Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Gone Girl (2014) ****

“Deliciously twisted” is a term that seems to come up repeatedly in descriptions of David Fincher's “Gone Girl,” based on the novel by Gillian Flynn. I won't argue with the “twisted” descriptor, but “delicious” is up for debate. In gustatory terms, I would describe the story as more like one of those bizarre ice cream flavors, or one of those sour beers brewed with bacteria instead of yeast. The flavor is “interesting,” and you respect them for making something so outre, but you don't necessarily want seconds.

The story structure is fabulous. The doomed marriage of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) is presented as two competing narratives moving along different time lines. We follow Nick as he comes home to find his wife missing, with signs of a struggle in the house. As the clues pile up, the police, the cable news harpies, and even the viewers come to suspect that Nick has murdered Amy. Meanwhile, we see, through entries in Amy's diary, how the two met five years earlier, fell in love, lost their jobs, moved to Missouri, then watched their marriage spiral into bitterness and fear.

I hate to sound like one of those lame, internet links, but “You won't believe what happens next!” Things get weird. Then they get twisted, and even more twisted.

Much as with the film “The Crying Game,” it becomes very awkward to discuss this movie without ruining the surprises. (Don't worry, the only on-screen penises in this one belong to male characters.) What I will say is that not since “Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” has there been such a brilliantly horrifying critique of marriage. The film, like the novel, is an ugly story, beautifully told. The ending, by the way, is essentially the same as in the novel, despite some interviews in which Gillian Flynn suggested otherwise. Unfortunately, it's an ending that most viewers will find unsettling and unsatisfying. Our sense of justice is not rewarded in this tale. In one sense, it's a commentary on how we all pretend to be better than we are to impress others. Eventually, if we are lucky (or unlucky, in some cases), one of those people marries us. What happens when the charade fails, and they see who we really are? “Gone Girl” suggests that one option is to simply agree to go back to pretending, and to pretend even harder.

I'm honestly a bit torn as to how to rate this one. It's as well-crafted a film as David Fincher has made, perfectly cast and perfectly paced, but damn, it's bleak. There's certainly nothing to criticize about the acting. Affleck and Pike are perfect for their roles and in their roles. Same for Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's obsessed ex-boyfriend and Tyler Perry (Yes, THAT Tyler Perry) as a Johnnie Cochran-esque lawyer. For me, the warped ending was a bit of a stretch plot-wise, but the film keeps things humming along so that you hardly notice until it's over. It's an excellent film, and I recommend it, but it sure doesn't have anything close to a happy ending. You'll have to decide for yourself if “deliciously twisted” is something you're up for.

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

This is Where I Leave You (2014) ****

We've all heard the old trope about how happy families are all the same, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that no one wants to write books or movies about happy families. Unhappy ones are way more interesting.

The Altman family is quite interesting, even though on the surface their tragedies are all pretty mundane. Siblings Judd (Jason Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Phillip (Adam Driver), and Wendy (Tina Fey) are called home for their father's funeral. Judd's life is a mess, because he caught his wife sleeping with his boss (Dax Shepherd). Paul has a chip on his shoulder as the elder brother who stayed in town to run the family business but can't get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. Phillip, the youngest, is an immature mess who has gotten engaged to his shrink (Connie Britton). Wendy, in a loveless marriage, carries a torch for her old boyfriend, whose life was stunted by a head injury.

Sounds like a downer, right? Well don't worry. Based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper, who also wrote the screenplay, “This is Where I Leave You” is absolutely hilarious. The Altman matriarch (Jane Fonda) convinces the sibs that their non-religious father wanted them all to sit Shiva, a Jewish tradition that involves sitting in the house together for seven days. It's a white lie that gives them all a chance to re-connect, get in fist-fights, and work through a few of their issues.

If “This is Where I Leave You” is an example of what happens when you allow an author to adapt his own book for the screen, then Hollywood should do it more often. It's amazing how cleanly Tropper captures the spirit of his book while compacting the story for the screen. Of course, with a cast like this, it's hard to go wrong. Jason Bateman disappointed me with "Bad Words", but here he is back to his charming self. He has excellent chemistry with Rose Byrne, who plays an old love-interest. Tina Fey is beautiful and pitch-perfect, and Jane Fonda is hilarious as the fake-boob-sporting mother. Dax Shepherd's role is small, but after watching him play such a nice guy in "Hit and Run", I'm impressed by how well he can play a jerk. Then there is Adam Driver, who perhaps plays the incorrigible Phillip a little too wise at times, but is absolutely magnetic. You cannot look away from him.

It isn't often that I come away satisfied from a movie based on a book I like. It's hard to catch the lightning of a great book in the bottle of a film, but “This is Where I Leave You” does it in spades. If they gave an Oscar for Date-Movie of the Year, “This is Where I Leave You” would be a top contender.

4 stars out of 5

Friday, October 03, 2014

The Way Way Back (2013) ***

Halfway through this movie, my wife turned to me and asked me if I found Toni Collette at all attractive. Newsflash, guys, these can be dangerous questions! You gotta think before you answer. Honestly, though, there is simply nothing sexy about Toni Collette, at least not in her movies. I think she's an excellent actress, and certainly not ugly, but in her film roles she always plays these characters whose life has gone to crap, and her face seems designed to express misery. When she smiles, it seems to take a massive effort of will to move her facial features up from their natural, hang-dog position, and the effect is always one of smiling through the pain.

In “The Way Way Back,” Collette plays yet another single mom struggling to smile through the pain, but the movie isn't really about her. The protagonist is her 14-year-old son, Duncan (Liam James), who is miserable at having to spend the summer with his mom, her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and the boyfriend's bitchy teenage daughter. The thing about Trent is he's a bully, but not the typical, get-drunk-and-slap-your-woman bully. He comes across as a nice guy, but he's really all about himself. He constantly undermines Duncan in the guise of acting as a father figure.

To escape, Duncan wanders the beach town where they are spending the summer, and he winds up meeting the staff of the local water park, including Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph. This kooky bunch become like a family to Duncan, and their kind acceptance allows him to blossom and become a man.

The plot is entirely too “After School Special,” but the strong cast manages to pull this one off. Carrell plays a very convincing jerk, and Toni Collette, of course, is right in her element as an aging single Mom whose last great romantic prospect isn't really all that great. Sam Rockwell is really charming as the irreverent water park manager. It's the star, Liam James, who really carries the movie though. He starts the film as a slumped-over wallflower, and by the end he has literally found a backbone. His use of posture to portray Duncan's transformation reminds me of Kevin Spacey's work in “American Beauty.”

What is the way, way back? The title refers to the rear-facing seat in the far back of Trent's station-wagon, but it is also a metaphor for Duncan, his water-park friends, and anyone else who doesn't exactly fit in. It turns out that when the misfits of the world support each other, the way way back isn't such a bad place to be.

3 stars out of 5