Tag Archives: Rosamund Pike

Big, Cozy Fantasy Blanket — “The Wheel of Time”

One of the hidden measures of quality in any fantasy show is how comfy its inn looks. Is there a cozy inn with attached tavern you can picture going back to day after day? If “The Wheel of Time” says yes, then we’re talking a fantasy show that knows where its priorities lie.

I’m only partly kidding. What I look for most in a fantasy show (or movie, or game) is whether it feels lived-in. Do the people inhabiting its towns and streets actually feel like they live and work there, as if they’ve known each other for years? World-building starts with the people who live in that world, and “The Wheel of Time” gets this right. It spends most of its first episode establishing a lovely mountain town of close-knit families and friends. I’m sure nothing bad will happen to it.

When you feel you could just watch a show entirely about this town of people living their everyday lives, that makes leaving it behind difficult not just for its characters, but its viewers, too. Yet when a powerful sorceress – called an Aes Sedai – shows up in town, trouble is soon to follow. She and her very able swordsman leave with four of the town’s youths who are being stalked by an army of Trollocs (beastfolk) and their shadowy special agents. Any one of them might be the reincarnation of the Dragon, a figure prophesied to either end the world or fix it.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, like a certain wizard, ranger, and four hobbits, understand that “The Wheel of Time” came in the middle of modern fantasy’s developmental timeline. Western fantasy was defined by the hero’s journey when the first book of Robert Jordan’s 14-novel series was published in 1990. Fantasy series from that time didn’t necessarily challenge that structural foundation, but where they did excel was in the world-building and social commentary that made each unique.

Here is where “The Wheel of Time” as a series succeeds. Its world reads as middle ages, but with echoes of a renaissance or early modern period that previously collapsed. You see, the last time the Dragon was kicking around, he nearly destroyed civilization. It remains fractured and internally warring.

One thing the show does is it offers a society that’s very diverse – they’ve had thousands of years since their early modern era, which is far more than we’ve had. That small mountain town with the nice inn has people of all races and ethnicities in it. It is deeply refreshing to see a fantasy series that takes place in a different world simply start with this as a given fact.

The Aes Sedai are all women – because the last Dragon was a man, the only people entrusted with magic in this world are women. That puts the Aes Sedai in a position of power, but the Aes Sedai are rarely seen by most. Women in the town, however, are treated with equality and have the same jobs and stature as men.

These aspects are relieving and energizing to see in a major fantasy series. You could argue that following what amounts to a D&D party is either too familiar or comfortably so, but the presentation of the world and who lives in it feels like a deep breath in the genre that we rarely get to take.

I’d also be on the side of arguing that the familiar half of “The Wheel of Time” is very well done. The writing is straightforward, but manages to pack an awful lot into each hourlong episode. I’d usually end up two-thirds through thinking it had to be over because each episode had already covered more than most hour-and-a-half movies manage, yet there’d still be more story to enjoy. The writing doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s incredibly efficient – all the more remarkable for how patient and unrushed its dialogue scenes feel.

“The Wheel of Time” has the same nose for quiet conversation in the midst of turmoil that Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy possesses. I have to imagine these are mostly dialogue passages lifted from the book, but there’s some beautiful in-scene writing at times. Those quiet conversations are really the best moments in the show so far, which is a testament to the kind of lightning in a bottle that good casting, writing, performances, and editing can achieve.

The four who have to leave their town are all solidly cast. When I describe a D&D party structure, I’m not exaggerating. There’s Madeleine Madden’s potential magic user Egwene, Josha Stradowski’s ranger Rand, Barney Harris’s thief Mat, and Marcus Rutherford’s tanky blacksmith Perrin. There’s also their town Wisdom Nynaeve, played by Zoe Robins, and the Aes Sedai’s protector Lan played by Daniel Henney. There’s not a weak link among the actors, and they cover a range of personalities that’s interesting to see in both partnership and conflict.

