Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

August 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

dark places

Dark Places, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s second novel of the same name, is a film that likely would not have been made without the success of Gone Girl, her third book. While Dark Places is a fine book, it’s not the game-changer like Gone Girl was, and correspondingly, the film is not quite in the same league as David Fincher’s extraordinary film adaptation from last year.

With that said, Dark Places, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, is still a solid mystery-thriller that turned out much better than the TV movie-style mediocrity I had been expecting. Part of it is because of the talented cast featuring the star power of Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Moretz and Tye Sheridan, though I suspect it is more because the producers knew they couldn’t turn in a half-hearted effort because they knew Gone Girl was going to raise the bar extremely high (even though the two films were shot at around the same time).

Twenty-eight years ago, Libby Day’s mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters are brutally slaughtered, and only other surviving sibling, her brother Ben, is convicted for their murder. In present day, having exhausted all the sympathy and goodwill handouts in the world, Libby (Charlize Theron) finds herself in desperate need of money, forcing her to agree to help out — in exchange for payment — a nerdy “Murder Club” (these things actually exist) seeking to “solve” her cold case. Together with the club’s treasurer, Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), Libby reluctantly begins investigating what really happened all those years ago.

The film goes back and forth in time, focusing on Libby in the present and Ben (old Corey Stoll and young Tye Sheridan) in the past. Gradually the layers of the mystery are pealed back, and Libby discovers that her brother may not have been who she thought he was.

Sounds fascinating, right? And I haven’t even discussed one of the prominent themes of the film, devil worship and satanic rituals, a topic that was sending shock-waves of fear through the community back in the 80s.

I was sceptical of the casting of Theron in the beginning because the Libby Day of the book was short and frumpy. It’s true that Charlize is too tall and glamorous to fit that description no matter how hard she tries, though her performance is convincing enough for the physical discrepancy to be a moot point.

It was also good to see Theron re-teaming with Hoult after working together for Mad Max: Fury Road, albeit in completely different roles and circumstances. Hoult is solid despite not really getting to do much to show off what he can do. The same goes for Stoll, who is everywhere these days, while Sheridan gets to do more but can’t exactly capitalise on the opportunity.

The two who steal the show are Chloe Moretz and Christina Hendricks. Moretz, as the Ben’s wild girlfriend Diondra, stands out because she’s such a strong and dominatin personality. Hendricks stands out for another reason — she looks virtually unrecognisable as a struggling single mother, looking as plain as can be with virtually no make-up.

It’s a good cast with good performances, but if we’re being honest we’d admit that they were chosen for star power as opposed to fit for their characters.

Dark Places never bores and remains interesting as long as the mystery is in play. My issues with the film are largely as same as the book — it never lets up to the potential of its premise. The progression is too straightforward, the turns and revelations not explosive enough. There’s not a whole lot to separate it from your run-of-the-mill mystery-thriller. With a no-name cast and smaller budget, this would have been a straight-to-DVD or TV movie.

However, it would have been a pretty good straight-to-DVD or TV movie, and the fact that the production is as high-profile as it is means Dark Places is still better than the majority of films in the same genre, even the theatrical releases.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Gone Girl (2014)

October 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Gone-Girl-2014-film-poster

I honestly had no idea what to expect when I rushed to see Gone Girl, the highly-anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough novel directed by the legendary David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club, Seven). The early buzz was overwhelmingly positive, but through word-of-mouth I also learned that many who had read the book first found the film underwhelming.

As a huge fan of the book, I can’t say that surprises me. A significant part of Gone Girl’s allure stems from its delicious twists and turns, and knowing exactly how things will turn out will obviously dampen the experience. There’s just no way around it. No one would be able to enjoy The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense as much if the twists in those films had been spoiled in advance either.

With that in mind, I thought Gone Girl was brilliant. I had been curious to see how Fincher would handle the multi-layered material, the difficult themes, the portrayal of the main characters and the controversial ending — and he delivered about as well as I could have imagined, with a steady, confident, yet understated control that captures the tones and essence of Flynn’s writing.

