Gone Girl (2014)

2015 #18
David Fincher | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Gone Girl“Horrible people do horrible things to each other” is the Post-it Note summary of this dark drama-thriller from director David Fincher, adapted by screenwriter Gillian Flynn from her own novel, which is short on heroes and overloaded with villains. An alternative brief summation is, “modern society is shit.”

Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike) are a married couple living an affluent-seeming life in middle America. One morning she goes missing, their house showing signs of a violent struggle. Nick calls the police, naturally. He has an alibi, but there are gaps — both to the police and for us, the viewer. Flashbacks reveal the courtship and subsequent middle-class-hardship of the Dunnes, their picture-perfect marriage built pretty much like one might build a picture of a perfect marriage. As the media descends on Nick’s small hometown, he’s swept up in the narrative of a nation deciding his guilt or otherwise in tweet-sized bursts of opinion, due process be damned. The heightened situation and an ever-lengthening chain of increasingly incriminating evidence bamboozles Nick into some ill-advised decisions, which only compounds the public’s negative perception of him. And halfway through there’s a killer twist that turns everything on its head, sending the film spiralling out in all kinds of new directions.

Depending on which set of critical reactions you choose to follow, Gone Girl is either Fincher’s latest masterpiece — possibly his most masterful masterpiece — or Fincher-by-numbers, a director treading water with a film so tailor-made for him that it’s all a bit too obvious. I think the latter is to reduce the greatness of Fincher’s work — and Flynn’s too, not to mention the talented cast and everything else that’s superb about this movie. Girl, goneHowever, that opinion may stem from the same point as my view on the more praise-filled reactions: that Gone Girl is not a film as great as Se7en, Fight Club or Zodiac, but that it is, along with The Social Network, a half-step behind them. Who knows, perhaps if I re-watched the pair they’d catch up with the pack; but then Se7en is my oft-cited “favourite film ever”, so good luck with that.

So, the people who have written Gone Girl off as a thriller made of audacious twists but, ultimately, no more than that have, I would wager, missed something. Analysis pours forth already — Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko and several other lesser films, wrote a lengthy comparison to Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s posthumous final film that had a mixed-to-poor reception on its release but, in the ensuing decade-and-a-half, seems to have been re-evaluated as something of a classic. Kelly’s piece is worth a look for those who don’t mind pieces that include multiple uses of the word “heteronormative” (no, wait, come back — he’s not as bad as most people who insist on using that phrase! And you’ll be pleased to know “cisgender” doesn’t even come up once), but do be aware it thoroughly spoils the plot of Gone Girl (and, I presume, Eyes Wide Shut, but as I’ve not seen that I’m not sure how much I’ve been spoiled).

Comparisons to Kubrick are nothing new for Fincher, of course; both directors being equally famed for their technical virtuosity and obsessive perfectionism, notoriously expressed in their renown for insisting on dozens, sometimes hundreds, of takes. (There’s a bit in the Gone Girl commentary where Fincher addresses this reputation head on, highlighting a shot that was achieved perfectly on the first take, so they didn’t do another.) However, A.V. Club’s list of the 100 best films of the decade so far (which places Gone Girl at #40) has a different suggestion: “isn’t there a bigger hint of Hitchcock in his choice of projects, the “disreputable” material to which he applies his immense talent?”

PolicierThis is an argument for which I have a lot of time. The majority of Fincher’s filmography is made up of policiers and thrillers of one form or another, and even when he breaks out of that mould — in The Social Network, for instance — he often brings a similar perspective and toolset. Many of these films are borderline-rote, heavily-generic schedule-fillers at screenplay level, and would have been just that in the hands of a lesser director; in the hands of a master filmmaker, however, they become genre-transcending classics. I think that same sentence could be said about most (all?) of Hitchcock’s best films.

Gone Girl is the latest in that vein. Yes, there are the straightforward thrills of a twisty whodunnit plot, but that’s carried off with infinite panache, the film as crisply edited and with as darkly glorious cinematography as anything else on the Fincher filmography. Beneath and around that, there’s a seam of thematic material for the engaged to sink their teeth into. Some have labelled it as a deconstruction of marriage, which is a bit broad. Although there’s no functioning relationship on screen to serve as a counterpoint, I think we’re all capable of imagining one. Rather, Fincher and Flynn are showing what a certain kind of person will do to fulfil their ambitions, especially when that ambition is only multiplied by contact with a similarly desirous other. This is a ‘perfect storm’ of two people — perhaps two fundamentally unlikeable people — setting out to achieve their goals with a “rest of the world be damned” attitude; an all-or-nothing game where the stakes are both life-or-death and, at the end of the day, the chance to live the American (1%-er) Dream. Is that worth what they go through? It is to them.

