In 1992, six years after James Cameron’s Aliens, another entry into the Alien series was released, and was yet another film with one of those “production hell” stories. Its development involved numerous directors, numerous writers (including William Gibson and Renny Harlin) and at least 6 different ideas on where the third film should go, many of which were cold war analogues. However, with so many delays (including that created by a WGA strike), by the time a story was settled on, the cold war was over. Well played. The time in development also saw Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley relegated to a minor role, but the president of 20th Century Fox declared that Ripley was “really the only female warrior we have in our movie mythology”, and Weaver herself asked for a story that wasn’t dependent on guns, so further re-writes were called for.
After another thousand or so versions of the screenplay, and seemingly as many writers, production finally began without a complete script, without effects legend Stan Winston, with a cinematographer who lasted only two weeks before being forced out due to illness, with strict deadlines and substantial studio interference, and with a director hitherto previously known only for music videos – David Fincher. A far from ideal situation, and Alien 3 received a lukewarm response at best, and led Fincher to disown his first feature. So it’s a pretty terrible film, right? Well, no, actually. I think it gets a pretty bad, and unfair, rap. But a quick plot summary first, for those unfamiliar with it.
A fire breaks out aboard the USS Sulaco, where Ripley, Newt, Corporal Hicks and Bishop are in stasis tubes after their ordeal at the end of Aliens. The computer launches the stasis tubes in an escape pod, and the pod lands on Fury 161, a penal and work colony full of violent, antisocial, male criminals. Either through the crash landing or the fire, Hicks and Newt die, and Ripley is told that she is the only survivor. This, of course, is inaccurate, as there is a face hugger also on board, which soon attacks an inmate’s pet dog, and once the gestation period is over, bye bye pooch, hello terrifying alien hunter.
In a manner similar to the original Alien, the single creature begins to stalk the surviving inmates and pick them off one by one, causing fear and tensions in the population, and requiring that these violent, brutal and antisocial men work with each other, and Ripley, in order to kill it. There’s a slight knot in this plan, though, in that the only person with experience and skill facing the aliens, Ripley, turns out to be host to an alien queen embryo. Weakened and short on time, Ripley must direct efforts to trap the alien in the prison’s smelting facility, and then end her own life before either the alien emerges from her chest, or the duplicitious Weyland-Yutani corporation arrive to turn the alien into a weapon.
Alien 3 really didn’t get a great response when it was released, as Fincher’s disowning of his work would suggest, and I remember not being enormously enamoured of it at the time, but I was 13 and was many years away from having my critical faculties fully developed. However, having revisited it a few times since, I actually quite like it. While it’s not as good as either of the preceding films in the series, it has its own appeals. Perhaps most notable is the lack of conventional weapons – not having guns increases the tension and requires inventiveness from the characters. Also, while the crews of both the Sulaco and the Nostromo had the potential to disintegrate, there was never the threat from them that the criminals of Fury 161 pose to the lone woman of Ripley.
It’s also got a few aces acting-wise – there’s something reassuring about Brian Glover as warden Andrews (though I accept that’s partly because it’s impossible not to associate his voice with the idea of a nice cup of tea), then you have the erudition of Charles Dance, and the power and authority of Charles S. Dutton. And while these are gifted and dependable actors, with the mess this film was in when shooting began, then the fact that such good performances, and such a competent, if imperfect, final product could be wrought from it is surely testament to the skill of the director? And, perhaps most importantly, it’s not Alien: Resurrection.
It turns out that this is the first time I’ve watched the recut version that the special effects producer put together, which is as close as we’ll get to a director’s cut given Fincher’s attitudes towards it. This is the version that’s prompted a mild reappraisal of the film, which is surprising, as I find it significantly worse, inflating the running time with scenes where nothing of note happens, including the filling out of the cultist’s characters which I think was the intent, or some recut action scenes with some laughable, Video Toaster-esque CGI moments.
So, find a copy of the theatrical release and give it a look – there’s kernels of interesting ideas here, even if they’re not fully realised.
Or se-seven-en, as it’s infuriatingly stylised. Much to his distaste, grizzled veteran Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is teamed up with a largely idealistic, naive, hot-headed Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), on the cusp of Somerset’s retirement. Their initial animosity, which predictably enough will become respect over the course of the piece, must go on the back-burner when it becomes clear a serial killer is at work in Noo Yawk’s five boroughs.
