The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

In one of the few moments of suspense in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1 (which should win most awkward movie title of the year), Finnick (Sam Claflin) speaks and speaks and speaks to mark time and distract folks from an impending rescue. Soon after, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) does the same thing—speaking to take up time. That pretty much sums up this film. It takes up time, treading cinematic water while we await the second half, à la Harry Potter, of the last book of the series. The entire overlong movie could easily be the first third of whatever the closing film will be. What’s here doesn’t deserve its own film.

So little happens here that a plot synopsis is unnecessary. Districts suffer, the Capital is still bad, and oh yes, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) seems to be in a bad state and may need rescuing. Thank goodness they have the talented Lawrence at the center, as she bears a great deal of the film’s weight on her shoulders as she is asked to look (and look and look), reflecting a gamut of emotions through those expressive eyes.

There is little energy, rhythm or pace in the film. It just….flatly goes forward. Slowly. Getting very little done and covering a surprisingly little amount of action. There are all of two moments of suspense. The first is so contrived and predictable as to be almost laughable, and the reason for the suspense is so foolish as to make us care less about a significant character (and we feel bad for feeling bad about the scene). The second has to do with the aforementioned rescue, and has some moments of real energy and anticipation. Otherwise, the film is, to use a word I’ve never used in print or verbally—meh.

Director Francis Lawrence, who directed the second film in the franchise (a decided improvement over the first) has directed a film that seems to stretch out every action, occasionally reminding one of those long-held shots on soap opera actors that keep staring blankly before we cut to the commercial. It’s the very opposite of a Paul Greengrass film (e.g., Captain Phillips, The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) , and has the sluggishness to prove it.

Even the talented actors have a problem fitting in. The probable Oscar winner for this year, Julianne Moore (for Still Alice) is a national treasure and an actress of broad range and talent, is simply miscast here as President Coin, lacking the kind of bit, fire and authority that a Glenn Close could have provided. It’s been written that the sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman worked to create a real character with a role that could have been one-dimensional and flat. He succeeds in creating a real person, but that person doesn’t fit into the film, as there is nothing to connect with in terms of atmosphere, pace or tone. It’s a brave attempt, but it’s isolated.

Even the usuals don’t fare well. Donald Sutherland as President Snow is still bad with great hair, but seemed tired. Jeffrey Wright and Stanley Tucci bring some life when they appear, but they don’t appear enough. Poor Liam Hemsworth as Gale, the weak leg of a love triangle, is still performing dutifully as the stiff-upper-lip but pouting puppy dog, but his continued presence seems to make Katniss appear misdirected and a little obsessed with someone who doesn’t seem to deserve it. They’re going to have to make their case for her wanting Peeta and not choosing Gale in the last film, as they are certainly not making it in this one. And seeing Effie (Elizabeth Banks) deglammed, dulled down and out of place is more uncomfortable and odd than refreshing.

The film is also dark, lacking the color and sparkle of the other two films. Having the leads spend most of the time in a dull underground bunker will have that effect.

Here’s hoping that the fourth and final film will have some energy, and bring some clarity to the romance as well as the politics and warfare. Nothing anyone will say or write will stop the franchise fan from seeing the film. But if you haven’t started, don’t. And definitely don’t start with this one.

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Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (AKA, Birdman)

I show Annie Hall in my film class sometimes, and one thing I point out about its many virtues and ground-breaking elements is how Woody Allen brought the rhythms of stand-up comedy not only into the humor of the film, but the very structure of it—something still relatively unexplored in cinema since then.

Birdman (we’ll leave the longer title for the rest of this writing) is like that, but it’s not stand-up that’s at the heart of the film—it’s jazz and its percussive rhythms. Jazz rhythms don’t just accompany the film, but essentially, are the film. The film is visual jazz, and a rather stunning example of a complete marriage of film and music. The film is comprised of one riff after another, with the occasional side trip to an operatic trope or two. Its marriage of music and image is not like a typical musical at all (the film isn’t a musical as we think of them), but is a fusion not seen since Gene Kelly started directing his own films.

