Sunday, March 27, 2016

Zodiac (2007)

Director: David Fincher                                Writer: James Vanderbilt
Film Score: David Shire                               Cinematography: Harris Savides
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Edwards

Zodiac is such a well-made film. It could really be the template for all historical, true-crime dramas. In many ways it has the same gravitas as Capote from two years earlier. But dealing with the early seventies, in terms of wardrobe and set design, this is much more impressive. It all makes sense, though, knowing that David Fincher is the director. Fincher has slowly accrued a body of work over the last twenty years that will no doubt earn him--if not a lifetime achievement Oscar--then the accolades that go along with such an honor. Hopefully it will be while he is still alive. The film is the story of the Zodiac killer who was responsible for a several murders in the late sixties and early seventies in and around the San Francisco area. The screenplay is based on the book by Robert Graysmith who was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. During the time of the murders the newspaper received many letters from the killer, and coded messages that fascinated Graysmith. He befriended reporter Paul Avery, who covered the story, and became obsessed with the case, so much so that he allowed his life to fall apart because he couldn’t let go of trying to figure out who the real killer was. Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Graysmith and does an excellent job conveying the unique personality of the obsessive artist who can’t rest until he finds the killer.

The film begins on July 4th, 1969 in Vallejo, California with Ciara Hughes and Lee Norris being shot by an unknown man at a secluded parking spot. Hughes is killed, but Norris survives. The scene then jumps ahead a month to Jake Gyllenhaal getting his young son ready for school in the morning. At work, the first letter from the Zodiac killer arrives and the editorial department, John Getz and reporter Robert Downey Jr. among them, has to decide what to do about it as the killer demands that his letter be published. When a couple in Salinas figure out the substitution cypher, Gyllenhaal connects the contents of the message with the film The Most Dangerous Game. Six months later another couple is attacked and killed in Napa, and when a cabbie is shot in San Francisco, police detectives Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards take over the investigation on all the connected cases claimed by the Zodiac killer. But the case soon becomes a nightmare when the two try to coordinate with the other jurisdictions in the area. Police sergeant Elias Koteas is happy to help, but others aren’t so eager. At the same time the obsessive Gyllenhaal and the laid back Downey form a sort of odd couple making their own parallel investigation--with no help from the SFPD. It’s not until a year and a half later that Ruffalo and Edwards find a suspect they like, John Carroll Lynch, and yet they still have a tough time convincing a judge to get a search warrant.

At this point a major time shift takes place, with a terrific CGI sequence in which the TransAmerica tower goes up in a time lapse of a bout thirty seconds. Lynch is eventually brought in, but the handwriting doesn’t match and they have to let him go. Another four years goes by and Edwards quits homicide, Downey is fired and moves to Sacramento, and Gyllenhaal is still obsessing over the case. What happens next is miraculous. Gyllenhaal goes to see Ruffalo, who is still frustrated by not being able to make any headway at all, and so he begins illegally feeing information to Gyllenhaal. But it works and that’s when things finally break open. There are so many things to like about this film. The muted tones and color manipulation of the images are spot on. While the obvious urge is to overdo the wardrobe, similar to something like Milk, by subduing the wild colors and exaggerated lines of the clothing of the day the emphasis here remains where it should be, on the actors and the story. Another brilliant aspect of the film is the use of popular music of the time by sound designer Ren Klyce. Where other films about the seventies seem to use the music of the decade indiscriminately--American Hustle comes to mind--there is a great sense of care at work here, selecting songs that not only are from that exact year but fit the mood of the scenes as well. And, of course, Fincher’s direction is tremendous. Despite the intensity of the drama unfolding, Fincher reins in the actor’s reaction to it, replicating the muted colors and sounds that accompany them.

All of the performances are first rate and, it must be said, Fincher knows how to get the best from even veteran actors. It was especially nice to see Anthony Edwards in a feature role at the end of his lengthy residence on the television show E.R. In addition to those mentioned above, character actor Philip Baker Hall plays a handwriting expert, Brian Cox plays defense lawyer Melvin Belli, and Chloë Sevigny does a convincing turn as Gyllenhaal’s new wife. And Fincher manages to elicit a delicious bit of suspense with Charles Fleischer. In fact, the first half of the film, while the killer is still active, is nowhere near as gripping as when Gyllenhall inches ever closer to the true identity of the killer in the second half. Fincher is a director who likes lots of takes, and some of the actors weren’t comfortable with that, but in the end the actor’s patience is rewarded when the performances on the screen match the care put into the rest of the production. Even before production Fincher, producer Brad Fischer and screenwriter James Vanderbilt actually conducted their own investigation into the case because Fincher was concerned that they were going to accuse someone of the crimes on film and wanted to be sure that the ending was credible. The film was ignored at Oscar time, probably because it wasn’t ready to release until after nominations had closed and couldn’t be considered until the end of the following year. Nevertheless, Zodiac is a captivating piece of cinema and yet another example of the excellence of David Fincher.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hours Till Daylight (2015)

