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Column Fri Oct 03 2014

Gone Girl; Annabelle; Men, Women & Children; The Dog; Last Days In Vietnam & A Good Marriage


Gone Girl

Director David Fincher is often both lauded and criticized for being a filmmaker of great technical achievement, sometimes sacrificing an emotional connection to his subject in favor of a great shot. I don't happen to agree with this theory, but I do find it easy to tell sometimes when Fincher is truly passionate about those being portrayed in his film. And thankfully the director of Fight Club, The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button not only cares about the characters and themes in his latest work, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but they mean so much to him, he gets downright angry sometimes.

I think to say that Fincher and Flynn's take (the author also wrote the screenplay) on Gone Girl concerns the true face of marriage in the modern era is a bit of an over-simplification, but it's also partly true. What the film ultimately turns into is the realization that a person can never truly be themselves if they want to keep a relationship going — a face must be worn, the lies must be told so often and so convincingly that the teller starts to believe them, and to do anything less than all of these horrible things in the name of keeping a marriage alive is the ultimate betrayal, even if it's for perfectly acceptable reasons.

The other thing about Gone Girl that is a bit of a falsehood is the notion that it's some sort of thriller. While it is a loopy and enjoyable mystery, a great drama, and even the darkest of dark comedies, I can't think of a single scene that made me jump or creeped out or tense. This is no thriller, and it makes no difference; these are labels that have been adopted for those with narrow minds, who need to know the ends of movies before they decide if they want to go see them.

The structure of the film borders on elegant as it seamlessly rotates from present to past showing us the best and worst moments in the lives Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife Amy (the great Rosamund Pike), from the moment they meet to the moment she vanishes from his life the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. Nick returns to his home, with signs of a struggle, traces of blood, and enough clues to throw suspicion on Nick having something to do with Amy's disappearance or possible murder. And while the film takes us through the happiest and darkest corners of the marriage, it seems to pick up steam and increase its outright rage once the police and media get ahold of this case.

One of the most frustrating things about so many films that incorporate a "media frenzy" as part of the plot is that the filmmakers re-create the way journalists act as if they've never watched the news. It's always exaggerated or just flat-out wrong. But Fincher and his team have gone out of their way to remind us not only what an media circus looks like, but why such reporting is a foul bastardization of what the news is supposed to be. There is no real desire to get the truth as much as there is a bloodlust for the next scandalous headline in the stakeout outside Nick's house, with reporters hurling questions designed to rattle the subject, not to get actual facts. As I said, Fincher is great when he cares, but he's even better when he's pissed off.

As you may have guessed even if you haven't read the novel, Gone Girl features a story that is almost impossible to talk about without feeling like you're giving too much away, and it's way too much fun to spoil any aspect of the film. The dual narration is a clever device. As Nick's dilemma with the police and reporters increases, we also get Amy narrating her life story leading up to her disappearance, via her diary. And both versions of their story remind us of one very key point: you can't always trust your narrator, especially when they speak in the first person.

No one in Gone Girl is above reproach, from the detectives (the whip smart Kim Dickens to the dopey Patrick Fugit) to Amy's delusional parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes), who are more than happy to stand beside Nick until public opinion (not necessarily their own) changes on him. My favorite supporting character is that of Nick's twin sister Margo, played by Carrie Coon, one of the standouts in HBO's recent series "The Leftovers."

The two most surprising turns come from extremely high-profile actors, which at first feels like stunt casting, until you actually see them nail their roles. Neil Patrick Harris plays a figure from Amy's past who surfaces to aid in the search, while Tyler Perry shows us as hot-shot attorney Tanner Bolt, hired by Nick not just to begin a defense (should one be necessary) but find ways to improve Nick's image in the public eye, because shit like that matters.

One cannot stress enough how good Rosamund Pike is in Gone Girl, mostly for reasons I can't explain here. One of her great strengths is that she isn't well known in America, so she doesn't bring image baggage with her into this part. Watching her here reminds me of seeing Edward Norton in his first film, Primal Fear. Any of us who saw that film in theaters remembers seeing this unknown actor use his anonymity to his advantage; we had no idea what to expect of him. And while Pike's take on Amy is nothing like what Norton did in that film (and for most critics and those versed in British cinema, she's a known quantity). But with Gone Girl, Pike's limits are explored, pushed and tested in ways they've simply never been prior, and it's exciting to watch her devastate the screen as she does. It's not about whether she's an awards contender or not; people will remember her in this for years to come.

