Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my A-Z and year pages.)


© 20th Century Fox

Gone Girl (2014) || Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Tuesday 7 October 2014 || Director David Fincher | Writer Gillian Flynn (based on her novel) | Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth | Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris | Length 149 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

David Fincher continues to extend his auteurist credentials with another film dwelling in the twists, turns and dead-ends of narrative fiction, shot in a coolly modernist style, with dark corners and muted colours befitting the shifting allegiances and motivations of the characters. Ben Affleck does well as the put-upon husband Nick in small-town America whose wife has gone missing, and Rosamund Pike has a piercing intensity as that New York-born and bred wife Amy, but beyond those plot points it would not be wise to stray, suffice to say there is a twist, and more than one at that. It’s a film that doesn’t just find its drama in the orchestrated chameleonic performances of its core cast, but is itself about performance, about lives moulded by societal or parental pressures (whether the expectations of precocity and feminine perfection as forced upon Amy by her author parents, or the expectations of marriage taken on by both leads, or the requirements of the ‘gone girl’ narrative when reconfigured by the media). In a sense — and to this extent I agree with criticism of its misogynistic underpinnings — it’s about a clueless husband taken advantage of by a conniving woman deploying rape allegations and other standbys of the tabloid press, but yet the film seems too self-aware of the ways that all of its protagonists shape and control their representation for it to fully fall into that trap. However, basically what I’m saying is that this film, more than most blockbusters of 2014, would seem to repay further investigation.


© Paramount Pictures

Interstellar (2014) || Seen at Science Museum (IMAX), London, Tuesday 11 November 2014 || Director Christopher Nolan | Writers Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan | Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema | Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine | Length 169 minutes || My Rating 3 stars good

Christopher Nolan is another kind of auteur, though he seems to specialise in unselfconscious pomposity (or at least, so it seems to my mind). Seen on a 70mm IMAX screen, this is undeniably big and undeniably epic in scope, with huge bassy rumblings and the kind of sound design and picturesque cinematographic vision engineered to convince of the earnestness of the undertaking. Without giving away any prized ‘spoilers’, it increasingly suggests an updating of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (also recently on re-release) albeit without the kind of understated intelligence of design that Kubrick’s films always exhibited. Aside from some affecting early scenes with McConaughey’s astronaut/engineer/farmer and his children, I’m not even sure the more upfront sentimentality always works in the film’s favour, as it progressively becomes more loopy — and it certainly seems to me that the almost mystical treatment afforded to black holes and other astral phenomena are somewhat akin to religious texts’ relationship to God (though with that latter concept somewhat ponderously replaced here by Gravity and/or Love). Some of the ideas seem rather too incredulous, at the same time grounded in character interactions which smack rather more of cliché, but I cannot deny that it held my attention effortlessly for three hours, and should at least be given points for trying something bold, epic and heartfelt.


© Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Monday 24 November 2014 || Director Francis Lawrence | Writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig (based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins) | Cinematographer Jo Willems | Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Natalie Dormer | Length 123 minutes || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable

Another instalment in the ongoing young-adult dystopianism that’s been part of all our lives for the last decade or so (whether under this franchise’s title, or previous ones you may guess at; even if you haven’t read any books or seen any films, you can’t possibly be unaware of the trend). I certainly enjoy the range of darker and more complicated emotions this kind of thing leads to, even if the way they’re handled remains strictly teenage (although most mainstream entertainment pitches itself to that age range, to be fair). With Mockingjay, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss starts to really doubt her own abilities to lead a revolution as the stakes become more serious (the film is largely based in the underground compound of District 13, as they make periodic sorties to disrupt the Capitol and its propaganda), though even when crying in a dark corner, Lawrence remains effortlessly watchable. If there are any ‘games’ here, they take place in the real world of the film (Panem), which seems to make them curiously less engaging than the engineered ones of the previous two films. It also seems to squander an obvious cliffhanger ending point, but I’ll undoubtedly be back next year to see how things wrap up.

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Down with Love (2003)

EDIT (May 2016): I’ve upgraded this from 3.5 stars (which I gave it when I reviewed it back in December 2013) to 4.5 because I’ve realised upon rewatching that it is clearly one of my favourite films. It is just such sheer delight to watch Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce in particular.

Occasionally when rewatching DVDs, I like to look back at its entry on Rotten Tomatoes and check what the critical consensus (in so far as it’s represented there) suggests about a film. Therefore I was surprised to find a distinct lukewarmness with regards to this brightly-coloured Technicolor pastiche of 1960s romantic comedies. Surprising because although I can’t honestly hold it up as a masterpiece [EDIT 2016: I can and I do], I do still love Down with Love (I own it on DVD after all). Perhaps telling you about how it provided me cheer on a dreary evening in Prague, when I was travelling around East Europe ten years ago, is hardly effective film criticism, but there you go: it is a zippy, frothy, stylish little film that doesn’t really set out to make any grand statements.

The leads are stylishly iconic journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) and arriviste naïf and newly-published author Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger), who do their best Rock Hudson and Doris Day impressions — appropriate, given that the film takes its most visible cues from such period comedies as Pillow Talk (1959). Yet, as much as you may imagine that I appreciate McGregor’s mellifluous name, I’ve never been a huge fan of either him or Zellweger as actors. It’s not that they have great chemistry here, but they certainly do both look the part. They wear the clothes well, in other words, and show a fair amount of gameness in putting across such gurning caricatured characters, blending effortlessly into the saturated colours of the mise en scène.

What really sells the film, though, are David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson as Pete and Vikki, the respective editors of the two leads. Sure, Pierce is doing a version of his neurotic character on TV show Frasier, which can hardly have been much of a stretch for him, but his performance also harks back to Tony Randall in such films as Frank Tashlin’s sparkling Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957, and which for the record is a masterpiece). That Randall himself makes a cameo appearance as the head of Pete’s publishing company is just another nod towards that rich filmic heritage. As for Paulson, seen most recently by me as the uptight sister in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), she is unrecognisable here, achieving some perfect comic timing in her delightful repartees with Pierce, and guiding Barbara towards her hard-headed feminist success. Both actors put across a degree of acting brio that lifts the film, and if it never really moves beyond pastiche, it is at least a very accomplished and enjoyable one.

I’ve mentioned the look of the film, all saturated colours in the set design and widescreen cinematography, and bold contemporary fashions. There are certainly far worse stylistic benchmarks to emulate than that of Frank Tashlin (whose pop culture films from the 1950s are particularly worth checking out). Elsewhere, there’s some predictably broad humour in some of the touches, like the anti-war protestors and the ridiculous use of iconic buildings in the intro sequence, where every change of shot — from Barbara’s arrival to her getting a cab uptown — showcases a different (and geographically impossible) New York sight. Elsewhere, use is made of the kind of split-screen techniques seen in Pillow Talk, but for groaningly double entendre purposes.

It would of course be very easy to marshal all this detail as successively damning points against the film’s sunny inanity — like baking a souffle, this kind of enterprise, aiming for light frothiness, can so easily collapse. Therefore it’s up to each individual viewer to judge whether it’s been successful. For me, though, Down with Love is a consistent joy, and one I like to revisit every so often.


© 20th Century Fox

FILM REVIEW
Director Peyton Reed | Writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake | Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth | Starring Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson, Tony Randall | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a cinema in Prague, Friday 3 October 2003 (and since then at home on DVD, most recently on Tuesday 10 December 2013 and Thursday 5 May 2016)