Birdman

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on October 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Birdman photo starrating-4stars.jpgVivid, flashy meditation on fame has Michael Keaton as a washed up actor named Riggan Thomson, once known for playing a superhero character named Birdman in the movies – three times in fact. Now he is desperately wanting to re-invigorate his career with the mounting of a Broadway play. He is both directing and starring in an adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The parallels between Keaton’s real-life celebrity as Batman and Riggan’s role as Birdman are just as overt as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Keaton is perfect in the part because he IS this guy. And the opportunity to send-up his own reputation allows the actor to give the finest performance he’s possibly ever given, or at least since Beetlejuice. The production is a dizzying look into the backstage shenanigans of the theater, from rehearsals, to previews, to opening night. Truly Birdman is the best film “All About” Broadway since that movie with Bette Davis.

Riggan is supported by a coterie of oddball characters. On the day before previews, the co-lead is injured and he must quickly scramble for a replacement. Riggan’s slightly off-kilter female lead Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, theater critics’ darling Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). He turns out to be a completely bonkers method actor that has an ego unchecked by his unrelenting bravado. It’s a masterful performance – one that cleverly draws on the star’s own notoriety gained after starring in The Incredible Hulk in 2008. Idiosyncratic actress (and Riggan’s girlfriend) Laura also stars in his play. She is portrayed by Andrea Riseborough. Emma Stone is Riggan’s recovering drug addict daughter who now works as his assistant. Then there’s Riggan’s best friend and theatrical producer Jake. When Zach Galifianakis embodies the most sane person in the ensemble, you know you’re surrounded by a zany lot indeed.

What really sets director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tour de force apart is the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. The film is shot, or made to appear like it was shot, in one single long take with no edits over the course of a few days. The result is a you-are-there heightened sense of realism.  The proceedings have an immediacy that is exhilarating. Iñárritu directs his cast like a symphonic piece, each one carefully entering and exiting the scene at various parts of the 119 minute movement.  It’s similar to a musician awaiting their cue in an orchestra. The locale is almost exclusively set inside the St. James theater in New York City.  The lens navigates the cramped cavernous halls of the Broadway institution.  The camera swoops and turns, doubles back and around through the stage show separately focusing on assorted conversations at different times throughout the venue.  The display occasionally induces claustrophobia in the observer but the effect can be breathtaking as well. It’s a spectacular feat that could have become a gimmick, but the manipulation here is so effortless that it is a welcome and, dare I say, vital component of the production. The achievement makes this Iñárritu’s most accessible work since Babel.

Birdman is a densely layered comedy that is open to numerous interpretations. It’s a dissertation on acting vs. celebrity. It’s a rumination on show business and the fleeting nature of fame. And it’s a satire on the acting profession. Regarding that last one, this is a pretty savage portrait on the existence of an actor. There is an element of fantasy to this too. Michael Keaton as Riggan has a constant interior monologue in the guise of his alter ego Birdman. These Shakespearean soliloquies add to the experimental feel of the spectacle. The drama opens with him meditating, seated in the lotus position, floating in midair. Later he’s moving objects with his mind. The drum heavy score by jazz artist Antonio Sanchez, accentuates many scenes with a thudding percussion beat. The stylish flourishes are to subvert reality. It adds to the manic tension that continues all the way to the ending. It’s one of those head scratchers that leaves the audience with a big question instead of closure. That’s ok because with Birdman it’s about the journey. The chronicle takes the viewer on a wildly inventive and smartly written ride. Hold on tight because once it starts, it doesn’t stop.

10-23-14

St. Vincent

Posted in Comedy with tags on October 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

St. Vincent photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBill Murray is Vincent McKenna, an aging curmudgeon who drinks, gambles and frequents prostitutes. Ok so he really only patronizes one prostitute in particular (Naomi Watts), a hooker with the proverbial heart of gold. Into his life enters new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). They have recently moved in next door. She is trying to make a life for her 12 year old the best way she knows how. Earning a living as well as raising a child can be difficult. As the sole provider, she makes an arrangement with Vincent where he can conveniently watch the little tyke while she works from morning to night, for a fee of course. An odd rapport blossoms between the improbable duo that ultimately benefits them both.

