Scorsese & Lehane together as one? That's how you get a spooky, mind-bending thriller like SHUTTER ISLAND.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (Birth, The Game, Last 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.
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.
Avengers: Age of Ultron. 2015. Directed & Written by Joss Whedon; based on the Marvel comics by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgård, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, and Stan Lee. Marvel Studios. Rated PG. 141 minutes. Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
I’ll start off by saying, for those might doubt my allegiance, when I was growing up I absolutely loved comics. For me, I was always a huge X-Men fan, not particularly a lover of The Avengers. But still, I’ve always been into comics and lots of the characters. Even Thor himself I’ve enjoyed, just never been big on Iron Man/Tony Stark or The Avengers team. Separately from the group, as individuals I do like a lot of the characters. For instance, I think the concepts behind both Hulk and Captain American SO INTERESTING – for Hulk it’s this incredible duality between man and the beast within, ever since Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde this has been explored and I think in the comics this pans out to something even more fun; in Cap’s case, I think that idea of the “perfect American”, that ultimate patriot, is another compelling idea because it entails everything we want to believe in soldiers, that we want them to be this perfect warrior and patriot yet underneath they are STILL human, just like Steve Rogers underneath all the Captain America experimentation.
So when I say that I’m not really huge on either of The Avengers films, maybe you can chalk that up to me not being a fan of them in general. However, I can absolutely admit when there’s a good film, whether or not I’m into the source material.
For me, I just don’t get enough heart. Not saying there’s no emotion, not at all; there is plenty. What I mean is that there feels like, beneath the CGI and the star powered cast, there is ultimately nothing much going on. While the action sequences are wild, the inner headspace of some characters get explored, but in the end there’s nothing hugely impressive to me which puts this above any other blockbuster in the summertime.
Avengers: Age of Ultron has a lot going on. This is one of my first real problems with the film. When I first sat down to see this, I knew it would be long, but when I learned it was near two and a half hours the urge to leave struck. But I’m not afraid of a long movie, there are plenty of films I enjoy that run well past two hours (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, & those are just the classic ones). It’s just that, personally I can’t see how a near two and a half hour movie is necessary. Sure, there are lots of characters in here – The Avengers alone are too many to flesh out in a regular length film – but is there really any need for such length?
There’s a great part to this movie, which is that we get to see more of who The Avengers themselves are, as individuals. That’s something I do love because like I said in the beginning, it’s most the characters individually I like rather than the team as a whole.
And still, I think there could’ve been about 20 minutes yanked out of this screenplay without really hurting any of the character development, or the plot for that matter. I get it – there’s tension between the team, between certain members, even within themselves. There’s just no world in which I can see myself agreeing with the need for a two and a half hour Marvel movie. The complexity is there to work with, no doubt. Not enough to justify the length, though.
My other big beef with these Marvel movies, this one especially seeing as how I’ve watched it recently, is the fact everything is so drenched in CGI. I absolutely understand that a lot of what happens in these comic book stories WILL NEED CGI. Totally understandable. In opposition, even if you don’t like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, you have to at least give Nolan the benefit of agreeing that he attempted to use practical effects wherever possible. Even with The Dark Knight, you actually get to see Bale as Batman on the edge of an insanely tall building, and other shots such as this; of course it’s not ALL practical, not even close, but there’s still effort to try and ground SOME of the movie in a tangible world.
With Age of Ultron, there’s scene after scene of CGI madness, over and over. In between there are wonderful little scenes between actors, just straight up good writing/dialogue and story. Most of the time, however, Joss Whedon is just giving us a CGI show, everything is green-screened and any real, visceral emotion simply gets taken out of it. I think there’s definitely enough on the brainy sides of things – love the plot of this story Whedon gives us out of the comics – but to go with that there’s nothing here drawing me in, making me feel those emotions Whedon injects into his script, nothing hooking me other than “Wow that looked cool” or “Robot James Spader is wild”, or “LOOK AT ALL THOSE BUILDINGS AND CARS AND OTHER THINGS GETTING SMASHED”, or “Ooh pretty laser… ooh pretty laser… ooh pretty laser.”
I’m not saying I want the quote-unquote gritty version that everyone seems to crave after Nolan’s Batman. Frankly, I’m sick and tired of it all. Because in the end, so much of it is ultimately superheroes just flying around, beating each other up, with the tiniest bits of human drama and emotion peppered in for a scant flavour. That’s AWESOME if you’re a kid, or maybe if that’s your style – I don’t mean to knock you. For me, I need something more than Whedon and his Avengers seem capable of serving up.