The casting of Rosamund Pike as Moiraine, the Aes Sedai who kickstarts this whole journey, is a masterstroke. There’s a scene in the second episode where the party’s been through some rough shenanigans and is starting to bicker. One starts a song and the rest join in. It’s something their town sings, but they don’t know what the subject of the song is. It’s been lost to history, but it’s something that an Aes Sedai knows. Moiraine describes the bloody moment in their world’s history that’s being sung. She’s drained by now, injured and using her magic to keep the energy of her horses and companions up. Most shows wouldn’t have kept the monologue, or they’d have shortened it to a few lines and someone’s reaction shot. Here, Pike grabs us for a three minute monologue where no one else speaks and nothing else happens. She doesn’t let go, Moiraine’s speech gently slurring from exhaustion as she tells a tragic story with reverence.

I’ve never read any of the “The Wheel of Time” novels, but that moment, that feel – it’s exactly the kind of thing I want in a fantasy series. The battles and fights are compelling because there’s a weight of places left behind, a foundation of stories told, fragile connections made by relationships built or strained along the journey.

To feel as if we’re watching moments in a world’s history, we need to know the characters in ways they may not know each other, and we need to know the shape of that history. A lot of shows can manage one or the other, either the intimate or the epic. It’s rare when you get a fantasy entry that can do both with this much skill.

The choral-heavy musical score by Lorne Balfe is also exquisite, balancing a blend of song, celebratory medieval instruments and tense, driving electronic elements. There’s a fusion of traditional balladry with good new age that feels very aligned to this world without losing that larger, epic feel. Its sense of rising tension carries us through the sometimes sudden shifts in place that this kind of adaptation demands. The score stands as one of the best and most unexpected of the year.

It’s also nice to see something aside from orcs and goblins as the baddies. Trollocs seem to come in at least two flavors of beastfolk: 10-foot tall minotaurs, and smaller, four-legged hyena-satyr things. A lot is done with make-up, costuming, prosthetics, and special creature effects. This focus on a live-action base for the creatures is the right choice. They have a weight and presence that is immediately felt. Since they start bashing and slicing everything in sight when they show up, it’s also important that the choreography and editing sells them as terrifying. “The Wheel of Time” nails this, too. They’re presented with a brutality and suddenness that skips any kind of prologue or anticipation. They’re stronger than people, faster than people, and it shows. No one has time to describe them as terrible before they just show up and start hacking and feasting.

There are some negatives, and in large part they’re apparent because they’re surrounded by so many positives. While the make-up, costuming, and live special effects are all well done, the CGI visual effects can fail at points.

There’s an argument that magic is more successful in live-action when the visual focus is its consequence rather than the CGI moment of effect. For instance, focusing on the consequence more than the casting is the approach “The Witcher” takes very effectively.

By contrast, in “The Wheel of Time” you will see every fireball launched, every rock hurled, every bolt of lightning struck, every magical shield, um, shielded. People’s mileage varies with these kind of effects – to me, these moments do look cheesy. Sometimes I’d mind that, but here it doesn’t bother me too much. Part of my forgiveness is: hey, where else are you going to see Rosamund Pike hurl a building at a minotaur?

The other part is that there is a cost to these actions. Every Aes Sedai is accompanied by a Warder, a combination warrior/tracker/companion/sounding board. They have a magical connection that allows them to draw on each others’ strength.

There’s a neat logic between Aes Sedai and Warder, where Moiraine takes time charging her spells and is vulnerable. During these moments, her Warder Lan has to protect her, whirling around and ending anyone or anything that gets too close. If you’ve ever played a pen & paper role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, or a CRPG like “Dragon Age” or “Baldur’s Gate”, the notion of protecting your spellcaster while they charge a spell up is a geeky kind of cool to see done on-screen this literally. They don’t cheat or edit past it, they just have Moiraine take set amounts of time charging high-level spells while Lan dances around her decapitating minotaurs. At that point, I don’t mind if the fireballs look cheesy or the boulders she hurls need more render passes. I just want to see minotaurs go flying.

Nonetheless, other moments of CGI effects don’t fare so well. It could be a taste thing and I just don’t like this particular aesthetic of CGI. I love the static elements – abandoned cities, ruins they pass, a besieged city in one prologue. It’s the moving elements I’m not completely sold on: water splashing as a trolloc runs through a river, the swirls of magic, the strangely Tron-like lattice effect of a magical barrier.