No news is good newsIs it for the masses, too? Maybe. In his review for Little White Lies, David Jenkins reckons that “ideas of the essential unknowability of other people and the fluid nature of trust… form the basis of the entire movie [and] this is where the 24-hour TV news cycle comes in… As events in the film play out, panel shows, news pundits and twitter feeds are swift to offer their unique spin on things, spouting wild conjecture as if it’s copper-bottomed fact.” I can’t help but be reminded of the social media reactions surrounding the Oscar Pistorius case: so many people on Twitter were so convinced they they knew what happened, and what should be done about it, that they had pre-judged him and were shocked by the trial’s outcome, leading to condemnation of the judge and/or the entire South African legal system, which must of course be inferior to the American one (because it’s different and therefore the American one is by default superior).

It’s this kind of reaction that the film is, in part, observing and commenting on; it is, as Jenkins dubs it, “the ocean of fickle public backwash… the collective hunger to say something, anything, [that] will, in the end, prevent justice from prevailing.” The role of the media may seem like a subplot, or even a sub-theme, early on, but by the end it has become vital to the film’s third act: key decisions are made to influence the media and public; further decisions are based on the media and public reaction to that influence; and, come the climax of it all, it’s the media and its consumers — more than the police, or even Nick Dunne and his relatives themselves — who decide the outcome.

I haven’t written much about Gone Girl’s production elements, because I think with a Fincher film you can trust they’ll be exemplary and you can focus on the dramatic/thematic points instead. One thing that does merit highlighting, however, is Rosamund Pike’s performance. She is incredible, offering a performance with more layers than a pack of onions, all of which she negotiates with supreme skill. Given the story, Amazing Rosamund Pikea lesser actress could’ve given a performance with fewer notes and the film still would’ve functioned; or they would have struggled to contain the numerous sides to Amy’s personality in the form of a plausible human being. Pike does that, and more. She goes on my list of “people who were robbed of an Oscar because it was someone else’s ‘time’” (alongside Paul Greengrass’ United 93 snub in favour of The Departed).

Ultimately, Gone Girl works as a twist-laden dramatic thriller, with reveals and developments that are best discovered unspoiled for the full rollercoaster experience. Underpinning that, however, is the kind of observation and deconstruction of our modern world that has elevated several of Fincher’s best films. Even if Gone Girl isn’t quite among the films in that very top tier, I think it can stand proudly beside them.

5 out of 5

Gone Girl debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm and 1am.

What We Did on Our Holiday (2014)

2015 #26
Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

What We Did on Our HolidayOutnumbered: The Movie” is the pithy way to describe this comedy from writing-directing duo Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (the pair behind the successful BBC sitcom), which sees divorcing parents Doug and Abi (David Tennant and Rosamund Pike) playing happy families when they take their three children to Scotland for the 75th birthday of his dying father (Billy Connolly). Their separation is a secret from the extended family, and who better to keep a secret than three young kids?

It’s hard to miss the Outnumbered parallels early on, as a middle-class London family with two girls and a boy (a mere inversion of the series’ two boys and a girl) battle with the kids’ oddities as they try to load the car for a road trip. There’s a suspicion that Hamilton and Jenkin are returning to their half-improvised TV show’s early glory days, when the natural kids said funny things and the adults had to react. If anything, however, the more Kids Say the Funniest Things: The Sitcom tendencies of early Outnumbered are toned down for this movie, which (like later seasons of the series) is very story-driven much of the time.

This comes particularly to the fore in the second half, following a midway ‘twist’ that threatens to turn the rest of the movie on its head. Doug and AbiFor some, the shift may scupper things. For me, it only makes it better: the story’s pathos and emotion are brought into focus, and the humour becomes all the funnier for punching in as tonal relief. It often seems to me that movies struggle to stay amusing for a full feature running time (there’s surely a reason all TV comedy comes in 30 minute chunks), but this story allows Hamilton and Jenkin to spread the laughs out a little without them feeling few or far between.

The three kids aren’t as instantly memorable as Outnumbered’s — there’s no Karen (for my money, one of the greatest sitcom characters ever) — but that’s not to sell their talents short. They may not get the same volume of funny lines, but they’re wonderfully naturalistic and un-stage-school-y. As the eldest, Emilia Jones has the most to do, bridging the gap between the kid-like young pair and actorly adult (much as Jake did on TV, indeed). She’s already been in Doctor Who, Wolf Hall and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, and will soon be seen amongst the starry cast of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. One to watch? Maybe.

The adult cast are no slouch either, mind. Oscar-nominee Pike is the headline now the film’s being released in the US, with the always-popular Tennant joining her as the other nominal lead. Arguably they’re the straight men to both the kids and the array of comedy actors in supporting roles, idealised fun granddadincluding the likes of Ben Miller, Amelia Bullmore (getting the best subplot), Annette Crosbie and Celia Imrie. The real grown-up star, however, is Connolly. You get the sense he’s as scriptless as the kids are, improvising away with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, like some kind of idealised fun granddad. The scenes with just him and the kids are certainly one of the highlights, among the most amusing and the most affecting.