Birdman is “about” a former popular film star trying to resuscitate and revalidate his career by mounting a serious play on Broadway as much as 12 Years a Slave is about a guy tryin’ to get back home. Birdman is about love, obsession, art, fear, ego, husbands and wives, actors, fathers and daughters, self-centeredness, commerce, Hollywood, Broadway, critics and the role of art criticism, addiction, erectile dysfunction, poetry, tragedy, great acting, bad acting, and identity, just to name a few. It’s exhilarating and brilliant (at least until the last 20 minutes, which lose a bit of their mojo).

Director Alejandro Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) is hardly known for either light subjects or a light touch. But this film—pardon the pun—soars. Even while dealing with the most serious of subjects, Iñárritu and his phenomenal cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (director of photography for Gravity—Oscar winner—and such innovatively photographed films as The Tree of Life, Children of Men, and The New World). As Lubezki did in those films, the camera here sweeps and swoops and moves as freely as before sound came in. Some of his and Iñárritu’s takes go on and on, only gaining in energy as the move along. This is some of the most dazzling camerawork you’ll ever see, but since it’s all of a piece with what’s happening with the film, you may just get caught up in what’s going on (on every level) and forget that you’re witnessing some master camerawork.

Iñárritu stuffs the film to overflowing. The camerawork is enough for three or four films, and would be enough to make this film worthy of multiple viewings. The story takes us into all kinds of conversations (from sweet and touching to violent), fights, flights, meditations and a heaping helping of magic realism, just in case we might settle into anything while watching. It’s a potent mixture, and doesn’t always work. But even when it doesn’t quite, it’s still an amazing ride. The energy he builds in the first three quarters of the film is exhilarating, and if it can’t quite be sustained throughout the end, what comes before is borderline thrilling.

The heady brew mixed up here wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the acting, which should at least win every ensemble award available this year. Most of the kudos have been reserved for Michael Keaton, with all the meta references around his portrayal of a has-been whose “greatest” success was as a superhero with wings (think Batman, and “Where has he been these past few years?”). Putting all that aside, this is still a great, if somewhat overly showy performance. He’s asked to do everything, from being loving and apologetic dad to being angry dad, to being a worried-beyond-words producer/actor/director who’s put all his eggs in one theatrical basket, to a stage actor, to a frustrated director butting heads with a talented but entitled and obscenely irritating theater star.

Keaton demonstrates perhaps the widest range of acting skills of anyone working in film this year, and pretty much nails everything. Hollywood and America love a successful comeback, and while some point to Eddie Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything as the lock to win the Oscar, I hope Redmayne doesn’t count on it. Keaton is greatly loved, and this is a great comeback performance that’s layered, intelligent, and wildly emotional. Even without the backstory that so closely reflects Keaton’s real life, this is the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat performance of the year, and all the more awards-attractive because it’s not obvious Oscar bait.

But Keaton is hardly alone here. Edward Norton is brilliant as the walking and talking ego of a theater actor. He’s insufferable, talented, and as difficult as anyone could ever imagine an actor might be. Like Keaton, he gets to demonstrate a wide range of voices, emotions and shades, and does them all well. In case we forgot that he was once one of our greatest young actors, this performance should remind us.

Naomi Watts plays an insecure actress of talent, if not brilliance. It’s a joy to watch the two different styles she brings to her character in the film, and then the character she plays on stage. Like some actors can be…at times…she is anxious and vulnerable at times, and finds her voice at other times. Again, this is a good reminder of what a talented actress she is. Less well known but equally as good is Andrea Riseborough as another stage actress (this one in a relationship with Keaton’s character). Perhaps best known for Oblivion, she is an actress you know you’ve seen before, but just can’t place. This film should take care of that. Hers is a quieter performance, but she brings a welcome calming influence to the swirl of activity, and helps center the film every moment she’s on screen.

Zach Galifianakis is apparently taking a cue from Jonah Hill and finding something of a new identity as a supporting, serious actor (think Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street). As with Hill, it’s a good move. Then there is Emma Stone, who is extending her range on film even farther than Galifianakis with her role as the cynical, drugged out daughter of Keaton’s character. She has established such an adorable persona that she can’t shake it even with this character, but her acting is pitch-perfect. Lastly, there is Amy Ryan, playing against what we might think of as her type as the ex-wife of Keaton’s character. She is smooth, witty, subdued and real. It’s a lovely performance.

Lest this all sound a bit much, this is a very funny film. Perhaps it’s due to my being a musical performer and surrounded by artists (including actors), but some of the lines and situations are as funny as anything out there this year in their recognition of the vicissitudes and emotional challenges of life in the performing arts. Even with all the sturm und drang and heavy dramatics, this is (occasionally) a laugh-out-loud film.

