Friday, September 28, 2007

Zodiac

2007, US, directed by David Fincher

Zodiac, director David Fincher's finest film to date, marks a remarkable return to the big screen, particularly on the heels of Panic Room, a stylish but limited film. While Zodiac is framed as a strict police procedural - it evokes the narrative progress of the original Law and Order show, as well as another San Francisco cop film, The Laughing Policeman - with each scene carefully dated and located, Fincher is well aware of the viewer's likely familiarity with the conventions of less disciplined thrillers, and uses that knowledge to excellent effect. Educated by Jaws, for example, we know that an innocent drive, or an idyllic day by the lake, are likely nothing of the kind; what's especially jarring in this film, and what undoubtedly contributed to the public fascination with the crimes, is the sense that death can emerge at any time of day, anywhere. Later in the film, Fincher has fun with an "Old Dark House" sequence that frays the nerves of both the film's central character, who's already unraveling, and the audience; that one of the characters in the sequence is a movie projectionist only adds to the frisson.

The construction of the film as a strictly straightforward narrative isn't just a dry, formalistic exercise, however: it's critical to underlining the manner in which information becomes available to the investigators, particularly in a world far less interlinked than our own, where basic information either isn't or can't be shared with those in nearby jurisdictions. As viewers, we're constantly trying to push at the limitations this creates - though we still have access to more information than the investigators - in trying to stitch the details together in a manner that makes satisfactory sense. We're constantly confronted, though, with the reality that our search for some kind of meaning in crimes, particularly crimes of this magnitude and visibility, may be a fool's errand; Fincher isn't trying to provide us with the kind of resolution we get in a 45-minute television episode, though the longer his film runs, the easier it is to want such neat conclusions.

As Robert Greysmith, the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who becomes utterly obsessed with the Zodiac case - his book provides the film's raw material - Jake Gyllenhaal delivers another dependable performance; he's particularly good at capturing Greysmith's growing mania, which excludes and even alienates everyone around him. Greysmith has an interest in puzzles himself, and the case becomes the grandest he encounters; at one point, he appears to be the only person working full-time on the case, establishing lines and linkages that have eluded others who think of the murders in isolation. It's easy to take Gyllenhaal's work for granted, not least because this is another in a line of introspective roles that conceal his broader abilities. If anything, his co-star Mark Ruffalo is even more undervalued; he breezes through light comedy in 13 Going On 30 or Just Like Heaven, but is equally capable of carrying serious fare like In the Cut (perhaps over-serious fare) and We Don't Live Here Anymore, without seeming out of his element in either context. Here he's especially good as the most upright of cops, tireless, yet absolutely by the book, stymied by the difficulties not of identifying a suspect but of bringing that suspect to justice as the law requires.

From the very first shot, Fincher establishes an acute sense of place and time that goes beyond even the datelines provided so regularly throughout the film (though it takes an attentive viewer to assess exactly when certain events take place, since the passage of time is indicated primarily with titles of the "three weeks later" variety); there's an extraordinary degree of attention to the details of décor, costume, habit and speech - there's a wonderful sequence where Gyllenhaal takes Chloé Sevigny on a date that exudes the feel of the era - but also a profound sense of a very different communications world, where the "telefax" is the latest thing, available in the big city but not in downtown Vallejo, where key sequences revolve around payphones, and where, perhaps most notably of all, the newspaper is a medium commanding the greatest of respect (by contrast, television, in the film, seems prone to farce); though much of the film takes place earlier than Watergate, this is the America of All The President's Men, and a killer with a media fixation sees no better outlet for his threats than the local quality daily.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Catch and Release

2007, US, directed by Susannah Grant

Rating: **.5


Or Several Suitors and a Funeral. Susannah Grant's first film (as director, after several screenwriting successes) opens on an unexpected note for a romantic comedy, with Gray (Jennifer Garner) in tears as she mourns her fiancé, killed on the eve of the wedding, the preparations for which were already well underway. However, Grant gives her main character an easy out from her grieving, undermining the fiancé's saintliness and allowing Garner to quickly return to the single life in ways that strain the bounds of credibility. There's a scene where the fiancé's mother seeks the return of the engagement ring, a family heirloom, that's supposed to illustrate a callous nature, but in truth the mother's reaction, suffused with grief for her dead son, rings far more true than Gray's.