The show also travels at a pace, and it can seem a bit sudden when characters appear in a completely different biome. The geography and the passage of time could be communicated better. Where one character seems to be in the next morning, another pair have climbed a mountain. It’s not a big deal for a series like this where travel and distance are more of an impressionistic aspect of myth-telling, but these shifts could feel more cohesive. It does help that the locations they spend longer periods of time in are beautifully realized, and as I mentioned earlier the music does some heavy lifting to smooth these transitions.

I’m not going to say “The Wheel of Time” is the best piece of fantasy out right now when the audacious and jaw-dropping “Arcane” is less than a month old and season 2 of “The Witcher” is weeks away, but if you’re looking for a satisfying example of traditional fantasy that’s well written and acted, “The Wheel of Time” is a very cozy blanket to nestle into as the nights get longer.

You can watch “The Wheel of Time” on Amazon. The first four episodes are available now, with a new one dropping every Friday for a first season total of eight. It’s already renewed for a season 2. That’s half-filmed so the wait probably won’t be too long.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — November 19, 2021

There are a number of deeply promising series this week, including one of the most anticipated fantasy adaptations, one of the most accomplished ensembles ever cast, and a new Mindy Kaling comedy. The films this week come from a range of cultures that aren’t often featured in the U.S. They’re made by filmmakers who are Salvadoran-Mexican, Cree-Metis, and Trinidadian, not to mention an Australian Aboriginal revenge western.

November and December introduce a wealth of new projects, and it can be easy to get locked into the ones that see the most marketing and are created by filmmakers with established names. Yet studios rarely invest in marketing films made by women and people of color. That means they don’t invest in establishing their names, which means most of the “awards competitors” that get pushed at us come from a narrow range of perspective.

Many films by women and directors of color will be lucky to see a push for a single nomination in major awards meant to get them on the map. Most will go without the kind of awards marketing blitzes that middling films by men will see much more easily. This means that when it comes to buzz, it’s easy to believe the films that need to be seen this time of year are mostly by white, male directors. It becomes even easier than usual for viewers to completely overlook work that comes from other voices.

Make sure you seek out the work of women and people of color, especially in these months where some of the best films you’ll see in your life get even more buried than is usual.

NEW SERIES

The Wheel of Time (Amazon)
mostly directed by women

The long, long-awaited adaptation of Robert Jordan’s fantasy novel series finally arrives. “The Wheel of Time” centers on Rosamund Pike’s Moiraine, who gathers five people for an adventurous journey. She believes one of them is the reincarnation of the Dragon, who will either save the world or destroy it.

While the showrunner is Rafe Judkins, at least five of the first season’s eight episodes are directed by women. This includes Uta Briesewitz, Sanaa Hamri, and Salli Richardson. Briesewitz has directed on “Orange is the New Black”, “Stranger Things”, “Jessica Jones”, and “UnREAL”, as well as being the cinematographer for “Hung”. Hamri has helmed on “Shameless” and directed more episodes of “Empire” than any other director. Richardson has directed on “Luke Cage”, “American Gods”, and “Dear White People”.

“The Wheel of Time” premieres today on Amazon with three episodes. The remaining five episodes will drop every Friday.

Yellowjackets (Showtime)
mostly directed by women

A plane carrying a high school soccer team once crashed into the Ontario wilderness. Not all of the girls on the team made it out alive. Years later, someone is sending them postcards that suggest they know what really happened. It’s up to a small group of survivors to piece it back together.

This is one of the best series casts ever assembled. Tawny Cypress, Juliette Lewis, Melanie Lynskey, and Christina Ricci are the big names, but Samantha Hanratty, Keeya King, Sophie Nelisse, and Ella Purnell shouldn’t be overlooked.

While Jonathan Lisco serves as showrunner, the series is mostly directed by women. Eva Sorhaug directs three episodes. She’s also directed episodes of “Witch Hunt”, “American Gods”, and “Your Honor”. “Jennifer’s Body” director Karyn Kusama helms the premiere. Deepa Mehta and Daisy von Scherler Mayer also direct.

