This is the Zodiac speaking.

ZODIAC

The first time I saw All The President’s Men in high school I kept thinking, how is this a movie? Two guys fumble around Washington, talk to a bunch of people on the phone. I didn’t get it. I was mad at my English teacher for showing it to us.

Years later, I was more sensitive to the milieu of the time and place. The verisimilitude of these two journalists, unraveling this conspiracy with some phones and cracker jack investigative reporting. I liked the cool emotion exhibited from Woodward and Bernstein. I liked watching the procedure, the chase. I’m not particularly in love with the film, but I think it’s hell of a lot more interesting than Chinatown, where I really didn’t give a shit about the story at all.

Zodiac is very much similar to these films in style and tone but with a much–much more interesting screenplay.

You know the script is working when you’re still trying to find “clues” to the murderer within the movie, knowing full well in reality the case was never solved. You so badly want that moment where Graysmith comes up to Arthur Lee Allen and says, “I know it was you, motherfucker.” By Graysmith’s account something like it happened, but it was more tasteful. Graysmith walks into the Ace Hardware where Allen works, and he just stares him down. It’s an unspoken message: “I know it was you, motherfucker.”

And it’s in the movie. It’s the only moment of reconciliation we can get. But boy I’m glad it was in there.

It takes a special kind of fucked up person to go as deep into the case as Robert Graysmith did. He came out the other end without his wife, and a broken family–but he did get the book deal, which ended up being turned into a movie. He was played by Jake Gyllenhaal. It wasn’t all in vain.

Just recently, a codebreaker claims to have solved the Z-340, one of the unsolved ciphers. He was inspired to try it after watching this movie. And he in turn hopes others will try to solve it if his solution turns out to be wrong.

I don’t know what it is about people who love police procedurals like CSI, or the people that do the Sunday Times crosswords. But god love them. They seemed to be the demographic for the Zodiac, who became infamous through his ciphers with the San Francisco Chronicle. Even if they only say things like “I like killing people”, we have some bizarre fixation on unlocking codes, solving things. Whether it’s sodoku or the Z-340, our brains are wired to correct things. Find meanings, especially when they’re hidden.  We all have a little bit of that inside us. The obsessive compulsion.

That’s why it’s fun to watch Graysmith comb over every detail of the case. We want him to get it right. Especially with so much on the line for him. But the time line is also eerie. Each subtitle takes us further into the future, two days later here, four years later there.

If momentum is lost by police, it’s picked right back up again by Graysmith. Someone is always carrying the torch forward, like a demented version of the opening Olympics ceremony.

I think that is what stands out structurally. In most films when you keep widening the time line the audience begins to lose the heart of the story. In Zodiac it works just the opposite. The heart of the story lies in the time it takes to tell it. We start on the minute simple details of the case and start zooming out until the bigger picture comes into focus. Characters drop the case and leave. Some are very prominent early in the story and drop off never to be seen from again.

And of course, it’s made to look effortless. The script by James Vanderbilt is extraordinary. You meet so many characters who end up holding space in your head. It never gets confusing or muddled. The dialogue crackles. You can plow through the script just reading the dialogue and still make sense of the story.

This goes down as one of the finest films of Fincher’s career. Probably one of the best films of the 00’s. And easily one of the best screenplays ever written.

Portrait of a family

CATFISH

I heard someone talk about “Catfish” as a good companion to “The Social Network”. Both movies are about Facebook, after all. But I found more in common with “Exit Through the Gift Shop”. Both movies contend to be real, but are they?

I think most of the rumors can be dispelled about “Catfish”. It is real. At least – the family from the movie.What I’m about to discuss includes spoilers. But if you haven’t seen the documentary I think it’s worth a look as soon as possible. As long as facebook is still prevalent, anyway.

SPOILERS

I went into it thinking it would be a “thriller”. That’s the word on the back of the blu ray dvd. From the picture above, I got a sense of some documentary filmmakers chasing someone, and then getting chased back. But really it’s not the thriller I was anticipating. If it ever got to a point where someone’s life could be in danger, I would know this was fake.

At least an hour into the film I still wasn’t sure. As more details emerge, and we zoom out of the portrait to see the big picture, it’s hard to argue with what you see. The “real” family revealed at the end has two retarded children who must be fed through tubes. The mother sheds real tears, seemingly ashamed of what she’s done. They aren’t people you can grab from a casting session. My first thought was, they found the family first, and then sculpted the documentary around them.

