DAVID FINCHER’S GONE GIRL — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Disturbingly cool yet thoroughly ridiculous is how I’d describe David Fincher’s sleek thriller Gone Girl.  Disturbing because of what it says about marriage and how little some spouses probably know about each other. Ridiculous because, when boiled down, it’s all rather ludicrous in retrospect, with so much depending on contrivance and all-knowing manipulation and calculation. And cool because it seems that Fincher is incapable of making movies that don’t exude this feeling – cool.  He’s an emotionally icy string-puller, always has been, always will be. In Gone Girl, his trademark ominous music, gliding camerawork, and ultra-swift editing patterns amp up the tension and pace, resulting in a lightning-quick viewing experience that transcend the procedural elements and construction to the dense narrative.  He’s a master craftsman who always seems to be working at the top of his game, and for those who appreciate this sort of technical precision, Gone Girl offers unending pleasures.  You get the sense that, as a filmmaker, he gets a kick out of fucking with people – he’s our resident sadist entertainer. I just wish he’d get back to something a bit meatier with his subject matter.

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Along with author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn, Fincher clearly saw lots of potential in this perverse, kinky, totally screwed up landscape of domestic “bliss” living, while they also set their cynical sights on the fiendish news media and society’s propensity for believing that someone’s guilty before a trial has even been conducted.  All of Fincher’s movies, The Game and Fight Club especially, have reveled in sick and twisted humor, and Gone Girl amps up the dark-hearted laughs in any number of scenes, underscoring a deeply nasty point of view.  Ben Affleck has rarely been better as Prime Suspect Husband and he got a chance to play with our expectations of how his character would and should act given the circumstances.  Rosamund Pike got an Oscar nomination and delivered a knock-out of a performance – she needs to get more work as she’s been criminally undervalued for years.  And it goes without saying that the film affords big-time Kim Dickens POWER. But for me, a far more scathing and brilliant dissection of modern marriage is Ruben Ostlund’s devastating satire Force Majeure, which thematically resembles Gone Girl in more than one instance.

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PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON’S INHERENT VICE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The skunky stench and hazy after-effects of marijuana can be found all over Paul Thomas Anderson’s hysterical, bewildering, utterly zonked-out shaggy-dog detective movie Inherent Vice. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s much celebrated novel, this is a wild, ridiculous, totally blazed piece of work that had “cult-classic” status written all over it the moment it was released in theaters a few years ago. Different and yet similar to obvious inspirations such as The Big Lebowski, The Big Sleep, and The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice likely annoyed many who went in looking for something more traditional, but at the same time, was probably “just-right” for many others. There’ll be no real middle ground with this one. You’ve got to be interested in watching a perpetually stoned, lackadaisical, possibly hallucinating lead character that can’t seem to get out of his own way. The cast is peppered with tons of stars (Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, a debauched Martin Short in one of the best scenes in the film) but Phoenix owned the picture. Coming on the heels of his exquisite and varied work in both The Master and Her, he delivered a totally different performance in Inherent Vice, cementing his chameleonic quality to any role he takes on, investing every performance with integrity, intensity, and odd charm. He’s long been one of my favorite actors and I can’t wait to see him in the new film by Lynne Ramsay that just premiered at Cannes.

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The “plot” of Inherent Vice can be followed, but I’ll admit that it’s taken me a few viewings to fully digest everything that this film has to offer, as great movies allow for constant exploration. Because Phoenix’s character is essentially an unreliable narrator, and because everyone he comes into contact with screws with him in some way, there’s this sense of randomness to the plot that won’t be to everyone’s liking. Inherent Vice is more about the crazy characters and the druggy aroma and the floral dialogue and stony voice-over and the minutiae of the time period – those looking for an “air-tight” plot need to go find something else. It’s also about the collision of two subcultures, and how America, in particular Los Angeles, was rapidly changing during this time period. Josh Brolin absolutely nailed his supporting role as an angry LAPD officer who clashes with Phoenix multiple times throughout the story. And there’s some of the bravest nudity I’ve ever seen from an actress on the part of the lovely and talented Katherine Waterston, who injected her character with an earthy sensuality that you don’t normally see on the big screen. Inherent Vice carries a distinct visual atmosphere, with master shooter Robert Elswit’s purposefully hazy and scratchy cinematography being just the right tonal fit for the offbeat material. The on-location shooting adds to the cool-factor, and the play-through soundtrack is completely groovy – Can POWER!

