From April 2016

Immortals a.k.a Greek Mythology on Steak and Eggs

Immortals. 2011. Directed by Tarsem Singh. Screenplay by Charley & Vlas Parlapanides.
Starring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, John Hurt, Stephen Dorff, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans, Joseph Morgan, Anne Day-Jones, Greg Bryk, Alan Van Sprang, Peter Stebbings, Daniel Sharman, Isabel Lucas, Kellan Lutz, & Steve Byers. Relativity Media/Virgin Produced/Mark Canton Productions.
Rated 18A. 110 minutes.
Action/Drama/Fantasy

★★★★
POSTER
Tarsem Singh is an interesting director. He has music video sensibilities, which is where he really got his start doing videos for such artists as En Vogue and more important R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and it helps because his films have their own sort of flow. He doesn’t direct like everybody else. And while not all his films are that special, some of his work is undeniably impressive, visually exciting, and with a flair all his own. The Cell grabbed me when when it first came out, around the time I was about 15. It is such a unique and brutal serial killer film, and one of the three movies I can actually stand, as well as enjoy, Jennifer Lopez’s acting skills. The Fall is a beautiful film, a trippy piece of cinema. Then comes Immortals.
This is one hugely underrated action-fantasy mash-up. Whereas stuff like Clash of the Titans never really hits its mark, Immortals has so much to offer. Again, the visual style Singh employs makes this into, as he describes it himself, an action movie steeped in the look of Renaissance paintings. In addition, people like Mickey Rourke, a pre-Superman Henry Cavill, Luke Evans, even a bit of John Hurt, helps the acting rise above standard and stale melodrama you might amongst other similar offerings.
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This screenplay is interesting because the writers chose to change pieces where they found themselves able. For instance, Zeus and Poseidon (Luke Evans/Kellan Lutz) are young men instead of the standardized old men we’re used to seeing. They apparently attributed this to the fact, and it is fact, that the Greeks themselves would often adapt certain aspects of the stories re: their Gods to in turn adapt with modern issues and times. So it’s only fitting some things get rearranged. Most of all, despite the stylized look of Immortals I’m glad that they chose to write this not as a modernized, contemporary adaptation. Due to that we’re treated to some amazing locations, many wonderfully designed sets which take you away from merely some desert, to the desert of another plane, a place where Tartarus and other mythical locations exist. Something I admire about Singh is how it’s very clear even as a director he takes great interest in set design, as well as design of the overall production. I’m convinced that’s a sign of a director’s grasp, as lesser directors likely leave that task completely to a production designer without having a hand in it. The style of Singh’s films is singular across them all. Like The Cell with its ability to take us inside the deranged and rotting mind of a serial killer, here Singh transforms the world in front of the lens into a lost place of Greek myth. He and production designer Tom Foden (who has worked with him before several times and other solid films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Mark Romanek’s chiller One Hour Photo) really take us away to another realm. These types of films concerning Greek mythology could easily be set simply in regular deserts and other similar landscapes. Instead we’re pulled right into the books and poems which describe Heaven, Tartarus, an Earth where Gods still came and left their mark.
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As opposed to 300 with its CGI, Cavill’s physique as the lead, Theseus, is commendable work. He insisted on achieving his chiseled look naturally instead of having it all drawn on in post-production. The entire story behind it is mad, as financing troubles ended up having him effectively build up his body a few times before the money finally went through. Regardless, he also does some proper acting. So that’s really a double threat when it comes to action-oriented actors, which he’s turning out more and more to be; he can act, he can look the part and kick some ass. He does well with the choreographed fight sequences, which show off his athleticism, and in part his theatricality. It’s no wonder he’s gone on to even bigger things, as he has the gait and attitude of a Hollywood leading man.
Further than that, Rourke provides the essential villain that is Hyperion. In actual mythology, Hyperion is a little obscure, and though the film’s plot/story are linked quite a bit to the Titanomachy he also barely appears there at all anyways. So the writers have really come up with using Hyperion as a tabula rasa, where the Titan rebellion is sort of thrown on his shoulders, as he searches out the Epirus Bow to release them and find revenge on the Gods. Rourke is unsettling, even just Hyperion and his men are scary, scarring their faces and smashing the genitals of their recruits, going into battle like complete and utter savages. The ruggedness of Rourke makes for an imposing character in Hyperion, plus he looks absolutely mental with the big helmet on, such a perfect costume design that makes him look like some kind of jackal, or something of the like.
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Added to these two lead roles, Evans is great as a young Zeus. He is a serious looking dude to begin with, and here he gives that youthful God a stern, calculating gaze, and fierce intensity that makes him formidable. Playing the oracle Phaedra is Freida Pinto; she is a nice choice, even if her role isn’t as massive as the men. But her feminine power as the oracle, a respected and revered role, is clear by the way she performs and how she makes the character feel. Also, really have to mention Robert Maillet – he plays the Minotaur, who in this version is just a massive, beastly man with a helmet and horns made from barbed wire-like steel wrapped around his head; terrifying. Maillet used to perform in the WWE, before it was WWE, as the wrestler Kurrgan. He does well here with a horrifying character. Honestly, that part actually freaks me out, and I’m a horror veteran. Great to see him here, using his physicality no less.
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Lots of action, plenty excitement, a nice ass kicking showdown between Hyperion and Theseus. What more could you want? There are a couple pieces of CGI that I wasn’t big on, as well as some dialogue in parts (Stephen Dorff’s character wasn’t overly well written or at all developed; his acting doesn’t help much either). But overall, Immortals is a 4-star fantasy flick with heavy action, even some nice moments of bloody madness. Cavill, Rourke, and Evans too, they drive the cast, making this more than action fodder with a Greek mythology twist. Straying slightly from the myths and carving their own path, Tarsem Singh and Co. make a fine effort out of this one. Not enough people give this the credit it deserves, which is a shame. Let’s hope after a few missteps Singh does more fantastical work like this and The Cell down the road.