I wouldn’t have really objected if What We Did on Our Holiday had no higher aims than being Outnumbered: The Movie, though trying to recapture the alchemical comedy gold of the series’ early days may well have been a hiding to nothing. Hamilton and Jenkin are on a slightly different tack here, however, even if fans of the series may find it’s a variation on a theme. It’s a theme that stands repeating though, and by mixing in musings on loss and change and how, sometimes, the innocence of kids is more grown-up than the formality of adults, the writer-directors find enough to make their feature debut stand on its own merits.

4 out of 5

What We Did on Our Holiday is released in US theaters tomorrow, and is available via all the usual home entertainment choices in the UK.

The World’s End (2013)

2014 #36
Edgar Wright | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 15 / R

The World's EndShaun of the Dead is the favourite of critics and fanboys, and Hot Fuzz seems to have attained widespread popularity, but The World’s End may be the most mature and, in its own way, subtly subversive of the ‘Three Flavours Cornetto’ trilogy. Does that make it the best? Well…

The story sees man-child Simon Pegg gathering his old gang of Sixth Form friends — all now grown-up with proper jobs and lives — to attempt their hometown’s twelve-stop pub crawl, which they failed as teens. Despite lingering tensions within the group, all starts well enough — until they begin to notice there’s something oddly familiar about their old town… almost as if it hasn’t changed at all for a couple of decades… Cue sci-fi hi-jinks with special effects and action galore, mixed with some deft character-derived humour — the Cornetto trilogy’s usual M.O., in other words.

That’s not a criticism. This is a thematic trilogy, and as such you expect certain elements to be there. No one wants a beat-for-beat rehash, because what’s the point, but there are certain stylistic and tonal elements you want to be present. The World’s End largely achieves that, though not enough for some — those after nought but genre spoofery and non-stop humour may be disappointed.

This is a more mature work than its two predecessors. While they were clever genre mash-up/pastiches, this goes lighter on that crowd-pleasing bumf. There are still generous segments of that in the film, but the genre being manipulated is less clearly defined thanBottoms up “zombie movie” or “Hollywood action movie”, and occasionally co-writers Pegg and Wright have substituted character development and thematic points for send-up. It may not play to the genre-loving fan-audience that the trio’s previous work has accumulated (demonstrably so, based on many a viewer review), but it does make for a more grown-up film.

I noted that the film is definitely a part of the Cornetto trilogy, but there’s an element of growing up and moving on about it. Shaun of the Dead was made when Pegg and Wright were in their early 30s, but now they’re in their early 40s — a very different time, with different personal concerns. Some people may wish to remain young forever (as per Pegg’s character in the film), but others mature, and it seems Pegg and Wright have more grown-up aims in mind with their filmmaking. In that sense The World’s End may be transitional, from the genre-focussed spoofery of their ‘youth’ to a more considered, perhaps even realistic (at least as far as character and theme are concerned), style of storytelling. Of course, it’s quite meta that the film they’ve made to grow up and move on from the Cornetto trilogy is all about growing up and moving on.

It’s a shame some viewers can’t get on board with this more mature approach. While the consensus appears to be “very good, but definitely the weakest of the trilogy”, there are (normally sane) people who seem to genuinely despise it (what was that I was saying about immaturity again…), and at least a couple who cite it as their favourite of the lot. It’s been a long time since I last watched Shaun or Fuzz so I’m not going to offer my definitive opinion on their relative merits, but I can see that this could be my favourite.

Frost PeggIt will definitely reward multiple viewings: it’s littered with signs, omens and portents (in fairness, a good few can be grasped on an attentive first go). There’s a featurette on the BD (but not the DVD) which helps point out any major ones you may’ve missed; though I have to say, even at seven minutes long, and even with it pointing out some that felt too obvious to be worth mentioning, I swear it left some stuff out. That could be a deliberate decision of course, to leave some things for people to just spot.

Clearly too mature for some viewers (and I don’t mean in the sense of swearing and violence), Wright and Pegg’s trilogy-capper is a thoughtful character movie about growing up and moving on… paired with the usual Cornetto trilogy genre-riffing hi-jinks. The result may just be the trilogy’s pinnacle.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

2014 #78
Jonathan Liebesman | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG-13

Wrath of the TitansThe 2010 Clash of the Titans is primarily remembered for its bad early-3D post-conversion, but must’ve made enough money to greenlight this sequel. I deemed Clash passably entertaining and expected no more here. Sadly, Wrath can’t deliver even that.

A confused story connects workmanlike action sequences and mediocre CGI (the cyclops resemble Shrek characters). A romantic subplot consists solely of The Hero kissing The Female at the end. New ideas sporadically rear their head, but Liebesman can’t ring anything interesting from them. Clash’s strong points — creature design; retro-styled gods — are AWOL.

The end result is all bluster and no heart.

2 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.