Film of the Week: Zodiac (2007)

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David Fincher directs Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and John Carroll Lynch in this matter of fact look at the people who investigated a series of unsolved murders in the 60s and 70s.

Fincher is the most accomplished and exciting director working today but you get the feeling that since Zodiac he has taken all his genius, skill and craft to projects he does not care quite the same about. Some of those post-2007 movies are modern classics (The Social Network, Benjamin Button) but noticeably the work of an overqualified, gun for hire rather than a personal quest. Fincher seems actively engaged and seduced by the source material here, like this was the film he was born to make. And that clear and present obsession is the touchstone for the story entire. Fincher has recreated this dark period not to revel in a narrative where a killer is caught, or unspeakable crimes are committed, but to try and capture the emotions and actions of those who tried to make sense of the real life horrors. The code breakers, cops, reporters and Jake Gyllenhaal’s  slightly off the spectrum take on Robert Graysmith. A long, immaculately detailed look at bringing order to chaos, resolution to the still open mystery. Never has a film quite shown the grind of an investigation that goes nowhere, though Citizen X and Memories of Murder reached for the same goal. 100 minutes in and every life we meet or return to from them on out has been twisted and ruined in the aftershocks. It is not a dry movie either. The crimes are chillingly involvingly, as is Carroll Lynch portrayal of the prime suspect. Downey Jnr is a hoot in a showy role but a sly humour coarses through all moments except, pointedly, the murders themselves. Despite a focus on the day to day, it remains an engaging thriller and an actorly ensemble piece. Note perfect scene blends into note perfect scene. An overpoweringly effective journey into darkness, our hand held by those willing to keep going further and further into the murk. It is not as simple a spook house ride as the flawless shock machine of Se7en but Fincher has left us here with his true detective epic, more than companion piece to the more popular fictional serial killer horror he made his name on, this is an exhausting exhumation. By the time the credits roll you have felt like you have dug up all the graves with your bare hands. You walk away from Fincher’s masterpiece with dirt under your fingernails and images you cannot unseen.

10

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Love and Friendship (2016)

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Whit Stillman directs Kate Beckinsale, Tom Bennett and Chloe Sevingny in this adaptation of an abandoned Jane Austen work.

A beautiful and efficient adaptation that adds little new to the ever growing Austen filmography. The dresses are appropriately gorgeous and the cast are up to the job (though some of the mid-level parts could have found a bigger, starrier name or three). It only really comes to independent life, however, when Tom Bennett’s thick as granite suitor goes on a rambling daft monologue or Sevingny’s décolletage looks like it is going to explode in breathy mischief.

6

A Hologram For the King (2016)

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Tom Tykwer directs Tom Hanks, Alexander Black and Sarita Choudhury in this Saudi Arabia set tale of a businessman lost at sea amongst modern globalisation.

A messy film that struggles to align its obvious high quality elements into a whole. Tom Hanks is great here yet his central presence and the basic pitch suggest a fish out of water comedy… If you come for that then disappointment is all you’ll find. In fact disappointment purposefully laces itself around the first hour, plus an unexpected heavy dose of effective paranoia,  as Hank’s failing suit genuinely struggles with an alien business landscape and his own past errors. You don’t want to see the most liked movie star in living history be ground down and beaten quite so by modern life just like every middle aged man you know is in reality. Even if the scenery and supporting cast is exotic, that’s not a fun, light night at the flicks. Then suddenly the MacGuffin sales pitch becomes a dealt with item on the list of subplots and A Hologram for the King evolves into something more satisfying and fun. Tykwer swipes every moment, bad and good, with evocative colours. Many frames look like Magritte paintings. Hanks and he should collaborate again, but after this and Cloud Atlas, something with a bit more humour and focus. So far we keep getting these interesting swerve-balls.

6

Play It Again, Sam (1972)

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Herbert Ross directs Woody Allen, Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts in this expanded play where Allen’s loser get advice on love from the ghost of Humphrey Bogart and his best friend’s wife.

I thought I was going to love this, the concept is great and it has always sat determinedly at the top of my unwritten list of old films I really should get around to watching since my teens. And as a light slice of Woody’s “earlier, funny ones” it is enjoyable enough. But that marvellous idea of the old school movie anti-hero giving pep talks to our introspective mess on “the dames” gets all but ignored in the middle hour meaning we are left in a kind of undercooked, Diet Annie Hall for far too long. One where some of the rape jokes and dated facial mugging during sex scenes leave a mouldy flavour even in my tasteless mouth.

5

‘Salem’s Lot (1979)

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Tobe Hooper directs David Soul, Bonnie Bedelia and James Mason in this Stephen King adaptation of vampires taking over a small town (eventually).

The miniseries that started the trend of moving King horror sagas to big budget, small screen weekenders rather than judiciously pruned movies. This has dated horribly. Criminally scareless, the acting is inconsistent (Winners – Bonnie Bodelia, Geoffrey Lewis, Julie Cobb. Losers – David Soul, James Mason.), as are the production values. The pacing though is what really fucks this over. The first half nothing happens except some small town love triangles, then… mainly off screen… we have a vampire holocaust, leaving the survivors idling outside an old, dark house waiting for the finale to gear up. They’d find their feet with these endeavours by the time IT was optioned but the waste of Hooper and Mason is pretty shocking.

