And when she was bad…

David Fincher’s Gone Girl is yet another example that Fincher is one of the most skilled directors working in Hollywood these days. It is gorgeous to look at, with the various elements of cinematic craft coming together almost to perfection. It is also a film that I found at turns annoying, ludicrous and distasteful, and that’s almost entirely due to the material. Similarly to Fincher’s previous film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’s impossible not to admire the sheer craft while wishing that he had chosen better material to work with.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl, that is, the story and storytelling, is not without merits, but it’s too glib for its own good. There’s a lot here that individually is interesting, clever, engaging, amusing and chilling, but much of the time it doesn’t really add up: one moment it’s amoral and cynical as hell, the next it turns to moralising with a misogynist slant; in one scene it’s an effective if obvious satire of the media and the audience’s complicity that goes for the uncomfortable laugh, the next it’s a psychological thriller veering into outlandish melodrama, with only the most superficial similarity to reality. There’s an OCD quality to the story, as if Gone Girl didn’t quite trust itself to hold our attention if it decided to be one thing only. Not that films can’t strive for different things at the same time, but in this particular case we end up with a bit of a Frankensteinian creature on screen.

Gone Girl

Which is a shame, not least because to the extent that the film coheres it’s due to the dark, sharp performance in the emptiness where a different movie’s heart would be. I’d enjoyed watching Rosamund Pike in earlier performances, but I wasn’t prepared for how good she is in this. Again, though, there’s a tension here between the nuanced intelligence Pike brings to the part as a performer and the lurid, trashy quality of the material. For all its polish, Gone Girl is Grand Guignol, made up to look like, well, a David Fincher film, and one of his best-looking to date. Look beyond the aesthetics, though, and the one Fincher film that this most resembles is The Game, another movie of very effective individual parts that cohere less and less the more you look at the whole.

Gone Girl

Arguably Fincher’s a stronger, more skilled director at this stage than he was when he made The Game, so Gone Girl holds together better by the sheer quality of the filmmaking, but as I left the cinema, more than anything else I was hoping that next time round he’d decide to film a better script. His particular skillset is well suited to clever writing (as, say, The Social Network shows), but ideally his scripts have to be as clever as they think they are, and I don’t think that’s true for Gone Girl. I hope that whatever he decides to do next he runs like hell from material that in the final analysis is glib more than anything else.

We need to talk about Christopher

I haven’t yet seen Interstellar. I’m definitely curious about the film and looking forward to it – I’m still as much a sucker for gorgeous space imagery as I was back when I was eight years old and had a poster of the solar system and its planets on my bedroom wall. At the same time, I have to admit to some apprehension, and that’s due to two things: Christopher Nolan and his fans. There’s a lot of hyperbole about Nolan and his films, just as there is too much criticism that dismisses his films, or patronises them, due to his making genre cinema. It’s difficult to find discussion of, say, The Dark Knight or Inception that doesn’t treat the films as either cinematic masterpieces or as hollow and derivative, as the sort of genre movies that let some sci-fi and superhero fans go, “Look? That’s brainy, isn’t it? The genre’s all grown up now?” At its worst, Nolan fetishism brings forth silliness such as proclaiming the director the new Kubrick.

I like Nolan’s films, even The Dark Knight Returns for all its flaws. Nolan has proven that he’s a skilled, smart director who knows how to handle his material well. He’s also deeply flawed: several of his films, for all their complicatedness, aren’t actually all that complex. He’s too enamoured of Big Questions that aren’t actually all that big or relevant, and that have been done before. Nolan likes a bit of the good old “… ah, but is it?” at the end of his films, but try to answer those questions and there’s not all that much there. That spinning top in Inception, the question whether at the end of the film Cobb is still in the dream? That twist is already there in the film’s premise – it’s predictable. Similarly, Memento‘s conundrum concerning Sammy Jankis’ identity? It’s a twist too far, an example of Nolan not trusting his film to have made the same point about Leonard’s malleable identity in the absence of memory already, taking it to near-absurdity. If Nolan’s films, and especially his scripts, insisted less on their apparent depth (which often totters on the border to pompousness), they’d actually make a more convincing case for being deeper than your general genre fare. As it is, through his films Nolan doth protest too much that he’s making grown-up films for grown-up people with grown-up brains.

