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Hey, you’ve really got to hand it to DC and Warner Bros. In the same year that they’ve been knocked from pillar to post for releasing the distinctly average Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, they’ve now managed to pull out all the stops and have provided us with a superhero film – or rather a boringvillain film – that is by far the most joyless and clumsily-assembled I’ve seen since last year’s mishandled Fantastic Four reboot. Way to go, DC! That’s close to half a billion spent on two of the poorest blockbuster films of 2016, both of which have failed to assertively establish a credible, cohesive series to rival Marvel’s ongoing blur of colourful spandex and quippery. And no, YouTube clips of characters like Aquaman and sudden, brief appearances by The Flash are not acceptable enough in terms of world-building.

David Ayer’s Suicide Squad – a riff on The Dirty Dozen that’s loosely adapted from the comic series of the same name – opens with a raft of interminable exposition, which slowly introduces us to the main characters in the most simplistic (and patronising) way possible. Viola Davis plays the high-ranking army official who wants to put a squad of bad guys together, ostensibly so that they can be sent in to tackle any ‘meta-human’ threats in the future (especially as Superman’s currently … uh … unavailable). She sits in a restaurant going through a dossier, but we see more of her later, and to Davis’ credit she somehow manages to walk away from this film with her reputation enhanced. In terms of the villains, first up is Will Smith’s Deadshot, a hitman who can shoot accurately. Imagine! In fact, for some bizarre reason, the character is introduced twice: once during a kind of brief origin story, and then once more in a flashback to a back alley showdown with Ben Affleck’s Batman, which establishes the fact that Deadshot’s a little conflicted because he has a daughter (god forbid Smith should ever play an out-and-out bastard, thereby tarnishing his carefully-honed image). Some barely-relevant and jokey text appears on screen alongside him, which is indicative of the infamous late decision to add humour to the film, and seems completely at odds with the style of the rest of the piece. Other characters get the same treatment, including Margot Robbie’s crazy Harley Quinn. Initially a psychiatrist before becoming the tortured moll-like plaything of The Joker (Jared Leto, more later), she too is captured by The Batfleck during an unnecessarily misogynistic scene in which she is punched in the face, given a lusty bit of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after nearly drowning, and then subsequently half-strangled by her captor (much of which is filmed from Batman’s perspective). Worse is to come: the Harley Quinn costume design is certainly striking in this film, but Ayer resorts to filming Robbie like he’s got a daily ass-shot quota to fill, and perves over her backside while forcing the actress to acrobatically wrap her legs around the heads of people she fights. She tries gamely to make the character’s personality the focus, but she’s fighting against a director and a studio that are only truly interested in her body; eventually you realise that the decision to set much of the film in the rain was taken so that Robbie’s nipples can be seen through her soaked t-shirt. It’s insulting, and degrading, though undoubtedly the decision to turn her into a teenage boy’s wet dream will have substantially increased ticket sales. Yay.

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Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad.

Others – less important characters, evidently, or rather characters played by actors who do not enjoy the status and associated contractual stipulations of a Will Smith – are quickly and haphazardly introduced. Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang is a stereotype of an Australian man, who constantly drinks beer and (fucking hell) throws a boomerang. Jay Hernandez is El Diablo, a stereotypical Latino gangbanger who can create fire; no information is provided as to how he got this power, but at one point he turns into a flaming demon, so there’s that. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Killer Croc, a man with reptilian features whose special ability appears to be zipping up a hoodie before undoing the zip again. Yes, really. Joel Kinnaman is Rick Flag, a sort of human charisma vortex who is placed in charge of the team. There are others: a man who looks a bit like Steven Seagal can climb buildings very well; a Japanese woman has a sword that captures the souls of its victims, or something. Some of these are tossed into the story in such a rushed, lazy fashion it’s hard to care a jot about anything that happens to them.

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Jared Leto as The Joker

So this is the core squad, who are subsequently sent to Midway City to tackle Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress, a powerful sorceress (in another skimpy outfit) who wants to bring about the end of days. She wreaks havoc while carefully establishing one of those swirling, lightning-y portals that seem to have become shorthand in superhero films for ‘we have no ideas left, but look at THIS anyway’. (Enchantress’s special power: attempting to do an impression of mime artist Marcel Marceau despite having lost all control of her limbs.) She also has a brother, and between them they manage to create an army of once-human drones, who have heads that look like blackberries. Blackberries! Much fighting ensues, all of it taking place at night in the rain, none of it inventively choreographed or containing any fresh ideas, all of it punctuated by awkward exchanges between the Suicide Squad members. Fuck me it’s dreary, and remains so even when Leto’s Joker shows up. (Oh yeah, The Joker: Leto is all forced, unconvincing insanity and gangsta bling, and he’s only in this film briefly and intermittently, which is a huge relief.)

Suicide Squad is riddled with poor writing, bad editing, lazy, half-baked ideas, terrible acting and an unintentional mixed tone that suggests not just moviemaking by committee but moviemaking by a committee that couldn’t find a singular, cohesive vision if it was locked in a meeting room for a decade. The film is supposed to be funny; it isn’t funny. The film is supposed to be edgy, and dark; it isn’t, unless you take the word darkness literally. The film is supposed to be subversive; it isn’t. I presume it’s supposed to be fun, too; yet this was the least fun I’ve had in the cinema in a long, long time. It’s a drag, a bore, a turd that thuds into your day. It takes your money before laughing in your face. It insults the intelligence of cinemagoers. The only real point of interest surrounding the film is that one day we’ll find out where it all went wrong, and blame for the debacle can be correctly apportioned.

