Gone Girl

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David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel features many of the director’s trademark features. Like his previous films, the predominant colour scheme is brown, as director of photography Jeff Cronenweth brings a dark beauty to the digital visuals (although there were points when things could have been a little brighter). Much like Panic Room and Zodiac, it is detailed to a forensic degree, which is appropriate for a film which centres around a mysterious disappearance and is concerned with artifice and construction. Like The Social Network and The Game, it features unsympathetic characters that are nonetheless compelling. And like Se7en and Fight Club, it features some unexpected twists that may leave the viewer flabbergasted. The first act consists of a deepening mystery, while the second takes an alternative route that fleshes out the events of the first. Plot developments in the third act twist into jaw-dropping moments of audacity, but to Fincher and Flynn’s credit, the film never wavers in its commitment to the narrative events, so if the viewer sees fit to ask “Really?”, Gone Girl replies, “Yes, really!”

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As the central couple Nick and Amy Dunne, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are believable and engaging. Like previous Fincher protagonists, they are unconventional, described by lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) as “the most fucked up people I’ve ever met”. But while it would be easy to judge Nick or Amy as “good” or “bad”, what is most striking about them and the film itself is the construction of identity. Amy has a public identity of “Amazing Amy”, a fictionalised version of her life in children’s books created by her parents. During the search for Amy, Nick adopts a public persona that other characters say is false, and certainly contrasts with the side of him seen by his sister Margo (Carrie Coon). Amy displays several different personae over the course of the film, and identities are created by the media as well. TV journalist Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) lambasts Nick without evidence for purely sensationalist reasons; Tanner helps Nick create an alternative identity when police suspicion falls on him. As the film progresses, further identities are created for public consumption, often in stark contrast to people’s private feelings. But, the film asks, are any of these identities more real than another? Nick naïvely talks about the importance of “truth”, but Gone Girl repeatedly questions the validity of truth by highlighting multiple narratives and the identities created for these narratives. It is a cliché to say that people have public and private faces, but Gone Girl takes the disturbing step of presenting all these faces as equally constructed and therefore equally valid or indeed invalid. If the public face is no less true than the private one, why not live the public face? Is our identity the one we project or the one projected onto us? Gone Girl offers no answers to these questions, but offers a compelling and thought-provoking meditation upon them.

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The Equalizer

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Who you gonna call when wealthy white men own everything or pay the authorities to look the other way? According to Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer, you need to call a middle-aged, working-class black man, who turns to a retired woman when he needs assistance. Demographics are the most interesting aspect of this adaptation of the 1980s TV series about a former special forces operative who takes up the cause for those oppressed by organised crime and corrupt authorities. As a result, it succeeds in being far more engaging than similar vigilante thrillers such as Taken (and several other Liam Neeson vehicles such as Non-Stop and A Walk Amongst the Tombstones) and Man On Fire (which also starred Denzel Washington).

Dramatically, The Equalizer suffers when it is too much – at least two sub-plots could have been excised to make it more streamlined and towards the finale, there is unnecessary use of slo-mo to make the action more dramatic, when it would have benefitted from being more succinct. Politically, the film expresses faith in systems of law, order and justice, but claims that greed and power lead to these being corrupted (hardly original) and it is the task of the proletariat to challenge abuse and corruption. Perhaps less progressively, this challenge is violent and destructive as Robert McCall (Washington) easily murders multiple Russian gangsters, batters dirty cops to a pulp and uses any number of improvised weapons to equalise the imbalance between the powerful and the powerless. The film is generically simplistic in its portrayal of good and evil – the bad guys are so bad that they clearly deserve the grisly deaths they meet and all their victims are innocent and downtrodden, while McCall is carefully constructed to ensure normally that we support him. He is helpful and generous to those around him, especially his co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) whom he helps with a job application, as well as abused prostitute Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). His employment at a hardware store and use of everyday tools like hammers, corkscrews, nail guns and barb wire further establish his proletariat credentials, in contrast to the sophisticated weaponry of the gangsters he confronts. But while the violence in The Equalizer is presented as necessary and justified, it is not (for the most part) glorified or presented as redemptive.