But that’s not right. How can they influence the mother to cry on camera? What buttons do they have to push to drive a real human being into acting a part for a faux documentary? I believe Banksy sculpted the characterization of Guetta, but it was in the realm of believability. He’s someone who must have relished playing up the French artiste.

In this movie, the mother could not have possibly been directed so far. She appears on 20/20 after the film’s release. I feel like once you’re on 20/20 you have to show your cards.

But what I still grapple with is whether or not the filmmakers knew as much from the beginning, but only pretended like they were making all these big discoveries for the first half of the film. The giveaway? These guys are too intelligent. I couldn’t wrap my head around the initial purpose for making the documentary, which was to make it about a little girl who can paint. The paintings themselves are nothing to gawk at. No right minded person would hang them up on a wall, just as no right minded person would buy Guetta’s paintings for millions of dollars.

And just watching these filmmakers you can tell they have a sharp eye for structure. They know what to film, and more importantly still – how to film it. Take for instance all of the IMing, texting, and emailing that goes on. Information is revealed carefully. We see Nev (the main subject of the film) “fall in love” with a midwestern girl. All we really see is his reactions to texts. There’s a distinct lack of deeper emotional attachment at work. You can see it when one of his friends asks him at the end of the film how he feels. Nev says he doesnt’t want to talk about it. It communicates almost nothing, so Nev can safely avoid scrutiny. Was he ever really attached to this fake online persona? Was he really going to skip off to the midwest to live with her?

In the final analysis, that was probably the furthest thing from his mind. At the forefront was making a movie. He doesn’t come away from this experience damaged. He’s made millions off of it already (or at least the producers have). The only person emotionally distraught, and arguably, abused, was the mother he ended up finding and exploiting. At least Banksy already knew his subject, and that person was in on the joke.

Regardless, “Catfish” is one of the most talked about movies I’ve seen in awhile and it left a lot on the table to discuss. Much like “Exit Through the Gift Shop”.

The generic thriller

STATE OF PLAY

You ever watch a movie, and then a day later you can’t even recount what happened? Or who was in it? Or what it was even called?

You find these in grocery stores all the time. They sit on shelves in the check out aisle. They’re hidden under the weight of other horrible movies inside of large bins. The digger you deep you think, the more likely you are to find that treasure lying at the bottom. But all you find is something like State of Play.

I wish I could tell you what it’s about, but truthfully I don’t remember. There’s a journalist in it, and he goes around trying to uncover some super secret plot that just unfolds into a bigger crisis that involves politicians and the CIA. At least, I’m pretty sure it was the CIA. Shit.

Russell Crowe does a great job as the journalist with the crazy hair who goes around asking questions. He asks the right questions, he gets answers that help him unlock what he needs to know to get his story printed and out there for the people to read. The people have to know the truth. What is the truth? It’s complicated, you’ll have to watch the movie. But trust me, a day will go by. Two days will go by. Soon you’ll be at the grocery store, digging through a pile of movies and see one you haven’t watched before. Although the cover of it looks awfully familiar…aw what the hell. You’re pretty sure you’ve never seen it. And it’s only 5 bucks.

Dylan Walsh is…

THE STEPFATHER.

Theatrical poster

I own a DVD with one of Dylan Walsh’s earliest roles. The film is “Loverboy” starring Patrick Dempsey in which Walsh plays a guy who’s trying to steal his girl. He’s a real creep in that movie.

Here again, Walsh plays a creep. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the original movie this is based on. I heard it was also called “The Stepfather” and for the most part follows a pretty similar plot. I hear it’s got cult status. But Dylan Walsh also has cult status.

I was actually surprised by the quality of this film. Continue reading

Smoking kills

OUT OF THE PAST.


I had a suspicion after watching Out of the Past that I overlooked an important element of Shutter Island’s mixture of noir elements. I was wondering if it had the credentials to be considered a noir, or if it was just borrowing pieces here, pieces there.

I can tell you that from hearing how Scorsese screened Out of the Past for his actors before filming, I expected it to have similar story beats. Actually, it’s pretty different most of the way through, but I think there are a couple of key elements Scorsese definitely borrowed. The first, which became a centrifugal point of the story in Shutter Island, was how the past kept creeping back in and informing the present, like a merciless tide. All we know about Teddy is what he tells us and more importantly, what he sees. There is that first beat on the boat where his partner asks how his wife died. From Teddy’s reaction, we know he’s lying. The narrative doesn’t have to convince us of that; you can read it his face. And in most noirs, when a guy like Jeff Bailey from Out of the Past starts talking about the past it’s generally the truth. In Jeff’s case, we know this because we then see it through his flashback.