It could be Ayer, I suppose, but then he has managed to get good performances from a range of actors in the past, so I’m not sure why direction appears to be completely beyond him here. A glimpse at his career shows that he has a preference for stories about men and their relationships during duty, but there’s no sign of any understanding of male bonding here, and his decision to dress two of the three fairly prominent female characters in skimpy outfits is quite telling. Yet given that Zack Snyder has set DC’s recent bleak tone with a brace of disappointing, overly-serious films, Ayer had a rather unenviable task; he had to follow the earlier director’s shitty, downbeat style, and yet he has clearly also been tasked with making a film that is lighter, and funnier, and a kind of DC equivalent to Marvel’s popular hit Guardians Of The Galaxy. How on earth could he be expected to do that?

I could go on. Just contemplate the use of music here, for example: there’s little thought behind most of it, and some of the soundtrack choices are completely irrelevent, included simply because they offer a slight juxtaposition with the action. There’s no thread to the music at all. And just to reiterate: the decision to throw in a few recognisable characters – as well as Batman and The Joker we also get a brief glimpse of Ezra Miller’s The Flash – smacks of desperation by Warner Bros and DC too, a shortcut to remind us that this is supposed to be taking place within a wider world (and that there’s a Justice League movie on the way, too); I’m just surprised that they didn’t think to shoehorn Wonder Woman in there somewhere, given her current popularity.

All told this is a film in which so much has been thrown together in the hope that some of it will work, and at a cost of $175 million to boot. Sadly, very little does actually work. Never mind: I expect you – like me – have paid to see it now anyway. These studios really do have a lot of us over a barrel; people who watch superhero movies in their droves won’t stop doing so now, for fear of missing out on something important, even though the stories will never ever end. Suicide Squad is just further confirmation that any old shit can turn a massive profit if it’s marketed correctly.

Directed by: David Ayer.
Written by: David Ayer.
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jared Leto, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Karen Fukuhara.
Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov.
Editing: John Gilroy.
Music:
Steven Price / Various.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
123.
Year:
2016.

[Note: There has been so much written about this film – which is every bit as cumbersome and bloated as its title – that I can hardly muster the will to add more noise to the cacophony, which has been about as enjoyable to sift through during the past week as the Phone Book. But I will nonetheless, purely for the simple fact that I may one day wish to go back and read about my own thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (herewith referred to as ‘BvS‘) at the time of release. Here goes.]

BvS opens with the big battle from the end of 2013’s Man Of Steel, and we glimpse Henry Cavill’s Superman fighting Michael Shannon’s antagonist General Zod in the skies above Metropolis; the continuity is a nice touch, and it also introduces the audience to Ben Affleck’s take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, here on the ground sans-Batsuit and trying to save employees unlucky enough to be working in one of the many buildings destroyed by the men of Krypton. (Ever the capitalist pigdog, Wayne drives past dozens of similar buildings that are presumably full of innocent people who need saving in order to get to those on his payroll.) Zack Snyder, the earlier film’s director, is back in the chair for this blockbuster, and I like the fact that he addresses one of the overwhelming criticisms of Man Of Steel, which concerned its lack of empathy with the countless people presumably killed or injured amid all the Zod/Superman carnage. Indeed the issue of that human collateral damage subsequently becomes the driving force for Wayne’s mistrust of Superman, which is echoed more generally by the rest of society, and which in turn paves the way for the good guy versus good guy battle that the title promises.

In this film Superman is a figure who divides public opinion: those who have loved ones saved by the hero treat him like a deity, and he arrogantly bathes in their adoration, while a monument has already been constructed in his honour in Metropolis. Others are skeptical, protesting at said monument and outside the US Capitol, with some wishing to develop the means to control him, including Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor (a performance that I actually found slightly entertaining and colourful, where all else is dark, grave and intentionally serious). Wayne and Luthor’s developing interests in Superman occur in tandem, though the screenplay by Chris Terrio and David Goyer gets slightly bogged down with details while juggling their particular motivations with all the political wrangling. Superman, meanwhile, doesn’t quite know what to make of it all, and still seems to be a work in development, battling a crisis of confidence. On the other side of the ‘versus’ Affleck’s Batman is a tired, grizzled brawler wrestling with his own demons, and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne is a man of few words. Affleck had the tougher job here – new to the franchise, and with Christian Bale’s recent performances as Batman still fresh in the memory of lots of fans – and he does quite well, all told, with his physical presence emphasised by director and cinematographer Larry Fong, which draws attention away from his limitations as an actor. I’ve certainly seen worse Batmen.