There’s something else that Nolan doesn’t do all that well, and that’s action sequences. Given the right conceit, his action can be amazing: look at the hotel fight in Inception, divorced from gravity. In the same film, though, you get the sub-Bondian mountain action, which is dull and generic. Look at The Dark Knight‘s truck sequence and it’s a confusing mess of direction, cinematography and editing, while the Heat-with-clowns intro works tremendously well. I remember seeing The Dark Knight at the cinema and loving some scenes while wondering in others whether we were being shown a version of the film edited (and badly at that) to be shown on planes.

At the same time, Nolan does excel at doing films about men who make convoluted plans to avoid facing the emotional wrecks they are. Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception: in all of these, Nolan finds striking images and interactions to show his protagonists’ helplessness and the lengths to which they go to deny just how lost they are. To my mind, these themes are much more interesting than yet another treatise on what is real and what is a dream, or that central question that mankind has faced for centuries: whether Batman can be broken. Nolan has been accused of making cold films that are thin when they try to be emotional, and I don’t think sentiment is something he does well, either as a director or as a writer: but give him characters, especially men, who don’t know how to deal when faced with their own failure and loss, and he’s riveting. This is a director who should do a modern version of the Orpheus myth – if he hasn’t already done so in various ways. His Orpheus, when told he cannot look back, would be likely to construct an ingenious device of smoke, mirrors and cameras to trick Hades, without ever realising that Eurydice is gone for good.

As I said at the beginning, I’m curious about Interstellar, and I’m sure it’ll be a visual triumph. The trailer worries me, though; it looks like Nolan is making his Contact, complete with daddy issues. I’m not sure I trust him as a director to handle sentiment head-on: he’s no Spielberg, and even Spielberg isn’t always up to the task. Nolan has been best so far when he had his characters approach emotion at oblique angles, because they’re rarely good at handling them. At his best, there’s an understated but effective undercurrent of emotion in his films. I’m very much hoping that Interstellar will prove more The Prestige than Contact, and that he didn’t try to be both Kubrick and Spielberg at the same time. It didn’t work for Spielberg either when he did A.I.

P.S.: For anyone else who has a yen for astronomy porn, there’s the upcoming game Elite: Dangerous. In space, no one can hear you become speechless at the sight of all those planetary rings.

Taking the edge off tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is a dark comedy, at least the first half. It’s a sci-fi action flick, sure, but that is more like a backdrop for the fun it has with its story. We meet William Cage (Tom Cruise), a high-ranking liaisons officer for the U.S. military, who are busy fighting an alien intruder. Within a few minutes, Cage gets blackmailed, demoted and arrested by his general (played by Brendan Gleeson), abducted by his own army and wakes up in an American army base near London being shouted at by a detail leader who looks like Bill Paxton.

edge-of-tomorrow-trailer

Wait, it gets worse. And the worse it gets, the more I like that first hour. Cage is strapped in a high-tech weapons suit, put on a military aircraft together with his detail  and dropped off over the coast of Normandy, where everything goes fubar. It’s like D-Day orchestrated by Windows 8. There’s a nice running gag about nobody telling Cage how to switch off the safety. Almost everybody dies because the aliens have somehow figured out when and where the U.S. will strike. Cage wakes up again with Paxton staring at him. Reincarnation on repeat is just too much of a hassle – just ask Bill Murray. After he dies a few times more, Cage meets famous war heroine Rita Vrataski who has singlehandedly saved mankind at Verdun.

emily-blunt-edge-of-tomorrow.png

That Rita is pragmatic. She knows about Cage’s loop because she has been in one herself. That loop, if you survive for long enough, gives you insight on how to vanquish the aliens, so whenever Rita feels that Cage is not doing too well, she reboots him. By shooting him. In the head. Repeatedly. I think Emily Blunt has just the right amount of gruff zeal with that role.

The second half of the movie has much less of that grim fun, and the movie is the worse for it. The sci-fi mission takes over, and I won’t spoil anything when I tell you that Cage destroys the alien headquarters. It’s all well made, but it’s by the book. Shame. The first bit has so much going for it. Imagine Tom Cruise running into the baracks, yelling at his platoon: “You’re doomed! Now listen to me! Your lives depend on it!” Cruise, like Cage, understands that this is a funny line, and has fun with it because he is the only one who will survive, no matter what.

edge-of-tomorrowbeach

Those aliens. Some of them look like really aggressive mops that come out of the ground whenever they sense that humans are near. More evolved ones look like Treebeard has gone digital. That’s not too bad, but they’re not as inventive as they could have been. The screenplay is by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), based on a Japanese novel, and the movie is directed by Doug Lyman, who did three of the Bourne films, so he knows how to do a good action flick. My guess is that Lyman knows that, when he’s at his best, his movies are more than just entertainment. That is true for only the first half of this one.

