David Fincher’s Zodiac is the finest film he has ever brought us, and one of the most gut churning documentations of a serial killer’s crimes ever put on celluloid. Fincher has no interest in fitting his narrative into the Hollywood box or sifting through the details of the real life crimes to remove anything that doesn’t follow established formula. He plumbs the vast case files and sticks rigidly to detail, clinging to ambiguity the whole way through and welcoming the eerie lack of resolution we arrive at with open arms. That kind of diligence to true life events is far more scary than any generic, assembly line plot turns twisted into stale shape by the writer (and studio breathing down their neck, no doubt). No, Fincher sticks to the chilling details religiously, starkly recreating every revelation in the Zodiac killer case with the kind of patience and second nature style of direction that leads to huge atmospheric payoff and a hovering sense of unease that continues to make the film as effective today as the day it was released. A massive troupe of actors are employed to portray the various cops, journalists, victims and pursuers involved with the killer during the 1970’s in San Francisco, the film unfolding in episodic form and giving each performer their due, right down to the juicy cameos and bit parts. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Rob Graysmith, a news reporter who becomes intrigued and eventually obsessed with the cryptic puzzles which the Zodiac taunts the bay area with by sending them in to the paper. Mark Ruffalo is Charlie Toschi, dogged police investigator who is consumed by the hunt. The third leg of the acting tripod is Robert Downey Jr as Paul Avery, another journalist who takes the failure in capturing the killer a little harder than those around him. The film dances eerily along a true crime path populated by many people who veered in and out of the killers path including talk show host Melvin Belli (a sly Brian Cox) , another intrepid cop (Anthony Edwards), his superior officer (Dermot Mulroney) and so many more. For such an expansive and complicated story it’s all rather easy to keep track if, mainly thanks to Fincher’s hypnotic and very concise direction, grabbing you like a noose, tightening and then letting you go just when you feel like you have some answers. While most of the film examines the analytical nature of the investigation, there are a few scenes which focus on the killings themselves and let me tell you they are some of the most hair raising stuff you will ever see. The horror comes from the trapped animal look in the victims eyes as they try rationalize the inevitability, with Fincher forcing you to accept the reality of such acts. One sequence set near a riverbank veers into nightmare mode. Every stab is felt by the viewer, every bit of empathy directed to the victims and every ounce of fear felt alongside them. It can’t quite be classified as horror outright, but there are scenes that dance circles around the best in the genre, and are the most disturbing things to climb from the crevice of Fincher’s work. They’re nestled in a patient bog of studious detective work, blind speculation and frustrating herrings, which make them scarier than hell when they do show up out of nowhere. Adding to the already epic cast are Jimmi Simpson, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch, Donal Logue, Pell James, Philip Baker Hall, John Terry, Zach Grenier and a brief cameo from Clea Duvall. I think the reason the film works so well and stands way above the grasp of so many other thrillers like it is because of its steadfast resolve to tell you exactly what happened, urge you to wonder what the missing pieces might reveal should they ever come to light, and deeply unsettle you with the fear of the undiscovered, something which never fails to ignite both curiosity and dread in us human beings.
James Mangold is a director who takes nothing but top shelf scripts and spins them into gold, and Girl Interrupted is a shining example of this. It’s based on a book by Susannah Kayson in which she outlines an 18 month stay at a mental ward sometime during the 60’s. Mangold adapts her book for the screen, gathers an excellent cast of talented gals and a couple guys, and makes a film that holds up today like it was still it’s release week in 1999. Winona Ryder plays Susanna, a reckless girl who is labeled wayward and unstable by her parents, committed to a facility by her stern psychiatrist (Red Forman himself, Kurtwood Smith). She’s a little rough around the edges, but one senses the innate sensibility to her that perhaps has been buried under turbulent behaviour not by anything within her, but by the constricting nature of the time period she has been born into. In any case, she finds herself thrown into an environment she didn’t expect, with many other girls, some of which she clashes with, some of which she ends up befriending, and one that.. well, defies classification, really. The girl in question is Lisa, played by a fantastically fired up Angelina Jolie who nearly combusts upon herself in her furious performance. Lisa has been dubbed nearly unable to treat, yet simply has the kind of soul that doesn’t fit into a box, let alone lend itself to scholarly dissection. Ice cool one moment, a raging typhoon the next, and holding a dense riot shield over any trace of her true emotions every second, she’s an enigmatic, elemental wild card. It’s the best work I’ve ever seen from Jolie, getting her a well earned oscar nod. She teaches Susanna some lessons that only people on that side of the glass can comprehend, confounding the facility’s head doctor (Vanessa Redgrave) and puzzling a kind orderly (Whoopi Goldberg), two rational people who simply can’t understand the kind resolution and companionship that often comes out of irrational, unconventional interaction that almost always is seen as ‘unstable’. Ryder is pitch perfect and carries her share of the load, but despite being the protagonist, it’s Jolie’s show all the way. She’s unbelievably good and will break the heart of both first time viewers and veterans who put the dvd in every so often for a tearful revisit. The late Brittany Murphy is great as Daisy, another complicated girl, and Clea Duvall scores points as Georgina, the shy and reserved one. There’s also work from Jared Leto Elizabeth Moss, Angela Bettis, Bruce Altman, Mary Kay Place, Kadee Strickland, Misha Collins and Jeffrey Tambor. Tender, patient and non judgmental are qualities which are essential in films of this subject matter, as well as empathy from both viewer and filmmaker, to take a look at these girls and even though we may not understand what is going on with them or their beaviour, to simply bear witness, and be there for them. Mangold knows this and acts accordingly, leading to a beautiful film of the highest order. Viewers are sure to do the same, completing the artistic ring full circle.