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Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a Dystopian Vision of Not-So-Distant Future

Brazil. 1985. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Screenplay by Gilliam, Charles McKeown, & Tom Stoppard.
Starring Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin, Ian Richardson, Peter Vaughan, Kim Greist, Jim Broadbent, Barbara Hicks, Charles McKeown, Derrick O’Connor, Kathryn Pogson, Bryan Pringle, & Shella Reid. Embassy International Pictures.
Rated R. 132 minutes.
Drama/Sci-Fi

★★★★★
POSTER
Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘bureaucracy’ as the following: 1) a large group of people who are involved in running a government but who are not elected; 2) a system of government or business that has many complex rules, an administrative policy-making group; 3) government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority.
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is the filmic epitome of a not-so-far off future, nearly a dystopian present, where bureaucracy has created such a perfectly tailored society for the upper echelons that they can do just about anything they want, to whomever they please. What Gilliam does so well is expose the saccharine sweet surface of such a society, as a disturbingly rotten core lies further at its core. Since my dad introduced me to them at a early age Monty Python have always been a big influence on me. Partly a reason why when Gilliam made films on his own, they intrigued me immediately. At a young age I also saw his movie The Fisher King, and that had a tremendous impact on me, both due to the whole story and plot, as well as the fact Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams did fantastic jobs in the lead roles.
However, with all the great work he’s done in cinema it is always Brazil to which I return, that always keeps me coming back and wanting more. It’s funny because, as great an actor Jonathan Pryce is, I’ve never considered him a leading man; more a supporting guy, even a character actor at times. Yet here, he is perfect. It’s as if all pistons were pumping, every thing in its right place, and this masterpiece of dystopian film fiction came to us in all its quirky, unabashedly strange glory.
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The bureaucracy is utterly skewered by this screenplay. And while it’s right there, so open, that doesn’t make it any less funny. An entire system is made out to be incredibly inept through all the different departments, the divisional hierarchy making one hand completely unaware of what the other is doing. What’s so great is that Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard do their own thing, but much of their madness also does feel Kafkaesque at times. From the beginning mix up between Buttle and Tuttle that causes a man to, eventually, lose his life, to the various fuck arounds Sam has to through, there is no shortage of incredibly wild existential grief. One thing I’ve always loved is that the bureaucracy is epitomized in the fact there’s no Orwellian figure at the top, the hierarchy goes nowhere. It’s a perfect little touch. Not only that, there’s a vaguely futuristic, sci-fi element to the entire production, yet the story feels extremely contemporary rather than something being predicted. That truly aids the entire movie, as it feels like this bureaucratic, totalitarian society is just one step away. Especially when you watch it now, as the U.S. Presidential campaign is underway, getting zanier, more dystopian than possibly ever before at times. Even in ’85, Gilliam put this out there at the right time, as people like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were running their respective countries and things, though sold in a pretty package, were looking quite bleak underneath the political rhetoric and doublespeak.
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Spoiler Alert: Do not go on if you haven’t actually finished the film, or else be spoiled.
Ultimate irony, though dreamily, ends with Tuttle (De Niro) eventually being swallowed up by paperwork; the very thing he’d earlier told Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) was a reason why he hated the system nowadays. I love a lot of the imagery like this. Sam goes to help Tuttle only to find nothing in the mound of papers that seemed to be choking him. This entire sequence during the finale is actually something I remember seeing on Showcase, a Canadian channel, years ago. For some reason Brazil was on in the late afternoon, I’d landed on the channel after school. I caught the last few minutes or so right after Tuttle disappears, so out of context it looked like absolute insanity. It was creepy. Years later when I was seventeen or eighteen, I tracked this down and watched the whole thing. Then it went on to be one of my favourite films, ever. But those crazy moments with the casket, the eerie masks, all that stuff, it stuck with me. Because you finally get a look totally beneath the mask of that society. The rotten core is visible, fully. We still see bits of the sweet slip in, only Lowry is hallucinating, off in the Brazil of his mind, as the physical body remains back in the dingy, dark tomb-like auditorium where he’s likely to waste away.
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The world of Brazil is part camp, part visionary, part horrific. A 5-star bit of dystopian fiction on film. Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python brain comes together with an even more sophisticated sense of satire resulting in one of my picks for best films of all-time. Absolutely on my top list. The acting is terrific, from Jonathan Pryce to the fantastic Ian Holm and equally awesome Robert De Niro everybody pulls their weight, and then some. The set designs, the dream sequences, all of it is just downright perfect. At the same time it’s liable to give you nightmares remembering those creepy fat faced masks. To this day I’ll have a bad dream where those faces show up. Seeing it so randomly on television when I was young it always crept into my brain when least expected. But after actually watching it through, many times and on Criterion at that, Brazil has presented itself as one of the more chilling and daringly accurate visions of a near future that I’ve personally seen onscreen.