As you read that synopsis you’re likely to roll your eyes at the utterly hackneyed contrivance being set up. What saves St. Vincent from mawkish sentimentality is the presence of Bill Murray who hasn’t anchored a comedy since Rushmore 16 years ago, and that was more of a co-starring role anyway. It’s easy to dismiss his performance as merely an exaggerated version of himself. He’s boozy, cantankerous, carries himself with a “I don’t care attitude” and dresses the part. But he settles into the role with such a relaxed easiness that we are intrigued by this heightened version of his embittered self . There’s no doubt that Murray is the reason to see St. Vincent.

That’s not to say the rest of the cast isn’t spectacular. Murray’s scenes wouldn’t have had such power if he didn’t have chemistry with his budding co-star, Jaeden Lieberher. As the puny kid who gets picked on at school, he is in need of some guidance. Oliver’s interactions with Vincent are sweet and they form an engaging twosome. Jaeden really holds his own with the comedic legend. In fact the entire climax rests on the young actor’s shoulders and he delivers the emotionally affecting speech like a pro. It’s nice to see Melissa McCarthy underplay in a restrained turn as the single mom. One might question her choice to leave her son with Vincent. However it’s a choice we accept because she’s likable and we feel sorry for her plight. Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper is as ridiculous as it sounds, but her scenes are good for a few scattered laughs. However the part is essentially window dressing and not intrinsic to the plot.

St. Vincent is a comedy with some real drama sprinkled throughout. Bill Murray and Jaeden Lieberher form an implausible mentor / student relationship that is genuinely appealing. Incongruous pairings, particularly involving corrupt adult authority figures, is kind of routine these days. The way this production entertains is not. The script has a lot of heart and the ensemble elevates what could have been corny into something enjoyable. St. Vincent is a reliable old couch that is broken in and comfortable. There’s bona fide joy in seeing an elder statesman of comedy do what he does best. Murray started his career in films playing the rumpled goofball. I’m talking about his early hits like Meatballs and Stripes. When was the last time Murray starred in a comedy that broad? Too long is the answer. Welcome back Bill Murray, it’s always good to see you again.

10-22-14

Kill the Messenger

Posted in Biography, Crime, Drama with tags on October 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Kill the Messenger photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgGary Webb was an American investigative reporter best known for a series of 1996 articles that detailed CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking into the US. He worked for the San Jose Mercury News, a small newspaper that gained significant notoriety that year when he alleged that drug traffickers in Nicaragua had sold and distributed crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s, and that drug profits were regulated to fund the CIA-supported Contras. He never asserted that the CIA was actively directing the drug dealers, but rather that they were aware the money was being raised and managed to subsidize them.

The resulting fallout was major. This chronicle suggests that the larger papers were embarrassed that they had been scooped on such a significant news story by a much smaller paper: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times tried to debunk the link between the Contras and the crack epidemic to discredit Webb. The account also suggest the CIA applied pressure on Webb and his family to remain silent. Webb’s key sources then disappeared mysteriously. Others later contended that Webb had lied about what they had said to him. The San Jose Mercury News backed away from the story, then threw him under the bus.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Kill the Messenger turns Gary Webb into a hero. He is presented as a crusader for accountability that divulged a reality that was too hot to handle. As a reporter he had uncovered what he believed to be unequivocal evidence linking the illegal business of crack cocaine in the U.S to the money used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. He simply wanted to unveil that truth. It should be noted that there are still some who contend that Gary Webb was a disgraced journalist. However they will not find that point of view here. Peter Landesman’s script is adapted from Gary Webb’s own 1999 book Dark Alliance and Nick Schou’s 2006 book Kill the Messenger. His screenplay critically indicts both the U.S. government as well as the news correspondents of the day. The competing papers launched a smear campaign against him ultimately ending his career. They do not come out good here and your outrage will rest on how those revelations surprise you.

Kill the Messenger is an interesting tale in two parts. The first half recounts Webb’s discovering the evidence. The second half depicts the aftermath of that story. What makes this so watchable is Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of newspaper reporter Gary Webb. He is really good at getting the audience to like him. We feel the unbearable tension that our hero endures as he is threatened directly and indirectly. The impending sense of doom never seems very far way. We share in his growing fear for his own safety amidst his desire to expose the truth. The best scenes concern him and his family. In particular Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife and Lucas Hedges as his son, provide another facet that gives Gary Webb more depth. They imbue his character with flaws that are somewhat unexpected. After all, we have seen this before. All the President’s Men is an example of the crusading journalist railing against the system. The difference however is where Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were celebrated as heroes at the time, Gary Webb was given a much different reception.