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LUC BESSON’S THE MESSENGER — A REVIEW BY FILMMAKER & GUEST CRITIC DAMIAN K. LAHEY

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‘The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc’ (1999) dir. Luc Besson

I’m a big cheerleader for this film. I think this is a remarkable achievement. I find Besson’s direction and intentions pure and Jovovich is incredible in the title role. The post modern way in which screenwriter Andrew Birkin and Luc Besson tackle the story gives the film a real timeless quality and a sharp contemporary message. And the cinematography by Thierry Arbogast? Get out of town! Absolutely gorgeous!

Now, there are a couple of awkward moments in the film. Things that seem out of place for one reason or another. They are small and inconsequential save for one that I feel should be addressed. I do not believe this film does itself any favors by treating the murder/rape of Joan’s sister as a black comedy sketch. I think this damages the film at the very start and it takes a minute to recover from it. It is also entirely made up. Joan Of Arc did not have a sister brutally raped and murdered by the English. I’m sure Besson had his reasons but…

The Church is presented as an unwieldy political monster here – draconian and far reaching as well as hypocritical and rigid in its discipline. Its intentions anything but noble. The French Government learns of a peasant girl gaining notoriety for her religious visions and decides to use her in a shrewd attempt to reignite a flagging nationalism. Joan was a natural when it came to myth making and the French monarch saw in her a great opportunity. While Joan Of Arc’s devotion to the cause was intense and blinding, the character she created for herself was one to be manipulated by far more calculating minds. To the people, the Maid of Orleans was a symbol of many things – hope, a resurgent France, proof of God’s existence…but to the French Government and the Church – she was a tool. And a tool they used wisely.

The cast that appears in this film is glorious. Jovovich is assisted on all sides by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Vincent Cassel and John Malkovich and they all give incredible performances.

At the end, she burns. We know Joan doesn’t make it out alive. There’s a mock trial and political shenanigans. But Joan’s victory in this film isn’t the military campaigns, her legend building or ability to inspire religious simpletons. In a clever, revisionist move the filmmakers paint Joan Of Arc’s greatest triumph as her ability to finally forgive herself. She finally comes to understand that the voice she’s been answering to is not God’s but her own. She does not need God’s forgiveness for her sins. She simply needs her own forgiveness to find peace.

Let’s face it. People look themselves in the mirror and tell themselves vital lies every day to keep them going. And some of these lies are larger than others. Joan’s vital lie was her unwavering belief that everything that occurred to her had a religious explanation and thus justified her extreme behavior. This prevented her from seeing the larger picture and it is that narrative that ultimately brought her down. She failed to understand her role in a world of boundaries, governments and alliances.

The filmmakers ask us to accept that Joan Of Arc is neither saint, opportunist, lunatic, do-gooder, or glory seeker but instead a highly passionate and confused teenager made up of all these things that happened to come together at the right time and place to create an enduring piece of history. In her final hours she finds absolution from within, freeing herself at last. She does not burn as the ambitious and over zealous Joan Of Arc. She burns as the simple peasant girl from Orleans who wanted to confess and having finally done so, could embrace her fate.