Director: Jon Garcia                                      Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Skip Vonkuske                           Cinematography: Jon Garcia
Starring: Quinn Allan, Sarah Jannet Parish, Carlos Sepulveda and Vannessa Vasquez

After finishing post production on his intense, human drama The Falls, Portland director Jon Garcia took the star from his first film, Tandem Hearts, back to his home state of Texas to shoot a supernatural thriller. The result is The Hours Till Daylight, a film about a new kind of onscreen horror, a “familiar spirit”--probably a corruption of the phrase familial spirit--that haunts a particular family down through the generations. Quinn Allan, a veteran of independent Portland filmmaking, stars in the production, and along with a group of talented local actors Garcia has produced an effective horror film that manages to find new territory to mine in a seemingly depleted genre. Garcia’s screenplay is refreshing in that it eschews Hollywood tropes and clichés to focus on something unique, a spirit that is not unknown or mysterious, but one that is intimately familiar to the protagonist. Therefore the conflict in the film isn’t about what it is or where it’s coming from, but what to do about it. In this respect it reminds me of my favorite ghost story of all time, The Changeling, with George C. Scott. After the fear and shock of discovery wears off, Scott does everything in his power to assist the ghost in resolving the wrong that had been done to him. Likewise, after generations of fear and denial, Quinn Allen takes matters into his own hands to end his personal haunting once and for all, even at the cost of his own life.

The film begins with a beautifully composed shot of Quinn Allan and his pregnant wife, Sarah Jannet Parish, but the scene quickly cuts to Allan getting into his car and pounding the wheel in anguish. After driving off, Allan flashes back to his childhood, and his terror at knowing that evil spirits came out at night while he was powerless to stop them. Back in the present, his mother calls and chides him for leaving Parish at home alone, and tells him not to go back to his childhood house. But Allan has lived too much of his life in fear and is resolved to do something to end it. Other flashbacks show the young boy playing with his sister, Jonathan Carter Thomas and Auburn Taylor Thomas, who are excellent as the children. While his mother, Vannessa Vasquez, did what she could to allay the young boy’s fears, his father, Carlos Sepulveda, chose denial as his way of coping with the family secret. A particularly chilling moment comes when Sepulveda tells his son that there’s nothing to be afraid of, then adds that if he ignores it, it will ignore him. Ultimately, however, his denial doesn’t work. Arguments between Vasquez and Sepulveda appear to be about other things, but the children know the tension is really caused by the spirit in their lives. The children suffer real, physical abuse at the hands of the spirit, abuse that ends in tragedy.

In the current timeline there is a secondary flashback to just prior to the car trip. Sarah Jannet Parish suffers from Quinn Allan’s inability to sleep during the night. He keeps the lights on and Parish begins to lose patience with him. But when he finally relents and leaves her alone in the bedroom to sleep, the spirit attacks her. It’s a heart-pounding sequence and explains his desperate determination to do something about it. The audience eventually learns that Allan is on his way to seek help from Dan Braverman, a drug lord who also happens to be an old curandero, holed up in his nondescript, apartment-like bedroom. But as powerful as he is, there’s a feeling that the world has passed Braverman by, and that in helping Allan he is also reclaiming a part of his own forgotten past. The most impressive aspect of the film is the acting involved by all the principals. Quinn Allan has always been a solid actor but here he seems to be coming into his own, less interested in the camera than in fully inhabiting his character. Garcia’s lines are well written, to be sure, but it still takes an actor to transform them into something convincing. Allan has achieved that here, and his work in the climactic battle is his best on film so far. Vannessa Vasquez and Carlos Sepulveda also feel like inspired casting as the parents. The camera loves Vasquez’s face in the subjective pov shots, daring the audience not to want her as their own mother, while former Major League baseball player Carlos Sepulveda is the perfect model of the stern, macho male, whose love for his family is almost completely subsumed in his concern for their safety.