10-15-14

Whiplash

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Whiplash  photo starrating-4stars.jpgNot since Black Swan have the body modifying rigors generated from one’s dedication to an artistic discipline, been rendered so graphically on film. Miles Teller is Andrew Neyman, a freshman jazz drummer at a prestigious, Juliard-esque music school in Manhattan. He meets his match in one intimidating instructor named Terence Fletcher. I know the path it takes to be the best at anything requires perseverance and pain, but what Andrew goes through is something akin to cruel and unusual punishment. Whiplash is at heart a simple story highlighted by two outstanding performances.

Anyone who has ever seen J.K. Simmons’ intense portrayal of Vernon Schillinger in the HBO series Oz knows the man can play frightening. His work in Whiplash is a seething vessel of vitriol that holds commitment to craft above everything else. He wants to mold this young freshman into the next Charlie Parker and this is his means of extracting greatness. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” he says. But his speech goes much farther than that. His ignominious directions in class are profanity laced tirades. His character is closer to the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket than any movie teacher you‘ve ever seen before. What J.K. Simmons achieves as Terence Fletcher is something of an anomaly. He plays a teacher so abusive, it borders on caricature. Some of his antics will either provoke disgust or laughter. I heard quite a lot of the latter at my screening. But that’s partly what makes his performance so mesmerizing. It’s both a fearsome and fearless achievement and one that will undoubtedly court Oscar talk.

Miles Teller is extremely effective as relating the devotion it takes to be one of the jazz greats. As Andrew, he has had to make tough choices in his life. He is a young man with a singular purpose to achieve his dream to be remembered. At one point a terse exchange while eating with family causes him to say this: “I’d rather die drunk and broke at 34 and have people at the dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was.” That outlook is reflected in the decisions regarding his social life. He is sincere and honest, but also perhaps a bit unsympathetic. This is exemplified in a conversation he has with his girlfriend shortly into their relationship. Their interaction is short but what is said is key. In many ways a discourteous, but authentic moment.

Whiplash is a movie that concerns a teacher and his pupil. Our tale is a relationship focused on music but the subject could’ve been about anything really: ballet, gymnastics, law, nuclear physics – any pursuit that demands a lot of time, hard work and practice. Whiplash unquestionably takes those ideas to the extreme. It makes something outwardly fun and enjoyable, namely jazz music, seem punishing and unpleasant. Miles practices so hard that his hands drip blood. I wonder whether a jazz musician would even warm up to the portrait of their career here. I think it raises a lot of interesting questions though. For example, What amount of torture is legitimately required in order to be legendary? And do “tough-love” methods justify the results? Come to think of it, there was no love – just tough. I doubt many schools could harbor a teacher given to the physical and mental abuse of a Terence Fletcher- even if he did regularly develop gifted students into virtuosos. I still responded to the film though. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons form a spellbinding duo that compels you to watch. It certainly gives me a whole new appreciation for those musicians that truly excel in their craft.

10-19-14

One Chance

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama with tags on October 19, 2014 by Mark Hobin

One Chance photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgHis tale reads like the most clichéd underdog success story you‘ve ever heard. Paul Potts was a mere mobile-phone salesman who ultimately went on to win the first season of Britain’s Got Talent back in June of 2007. He was a shy, unassuming man in his mid-30s with a decidedly un-glamorous appearance. Yet he fought his own insecurities to win over audiences and the judges alike with his astounding ability to sing opera. Paul became the stuff of legend in Britain. In the U.S. he remained largely an unknown. However his “from nobody to somebody” saga would be repeated during the third season by another contestant. This time with the similarly plain but spectacularly gifted Susan Boyle who would take the competition by storm in 2009.

Note: Boyle did not win but became the runner-up in Season 3. Yet she ironically achieved more success in the U.S. than actual Season 1 winner Paul Potts.