3

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

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Roman Polanski directs Mia Farrow, Ruth Gordon and John Cassavetes in this tale of a housewife impregnated by the satanists next door.

I’ve just finished reading Ira Levin’s excellent novel and this adaptation is oh so slavishly loyal, right down to the soft furnishings. I’ve enjoyed Polanski’s version before but this viewing proved just far too close to the bone to be as pleasurable. Possibly could be 15 minutes shorter – faithful doesn’t mean you can’t truncate and trim a little, Roman. And to modern eyes it’s a plot whose twist is the hook of the film. You can’t tell someone what Rosemary’s Baby is about without giving away the ending. Otherwise it is merely a film about pregnant woman with a distant husband, overbearing neighbours and a creepy dream sequence. Noticeably lacking the Grand Guignol set pieces of superior Omens and Exorcists that followed in its wake. Rosemary’s Baby is obviously more than that… the journey is a dark, ominous yarn in itself but you have to know the destination to get all its rich and twisted value. And having spent two weeks studying the map before going on it, dampened the adventure for me this particular time.

7

The Elephant Man (1980)

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David Lynch directs John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Freddie Jones in this adaptation of the true tale of hideously deformed Joseph Merrick, who went from freak show attraction to the toast of Victorian London society. 

An unlikely but perfect marriage of source material and maverick director. Lynch more than understands how to tell a tale of beautiful souls and horrific, monochrome industrial cruelty. His controlled flourishes of surrealism dirty up the inherent mawkish nature of Merrick’s real life misfortunes. There’s no denying this a calculating tear jerker but one assembled with such alternative sensibilities it can appeal to even the most coldly, intellectual of viewers. Hurt’s iconic performance bleeds out from within thick layers of impressive make up and prosthetics, it is a genuine marvel of timidity and pleasure in discovery. You live the fear and concern for this gentle man at risk in a world containing only slithers of understanding and care. Freddie Jones also affects as the boo-hiss villain – a petulant owner of a man’s life horrified at how his survival is aligned to the freak he detests once he is bereft of him. A more uniquely universal story (well told) you’ll struggle to find.

10

I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger direct Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey and Pamela Brown in this tale of a determined young woman who finds herself on Hebridean interlude with a dashing local man while waiting to meet her fiancée. 

A heady and sumptuous brew of classy casting, gorgeous locations and witty, dialogue based, story mastery. Powell and Pressburger’s eye for replicating the harsh but attractive life, traditions, superstitions and myths of the local islanders adds an everlasting weave and heft of importance to what should be a slight and somewhat predictable romance. Livesey has never cut quite such an old-school, masculine romantic proposition again, while Hillier makes easy work in lightening a protagonist  who could come across as rude and reckless in less careful hands. There’s even time for a whirlpool adventure amongst all the unspoken flirting at ceilidhs and longing looks during ruin exploring. A sheer and undeniable pleasure. What more could you, ask for?

9

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

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Susanna White directs Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis and Stellan Skarsgård in this Le Carre tale of modern day defecting.

Actionless thriller with a surprising amount of titty, cock and profanity for something bloodlessly made to appeal to a more mature Sunday evening audience. A superb cast smash the locks of the source material as much as they can so as to burst into moments where they at least enjoy themselves and it is crafted gorgeously (all that sticks in the memory a week later is how perfectly beautiful every frame is.) The problem with Le Carre is his tales revel in the mundane bureaucracy of modern espionage and either you embrace that detailed, fetid, frustrating boredom like in the recent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or you ramp up the doomed romance sub plot as the excellent The Constant Gardener or classic The Spy Who Came in From the Cold did. Leaving both as an afterthought, as this solid adaptation sadly does, means you are left trying to glean entertainment from ciphers and stereotypes having fruity but businesslike conversations in the back of vans and in front of glass offices. Hardly anyone’s idea of a great night out. Load the guns and let’s at least end on a shootout, hey, chaps.

5

Film of the Week: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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Billy Wilder directs Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich Von Stroheim in this dark Hollywood drama about a failing screenwriter who becomes a kept playpet by a forgotten silent movie star losing her grip on reality.

This feels palpably revolutionary for its time and still bitter as a rotten black lemon even today. Wilder plunges us into the dark recesses of the homes and lives that surround the studios and orange groves of Hollywood both visually and with the characters’ warped hearts and detestable actions. No one gets away clean, the tragedy is bruising especially for Norma Desmond (Swanson excels and inadvertently gives birth to the Psycho-Biddy sub genre a decade early). Yet a keen sense of humour pervades the spiral out of control. Whether it be in the pretentious writerly narration of events from Holden or the whip smart potential happy ending personified in Nancy Olsen’s romantic alternate’s charming repartee (and personified well). Quite frankly something else, entertaining to the very core but artful in its recreation of failure and neediness. A gorgeous yet repellent Lynchian moment of rats in a drained pool feels cinematically like an echo from our future.

10