“Yellowjackets” premiered its first episode this week on Showtime. You can also watch that first episode for free on YouTube to see if it sparks your interest. New episodes will drop on Showtime every Sunday.

The Sex Lives of College Girls (HBO Max)
co-showrunner Mindy Kaling

Freshman roommates at Evermore College navigate student life in an acidic comedy.

Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble showrun. Kaling is, of course, known as a writer, producer, and lead actress on “The Office” and “The Mindy Project”. (I’d also recommend “Never Have I Ever”, which she co-created, produces, and writes on, but doesn’t star.)

The release schedule for “The Sex Lives of College Girls” can be summed up as multiple episodes dropping on HBO Max every Thursday. Two episodes are available now, with three more on November 25, three more on December 2, and then the final two on December 9. And, you know, be careful if you Google the series.

The Madame Blanc Mysteries (Acorn TV)
showrunner Sally Lindsay

An antiques dealer loses her savings when her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. She relocates to France to begin investigating his death.

Sally Lindsay created, writes, and stars in “The Madame Blanc Mysteries”. The former “Coronation Street” actress also conceived of and starred in “Scott & Bailey”.

The first two episodes of “The Madame Blanc Mysteries” premiered on Acorn TV this week, with new episodes dropping every Monday.

Christmas Flow (Netflix)
directed by Nadege Loiseau

In this three-episode French series, a rapper and journalist fall for each other. His music is misogynist and she resents him for that. I don’t know how thoroughly the series will address that premise. Shirine Boutella and Tayc star.

Nadege Loiseau has directed on a few French series, including an episode of crime drama “Profilage”.

You can watch “Christmas Flow” on Netflix.

Hollington Drive (Sundance Now)
directed by Carolina Giammetta

Two sisters investigate the disappearance of a child in this British thriller.

Carolina Giammetta is a British series director who also helmed this year’s “The Drowning”.

All four episodes are available to watch on Sundance Now.

NEW MOVIES

Prayers for the Stolen (Netflix)
directed by Tatiana Huezo

“Prayers for the Stolen” follows the lives of three girls growing up in a town at war. Girls are stolen from the poor town by soldiers, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them is taken.

Tatiana Huezo is one of the most important directors working today. She’s chiefly worked in documentaries before this. Her “Tempestad” investigated the experiences of women who had been trafficked, and won Best Documentary, Director, Cinematography, and Sound at the Ariel Awards (Mexico’s equivalent to our Oscars). “Prayers for the Stolen” is her first dramatic feature.

You can watch “Prayers for the Stolen” on Netflix.

Freeland (VOD)
co-directed by Kate McLean

An elderly, off-the-grid pot farmer sees her business dwindle when cannabis is made legal. She considers what to do next as she harvests her final crop.

Kate McLean writes and directs with Mario Furloni. McLean has primarily worked in documentary films up till now.

See where to rent “Freeland”.

The Flood (VOD)
directed by Victoria Wharfe McIntyre

In this anachronistic western, an indigenous Australian wife and husband set out for revenge after they lose their daughter.

This is the first feature from writer-director Victoria Wharfe McIntyre.

You can rent “The Flood” on Redbox.

Hope (VOD)
directed by Maria Sodahl

Andrea Braein Hovig and Stellan Skarsgard star as Anja and Tomas, partners who have grown into their own separate worlds over the years. When she’s diagnosed with cancer, Anja needs Tomas to come back into her world and help support her.

The Norwegian film is written and directed by Maria Sodahl, who got her start in the 90s as a casting director.

See where to rent “Hope”.

Night Raiders (VOD)
directed by Danis Goulet

Blackfoot and Sami actress Elle-Maija Tailfeathers stars as a mother whose daughter is kidnapped by a war-obsessed government. She joins a band of vigilantes to rescue their children.

Danis Goulet is a Cree-Metis filmmaker. This is her debut feature. Goulet has served for several years as the artistic director for imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival, the world’s largest indigenous film festival.

See where to rent “Night Raiders”.

