Gone Girl: a dark parable for anyone in a relationship

Why are you reading this?

Do you trust my opinion, or is it simply passing the time?

Do you want to find out what’s going on in my head, or is it a way of helping you form your own opinion?

That’s a glimpse inside the world of Gone Girl. It’s a parable of contemporary relationships that consistently destabilises the narrative direction; that portrays intimate relationships as minefields of (dis)trust and self-justification; in which there’s scarcely a single sympathetic character but still has the gall to ask you where your sympathies lie … and why.

Directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac) and adapted from her own novel by Gillian Flynn it’s best understood as a neo-Gothic melodrama/thriller. Yes, really. The film opens on the morning of Nick and Amy’s 5th wedding anniversary; Amy goes missing in suspicious, possibly violent circumstances. The finger of public and police suspicion starts to turn on Nick, and we see the truth unfold in parallel with the flashback story of Nick and Amy’s relationship from the day they first met.

It’s hard to say much more than that without spoilers. So though I’ve tried to avoid any, proceed in the rest of this post with caution; I hadn’t read the book, and managed to avoid spoilers. From the point of view of pure plot, it is a deliciously dark thriller, constantly taking the truth and twisting it just out of the viewer’s reach. In the final sections the film turns into strange territory, but that it does so without ever feeling false is a measure of just how good this film is. David Fincher is on top form here, meticulously constructing every scene and narrative beat with a painter’s eye; the performances  – especially Rosamund Pike as Amy and Tyler Perry as Nick’s lawyer  – are pretty much on the money; and the film is shot with a sheen and style appropriate to the film’s themes. It nods to all sorts of films – from Hitchcock, through Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct and in one startling moment, Carrie – yet is definitively its own vision.

For all that, the film demands more from you. It has a dark vision of human relationships, and more or less forces the viewer into some uncomfortable reflections. For me the film touches genius in making you to pick a side; then undercuts that by showing you how shallow it is to do so. There’s a question around the source novel as to if it’s misogynist or feminist; such a debate may miss the point completely, in fact. Truth isn’t to be found on one ‘side’ or the other; it’s to be found in the combustible chemical reaction of two broken people. In the film’s deliberately over-stated central relationship we see writ large a deeper truth; that the sum of a relationship is greater than its constituent parts. Hence the uncomfortable reality the film leaves us with – give yourself to your relationships; don’t hide. The more you hide, the more exposed you are. The less you give, the more you lose; the more you give, the more you gain.

It’s not just relationships in Gone Girl‘s crosshairs; it’s a scathing attack on celebrity culture, on media obsession with making info-tainment out of personal tragedy (it felt apt to see this film in the week that Oscar Pisotrius was sentenced for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp), gender and domestic violence, and parenting. It needs a hearty running time to do all that without collapsing under its own weight. It is a long film, but necessarily so; it flies by. Mind, heart and eyes are fully engaged throughout.

In the end, however, it’s the nature of intimate relationships with which it is most concerned. For all the heightened reality that is a feature of this and Fincher’s other best work, it leaves you with pertinent and uncomfortable choices to make and questions to answer. It’s impossible to come out of this film and not find yourself sitting in judgement one character or the other; analyse that for long, though, and you find the finger pointed back on yourself. Which is what a parable should do, really.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

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Brothers: A Miniature On A Big Canvass

Brothers is an English language remake of a Danish film I haven’t seen,  nevertheless it feels a little familiar. It’s an Afghanistan themed story of an American military family. One son is a Marine, like his father. He goes off to Afghanistan to fight, leaving his wife and children behind. The other brother, recently released from prison has never served and is the family disappointment. When the news comes of the death of the brother serving abroad, family relationships are put under even greater pressure. The widow and her children grow closer and closer to the other brother who finds a new sense of vision and responsibility.