Carl Th. Dreyer’s Day of Wrath: An Allegory of Power and the Raw Truth of Religious Cruelties

Day of Wrath. 1943. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Screenplay by Dreyer, Pol Knudsen, & Mogens Skot-Hansen; based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssen.
Starring Thorkild Roose, Lisbeth Movin, Sigrid Neiiendam, Preben Lerdorff Rye, & Albert Hoeberg. Palladium Productions.
Not Rated. 97 minutes.
Drama

★★★★1/2
POSTER History allows us to look back on films and compare them to the times in which they’re made. When there’s a war or a big event happening, people don’t necessarily have the chance – not all of them anyways – to step back from it all and admire the artists creating during times of oppression and turmoil. In 1943, Carl Th. Dreyer made Day of Wrath, and though likely intending it to carry a message more contemporary than its plot, audiences didn’t receive so well. Not only is it a slow paced film, the darkness of the witch hunts and the terrible persecution of so many women for supposedly being in league with the devil makes for heavy viewing. All the same, the witches become a direct parallel to the Jewish people being persecuted at the time of filming under Nazi rule. Of course Dreyer himself denies the film is about the Nazis. Yet artistic intent is not everything. As the witches stand in for the Jews, morbidly fitting is the element of fire existing parallel between the two, this film takes on an even more grim tone than already exists. But even without assuming Dreyer uses the witch hunts as a symbolic way of talking about the Nazis, the Holocaust, Day of Wrath is beautiful as it is difficult, and the importance of this film cannot be undone regardless of interpretation. It only helps cement Dreyer as a significantly powerful filmmaker in the history of moving pictures.
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The cinematography is steady, often using long takes. For an early ’40s film, Day of Wrath draws us into the story and its characters almost simply by forcing us to spend so much time in their space. Many would come to identify this technique with Dreyer as part of his style in subsequent works. Coupled with that, the actors never go into overly melodramatic performance. This is perhaps one of the hallmarks of his directorial style. In a time where overacting was most definitely common, in part due to the expressiveness previously needed in the solely silent picture era, Dreyer’s actors manage to express restraint. Their abilities make the characters much more believable. Instead of feeling like a stage play (based on a play called Anne Pedersdotter by Norwegian playwright Hans Wiers-Jenssen in turn based on the woman of the same name), despite well blocked scenes, the film plays out in a more reality driven fashion. There is certainly melodrama in Dreyer, particularly here. The character of Anne is an embodiment of melodramatic elements, as her personal and sexual stifling comes to represent a whole other aspect than the witch hunt plot element.
The terrifying witch burning early on turns up in a later cult film about similar themes, The Witchfinder General, in a scene with a witch strapped to a ladder then dropped into a fire is all but literally ripped from Dreyer. Much more effective here, in my opinion. Especially considering it was 1943. The editing and the timing of that shot is absolutely incredible. Very impressive work all around.


