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.
Tough. Muscular. Operatic. The very definition of epic. I remember sitting in the theatre during Zach Snyder’s 300 and being just floored and knocked flat on my ass by the violence, spectacle and music on display, and that was just the first ten minutes. It’s a historical war film unlike any other, and like it’s sister film Sin City, it jumps right off the boldly crafted pages of Frank Miller’s novel with all the movement and spirit of a motion picture, while still retaining the fluidity and distinction of a comic book. The sheer force of it will trample your senses into glorious oblivion, whisking you away for two thunderous hours of sound, fury and unrepentant battle. Like any sensation of the week, it gained haters who claim it isn’t the winner everyone’s says it is, or that it hasn’t stood the test of time. They’re either trying to go against the grain to be the ‘cool minority’, or they’re just negative nitpicking nellies. No matter. In 300’s case, they are resoundingly off key whenever I hear them bash it, and just dead wrong. It has stood the test of time, a process I measure by the ebb and flow of my desire to watch older films again and again. I often revisit this one, and marvel at it anew each time. The story follows the battle of Thermopolye, in which three hundred well trained, ridiculously combat savvy Spartan men faced off against a Persian army numbering near a million, led by their arrogent weirdo of a king, Xerxes (a very scary Rodrigo Santoro). They do this to protect their land and their people, a splinter group of sorts that takes up arms when the Spartan senate refuses to act. The battle is a relentless storm of blood, arrows, decapitated limbs, howling barbarians, wanton carnage and mass slaughter. It doesn’t feel half as savage or heavy as my description sounds though, thanks to the poise and purpouse of the narration penned by Miller, and the extravagant, thought out choreography that includes a whole lot of beautifully satisfying slow motion that has become Snyder’s trademark tool. Love it or hate it, I think it flairs up an action terrifically, especially ones as chaotic and hellbent as these. The Spartans are a wonder to see in action, virile death dealers with a full bore love for the heat of combat and a blatant, cavalier attitude in the very face of death. David Wenham is a force of gravity as Dilios, who provides the rousing narration and kicks ass as Butler’s second in command. Butler makes a commanding Leonidas, his presence everything that you’d want to see in a king, from nobility, to necessary belligerence, to an overwhelming love for his kingdom that is present in every step, every spear throw, every furious war cry. A cheeky Michael Fassbender and Vincent Reagan round out the platoon nicely, and they all have wicked cameraderie that makes their bond in battle stronger. Lena Headey is fiercely attractive and devilishly competent as Queen Gorgo, with a love for Leonidas and their son that cuts through the brutality and gives it purpouse. Dominic West goes against type as Theron, a sniveling, traitorous bitch boy of a Senate member who aims to usurp Sparta and send everything to high hell. The cast goes on with memorable turns from Peter Mensah, Robert Maillet and the legendary Stephen Mchattie. Composer Tyler Bates churns out a score that soars, scorches and bellows forth a primal auditory symphony. This was Snyder first flexing his muscles after his visceral remake of Dawn Of The Dead that barely hinted at the wonders in his career to come. Here he presents a staggering visual aesthetic that he would go on to use in his masterful adaptation of Watchmen, the sadly misunderstood, excellent Sucker Punch, and his DC Comics films which are unbelievable. It all started here with flash and flourish, a jaw dropping sword and sandal typhoon of a film that will give your adrenal gland a workout and your sound system a good old thrashing. In a word: Epic.