Paul Potts’ saga is nothing new, but these accounts of fame do captivate the heart on some level. David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me) lays on the schmaltz and the narrative hits all the beats you expect a soap opera collage to hit. Perhaps screenwriter Justin Rackham (The Bucket List, The Big Wedding) is a bit to blame as well. You want to take him to task for fabricating such a rote story from Paul Potts’ rise to fame. There is very little here to set this apart from the 2 minute bio you get on these singing competitions in their recorded segment. In this case they’ve optimistically expanded that human interest story to a feature length 103 minutes. Where the chronicle sets itself apart is in its handling of the relationship with his girlfriend Julie-Ann (Alexandra Roach) whom he calls Julz. After flirting online, the two finally decide to meet. Their awkward chemistry is warm and appealing. They complement each other and it’s nice to see a relationship between two people that don’t look like Hollywood actors after having visited a stylist.

One Chance is pleasant, but it isn’t innovative enough to make this different from a dozen other rags to riches stories you’ve already seen fifty times before. The story really botches the ending too. The fact that Paul succeeded is already a foregone conclusion so the inevitable climax simply becomes a waiting game for Paul’s TV triumph. Actor James Corden plays the lead character with a lot of humanity. The comic is set to take over Craig Ferguson’s place on The Late Late Show in 2015. Corden ably lip- syncs while the real Paul Potts supplies the vocals. That all works. But then actual judging panel footage from the Britain’s Got Talent TV show is used, Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden and Piers Morgan’s historic responses are intercut with footage of actor Corden reacting to their evaluations. The assembled editing is not organic. The pastiche drains the moment of the drama of Paul intenerating with real people. If this were the only problem, I might’ve forgiven the misstep. The problem is this is merely the icing of an issue on a very uninspired cake.

10-12-14

Maps to the Stars

Posted in Comedy, Drama on October 14, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Maps to the Stars photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn theory, Maps to the Stars wants to be a savage satire on Hollywood as seen through the eyes of the Weiss family. Our story begins with Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a chauffeur. Like everyone in this city, he’s actually a struggling actor writing a screenplay. At the start he picks up Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who has hired him to drive her. She is newly arrived to Tinseltown and eager to start a new life. Her relationship to the rest of the ensemble is a bit of a mystery. She ultimately gets hired by Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a waning superstar.  Havana is a woman fiercely seeking a role in the remake of her mother’s 1960 movie Stolen Waters. Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) was an iconic actress who died tragically in a fire. She now appears as a ghost apparently only to torment her daughter. John Cusack is Dr. Stafford Weiss – Havana’s new age therapist. He’s father to Benjie, a child celebrity and a recovering drug addict. Benjie got famous from a popular film franchise called Bad Babysitter. Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams ) is his exploitative mother who enables his bad behavior.

There’s something a little off kilter about this tale – and not in a good way. For a comedy-drama set amongst the politics of La la Land, the ambiance is surprisingly lethargic. The picture occasionally makes an impression.  When Havana’s lucky break comes at the expense of her colleague’s son drowning, she belts out “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”.   But the milieu never quite feels like The Entertainment Capital of the World.  Anyone who has witnessed reality TV train wrecks like The Anna Nicole Show (2002–2004) or Whitney Houston’s behavior on Being Bobby Brown (2005) will get a better window into the perils of fame.  Just 30 minutes of those reality series are more savage attacks on Hollywood excess than anything in this script.  The production notes tell us this is director David Cronenberg’s first film shot in the U.S. but his overwhelming reliance on interior shots have the prefabricated feel of a Toronto soundstage. There’s a noticeable lack of stars playing themselves in this land too.  Carrie Fisher pops up briefly to give the dialogue some much needed levity that doesn‘t rely on vulgar discourse. We find out the Star Wars actress became friends with Agatha on Twitter. That could be a joke. It’s hard to tell.

David Cronenberg satirizes those washed-up starlets that want to remain relevant at any cost. It’s easy to see Julianne Moore as sort of a amalgamation of former stars like Lindsay Lohan or Kim Richards. The authenticity of her performance is never a question. She portrays this fading actress like a woman who has already lived the experience.  Moore is brave, but at times the determination to shock the audience reeks of desperation. Too often the atmosphere devolves into crudeness without purpose. The offenses are many. Julianne Moore’s big moment occurs while sitting on the toilet. Her demand to her PA for laxatives augmented by sound effects. Incest is a recurring theme. At one point, Havana’s dead mother takes the place of the other woman in her ménage à trois.  When Dr. Stafford started punching Agatha on the floor of his meticulously decorated living room, I could’ve sworn I saw that same scene in Mommie Dearest. I get it. In Hollywood, everyone is a mess. Unfortunately so is this production.

