Conversations: “Gone Girl”

If you hadn’t gathered from last week’s “Fight Club” review, I’m a pretty big fan of David Fincher.  With “Gone Girl,” his latest, tearing up the box office, I wanted to get into a conversation about the film.  To help me with that, I’ve enlisted Ben Raymond.  Ben and I have been best friends for twelve years.  As two teenagers who loved classic films, we took a fast liking to one another in high school.  Ben is a graduate of Brown University, and he teaches high school English in Massachusetts.  Unlike myself, he’s read Gillian Flynn’s novel.

Before we get started, a brief plot synopsis.  We’ll definitely be getting into spoilers, starting…right…now:  “Gone Girl” is about the media circus that surrounds the disappearance of a married woman.  On his five-year wedding anniversary, Nick (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing and likely murdered.  The inspiration for a series of children’s books, her disappearance makes national headlines.  It isn’t long before Nick, a bit aloof, becomes the focus of the investigation.  In an effort to clear his name, he finds out that Amy isn’t dead, and she’s in fact trying to frame him.

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GAR:  Hi Ben!  Thanks so much for joining me.  What did you think of “Gone Girl?”

BEN:  I’ll be brief, as we have plenty of things to get to.  “Gone Girl” grabbed my nuts and pulled.  It pulled for 143 minutes.  It hurt.  It hurt so good.  Fincher is his typical meticulous self.  Affleck didn’t suck.  Tyler Perry didn’t make me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a spark.  Flynn’s screenplay snapped, crackled, and popped.  And Pike.  Rosamund.  Fucking.  Pike.

GAR:  I saw a lot of comparisons to Hitchcock’s female leads, and I agree.  Very icy.

BEN:  Hitchcock would have been proud to have made this movie.  Not only in its precision, its themes, its obsession with dirty little secrets, but in the very nature of its unfolding, in every facet of the film’s character.  We could go on ad nauseum about the subtle tension, the muted hate, the suburban realism, the boiling anxiety, the moments of quick, scalding violence.  That’s all Hitch.

Pike is Tippy Hedron.  She’s Janet Leigh.  More than anything, she’s Kim Novak.

GAR:  Yep!

rosamund pike-brighter

BEN:  And she’s brilliant in her own right, but she belongs with them.  Blondes that kill.  Blondes you thank for having killed you.  She’s Fincher’s Überfrau, which means “Superwoman” in German, from Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Übermensch.  In a nutshell, the Übermensch is a Superman who is so vastly more intelligent, more capable, more equipped than the masses, that he cannot help but dominate, manipulate, deceive, and obliterate.

That is Amy Dunne.  And Pike gets it.  She nails it.  Every time she returned to the screen, I shuddered.  I mean I got goosebumps.  She’s a monster.  A real-life, flesh-and-blood monster.  The best kind.  She doesn’t live beneath your bed, or creep around your basement.  And she doesn’t live in your closet, because she’s got too many of your skeletons in there.  She just eats you from the marrow-out.  And you want her while she does it.

GAR:  Amy is a great actress, in large part because she understands her audience.  One of the most devastatingly funny scenes is when she’s being interrogated by the police after she’s come home.  She’s spinning this story about kidnapping and abuse, and Kim Dickens’s detective, who’s been investigating the case, isn’t having any of it.  Of course, everyone else in the room (perhaps not-so-coincidentally all men) is eating out of her hand.  She just keeps spinning them and spinning them.

That aspect of it, I suppose, is pretty noir.  There’s a Barbara Stanwyck-“Double Indemnity” quality to Pike’s Amy.  The femme fatale.

BEN:  Most certainly.

GAR:  One of my favorite shots in the movie is when Amy and Nick are in the shower, after she’s returned home.  (She wants to make sure he isn’t wearing a wire.)  She’s covered in the blood of Neil Patrick Harris’s Desi whose throat she slit after framing him for her kidnap and rape.  We cut to a close-up of his blood washing down the drain — there’s another Hitch reference — and it’s as though she’s washing herself off to put on her costume.

BEN:  We may want to touch on its echoes of “Rear Window.”  There’s some meta-cinema in “Gone Girl” that critics are missing.

GAR:  The voyeurism?

BEN:  The cameras everywhere, the way we put on all these faces, masks, personalities, lies, acts.  Everything.  EVERYTHING in this movie is an act.  And when we see moments of honesty, few there may be, we see the backstage of life itself.  In that sense, I think it’s more than peeling away our selves and putting on costumes (which is very true of this film).  I think the entire film comments on film.

GAR:  One of the moments that struck me, and I think it speaks to this, is when she returns home (again, covered in blood) and she faints in Nick’s arms on their front lawn.  All the cameras flash, of course, and I wondered if we were gonna end right there.  It was all such theater, the loving wife returning to her husband in front of their picturesque house.

I wanna touch on the pace, because it moves at a pretty blistering speed.  There’s so much movie in the first hour and fifteen minutes that I was anticipating the mid-point — the reveal that the wife was still alive — was actually the beginning of the third act.