Mars has been a consistently entertaining setting for films that are all across the board, as far as tone and subject matter goes. Brian DePalma’s Mission To Mars is a thoughtful, exhilarating piece, Anthony Hoffman’s Red Planet makes a fascinating effort, John Carter took the swashbuckling adventure route. And then there’s John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars, which is proudly the silliest of the entire bunch, a slice of sheer lunacy that admittedly serves as a distinct nadir in the auteur’s legendary career, and yet is fun on its own terms. It’s quite a weird little endeavour, and one can at least commend it for taking the brawny B movie route and littering its story with camp and Corman-esque nostalgia, instead of wasting it’s breath by being yet another stupid horror flick that just happens to be set in space. Carpenter is the master of high concept set ups that oddly feel minimalistic and lean when seen onscreen as opposed to paper, or word of mouth. In Carpenter’s vision we follow intergalactic cop Melanie Ballard (Secies beauty Natasha Henstridge) and her crew as they land on Mars to collect uber dangerous convict Desolation Williams (Ice Cube being Ice Cube). Along with her is Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier brings with her the class and specificity of the films that Carpenter yearns for and emulates) and Bashira Kincaid (Clea Duvall). Things go swimmingly until a mining team nearby unearths an ancient defensive device used by the warring native clans of Mars centuries ago. The spirits set loose soon possess workers and Henstridge’s crew is faced with ancient, savage ghost warrior zombie things. Quite the chuckle worthy setup, isn’t it? Hell, it ain’t half bad, and there are certain moments of clarity where Carpenter’s early career brilliance flashes through the muck briefly. Ice Cube tries to be badass and comes off just plain silly, which is fine by me, as I love having a laugh at the guy. Clea Duvall fares best and is pretty much the only actor here who hasn’t found herself in a film like this anywhere else in her career. This makes her stand out, along with her immediate likability and charisma. The ghost warriors themselves resemble Moria Orcs with a serious methamphetamine problem, gaunt, vicious bastards that serve to give the makeup artist a good name, and are the best thing about the film, visually speaking. It ain’t Carpenter’s best, but fuck man it’s still Carpenter, and I’ll take all I can get.
Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction is a searing dramatic tale that’s heavily based on true events, and is essentially the underdog story boiled down to its most effective elements, with inspiration running throughout its truly remarkable storyline. Hilary Swank can be a force of nature in her work, and she’s dynamite here as Betty Anne Waters, a small town girl who is very close with her rambunctious sibling Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who grows up as the troublemaker of the two, running afoul of a nasty local police officer (Melissa Leo). When his next door neighbour is found stabbed to death, Leo sees it as her opportunity to get rid him for good, and tampers with evidence, until he is convicted. Guilty until proven innocent is the mantra with this difficult tale, and because it’s based on a true story that happened in real life, it unfolds at a snails pace of tragic events in which a satisfying outcome sometimes just seems out of reach. With Kenny in wrongfully convicted and rotting in prison while his wife and daughters edge towards moving on, Betty does the unthinkable: with no previous experience in college, let alone law, she decides to study for the bar exam, in order to eventually represent Kenny in court, and prove his innocence. It seems like something from a movie, and here we see it, but this is something that really, really happened, which to me is extraordinary and essential to make known. She persists through many obstacles both great and small, and with the help of a dapper senior colleague (Peter Gallagher), and a perky fellow law student (Minnie Driver) she passes the exam and sets out to defend her brother. It’s a rocky road, beset with the decayed and deliberately lost memories of years before, and the police officer’s longstanding belligerence. Unreliable witnesses, uncooperative testimonials and all sorts of stuff get in her way, but Betty ain’t a girl to quit or back down, a character trait which Swank seems to have been born to play, and is the lighthouse which guides this fantastic film along its track. Rockwell exudes burrowing frustration as a man in a position of incomprehensible sadness, hopeful yet resigned to his fate which has been orchestrated by evil, targeting him in wanton cruelty. Painful is the word for him here, and when Rockwell sets out for a mood in his work, you damn well feel it. Juliette Lewis briefly rears her head as a dimbulb witness who plays a part in Betty’s quest, as does Clea Duvall very briefly as another witness who seems to have no idea what she actually saw. Melissa Leo is an actress who is utterly and totally convincing whether she’s on the good or the evil side of the coin, holding the audience in rapturous awe with seemingly little effort. Here she’s so nasty it radiates off the screen, providing a core incentive for Betty’s struggle, whether or not the events actually played out like that. Director Tony Goldwyn is an actor himself and uses that experience to forge a film with respect and sympathy for its two leads. One of the more underrated films of 2010.
