Saturday, October 25, 2014

Gone Girl: Do you REALLY want to know what your spouse is thinking?

"Gone Girl" opens to Ben Affleck's Alex looking at the back of his wife's (Rosamund Pike) head as she lays down. He narrates. He wonders what she is thinking. He wants to bash her skull and unravel her thoughts. It is a curiosity that comes off lovingly, but with violent undertones. It is the question that drives the movie, and the answer is something hard for anyone to accept. Would you really want to know what your spouse is thinking? Would you love them more or less? Would you stay? Would you want to?

It is a thriller I could not step away from. I was wondering where it was headed and guessed back and forth. Once I knew where it was headed, I could not turn away from seeing if it would lead there. The couple is Alex and Amy. They are a couple whose past glory has faded, and the scenery of the town matches, as David Fincher shows in the opening. The day is July 5th, their 5-year anniversary. Alex comes home when his neighbor tells him his cat is out. He finds his cat outside, his front door cracked open, a glass table shattered, and his wife is missing. He calls the cops in confusion. There's hints of blood in unusual places.

The police question him and the new question holds the movie: how should he be reacting? He is obviously distant from his wife, as moves, jobs, and finances have troubled them. Should he be panicking anyway, or is he allowed to feel lost? Should he be patient and help the police, or should he mention he has to check in on his elderly father? At what point do you stop helping police when you're the only suspect?

The unraveling of the couple's private lives come as Alex must admit more and talk about his wife now that she's not around. This is separated by flashbacks of their past as told by his wife's diary entries. There's surprises here and there, and pieces that don't seem to fit when they fall into place. For a couple on unstable ground, she put alot of effort into their anniversary. If he murdered his wife, he comes off unprepared for many things that develop. If he didn't, he certainly looks like the prime suspect.

This fulfills the first act, as we learn Alex, a writer for a men's magazine, and Amy, who has a trust-fund, are very aware of society's expectations. It is their attraction in flashbacks. "I don't want to be that couple," one says and they agree early on. They're aware of the public eye and how they come off, so they avoid being typical. No wonder Alex is tired of the publicity of the search for Amy when the cameras are present and puts on a fake smile as if to say, "leave me alone." Or does this mean he's a shameless killer putting on a show? What does it say about Amy who comes off as just as tired and manipulating, given less attention when they move to care for his dying mother?

The second act reveals the mysteries of the first. The story continues as it answers questions, and while I refuse to give away spoilers, suffice it to say in three minutes of the second act, I felt I got my money's worth. As a mystery and thriller, the second act is its glory. I was unwilling to turn away. By the third act, the conclusion is not as powerful as the mystery and answers. I cannot think of a better ending, but it feels more tired, playing in the shadow of its best moments.

The film will no doubt be considered a male-rights activist's nightmare: the wife disappears and sympathy turns to accusations very quickly. Every aspect of their relationship becomes highlighted on daytime TV. As the one who didn't disappear, he is blamed for every fault in their relationship. Others will see it as a feminist warning: a man does not give his wife attention and suddenly finds himself a suspect because he can't recall what she does during the day or name a single friend of hers. The roles and casting come off as a feminist world. A female detective (Kim Dickens) comes off as intelligent, practical, and passionate about the investigation: always moving with coffee in her hand. She doesn't assume he is guilty, but he is the first place to look for answers. Her partner is a young man who stays silent for the most part, looking at Alex, judging. Alex's twin sister, played by Carrie Coon, is the voice of reason. She shames Alex for his private mistakes and tell him what he needs to do when he can't make sense of what's happening. Tyler Perry appears as a high-priced lawyer known for getting men accused of killing their wives off of death row. He shamelessly expects Alex to call him and instantly believes the wildest things of the story from Alex, a stranger he just met. How shameless must he be to defend wife-killers with the same skill and price? Are women really the subjected ones with expectations, or men who can be blamed?