The one thing that’s been nagging at me, though, is the ending.  I wonder if it couldn’t have ended 10-15 minutes earlier.  Maybe not just then on the lawn, but at that moment, I saw where the movie was going.  The final scenes were a bit deflating.  Another scene…another one…and another…  What did you think?

BEN:  In the book, Nick and Amy precariously try to make the best of their screwed-up marriage.  It’s a brutally tragicomic ending that I personally thought appropriate, but only if you understand Flynn’s searing wit and humor.

To the film, I hadn’t thought of it like that.  If Amy fainting and Nick holding her had been the last shot, like the end of some Wagner opera, that would have been clever!  Maybe you add the bookend from the beginning, with Amy’s head on Nick’s stomach as he wants to “unspool her brains.”  That would be fine.  But yes, I agree that the ending was repetitive.

GAR:  Alyssa [Garrett’s wife] and I even talked about having it end with Nick entering that room, locking the door, and holding his cat.  He’s a [willing] prisoner in his own home.  It’s such an absurdist film that all the narrative and motivational gymnastics they do — dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s to demonstrate why this guy is sticking around — seemed out of place.

BEN:  Call me crazy, but how fucking great would it have been if the last shot was the cat slowly walking into a bag of groceries?  Think about it!  That is exactly what Amy accomplishes.  She puts the cat back in the bag.

GAR:  I love it!  One of the things that marks this as a Fincher film is its lacerating sense of humor.  With movies like “Se7en” and “Zodiac,” it’s easy to forget how funny he is.  See also:  “Fight Club” and “Social Network.”  It sounds like the novel brought a lot of black comedy to the table as well.

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BEN:  Oh yes.  You almost forget that it’s knee-slappingly funny at times.  And never cheaply.  Stick with me here…I think Fincher reaches a Pixar-esque achievement in “Gone Girl.”  That is to say two completely different moviegoers can watch, understand, and appreciate the film in two completely different ways.  A 2-year-old can enjoy “Finding Nemo.”  (Don’t take her to see “Gone Girl,” though).  But a 92-year-old can enjoy it, too.  And for different reasons entirely.  Fincher and Flynn’s humor operates exactly like that.  Causal filmgoers laughed, serious filmgoers laughed.  You can appreciate the joke as just viscerally funny, like tossing gummie bears into Nick’s mouth, or you can appreciate the overall humor of the absurdist plot.  It’s amazing!

GAR:  I never thought I would see Fincher and Pixar in the same sentence, but you make a strong case.  So much of the laughs, again, came from the theater of it.  Another painfully funny scene is the press conference after Amy’s disappearance.  Nick speaks very briefly, and he isn’t particularly heartfelt.  Later, he rightly points out that that doesn’t make him a murderer…though it might as well in the court of public opinion.  Then we get Amy’s parents and their prepared statements.  I loved the detail of her mother holding note cards.  There’s a great ballet of looks from Nick to his sister, Nick to the police officers on the case, and the officers to each other.  All saying, in different ways, “This guy is screwed.”  And as soon as he flashes that smile, you just know it’s going to come back to bite him.

BEN:  Agreed entirely. And I think that goes back to Fincher’s precision.  People talk about Michael Haneke or Roman Polanski being the exactos of filmmakers.  And they are, but where they make precise cuts, Fincher makes precise gashes.  Long, careful, arterial gashes in the audience, in his stories, in his characters.

GAR:  Well said!  Anything else you want to talk about?  I thought the score was magnificent.  I saw a quote from Fincher where he told composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to think about the music you would hear in a massage parlor.  That absolutely comes across, though it’s turned a degree toward the nauseating.

BEN:  My favorite flourish, coupled with Kirk Baxter’s editing, is Desi’s murder.  The throbbing, arterial push.  The baseline.  The music bleeds out. Jesus.

GAR:  Ben, I had a lot of fun.  Thank you so much for doing this!

BEN:  Anytime, amigo.  Don’t walk with Alyssa through a cloud of sugar.  She might frame you for murder and kill Neil Patrick Harris!

GAR:  Noted.  Thanks a lot, buddy!

What did you think of “Gone Girl?”  Comment below!

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Conversations: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

As promised, my thoughts on Marvel’s latest box office juggernaut, “The Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Also as promised, I roped in my good friend, Ben DeLoose.  I’ve known Ben for over seven years.  He has worked for USA Network, NBCUniversal, and most recently, Starz Entertainment.  He and I also collaborate on 3bythree, a Youtube movie review channel.  Before we get started, a brief plot synopsis, but be warned, our discussion will contain spoilers: “Guardians of the Galaxy” tells the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a young man abducted from earth who traverses the galaxy looking for rare artifacts (think:  a goofier Indiana Jones).  He joins a ragtag group of misfits, which includes:  Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a trained assassin; Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscular alien who takes things a little too literally; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon with a propensity for technology and weapons; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid plant and Rocket’s partner.  They will work together to try to stop Ronan (Lee Pace), a radical fundamentalist, from obtaining an ultimate weapon.

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Gar:  Hiya Ben, thanks for joining me!  I’m gonna let you start us off:  What did you think of “Guardians of the Galaxy?”

