Tuesday, July 31, 2007

'Zodiac' is an engrossing, intelligent thriller

“Director David Fincher made one of the darkest, most gruesome serial killer movies with “Seven.” With “Zodiac” he returns to the genre that put him on the map, but the second time around his approach is a bit different.

Fincher is one of the most stylish filmmakers working today. In “The Game” and “Fight Club” he concocted black humored mind-twisting thrillers where very little was what it seemed. For “Panic Room” he brought visual flair to a straight forward cat-and-mouse game. Some critics complained his style was showy simply for the sake of showing off.

For those expecting the flash of Fincher’s previous films, the feel of “Zodiac” may be disappointing, but Fincher makes the right choices. The film adopts the tone of gritty seventies films like “All the President’s Men” and “Serpico” and plays as well as the best films from the era. Fincher has created a film that is engrossing for the entirety of its nearly three-hour running time.

“Zodiac” tells the true story of the investigation of the unsolved case of the Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. The killer toyed with the press and police by sending encoded messages to newspapers asking them to be published or he’d kill again.

The film opens with the Zodiac’s first murder. Set to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” the kill is shocking in its abruptness. Fincher only showcases a few encounters with the Zodiac killer. There is no gore or blood in the film. Unlike the “Saw” and “Hostel” franchises,” Fincher doesn’t rely on shock to scare, but builds a sense of menace and danger. This holds most true for a murder that occurs in broad daylight at a lake. Most thrillers play off our fears of danger lurking in the dark, but by flipping that convention, Fincher crafts a sequence that dries the mouth and gets the stomach butterflies fluttering.

In the wake of “Silence of the Lambs” most serial killer films have focused on getting into the head of the killer and psychoanalyzing their motives. The fictional killers of film have elaborate methods to their murders, but more often than not it all stems from being unloved as a child.

What makes “Zodiac” stand out in the crowd of generic serial killer movies is that it’s less about the killer and more about the obsession that grips his pursuers, which include San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).

The film’s pacing while at times slow keeps things moving with a growing sense of anxiety as the film’s lead characters, especially Gyllenhaal become fixated on discovering the identity of the Zodiac killer.

The cast from the leads to the film’s smaller characters is astonishingly good especially Downey’s Avery, a scene stealer that tosses out cynical, caustic one-liners. He reluctantly takes Gyllenhaal’s Goldsmith under his wing before succumbing to drugs and alcohol.

We all know about Downey’s sordid drug laced past and that knowledge gives an extra weight to the performance. Following “A Scanner Darkly,” this is Downey’s second recent film playing a drug addict. Downey is clearly working through his demons. Where “Darkly” was a tongue-in-cheek comic turn, in “Zodiac” he taps into his own life to add to depth to the usual drugged out cliché.

The film really has two halves. The first focuses on the Downey and Gyllenhaal alliance to discover the Zodiac’s identity. The second half has Gyllenhaal form a new semi-partnership with Toschi. Ruffalo, a talented actor who has been stuck in fluff such as “13 Going on 30” and “Just Like Heaven” is excellent as the weary cop who inspired Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt.” The worn out cop is a tired archetype, but Ruffalo rises above it, but playing it with sincerity and understatement.

Brian Cox (“The Bourne Supremacy”) as a celebrity psychiatrist, Anthony Edwards (“E.R.”) as Toschi’s partner and John Carroll Lynch (“The Drew Carey Show”) as one of lead suspects all provide solid support. But Gyllenhaal is the film’s lead and it is up to him to carry the film.

Gyllenhaal portrayal of Goldsmith as he slowly and completely gives his life over to his pursuit of the Zodiac killer is nuanced and effective. His fixation grows from mere curiosity into a need to know the truth. Everything including his wife (the underused Chloë Sevigny) and kids falls to the wayside.

In a way obsession is the film’s ultimate villain and the film’s driving force. Many have fallen to the obsession of the Zodiac, reportedly, even Fincher whose own digging for information yielded new clues. Fincher captures how unhealthy fascination can consume someone and that’s what makes “Zodiac” more than just another serial killer movie.