The supporting cast is equally well chosen. Jonathan and Auburn Thomas as the children are about as good as it gets. They don’t play cute with the camera but instead add yet another layer of believability to the story. And while Sarah Jannet Parish doesn’t get a lot of screen time, she works incredibly well with Allan in their one scene together. One of the benefits of independent filmmaking is that a director can allow his screenplay to unfold at his own pace. Garcia spends a lot of time in flashback, perhaps too much. At one point there is a lengthy section that might have been better served by cutting back to Allan in the car once or twice. But looked at another way, the multi-generational story can be seen not as a flashback at all, but a separate episode that is less about providing backstory than it is its own special horror involving the children. The flashback sequences also make use of the subjective point of view, and this can be problematic as well because of how artificial it feels for the viewer. There’s some obvious irony in that because the intent is that it’s supposed to put the viewer in the character’s place, but film grammar doesn’t work that way and never really has. Fortunately, Garcia mixes those subjective point of view shots with plenty of objective shots of the children, and is able to avoid having it become a distraction.

One of Garcia’s leaps forward from his previous films is in the use of music on the soundtrack. Instead of soundtracks heavily laden with pop tunes and pre-recorded music, there’s a much greater sense of a thoroughly composed soundtrack, highlighted by the brilliant work of cellist Skip VonKuske in bringing an entirely new musical pallet to the film. And it’s also clear the director understands the use of sound effects necessary to heighten tension in horror films. Assisting Garcia on the sound design is Hollywood veteran John Neff who has had a lengthy association with David Lynch and has done a masterful job of weaving all the sound elements together. But what really stands out in the film is the use of special effects. Rather than beating the viewer over the head with them, the effects in the beginning are subtle and allowed to increase in intensity as the film progresses. The visual effects in the climax seem particularly fresh, frightening without going overboard, and enhancing the strong verisimilitude of the entire production. The Hours Till Daylight is another powerful example of John Garcia’s seemingly unlimited creative energy, as well as a haunting supernatural thriller that is as satisfying as it is scary.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Music and Lyrics (2007)

Director: Marc Lawrence                                  Writer: Marc Lawrence
Film Score: Adam Schlesinger                         Cinematography: Xavier Grobet
Starring: Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Brad Garrett and Kristen Johnston

I don’t like Drew Barrymore and never really have, probably because of her continued association with Adam Sandler. Still, even actors I don’t like to watch usually make one film that I really like. For Barrymore, this is it. Music and Lyrics also features a long-in-the-tooth Hugh Grant, already forty-seven at the time the film was released trying to work out a relationship with the thirty-two year old Barrymore. His days as a lead in a romantic comedy should have been over, but director Marc Lawrence makes it work for him, just barely. All of the leads are good, and aided by a nice comedic bit part from Aasif Mandvi. What isn’t just good, however, but great, is the soundtrack. Not only are the eighties throwbacks spot on, but the modern songs ring true as well. The centerpiece of the film is the song “Way Back Into Love” which Grant and Barrymore write, and composer Adam Schlesinger does a terrific job with a simplistic melody and lyrics to create something that genuinely pulls in listeners of all ages. In fact, all of the composers should be commended, as the soundtrack album itself went to number sixty-three on the album charts. There are only two films which boast songwriting for a specific period that are as good, the first is The Idolmaker, which emulates the pre-Beatles early sixties to perfection. The other is Tom Hanks’ early-Beatles, mid-sixties era That Thing You Do. The soundtrack to this film deserves to stand among those as one of the great homages to a musical era ever put on film.

The film begins with an absolutely stunning recreation of an eighties video, complete with synthesized music and lame story line, just the way they did it in the mid-eighties. Hugh Grant plays the has-been keyboard player from the group Pop. His partner in the group has gone on to major success while Grant has been left behind. His manager, Brad Garrett, does his best to get him work but it’s slim pickings for forgotten eighties bands. It turns out, however, that one of the current teen singing idols, Haley Bennett, wants to meet with him and Garrett has a good feeling about it. Meanwhile, Drew Barrymore shows up as a ditz who is replacing Grant’s usually plant-waterer, but after she accidentally pricks her finger on a cactus she winds up leaving in a rush. That evening, when Bennett meets with Grant she wants to commission a song from him. At first he’s enthused to rework one of his old chestnuts, but she wants something new, something fresh, and that puts Grant into a panic. He wrote the music for Pop, but has no idea how to write lyrics. Garrett puts him in touch with lyricist Jason Antoon who has the grimmest outlook imaginable, and while Grant is trying to steer him toward something more suitable for the title Bennett has given him, “Way Back Into Love,” Barrymore throws something out unconsciously while she’s watering the plants that Grant loves. With the pressure on, he ditches Antoon and decides to get Barrymore to write his lyrics. And that’s where the romcom nightmare begins.