So a character’s murky past has a great impact on the present, a noir staple I was cognizant of during Shutter Island. What wasn’t apparent to me until after watching Out of the Past was the aspect of the femme fatale.

Teddy’s dead wife makes a lot of strange appearances in Shutter Island. Even if she may be a voice from the past, she directs him and gives him information that plays into the present. It comes to a critical point where refusing to listen to her is a step his character must take to grow and move on from the past. We want him to refuse her, because we know she’s bad news even if the exact details remain unclear to us (eventually, they become crystal clear — maybe even too clear for some). But during the film, I didn’t see her as a femme fatale. It took a viewing of Out of the Past to realize it. Perhaps I thought she wasn’t “real enough” to anybody but Teddy. Or that she was part of the past, so how dangerous could she be?

Very, of course.

Roger Ebert called Out of the Past one of the finest noir films ever made. There are great performances from Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum, who played their characters with the right amount of distance and cool. Everybody smoked…a lot. I mean a lot.  Ebert said that if two characters were smoking it was like their version of fencing. And when there wasn’t any smoking, there was drinking. It all adds to the atmosphere of course, but personally I’ve never pretended to have a great affection for noir. I can’t really say what separates one great noir from another, and I’ve tried to understand. Los Angeles has an annual film noir festival that I attended at least twice. Most of the time I have trouble just remembering scenes, even whole movies, and when I’ve seen more than a few in a short span they tend to run together in my head. I associate the problem with black and white photography. For some reason, my brain remembers easier in color.

Maybe just as so. Those movies are all about trying to forget, anyway.

Who is the 67th patient?

SHUTTER ISLAND.

Right now, I’m the 67th patient. I just visited Scorsese’s Shutter Island and I’m still there. I don’t want to leave.

It’s been worming around in my mind. Here is a noir thriller that feels eerily familiar, and yet it is so original it’s a wonder why it wasn’t made years ago. I think that is a reason someone like Scorsese attached himself to direct, who is just as great of a film historian as he is a filmmaker.  The one informs the other. It is not surprising he sits down with his cast to watch classic noir thrillers like Out of the Past before filming.

Stylistically, this film is a major departure for Scorsese. Perhaps another reason he was drawn to the material. Compared to his previous films, this territory is claustrophobic and restrained. Yet I can’t imagine the material working as well as it did with any other director.  Paranoia lends itself very well to a claustrophobic setting. I can’t imagine a better setting than an island that houses the criminally insane, where the only way out is a ferry (unless there’s a storm, and oh is there a storm). The time of the setting is perfect: post world war II, where there is a heightened sense of paranoia. It was the seed for the noir genre. In that sense, Scorsese returns to a genre’s origins. Could that be why it feels so familiar? The setting takes good advantage of our pre-conceptions. For instance, lighthouses are innately creepy. It makes great sense to me why it becomes a pivotal part of the story.

An approaching storm opens the film. It ends on a quiet sunset.  Leo’s Teddy emerges from a fog, literally and figuratively. From Teddy’s memories, we aren’t sure that where he has come from is any better than where he is heading. As the audience, we’re in a limbo from the start of the movie. We’re asking questions almost immediately.

I was able to anticipate the entire conceit of the story from the beginning. So I paid attention to clues that supported my theory, and what I discovered was a growing uncertainty. Soon I was doubting myself. Doubling back on what I believed. Teddy’s motivations shift slightly during the course of the story. At one point, he wants to kill the man he believes set fire to his wife. At another point, he thinks mad scientist experiments are happening and as a federal marshal feels emboldened to blow the lid off the place and expose the island’s creepy operation. At another point, his only motivation is getting off the island. I don’t recall a character in recent memory with so many different priorities.

Let’s say you watch the film knowing the conceit of the story. Even if you attempt to match up the pieces that would presumably fit, there are holes everywhere. The puzzle is never complete. There is just enough wiggle room for disturbing portents. That’s what will keep me coming back to Shutter Island.

Since I own Out of the Past on DVD, I am going to take a look at that film next and hopefully I can do a comparative analysis with Shutter Island.