The Wright/Pegg/Frost team is still 'hot'

““Hot Fuzz” is a very funny film. It is also unfortunately another example of a film falling victim to poor marketing. Commercials for the DVD focus on the frenzied humor of the film’s final 30 minutes, implying that the entire film features the same fast paced, in your face humor. It doesn’t. The slow build and dead pan humor of the majority of the film may turn off viewers hoping for the nonstop irreverence of the trailer.

“Hot Fuzz” is writer/director Edgar Wright, co-writer/star Simon Pegg and co-lead Nick Frost’s follow up to the zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead.” As a creative team they are hard to beat when it comes to comedy that is a balanced mixture of smart and stupid with subtle and outrageous.

Their latest film takes on the action buddy comedy. In many ways it is bigger and harder target to lampoon than the zombie genre. There’s a danger in satirizing films that are already funny as has been proven in the latest crop of parody films such as “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie.” If the new film isn’t funnier than the original subject matter it renders itself useless.

Wright and Pegg don’t follow the current parody trend of directly lifting and altering scenes from recent films. Instead, much like Mel Brooks best films, “Hot Fuzz” features an original story that reduces all the worst aspects of the action comedy genre to a punch line.

The film’s set-up is inspired. Hot shot London cop Nicholas Angel (Pegg) is transferred to small town England, not because he’s reckless, but rather he does his job too well and he is making his colleagues (played by top Brit comedic actors Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy) look bad.

Angel is saddled with the town drunk Danny (Frost) as his partner in a town with seemingly no crime. Of course that isn’t the case and soon it becomes clear that a series of “accidents” are really a murder conspiracy. Naturally – as genre convention dictates – no one believes Angel even when it is absolutely ludicrous not to. The film mines some of its best humor from Angel’s fellow officers’ – including the wonderfully aloof Jim Broadbent – complete inability to listen to reason.

The middle section of the film actually plays more like a comedic homage to mystery thrillers a long the lines of “The Omen” and “The Wicker Man.” The film even features Edward Woodward the star of the original “Wicker Man.”

Of the film’s supporting cast ex-Bond Timothy Dalton is the easy stand out. It is a wonderfully goofy performance and it is clear Dalton is having fun and letting loose. Wright and Pegg give Dalton some of the best dialogue – cryptic exchanges that everyone except Angel ignores – that Dalton delivers with smirky glee.

As was true with “Shaun,” Pegg and Frost have great chemistry together. Pegg as the by the book cop gives a nearly flawless comedic performance and Frost’s loyal lap dog is the perfect balance. The way their dynamic gently mocks the male bonding of the action genre is one of the film’s best running gags.

Danny’s knowledge of being a cop comes from the very films “Hot Fuzz” is ultimately taking the piss out of. Angel insists the life of a cop is nothing like it is portrayed in movies. That is until the film becomes exactly like one of those films in a blaze of uproarious glory.

Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as “Bad Boys 2” are the films main target in the climatic conclusion and Wright gets all the over-the-top action right with Angel and Danny having to take on the whole town.

“Hot Fuzz” is long and takes it time, but in a way that is a part of the satire as Bruckheimer productions are notoriously bloated. The drawn out pacing of the film may not work for everyone, but makes the spectacular finale all the sweeter.

LeBeouf shines in 'Disturbia'

““Disturbia” is a derivative, but surprisingly effective thriller that is carried by the charm of Shia LeBeouf. He is perhaps the least likely rising star currently working in Hollywood and the best because of it.

LeBeouf has the same sort of off-beat charisma of young John Cusack and Tom Hanks. When “Disturbia” devolves into a genre pic, LeBeouf’s light comedic touch and low key persona makes the film seem smarter and stronger than it truly is. Much like his leading role in the summer blockbuster “Transformers,” he makes this material work better than it should. With these two films LeBeouf proves he is a star.

