Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Early candidate for year's most overrated film

Is it too early to declare The Most Overrated Movie of the Year? Possibly, but The Lives of Others will no doubt still be in the top 3 or 5 of that category 10 months from now.

To be clear, I am not saying it’s a terrible movie. It is reasonably well done, and it takes on a fascinating subject (the Stasi secret police in East Germany, and its web of informants, during the last years of Communist rule) with admirable moral insight. But, to this viewer at least, it does so with a bare minimum of imagination and cinematic interest. It’s like an efficient TV movie about the Stasi. And its plot mechanics, based though they may be on “actual events,” are leaden and predictable.

I seem to be the only person in the Western Hemisphere with this dissenting opinion, but there you have it.


Zodiac is a meta-thriller: it comments on itself and other serial killer movies, and in a broader sense, on our obsession with real life and fictional serial killers – especially the unsolved cases, from Jack the Ripper on, that we keep picking at, without resolution. The movie's spiraling structure, and what to some will seem excessive length and detail, are intrinsic to this self-examining quality. I think it’s smashing – the best big commercial film I’ve seen since The Departed.

The three lead performances are excellent: Jake Gyllenhaal as the nerdy-obsessive editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith, on whose books the film is based; Mark Ruffalo as the San Francisco police detective who worked the Zodiac case for many years; and, most entertainingly, Robert Downey Jr. as the maverick reporter Paul Avery. The widescreen images, shot in high-definition video, are often startlingly clear, and they have been masterfully edited. Director David Fincher is a master technician, and possibly not a very nice man. It’s the perfect combination for this material.

The three murders recreated in the movie are horrific to watch, but far from exploitative, and they all occur early on. The investigation, and the obsessions it engenders, are the real subject. Although the film posits a plausible theory and suspect for the Zodiac killings, it remains deliberately foggy, ambiguous, unresolved. This may well leave many viewers dissatisfied. But it is one reason why this is no ordinary thriller.

The tone deftly mixes engrossing suspense with sly humor, notably in scenes that could be read as tributes to, or affectionate parodies of, paranoia classics of the '70s (All the President's Men, The Parallax View, The Conversation, the our-daddy-is-an-obsessed-weirdo scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The production design, without calling undue attention to itself, quite brilliantly recreates the 1969-1978 era - or possibly a more accurate way of putting it would be that the look of the film captures our own changing attitudes toward the styles of those years. The soundtrack makes very potent use of period songs as well (I always loved Donovan's slightly creepy "Hurdy Gurdy Man," but after seeing this movie you may never be able to hear it again without shuddering). I’ve seen the movie twice now, and I was surprised that the 155-plus minutes flew by the second time. Fincher is a warped wizard of cinema, a gifted storyteller who can twist a viewer's perspectives and perceptions and leave you wanting more.

I had my own experience with serial-killer obsessiondom, involving Jack the Ripper. I became fascinated by the case and bought several books, determined to come to my own conclusions. But at some point I began to see the truth: from this distance, with the evidence long fading, there are many, many suspects, and convincing reasons to consider nearly every one "likely." And none will ever be conclusively proved or disproved. I tossed the books aside, half read. Yet the unanswered mystery still gnaws at me. This tantalizing, exasperating mood of discovery and frustration is what Fincher’s movie is all about.

Graysmith's own first book Zodiac is both intriguing and rather stupefying. (It’s a mere 350 pages; his sequel, Zodiac Unmasked, is an intimidating 560-page doorstop.) He's not a skilled prose stylist, to put it kindly, and the material is sometimes crudely edited. He's obsessive about detail, and finds connections in the evidence that others missed - yet he often seems unable to distinguish important facts from unimportant ones, or compelling logic from irrelevant coincidences (he devotes page after page to the dubious significance of the phases of the moon).

The filmmakers gently rib this aspect of Graysmith when Robert Downey’s Paul Avery sarcastically adds "Washington Street" to a list of "water place names" associated with the killer; Gyllenhaal's Graysmith misses the humor in the suggestion, saying, "You really think so?" And indeed in the book Washington Street is included in all seriousness in a "water place names" list – which is about as enlightening as all those moon phases and equinoxes. The movie takes another subtle dig at Graysmith, who’s described more than once as a “boy scout,” when Avery asks him what his angle is in pursuing the case, as opposed to the “business” reasons for the newspaper and the police to do so. “What do you mean by ‘business’?” retorts Graysmith, meaning he’s only in it to find the truth. And yet of the main Zodiac figures, who has gotten the principal commercial payoff ? With two best-sellers and a movie deal, it’s the Boy Scout himself.