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Key to the film’s treatment of violence is Washington’s performance. Whereas other powerful performers such as Liam Neeson and Robert De Niro can be accused of coasting, Washington is never less than an utterly magnetic screen presence. His previous collaboration with Fuqua, Training Day, won him a Best Actor Oscar, largely thanks to David Ayer’s acerbic script (for other instances, see the similarly themed Ayer-written-and-directed Harsh Times and End of Watch). Richard Wenk’s script is more simplistic and less concerned with sociological and sub-cultural detail (for an intimate presentation of Russian gangsters, see Eastern Promises), but Washington demonstrates, as he has throughout his career, how much he brings to even a simplistic character. In scenes with Teri and Ralphie, McCall is jovial and amiable, but in the scenes of violence, he becomes cold, implacable and almost inhuman. This aspect of the performance prevents the violence from being glorified – instead it is mechanical and functional, a necessary response to the (gleeful) violence of the Russian gangsters and dirty cops, McCall like an antibody attacking an infection. Washington’s performance is understated, avoiding the guilt-ridden histrionics of Man On Fire and the grandstanding of Training Day and American Gangster. He hints at a great deal but clarifies little behind his hooded eyes other than his ability to assess and deal with threats (reminiscent of scenes in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes). This mystery makes him a cypher, a representative of the downtrodden, including black people, Latinos, women and the working class. While The Equalizer suffers from narrative and stylistic excess, when it focuses on its central figure, what he does and what he represents, it makes interesting claims about sites of resistance.

‘Pride’: Morality, Politics, Unity

Morality and politics are frequently intertwined. Political debate and campaigning can revolve around questions about what is right or wrong, but are politics, government and legislation not more practical, more about opportunities, protection from harm and facilities available for citizens? This has always seemed to me the function of government – provide for citizens’ practical needs, rather than our moral wellbeing, because we can take care of that ourselves.

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Matthew Warchus’ brilliant sociological comedy drama Pride draws a sharp distinction between morality and politics and the value of this separation. Based on a true story, the film follows a newly-formed group, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who encounter great hostility from the miners they support during the Miners Strike of 1984. The reason for this hostility is homophobia: some among the Welsh mining community view the homosexuals as morally perverse and object to their assistance and presence. The LGSM support the miners as a fellow group oppressed by the government and the support they provide is purely financial, ultimately paying for the miners’ new van, an essential resource for the strike. Here is the result of political activism – money used for practical support of citizens’ needs. Despite the essential resource this money provides for, the miners union ultimately rejects the continued assistance of the LGSM, the conservative among them refusing to waver in their conviction that homosexuals are perverts, despite the benefit that LGSM brings for the miners. This moral position leads to the partnership between the miners union and LGSM being dissolved, and it is a truly tragic moment to see prejudice and inflexibility triumph over openness and practicality.

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Despite this dissolution, friendships remain between the miners and gay activists, reappearing at the film’s triumphant climax at Gay Pride 1985. I have written before about the novelty of crying at films, and Pride provided another new experience: crying with joy at a film. Politically, I am left wing so this film was always going to agree with me, but political films need to integrate their politics into an engaging story. Pride is engaging on multiple levels: it has rounded, likeable characters with personal and political struggles; it tells an important historical story (simplified and fictionalised for narrative purposes but still raising awareness); it balances humour and pathos in equal measure. Best of all, it uses its politics for dramatic effect, so while the audience is being entertained they are also receiving a political lesson. This lesson is the benefit of practical politics and focusing upon benefits rather than morality. The moral inflexibility of some of the miners has no relevance to the practicalities of the strike, but the unity between the miners and the gays has great impact for both groups.

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Pride’s central theme is the coming together of different people. In a crucial scene, activist leader Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) explains to miner Dai (Paddy Considine) why he supports the Miners’ Strike: “It’s just logical”. Mark’s motivation is the promotion of people’s rights, be they workers, homosexuals, women, people of colour, or any group whose rights are restricted. Ideology need not be a barrier to unity – all those with restricted rights can stand together. The final march through Westminster not only demonstrates unity but also its effect, supertext informing the viewer of a practical, legislative difference made possible by the unity between LGSM and the NUM. Pride expresses the practical impact of political activism, as well as being an uplifting, engaging, humorous and very moving story, making it one of the best films of the year.

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A Most Wanted Man

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Spy thrillers fall into two basic categories – field and non-field. James Bond and Jason Bourne fall into the former category and are largely action thrillers, with copious amounts of running, jumping, fighting and shooting.

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The other type is best represented by Harry Palmer and George Smiley, and tends to be much quieter with emphasis on talking, analysis and planning.

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Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man falls firmly into the latter category, as a German Intelligence team headed by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the last role he completed before his tragic and untimely death) analyse, talk and plan how to neutralise terrorists in Hamburg. The film’s great strength is the detail with which it portrays the everyday work of espionage – the patience, the plethora of information that must be sifted for analysis, the clandestine meetings in public places and, above all, the relationships between spies as well as between agents and informants. Earlier in the year, I criticised Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its failure to successfully marry its conspiracy and superhero elements, the film feeling like two halves with insufficient connection. A Most Wanted Man does not have to include an action element – there are two action set pieces that are well-handled but central to the drama – but it does a fine job of blending old-fashioned legwork and intrigue with contemporary concerns and technology. Post-9/11 espionage drama from Body of Lies to 24 is often in thraldom to the high tech gadgetry of counter-terrorism, but the computers, mobile phones and surveillance cameras of A Most Wanted Man are contextual rather than fetishized. The emphasis is upon the relationships that are key to spying – Bachmann’s team convinces as a committed but affable group of co-workers; the relationships between Bachmann and his informants, including Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi), Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) and Annabell Richter (Rachel McAdams) are fraught but engaging, and it is the interplay of these relationships that leads to a nerve-shredding climax based around signatures on bank transfers. To describe a film as following relationships and culminating in financial transactions sounds more like a domestic drama than a spy thriller, but A Most Wanted Man succeeds in dramatizing these seemingly banal features into a genuinely gripping, as well as grim and dour, portrayal of contemporary espionage.

