The Film Noir File: Crawford at her craziest in ‘Possessed’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

Possessed

Van Heflin is immune to Joan Crawford’s charm in “Possessed.” What nerve!

Van Heflin is immune to Joan Crawford’s charm in “Possessed.” What nerve!

(1947, Curtis Bernhardt). Thursday, Nov. 20. 4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.) With Joan Crawford, Van Heflin and Raymond Massey. Read the full review here.

Thursday, Nov. 20

2:15 p.m. (11:15 a.m.): “A Stolen Life” (1946, Curtis Bernhardt). Two Bette Davises, both in love with Glenn Ford, create mass confusion when one of them (his wife) dies and the other (her sister) substitutes herself. A double-role tour-de-force, which two-faced Bette tried again in 1964‘s “Dead Ringer.” With Walter Brennan, Dane Clark and Charlie Ruggles.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Birds” (1963, Alfred Hitchcock). With Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy. Reviewed in FNB on Oct. 23, 2014.

Friday, Nov. 21

Dennis Weaver goes from frustrated to freaked out in “Duel.”

Dennis Weaver goes from frustrated to freaked out in “Duel.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Duel” (1971, Steven Spielberg). “Jaws” made Steven Spielberg famous, but it was the earlier made-for-TV movie “Duel” that first showed he could scare the pants off any decently susceptible audience. Based on a Richard Matheson story, this brilliantly made, terrifying action movie pits an increasingly exasperated and then frightened motorist (Dennis Weaver) against an oncoming truck driven by a faceless trucker. A huge smoke-belching behemoth of a truck keeps pursuing him, apparently trying, for no reason he can fathom, to run him off the road and kill him. A real shocker.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Scarecrow” (1973, Jerry Schatzberg). With Al Pacino, Gene Hackman and Dorothy Tristan). Reviewed in FNB on May 6, 2013.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “The Last Detail” (1973, Hal Ashby). With Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young. Reviewed in FNB on Feb. 20, 2013.

Sunday, Nov. 23

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.): “Citizen Kane” (1941, Orson Welles). With Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore and the Mercury Players. Reviewed in FNB on July 13, 2012.

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks). With Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone and Elisha Cook, Jr.

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Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining,’ noir as they come, plays Saturday at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica

The Shining/1980/Warner Bros./144 min.

By Mike Wilmington

The Shining poster Jack Nicholson“Heeeere’s JOHNNNY!!!!” screams the ferociously demented-looking hotel caretaker Jack Torrance as he axes open a door to get at his terrified wife Wendy and their child Danny, in the frightening final scenes of “The Shining“ – Stanley Kubrick’s flawed yet unforgettable 1980 film of what may be Stephen King’s best novel.

“The Shining” is revived on Saturday, Nov. 22, at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre.

In the movie, Jack (played to the hilt by Jack Nicholson) is snowbound with his family (played by Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd) in the mountainous and isolated Overlook Lodge. It’s a vast spooky place, decorated with somber Native American motifs and infested with a creepy set of ghosts, including a sardonic bartender and a lecherous nude old lady and the previous caretaker who murdered his own family long ago in these same eerie corridors and rooms.

Wendy and Danny have watched Jack going crazier and crazier. Now, Mad Jack has hit his frenzied peak  and there‘s no one at Overlook to stop his axe-swinging rampage.

“The Shining” is not only based on King‘s best novel; it‘s probably the best movie ever adapted from any of King’s books. Even so, it’s flawed, and King was right to be somewhat disappointed with it. Here’s the problem: Kubrick and his fellow screenwriter, novelist Diane Johnson (“Le Divorce”) wrote Jack as crazy as a loon the moment he stepped into the Overlook (and even before).

King, more movingly, wrote his main character as a sympathetic but haunted alcoholic and failed novelist who loved his family and gradually sank into madness, fighting, as the ghosts and demons took over. In retrospect, Kubrick probably should have hired King as his co-writer rather than Johnson. The original story would have made a better movie and an even better role for Nicholson.

That said, “The Shining” is still one hell of a show, noir as they come, and one of the most horrifyingly visual of all classic American horror movies.

The Aero Theatre is at 1328 Montana Ave. in Santa Monica.

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‘Foxcatcher’ draws us in with riveting acting but denies dramatic satisfaction

Alert: This review contains a spoiler.

Foxcatcher posterFoxcatcher/2014/Sony Pictures Classics/134 min.

