Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Gone Girl

Gone Girl (2014)

Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike

Directed by David Fincher

WARNING!  Here there be spoilers.  Please only read on if you've seen the film, read the book, or want to know what happens.  More time is spent describing the plot than usual - for a reason.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last few years, you will have heard of Gillian Flynn's novel "Gone Girl".  The film adaptation, directed by David Fincher, has recently been released, and has garnered a huge amount of coverage in the mainstream media, in which its addressing of issues of gender, marriage, and the media itself have been thoroughly dissected and discussed. It's the story of a seemingly happily married couple, Nick and Amy Dunne who have recently moved from New York City to Nick's home town of North Carthage, Missouri to care for Nick's Mother, who had cancer; she has since passed away, but Nick and Amy have remained in the town.  Nick co-owns a bar with his sister Margo, bought for them by Amy, daughter of wealthy parents, one of whom a successful author of a raft of cutely-illustrated children's books in a series called "Amazing Amy".  On that score, at one point Amy comments that her Mother didn't really write them about her, because the fictional Amy always does better than the real-life version.  "I love having strangers pick at my scabs" she acerbically remarks.  These are the first hints of real people being misrepresented in public, a recurring theme.

The story opens on the morning of the couple's fifth wedding anniversary.  Nick leaves the house to visit his sister at their bar (imaginatively called The Bar), but when he returns home, his wife is missing, and there are signs of a violent struggle in the living room.  He calls the police, and whilst being very concerned, appears open and honest with Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens - Joanie from "Deadwood") and Officer Jim Gilpin.  A search of the house reveals a small splatter of blood in the kitchen.  Boney, scarcely seen without a coffee in her hand, is still friendly and professional; Gilpin, however, immediately becomes suspicious and takes a dislike to Nick.  Events in the present timeline are interspersed with flashbacks - enacted in the form of a voiceover by Amy reading from the pages of her diary - to the couple's meeting, blossoming relationship, and early marital period.  This cross-cutting structure is extremely well handled, as it invites the viewer to bring their feelings about the events of one narrative strand and transpose them onto the other.  We see Nick, the frantic husband desperate to find his wife, just as we see Nick the charmer and seducer, half of a dream couple.  Simultaneously we see Amy seeking comfort in marriage as an escape, just as we don't see Amy at all any more, because she has gone; escaped?  Through these flashbacks we learn that on each of their wedding anniversaries previously, Amy had staged a "treasure hunt", leaving a series of clues for Nick to lead them to his anniversary present.  Initially assuming her absence to be part of this game, Nick's concern begins to mount, along with the public's.  The "Find Amy" website and hotline spring up overnight, and "Missing" flyers plaster every wall and lamp post in town.  Then the detectives find an envelope marked "Clue One" and the treasure hunt is on...

Things take a turn, though, when the flashback timeline shows cracks beginning to appear in the marriage.  Both lose their jobs during the financial downturn, and they start to encounter monetary difficulties;  Nick plays videogames when he should be concerned about Amy's problems, arguments become more frequent.  In the present day timeline, some fumbles on Nick's part lead gradually to suspicion and whispers.  The whispers grow louder.  Could Nick really have murdered Amy?  He's still a sympathetic character at this point, worried but trying to stay composed, to please the people who are helping in the search for Amy, and ultimately just in the worst possible conflicted state.  The storm really breaks when  it emerges that Nick had been having an affair.  The townsfolk, media, and public across the country turn fully against him and make up their minds that his displays of grief are not quite genuine enough.  One talk show host in particular seems to take up a crusade against him, picking on tiny moments and placing them out of context to falsify perceptions.  People don't seem to understand that marriage is a two-way street, and that the affair could have been born of a reason other than simply him being a bastard.  It's a biting comment on the cynical nature of opinion in the age of 24 hour news channels and social media.  Nick enlists the services of celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt, the excellent Tyler Perry, to mount his defence; that defence is as much about fighting the PR war as it would be about fighting a court case.  As facts come to light, Bolt says "You two are most of the fucked up people I've ever met, and I deal with fucked up people for a living!"   Amy's body hasn't been found, so it's unlikely that Nick would be convicted, though if he were he could face the death penalty.  As they begin to investigate Amy's past - and past relationships - they begin to understand what has happened.  We then start to see Amy's side of the story, and an explanation of why events have played out as they have.