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THE COEN BROTHERS’ MILLERS CROSSING — A MINI-REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The 1990 crime film Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorite films from the Coen brothers, a neo-noir gangster movie that gets better and better with each viewing, fully showcasing the Coen’s estimable gifts as storytellers and stylists, with bracing and dark wit balanced by stark violence, creating a rich, dense cinematic world that unfolds with sinister calm. Starring Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro, Marcia Gay Harden, Steve Buscemi, Mike Starr, Albert Finney, Jon Polito, and J.E. Freeman, the plot hinges on rival gangs and how one man navigates the tricky and duplicitous waters of engaging with both sides. Shot with formal precision by Barry Sonnenfeld (he also shot Raising Arizona and Blood Simple for the Coens) and judiciously edited by Michael R. Miller (Raising Arizona, Orgazmo), the film boasts a superb musical score from Coen-mainstay Carter Burwell (Fargo, Being John Malkovich), with everyone in the ensemble delivering pitch-perfect performances. Despite not finding a supporting theatrical audience, Miller’s Crossing has become a cult favorite in the years since its big-screen release, and one of the better offerings this genre has provided in decades. Look out for Sam Raimi and Frances McDormand in small roles, while the nods to Dashiell Hammett ground the film with a literary quality that kicks it up another notch.

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MEL BROOKS’ SPACEBALLS — A MINI-REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs is one of the funniest movies ever made. Of course, comedy is easily the most subjective genre out there, but for me, this film just nails its target so often that it’s impossible not to smile at all of the loving fun it pokes at Star Wars and countless other space operas that inspired this piece of cinematic idiocy. Brooks, of course, is a comedy legend, having made such brilliant works as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and High Anxiety, but this is the effort from him that I’ve seen the most, and because he was so warm with his sense of humor and never overly cruel, you’re able to see how his satirical targets are born out of a place of love for the source material he’s riffing on. Everyone in the having-a-blast cast was riotous, with special mention needing to be given to Bill Pullman, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Joan Rivers, Daphne Zuniga, Michael Winslow and Dick Van Patten. Cinematographer Nick McLean has a very cool resume; ditto the film’s editor Conrad Buff. Spaceballs is one of a handful of comedies, including all three The Naked Gun entries, Airplane, Caddyshack, and Animal House, that I could watch at any point of the day and pee my diaper from laughing. Now if only they had made Spaceballs 3: The Search for Spaceballs 2…!

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BRAD SILBERLING’S MOONLIGHT MILE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Infused with a tragic sense of personal melancholy as his wife was murdered in real life, writer/director Brad Silberling’s unfairly neglected 2002 drama Moonlight Mile is a heartfelt and consistently moving piece of cinema that features sterling work from Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon as grieving parents, baby-faced Jake Gyllenhaal as their emotionally stunted would-be son-in-law who decides to stick around in the immediate aftermath of his fiancée’s death, reluctantly going into business with the man whom he would’ve called dad, and Ellen Pompeo as a local bartender/post-office clerk who catches Gyllenhaal’s sad eye and who is also nursing her own bit of heartbreak. Beautifully captured by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (The Weather Man, Nebraska, 3:10 To Yuma) in dark tones and a brown-black-orange color palette that is frequently gorgeous in an off-kilter manner thanks to his interesting choice in camera placement, Silberling’s emotionally delicate screenplay fed right into the fragile mindsets of his characters, with the story moving in unexpected directions while still containing its fair-share of overtly audience pleasing moments. I really hope that this film gets the Blu-ray transfer upgrade that it so deserves.

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The film’s soundtrack is absolutely stunning (and sadly out of print on compact disc so very expensive via third party sellers on Amazon) and features classic tracks from The Rolling Stones (the film takes its name from their song), Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Sly and the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, Robert Plant, and many more. Silberling is an interesting filmmaker with an eclectic set of credits; I rather enjoyed his stylish and bittersweet City of Angels, and his bizarre and trippy sci-fi comedy Land of the Lost is better than most people gave it credit for being. But this is easily his most assured piece of storytelling, and I wonder why he hasn’t become more prolific throughout the years. There’s always been “something” about Moonlight Mile that has grabbed me, and I’m not sure, outside of the obvious and previously stated, what that “something” exactly is. And upon multiple viewings, and as I’ve gotten older, the performances from Hoffman and Sarandon have gotten even richer and more affecting; the narrative looks at life in a very direct fashion, finding awkward humor in certain spots that challenges your pre-existing expectations of films such as this. It’s nice to see that Silberling has a new film coming out later this year…