There are far too many topics in the film to adequately address here. Perhaps a doctoral thesis needs to be written to cover everything that Iñárritu has presented us with in Birdman It will take several viewings to come close to getting some idea of all that’s being investigated and commented on.

But I go back to the jazz and percussion that don’t just infuse the film, but are of a piece with it. Yes, Iñárritu shows us the drummers providing what we thought was non-diegetic accompaniment (or is it still?), but they are going far beyond adding sound or even accompanying the images; they are reflecting aurally what the film is doing in image, camera movement, editing, and yes, even the acting. That element alone is worthy of some serious study and makes Birdman something of a smaller, faster companion piece to Interstellar, which also combines sound and image in unusual ways.

The many pieces that make up Birdman will get their individual attention during this awards season. The separate parts may well be worthy of such awards (especially the cinematography), but it’s the mixing and colliding of all those parts that make this one of the most unusual and inventive creations of the year.

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The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything is likely to be the “adult, intelligent, emotional” film of the season, at least until Unbroken opens on Christmas. It’s well produced, very well acted, and brushes up against the idea of great intelligence while not actually challenging the viewer to attempt to understand exactly what or how the great theorist Stephen Hawking thinks.

The focus is not on Hawking’s theories, or his brain, or even his career. It’s the story of his relationship with his first wife, Jane (it’s based on her book). It could have focused more on his work and his processes, and that might well have resulted in a sharper, stronger film. But for better or for worse, it’s not. (Spoiler alert] It’s the story of a romance interrupted and ultimately destroyed by ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”). It’s also My Left Foot combined with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly combined with Iris combined with A Beautiful Mind.

The survival of a relationship against such obstacles is worthy material, and while the film is a bit soft in its presentation, it finally settles into presenting something of the challenge of the mounting pressures that come with a partner who is fading physically and then, romantically. Some have argued for more advanced theory from a film on such a great theoretician, and the film does ask us to take it on faith that this man is brilliant and that his theories were earth-shaking. But it’s careful to stay focused on the romance and the debilitating disease that eventually failed to kill Hawking but did manage to be lethal to the relationship.

What everyone is talking about, of course, is Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Hawking. And yes, he is extraordinary on several levels. Redmayne played the sweet and sensitive young film go-fer in My Week with Marilyn and a sweet and sensitive revolutionary in Les Misérables. But he puts all that sweetness and sensitivity aside here and plays a completely different character. Thinking he would bring Hawking into his gentle persona, I was genuinely surprised to see a whole different person presented: one that was always the smartest person in the room (and knew it), was youthfully stubborn in his brilliance, and was at different times charming and heartless. Redmayne’s Hawking bore no resemblance to his two most famous previous characters, and this is perhaps as great a surprise as his technical prowess in the role.

Filming out of sequence, Redmayne had to portray Hawking’s deterioration step by sometimes small step based on his own charting of Hawking’s changes and losses. He apparently worked with a dancer to move and isolate his various leg muscles to present the loss of motor skills, and he contorted his face so often that it temporarily changed his facial muscles. Yet the performance is never a display of technique or a series of “moments” marking his decline, though those moments are shown. Redmayne keeps the character front and center at all times, which is hard enough for an actor without having so many possibly distracting changes to show. Like Daniel-Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and even Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, this is a breathtakingly physical and technical performance that keeps the technique buried under character.

Equally as strong but completely different is Felicity Jones as Jane. Since this is based on Jane’s memoirs, the film stands or falls on her being as strong a presence as Stephen himself. She is. Jones is exquisite, equal parts strong, fighting to be strong, and barely holding things together. This is a film that leans heavily on its actors to carry the various plot points and shifts, and most of them fall on Jones’ shoulders. Without heavy dramatics, she shows the love she has for this strange and talented man, her deep resolve to make things work, and the increasing strain her character is under.

In lesser hands, these moments could have been overdone. Here they are clear but relatively restrained. She also handles the aging well. We sometimes watch externals like hairstyles, makeup and customs to signal to us the passing of time. These are all here, but they are accompanied by accomplished acting that shows us the body language, energy and speech patterns of the young Jane, the adult Jane, and even the older adult Jane. Jones’ slight shifts are as accomplished as Redmayne’s have to be, just much more subtle.

