Monthly Archives: October 2014

Listen Up Philip — 7/10

LISTEN UP PHILIP (2014, Alex Ross Perry)

The deep baritone, devoid of emotion, accent-less voice of Eric Bogosian narrates with an icicle’s sharp sting, indifferent and cold, bare bones and almost hostile in its callousness. The prose he reads is literary — as novelistic as anything we might expect in the pages of its lead character’s books, adding a layer of remove from the story, and providing yet another meta element in Perry’s not-exactly-winking-but-still-wholly-referential exercise in existential self-loathing.

Shot on 16mm, the grainy texture — coupled with jagged editing — serves up a visual experience not unlike watching a home movie; snippets of a life gone by, filmed by a third-person narrator as omniscient as Bogosian’s blank voice. And with this sense of filmstrip nostalgia comes a parallel character study, as Philip befriends an elderly writer named Ike Zimmerman (a pretty good Jonathan Pryce, albeit in a can’t-miss role) who sees a lot of his younger self in Philip (Jason Schwartzman, playing Max Fischer plus fifteen years and minus the idealism). And Philip, I think we’re meant to observe, can see that Ike is how he’s going to end up.

But the layers are thicker than that. When Philip casts a colleague named Yvette as the French woman with whom he will fall in love, whether she wants it or not, their first date begins in a scene straight out of a French film — cascading rain, man standing in shadows dripping wet, woman puffing a cigarette, smoke silhouetted. It reminds us that all of Philip’s life experiences are scenes he could have written in a book or seen in a film, and perhaps he’s too good an author to bother being a decent human being with real connections. His last scene with girlfriend Elisabeth Moss is straight out of CITY LIGHTS via MANHATTAN, a New York intellectual standing outside a pane of glass from a brownstone, staring into the face of the woman he yearns for. But Perry adds his cynical twist to it all (not just in the narrative result, but by using Bogosian to step on all of Moss’s dialogue), just to make it yet another piece of this bitter tapestry. Sure, Philip will be forever alone, begging to follow in the footsteps of great literary heroes past (he even tells his agents and editors that he will refuse all media publicity, just because famous authors have done the same), but this isn’t a tragedy. Philip can’t be happy any other way, and he doesn’t want to be. I’ve seen better portraits of narcissists, and better films about writers, but for a film that has so much knowledge about the cruelty humankind can do to one another without any interest in being humanistic itself, it’s very funny, and worth seeing even if it cuts its own heart out with its lacerating, caustic wit.

 

 

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Gone Girl — 8/10

GONE GIRL (2014, David Fincher)

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

W. Somerset, SEVEN (1995, Fincher)

With the cynical, mean-spirited GONE GIRL, I’m not sure Fincher even agrees with the second part anymore. This is a cold and nasty film, using the lurid subject matter palette he’s been employing for a while (especially with HOUSE OF CARDS and DRAGON TATTOO) to pick apart the scabs of human relationships. Not only is marriage a fraud in GONE GIRL, but none of the characters have any healthy or well-adjusted romantic relationships at all. Not the married man and his mistress, not the divorced detective, not the lonely twin sister, not the disgustingly rich douchey bachelor, not the trailer park trash, and seemingly not even the high-priced independent lawyer. If there’s such a thing as romantic love, Fincher doesn’t know where to find it, and it’s no coincidence this film is set in the state of Misery.

But Fincher’s adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel (which I haven’t read, sorry), using a script from Flynn herself, doesn’t stop at eviscerating relationships — it sets its sights on the media too. With a pretty easy softball aimed at Nancy Grace (the least controversial media vulture — seriously, does anyone not hate that woman?), it explores how easily the masses are manipulated by such shows, how quickly the cycle operates, and how tenuous and fickle social sympathy is. But it also goes deeper, arguing that the best way to win at anything, to get ahead, or get what we want, is to lie and be phony and play the game.

Formally, there’s nothing really new here for Fincher, who still manages to put the camera exactly where it needs to be, with no superfluous movement. Teaming with longtime DP Jeff Cronenweth (FIGHT CLUB, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, etc.), the director’s cool, icy angles create sharp textures and meticulous frames — look at how he composes two women relaxing by a pool on lounge chairs, shooting up from the ground behind the chairs putting the angles of the reclining backs in the foreground. The talent in front of the camera is pretty strong, with Affleck giving one of his better performances to date (and this is material he must be drawn to, as the real-life subject of media scrutiny, lack of privacy, and mob-like rush to judgment). Fincher has cast and styled the Amy role to strangely resemble Deborah Kara Unger from THE GAME (seriously, Rosamund Pike is a dead ringer for a 15-years younger Unger). He definitely has a type for characterizing devious blondes forced to “act a part” for the powerful men in their lives. I liked newcomer Carrie Coon as Affleck’s sister, but was less impressed by Kim Dickens as the cop. Harris is reliably good, as is Tyler Perry in the first role I’ve ever seen him in, but almost everyone in the cast is upstaged by the perennial MVP Scoot McNairy, doing in one scene what most actors fail to do in their careers. Can he be in everything, please? (Actually, after ODing on him this year from NON-STOP, FRANK, and HALT & CATCH FIRE, it seems like he already is).

But everything comes down to Affleck and Pike, who have tricky roles and manage to somewhat let you empathize with deeply unlikable characters. To borrow an overused phrase from the superhero Affleck will be playing in a couple years, Nick and Amy Dunne are not the white American couple we need, but they’re the white American couple we deserve.

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Other notes:

* One exchange between Fugit and Dickens is a little too close to a MATCH POINT dialogue for my tastes

* Casey Wilson is always funny; bring back HAPPY ENDINGS please

* Did anyone else think of SIDE EFFECTS a lot?

* There are a dozen cat reaction shots, and each one is funnier than the last. And I could have used a dozen more.

* I’ve been reading charges of misogyny. Really? I don’t see it at all — protestations against any female character being manipulative sound more patronizing and condescending than Flynn’s plot does misogynistic. Also, what about the Coon and Dickens characters?

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