Above Dreyer’s style or anything else it’s the themes here which drive his film. Shadowy and eerie almost constantly, Day of Wrath gets at the fear and intolerance of a society bent on creating the type of citizens it wants, and not being created as what its citizens want/need. The religious cruelty of the plot is a smothering, suffocating force, which is symbolic of the religiously driven (albeit maniacally so) rhetoric and belief of the Nazi Party during the time this film was made.
At face value, though, we can also interpret Dreyer’s movie as one with aims of examining early feminism. The danger a man faces here is much less corporeal, more of the spirit and to do with shame. Whereas a woman is not only subject to shame, she is also in physical harm’s way, often to a fatal point. And ultimately that burning of witches, as well as the final burning, or expected burning, of Anne herself, is way of denying and literally cauterizing the wounds of the male ego. In those final moments after Anne is betrayed totally by Martin, the hypocrisy of the witch hunt is at its most chauvinistic.
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The performance of Lisbeth Movin is a knockout. She gets more intense as the film gets going. There are such affecting looks on her face, as the camera captures her perfectly drenched in shadow, half covered by darkness in the flickers of candles, looking both innocent and sinister at once. One reason why the film works is because she offers up such a dual feeling role that makes Anne epitomize the way witches were perceived. Even the audience at times can’t be sure of her attitude, as Movin keeps people guessing. It is an emotional performance that makes the romantic elements, and the briefly sexual elements, work so well. The long takes Dreyer uses are suited to her, as she lets us become part of the character’s world and allows our eyes a peek into her psychology.
While Vampyr is my favourite of Dreyer’s films, Day of Wrath is a loaded bit of cinema that on the surface explores the jaded days of witch hunts, while plumbing the depths underneath and serving as the direct parallel for Nazi power and the plight of Jewish people during the latter days of World War II. The cinematography and style is what goes on to be known as recognizable Dreyer. Here, it takes the audience into a repressed and quiet space where the intolerance of religion, all the fear it creates boils up into a mess of forbidden love, anger, and so much more.
Dreyer is a titan of cinema. If you’re at all serious about your love of film he is someone that absolutely needs to be explored. So if you dig this, keep digging. He has a lot of wonderful work and showed how possible it was to make engaging, exciting, unique cinema even during the early decades of the industry.

Frank White, Republican Nightmare: Abel Ferrara’s King of New York

King of New York. 1990. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Screenplay by Nicholas St. John.
Starring Christopher Walken, Larry Fishburne, David Caruso, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, Janet Julian, Joey Chin, Giancarlo Esposito, & Paul Calderon. Seven Arts/Lions Gate Home Entertainment.
Rated R. 106 minutes.
Drama/Crime