The two move through the procedural motions while uncovering five murder sites based loosely around the seven deadly sins, before the killer, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, unexpectedly gives himself up as part of his cunning master plan to make himself and Mills exemplars of the remaining two sins.
You have to applaud Fincher’s sense of continuity, taking the same dark, dilapidated, dingy tone of Alien 3 and moving it wholesale to New York, which hasn’t looked this unappealing on the silver screen since the days of Taxi Driver. It fits the subject matter well, although the almost relentless grime grows wearying.
A lot of this film’s appeal to emotion appears to me to be based on the shock value of the tableaus John Doe is creating, but there’s nothing like a couple of decades of torture porn to lessen the shock value of this film. A confession, before preparing for this podcast I hadn’t seen Seven, largely because while I missed it first time around I couldn’t miss the relentless parodying and inevitable spoilers of John Doe’s final trick, so for me, by this point, it has been rather comprehensively de-fanged.
As a result, there’s not much left in Seven for me to appreciate. Freeman is motivated, so gives a commendable performance, but this was the time of Brad Pitt only just emerging from his chrysalis of improved acting ability, and for my money 12 Monkeys was by far the better turn of this time period. Not to say he’s bad, as such, but I don’t find him particularly engaging here.
But if you’re not all that impressed by the grizzly details of the murders, there’s not a great deal else in here to care about. There’s not all that much in the way of investigation going on, and what little there is feels a lot like filler material to pad time between the killings. The main duo get some character development over the course of the piece, but nothing that’s not resolutely conforming to genre norms.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Spacey’s John Doe, who’s quite the most boring psychopath I’ve seen since Dick Cheney was last interviewed. He’s so bland it’s difficult to care what his motivations are, which is just as well, as you’re not really going to get any joy on that front either. Being crazy seems to be its own reward, in this instance.
Perhaps I wasn’t able to appreciate the intended impact, but this is perhaps the greatest disappointment to me in this podcast, albeit far from the worst film. It’s mix of cliched structure and try-hard dark ‘n’ edgy-ness so beloved of the nineties gives this the feel of a film of a bygone era, and has aged poorly. Thankfully there’s a much better serial killer based movie we’ll cover later that I can recommend in Seven‘s place, but this is a swing and a miss for me.
Nick Van Orton is a modern day Ebeneezer Scrooge; a wealthy, self-obsessed San Francisco businessman whose financial success, built upon that of his late father, has come at the expense of his personal, social well-being. Of all parties who recall his birthday, Nick is the least interested, certainly less so than his estranged brother Conrad who makes a rare departure from his own hedonistic existence to deliver Nick his gift; an invite from the nebulously monikered Consumer Recreation Services.
Quite who CRS are and what they do is a matter of mystery, but following an application process of multiple choice psych profiling and physical examination, Nick enters his Game; a series of staged, often initially innocuous events inserted into his everyday life that seem to steer him through an increasingly nightmare-ish San Francisco on a voyage alternating between humiliation and self-discovery. As the Game gradually reveals itself as something increasingly more sinister than first envisaged, Nick is aided and/or hindered by a number of incidental characters, including Deborah Kara Unger as a waitress, and also crosses paths again with Conrad, now apparently also enmeshed in some sort of Game of his own.
The Game is one of the more interesting entries in Fincher’s canon, coming somewhat emboldened off the back of the critical and commercial success of Se7en and at the same time foreshadowing the seedy, male identity crisis of Fight Club. There are things it does well, initially at least, in pursuit of it’s goal of blurring the lines between reality and fiction, sanity and mental dysfunction. Fincher’s trademark darkness-fuelled visual style is front and centre here, perhaps more so even than in any of his other movies, and at times The Game feels oppressive enough that it might exist in the same midnight, cityscape odyssey universe as something like The Warriors.