In the end, we're well-aware of what each side of the couple were thinking without having to crack skulls. The mystery drives the story, the answers carry it home. Are women victims subjected to expectations, or are men who can be blamed so easily? Maybe it would be easier to miss his wife if she was still a mystery to him. It was certainly easier for the public to sympathize with him when he was a mystery. I know I'll think long and hard before asking my date what she's thinking.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Let The Right One In: It's What Twilight Wasn't

I feel obligated to write this review (not I haven't written one in awhile) for two reasons. 1.) There's Twilight currently making the vampires as romance object, and 2.) they are remaking this movie. While I would like a better dubbed and/or subtitled version (I watched it with both as some lines made more sense in one form or the other), the remake is unnecessary.

Let The Right One In is set is snowy Sweden. Oskar doesn't have any friends, is isolated and misunderstood. Off the bat we know there is something violent in him, but he's not using it. Moving into the apartment nearby Oskar's is Eli, a young girl who lives with a middle-aged man. The two talk at night and develope a young romance. The movie is part coming-of-age in multiple ways. Eli is Oskar's friend, but also his exposure to violence and the opposite sex. But nothing is sugar-coated here.

Why is the film effective? It makes simple stuff work. When Eli moves in, her helper duct-tapes sheets over the windows. Her powers as a vampire remain subtle, but still in a creepy fashion. You have to be a kind soul to carry a kid out of the snow, which also makes you a good victim. No ability to read minds needed here.

Now I haven't gotten into the bullies yet, but while their threats might sound unbelievable, there a cold feeling they'll actually carry them out. I haven't mentioned the subtle hints at sex in the awkward ways kids interpret it (not like the sex we think of when we hear the word) and how it carries through to promise they only hurt the ones they love. I also haven't mentioned the open interpretations in Eli's helper, Oskar's divorced parents, or Eli's secrets.

But I don't want to. I don't want these things clarified or sugar-coated. It has been too long since a movie made me fear for the children and a remake will demand answers from these mysteries within the movie. If we have the answer, then doesn't it take us away from how horrific the question is? This is a vampire love story that isn't afraid to show the fear in loving what vampires truly are. The word "heroic" or "kind" doesn't come to mind.

Is it entertaining? Yes. If it isn't the vampire storyline, it's the bullies or the villages. All are compelling and one will certainly grab you.

Is it for everyone? Not kids, but yes. Be weary of violence towards young ones.

Is it memorable? Absolutely. Nothing cliche about it, and until the remake comes out, the open-ended questions will be a big topic.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Wrestler: The Sacrifical Ram

The Wrestler is a movie about life's let-downs, the high of attention in the entertainment business, and personal sacrifice. It's language is physical pain, carried out by Mickey Rourke in a physical role. Like LaMotta's (Raging Bull) boxing ring being the arena for him to work out his issues with women and trust, delivering self-punishment, Randy "The Ram" Robinson recieves cheers and applause, reliving the glory days by spilling blood.

The movie begins with "20 years later." We only see newspaper clips of the glory days, but they are absent from Randy when he's not in the ring. Afterwards, he's hunched over like he's been defeated while the match's script has him win. Yes, wrestling is fake. Before each round, the wrestlers determine what is and is not allowed, who should be winning which portion of the rounds, and how it all ends. They're each other's fans. The fighting might be fake, but the falling is real. Randy cuts himself on the forehead so he can bleed real blood for the effect in the match. Years of falls and cuts have taken affect on him.

He's forced to retire by doctor's orders. And to quit the variety of painkillers he's become an expert on. He tries to get his life back on track by visiting his estranged daughter and developing a relationship with his only friend, Cassidy, a stripper he's a fan of. She's equally a fan of him, but they're both only seeing the show. She loves the wrestler, the modern gladiator, and he loves the sexy image she puts on. She is aware entertainers' personalities and real lives are two different things even if Randy has never separated them.

How do things turn out? Randy is living in the past. He's only had to jump, take hits and fall and has been worshiped for it. It isn't about how things turn out, but watching him go through the world trying his best where he doesn't always fit in is highly entertaining. He's lovable and loving, but his only job has been a show of violence, he sometimes misses the proper way to express himself. Everyone else is afraid, but the audience will be heartbroken for him.