★★★★★
POSTER Abel Ferrara is an all-around exciting, unique filmmaker. He usually goes for subject matter and thematic material most other directors wouldn’t dare touch. Often, he likes to concern himself with the law, both sides of it; sometimes each as corrupt as the other. Mostly, Ferrara explores boundaries. He crosses them, runs to them and sees how close he can get, or how far past he can go without setting the whole film afire. From Ms. 45 to Bad Lieutenant to more fantastical stuff such as The Addiction, his films are incendiary. They’re bound to light people up, causing discussion, argument, all kinds of various angry sentiment from those who find his movies garbage, and equally from those who love his work. Either way, he is a controversial, raw talent whose films never fail to entertain me and manage to probe some of the darker spots beneath our social veneer.
King of New York is almost an answer to the call that came six years later when Hilary Clinton referred to young black folk as super predators. Of course, Ferrara was ahead of the game. But the character of Frank White is like the Conservative-Republican nightmare: a white man out there running the streets, acting like a complete sociopath, murdering, and feeling absolutely nothing for the disaster he causes from one moment to the next. Whereas all those rich white Conservatives are worrying about the supposed young black guys out terrorizing New York City, the real king and the real monster is just like them. And that’s ultimately the message, the nihilistic message, is that while the young black guys are often out there actually taking care of their friends, their neighbourhood, the kids too unfortunate not to get to play a few arcade games, Frank is out just amassing money for the sake of it. He had other options. Instead, Mr. White’s chosen to be a drain on society, and remains a white plague in snappy business suits.
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An interesting moment is when Frank talks business, re: cocaine, with an associate while standing next to a child in a hospital bed. While a doctor walks past, Frank hushes his tone. But he couldn’t care any less about a developing brain hearing him do a drug deal. It doesn’t even occur to him, his criminal mind, that doing anything drug related, even talk business, is inappropriate for when children are present. Here he is a big shot-type looking flashy in his nice suits, going to fancy parties in nice hotels and so on, yet the way he acts is just like a low life drug peddler selling product out of his house while his kids run around in diapers.
The nihilism of this film is not simply embodied in Frank. It’s also embodied in the police. Specifically, Caruso’s character, Gilley, is adamant he can’t keep on living in a world where White gets to kill and kill and kill with no ultimate legal recourse ever coming down. That’s not admitting Frank has the power. That’s more so them admitting they’ve failed, that their power is not big enough to stop someone like him. So the whole remainder of the film after they’ve made their decisions really becomes extremely dark because there’s no moral line anymore. Gangster movies centered on the gangsters instead of the law usually try to at least draw some kind of sentiment out to help you relate to the characters, no matter how bad they are – Tony Soprano, Henry Hill, among many, many more. However, King of New York shows us there’s an absence of lines in Ferrara’s New York. Nothing at all. Frank often wears a grey suit, and so you can see him sitting in that grey area. That’s where he lives. While the cops are new to this sort of thing, he’s a permanent resident of the grey zone where laws, morals, emotions, none of that matters. Only money, power, fear. And above all else? Bullets. How much you can make the next man bleed, how much money you can take from somebody else, by any means necessary.
The epitome of Frank White: in one scene a masked man gets the jump on Frank in a stairwell, but Frank tosses the woman he’s with (a black woman just so we’ve noted that about equal opportunity Mr. White) at him, letting her take some bullets while he gets a couple rounds off himself. This scene is the very essence of his character.
