Serena Review – Mountainous Mishap


Director: Susanne Bier

Writers: Christopher Kyle (screenplay), Ron Rash (novel)

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Sean Harris


Release date: November 27th, 2014

Distributors: StudioCanal, Magnolia Pictures

Countries: USA, France

Running time: 109 minutes


 

 

1½/5

Best part: The scenery.

Worst part: The misjudged direction.

Review: Serena

Verdict: A Laughable and dull western-drama.

The Hunger Games Mockingjay – Part 1 Review – Broken Arrow


Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-final-poster-394x600


Release date: November 20th, 2014

Distributor: Loinsgate

Country: USA

Running time: 123 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: The grimy visuals.

Worst part: The love triangle.

Let me stress this to film-goers and Hunger Games aficionados everywhere: this latest instalment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, is a mixed bag. Following in the Harry Potter, Hobbit, and Twilight‘s footsteps, this first-half feature is purposefully messy. Ok, that’s unconfirmed. However, it sure seems tangible. The movie’s central action sequence solidifies this theory.Teenage warrior Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), eyes down an enemy bomber, takes a deep breath, and fires her bow. Despite the awesomeness, it’s the one time she uses her signature weapon here.

Jennifer Lawrence & Liam Hemsworth.

Setting everything up for Part 2 (coming mid to late 2015), Mockingjay – Part 1 constructs an obstacle course for itself. Spinning several plates at once, the story wobbles violently before its rescue. Part of another undeserving and needless trend, this instalment should have only been one 150-minute feature. However, to make an extra billion in box-office revenue, Lionsgate screwed the pooch. The story, such as it is, hurls us back into the desolate landscapes of Panem. Thankfully, this entry takes a wholly refreshing departure from the Games. Katniss, having survived the world-shattering events of Catching Fire, is on rebellion leader President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee(Philip Seymour Hoffman)’s watch. Applauded by Districts 1 through 12, she’s become the symbol of rebellion and hope. Previously unaware of District 13’s existence, she learns of several mind-numbing truths. Pulled into the resistance/Capitol war, her efforts spark significant unrest. Worried about friend/admirer Peeta(Josh Hutcherson)’s safety, she focuses on protecting her loved ones. Despite volunteer soldier Gale(Liam Hemsworth)’s long-lasting affections, Katniss’ resolve reaches breaking point. Armed by previous Games winner Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Katniss and Gale become the children of the revolution.

Philip Seymour Hoffman & Julianne Moore.

Similarly to Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn, Mockingjay already suffers from studio interference. Almost always, splitting one narrative into two causes major structural flaws. In no other instance would this tactic be acceptable. So, why does this multi-billion dollar industry do it? Beyond the monetary gain, mass fandom influences these decisions. The fans, infatuated with Suzanne Collins’ original material and/or these adaptations, form a tight-knit community. Predictably, despite the cast and crew’s efforts, this installment doesn’t work by itself. It’s wafer thin narrative yields overwhelming major and minor flaws. The first half, specifically the painfully dour first act, explores our distraught lead’s psyche. Aided by former Hunger Games victor Finnick O’Dair (Sam Claflin), she flips between rousing anger and teary-eyed remorse. The movie unevenly plonks certain sequences next to one another. Though emphasising the consequences and stakes, it’s repetitiveness and bloated narrative are repulsive. The story leaves little but charred corpses, random set-pieces, and heavy-handed rants to connect with. The Capitol, however, still comes off like the Empire. The tension builds whenever moustache-twirler President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) appear. Sadly, this instalment takes the arrow away from the bow. Katniss, by focusing entirely on Peeta and Gale instead of the world around her, becomes yet another love-struck Young Adult heroine. Slipping from Catching Fire‘s grit to Divergent‘s distasteful pandering, this instalment never establishes its love triangle. Katniss, the only well-developed and charismatic character of the three, almost becomes Bella Swan here (but could still kick her ass!).

“You will rescue Peeta at the earliest opportunity, or you will find another Mockingjay.” (Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1).

Natalie Dormer.