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Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in BvS:DoJ

It takes an age to get to the promised face-off between the two, with plenty of silly dream sequences and tonally-surprising material interrupting along the way (Superman apparently has no problem killing (Arabic) people, for example, while Batman’s brand of rough justice really does become a brand). Meanwhile all the usual peripheral figures from the old comic books and the previous films drop in and out of the story at irregular intervals: Lois Lane, Perry White, Martha Kent and Alfred Pennyworth are all present and correct and played by big stars whose talents are largely being wasted. When the Batman and Superman fight finally takes place it’s a bit of a let-down, all told, and – considering the long build-up – it’s over with quite quickly; lots of unimaginative smashy-smashy, plenty of by-the-numbers paggery-paggery, and a little bit of seen-it-all-before ouchy-ouchy, before the pair bury the hatchet at a surprising speed. This they do in order to engage in another fight, and their enemy for the final showdown is the Luthor-created Doomsday, an orc-like figure who sends out massive shockwaves and who is capable of destroying entire neighbourhoods in seconds (the script’s insistence on pointing out to the audience that these areas are currently deserted, to head-off those earlier criticisms, is laughable). Of course Snyder is into more comfortable territory by this point, and the battle is every bit as long, loud and noisy as you’d expect. Anyone who has seen Man Of Steel will know what’s coming, though it does feature the notable addition of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who has set many pulses a-racing already and will continue to do so in her own spin-off film, slated for 2017.

Even with my limited comic book knowledge I can see that Snyder and his writers have picked certain well-known titles as influences, in terms of the story, the script, the tone, the costumes and the production design of BvS: Mike Carlin’s Death Of Superman series is perhaps the most obvious, while Frank Miller’s famously-murky graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns is also a touchstone; there are hints to A Death In The Family and, presumably, many others. I actually feel a little more generosity toward the director now than I did a couple of years back, as he has at least successfully drawn on this rich history in order to establish a template for this new DC franchise, even if you do happen to dislike the joyless direction he’s moved it in and the reliance on long, skull-buggering set pieces, as I do myself. The DC films do at least feel distinct from those offered up by Marvel, which are generally lighter and frothier in comparison (Snyder, if anything, is a director who seems to have a deep-rooted mistrust for jokes). My sympathy for the director also increased in the wake of the terrible reviews for BvS that stacked up last week; yes it’s long, messy, loud, way too bleak and riddled with plot holes (how exactly does Lois Lane know to find the spear she has thrown away?), but it’s not that bad. (Lest we forget that this recent film is still stinking out the superhero stable.) I don’t disagree with the general thrust of those poor notices, though; the script is wonky and suffers from overcomplication, you exit feeling like you’ve been bashed over the head for 150 minutes, and the relentless dourness sucks most of the enjoyment out of the process. The superhero films I like contain at least a small degree of fascination with the powers wielded by their subjects, particularly when it comes to Superman, but there’s none of that here. There’s nothing in BvS that thrills in the same way as seeing Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent/Superman catching a mugger’s bullet for the first time, or saving Lois Lane as she falls from a skyscraper (though BvS does have its own equivalent of the latter), and it’s those moments of wonder that you miss. Snyder peppers his film with impenetrable dream sequences, references to comic book plots and characters that most viewers will miss or not understand, dreary post-9-11 symbolism, glimpses of actors and heroes who will feature in forthcoming Justice League movies and more building destruction than Fred Dibnah managed in a lifetime, but crucially he has failed yet again to add any real magic to proceedings. Only Hans Zimmer’s side of the shared score manages to do so, and only when it sporadically and briefly incorporates the main theme from Man Of Steel.

Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishbourne, Diane Lane, Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy.
Cinematography: Larry Fong.
Editing: David Brenner.
Music:
Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
151 minutes.
Year:
2016.

2 Comments

Terrence Malick’s style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s interesting to see the way in which the director has evolved over the course of his artistic career, with echoes from early work still reverberating through the films he makes today. While romantic drama To The Wonder most closely resembles Malick’s recent, divisive The Tree Of Life – partly through its look and the way it is edited, partly through the way it highlights life’s smaller connected moments, partly through other broad thematic similarities and partly through the level of disregard for formal narrative structure or typical sound design – all of these stylistic choices and ideas have their roots in his sporadic efforts from previous decades. The editing here is looser than ever (or at least perfectly honed to create the illusion of looseness), the camera’s movements freer, but witness the way Malick tracks Sissy Spacek’s Kit as she twirls through the opening scenes of 1973’s Badlands and compare it to the way the camera moves alongside lead character Marina (Olga Kurylenko) here, for example, or consider the breathy, half-heard dialogue in To The Wonder with that of 1978’s masterful Days Of Heaven.

Criticism of To The Wonder has primarily highlighted the plot’s slightness, and certainly on the face of it not a great deal happens, but Malick’s obvious focus now is on those moments in-between that other directors and storytellers overlook. In summary Neil (Ben Affleck), an American travelling in Paris, meets and falls in love with Ukrainian ingénue Marina, who has a daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from an earlier marriage. Marina and Tatiana move to Neil’s home in Oklahoma, where he works as an environmental inspector, but when their visas expire and they travel back to Europe to renew them Neil has an affair with childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina returns to Oklahoma without her daughter and marries Neil, but following the proverbial honeymoon period their relationship gradually deteriorates further, and she also has an affair. The disintegration of their marriage plays out in tandem with the struggles of local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is going through his own crisis of faith, another example of Malick’s unfashionable examination of Christianity.