In “Disturbia,” LeBeouf’s Kale is an emotionally distraught teen, who gets into a long list of trouble following the death of his father. Kale finds himself under house arrest after he punches out an antagonizing teacher. When his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss, “The Matrix”) cuts him off from his video games and internet, Kale’s eyes begin to wander to the suburban windows that surround him. Soon he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors (David Morse, “16 Blocks”) is a murder.

“Disturbia” is essentially a teen version of “Rear Window,” but the film is better than that description. Despite the teen cast this rises above the dreaded teen movie branding and plays as a straight thriller. There are teen hijinx early on to help establish Kale as a likable protagonist before things turn dark, but the film is less pandering the average teen film.

The film is almost able to justify its update of the Hitchcock classic because of the advancement of technology. Where Jimmy Stewart only had a telephoto lens, Kale cleverly utilizes digital video cameras, cell phone cameras and his computer during his community watch.

Like “Rear Window,” the film is about voyeurism and its dangers. Before Kale’s binoculars start peering into the bloody garage of Morse’s Mr. Turner the object of Kale’s gaze is his sexy new neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer, “The Grudge 2”). When Kale is caught as a peeping Tom, Ashley doesn’t call the cops, but joins in on the spying.

There’s an interesting dynamic that could’ve been explored here: what happens when a voyeur’s subject crosses to the other side? But screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (“Red Eye”) misses the opportunity to explore this and the chance to create a strong female character in the process.

Instead he reduces Ashley – flatly played by Roemer – to nothing more than a male fantasy come true. She is a cookie cutter love interest there to make out with the hero and need rescuing. It is insulting to the viewer and the film’s only true false step, aside from a few stretches of credibility when the film kicks into full thriller mode.

Luckily Morse’s performance more than compensates for things. He is menacing without being over-the-top. Morse is soft spoken, even congenial and does a nice job throwing at least some ambiguity into whether he truly is a murderer. When he realizes he is being watched it is fun to watch Morse toy with LeBeouf, especially in scenes where he flirts with Kale’s mom.

The film’s final act turns to horror movie cliché and is a bit preposterous, but is so well executed that the ridiculousness doesn’t occur until the credits roll. Director D.J. Caruso (“Taking Lives”), who does a good job keeping things on edge throughout, lets the tension snap in the final third and earns some good jumps.

The best scenes of the last stretch involve Kale’s comedic sidekick Ronnie (the funny Aaron Yoo) sneaking into Turner’s garage. The sequence is seen through Ronnie’s shaky, grainy digital camera and earns some “Blair Witch”-esque scares.

“Disturbia” is certainly flawed, but in the end it entertains. If you are willing to suspend disbelief and go with the flow a good time can be had.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Grint trades wizard lessons for 'Driving Lessons'

“The stars of the “Harry Potter” franchise will be set for life once the series completes its seven film arc. They will never have to work again, but if they choose to they will first need to get out from underneath the large shadow cast by the very films that made them famous.

The actors playing Harry, Ron and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) will likely have difficulty avoiding type casting and forever being associated with their Hogwarts counterparts following the series’ conclusion. Radcliffe chose nudity on London’s West End in the play “Equus” to create distance from his screen wizardry. Grint has chosen something a bit tamer: the small coming of age film “Driving Lessons.”

Grint stars as Ben, a shy, repressed 17-year old stuck between a passive priest father (Nicholas Farrell) and a domineering, overzealous evangelical Christian mother (Laura Linney, “Breach”). Ben’s father has an open-minded, open-hearted view of faith and warns in a sermon that “the more someone parades their Christianity for the benefit of others the less I am inclined to trust the Christianity they claim.”

The comment is a subtle jab at his wife who uses her faith to manipulate others and justify her actions, even when those actions are pure hypocrisy. Linney, forcing a Brit accent, plays this well, with an ever joyous grin trying to mask and control other emotions.

Ben’s life has been so dominated by his mother’s will that he is almost afraid to develop an emotion beyond straight-faced apathy. He channels all his feeling and thoughts into brooding, visually rich poetry. When he tries to woo a girl with one of his poems he is shot down with a direct, “you’re just too weird.”