Despite the complaints, Mockingjay – Part 1 is still a worthwhile installment. Here, Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water For Elephants) becomes this series’ David Yates. Displaying a bright infatuation for the franchise, his earthy direction – previously bolstering  Catching Fire – grounds this expansive universe. Ditching the original’s shaky-cam/washed-out aesthetic, Lawrence’s cinematic flourishes boost this otherwise haphazard entry. Luckily, the movie’s last third builds significant tension and thrills. In addition, the political subtext overshadows its threadbare story. This installment examines the resistance’s larger-than-life propaganda machine. A camera crew, led by punky director/Capitol escapee Cressida (Natalie Dormer), follows Katniss and co. around whilst surveying the despair and destruction. This time around, popular characters Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) butt heads with revolution big-wigs over Katniss’ fate. Forget 3D and IMAX – this instalment launches its convoluted agenda from all angles. Katniss, forced into advertisements and viral marketing schemes, goes through several peculiar situations. Judging by just a few expressions, she’s more comfortable murdering small children than reciting lines and trying on fashionable military attire. Lawrence, switching between indie-drama experiments and major franchises, connects with the crowd-pleasing material. Amplifying the character’s physical and emotional transformations, the 23-year-old mega-star – displaying exceptional singing skills in one vital scene –  displays more class than her more-experienced co-stars. New additions Moore, Dormer, and Mahershala Ali add gravitas as vital resistance players.

The major problems with Mockingjay – Part 1 have little to do with its actors, screenwriters, or director. Similarly to the Capitol, Lionsgate’s overbearing gaze affects everything involved. The infamous split-in-two decision sucks this instalment dry. Katniss doesn’t help either: becoming a shrill, unfavourable, and indignant YA trope. Fighting only for herself, her barely defined family members, and two bland super-zeroes, the Girl on Fire is now extinguishing her own flames. Sadly, the Mockingjay is struggling to take flight. Let’s hope Part 2 drops the attitude and picks up the bow.

Verdict: Half a Hunger Games flick (for better or worse).

This Is Where I Leave You Review – Family Foibles


Director: Shawn Levy

Writer: Jonathan Tropper (screenplay & novel)

Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver


Release date: October 23rd, 2014

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: The dynamic cast.

Worst part: The tedious gross-out gags.

Hollywood’s latest home-for-the-holidays venture, This Is Where I Leave You, strives to speak to, and for, the masses. Promising relatable situations and interesting characters, this big-budget dramedy strains and creaks whilst grounding itself. Crafting a slicker-than-shoe-polish version of reality, these movies, despite their commendable intentions, never convince. How can they be realistic, anyway? They feature ultra-wacky set pieces and ultra-popular celebrities. Even character-actor Corey Stoll, seen in the background of several recent movies and TV shows, has more money than everyone in Kansas combined.

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll & Adam Driver.

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll & Adam Driver.

Fuelled by Kings of Leon, American Authors, a relatable concept, and a starry cast, TIWILY‘s egregious marketing campaign highlighted the broad appeal. Given these actors’ big-and-small-screen successes, the formula seemed destined for positive results. The poster, plonking each big-name next to one another, sums up modern entertainment’s pros and cons. Sadly, the words “formula” and “conventional” linger throughout the final product. The movie, the latest in a series of familial dramedies, isn’t any better or worse than August: Osage County or The Judge. Like the aforementioned celluloid distractions, this dramedy’s reach drastically exceeds it grasp. The story kicks off with a wholly fantastical version of New York City. Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is a radio station manager living the dream. Coming home early from work, he’s shocked to discover his wife Quinn(Abigail Spencer)’s year-long affair with Judd’s favourite shock-jock/boss Wade (Dax Shepard). After three months of excessive remorse, heartache, and beard-growing, the newly divorced Judd is informed of his dad Mort’s passing. The Altman family – rounded out by matriarch Hilary (Jane Fonda), Judd’s sister Wendy (Tina Fey), older brother Paul (Stoll), and youngest Philip (Adam Driver) – come together for the funeral. As per Mort’s last request, the family must sit Jewish mourning custom Shiva. Stuck in their old home for seven days, the Altman’s past and present quarrels collide. Amongst the chaos, several key players show up to further elevate or deflate each family member.

Jane Fonda & Debra Monk.

