Gone Girl (2014)

gone-girl-movie-picture-11-1024x513There’s something rotten in the state of Missouri. Amy and Nick’s picture-perfect marriage has soured and, on the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy has disappeared in a violent manner. Now Nick must try to find his wife before the police begin to suspect that he was the murderer. Gone Girl is, next to Zodiac, the clearest indicator of what interests director David Fincher. It is a movie about the roles we inhabit in order to woo a mate, and what happens when those roles become a reality. It is a long, hard look at the cracks that form when performances start to break down and reality sneaks in.

David Fincher has always been an obsessive (see Zodiac) and a game player (see, uh, The Game). Gone Girl is no different. It’s his funniest movie in a good while – funnier than The Social Network, even – and it’s there that he tips his hand as to what he thinks of all the gaming and plotting and playing that happens over the course of the 2.5 hour run time. It’s all kind of a joke. It’s a joke on the media, which heightens and examines every detail to the point of absurdity, and it’s a joke on marriages, which often force the couple to change for each other in ways that seem fine at first but soon lead to resentment. And, most importantly, it’s a joke on crazy relationship thrillers. It was a popular genre, once, in the glory days of Fatal Attraction and the crazy-dreamy Eyes Wide Shut, and it resurges here with a delightfully nutty third act that tips over into an insane, supremely dark comedy with plenty of bloodshed. Nick and Amy aren’t every-people, made to be held up as the way normals would act in a given situation, they’re cartoonish funhouse mirrors which reflect only our darkest impulses and desires. In the blame game that will be played by most audience members at the conclusion of the film, the finger needs to be pointed in all kinds of directions.

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It’s a fun game to play, the blame game, because the rest of the film is so well made that it’s hard to talk about the technical aspects outside of praising them for their perfection. David Fincher is a calculating and exacting director, and it’s no surprise when a flashback to a gift exchange involving sheets cuts immediately to Nick’s sister, Margo (excellently portrayed by Carrie Coon, whom you should all be watching in The Leftovers), setting up certainly less-comfy bedding for Nick on her couch. Fincher never misses a beat and, although the movie is lengthy, it never feels slow nor do any scenes stand out as unnecessary. The praise for this smoothness also goes to Gillian Flynn, who adapts her own novel for the screen and does so in a superb manner. Nothing in the film feels novelistic, everything works cinematically to tell and adapt this story in this medium. Fantastic stuff. It would all be meaningless, though, if it weren’t for Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike giving career-best performances throughout. Affleck is suitably subtle and the not-so-hidden anger under his surface seems always ready to bubble over. Pike is astounding as she uses her soft but firm voice in the narration that dominates the opening hour or so to make us feel all the right emotions. She also uses her physical presence as well as I’ve seen anybody do in the last five years or so. These four are operating at the peaks of their artistic prowess and it all gels fantastically into an astoundingly fun neo-noir movie.

A one-size-fits-all art metaphor

I’ve been thinking, on and off over the past year or so, about creating an all-encompassing metaphor that can be used to talk about any work of art. For it to work it has to be about something that seems to be a problem in many modern-ish works, and it must refer to something so universal that it could work for nearly any situation. I think I’ve come up with it. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the one-size-fits-all metaphor: The Mona Lisa. I recently got the chance to ask her a few questions and I’ve provided her responses in the quote feature here.

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Still just some pixels.

“Let’s take her out for a spin, kick the tires a little bit. Quick, throw me out a problem you have with something. Don’t be shy, just Nike it.”

“Ok, looks like a billion snobby people on the internet are clamoring to tell me just how horrible the moviegoing experience is, and how amazing movies look in HD on their 60 inch tvs. Mona, what have you got for us in this regard?”

“Well, Alex, I don’t think its right to say you’ve truly seen something until you’ve seen it the way the artist expected you to see it. Take me, for example. I’m a pretty picture in any format, on any screen, but have you seen me in person? People line up out the door just to see me. Only then can you appreciate the human work that went into my creation. Only then can you consider me from slightly to the left to see if I change. The same goes for my friends, Goya’s black paintings. I know you saw those in Spain a year or so ago, didn’t you Alex?”

“That’s right, Mona, I did. Let me tell you, they may be disconcerting when viewed via a computer screen, but in real life they have a presence. They suck the air out of the room, and they have the power to quiet any audience. They’re amazing. But how does this all relate to movies, Mona?”

