Dark Places

August 12, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“Dark Places” is the second adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel. The first, of course, was the acclaimed “Gone Girl”, which was adapted by Flynn herself. Here, her work is written for the screen and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who has mostly done French language films (except for 2009’s “Walled In”). The two films could not be farther apart in terms of quality of narrative execution, and adaptation itself. Where “Gone Girl” successfully brought page to screen with the same depth and care, “Dark Places” feels like it’s merely a recitation of the book.

The story revolves around Libby Day (Charlize Theron, who may be miscast for this role), who when she was a child, witnessed the murder of nearly her entire family save her older teenage brother Ben, who is convicted of the killings. She is coaxed into witness testimony that sends Ben to life in prison–but years later, a group of people called the “Kill Club” (they follow serial murders and try to solve cases on their own) believe that he may be innocent. One of the leaders of the group, Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), tries to persuade Libby to reevaluate her stance that her brother is guilty. There are inconsistencies in the crime scene itself and Ben doesn’t seem to have a real motive. Back in 1985, during the mass hysteria of satanic occult witch hunts, it was easy for a jury to believe that Ben was a devil worshiper and wanted to make a sacrifice to Satan. In actuality, Ben (Tye Sheridan) is a meek, quiet, reserved normal boy who gets in with a crowd that claims to be Satanists. Older Ben (Corey Stoll) now claims he is innocent, and wants Libby to change her testimony in order to clear him. But she still doesn’t necessarily believe that he didn’t do it. What she begins to discover is that there were other people involved with that night–including Ben’s girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace-Moretz) and even his own father, Runner (Sean Bridgers). When his mother Patty (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters Michelle and Debbie are murdered, they are killed in different ways, suggesting there may have been more than one culprit.

The film, like the book, jumps around between timelines, sometimes going back to 1985 on the day of the murders and the hours preceding them, and then going to present day where we have the older versions of the characters being visited by Libby to try and piece together what really happened. In the book, this is all done in a way that makes the story more a thriller than a character study–but it succeeds in being both, really. The movie tries to replicate that, but because it begins jumping around too early (in a book you can get away with that because you can always go back and use reference points), anyone who hasn’t read the book would probably be confused and check out emotionally rather quickly. The story seems like it would be compelling enough to string together a 3 act story easily, but there are too many characters and too much going on to be able to follow it if you’re not already familiar with the material.

The individual scenes are nicely acted. All of the sets are well done, and there is a sense of desperation in the murky atmosphere of the rural midwest. Instead of using that as a theme, however, it’s more like a backdrop. A set, simply to set the stage. The characters speak to each other but they don’t interact. There is no real conflict, no stakes, nothing to gain or lose. We don’t really care if Libby sets her brother free or finds the truth because nothing was established in the first 15 minutes that made us really care about the outcome.

In “Gone Girl”, Flynn is able to reconstruct her novel and keep the theme intact with David Fincher’s masterful directing ability. Not to say that Paquet-Brenner is incapable–but it’s disappointing to see someone completely botch a compelling story simply by missing the point that you need to set everything up credibly and with enough simplicity that the story unfolds naturally and comprehensively. Here, we are given little cuts of meat rather than the whole steak. And it definitely leaves one starving for a better movie.

My rating: :(

 

Gone Girl

October 27, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

Gillian Flynn could style herself as the 21st century’s “it” girl when it comes to writing flashy novels and even flashier screenplays, turning the movieworld on its head with some savage social commentary and sexy characters that actually make us tingle with excitement.

I’d buy that for a dollar.

In “Gone Girl”, Flynn’s third novel and her first screenplay, she shows she’s a bit green but fully capable of handling her material on the big screen. It helps tremendously to get a visual director such as David Fincher, who has had a very successful career in this century–and knows how to weave a spellbinding story into something timeless. He’s done that with “Se7en”, “Fight Club” and “Zodiac”. And here, in “Gone Girl”, he uses a big canvas with Flynn’s somewhat long and winding screenplay that delivers the goods–albeit the run time wears down its welcome in its closing moments.

The story revolves around a married couple that is starting to fall apart in their relationship as their personal lives are following suit. Nick (Ben Affleck) was a somewhat successful writer in New York; Amy (Rosamund Pike) has grown up somewhat living off her parents’ wealth and a reputation built from a character that her mother created, Amazing Amy. Amazing Amy is a popular children’s book series, much like Ramona from Beverly Cleary. Amy of course lives in the shadow of Amazing Amy, and therefore we get our first glimpse into a dichotomy of character. Both of them lose their jobs and have to move out of New York to Nick’s home town in Missouri to care for his ailing mother, who dies of cancer. This leaves them in a big house and an empty lifestyle.