While I don’t like this movie, not in the slightest really other than a casual admiration for the technical work and some of Joss Whedon’s screenplay, I’ll give it 2 out of 5 stars on those aspects alone. I cannot deny AT ALL that Age of Ultron is a technical marvel (see what I did there?). There’s a great deal of effort in so many areas which went into the making of this huge blockbuster film. I bet there are plenty, millions, of people out there who downright loved this! No doubt in my mind.
For me, and for others I’m sure, the amount of CGI smashing together and flashing all over the screen during most scenes throughout the enormously bloated runtime isn’t all that exciting. Visually there’s a feast of things to look at, but not a feast I’m starving for really. I like to see some interesting set pieces, costumes, effects as much as the next filmgoer. On the contrary, I like to see practical effects, and above all I like an emotional story that can entertain you with a bit of thoughtfulness while also sucking you into its intensity. Age of Ultron is, for me, too big and bright and it has no solid core. There are a TON of amazing actors here – I’m particularly a big fan of Mark Ruffalo and Paul Bettany – I just don’t think there’s enough time individually for any of them to make a real impressive impact.
See it and judge for yourself. I’m no one to listen to, surely. Objectively, I can’t agree that this is a great film. It’s mediocre at best, served up as near to the lowest common denominator of movies – a mindless bit of action. But whereas some action films get into you viscerally, put you right in the seat of the heroes matching up against the villains, there’s none of that here, in my opinion. Joss Whedon is a good writer and director, I’d rather see him take something else on other than his childhood love for comics. Might be great for some. Me? I’m worn out. As a lover of comics when I grew up, it’s still too saturated a market for me nowadays when it comes to superheroes, and it’s all the same as this: big, loud, flashing bright, but only to mask there’s nothing other than that to offer. Even further there’s the fact the Marvel movies always end the same way – heroes win, bad guys lose, another day they’ll find more bad guys to fight. You know from the get everyone will be alive at the end, no lives will be lost. Starting to get tedious, if you ask me. Maybe if the next Marvel film opts to kill off a big character, not for novelty but for a well-written reason in Whedon’s screenplay, then I’d be more inclined to take it in (this one doesn’t count because the ‘big’ character who dies in this one isn’t around long enough for me to or anyone to really care about).
Otherwise, it’s the same routine, over and over, where you don’t really have to ever worry because your favourites will ALL BE SAFE AND SOUND. No tears.
Foxcatcher. 2014. Dir. Bennett Miller. Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, and Brett Rice. Mongrel Media. Rated PG (Canada). 129 minutes. Biography/Drama/Sports
I’d been anticipating this film for a long while. Ever since I’d heard of Foxcatcher, there was something about it which struck me. Now, I’ve only seen Bennett Miller’s Capote, which I loved. I have yet to see Moneyball. Either way, this was something I was looking forward to because I love Mark Ruffalo, as well as Channing Tatum. Even more I was excited to see what Steve Carell would do – and after seeing the first images of him ages ago, I had a feeling this would be something special. In my mind, I was absolutely right. Miller does a great job, along with the spectacular performances rounding out the cast of the film.
Foxcatcher is based on the the story of John du Pont (Steve Carrell), member of one of the richest families in America, and the relationship he had with Olympic Medal winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum & Mark Ruffalo respectively). Both men would come to be a part of Team Foxcatcher, led by the multimillionaire du Pont. Over time, it is increasingly clear du Pont is not a man in his right mind. While he at first appears to be just an eccentric, harmless man with too much money looking to finance a sports team, wrestling in particular, it is more and more obvious he will do anything to make sure his only legacy would not be tied up in that of his mother’s and horses. John and Mark become very close over their time together, almost like brothers themselves. When Dave refuses to be shut out of his brother’s life, du Pont becomes jealous of their bond, and the results are extremely unexpected by all involved.
I think the style of Miller’s film really fits the overall subject matter. While I’m sure things were dramatized, as they always are with true stories because that’s how things go, the story of Mark and Dave Schultz’s relationship with John du Pont is a dark one anyways. The sort of grey, grim feel to a lot of the film is a really effective technique by Miller. Not that it’s revolutionary, I just think had he opted for a more bright look this would not have achieved the same effect as it does here with the grey and dull tones. The whole landscape of du Pont’s estate is shot to look almost foreboding and it’s like there is a constant fog at times just sitting over the grounds. Good choice between Bennett Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser for the overall look. This works very well in conjunction with the editing, as well as the flow of the film. I love how things build up slowly. Once you get to the finale, things have really settled in, you feel comfortable, and even when you know it’s coming things really crash down on you – in the most perfect of ways.