After these two performances, possibly the most intriguing aspect of the film is its cinematography by Benoît Delhomme (Lawless and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). He (and possibly director James Marsh) often keeps Hawking isolated in the frame or via tight focusing that reminds us how little he can or chooses to relate to other people, and that he lives in his own high-IQ world. There are also formalistic flourishes in the use of color that could almost take a viewer out of the film. There is one dark and depressing scene, for example, that is noticeably grey-blue in tone that is followed immediately by one that that is unnaturally brownish red. All the choices make sense with what is happening plot-wise, but is surprisingly expressionistic in a film that is tracing the growth and trajectory of a true-life love story.

The film is solid if not exceptional, but will be remembered for launching Redmayne into both stardom and artistic respectability. Jones, already having “arrived” in 2011’s Like Crazy, will experience more adulation than ever, and likely more and better script offers. It’s ultimately a middle-of-the-road biopic, but the subjects and the two leads playing them are fascinating enough to validate the viewing.

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Interstellar

I haven’t seen plain old Interstellar yet. But I did attend Interstellar: The Imax Experience, which is likely a different animal than the non-Imax version. Seeing—and hearing—the film in this format was as close to sampling Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk as I may ever come. My Imax theater is one of only four in New York State (all the others being in New York City or close by) that display the film in 70mm film, a treat that I may not get to experience again in cinema’s ever-growing preference for digital. The theater also features deafening and seat-shaking sound that had its advantages and shortcomings.

Interstellar has been the most anticipated film of the year, and there is nothing out there that looks or sounds like it. We need films like this to remind us of what far-reaching filmmaking can be and can look like, even if its reach exceeds its grasp, which is the case here. Director Christopher Nolan can be thanked both for helping to keep actual film around as well as reminding us that the convenience of viewing a movie on an iPhone doesn’t come close to seeing them on the big screen.

Interstellar’s images are breathtaking, and the film takes us to worlds—indeed, immerses us in worlds—that only film can bring us to. On earth and “out there”—these places must be allowed to envelop, even overwhelm us, with their power. This may be the “biggest” film many of us will ever see, and that deserves a respect all its own.

It’s far from perfect, however, with some miscasting, script weaknesses, and for this viewer, a philosophical letdown. But first the high points: Matthew McConaughey, who has the lead role of Cooper, has become one of our most accomplished young actors, finally fulfilling the promises some of us saw in A Time to Kill. This performance doesn’t have the “throw me the Oscar now” pull of something like what he did in Dallas Buyers Club. But he is every bit as good here, playing a more relatable widow and father and reluctant hero. The film sinks or swims on his shoulders, and he carries it deftly from beginning to end. It’s a rich and sensitive performance.

Mackenzie Foy as the young Murph (Cooper’s daughter at a young age) bears a great deal of the film’s narrative and emotional weight, and is somewhere between very good and excellent. She is an exciting young talent that has a major career ahead of her. As her grandfather, John Lithgow, as always, is reliably solid.

Where the film loses focus is with the miscast Anne Hathaway, who apparently can’t quite do everything after all. She tries very hard, and she manages to keep the film on track at times when the script offers her no help. But she seems to belong to another film, or at least not in this film or this genre. It’s unfortunate that her part is so big, as while it’s not a film-killer, it’s something of a distraction and a drag throughout the film.

The other main actress who should perhaps have had Hathaway’s larger role is the inestimable Jessica Chastain, who seems that she perhaps can do anything—even to the point of making us believe the often ridiculous challenges thrown her way by the script. Chastain plays Cooper’s grown-up daughter, and hits her emotional notes with clarity and credibility. What the script would have us believe is that this brilliant and gifted woman, who is apparently capable of saving the human race, can’t manage to get over her daddy issues when daddy went out to save the human race. As someone who counsels people, I realize quite well that adults often carry emotional baggage from their youth that they haven’t yet jettisoned. But it was hard to believe that this accomplished woman hadn’t made more progress than the film asks us to accept. Yet Chastain takes even the script’s weaknesses, internalizes them, and presents us with as realistic a portrait of an emotionally constricted adult as could be possible. [Spoiler ahead.] It’s ironic that while the film is filled with Oscar winners like McConaughey, Hathaway, and, uh, others, the greatest actor in the film is Chastain, who simply hasn’t won hers yet.

