Friday, October 17, 2014
It's been a week since I saw this movie. I'm sorry about being late on the post, it has been a tough week here at KAMAD. We lost a four legged member of the family and while getting out of the house to a movie relieved some of the depression, I could just not find the enthusiasm to write. It will probably never stop hurting but I am a lot more functional a week later so I thought I better get to this before I gave up on it entirely. This is one of those rare films that come around now, a straight dramatic story driven by the performances of the stars. There are a few twists but none of them are "Gone Girl" head slams. The story set up is pretty simple. Professionally successful but personally screwed up hot shot lawyer Robert Downey Jr. gets word that his mother has passed away and he travels back to the home town he escaped from for her funeral. The town is not the only thing that he was running from, Hank also has been avoiding his father Joseph. A stern family man in Hank's memory and an iron willed judge for the community. While home and tentatively negotiating the troubled waters of his family, Hank is forced to stand up for his father who may have been involved in a deadly accident that was more than an accident.
Robert Duvall is "the Judge" and his relationship with his son Hank is the core of the movie. There is a mystery and a murder trial, but that is all in aid of forcing these two to confront the past and come to some form of detente while they still can. The two stars are as sharp as can be in their parts. Each plays the defensive victim and the recriminating accuser from time to time. While Downey has the biggest slice of dialogue and action, Duvall's character is the focus of the story. As the plot unfurls, we discover layers of character and story that give Joseph Palmer a lot more development than he gets from simply donning the robes of office. Legal dramas have played fast and loose with courtroom procedure since movies first started and this is no exception. Imagine if you had someone that you resented in the witness chair and you wanted to both protect them and at the same time uncover some personal history under oath. It would never play in a real court but on the set of a Hollywood drama, it is the kind of thing that justifies making the movie in the first place. The script is really not great. In fact, I swear I saw the same plot a couple of weeks ago in a comedy. A son returns home to deal with the death of a parent. Unresolved conflicts with siblings bubble to the surface, tension exists, a mentally challenged character utters wise things, an old girlfriend get tossed into the mix and issues of paternity and trust come up every few minutes. Just like the comedy "This is Where I leave You",there is another curve thrown at you almost to a five minute metronome. Just to be sure that it is taken dramatically, "The Judge" also throws in a tornado.
The supporting cast is also good. Vincent D'Onofrio is the big brother who has a tragic past and the burden of looking out for the family as a sandwich adult. His wife and kids are in the movie but I don't think they had any lines. Most of D'Onofrio's work is done non-verbally and he is best in those scenes where he shrugs his shoulders or looks at his brother with a meaningful glance. Vera Farmiga is the old girlfriend abandoned by Hank and now much more in control than she was twenty years earlier. Billy Bob Thornton can almost steal a movie with his eyebrows and he attempts it here. As the prosecutor going after "The Judge" he initially seems to be a malevolent force for Downey to overcome but as the trial plays out, he is a needed foil for the Judge and the son to be able to confront their demons. By the way Hollywood, more Billy Bob Thornton please.
The problems with the movie are the potboiler plot and the need to fit in several turns that give each of the lead actors some chances to shine. Downey gets to have a romantic clinch with Farmiga, that ends because he has questions and doubts that he is doing the right thing. His young daughter is used to give him the warmth that he lacks in any other aspect of the characters life. She also gives Duvall an opportunity to show the warmth that Hank always wished for but never felt he was getting from his dad. There is a traumatic scene in the bathroom as the ailing Judge fails to keep his secrets from his son because his body is failing him. The courtroom scene with Duvall on the stand and Downey asking questions is the lynchpin of the movie and it works well enough to keep us involved. When the Judge recalls the words that the dead man spoke to him, I personally would have been fine if Joseph Palmer had gone all Denzel on him.
"The Judge" is a solid piece of entertainment that can't reach greatness because of the overblown plot and the cliche strewn story line. The actors in the film elevate it to slightly above average, but the performances themselves are also handicapped by a script that lays it on way too thick. So on the charge of being overly dramatic, I find "The Judge" guilty. I hereby sentence it to limited box office success and no awards season potential. It is not a bad film, but Downey and Duvall are accessories to cinematic excess that means that their chance to work together here is less successful than any movie fan would hope for.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
I did not see all of these movies but I saw several. I remeber the ads they would take out in the trades to announce the biggest signing of a star or the next package deal. These were the Go Go guys of the 80s. I look forward to seeing this film.
