Friday, 3 October 2014

Two for the road...

No not the old Albert Finney/Audrey Hepburn charmer, but a title to celebrate the fact that I actually went to the cinema twice this week to see two new releases. Apart from attending film festivals (and by the way the London Film Festival is imminent), visiting an actual cinema more than once a week (and on average it's not even that) is unusual for me. By way of some explanation, most weeks there are few new movies that entice me -- and judging by the various trailers I saw on these two excursions, there's not a heck of a lot coming up to whet my appetite either. However the advance publicity for "Maps to the Stars" and "Gone Girl" fuelled my enthusiasm, so off we went... and now it's judgment time:

To start with David Cronenberg's 'Maps...' based on a vitriolic screenplay from scriptwriter Bruce Wagner, this is a master-class in serving up Hollywood in a black shroud. Each of the very unlikeable characters manifests an aspect of the La-la Land scene that manages to both fascinate and horrify the viewer. It is a movie that it is impossible to actually like, yet one whose brilliance is very easy to appreciate, while shuddering at the excesses on display. Julianne Moore won a Best Actress award at Cannes for her portrayal of a washed-up, yet still self-deluded Hollywood leading lady. Hers is a brave and no-holds-barred portrait of a holy monster, full of unwarranted self-adulation and incapable of genuine emotion or regrets. Into her household comes a new 'chore-whore' assistant in the drab shape of burns-victim Mia Wasikowska; one suspects from the get-go that she is not quite right in the head. Without giving too much away, it turns out that she is the recently-released-from-the-nuthouse daughter of phoney self-help guru John Cusack and his 'wife' (actually his sister) Olivia Williams, and the sister of their monstrous, spoiled, foul-mouthed 13-year old movie brat Evan Bird. Unsurprisingly most of the characters are haunted by ghosts from their pasts, who materialise at inappropriate moments, and who loom large in framing the action. The only would-be 'normal' character is limo driver Robert Pattinson (Wagner apparently had a similar job during a short spell in Hollywood), and frankly I had my doubts about him as well.

This is the first movie that cult director Cronenberg has shot outside of Canada with five days in the States and 24 in his native Toronto. His casting is impeccable, right down to the minor roles, and Moore, in particular, while still in remarkable shape for a 53-year old, is not afraid to show us the tolls that the years have taken. I would quibble however with some of the director's use of gratuitous nudity which added very little to the horrific tale; in particular I could have done without Moore's three-in-a-bed shagging culminating in the male partner's full-frontal masturbation, or the highly unflattering shot of Williams in her bath. In contrast and ironically, a farting constipated Moore on the toilet did effectively contribute to her self-absorbed characterization. However, most of the action is just a titillating tease to the horrific denouements the film has in store for us.

And then there is "Gone Girl" which currently has an unheard-of 9 out of 10 approval rating on IMDb, despite only having been on release for a few days. The comments and most of the reviews I have read verge on unqualified raves for slick director David Fincher, who I personally think has made a couple of brilliant movies and a number of over-rated potboilers. Going against the tide I am inclined to put his latest movie in this second category. Based on a wildly popular novel by Gillian Flynn, who, as screenwriter as well, has managed to open out the book's structure of diary entries to a more cinematic rendering, it is nearly impossible to review the film without revealing the 'big twist' that comes in the middle -- not at the end of the story. However I shall refrain from this 'spoiler' in case you're one of the few people who have not yet read the book.

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike play golden couple Nick and Amy, both writers who have lost their high-powered New York jobs and who have relocated to Nick's hometown in Missouri. There is the odd suggestion that not everything is rosy in their supposedly perfect marriage. Then on the afternoon of their fifth anniversary, Nick returns home to find their mini-mansion in a shambles and Amy missing. Cue nosey intrusive police officers, Amy's high-flying parents who have made their fortune from their series of kiddies' books featuring 'Amazing Amy', and enough volunteers to staff an army who join in the hunt for the lovely missing lady. According to the rising local hysteria, mainly because Affleck does not seem appropriately sad, and egged on by trial-by-television journalist Missy Pyle, the general conclusion is that he has murdered his wife. Just about everything seems to be conspiring against him which is where the no-spoilers-allowed rule comes into effect. All I can say at this stage is that the movie's judicious use of flash-backs leads us to the conclusion that perhaps Amy was not quite the perfect wife nor the wholly innocent victim, and that the marriage might have been cracking at the seams.

I think Affleck was just about perfect in the role of the poor shmuck whose life is snowballing out of control. However I have my doubts about Pike. The consensus seems to think that this is the 'break-through' role for the British actress and that she deserves an Oscar nod. I'm not saying she won't receive this accolade (though a BAFTA seems in the bag), but I found her performance patchy and much of her dialogue inaudible. Mind you I had some trouble with the dialogue generally, both because of the occasionally overwhelming music, but also because of the rather strange use of funny Southern accents by much of the cast. I never though of Missouri as being a particularly Southern state, but there you go...

I'm sure the film will do good business -- much better than 'Maps...' I suspect, but I really didn't care for it at all -- too leisurely and with one of the most totally unsatisfying finales and resolutions that I have encountered for a while. If you asked me to rate these two new films with the other two I have seen at the cinema in the last month, I would still put the Woody Allen film as the most enjoyable, with "Lucy" and "Maps" close seconds in terms of well-made and absorbing flicks, and this one right at the bottom of the heap.
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