Is the movie telling us we’re selfish fools for fixating on the unknowable, while possibly prolonging the suffering of the victims’ families? In director David Fincher's hands, we're all only too willing to become nerdy serial killer obsessives like Robert Graysmith. Then he invites us to look in the mirror. Zodiac is a disquieting movie, and possibly a great one.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Host

A nifty little monster movie with post-modernist touches that both add to and detract from its effectiveness, writer-director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host gets right to the good stuff. After a quick introduction to Gang-du, who works at his family’s food stand (sort of a mini 7-Eleven), and his spunky young daughter Hyun-seo, the movie shifts immediately to a strange sight nearby, drawing a crowd to the bank of Seoul’s Han River: something is hanging off a bridge right in the middle of its span. Suddenly, it drops into the water, swimming, and the excited crowd watches its approach. They start to throw food – and cans of beer – at the shape in the river. But when that shadow comes to the surface, the playful tone shifts, and the film quickly gets scary as hell: the shape is not the least bit friendly, and it immediately starts chasing, and eating, humans.

The Korean title translates as Creature, and indeed the creature is the single most accomplished thing in the movie: a co-creation of two special effects houses, The Orphanage (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Superman Returns) and Weta Workshop (The Lord of the Rings). This very frightening beast is part giant cockroach, part carnivorous tadpole, with the terrifying multiple fanged mouths of Alien’s alien, plus a really long tongue. Whenever It is on screen, or even threatening to appear, this is a splendidly effective scare picture.

But Bong Joon-ho has other things on his mind. The store-owning family members are a vivid group of eccentrics, and they become outlaws on the run after one of them is snatched by the creature and the authorities refuse to help them rescue her. The family escapes from the quarantine that has been imposed, and ventures out to find the monster’s lair. The American title, The Host, is ironic: the behavior of the police and the national health officials is handled with sometimes bitter satire, as they come to the conclusion that the creature has introduced a deadly new virus into the world. The authorities (and a mob of conformists following their orders) become co-villains in the story – but they act out of blind stupidity, while the creature itself is only doing what comes naturally.

In its mix of superb film craft with sophomoric jokes, slapstick, shocking violence and sometimes satirical social commentary, The Host reminds me of another recent movie from Korea, Park Chanwook’s Lady Vengeance. The disparate elements don’t always gel, and American genre fans expecting an ordinary sort of action picture are likely to be unhappy with some of the odd, and sad, plot twists – but after seeing either The Host or Lady Vengeance, you know you’re in the presence of a major talent. (Both of these movies played at the New York Film Festival, and roused crowds accustomed to rather more sedate fare. Bong’s earlier film Memories of Murder, available on DVD, is also a genre picture with downbeat twists, and it has some interesting similarities to, and differences from, the new film Zodiac.)

The photography and editing of The Host are top-notch. The Han River location is vividly evoked, and the chases that take place near – and beneath – the riverbank are breathtakingly well done. The Park family’s journey isn’t very long geographically, but it takes on the nature of a heroic quest, even though as heroes they have their ups and downs. Gang-du’s sister Nam-joo (played by Bae Doo-na) is a champion archer (well, a bronze medalist) whose Achilles heel is being a little too…slow to let the arrow fly – and this becomes a witty visual joke at various points in the movie. Their brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il) seems at first a worthless, belligerent young drunk, but he proves his worth as the adventure continues. Gang-du himself is a bit of a goofy, shiftless layabout, but as events give his life a grim purpose, actor Song Kang-ho skillfully transforms the character into a real hero of sorts. (Actors Park and Song were also in Memories of Murder.)

The plot is sometimes sketchy, unconvincing, even silly, as is the satirical way the army and health officials are portrayed. But the movie has enough energy to ride over these faults. When the family’s quest takes a tragic turn, however, it feels like a miscalculation – the tone has been mostly fast and smartass up to that point, and one may not know how to react to the jarring shift. This may be just what director Bong has in mind, however, being a bit of an absurdist, gleefully mixing the comic and the sad.

So you may or may not feel completely satisfied by the story itself. But if you’re a monster movie aficionado, this is a monster you won’t want to miss. And if you’re interested in the Asian movies that have been expanding and subverting genres, such as Lady Vengeance and Infernal Affairs (the Hong Kong film on which The Departed is based), Bong Joon-ho is a director to watch – and The Host is a good place to start.