Wednesday, 1 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: GONE GIRL



20th Century Fox Films

"Blondes make the best victims." Alfred Hitchcock is quoted as saying. "They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints." And Amy Dunne -- a New York princess-cum-Missouri housewife who goes missing on the day of her fifth wedding anniversary -- is primed for victimhood: blonde, beautiful, sympathetic and media-friendly, her story and visage appeals to the big hearts and small minds of middle America and a lazy media. But is she a victim?

The conceit of David Fincher's latest thriller, Gone Girl, is to have you guessing -- or not, if you've read Gillian Flynn's bestseller, skimmed a review of the film, or merely glimpsed a Twitter conversation -- as to whether or not Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) killed his wife (Rosamund Pike), only to flip the switch half way through and have you thinking "why hasn't someone killed her sooner?"

For Gone Girl is as much a black comedy on the trials of marriage as it is a whodunnit. Nothing and no-one is as they seem and neither narrator -- Amy, who reads from her diary, nor Fincher, working from Flynn's screenplay -- can be trusted. No-one knows what goes on between couples behind closed doors, and Fincher's not about to make the Dunne's relationship black and white (though it's decidedly more dark than light).

And marriage isn't the only institution being skewered here; the media and gullible come in for none-too-subtle ribbing. Nick's seeming indifference to his wife's disappearance -- he doesn't seem to be reacting the way everyone, including police officers Boney (Kim Dickens) and Gilpin (Patrick Fugit), thinks he should -- and Amy's mere female-ness, positing the couple on opposing sides of a popularity contest.

Of course, Amy's case wouldn't receive half the media attention it does had she been black. That's not just an inherently American problem but one which pervades almost all Western media: white victim good, female better, blonde = gold. And that's certainly the case for media mavens Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) and Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward), who smell blood in the water and ratings in (and on) the air. As a result, Nick, guilty or not, is fighting an uphill battle from the get-go.

Affleck does a fine job of playing the all-American boy; your typical high school quarterback or prom king who quite possibly peaked in high school even if he did manage to marry the prom queen. But Nick is also a writer and teacher, so he's no dummy -- despite his occasional goofy slip-ups -- and it's that intelligence and reserve which works against him in the court of public appeal.

Rosmaund Pike, a fine British actress landing the role of a lifetime, has the harder task of making Amy more than the victim, the hard-done-by-wife. Her performance comes into its own in the film's second act when we learn so much more about the trust fund beauty. And even if the material Pike has to work with veers toward the extreme end of the satire spectrum, abandoning reality for something more hysterical, she makes Amy highly-watchable.

The film itself is an oddly paced affair: a slow first act (focussing on Nick), a cracking second act (where Amy takes centre stage), and a third act that feels stretched out with false endings and a resolution that feels more like a pulled punch than a TKO.

But there's much to reward and delight the patient viewer (the film clocks in at 149-minutes), particularly those who have not read the source material (and are better able than some to avoid the spoiler territory of social media). And Fincher, arguably incapable of making a bad film, is on-song if not necessarily in top form.

But one wonders what The Master of Suspense himself would've done with Gone Girl? Hitchcock would certainly have had some bloody good fun with Amy Dunne.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE SKELETON TWINS



Sony Pictures

While the bond between siblings is a strong yet complicated one -- often as competitive and antagonistic as loving and supportive -- the connection between twins is believed to be even stronger and more keenly felt. That may explain why Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) decide to take their own lives on the same day.

Estranged for ten years and living on opposite sides of the country -- Milo in L.A. where he headed with dreams of becoming a famous actor; Maggie in the outer suburbs of New York and close the home where they grew up -- Maggie gets the call that her brother Milo slipped into the bath and then slit his wrists just as she's contemplating swallowing a handful of pills.

It's a less than hilarious opening to writer-director Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins (co-written with Mark Heyman) which is a comedy. Make that a dramedy, for there are a closet full of secrets, revelations and pent-up emotions which prevent the laughs from coming thick and fast. It also allows the former Saturday Night Live alums to exercise their dramatic chops while not necessarily moving too far out of their comfort zones.

Milo returns to New York with Maggie, where she works as a dental hygienist and lives with her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson), a good guy with a positive attitude which grates as much as it endears. That endearing quality hasn't yet convinced Maggie that she and Lance should have children, even though they are trying (well, Lance is; Maggie's popping birth controls pills on the sly).

This fear of a deeper commitment sees Maggie taking up a new challenge every few months -- currently scuba diving -- and hooking-up with fellow classmates; this time round the hunky Aussie scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook) fits the bill. Milo, on the other hand, sees his return to his home town as a means of reconnecting with his former high school English teacher (Ty Burrell), whose interest in his pupil are revealed to have been less than scholarly.

Predictably all of these secrets and lies will be brought out into the light, calling for more than one emotion-charged showdown between the siblings. But it's not all gloom: the twins sharing the occasional light-hearted moment, whether induced by nitrous oxide or the power ballad strains of Starship.

And Hader and Wiig work well together. They may not possess a familial appearance but their chemistry is one of a shared history; of intimacies earned, long held and deeply felt. The reason for their estrangement is eventually revealed, proving once again that we often hurt those we love the most even when we think we're acting in their best interests, or not thinking at all.