10-14-14

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Posted in Comedy, Family with tags on October 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day photo starrating-3stars.jpgYou got to give the producers of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day points for chutzpah. They took a 32 page picture book about nothing more than a boy who has a bad day and stretched it into a feature film. Its moral? Life is full of unfortunate events. First published in 1972, the title has since sold over four million copies. It’s safe to say it’s now considered a literary classic, but I hold the work in less enthusiastic regard. The Alexander of the text is a sulking brat that pouts from life’s drawbacks with which he is beset. These include: no prize in his cereal box, not getting a window seat in the car and a teacher that doesn’t fawn over his drawing of an invisible castle. He turned in a blank piece of paper for goodness sakes!

Thankfully screenwriter Rob Lieber has significantly expanded on the book’s flimsy premise. For one, the pitfalls that Alexander encounters really are things to justifiably get upset over. For instance, all of his friends are skipping his birthday for a more popular student’s party. That’s legitimately painful. To add insult to injury, everyone else in his family is living a charmed life of perfection. So much so that they seem oblivious to his woes. After having a particularly horrendous day, he retreats to his bedroom with a cupcake. Tomorrow is his birthday. On lighted candle, he wishes that his family could understand his plight by also having a bad day like him. Any bets on whether he’ll get his wish?

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a pleasant comedy that earns its laughs from slapdash shenanigans. This is comedy at its most basic form. I’m surprised no one actually slipped on a banana peel or threw a pie in someone’s face. Bad things happening to people has been the basis for many comedies: The Out of Towners, Home Alone, etc. The cast gamely registers discomfort in awkward situations with amusing results. Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner embellish this production with star power as the parents. Even Dick Van Dyke shows up in a funny bit playing himself. Let’s be realistic. The repetitive screenplay would be more at home as a made for TV movie on the Disney channel than as a cinematic event. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I mean High School Musical captivated millions. I had pretty low expectations given the source book and they were exceeded. This is a decent picture that entertains just enough to make it passable time filler. It’s fast paced and breezes by in a scant 80 minutes. If you’ve got little ones to entertain, this should fit the bill.

10-11-14

Pride

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on October 8, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Pride photo starrating-4stars.jpg“The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an old proverb that can be traced back to a concept that has been around since at least the 4th century BC. The sentiment is particularly apropos with Pride, a feel-good drama about a group of gay and lesbian activists who join forces with the miners during the lengthy Mineworkers strike that began in the summer of 1984.

But first a little history. Our tale is set in the UK during the Margaret Thatcher era government.  The conservative Prime Minister was intent on free market reform at the expense of unions. Rising tensions between the two sides was exacerbated when the administration announced on March 6,1984 their intention to close 20 coal mines or “pits“. The British coal industry ultimately decided to strike led by the National Union of Mineworkers. The government subsequently seized all union funds, making official donations to the NUM impossible. The necessity for a more grassroots campaign was required. Sensing a common threat, an alliance of lesbians and gay men (LGSM) rose up to raise money to support the striking miners and their families. The NUM was reluctant to receive help from the group and so a faction of London activists decided to take their donations directly to Dulais, a small mining village in Wales. This is their story.

A hand picked ensemble acts this earnest saga with real heart. Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) is a charismatic young lad who galvanizes his reformist friends to back the working class strikers by making a connection between the oppression felt by the miners with that of the gays and lesbians under the current political climate. Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine represent the traditional families in the Welsh mining town. Dominic West, Fay Marsay and George MacKay are the liberal activists in the LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) coalition. These diverse groups are thoughtfully represented by a colorful cast. Everyone makes an impression. Veteran thespians Staunton as a stern but understanding matriarch and Nighy as the miners’ shy treasurer, are especially memorable. Despite a fairly large assemblage of speaking parts, the characters are clearly delineated individuals with unique personalities. There are a lot of plot threads, but the production handles them with interest so each one seems necessary to the overall picture. It makes the implausible accord that actually happened seem like the most logical association in the world. Politics makes strange bedfellows, as they say.