Friday, October 3, 2014
Thrillers are a genre that need quality people in them to excel. Once in a while a film that has been tossed together will leave a mark, but true works of suspense need the kind of professional touch that comes from confidence in the field and the contributions of skilled actors and technicians. In the mid part of the last century we had Alfred Hitchcock. In the early part of the new millennium, David Fincher has stepped forward to supply the kind of bubbling, slow burning , suspense piece that audiences will crave. In the last twenty years he has made a half dozen films that rely on tension more than action, plot more than flash and performances that reflect reality more than theatricality. "Gone Girl" is another success in this line of suspense films with clever plot twists and a creeping sense of isolation as the story moves toward it's resolution. This movie is backed by several strong performances and a visual style that makes the audience feel haunted like it was a cloudy day, even when there is bright sunshine around.
The screenplay was written by the author of the novel that the movie is based on, Gillian Flynn. Adapting a novel to screen is always more complicated than people think. I'm not sure what her attitude was toward making a film out of her story but she has done an admirable job in forging an effective film. With the exception of the last five minutes , I could easily follow and appreciate the plot twists and story line. The tone of the ending seems right to me, especially given several foreshadowing scenes in the film. It was just the final motivation that fuels that exit tone that was not entirely clear to me. After having spent almost two and a half hours setting it up, the exit felt rushed and much less comprehensible than all of the main parts of this story filled with reversals. The director has the shots right and the mood is appropriately foreboding, but the script leaves it unclear why our main character makes the final decision that completes the film.
I have always enjoyed Ben Affleck as an actor. I know he is often criticized as a callow personality, overwhelmed by the material he is in, but he also has charm and a winning face and that has rescued him many times. His most serious role in his own "Argo" is a demonstration that he has chops and not just good looks. He uses both of those gifts in this film and helps make a convoluted and potentially unbelievable story much more grounded. Nick Dunne is a fairly likable guy who gets the Scott Peterson treatment from the media when his wife Amy vanishes. The film starts off without giving us any clues as to whether he really is involved or not in the disappearance. As events play out we discover that he is not as affable or admirable as he first seems. We learn that he has secrets, but also that his secrets probably have little to do with the event, but that will never be the way it is seen by the media. A large part of the tension in the film is driven by the tabloid like coverage of his wife's vanishing. A Nancy Grace doppelganger pursues the story and leads the social media lynch mob that is ready to convict Nick in the killing of his wife. As the film unfolds we do get some rival views of the marriage itself. It seems to have gone sour in the economic turndown and Amy has her own demons that fuel those problems. Since I made the decision not to read the book before seeing the film, I think it is safe to say that knowing the story would undermine some of the pleasures of the film. There are five or six smart twists that all work without undermining the things that come in front of them. Those who read the book can admire the adaption, those who went in blind like me can thrill at the surprises.
The technical choices that help make the movie work as a suspense film will be recognizable as Fincher specialties. The camera movements are slow and steady and fluid. There is stillness in a great many sequences in the movie. The background score by previous collaborators Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is moody and dissonant. The color and lighting are crisp but subdued to just this side of muted. When there is violence, the camera does not look away any more than it did in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". There are two or three great scenes where a character tells us everything we need to know without it being shown, It would have been easy to let the camera fill in as a character narrates, but Fincher chooses to let the voice and face of the character tell the story and it works really well. A long interlude at a decrepit motel reminded me of the basement scene in "Zodiac". The characters we encounter are sometime more than they first appear to be. I won't give away anything but I think audiences who responded to those earlier films will not be disappointed here.
Special mention must be made of the performance by Rosamund Pike. She has been given one of the great female characters of the last few years to play. Her work as a chilly upper east-side elite, drawn into a warm romance with a misplaced mid-westerner is very believable. Even more believable is her emerging brittleness and renewed frost as the marriage seems to fall out of the narrative that she has in her own head. Her character's mother took her weaknesses as a child and turned them into a fictional alter ego that became world famous. That makes what follows seem almost inevitable and Pike sells the sense of entitlement and superiority perfectly. There are a number of male leading roles that have been touted already for awards season, this is the first woman's role that breaks out of the pack and will demand a salute from her fellow actors at the end of the year, well done. Others in the cast are also excellent; Carrie Coon who plays Nick's loyal twin sister, Neil Patrick Harris is flinty and disturbed as a former beau ill used by Amy in high school, Kim Dickens portrays the detective pursuing the evidence rather than the man and she seems very authentic.
This is an audience pleasing suspense thriller assembled by the modern authority on that genre. If Hitchcock, DePalma, Lynch and the Cohen Brothers are on your regular watchlists, than you will be glad to spend two and a half hours puzzling out the plot, admiring the performances and feeling satisfied with the logic of the twists in this terrific film. If you have not read the book, stay away from any stories that might contain spoilers. The most satisfying parts of the experience are the the clever turns that all drive the story rather than merely shifting it's narrative.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
22 Ridiculously Amazing 007 Posters for James Bond Films
My blogging colleague from "It Rains...You get Wet" shared this link with me on Facebook. These are really nice and politically incorrect. Check them out, you will be impressed with the artist.
Real Bond fans will notice that the motif for the poster above is from the book rather than the movie.