The roles are very physical and it is hard to imagine someone other than Mickey Rourke to play Randy. It is not acting in the traditional sense, but taking the pain. Digital effects could have done this for him, but it would not have the same effect. Before one round, Randy is told to avoid twisting his opponent, but the opponent asks him "Do you have any problems with a staplegun? It's kind of scary when up against you, but it doesn't hurt much, just afterwards, you have two holes in you and bleed alot." They go overboard with staples.

Marissa Tomei, who won an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny is worth a nomination here. She is definitely older, but she's not trying to play someone young. She is still just as sexy now as she was before. Age has only helped her out. Something rare when trying to portray a stripper.

Is it entertaining? Yes. Not in where the story leads, but how it gets there. Each second with the performances is convincing and compelling. Never thought wrestlers would be so heartbreaking.

Is it for everyone? Yes. The violence might limit the audience, but the variety of emotions can relate to most.

Is it memorable? Yes. Mickey Rourke deserves an Oscar for this performance.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gran Torino: Positive Racism?

One thing I can't stand is actors playing roles they can't because they want to be treated like a "serious actor" or to get an Academy Award. Sylvester Stallone sometimes did this. Arnold Schwarzenegger went to the family films and stood worth his own weight (which is alot). Clint Eastwood may be playing the same character he's been playing for years between Dirty Harry, Sergeant Highway, and Bill Munny, but he's been making him better. If his previous roles aren't Academy Award worthy, he makes them so.

This brings us to Gran Torino. Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and retired autoline workman. He put the steeringwheel on the mint-condition '69 Gran Torino he keeps in his garage. After the death of his wife, he lives alone, spending his days drinking Pabst on the porch and spitting chew while giving dirty looks at the Hmong neighbors. After Tao, the Hmong teen next door, attempts to steal his Gran Torino as part of an initiation into a gang, Walt takes up against the gangs, mostly for the defense of his own lawn. He doesn't care if it's gangs or kids, he jsut wants to keep his lawn private.

The Hmong slowly like him, leaving gifts at his doorstep. They don't understand he hates him, only that the gangs avoid him. He throws away the gifts, except for the turkey.

He's a racist even if he doesn't know it. He goes through every name in the book. The audience laughs at the extent of his vocabulary. He calls them gooks the same way everyone else calls them Asian. He speaks like a soldier still at war: tough. He knows when to bluff and when to pull the guns out.

This character might sound cliche, but he's not. He goes alittle farther with the racial slurs than most rough guys, but has a familiar sound to him when he can't help but stuff himself with the Asian chicken. He drinks Pabst and carries guns as though he's a simpleton, but has tricks up his sleeve and uses them like you'd never think. In a lesser movie, he would go soft and cry with emotion at some point. He doesn't sell himself out. There's more emotion in him telling someone to drink a beer with him than in some movies' most tearful scenes.

I won't give away anything else in the story. It is more about characters than the fights. I wondered what his wife must have been like to put up with such a guy, then I realized she was there all along. The Hmong teenage girl that convinces Walt to join them for dinner is stubborn, persistant, and able to stand toe-to-toe with him. As rough as he is, she knows he's a gentleman and - more than once - tells him "it would be a great disrespect if you didn't." No way would Walt be tough and ungentlemanly.

Is it entertaining? It is not an action film. It is a character study that surprises. You have to watch it from beginning to end, but Eastwood delivers in his performance as one of a kind.

Is it for everyone? Yes. While strong, it is not offensive. Walt hates the Hmong just as much as he loves others. Where it's not an action movie, it still delivers with tension.

Is it memorable? While meriting an Oscar nomination or two, the character is more memorable than the movie. Either way, it is still one to stick with you.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Doubt: I Think You Did, Therefore You Have Done

Doubt is a drama. At first I thought it was an unorthodox mystery driven by characters determined in different directions, but the further it plunged into the plot and clues, the less I cared about the truth and the more interested I became in the characters digging for the truth. More accurately, should I say, the characters digging. The "truth" is something to argue about.