In terms of performance the cast are serviceable enough, and thought it may not quite be peak Douglas it does plot a point on a definite upward trajectory toward Wonder Boys and Traffic. Living somewhere between the end of a mahogany boardroom desk and a leather armchair in an otherwise empty mansion, Douglas’ Van Orton is a convincingly miserable sod, consumed by emptiness, whose only company comes from the help and an endless stream of TV news business updates. The script hints at the influence of Nick’s tragic past; a birthday meal beneath a covered plate turns out to be a burger, perhaps the favourite food of a man denied much of his childhood, and we are primed to expect much symbolism around the significance of Nick’s 48th birthday being that on which his father took his own life, though ultimately little if anything comes of it. The weakest link is Penn, whose unconvincing histrionics somewhere around the middle reel suggest he probably wanted an easy couple of mil and a long weekend in San Fran having gone round the twist with Oliver Stone for U Turn. By and large though the players do as much as might be expected in servicing a plot that rapidly spirals into absurdity.
The Game‘s only real misstep is that it’s reach so thoroughly and needlessly exceeds its grasp, and unfortunately it does so to such a degree that any presumption the filmmakers may have had regarding their audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief proves woefully misjudged and, ultimately, a death blow. There is definitely an entertaining and thought provoking movie somewhere in here, but so thoroughly entangled is it with the movie’s reliance on increasingly convoluted plot contrivances that it has somewhat had the life choked out of it. Initially, Nick’s encounters with the influence of CRS upon his world are stretched but within the ball park of audience goodwill. By the time two hours have passed, however, we have seen any number of engineered situations where the only conceivable outcome for Nick is certain death, and yet time and again in such situations as being trapped in a sinking car Nick has the presence of mind to remember the one item improbably enabled by CRS to allow him to escape unscathed and continue along this deranged narrative.
If the peril rings untrue then it is certainly backed up by the outcome of Nick’s ordeal; as an audience we are expected to believe that this cold, self-absorbed and bloody-minded business man would react to his life being so flagrantly jeopardised on so many occasions in any other way than to immediately sue every motherfucker in the room. Instead we are presented with a miraculous moment of clarity from our lead; a placid, unquestioning acceptance of 48 years wasted in pursuit of success and an immediate desire to follow Deborah Kara Unger’s character presumably toward a new, more fulfilled life. It is asking far too much to accept these contrivances and the likelihood of their outcome, and while I admire Fincher and his screenwriters the courage of their conviction I also call bullshit on their ridiculously broken internal plot logic.
While I by no means detest The Game (in fact I still kind of like aspects of it), I did find this, my first viewing since it was first released, far less forgiving than I had expected, and my more developed adult faculties infinitely less able to set aside my concerns around plot. In the end it’s all a little too…silly, really. I’m not going to outright advise you to avoid it, but I can’t necessarily recommend The Game much beyond an interesting waypoint in Fincher’s career.
While Se7en is the film that brought David Fincher to the world’s attention, I’d argue that it is with 1999’s Fight Club, an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, that he really made his name.
Edward Norton’s Narrator suffers from chronic insomnia, but his doctor refuses to prescribe him anything to treat it, suggesting instead that he visit a cancer survivors’ support group to see how relatively easy he has it (I’m pretty sure this isn’t good medical practice, but let’s set that aside for now). To his surprise he finds relief and catharsis at the session, and soon becomes a support group junkie, pretending to have survived the same disease or condition as all of the poor souls he encounters. His mellow soon gets harshed, though, when he begins to notice Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla at several of these groups, and recognises her as being like him, and finds her presence unwelcome as it reminds him of his own mendacity and dishonesty.
He then finds another outlet for his frustrations. After meeting a soap salesman called Tyler Durden on a business flight, he moves into Tyler’s house after discovering that his flat has been destroyed in an explosion. They often go to a bar together, and get into fights outside. After doing this a few times, they attract a crowd, and soon set up their own fight club in the bar’s basement, where men meet to fight one another for leisure. It becomes so popular that Tyler and the Narrator set up franchise clubs all over the US. Tyler then turns these clubs, unbeknownst to the Narrator, into an anti-corporate anarchist group called “Project Mayhem”, which performs acts of vandalism, sabotage and terrorism. Outraged by this, the Narrator begins hunting for the now absent Tyler, only to discover.. DAH DAH DAH! … that he is, in fact, Tyler, and that they are two personalities sharing the same body. The film concludes with Tyler’s plans to wipe out debt by destroying the buildings which contain credit card company records and the Narrator’s attempts to separate himself from Tyler.