SPOILER ALERT – SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH TO AVOID MEDIUM LEVEL PLOT SPOILER

Having no familiarity with the original film, I don’t want to spoil what comes at all. Suffice to say – especially if you’ve seen the trailer – it all gets very emotionally complex. The serving brother isn’t dead, he was captured. He, and all the family relationships are inevitably changed on his return. What follows that is a striking and surprising process of pressure on relationships being cranked up to and and beyond breaking point

As you would expect from Jim Sheridan, director of In The Name Of The Father, this film is good on many of the little of things – the rituals of military influenced masculinity, the communications through deeds more than conversation, the passion and suspicion hidden behind simple words and actions. This is aided by some well-cast and effective performances – Tobey Maguire is just right as the marine brother, Jake Gyllenhaall brings the right sort of confusion and guilt to the other brother, while Natalie Portman strikes just the required level of feminine uncertainty in a world of masculine assertion; before this film I hadn’t quite realised how much she can communicate with silence and simple words. The supporting cast of family and colleagues all work well too. It’s not a political film – which is unusual for Jim Sheridan. That’s fine, tough. To make a good film about a war, sometimes you need not to focus on the war itself, which Sheridan does effectively.

I had no idea where this film was going in the final third, and it was all the better for that. Yes its melodramatic, but that’s no bad thing. War is a very big thing, and while this has none of the grandstanding of Platoon and the like, the big emotions and events of the melodramatic climaxes do justice to the shadow this war and the events around cast over a generation’s view of the world – even those who will not fight. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good film, convincingly painting a miniature of family life on a big emotional canvass. To learn something of what war abroad and conflict at home does to a family and a generation, all wrapped in a plot whose final destination is a real surprise, this is as good a place as any to start.

Up In The Air

It’s quite hard to dislike George Clooney. Especially his cool liberalism (unless, I guess, you’re on the political right) and that natural suave charm. Somehow he even manages to escape the potential charge of hypocrisy in the light of his outward concern for humanitarian issues as he takes a pay-cheque promoting coffee machines from a company whose track record in that area is less than spotless. Artistically he makes it all look so easy – whether it’s adverts, crowd-pleasing Oceans 11, 12, 13… or something more meditative or thoughtful.

Up In The Air appears then, at the outset,seems to be something of an open goal. And so it is, especially as behind the camera we have Jason Reitman, the director of superb, witty, subtle charming Juno. Clooney plays a man who flies around the states, making a living from sacking people on behalf of other companies who buy the services of his company. He’s prides himself on bringing the human touch; and he loves the forced politeness of the airline, hotel and car rental companies whom he chooses to use as homes on the road. He’s the ultimate man with no connections and no commitments. It’s no great surprise then, that film turns on challenges to his world – from his sister’s wedding, a woman he has a fling with on the road and a new employee seeking to bring a new way of working from the office, sacking by video-conference.

Clooney delivers the sort of performance you expect Clooney to deliver, and it’s no less enjoyable for that. The dark comedy just works in tone; the script has a similar (though adult, not adolescent) sharpness to Juno, and the rest of the cast are fine without being outstanding.

It’s good, though a long way from great. Why? Because, I think, it seems to get stuck at a half-way point between seeking to say something about work, culture and relationships at one extreme or a simple, darker-shade of comedy. It’s ends up being convincing at neither end of the spectrum, and what could have been a cleverly ambiguous ending becomes a cop-out. The film stares into an abyss, and gets so hypnotised by what it sees there that it’s frozen, head-hanging over the edge, unable to jump or back away.

Paranormal Activity: Less Is More

Well, well, well. In my last post I talked about the empty vacuous spectacle of 2012; that it’s one of those all surface movies that’s the equivalent of pornography. No depth, no care and no soul. The very next day along comes a film that in many ways is the exact opposite. The story behind Paranormal Activity is well documented; made by a young director for a budget of around only $15,000, it’s become one of the most profitable films of all time. It’s a ‘found video footage’ story in the tradition of films like (recently) The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.  Micah and Katie live together, and Katie’s experiencing some strange things; Micah buys an up-market video camera to record everything that’s happening – most crucially, to place in their bedroom overnight (which is where most of the instances are happening) in order to get to the truth. Things slowly unravel from there. Friends are of limited help (we meet two of them); a supposed psychic is a calming influence the first time; when he returns towards the end, his fear and inability to do anything only adds to the escalating sense of panic. On such a small budget, there are no special effects to speak of – we start instead with some odd sounds, and a door that opens or closes at its own pace. From there, stranger and stranger things happen, but crucially very little is seen. Probably the film’s single most haunting moment involves nothing more than one of the characters simply standing up.