Based on Jonathan Tropper’s book of the same name, TIWILY feels like an all-too-literal adaptation. Handing screenplay duties over to Tropper, the movie seemingly utilises every page to fill its 103-minute run-time. The original material, perfect for novel length, is lugubriously laid out across this cumbersome script. Like many dramedies, there’s way too much going on. Throwing in more sub-plots and characters than needed, the narrative’s top-heavy structure wains half-way through. The quiet parts, despite straining against the movie’s glorious sheen, deliver subtle and genuine moments. Certain character interactions, bolstered by its engaging cast and witty dialogue, are almost worth the admission cost. Several sequences work efficiently, depicting insults and stories thrown between troubled by fun-loving people. However, crushed under the narrative’s immense weight, the central plot-strands lack emotional weight or sustenance. Bumping into school friend/manic pixie dream girl Penny (Rose Byrne), Judd’s story-line is predictable, soulless, and tepid. Drowning in an ocean of A-listers, montages, and clichés, Bateman explores yet another sad-sack character. This dramedy – lacking the class, bravado, and cockiness of Arrested Development – adds to the comedic actor’s post-TV slump. However, thanks to quick-wit and charisma, the nice-guy lead delivers a measured performance. In fact, Judd, despite his conflict’s tiresome twists and turns, is the most likeable and intriguing character. The surrounding family members, defined by specific traits (new breasts, baldness, immaturity etc.), are mean-spirited and one note.

“It’s hard to see people from your past when your present is so cataclysmically screwed up.” (Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), This Is Where I Leave You).

Rose Byrne.

Rose Byrne.

Director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum series, The Internship) applies his hack-and-slash style to this subdued dramedy. Levy – whose  filmography includes Cheaper by the Dozen, the Pink Panther remake, and Real Steel – isn’t known for intelligence, verve, or sensitivity. Touching on adultery, familial strife, and religion, its concepts construct only silly scenarios and corny ramblings. Despite the premise, the family’s Jewish heritage is picked up and dropped without warning. Certain sequences, despite the lack of consequences or emotional resonance, deliver big laughs and nice moments. Getting high in a synagogue, Bateman, Stoll, and Driver’s characters deliver comedic and dramatic shades. Also, Fonda’s ever-lasting figure is given significant attention. Playing an open-minded writer/therapist, Fonda charges through the role. The movie serves to boost its actors’ career trajectories. Fey, known for writing and leading better comedic material, excels despite her underwhelming and manipulative sub-plot. Contending with old-flame Horry (Timothy Olyphant) (suffering permanent brain damage from an accident several years earlier), her character’s conflicts deserve more development. In addition, Phillip’s sub-plot – fighting to keep his relationship with older girlfriend/therapist Tracy (Connie Britton) going whilst fighting off former conquests – serves to kickstart slapstick gags and wild misunderstandings. Furthermore, Paul and his zany wife Annie(Kathryn Hahn)’s attempts to conceive yield even-more-implausible set pieces. Despite the misjudged material, character-actors Debra Monk and Ben Schwartz get enough time to shine.

Biting off much more than it can chew, TIWILY is hindered by a lackluster filmmaker and tiresome screenplay. Tropper, despite handing his own material, misjudges the adaptation process. Crafting too many story-lines, characters, and twists, the book-to-film translation lacks joy, weight, or warmth. Despite the distasteful, A-listers-pretending-to-be-normal phoniness, the cast succeeds. Bateman, despite playing yet another down-on-his-luck loner, is charming and affable. Meanwhile, Fey, Stoll, Fonda, and Driver craft entertaining moments. Ultimately, this self-conscious effort never surprises, inspires, or even convinces. Welcome to Hollywood!

Verdict: A charming yet cloying dramedy.

White Bird in a Blizzard Review – Sex and the Suburbs


Director: Gregg Araki

Writers: Gregg Araki (screenplay), Laura Kasischke (novel)

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez


Release date: October 24th, 2014

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 91 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Shailene Woodley.

Worst part: Shiloh Fernandez.

Hollywood, over the past few years, has waged war against optimism, relationships and marriage. In seeking to connect with modern/cynical audiences, big-budget cinema seemingly exists to criticize these well-intentioned, life-altering decisions. According to Tinseltown, life post-proposal is nothing but broken promises and empty souls longing for the “till death do us part” scenario to become reality. Following up Gone Girl and Men, Women & Children, White Bird in a Blizzard strives to put the final nail in the coffin.

Shailene Woodley & Shiloh Fernandez.

Shailene Woodley & Shiloh Fernandez.