Who framed Tony Zhou?

If you were already thinking, “Huh, two blog posts within a week – this is like Christmas! Just without the presents, turkey and Ibsenesque family drama!”, you’re only half right – no turkey, I’m afraid. Also, this isn’t a regular post so much as a suggestion that if you’re into cinema, especially cinematography, and haven’t already checked out Tony Zhou’s Vimeo page, you’re missing something. Zhou is fantastic at analysing and discussing how certain filmmakers use framing and editing to achieve very specific effects – and he’s the kind of critic who always puts what he looks at first rather than his critical ego. I find it almost impossible to come away from watching one of his videos and not to run to my DVD shelves, pick out one of the films he’s just talked about and rewatch it, savouring each single frame.

Here are just two of his video essays, namely one on Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) and his brand of visual comedy…

… and here’s one on the late Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika).

You’ll find Zhou here on Vimeo, and he’s also got a YouTube channel, for those who find Vimeo hit-and-miss in terms of download speeds.

Obsession, by Kubrick

Room 237 is a strange beast. The documentary consists entirely of people talking about their interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, set mostly to clips from the film itself as well as of other Kubrick movies – and by and large the theories they espouse seem to have a shaky grasp of the process of film analysis, charitably put. Some of the speakers make interesting points and they don’t go out of their way to tie their observations into a grand theory of What The Film Actually Is About, but the majority come across as the film studies equivalent of conspiracy theories mixed with a flair for fabulation. The Shining is about the Holocaust! It’s about the genocide of the Native Americans! It’s Kubrick’s coded admission that he faked the moon landing footage for NASA! The poster of the skier is actually a minotaur!*

... and what kind of creature roams the labyrinth?

What is strange about the film, but partly accounts for how intriguing it is: it doesn’t overtly comment on any of the theories. Apart from the film clips, there is no voice in the film other than that of the Kubrick enthusiasts – which has prompted some film critics to read Room 237 as endorsing the theories, or at least as doing that relativist pomo spiel of flattening out hierarchies, so that any interpretation is as valid as any other. While Room 237 is subtle in its criticism, though, it trusts that the juxtaposition of the enthusiastic theories and the images from the film speaks for itself. There is no need to criticise or mock the Overlook Hotel’s conspiracy theorists: while their tones are engaging, their takes on The Shining are so obviously Through The Looking Glass that it’s unlikely any moviegoers will come away from the documentary thinking that Kubrick had indeed airbrushed his likeness into the Colorado clouds.

Fill 'er up...

Having said that, I do wonder whether the average film audience will discern much of a difference between Room 237‘s theories and the analyses of poststructuralist, psychoanalytical or any other modern film criticism. As much as I enjoy Slavoj Zizek’s jazzy flights of fancy on film, I expect that to many they wouldn’t sound any less insane than the theories presented in Room 237. I do think there’s a difference, namely that most of the protagonists of Room 237 see The Shining as a puzzle to be solved, a spooky Rubik’s Cube of a movie, whereas critics at their best show how art – and yes, that includes the film adaptation of a Stephen King novel – can mean more, not less, through the act of interpretation. There’s a reductiveness to the theories: The Shining means this, and only this – and why doesn’t anyone believe me? This is where Room 237 is immensely effective: in hinting at the sadness that exists alongside the exuberance of obsession. Some people spend such a long time staring at the clouds that they start seeing Kubrick looking back at them, and at that point it may be more frightening to admit that the bearded guy isn’t actually in the clouds, he’s in your head.

Come and tricycle with us...

*There are at least two speakers who don’t quite belong in this line-up of craziness: the topography of the Overlook is indeed very strange considering Kubrick’s own obsession with details, and one speaker’s screening of   superimposing the film played back-to-front makes for an intriguing video installation, which is something that is categorically different from the outlandish theories.

