Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Some thoughts on Wonder Woman, female directors and internet entitlement

About two weeks ago, Warner Bros announced a slate of ten superhero films between now and 2020. (12 movies if you factor in the claim that there will be standalone Superman and Batman films in addition to that list.) This included the announcement of a solo-Wonder Woman movie coming in 2017. Though some outlets mistakenly called it the "first female superhero movie," that's not quite accurate. Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra would beg to differ.  However, it IS the first female superhero movie of the modern superhero film era, so that counts for something.

Then yesterday, Marvel announced it's own slate of eleven superhero films between now and 2019. One of these also features a female superhero, but not Black Widow, as many might have expected. This one is Captain Marvel, who will arrive in 2018.

Of course, this has provoked the usual outcry that Marvel and Warners MUST hire a woman to direct both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. A few sites have even gone so far as to put together lists of their top choices. On one hand, I'm glad we're having this conversation. For one thing, the fact that most of the lists keep coming up with the same five or six women should tell you something about how few female directors there actually are out there. And even then, some of those lists are padded because they contain a candidate or two who's probably only a serious contender in the eyes of some very small circles on the internet.

Don't forget that Warners takes a very different approach to their tentpole directors than Marvel does. Marvel often seeks out less-experienced - and cheaper - feature directors. Warners tends to go with people who have climbed the ladder from modest budgeted to hugely budgeted films. These movies are going to probably go to guys with resumes approximating Zack Snyder's - solid genre work and solid relationships with the studio. Warners wouldn't have handed Man of Steel to the equivalent of 2008 Jon Favreau. This is why I think that we're probably more likely to see a woman helm Captain Marvel than Wonder Woman.

Let me say that I think both Warners and Marvel would be smart to seek out female writers not just for projects where the lead is female, but also for ANY projects. The same for female directors, though I realize we're working from a smaller pool, at least as it relates to female directors equipped to take on a $150 million dollar project. (The number of men who can dive into that scale of project isn't exactly huge either, and many a director has gotten eaten alive by that machine.)

But do I think a good Wonder Woman movie can ONLY be directed (or written) by a woman? No.

As a character, Wonder Woman has had a lot of men write her and only a couple women. Some really fantastic work has come from male writers dealing with her character.  There's also been some really shitty work from male writers too (don't get me started on some of John Byrne's storylines.) As far as female writers, I read acclaimed author Jodi Picoult's brief run on the character and it... really wasn't good, showing that a great writer in one field might not see those skills translate to another character. 

Look, I've sat through too many bad superhero movies to get pissy about who writes and directs it as long as it's good. I don't want another True Detective Season Two situation, though, and the way the internet's getting all activist-y over these films, I can see that happening.

See, a while back, the rumor was floated that True Detective would change gears for season two and focus on a female partnership. That was never officially stated (seriously - check this timeline of official news), but somehow people got it in their heads that this was a done deal. And then when Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell were announced as leads, the internet got really ugly. There were accusations of sexism, cries of betrayal and just general venom directed at the creators for "going back on their word." But that's just it. The all-female True Detective was never a promise that was made. It was the result of a game of telephone and wishful thinking. A creator should not be responsible for what the audience thinks they are entitled to.

THR has said - without quoting anyone - that Warners is "looking" for a woman to direct Wonder Woman. That's not any kind of official statement, nor does it mean that if a man gets the director's chair they're breaking some kind of promise. I'd like to hope that if the helmer ends up being, say Drew Goddard, the primary reaction won't be to tell Drew and Warner execs to rot in hell.

But here's the other possible outcome that occurred to me, and one I find far more intriguing. What happens if they go to everyone's number one choice, Kathryn Bigelow... and she passes?

In all of this "Hire THESE ladies, WB!" has anyone ever actually thought to ask those women what they want to do? Maybe they don't want to be stuck spending a year making a giant product that will be overseen by a host of studio executives second-guessing every decision. (And let's face it, that already happens to a number of male directors on these films, so odds are it will be at least as hard on the women.) And then there's the audience second-guessing every decision too. Some of that is just part and parcel of making a comic book movie and some of that is the inevitable microscope that the press is going to put any female director under in this situation.