Amy has an enormous trust fund from her parents and uses some of it to start up a bar (called simply The Bar) with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). On the morning of their 5th wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing in a peculiar way. Nick cannot figure it out, especially since his wife was leaving “clues” for him leading up to their 5th anniversary gift (she did this every year for them). But the police begin to get suspicious of his odd behavior, and the media immediately is attracted to the story due to the profile of Amy being a young, blond beauty–and being based on a popular pop culture character.

As the plot continues, more themes emerge about the phoniness of humanity and the pressures the media puts on stories, making something out of nothing, wild accusations that lead the court of popular opinion to decide a person’s fate. But meanwhile, as the story unfolds, a few surprises change our minds about the characters in very distinct and severe ways.

One of the intriguing supporting characters is that of Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), who is surprisingly not a suspect but used to stalk Amy. Because Nick has garnered all of the negative attention, especially when it’s revealed that he had an affair while married, Desi simply exists as wallpaper until his character becomes very prominent in the latter half of the second act.

Nick also hires a high powered and highly successful lawyer (think Johnny Cochran) played inexplicably by Tyler Perry, and they try to find a way to save Nick’s life as it’s fairly imminent that he will be tried for the death penalty if everyone believes Amy is dead.

Flynn has a very sharp pen, and has a sharp and dark look on the world of marriage and relationships in general. I wouldn’t say she’s a full blown cynic–it’s just that we are talking about very superficial people to pick apart. That’s not too hard to do, but she uses them as a jumping off point. There’s also TV show hosts and the mob mentality of the public that seems to want to ruin other people’s lives without worrying about their own business.

There’s a joke at the end about being on a reality show that rings true to the characters–but I almost feel like that joke should’ve done visually to end the film on a slam dunk, rather than have it used as a throwaway line.

Most of the satire and social commentary is deliciously satiable. There are a few routes where it could have gone that may have made an even bigger point (it never really gets into social media, which would be a prime target right now); but overall, I found the film thoroughly enjoyable. The performances by Affleck and Pike are top notch–Affleck is perfectly cast as a somewhat aloof Everyman, and Pike has that little touch of elitism and snottiness that makes her appealing and revolting at the same time. Coon is also very good as the doting sister of Nick, and even Perry turns in a good performance as the lawyer.

As I mentioned, the ending drags on a bit longer than it needs to and I still think a visual comment about the status of phony people would have been more potent than drawing out the ending in exposition. By the last scene, however–which is a bookend and repeated from the first scene–it’s still palatable. There also may have been a  lot of potential Nick and Amy’s in the theater getting a kick out of this movie. While it certainly is entertaining and I think a married couple can have a good time watching it–it certainly can serve a purpose as more than just a movie about two people who probably shouldn’t have married each other to begin with. Maybe its larger point that people marry because of what society tells them than what their heart does that should stick with you–and hopefully does not get lost in an otherwise hoot of a film.

My rating: :-)

 

The Social Network

October 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Movies

I guess you could pinpoint 2003 as the turning point in American mainstream internet usage to include “social networking”, even though it has been a part of computer usage since as early as the 1980’s and probably earlier than that. But the explosion of sites like MySpace and the lesser known Friendster brought it to the forefront and meanwhile in that snooty little college establishment known as Harvard, sniveling jerks were hard at work at revolutionizing easily the most prominent and vibrant internet social community we now know as Facebook.

Millions of people around the world use this site as a way of connecting, and reconnecting, with friends and family. It’s gotten to the point where you could very well see your own grandmother or great aunt “poking” you or “tagging” you in a photo. It’s kind of awkward and sick, but it’s the way things are now. So get used to it?

I suppose it’s apt, then, that we find out the story behind the making of Facebook since it is so popular and mainstream now. And Hollywood spared no expense. David Fincher, who has made himself a household name with films like “Fight Club”, “Se7en”, and the recent Oscar nominated “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, brings us this story that was already adapted as a book in “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich who came to fame with “Bringing Down the House”, the story of MIT grads who took down Las Vegas casinos with their Blackjack skills. Just like that book, the story is stylized and sensationalized so that we skip all the geeky intricacies of how things like this can be developed and get right to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that people clamor for.

