Zodiac: a movie review

Procedural thrillers tend to have a few things in common: they have a well-defined stable of characters, they take place over a reasonably brief stretch of time, and they… y’know, resolve. If a procedural presents a whodunnit, the end will reveal who, in fact, dunnit, and usually why.

David Fincher’s Zodiac necessarily throws these rules out. The Zodiac case covered many, many years of active police inquiry — and so does the film, showing us fourteen years of investigation, both by the police detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) and by a journalist (Robert Downey, Jr.)

But the film really centers around Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall), a cartoonist who became engrossed by the coded messages that the Zodiac Killer’s sent in to San Francisco’s newspapers. Zodiac follows Graysmith through the years as he studies, decodes, and researches the messages, trying to tie them to any of the suspects — and there are plenty of suspects.

Zodiac is a sprawling endeavor, trying to make sense out of a tangled mass of evidence. “Sprawling” isn’t usually something I look for in a movie, but Fincher makes it work with one simple, demanding choice: every single role is written and cast thoughtfully, intelligently, carefully, with the sense that these people are real, not vehicles for moving the plot along.

This is also true of the very difficult scenes of the Zodiac attacks. In the most vivid and disturbing depiction, which takes place during a picnic, Fincher uses close-ups and POV shots to narrow our focus: the entire outdoor scene shrinks down to a frantic, tight few feet. He forces us to identify in the most heartbreaking way with the terror and tension of the victims.

The A.V. Club recently inducted David Fincher’s Zodiac into their New Cult Canon, and with good reason. It’s a modern classic, a resonant story of obsession and uncertainty circling endlessly around a series of senseless tragedies.

[This review was cross-posted to The Video RePort.]

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Perfect Blue: a movie review

In the trailer for Perfect Blue, Roger Corman is quoted: “If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney they’d make a picture like this.” I say Corman misses the mark a little. Perfect Blue feels more like a collaboration between Hayao Miyazaki* (Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service) and Brian DePalma (Body Double, Sisters) — but only at first.

The introduction sets up a silly if juicy plot: a pert and innocent young pop idol named Mima leaves her musical career to pursue acting. Soon after, Mima starts receiving messages by fax and by internet (jarringly described in this 1997 film as “that thing that’s really popular lately”) from an obsessed fan or, um, someone… someone who knows every detail of her daily life, someone who witnesses the small humiliations of her new career, someone who describes the darkest aspects of her thoughts in the first person. And then some, um, stuff starts to happen.

If the first act of Perfect Blue feels like a partnership between Miyazaki and DePalma, the second act veers into the territory of David Lynch or Roman Polanski, tangling up the seemingly straightforward stalker-thriller with an interplay of reality and fantasy, muddling the timelines and narrative flow, and toying with our expectations about identity and agency.

Fittingly, Perfect Blue gained new fame recently as a possible inspiration for Black Swan. There are some glancing similarities, but that’s all they are — similarities of theme and story including the pressures of fame, deteriorating self-image, and the difficulty of discerning reality from desire. (Arguably, Black Swan contains a few momentary homages: the subway window, the bathtub scene.) You could put together a fun-but-harrowing Black & Blue double feature, but Perfect Blue would pair equally well with Polanski’s The Tenant or Repulsion or with Lynch’s Inland Empire.

* By namechecking Hayao Miyazaki, I’m not implying that Perfect Blue is suitable for children — oh, my goodness, NO. Yikes.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me: a movie review

The opening of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me serves as a warning to the audience. Credits play over a staticky TV, promising us appearances by a host of names familiar from “Twin Peaks”… then that TV is smashed in a shower of sparks as a woman’s voice screams in the background. This nasty little vignette frames the ensuing story. The film relies upon the viewer’s familiarity with the cozy-quirky world of the TV series, but even as it employs the mythology and grammar of the show’s world, the movie viciously rejects the comforts we found in the drowsy little town of Twin Peaks.

Then comes the most damning scene, an example of the kind of over-the-top quirkiness that sank the movie. FBI Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (David Lynch reprising his role from the series) meets with his field agents (Chris Isaak and Keifer Sutherland) to give them notes on their upcoming case. But rather than simply speaking or writing, Cole transmits his “notes” via Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole), a red-clad orange-bewigged woman who performs a coded dance of exaggerated movements and expressions. For a lot of viewers, this chapter points out everything that’s wrong with the movie, and I ain’t arguing. Lil’s dance feels like an asinine self-parody, a ham-fisted caricature of the show’s whimsy.

This moment is an affront; it’s garish and silly and clumsy, but it serves a purpose. Like the smashed TV, Lil’s dance gives us a flash of warning: forget what you think you know about this story. The message you’re about to receive is not what you expect.