In tracing the course of Neil and Marina’s relationship Malick seeks, and often finds, the beauty and profundity that exists in the everyday. Though we witness some important events – their wedding day, their affairs, the arguments they have in their car and at home – the director seems just as interested in the couple’s walks through fields or their trips to the supermarket, and such scenes are filled with an infectious frivolity. Mainly the camera stays waist high just behind Marina (and Jane during her brief fling), with the movements suggesting that, initially at least, the director wants us to join him in celebrating the love enjoyed by his characters. The start of Neil and Marina’s relationship in Paris is portrayed as idyllic and she spins through the streets while he trails in her wake: it’s shot like an arthouse commercial for the city, all smouldering glances and love locks secured above the Seine, before they move on to Mont St. Michel (the ‘wonder’ of the title).

Much of To The Wonder will feel familiar to Malick fans. For starters there’s the predilection for shooting during the golden hour and in the wide-open spaces of the American heartland (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s excellent work recalls that of Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler on Days Of Heaven). Scenes begin and end mid-sentence, some words and phrases are inaudible, and for a two-hour movie the characters barely speak at all (Affleck probably learned his lines in ten minutes, and much of the film is in French, perhaps in order to highlight the director’s affinity with that country’s 20th Century cinematic output). Thematically, Malick is again interested in the relationship between humans and the natural world, and there are countless shots of swaying grasslands, crops and trees, while Neil’s job requires him to investigate the effects of pollution on local residents. The story focuses on a small number of characters and yet again there’s a suggestion that Malick ‘found’ the film he was trying to make during the editing process; Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen had parts and every single one of them ended up on the cutting room floor.

There is a structure in place here, but it’s considerably less clear than in those two films from the 1970s mentioned above, and we are given an impression of various moments lived (as opposed to a linear and clear step-by-step account of Marina’s time in the US). The director’s approach is to suggest that a feeling from a fingertip as it trails along a surface is as important in creating the big picture as any conversation taking place between characters; the rationale is that a relationship isn’t defined simply by its arguments, or by a parting of the ways, or an initial meeting, but all of those things plus the time you flashed your chest in a supermarket or the time you eyed your loved one suspiciously while moving your hand through the water of a swimming pool. I can see why this mélange turns a lot of people off, and I can understand why accusations of pretentiousness appear after Malick’s name as often as the word ‘recluse’, but I suspect that many of these attacks occur because his films are different, and offer an alternative to the accepted norm. Maybe there’s a degree of confusion that’s driven by his repeat casting of famous stars: some people have certain expectations when they see names like George Clooney, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck at the top of a poster (all have Batman and Malick in common, for example), and Malick’s films will never satisfy those expectations. But for me his serene, carefully-crafted films are beautiful to watch, and the recent accentuation of style feels fresh and original, despite the longevity of his career and the similarities with those earlier films. I also think there is enough substance in his work to back up the style.

Incredibly Malick, now in his early 70s, has turned into a prolific director: he has two films coming out this year, both starring Christian Bale, and, if all goes to plan, by the end of 2016 he will have directed five in as many years. While this isn’t anything new – Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood are of comparable age and both have a similar work ethic – it must be remembered that To The Wonder is only Malick’s sixth film in close to 40 years, and famously there was a gap of 20 between the second and third features. (Though it’s not as if he was completely idle: he spent many years writing.)

We can but speculate on the sudden burst in productivity given that interviews with Malick are rare. It could be a result of the onset of age and the sense that the clock is ticking; recent films have certainly felt more personal, at least, and there are clear links here to the director’s life – he met his second wife in Paris in 1980, they married in 1985, lived in Oklahoma and divorced a decade or so later. Then again, perhaps it’s to do with the development of his graceful style, and the fact he has seemingly found a collaborator for life in Lubezki, who has been present since 2005’s The New World (though interestingly Malick’s usual editor, Billy Weber, did not work on this film). Perhaps he’s simply enjoying making films more than he ever did.

Your opinion of To The Wonder will probably depend on whether you’re willing to sit back and go with another two hours of Malick’s luxurious imagery and wispy dialogue or whether you think it amounts to a pile of pretentious twaddle. It’s clear that the director is inviting pastiche with his consistency but I’m firmly in the first camp nonetheless. I do agree that the story and the depiction of these characters is disappointingly slight here but, as with The Tree Of Life, it must be remembered that Malick’s primary concern lies with questioning the ways of nature and man’s relationship with the divine.

The Basics:
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams, Tatiana Chiline
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 112 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 7.6

13 Comments

My inner cynic was wary about the high praise recently bestowed on Gone Girl, David Fincher’s latest suspense thriller, given that it was released after a relatively quiet post-summer period in which one average film after another seemed to tumble half-heartedly into cinemas. I’m not intending to disparage those who consider the film to be among the better releases this year, but there’s definitely a pattern whereby the celebrations surrounding the first half-decent movie after weeks and weeks of mainstream dross always seem a little inflated, to me at least. Still, I tried to keep my expectations for this adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller at a reasonable level, despite the plethora of positive reviews appearing online and in print.

