilmer/Downey Jr. relationship is all the funnier for its raciness and breathless pace. It’s a pace that will even test the attention of an experienced audience, and may leave casual viewers behind completely. But it is a rich script, with many interchanges revealing hidden jokes when viewed a second time. The film’s dark humour will certainly not appeal to all, but a comparison with a lesser film with similar acts of grotesque violence reveal Black’s justification in their inclusion.

Doge ex Machina

Late in the film arrives a scene bizarrely reminiscent of a sequence from Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain (2013).  The scene features a dog eating a human extremity – a finger/toe respectively, before dirty minds* assume the worst – to vastly different comic effect. In Bay’s monstrosity, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson feeds his toe to said cannibalistic canine for an extended period, providing just one of many examples of the director’s excessive violation of taste, the plot’s pursuit of mainstream cackles leaving a bad taste in any cine-literate mouth. In KKBB, Shane Black earns the right to display this vulgar set-piece: in the film’s consistent, sardonic tone and violation of audience expectation, coupled with the fact that the dog’s eventual digestion of Downey’s finger solves a problem of traceable fingerprints. The scene is funny for its ridiculous, grotesque manifestation of Deux ex Machina. In Pain and Gain, we are supposed to laugh simply as a result of The Rock’s unbelievable situation. In search of schadenfreude, Bay is all pain no gain.

Screenshot from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Screenshot from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Screenshot from Pain and Gain

Screenshot from Pain and Gain

There is something Bay-ish however about Black’s lingering presentation of Monaghan in her skimpy Santa outfit, which is surprising given its critical approach to so many other Hollywood clichés. The whole theme of troubled childhoods leading to promiscuous, beautiful LA girls with ‘daddy issues’ is something the film never takes down in the ironic, surprising fashion in which it analyses homosexuality and the movie industry so effectively. It is a shame that Black’s subversive comedy is not totally without prejudice.

Overall, the film is a wonderful alternative to the established canon of safer Christmas fare. If, in the inimitable manner of Kevin McAllister you wish to make your family disappear, then this profane, violent, Blackly-comic (get it?), self-reflexive, expeditious foray into the dirtier side of the City of Angels is sure to give you a hand.

*don’t worry salacious cinephiles, Downey Jr. gets his testicles electrocuted towards the end. Merry Christmas!