There's also a not-too-subtle suggestion in the screenplay that children are the collateral damage of their parents; left shell-shocked or completely obliterated by their upbringing and the examples set. Of course, at a certain point you have to stop blaming others and take responsibility for your own life. Sometimes that means sucking it up, rolling with the punches and moving forward; other times that may mean checking out early.

The Skeleton Twins doesn't judge Maggie or Milo for their choices but in choosing life, it ends on a hopeful note.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

FILM REVIEW: THE BOXTROLLS



Universal Pictures

There is nothing to fear but fear itself. And nothing quite maintains the status quo or allows those in power -- or trying to achieve it -- from maintaining their rule then by exploiting that fear.

Fear is the weapon used by Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) as a means to achieving his aim of rising through the social ranks to gain a white hat and seat at Lord Portly-Rind's table of town elders. How? By demonizing the subterranean-dwelling Boxtrolls; positing the peaceful creatures as baby-eating monsters and himself as the only man capable of ridding the town of every single one of them.

The Boxtrolls of course have no interest in human flesh, infant or adult: they climb from the sewers at night only to collect the junk the humans have cast away. But many years ago they did indeed steal away a human boy. They didn't eat the lad -- dubbed Eggs for the label on the box he wears (all Boxtrolls wear a box for even non-God-fearing creatures like trolls must hide their shame) -- but raised him as one of their own.

Snatcher has been pedaling this misinformation about the abduction of the 'Trumpshore Baby' for years, keeping the townsfolk living in fear. But it's when Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright, a.k.a Bran from TV's Game of Thrones), while on a junk-collecting night run, meets Portly-Rind's daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning), a young girl boasting a macabre fascination with the cannibalistic ways of the Boxtrolls, that the truth will finally out and the evil plan of Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley does great villain voice work) will be unveiled.

Laika, the animation studio responsible for Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012), have again created a wonderfully inventive and comic work of stop-motion (and CGI? Surely it can't all be done by hand?) magic. Each of their films is ostensibly dark and macabre but with moral lessons delivered without a hammer.

In The Boxtrolls it is the demonizing and scapegoating of minorities for personal and political gain; a message that couldn't be any more pertinent than today, and sadly, even more so in Australia. The film also touches on class envy (it's what drives Archibald Snatcher), and the hubris of the 1 per centers. But there's comedy and grotesquery aplenty to avoid being bogged down in politics and to keep everyone entertained.

And if The Boxtrolls is not quite on the same level as ParaNorman, in terms of a cohesive whole between story, humour and execution, there's still much to be admired and to delight in.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

FILM REVIEW: JODOROWSKY'S DUNE



Walt Disney Studios Films/Buena Vista

Who knew a documentary about a film that never was could be so entertaining? Even more so, the visionary director with such ambition and passion? That director is Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky and his passion project that would never be was a big screen adaptation of the Frank Herbert sci-fi tome, Dune.

A surrealist who began his career in the theatre, Jodorowsky enjoyed critical and commercial success as a filmmaker with two films, El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). This brought him to the attention of French producer Michel Seydoux, who offered to make a movie -- any movie - with the director. Jodorowsky's choice? Dune, the infamous 'almost-making of' which is detailed in Frank Pavich's doco.

Jodorowsky's not exactly sure why he chose Dune since he, and most everyone who became involved in the project, had not read Herbert's seminal novel. But after Stanley Kubrick's 2001, and before George Lucas's Star Wars, Jodorowsky planned (or rather dreamt) of making a film that would expand the audience's mind; producing the effect of an LSD trip sans acid.

Scouring the world for his creative team of "spiritual warriors", Jodorowsky convinced artists and designers like Moebius, Dan O'Bannon, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger to pack up and move to Paris to work on his dream project. He also courted some impressive and diverse names for his cast: David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, and Orson Welles; the director going to great lengths to secure the latter two.

Most of this is recounted by Jodorowsky himself who, at age 85, is as energetic and enthusiastic as a man more than half his age. There are also talking head interviews with those involved, including Seydoux, Foss and Giger, and glimpses of the storyboards and animation -- beautiful, brilliant, bizarre -- which were the blueprint for the filmmaker's vision.

After a couple of years and with everything ready to go, Jodorowsky and Seydoux took their project to Hollywood; shopping the project -- in a bound book of sketches and panels, from first frame to last -- to every studio. And although met with positive responses, each studio baulked at greenlighting Dune. There is some contention as to whether this was because the budget for such an ambitious film would be too high (by 1970s standards), or that studio heads felt Jodorowsky was too much of a risk. But that's where that film, if not the dream, died.

Dune was eventually made in 1984. Directed by David Lynch and featuring a cast that didn't boast any of Jodorowsky's eclectic choices, it was made on a budget of $40 million and grossed $30m in the States. The film wasn't a huge success -- but has gained cult status in the intervening decades -- and Jodorowsky expresses his delight in witnessing just how terrible the film is.

Of course, there is no admission from anyone interviewed in the doco that the film as envisioned by Jodorowsky would have fared much better. (All signs point to Jodorowsky's Dune being a big fat turkey.) On a positive, some of the creative team would go on to be heavily involved in another seminal sci-fi film, Ridley Scott's Alien.

The greatest film never made? Probably not. But we could do with a few more visionaries like Alejandro Jodorowsky in cinema: filmmakers with passion and "spirit" who dare to dream big. Of course, like an author needs a good editor, a producer with a supportive yet firm hand is required to ensure the dream eventually becomes a reality.