Well, just like in the film adaptation of “Bringing Down the House” which was the surprisingly drab and banal “21”, “The Social Network” fails on every level it’s trying to succeed on. Not only boasting the Oscar nominated David Fincher, but they also brought in Aaron Sorkin to write the script, Trent Reznor to co-write the score, and got some hot rising stars like Jesse Eisenberg (“Adventureland”, “Zombieland”), Andrew Garfield (“The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”), and the already famous Justin Timberlake.

But these elements don’t come together as a slam dunk as it should have. Sorkin’s tired act of making every character sound like they have an IQ of 160 grows weary within the first 15 minutes, and he doesn’t develop the characters at all. We’re supposed to understand that Mark Zuckerberg, the “inventor” of Facebook, is cold, calculating and backstabbing. But he’s also somewhat misunderstood. Unfortunately, through Zuckerberg’s cold gaze, we never really get to know him at all. Even if that’s Sorkin’s point–why make this movie in the first place?

The film begins auspiciously enough with Zuckerberg and his girlfriend having a far more intelligent conversation than they probably should which involves him saying he wants to join a “Final Club” after getting a perfect 1600 on his SAT’s which got him into Harvard in the first place. He says you have to do something special to be in a Final Club. His girlfriend doesn’t get it. And he writes her off, and she gets mad. Later, when he’s somewhat drunk, he blogs about her publicly and then designs a web site comparing different female co-eds from different campuses. His site is a big hit, but he also further damages his relationship with the girl that he kind of wants back.

Now here you have a promising premise…that never goes anywhere. And that’s because the film jumps from that right into the law suits that Zuckerberg (played by Eisenberg to the best of his ability) is having with his former associate, Eduardo Saverin (played by Garfield in another strong role). He’s also involved with a law suit from twin Harvard students named Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (try saying that name 5 times fast) that claim he stole their idea for Facebook. The story from there is an overblown and curiously undramatic study in betrayal and backstabbing that leads to the demise of the friendship between Eduardo and Zuckerberg.

The problem is that the friendship itself isn’t well established, and Zuckerberg is so hard to read that you never know what his motivations are or why he does any of the things he ends up doing. The other problem is that the real story isn’t even close to what this sensationalized adaptation is, and if you’re going to get it wrong, get it wrong the way they did in “Braveheart” at least. Make it interesting! There’s absolutely nothing interesting about these characters, and you couldn’t care less what happens to them because you know in the end they all become multi millionaires anyway. There’s no sense of loss, no sense of real calamity–and worst, there’s no conflict. There’s no explanation on why Zuckerberg turns to Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake playing Justin Timberlake playing Sean Parker) except that maybe it’s because he’s Justin Timberlake, and how can you turn down an offer from Justin Timberlake? The guy’s so cool.

There are moments where the story could develop but Sorkin manages to dismantle his own story by his dialog getting in the way of actual plot development. What works so well in “The West Wing” or “Sports Night” is that the story is told through the characters, and the dialog is a rhythmic progression that is like music that moves the story along. Here, it’s used as a device to simply boast how smart Sorkin is as a dialog writer. It serves no purpose and winds up coming off as smug and aloof to what the audience wants to see–which is drama.

Nothing’s really at stake for these characters and so they come off as just spoiled rich kids–which is exactly what they are. Yes, they’re smart. Zuckerberg deserves the credit he gets for being innovative. However, not only did he have a lot of help–but it’s not like Facebook was the first social network that was popular. It’s just that it’s the most popular *now*. MySpace was all the rage in 2006, and back in the mid 90’s, BBS’s were the way to go for social networking.

But the movie never delves into the actual development of Facebook, what makes it so easy and accessible and why people are addicted to it. Instead the film boasts a lot of attractive people drinking Appletinis and loud thumping club scenes that not only probably didn’t happen in real life, but aren’t interesting to watch either.

What I would’ve liked to have seen, and what this movie totally lacks, is a clear perspective. We’re never sure why Zuckerberg needs to create this social network–is it because he’s lonely because it’s so hard for him to make friends with someone because he’s so insufferable as a person? Sure that’s touched upon, but it’s never really paid off. Make this into a story about Zuckerberg’s personal toil with his own introverted nature and anti-socialism and what he lacks with people…and then ironically creates the most popular social networking site, possibly of all time. The film nicks and nibbles at this theme but it never fully explores it. It leaves it hanging in dead air.

While Facebook may have brought to light something that many were unaware of and revolutionized something in our culture, “The Social Network” did not.