“Well, Alex, what if I told you watching Godzilla at home was the same as watching it in a movie theater? Why, you’d laugh me right out of the room, wouldn’t you? There’s no home speaker system that matches IMAX sound, and nothing but the several story height of those screens can make Godzilla such an imposing presences. So yes, watch a movie at home if you must, but don’t tell me it’s the same thing. It isn’t.”

“Indeed, Mona, indeed. Let’s try another one. We’ve hardly hit one-size-fits-all with a singular example. Mona, what have you got to tell us about the subject of authorial intent?”

“Aha! Going to get a little academic on me, eh? That’s fine, I can rumble in that Bronx. Look at me. What do you see? A woman, that’s sure. I’m in a delightful setting aren’t I (more on that in a bit, I think), and my clothes seem, if not rich, at least untattered. Where am I looking? Just off to the left a bit, certainly not at you. You aren’t that interesting, sorry. But what else is there about me, what has captured hearts and minds for hundreds of years? It’s my smile, of course. And this is no orthodontic masterpiece. It’s just a little thing. You might not even notice it at first glance. But soon enough it will draw you in, and you’ll start to wonder what I’m smiling at, exactly. Was Leo my lover, and is it for him that I turn up the corners of my mouth? Or do I know a secret? What did Leo see in me to give me such a mystery? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter. He might have just been drawing me the way I looked at one particular moment. He might have been trying to cover up a nasty sore I had on one side of my mouth, or he might have known all along that he was creating a masterpiece, a work that would last for centuries on end. And he knew that the grin would captivate you, that sly fox. He wasn’t a dumb man, of course. Any of these and a million other possibilities exist, but they are almost entirely meaningless when it comes to you, dear viewer. What does my smile (and everything else about me) mean to you? That’s enough. It needn’t go further.”

“Well, that was a bit of a diatribe, Mona. You really got going there.”

“I like to talk.”

“I’ve noticed. Anyways, what’s next on the docket? Oh, let’s talk videogames and action movies.”

“What of them?”

“People like to complain about them as a corollary to the rule that people like to complain about everything, I guess, but mostly they like to complain about the dumb stories contained in the vast majority of action movies and videogames. You’ll see it with things like the Godzilla reboot or Destiny. ‘Where are the characters?’ ‘Why isn’t the story complex or good?’ Got any answers for us, Mona?”

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Some characters in search of a story. Or at least something to shoot.

“I think I do. These questions all end up being a matter of priorities. When Leo painted me, he obviously had to spend some time on my background or else I’d be in a canvass colored void and any effect my smile might have on you would be rendered moot by the lack of context. However, he obviously didn’t spend a whole lot of time on my edges, you can see a bridge behind me and to the right, but it’s just there. There’s no mystery, nothing which really enhances the feel of the painting, other than giving it a bit of an idyllic tone. Seems like a nice place to sit a while, is all. So, do perfunctory stories play the same role in things like Godzilla or Destiny? I think so. We demand that our entertainment have stories, usually, and that’s a fine impulse. You humans are a storytelling species, and you should embrace that. But sometimes a story can just be there to get you from one cool action scene to the next, or to give you some local color as you’re shooting space-baddies back to whatever planet they came from. So, if the story in Godzilla is kinda silly, so be it, as long as there’s a giant monster battle which pulls no punches, I’m all for it. And if the shooting and looting is fun in Destiny, why does the story have to be anything more than window dressing? Would these be better works of art if they had better stories? Sure, and I would be better, maybe, if I had a more interesting background, but I’m pretty good at certain things and less good at other things. It’s all a matter of priorities.”

“Cool. I think that wraps us up for today. Maybe you’ll come back for further metaphorical philosophizing at a later date. Until then, hang in there. Get it, Mona? You’re a painting. Paintings hang on walls. It’s a pun.”

“Goodbye.”

Marathon of the Planet of the Apes: Beneath the Planet of the Apes

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Coming only two years after the first Planet of the Apes movie, this sequel picks up right at the end of the first film. In fact, it gives us an abbreviated version of the last two scenes of the first film to reestablish the context and the world these movies take place in, namely that there’s a planet where apes are the dominant species, and that planet is a far future version of Earth. Oddly, when the time comes to show the first film’s final, iconic line, it cuts out the word “God” from “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” You can’t just snip that little word out of it to make people less angry or something. The line is what it is, and messing with it just messes with the audience for a few minutes. Which is fine, really, because the first five minutes or so just consist of Taylor and Nova riding around the desert on horseback until something happens and Taylor disappears. Then we cut to another crash site and start the whole process up again.