This is yet another cult movie where a large section of its fanbase (and critics) took entirely the wrong message from it, seeing it as glorifying violence (this came, inevitably, with the media fears that people would copy the film and found their own Fight Clubs, a fear as breathlessly hyperbolic and moralising as such things usually are), when, in fact, the violence in Fight Club is there because it’s the one time where these men can feel something real, in a world in which they are numbed, anaesthetised, and where only materialism and consumption matter, not experience.
I don’t know if it’s quite fair to label Fight Club a cult classic – I have trouble applying that label to anything that took over $100 million at the box office – but compared to it’s hefty budget this wasn’t the runaway success the studio would have been hoping for. Nonetheless, it’s found its audience, and there’s a good chunk of that audience that treat it as manifesto rather than a shaggy dog story, which is a little disturbing.
I’ve always enjoyed this film, but I’ve never taken any part of it remotely seriously, from it’s call for violent struggle as a foundation of male character to its casual terrorism, which always looked odd to those who grew up with the I.R.A. bombing campaigns and odder still post 9/11. But it’s the rise of the demagogue, the fascistic overtone’s of Durden’s little cult of personality that stands out these days, a sort of harbinger of the alt-right that seem to most identify with this film and starts to repel me from it.
But, if you live in a postcode outside of Crazytown, there’s an awful lot to enjoy in Fight Club, as it’s consistently innovative, imaginative and interesting. The characters are well-drawn and compelling, and it may be career-best turns from Norton and Pitt, and perhaps even Bonham-Carter. Visually and sonically it’s as much an assault as a film, and while I suppose that’s a barrier for entry for some for me it’s another aspect of how the film eschews conventionality.
It is not a design for life, but it’s a supremely enjoyable film that remains unique, and Fincher’s best blend of style and substance. I think he’s made better films, but not by much, and not as iconoclastic as this. Certainly worth watching for everyone – even if it alienates you, it certainly won’t bore you.
Off the back of Fight Club, I don’t think anyone would have picked this altogether more conventional script as the obvious next step for Fincher’s directorial career, but apparently after the sprawling Fight Club he wanted to pick something rather more contained and intimate. So enter Panic Room, and unfortunately another troubled gestation, with bust-ups with his DP and the withdrawal of Nicole Kidman just before shooting due to an injury.
Jodie Foster takes over the lead as Meg Altman, moving into a nice old house in Manhattan after her divorce, along with her daughter Sarah (Kirsten Stewart). It seems much bigger than they need, even coming equipped with the titular panic room installed by the previous owner, but before they have a chance to unpack, things start to go bump in the night.
No ghosts, thankfully, but a selection of robbers up to no good, who in time are revealed to be Junior (Jared Leto), a carer for the now-dead prior owner who has learned of a secret stash of cash hidden in the house, Burnham (Forest Whitaker), who works for the security company that installed the house’s panic room, and Raoul (Dwight Yokam), a general purpose thug playing a floating sweeper role.
While they keep their efforts to break in relatively quiet, it’s clear they’re not expecting anyone to be in the house just yet, and they alert Meg, who scampers off with Sarah into the panic room. Normally a good plan, but the mystery treasure these lads are after resides in a floor safe inside the panic room, so they set about finding ways of flushing them out, while Meg and Sarah try to find ways of attracting attention to their plight, with a somewhat artificial clock being put on things by diabetic Sarah’s falling blood sugar level and missing insulin injection.
Their attempts are aided by a certain amount of pre-existing strains between the robbers, with Burnham’s distaste for Raoul’s violent streak evident leading to some small measure of redemption for him by the end of the film, but perhaps nowhere near enough as the script would want you have with him – he’s still a thief, after all, and as markers for humanity go, administering a life-saving injection to a dying child rather than, well, not isn’t much more than a baseline.
There is, perhaps, not that much glaringly wrong about Panic Room, but it’s very much the most mundane of the films we’ve spoken about so far, and it’s perhaps the one where Fincher’s visual slickness integrates least well with the narrative, giving the film an unsettling feel, albeit an entirely different one than the script wants to create.
I’ve no real issues with any of the performances, from all of the cast, but, well, there’s not really all that much in the way of challenging material for them to get their teeth into. The film’s competent, but almost completely unremarkable in every way.