The Leftovers, S1E10 – The Prodigal Son Returns

You know you are in the country of ending seasons when the soundtrack starts to be inventive. This is why we hear Nina Simone’s Ne me quitte pas when Kevin, with Matt Jamison’s help, ties up loose ends in Cairo. There is something very spooky in the cleric’s practicality: “I have shovels in my trunk.” Another quitter is Christine, who leaves Tommy to find the baby in a public lavatory. Jill quits her former life by joining her mother and the smoky ranks of the GR.

leftovers-110p

These are powerful scenes, but they are all upstaged by the Guilty Remnants’ final project. Nora Durst gets up, brushes her teeth and goes down for breakfast, only to find her family united at the breakfast table again. But wait – no. These are the departeds’ hollow imitations with dead masks modelled after the stolen photos and dressed in their own clothes stolen by the GR. These are puppets that spark a tiny glimmer of hope that your beloved ones have returned, and then you realize how grotesque these fucking puppets look.

leftoversprodigal

So the season’s finale is a very good one for a long time. Kevin Garvey dreams one last dream, maybe the most disquieting one, involving a certain National Geographic, Patti, and his dad. There is a conversation between Kevin and Matt where Matt’s questions are as revealing as Kevin’s answers. It’s clear that just because you don’t believe, you can still feel entirely guilty. Or you can believe and still go wrong.

And then, of course, there is the meeting between Kevin and Wayne in the men’s lavatory of a roadside diner. With his guts hanging out and only minutes left to live, Wayne fears he might have been a fraud, and wants Kevin to wish for something. If Kevin gets his wish, Wayne has been a real healer, like a twisted djinn. We can only guess what Kevin wishes for, but Wayne seems convinced he can grant him that wish. Then Wayne crosses the bridge.

sihag4vtcgrcm7ma1sx3

Kevin and Matt return to a Mapleton in turmoil. People want to hurt the GR and to burn those grotesque puppets. Megan is badly beaten up and tied to a lamppost; people with guns run through the streets, mad with anger and grief. The GR headquarters are aflame, and the fire brigade and the police are not in a hurry to help them. Kevin looks on as a couple throw their son’s eerie avatar into the fire. Just imagine: you are angry enough to throw that puppet in the flames, but you still watch your beloved one’s likeness melt.

Then Laurie appears, her voice hoarse from disuse, and yells her daughter’s name because she is in the burning house. That scene and her rescue are over the top, and they didn’t involve me the way they could or should have. Nora’s goodbye letter is touching, but then the ending comes around and twists the plot in a weird direction. Nora is on her way out of Mapleton when she finds Wayne’s and Christine’s baby on the Garveys’ front porch. Kevin and Jill look on with their soot-covered faces. Is this what Kevin wished for?

The longer I think about it, the less I like it. Give a despairing woman a baby and she finds new meaning in her life? Really? I cannot believe that this is Kevin’s wish. This is an abysmal ending to an otherwise pretty decent final episode.

Leftovers_NoraFinale-300x189

There were plotlines I could never warm up to. Christine and Tommy are uninteresting and could be cut. Jill should be better written. All three roles need better acting. There is only one episode that really stinks, the one with the baby Jesus, mainly because the weak plot and the bad editing screw up things. There are scenes from the pilot that remain unexplained, for instance Tommy’s vision of someone jumping from a rooftop. I also would like to know why Garvey Sr. went loopy. But I guess it’s better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.

Oh, but the good things. I like the cast. Ann Dowd. Carrie Coon. Amy Brenneman. This series has a lot of strong women. Justin Theroux. Scott Glenn. Christopher Eccleston. The quiet, threatening presence of Dean (Michael Gaston), who thinks he is one of the good people. Aimee’s forward comments on the Garveys’ family life, played by Emily Meade. The GR are annoying and creepy and cruel on a good day, and they need to be kept in check, but apart from those whistles, they have always been interesting to watch. A special mention goes to Max Richter, who composed the score. If you’ve seen Waltz with Bashir, you know what he is capable of.

theleftovershouses

I am glad I watched the series, but it didn’t leave me gasping from one week to the next. I am not big on symbolism – when Kevin Garvey pours a gallon of water over himself, I don’t think of baptism -, but the series works without it, too.