She Paradise (VOD)
directed by Maya Cozier

A teenager takes up with a dance crew. She’s not prepared for the world of money and predation that it opens up to her, though.

This is the first feature from writer-director Maya Cozier.

See where to rent “She Paradise”.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

The Movies We Loved in 2014: Part Two — By Friends of the Blog

There was enough reaction to our favorite movies query that we split it into two parts this year. What was the most popular choice across both parts? Seems to have been a tie between picking Whiplash and picking Interstellar, assuming everyone else was going to pick Interstellar, and so talking about something else instead. But that’s part of the fun – what else was that good and so overlooked that it takes precedence?

What I love about this exercise is it shows the sheer number of different ways people watch movies. Two of our writers picked Gone Girl, for instance, but for completely different reasons. As I read these pieces, I’m given new ways to look at these films as well. To me, that’s the best thing a critic can give – not a rating or judgment on a film, but new ways to see it.

Take a look at Part 1 here. Otherwise, let’s dive in:

Selma Martin Luther King David Oyelowo

Selma
by Russ Schwartz

I usually dislike doing favorite-movie picks, since I always feel like I have four competing desires: One, to choose the film with the most overall merit (whatever that means); two, to choose the film that I want to like the most, regardless of its ultimate success at achieving what it sets out to do; three, to choose the film made with the greatest ambition; and four, to choose the film that engrosses me the most completely, cause me to just experience.

Last year I picked The Hunger Games: Catching Fire completely on desire number four. I was surprised because I was engrossed (having felt pretty meh about the original) and more engrossed because I wasn’t expecting to be in the first place. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen many of the best films of 2013 at the time, or I might have chosen differently; it doesn’t matter now, I suppose.

The absolute best movie experience I had this year was Selma. It wins on all four counts, thanks to immensely strong performances, surprisingly quick pacing, and director Ava DuVernay’s ability to make the psychology and resolve of each character drive suspense. Though David Oyelowo anchors the film splendidly, nearly its entire cast is called upon to communicate how their characters deal with fear, either through reserves of conviction, faith, anger, love, humor, or some combination of these; the tension of this struggle runs through the entire film, and makes every moment feel alive. As Gabe noted in his review, this feels like a war film.

There are so many ways a biopic can stumble – its legends can be legendary rather than human, spectacle can overwhelm storytelling, the need to entertain can cheapen or reduce its subject matter rather than propelling it. Selma makes none of these missteps, thanks to DuVernay and writer Paul Webb’s tight focus on the strategy sessions, negotiations and gambles behind an historic moment. It also succeeds marvelously as a study of Dr. King, delivering an intimate vision of him while keeping us just far away enough that, at key moments, we can be thoroughly lost in trying to guess his mind. This is what I mean by engrossed.

Apart from the larger decision points, a moment that sticks with me is when he makes a late-night call to a woman the audience hasn’t seen on screen yet. There’s a long pause before the phone gets answered. Suddenly, we realize it’s Mahalia Jackson (played by singer Ledisi), whose voice helps maintain his resolve, and perhaps his faith. It’s a beautiful scene and one that, rather than breaking the tension of the story, hints at how he is able to withstand his role in it.

Russ Schwartz is an actor, playwright, and producer who co-founded The Penny Seats Theatre Company in Ann Arbor, MI.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl
by S.L. Fevre

Soulless and cold to the touch. Performances viewed through lenses of celebrity: the disappointing husband is everyone’s favorite actor to hate (Ben Affleck), the perfect wife gone missing is a Bond girl (Rosamund Pike), a comedian known for fat suit comedies (Tyler Perry) is his high-powered lawyer, a false lead – or is he – is a comedian (Neil Patrick Harris) from How I Met Your Mother. Even the college girl on the side is the nude model from the controversial “Blurred Lines” music video (Emily Ratajkowski).

Is it cold and soulless? If so, only in the way a Rorschach test is. It uses the baggage viewers bring with them to the film to lead you into false assumptions. Gone Girl‘s plot is about how we sabotage real investigations by creating celebrities out of their participants, but what it’s really about are the perceptions of celebrity we bring into the film as viewers. The participants inside Gone Girl can’t judge the case objectively because of its celebrity trappings, just like those who watch the movie can’t watch it objectively for the same reason. Is it a movie first, or is it a judgment on Affleck’s ability to act, or cinematic redemption for Pike, or a crossover for Perry, or a career shift for Harris, or a real “breakthrough” into Hollywood for Ratajkowski? We judge these celebrities first – the job they do and the effect the movie has on their career. Only then do we remember to figure out what we think of the movie. Where else in our lives do we practice that ass-backwards way of looking at the world?

S.L. Fevre is an actress and model who escapes L.A. as often as possible. She once beat an abusive director up with her shoe. She is working on launching her own production company.

Gone Girl Pike Affleck

Gone Girl
by Rachel Ann Taylor

Kirk Baxter’s editing. My god. Here’s the most David Fincher of director David Fincher movies. It’s so airtight, if you took away the dialogue, you could still follow every moment. For a twisting, winding thriller full of double crosses and red herrings, that says something. One thing it says is the Oscars were insane for overlooking it.

I can’t talk about the ending without giving everything away, but what it says about our obsession to fulfill every cultural norm that’s expected of us – marriage, picket fences, kids – at any cost is haunting. Amazingly, Fincher never judges these characters. He’s just the narrator. For such a perfectionist, this is incredible restraint. It also leaves us to make the judgments after, remarking on how insane, unrealistic, and out-of-date these expectations are.

Rachel Ann Taylor is an actress living in L.A. She wants you to know it’s warm there and there’s no snow, so next time you diss California, just remember that.

Clouds of Sils Maria Binoche Stewart

Boyhood
and Clouds of Sils Maria
J.P. Hitesman

When I was around the ages of 9-10, there were a series of films that captured my imagination and yearning of what life must be like for those just a little bit older than me. The sports-themed The Sandlot and Rookie of the Year, both released in 1993, stand out the most in my memory, but there were many others that came along fast on their heels. My attention to those types of films faded right around the time of the Star Wars re-releases in early 1997, and I remember being especially disappointed how that year’s remake of That Darn Cat, possibly the last PG rated film I saw in the theater for a number of years, failed to capture the spirit of the 1965 original and seemed to be aiming for an even younger audience than my then-ripe age of twelve-and-a-half.

More than any other film in our current millennial era, Boyhood taps into the opposite side of that yearning, a wistful memory for what was, wasn’t, and could have been, as those of us in our early 30s reflect on the choices we’ve made and the now-hazy memories of childhood adventures and formative experiences. Those little things that make big impacts loom large in different individual lives, and Richard Linklater sharply observes that truth in his film. In the central figure of Mason, emphatically portrayed by Ellar Coltrane, we can attach our own recognition of certain individual yet universal experiences: doing homework, playing with friends, getting a talk-down from a parent, staying out too late, the first kiss, deliberate dirtiness with smoking or alcohol, leaving home and the familiar life behind for a new beginning at college.

Mason’s family are archetypes of their own, yet still strongly individual, with his mom (newly minted Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette) displaying the sharpest character arc as she works her way up to a satisfying career as a college professor. But the film’s focus on sharp individuality means that we see the other side of her thoughts in a quietly devastating closing scene for the character. Dad (Ethan Hawke) initially is a murky figure, but comes into clearer definition in a series of fun and poignant outings with his children, and especially for Mason in a tender, spare camping trip sequence (where they discuss no less than Star Wars). And Big Sis (Lorlei Linklater) develops from a combative to thoughtful supporter of Mason, as she also branches off from the central family unit and eventually starts her own life.

Since this site has been an active and vocal supporter of Kristen Stewart’s recent work, I’d like to offer sneak preview praise for her work in Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she recently became the first American actress ever to win a Caesar Award. In this film, which I was delighted to see at the Windsor International Film Festival last November, Stewart and Juliette Binoche are a surprising, revelatory pair, spending most of the film acting opposite just each other in a remote Swiss mountaintop home. Director Olivier Assayas creates an enigmatic intensity with the material as the story blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Yet throughout the story it is Stewart herself who seems more honest and humane than ever before on screen, and she’s matched by Binoche, adapting a new role as a sort of elder stateswoman of the acting profession. I would argue that this is the film Birdman wanted to be.

J.P. Hitesman is the Renaissance Man of any theatre or stage he steps on. He blogs about theatre and film at TheatricalBuddhaMan.

The Raid 2 heartbreak

The Raid 2
by Eden O’Nuallain

Actually, the movie I loved most last year was Interstellar. I know I will watch it often and cry every time, but it doesn’t need the advertisement. When you’re done wiping away your Matthew McConaughey-induced tears, turn to The Raid 2, a martial arts movie with the drama of an opera and the brutality of a war film.

It’s Indonesian. There are subtitles. Deal with it. If the first Raid was Die Hard in an apartment building, the second is Barry Lyndon in the slums of Jakarta. It is an artful film. There is hidden meaning toward Indonesia’s messy politics, where gangs stand in for the military old guard. There are beautiful locations – blood-red hotel amphitheaters, snowy back-alleys, muddy prison yards, fertile green fields where the dead are buried.

It is a wonderful time to be a martial arts fan. Every year, martial arts movies tread new territory while old-fashioned drama stagnates. The Raid 2 tells a mythic narrative of superhuman feats with real world consequences and meaning.

Eden O’Nuallain moonlights as our editor and makes sure all our punctuation is in the right plac.e

I Origins Michael Pitt Brit Marling

I Origins
by Cleopatra Parnell

Nothing compares to Interstellar. It is one of the top 5 science-fiction movies I have seen, but someone needs to stand up for I Origins. We keep referencing it but no one’s written about it.

The biggest divide in the U.S. is over science and religion. I Origins is the only film I’ve seen to address that in a reasonable way. It treats both with respect – a scientist seeks to disprove religion, but is faced with possible scientific evidence for reincarnation. The ultimate meaning of the film is left up to us, but it guides its characters into places where the two can coexist and even reinforce each other. It shows how each is stronger with the other one assisting. They are each humanitarian in their own way.

And if you rated movies on the volume of tears they induced, I Origins is the best movie ever made.

Cleopatra Parnell is a session singer, actress, and model who calls Austin, TX home. She writes for us regularly on music videos.

My own pick is a tie between Under the Skin and Interstellar. I write about this more What the Oscars Missed. The two films are so different and represent such opposite ends of the science-fiction spectrum that I find more value in thinking of them together rather than choosing one. If you’re curious about what we chose last year, check out our Movies We Loved in 2013.

A Study in Sociopathy — “Gone Girl”

Gone Girl Pike Affleck

by Gabriel Valdez

Gone Girl is the movie you go to in order to have your mind race, and to keep yourself up well past any reasonable bedtime because you’re still thinking about and discussing it afterward. It’s the chill up your spine you feel not when something is lurking in the shadows, but rather when everything is in the light, smiling at you, and you still can’t shake the feeling that it’s not quite right.

The plot for director David Fincher’s latest movie can only be described in basics. A couple’s marriage goes south. She disappears. We see the evolution of their relationship via flashbacks from her diary. As these flashbacks turn violent, we begin to suspect that the husband Nick (Ben Affleck) has killed his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The police, and the public, slowly turn on him.

To say any more would be to ruin any of the mystery’s dozen twists and turns. Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also adapts the screenplay, Gone Girl is a tone poem of steadily mounting tension and gradually revealed half-truths.

While I’m a fan of the Fincher who directed Se7en, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, dark films that batter your defenses down and overwhelm you, Gone Girl is his gentlest delivery yet, and at the same time his least sentimental. The film is uncomfortably cold in the way a brutally honest truth is.

Gone Girl inspiration

Much of the film’s intrigue is in learning how every character starts off a sociopath, or learns (or remembers) to become one in order to survive and cope. In order to deal with a predatory media, the honest learn how to act honest for TV. The liars don’t need to; they already know how. Even the film itself adopts these traits – half the fun as a viewer is in realizing exactly how you’ve been played, by characters and by the filmmakers alike.