A surprising strength of the film is its speed. With nearly a three-hour span, one might expect a film with slow or dry stretches. That was not my experience. The film moved along quickly, with quick cuts that moved many actions along with enviable precision and speed. Where the film falters is near the end, where Nolan goes all Inception on the plot, taking us out of his carefully constructed grounded realism and tries for a kind of head-banging finale. For some, this will work.

For me, this was the greatest letdown of the film. A not surprising one, but a letdown nonetheless. [Sorry—another spoiler ahead.] The film makes several references to a mysterious “they,” who contribute to the survival of our species, with various helps and provisions along the journey to survival. But the supposed big reveal is that this “they” is simply… us. We’re the ones who figured it out. We’re the ones who laid down the trail of bread crumbs for the future/past explorers to find. The film would have been smaller but tighter if “they” had been dropped, and if the big head-slammer at the end had simply been replaced by an action sequence without the philosophizing, especially this one that seemed to go for the wow, but came off rather limp instead.

The music of the film, scored by Hans Zimmer, has been criticized for overpowering the dialogue at times. Again, not being sure of the non-Imax viewing, it may well have competed with the words in that format, creating the occasional uncomfortable tension and distraction. In the Imax version, the sound often shook the theater and it certainly drowned out the dialogue here and there. But it lifted the film to a new experiential place of sound and image that only sporadically bordered on the pretentious. Yes, it could be overwhelming. But it created something new, enveloping and stimulating. As with Nolan, Zimmer might have reached too far, but we have to acknowledge and pay some homage to the reach attempted here.

Some feel that Interstellar is Nolan’s masterpiece. Time may prove that it might well be, in spite of its weaknesses. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious films one could ever see/experience. For that alone, it should be viewed, and only in the largest format available.

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Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is a lean, mean, indie-feeling film that purports to show the “sordid underbelly” of television news-footage gathering, and we assume, by extension, the sordid underbelly of, uh, something bigger. While it uses the topic of gathering video footage as its story, what it really gives us is a first-time film by a screenwriter- turned-director of great promise, and a couple of performances worthy of viewing and study.

Plot: Young and strange man is stumbling through life, looking for work and a purpose. He stumbles upon the morally questionable trade of gathering gory and violent video footage for local television stations. He gains a partner, a place in the dark world of “graphic footage,” and a semblance of distorted confidence. He finds a way to get rid of his competition, weasels his way into the personal life of his TV station connection (a fine Rene Russo, fighting against some incredible plot turns that her character is involved in), and faces one moral crisis after another, all of which he fails in spectacular fashion.

The film moves well, and is an impressive first effort by Dan Gilroy, writer of The Bourne Legacy, Real Steel, The Fall and next year’s Stan Lee’s Annihilator. It has the look of a Michael Mann film—all surfaces, colors and slickness. But it’s more than the look. It’s also paced well, with nerve-wracking chase scenes (including the chase after the big story), and suspenseful slower scenes that build into high-tension set pieces. This is a director to keep an eye on.

Ironically, it’s the script that occasionally falters. Russo’s character isn’t always believable in her actions, though this underrated actress does her best to bring life and credibility to every moment. There also seems to be a set-up for things that aren’t picked up later (spoiler alert: the rich man we first thought was dead but wasn’t).

What stands out the most are the performances of the two male leads, with Jake Gyllenhaal deservedly getting the most attention. This is the most intriguing, fascinating, attractively repulsive performance since that of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is an original, and a kind of acting experiment on JG’s part. Bloom is needy, scary, alternately simplistic and inscrutable, and ultimately unknowable—both because we are never quite given enough information to pin down this character, and also because we really don’t want to.

He calls himself “a fast learner,” and he is. But what he mostly learns is pap from the Internet, business and “life success” clichés that he has clearly taken in and made his own on some shallow level. It’s as if Bloom is working to create his own outward persona and his own personal interior life at the same time, but scouting the web for personal and business success training. And too often for our comfort, he accompanies his regurgitations with a smile that masks and reveals; it masks any depth, and it can reveal a joy in things a normal person wouldn’t find any joy in at all.