It turns out that Barrymore is a writer, but only when she’s in the mood. And that, it seems, is not an easy task. She’s been traumatized by a past relationship with a college English professor who has written a Lolita-esque book about his relationship with her. She also has a sister, Kristen Johnston, who runs a diet program business and has a massive crush on Grant. They only have a week to write the song and, to top things off, they wind up in bed together, which complicates the already complicated even further. While there are certain aspects of the film that are difficult to swallow--the whole Lolita relationship is the worst, and almost painful to watch--one fact is undeniable, and that is that Marc Lawrence’s screenplay saves the day. He had worked with Grant previously on Two Weeks Notice, as well as later on the middle-age romcom The Rewrite, and has a real handle on the dry and self-deprecating humor of the actor, so much so that the writing is almost solely worth watching the film for. The technical side of the film is also impressive. In addition to the wonderful soundtrack, the set design is tremendous. Not only the New York apartment scenes, but the concert and the L.A. studio sets are perfect. Lawrence and his cinematographer Xavier Grobet come up with interesting shot selection and lighting throughout. But at the end of the day it the inspirational nature of the story line that is undeniable. Music and Lyrics is one of those improbable films that shouldn’t really work, but succeeds beyond the audience’s wildest expectations. It’s that good.

Friday, March 4, 2016

El Dorado (1966)

Director: Howard Hawks                                  Writer: Leigh Brackett
Film Score: Nelson Riddle                               Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Charlene Hold and Ed Asner

Though El Dorado has an impressive pedigree, directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne, the story seems pretty shopworn, even back in 1966. Ed Asner comes to a small town after the Civil War and buys up all the property available. He builds a ranch and after a few years runs low on water. The problem is the guy who owns the land that controls the water, R.G. Reynolds, was there first and Asner wants it any way he can get it. The film begins with Asner hiring John Wayne as a gun hand, but when Wayne rides into town the sheriff, his old partner, Robert Mitchum, tells him what’s really going on and so Wayne tells Asner he’s not going to work for him. It sets up a typical battle between the amoral rancher and the law-abiding landowners. Of course things are never that simple. One wrinkle is that Wayne and Mitchum are in love with the same woman, Charlene Hold, and there is some obvious history between the two of them that will only gradually be revealed as the film goes on, and will probably threaten to break their united front against Asner. Unfortunately Wayne gets on the wrong side of Reynolds when he accidentally kills one of his boys, Johnny Crawford. His daughter, Michele Cary, tries to kill Wayne but only manages to lodge a bullet near his spine that the local doc, Paul Fix, won’t go near. And that’s just the first act.

Wayne decides to leave town, and the story picks up seven months later, with Wayne riding into another town and meeting James Caan as a knife thrower who kills one of the men from Christopher George’s gang. It turns out George has accepted the job from Asner in El Dorado that Wayne turned down. When he tells Wayne that Mitchum has hit the bottle to get over a woman, Wayne sets out to help him as well as repay his debt to Reynolds, with Caan tagging along. During the fifties, TV westerns attempted to emulate those on the big screen. But with the advent of color and several western television series, sixties features seem to look more like their small screen counterparts. The primary reason for this is that the majority of the film was shot on the studio lot. It’s not a major flaw, but it’s certainly noticeable. The other thing that is noticeable is the overwhelming sense of déjà vu that accompanies the film. Throughout the picture, but especially during the scenes in the town jail with Robert Mitchum, the story seems highly reminiscent of Rio Bravo, which Hawks had directed seven years earlier. The reason for this begins with the fact that when Leigh Brackett was given the original novel by Harry Brown, entitled The Stars in their Course, she felt it was the best screenplay she had ever written. Then she gave it to Hawks and he rejected it, forcing her to write what she called The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again. Hawks apparently had no problem with rehashing scenes and even entire plots that had worked well before, especially if he thought he could do it better.

