Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Pretty much every serial killer film released in the past decade has been directly inspired* by two movies: Silence of the Lambs and Seven. All of the tropes that have become mindnumbling cliche, and in some cases, have transcended the cliche and become almost surreally ridiculous,** can be traced to the gimmicks pioneered in those two films, particularly the concept of a super genius murderer with fantastically creative methods of dispatching and displaying his victims.

The story of the Zodiac killer defies pretty much every codified element of the serial killer genre: an honest retelling of the decades-long unsolved case wouldn't provide for any of the usual comforts of serial killer films. That makes it all the more delicious that David Fincher, the director of Seven, engages the problem head-on and made a movie that intentionally defies every audience expectation. Most serial killer movies treat the issue of identifying the perpetrator as an afterthought, a flimsy justification for close-ups of slaughter, maniacal cackling, car and foot chases, and the cathartic destruction of the incarnated evil murderer. Fincher's Zodiac eschews every one of those staples in favor of a sweaty, tightly focused recounting of the painstaking, frustrating, generally fruitless attempt of police officers and journalists (played with period gusto by the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, jr.) to piece together meagre, often contradictory evidence as to the identity of the publicity-hungry nutbag who killed five people and wounded two more during the late 60s in Northern California.

The film consciously, almost perversly, stimies attempts to grasp the case and follow the evidence to a conclusion. Suspects are introduced, evidence points in their direction and the audience feels the impending Ah-Ha! moment, and at several points Fincher brings his camera in tightly on something, a boot, a watch, and the soundtrack swells, the textbook cues that THIS IS IT! The case has been broken because a keen-eyed, dedicated sleuth has, through his unwavering committment to the case, discovered the one element that brings everything together and reveals the truth unambigiously. And then...nothing. More evidence is uncovered that seems to clear the suspect in question, search warrants come up empty, time passes (YEARS pass), lack of probable cause confounds further investigation, the trail grows cold and the dedicated, righteous investigators are rewarded for their commitment with ruined families, left alone with their unquenchable thirst for an answer. Generally, police thrillers take the tedious, demanding task of rigorous investigation based on the scientific method and turn it into a two-link evidence chain that always points in the direction of the real perpetrator, who we all know will go down in a hail of bullets. Fincher sprinkles references to crime films throughout the movie: every private home features movie posters as wall decorations, and at one point Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo even go see the film Diryt Harry, which was loosely inspired by the Zodiac case. Ruffalo (a San Francisco Police Inspector, just like Harry Callahan), walks out halfway through. In Zodiac, a good deal of running time is spent depicting events and chasing leads that lead nowhere, and even though the film tends to endorse the theory of the case endorsed by author Robert Graysmith, it presents plenty of evidence calling the theory into question, and when the credits roll, there's no sense that the case is anywhere near closed.

Fincher's decision to turn Zodiac into a sustained critique of serial killer film cliches is not only ballsy, it's a smart way to turn what could potentially have been the movie's biggest weakness, the tremendously anti-climatic ending, into a strength. When the film ended and the packed house I saw the film with let out a loud, sustained sigh of disappointment, it gave me the kind of giddy thrill I've never felt at the by-the-numbers conclusion of a normal serial killer film. The ending, which withholds catharsis or resolution, is a dramatically inert but thematically exhilerating: all of the film's efforts to deny the audience it's expected kill-thrills come together in one moment of collective deflation.

Score: 8.4

* read: ripped off

** Mindhunters, anyone?

Monday, February 26, 2007

DVD Roundup: The Prestige

I was underwhelmed by this movie after I watched it, but I also know that everyone who loved it said that you need to watch it AT LEAST twice to really see all the twists and absorb their meaning. The only problem is that I really can't work up the enthusiasm to watch it again. So, while I can't say that I've fully explored this film, I can say that, in the words of Randy Jackson, it was just alright for me, dawg.

On the credits side of the ledger, the film did a good job of engaging interesting themes about the nature of creativity, showmanship and the rise of the scientific and the death of wonder in the industrial world. Unfortunately, the illusions themselves felt underwhelming, and the dueling magicians played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale didn't establish themselves as unique characters. And the ladies were largely window dressing, though in the case of Scarlet Johansson, damn fine window dressing. And, most problematic, the big twist at the end wasn't really a twist so much as a weird intrusion of science fiction that was introduced fairly early in the film. The only reason it surprises at the end is that the viewer just assumes that it's too "out there" given the rest of the film's content. There is a thematic justification for this: it puts the audience in the same place as the magic audiences of the film: confronted with something that defies our understanding of the universe and forced to reconcile what we are seeing with what we know. Damn, maybe I will watch it again.

Preliminary Score: 7.0

Pan's Labyrinth wins best cinematography over Children of Men?

Oscar, you've raped me again.