Details of her scheme are intricately mapped out, and depicted in riveting fashion.  At this point the story certainly loses its ambiguity, as the viewer now knows for sure that Amy isn't dead, and that Nick is guilty of not much more than adultery.  But despite the sharp left turn it remains totally gripping, because things are unfolding in such a bizarre way that it's virtually impossible to predict how it all will end.  The introduction of a character from Amy's past complicates things further and the shocking implications of her actions, both back home and further afield, come into focus.  Neil Patrick Harris, as her High School flame Desi Collings, is billed third, so his (late) appearance is anticipated, but his behaviour is odd and unexpected.  Amy's eventual inevitable return home gives rise to a moment which perfectly embodies the film's sardonic take on marriage; as the couple pose and beam for cameras, seemingly euphorically relieved to be reunited, Nick, having twigged to the ramifications of Amy's nefarious plan, leans in close and whispers in her ear "You fucking bitch".    Till death do us part, indeed.

Many have commented that Affleck is a fitting choice to portray Nick, as he knows only too well what it's like to come under the judgmental spotlight of an indifferently subjective media.  He performs superbly here, skillfully walking the fine line between likable, average Joe and  sly guy with a secret.  Rosamund Pike has a similarly tricky dual part to play but does so convincingly, so much so that the sociopathic schemer of the latter stages is so jarring, because the sexy, intelligent and loving Amy of the former stages is so attractive (in many senses of the word).  Films like this probably won't fall into the Oscar basket, but I would have them both up for acting gongs. The supporting cast are all good too.  The screenplay, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel, is tight, smart, and bitterly funny.  It's not too often that authors adapt their own novels for the screen; maybe it's too hard to step away from the original creation.  But from what others have said, it's been ideal in this instance, as the diary structure had to be remixed, and certain elements had to be left out  to work for cinema.  Jeff (son of Jordan) Cronenweth's cinematography is nigh-on perfect.  It contrasts the heat of the beautiful wide open Missouri landscapes, with Nick's loneliness in the increasingly oppressive empty house as the case goes on, opening out and brightening when Amy "frees" herself and goes on the road.  The brooding electronic score, by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, in their third collaborative work on Fincher movies, is minimal, menacing, and subliminally effective.  There's a free stream of it here which is well worth checking out, if you're interested.

Given the close attention to detail invested in Amy's plot, it's surprising then, that there are a couple of plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.  She uses her credit card to buy a stream of products to back up her story about Nick's spending addiction, but how are they delivered without need for a signature?  And how does she get them into Margo's shed without anyone noticing?  And how come Margo never looks in there?  When she gets "abducted" by Desi Collings, she's shocked to realise that he has security cameras covering every corner of the house, to which she plays up when she feigns abuse.  They would be digitally stored, so not erased every few days as in the good old days of videotape surveillance.  She admits this fact to the cops and FBI when interviewed, so surely they would eventually get access to the footage to find out when she first arrived, and they'd see that she walked in calmly, unlike someone who'd been kidnapped and tied up, and not at any time soon after her disappearance?  And they'd see the wine bottle incident.  I know these are minor points and they only sink in after the fact, but still, it slightly lets the film down.  In many ways, this is reminiscent of Fincher's earlier "The Game".  That film was utterly engrossing up until the final twist, which totally let down what had gone before.

That being said, this is still a really good movie.  David Fincher's direction is beyond question; he's one of the most consistently solid directors working today ("Alien 3" wasn't his fault).  It's a genuine mystery, unpredictable, interesting, it throws up a range of thought-provoking questions, it's challenging, surprisingly funny in points, the dialogue is razor sharp ("We caused each other pain" says Nick at one point, "That's marriage" replies Amy) and is worth seeing much more than most other films out there at the moment.  And it has the best-behaved cat in the history of cinema.