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On top of that Ferrara nihilism I’m always trying to figure out what he and writer Nicholas St. John are attempting to say with this film. There’s something – a bunch of somethings – in there about government, socialism, morality, every bit mashed into an excellent and disturbingly delicious crime tale. But the way Frank comes out of jail headlong into recruiting young (black) men into his fold, turning potential muggers on a subway train into his new business associates. Despite some of the cops and their willingness to cross lines in order to finally get Frank, they definitely represent a more proletariat-like group. Gilley even discusses how they make fairly little in relation to how much they risk their lives for the city, versus Frank’s living the high life. And at the same time, Frank does own the means of production in terms of the drug game. Although he still hangs out anywhere, no matter the class. He goes from high society mixers to sitting in a rundown crackhouse with a bunch of people dancing, high as fuck. So while Frank does sort of represent that capitalist enterprise he’s also apart from it, particularly after his indeterminate amount of time in jail. Likely a good stretch. Basically, it’s that class of people Frank is trying to break into with their ballroom parties, their black-and-white events, who represent the top of the food chain. Because though Frank runs the city in a sense, he is a gangster. Pure and simple. His dream is to fund a hospital, but he just can’t manage to outrun himself, or the life he’s chosen to lead. And perhaps that’s the ultimate message, not that there’s this hierarchy of corruption. Rather, Ferrara and St. John give us Frank as an example of those who rise from rags to riches in an underhanded way, the capitalist in his many forms, that eventually burn out rather than fade away. Just like the big capitalist money makers when they go for broke then bankrupt an economy, Frank never admits to anyone else, especially not himself, that he is a monster. Yet he is monstrous.
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In a film that’s desperately bleak and has its flaws, Christopher Walken is iconic. Even The Notorious B.I.G had to talk about Frank White. That’s because there are all kinds of gangsters in cinema history, from old school Sicilian mobsters, to the Irish mafia, to Armenians, and every other ethnicity/culture possible. As well as the fact there’s a ton of more contemporary gangster stuff, including the now cult-famous Scarface with a whopping central performance out of Pacino. In the midst of great performances and others run of the mill, Walken makes Frank into an otherworldly type gangster. His style is slick, weird. Walke himself is strange, in the best sort of way, and he gives that to Frank. While also allowing him to be fierce. Frank is terrifying at times when you can honestly feel that coldness in his heart breath foggy into the world.
Then there’s the fact he’s a white guy, yet he fits in so connected, so genuine with all his black crew and friends. Meanwhile, he also fits in with the upper class types. He navigates worlds like a specter hovering above everything and everyone. That’s my best instance of providing an example for how the idea of capitalism (& all that other bullshit I mentioned) plays into this movie. Frank is the personification of capitalism, of money and capital, which is the ultimate universal, so that’s how he navigates all the different nooks and crannies of the streets in New York and its upper echelons with the fancy ballroom dancing and the martinis and the Senators. In the end, he finds nothing but death. Whereas Frank started the film getting out of jail and riding in a limo, he experiences the end – his end – in back of a taxi, far from the glamorous life he’d pictured.
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This is a flawed movie at times, mostly in terms of its pacing. That being said, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is a 5-star masterpiece. Amazing films don’t have to be perfect to be the greatest. There is no perfect film ever made in the history of cinema, despite there also being a lot of (in my opinion) 5-star works. This has thematic content worth digging into below all the sleaze and the violence and the nihilistic tone. There’s a palpable atmosphere which Ferrara achieves, slick and darkly vibrant. Also, a realism that bleeds through despite the hyperviolent sequences. The talented cast allows for smaller characters to be more than they are on paper, including an excitable role out of Laurence Fishburne, whose charisma is beyond clear here. And finally, Walken achieves one of the best performances out of his catalogue, definitely in the top five.
This is one gangster flick I’ll never, ever forget.