In all honesty, despite seeing the positives of marriage, this socially recognised union is not my thing. In fact, White Bird in a Blizzard could spark many wide-ranging viewpoints about marriage, adolescence, and life. The movie, though intent on forming its own analysis, longs for multiple discussions about its story, themes, and characters. Writer/director Gregg Araki (Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin) has studied, and adapted to, this film/film-goer interaction throughout his career. So, does his latest feature stand up to criticism? As it turns out, White Bird in a Blizzard fits comfortably into his controversial filmography. The movie crafts itself around 1980s suburban America’s pros and cons. Its story follows promiscuous high school graduate Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley). Preparing herself for a degree at Berkeley, the youngster – despite her loving family and friends’ support – feels cut off from the rest of the world. Aided by her confident father Brock (Christopher Meloni) and detestable mother Eve (Eva Green), Kat’s life resembles that of your average adolescent. However, after Eve’s mysterious disappearance, Kat must pull herself back from the brink whilst asking the most important question of all: What happened to mum?

Christopher Meloni & Eva Green.

Christopher Meloni & Eva Green.

Based on Laura Kasischke’s best-selling novel, White Bird in a Blizzard takes on several genres and messages within its hurried 91-minute run-time. Exploring out-there stories and characters, Araki’s on-set intentions and off-set demeanour define him as one of American cinema’s most unusual auteur filmmakers. Known for his New Queer Cinema movement entries, he – similarly to Gus Van Sant – isn’t afraid of proclaiming his sexual orientation and significant viewpoints. Faced with fearsome opposition, his movies seek to destroy prejudice, conflict, and status quo. His latest effort, discussing societal norms and the studio system, has a helluva lot on its mind. In fact, like previous features, White Bird in a Blizzard depicts horrific events with subtlety, verve, and intelligence. Sticking to Araki’s independent roots, the narrative wears the veil of American Beauty whilst hiding many masochistic undertones. Harking back to Sam Mendes and Todd Solondz’ earlier works, this drama-thriller depicts a love-is-a-lie version of middle-class existence. Tearing his story-threads and characters apart, each sickening twist and turn further enlarge the central conflict’s cracks, tears, and erosion. Kat, pointing out her family and friend’s overt pretentiousness and transparency, becomes the knife slicing through society’s grand illusions. Our existentially frazzled lead, despite her boyfriend/neighbour Phil(Shiloh Fernandez)’s nice-guy nature, seeks primarily to destroy his booming reputation. Several scenes – featuring fluffy conversations between her and friends Beth (Gabourey Sidibe) and Mickey (Mike Indelicato) – strive to elevate our ‘protagonist’ above everyone else. 

“The beautiful woman she once was…became a phantom wandering away in a snowstorm.” (Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley), White Bird in a Blizzard).

Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe & Mark Indelicato.

Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe & Mark Indelicato.

Araki, not one for subtlety or objectivity, designed White Bird in a Blizzard to obliterate suburbia. Despite the approachable set-up, the movie thrusts deep-seeded emotions into the spotlight. Commenting on our evolution from 20th-century patio culture to 21st-century liberalism, the narrative revels in its views on feminism, masculinity, class warfare, gender politics, and relationships. Through flashbacks and dream sequences, we see a nightmarish insight into the Connor household. Eve, close to grinding glass into Brock’s dinner, appears stuck in a mind-numbing and lifeless void. Slipping into a booze-and-loose-clothes-addled depression, she leaps from glorified mistress to independent nightmare. Turning the tide throughout, the movie further examines its own disturbed, philosophical recesses. Biting off more than it can chew, it even tackles current young-adult, mystery-thriller, and relationship-drama trends. Crafting a Lovely Bones-esque switch from marriage to mystery, the narrative pokes fun at its whodunnit twists and turns. Whilst seducing Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), Kat openly calls her actions into question. Picking apart modern literature heroines’ weaknesses, it’s really an indictment against popular entertainment. She even has two good-looking guys fighting over her, outlined by her roommate’s “I’m Team Oliver” comments. In particular, Woodley’s casting illuminates Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars‘ misgivings. However, her sweet-natured performance, out-classing Meloni and co., highlights her immense dramatic talents.

Though Araki’s reach exceeds his grasp, his ambition and style cannot be faulted. Throwing bright colours, comically appealing narration, a kitsch soundtrack, and soap-opera-esque lines across his 11th feature, the writer/director Araki is one of few big-names crafting efforts of lasting effect and whip-smart attitude. White Bird in a Blizzard – thanks to its non-linear structure and self-aware humour – creates a thought-provoking contrast between reality and ‘reel life’.

Verdict: A potent and magnetic mystery-thriller.

Men, Women & Children Review – Social Melodrama


Director: Jason Reitman

Writers: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay), Chad Kultgen (novel)

Stars: Rosmarie DeWitt, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer


Release date: October 1st, 2014

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 119 minutes


 

2/5

Best part: The dynamic performances.