JG, who lost 30 pounds for the role, credits the coyote for inspiration, and he certainly moves likes one throughout the film. But wherever he finds his touchstone, this is a brave, inventive performance of a person few of us would ever want to know, but a person we can’t take our eyes off.

Balancing and highlighting the oddness is the utter realism and believability of Riz Ahmed, a British actor virtually unknown on this side of the pond. It doesn’t have the juice of Gyllenhaal’s performance—and it’s not supposed to—but it’s an Oscar-nomination-worthy performance nonetheless. As Rick, Bloom’s “employee,” Ahmed gives us a fully fleshed out portrait of a young man who is desperate for work at first, and then begins to grow in confidence over time. He has a certain internal strength and moral center, and it’s a joy to watch Ahmed react to outside circumstances—especially Bloom’s rapid-fire and almost convincing life platitudes—and eventually connect them to his own sense of right and wrong. Ahmed’s is the performance that grounds the film in realism and helps define Bloom’s character, and allows Gyllenhaal to create an almost otherworldly character that doesn’t float away into the realm of the absurd.

Bill Paxton is in it, and yes, he’s fine, as are all the secondary parts. But it’s JG who will get all the attention, deservedly so, for a unique and unsettling character. But it’s his character’s relationship with Ahmed that defines and reveals his character. Unlike Bloom’s relationship with Russo’s character, which is ultimately just too far-fetched for full credibility, Bloom’s connection with Ahmed is what makes Bloom come out and reveal himself for the grotesque and intriguing creature he seems at the start, and for the even more grotesque and intriguing creature he proves himself to be.

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Gone Girl

Director David Fincher has made his Vertigo—a multi-layered, beautifully (and carefully) directed with a gorgeous blonde at the center, with layers of twisty plot turns and double crosses, complete with manipulation, identity issues and obsession.

Gone Girl is probably the most artfully done drama of the year so far and could be the best film of the year were it not for a last twist that doesn’t quite earn its keep—or perhaps I was simply horrified at the thematic implications.

The plot seems simple: A young married woman disappears on the day of her fifth anniversary. Was she killed by her husband? Was she kidnapped? Or did she just fall off the face of the earth? To say more would be to rob you of the experience. But this film is so full of plot that it seems like a full season of a mystery television program. It’s two, or possibly three, films in one.

It looks and sounds like other recent Fincher films. Filmed with a dark and slightly yellow palette, as was The Social Network, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has fashioned a softly lovely film containing a story as cynical as it beautiful to look at.

Fincher’s direction is so assured and strong, it could easily be a point of study for today’s film students. This is a tale that could easily have careened out of control in the hands of a less, shall we say, controlled (and controlling) director. The problems that people are going to have with it may be placed at the feet of the director, but it’s really the screenplay and its implications that will be the points of much discussion. Fincher’s work is exquisite, even when what is happening in front of you is abhorrent.

The acting will rightly be the subject of much attention as well. Ben Affleck, an actor difficult to cast properly, has found what may be his best role, at least since Hollywoodland. Affleck comes across on screen as a tall slab of American male, slightly dense at times, and superficially charming, with the emphasis on the adjective. That might be unfair to him to assign those characteristics to him as a person, but that is how he registers on screen. Happily, those characteristics work for his character here.

Someone one has to ask, “Who could have done that role better?” For instance, one-time rom-com queen Sandra Bullock so completely nailed her character in The Blind Side that you had to wonder if even more talented actresses could have played that part as well. We have the same case here. Other young actors could have stepped into the role, but perhaps none bring a persona to the screen that integrates so well with the character he’s portraying. Yes, Matt Damon (to grab an obvious example) is a better actor, but he would have brought suggested depths to the part that would have worked against the part. Different colors and subtly burning fires are not what Affleck’s character calls for. His normal persona is just the right fit.

The star-making, career-making performance of the film, however, is Rosamund Pike’s as the missing wife. More than Kim Novak in Vertigo, or Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, Pike (Pride and Prejudice, An Education) has to assume several different roles throughout the film, often being an inscrutable, enigmatic person falsely playing a clearly defined one. I’m sure it was an actress’ dream role. Pike, known well in her native England, and slightly known by those familiar with PBS, British cinema, or both, will no doubt become a star of the first rank for the role itself as well as for her execution of it. Unlike Affleck, there are several actresses who could have essayed this role with great success. But we have an assured, talented actress with no American persona to speak of; she’s the perfect blank slate for her role here.