Grant is uncertain as a director, unable to map out her character's fairly simple evolutionary arc in satisfying ways, moving too quickly to the post-grief stages and then idling to regain credibility; she's also particularly prone to the musical montage. The film does benefit from several decent supporting turns, particularly Juliette Lewis, whose character finds herself in especially awkward circumstances, as well as the great Irish stage actress Fiona Shaw paying some bills as the dead fiancé's mother, while Clerks director Kevin Smith is amusing as a garrulous pal.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hot Fuzz

2007, UK, directed by Edgar Wright

Coming on the heels of the splendid Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, though entertaining, is ultimately something of a disappointment, as it tries to stretch its central joke, that of a hard-charging city supercop thrown into quiet village life, well beyond its useful life. While the opening is amusingly brisk, and the film saves the best for its closing sequences, the middle sags rather badly (a flaw that also bedevils Knocked Up, though the success of both films seems to give the lie to the idea that mainstream movie audiences are attention-deficit). The plot, in that central segment, descends into complete absurdity that's obviously intended as a satire on self-obsessed Little Englanders, desperately clutching at the remains of a bygone (and non-existent) age, but which smacks, instead, of writers throwing random ideas together in the hope that something sticks.

By contrast, the repeated spoofing of American films is much more successful: Edgar Wright is merciless in his dissection of male-bonding actioners, with extended riffs on films like Lethal Weapon (particularly one hilarious rain-soaked sequence), Bad Boys and Point Break (that critically-loved film was pretty self-conscious to begin with, though). It might be that he - and co-writer Simon Pegg - is also trying to make a point about the degree to which American films have coloured the views of even provincial Englishmen, though one could also surmise - particularly given his subsequent plans - that he's simply auditioning for a bigger stage.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

2007, US, directed by Steven Soderbergh

After the oh-so-self-conscious second episode, the Ocean's franchise gets back to relative basics for its third installment, essentially a re-run of the enjoyable first film, showcasing a monstrously complicated heist that, of course, seems breezily simple for George Clooney and his crew. Director Steven Soderbergh indulges his taste for Traffic-style intercutting with some of the side stories (most obviously a semi-comic tale of labour unrest in Mexico fueled by one of the heist crew), though the complexity of the heist and the number of players means that the story shuttles around hyper-actively, proving quite distracting at times.

While a passing acquaintance with the previous films - and particularly the first installment - doesn't hurt, given the only half-explained backstories that link certain of the characters, the Ocean's trilogy has nothing like the web of interconnections that renders the maligned Pirates of the Caribbean franchise so much more fun to watch again; where those films seem to build towards a kind of resolution, Ocean's Thirteen is condemned to repetition of its own past glories.

Mr Brooks

2007, US, directed by Bruce A. Evans

Rating: **.5


As with many a contemporary serial killer movie, Mr Brooks imputes extraordinary, near superhuman, detection-avoidance abilities to its protagonist, as if, in addition to his twisted psychosis, he's also armed with a graduate degree in forensics to ensure his continued liberty. Perhaps the film, in choosing such a well-heeled killer (a kind of lethal Raffles) is engaging in unexpected social criticism, implying that access to great wealth can cover even the most sadistic of crimes (the extent of his holdings leads to an especially silly denouement involving a seedy photographer who believes he can one up Brooks).

Costner's star has fallen so far that it's easy to forget that he's still more than capable of carrying a film, his easygoing charm lending this effort far more credibility than it ultimately deserves, given its muddled plot and sometimes overwrought style. The film is most creepily successful, in the end, when it evokes the complicity between the two sides of Brooks's personality: the evil component is embodied by William Hurt, who has several enjoyably chewy scenes with Costner (there's a real frisson in the moments when the two parts of Brooks's broken psyche share a laugh over their plans).

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Colour Box

1935, UK, directed by Len Lye

I was unfamiliar with Len Lye until I read a fascinating piece by Kristin Thompson earlier this year, but was subsequently fortunate enough to see one of his better-known works (in a DVD transfer, but on a satisfyingly large wall-size projection screen), made for Britain's General Post Office Film Unit. In these days of "hard sell" advertising, it's hard to believe that the GPO thought that Lye's methods might be a useful part of their campaign to promote a new parcel post rate, but the film's surprising success cast the GPO in the most positive of lights (as noted in Roger Horrocks's Len Lye: A Biography). Lye's work at this time involved painting directly on, and scratching, pieces of film (a method he refined by using discards from Ealing Studios), and this short has wonderfully clever patterns in sometimes outlandish colour schemes; the work of painting the strips of film for A Colour Box apparently took just five days, which is remarkable given the complexity of what appears onscreen, not to mention the small scale on which Lye worked, given the size of film frames. Set to a piece of music from Martinique, it's an extremely witty piece of work, using the jaunty musical accompaniment as a template for wild experiments in shape and movement.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States