Movie Review: Return to Sender (2015)

August 27, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It’s inevitable that everything Rosamund Pike does from now on is going to be compared to the remarkable Gone Girl. Unfortunately, that comparison will also be made for her latest, Return to Sender, and the results are not pretty.

Pike plays a surgical nurse who is violently assaulted in her home — just as she was preparing to move out of it — by a scumbag of a douche played by Shiloh Fernandez, who is quickly apprehended and sent to prison. Clearly damaged by the trauma, she starts doing the unthinkable by writing to her rapist and striking up an unlikely relationship…

It’s an uncomfortable film — especially as it nears its climax — but more than anything it’s just a weird one. There is tension and suspense, but it’s not exactly a thriller. There are dramatic elements, though it’s not a drama either. And most importantly, all throughout this film I knew exactly where it was heading, and I suspect most other viewers would too. I just don’t think you can call the so-called “twist” a twist when it’s so obvious that’s what was going to happen.

Accordingly, I’m not really sure why Pike would sign on to this project. It’s getting a mainstream release in Taiwan, but in all honesty it’s a limited release film at best (and that’s what it has received in the States) and a likely straight-to-DVD or VOD film in most other locations. Sure, Pike is very good in this, exuding some of the iciness and fortitude that scored her an Oscar nomination for Gone Girl. Fernandez, who has had some interesting roles (White Bird in a Blizzard, Evil Dead) is actually also impressive; he has this bad-boy look and vibe that’s really convincing.

But at the end of the day, I don’t really know what director Fouad Mikati was aiming for. I don’t want to give anything away, though what I will say is that there are similar-themed films that have done it better, or at least with much more conviction in what it is trying to achieve.

The ending was also just so lacking in punch that it makes you wonder what all the build up was for. It doesn’t help that Nick Nolte, who plays Pike’s father, typically slurs his way through all his lines, reminding you that you’re watching Nick Nolte as opposed to this poor woman’s father.

I was never bored by the film thanks to how uncomfortable it made me feel, but there’s just not enough here to make Return to Sender a genuinely enjoyable, compelling or even interesting experience.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Gone Girl (2014)

October 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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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: ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn

August 9, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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(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.

Movie Review: Jack Reacher (2012)

January 8, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It’s unfortunate that Jack Reacher got a bad rap before the film was even made, simply because Tom Cruise was cast as the titular character.

I haven’t read any of the popular novel series by Lee Child upon which the film was based (I believe the particular book for this film is One Shot), but from what I understand Jack Reacher is a mammoth blonde haired and blue eyed dude who is like 6’5″ and naturally ripped like the Rock on steroids (hang on…), and Mr Scientology is a brunette and reportedly anything from 5’7″ to 5’9″ — and that may be with or without lifts.

But having not read the books, it made no difference to me. In fact, there was really only one instance in the entire film where Cruise’s size, or lack thereof, posed a problem for the storyline, and even then they fudged it quite well so you wouldn’t really notice.

Irrespective of the so-called casting issue, Jack Reacher is a superior action thriller. To be honest, it wasn’t exactly the type of film I thought it would be. I had expected it to be all about this macho superhero dude who goes around beating up a whole bunch of bad guys like Liam Neeson in Taken, and to be be fair, there is a bit of that, but Jack Reacher actually has a rather intelligent mystery at its heart.

Without giving to much away, the film begins with a seemingly random act of violence that appears to be an open and shut case. Even a soft-hearted defense attorney played by Rosamund Pike felt it was an unwinnable case — that is, of course, until enigmatic loner Jack Reacher is called out to investigate.

Jack Reacher is one of those guys who only exists in the macho fantasies of daydreamers and novelists. Women love him and men want to be him, or at least beat him up. He is a genius investigator, has a photographic memory, is unstoppable in hand-to-hand combat and is also somehow an expert marksman. And on top of all that he is all about justice and has a heart of gold.

If you can stomach this type of imaginary guy less likely to exist in real life than Edward Cullen, then Jack Reacher is an absolute blast to watch. It is a stylish film that keeps audiences guessing with twists and turns while providing thrills with car chases, violent confrontations and skillful detective work.  I had no problem believing that Cruise (who had Child’s blessings, by the way) could be  someone who could kick so much ass while delivering perfect one-liners, and it’s a credit to his acting abilities that he could pull off such a role.

Pike did an adequate job without being particularly impressive, and Robert Duvall had a small but crucial role later on in the film. The supporting cast standout, however, has to be legendary German director Werner Herzog as the shadowy villain, who won me over just by his awesome voice alone.

Sure, there are some plot holes and inconsistencies and things that don’t make a whole lot of sense, but on the whole, Jack Reacher is a very solid start to a franchise that I can definitely see myself following if more sequels are rolled out.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Barney’s Version (2010)

June 27, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

A bit of a delay in this review, but I guess better late than never.  I wasn’t quite sure going in what to expect from Barney’s Version, a drama starring Paul Giamatti as a man who, based on the snippets from the trailer, likes his ladies.  That was pretty much all I knew.

Well, I admit I was surprisingly impressed with Barney’s Version by the time the credits rolled.  Based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version is a crafty, captivating film bolstered by some superb performances.  Paul Giamatti is brilliant as Barney Panofsky, an unlikely ladies’ man who recalls his unusual and highly interesting life through various flashbacks dating back to the 1970s.  I won’t say much more about the plot because it’s the type of film where you don’t really know where it’s heading but you just go along for the ride.  There’s lust, romance, friendship, betrayal and an intriguing mystery too, ensuring that there’s hardly a dull moment in the lengthy 132 minute running time.

What surprised me about Barney’s Version is that I enjoyed the film despite the immensely flawed and unlikable protagonist.  Barney is a fascinating character but he’s a complete douche no matter which way you look at it.  Nonetheless, Giamatti’s performance makes Barney human and almost sympathetic at times.  I was shocked to discover that I was actually touched by Barney’s story towards the end.

Of course, it’s not all Giamatti (who won a Golden Globe for his performance).  The supporting cast was also amazing and it is a travesty that not more acting nominations were garnered.  Dustin Hoffman was a standout as Barney’s father.  Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman and Bruce Greenwood were also fantastic in their respective roles.

I understand some of the complaints about the film — that Barney was too much of a prick for the film to be enjoyable, that Giamatti was too fat and ugly to attract such pretty ladies, that it was misogynistic, etc etc — but I think they are missing the point.  For starters, the film is called “Barney’s” Version for a reason, and although the format doesn’t quite capture the ‘unreliable narrator’ of the book as well as I thought it should have, this was Barney’s story from his perspective and his memory.  Besides, there are far less attractive men with more attractive women in the real world, and in any case, I personally thought Giamatti’s persistence and zest for life did give him a peculiar charm (but hey, what would I know?).

Ultimately, I found Barney’s Version to be a lovely film about the ups and downs of life and its moments.  It’s not perfect but it’s one film I’ll likely remember years down the track.

4 stars out of 5