Movie Review: “Gone Girl”

It’s been awhile since anything really interesting and review-worthy has released (or it might be due to the fact that I’ve since moved to Connecticut and started law school). As a fan of Gillian Flynn’s psychologically turbulent thriller, I knew “Gone Girl” would be a must-see…and who better to direct than David Fincher, the grandmaster of contemporary noir cinema?

At first blush, “Gone Girl” is the story of struggling writer Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) whose wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) abruptly disappears on the morning of their fifth anniversary. Raised as a child of privilege – and as the inspiration for “Amazing Amy,” a series of children’s books written by her parents – Amy has clearly grown apart from her husband, numbed by their drab suburban existence (at least, that’s how it is in Nick’s telling). Without revealing too much, the film unfolds in nonlinear fashion, deploying unreliable-narrator twists along the way. What emerges is a tangled web of half-truth, infidelity, alienation, and betrayal – one which rips away the veneer of contemporary civility to expose a viciously Nietzschean tension between husband and wife.

Fincher has clearly brought his A-game to this project – and it would be hard to imagine a better synthesis of director and subject matter. Backed by a buzzing, insidiously ambient electronic score (composed by longtime Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), Fincher conjures up a menace-drenched masterpiece. The sense of impending doom that suffuses his entire filmography is certainly present here, at once both repellent and hypnotic. Additionally, Affleck and Pike are perfect in their parts – one couldn’t ask for a better Nick/Amy. And perhaps most impressively of all, the black comedy of the original novel isn’t lost in the translation to screen. “Gone Girl” isn’t totally downbeat, despite its gothic subject matter.

At its misshapen heart, “Gone Girl” is a stark indictment of humans’ desire to remake one another to suit their idealized fantasies. Some commentators have treated it as an indictment of marriage itself, but this is too narrow a view: marriage is but one of the spheres which these broken protagonists decide to weaponize. Tensions between family and career, wealth and fulfillment, and masculine and feminine expectations are all factors bearing on the tragedy that unfolds onscreen. And what a tragedy it is – baroque in the best of ways, kept from melodrama by the steady hand of its director and cast.

“Gone Girl” is a dark, brutal, emotionally twisted drama that’s obviously not for all audiences (there’s sexual content and a memorably grisly scene of violence). It’s also a wrenching study of social power dynamics, and a brilliantly crafted piece of neo-noir that raises questions of identity, projection, and manipulation.

I can’t recall the last time I saw a movie where the audience was stunned into absolute silence as the lights came up. That pretty much says it all.

A grim, but thoroughly compelling, mystery-thriller that ranks with Fincher’s best work.

(An important addendum: one of the film’s most trauma-inducing visuals is the sight of Neil Patrick Harris – the legendary Barney Stinson – wearing a blazer over a polo shirt. I was appalled.)

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Posted by on October 13, 2014 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

You’d be forgiven for being pretty skeptical of this latest Marvel entry. After all, it’s not every sci-fi superhero movie that introduces not one, but five new leads, among them a wisecracking raccoon and a talking tree. Moreover, this installment – ostensibly part of the larger Cinematic Universe involving the Avengers – is almost totally devoid of familiar reference points. Earth itself barely appears onscreen.

But oh, what a fantastic adventure “Guardians” is.

It’s hard to find enough positive things to say about this movie. I could say that if you watch only one big-budget blockbuster this summer, this should be the one. I could say that it’s loads better than “The Avengers” or anything else in Marvel’s cinematic stable. I could say that watching it evokes the same sense of wonder, joy and imagination that I felt as a kindergartener watching “Star Wars” for the first time. But instead, I’ll simply say that it’s the best sci-fi film I’ve seen since “Inception.”

When galaxy-hopping adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, bulked up and playing a slightly-more-adult version of Emmet from this year’s “The Lego Movie”) recovers a mysterious relic from a ruined world, he quickly becomes the target of evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and comely assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Unaligned bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper voicing a CGI raccoon) and Groot (Vin Diesel doing mo-cap for a talking tree) soon enter the mix, and are finally joined by the brutish alien warrior Drax (WWE veteran Dave Bautista, delivering a surprisingly strong performance). Oh, and meanwhile, underlying tensions between two celestial empires – the Nova and the Kree – threaten to boil over into all-out galactic war.

If I’d been in the pitch meeting when this was first engineered, I would’ve probably vetoed the idea. It sounds like the stuff of parody, destined to inspire an infinite number of SNL skits. But somehow, director James Gunn – best known for the black comedy “Super” starring Rainn Wilson – pulls off the impossible.

For starters, warmth, humor and exuberance permeate every inch of the film – from the rousing ‘70s-rock soundtrack to quippy pop-culture references that amazingly never feel out of place. Gunn embraces the opposite of the “dark and gritty” phenomenon present in so many comic-book movies today – “Guardians of the Galaxy” is effervescently kinetic, bouncing from planetary mishap to planetary mishap without ever losing its momentum. This isn’t to say that there are no dramatic moments – there certainly are – but never do these congeal into a humorless mess (cf. “Man of Steel”). Pratt – perhaps best known for his turn as bumbling Andy Dwyer on “Parks and Recreation” – proves to be a surprisingly effective leading man.

Additionally, this is one movie that it’s probably best to know as little about as possible before viewing. I had no idea what was going on at first, and for the casual viewer, there aren’t a lot of tie-ins to established Marvel film properties. This, however, is actually an asset: it allows the viewer to “get lost” in an unfamiliar, exotic world they’ve never seen before. Gunn heroically resists the temptation to resort to massive exposition, and instead leaves room for the audience’s natural sense of curiosity.

Here’s an example: about halfway into the film, the Guardians team stops by an outlaw city floating in the middle of space. This base has been constructed inside the severed skull of an unimaginably vast celestial creature, and mining operations in the city involve the extraction of cerebral matter from the skull’s depths. It’s absurd, but at the same time fascinating and different. What was that creature? I wanted to know. What else is out there that we haven’t seen yet? Thanks to earlier superhero films, I’ve seen nobodies morph into superheroes through the marvels of drug use and seen just about every major city on earth turned to rubble through the marvels of CGI – at this point, they’re blurring together into an interchangeable cacophony. Conversely, “Guardians” is truly fresh and original, from its casting to its art design to its thrilling resolution.

There’s not a lot of deep thinking or philosophizing to be found here – but for once, I’ll point to this as one of the film’s greatest strengths. This spring’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” tried so hard to be “edgy” and “relevant” that it ended up feeling kludgy and unsubtle; I, for one, would be fine leaving the “dark and gritty” to Christopher Nolan from here on out. (Most of the movie is suitable for all audiences, though there are a few winking innuendos that most younger viewers won’t get.)

I could go on, but I’ll simply say that “Guardians of the Galaxy” has my highest recommendation. It’s entertaining without ever feeling juvenile, a breath of fresh air in the midst of today’s cynically profit-oriented blockbuster grind. I only hope it turns into the smash it fully deserves to be.

VERDICT: 10/10
A superb thrill ride coupling the best elements of “Star Wars,” “Men in Black,” and “Serenity.” I can’t wait for the sequel.

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Posted by on August 2, 2014 in Sci-Fi


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