Monday, March 05, 2007


RECENT FILMS I HAVE SEEN: Zodiac, Summer Rental, and a secret surprise movie even I didn't expect to see

Putting aside the Neil LaBute remake of The Wicker Man, David Fincher's Zodiac, which I caught last Tuesday, was one of the most disturbing films I've seen in a while, and not necessarily for the reasons you might suspect. In recreating the investigation into the late-'60s/early-'70s Zodiac murders, Fincher doesn't spare any of the grisly details—there's a murder by a lake that's all the more disturbing for its unflinching matter-of-factness—but what he gets really right is the psychic toll of obsession and the cancerous effect of an unanswered wrong. In a blind taste test I couldn't have told you that this was from the same director as Seven, Fight Club, and Panic Room. They're all films I admire, but the the nihilism of the first two has been transformed here into a muted dread. It settles like a haze on a San Francisco that's left the Summer Of Love far behind and the technical flash, so much in evidence in Panic never calls attention to itself here. It's technically brilliant, but in a chilly, Kubrickian kind of way. Even when blood gets spilled it looks cold.

Here's how our own Scott Tobias put it (and put it well):

Zodiac follows the events in strict chronology, without imposing an artificial structure. This daring conceit risks shapelessness, but makes the passage of time more devastating, as datelines separated by days or weeks extend to full years while the case lies fallow.

Devastating's exactly right. Watch as Robert Downey Jr.'s character devolves from funny drunk to a pathetic, almost inhuman lump of a man. Maybe he would have gotten there without the Zodiac killer. Maybe not. The film never veers from this strategy. Labels like "Six months later..." pop up between scenes as the leads grow cold. It's comic until it becomes tragic.

There are moments here that need discussing that can't quite be talked about without spoilig the plot. But I need to talk about one, so I'll vague it up as best I can. After a long stretch of scenes that's little more than characters discussing leads and finding out that everybody knows something about the case but nobody knows everything—there are lots of passages like this—one of the characters follows a lead into a moment straight out of The Silence Of The Lambs. He's in the wrong place at the wrong time and it's clearly going to cost him. Except it doesn't. It's a dead end followed by trusting someone else's wrong instincts, something we don't find out until many scenes later, maybe years for him (I can't remember). But the film doesn't make a big deal acknowledging this. The character's moment of mortal fear becomes irrelevant to him since it turned out not to contribute to solving the murders. It's exhausting to share that kind of paranoia and monomania for two and a half hours and Fincher makes it clear it's just a sample of what it would be to live it and there's no small reward in that.


I don't have a lot to say about the 1985 comedy Summer Rental, which I watched, kind of, while doing some file sorting at the end of the day last week. (Ah, the joys of working at home.) It was one of those films I alway wanted to see as a kid and never got around to seeing. And now I've seen it. With Summer School another film on my Netflix queue, it comes from a brief period in the mid-'80s when Carl Reiner was synonymous with summer comedies. It also came from that period when John Candy was in seemingly everything. Here the gags are cheap and belabored and the plots straight from the snobs v. slobs playbook. Watching it was purely an exercise in reflexive nostalgia and the most rewarding part came from being reminded of what old cereal boxes used to look like. I used to think there was some value to watching just about any movie I hadn't seen before. As I get older I'm not so sure. (Which doesn't mean I'm not going to watch Summer School too.)


So the big secret movie: When we saw Zodiac there was a marketing type there offering us passes to one of two movies. The first was The Brave One, a Neil Jordan film starring Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard. All that sounds promising. The second was a mystery movie. The marketing woman said that all she could tell us was that it would be rated PG and that it came from, "this genre of film," at which point she waved her hand across a sheet of paper listing everything from Cars to Pirates Of The Caribbean. Hmmm.... Something sure to be interesting or a mystery movie? The choice was clear: We went with the mystery movie.

There was much fuss and bother in getting to the screening and a lot of line-waiting as well. By the time we got inside we'd convinced ourselves we would be seeing Fred Claus since the passes, upon closer inspection, further specified it was a "holiday" movie and we knew it was in post-production in Chicago since the media was all over star Vince Vaughn for complaining about our city's post-production services. We were wrong. Long story short (and maybe these magic words will send my traffic through the roof): I've seen Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix.

How was it? I'm not even sure I should say. Ethically, I'm not even sure I should have been there since I don't think critics are even supposed to go to test screenings. But I'm not reviewing it professionally so screw it. I liked it, anyway, so I'm not poisoning any wells.

When the film series started, I didn't have much invested in it and, frankly, the films didn't really reward investment. I had only read the first book, which I liked just fine, but the first two films were kind of a bore. I remembered little beyond Kenneth Branagh's sly turn in the second one and Rupert Grint's ability to look either mortified or terrified (but never both at the same time and never any other emotion .)

The third film, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban changed that in a big way. The story deepened considerably (just as it did in the books), the stars grew into their roles, and director Alfonso Cuaron got beneath the special effects to find the human element. At the same time, I caught up with the series (thanks in no small part to Stevie's enthusiasm; she screamed like an eight-year-old when they announced what we were seeing) and the quality of the films started to matter to me.

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire fell short of its predecessor but it wasn't bad, either. It just got a little too caught up in the big setpieces and lost sight of the characters. That's not a problem here. The massive plot's been streamlined considerably, but it's been streamlined smartly. There are a few scenes that will mean a lot more to readers of the book but having read the book isn't essential. But director David Yates (who's previously worked mostly in British television) strikes a pretty great balance between the kind of drama that comes from big scary monsters and the kind that comes from realizing how easy it is to feel absolutely isolated from eveyone around you. The first shot's a killer and the only effect is a piece of abandoned playground equipment. Yates is sticking around for the next entry, too, and that's not bad news at all.

Everybody's good in it, too, but I have to single out Imelda Staunton's turn as Dolores Umbridge, a teacher with the most memorable talent for passive aggression since Uriah Heep. Some of J.K. Rowling's political subtext might have been lost if Staunton hadn't played her as Thatcher with fixation on cute kitten collector plates. She might be slightly less fist-tighteningly hateful than she was in the book, but only slightly.

I can't really say I enjoyed the test-screening process. It's a vile practice that's crept evolved from a marketing tool into an intrinsic part of the creative process. That's wrong. And, furthermore, this wasn't quite ready to screen. Many of the effects weren't done, and they got less complete as the film went along. I'd like to see it again with a climax that doensn't involve Ralph Fiennes with CGI-assist dots on his face battling Michael Gambon on a soundstage. But it was interesting to be on the other side of it, tiny pencils at all. We were asked for our favorite and least favorite scenes, asked to rate various elements on a scale of one to five, and questioned about our favorite characters. If we'd all hated one scene, would it be gone? If we'd ganged up on Daniel Radcliffe, could he have lost his job? Who knows? I'm sure they'll ignore my comments anyway. I'm out of the demo. Who cares what I think?


Eric Grubbs said...

Not to be an armchair editor who is a smarty-pants, hot-shot editor in non-blog world (just ask Kyle about a book chapter I sent him a few months ago), but the correct title for the second Harry Potter film was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Eric Grubbs said...

. . . and the fourth book/film was called Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Keith Phipps said...

Yeah. My official armchair editor (my wife) caught that too. Fixing it now...

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