We’re about to enter Deer Meadow, the shadowy opposite of Twin Peaks. Deer Meadow boasts no pleasant Double R Diner, no outstanding cherry pie, no quietly competent and welcoming sheriff, no damn fine coffee, no Special Agent Dale Cooper, and no beloved Homecoming Queen with a mysterious secret. The victim here is Teresa Banks, whom you may remember from the TV series: she was evidently murdered by the same killer who claimed Laura Palmer’s life.

But Teresa is no golden girl: she’s a short-time night-shift waitress in a seedy diner, her home is a shabby trailer, and no one seems to know much about her — or to care. As dim and dismal as this is and as sorry as we are to dig into Teresa Banks’ squalid life and death, it’s only priming us for the deeper sorrow of witnessing — of becoming complicit in — the last days of Laura Palmer’s short life.

In the TV series, Laura is a distant dream, a lovely portrait gazing out passively from the school’s trophy case or from her parents’ mantel, a brief snip of footage innocently cavorting with Donna on a mountaintop. She’s safely contained in memories and images. In Fire Walk with Me, Laura is unsettlingly tangible and willful. Her actuality and her agency undermine all the romanticized memories and projections that the series fueled. We’re forced to confront Laura’s despair and to face the sordid grotesqueries of her young life, the denial and culpability of her loved ones, and the terrible choices her trauma has led her to make.

That’s not to say that Fire Walk with Me is a great film; it’s deeply flawed, marred by terrible diversions into the absurd and the surreal, and by Lynch’s stubborn insistence upon his own inventions and argot. But it has its moments and they’re terrifically effective, in part thanks to Sheryl Lee’s bravura acting. Her Laura is dizzyingly mercurial, one moment passionate and the next cold and numb. Lee also gives Laura a subtle and unnerving trait: she never maintains eye contact. Laura always seems to look slightly askance, gazing at her companion’s chest or above his head even when she’s proclaiming her devotion. The gives her scenes a strangely potent aura of deep disconnection from her friends and family.

But those laughable diversions of Lynch’s have their own ineluctable power. Just between you and me and the whole internet, after watching FWWM, I spent a night shuddering awake from creeping nightmares, clutching the blankets to me and shrinking from noises in the dark. Even as I scorned and derided them, the images of this ridiculous movie got under my skin like few films can… maybe because it wrought such violent changes upon familiar characters and places, just as a dream does. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me divorces itself from the cozy comforts of “Twin Peaks” the series even as it exploits our familiarity with it. It’s as if “Twin Peaks” itself has entered The Black Lodge and transformed to its dark, dismal alter-ego, taking us with it on a ghastly adventure.

Black Swan: a movie review

Let me be frank: I expected to enjoy this film, but not to find it breathtaking or obsession-worthy despite the accolades of many, many respected critics. (I was prepared — even hopeful — that I’d be surprised. I wasn’t.) Is it still worth watching? Absolutely.

Black Swan has a core of intelligence and wit, but the finished product is — perhaps intentionally — a bit crude, both psychologically and narratively. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a tightly controlled, deeply repressed soloist in a prominent ballet company who longs to play the dual leads in “Swan Lake”… but to do so, she must transcend mere technical perfection and open herself to passion and, perhaps, to an inner darkness.

For experienced viewers of psychological suspense films, the surprises in this film are momentary: jumps and startles rather than character-driven revelations. The biggest difference between Black Swan and more generic films of its ilk springs from director Darren Aronofsky’s gift for portraying jarring physicality. The images of Natalie Portman’s too-delicate ballerina wincing and smothering her pain brought little gasps of dismay to my throat, and I jumped at the little reveals even when they felt obviously manipulative.

Unlike so much of Aronofsky’s transgressive work (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), Black Swan walks us step-by-step through some pretty familiar psychological-suspense themes: maternal oppression and conflict, professional rivalry turning into personal vendettas, identity crisis, repressed sexuality bursting out unbidden, the shifting lines between reality and fantasy.

Aronofsky even gives us a little metatextual goose suggesting that his coloring-inside-the-lines approach may be intentional. Early in the film, the ballet director, Thomas, gives a speech about the upcoming production of "Swan Lake" that foreshadows the events we're about to see played out, starting with "“We all know the story… Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan" and ending with "Done to death I know, but not like this. We strip it down, make it visceral and real."

Over the next few weeks, Thomas creates a "Swan Lake" with some edgy elements that nonetheless looks strikingly familiar and traditional, as much a comfortable genre piece as Aronofsky's Black Swan turns out to be. It plays with longstanding melodramatic tropes of female competition and artistic hysteria and also toys knowingly with allusions, direct or oblique, to previous films covering similar territory, most strikingly The Red Shoes, Repulsion, Persona, Perfect Blue, and a whole handful of De Palma flicks. It’s a big splashy B-movie, half melodrama, half horror, all crafted with Aronofsky’s lavish attention and intention.

Lars von Trier’s AntiChrist: a movie review

(Note: I watched AntiChrist knowing almost nothing about the story, and this review will not mention specifics of the story so you may view it in the same unspoiled state.)