One of the problems of a sequel to a movie like Planet of the Apes is that, unless you continue following the same character, the audience has to sit through another guy going through the same process as the first guy did, discovering what’s happening on this planet and being incredulous at the whole thing. It’s not a terribly exciting process and, even though Beneath the Planet of the Apes dispenses with a lot of that table-resetting while also continuing the story of the dissent among the ape society, it was still kind of annoying to go through it all again. The new guy in Beneath is Brent, played ably if not spectacularly by James Franciscus who looks remarkably like a slightly younger Charlton Heston. It’s almost as if they knew that a guy who looked like that worked in the first movie so they got a less famous, less talented actor to play basically the same role. In fact, that’s kind of the best way to describe almost every aspect of this movie. It can’t help but be a sequel to a wildly original movie with all the good and ill that such a designation implies.

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What works remarkably well is the story, at least after all that preamble. Now that we know the secret origin of the planet, the writers were able to flesh out the world and invest some solid ideas and philosophy into it. The ape society’s stratification becomes more obvious and overt. The gorillas all wear green robes and are the military force while the orangutans are the religious and scientific leaders and the chimpanzees are relegated to the day-to-day operations and lesser scientific endeavors. And so, while a new character, General Ursus, riles up his gorilla troops and the ever slippery Doctor Zaius goes along with the General’s plans for his own reasons, our two chimp heroes from the first film, Zira and Cornelius help Brent on his way towards finding Taylor as part of his search and rescue operation. There’s a great scene later on as the gorilla army rides out towards the Forbidden Zone (Taylor’s last known whereabouts) but are temporarily stopped by a group of protesting chimps. They’re a peaceful race, basically hippies, and although they all bowed to the General’s might earlier, they have begun to show their own peaceful power. Of course, they’re no match for the General’s actual force, and they’re violently removed from the road in a scene with a good amount of emotional kick. This is the kind of commentary on contemporary situations that good sci-fi can provide, and the film only gets more interesting from there.

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Brent follows Taylor’s tracks underground in the Forbidden Zone, finally delivering on the promise of the title. Here the movie stretches its muscles and develops, via matte paintings and some clever set building, a really cool atmosphere and setting for the final half of the film. The abandoned (or not!) underground New York is a lot of fun to play around in and is full of little details that enrich the history of this particular path our planet took. Franciscus is quite good at registering the horror of what to him was home and now feels more like ancient history. It’s not too long, though, before the plot comes back to mess with him. Some ear-piercing sound effects accompany a change in mood and an out of character attempted murder when Brent tries to drown Nova in a fountain. Given how little I cared about Nova from the first movie – which was not corrected in this one, by the way – I didn’t really blame him, but I guess it was more malicious mind control than a commentary on her poor acting and character. That’s right, beneath the planet of the apes live a clan of mutated humans who worship an undetonated but still radioactive atomic bomb. This gives them mind control powers that are skillfully demonstrated in the tortuously long interrogation scene which mostly involves threatening looks, the same piercing notes on the soundtrack, and Franciscus writhing and groaning in pain. It’s… kinda silly. Luckily, once it’s over the movie moves quite swiftly towards its conclusion, only pausing for Brent and an imprisoned Taylor to fight each other in a scene that rivals They Live for length and brutality. Again, silly, but at least this time it was enjoyably so.

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There’s a problem, though. The apes have followed Brent into the underground dwellings of the mutants, and those mutants aren’t the friendliest of beings. To really drive that latter point home, the film reveals that these people aren’t exactly what they seem. Their normal faces turn out to be just masks hiding their true, veiny blue faces. It’s a disturbing effect, one which cleverly visualizes the distinct inhumanity of these supposed humans. They’ve been warped both physically and mentally by the doomsday bomb they treat like a religious figure, becoming the epitome of the people Heston’s Taylor so hated in the opening of the original film. The final confrontation between these mutants and the ape army is well done chaos as each of the three factions tries to accomplish its own ends. The ending is appropriately bleak for a movie which bases a large part of its drama within the realm of nuclear disarmament and religious zeal. Beneath the Planet of the Apes isn’t as well made a movie as its predecessor, nor is it anywhere near as iconic, but the ideas and story are enough to recommend it to any fan of the first film.