Keeping in line with my usual effort to be as spoiler-free as I can, I thought adapting Gone Girl to the screen would have been a nightmare because of its multiple view points, shifts in time, and the clever use of a diary plot device. I was therefore surprised at how seemingly straightforward it was for Fincher and Flynn, who adapted her own novel, to make everything work so well. The result was a film that followed the novel — both in plot and progression — very closely, so much so that I can’t think of any salient things that didn’t make the jump successfully.

If you’ve seem the trailer or heard about the film in passing you’ll know the story is about a beautiful woman (Rosamund Pike) who goes missing in a small town and her husband (Ben Affleck) becoming the prime suspect for her murder because he’s not acting the way a loving husband would. It sounds like such a simple, cliched premise, and yet the amazing thing about Gone Girl is that it explodes and snowballs into so much more, asking complex questions about relationships, marriage, parents, children, sacrifice, compromise, honesty, sexual politics, the economy, the public psyche and role of the media. I could probably write an entire essay about all the things about the book/film that fascinate me, but that would involve dreaded spoilers, and I can’t possibly have that. What’s relevant is that all these questions from the movie are also asked in the film, and that’s what kept me interested and on the edge of my seat.

I had mixed feelings when I heard about the casting. I love Ben Affleck as a director, but as some of you may know, I’m not the biggest fan of his acting. As the douchey Nick Dunne, however, Affleck has found a role that was custom made for him, and he absolutely blitzes it. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call it the best performance of his entire career. I’m not encouraging award voters to jump on Affleck’s bandwagon, but if they did I would resent it a lot less than when they went nuts for Matthew McConaughey.

As Affleck’s other half, Rosamund Pike is a low-key choice for Amy Dunne considering all the other big names that were being rumored for the role at the time. I didn’t love her performance at the beginning, but there were reasons for the way she acted the way she did, and by the end of the film I was sold.

The supporting cast was also very strong. When I first heard Neil Patrick Harris was involved I was still picturing him as his alter ego in Harold & Kumar, so I thought he would be cast as Nick’s flamboyant lawyer Tanner Bolt. Instead, he was fantastic as Amy’s wealthy, creepy ex-boyfriend Desi, and the even bigger shock was that Tyler Perry (yes, Tyler Perry!) was awesome as Tanner Bolt. Those casting choices completely bowled me over.

I was also impressed with the performances in two supporting female roles — Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo, and Kim Dickens as lead detective Rhonda Boney. Both extremely important characters who served their functions well without stealing the show from the stars of the show.

The film is quite long at 149 minutes and occasionally feels like it, especially towards the end as the story searches for the perfect point to end on. But Fincher’s pacing is superb, and his ability to manage the subtle shifts in the film’s tone throughout all its twists and turns — it’s sometimes drama, sometimes black comedy, sometimes horror — is what glues the story together. A lesser director might have turned Gone Girl into a clunky mess, but Fincher gets it just right.

The ending is something I was curious to see because apparently Flynn had “rewritten” it for the big screen, though the changes are more artificial than substantial. I’m not disappointed, however, because I loved the book’s chilling ending.

Having said all that, I’m sure I am less enthusiastic about the movie than I would have been had I not read the book first. It helps that I have a terrible memory and that I read it more than a year ago, but like I said, there’s just no way around it. I’d say that the book is better at keeping the twists hidden while the movie can struggle to conceal what’s coming, though that’s a natural advantage given that readers can be manipulated easier on the page than on the screen. Still, I would recommend those who have seen the movie to give the book a try, and vice versa, because the two present two rather different, but equally rewarding experiences.

4.25 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Sharp Objects’ by Gillian Flynn

September 26, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Sharp-Objects

I have finally finished burning through all three Gillian Flynn novels to date, with the last one being her debut novel, Sharp Objects. And now, sadly, I have no choice but to wait patiently until she produces more brilliant psychological thrillers.