Zodiac: The Dark Reality of an Uncaught Killer

Zodiac. 2007. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the book of the same name by Robert Graysmith.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Richmond Arquette, Bob Stephenson, John Lacy, Chloë Sevigny, Ed Setrakian, John Getz, John Terry, Candy Clark, & Elias Koteas.
Phoenix Pictures/Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros.
Rated 14A. 157 minutes.
Crime/Drama/History

★★★★★
POSTER In terms of people who’ve been making movies since the ’90s, David Fincher is one of those whom I’d consider as an auteur. He doesn’t necessarily tackle any abstract subjects – perhaps The Game and Fight Club are closest to being abstract – but he definitely has his own style, a look and feel all his own. His hand is on every last portion of the finished film. He’s plain and simple an auteur.
So even Zodiac, which is part procedural and part dramatic thriller, has all the earmarks of his genius on it. Everywhere. Not to mention the loaded cast, right down to spectacular character actors such as John Carroll Lynch filling out the back end. There’s enough intrigue in the Zodiac Killer case from real life to fill out a dozen movies, and it certainly has over the years with actual people like SFPD Inspect Dave Toschi having served as inspiration for other films like Bullitt, as well as both he and the Zodiac inspiring Dirty Harry. What Fincher does, using a solid screenplay from James Vanderbilt and based upon the identically titled book by Robert Graysmith, is create a dark, compelling piece of crime cinema that weaves through the enigma which is the Zodiac Killer case with a slick flow.
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July 4th, 1969: an unknown man shoots two people in Vallejo, California, with only one surviving. A month later, someone calling himself The Zodiac starts writing encrypted letters in a strange code to the San Francisco. Soon, political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts to get interested in the case, as big shot crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) is set to cover the case. At first, Avery thinks Graysmith is foolish. But soon he realizes the young cartoonist may actually know a thing or two.
A couple week laters, a San Francisco taxi driver is killed in Presidio Heights. Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the case, and it becomes Toschi’s personal mission to track the sick bastard down. But the Zodiac keeps on killing. And when he threatens school children, other citizens, even Avery directly, things get very serious.
Though we know how the story ends, or has kept going on, the darkness of the Zodiac and his story is all too engaging, as his grip on the city of San Francisco remains a still existent shadow to this day.
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The Zodiac was a scary genius. Assuming it was intentional, he killed across jurisdictional lines, which in turn landed all the various police departments scrambling trying to keep themselves coordinated. Zodiac‘s screenplay by James Vanderbilt is surprising. He hasn’t really done anything else that I’m personally into, though he has done a ton of successful stuff. This script does a great job of laying everything out and even while it is complex, intricately laying out a bunch of characters and major players in the search for the Zodiac, as well as casting doubt and questions over the identity of the killer himself. A story and plot such as this runs the risk of getting tangled up at some point, but Vanderbilt keeps it well on track. The pacing is solid, the character development is extremely solid and well fleshed out. In particular, the main two characters of Graysmith and Toschi are written to near perfection, as we start to see how they sort of became victims of the Zodiac, in that their lives were dominated and ultimately determined, in a sense, by his crimes and the pursuit. Another thing is that the ending comes at the right time. This is a long film at almost 160 minutes, and it’s never boring. But certain writers might not know how to, or when to, cap things off. Vanderbilt manages to cauterize the story at the appropriate time. As there’s a natural mystery to a case we all (should) know is unsolved to this day, the way the plot finishes is just right.
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Fincher and Vanderbilt together never glorify the violence. Yes, there’s a slow motion moment near the beginning as two people are shot, and we see much of the violence in a fairly upfront, raw manner. However, Fincher handles it so that there’s no glorification. It is most certainly stylized, just never put on show as violent erotica. I’m a horror fan, but have an appreciate for all film, especially anything that’s well executed, well composed. And Fincher manages not to make a spectacle of The Zodiac. Rather, we get deep into the psychological territory of the crimes getting drawn into long, dark takes that make us feel as if we’re right there with the victims, the near victims, and those hoping to catch the killer. For a movie that’s stylized, it also has a realism to it. Because it’s not played off like some serial killer of the week. The Zodiac is real, frightening, and the mystery of his true identity is played out impeccably via intelligent writing and, as usual, classic directorial choices on behalf of Fincher.
The soundtrack is amazing, everything from Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” to Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye and Vanilla Fudge, to Three Dog Night, Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher”, and a bunch more. Great period specific soundtrack that helps give authenticity to the era, alongside all the excellent costume and set design, the locations, and so on. Great stuff. In addition, there’s an eerie piano score which comes in now and then to punctuate dark moments: one of my favourites is the terrifying moment an unseen Zodiac tells a woman he’ll throw her baby out the window of his car before he murders her, then everything goes quiet except for a dreadful pounding piano note. Just everything at play comes together in a spooky tapestry to make this an unsettling film disguised as a crime procedural. Combined with the directing, the soundtrack and score, cinematographer Harris Savides (BirthThe GameLast Days) captures everything in an almost classic sense, as he and Fincher craft things in slick, rich frames to give things a gritty yet pristine look. What another filmmaker might process into mediocre fare Fincher turns into a masterpiece of crime cinema.
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This movie is built on good performances, solid directing and writing, as well as an interesting, enigmatic story of a real life serial killer. The Zodiac murders will linger on in the collective memory of Americans, particularly those in San Francisco, even the world. Because of the mystery involved, we’re often inclined to wonder exactly how he slipped away. David Fincher’s Zodiac doesn’t so much try and answer that, so much as recreate many of the events surrounding the case. Again, as I mentioned concerning the lead characters, much of this has to do with how it wasn’t only the dead left in The Zodiac’s wake. Toschi, Graysmith, all of them to an extent were sucked into the undertow of his unsolvable case. Maybe it was nobody’s fault, or maybe a big part was because of jurisdictional breakdown between departments and precincts, the stubbornness of cops, the bureaucracy of the law, so many things. Perhaps it was all due to the scary fact The Zodiac was smarter than anybody trying to stop him. Regardless, Fincher’s film is a contemporary classic in the crime genre. Many might expect further focus on the actual serial killing, as a lesser project might try (see: 2005’s The Zodiac starring Justin Chambers and Robin Tunney which actually felt all around like a lesser version of Fincher, or Ulli Lommel’s atrocious Curse of the Zodiac). Instead Fincher gives us little bits and pieces, then fills the rest of the film with a thrilling crime investigation, the odd real life characters involved in the case, and much more. This is definitely one of Fincher’s great films, as they’re all pretty impressive. But if you want a creepy serial killer flick that isn’t full-on horror and focuses more on real life, atmosphere, story, then Zodiac is always a safe bet.