I’ve heard that the Departure will never be explained. That’s just as well, but it’s also a risk. The series cannot rely on a denouément of the main event, so it must invent and re-invent things for those people who are still around – and it is, after all, a series about the ones left behind. The lack of a return to the main event is a freedom only sure-handed screenwriters can handle, and I don’t know how much they can rely on Perrotta’s book. For instance, what is in store for season two? More sadness and sense of loss? I doubt that this will work, so they have to think of something. Will the GR still exist? If not, is there another collective way of dealing with the Departure?

Well, why not? If the departure has taught me one thing, it’s that there is no closure. Fuck closure. There are ways of dealing with stuff, and ways of not dealing with stuff, and it’s no matter if it’s October 14 or March 9 or any other day. You change either way. Apparently, the latter way prevails, because parts of Mapleton are aflame. In a way, everybody is worse off than during the departure. I wanna know where they go from there.

The Leftovers, S1E9 – The Garveys at their Best

Don’t be fooled by the modern interior of the Garvey home: what looks like an alternate version of the pilot is really the few hours before the Departure. It’s October 13, the day before. Laurie Garvey speaks and Jill is a happy teenager. Tommy, however, confronts his biological father and is arrested. That’s news – Kevin and Tommy aren’t father and son. This episode goes some way towards understanding the Garveys and others. It also answers the question of Where were you when…?

ep09_garveys

In a nice twist, we learn that Laurie is a psychiatrist and has Patti as her first client this morning. Patti is afraid that something terrible is about to happen. Laurie is convinced it’s all about Patti’s abusive husband Neal, and she suggests that Patti dump her troubles in a paper bag with Neal’s name on it and put it on his front porch. Both things will happen.

But, to use Patti’s words, a bag of doo-doo won’t stop the world from ending. Something’s wrong. Kevin Garvey is after a deer that has wreaked havoc in a school room. (Note that the teacher is the woman with whom Nora Durst’s husband has an affair.) Chief of Police Garvey Sr wants to put the animal down, but his son convinces him that, for the moment, tranquilizer darts are the better solution.

a-job-interview-the-leftovers

Nora Durst applies for the job of campaign manager for Councilwoman Warburton, who wants to become Mayor of Mapleton. Judging from that episode alone, you would think it’s normal American TV fare, if it wasn’t for the sense of foreboding that gets heightened by Patti’s confession. There is also some suspense in the expectation about when and how some of the minor characters will turn up. Gladys is breeding dogs and will maybe sell one to Laurie. Matt’s wife is still alive and well. Other than that, an hour-long episode for a Mapleton that has its standard problems and hails the Chief of Police for Man of the Year is barely enough.

There is the moment when Kevin Sr tells Junior that he should stop worrying – this is it, and it does not get any better or different. That’s exactly the opposite what Dad will tell Junior when he hands him the National Geographic.

Some of the scenes feel rushed in. Matt, for instance, comes out of the doctor’s examination room, tells his wife he does not have cancer and that he wants to get drunk, and maybe she should drive. Kevin Jr goes on his runs, but indulges a smoke and then a breath mint. He is dissatisfied with his marriage, but we never cleary understand why.

kevingarveyrapturemoment

It’s the last few minutes that blow this mediocre episode out of the water. It’s October 14, and we get to see the major characters in the very moment when the departure takes place. Tommy and Jill’s moment is weak and badly handled. Nora Durst has her back turned on her family and swears and curses because her son has spilt juice over her cellphone, and then the room is far too quiet. Kevin Jr has a fling with the woman who runs over the wayward deer, and while they roll around in the motel bed, she disappears from right under him. No wonder Kevin is confused and damaged.

Laurie Garvey’s moment is the strongest by far. She has guessed, maybe even feared, for some time that she is pregnant, but has kept it a secret. She is at her obstetrician’s when she sees the outlines of her kid on the ultrasound screen. It’s enough that we only see Laurie’s face. We hear the heartbeat. Then nothing.

the.leftovers.laurie

Episode nine is something of a near miss. Those characters that were able to thrive on strong writing kept on being interesting, but two of the weaker ones, Tommy and Jill, had such a weak scene that it feels like a missed opportunity to add something interesting to their storylines. The ending takes a risk: it could have been the season’s beginning or its ending, but it takes guts to place it at the end of the penultimate episode. There is one more episode to go, and I wonder what’s in store there. I expect we get to see the GR’s big event, and maybe Wayne will meet his fate. Let’s see.