Sharp Objects is told through the eyes of Camille Preaker, a Chicago reporter from a struggling newspaper who has been assigned to cover the murders of two young girls in her Missouri hometown, the place she once ruled as the most popular girl in town. But Camille is a deeply damaged person (both mentally and physically) and her homecoming is anything but smooth as she must deal with her wealthy but distant mother and stepfather, as well as her precocious 13-year-old stepsister Amma, who has taken over Camille’s former role as the queen bee.

Unlike Flynn’s breakthrough smash Gone Girl (review here), which is a rollicking delicious ride delivered at break-neck pace, or her second novel Dark Places (review here), which relies on the intrigue of a satanic worship murder mystery in a small town, Sharp Objects is more of a slow burn, reflective and contemplative — but it’s also her most personal and emotionally draining work. The tone is melancholic and downright depressing at times, but the narrative flow is dreamy — almost hypnotic — and has a way of slowly pulling you into Camille’s hazy and deranged world.

It is definitely the darkest, creepiest and most unsettling of Flynn’s three books (which is saying a lot if you have read the other two), tackling confronting themes such as serial murder, self-mutilation, depression, alcoholism, serious mental health issues (which shall remain unnamed) and the combustible mix of wealth and boredom and small-town life. And the ending of the novel — one that sent deep chills down my back — is arguably the best of all her books as well.

As with her other novels, Sharp Objects is also very much about sexual politics. For me, the most engrossing parts of the book are about Camille’s stepsister Amma, a walking contradiction who is sexual and childish, cruel and kind, domineering and needy, but at the same time she is just a sad little girl whose personality feels eerily genuine. On the other hand, I felt some of the male characters, such as the hotshot out-of-town detective Richard and the attractive prime suspect John Keene, the brother of one of the victims, were not as strong as their female counterparts.

Flynn’s is a sharp and stylishly evocative writer, though in Sharp Objects her writing is more raw and less polished (it is her first book, after all). But despite the occasional misstep, the story and characters do grow on you. It might not be her best book, but Sharp Objects could very well be the one that stays in your mind the longest after turning the last page.

4/5

PS: And yes, a movie version is coming too, but as of now there are no details on the cast or crew.

Book Review: ‘Dark Places’ by Gillian Flynn

September 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

dark places

After tearing through Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough bestseller, Gone Girl, I wasted little time ploughing into her two earlier works. First up, her second novel, Dark Places, which intrigued me more because of its Santanic cult angle.

(Not that I am into Satanic shit myself, but I do have a fascination with how and why people get into this type of stuff. Back in the day when I was studying for my university entrance exams at the local library I would often sneak to the occult section to read up on some gruesome stories, and they always just seemed so surreal to me.)

Anyway, as I would find out, Dark Places is more of a family crime mystery than a “true” Santanic cult story. There is an occult slant, but it wasn’t as prominent of a theme as I hoped it would be. The premise is certainly an attention-grabber — Libby Day survived the murder of her whole family at the hands of her Santan-worshipping older brother when she was just seven years old. Twenty-five years later, having used up all her money, she uses what’s left of her notoriety to help a bunch of crime buffs look into her past in exchange for some cash, leading her to question whether her brother is really guilty of the crime she helped put him away for.

Like Gone Girl, Dark Places is a complex web that keeps unfolding as the pieces of the puzzle gradually fall into place. Flynn is master of holding back information and knowing when to feed it to you to keep you wanting more, and then switching the scene and point of view so you’d have to wait to find out. In this book, she does it through several interspersing narratives — Libby in the present day, as well as flashbacks to the fateful day 25 years ago from the point of view of her mother Patty and her brother Ben. Interestingly, only Libby’s story is told in first person narrative, while the others are all in third person.