Naturally, I was most interested in the acting above all else. First off – Steve Carell is really great here. Not only does he sort of resemble the actual person he is playing, I think he made John du Pont out to be a very sympathetic character at first. Then along the line, I’m not sure exactly where, Carell really gets into the darkness of du Pont. Of course, starting out I knew the story of the film, as do most who either like to research films based on true stories or get constantly bombarded with information in the digital age, as we all do, so really the fact that du Pont gets a bit creepy and all that didn’t really surprise me. However, the way Carell plays him is really wonderful. It’s a subtle performance. While the make-up is what a lot of people focus on, that big schnoz, it’s not the make-up which defines the performance. Carell does such a great job with all the mannerisms of this character. He really fell into playing du Pont, and I think this shouldn’t go unrecognized. It isn’t all hype. Carell gives an absolutely phenomenal performance. As someone who isn’t particularly his biggest fan, except for his breakout in The 40 Year Old Virgin, I really think this guy gave a pitch perfect effort in achieving the strange quality of this eerie real life man.
Channing Tatum was incredible. I couldn’t get over his performance. I’m actually a fan of his, but here he just goes beyond what I’d ever expected out of him as an actor. Physically, he embodies the role of a wrestler. Further than that, Tatum really gets into the skin of Mark Schultz. I know Schultz has problems with the film, as we’ve probably all seen in entertainment news over the past couple weeks. Regardless, I really felt for this guy. The way Tatum portrayed him was just so full of energy at times, and then others he dove deep into this dark despair. It’s a natural feeling performance from him. There’s one scene in particular that blew me away – Schultz has lost a wrestling match, and is particularly upset at himself, so he smashes a mirror with his head. I am not sure at all if this was real or if it was fake, but either way it comes off really wild, and highly intense. This is just part of what makes his performance an awesome one.
Another fabulous effort here is from Mark Ruffalo. His portrayal of Dave Schultz is also another great one. I usually enjoy Ruffalo, anyways. He is a solid performer. Particularly, I loved what he did in Zodiac; my favourite film with him in it. Here, he does a really great job especially when it comes to the relationship between him and Tatum. While their characters are brothers, they also have an even closer relationship – wrestling, being so physically close with someone, you develop almost a short-hand way of talking together. I thought the way in which Ruffalo and Tatum worked together, their chemistry, made things all the much better. Ruffalo even looked to have physically beefed up a bit. I have no doubt he and Tatum really trained a nice bit together because their relationship on-screen works so well. Awesome work.
I know some people have complained the film doesn’t really give us enough about ‘why’ du Pont essentially did what he did, but I don’t think it’s unclear whatsoever. The man was driven towards something foul. Not to excuse what he did, it is unspeakably horrible, however, I don’t think it’s as mystifying as people make it out to be. The film really shows John du Pont to be a man who craves companionship – not necessarily in a loving sense between two romantically involved people, but maybe in the way of male bonding. You can see in one scene, after Mark has brought him home a medal, he just wants to physically be a part of the gang – he wants to wrestle the guys he sponsors, hauling a couple of them to the ground in a grapple as they celebrate the recent win. It’s a bit of a weird scene, and I can understand how some might take it as something overtly homosexual, maybe as subtext – regardless, it isn’t mean as something like that. I don’t believe du Pont was attracted to the men on his team, or Mark, or Dave. None of that. I think du Pont was so smothered by the influence of his overbearing mother that he was reaching out, straining, just to find some kind of friendship, a close bond, with another man. In the end, this is what drives John to do what he did, and why he eventually came to resent Dave Schultz – because Dave and Mark had when John and Mark would never truly have. It’s twisted. Yet I believe this is his true pathology.
This is absolutely a 5-star film. A lot of times anticipation will kill a film for me, but when I was able to see Foxcatcher none of that happened. I got into the story so deeply. The whole movie really got to me, and moved me quite a bit. Each of the three central performances worked incredibly well towards complimenting the finished film. I think the casting was spot on. These three guys were the reason this film essentially works. Coupled with the fact Bennett Miller has a lot of nice sensibilities as a director, these elements really make this one of the greater films from the past year. A fascinating, disturbing, intricate look at the lives of three men who came together tragically. Definitely worth seeing. I really hope Steve Carell gets his due here because this is not overhyped, he really is wonderful, as is everything else about this fantastic biographical drama. Enjoy.