Pride is an uplifting heartfelt film constructed to appeal to the masses in the most entertaining way.  Tony Award-winning director and dramatist Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage) directs from a script by Stephen Beresford. It simplifies in the clearest possible approach to present a feel good tale that effectively manipulates the emotions. By focusing the struggle on a small, but distinct circle of people, the audience can connect to the intimate human drama that played out in the much larger public arena. The lightness of tone when dealing with heavy issues is appreciated. In the process it sidesteps the pitfalls that could’ve made this account preachy or didactic. This might alienate some seeking more hard hitting controversy, but the script fashions a narrative much in the way a powerful sports movie works. It creates a David and Goliath story and invites you to cheer for the underdog.

10-01-14

Gone Girl

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on October 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Gone Girl photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgFor those unfamiliar with my reviews. I do NOT reveal spoilers. Never have and I never will. And let me tell you, if ever there was a production that could be ruined by the reveal of pivotal developments, it’s this picture. Rest assured the review that follows will only affirm that there are plot twists that make Gone Girl exceptionally engrossing. What those developments are will remain a mystery. The discovery of those surprises constitute the joy of an exciting thriller.

At its core, Gone Girl is about the union of two people. It concerns Nick and Amy Dunne, a pair who met, courted each other and fell in love. Theirs was a storybook romance. But as any married couple will attest, marriage isn‘t all smooth sailing. Life gets difficult when both Nick and Amy lose their jobs. Then Nick’s mother is diagnosed with cancer. In order to care for his mom, they move from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the sedate existence of Nick’s hometown in North Carthage, Missouri. Relying on Amy’s trust fund, they buy a bar which eats up more of their money than it earns. Nick seeks solace in an affair. He’s the classic example of the philandering husband. Nick is growing increasingly miserable and Amy subsequently fears for her safety. When the tragedy begins, Amy is already gone. We learn this in flashback. For you see, on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne returns home to find a smashed coffee table and a missing wife. The police are called in only to discover a perplexing crime scene that solicits more questions than it answers.

Anyone who was living in the U.S. and old enough to remember 2003 will make the connection. One can easily point to the Scott Petersen case as a possible real life inspiration for this chronicle. Scott and Laci were an attractive couple in their late 20s that appeared to be in love. Laci disappeared on December 24, 2002. At first, he was a sympathetic individual. Then he grew seemingly more insensitive. His reluctance to talk to the press fueled a disinterred persona that turned him into a public pariah. His numerous extramarital affairs would later surface. She was eight months pregnant with their unborn child. Scott was charged and ultimately convicted of murdering his wife and their unborn son.

The Gone Girl ensemble mesh like the movement of a precision timepiece. There’s no denying that Ben Affleck is perfectly cast as the lunkheaded doofus of a husband. He’s a douchebag that is more concerned with preserving his own skin than the welfare of his wife. His glib behavior reads as insincere. He maintains he didn’t kill his wife.  The evidence starts to prove otherwise.  The very first line of the film is a voiceover that states he’d like to bash her head in and pick her brain apart to see what secrets come spilling out. As remarkable as he and the rest of the male company are, it’s the women who truly shine in Gone Girl.

Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy signals the arrival of a star. Until now, she was probably best known as Bond girl Miranda Frost in Die Another Day (2002). Using the pages of her diary, we flash back to a time before her disappearance. She is the central focus of the production. She’s beautiful and so we’re initially drawn to her for superficial reasons. Then we question our own perceptions. She exhibits a bit of the ice queen mentality. She is a complex person that becomes more fascinating the deeper we get into the details. Rosamund embodies Amy as a woman losing her handle on a situation and then regaining it. We feel sorry for her, then we hate her, we sympathize again, then we are disgusted. Back and forth over and over. It’s a dizzying balancing act that makes her an endlessly compelling personality.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with so many formidable women in key roles. Actress Kim Dickens is Detective Rhonda Boney, the person entrusted with investigating the disappearance of Amy. A suspicious cop, her scenes where she interacts with Ben Affleck accentuates an intelligent mastery of control of the situation.  She’s joined by Detective Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) but she’s clearly in charge. Then there’s Margo. Nick’s wise-alecky twin sister whom he affectionately calls Go. A rather sarcastic type, she is brilliantly played by Carrie Coon. As his twin, Margo is 100% devoted to her brother. Perhaps blinded by their familial bond, she believes him implicitly. They are extremely close. So close in fact that their relationship is misrepresented as “twincest” by a flippant news media. Then his infidelity surfaces and her doubt multiplies ten-fold.