“I’ve been looking for a father my whole life and I finally found him in John du Pont,” says Channing Tatum as Olympic wrestling champ Mark Schultz in “Foxcatcher.”

The movie is based on the real-life saga of the ultra-wealthy du Pont (Steve Carell) and his working relationship with Mark Schultz and his older brother Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), both of whom won Olympic gold medals in 1984.

With the apparent aim of coaching wrestlers for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, du Pont invites Mark to train on his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm. But du Pont has little talent for coaching and it’s clear he wants to be more than a father figure to his protégée.

When Dave joins his brother at Foxcatcher, Mark is pushed aside and becomes alienated. Du Pont sours on his coaching plans and ultimately commits murder.

Director Bennett Miller (“Capote” and “Moneyball”) won the Best Director prize for “Foxcatcher” at the Cannes Film Fest. E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman wrote the script. The film strikes a grim and chilling mood, and Miller elicits memorable performances. From his pasty skin to his hunched gait to his clipped, halted speech, Carell perfectly conveys the menacing arrogance and internal emptiness that apparently defined du Pont’s personality. Ruffalo and Tatum are excellent as well.

But the film is strangely lopsided. Though it creates intensely compelling portraits on the surface, it shies away from examining the characters, especially du Pont, in real depth (once the triangle grows strained, Mark is essentially sidelined) and avoids any probing of du Pont’s interior life or motive for a cold-blooded killing.

Steve Carell is almost unrecognizable as creepy John du Pont.

Steve Carell is almost unrecognizable as creepy John du Pont.

That was a conscious decision, said Miller at a recent press conference in Beverly Hills. “[The film] resists the temptation of concluding anything, of putting labels on what this complex is. It purposely denies you the satisfaction of saying that’s what it was and to let you stop thinking about it. There was no conclusion in real life.”

At du Pont’s trial, neither the prosecution nor the defense suggested a motive for the crime. A jury rejected du Pont’s request to be found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was found guilty but mentally ill.

Carell said du Pont’s longtime sadness and loneliness influenced his portrayal. “I never approached him as a villain,” he said at the press conference.

And though Carell is compelling to the point of being almost unrecognizable as this awkward creepy loner, the fact remains that du Pont was indeed a villain, in more than ways than one. Completely sidestepping this essential component of the story dilutes the overall impact.

That said, “Foxcatcher” is worth seeing, especially given the Oscar buzz around the actors. “It’s very rewarding that it is resonating with people,” Carell said. “It was challenging, exciting and exhilarating.”

“Foxcatcher” opens in theaters today.

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Film noir features prominently at AFI FEST 2014

A Most Violent Year poster largeWe at FNB are eagerly awaiting the start of AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi.

The terrific slate of shows runs Nov. 6-13 in Hollywood. The fest opens and closes with neo-noir titles that are generating Oscar buzz. “A Most Violent Year,” starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and David Oyelowo, will kick things off. Set in 1981 in New York City, the film tells the story of an immigrant struggling to survive amid intense crime and danger. “A Most Violent Year” is directed by J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call” and “All Is Lost”).

Inherent Vice posterThere will be two screenings on Sat., Nov. 8., of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest feature: an adaptation of “Inherent Vice” by novelist Thomas Pynchon. Joaquin Phoenix stars as P.I. Doc Sportello in 1970-ish Los Angeles. We’re in. Phoenix leads a stellar cast including Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short.

On Monday, Nov. 10, “The Gambler” is the gala screening. In this remake of the 1974 James Caan film, Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a college professor immersed in the watch-your-back world of underground gambling. English director Rupert Wyatt (“The Escapist” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) joins forces with Boston-born writer William Monahan (“The Departed”).

Foxcatcher,” the closing night movie, is based on the real-life saga of ’80s Olympic wrestling champs Dave and Mark Schultz (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum) and their uneasy working relationship with ultra-wealthy wrestling hobbyist/“coach” John du Pont (Steve Carell). Things go from tense to deadly in this spare and thoughtful drama, for which Bennett Miller took home the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Fest. (His previous work includes “Capote” and “Moneyball.”) We caught this at a press screening last night – it is very chilling and very well done. From his pasty skin to his zombie rasp that passes for a voice, Carell perfectly conveys the menacing imperiousness and internal emptiness that apparently defined du Pont’s personality. Ruffalo and Tatum are excellent as well.

sophia-loren-afi-tribute[1]These are just a few of the film-noir offerings and there is much more going on, such as the Sophia Loren tribute on Nov. 12. Who doesn’t love this supremely talented and stunningly beautiful actress?