So let's say Bigelow feels like she and Warners aren't on the same page with this project and she'd rather make another drawn-from-real-life feature. Her heart's not in Wonder Woman. But CAN she say no? We saw the internet turn on True Detective when it didn't provide that wish fulfillment. What happens if Bigelow says to Warners and the internet, "Thanks, but no thanks."

And then how bad does the reaction get when her passing opens the door for a candidate who happens to be male? Should Bieglow feel obligated to take the gig just because of the larger implications, that it's important for film history that this movie be directed by a woman? Should she take it just to show that a woman can handle these films just as well as a man?

Basically, I'm wondering if all this pressure being put on WB isn't also creating a situation where whichever woman ends up being leaked as the top studio choice (and let's be honest, this WILL leak as deals are being negotiated) is essentially drafted. A cynical person might assume that making a public offer to a woman is a PR move that will cover the studio in the event of a pass. They can say, "Well, we tried" and then feel cleared to hire 300: Rise of an Empire's Noam Murro. (Or maybe they go for the Wachowskis first, which lets them work with directors in the Warner stable and enact some sort of progressiveness with regard to inclusion.)

I would hate to see any director take that job out of obligation. If Green Lantern proved one thing it's that these movies really need a helmer who's passionate about the character. Martin Campbell is an excellent action director - so good he actually directed TWO reboots of James Bond, both of which were fantastic for different reasons. However, he didn't appear to connect to the Green Lantern character at all, even after being handed a script that was relatively true to the comic book elements that should have made it a solid performer. The result was a movie that was neither good for Campbell, nor Green Lantern, nor WB's comic book franchise.

If the best ideas - or at least, the ideas that the studio is going to be most supportive of - happen to walk through the door along with a penis, so be it. Here's what I might do if I was running a studio and the best director pitch on a female superhero movie came from a man: You find one of the truly talented female directors like Bigelow or Michelle MacLaren and go through their passion projects. Whatever it is, make sure it's something they're as invested in as James Cameron was for any of his. When you make the announcement, trumpet how much this is their project. You're not putting them on a franchise to baby sit. You're hiring a woman director to give you something different. Not be just be a shooter.

If you want to change things THAT's how you do it.

Back in the 70s, Spielberg almost directed Superman. Did you know that? The producers waited to see how "his fish movie [does.]" Big mistake. Or not... if Spielberg does Superman and Superman II (which were shot together), maybe he doesn't do Close Encounters. In fact, given the timeframe, he wouldn't have made Close Encounters until a few years later. And then what about Raiders of the Lost Ark?

And even Raiders came about because he wanted to do a James Bond. If Lucas got Flash Gordon, there'd be no Star Wars. What would you rather have had? A Spielberg James Bond and and Lucas Flash Gordon - or two new franchises that inspired so much more? Can you name anyone who directed a James Bond movie in the late 70s and 80s? Do you know who directed Flash Gordon or anything else they directed?

But you sure as hell know who created Star Wars and Indiana Jones, don't you?

So stop begging for women directors to be accepted in the "pre-existing IP" toybox. Why not make some noise so they can tell their own stories? And yeah, maybe that means that they get $60 million to play with instead of the $150 million through at these marketing juggernauts. But they'll get to make movies, their movies.

One way or another, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are going to get their own films, and that will make an impact, no matter what genitals the person calling "cut" and "action" has.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"...Oh." How JOHN WICK is one of this year's best action films

There was a point in my reading career where I was sick and tired of covering scripts about hitmen pulled in for "one last job." That hook has birthed some good movies in the past, but as it landed as one of my most frequently-read genres, I was weary of stories that trotted out the same old cliches. It got even worse after TAKEN scored and I began seeing an upswing in revenge stories that used hired killers the same way.