Passengers is a low key supernatural drama that came and went with little fanfare or attention back in 2008. Part of the reason for that could have been that it was marketed as a thriller, which is not so much the case. There is an eerie vibe to it, and certainly a paranormal component, but it’s quieter and much closer to the chest than advertising might suggest. It wasn’t reviewed very well, branded as predictable and derivitive. Some of its plot devices have been used before in the past, to be sure, but I greatly enjoyed the film and loved the way in which it’s story unfolds, told very well by its sturdy cast. Like Mark Pellington says, fuck the people, that’s why there’s 31 flavors. Anne Hathaway is excellent as Claire, a grief counselor who is tasked with looking out for a handful of people who have survived a catastrophic plane crash. She’s new to her profession, her eagerness laced with self doubt, yet she remains hopeful. All of a sudden, the patients in her cate begin to disappear mysteriously, and she starts to question the situation, as well as her own reality. The survivors are damaged and not fully willing to open up to her, collectively scared of some unseen threat. Claire has repeated run ins with a unknown and very distressed man (Andrew Wheeler, local vancouver actor and former teacher of mine) who has ties to the accident. It’s all hush hush and quietly unsettling, until we slowly begin to realize what’s actually happening, and the it changes gears and becomes very touching and thoughtful. Clea Duvall is great as one of the skeptical survivors, Patrick Wilson solid as always, and there’s work from Dianne Wiest, William B. Davis, Andre Braugher and briefly David Morse. Sure, this type of story has been done to death time and time again, draining new efforts of some of their effect, but if one comes along that gets it right, tells it’s story in a way that holds both my emotion and interest in its spell, I’m all ears. This one did just that.
Anamorph is a loving ode to the wilfully nasty serial killer flicks of the 90’s, obviously borrowing heavily from a few specific ones, the clearest example being Fincher’s Sev7n. It’s got the same dank, dispirited tone of that one, a restless urban nightmare wherein one lone detective searches for a heinous murderer that seems to elude him every step of the way, leaving increasingly grisly crimes in his wake. The detective here is Stan Aubrey (Willem Dafoe), a troubled fellow suffering from OCD, as if he didn’t have enough to handle, with a killer on the loose. Dusky New York streets are the predator’s playground, and he kills using some very elaborate, and very u settling techniques. Anamorphosis is a method used during times such as the Renaissance, where a painter would create a seemingly nonsensical sprawl with neither shape nor form, but when looked at through a tiny window of exposure (camera obscure), or from a painstakingly meticulous angle, a new image comes to light, in this case providing Dafoe with clues. Now this isn’t any Renaissance painter we’re dealing with, and he doesn’t use oil base, if you catch my drift. The crime scenes in this film are very, very horrifying and hard to watch, almost on the level of Sev7n. Dafoe gets help from his art fanatic buddy Blair (Peter Stormare), and tries to look after the troubled Sandy (a moody Clea Duvall), the relative of a deceased friend. There’s also work from Yul Vasquez, Scott Speedman, Don Harvey and the late James Rebhorn. Nasty stuff, this one, but stylish and well worth a late night watch with the lights low and your nerves on edge.
Wildflowers is a film that examines the aftermath of 1960’s counterculture and the hippie movement. The free love sentiment produced many children who were raised unconventionally, and in some cases outright abandoned by their flower power parents. Cally (Clea Duvall) is one such girl, a wild tomboy who lives with her sometimes employed father (Thomas Arana), and spends her days cavorting around with adolescents in similar situations. It’s rare that Duvall gets a starring role, and she’s absolutely wonderful here, steering Cally along with longing, resentment and just a bit of touching ‘lost girl’ emotion. She’s an actress who needs to be cast in more stuff to showcase her talent, and not just thrown into lesbian roles because she identifies as such (grrr!). She steals the show and proves what a magnetic presence she is. Cally never knew her mother, and hope arises with the arrival of mysterious Sabine (Daryl Hannah) a woman old enough to be her mother and seemingly connected to her somehow. Sabine is a free spirit with a turbulent mindset, a result of the fragmented lives that people led back in that time period, often leading to wayward souls with no sedimentary existence to slide into after the show finishes and they realize they aren’t as young as they used to be. Cally’s story plays out beautifully, a girl just coming into her own and realizing who she is, via experimentation and intuition. She meets a drug dealer named Jacob, played by Eric Roberts. He’s the friendly drug dealer, a cinematic archetype often sought after by filmmakers. Roberts could play an evil dictator and still come off like Prince Charming, he’s just that likeable, and as such is perfect for the role, a kindly rapscallion with lessons and advice for Cally which don’t quite play out as one might think. In the end, it’s Duvall’s show, one of the only lead roles she has that is even out there to hunt down, such is the rarity of many films in her career. It’s filled with terrific scenery, a whimsical yet real world aura and performances of emotional truth. Worth tracking down for Clea’s fans (I’m proudly a die hard) and a delight for the casual viewer.