Meryl Streep shows us why she's the best in the business as Sister Aloysius, a stern nun at St. Nichols. As the principal, the students fear her. Other nuns look up to her. She takes care of the other nuns, gives them tips and advice, and dictates the topic of discussion at the dinner table. She hates ball-point pens for ruining penmanship. I can't blame her however. If you're teaching them penmanship, then certainly the proper tool is essential.

Insert Father Flynn (equally matched by Philip Seymore Hoffman), the next generation of priest. He is friendly, teaches sports, and has a skill for delivering surmons. The boys relate to him.

The mystery arises when Sister James (Amy Adams) sees the only African-American student sent up to Father Flynn's rectory for one-on-one talk. She believes this is very inappropriate and immediately tells Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius assumes the worst and makes plans to confront Father Flynn and make him confess his crimes. For Sister Aloysius, suspcion is enough. She represents the infallibacy of the Church. If Sister James is telling her, then it must be because God knows Sister Aloysius will suspect the worst and seek it out. Or so goes Sister Aloysius' mind.

Whichever way, a God-guided or God-foresaken quest, she is relentless and smart. She refuses to give up the topic, like simple madwoman, but at every stage of her life, she seems to have thought out every step. Is a woman scholared in theology, running a prestigious private school, so stupid? Cruel? Or is all of this truly with good intentions of protecting the children?

When the movie reaches a climax between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, a curveball is thrown. The boy's mother arrives for a conference with the Sister Aloysius. She is worried about her son removed from the Altar Servers (not Altar Boys as said in the film). Sister Aloysius tries to gain information that might incriminate Father Flynn, only to find there might be things worse than Father Flynn's sins. The mother is played by Viola Davis. Roger Ebert says her performance merits a nomination from the Academy. While I am not as bold as Ebert to say when "injustice" is done for a lack of nomination, I will say no other actress has came to mind for Best Supporting Actress yet. Maybe Marissa Tomei from The Wrestler, but there is still enough nominations to go around.

What do Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn represent? The old and new Church? Certainty and doubt? A strict protectorate approach against a friendly one? Faith-based Catholicism and reason-based logic? Everyone will take a different interpretation and I can only speak for myself. I find the movie filled with God, espically when various windstorms rise before climatic arguments. God is testing Sister Aloysius' faith and devotion to protect the kids, while Father Flynn is tested for his ability to defend his approach to the most devote Catholics. Or is he on a second trial for his sins? Sister James is the doubt. It is easier for her to smile and believe Father Flynn than to gather the strength to ask herself the danger if he's lying. At the same time, she admires the strength of Sister Aloysius to stand up against such a lack of evidence, basing everything on faith itself.

There is another layer to this movie. There are minor details everywhere that reveal much about the characters. Most of these are humorous, although some go undetected by most. When Father Flynn is waiting to meet with Sister James and Sister Aloysius, he is sitting next to a student in trouble. He relates to the troubled student, although he himself is also awaiting Sister Aloysius' trials. Is she treating him any different than a student? Sister Aloysius also tells a lie (GASP!) to cover up a nun's loss of sight. She does it with sacrifice to her own dignity, stating, "Nuns fall. It happens. I fell yesterday." She listens to the radio confiscated from a student and admits she can't stop listening to the news. There is one more major revelation about her character, but I won't reveal it. Every time I think I understand Sister Aloysius, there is another layer. I simply have to keep a close enough eye to notice them.

Is it entertaining? Yes. Don't come in expecting a drama on abuse of Altar Servers. Expect a test of faith from different angles, given through powerful performances. When these two argue, even the loudest of theaters will go silent.

Is it for everyone? Yes. The victim is a child, the soldiers of the battle are respected religious figures. It is gripping. The eye for detail may not be had for all, but the story moves just as strongly for everyone, with small humor to fill a slow start.

Is it memorable? Yes. Every one of the major actors gives an unforgettable performance. It is open to interpretation, but the themes and movement is so strong, you won't have to look far for your interpretation.