JOHN WICK shows that just because an idea is old, doesn't mean it's dead. Break it down to its barest essence and it sounds like one of those script's you'd pass by for fear of it being generic. The son of a Russian mobster and his buddies break into a man's home, beat him up, kill his dog and then steal his '89 Mustang. When the Russian punk takes the car to a chop shop for clean papers and a new VIN, the owner immediately recognizes the car and tells the arrogant shit to get out of his garage, even getting physical with him.

Naturally, the kid complains to his father, and the Russian capo Viggo Tarasov calls the chop shop owner demanding an explanation. He's told that his son "stole John Wick's car and killed his dog." Tarsov gives a pause that speaks volumes, then answers simply, "Oh."

That which isn't said tells us everything we need to know there. That's not the only exposition we get about John Wick, but it definitely is a lot more effective of a way to underline how sideways this situation as gone. We see the Russian mobster unnerved by the hell his son has called upon them before we get the full dossier on Wick. It not only builds anticipation for the reveal, but it also respects the audience's ability to read between the lines.

See, John Wick was a former enforcer for the mob. When he fell in love, he wanted out and performed "a task which should have been impossible" as part of a deal with Viggo. He spent five years with his wife until recently losing her to cancer. A few days after her death, John got a delivery - an adorable dog his wife picked out so he wouldn't be so lonely.  Yeah, Viggo's son just killed the last gift John got from his wife - not really the way you want to cross a very dangerous and grieving man.

Thus sets off a series of action sequences where Viggo sends killers after John Wick, knowing that his son is probably as good as dead if he doesn't. John, of course, is more than up to the challenge. In an early eye-popping scene, he dispatches a dozen assassins sent to kill him, using a practiced and almost effortless lethality unmatched by few killers aside from Vincent from Collateral and Bryan Mills from Taken.

The brilliance of the film is the way that first-time director Chad Stahelski moderates the tempo. For every intense, non-stop action sequence where Keanu Reeves takes out a small army of goons, there's a moment where the film takes stock of the stakes and allows characters to react to the fallout of the action orgy. There's actual emotional engagement here, and it's another case of a director using Keanu's occasional blankness to good effect.

It's easy to give Reeves shit when he steps out of his comfort zone, but when he's playing to his strengths, his energy somehow draws the audience in. I'm sure some detractors have called the film out for "cheating" for pulling on easy emotional strings by having the bad guys kill a dog. One of the number one rules in Hollywood is that you never kill the dog because the audience will hate you. (This leads to jaw-droppingly stupid moments like the dog in Independence Day leaping out of the way of an inferno.) Once the bad guys commit an act sure to enrage the viewer, Reeves becomes an easy blank slate for the audience to project their own emotions onto.  We've talked a little bit about this before when discussing some of Eisenstein's theories of using juxtapositions of shots to arouse emotion in the audience rather than an actor's performance.  Whatever we are feeling as viewers, John Wick becomes an easy repository for that reaction. Reeves gives just enough to let our emotions do the rest.

Is it manipulative? Probably. Is emotional manipulation in and of itself terrible? Not always. I greatly prefer to be emotionally engaged with a story rather than passively watching it. One reason I think the film earns it's manipulation is that it doesn't dole out the backstory in a stale way. Wick's wife's illness and death is shown through a sad montage that lets the visuals do all the talking. We take in that story with our eyes and even when the dialogue of later scenes underlines what we saw, it's there only as confirmation, not wooden exposition. 

There are a lot of ways to tell this story wrong, but writer Derek Kolstad and director Stahelsk know when to give the audience just enough. Two scenes after the previously discussed shootout are good examples of this. The first is when a cop pays a visit to Wick's place to investigate a "noise complaint." The conversation between the two men is loaded with enough subtext to make Harold Pinter proud. Soon after that, Wick dials a number to make "a dinner reservation for 12" which turns out to be a call to some "cleaners" who deal with the bodies and blood left in the wake of his massacre.  It's all clever (and funny) execution of what could have just been two scenes there to explain away why the cops never investigated the shootout and how he's going to dispose of the bodies.