Two secondary female performances are so good you almost ignore them, as they hold up their part of the film so strongly that you’re lost in how they enrich the film (Carrie Coon, playing Affleck’s character’s sister) or help move things along (Kim Dickens, playing a detective). Dickens’ character has thoughts and an ever-changing take on the case she’s working, and she does a beautiful dance with the views of the spectator, sometimes moving with us, sometimes, moving in counterpoint. Both Coon’s and Dickens’ roles are solid and fully realized. Perhaps Coon is the slightly stronger performance, but the difference is minimal.

Three strong supporting male performances are fascinating for different reasons. Patrick Fugit, who most of us remember as a slightly pudgy teen in Almost Famous, is here as a thin, grown-up playing an officer working with Dickens’ character. It’s not a big role, but it’s a part that reminds us that he’s here and is a solid actor. Tyler Perry, not known for this kind of film or for any deep acting talent, is completely believable as a high-powered lawyer. It’s a solid performance that he apparently didn’t want to do once he found out more about the part. (Another story for another time….)

If this critic had any number of readers, I might be hesitant to write about the Neil Patrick Harris character in Gone Girl, especially in the light of the brouhaha (much of it ridiculous) surrounding New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley writing about TV producer/writer Shonda Rimes. One’s true meaning (especially any statement with a smidgen of irony) can be lost when one goes to print, as anyone who misreads an email (or has had an email misinterpreted) is well away of. But here goes.

Harris is a talented actor, both comically and dramatically. He is a gay icon to some, something of a gay activist to others. He has proven that he can easily play a heterosexual with no problem, as all his years on “How I Met Your Mother” prove. Hear me know; hear me later. His acting talent is not an issue here. His role in Gone Girl is a difficult role and slightly underwritten, and I don’t think any actor could have made this plot-device-type of character completely believable. But NPH puts his considerable acting talents to work on it and makes it as good as nearly anyone can.

The question, and it’s just a question, one worthy of some kind of discussion on a planet less reactive and knee-jerky than ours, is how his persona works into the role. It’s an irony that he can bring his persona as a “gay performer” to his Tony-winning role on Broadway in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and it resonates with the role. Yet it’s considered politically/artistically incorrect to ask if it is not a little (just a little, now) incongruous to ask us to believe in the heterosexuality of this character when the actor playing him has worked so diligently, especially in the last few years, to let us all know that he is gay in all its current expressions artistically and personally. As a viewer, and something of a knowledgeable one, I respect his talent. As an American alive in 2014, I can say that the persona NPH has created so publicly is somewhat at odds with this character. It’s a simple casting/persona issue—nothing else.

This is an especially pertinent issue in a film that leans on personas for some of its characters. The teaming of Affleck and his persona has already been discussed. Pike’s lack of persona must be part of the reason she was cast. In terms of this film, it’s a legitimate issue to bring up. Someday this will be able to be discussed in a less heated environment. Happily, only a few people will read this, and most of them will understand that I have no other agenda than film criticism and analysis.

There are some rough, violent scenes, and some un-erotic (though sexual) carnal activity. This is not for kids. In fact, it’s something of a stretch for adults, and I’m not sure I am willing to be stretched that far, or if the film even succeeds in wooing me to its themes.

Where the film stretches to the point of incredulity is at the end (slight spoilers to follow), when one of the main characters does something as shocking (but less dramatic) as what anyone has done so far. The implications for marriage attached to this decision are so pessimistic, so dark, so repugnant, that many viewers may not even hear what’s being said (or strongly suggested). They may, in fact, have been distracted by either that last twist or the fact that the twist isn’t well supported, and that the film actually falters at this one crucial juncture. It’s the film’s biggest weakness, but one that ultimately doesn’t undo what’s come before.

This is not a film I can recommend to everyone I know. It’s too rough and violent for many. But the filmmaking is solid and confident, the acting is excellent throughout (without a single weakness), a star is born, and those who love mysteries and twists and turns will find what they are looking for here. For many good reasons, for its strengths as well as its one big weakness, Gone Girl is a film that will be discussed and scrutinized for years.

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Follow the Fleet

Follow the Fleet (1936) is considered one of the lesser Astaire-Rogers musicals. Seeing it again for research, it’s clearer than ever why. If ever there was a musical that should be fast-forwarded through to get to the musical numbers, this is it. And only the dance numbers are worth paying attention to.