Worst part: The heavy-handed message.

In the age of…whoa, whoa, whoa! There is no way, in the name of God and Mother Nature’s big, blue Earth, I can or should start a review of ‘indie’ dramedy Men, Women & Children with that cliché! Such clichés, used throughout most ‘perils of social media’ articles/news stories etc., sum up everything wrong with modern entertainment/journalism. News and entertainment media, from big-budget schlockers to the independent idea mills, should always be divorcing themselves from convention.

Rosemarie DeWitt & Adam Sandler.

Sadly, no one informed Men, Women & Children‘s cast and crew of this. Hoping we’ll look up its release date and/or wait anxiously for the next trailer’s release, the marketing campaign tries to lure us into its conventional worldview. Obsessed with the zeitgeist, this dramedy honestly believes it’s delivering the last word on the subject. It expects everyone – from top-tier critics to average film-goers – to sit up and listen. The movie – examining the dangers of social media, pop-culture, and sex – wants us to look in the mirror at judge ourselves for everything we’ve done wrong. Unaware of its flaws, the movie is a virus no contraceptive or firewall could ever hope to destroy. This blunt and irritable mess starts off with a symbol floating through another symbol whilst drifting past more symbols. In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 into the endless void of space. Blaring cheery greetings in 57 languages, smooth jazz sounds, and animal noises, astronomer Carl Sagan’s recording was designed to communicate with extraterrestrials. Explained via sprightly, useless narration (Emma Thompson), the movie falls back down to Earth. It then flicks through multiple story-lines. Inter-connecting through friendships, relationships, and coincidences, these stories craft a never-ending narrative about the digital age’s pros and cons.

Dean Norris & Judy Greer.

Dean Norris & Judy Greer.

Despite the amount of story-lines and characters, Men, Women & Children is about as lifeless and mechanical as The Cloud. The movie handles dating divorcees (Dean Norris and Judy Greer), first loves (Ansel Elgort and Kaitly Dever), promiscuous teenagers (Olivia Crocicchia), porn-obsessed youngsters (Travis Tope), paranoid parents (Jennifer Garner), and much more. Before I bin this dramedy and press ‘Empty Trash’, allow me to activate my newly devised ‘Angry Critic’ app and explain why I hate it. Here’s what you should know before seeing Men, Women & Children – the title is plural for a reason! Each story-line, featuring several flawed characters each, gets a significant amount of screen-time. One particular story-line – involving married couple Rachel and Don Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler)’s debaucherous, internet-fuelled indiscretions – should have been the central conceit. Unfortunately, this over-long and simplistic black comedy’s remaining story-lines needed more time to install, run, and update. The first third, designed specifically to introduce each plot-thread, is chock-a-block with meet cutes and dilemma-causing scenarios. Meanwhile, the last third lives to resolve said preposterous, cynical, and inconsequential strands. This leaves only middle third to solidify each thread’s existence. Flipping iPad style through each sub-plot, character arc, theme, issue, and conflict, not one story-line is successfully developed or treated with care. Several threads, including the Truby’s oldest son’s porn addiction and one cheerleader’s eating disorder conflict, are worth erasing.

“I think if I disappeared tomorrow, the universe wouldn’t really notice.” (Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), Men, Women & Children).

Ansel Elgort & Kaitlyn Dever.

Set primarily in suburbia and high school, the movie longs to examine ‘relatable’ and ‘ordinary’ people. However, writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) – adapting Chad Kultgen’s novel – talks down to the public throughout this unrealistic and overbearing cautionary tale. Stepping into Sam Mendes and Todd Solondz’ worlds, Reitman’s snark and smarts dropped in favour of a discomforting tone and laboured pacing. The thirty-something filmmaker – following up confused romantic-drama Labor Day – crafts shallow depictions of monogamy, bulimia, obsession, temptation, infidelity, existential crises, celebrity, familial issues, and (anti)social media. Fusing this mean-spirited narrative with this overt sentimentality, it’s a peculiar mix of Dazed and ConfusedCrash, and Parenthood. Highlighting the obvious metaphors, Reitman’s aggressive agenda infects his visual style. Throwing text messages, chat windows, and URL bars across the screen, this useless technique overcooks the convoluted story. Highlighting each character’s indiscretions, the director’s techniques send shivers down the spine. The performers – a mix of A-listers, character-actors, and up-and-comers – bolster the underdeveloped roles. Sandler, making a major career switch, elevates his introverted character. Garner, Greer, and Norris are worthwhile distractions in this debilitating after school special.