The complete AFI FEST program includes 118 films (73 features, 45 shorts), representing 39 countries. There are 29 films directed/co-directed by women, 16 documentaries and 17 animated films.  The breakdown by section is: Galas/Tributes (6), Special Screenings (8), American Independents (8), New Auteurs (10), World Cinema (29), Midnight (4), Breakthrough (4), Conversations (4), Cinema’s Legacy (4) and Short Films (45), and includes 9 official Foreign Language Film Oscar® submissions.

Free tickets are available: http://www.afi.com/afifest/freetickets.aspx

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‘Nightcrawler’ teaches how to creep up the career ladder

Nightcrawler posterNightcrawler/2014/Bold Films, Open Road Films/117 min.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” is a slick, suspenseful neo-noir satire on “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” journalism and the bleak reality of big-city survival.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, a Los Angeles loner whose “resume” is an odd blend of scavenging, thievery and clumsy self-promotion. While selling stolen goods to get by, he eagerly seeks a more upright job. But parroting cheesy memes he’s learned in online business classes to potential employers doesn’t compensate for his blatant dishonesty.

Then his late-night carousing leads him to a potential goldmine and an actual career path. He discovers that he can shoot video of crime scenes and sell it to local TV news stations. His camera might be cheap but he has the requisite ruthlessness and unflagging energy to join the ranks of freelance videographers who race against dawn, on deadline, from one crime scene to the next.

Equally ruthless is Nina Romina (Rene Russo), station manager of KWLA. Sharp-tongued and steely, Nina serves as Louis’ mentor; he helps her spike ratings and protect her job. Louis appears to have a crush on Nina and an awkward pseudo-romance ensues.

Having zero ethics and finding no shortage of wrong-doing around town, Louis has enough work to hire a gopher (Riz Ahmed). As the pressure mounts and the stakes get higher, Louis crosses the line to become what he might call a “hands-on entrepreneur” and what anyone else would call a criminal.

Where the film arguably missteps is in failing to humanize Louis (though maybe that’s not Gilroy’s goal). There’s no descent into craziness – Louis is unhinged from the first scene. Also, the budding “romance” is dropped too soon. It would have added a layer to both of their characters had Gilroy explored that subplot in more detail.

Nevertheless, “Nightcrawler” engages throughout, thanks to fierce performances from Gyllenhaal and Russo, crisp writing and direction from Gilroy and stunning cinematography from Robert Elswit.

 “Nightcrawler” opens in theaters today.

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Moody and hypnotic, ‘Force Majeure’ breathes new life into a tired trope

Force Majeure posterForce Majeure/2014/Magnolia Pictures/118 min.

It’s a question as old as the hills (or, in this case, the Alps): Can you ever really know a person? In “Force Majeure,” a domestic noir, Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund probes the surface of a couple’s relationship, on a skiing holiday with their kids in the majestic French mountains. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is a handsome workaholic; his lovely wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) sometimes compete with his i-phone for his attention.

When an avalanche hits, Tomas’ instinct is to take off on his own, rather than protect his family. Later, he denies and minimizes his behavior. But Ebba is devastated by what happened and she won’t let it go. The children distance themselves from their parents.

Östlund creates strange, jarring tension driven by a primal betrayal unfolding in unfamiliar territory. Tomas and Ebba are claustrophobic and quarrelsome at the ski lodge; exposed and vulnerable when they hit the slopes. Time drags, they bicker in front of strangers, drink too much booze and pretend all is well in front of the kids.

Moody and hypnotic, “Force Majeure” scored big at the Cannes Film Fest where it won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard.  The characters are rendered with piercing honesty as Östlund takes his time to tell the story. It’s a good, well acted yarn, pretty and ponderous, despite a few contrivances.

My one gripe: the film ends on a random note that doesn’t play particularly well.

“Force Majeure” opens in theaters today.

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Film Noir File: Have a Happy, Haunting Halloween with Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

The Birds” (1963, Alfred Hitchcock). Saturday, Oct. 25. 5:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m.)

Most critics attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it.

Most critics attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it.

A smug, snobbish, stylishly beautiful, and very, very blonde San Francisco socialite named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) chases a cocky lawyer she’s just met named Mitch (Rod Taylor), to his family home in scenic Bodega Bay, to mock him with a gift of love birds in a cage. Once they’ve reconnected, Mitch and Melanie commence on what first seems a typical Hollywood movie romance, with typical Hitchcockian mother problems (Jessica Tandy). And there’s another woman – Mitch’s old flame, a gorgeous brunette schoolteacher (Suzanne Pleshette).

Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock on location for “The Birds.”

Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock on location for “The Birds.”

Suddenly, inexplicably, the uncaged wild birds of Bodega Bay – crows, sparrows, sea gulls – start massing into murderous flocks or going on solitary raids, attacking Melanie and everyone else. As the attacks escalate in fury, their hapless human targets become immersed in an avian nightmare from the sky where no one is safe.

Perhaps most terrifying is the famous scene when Melanie sits on a bench outside the school to pick up Mitch’s kids, while, in the schoolroom, the children chant a doggerel nursery rhyme and behind Melanie masses of crows gather and perch, waiting quietly on the schoolyard jungle gym. Chaos ensues, with typical Hitchcockian invention and panache.

Masses of crows gather and perch, patiently waiting to attack.

Masses of crows gather and perch, patiently waiting to attack.

Back in 1963, critics, especially the more intellectual ones, generally attacked “The Birds.” But movie audiences flocked to it and that is the verdict that has lasted. The source of Evan Hunter’s screenplay was a novelette by Daphne du Maurier (“Rebecca”). The crisp and crystalline color cinematography is by Hitch regular Robert Burks and the menacing, shrieking bird sounds were created by Hitch’s masterly composer, Bernard Herrmann. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, Oct. 25: Horror Day

Sweeney Todd poster 19822 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1982, Terry Hughes & Harold Price). A film of the celebrated Harold Prince Broadway staging of Stephen Sondheim’s very dark musical play about the notorious killer-barber Sweeney Todd. With Angela Lansbury and George Hearn from the original stage cast.

4:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.): “Mad Love” (1935, Karl Freund). The most stylish film version of novelist Maurice Renard’s eerie horror tale “The Hands of Orlac,” in which a murderer’s hands are grafted onto the wrists of a famed concert pianist and amputee (Colin Clive) by a mad doctor (Peter Lorre), with an unspeakable yen for the pianist’s wife (Frances Drake). This one has a brilliantly maniacal performance by Lorre, and it’s a masterpiece of noir photography by German expressionist cameraman-turned-Hollywood-director Freund and his great cinematographer Gregg Toland (“Citizen Kane“). With Sara Haden and Edward Brophy.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Haunting” (1963, Robert Wise). With Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. The second great American horror movie of 1963. (See “The Birds” above.)

Sunday, Oct. 26

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): In a Lonely Place(1950, Nicholas Ray). With Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame and Frank Lovejoy.

Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner star in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from 1941.

Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner star in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from 1941.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941, Victor Fleming). The often-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson thriller about the good doctor whose potion turns him into a bad man. Spencer Tracys Jekyll-Hyde is much more realistically and psychologically played than the classic hammery of predecessors John Barrymore and the Oscar-winning Fredric March. Tracy does him with less extreme makeup, as a brilliant, sensitive but tormented Victorian Britisher beset with repressions and secret desires that explode into evil with the creation of Hyde. Fleming directed this movie near his “Gone with the Wind”-“Wizard of Oz” heyday and, though it’s a bit slow in the beginning, the last 30 minutes are a noir triumph. The excellent supporting cast includes Ingrid Bergman (as Hyde’s terrorized sex victim Ivy), Lana Turner, Donald Crisp and C. Aubrey Smith. (Off-screen, Bergman reportedly had affairs with Fleming and Tracy.)

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Diabolique” (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot). With Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel and Vera Clouzot.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “Gaslight” (1944, George Cukor). With Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty and Angela Lansbury. Reviewed in FNB on August 26, 2012.

Monday, Oct. 27: Jack Carson Day

Jack Carson died on Jan. 2, 1963, the same day as noir star Dick Powell. Carson was 52, Powell was 58.

Jack Carson died on Jan. 2, 1963, the same day as noir star Dick Powell. Carson was 52, Powell was 58.

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott and Eve Arden.

Tuesday, Oct. 28

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “Nosferatu” (1922, F. W. Murnau). Regarded by many critics as one of the greatest German films – and one of the greatest horror movies – of all time: F. W. Murnau’s hypnotic, brilliantly visual, unacknowledged adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire classic “Dracula.” Murnau’s Nosferatu, the mysterious Max Schreck, is one of the eeriest, creepiest, most frightening horror film monsters ever. He really looks as if he’d just crawled up out of a grave to kill you and drink your blood. And if you want a quick one-stop lesson in German film expressionism, here is a consummate example. (German silent, with intertitles and music score.)