Dear Frankie is a sad yet life affirming little modern fairytale set on the evocative Scottish coastal region, in a small fishing village home to many trawlers and vessels which are always coming or going. This is the place that Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) has chosen to raise her young son Frankie (Jack Mcelhone). The one thing missing is a father, who has been missing ever since he was born. Filled with love and a need for Frankie to know at least who he was, she writes him letters as if she were his dad, telling him tales of life at sea and corresponding with him for some years. As he gets older she wishes he could have met him at some point, and comes up with a slightly strange plan. She meets a Stranger (Gerard Butler) in town, who is a sailor himself, and hires him to pose as Frankie’s father, and spend some time with him. Butler agrees, but it’s clear he hasn’t spent much time around kids in his life, and the meeting is awkward at first. Soon they get on well enough, which pleases Lizzie and is good for Frankie. Still, the issue remains that the Stranger is not Frankie’s real father and Lizzie knows this, torn between the cathartic interaction she sees for her son, and the facts that she knows to be true. Mortimer is sorrowful and harbours clear hurt and loneliness, the reaching out she does to Butler as much for herself as it is for Frankie. Butler starts off charming and be used by the proposition, until he realizes the gravity of the situation he is in and learns so,etching about himself that was dormant in his life until he met Lizzie and Frankie. The human relationships are explored tenderly and with patient reverence that ebbs and flows with the English Channel tides. Beautiful stuff.
I don’t get the hate for Barry Sonnenfield’s Wild Wild West. I just don’t. It’s like I saw a completely different film than the entire rest of the continent. To my knowledge, there’s me and a couple other friends I know who love and cherish it, and the rest of the world has seemingly cast it out into the cold, inexplicably bashing it no end. Wtf. It’s a rollicking good time, full of a brilliant blend of situational and slapstick humour, lively characters from a great group of performers, incredible production design, and a dash of swash and buckle. It may not have much in common with the 1960’s era tv show its based on, but kudos to it for breaking new ground. Will Smith plays Marshall Jim West, a cocky (there’s literally a small window of freeze frame where you can see his ebony schlock in full glory. And don’t even ask me how I know that), ballsy (ok sorry I’ll stop) secret service cowboy badass who is working a case against some nasty villains who want to use president Ulysses S. Grant for diabolical ends. He’s led to old foe General ‘Bloodbath’ McGrath (Ted Levine in a show stopping, wickedly devious southern psycho role) a confederate lowlife who will hopefully lead him to whoever is kidnapping the nation’s best and brightest scientists for some Bond villain-ish scheme. West is joined by kooky inventor Artemis Gordon (a classy Kevin Kline) and the two embark on a shoot em up quest to thwart the evil plan of Dr. Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), a dastardly mega villain with plans for America that don’t involve presidents or laws or anything sane. The film is endlessly inventive, wildly funny and parades forth a reel of set pieces, each more amazing than the last until we realize we’re actually watching a fifty foot tall steam punk mechanical spider stomp all over the Utah desert (there’s a priceless story involving that and the film’s odd duck of a producer Jon Peters, which you can watch Kevin Smith regale an audience with over on YouTube). West and Gordon are joined by sultry Rita (Salma Hayek) a Femme Fatale with a hidden agenda who tags along under the guise of damsel in distress. It’s just plain fun and I still don’t get how anyone could dislike it. Witty barbs, raunchy double entendres and sarcastic banter permeate the wonderful script. Nifty gadgets, detailed costumes and clanking machinery speckle the epic production design. An atmosphere of playful fun oversees all of it from beginning to end. Smith and Kline make a dysfunctional buddy duo for the ages, squabbling right up until the last frame. Branagh hams it up so far over the top as the bad guy that he nearly implodes on himself. Levine is deliciously creepy and crusty. Watch for other gem performances from Bai Ling, M. Emmett Walsh, Debra Christofferson, Sofia Eng, Rodney A. Grant and Musetta Vander. If you’ve seen it and already love it, good for you let’s go have a beer. If you’ve seen it and hate it, you’re a silly bum (to put it mildly). If you haven’t seen it, do so, form your own opinion and fall into one of the above two categories. It’s a classic for me.
Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla was the third British crime comedy caper for the director, and it could have easily been the misstep that signaled him wearing out his welcome. Happily I can tell you that it’s a winner, and although not as cracking as Lock Stock or Snatch, it sinks into its own distinct groove that’s fairly removed from it’s two predecessors. Once again we are treated to the life and times of a bunch of hoods and gangsters in London, but not the grungy, back alley soup kitchen London that we’re used to from Ritchie. No, this is a glistening, prosperous London, filled with real estate money ripe for the taking and developers making underhanded deals with shady businessmen. The climate has definitely changed in Ritchie’s aesthetic, but the characters remain the same, just as witty, eccentric and chock full of piss and vinegar. The story centers around the wild bunch, a cozy little clan of East end petty thieves led by One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba). Their third musketeer is Handsome Bob, played by a hilarious Tom Hardy who has a secret up his sleeve that spills out in what is the most adorable scene Ritchie has ever written. The gang is hired by a mysterious chick (Thandie Newton) to rob some dudes, and that’s where the trouble starts. Elsewhere in town, arch gangster Lenny Cole (a frothing Tom Wilkinson) negotiates a land deal with dangerous russian billionaire Uri (Karel Roden switches up his trademark psychosis for smooth talking menace here) that hinges on a missing painting. Lenny dispatches his right hand bloke Archie (Mark Strong, subtly trolling us) to find it along with his rock star nephew Johnny Quid. Got that? Nevermind, half the fun is the how and not the why of Ritchie’s stories, and I find it best to just let the flow of it wash over you as opposed to thinking out each detail and missing the sideshow. Toby Kebbell is off the hook as Quid, a wiry stick of dynamite and a comic force to be reckoned with, truly the most exciting performance of the film. Ritchie has a knack for bringing out the funny side in actors, even ones that aren’t usually the type to make you laugh. Strong is terrific, with a few carefully timed moments of sheer hilarity that deftly make you forget how dangerous he is. Ludacris and Jeremy Piven are fun, if a bit out of place as two event promoters. Butler and Elba have an easy-peasy rapport that’s light, friendly and believable. Wilkinson dances between alpha assuredness and aging buffoonry nicely, always commanding the scene and oddly reminding me of Mr. Magoo. There’s a playful tone to this one, glitzy and celebratory in places where Snatch was grim and sketchy, and the whole affair feels like a new years party with a bunch of old friends. Watch for cameos from Matt King, Nonzo Anonzie, Jimi Mistry, Mundungus Fletcher and Gemma Arterton. Very fun stuff.
Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element is what you get when you give a massive budget to a director who has an otherworldly flair for imagination and a creative pulse that doesn’t subside for one single second. It’s one of the best sci fi films ever made, a pure intergalactic rush of absurdist qualities anchored by a solid blueprint that’s both akin to and far removed from countless space movies out there. The surprise, and what works so well, comes from Besson and his team crafting a warped and almost Dr. Seussical world that dabbles in cartoonish territory, boggles the eyes endlessly and continually assures you that anything goes in terms of style and tone. It’s an all timer for me, a blast of zany ideas, lovable characters (even the villains are teddy bears to me), a celebration of off the cuff production design and a goddamn certified barrel of fun. Most who read this will know the plot inside out and up and down, but we all know how much I love babbling on about actors and events, so bear with moi. There’s an adorable prologue (“Aziz, light!!!!”) In which an alien race called the Mondosheewans arrive on earth to remove a sacred and very powerful item from an Egyptian pyramid. They resemble shambling steam punk Volkswagen beetles, and are a force of good. This takes place in the 1800’s, and before you can say Luke Perry, we’ve flashed forward to a dazzling futuristic New York City where the events that came before come full circle. Self depracating cabbie Corben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has a day of unending bad luck, until a gorgeous humanoid being named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich was my first cinematic crush in this role ♡) literally falls into his lap, or rather, crashes through the roof of his cab and incites a high speed chase in hover cars, a fantastic sequence, I might add. It turns out this slender, orange deadlocked babe is the human manifestation of the coveted artifact that the Mondosheewans took into their possession. Willis and Jovovich have