The film’s central plot and character thrust centers on Ben taking a job helping Evie (Julie Walters), a has-been actress with a slight drinking problem and a desire to go camping.

Walters, essentially playing a variation of her character from “Billy Elliot,” seems cursed to play foul mouthed over-the-top eccentrics. She does the role justice though chewing the scenery and giving speeches as if she were playing to the back of the theater. But she also downplays the flamboyant tendencies of a stage actress to show vulnerability and insecurity.

Ben becomes her only friend and the only person she can trust when a camping trip leads to a misadventure in Scotland where Evie is suppose to do a poetry reading. The trip marks Ben’s first deviance of his mother and the first time he allows himself to loosen up especially when a Scottish girl takes him dancing.

It could be easy to dismiss Grint’s performance as flat and lifeless, but Ben is someone who is learning to break out of his shell and trust himself. Ben never completely bursts out from his repressed nature, but Grint shines in the small moments of Ben letting go. Grint doesn’t show extraordinary range, but proves he can be more than a comedic sidekick.

There is a definite off-beat chemistry between Grint and Walters and he makes a good straight man to her antics. The screen dynamic that develops is that of friendship, but some will feel the need to compare the film to “Harold and Maude.”

All of this is well worn material and “Driving Lessons” doesn’t attempt to break new ground, but as far as light Brit comedy/drama goes it is a pleasant experience and for “Potter” fans it is the opportunity to see their beloved Ron in a different light.

Soderbergh's admirable disappointment

“Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s production company Section Eight (which is closing down this year as Clooney starts his own company, Smoke House) put out films that went against the Hollywood grain with subject matter or style that was often challenging or unique.

The most mainstream fare the company produced was the “Ocean’s” movies, which were more or less done on a whim to support the more experimental projects Soderbergh and Clooney wanted to take on.

Soderbergh is a filmmaker who balances Hollywood productions (“Traffic, “Erin Brockovich”) with smaller, risky projects that may have little appeal. “The Good German” falls into the latter category. It is a film authentically shot in the style of 1940s film noir using only cameras, sound and lighting equipment from that time period.

“The Good German” gets the look of the era down perfectly. Lighting, shot composition, editing and the beautiful black and white cinematography all come together to recreate a bygone time. In terms of sheer filmmaking gusto it is quite an achievement. It looks like it was made then not now.

It is wonderful to see the actors, Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire, in this style of filmmaking. Blanchett and Clooney have a classic movie star quality that is captured here. Everyone plays the stylized acting of the time well, especially Blanchett who fits so well into this world she seems almost more suited for that time period than our own.

Maguire has a lot of fun getting in touch with his dark side playing a character who is scheming and cold. It is a small, but memorable role that is a nice counterpoint to his current big screen escapades in “Spider-Man 3.”

The film’s problem is by directly recreating a portion of film history, the movie collapses under the weight of that history. So much time was put into reconstructing a look and feel that the film doesn’t have much personality of its own.

The plot, which takes place in the chaotic weeks after Germany surrendered in World War II, centers on a war journalist (Clooney) trying to solve a murder that no one wants solved. He is also trying to rekindle a romance with a former lover (Blanchett), who is desperately trying to get out of Berlin.

The comparisons to “Casablanca” are unavoidable – Soderbergh even visually lifts the end nearly verbatim – and it only makes “The Good German’s” story and dialogue problems more glaring.

“Casablanca” was a film that was impeccably scripted, with colorful characters and snappy dialogue. “The Good German’s” dialogue on the other hand feels pieced together from 1940s espionage and noir films and lacks zest.

The screenplay by Paul Attanasio adds the profanity that the production code in place during the 1940s prohibited, but it doesn’t anything to the proceedings. Not being able to do or say certain things on screen forced writers and directors to develop creative ways to get what they wanted across. It is often why the dialogue of that era is so rich.

For fans of film history, “The Good German” is equal parts admirable and disappointing. The look, the feel, the acting is all there and it is watchable, but if all those element had been in the employ of sharper writing the film could’ve been great in its own right instead of being a reconfiguration of other great films of the past.