The film’s plot has a sour taste throughout. Astaire and Rogers play characters that used to be an act, and they both used to be in love with one another. We see quickly that he still is in love, and learn later that she is too. But their relationship is strange, with Astaire uncharacteristically doing some terrible things that tend to backfire. Clearly the five screenwriters thought more about putting variation into the Astaire-Rogers repertoire than in what might fit Astaire’s persona. Astaire doing dumb, unkind things doesn’t work. He and Ginger must end up together, of course, but it’s more a article of faith that they do, not anything the film asks us to believe about them or their relationship, which seems off-filter from the start and never lets up.

Harriet Hilliard, the second female lead, often found her scenes and numbers cut out of television showings of the film. (We are grateful to TCM for restoring those scenes.) This OK actress and singer, who rose to fame with husband Ozzie Nelson on radio and television later in life, sings two numbers that are serviceable only. (Perhaps the only thing fascinating about “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” is that this is a New Testament quote from Irving Berlin, the great Jewish songwriter. But then, this is the man who gave us “White Christmas” and Easter Parade.”) Harriet does the ugly ducking turned swan thing in the early part of the film, and then just remains the second banana to Ginger’s character from then on.

Yet her relationship with movie beau Randolph Scott is as bizarre as Fred and Ginger’s characters. Scott plays Navy seaman Bilge Smith (seriously?) who is nothing but a cad and should be turned out on his ear when he returns to Hilliard’s pining character. Yet the film would have us believe that he can turn around and be a good guy (which our better nature wants to believe) and that she should receive him back, which is something she should know better than to do. No one comes out of this as a real good and real smart person.

But these films use plot as filler between the numbers. This one just happens to have a weak, confusing, slightly distasteful filler. What should get us going is the dance numbers. As in A-R films, all are worth watching.

The first is to the now classic “Let Yourself Go,” recently given its definitive treatment by vocal great Kristin Chenoweth. This one is by Ginger Rogers, and the comparison is painful. A great song, but not the best interpretation. The song’s rhythms seem to challenge a traditional Astaire approach to the dance. In this case, the dance is a contest between him and Rogers with other dance couples, leading from one wild dance display to another. It’s fun, and as the film so often attempts to do in so many ways, is a spin on the usual. It shows off the leads’ talent and humor, and that’s the purpose. Since it makes one hungry for more Astaire virtuosity and dance-duet perfection from the two, it’s successful in that regard as well.

Follow the Fleet contains Rogers’ only solo tap number in the film series, and the rarity of that kind of number combined with her skill makes this number—to again, “Let Yourself Go,” a must-see. Sometimes even those familiar with Rogers’ dancing in other films forget what a good hoofer she could be. Yet at the same time, the number reminds us of how unforgettable a combination Astaire and Rogers were together. She’s fine alone; when paired with Astaire, often transcendent.

Astaire of course gets his solo number, which as in some of his other films is combined with enough singularity to become the film’s novelty number as well. Here he breaks away from conducting a small Navy band to dance by himself, and then he is joined by a group of seamen in “I’d Rather Lead a Band.” Not Astaire’s greatest solo, but it’s Astaire, so it’s great.

“I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” again tries to put a spin on the usual comic dance duet number. Here the two leads are trying to outdo one another in the building up of an act. So they are performing on a stage, for an audience, but they are also working through a number. It’s cute, and yes, it’s different. Fun, and ultimately not that memorable.

What is memorable and sublime is the classic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” which comes at the end of the film. It’s Fred and Ginger at their elegant best. In film history circles, this film is known as the one in which Ginger’s weighted sleeves hit Fred in the face on the first take, necessitating almost 20 more takes of the whole dance, which was filmed in a single take each time. In the end, the hit to the face is barely noticeable, and that is the take that ended up in the film. This is the one number worth watching more than the rest in the film, and is a reminder of the beauty of elegance and grace possible in dance.

So the next time you have a good half-hour, put in Follow the Fleet, keep the remote handy for fast-forward, and have a good time. If you do decide to watch the whole thing, at least you have Ginger being zingy and amusing, and you can catch Betty Grable and Lucille Ball early in their careers. That’s not worth sitting through the terrible plot for, but a reward for the more diligent and serious film person.

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