an immediate exasperated chemistry that practically leaps off the screen as giddily as your heart does whenever they’re seen together. They’re one of the cutest couples in history, and soon embark on a wild adventure to prevent mass destruction at the hands of a giant ball of pure evil that threatens earth (and no I didn’t make that up). Also threatening them is Jean Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (wish that was my name), played by Gary Oldman in a preening, gaudy display of theatrical evil that must be seen to be believed. Zorg is an arrogent megalomaniac who basically runs the city, out to find the ancient stones that are the key to stopping that malevolent force that hangs out just outside of earth’s atmosphere. This is the only film that can claim it has a scene where pure evil itself calls up Gary Oldman on the phone for a chat, which has to be some kind of achievment. There’s a gaggle of incredible actors running around as well, including Bilbo Ba-, I mean Ian Holm as Father Cornelius, a priest of an ancient order sworn to protect Leeloo, the president of the united states (Tiny Lister, once again I’m not making this up), a hapless general (John Neville), a tweaked out petty thief (Mathieu Kassovitz in a scene of pure WTF), Brion James, Lee Evans, and Chris Tucker. Oh good lord Chris Tucker. I don’t know how the guy has the energy, but he keeps it in mania mode as Ruby Rod, a flagrantly horny loudmouth prima donna radio DJ that tags along with Corben for a few gunfights and explosions and shrieks like a banshee all the while. Willis has never been as amiable as he is here, it’s as if John McClane wandered into an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and decided to have some fun. Truly a great protagonist. You will fall deeply in love with Milla as Leeloo. Her lithe physicality, unearthly dialect that she actually learned in full for the film, striking naivete and burgeoning compassion all make her one of the most unique and mesmerizing heroines to ever exist in a film. Oldman mugs, chews scenery like a bulldog, prances about like he’s in a grade school play, and is a sheer diabolical delight. The scene where he demonstrates the ‘swiss army gun’ for his dimwitted extraterrestrial cohorts is time capsule worthy, as is the entire film. Besson directs and stages his world with a reckless abandon that plays like a watercolor painting of pure expression. If there’s an idea someone had, it ended up in this film no matter how outlandish and random it is. That’s the kind of carefree artistic qualities that all movies should have; a willingness to be silly, to be crazy, to step outside the box and then trample on it whilst hurling confetti all about the place. This film is a shining example of that, and stands out as not only one of my favourite films of all time, but one of the best ever made. Big BADABOOM.
Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 is one of those horror flicks that proudly slaps his name over the title like he runs the show, when in fact he’s only participating under a vague executive producer credit. Now that we’ve got that little detail out of the way we can talk about what a thoroughly awesome movie it is, and how the haters can go suck it. It’s a high concept slice of bloody fun and has easily one of the best pairings of an actor with the Dracula mythos ever: Gerard Butler. He’s young and lean here, before he turned into a tank later in his career, and he makes one hell of a kick ass Dracula. The story is too good to be true: a team of arch criminals, led by Omar Epps and also including Hyde from That 70’s Show (lol) break into the European mansion of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) and steal the heavy duty coffin which he has stashed in his basement and used to contain Vladdy for over a hundred years. Helsing has always used a compound derived from his blood to keep himself alive all that time and ensure that he never gets loose. The burglars have no idea what they’re on for, and pretty soon Butler is loose and ready to get freaky, tearing apart their getaway plane and running off into the chaotic streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. He’s searching for a girl (Justine Waddell) to have sex with her and fulfill some horrific prophecy (nice little nod to End Of Days there). Dracula, Mardi Gras, Gerard Butler, Christopher Plummer; four ingredients to pretty much ensure your movie is gonna rock. Plummer makes one of the best onscreen Van Helsings in my books, rivaled only perhaps by Anthony Hopkins. Butler is a sleek, hip and sensual Dracula, playing the role to the bloody hilt and sedimenting a really cool rendition of the character, with a surprising twist ending that adds some depth to the guy. Watch for work from Jennifer Esposito, Sean Patrick Thomas, Shane West, Lochlyn Munro and Nathan Fillion as well.
Great retelling, or rather addition to the legend, held up by Butler.