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BEN YOUNGER’S BLEED FOR THIS — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Taking familiar material and spicing it up with some unexpected touches and a strong dose of extreme personal triumph, last year’s thoroughly entertaining and always absorbing true-life boxing movie Bleed for This, from writer/director Ben Younger (Boiler Room, Prime), deserved a lot more than to bomb at the box-office and draw only middling critical responses. What were people expecting? This movie hits all the proper beats, digs in deep to the hardscrabble world that it presents, and features extremely strong acting work from Miles Teller as Vinnie Pazienza, Aaron Eckhart as his alcoholic trainer, and Ciaran Hinds as Pazienza’s father. The ringside bouts are bloody and brutal, the dialogue is appropriately rough and frequently profane (and also very funny in numerous spots), and the car-accident sequence and subsequent rehabilitation that Pazienza went through is as harrowing and squirm inducing as anything I’ve seen in a while, with a large part of that feeling stemming from the fact that this occurred in real life. Pazienza DID have the metal “Halo” device screwed into his skull (not sure which scene was tougher to view, putting it on, or taking it off…), he did go back to training while nursing his broken neck, and he did go on to fight again and become a champion.

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All of this is communicated with fleet storytelling by Younger, and a dedication from all of the actors in making everything feel honest and believable, especially Teller, who clearly went all out physically, and really makes you care about a rather stubborn individual who makes some decisions which aren’t easy to understand. And after dropping a great supporting turn in Clint Eastwood’s Sully, Eckhart had another lost-in-the-shuffle performance in Bleed for This, playing a has-been trainer who can’t control his liquor but who still is sharp inside the gym and ring. And Hinds, who has a truly unique sense of screen presence, clearly had a blast playing the tough-love but rational father of Pazienza, a man prone to spouting the “F-word” in tandem with colorful put-downs and vulgarity, but also a man who at his core loves his family and would do anything for them. Larkin Siple’s hand-held cinematography conveys the required uneasiness and grittiness that the story demands, the soundtrack is peppered with some choice cuts, and Zac Stuart-Pontier’s sharp editing allows the film to effortlessly breeze through its 110 minute running time. Also, as it must be noted: Ted Levine POWER. Bleed for This is currently available on Blu-ray/DVD and via various streaming providers.

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RANDAL KLEISER’S THE FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Not many films instilled as much wide-eyed wonder in me as a youthful movie-lover as The Flight of the Navigator, which was released in the summer of 1986, and while not attaining the runaway big-screen blockbuster status that it truly deserved, has lived on throughout the years as an all-time cult favorite for many children of the 80’s. Directed with a terrific sense of old-school movie-magic by Randal Kleiser (Grease, The Blue Lagoon, Big Top Pee-wee) and written with gee-whiz excitement by Michael Burton and Matt MacManus from a story by Mark Baker, child star (and future bank robber…) Joey Kramer got the role of a lifetime as a kid who gets abducted by a friendly alien (voiced by Paul Reubens but credited as Paul Mall!) who then takes him forward in time from 1978 to 1986, all the while battling the charms of a then extremely young Sarah Jessica Parker. The supporting cast included Cliff De Young, Veronica Cartwright, Matt Adler, and Howard Hesseman, but the film’s narrative was squarely placed on Kramer’s young shoulders, and he did a great job interacting with the various creatures and showing genuine responses to his otherworldly craft.