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Guilty Pleasure / Noble Sin

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I have always found the concept of ‘guilty pleasure’ rather strange, because I find guilt and pleasure to be mutually exclusive feelings. If I feel guilty, there is no pleasure, so if I start to feel guilty about something pleasurable the pleasure is removed. That’s just me, because for plenty of others the two feelings are clearly compatible. As far as films are concerned (I write about those, in case you didn’t know), I used to refer to Last Man Standing as a guilty pleasure and then realised I felt no guilt about it (nor should I). In discussions, the following films have been described as guilty pleasures:

Sharknado

Mega-Shark VS Giant Octopus

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The Room

The Devil Wears Prada

The Hangover

Predator

Total Recall

Conan The Barbarian

Sleepless in Seattle

Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2

Cutie Honey

Commando (that came up a lot)

Battle: Los Angeles

Stardust

Love Actually

A Knight’s Tale

Frozen

Independence Day

Battleship

I Spit On Your Grave

The dictionary definition of ‘guilty pleasure’ is ‘something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is NOT generally held in high regard’. Therefore, if you regard something as a guilty pleasure then there is a belief (which you may or may not share) that there is something wrong or bad about the text in question, so you feel guilty about taking pleasure in it, and furthermore this guilt can itself be pleasurable. Exactly what makes these films guilty pleasures will vary, depending on one’s perception of what they ‘should’ like or admire.

Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014) (hereafter referred to jointly as Sin City), is a franchise that could be considered a guilty pleasure because of its stylish design but (apparent) lack of substance. When Sin City premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, critics described it as stylish but empty, and one review endorsed the second film with the caveat that ‘the stories are still about as deep as a shallow grave’. However, Sin City also highlights pleasure directly associated with its sinful characters and actions. ‘Sin’ is obviously a key element in Sin City, demonstrated both by its title (a bastardisation of its setting, Basin City) and creator Frank Miller’s emphasis upon ‘sinful’ behaviour including sex, violence, corruption, gambling, drinking, smoking, etc. All the major characters throw themselves (in some cases, literally) into ‘sinful’ situations, and the reader/viewer is invited along for the ride. The invitation is apparent in the graphic novels through constant alignment with particular ‘sinful’ anti-heroes whose internal monologues pervade the panels and gutters of the book, allowing the reader direct access to the protagonists’ views. This monologue becomes voiceover in the film adaptations, with the authority and alignment between viewer and character that this particular device creates, even though the alignment is with characters that embrace violence and vice with gleeful abandon. Glee is key, as Sin City takes pleasure in its abandonment of ‘polite’, ‘proper’ behaviour. This pleasure is apparent in the text’s excessive violence and sexuality: practically every woman appears in a state of undress (inviting obvious charges of sexism, to which I shall return); injuries are extremely gory; characters perform superhuman violent feats, such as crashing through the windscreens of moving cars, leaping off tall buildings without harm and (literally) cutting people to pieces.

Violent entertainment has been pleasurable for centuries, not simply because we are bloodthirsty but also because it is safe. Much like a rollercoaster, thrills on the screen are exhilarating but there is no risk of us suffering physical injury. But the excessive ‘sin’ of Sin City goes further, inviting not only pleasure but also something noble about in the abandonment of social niceties. Crucially, these are contemporary social niceties, the niceties of modernity and western capitalism. Although the setting, stylistics, hard-boiled dialogue and constant voiceover owe much to film noir, there are more primitive yet classical themes running through the streets of Sin City. The character Marv (Mickey Rourke) espouses a desire for violent revenge that would not be out of place in Jacobean tragedy, even if the vocabulary and syntax are distant from Shakespeare or Webster:

I’ll stare the bastard in the face as he screams to God, and I’ll laugh harder when he whimpers like a baby. And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him.

Marv is a recurring character across the various stories of Sin City, both on page and screen, and the narrative’s alignment with him encourages audience identification with his murderous intentions and deeds.