As for Affleck, he's a guy who has fairly consistently been underrated as an actor, but that's partly because he's only been in a handful of films that have truly tested his abilities. But the good news is that a lot of his best roles have been in recent years, often with himself as director (The Town, Argo). It's easy to admire what he's been up to lately as an actor because he seems to care more than he ever has. Nick's every move, smile, gesture is suspect. Is he a calculated killer? Is he a guy who knows exactly what to do to cast doubt on his guilt or innocence? Or is he a manipulatable idiot who just doesn't know any better? It's certainly the most nuanced performance in Affleck's career.

Gone Girl is a work about the fragile nature of love and relationships; it's an all-out assault weapon against tabloid journalism — those who produce it and those who consume; and it's a film that finally admits that the truth is the least important element in seeking justice. After a while, we can live with any lie if it makes our lives easier. Is Gone Girl a hard-heartedly cynical movie? You bet your sweet ass it is. And you'll likely love every second of it, as it transforms your heart to stone, and makes you look sideways at your sweetie pie.


In a strange tactic, the makers of The Conjuring spin-off Annabelle decide to open the film by letting you know that if audiences respond in droves this weekend and the film makes enough money, the seed idea for the sequel is ready. I guess we're supposed to take some degree of comfort in that. Annabelle is actually a succession of comfortable ideas on the horror genre, as it allows viewers to feel safe in a familiar environment of borrowed ideas from much better films. In its bird nest of straw made from bits of Child's Play, Insidious and pretty much any other scare film that features a creepy ghost lady in white, the film even feels the need to reference the paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren from The Conjuring just to remind you that better movies spawned this one.

Directed by John R. Leonetti (the veteran cinematographer who lensed The Conjuring and directed Butterfly Effect 2), Annabelle focuses on the doll's evil origins in the death knell of the 1960s. On the TV in the home of John and Mia Form (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis) are reports about the Manson Family murders. Mia is very pregnant, so the ritualistic killings and just general fears about the growing number of satanic cults are scaring her. Of course, it doesn't help when their next-door neighbors decide to reveal themselves as cultists and try killing her one night. The attempt fails but the blood of one of the neighbors leaks into a rare, ornate doll that Mia owns as part of a collection, and somehow this infects the inanimate object with a hell-born demon that the cultists were attempting to summon.

What the demon doll wants and how it goes about getting it, I suppose, is meant to be a mystery, so I won't reveal it here. But nothing about Annabelle is really a mystery, since we've seen it all before. While John is off to work, Mia is terrorized by happenings both big and small, and soon the couple decide that it's time to move, which of course doesn't solve the problem since the doll makes the trip with them. There's no denying that the film has a handful of moments that will creep you out or downright make you jump and scream, but it can't seem to decide what the true source of evil is. Sometimes it's the doll itself, moving from room to room (it doesn't talk or move much beyond floating, but we rarely see it actually move) and just generally looking nasty. Sometimes we see a ghostly figure of the neighbor who tried to kill Mia. And other times, we see the demon that's possessing the doll, and those are probably the scariest sequences. But the decision to have three different sources of evil seems like overkill in this fairly small-scale work.

And then we have the presence of Alfre Woodard as neighbor and bookstore owner (which is convenient for doing research on the occult) Evelyn, who befriends the couple and turns into their spirit animal who protects Mia and her baby. Do I really need to explain the cinematic stereotypes this character fulfills? It would almost be laughable if it wasn't so offensive, especially when you see where Evelyn's storyline leads her. There's also a Hispanic priest character (Tony Amendola), if you need additional reasons to shake your head in disbelief at the sheer volume of cliches.

Beginning with the generic, good-looking leads who never seem to believe what it is they or the other has experienced ("Are you sure it's not just the pressures of having a baby to take care of that's causing you to see demons on the ceiling?") until they decide to dive right in and believe it all without question, to the lack of a central evil figure to latch onto (it really does feel like the filmmakers were afraid this fucked-up doll wasn't scary enough), Annabelle is a flailing, unoriginal, paint-by-numbers horror show (courtesy of writer Gary Dauberman) with very few truly terrifying moments and worse-than-bland characters. Let's stick with making that Conjuring sequel and leave well enough alone, shall we?