Men, Women & Children‘s poster sums up everything about the final product – it’s ugly, misjudged, and features recognisable people hidden by a bevy of smartphones and smart-asses. Despite the ambition, this suburban dramedy – from 1% completion to 100% – mistakes convolution for complexity. Reitman, fusing indie sensibilities with Hollywood prowess and minor studio interference, delivers his second consecutive foible. Despite the flaws, the performers admirable tackle the material. In particular, hearing Thompson say: “titty-f*cking cum queen” is almost worth it. LOL, smiley emoticon.

Verdict: Reitman’s second consecutive failure.

Gone Girl Review – Till Death…


Director: David Fincher

Writer: Gillian Flynn (screenplay & novel)

Stars: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry


Release date: October 3rd, 2014 

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 149 minutes


5/5

Best part: Fincher’s direction.

Worst part: Minor book-to-film translation issues.

Movies and relationships – despite the major differences between fantasy and reality – share one vital similarity. Oddly enough, these two ‘necessities’ rely on first impressions. A good first impression can make for blissful rewards, while a bad one can turn smiles into frowns. Tinseltown’s latest smash hit crime-thriller/marriage deterrent Gone Girl makes it mark within its first few moments. In its second scene, one of our two lead characters, standing next to a wheelie bin, looks around the neighbourhood before skulking back into his/her house.

Ben Affleck as struggling journo/murder suspect Nick Dunne.

Analysing this one uneventful moment, Gone Girl‘s audience could piece a million ideas together to create a billion different interpretations. In a year of shlocky actioners and dodgy biopics, the movie pick critics and film-goers up off the ground. We can all rest easy, thanks to this pulsating crime-thriller. We can now look forward to a potentially ingenious Oscar season. Obviously, I fell in love with this movie and might never let go. Thanks to its commendable cast and crew, this is 2014’s best movie. So, what is it about? Well, that is certainly an interesting question. The aforementioned lead is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a disgruntled writer dangling on the thinnest moral tightrope imaginable. The bin scene delivers only a minuscule look into his existence. Kicking off in the present, the narrative scours through his hit-and-miss past. Early on, we witness a younger, more confident Nick introducing himself to alluring femme fatale Amy (Rosamund Pike). Hitting it off immediately, our cute characters ignite the ultimate topsy-turvy relationship. At first, our lovebirds float through life in each other’s arms. Bolstered by kinky sex and likeable personalities, their coupling seems perfect. However, soon after Nick and Amy’s wedding, life swings the one-two punch of a recession and mass lay-offs. Following Nick’s twin sister Margo(Carrie Coon)’s advice, our leads move from New York to his hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. On their fifth anniversary, Nick comes home to find a crime scene. Amy has been kidnapped, and detectives Boney (Kim Dickens) and Gulpin (Patrick Fugit) are on the case.

Rosamund Pike as mousey housewife/victim Amy Elliot Dunne.

From here, I promise to stick to my specific criticisms about the final product. In doing so, I will be avoiding Gone Girl‘s jaw-dropping twists and turns. Based on tabloid journalist turned novelist Gillian Flynn’s best-selling beach-read, the movie elegantly tackles several genre tropes and thrilling ideas. Faithful to said momentous page-turner, Gone Girl hands screenplay duties over to Flynn. Gracefully, Flynn develops a straight-to-the-point translation of her own material. The novel – telling a slinky and cynical story about marriage’s ups, downs, and left turns – tip-toes between plot-points and chapters. This adaptation, though aided by Flynn’s succinct screenplay, is bolstered by mega-successful psychological-thriller filmmaker David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven). Along with the aforementioned modern classics, Fincher’s no-nonsense direction has delivered such gut-wrenchers as The Game, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. Like his Stieg Larsson adaptation, his take on Flynn’s novel amplifies the emotional resonance and stakes. Examining the text’s denotations and connotations with microscope-like focus, his style aptly suits the narrative. Amy – the missing gorgeous, white woman – sends the world into a tailspin. Meanwhile, Nick, a handsome journalist sulking inside their McMansion, becomes the prime suspect. The first half, setting up its story and character threads, omits the fat and lovingly nurtures its more-important concepts. Thanks to Fincher’s non-linear style, aided by chapter-defining fade-ins/outs, the narrative peels back story-lines with fingernail-like sharpness and intensity. Relishing in Amy’s oppressive diary entries, Fincher and Flynn craft an alarming tale of regret, temptation, monogamy, and gender politics. Adding to the overbearing cynicism, the story even pits Amy against her mother’s notorious literature creation ‘Amazing Amy’. Slithering around one another, these people are despicable, desperate, and just plain fascinating!