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Similar alignment is made with Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen), who takes significant pleasure in ‘The Big Fat Kill’ along with Gail (Rosario Dawson) and the rest of the girls (prostitutes) of Old Town, while in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ Dwight (now played by Josh Brolin) has no qualms about murdering Damien Lord (Martin Csokas) in order to save Damien’s wife Ava (Eva Green). Similarly, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) murders several gangsters in defence of Nancy Callaghan (Jessica Alba), including Roark Jnr (Nick Stahl), the titular ‘That Yellow Bastard’. The anti-heroes of Sin City lack restraint but not honour or compassion, and their attitudes towards women reinforce this. One review describes Sin City as ‘an unreconstructed, man’s man’s world where the guys are either sickly or borderline sicko and the girls are classic noir femme fatales – – both in distress and deadly. Getting sniffy about sexism in Sin City would be like complaining about spaceships in Star Wars. The sexism is not just (un)dressing but integral to the old-fashioned milieu of the protagonists and their fictional world – anti-heroes driven by antiquated chivalry in a world without honour. Hartigan, Dwight and Marv are knights out-of-time – Dwight pronounces Marv as being ‘born in the wrong century’ while Marv describes his quest of vengeance for Goldie’s death as ‘the bad old days’. A scene in which Marv learns that his adversary is Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) features a giant statue of Roark, reminiscent of towering effigies in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). This iconography echoes epics, as does the casting of Clive Owen, who previously starred as the eponymous knight/monarch in King Arthur (2004). This is the noble sin of Sin City – the anti-heroes are modern day knights who defy law and convention in pursuit of their own sense of what is right. Furthermore, their adversaries are far worse – child molesters, cannibals and corrupt politicians who use murder and intimidation to maintain their power. But although Sin City takes glee in this medieval nobility, it does not simply valorise it.

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Dwight’s devotion to Ava in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ is foolish and ultimately misguided, but he demonstrates similar devotion when he pursues Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) and his gang so as to stop them hurting anyone. As it turns out, the ladies of Old Town don’t need his help, because they are more than capable of handling a carload of drunken louts. Although Dwight proves helpful later on, the prostitutes clearly do not need male protection, which highlights the antiquated nature of the men’s attitude. Similarly, Nancy only gets into danger when Hartigan comes to save her – had he stayed in prison Roark would never have found her. In order to protect her, Hartigan ultimately kills himself, and the subsequent story features Nancy going steadily mad, disfiguring herself and risking life and limb to take revenge on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). As fun as ‘sinful’ behaviour may be, the cost is also on display, emphasised by the gory injuries and eventual deaths of Hartigan and Marv. Nor are these deaths resisted – Hartigan describes his death for Nancy’s life as a ‘fair trade’, while at his execution Marv says ‘it’s about damn time’. While these deaths are heroic sacrifices and pyrrhic victories, the demise of the anti-heroes reinforces the sense that they are out of time and their endeavours absurd. But that is part of the fun – in an era with no place for chivalry, what is sinful is also noble, demonstrating the lack of distinction between the two. The tagline for the second film is THERE IS NO JUSTICE WITHOUT SIN, and how true this is. The ‘sinful’ activities of Frank Miller’s characters are also acts of justice, highlighting the guilty pleasure of noble sin.

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In Order of Disappearance

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Snow, more snow, blood, chortle, snow, blood, snow, snow, chortle, blood, bang, bang, bang, blood, snow, chortle. That is a summary of In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland’s pitch black comedy about bereaved father Nils (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes on organised crime in Oslo in revenge for his son’s death. The setting and dark humour are reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, as events spiral out of control and Nils’ quest for vengeance provokes a full scale gang war. The balance between laughs and thrills is not always maintained, as the increasing number of deaths (all presented with title cards and appropriate religious symbols) spills into absurdity. But Skarsgård remains a likeable presence throughout, his downtrodden everyman maintaining a bewildered yet dogged determination.

Lucy

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Lucy dramatises the title of a film from earlier this year that also featured Morgan Freeman explaining pseudo-science – Transcendence. Lucy has already been more commercially successful than Wally Pfister’s film (over $270 million at the time of writing as opposed to $103 million for Transcendence’s entire theatrical run), and Luc Besson’s film could easily have been called Transcendence while Pfister’s could have been called Singularity (which might also work as a title for the forthcoming Interstellar, but I digress). Lucy is effectively a superhero film, the digital sequences that display the effect of a mysterious blue powder on the titular protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) are reminiscent of scenes in Blade (1998), Spider-Man (2002), Hulk (2003) and Daredevil (2003). But rather than emphasising spectacular action (which does appear but in a subordinate role), Lucy’s focus is on higher states of consciousness, increased intelligence and alternative perceptions of reality. The character Lucy transcends the film’s starting point for humanity and the film builds steadily towards transcendence with a focus upon heightened experience. Besson does not always strike the right balance between his (completely fictional) science and the spectacle of elevated experience, but Johansson is an engaging and reliable presence who carries the film for its brief running time. 

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