For the uninitiated, the story revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), whose philandering husband Nick (Ben Affleck) is the prime suspect in the ensuing murder investigation. For reasons obvious to anyone who has read the book or watched the film, Gone Girl never gets as far as the courthouse, with Fincher and Flynn (who adapted her own novel for the big screen) concentrating on the immediate aftermath of, as well as the years and events leading up to, Amy’s sudden disappearance. The story swiftly develops into a trial-by-media, in which writer and director produce a withering assessment of the USA’s talking head news anchors, as well as the judgmental sector of society that accepts the media’s opinions as gospel. Rather than simply standing back and letting the investigation in Gone Girl take place, somewhat predictably the media heavily influences it, with Amy’s disappearance making the national news due to her link to popular children’s book character ‘Amazing Amy’ (created by her parents, played by Lisa Banes and David Clennon). Public opinion turns against Nick and the management of his public image quickly becomes a priority ahead of the search for his missing wife.

Clearly taking aim at the media’s thirst for gossipy information as well as its ability to operate without impunity, the story highlights the damage that can be done, painting a poor picture of the law enforcement agencies whose moves are heavily scrutinized by eagle-eyed news crews; by the end of the film both the local police and the FBI are frozen, with officers afraid of pressing forward with a certain line of investigation for fear of looking incompetent.

Gone Girl is a twisty tale with the snakes well camouflaged in the grass. Important facts about both Nick and Amy are slowly eked out, encouraging the viewer to reassess any early opinions formed about the pair, before it is suddenly revealed that we – like the media in the movie – are not aware of the full picture. To most outsiders Nick and Amy are (were) the perfect couple. We see their early years via flashbacks related to Amy’s diary entries, which detail their initial meeting in New York and subsequent blossoming love, eventually leading to marriage. When they move back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri, to be close to his dying mother and estranged father, the marriage begins to deteriorate and a considerable amount of stress is placed on the couple when they both lose their jobs. Financial problems and issues surrounding fertility and parenthood lead to unresolved bitterness, and both seem to be unhappy in the relationship as they approach their fifth anniversary. Amy’s diary entries slowly reveal her detachment while lecturer Nick enters into a long affair with one of his students, Andie (Emily Ratajkowski).

As the police’s missing person / murder investigation continues in the present, Nick – who wanted a divorce before Amy went missing – struggles to hide his indifference to Amy’s plight, failing to convince at a press conference arranged to appeal for help, and arousing further suspicion when he is pictured smiling with an opportunistic local resident. His closest allies are his loyal twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon), media-savvy attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) and, to an extent, the local officers investigating the case (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit), but all of these appear to have less control over Nick’s destiny than cable TV hosts Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) and Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward), who closely scrutinize the suspect’s movements and even go so far as suggesting his relationship with his sister is incestuous.

Complicating the investigation further is the looming presence of Amy’s wealthy ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), a man who supposedly tried to commit suicide when she broke up with him years earlier, and who repeatedly sent her letters in the interim despite the presence of a restraining order. He is another suspect, having recently moved back to nearby St Louis, and the question of Nick’s guilt or innocence gradually becomes more difficult to assess as a result.

Fincher has delighted in the past when revealing that the initial impressions we have of his characters are somehow incorrect, and this fact will play on the mind of anyone with knowledge of the director’s prior work when they watch Gone Girl. We first see Nick carrying a ‘Mastermind’ board game into the bar he runs with Margo (a local business that was paid for by Amy). An early clue, perhaps, or merely an unsubtle red herring? Thankfully for much of this film we cannot be 100% sure of the answer to such questions, as suspicious behaviour, unreliable narrators, mounting evidence and lying characters all serve to cloud our judgment. The eked out revelations lead us gradually through the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, and as we follow the investigation we also discover more about Amy’s character and her own actions leading up to the disappearance. Flynn’s novel is filled with cliffhangers and twists, and these are revealed at unexpected moments here, allowing the writer and director to form a clear three act structure with the main ‘shocks’ providing obvious breaks.

Unfortunately I have some issues with the film’s pacing, which I felt to be uniform for the most part and – as a result – more and more frustrating as time ticked on. The occasionally plodding nature of the film – mirrored in Affleck’s occasionally plodding performance of an occasionally plodding character – meant that I began to lose interest after a while, and although the twists are clearly designed to pull the audience back in, they also suck all of the credibility out of the story.

I’m also a little perplexed about the across-the-board praise the two leads have received for their acting here. I’m not suggesting that either is awful, but there are times during the film when both Affleck and Pike are very good and times when they are not quite so convincing. They both nail the scenes that show the couple in a bitter, downward spiral, but their portrayals of younger versions of the two characters as they fall in love are middling. Still, presumably both of these performances were difficult for the actor in question to judge: it’s clear that great care has been taken in maintaining poker faces, and Pike (icily misleading) and Affleck (dumbly misleading) do their utmost to ensure that audiences walk away with conflicted feelings about what they have witnessed, but the final act in particular is a challenging one to get right and I’m not convinced after one viewing that either managed to carry it off successfully.