Kazan's 'Face in the Crowd' still relevant

“A Face in the Crowd,” a dark satire on media and politics, becomes timelier with each passing year. As we watch candidates begin their race for the presidency well before the gun has even been fired, its relevancy becomes all the more apparent.

The film stars Andy Griffith in his feature film role, but this isn’t Griffith we came to love as the good hearted sheriff of Mayberry in “The Andy Griffith Show” and later as the good hearted lawyer “Matlock.” In “A Face in the Crowd” Griffith was given the opportunity to show his darker side.

As the film opens Griffith seems to be in familiar territory as a sweet, but naïve country bumpkin, whose singing and charisma catch the attentions of a TV producer (Patricia Neal). Griffith become the star of a popular TV show and with the popularity comes power. Naturally his new found power corrupts. Soon Griffith’s clout in the world of television makes him a valuable asset to political candidates who see him as a way to the average man’s vote.

The corrupting influence of power is hardly a new concept, but Kazan (“On the Waterfront”) crafted an eerily prophetic film about the ever-blurring worlds of entertainment and politics. Made in the early years of television, the film saw that this new medium was, for better or quite possibly worse, the future.

“A Face in the Crowd” also features an early performance from Walter Matthau as one TV producers to make Griffith a star only to watch in horror at the monster he becomes. Matthau’s sardonic delivery is showcased well here and steals several scenes, but this is Griffth’s film.

Griffith, in a brilliant performance that he never matched, becomes a cold, calculating megalomaniac using his charm to manipulate all around him. Watching him switch from a man of the people when the camera is rolling to oozing contempt for his audience once the camera is off is chilling, perhaps all the more so since Griffith is forever associated with his nice guy personas.

In perhaps the film’s most powerful scene Griffith is shown couching politicians on how to play to the camera and win audiences. For modern viewers who know what television has done to the election process it is an unsettling scene that reveals a film that truly was ahead of its time. Still fresh and important today, “A Face Crowd” is an unseen classic, that isn’t easy to find, but worth seeking out.

Take a memo: 'Messengers' is all style, little substance

“The Messengers” is the latest film to attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Asian horror and while it isn’t a complete failure it lacks any personality of its own.

After the success of 2002’s “The Ring,” a remake of Japan’s “Ringu,” the floodgates were opened for more of the same. Remakes of other Asian horror films such as “The Grudge” and “Dark Water” followed.

In some cases the original directors were brought on board to direct these remakes. Are Americans so afraid of subtitles that we are reduced to hiring foreign directors to redo their own work in English?

“The Messengers” is the English language debut for Hong Kong directors the Pang Brothers. Their film “The Eye” is being remade – not by them – starring Jessica Alba. “The Messengers” is not a remake, but it matters well be because it doesn’t have a single original idea.

Initially entitled “Scarecrow,” the film focuses on a family leaving behind a troubled past in Chicago to become sunflower farmers at an isolated farmhouse in North Dakota. Nothing says family bonding like moving to the middle of nowhere, the Torrance family of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” learned that all too well. Yes, someone will go mad and chase the family around with an ax in “The Messengers.”

Early forms of screenwriter Mark Wheaton’s script were about a scarecrow that came to life because of dark forces from the house’s sordid past. The Pang Brothers thought it would be better to have various spirits throughout the house instead. At the end of the day, the film is just another haunted house film.

Wheaton took the Pangs’ various suggestions and the resulting script is a hodge-podge of Asian horror motifs. All the familiar elements are in place: vengeful spirits, pasty ghosts, icky dark water and a child connected to the spirit world. It is all cobbled together in a way that says nothing new or fresh.

Just for good measure, the film throws in a pesky group of ominous crows that hang around the farm and occasionally attack people. The obvious lift is Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” and the filmmakers admit as much. Even so lingering birds will also remain creepy and the film yields some of its best material from these spooky black birds.