There are two places that a film like this will stand or fall. The first is in its understanding of genre and tradition. This is it has in abundance. I’m not really horror film, but clearly the director loves the genre and understands it. It uses conventions cleverly without feeling forced. It draws from outside the more obvious horror pool also – without wishing to spoil the surprise, let‘s just say that certain aspects of types of Victorian fiction are bought to bear here to devastating effect. This lends depth and weight to the scares and shocks – and makes you think it’s actually trying to do something, in addition to the genre convention of fear and fright.

The second place the film will stand or fall is on the central relationship; and here’s where it really soars. We don’t know the actors, but this is a realistic portrait of what the director has said he wanted to show – a relationship under pressure. Ill-timed jokes, misunderstanding, apology, the slowly emerging secrets of the past…..it’s all here as Kate and Micah start to be overwhelmed by fault lines so much more memorable and damaging than those we see in 2012. Drawing on the Victorian fiction just alluded to, this is all played out in the bedroom. Metaphorically, that is – we never see any sex, but it’s no coincidence that most of the shocks and scares take place around the bed. A different and terrible intimacy overwhelms them, and even if you see the ending coming it’s no less powerful and memorable for that. By the end there’s shock, fear  – but also a kind of sadness and grief that’s invests a genre horror film with depth and soul.

It would be silly to say this is a film for all. Most will find this deeply scary – in a way that for some will stay with you for a long to come. Some in the screening I was in ended up in tears. It may do that to you – if so, you may want to stay away; and if you do see it, try to make sure it’s a fairly busy showing. There’s a lot to be gained from an awareness of how others are (or are not) reacting to what you’re seeing. This, though, to ponder. There’s more truth and weight in this film than in the ponderous nonsense of 2012. Paranormal Activity has a depth that 2012 could never reach, for all its millions of dollars and billowing sweeping tsunamis. Think on that next time your Pavlovian response to the latest big-budget eye candy kicks in.   Restraint can release an ingenuity, intelligence, creativity and profundity that gets lost in the blaze of box office chasing high-concepts. Less is so often more.

Away We Go

Award ceremonies tend to favour the serious over the light-hearted, angst over humour, the weighty over the breezy. There may be many reasons for this, not least perhaps being a caution at being seen as intellectually inferior by honouring that which is lighter in tone.  If, however, the theory is correct that comedy and tragedy are but a heartbeat apart, then any biased by various awards bodies is all the more ignorant. Consider Shakespeare, for instance: Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo And Juliet have more or less identical plots, with marriage ceremonies conducted in secret, the underhand assistance of a member of the clergy and a faked death. The former’s only a more-or-less literal heartbeat away from the latter. Reading or viewing the two together inevitably deepens the experience, casting fresh light on characters and turnings of plot in both.

Sam Mendes isn’t Shakespeare, but it seems to me that he’s up to something of a similar nature. Revolutionary Road is the domestic chamber piece recast as an  All-American tragedy, where the death of dreams is equally as tragic as loss of a loved one. His latest, Away We Go is another close-up portrait of another All-American relationship, but of a sweeter, apple-pie, flavour. Others come into the couple’s orbit: in this one on the point of the birth of their first child as against the previous film’s house purchase. They are both couples let down  – the one by the suburban dream, the other by people. One couple spins helplessly and inevitably towards tragedy; while the couple at the centre of Away We Go bumble agreeably along, discovering that they’re the only really sane ones in a world that’s gone mad since they moved out to the sticks to be near the in-laws.