Fincher’s latest is at its most gripping when it veers strongly towards the police procedural, although it lacks the weight and the subtlety of Zodiac, which is a far superior film all round. The two films do share a common cold, green-grey look, which also brings to mind the earlier, underrated Panic Room, and the director once again uses a meticulous production design to create an upper-middle class section of a city where the lavish interiors and outward bonhomie cannot fully hide the darker acts and thoughts that occur. The colours suit the tone, which is enhanced further by the occasionally-discordant score supplied by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Gone Girl is more than just a precisely-made ‘whodunnit’ with a twist; as much as anything else it is a satire of the media’s influence on such events, and about the failure of modern marriage and family life, but the overall package of all these things together somehow feels underwhelming – as if it should work better than it does – and disjointed. Much like the characters, it’s difficult to get to grips with the true nature and identity of the film.

I liked the bursts of humour, and one or two vaguely shocking moments of violence are handled well, but I have serious doubts about Fincher’s ability to direct the more upbeat scenes required in this story: the flashbacks of Nick and Amy falling in love, for example, are as cheesy as they come, and their first kiss in a sugar storm nearly made me splurt out my overpriced pick n’ mix in disbelief. Should we really be seeing something that looks like it has been lifted straight out of a Richard Curtis film here? The director is seemingly more at ease when creating a sense of menace, and Gone Girl is at its best when Fincher’s dark side is in full effect. The final scene, for example, is a deliciously malevolent repetition of the opening scene and the opening lines, but the context has shifted completely and the words spoken are now laced with a dual meaning. I like Sinister David better.

Overall, then, a sprinkling of irritation and disappointment mixed with a slug of admiration and enjoyment. Confused? Me too. I was non-plussed by Zodiac the first time I saw it and I was wrong, but I’m not so sure a couple of viewings would force a similar re-appraisal here.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry 
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 149 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.9

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After the comedic quality of his satires Office Space and (to a slightly lesser extent) the troubled 2006 film Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s fourth film, Extract, is something of a let-down. Less scathing than its predecessors, it does have its moments but ultimately it suffers from a dearth of laugh-out-loud lines and memorable characters. Writer / director Judge again enjoys himself by poking fun at the dim-witted, but it felt so vicious and sustained in Idiocracy that Extract‘s limper, less vitriolic attacks pale in comparison.

Given the problems Judge experienced in getting Idiocracy into cinemas, perhaps we should just be thankful that he hasn’t found himself at the top of a Hollywood-wide blacklist, and that he is still able to make films at all. Idiocracy was all set to be released into a standard number of theatres in 2006 but only opened in seven cities in the USA, and disappeared shortly thereafter. 20th Century Fox did nothing to promote the movie – no trailers, adverts or press kits were sent out – and it was reported that the studio suits were overly concerned about how the more scathing, withering depictions of corporations would play out with Fox and NewsCorp’s potential sponsors and business partners. After all, in the world of Idiocracy, a sci-fi comedy set 500 years in the future, you can order handjobs from Starbucks employees to go with your frappuccinos … and it’s difficult to imagine Starbucks liking that one.

Judge had built up a fanbase, though, and since its release on DVD Idiocracy has been enjoyed by many, but it’s no surprise that Extract was released by a different studio (Miramax). Jason Bateman stars as Joel Reynolds, the founder and owner of a small factory that produces flavouring extracts. His marriage to Suzie (Kristen Wiig) has become sex-free, his employees seem incapable of working together like adults and his best friend Dean (Ben Affleck) is in the habit of giving him terrible advice.

When a series of accidents occur at the factory one of Joel’s employees, Step (Clifton Collins Jr), ends up losing a testicle. As a result two people try to take advantage of Step’s condition: con-artist Cindy (Mila Kunis) and a shark lawyer named Joe Adler (played by Gene Simmons of Kiss, without make up and with tongue fortunately hidden). All of this threatens to derail an ongoing takeover of Joel’s company and also causes several of the plant’s workers to strike. Meanwhile Dean somehow manages to talk Joel into paying dumb gigolo Brad (Dustin Milligan) to sleep with his wife, so that Joel can then cheat on Suzie with a clear conscience. Naturally this scheme backfires.

Judge intended Extract to be a companion piece to Office Space, but it is more like an inferior sibling. The principal problem is the lack of clear target: where Office Space mercilessly ripped into cubicle culture and petty bureaucracy, the attempts to mine the factory floor for laughs fall flat. There are a couple of jokes at the expense of the blue collar fork-lift truck drivers, packers and line operators, but they’re not particularly clever, or original, and the characters are poorly-drawn stereotypes. Judge’s success in the past has partly been achieved by attacking stupidity in a clever, drole fashion, but here he resorts to unconvincing slapstick and weak white trash stereotyping, which simply doesn’t have the same effect. There are some wittier jokes regarding racism towards Mexican employees, but they quickly run out of steam.

Darts are also thrown at the USA’s claims culture, which you would think would be perfect as a target for Judge’s satire, but it feels like the lawyers and money-men of the film are let off the hook with nothing more than a few half-hearted jibes aimed at them. The lawsuit and takeover also feel secondary to the other strands of the plot that take place concerning Joel’s private life; Gene Simmons’s cameo as lawyer Adler falls flat, but that could well be because the character is completely underdeveloped, and while his bouffant hairdo might raise a laugh or two, none of his lines do.