Just don't see it with your spouse.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014


Transcendence (2014) 

Starring Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall
Directed by Wally Pfister

Seldom does a film arrive with so much baggage.  The directorial debut of Wally Pfister, maestro cinematographer of titles such as "The Italian Job" remake, "Moneyball", and the Christopher Nolan directed "The Prestige", "Inception", and the "Dark Knight" trilogy, brings with it a significant deal of expectation.  It seems like everyone expected this to be Nolan-calibre; expectations, it's fair to say, were high.  I hate mentioning it, but it's impossible to avoid.  As if to add fuel to the fire, calling a movie "Transcendence" practically screams out "I am deep, I am important".  So here we have a big, *serious* science fiction film, tackling mind-bending concepts, and looking scintillating.   How does it play?

Johnny Depp stars as Will Caster, a scientist, Artificial Intelligence developer, and a man seeking to create the ultimate sentient machine, combining logical intelligence with human thoughts, feelings, and emotions (an electronic Mr Spock?).  He becomes the target of a group of activists fighting against such "un-natural" progression, and falls victim to a radioactive-laced assassination attempt.  When it becomes apparent that he will soon die from radiation poisoning, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend and colleague Max (Paul Bettany) embark on the completion of an experiment on which Will had been working - the uploading of thought patterns and electrical brain-waves into a physical mainframe.  Can a human "exist" in such a set-up?  Would the artificial Will really be him, or would it be a pale reflection, driven by the computer? So far, so tantalising, so mind-stretching.  The experiment works, and Will exists no longer in a physical body, but in computerized, virtual form.  Theoretical physicist and general all-round thinker Michio Kaku (please look him up and read his books) is one of many who have questioned what it is to be conscious, and human, and then to ask if consciousness could be transferred to an alternate host.  And the popular consensus is that it could be possible. Could.  So the science here in this science fiction is not quite so outlandish as it sounds.  “Transcendence” embraces this concept with earnestness and aspiration.

There are many positives outside of the intriguing concept.  As one would expect, the film looks fantastic.  It's great to see Cinematographer Jess Hall graduating from the likes of the great "Hot Fuzz" to a big Hollywood production like this.  The score by Mychael Damma ("Life of Pi") is fittingly pounding and Zimmer-esque.  And of course there's the cast.  Johnny Depp might be a little subdued in the main role, mumbling his way through a keynote speech at the start of the film, and hamming it up no-end when he becomes an omnipotent AI construct later in the movie.  Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany are their usual dependable superb selves, and ever so watchable.  Morgan Freeman does the "Basil Exposition" role as only he can, no surprises there.  Cillian Murphy is fine as the FBI cyber-cop, but his role is cut down to its bare bones, and feels shoved to one side.  Overall things look and play very well, making this a very easy watch.

Narratively, however, there are significant problems.  In the second half of the film, events move with frightening pace.  The whole thing feels un-necessarily rushed.  One minute Max is plugging Will into the machine and happy with the idea, barely two minutes later he's thrown his hand in with R.I.F.T, the quasi-terrorist group opposed to the whole human-technology movement.  Another minute Evelyn is overjoyed to have her husband "back", the next, she's terrified when Will goes all "Lawnmower Man" on her.  Things go from good to bad to worse in the blink of an eye.  Rather than an exploration of the initial ideas, we move to a secondary plot about nano-technology and manipulation of the environment, a plot thread which seems to come out of left field.  I haven't read much about the production, but the fact that there are listed 14 producers, co-producers, or exec producers might have something to do with it.

First timer Jack Paglen's script is smart, and brimming with ideas and questions, and although the movie is rabidly uneven, I would love to see the full original screenplay.  I would also love to see a three-hour cut of this film, as I feel that in its current format it misses out huge chunks of what would have been vital to the unfolding story.  "Transcendence" is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not great, and what is most frustrating is that it seems like it should have been.  I'm confident that Pfister will go on to make many fine films better than this.  Ultimately, if you offered me "Transcendence" or "Transformers", I'd take the former over Michael Bay's brain-vacuum crash-bang  nonsense any day.  Give me a film with ideas.  This movie isn't perfect, but it does at least have some of those, and is worth a watch for that reason alone.