At heart Gone Girl is a marriage fable. But this isn’t the fantasy of an idealized romance. It’s the tale of the institution as a prison. A jail that locks two people in a dungeon of souls desiring to break free. The dialogue attempts to present both sides of their failed union. It’s a he said/she said account. If the saga has a failing, it’s that the portrait of their artificial wedded bliss seems to favor Nick’s side to the detriment of Amy. The script raises some red flags. The narrative elucidates his motivations more clearly than hers.  It doesn’t make the drama any less imperative. It’s still a crackerjack thriller.  It also has some salient points to make about the role the scandal obsessed television plays in the presentation of a prefabricated tale of consumption for the masses. Talking head tabloid reporters are epitomized by Sela Ward and Missi Pyle. The latter’s character is amusingly pattered after Nancy Grace. The two actresses are extraordinarily good in minor parts. The lie and the truth are simply ideas that the news manipulates to create a shared perception for the masses. This theme infuses the storyline throughout her entire picture. What initially appears to be important is made irrelevant. What seems insignificant is made crucial. The reality is always deeper than what is readily apparent. Gone Girl highlights this fact. And by doing so, not only entertains, but also educates us in how truth is merely a moldable concept of the modern media age.

10-02-14

The Equalizer

Posted in Action, Crime, Thriller with tags on October 1, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Equalizer photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe film adaptation of The Equalizer is a outdated remnant from a bygone era. For starters, the movie is based on an American TV show which debuted way back in the Fall 1985. It ran for four seasons and starred British actor Edward Woodward. However the trappings have more in common with cinematic action hero tropes of the 80s than it does with the less graphic CBS series. The protagonist is a one man army against insurmountable odds. This man possesses a godlike dexterity for fighting. He dismantles the entire East Coast Russian underworld with surprising ease. Stepping into Woodward’s badass shoes is Denzel Washington. Denzel is basically Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II or Arnold in Commando. Apparently 1985 was the high point for this sort of thing. Those flicks, like the TV drama, all came out that year.

After a very slow beginning, The Equalizer takes off when a young prostitute named Terri is assaulted by the Russian mobsters who run a human trafficking ring. This gives our lead a reason to, you know like, actually do something. But the way the scenario plays out is by the numbers as well. The plot is so been there, done that. Denzel Washington is Robert McCall, a middle aged retired intelligence officer who helps people in trouble, in particular an underage girl played by Chloë Grace Moretz. Their relationship and McCall’s personality bring to mind Taxi Driver (1976), Léon: The Professional (1994) and even Denzel’s own Man on Fire (2004) at various points in the narrative. It’s hard not to feel director Antoine Fuqua’s effort is cobbled together from the generic story threads of half a dozen other films.

Denzel Washington plays a man of few words. His roles often have a self righteous quality that invests his individuals with an air of moral superiority. He is supposed to register steely resolve but he’s so unexcitable he’s practically catatonic.  After various captives witness his superhuman abilities, they inevitably ask, “Who are you?”  If this was Arnold circa 1985, he’d quip “I’m the Equalizer!” in a thick Austrian accent. But Denzel seems to just quietly ignore the question time and again.  The third time the question is asked, it’s almost comical.  McCall has always meted out harsh justice as a last resort, but by the end, he is simply out for vengeance. The climatic showdown takes place in a Home Depot-like warehouse. He exhibits a cruelly sadistic streak that takes down his enemies in a vigilante revenge fantasy. There’s a way to put someone out of commission efficiently without resorting to sadism but his creative uses for hardware equipment are barbaric. As he preyed upon the villians in the dark, I felt I was watching a slasher film. You know things have gone horribly wrong when you start to feel sorry for the bad guys.

09-28-14

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