Sunday, October 12, 2014

Families Are Tough

Before I go any further, let me say how great it is to have the late summer doldrums over with! Seriously, both of these are good, solid films that deserve to be seen. For some reason, the studios prefer to release their "prestige" pictures in the last quarter of the year - this probably has to do with the perceived short attention span of awards voters, but October is when you start seeing the "good stuff for grown ups."

In his novel Anna Karenina, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote that "all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It may well be a universal truth, as opposed to something that Tolstoy had specific insight into by dint of his Russian-ness. At any rate, Tolstoy's principle is on display in two new releases - Gone Girl, which deals with the husband/wife relationship, and The Judge, which deals with the father/son relationship.

So - Gone Girl. I have to admit that I was supposed to read the novel for my book club quite a while back, but it was during an incredibly hectic time and this one slipped by me. Therefore, I stayed spoiler free and cannot comment on how the movie compares to the book, although I was pleased to see that the author, Gillian Flynn, was responsible for the screenplay. Directed by David Fincher (of Se7en, Fight Club, and The Social Network, among others), this film is stylish and slippery. If you've ever wondered what the literary critic folks mean when they talk about an "unreliable narrator," watch this film - both Amy Dunne and her husband Nick are telling only partial stories. Not that the media does any better here, content instead to go for the sensational sound bite rather than digging for anything resembling facts. There's much in here about distrust, psychopathy, and our willingness to rush to judgment on flimsy circumstantial evidence. Strong performances all the way around, with Ben Affleck reminding viewers that his strengths aren't just as a director and the astonishing Rosamund Pike leaving me breathless more than once. It's also worth mentioning that Tyler Perry is actually capable of more subtlety than his drag role of Medea and Neil Patrick Harris has a quiet menace that you don't necessarily expect from his Barney role on How I Met Your Mother. Truly - every aspect of this film is worthy of praise, from the casting of small roles to the deconstructed industrial soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. All that said, I saw a group of seven teenage girls walk out part way through, no doubt expecting a romantic thriller rather than an exploration of infidelity and psychopathy. Be warned. 

Meanwhile, in The Judge the focus is on the fractured relationship between a brash son (Robert Downey Jr.) and his prickly, upright father (Robert Duvall). Downey's Hank is the middle son, with his older brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) staying behind in Small Town, Indiana (not its real name, but seriously - the town is a John Mellencamp song) following the crushing loss of his own dreams to help take care of his younger, mentally challenged brother (played with remarkable grace by classically trained actor Jeremy Strong). While the plot and characters could easily have become a quickly-sketched cliche, the actors here rise above that to create a film that shows tenderness and depth. Hank's an ass, but he's a really good lawyer. His father was unyielding and intractable, and his own stubborn adherence to his personal code creates massive problems for those who, despite their better judgment, love him. I really think Vera Farmiga as Hank's old flame should be singled out for praise - it would have been simple to make her a rapidly-drawn cartoon, but she approaches the role with flair and verve. I may have enjoyed this one more due to my own training as an attorney - I saw some of the legal issues and problems before some others in the theater did - but I still think The Judge is well worth seeing. 

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