It’s an intense book that builds up the suspense through a clever barrage of hooks, red herrings, and misdirection. It’s also a thoughtful story in the sense that Flynn uses the setting — poverty and marital abuse against the backdrop of the farming and housing crisis in the 80s — to bring out the grim feeling of hopelessness, despair and apathy in the tone and atmosphere.

That said, when Dark Places finally got to the big reveal, I was a little disappointed that the “truth” was not more explosive. Flynn had built up so much anticipation that my expectations had gotten too high, and I wanted there to be more than what she was giving me. I particularly hoped the Santanic cult aspect of the story would have received more attention after the explosive way she introduced it and kept it hanging, including with references to the real-life McMartin trial (which mesmerized me as a kid).

Still, I really enjoyed Dark Places and felt comfortable in Flynn’s skillful hands as she took me on this dark detour into the heartland of America. On a side-by-side comparison, I still think Gone Girl is the better and more polished book, and it’s easy to see why it was that book that has taken the world by storm, though Dark Places is still one heck of a riveting read and page-turner I would recommend to any crime fiction lover.

3.75/5

PS: The success of Gone Girl means Dark Places is also getting a film adaptation set for 2014. It’s going to star, of all people, Charlize Theron as Libby Day, which is completely at odds with whom I had in mind for the role (considering Libby is supposed to be very short — though if Tom Cruise can play Jack Reacher then why not?). I much preferred the original choice, Amy Adams.

dark places cast

The cast of Dark Places: Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christina Hendricks and Nicholas Hoult

Nicholas Hoult is set to play Lyle, whom I had envisioned as more of a greaseball-type character. Christina Hendricks will play the mother, Patty Day, which I don’t see either (they better really de-glamorize her and make her frumpy-looking), and Chloe Grace Moretz will play Diondra, which feels like a complete mismatch as well. Corey Stoll from House of Cards will play the older Ben, which I can see, while Tye Sheridan (one of the kids from Tree of Life, whom I can’t remember) will play the younger Ben. Seriously, did the casting director read the same book as me? That is one heck of a glamorous cast for a bunch of characters who are supposed to be white trash. I much prefer the casting of Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl.

Book Review: ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn

August 9, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

gone girl

(Note: See below for a chat with Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya about the book!)

I was looking for a ripper of a read to ease myself back into reading fiction and everywhere I looked on the bestseller lists was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a page-turning psychological thriller about a husband who suddenly finds himself pinned as the prime suspect of his missing wife.

The premise is seemingly typical, stereotypical even, but the execution is anything but.

It’s the kind of novel I can’t really describe in any detail or provide a summary of the background because there are so many delicious twists and turns that should be left to the reader to discover and savour. It’s not a thriller that coasts along in one direction until an “explosive” twist ending — Gone Girl is one unexpected detour after another that repeatedly attempts to derail everything you thought you knew about the story and the characters. I don’t want to say much more except that it’s messed up, in a wickedly good kind of way.

Part of the intrigue comes from the novel’s structure. Part One is told through the point of view of Nick Dunne, the husband who, like many of us, feels detached from the reality he is living in but is pressured into acting the way society expects of him. Nick’s first-person narrative is interspersed with timely diary entries from his beautiful wife, Amy Dunne, who recaps their love story from the beginning to present day. Part Two features the contrasting first-person narratives of Nick and Amy, which become increasingly intense as they go back and forth until the chilling finale.

The implausible but engrossing plot is driven by the strength of the characters Flynn has created, all of whom feel painfully real. Nick and Amy are deeply flawed but believable characters with complex personalities, which we gradually find out, layer by layer, like a peeling onion. A master storyteller, Flynn knows exactly how much of them to give to us and how much to withhold from us until the timing is perfect.

The character of Nick, in particular, really resonated with me. Many of the emotions and thoughts he expresses throughout the novel ring true — quite a remarkable feat considering Flynn is, apparently, a woman in a happy marriage.

Even the supporting characters — from Nick’s twin sister Margo, possible the most sympathetic character in the story, his slick lawyer Tanner Bolt and his ailing father, to even minor characters such as the investigating officers and trampy local groupies — are memorable despite limited screen (page) time.