Fincher, a man who’s gratifying not the permanent hype jockey when on PR junkets said of this (and partially The Game), he “…didn’t look at Panic Room and think: Wow, this is gonna set the world on fire. These are footnote movies, guilty pleasure movies. Thrillers. Woman-trapped-in-a-house movies. They’re not particularly important”. Perhaps the only problem with this analysis is that while there’s not much to feel guilty about in Panic Room, but not a great deal of pleasure to take from it either.
To this day nothing much captures the popular imagination like a serial killer, especially so one who evades justice. Of those few notable examples of murderers who remain anonymous to this day one name towers above the rest; that of the Zodiac Killer.
Operating in the San Francisco area from December 1968 to September 1969, the Zodiac Killer was responsible for 5 confirmed deaths through that period, though they may have been responsible for disappearances dating as far back as 1963. The killer became part of the zeitgeist mainly through a series of cryptic, encoded notes with which (presumably) he taunted the San Francisco Police Department and local media. Needless to say the killings have inspired all manner of cultural references across movies, music and literature, among the latter of which Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac is one of the preeminent examples.
It is this book, written by a former cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, that forms the basis for David Fincher’s film of the same name, a detailed though somewhat artistically embellished account of the efforts of the SFPD and local Chronicle journalists to trace the identity of the killer.
It is the movie’s concern with the procedural aspect of the investigation and in particular it’s effect on the lives of those involved in the hunt that most sets Zodiac apart from other examples of the genre. While we do witness several of the confirmed murders taking place, details of the killer himself are obviously thin on the ground, and rather than spend time on idle conjecture both Graysmith’s source and Fincher’s movie busy themselves with the facts that we do know; those of the aftermath.
The action here focuses on a period between 1969 and 1975, opening with the attack on teenagers Darlene Ferrin and her boyfriend Mike Mageau. Ferrin succumbed to her injuries but Mageau survived, and one month later the Zodiac sent the first of his letters directed to the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle, landing on the desk of crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jnr.) and piquing the interest of cartoonist Graysmith (Jake Gylleanhaal).
Initially reluctant to take Graysmith seriously, Avery begins to share information with the cartoonist when he cracks the coded letter, and soon the pair become obsessed with the hunt for the killer. Meanwhile, after two more killings Police Detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) pick up the case for the SFPD, and so begins the long, arduous and exhaustive search for one of history’s most enigmatic and terrifying serial killers.
For a two and a half hour plus movie that takes place mostly around office desks and police interview rooms Zodiac manages to remain compelling viewing throughout, due in no small measure to the skills of its cast who, to a man, are operating close to if not very much at the top of their game. And I do mean “to a man” for this is a veritable sausage fest of a movie, though that is somewhat necessitated by the source material. Just keep in mind that, if it is of vital importance to you, this movie will not be passing the Bechdel Test.
Much like his cast, there is a strong case to be made for this movie representing Fincher at the top of his game, a sentiment that has gathered some momentum as the years have passed. Whether or not you agree with that it is hard to deny that this is probably the director’s most mature and assured work to date, balancing a refreshing reigning-in of his trademark technical flair with a trust in both cast and source material that one might not have expected just a few years prior.
The movie only gets better as the Zodiac himself begins to fade from the public conscience, and one begins to question who are his greatest victims: the murdered themselves or the increasingly embattled police and reporters sacrificing themselves in pursuit of a ghost. It is at this point of broken marriages, resignations and demotions that Zodiac is most satisfying,
As the years pass I find myself more and more drawn to Zodiac, and even now as I find myself gravitating in that “late thirties” way toward the comfort of my favourite slippers I can envisage a time where it may even supplant Fight Club as my favourite Fincher movie. Certainly it is one of those movies like Casino or The Conversation which, while not at the absolute top of my favourites list, I can pretty much happily stream from the network drive at any time and be guaranteed to find myself utterly engrossed.
Every bit as compelling as the events on which it is based, Zodiac has deservedly earned its stripes the hard way, finding it’s feet on home media where it struggled in cinemas, a bit like a stabby, shooty Shawshank. Absolutely recommended.
Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the tale of a boy born in the early 20th century with the appearances and problems of an elderly man. His mother dies in childbirth, and his despicable father abandons the baby at a nursing home, where he is cared for, and raised, by workers there. And, in Benjamin Button‘s hook, young-old, Benjamin begins to age backwards. While at the nursing home he meets a young girl called Daisy, who will grow up to become Cate Blanchett, and she and Benjamin will cross paths at several points throughout their lives, eventually falling in love and having a child together, after which their physical ages will begin to diverge from one another again.
The bulk of the film follows Benjamin as he becomes younger and stronger, gets a job on a New Orleans tugboat, and gets involved in World War II, and has love affairs, much of which plays out like some unholy, and wholly lesser, mish-mash of Forrest Gump and Tim Burton’s Big Fish, until eventually old-young Benjamin dies as an infant (because he shrinks, just like humans don’t – internal logic is not one of this film’s strong points) in the arms of the elderly Daisy.
And that’s it. While it tries, unsuccessfully, to cover one man’s entire life, it’s still a very narrow hook on which to try to hang an entire, near 3-hour, movie on. Very much a case of style over substance, the earlier, almost fairytale-like, sections are reasonably entertaining, and it’s certainly not something that I could call bad, but it is pretty much pointless. I really don’t know what it’s trying to say, or why. Several years ago Scott and Craig posited that the film’s only question seemed to be “wouldn’t it be weird if someone aged backwards?”, and, nine years on, I have absolutely nothing to add to that. It seems to have nothing to say about relationships or the human condition.
To be fair to Brad Pitt, he is generally pretty engaging and watchable throughout as the titular Benjamin, even though he is saddled with acting against a particularly bland and insipid (and, at times, downright annoying) Cate Blanchett, and levels of interest in, and enjoyment of, the film and the presence of Blanchett on screen have an inverse relationship. But the director at times feels MIA, because the film is sorely in need of a direction. It’s rather odd for Fincher.
As we release this podcast in the month of the Academy Awards, though, let me not miss this opportunity to mention how little regard I have for the Oscars: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received THIRTEEN Academy Award nominations. 13. For a three hour treatise on how it’d be a bit awkward if you were born old and got younger. I think that the cloud of expletives I vented when I went to check that figure is still floating somewhere over the North Sea at this moment. 13 nominations for, though not the worst, clearly one of the least substantial films in Fincher’s directorial career. Madness.
Despite having the most outlandish concept of all of Fincher’s work, including Alien 3, it’s the least interesting and enjoyable of his outings. Including Alien 3.
Aaron Benjamin Sorkin is someone ripe for covering by himself at some point in this podcast series, the American sceenwriter famed for his sharp dialogue, leftwing political leanings and author’s viewpoint insertion, and also his apparent inability or unwillingness to write female characters. He’s also rather dismissive of this “Internet” thing, viewing the greatest tool humanity has invented for communication and dissemination of knowledge and ideas as a Bad Thing for reasons he’s never been able to properly define, apart from it not existing in the 1940’s which is clearly what he thinks America’s ideal society was.
An odd choice, perhaps, to tell the story of the site that for many people is the Internet, Facebook. This matters less than you’d expect, because the existence of the company that in July 2016 hit a valuation of $350 billion dollars, with analysts suggesting it could hit $1 trillion, is a footnote in this, let’s politely say speculative look at the dynamics between the company founders, the influencers that come with their success, and the people who claim their idea was stolen.
Said founders are of course Mark Zuckerberg, played here by Jesse Eisenberg and apparently straight up stolen as the characterisation for Batman vs Superman‘s Lex Luthor, and Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin, the business end of Zuckerberg’s hot new site, The Facebook, the social network that I’m sure you’re at least passingly familiar with. In the early days it seems largely similar to its current incarnation, but it was limited to students at Zuckerberg’s alma mater, Harvard Uni, spreading out amongst the hoity toity Ivy League universities before lower class scum such as us could sign up.
Often framed as depositions in the respective court cases, it’s two main flashpoints are Max Minghella’s Divya Narendra and Armie Hammer’s dual weilding Winklevosses, Cameron and Tyler claiming that Zuckeberg stole their essential idea for the site, and Saverin’s claim that he was screwed out of his fair share of the buisness, largely due to marginalisation after Zuckerberg went all starry eyed after meeting Napster founder Sean Parker, here played surprisingly well by modern-day crooner Justin “Thunder” Timberlake.