My rating: :(

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

February 22, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

“Nothing lasts,” he whispers to his lover, played eloquently by Cate Blanchett–Daisy. He’s grown younger at this point, at the point when he should be at middle age, reflecting on life that’s passing him by in backward time.

“Some things last,” she retorts.

Both of what they say is true, and is symbolized by a clock, and a journal. The clock represents something more than telling time. In fact, it tells time in reverse order. It’s created by a man who loses his son in the war, and thinks that by turning back the clocks, we can somehow grasp something again that we didn’t think we could. Maybe our boys won’t go off to war, he says. Maybe everything works out better. Then the man who creates the clock is never seen again.

This is how we open the film, with the elderly, and dying Daisy, telling this story to her daughter, who is by her bedside, listening. It’s 2005, in New Orleans, and the Saints are still playing preseason games–not even knowing they’re going to endure one of their worst seasons in yea–oh, yeah, right…the movie. Oh, so, yes–Hurricane Katrina is taking shape and headed toward New Orleans, providing a nice back drop to the story.

Then, the daughter takes a journal written by a Benjamin Button, and we begin the tale of how a child was born “old”, and “grows younger”. The book is full of various post cards and what not, but the daughter is able to read the passages, aloud, to her mother.

Button’s life begins in 1918, after his mother dies giving birth to him, he is a hideous monster who has all of the physical ailments that an old man would. In fact, the doctors don’t give him much time left to live. The father, who is stricken with grief over the loss of his wife, and is horrified by this monstrosity, drops the baby off on a porch at a house and leaves it. Queenie, a boistrous and vibrant young black woman, finds the baby along with her love interest, Mr. Weathers; and, after deliberation, they keep the baby and raise him.

Benjamin’s beginnings are interesting in that he is surrounded by old people, and he himself is old–but while he has the physical limitations of an old man, he has the curiousity and adventurous spirit of a young boy. He’s sort of in a reverse day care center. He watches his fellow housemates die while he gets younger, and falls in love with a young girl named Daisy, when he’s still old and decrepit. The girl is also taken with him, although it’s odd since she’s so young and he’s so old. But of course, we know they’re actually around the same age spiritually, and they grow a friendship that builds as the two grow older/younger together.

As time passes, Benjamin takes on adventures of his own, leaving the coop and faring off with a drunken captain of a tugboat, Captain Mike, who gets him laid, and drunk, and shows him the world. They go through World War II as part of the navy, once Pearl Harbor is bombed.

Meanwhile, Daisy becomes a famous dancer in New York City–and when the two meet again, they somewhat revisit the love they had for each other. But it’s fleeting, and she is too young to appreciate what he means to her, and goes back to her “life in the fast lane” in New York.

As the film progresses, and Ben gets younger and younger, he sees more and more death and decay rather than a young person would normally see life–with little reflection, and more wide eyed optimism. But nothing is lost on his maturity, and because his body grows stronger and his looks get increasingly nicer, he is able to enjoy some of the perfunctory, meaningless enjoyments of youth. But, as quoted before…nothing lasts.

The pace of the film is very good, with very few patches of “dead time”. The film does have a few moments where I think they take a few liberties with plot elements (I don’t know that we *needed* the daughter to throw a fit about finding out about where she came from; nor did I think it was necessary for the entire sequence-story of Daisy being hit by a car, even though I know it was supporting the theme of the film. Without it I think the film still would’ve worked fine). There are also a few elements of the script that don’t seem to fit thematically, and I think melodrama at times gets in the way of the bigger picture of the story.

Deeper into the film, Benjamin eventually reconnects with his father, and is given his name, “Button”. Some kind of simple metaphor is here, and my guess is that a button is an ordinary thing (i.e. a “button-down kind of life”), and that’s really what Benjamin is. That’s why I like the choosing of the title of this story as “curious” instead of “fantastic” or “extraordinary”.

Later on in life, Benjamin and Daisy have a child together, and that’s when Benjamin knows it’s time to leave for good. He knows Daisy can’t “raise two children”. It’s here when the film gets a bit more literal and less fable-like, but it doesn’t stray too far from its original premise or fantasy. Backward or forward, we enter and leave the world the same way. It’s all about the cycle of life, and the inevitability of death, and even birth.

And birth takes the form of death with Button, who of course leaves the world as a baby, thus completing the cycle of his life. The clock and the book are the two things left, and as Katrina washes away the clock as it’s still ticking, it’s evident why Katrina is used as a motif at.

Nothing lasts, indeed.

But some things do.

My rating: :smile: