The Game, Panic Room

A Fincher double feature!

David Fincher brings weight, substance and excitement to outlandish concepts and genre exercises through superb photography and astonishing production values. Both of these films are so well shot and appointed they take the breath away.

I wish David Fincher would make more movies. I wish David Fincher would shoot something I wrote. Hint hint.

Fincher has done so well with his smooth, polished, glossy entertainments, I can’t wait to see what he does with a “real drama” someday.

When I was a young man, I hated Michael Douglas. I didn’t like his hair, I didn’t like his chin, I didn’t like his young, self-righteous, more-liberal-than-thou attitude. Then, in 1987, he delivered back-to-back amazing performances as conflicted, guilty, deplorable jerks in Fatal Attraction and Wall Street, and suddenly I was a huge fan. I’ve seen everything he’s done since. I enjoyed some, like A Perfect Murder, and didn’t enjoy others, like Disclosure, but he’s never been less than interesting and enjoyable ever since. Come to think of it, I can’t think of another actor that does what Michael Douglas does these days, playing multifaceted, sometimes unpleasant middle-aged men, and somehow finding decent scripts that feature lead roles for him.

The Game is so absurdly far-fetched in concept and outlandish in its execution that it’s flatly ridiculous, and yet I’ve seen the movie three times and will probably watch it again before my time here on earth is up, partly to watch the performances, partly to study Fincher’s seamless direction, partly to luxuriate in the sumptuous production design.

Panic Room is as contained as The Game is expansive, both in concept and in physicality. Almost a filmed play, it would make a kickass double feature with Woody Allen’s September, but it shares more in common with an old chestnut like Wait Until Dark. And for once, one can mention an Audrey Hepburn movie without apology, for in Panic Room we have an actress more than able to stand up in comparison.

Check out the special effects in Panic Room. It’s not just the flashy shots of the camera floating through the floorboards and zooming through the keyholes. All through the picture, in shot after shot, special effects are used to emphasize and delineate, to clarify and set in relief. A door opens, a phone slides under a bed, a flashlight turns on, the most common of shots, shots that might even be shot by a second unit on most pictures, are here given full CGI treatment, weaving the effects into so many shots that you don’t see them after a while. It’s a whole new approach to effects, using them to heighten and deepen what might otherwise be a claustrophobic chamber-piece.

Jodie Foster, I know, I’ve applauded before. But she’s completely convincing in this part and quite staggeringly well-photographed. Whoever did her hair and makeup in this picture should have been nominated for an Oscar. Seeing her with her teenage daughter, it made me wish that she had done the remake of Freaky Friday instead of Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not too late!

Most of the acting in the movie is done on a completely believable, naturalistic plane, but then there are a handful of performances that are broader and seem somehow stagebound, as if this really was a filmed play. Both Ann Magnuson and Ian Buchannan as a pair of realtors come off as arch and stylized, and Jared Leto’s performance occasionally makes it seem like he’s doing a very good impression of John C. McGinley. There are plenty of scenes where Forest Whitaker stands there with his great, sad face and stares at Leto as he shouts and waves his arms, and I found myself thinking “I know, I know, I’m with you.”

The direction is done with much grace, elegance and poise, but the script sets a very high bar for itself and occasionally misses the jump.

The bar the script sets is: let’s make a movie, a suspense thriller, a “woman in jeopardy” picture (or “womjep”) about a woman trapped in a tiny room, and see if we can pull that off.

The problem is, you get the woman and her daughter into the room on page 20, and then what happens? The woman and the daughter are in the room and the bad men want very badly to get into the room. The bad men try something and the woman foils them. Then the woman tries something and the bad men foil her. Then the woman goes out of the room to fetch her phone. Then one of the men gets killed by another one of the men. And after each of these events, the central conceit returns to the status quo; the woman is in the room and the bad men want to get in. The situation doesn’t allow for an escalation of tension.

The individual sections of the movie are well written and executed and the film had no trouble sustaining my interest on a second viewing, but the writer (David Koepp) has literally written himself into a box. He has to pull out the old “diabetic kid” routine to get the movie out of its second act and into its third, where the situation is reversed and the bad men are in the room and the woman wants very badly to get in.

Anyway, small complaint for a movie as inventive and elegant as this.

David Koepp, I should probably mention, is something of a touchstone in my household. I use his name all the time, usually in the sentence “I wonder if David Koepp has to do this?” when a studio wants me to pay my own hotel bill, or submit multiple free treatments, or perform multiple pitches over a period of months before telling me that they don’t actually own the rights to a project.
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32 Responses to “The Game, Panic Room”
  1. eronanke says:

    I’ll be honest; I *hated* Panic Room. I’m pretty sure it was just the concept, and not just the direction I hated, but it’s hard to tell… Here’s the thing; he directed 3 of Madonna’s best videos, (“Express Yourself”, “Bad Girl” and “Vogue”) as well as Alien³. And while I respect that he did not get his full ‘directorial’ rights on Alien³, it really was a horrible movie. So I’m torn!

    • eronanke says:

      PS- I think it’s time you got yourself an icon, no? 🙂

      • greyaenigma says:

        I have a friend that still hasn’t gotten an icon after years.

        Maybe he just wants to have his words speak for themselves. I have Melville for that.

      • Todd says:

        I am as unskilled in computer use as Josh Emery is in law.

        Teach me, eronanke. Teach me to read.

        Free lunch for anyone who can identify the movie I just paraphrased from.

        • eronanke says:

          Ummm… Gosh.
          Some guesses of movie quotes with “Teach” in them:

          Flipper (1996)
          Uncle Porter: I’d like that. I have a thirst for knowledge; teach me.
          Karate Kid, The (1984)
          Daniel: Could you teach me?
          Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The (1962)
          Hallie: Rance, did you mean what you said about bein’ able to teach me to read?
          Party Monster (2003)
          Michael Alig: [to James St James] I want you to teach me how to be fabulous.
          Stanley & Iris (1990)
          Stanley Cox “Teach me to read!”
          Best for last:
          Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
          Coop: Will you teach me about this – what is it? A new way?

          • Todd says:

            I was thinking of Stanley & Iris. Congratulations to all our players.

            Years and years ago, a friend of mine used to do a killer DeNiro impression, where he would engage with an audience member and start in with “You talkin’ to me?” then move on to “You’re a mook” and “A man develops enthusiasms,” getting more and more oblique in his references as he went on. It was a good routine, but I laughed the hardest when he tossed in “Teach me to read!” Ah, youth.

        • eronanke says:

          PS- Do you want a picture of yourself/something else? I’m just whipping something up right now.

          • Todd says:

            I definitely don’t want a picture of me. Ugh.

            Anything with a cute cat.

            Anything with Astro Boy, Wonder Woman or Samurai Jack (those are all features I worked on at one point or other.

            Anything, obviously, with an ant.

    • Todd says:

      Yeah, I have trouble with Alien 3 too (how do you turn the number into a nomial?). I have the great big “every Alien movie ever made in more than one version” DVD box and I enjoyed Fincher’s cut of the movie less than the theatrical one. I had forgotten about his videos, certainly there must be a Fincher Music Video set in the works by the people who did the Spike Jonze/Chris Cunningham/Michel Gondry sets, no?

      I was underwhelmed by Panic Roomin the theater too, mostly because of the expectations I brought to it. Fincher’s previous three features had taken me to such heights of plot and sensation, and this seemed a little too small. But I had no trouble watching it on DVD (it didn’t hurt that I found it for $5.99 at my local used video store) (it also did not hurt that the transfer is suberb, unlike the transfer of The Game, which is merely okay.

      • eronanke says:

        Oh, god, I hope they release his video set- I would totally buy that just for the three I mentioned. (I think he’s also worked with Prince, Paula Abdul, and Aerosmith).

  2. craigjclark says:

    I should follow your lead and do a Fincher double feature since these are the two films of his that I haven’t seen. Then again, that’s probably due to the fact that I thought Fight Club wasn’t nearly half as clever as it thought it was, which is always a problem for me when a movie relies on some kind of a twist.

    • Todd says:

      For me, the stumbling block with Fight Club isn’t the “surprise twist,” but the fact that, midway through the movie, the narrative takes this big conceptual leap from being about men who beat each other up because they’ve been denied their innate masculinity to men who turn their rage upon the society that did the denying. But the movie is such a gushing fountain of ideas, both in concept and in execution, that I now salute it for its daring instead of denigrating it for its flaws. Would that any, any American film these days suffer from have too many ideas.

      • craigjclark says:

        I don’t mind films with too many ideas as long as they fit together. My favorite film of all time, Brazil, makes an extreme tonal shift at about the midway point — from mildly dark comedy to extremely dark political/social commentary — but that feels like less of a leap because the political/social commentary has always been boiling away in the background and some of comedy carries over to the rest of the film.

        My biggest problem with Fight Club, is this: If I was out and about and happened upon (*SPOILER*) a man punching himself in the face in a parking lot (*END SPOILER*), I would not go, “Wow, that guy’s really onto something. I have to get in on that.” Of course, we don’t know that that’s what people were seeing until the very end with the revelation of the twist.

        • jammybottoms says:

          A lot of the flaws in Fight Club, the movie, are cleared up immensely in the book. The movie puts more focus on Tyler, my guess is because they assume people want to see more of Brad Pitt. I’m more of an Edward Norton gal myself, but that is neither here nor there. A lot of the lines attributed to Tyler Durden in the movie are assingned to other followers in the book, leaving the emphasis more on the willingness of people to follow something that gives meaning to their lives, rather than “Hey, Gus, looka that guy over thar punchin’ hisself! Let’s do that too!” The Robert Paulsen scene also makes much more sense in the literary version. Flaws notwithstanding, the movie is one of the best adaptations from a book I’ve ever seen. Fight Club remains one of my favorite movies of all time, even though the ending had been ruined for me long in advance of me even seeing it.

          • jammybottoms says:

            Oops, forgot to hit spellcheck. I hope my typo is not mistaken for bad grammar, and summarily mocked.

          • Anonymous says:

            I haven’t watched Fight Club again since reading the book this past summer, but you’re right, it’s a terrific adaptation. In fact, the tonal shift that I talk about, I was surprised to read in an interview with Fincher that the questioner said “Hey, what about that weird shift in the middle of Fight Club?” and Fincher’s answer was “You know, that shift is in the book too, and I just wanted to make a decent adaptation of the book.” And I thought, wow, there’s one I haven’t heard before, a major Hollywood director wanting to stay true to the plot of a cult novel, and not screw it up. And as I say, I now can string Fight Club all the way through, the man angry at himself is the man angry at his loss of masculinity, and as he “solves” his psychological problems, they expand ever outward until they invole destroying the actual system that created his problem.

            The best part about the movie is that they reversed the ending of the book, and actually blow up the buildings.

            Oops, spoiler alert. Everyone okay?

            • jammybottoms says:

              Ha ha, traditionally the spoiler goes at the top of the post! But yeah, the end of the book is quite different, and I like both endings for different reasons. I think the buildings being blown up works better for the movie, not just visually; I think it would be hard to convey the feelings and thoughts in the end of the book to film effectively. But I enjoyed the sad despondent creepiness the reader is left with at the end of the book.

        • Anonymous says:

          If your problem with Fight Club is based on your disbelief of the parking lot flashback, I can’t imagine how you reacted to The Game, which throws a dozen different implausible scenarios at the viewer every reel.

  3. urbaniak says:

    “Teach me, eronanke. Teach me to read.

    Free lunch for anyone who can identify the movie I just paraphrased from.”

    Ummmmmm. “Atlantic City?”

  4. brethamilton says:

    Todd, you fraud

    Pardon that line, Todd. just wanted to get your attention. Yes, it’s that guy you usedto know in Carbondale. I just wanted to say hello and now I’m hip deep in chatty film criticism and missing the colbert report. I’m glad I found you again….let’s catch up some time when I can type louder….Bye!

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Todd, you fraud

      Jiminy H. Crickets, Bret Hamilton.

      I was just thinking of you the other day because I opened a box and it was filled with cassette tapes that you and Stev Fargan made for me way back in the day. Who owns a cassette player these days? Me, I guess.

      Did you see the comments for Last Temptation? Another of our compatriots, Alisa Caraker, has also tracked me down via this blog.

      What’s going on these days?

      How ’bout that Republican administration? Are they knuckleheads or what?