Veracity aside – and framing Zuckerberg’s entire enterprise as a means to reconnect with a barely touched on girl, Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright, is a one collosal pile of veracity – it’s a much more interesting tale than the capsule review of coding and depositions would have you believe, in no small part to Sorkin’s gift for snappy, back and forth dialogue that’s more aspirational than realistic, but no less enjoyable for it.
All of the leads prove well up to their tasks, with crisp delivery and believable characterisation, although particular plaudits plust ple paid plu pl-Eisenberg, who I don’t believe I’ve seen better from. Fincher gives another masterclass in pacing, and his style again merges seamlessly wth the narrative rather than tripping over it.
I’d remembered this as being my favourite film of 2010 – a quick check actually reveals that to be Inception, but it was a pretty close run thing, and given how much I love Inception – spoiler warning, I really love Inception – there’s certainly few films I would recommend as highly as this.
Amidst a veritable tidal wave of needless Hollywood remakes that have swamped us in the last decade or so, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo stands out as one of, if not the most unnecessary.
Arriving a mere two years after it’s native Swedish counterpart was adapted from Stieg Larsson’s novel of the same name, Hollywood Tattoo (as I shall hence forth refer to it) was pretty much green lit immediately after that movie hit Scandinavian theatres with predictable financial success.
In this incarnation, Daniel Craig inherits the lead role of Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced magazine reporter whose recent investigation into the financial affairs of a corrupt businessman and the resulting libel case have left him sans credibility and bereft of life savings. All but ruined, Blomkvist finds himself summoned by wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who is looking for Mikael to secretly investigate the 40 year-old mystery of the disappearance of his niece Harriet while posing as his biographer.
Vanger’s research into Blomkvist has been conducted by troubled ward of the state Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara here taking on the role that brought Noomi Rapace to international prominence) who is a social outcast and skilled hacker who comes with her own suite of personal setbacks, not least the sexual abuse she encounters at the hands of her care worker. Together Mikael and Lisbeth begin to unravel the dark secrets of the Vanger family, finding their lives in jeopardy as they go, and encountering the full spectrum of Swedish accents ranging from English to Very English.
Never having read the source material nor witnessed the native Swedish adaptation, I can’t really comment all that much on Hollywood Tattoo‘s heritage other than to say I am reliably informed that rather than an alternative adaptation of the former it is perhaps more puzzlingly a straight remake of the latter. It is certainly very engrossing, in fact much more so than many recent remakes, and it is definitely both well-crafted and paced enough that it’s unnecessary running time of over two and a half hours doesn’t actually feel all that much of a burden.
Having said that, given that the only notable differences between the original adaptation and this are an English-speaking cast and a six-fold or thereabouts increase in budget, the questions one must ask are a) why the studio bothered and b) why Fincher?
For the purposes of this podcast’s discussion the first is most easily answered, namely the studio seeing an already-demonstrated cash multiplier that coincides with the recent international preference for Scandinavian crime thrillers in popular culture. So far so sadly predictable. It bothers me to this day, though, that a director so singular in vision as David Fincher ought to want for the job of remaking someone else’s material rather than returning to the source material for his own take.
Hollywood Tattoo is perhaps the most low-key of Fincher’s works to date, at least in terms of style and flair, though it does certainly check several of the “moody aesthetic” boxes. There is however a slightly sterile bent to the look and feel of this adaptation, sitting in oddly stark contrast to Fincher’s Trent Reznor-fuelled credit sequence that looks like a Bond intro went through a Valvoline nightmare and hinting at a raw edginess that somewhat disappointingly seldom surfaces. That is not to say that this movie doesn’t earn it’s steep age certificate; in what could otherwise have been a fairly sanitary, run of the mill thriller there are a couple of unflinching depictions of sexual violence. These go some way to informing Lisbeth’s character in a short space of time, and there are some thought provoking sexual liaisons thereafter which offer a further complexity to Salander’s make up as a character capable of determining her own destiny, and which the film somewhat refreshingly does not feel the need to either explain or justify.