There's also a heavy dose of dry humor. Thanks to Pulp Fiction and Grosse Point Blank, we're used to gags about how blase and casual hired killers can be about their line of work. But usually we're dealing with dialogue that knows how clever it is. Here, the weariness in the dry delivery makes the gag fresh again. It's a subtle moderation of tone that I'm not even sure I can articulate, but it serves the film well.

Most of all, I got pulled into JOHN WICK because it creates a fully-realized world and shows us just enough that we want to immerse ourselves in it and explore much more than we are shown. This is especially true of the hotel where Wick takes refuge. It's set up as the sort of neutral ground that likely only exists in movies, where every room is made up of hired killers, the turndown service includes doctors to mend those pesky bullet and stab wounds and the one unbreakable rule is "no business" can be conducted there.

All of those elements are why I place this film above The Raid, as far as awesome action thrillers go. The Raid is relentless, full of fantastic fight choreography, but I never felt drawn into it emotionally the way I was here. I can appreciate The Raid's technical skill, but it threatened to be the fight sequence equivalent of having to smoke every cigarette in the carton. JOHN WICK is a lot more effective at world-building and character creation, both of which will make this one resonate a lot longer.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

My tribute to WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE on Film School Rejects

I know that the internet of late has devoted an excessive amount of time to '90s nostalgia. This year especially has been a deluge of 20-year retrospective pieces, as it turns out that 1994 was a pretty big year for pop culture. And yet, as tired as I am of such things, I joined the ranks of the guilty this week with a piece I wrote for Film School Rejects.

It has been twenty years since the release of my favorite sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street, the very meta Wes Craven's New Nightmare. It's always felt to me like a very clever movie that was under-appreciated in its time and any notoriety is has in retrospect seems to be as a footnote to Scream, which followed two years later. I gather that "real" horror fans hate how it takes place in the "real world" makes Freddy of the previous six films just a character in a movie. The movie's uniqueness repells some, but for me, that's why it's worthy of being celebrated.

I'm grateful that Film School Rejects gave me a forum in which to express that.

“Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus or King Kong.” – Heather Langenkamp in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. 

In a film full of truthful observations, that line always struck me as the truest, or at least the most relevant to my own relationship with Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street film series. I was four when the original came out in 1984, so I was too young to experience that film or most of the first few sequels on their first release. As I grew up, my awareness of Freddy came from what seeped into popular culture. As best as I can remember, my introduction was either a kid in my 4th grade class wearing a Freddy mask for Halloween, or possibly an ad for the costume in a comic book. 

So “my” Freddy was less the disturbing child murderer whom Wes Craven created for what probably felt like a standalone film, and more the watered-down pop icon. Less a psychological threat, and more of a catchphrase-spewing gimmick killer. It’s the difference between how the shark from Jaws plays on screen, and experiencing him on the Universal Studios tram tour. 

As a result, Freddy never scared me as a kid, nor did I have any desire to see the movies. I knew that they came out every year or two and I assumed all of the movies were stupid slasher films, in which, I saw no appeal. I remember seeing a trailer for Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991 and thinking it looked incredibly awful. Good riddance. 

Then came 1994 and the release of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Read the rest over at Film School Rejects.

Monday, October 20, 2014


BIRDMAN is the story of a washed up actor who saw his career plummet after walking away from the latest sequel in his superhero franchise twenty years ago. That actor, Riggan Thomsan, is on the verge of a possible comeback via the Broadway play he's directing, starring in, and adapted. The problem is the show isn't very good and it's just had to recast one of its main players at the start of previews.

Riggan Thomsan is played by Michael Keaton, which makes it very easy to see parallels between the character and the actor who walked away from the Batman franchise twenty years ago after doing two films. If you've followed any of the press tour, you've probably heard Keaton disavow any real kinship with Riggan. In at least one interview, he said that he doesn't think he's played a character he's identified with less than Riggan.

As crazy as it sounds, after seeing BIRDMAN, I believe him.

Riggan is a pretty good actor, but a not-pretty good human being. He's staked all of his assets on a self-indulgent vanity project. (At one point, Riggan's co-star Mike, played by Edward Norton, accuses Riggan of not even understanding what the story is about and charges that Riggan's rewritten it to give himself all of the good lines.)

