Gone Girl. Directed by David Fincher. (SPOILERS AHEAD FOR MOVIE AND NOVEL. This will all make sense to those of you have seen and read both.) After reading Gillian Flynn’s bestselling thriller-novel Gone Girl (a page-turner about a missing-person case and a marriage gone horribly wrong) late last year, I knew I had to hunker down and watch the film adaptation (which had just been released on DVD), especially since the Oscars were right around the corner. At the end of the day I was more surprised for what the Oscars didn’t get right with their nominations than what they did acknowledge, which was the film’s lone nod for Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy Elliott Dunne. I’ve been a fan of Pike for years, so I know she’s capable of wonderful performances, but I can’t commit 100% to this particular role for her. The thing about reading the novel is that the way the story is structured – with all those diary entries – it makes for quite a stark contrast once you find out what Amy is really like. When you read those sympathetic diary notes, you imagine Amy to be the sympathetic character she wants you to believe she is. With this film adaptation, Fincher/Pike/Flynn don’t give us that luxury since Pike is ice-cold from the get-go. I can’t imagine anyone not knowing that something has to be off with Amy and that she would somehow be involved with what happened on the morning of July 5. This is not to say that Pike’s performance is bad, but I don’t feel affected by it in the same way that I was emotionally involved in the performance given by another nominee in the Best Actress field, Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night).
Because I knew which characters they played in the film, I pictured Ben Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris in their respective roles as Nick Dunne and Desi Collings while reading the novel. In the film I thought they both did really good work and “that scene” between Desi and Amy in the lake house was probably the best scene in the film, purely because the film dared to go even further and more horrific than what Gillian Flynn originally wrote in the novel. Other actors do well too, including Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Lola Kirke, Scoot McNairy and Missi Pyle. I’d also add that I can’t believe that the film didn’t get Oscar nominations for the editing (Kirk Baxter) and the score (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). The editing is particularly impressive; Gone Girl’s opening credits might be the fastest and most efficient that I’ve ever seen in a movie. There were also many notable moments in Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography, like the observation of flashing paparazzi cameras as seen from the Dunne family cat’s perspective as it looks out the front door, although some of the gold-soaked scenes were a little too Steven Soderbergh-esque (in a bad ripoff way) for my taste.
In terms of aspects of the novel that were missing from the movie: I noticed a few omissions, like the interview done in the Bar, which was obviously cut for time. Things that I wish had been used in the movie, though: 1) Hilary Handy, 2) the fact that Nick’s first name is “Lance,” 3) more about Nick and Go’s father, 4) Desi’s mother [the fact that Desi lives with her, and also her resemblance to Amy], 5) the fact that Desi didn’t actually attempt suicide when he was going out with Amy – we see Nick confront Desi about this at the Collings home, to which Desi visibly reacts but says nothing, and we never hear Amy mention either in narration or dialogue that she was the architect behind that event [I can’t recall if the story was a complete lie or maybe Desi actually was found in her bed, but Amy had supplied the pills… but there was more to the story than what we hear in the film], 6) the ending as it is written in the novel, with the memorable final line that Nick says to Amy. Final verdict: Gone Girl is very entertaining. I just don’t think that any adaptation can adequately match the novel.
Learning to Drive. Directed by Isabel Coixet. I saw Learning to Drive at a preview at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater, a screening sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image that featured a post-film Q&A with director Isabel Coixet and stars Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley and Sarita Choudhury. I really enjoyed the experience; the film has a great leading role for Patricia Clarkson, the kind that she (and other actresses her age or older) rarely get unless they’re Meryl Streep. Clarkson does a beautiful job as Wendy, a book critic whose professor husband leaves her after cheating on her with one of his college students. Clarkson’s life is totally uprooted and she makes the first of several new decisions when fate brings her and driving instructor Darwan (Ben Kingsley, also excellent) together; Wendy, who has never driven before, takes on the challenge of overcoming her fears and learning how to take control both literally behind the wheel and metaphorically in the driver’s seat of her own life. Sarita Choudhury is also very good as Jasleen, Darwan’s new wife thanks to an arranged marriage. (It’s fun to see Samantha Bee too, playing one of Clarkson’s pals helping her with her divorce crisis, but the role isn’t particularly big.) All three main characters have to find ways to move forward in their lives and take charge of certain situations, which I think the actors, director Coixet and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan accomplish quite nicely. This kind of story has probably been done many, many times before, but Learning to Drive has some new takes on the narrative that give its middle-aged female protagonist (which is to say, the actress playing her) a marvelous showcase.