Some of the jokes do work, thankfully. The best moments involve Joel’s use of the gigolo Brad to try and trick his wife into cheating: in true Judge style Brad has a low IQ, and is seemingly unable to follow simple instructions. To cap it all he ends up sleeping with Suzie over and over again, but Joel amusingly keeps on paying him each time, enraged by the idea of Brad sleeping with his wife for free.

Bateman is adequate as the nice guy factory owner, but no-one in the cast really stands out, and that perhaps is down to the lack of quality writing as much as anything else. Affleck’s Dean is a pothead barman with pseudo-spiritual leanings, coming across as a mix between The Dude in The Big Lebowski and Diedrich Bader’s best friend from Office Space, Lawrence, but is a pale imitation of both. In true wacky-friend-sidekick style he is supposed to provide many of the laughs, but Affleck appears to be holding back in his performance a little, and the character fades from memory as soon as the film ends. By the end of the film Affleck and Bateman only have Cheech and Chong-level stoner gags to work with, which is a real shame, especially as they seem to tackle them with little conviction.

Kunis is ostensibly the love interest for Joel, and she plays a smart thief, but it’s difficult to shake off the feeling the character has been written in to provide a spot of eye candy. Judge’s leading ladies tend to be given characters to work with that amount to little more than a middle-aged man’s fantasies, so it’s no real surprise that Cindy has been written that way, even though it is frustrating. Wiig is underused yet again (a phrase that is becoming overused, ironically). Best of the supporting bunch is Anchorman‘s David Koechner, playing an irritating neighbour who seems to constantly harangue Joel about one thing or another in the driveway of Joel’s house.

Extract is actually quite a light, watchable film, even if it can be summed up as a movie containing a handful of sub-plots meandering about in search of an actual main plot. Unfortunately, and more importantly, it is nowhere near as funny as Judge’s previous efforts, and this time round his attack on unintelligent people simply feels a little mean, rather than a necessary blast across the bows of dumbed-down culture or workplace foibles. Certain elements are in place that are ordinarily required to make a good comedy, but it’s lacking in focus, and could have done with being a touch more offensive, or bilious.

The Basics:

Directed by: Mike Judge
Written by: Mike Judge
Starring: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Ben Affleck, Kristen Wiig
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Year: 2009
Rating: 3.6

[On a slight tangent, this blog is one year old today. You can send all cake and other gladly-received donations to Popcorn Towers, London, England. I’m sure it’ll all get here OK. Thanks to everyone that drops in for a read, whether it’s often or not, and even if you regularly do so while sitting on the toilet. I don’t mind. Really, I’m not fussy – it’s all very much appreciated. Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed at least five or six of the several hundred thousand words that I’ve bashed out. If you’re interested this was my first post.]

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Ben Affleck’s Argo, which he both directed and starred in, is one of the tensest thrillers to come out of Hollywood in recent years. It is based upon the true story, declassified by the Clinton administration in the late 1990s, of CIA agent Tony Mendez and his attempts to rescue six US embassy staff that were forced into hiding in Iran in 1980.

The film begins with a short animated history of Iran from post-World War II to the late 1970s, after the Iranian revolution and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. This is perhaps the first of many homages in the film (in this case to the excellent Persepolis). After the scene is set we see workers at the US embassy – whose nation has provided asylum for the deposed, dying Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – panic as their building is stormed by by Iranian revolutionaries. Most are taken hostage (a lengthy, drawn out crisis that is covered in Argo to an extent but lasted for over a year and was one factor that led to the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the start of Ronald Reagan’s).

However, Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio’s story concentrates on six embassy staff that managed to leave the building as it was stormed. They eventually find their way to the house of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who shelters them at great personal risk. (Sadly the film claims that the six workers were turned away by the British and New Zealand embassies, which is not actually true. They were housed by British diplomats before being moved to the Canadian residence as it was felt to be safer. Not only that, New Zealand staff put their lives on the line by driving during the attempted rescue. Facts seem to be less of a concern for modern Hollywood political films than perhaps they ought to be. Affleck stated, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph: “I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair. But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.” Unfortunately that’s exactly what it does.) Meanwhile in Washington, CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) brings in exfiltration specialist Mendez (Affleck) who comes up with a plan to get the workers out of the country. Mendez will travel to Tehran using a fake Canadian passport, holding six other fake Canadian passports, and will pretend to be on a location scout for a made-up science fiction film / Star Wars rip-off called Argo. The intention is for the US workers to pretend to be part of the film crew before they all leave together on a Swissair flight back to neutral territory. As Jack amusingly tells his superiors: “This is the best bad idea we have, sir, by far.”

To lend some weight to the story, Mendez enlists the help of make-up/prosthetics expert John Chambers (John Goodman), who in real life worked on many films and TV shows, including Planet of the Apes, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. He also persuades movie mogul Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to back his scheme, and together they set up a cast, create storyboards, posters and hold a script reading for their fake film (duly reported on by Variety). Given the all-clear by the CIA, Mendez travels to Tehran in order to extract the six hidden Americans.