Men, Women & Children

I'm fairly certain that director and co-writer Jason Reitman is attempting to make a film "of the now," something that explains the way human being communicate with, judge, destroy and test each other in this hyper-connected world that should make us all feel closer to one another but instead has made people more distanced and at odds than ever before. Based on the novel by Chad Kultgen and shot in and around Austin, Texas, Men, Women & Children pulls together an eclectic and talented cast of seasoned and younger actors playing parents and their teenage kids, and makes most of the them horrible or pathetic creatures whom you never feel anything for during the course of this film.

Shall we walk through some of the wonderful characters? There's a fame-whore cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia), whose mother (Judy Greer) is taking and posting suggestive photos of her and posting them on a website clearly viewed almost entirely by pervy men. There's the couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) who are so bored in their marriage that the husband turns to prostitutes and the wife turns to an affair (with Dennis Haysbert) via, while their son can't get aroused when he has a chance to have sex with the aforementioned cheerleader because he's been watching online porn since he was 10. Meanwhile, her mother starts dating the father (Dean Norris) of one of the high school's football players (Ansel Elgort), who has just quit the team so he can devote more time to building up his online RPG world.

Elgort's character gets involved with a timid but rebellious girl (Kaitlyn Dever), whose mother (Jennifer Garner) monitors her every computer exchange and movement (via a GPS in the girl's phone) in an effort to protect her from predators and other male demons. Plus, there's another cheerleader (Elena Kampouris) with an eating disorder and an overwhelming desire to have her first sexual experience. Her father is played by J.K. Simmons, which is one of the few cool things in the film. Seeking to provide context and a sense that all of these broken people are connected spiritually somehow is a rather misplaced narration by Emma Thompson, who gets to say a lot of really dirty words, and talk about the Voyager interstellar mission and Carl Sagan.

As seems logical, Reitman (who adapted the book with Erin Cressida Wilson) opts to represent the online world visually with what are essentially pop-up windows showing texts, emails, photos, and other bits and pieces of what the internet has to offer. And while he gets a lot of that right, he's taken such a detached approach to his storytelling that I never got a sense that he cares about these characters any more than I did. The one exception to that are the Romeo and Juliet-like couple played by Elgort and Dever, who largely ignore the technological world when they're together in favor of romantic talks and cuddling. It sounds childish, I know, but the result is we actually get to know these two and begin to care about and root for their love to be given a chance to grow.

Elgort's character is deeply torn about his father's desire and pressure to play football, and his desire to live in his own world, populated by online characters and this wonderful new girl in his life. He has the added bonus of having his mother abandon him and his dad recently and not keep in touch outside of Facebook.
 I was unexpectedly moved by the plight of Judy Greer's character, who seems to want nothing more than to be close to her daughter, who is a heartless, terrible human being, and allowed the girl's photos and website to get a bit out of hand — especially when she adds an "email about private photo session" button to the site. Her realization about the position she's put her daughter in is agonizing and necessary, and Greer plays this difficult character with about as much grace and dignity as she can muster (probably more than this woman deserves).

But so much of Men, Women & Children is just flat out unpleasant, between the idea of Sandler jerking off in his son's bedroom because that's where the only functioning computer is to a host of unthinking, unfeeling teens resorting to classic bullying techniques (cyber and otherwise) on each other. As someone who has a great deal of affection for all of Reitman's works over the years — with special points to Up in the Air and Young Adult — I was searching the nether reaches of this movie, trying to find a glimmer of the filmmaker's sly, often dark, sense of humor or a his thoughtful portraits of human behavior.

There is an underlying belief throughout Men, Women & Children that all of these characters have deeper thoughts going on in their heads that they can't share with those around them because it would somehow be inappropriate or they'll be made fun of. But the sad fact is that I don't believe that; more specifically, Reitman doesn't convince me that's true. In one truly awful scene, Sandler and DeWitt have an exchange concerning their respective marital infractions that rings so false, I wanted to throw my shoe at the screen out of sheer disgust with how lazily that moment is written and executed. Sadly, variations on that reaction were common while I was watching this film.