This may sound unappealing, and it would be in a lesser director’s hands, but Fincher takes a haunting snapshot of modern society. I’d be willing to call Gone Girl a dark comedy in places, but this is comedy that scars. The national media culture lampooned here, tripping over each other for exclusives and making up stories on the fly, bears close resemblances to our own. The film’s most disturbing elements have little to do with murder, and everything to do with the appetite we’ve developed for it. In one scene, a ridiculous Nancy Grace analogue and guest experts judge public figures they’ve never met by analyzing brief mannerisms, as if you can judge a human being’s makeup by how they raise their hand or nod their head.

Gone Girl is a Rorschach Test of a movie that everybody’s meant to fail. Like the ink blots you’re asked to assign shapes and stories to, Gone Girl can reveal where your head is in its mystery. How much do you base assumptions of guilt on facts, and how much do you base those same assumptions on personality, presentation, and narrative?

Gone Girl Neil Patrick Harris

This is complicated by using actors we’re familiar with more for their status than their talent. Affleck is a lightning rod, in the news more often as a celebrity than as an actor. Pike is best known for her role as a Bond girl in Die Another Day. Comedians like Tyler Perry (the Madea franchise) and Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) hold serious roles, and are quite good. Even Emily Ratajkowski, best known for her role in Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines” music video, plays a crucial supporting role. We can’t help but bring our presumptions about these actors into our experience watching the movie. Fincher knows this, plays with our assumptions, and never misses a chance to undermine you as a viewer.

Gone Girl is a masterful thriller that stuns with its complete ability to misdirect you. Staging, casting, editing, the musical score by Trent Reznor – Fincher may not want to coddle his audience, but there’s no mistaking that every detail here is built around the viewer. That’s what makes a consummate storyteller. Gone Girl is not the Fincher thriller I expected; it’s something far more subversive. There is no way to anticipate how it evolves, but its twists and turns are handled deftly and the film’s satirical elements are discomforting in all the best ways.

This is one to experience in the theater, with a picture three stories tall and the sound coming out of dozens of speakers. Be warned, it’s not a movie for kids.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Gone Girl have more than one woman in it?

Yes. It stars Rosamund Pike, an incredible turn by Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski, Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, and Sela Ward. In fact, women outnumber the men nearly 2-to-1 in the picture.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. This would ordinarily be the section where I name the conversation or two that women have together in the film, but Gone Girl has too many to cite.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. The mystery of the film – investigating the murder of a woman – means that conversations center around Amy as often as they do her husband Nick.

The lone difficulty lies in Nick’s resentment of being molded by Amy over the years. It’s made a point in Nick’s mind, and I have no doubt that some viewers out there will hold sections of the film up as banners for Male Rights. This would represent a complete misreading of Gone Girl, however.

As I said earlier, everyone learns to be a sociopath by the end of the film, but Nick and Amy start that way. He writes for a men’s magazine, she writes online quizzes for women. The two are meant to represent what we teach young men and women to be, what we teach them to value. As such exemplary students of these lessons, they act the way those magazines always tell us to act.

As creepy, walking satire so dark it’s chilling, the murder investigation on hand interacts with the satire of our media and celebrity culture. So yes, you could insist that Nick is a Men’s Rights hero or a victim of Feminism, as some have, but it would mean you have a blind spot a mile wide when it comes to his character. If you do that, you’re either the most selective viewer I’ve ever met, or you have an agenda.

If anything, most of the women in Gone Girl are by the end forced to act counter to their natures. The film’s very critical of how society forces both men and women into preconceived roles. Most of the film is spent watching characters perfect the roles society expects them to play, regardless of who a character really is. I spoke with Eden, S.L., and Vanessa after the movie. We’ve each had an opportunity to see the film, and we all agree – Gone Girl is a deeply Feminist movie. It’s a vicious indictment of what movements like Men’s Rights Activism have made of us, the roles our most conservative critics expect men and women to play, and how those roles make us so much easier to exploit.

This is the “Come on in, I’ll make you a drink” at the end of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, extended into a frightening movie of people playing into the deep expectations our society mines.