At one point, he recounts a time when he was on a turbulent plane with George Clooney and he makes it sound like the greatest tragedy in life would be to die in a plane crash with the more-famous actor, as he would get all the publicity. To underscore his point, he reminds the person he's talking to that Farrah Fawcett died on the same day as Michael Jackson, the implication being that Jackson hogged all the spotlight. Keaton plays this moment superbly, giving the plane story such conviction that we're almost tempted to empathize with him until we realize just how narcissistic he is.

There never seems to be any doubt that this is all about reputation for Riggan. He might regularly trot out an old story about why he got into acting, but his greatest passion is himself. It's a wise decision not to make him an over-the-top Type A egotist, as that treatment would turn him into something of a cartoon. Instead, Riggan becomes the more likely worst-outcome of someone who once lived their life at the top of the A-list and then fell back to Earth.

Riggan regularly hears the gruff voice of his Birdman alter-ego, often taunting him, sometimes urging his worst impulses. For a while we wonder if it's real or if he's crazy, though that ambiguity is threatened as Riggan starts displaying the ability to telekinetically toss objects across a room. He eventually graduates to flying, but the film leaves open the possibility that this is all a delusion. In fact, the final moments of the film pretty much hinge on that ambiguity. (And as this is only showing on four screens, that's pretty much all I'll say about that for now.)

The film's thoroughly character-driven from start to finish. As much as the three-act structure is there, this is not a movie where you'll be overtly aware of the structure. One of the great strength's of the film is how well-rounded the supporting cast is. Edward Norton probably leaves the biggest impression as an actor who's an asshole in an entirely different way than Riggan is. Amy Ryan has only a few scenes as Riggan's ex-wife but they go a long way towards filling out Riggan and to making her character real. Emma Stone also has a nice turn as Riggan's neglected daughter, fresh out of rehab and working for her father.

You may have heard about how director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the film to appear as if it was one continuous take. That's not entirely accurate, as there's one cutaway near the end, but otherwise, yes, this does refine the same technique that Hitchcock pioneered in Rope. Is it essential to the film? I'd say "not entirely." You could tell this story with conventional coverage and editing and it still probably would be a compelling character portrait.

Does the style add anything? Yes, for the most part. It's oddly appropriate for a film about a stage play to appear to have been shot with "no second chances" either. It does give the acting a little more theatricality on a subliminal level. Where I think it doesn't work is the overly-frequent moments where the camera seems to be right in the actor's face with a wide angle lens. It's hard not to feel like a "close-talker" and while the subliminal invasion of personal space is almost certainly a deliberate choice, some close-ups feel so distorted that it's hard to fight the urge to scream "step back!" at the camera operator.

That's more of a personal aesthetic preference, though. I tend to favor long takes with a lot of depth of field so that the audience "edits" their own close-ups in a way by deciding what part of the frame to focus on. (Spielberg uses this technique a lot.) Iñárritu definitely wants to control where your focus goes and it's a style that will probably work better for some than for others.

The visual trick would also feel less like a gimmick if the film took place in real time. Instead, the movie covers what appears to be several weeks, transitioning forward in time within shots. It's the same sort of transition that you can imagine being done on a stage, which is the main way you could justify the technique as it's deployed here.

BIRDMAN is certainly one of the more interesting films of this year, featuring one performance that's sure to get a lot of talk as we head into Oscar season. If you want to learn how to write roles that will appeal to A-list talent, see this film.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Go and read this COLLATERAL article right now

Right, like there was any way I wasn't going to link to this. Over on Entertainment Weekly's site, Darren Franich has written an incredibly thorough and insightful article on one of my favorite films, Collateral.