“I will practice believing my husband loves me. But I could be wrong.” (Amy Elliot Dunne (Rosamund Pike), Gone Girl).

Tyler Perry as top-shelf attorney Tanner Bolt.

As a pulpy, trashy, and intriguing mystery-thriller, Gone Girl makes airport novels, Hollywood cinema, and Affleck look so damn irresistible. Affleck, coming off an Oscar win and a major career resurgence, makes the most of this experience. Shedding his polarising persona, the A-lister succumbs to the character. However, credit belongs to Pike for perfecting her indelible role. Delivering multiple turns within one performance, the British character actress deserves the Oscar win. In addition, the stunt casting works wonders. Neil Patrick Harris goes full ‘One Hour Photo‘ in his disturbing role. Tyler Perry delivers a charismatic turn as ego-driven attorney Tanner Bolt. Boosting everyone’s careers, Fincher is the all-seeing, all-knowing God of big-budget filmmaking. Dissecting Nick and Amy’s marriage like a water-logged body, the movie delivers several arresting surprises and hurl-inducing moments. Certain scenes, testing each viewer’s tolerance levels, lodge themselves in the consciousness. Throughout the second half, in which character psyches are repeatedly broken and remoulded, the narrative delves into its own unabashed insanity. In fusing 1940s film noir, 1980/90s Brian de Palma/Paul Verhoeven fare, and modern kidnap-thrillers, this mystery-thriller crafts an unconscionable swagger. As the cameras and Nancy Grace-like newscasters obliterate Nick’s life, Fincher – like with previous efforts – beheads 24-hour news media, police ignorance, and studio-driven dross. In fact, the movie points out its own quirks; calling attention to everything meta, symbolic, and cliched. Matching Flynn’s sarcasm, Fincher’s blackly comedic humour is worth the admission cost. Gone Girl‘s technical precision stands out above almost anything else in 2014. Jeff Cronenweth’s handsome cinematography, highlighting Fincher’s signature style, lends pathos to this gruelling experience. In addition, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score boosts their already impressive oeuvre.

Despite the wheelie-bin scene’s infinite importance, the scene before it sums up Gone Girl‘s insatiable   prowess. Nick, looking at the back of his wife’s head, discusses his overwhelming desire to break her skull and learn her many saucy secrets. The following two hours does this with style, gusto, and chills. Thanks to Flynn’s taut screenplay and Fincher’s vigorous direction, this adaptation succeeds where similar efforts fail. Like Fincher’s previous efforts, Gone Girl takes the genre, eviscerates it, reshapes it, and dares others to do better. It’s a worthwhile experience…just don’t watch it with your significant other!

Verdict: A pulpy and confronting mystery-thriller.

Before I Go to Sleep Review – Painful Memories


Director: Rowan Joffe

Writer: Rowan Joffe (screenplay), S. J. Watson (novel)

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff


Release date: September 5th, 2014

Distributors: Clarius Entertainment, Eagle Films

Country: UK

Running time: 92 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Strong’s dynamic turn.

Worst part: Kidman and Firth.

Amnesia – in real-life and entertainment – is a cruel, remorseless, yet fascinating mistress. Despite lacking physical pain, the psychological effects – of all temporary and permanent memory disorders – yield major consequences. For the victims and those around them, this affliction can’t simply be shaken off. In many big and small screen cases, ranging from Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind to 50 First Dates, amnesia is primarily used as a valuable plot device. In Before I Go to Sleep‘s case, it guides each character’s fate from go to woe. Unfortunately, there’s much more of the latter.

Nicole Kidman hiding from the critics.