The fact that Reitman rarely repeats himself in terms of his subject matter or even themes means that I don't suspect that Men, Women & Children marks some sort of shift into subpar filmmaking from him. I have no doubt he's got plenty of great movies yet to make (both as director and producer), but this one is going to go in the record books as a loss — of time and effort. In all likelihood, you'll leave the theater feeling empty and dirty, which seems oddly appropriate for this movie. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Dog

It's tough not to eventually fall for the subject of The Dog, a rough-around-the-edges, slightly sickening documentary about the life and brief fame of John Wojtowicz, who in August 1972 robbed a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn to get enough cash to pay for his male lover's sex change operation. The 14-hour ordeal resulted in a near riot of the thousands of spectators who gathered to watch the scenario play out and brought to light a great many gay-rights and gay discrimination issues in its wake. If this story sounds familiar, it should. Three years after the incident, the robbery and its colorful players were made into the acclaimed film Dog Day Afternoon, with Al Pacino playing Wojtowicz. And hopefully now I have your attention.

When I use the word "sickening," I'm referring to the way the New York City media, police and the fine citizens of mid-'70s Brooklyn treated Wojtowicz and those close to him simply because he was gay — not that Wojtowicz was any kind of saint. Filmed over 10 years by co-directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, The Dog dives headfirst into his past (his mother still alive, alert and one of the most terrible human beings you'll ever hear speak the English language); the events leading up to the robbery; and the aftermath, which included a relatively short time in jail (six years) followed by Wojtowicz attempting to capitalize on the fame that the event and movie sparked.

Wojtowicz's health was in rapid decline during the final few years of interviews, and it's actually shocking to watch him lose weight and appear older than his mother by the end. But there's no getting around the fact that, despite all of his base desires and odd, stalker-like behavior with his male and female "wives," (he legally married a woman before a series of ceremonies with men) Wojtowicz (the nickname "the Dog" didn't seem to stick until after the movie) was a man of great complexities and an unstoppable passion for self-sabotage. And while it may take a while to warm to him, his course language, and his sometimes delusional view of the world, it's almost impossible not to be pulled into his life and all its dramas.

Co-directed by Allison Berg (a veteran of MTV's "Teen Mom 2") and Frank Keraudren (The Last Cigarette), The Dog captures not only does its subject justice, but also paints an affectionate portrait of New York gay culture at the time, which was a combination of emerging pride and constant vigilance from homophobic attacks. The homosexual community didn't actually know how to handle Wojtowicz — some thought he was a terrible representative, while others were impressed and inspired with his living such an open lifestyle. The film gets it all right, and while there are a few contradictions is accounts of certain key events in Wojtowicz's life, that seems perfectly in line with the way he lived it. The Dog is one of my favorite docs on the year so far. It opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinematheque.

Last Days in Vietnam

Making sense out of chaos is one of the toughest jobs a documentary filmmaker has, especially when using mostly newer interviews about events that took place nearly 40 years ago. But director Rory Kennedy (the daughter of the late Robert Kennedy, who helmed Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Ethel) has pieced together Last Days in Vietnam, a gripping, heartbreaking and occasionally enraging account of the period leading up to the evacuation of Americans from Vietnam as the North Vietnamese Army descended toward the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Detailing both the mood stateside, as the disgraced Nixon administration transitioned to the Ford regime, as well as the state of affairs as it appeared North and South Vietnam might be on the verge of peace, marking the end of the war, Kennedy talks to dozens of great subjects, both American and Vietnamese, those who made it out and those who didn't, who retell the story that culminated behind the walls of the embassy with thousands of Vietnamese attempting to get airlifted out via helicopter for fear of being captured or killed by the North Vietnamese for collaborating with Americans.

What emerges is a sometimes shocking account of Ambassador Graham Martin foolishly refusing to even consider the possibility that Saigon would be overrun until it was far too late to use an effective means to evacuate both American personal and the thousands of Vietnamese to working for the U.S. who also needed to get out. Various military types (mostly retired Navy and Marine officers) give vivid descriptions of the unprecedented sights and sounds while watching chopper after chopper land on their ships every 10 minutes or so, unloading entire families with no idea where they would go after this and only a single suitcase among them.

Last Days in Vietnam finds stories in the smallest corners of Saigon where independent Vietnamese pilots would grab junky helicopters and pick up their own families to take them out to see whether waiting carriers would actually allow them to land. Since the many of these choppers were on one-way trips, the soldiers would then have to push the small vehicles off the side (you've likely seen the photos). The sheer volume of footage of these events is astounding. Yes, there were a great number of news crews on hand, but every story being told seems to have accompanying film, which is incredible.

For the most part, Kennedy avoids injecting or allowing too many opinions about the war itself into the film, which is fine since that's not really what the film is about. Her objective is about telling tales of making the most of a bungled mission, which means several soldiers ignored or disobeyed orders to save lives when those in command were too slow to respond.