Collateral is all of Michael Mann's movies in one—even The Keep. And more: Collateral is a high point in the career of basically everyone involved. It's the last Tom Cruise film from the pre-Katie Holmes era—the epitome of Cruise in his unquestioned superstardom, before the couch-jumping Weird Period and the post-couch re-entrenchment in his PG-13 Action-Movie Fortress of Solitude. It's the last film Jamie Foxx made before Ray turned him into Oscar Winner Jamie Foxx and then Hit Musician Jamie Foxx and then Frustrating Actor Jamie Foxx.

Everything you could possibly want or need to know about Collateral is in this article. Set aside a good chunk of time and read it now.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Joshua Caldwell's $6,000 film LAYOVER is now available for rental and purchase

Perhaps you remember that a few months ago I promoted director Joshua Caldwell's feature film Layover. Caldwell shot the entire film for $6,000 dollars, keeping the budget down largely via the usage of a small crew, calling in favors and stealing shots throughout Los Angeles whenever possible.

Oh, and almost the entire movie is in French.

I saw the film when it screened in L.A. as part of Dances With Films. I have to admit, I was prepared for the possibility that I wouldn't like the film. I was especially wary of the decision to shoot it in French considering I knew the director didn't speak the language himself. To my relief, the film worked. It had a very cool look and the subtitles didn't provide the barrier to entry I feared they would.

I'm for anything that encourages people to get out there and make their own content. I'm not sure this makes sense as an ongoing business model (just try getting a crew of people to work for free on several projects of this type and you'll learn the limits of the favors people are willing to do for you) but I'm excited by the potential for motivated individuals to produce "calling card" films and use them to get to the next level.

Starting today, Layover is now available here. You can make your own judgement on this film for the low price of $6.95. What's more, you can get a dollar off purchase by using the code: bttr.

You can also simply rent it for $4.95. Or you can purchase the film with a DIY bundle that includes commentary, an interview with Joshua Caldwell and "anatomy of a scene" clips. That'll cost you $9.99, but the bittr code will get you $1 off of that purchase too.

LAYOVER: In this French-language feature film debut from writer/director Joshua Caldwell, Simone (Nathalie Fay) is a young Parisian en route to her wedding in Singapore. But when the airline cancels her connecting flight, she’s forced to spend the night in Los Angeles. She decides to make the best of it and contact an old acquaintance, Juliette (Bella Dayne), who is going through a rough patch in her marriage. Invigorated by her friend’s arrival, Juliette insists on taking Simone out for a night of club-hopping. With little regard for her friend, Juliette soon disappears with a stranger, leaving Simone stranded downtown without a ride. When an attractive motorcyclist (Karle Landler) appears and offers her a ride, Simone cautiously accepts, leading to an evening of adventure that results in her questioning her life’s direction and, ultimately, if she’s truly ready to make her connection in the morning. 

Joshua Caldwell is an accomplished director, writer, producer, and MTV Movie Award winner. He has worked with a number of high profile producers, including CSI: creator Anthony E. Zuiker, for whom he produced Cybergeddon the online global motion picture event for Yahoo! and directed all of the film’s ancillary content for the immersive website. His award-winning short film Dig, starring Mark Margolis of Breaking Bad, was featured in numerous film festivals. He’s directed episodes of Welcome to Sanditon, the new series from the creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Furrocious, a webseries for Discovery Channel Online. Most recently, released his latest short film Resignation and his debut feature film Layover had its World Premiere at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival where it was nominated for the New American Cinema Award.

World Premiere: Seattle International Film Festival (In competition) 
California Premiere: Dances With Films (In competition) 
Festival du Nouveau Cinema de Montreal 
Scottsdale International Film Festival 
Surrey International Film Festival Awards: 
SIFF: Nominated for the New American Cinema award 
DWF: Nominated for Grand Jury Prize.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gone Girl is a perfect marriage of complex plot and complex characters.

WARNING: This article will include all manner of Gone Girl spoilers, up to and including the ending.  If you have not seen the film, I highly suggest you turn back because this is one film that is absolutely enhanced by knowing as little as possible!

You have been warned.

I have not read Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl. I actually made a pretty effective effort at not being spoiled about the details of the story before seeing the feature film adaptation directed by David Fincher and written by Flynn herself. If you're unfamiliar with the novel, that's the viewing experience I recommend for all of you because Gone Girl is one of those films that works best when you're not sure which way it's going to swerve.