Despite Lars von Trier’s pedigree as crafter of upscale arty horrors, it feels odd to call AntiChrist a horror film… but it is truly horrific, and you should know that before you decide to rent it.

In the prologue, we learn that AntiChrist is predicated on the simplest, most brutally realistic horror: the horror of grief, of abysmal guilt, of mistrusting those we love best. But rarely is true horror so intensely wedded to wrenching drama. It’s engrossing and sorrowful and terrible… and deeply, truly scary. AntiChrist shatteringly portrays the crushing physicality of grief: no soft-focus gentle weeping and hankie-dabbing here, but the raw, biting panic and despair that could all too easily escalate into something still more horrible.

Be warned: as we’ve come to expect from von Trier, this film is stomach-churningly graphic (no, really. Really really really. REALLY), uncompromisingly bleak, and some critics decried AntiChrist as offensively misogynistic. I disagree, but that’s beside the point: the message to take away is that AntiChrist will not leave you munching the last of your popcorn as you hum a happy song. It’s grotesque, bleak, revolting, yet it has moments of real beauty.

It’s a polarizing and genuinely shocking work, and its brutal interplay of grace and gracelessness reminds me of nothing so much as a particularly nasty piece of Northern Renaissance religious art — though the religious symbols here are not so easily decoded, with good reason.

Say what you will about Lars von Trier, this is the first film in a long time to really scare me. Knowing his reputation, I was scared before I even hit “play.”

Pontypool: a movie review

From indie director Bruce McDonald (The Tracey Fragments, Hard Core Logo) comes Pontypool, a deliciously taut, intelligently told thriller that breaks all the rules of zombie outbreak films, starting with the most important one: there are no zombies.

What do I mean? If a zombie film has no zombies, what the heck does the word even mean? Well, exactly.

Grizzled veteran actor Stephen McHattie exercises his gruff charm and silky-rough voice as washed-up radio host Grant Mazzy, who starts the morning with announcements of missing cats and snow day rosters, and ends it as the lone broadcaster detailing a mysterious outbreak of violence and illness. The tale is a masterpiece of mediated storytelling: Mazzy and his crew are glued to their helm in the radio station, receiving updates from reporters and civilians in the field, which means that the tension is built by voices and words, not gruesome action scenes.

And it works. Not only does it work; the tension becomes a self-feeding cycle as it gradually dawns on the radio troopers that their reports may be compounding the disaster. This is a lean, elegantly economical piece of storytelling that builds to a horrific crest by allowing us to invest in the players, to piece together their relationships and characters and to imagine for ourselves the horrors offstage… and then the action starts to spill over.

[This review is cross-posted to The VideoReport.]

The Machinist: a movie review

Make no mistake: this is an unflinchingly grim film, and I’m still not sure it’s a good one. But it’s certainly compelling and wrenching to watch.

The Machinist is perhaps best know for the grueling physical transformation Christian Bale underwent to take on the part of Trevor Reznik, the chronically insomniac and obviously troubled lead character. From the first close-up, it’s brutally obvious that there’s no trickery at play here: Trevor’s cadaverous skull wavers unsteadily on the fragile stem of his throat. He’s not just skeletal but snake-like, all sinew and skin and horribly visible bone. Trim little gamine Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Stevie, friendly neighborhood call girl) looks positively lush next to him.

The harsh lighting emphasizes his dreadful emaciation early on, while it still has the power to shock. More shocking still, perhaps, is how quickly we grow accustomed to it. (Bale’s wasted frame, unsettling though it is to see, is not the most gruesome or triggering sight in this bleak, gray world. As the title suggests, Trevor works in a machine shop, and you know what that means. Uh-oh.)

But paradoxically, the realism of Bale’s emaciation, the brutal fact of it, kept pulling me out of the film… and more than that, it spurred me to question: is this movie worth the suffering Bale inflicted upon himself? Is this a piece of art worthy of that deprivation and damage, that self-immolating level of artistic and physical devotion? I suppose only Christian Bale is entitled to make that judgment, but from my place in the audience, I think that Bale’s sacrifice suggests a disproportionate, maybe even a penitential, commitment to craft… or maybe just a misplaced sense of the project’s artistic value.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film — not at all. The Machinist is a well-crafted, uneasy psychological thriller with a deeply unsettling tone. Bale brings his usual intensity and restrained energy to this role, and he manages a remarkable trick: in his scenes with amiable waitress/possible love interest Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), Trevor’s seemingly relaxed, suave banter is loaded with nervy, murky significance for the audience. Like director Brad Anderson’s gritty no-budget thriller Session 9, The Machinist is suffused with an eerie, uneasy sense of looking through another person’s eyes, suffering their anxieties, afflicted by their blind spots.

[This review is cross-posted to The VideoReport.]