Even the sneaky way the final Americans got on the last helicopter out is explored here, and the pacing of the storytelling is equal to any mission-based thriller out there, so kudos to editor Don Kleszy, who cut together this award-worthy chronicle. Kennedy's greatest achievement is putting a human face on events that are usually given a few seconds in any document of the Vietnam War. In particular, I was especially moved by interviews with Vietnamese men who did not get out (even though they were on the embassy property and were promised passage) and were eventually sent to re-education camps.

By keeping a professional distance but still focusing more on people than strictly the progression of events, Kennedy's Last Days in Vietnam ends up becoming a very personal portrait of tragedy and heroism. The film is much more than a history lesson, but it's also a thorough and perfectly researched documentary that simply wants to tell its story and not be politicized. It's a truly fine effort, and a story that I'm guessing a lot of the under-30 crowd know nothing about, which is as strong an argument for viewing it as I can think of. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Director Rory Kennedy is scheduled to appear for a post-screening Q&A after the Friday, October 3, 7:10pm showing.

A Good Marriage

The one thing you should not expect from A Good Marriage, based on a screenplay by Stephen King (adapted from his short story of the same name), are big scares. And while it's certainly not unheard of that a film based on a King story goes in a non-horror direction, when you discover that one of the lead characters of the film is a vicious serial killer, you maybe wonder what exactly you're getting into. That's a more complicated question than you may realize, but it's a fairly rewarding one if you're willing to drop your expectations and let the story run its course.

Staying fairly faithful to his story taken from the 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars, A Good Marriage uses the serial killer storyline to get at the true heart of a movie about knowing the person you're married to — or more to the point, not knowing them no matter how long you've been married. It's also a fascinating mystery, although the big question to be answered isn't who the serial killer is. We know that almost from the beginning when Darcy (the superb Joan Allen) discovers that her husband of 25 years, Bob (Anthony LaPaglia) is actually the serial killer known as "Beadie," who kidnaps women, brutally tortures and rapes them (fortunately, we are spared any of Bob's murderous actions, because these killings are not the point of the story, only the backdrop.), and sends their IDs to the police with a note from him. Darcy and Bob have a life together that is happy, quaint and built on mutual interests like coin collecting. They have two grown children, including daughter Petra (Kristen Connolly from Cabin in the Woods), who's about to get married, and their life together has become a series of routines (including one for sex) that they both seem happy with.

Darcy's big discovery of Bob's actions happens early in the film, and she's mortified, but for some reason she doesn't go to the police. Bob is out of town on business, but he figures out that she's found him out, and he does his best to explain his actions as being those of a man who has been infected by a great evil. He promises the he would never hurt her and that he's done killing, and after a strangely short time, she accepts this and things seemingly go back to normal. On the surface, Darcy seems so determined not to let Bob's activities destroy their family that she's willing to forgive and forget if things can just go back to normal. And in a strange way, I believe that a higher number of people than you might think would probably choose to do the same thing if they felt their lives weren't in danger.

Director Peter Askin (Trumbo) and King have taken their cues from the actions and life of the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader, whose own family had no idea that he was a particularly nasty serial killer. It becomes clear at one point that Darcy hasn't so much forgotten or forgiven as much as she's tabled her husband's actions until after her daughter's wedding, which she doesn't want to spoil. But deal with it she does, make no mistake.

A Good Marriage has a takes a couple of key turns that I did not see coming, including a third-act appearance by Stephen Lang as retired and sickly investigator Holt Ramsey who thinks he has the Beadie killings figured out and provides Darcy with much-needed validation that to not have seen what her husband was was not some flaw in her. (It should be noted that Lang is the only character in the film with a proper New England accent, despite the film taking place in Maine.)

Although their marriage sometimes borders on campy, Allen and LaPaglia (since I never watched "Without A Trace," I haven't seen this guy in years) are quite believable as this marriage-by-numbers couple whose illusion of a solid marriage is shattered by these revelations. King's observations on human behavior and motivations are scarily on point, and he develops a scenario between this couple that doesn't seem as outrageous or unbelievable as you think it might. The story is a minor effort from King, but it's also a terrific acting exercise for the leads, a thought-provoking morality play, and a loopy character study. If you're looking for something a lot different in the dramatic thriller vein, this ought to do it.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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