Gone Girl (2014)

Gone Girl had a lot to live up to in the David Fincher oeuvre. I may be alone in saying that nothing in his filmography of the past few years has totally astounded me; The Social Network and Zodiac – well acted and beautifully filmed though they were – just didn’t have enough plot to hold me for the entire runtime, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had more than a few other problems. That said, there’s little doubt that Fincher is still to be considered among the few American masters of filmmaking. Not only does Gone Girl provide more proof of that, but it’s also a film with a much stronger plot than the aforementioned dramas.

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, husband of Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne, who is forced to deal with the events following her sudden disappearance on their fifth anniversary. These events include police interrogations, candlelight vigils and family consolations – but the most jarring presence is the frenzy of media coverage that descends upon Nick’s life. As the first half of Gone Girl progresses, Nick’s behavior seems more and more suspicious, and even though we’ve been following his story since the very moment of his discovery of Amy’s disappearance, Nick still seems more and more guilty.

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Defiance (2008)

Defiance was one of the few Edward Zwick movies I hadn’t seen, so the recent addition to the Netflix catalogue was a welcome one. Zwick – helmer of the undoubtedly great Glory and Blood Diamond and the possibly-great-but-jury’s-maybe-still-out Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai – is a filmmaker who can balance blockbuster epicness and fragile emotional sentiment like few other directors. Defiance is no exception in this regard, although it suffers in ways that some of Zwick’s previous films do not.

Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, Belarusian Jew and oldest brother to three youngers. The Bielski brothers flee and take refuge in the deep forest when Nazi aggression escalates and their parents are murdered. The forest hides them well enough until more and more refugees hear the tale of the Bielski camp and show up for food, shelter, safety, comfort, destabilizing the small hideout with each new hungry child. As the camp grows more rules and hierarchies must be created and maintained and enforced, and it falls to Tuvia to protect his countrymen against the German threat.

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Three Days of the Condor (1975)

When people say it’s just like a ’70s spy thriller! or if you like ’70s spy thrillers, you’ll love this!, the movie they’re all referring to whether they know it or not is Three Days of the Condor. This is how we measure the influence that the Pollack-Redford political drama has had on our current film industry: in remakes, spinoffs, tributes, allusions, shoutouts and straight-up copies of the original.

Written as the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, the book translated to the screen so well thanks to the the meticulous aplomb of Sydney Pollack and the solid performances of the entire cast. Three Days of the Condor wasn’t written to be an overtly political film, all appearances to the contrary, and according to Pollack and Redford the “thriller” aspect of “political thriller” was the part they tried to emphasize. It worked. Still, the political associations were all but unavoidable in 1975; Watergate was certainly still fresh, but more immediate was the leaking of highly sensitive CIA documents known as the Family Jewels scandal. This occurrence ended up being one of those Hollywood coincidences where a movie gets made about a particular subject and then that particular subject, one day out of the seeming blue, becomes the particular subject of the day’s news. Three Days of the Condor came out too close to the Family Jewels scandal to be able to say anything explicitly about it, but it managed to wrestle with the issue all the same.

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Wolf (1994)

He’s a wolf – and not just in the bedroom! Jack Nicholson’s turn as publisher Will Randall in the Mike Nichols werewolf flick Wolf is, well, a Jack Nicholson performance. He’s sleazy, hairy, and manic as ever here, and so your enjoyment of Wolf might depend entirely upon your enjoyment of Jack Nicholson. There are other things floating around in the movie to distract you, but Jack’s at the heart and soul of everything for better or worse.

Nicholson’s Will encounters a black wolf one night and suffers a bite to his hand. He soon encounters the slinky Laura Alden, played slinkily by Michelle Pfeiffer, and the two begin a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, as Will’s animalistic tendencies simmer to a boil within him, James Spader’s office yuppie Stewart Swinton schemes viciously for Will’s job at the publishing firm. These three characters swirl around each other as the full moon rises, and eventually Joker and Catwoman and Ultron all meet for a fateful reunion.

So is Wolf actually good, or is it B-movie horror trash? Interestingly, really strong arguments can be made for both cases. The first hour of Wolf is pretty razor-sharp: Nichols delights in the blacks and yellows of a bedroom lit by the harvest moon, and the cinematography is damn-near beautiful; writer Jim Harrison (who penned Legends of the Fall) focuses as much on the back-and-forth of workplace politicking as on the back-and-forth between man and wolf, and the parallels he draws are amazing; to boot, a sparkling Ennio Morricone score doesn’t hurt. These guys make Wolf extremely palatable, and Nicholson knocks what they give him out of the park. The metaphorical rise of the wolf is handled with a subtle sophistication by the leading man, apparent only when you consider how hammy and over-the-top the entire thing could have been.

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Whiplash (2014)

The New York Film Festival opened last week with David Fincher’s Gone Girl and continues until the New York premiere of Birdman to close the festival. In between those films fall a massive spectrum of features, short films, documentaries and retrospective screenings that include entries from some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.

Whiplash isn’t one of those big huge premieres held up by the strength of name recognition and pre-release buzz. Technically the NYFF screening wasn’t even a premiere at all, as Whiplash first popped up at Sundance last winter. But if any “small” flick can surge through festivals like this and have a strong opening later this month, it’s this one. Less tangentially: Whiplash is one of the leanest and most intense films you’re likely to see this year.

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Cop Land (1997)

Cop Land can be classed with recent entries Oblivion and Lawless under the “Decent Movie, Terrible Title” banner that seems more and more popular these days. The lineup is impressive – Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta lead a character actor-fest that includes a bunch of guys with two first names like Robert Patrick, John Spencer, and Frank Vincent. Also, master thespian Method Man is on hand to pick up De Niro’s slack.