Lack of originality doesn’t necessitate that the film is bereft of scares. The Pangs know how to compose atmospheric shots with eerie lighting and awkward angles. The movie is big on cheap scares that make you jump, but builds little prolonged tension. It is a movie best watched in the dark with a good sound system.

The film’s lead is rising teen-star Kristen Stewart in her first lead role. She showed talent playing Jodie Foster’s daughter in 2002’s “Panic Room” and has become an attractive young woman, but she isn’t given much to do in “The Messengers.”

Stewart spends the first part of the film looking sullen about her family’s move and then the rest of the film pouting because no one believes she sees and is being attacked by ghosts. She acts scared well enough and has a definite screen presence, but this is not the film to showcase her acting chops.

Dylan McDermott (“The Practice”) and Penelope Ann Miller as Stewart’s parents are sufficient, with McDermott leaving the stronger impression. McDermott and Stewart share a couple father/daughter scenes that hold weight, but they are out shined by similar thematic scenes that Stewart has with John Corbett (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) as a drifter that is hired as farm hand.

“The Messengers” isn’t a bad film, it is just a standard one. If you want quick, disposable scares you can do much worse, but if you want goosebumps that stick you will have to look elsewhere.

An uninspired 'ride' through comic book cliche

“Over the last decade “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and “Batman Begins” raised the bar of what could be done in a comic book movie. These films placed as much importance on character and story as lavish special effect set pieces. The same can not be said of “Ghost Rider.”

With most of the bigger comic book titles already gracing the screen, studios are desperate for any book with brightly colored panels and people talking in bubbles. But for every “V for Vendetta” or “Sin City” there are numerous duds like “Ghost Rider.”

There is little to distinguish “Ghost Rider” from the flood of comic book adaptation on the market. Its story is predictable and dull. The love interest, in the form of curvy Eva Mendes, is stuck in a romantic subplot that is poorly inked in from other, more interesting movies. To top it off the effects are cheap looking and not even on par with standards from a decade ago.

Nicolas Cage stars as Johnny Blaze, a stunt bike rider who sells his soul to the devil (Peter Fonda) to heal his father’s cancer. Of course this being the devil, there is a dirty trick to the deal. With his soul signed over to the devil Johnny will become the Ghost Rider whenever the devil calls upon him. With the help of a mysterious caretaker (Sam Elliot in cowboy autopilot), Johnny rebels and goes hero instead of minion.

Fonda’s casting is a knowing nod to “Easy Rider,” Fonda’s best known film and probably the best biker movie ever made. The idea of Fonda as the film’s main villain is enticing and Fonda reads his dialogue with flare, but his screen time is limited.

"Ghost Rider" instead must do battle with Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the devil’s son, who has gathered some of hell’s demons to takeover for his old man and bring hell to earth. Bentley, who showed such promise in “American Beauty,” is a completely unthreatening villain and boring to watch.

The only thing that holds the thing together is Cage, in one of his more charismatic performances as far as this sort of fare goes. Cage is a hit or miss performer, a talented actor who has a tendency to appear in films beneath his abilities. As Johnny Blaze he brings some flavor to the film. His dialogue delivery walks the fine line of winking and sincerity and he does a nice job fleshing out the underdeveloped tortured soul aspect of Johnny.

The problem is once Johnny turns into Ghost Rider, Cage is replaced with a flaming skeleton special effect that is cool looking for about a minute and then sort of ho-hum the rest of the time. Cage’s voice is replaced with a garbled, demon voice that is at time incomprehensible.

The action scenes are not particularly exciting. Ghost Rider riding about on his flaming bike is fun, but the ghouls he must battle are pathetic looking. It is clear most of the money went to creating the visuals for the Ghost Rider character. The villains look like they were thrown in as an after thought and are poorly conceived CGI creations.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson adds some nice touches such as Johnny’s routine of listening to the Carpenters before one of his deadly jumps and his habit of drinking martini glasses full of jelly beans. These little details add a fleeting sense of character to the film, but they quickly become swallowed up in the routine of the story. Johnson is already promising another ride for “Ghost Rider.” Perhaps it is Johnson that made a pact with the devil.