Thursday, October 30, 2014

Quick Looks:


     I'm a huge fan of Joe Hill's novels: Stephen King's talented son has written three of them, two of which have produced that same wonder and horror that we've all experienced in older King novels like The Shining. Horns is a tough film to sell to audiences, though: it's about a young guy, Ig, who may or may not have raped and murdered his girlfriend. One morning, he wakes up after a heavy night of drinking and Devil horns are growing out of his forehead, and everyone in his presence begins telling him and acting on their deepest and darkest thoughts and feelings. The tone in the book flashes between horror, humor and fantasy with incredible expertise, but the film doesn't fair quite as well. It's not real fault of anyone: Daniel Radcliffe, portraying another character who has an abnormal bond with snakes, actually does a wonderful job of shedding the Harry Potter skin, conveying anger and hopelessness with a touching fervor. Director Alexandre Aja (whose previous work consisted of the oogle-naked-booby mess that was Piranha 3D) actually portrays some stylish scenes, but they are mixed in with work that seems pretty amateur. When reading the novel, getting sucked into Horns' world of gritty humor and shocking surprises takes no effort at all. But the film leaves you wanting more, and it strikes an uneven tone between amusing, weird, and unintentionally comical.     (B-)

The Purge: Anarchy

     Last year's The Purge had a really intriguing concept: all crime (basically) is legal for 24 hours once a year--essentially purging the country of its over-population problem. And I actually thought the film--anchored by Ethan Hawke's performance--was entertaining enough. But one criticism was that the film's sights were set in too small of an area--one neighborhood street, and specifically one house where a group of freaky teenage bad guys are trying to break in. The Purge: Anarchy attempts the first film's formula, except aiming a little higher: this purge takes place in the numerous streets, blocks and alleyways of an entire populated city. It also deals much more with the socio-economic reasons for the purge, but let's face it: these films are all about tension and violence. Frank Grillo (as Leo) stands out here as the man-of-few words, a sort-of hero on a mysterious mission who periodically resorts to being a badass, mowing down sickos with style and manliness. The Purge: Anarchy is an attempt at saying something worthwhile about the government, the homeless, and crime in America. But since it has nothing specific to say, the viewer just waits for the next set-up for a cool kill.     (C+)

Obvious Child

     Obvious Child is about Donna, a woman who has had a really shitty go of life for the past few weeks: her boyfriend has cheated on her and left her, the bookstore where she works is being sold, and she's sunken into a bit of a depression. Donna is portrayed by former Saturday Night Live cast member Jenny Slate, and she rides the line between being very funny and almost annoying. Luckily the funny far outweighs the annoying: Donna is a comedian and it's clear to see how her self-deprecating ways have led her down this path in life. Then one random drunken night, she meets Max, a cute and nice student who takes a liking to her vulgarity. They have a one night stand and...I won't spoil the rest. Obvious Child was a huge hit at the film festival circuit earlier this year, and the praise is well-deserved: this "romantic comedy" is witty and deals with life issues that should be more in the open rather than shunned and hidden. It's one of the funnier films I've seen this year.     (B+)

John Wick

     John Wick succeeds by keeping it simple, stupid. Every year produces films based on exacting revenge on those who have wronged you, usually because they hurt someone or some thing that you have loved. Just a few weeks ago, Denzel Washington snapped because a hooker with a heart of gold got beaten bloody, taking out hordes of foreign gangsters with guns and power tools. This past week, we had a Keanu Reeves come-back of sorts, as he stars in John Wick, which is surprising in it's simple effectiveness. Rather than attempt to blow the viewer away with massive explosions and action set pieces, Wick impresses with it's claustrophobic gun-play and martial arts fights that are violent and intense. The plot is intentionally a bit of a joke: John's wife dies of Cancer. Bad Dudes break into John's house and do some bad stuff. John breaks out of "retirement" to kill those who have wronged him. Keanu is great in the titular role: when there's barely a back story and plot, we can focus on the cool factor and impressive stunt work that Keanu performs. First time director Chad Stahelski (Reeves' former stunt double) is precise and stylistic in the choreography and cinematography--it's an impressive debut. I did grow tired of John Wick by the end credits, which isn't a great sign since it has short run time. But Wick is still an action journey well-worth taking, and showcases a comeback for fans of Reeves.     (B)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