Friday, February 23, 2007

America is begging for another 9-11 attack Part II

Ghost Rider? Are you people fucking kidding me? I know there were no other big releases last weekend, but 45 million dollars worth of Ghost Rider viewers? Was there absolutely nothing else to do? Walk in the park? Talk to loved ones? Learn how to play the harmonica? Maybe rent some good movie you always wanted to see or rewatching a classic haven't seen in a while? Perfect your auto-fellatio technique?

Ghost Rider? A C-list Marvel hero from the '70s who, when in action, is personified by a shitty-CGI flaming skull, and when he isn't in action is personified by...Nicholas Cage?

The terror...she is coming.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

" the car crash fiberglass dust straight-up settles on your raw muscle tissue."

Inspired by a song I recently heard about being how cool it would be to get turned into a pile of bloody hamburger in a horrible car wreck, I asked myself a question: what are some of the more memorable car crashes in film history? A few that spring to mind.

Punch Drunk Love. Out of the blue, unexplained, and completely disconnected from the rest of the movie (other than establishing that the world is a chaotic, scary and threatening place).

Dawn of the Dead (2004). The film gets off to a rolicking start (so goddamn rolicking that it never really tops it's first ten minutes) with a suburban neighborhood going to hell. Neighbors are pulling guns on each other as zombies thrist for human flesh, and when an ambulance is running people over, you know that the shit is going down.

The Last Seduction: Cars are often used as weapons in movies, but in this movie, Linda Fiorentino's lethal vixen actually killed a guy with the power of her flirting...and by crashing directly into a tree.

The Descent: Nice and bloody. It also eschews the out-of-nowhere shock tactics of most crash scenes for a nice reversal: the audience sees that the cars are going to crash before the characters do.

Fight Club: Effective as metaphor, effective as scary-ass car wreck.

Friday, February 09, 2007

DVD Roundup: The Black Dahlia.

This movie had a lot of potential. A novel by one of my favorite writers, James Ellroy, adapted to the screen by a director, Brian DePalma, who shares some of Ellroy's animating preoccupations: voyeurism and sexual obsession.

Unfortunately, it's a monumental cock-up for a lot of reasons. Josh Harnett's inert lunkishness, plot elements that fail to cohere, Hillary Swank's Irish (?) accent, and DePalma ripping off scenes from his own movies are chief among them. Most annoyingly, it falls into the trap of attempting to ape film noir elements, from mis en scene to editing to acting styles, which makes it a cousin to Soderbergh's Good German. While it's an understandable approach, it undermines one of the central motifs of Ellroy's fiction: sleaze. Ellroy makes it his mission to give readers who may only know the 1940s and 50s from squeaky-clean films of the period a sense not only of the moral compromises of the era, but the physical squalor as well. Rubbing the reader's nose in filth highlights the depravity of his characters. DePalma's late-40s L.A., like Curtis Hanson's from L.A. Confidential, looks like you could eat out of the gutters. It's an understandable oversight, but it ends up limiting the film's ability to draw us into the obsessive mind of its protagonist. It doesn't help, of course, that said protagonist is played by Josh Harnett, who posesses the expressive range of an Olmec Indian stone head.* Score: 6.2

*A case of nerd-chow to the first person to identify the source of that reference.**

**Nerd-chow does not really exist.

Monday, February 05, 2007

DVD Roundup: Miami Vice

If Michael Mann hadn't already made Heat, then Miami Vice would be some groundbreaking shit. Instead, it's merely a really good police flick from the maker of Heat. I don't really know why Mann insisted on using the brand name "Miami Vice" for this movie, since it bears so little resemblance to the Don Johnson 80s cheese-fest. Instead, it's a gripping slice of undercover cop life that feels more like a ride-along than a structured narrative. The effect is intriguing and disorienting. That sense of disorientation is enhanced by the terse, mumbled dialogue, and is visually symbolized by the climactic shoot-out. In Heat, there's a huge gunfight that takes place in the middle of the day in the middle of a busy street in downtown Los Angeles and is shot in medium-length takes with stationary cameras. Miami Vice's shoot-out happens at night, in an industrial park, and is mostly shot with handheld cameras and is more heavily edited. Even the gunfire is unnerving: the sound design is so muted the rifles sound like paintball guns. The effect of all this is to make the audience work: they aren't presented with established relationships and plot elements crash into the movie suddenly and without fanfare. Thinking about it more, perhaps Mann needed to call this movie Miami Vice in order to give the audience SOME kind of handle on the characters and situation. Any way, I appreciate the man's balls and devotion to a visual style. His digital camera work just gets more and more intriguing, with every new Mann film exploring the contours of urban space in a way that makes the dully familiar seem alien and threatening. Score: 7.7

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Lazy Hannibal.

Was Lorne Michaels in charge of casting the shitty-ass looking Hannibal Rising movie?

How else to you explain the striking resemblance between young Hannibal:

And proto-Fallon Saturday Night Live funster Andy Samberg:

This movie looks bad enough without reminding you of an incredibly overlong, unfunny SNL sketch with every shot.