Overall I do find Hollywood Tattoo to be more or less on the right side of the “here or there” equation, though I’ve most certainly seen the same kind of thing done better. As a cultural phenomenon, at least on the evidence presented here, I’m perhaps a little baffled as to quite how the Dragon Tattoo literary universe became the behemoth it did, but on this second viewing of Fincher’s cinematic take I was pleasantly surprised to find it almost as enjoyable a distraction as the first. I doubt I’ll be returning to it again any time in the next five years, and it’s certainly not a keystone event for it’s director, however I might go so far as to recommend it to fans of the genre who may not already have seen it.
Another literary adaptation for Fincher here, Gone Girl is based on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel of the same name. In Southern Missouri, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home to find signs of a struggle in his house, and his wife nowhere to be seen. When the police arrive and find conspicuous evidence, they immediately begin to suspect that Nick is involved in his wife’s disappearance, suspicions which Nick does little to allay with his smarmy manner and less than distraught response to his wife’s disappearance. The police investigation soon begins to uncover a wealth of evidence that his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) feared for her life from Nick, and that he killed her in order to receive an insurance payout. Amy’s diaries paint a picture of Nick as an abusive and unfaithful husband, and Nick is soon suspect numbers 1 through 100, and vilified in the media.
But not only is Nick not guilty (at least not of murder), Amy isn’t even dead. Amy, it turns out, is fed up of Nick’s infidelity and the breakdown of their marriage, so decides to punish him by framing him for her murder and having him executed. Because Amy, it turns out, is a psychopath. As the focus of the story switches from Nick to Amy, she explains how she did what she did (created false diary entries, cultivated fake friends, staged a murder scene), and why she did it (she’s mental). All the pieces successfully put in place, she leaves the town, changes her identity, and holes up in a motel and waits for them all to play out. Unfortunately for Amy, she is robbed and has to change her plans. She gets in touch with an old flame, Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) who became a creep, and pleads with him for help, telling him the sob story of fearing for her life and faking her own death. Still smitten, Desi agrees to help. Amy then sees Nick on TV trying to clear his name, and is reminded of the smarmy, self-assured, smiling bastard Nick that she fell in love with, and decides to return to him. To do that, though, she needs to concoct yet another story to explain her disappearance, and that will, of course, mean faking sexual assault and violently murdering poor old Desi. She’s a real piece of work, this one.
Amy then returns to a shocked and, frankly, terrified Nick, and a police detective certain of the truth but unable to prove it. Amy insists that they try to rekindle their marriage, and, in her delicate way, blackmails and coerces Nick when he, unaccountably, isn’t keen to do so.
It’s a potentially disappointing ending, but it wouldn’t be hard to argue that they deserve each other. The issue I have with the ending is that there are, in fact, three obvious points for the the film to end, and I think that the best is clearly the first, when Nick tries to sleep in a separate room with Amy nearby, clearly frightened for his life. But that’s a relatively minor point in what is otherwise a thoroughly entertaining thriller. The performances are roundly excellent, Rosamund Pike in particular, and while the twists aren’t, for the most part, great surprises, they are well-handled and, appropriate to the genre, thrilling. There’s a smattering of humour, often black, and it’s well-directed and very well shot. While it’s not Fincher’s best, I think it’s still very good, and stands up very well to repeated viewing.
I think of all the Fincher films we’ve revisited as part of this podcast I was most worried about Gone Girl, because while I hugely enjoyed this first time round I had guessed that it might not be quite so much fun knowing the turns in the narrative in advance.
I worried in vain, as it turns out that the… let’s call them twists, although I don’t think that’s quite the right term, have little relation to the overall enjoyment of the piece. It’s a hugely effective, mischievous, trashy story that’s still enjoyable knowing the flow of it, with a commendably dark and open ended, er, ending to a mainstream piece of cinema.
It’s all very well acted, with relatable characterisation and pacy delivery of its admittedly potboiler concept, but its moved through so stylishly and swiftly that you won’t notice that. It perhaps doesn’t bear the analysis that something like Fight Club would, but for my money it’s right up there in contention for being Fincher’s most enjoyable film.
Right, that’s your lot. Thanks to all those who contributed their thoughts to this episode, and who shared it around social media. It’s all very much appreciated.
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