He Said / She Said in Gone Girl

     When it was announced that David Fincher  would be directing Gone Girl, based upon the runaway bestseller full of killer plot twists, super-fast pacing, and a far-fetched story, it seemingly was a match made in cinema paradise: the book's acerbic take on marriage and the occasional flashes of brutal violence begged to be filmed by a director like Fincher whose skills as a filmmaker rely on cool style and an amazing visual eye. And Gone Girl--as a whole--is a success: it's entertaining and at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it never drags even as the plot twists edge closer and closer to ridiculousness. However, I will say that I was hoping for a little bit more. David Fincher has created some modern masterpieces in his career: Seven, Fight Club, even The Social Network. With Gone Girl we just get a good movie--one that is completely self-aware and strikes a peculiar tone between being sarcastic and scary.
     Gone Girl tells the story of a dream (or nightmare) marriage between Nick and Amy Dunne. It's as simple as this: one day, Nick comes home and the living room looks like a crime scene--the coffee table is broken, a ottoman is flipped over, there are spots of blood in the kitchen. But there's no sign of Amy. Nick calls the police (naturally) and so begins the investigation that makes up the entirety of Gone Girl. The film is told through two distinct lenses: the present day one, focusing on Nick and the investigation and corresponding search, and the past one: flashbacks from Amy's written diary, which depicts a far-less-than-perfect marriage as the years went by. It's impossible to know who to trust since we're seeing two differing stories of the relationship, and that's the best part (and the point) of Gone Girl. And in an era of deceit and 24-news coverage of crimes, opinions and allegiances are played like a game of chess.
    The plot twists in Gone Girl hit a bit harder if you've never read the novel, and it's definitely not essential to have read the source material to enjoy this adaptation. It's probably better if you haven't read Gillian Flynn's phenomenon. Once the film gets going, Nick becomes a suspect--too many things are "off", and he has such a weird attitude toward possibly losing his wife. Part of the fun is deciding whether it's just the way he acts or if he's a sociopath. He has plenty of secrets of his own--but so does Amy: she disappeared on their wedding anniversary, and she has left behind a treasure hunt of sorts complete with written clues that may lead the investigators to the actual truth of what happened between this couple.
     Ben Affleck always gets criticized as an actor--many people wish he would stick to directing (which he is great at). But I actually like Affleck as an actor, and this is a great role for him. Some of his detriments--his smugness, his inability to show a wide range of emotions--are actually total positives in Gone Girl: it jives perfectly with his personality, and he also has plenty of experience with a relationship in real life (with Jennifer Lopez) that was covered 24 hours a day by the media. Rosamund Pike gives the film's best performance: her Amy is mysterious and beautiful and cunning, and her performance is fearless in its depiction of a woman thrown deep into dangerous situations. Carrie Coon, as Nick's sister Margot, injects the film with emotion and humor: she's essential in having us relate to Nick, even if it's only a little bit. And even Tyler Perry shows up, which makes Gone Girl a success in itself: it's the first film that Perry stars in that doesn't totally suck.
    Gone Girl is far from perfect. My main complaint deals with the film's tone: Flynn adapted the script from her own novel, and it's actually a bit overwritten. There's too much dialogue, too many attempts at humor (and the film is funny at times, but I just didn't think it corresponded well with the seriousness of domestic violence and murder), too much focus on the pretty obvious satire of The Media, particularly the Nancy Grace-esque character that the film's main stars are constantly watching. And it's views on marriage are a little concerning if you're not the most cynical person in the world. If it wasn't for Fincher's skill at moving things along at a flashy and brisk pace, Gone Girl could have been the equivalent of US magazine: a sleazy, guilty-pleasure waste of time. Instead, it's something a bit more: a not-quite-trash not-quite-treasure entertaining story of one insane marriage.      (B)