Before I Go to Sleep‘s crippling afflictions reside elsewhere. Born from one tiny idea, the original material turned its intricate premise into a 2011 Sunday Times and New York Times best-selling crime novel. Attracting three A-listers and an ambitious writer/director, the project could have delivered a worthwhile adaptation. However, like with several of 2014’s  premise-driven productions, good concepts are met with poor results. Author S. J. Watson must be reeling from this wasted opportunity. His novel, known to book clubs around the globe, is worthy of careful analysis and lively debate. Before the conflict takes hold, the story kicks off from relatively modest beginnings. In the first shot, we see housewife Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) at her most vulnerable. After waking up, our main character wildly panics before darting around the house; looking for something to calm her down. Her insistent husband, Ben (Colin Firth), informs her of her situation through trust exercises and a romantic collage. Christine suffers from short-term memory loss (anterograde amnesia, to be precise), caused by a car crash 10 years earlier. Despite the efforts to absorb new information, her brain erases everything each night. Stuck at home, Christine yearns for determined psychologist Dr. Nash(Mark Strong)’s advice. Behind Ben’s back, she develops a video diary to piece her life together. Questioning her meaningless existence, she – after suffering horrific, contradictory nightmares/memories – demands answers about the accident, the aftermath, and everyone around her.

Colin Firth still reeling from Magic in the Moonlight.

Colin Firth still reeling from Magic in the Moonlight.

Writing the book whilst working as an audiologist, Watson  knew how to take charge of his narrative. Carrying a firm awareness of the genre and topic, Watson should have taken control over this production. Sadly, the studio gave it to writer/director Rowan Joffe (Brighton Rock). Despite Joffe’s stature in British film and TV, the ambitious filmmaker’s sophomore effort doesn’t do Watson justice. Infatuated by Before I Go to Sleep‘s third-act twists, Joffe seems entirely disinterested with everything else. Skulking towards the last third, Joffe’s execution – creating an awkward contrast between suburban drama and mystery-thriller – is as exhaustive and frustrating as Christine’s affliction. In particular, the first half-hour – instead of establishing the pros and cons of Christine’s life – plays out like a lifeless soap opera void of subtlety, tragedy, or development. Clinging onto underwhelming revelations and dull conversations, the movie never harnesses stakes, emotional resonance, or originality. Despite the premise’s allure, Joffe’s insecure direction overplays small moments and obscures important titbits. Clinging onto the original material, his direction spells out wholly predictable twists. Following a banal relationship-drama structure, the repetitive first half might cause viewers to sigh loudly and check their watches. Bafflingly so, the movie copies and pastes concepts and sequences from similar efforts. Dr. Nash’s story-line, coming off like a gritty detective thriller, distorts the trajectory of this ridiculous psychological-drama.

“I have to remember who did this to me.” (Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman), Before I Go to Sleep).

For once, Mark Strong isn't playing a baddie!

For once, Mark Strong isn’t playing a baddie!

Despite the 92-minute run-time, Before I Go to Sleep‘s inconsistent tone and sluggish pacing cause more yawns than gasps. However, blitzing the abysmal first half, the second half switches gears before capitalising on the material. Moving the chess pieces around, Joffe’s screenplay matches the novel’s reputation; making us ask: “Who’s really trying to help?”. Switching from American Beauty to Insomnia to Memento, the movie – forming a tug of war between Ben and Dr. Nash – delivers several thrilling set-pieces and twists. In fact, its biggest twist is almost makes the first half worthwhile. Aided by Hitchcockian plot threads, the move pays homage to a long, lost form of big-budget cinema. Aided by a blistering score, muted colour palette, and Ben Davis’ sumptuous cinematography, the tension and atmosphere bolster the dour story. However, despite the compelling psychological disorder/gimmick, the movie has little to say about anything. Alienating its characters, the narrative merely hints at disability care, identity issues, and domestic violence. Sadly, Kidman – despite channeling Alfred Hitchcock’s blonde bombshells – never successfully inhabits the topsy-turvy role. Filling most scenes with blank stares and hushed tones, her subdued turn hinders the character arc. Firth, having a rough year with this, Magic in the Moonlight, and Devil’s Knot, never overcomes his character’s preposterous transitions. Despite his immense talents, the British icon seems entirely out-of-place. Gracefully, Strong becomes the shining star. Despite his underdeveloped role, the thespian delivers enough verve and guile to bolster this underwhelming effort.

Whilst Before I Go to Sleep drifted from my consciousness, I reflected upon its many accomplishments and failures. Sadly, this process did little but remind me of much better psychological-thrillers. Influenced by major movies, directors, and writers, Joffe’s adaptation never lets us absorb the scintillating premise. Thanks to questionable logic, an inconsistent tone, and mind-numbing pace, this adaptation proves just how different movies and novels are.

Verdict: A mindless and dreary psychological-thriller.