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The Flight of the Navigator included some of the earliest full-on CGI effects, and features strong cinematography from James Glennon (About Schmidt, Election, Deadwood, Carnivale) and a lively musical score from Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Predator, The Delta Force). The film had a weird gestation, as it was first attempted to be set up as a Disney production, with the Mouse House ultimately declining to produce, but agreeing to distribute. The film was lensed on location in Florida with the scenes set aboard the ship shot in Norway on a budget of $9 million, with box office receipts reaching nearly $20 million in America; critical response was favorable. And over the years, it’s become one of those treasured items for many people that feels too refreshingly quaint to be remade in today’s overly slick and cynical CGI movie landscape, though an update has recently been threatened. I hope they leave this property alone, as it works just fine as is, and no amount of money will be able to replicate the original’s sense of overall wonderment. The Flight of the Navigator is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and as an Amazon and YouTube streaming option.

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ROBERT REDFORD’S ORDINARY PEOPLE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Robert Redford’s brilliant family drama Ordinary People is a great movie. How could it not be? It’s real. It’s genuine. Nothing is overdone. And everything works. Redford’s invisible direction, for which he won an Oscar in no less than his directorial debut, is sublime, never showboating in any aesthetic fashion, instead allowing Alvin Sargent’s sensitive and deeply layered screenplay (which was based on Judith Guest’s novel) to do all the heavy lifting. And because Sargent was a master when it came to dialogue and crafting scenes that felt inherently real and honest, there’s nothing about Ordinary People that rings false or feels ill-conceived. The exemplary performances are beyond description. Donald Sutherland as the nice-guy father trying to keep his family together, Mary Tyler Moore with her bottled up rage and intense emotional repression, Timothy Hutton dropping a tour de force performance as an anguished, suicidal teen, Judd Hirsch as the kind shrink who takes a liking to Hutton, fresh-faced Elizabeth McGovern as Hutton’s object of desire – everyone was absolutely remarkable in this delicate piece of work. John Bailey’s plain and focused cinematography is a clear-cut lesson in less is more; sometimes you just need to frame the actors and hold the shots for a bit longer than normal (Jeff Kanew’s patient editing is superb) and pure movie magic will become the result. Marvin Hamlisch’s piano-centric score is the icing on the cake. The winner of four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Hutton), Ordinary People was a critical favorite and box-office smash, and despite 37 years elapsing since its release, its power remains undiluted. No major studio would be interested in making this film today and that’s a really sad fact of life.

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ROBERT MULLIGAN’S THE NICKEL RIDE — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The Nickel Ride is a cool as a cucumber crime film from 1974, patiently directed by Robert Mulligan (Summer of ’42, The Stalking Moon, To Kill A Mockingbird) from a sly, morally ambiguous screenplay by then-newbie Eric Roth (Munich, Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Insider). The plot centers on a “key-man” named Cooper (Jason Miller), who works for a local crime syndicate, and always carries his ubiquitous key chain at all times. His job is to run a group of Los Angeles-based warehouses that house stolen goods, but things get complicated when a real estate deal turns south and local gangsters led by an evil John Hillerman who feel threatened by Cooper’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the various illegal activities. Before he knows it, someone has been sent to kill him. But who? And why? Roth’s script is clever and shifty, never giving up its full hand until the final moments, and it must be said that Miller’s ability to convey pensive, sullen, broken-down alpha males was truly signature.

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The film is more about its tense atmosphere and the anxiety that Miller projects as an actor than it is about anything else; his underplayed performance rests in his eyes and body language and the way his sullen face is captured within the frame. The Nickel Ride was shot in 2.35:1 widescreen with a love for shadows and darkness by legendary cinematography Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner, Cutter’s Way, Altered States, Rolling Thunder) and features a low-key musical score from Dave Grusin (The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Three Days of the Condor, Oscar-winner for The Milagro Beanfield War). The Nickel Ride screened at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d’Or before getting lost in the theatrical market with less than a $2 million domestic gross. The film is available on DVD as a double feature with the outlandishly entertaining John Frankenheimer oddity 99 and 44/100% Dead from Shout! Factory, and would easily fit the bill for a great night of 70’s crime cinema where you never can truly guess how things will end up.

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