A while ago, while writing about The Artist, I made the point that there is nothing Hollywood likes better than an ego-stroking film about Hollywood, and the same point applies here. One could argue that it is somewhat fishy that both The Artist and Argo have now won the Best Picture Oscar at successive Academy Awards, but in both cases the films deserved their nominations. (It’s actually a surprise looking back that Titanic beat out LA Confidential (another film dealing in part with Hollywood) back in the late 1990s, though it makes perfect sense when you consider how readily the industry celebrates its cash-shitting epics. Though, in fairness, both Robert Altman’s The Player and Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog were overlooked for Best Picture in the 1990s.) The funny thing about Argo is the fact that in this story the film industry is only of real, concrete use to the US government when it is backing a film that will never actually be made. Though the story appears to celebrate Hollywood’s usefulness, the director actually goes out of his way to show his disdain for the movie business, and has made an anti-Hollywood film. It’s no coincidence that Affleck chooses to show the dilapidated, half-broken version of the ‘Hollywood’ sign situated in the Hollywood Hills, even though the sign was actually repaired in 1978 and Argo is largely set in 1980. (And an interesting fact about that…the campaign to restore the sign to its former glory was led by Alice Cooper, who donated a missing ‘O’.) Later on, when the lives of Mendez and the embassy staff largely depend on Siegel and Chambers answering a phone call from the Iranian authorities, the two are obstructed when trying to cross a studio floor by the filming of a ridiculous-looking fight scene which is part of another movie. Lives may be at risk, but this industry carries on regardless and reality is an unwelcome intrusion. Both Siegel and Chambers are portrayed as jaded old-timers that have seen it all before, both grateful for the chance to be involved in a project that really is different to the norm. Their snappy one-liners support their seen-it-all-before demeanours superbly.

When Mendez arrives in Iran the tension is ramped up considerably, and much of the rest of the film tries to force you to the edge of your seat (and is very successful in doing so). There are gripping scenes as the crew are given a guided tour of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and have to drive slowly through an angry ranting crowd. There are guns on the streets everywhere, and even the expert Mendez is surprised and disorientated by the volatile air (in one scene he is calmed for the briefest of seconds upon seeing something familiar from the inside of his car – a branch of KFC – but it feels like a desert mirage, and is gone in a second).

Affleck’s direction is superb, as is the editing by William Goldenberg (who won an Oscar, a BAFTA and many other awards for his work). The pace is excellent, the story is involving and crisply delivered, and the dialogue is snappy and very quotable. Though set in the 1970s, Argo also feels like a film made in the 1970s, a modern-day French Connection or All The President’s Men (hence Warner Bros using their 1972-84 logo to open the film). There’s no reliance on special effects, there are no twists and turns every fifteen minutes, and the heroism of the characters is downplayed throughout; as bizarre as the story is, these are all people that are just doing their jobs.

At one point Cranston’s character O’Donnell says to Mendez “Brace yourself; it’s like talking to those two old fucks from The Muppets” when they are about to meet with two CIA bigwigs. He may as well have been talking about Arkin and Goodman, who are superb as the crotchety, Waldorf and Statleresque quick-fire Hollywood pairing helping Mendez out. Affleck must have been tempted to include more scenes with them, such is their excellent chemistry (indeed, the same could be said for his own scenes with Cranston). That he didn’t certainly shows restraint; though I wanted to see more of both Arkin and Goodman, it’s to the overall benefit of the film’s tone and focus that they do not appear too often. In fact the supporting cast is very good throughout – those playing the six embassy workers and the Canadian household all help to carry the story along and convey the rising tension well as the Iranian net closes in on them.

Affleck is solid in a role that allows him to calmly, quietly carry the film. His Mendez is a 1970s hero, and is therefore not required to have fist fights with Iranian guards, leap from burning helicopters or deliver cheesy payoff lines. In fact there is no real ‘action’ to speak of; only tense, race-against-time scenes that increase in frequency throughout and truly manage to convey the level of danger these people were in. Their predicament is enough in its own right to drive the film’s plot, a fact the director and screenwriter wisely noted.

The film has been criticized for being overly jingoistic towards the end, a neocon fantasy that paints Iran and Iranians in a bad light, but I can’t really see why on either point. If anything it has all of its fun with two great American institutions, the CIA and Hollywood, rather than the Iranian revolution or the Iranian people. Tehran is pictured as a volatile, dangerous place to be, a tinderbox environment that would be frightening to any westerner that happened to be there at the end of the 1970s and start of the 1980s; but then plenty of news footage from the time is interwoven, and it looks decidedly similar to Affleck’s version of the city.

The main hostage crisis isn’t really covered in great detail, but this is about Mendez and he had nothing to do with that operation, so you can hardly level that as a criticism to the filmmaker. It may be a straightforward thriller, but Argo is one of the better ones of recent years: a gripping, immensely exciting and well-executed drama that is also, on occasion, bizarrely amusing. It may be a straightforward re-telling of history from the American and Canadian perspectives (with some notable emissions, as mentioned above) but it is a hugely entertaining work, well-acted, and it will surely stand up to repeated viewings in the future. Affleck has now made two fine films and a half-decent one: not a bad start to his directorial life by any means. He has also managed to get his acting career back on track here, and these twin achievements with Argo will long outlive the minor fuss caused by the snub for Best Director dished out by the Academy earlier this year.

The Basics:

Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 
8.7

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