99 Homes. Directed by Ramin Bahrani. Ah, it’s the most wonderful time of the year again: MoMA Contenders season! First up for 2015 was a screening of 99 Homes, which was extra exciting because at the last minute MoMA updated their website – literally an hour before the show – to say that there would be a post-screening Q&A with director Ramin Bahrani, so that was awesome. As for the film, it was excellent; I didn’t recall what kinds of reviews it got when it was first released to US theaters two months ago, so I decided not to check and to just experience the film as it happened. I thought it was a very fine piece of work, benefiting from a great screenplay, a terrific performance from Michael Shannon as a vicious real estate agent in charge of evicting Florida homeowners from foreclosed properties and an almost-as-good performance by Andrew Garfield as one such evicted (and rather desperate) man who is suckered into working for Shannon, first as a construction worker and later as a guy serving eviction notices to scared and angry families. Shannon and Garfield play their characters in a Faustian story line that morphs from social drama into tense thriller, witnessing escalations of threats and violence in various forms on both sides of homeowners’ doors. (It should be noted that Laura Dern and Tim Guinee are also good in their supporting, and less flashy, roles – Dern as Garfield’s mother, Guinee as a man fighting against being forced out of his home – but they are dependable actors who have never been anything less than good in film and on TV.) Bahrani’s screenplay is top-notch, easily one of the best that I’ve seen this year, so that helps make the film so successful; I’d also like to thank Bobby Bukowski for photographing perhaps my favorite shot of the year, when we see a juxtaposed image of Andrew Garfield and pool water, a visual metaphor for being “underwater” as it relates to mortgage terminology and over his head/drowning in other ways – what an amazing shot. I don’t know if 99 Homes will make it to the Oscars, but I can definitely see it being up for some Independent Spirit Awards. P.S. My favorite thing that Ramin Bahrani said during the Q&A: to paraphrase, describing the time he visited Michael Shannon at his home in Brooklyn, Shannon appearing golden-tanned with a wisp of blonde hair curling on his forehead, looking “like a god had come down to Red Hook. Why hadn’t I ever seen him look that handsome in a movie?” (Bahrani did indeed address this issue in 99 Homes.)
That Awkward Moment. Directed by Tom Gormican. That awkward moment… when you waste time watching this movie. (Seriously, why did I do that to myself? And why did you offer this as programming, HBO Signature?) Starring in a failed romantic comedy about a group of guys determined to have only flings and no serious relationships, Michael B. Jordan is the only one of the three main bros who appears to have a heart and a sense of right and wrong. Zac Efron’s hideous character starts out as a sociopath, treating every casual hook-up like she’s a disposable paper plate to be used for the night and immediately thrown away; Miles Teller’s character, despite being cute and goofy, is overwhelmed by his more weaselly qualities in the dating department. The film’s gratuitous display of assholery is saved only by Imogen Poots’ performance as the woman with whom Efron falls in love, thus redeeming him in the third act in true Hollywood fashion; Poots’ character is the only female character in the film with any kind of development in Gormican’s laughable script. Mackenzie Davis’s character, the young woman dating Teller, has the potential to be interesting (particularly in the scene when she sings and plays the piano) but the film never turns her quirky-funny-girl routine into something more sustainable. Addison Timlin also had some OK moments as one of Efron’s frequent hook-ups. I didn’t understand Josh Pais’s character at all, though; as a co-worker at the publishing firm where Efron and Teller work, Pais only pops up to display some awkwardness (gong!) by cracking unfunny jokes that scream “NERD!” and which make the actor seem extremely uncomfortable. Every now and then Brandon Trost’s cinematography helped things along, but it was always too brief a respite; for 95% of the film, every aspect from the acting to the uninspired dialogue to the predictably poppy soundtrack choices (with the exception of “Still Life” by the Horrors) combined to drag this dung heap down. The cruelest blow of all? The film wasn’t nominated for any Razzies. All that hard work for nothing!
Welcome to Me. Directed by Shira Piven. This dark comedy has a very good lead performance by Kristen Wiig, who anchors the film with both a sense of absurdist comedy and a dedicated portrayal of mental and emotional instability. The film’s story is built on an intriguing concept: what would happen if a woman with borderline personality disorder won the lottery, used her money to buy a TV studio and, despite having little to no social skill, gave herself her own Oprah-like talk show to host? Wiig almost makes this folly believable, but most of the other performances in the film either fall short of Wiig’s mark or are not in the film long enough to register. (How, may I ask, can you cast an actress as good as Loretta Devine and put her in only one scene?) I really liked Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack and Thomas Mann in the film, and Joyce Hiller Piven and Jack Wallace have some great little moments as Wiig’s parents, but other characters just… I don’t know, weren’t necessary or weren’t given dialogue that could amount to anything. I don’t see what the point of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character was (a TV exec who has no authority and quits in disgust, how fascinating) and all Tim Robbins did was act like a sourpuss as Wiig’s psychiatrist. I support women directors 100%, so I would give Shira Piven (older sister of actor Jeremy Piven) another shot, but the ultimate shortcoming in this film is that the screenplay is so predictable. There are far too many moments of dead air – television pun intended. Wiig can do great things, and she almost achieves a kind of greatness here, but she needs better work happening around her to support her acting, or the whole thing goes to pieces. Additional note: If you’re one of those people who only wants to see Welcome to Me because you’re interested in Kristen Wiig’s full-frontal nude scene, you might as well look elsewhere on the Internet or crack open a skin magazine because Wiig’s scene is shown in the context of a mental breakdown. It’s not supposed to be sexy.