What I appreciated most about Gone Girl is that this was not a film that felt like it made a choice between having a complex, twisting plot and complex characters. There's enough real estate here for both. Usually in these kinds of films, the plot goes through so many contortions that the characters either don't have time to be fleshed out, or the film needs them to be cyphers so that later twists aren't telegraphed. Wild Things is a good example of this, a fun, trashy thriller with more turns than a roller coaster, but barely any pretension about its cast of characters. It's far harder to tell a story about complex people and maintain enough mystery about them to keep shocking us late into a complex story. I assure you, while it might be an odd comparison to draw, Wild Things was a film that kept springing to mind during my viewing. The two films would make a great double feature.

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, an unemployed professor who comes home on his fifth anniversary to find his wife Amy missing and some furniture smashed. He calls the police and they immediately begin investigating as a missing person's case, starting with going through the motions of checking out Nick as a suspect. Because Amy's a minor celebrity (her mother is a children's author who's used Amy as inspiration for the heroine of her books), the case quickly becomes a media frenzy.

Speculation and rumor all become grist for the mill of the 20-hour news cycle. Pundits don't waste much time before speculating on Nick's guilt, pointing out strange behavior like smiling while posing for pictures with his wife's "Missing" poster, and noting that he seems unusually close to his twin sister.

Just as the police and the press aren't sure what to make of Nick, we find our opinion of his innocence wavering as well. The crime scene at the house seems staged and Nick alternately seems too eager to please and too defensive when his own guilt is floated. Those suspicions only deepen as we learn that his marriage with Amy wasn't the fairy tale that they're feeding the press. Flashbacks show us their union in an early blissful state, but soon we are presented with money troubles. There was tension when Nick moved the two of them from Amy's home of New York to Nick's birthplace of Missouri to be with his dying mother. As both suffered the loss of their jobs, financial pressures and internal tensions mounted, capped off with disagreements over whether or not to have a baby.

Some of this we are told from Nick and a great deal of it comes from Amy's diary. Amy doesn't always paint the most flattering portrait of Nick and when Nick's behavior appears to back up Amy's observations, it becomes more apparent that Nick might not see his wife's death as the worst thing that could happen to him. After all, it's hard not to make a suspect out of a guy who's revealed to be sleeping with a student of his who's in her "early twenties." (When Nick uses this to describe her, it feels like we're almost supposed to read that as "19" or "20," and frankly, the only detail we get that truly contradicts that is her later presence in a bar that Nick happens to own.)

Nick supposedly told his mistress he was getting a divorce, and since other scenes have helpfully informed us that Amy made him sign a pre-nup, it's not hard to make the leap. A sudden increase in her insurance policy just months earlier reinforces that suspicion. Affleck does really good work here, in a performance that's bound to be underrated.  It's a full hour into the film before Gone Girl really starts showing us its hand, and until then we need to be suspicious of Nick's guilt without Affleck's performance reading as clearly innocent or clearly guilty.

That's a tricky tightrope to walk, particularly when this is a movie that knows the audience will be jugging their assumptions of innocence and guilt. Affleck's performance needs to make us speculate. It's not a role that's meant to be seen as totally innocent up to a point so that we can be blindsided with a twist reveal of his guilt. Affleck needs to play Nick in a way that essentially turns us into those pundits, scrutinizing every out-of-place grin. Harder still, it's a delicate dance that the film needs to maintain even in Nick's "private" moments rather that just the instances he's in the public eye.

And then comes the first big twist, arriving just over an hour into the film - Amy is not only alive, but she's faked her own kidnapping and has spent months, possibly years plotting the perfect crime so that Nick will be framed for her death. It's a twist that most movies would use as their final denouement. When Gone Girl deploys it less than halfway into its two-and-a-half-hours, we know we're in for a ride.