As always with a Mendes-helmed film there’s much to like – the cinematography, the performances, the script (especially as this one’s from married couple Dave Eggars and Vendela Vida, a kind of post-modern literary celeb-couple). Among the supporting cast there are some great moments as a variety of fine actors ply their trade – most memorably for me, Allison Janney. Taken separately these characters are fine; all together and there’s a danger of weirdness-indigestion, they’re existence and purpose being to highlight the  sane-ness of the central couple.

It is, though, the central couple who save it. I’ve heard it said that this film is for those with children, who will recognise various staging posts in that life transition; many without children have found this smug or alienating, Maybe. My wife and I, though, don’t have children and are fine with that. My overriding impression (my wife hasn’t seen it yet) was not of smugness but rather the cool refreshment of a central couple who are relationally healthy and emotionally balanced. We need more like them. In the context of the film,  that may have required some over-egging of the profile of the supporting cast, but no matter. Thinking now of the all too real relationships I recognised in Revolutionary Road, it makes me both cry and laugh all the more. The more I think, the more I wonder if Sam Mendes really is the poet our times need.

(500) Days Of Summer

By rights, this shouldn’t work. It’s clearly cut from the same cloth as Juno – a cool, independently minded romantic comedy aimed that designed to appeal as much to men as it does to women. And, as we all should know, it’s always painful when we’re offered a film that’s ‘another’ of last year’s big breakout hit.

(500) Days Of Summer, though, is better than Juno. It is smart, funny and independently minded with a great soundtrack (off ‘sad British pop music’ as the narrator memorably intones at the beginning to explain the lead character’s outlook on life) – but actually feels more real than Juno’s enjoyable but unnaturally cool dialogue. It’s funny and clever in its use of what could have been a serious misstep of a dance scene. It gets away with so  much by perfect balance and self-control at all the right moments.

The real plus of the film, though, is in its point-of-view. This is all from the perspective of one character – the man (played by the always engaging Joseph Gordon-Levitt). That’s at least partly a marketing thing, obviously, but it works. As the narrative zips back and forward across the titular 500 days it slowly becomes clear that what we think is happening may not be – we, like the man himself, may be reading things the wrong way. He’s seeing things though the lens of his own desires and prejudices, and it lands him in all sorts of emotional trouble, culminating in a beautiful split-screen sequence showing the same scene from the perspective of both his expectations and the painful reality. Slowly the former gives way to the latter, and his world collapses with exquisite agony.

Of course, there’s stock character  – his two mates, for example. Both the central characters are typical of the genre also – but when the two leads (Zooey Deschanel as Summer) are as engaging as this, it doesn’t matter. So much just works, carrying you through the inevitable flaws: the soundtrack is perfect (maybe I’m just biased but any film with features The Smiths twice in the first half hour is on to a winner); the narration is occasional, beautiful and charming; the ending entirely appropriate and just ambiguous enough whilst still being unmistakeably upbeat.

So, see it. One of the very few romantic comedies to appeal equally to men and women; it will make you think about what you see and what’s real in relationships; and it will just make you smile. See it.

The Boat That [didn’t really] Rock

There are some films that for some reason one gets the impression that you shouldn’t enjoy. Some people think that they are somehow ‘beneath’ you. Some people think that of a film like Love, Actually. It’s just not a film that you’re supposed to like.

Now no-one’s pretending that it’s a masterpiece, but there’s some fine moments in it. It’s problem is that there are just too many characters and overlapping sub-plots. Richard Curtis, who both wrote and directed that film, really needed someone to sit down with him and take a pair of scissors to the script and to the finished film. If that had been done, it would have been a fine romantic comedy.

It’s the same with The Boat That Rocked, with added 60s nostalgia. It all feels a little forced, a little artificial. Some of the jokes are too obvious and repeated too many times. But they’re still funny. I can watch and enjoy just about any films which features one of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Kenneth Branagh; so to have them both is a real treat. There are actors who just exude presence, people you just can’t help but watch.

But the can’t save this one; it’s no Notting Hill. Too repetitive, too long, too any characters….it feels like Piraate Radio For Dummies. It’s by no means the worst film of the year, but really….could have been so much more.