Thanks in large part to the characters and the twists, Gone Girl is a compulsive page turner pretty much all the way through. The story does somewhat spiral out of control towards the end, stretching the boundaries of believability — which is not surprising because something had to give with all those twists and turns. The narrative loses a bit of steam as a result, but it may have been intentional as it leads to a very interesting — and divisive — conclusion. Personally, I loved it because it shies away from conventional methods, though there are those who say the ending ruined the book for them.

The final word on Gone Girl: a cracking read that took me on a dark and unexpected journey into a world of murder, revenge, betrayal, madness and sexual politics. Written in a confident, honest voice from a skillful writer who treads the line between commercial genre and literary fiction and knows exactly how to manipulate her readers into thinking one way then pulling the rug out from under them.

Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike / Nick and Amy Dunne

PS: Flynn is currently adapting her novel for the film version, which is shaping up to be one of the highly anticipated films of 2014, given it will be produced by Reese Witherspoon, directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in the lead roles. Neil Patrick Harris is reportedly in talks to play a supporting character, and I have a fairly good idea which one.

Conversation with Hubert Widjaya

PJM: So, first impressions of Gone Girl?

HW: Highly entertaining, a great plot if very extreme. But what makes it so engaging is the first person shifts from Amy to Nick, etc. By writing in this way Flynn keeps you guessing as to who will get away with what and who is completely good and evil.

PJM: Were you shocked by some of the twists and turns?

HW: As to the main twist…slightly underwhelmed. Can’t quite put my finger on it.

PJM: Who were your favourite characters and why?

HW: Trying to think…who were yours and why?

PJM: I really connected with Nick, which is strange, considering what a douchebag he is. And of course you can’t hate Margo, the most level headed person in all of this. Plus Tanner was a good show and a great laugh with his typical lawyer antics.

HW: The cops were cool especially Boney she added a light touch which you need in books like this. But I agree with you re Nick. There’s something very believable about him. Big dreams as a real journo who loses his job, then decides to just do something less careery i.e. bar

PJM: I want to talk about the ending too, which divided a lot of readers. Without giving anything away, what did you think of it? A lot of people were looking for a conventional ending where people get their come uppance, but I think the ending Flynn chose works well.

HW: A conventional ending for a non conventional book wouldn’t have worked.

PJM: It’s bleak and filled with dread, and in some ways it works than your well-rounded conclusion or shock tactics.

HW: Was going to say that, the sense of dread, which made me think of Rosemary’s Baby.

PJM: I read an interview with Flynn in which she referred to Rosemary’s Baby as an inspiration. And last but not least, the film. We’ve got to talk about the film!

HW: I’ll say it again: I can so picture Affleck playing the role well…Oscar noms galore, as both leads have to pretend so many conflicting emotions. Who would have thought he’d be up there as one of the best directors currently?

PJM: Yeah, Affleck is perfect for the role. When I read the book I kept picturing his douchey face, haha. He is one of my favourite directors, but least favourite actors…well, maybe that is a bit harsh, but I don’t think he is a great actor, though this could be the role he’s been waiting for.

HW: True. Good Will Hunting…they’ve come along way from them apples.

PJM: What about Pike?

HW: Haven’t seen much of her work, but going on looks, she looks icy hot, ie, good casting.

PJM: I agree. And Neil Patrick Harris could be either great or too distracting. What do you think of Fincher directing?

HW: Good question. While reading I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo-style book despite no plot similarities. The dynamics between men and women are shared, so perfect for Fincher. The twist of Seven meets the red herrings of The Game.

PJM: Final word on Gone Girl? And rating out of five?

HW: Fun, fast paced and good psychological insight on romance/marriage from male and female perspective. 4 bloodsoaked and tied up stars.

PJM: Haha. I like it a little more than that. 4.5 out of 5 for me.