The plot is not nearly as stupid as the title, but it is a fairly rote procedural as far as corrupt cop flicks go. De Niro is good cop (duh), Harvey Keitel is bad cop (duh), and Ray Liotta is drug addict cop (duh). Stallone is the only noteworthy one here, surprising as that may be. As naïve heart-of-gold Sheriff Frank, Stallone brings something other than the usual slackjawed tough-guy macho talk to the screen. Frank is Sheriff of Garrison, New Jersey, dubbed by De Niro in a trailer-suitable monologue as COP LAND. BOOM, baby. You can almost see the ALL CAPS on the script. COP LAND is corrupt and STALLONE has something to say about it.

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The Yakuza (1974)

Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza was released at a time when depictions of Asia in Hollywood films were either simple vehicles for big stars or grossly Westernized misrepresentations. There are notable exceptions, of course, and The Yakuza is probably one of them. Starring Robert Mitchum as a retired detective returning to Japan for a new case, the film manages to give real playing time to actors who aren’t straight from Hollywood. Chief among these is Ken Takakura, who shines as the conflicted brother of a former love interest of Mitchum’s character.

As was the case with several of his films, Sydney Pollack wasn’t the first director to be attached to The Yakuza. Robert Aldrich, best known for The Dirty Dozen and the brilliant Flight of the Phoenix, was initially slated to reteam with Mitchum after their collaboration on The Angry Hills back in 1959. Aldrich, a fine director, would have done fine with The Yakuza, but it just seems more interesting as a part of the early Pollack filmography. Following Jeremiah Johnson and The Way We Were and preceding Three Days of the Condor, the Tokyo- and Kyoto-set noir provides a nice break from the Redford-starrers.

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Awakenings (1990)

Penny Marshall’s Awakenings is most superficially compared to Barry Levinson’s Rain Man for a few understandable reasons, not least of which being the two films feature a famous lead actor playing a character with a severe medical affliction. The two films also came out within two years of each other, and some may suspect Rain Man‘s success to have influenced Awakenings.

Starring Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer (an analogue for real-life Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose memoir provided the basis for Awakenings) and Robert De Niro as mostly-catatonic patient Leonard, the film follows both men as they experience a breakthrough with regards to Leonard’s condition. Sayer’s intuition leads to the application of a new drug which brings Leonard and other patients of the ward out of catatonia and into a clearer existence, “awakened” to the world. The continued treatment of Leonard proves a heartbreaking experience for Dr. Sayer.

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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Sam Peckinpah is nearly always divisive in his filmmaking, but perhaps never more so than with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Unlike The Wild Bunch or Straw DogsAlfredo Garcia (or BMTHOAG, as it may be lovingly referred to) isn’t necessarily controversial because of the level of violence. While other Peckinpah films seem set as classics even in spite of their explicit scenes of brutal violence, most people just can’t decide whether Alfredo Garcia is any good or not.

The set-up comes in the wake of the proclamation that serves as the film’s title. Alfredo Garcia has impregnated a young girl, and her powerful father offers a million dollars to the man who delivers him from the neck up. Warren Oates plays Bennie, a piano player in a rundown bar who eventually becomes tangled up in the hunt for Garcia at the prospect of a large payoff. His girlfriend, played by Isela Vega, comes along for the ride – and needless to say there are vicious consequences. Soon the head of Alfredo Garcia is in Bennie’s possession, but a darker drive swells up within him and his plans change.

Why would people dislike Alfredo Garcia? For starters, the set pieces from the first half of the movie leave a lot to be desired. In fact, there aren’t very many set pieces at all between the initial “Bring me the head!” scene and a mid-movie altercation with two biker thugs. This altercation serves a) to begin to show a few cracks in the otherwise happy-go-lucky demeanor of Bennie (as Warren Oates brilliantly snarls “you two guys are definitely on my shit list”) and b) to show the promiscuity of Bennie’s girlfriend. Both of these revelations are compounded and built upon in later scenes, but during the scene in question the sense of urgency and pacing of Garcia seems lost.

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One Hour Photo (2002)

The eyes of Sy Parrish deserve a spot alongside the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in the hallowed Eye Symbolism Hall of Fame. Over the course of One Hour Photo we become increasingly aware of the fact that Sy, lonely photo tech at the local SavMart, is always peering into other lives, always consuming with his gaze, always watching. His eyes are obviously as much a part of his “hunting” arsenal as his camera – but they also provide a look back the other way into Sy’s dark and tortured soul.

Robin Williams is brilliant with dramatic material (see Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, etc.), but the actor on display in One Hour Photo is a being unlike anything else in the extensive Robin Williams filmography. Sy the Photo Guy is a creep sure enough, a stalker of the first degree, and with a guy as manic and riffy and fantastically off-the-wall as Williams in the role you’d think Sy would be likewise larger-than-life. Not so. The opposite is in fact true – Sy is impossibly withdrawn, deadly quiet, suspiciously reserved as he observes and interacts with a couple and their son whenever they get their photos developed. The fact that we know Williams as a massive screen presence only makes the silences of this turn more unsettling.

And director Mark Romanek deserves as much credit for that as Williams, because the entirety of One Hour Photo is a spare but deceptively rich character study. Romanek has stuck mainly to music videos (and made the greatest music video of all time, Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”) but will hopefully create a film as quality as this in the near future. It’s Romanek’s direction and framing that calls attention to the deeper aspects of Sy’s psyche, in particular through a few key shots and sequences concerning the watchful eyes of Sy Parrish.

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