Ben:  What a fun ride!  A fantastic summer entertainment and another winner from Marvel.

Gar:  I thoroughly enjoyed myself!  Though it carries the Marvel banner, it had a bit of that new car smell.  It’s not an original property, but it’s based on a comic book that I had no familiarity with.

Ben:  Same here.  I had absolutely no knowledge going in.

Gar:  I’m reluctant to call “Guardians” a GREAT movie, though.  Marvel plays things a little too conservatively for that.  Even “Iron Man,” which is still their best, has that really standard third act (crash-bang action, monologuing villain, etc.).

Ben:  They are, by no means, making revolutionary films.  Consistent entertainment?  I’d say so.  Non-stupid blockbusters?  Absolutely.  But they do regress back to their comic book roots.  There’s some clunky dialogue in all their films, including this one.  Flat exposition dumps, characters blandly stating their inner intentions and feelings.

Gar:  An instance that stands out to me was Thanos, this intergalactic warlord, revealing that Gamora (pictured below, left) was his favorite daughter in front of his other daughter Nebula (pictured below, right).

Gamora Nebula

Ben:  Absolutely

Gar:  Maybe there’s something to be said for Thanos’s arrogance and dismissiveness, but you just knew they were setting up a betrayal.

Ben:  In general, Thanos is a problem for this film.  Will casual viewers realize he was part of the invasion in the “The Avengers?”  Will they remember his stinger scene during the closing credits?  Probably not.

Thanos

Hell, the characters in the film don’t even mention the invasion to Peter Quill, despite a clear setup.  I think a character tells him, “You don’t even care about your own world,” and leaves it at that.  Why not mention the attack?  Why not use that as extra motivation for Peter to put a stop to Ronan?

Gar:  Exactly.  Marvel seems to have a villain problem.  Lee Pace is a good actor, but I just didn’t find Ronan compelling.  Some people have compared “Guardians” to Star Wars, which I think sets up a troubling level of anticipation.  Influenced by?  Absolutely.  As good as?  C’mon now.  But the #1 reason Star Wars is better than “Guardians?”  Its villain.

Ben:  Absolutely.

Gar:  Let’s talk about some of the things we liked.

Ben:  The soundtrack really stood out.  The song selection was impeccable!  It created plenty of opportunities for incongruity with the visuals, and it was diegetic.

Gar:  It also gave the film an identity, which the marketing campaign wisely tapped into.  (We should stress we’re talking about the unoriginal music used in the film — ’80s songs.  The original score was pretty forgettable, which seems to be par for the course for Marvel.)  I really enjoyed the songs too.  They added a nice layer to Peter.  You can’t help but be reminded of his mother, which of course pays off hugely at the end of the film.  While we’re on Chris Pratt, let’s go ahead and talk about the cast.

Ben:  Perfect casting.

Gar:  So good!  I am a fan of Pratt from “Parks and Recreation,” and it was great to see him carry a film of this size.

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Ben:  It was also fun to see Karen Gillan as a bad guy (and she’ll be back)!  Though Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly could have had more to do.

Gar:  Yeah, I was surprised by how little screen time Reilly had, ditto Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close.  Those are big name performers!

Ben:  I think they could have gone with character actors for those parts.

Gar:  But ya know who gave the best performance?

Ben:  Bradley Cooper.

Gar:  Yep.

Ben:  You really felt Rocket’s vulnerability under all that bravado.  Yes, the CGI was excellent, but the pain in his voice drove it home for me.

Gar:  He’s got that scene where he unloads this emotional baggage, talking about how he was poked, prodded and sliced while they were experimenting on him.  I really liked his relationship with Groot as well.  One of the moments that made me laugh was Rocket’s conversation with his “house plant,” where they discussed their next move.

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Ben:  It’s basically an internal monologue for Rocket.

Gar:  Absolutely.  Let’s talk a bit about writer-director James Gunn’s work.  I thought the action scenes were great.  They were well structured, and characters were using the environment.  I’m thinking about the first one, this “Raiders”-inspired set piece where Peter steals an important artifact.  A hole gets blown in the wall of this temple, and a couple beats later, our hero uses it as his escape route.

Ben:  Gunn nailed the action scenes.  Clear sense of geography, cause-and-effect, scale — all things lacking from a lot of loud, dumb blockbusters.

Gar:  The smaller ships pushing Ronan’s much larger vessel was a great visual.

Ben:  The will of many against one fanatic.  Fancy that, a visual metaphor in a popcorn flick!

Gar:  You don’t say!  The other thing I really appreciated about Gunn’s work was the way he managed the tonal shifts, from laugh-out-loud comedy to real pathos.  You’ve got Rocket’s monologue or Peter reading the letter from his mother. Ben:  The moment that absolutely got to me:  “We are Groot.”  As he was saying it, I expected “We are friends,” but what they went with was much stronger.

Gar:  So much stronger!  It would have been corny and out-of-character if he had said “We are friends.”  Anything else you wanna talk about, Ben?

Ben:  Can’t wait for the sequel!

Gar:  Me too.  Thanks for doing this!  We’ll have to do it again.

Dancing Groot