She's very carefully left a trail of bread crumbs for the police to uncover - details like a fake journal that gradually makes Nick out to be a monster, the testimony of a "best friend" who became the supportive ear for Amy to talk about her "abusive" husband, hundreds of thousands of dollars in expensive merchandise that maxed out Nick's credit to make him look financially overextended with something to hide. That's not even getting into the lengths to which she's staged the "murder" scene and then plotted her own escape.

The second half of the film features some incredible work from Rosamund Pike, whose Amy is revealed as more and more unhinged as we peel back the layers of her psychosis. At one point, she indicates she plans to go so far as to kill herself just to make sure Nick gets the death penalty. That is conviction. It's amazing how far back her manipulations extend, having played both a boyfriend of seven years ago and one of twenty years ago like a fiddle.

The latter of the two is Desi, played by Neil Patrick Harris, whom Amy turns to after her first plan goes sour. The film makes an interesting choice here, too. Desi is no mere patsy, and when he quickly embraces Amy and sets up his lake house to act has her safe house, there's a glint of an edge to his joy at getting to play house with his ex. As he gives her the tour and notes the camera's everywhere, recording everything, for a moment we forget that Amy is a manipulative lunatic and almost shudder at the gilded cage she's about to be locked up in.

As obsessive as Amy is, Desi is a portrait of a different sort of obsession and Harris plays him like a stalker who's delighted that the object of his desire is now under his thumb. A lesser script might have made Desi an earnest dope, so as to heighten the tragedy when Amy kills him and then "escapes," claiming Desi had been holding her all this time. Much like how Nick is more interesting for not being a model husband, Desi is more compelling by how "messy" his character is too.

Yes, Amy's scheme is so convoluted that you could probably pick a lot of it apart if you were determined. This is where Fincher's wizardry is visible and the movie effectively casts its spell while we view it. Where movies often get into trouble is when the execution is so sloppy that the audience can't help but question the logic in the moment. It's not that there aren't loose threads to pull on, but they're very well hidden.

The film's final stages become genuinely unpredictable, and it is here where the twists are leavened with some dark humor. Much of it lands, but the audience I was with was clearly thirsting for those reliefs from the tension. Lines that should have been darkly funny (and seemed to have been delivered correctly) got uproarious laughter because of the pent-up nervous laughter. Particularly during some of the final chess moves between Nick and Amy, it threatened to break the spell.

I feel like I could devote a full day or two of posts just to Amy and what the final act says about her insanity and motivations. There's a delicious irony in that in order to clear his name, Nick had to pretend to be the man whom Amy always wished she had married. Now that she's has exonerated him by turning up alive, she coerces him to continue that act for the rest of his life. How she pulls this off is an act of pure evil that's astonishing even after everything we've seen her do. Nick might have escaped any legal judgement, but he got a life sentence nonetheless.

The very first screenplay I ever wrote dealt with the police investigation of the disappearance a college co-ed, with suspicion quickly falling on her egotistical film student boyfriend.. As the story progressed, it seemed the film student was almost making sure he was a suspect, as if the whole thing was staged.  And then the girl's body turned up, with evidence implicating the boyfriend... who was now in the position of trying to convince police that he did stage the disappearance with the girlfriend and that her turning up dead was never part of the plan.  I liked the idea of someone masterminding the perfect frame-job and having that upended in a way that totally screwed them over.

(In Gone Girl, I also felt echoes of a season ten episode of Law & Order called "Patsy," where a man claims he's been framed not only for the murder of his girlfriend, but an assault on her comatose sister. Of course, the lengths someone would have to go to in order to frame him for those crimes appears to be preposterous.... except that it might be exactly what happened.)

That old script of mine had a number of flaws that I eventually learned from to become a better writer, but I couldn't help but think of it during stretches of Gone Girl. I sat there in the dark, musing, "Damn. This is the movie I wish I'd made."

We're given a number of memorable characters and performances, but this is a real breakout for Rosamund Pike, whose character is brilliantly summed up by Affleck in a line every viewer will feel like they could have written: "You. Fucking. Bitch." You won't easily forget her as credits roll, that's for sure.