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‘Whiplash,’ by writer/director Damien Chazelle, works on many levels, including as a neo-noir tale of obsession

Whiplash posterStrictly speaking, “Whiplash,” about a jazz student going to crazy lengths to please his maniacal teacher, is a drama. But unstrictly speaking, “Whiplash” counts as neo-noir.

How so? Shot in LA (in 19 days) but set in New York City, the urban landscape has a stark, unforgiving, slightly menacing vibe. Andrew, the sensitive but determined student (Miles Teller) at an elite fictional music conservatory, steers his passion into obsession, blood dripping from his fingers, as he determines to be the world’s greatest jazz drummer, à la Buddy Rich.

Andrew shuns his ever-supportive father (Paul Reiser) and, perhaps thinking he’s in charge of his destiny, he stubs out his nascent romance with a lonely movie usher/Fordham student named Nicole (Melissa Benoist) feeling that it’s only a matter of time before he will resent her.

Andrew meets his match in the form of the tyrannical, abusive teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), always dressed in black with immaculate posture and a perfectly shined bald head, who believes that verbal whippings and public humiliation will push his musicians into the realm of greatness.

Most noirishly, as the story unspools, there are subtle signs that we somehow, without knowing quite when or how, have left reality behind and are stranded in a dream-world of desperation, angst and paranoia. The dramatic lighting and tense pacing also contribute to the edgy, one-foot-in-hell mood. Cleverly, though, the story ends on a high note – a triumph of Andrew’s talent and perseverance.

“Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is one of my favorite films this year. Chazelle is both imaginative and precise in his storytelling; the Harvard University grad clearly knows what’s like to navigate a path at a competitive, elite institution. And he clearly knows jazz – in fact, both he and Teller play the drums. “Whiplash” also functions as an homage to the art form.

To me, though, Chazelle’s greatest accomplishments are the memorable, moving performances from the entire cast, especially Teller, looking a bit pudgier and pastier than usual, as he goes from schlubby to super-focused, and Simmons as the quietly rageful, ready-to-pounce sadist.

Kill the Messenger poster“Whiplash” opens today in theaters.

ALSO OPENING TODAY:

The Judge,” directed by David Dobkin. Compelling performances from a great cast (Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton), but the bloated, overlong script weighs this court-room drama/father-son story down. Way down.

And still on my list to see: “Kill the Messenger” is a conspiracy thriller directed by Michael Cuesta and starring Jeremy Renner about drug smugglers with links to CIA. Based on true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb.

Also: “Addicted,” a story of adultery, directed by Bille Woodruff and starring Sharon Leal.

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Tense neo-noir ‘Gone Girl’ is the go-to movie this weekend

Gone Girl posterIn the poster for “Gone Girl,” star Ben Affleck stands near a body of water – not a sandy white beach burnished by the sun, but a murky strip of gray bounded by non-descript industrial buildings. A dump, in other words, and just the kind of place that could drive you crazy, especially if the rest of your life isn’t going so great and if your relationship is, well, a bit frayed.

Director David Fincher conveys that strong, vivid sense of place (North Carthage, Missouri) as well as a mood of dour frustration (Affleck’s Nick Dunne is in a strained marriage) within the first few minutes of “Gone Girl,” the much-anticipated neo-noir movie based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel. (Flynn also wrote the script.)

“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head,” Nick tells us. Literally, as he touches her sleek blonde hair, and figuratively: “What are you thinking, Amy? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

It seems that Nick’s fate is to ponder these questions and consistently come up short on answers. That’s because elegant and efficient Amy (Rosamund Pike), a trust-fund only child from an upper-crust East Coast family, is always several steps ahead of Nick, a good-looking, polite Midwestern guy who fancies that he might one day write the great American novel. They meet in Manhattan, where they both work as magazine writers but, when they lose their jobs, they move back to Nick’s hometown, which has been decimated by the recession.

On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously disappears and Nick becomes the No. 1 suspect. As the drama unfolds, we discover that the answers to the questions about Nick and Amy are far more devastating than we could have imagined.

Flynn’s smart, multi-layered script (which closely follows her book) is just right for Fincher’s capable hands. The film is tense, gripping and darkly funny, and Fincher draws stellar performances from Affleck and Pike as well as Kim Dickens  as the low-key but tenacious lead detective on the case, Tyler Perry as Nick’s slick, smooth-talking defense attorney and Carrie Coon as Margo, Nick’s straight-shooting and sarcastic twin sister.

Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn

The plot of both the book and movie eventually becomes fantastic, even absurd. Sticklers for plausibility likely will grumble by the end.

But that didn’t bother me much because I think Flynn’s aim, as outlined on page one, was to raise thorny questions about the façades we present when dating, the fronts we gain from our jobs (or lack thereof), the compromises of intimacy and the unconscious crafting of a joint identity, the waning and waxing distance between two people over time, and the creeping self-denial and even outright lies that sometimes prop up a relationship, not to mention the current state of sexual power and politics. (The “cool-girl” soliloquy, particularly in the book, is downright searing.)

It’s a lot to think about and Flynn makes it entertaining to boot. That said, there is one central flaw to both the movie and the book, and that’s a deep connection, an undeniable, goose-pimply intensity, between Nick and Amy. That needs to be there for the story to work completely and it’s missing – there isn’t much chemistry, let alone a combustible, powerful passion. In establishing Amy as the alpha girl, Nick’s character remains a bit dull and two-dimensional.

Granted, she’s drawn to the good-looking, affable Milquetoast because she can boss him around, but a Type A like Amy would tire of mere arm candy and look for more of a challenge – someone to push back a bit and stand up to her. After all, she appears to be the golden girl with the world as her oyster.

And there are still a few stand-up, take-charge guys out there, right?

“Gone Girl” opens today in theaters.

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‘The Drop’ makes compelling descent; ‘Honeymoon’ pops scary question about connubial bliss

The Drop posterThe Drop

It’s a terrific cast: Tom Hardy as Brooklyn bartender Bob Saginowski (a bit of a doofus with a weakness for stray dogs); the late James Gandolfini as Bob’s cynical cousin Marv, who runs the bar; Noomi Rapace as Bob’s scarred and streetwise love interest; Matthias Schoenaerts as a menacing psycho and John Ortiz as a smart, smooth-talking cop.

It’s a tense, top-notch script, written by neo-noir stalwart Dennis Lehane based on his short story called “Animal Rescue,” and it’s well directed by Michaël R. Roskam. The “drop” refers to cash bundles that are left surreptitiously at bars and kept safe until mobsters stop by to collect them. When Marv’s bar is robbed and the gangsters’ cash seized, a series of double-crosses and brutalities ensues.

These characters live and breathe before us – Gandolfini in particular easily inhabits a guy who wants the Christmas decorations in his bar down by December 27, who knows which whiskey will seal a deal and who unwinds by parking himself in front of a mindless TV show.

It’s a good-looking film, capturing the feel of a bleak midwinter, shot by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis.

With much in its favor, the entertaining “The Drop” isn’t a great film because the storytelling becomes a bit too convoluted, there are too many questions left unanswered by the end. It feels like something is missing – perhaps the layers of Bob’s character have not been peeled back far enough.

Still, “The Drop” is a thoughtful, mesmerizing, sometimes funny fall into neo-noir darkness.

Honeymoon posterHoneymoon

For some couples, the honeymoon phase might last months, even years. Not so much in the creepy sci-fi flick “Honeymoon,” an impressive effort from first-time director and co-writer Leigh Janiak.

For Brooklynite newlyweds Paul and Bea, ensconced at an idyllic lake cottage far from the city, tenderness and romance are quickly replaced by tension, then terror.

At first, of course, everything seems perfect. Bea (played by Rose Leslie of “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey”) chirpily recites the couple’s dating rituals and the cherished moment Paul (Harry Treadaway of “The Lone Ranger”) proposed. They can’t keep their hands off each other.

Several hours later, late at night, Bea wanders off alone. Paul finds her and brings her back to the cottage. It soon dawns on him, though, that this version of Bea is not the girl he married and their relationship unravels. Heather McIntosh’s haunting score and crisp cinematography by Kyle Klutz help set the uneasy, eerie mood.

Rooted in psychological fear and grounded with solid performances, the film asks how well we can really know anyone, even those to whom we are intimately attached. As Treadaway put it at a recent press day: “The very process of committing to someone – you love them with all of yourself and trust them with everything you have – is opening up the possibility of this person breaking that trust or not being the person you hoped they were.”

And few things are more frightening than waking up next to a stranger.

“The Drop” and “Honeymoon” are playing in theaters.

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