For much of Hawks’ career he worked as an independent filmmaker, so in addition to complete control of the screenplay he also didn’t have anyone to answer to as long as he stayed under budget and the film runs a little long at just over two hours. It could have benefitted by being tightened up in the editing room. Other than that, however, El Dorado is definitely an improvement over the earlier film, especially in terms of the supporting actors for Wayne. Robert Mitchum and James Caan are monumentally better than Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. If anything suffers in terms of acting, it’s Wayne himself. John Wayne wasn’t at his top form for this picture, and it shows. He flubs lines, or forgets them halfway through. His gruffness is even more extreme than usual, and as a result his morality comes off as belligerent rather than honorable. Arthur Hunnicutt is along as the comedy relief, and it’s a relief that he doesn’t play it over the top as this kind of part is played in so many westerns. The film score by Nelson Riddle is good for the most part, that is until he allows a sixties ethos to sneak into the film during the ambush at the church. While it may lack some of the vitality of Rio Bravo and the story seems to lag at times, El Dorado is a solid sixties western and one of Howard Hawks’ more enjoyable westerns.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

True Story (2015)

Director: Rupert Goold                                    Writer: Rupert Goold & David Kajganich
Film Score: Marco Beltrame                            Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones and Robert John Burke

I have to say I’m not a fan of Jonah Hill and his stupid movies. By stupid I don’t mean the adjective but instead a specific type of film, one that is juvenile and anti-intellectual and has no redeeming value, even entertainment value. James Franco has made his share of those as well, so . . . not a lot of motivation going in. The sole point of entry for me into this film was Hill’s appearance in Moneyball with Brad Pitt. It was an impressive performance that earned him a supporting actor nomination at the Oscars that year. Then he made the inexplicable choice of appearing in The Wolf of Wall Street--the Martin Scorsese version of a stupid movie, but a stupid movie nonetheless--and was nominated yet again. Fortunately, this film is a serious drama like the former, and so I decided to give it a chance. True Story is . . . the true story of murderer Christian Longo and the disgraced New York Times writer, Michael Finkel, who told his story in the book of the same name. Jonah Hill, as well as the rest of the cast, is very good. Rupert Goold, in his directorial debut is equally good behind the camera as he is in writing the screenplay. The film received mixed reviews, but it seems more than likely this is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what the film was really attempting to do, which was to avoid the clichés and standard tropes typical in this type of story.

The film opens on a Teddy Bear falling into a suitcase in slow motion. Also in the suitcase, as it is being zipped up, is a motionless little girl. The next shot shows the suitcase submerged in water, followed by it being taken on a gurney to the morgue. Even the pathologist is horrified. From there the scene cuts to Jonah Hill in Africa conducting an interview as part of his job for the New York Times. Then things shift to Mexico, with James Franco in a church chatting up a beautiful German tourist. He tells her he’s a journalist for the New York Times--and gives her Jonah Hill’s name as his own--then takes her to his hotel room where the police arrive a short time later. Hill is obviously the real journalist. He is seen at the Times, his editor Gretchen Mol pressuring him to meet a deadline, but when his piece is published it comes out that he made up some of the things that he wrote about and he is fired. At the same time, when the camera cuts back to Franco he is now in prison, while Hill goes home to Montana to lick his wounds. Hill’s wife, Felicity Jones, works for the university, and after she leaves for work Hill tries calling editors but learns that he’s been blackballed because of his unethical behavior. Then a call from an Oregon reporter tells him of Franco’s arrest, how he killed his entire family in Oregon--his wife and three small children--as well as Franco’s use of Hill’s name. So Hill hops the next plane to the Oregon coast.

After meeting the reporter, Hill writes to Franco in prison, asking to meet with him, and he agrees. It turns out Franco has read all of Hill’s work, including the last story, and while he’s been inundated with requests from news organizations, he wants Hill to write about him. Hill later receives a sheaf of papers on which Franco has written his life story and Hill begins to wonder if he is actually innocent of the crime. Then they begin working together on what Hill believes will be a book. The bulk of the film is made up of their discussions together, Hill attempting to get the truth out of Franco, while Franco wants to be taught how to write more creatively. It’s certainly a fascinating story, but all sorts of associations come up, from the jailhouse interviews in Capote or Dead Man Walking, to the kind of cat-and-mouse deception evident in The Mean Season or Primal Fear. Franco makes an incredibly sympathetic murderer, which is exactly how he wants to portray himself to Hill. And Hill, of course, is the perfect person to believe him, a journalist who has been caught in a lie already and is desperate to make good with the kind of story--a book no less--that will get him right back into the limelight. It’s an edge of suspense that is exceedingly sublime. Nothing overt, just a sneaking suspicion that clouds the whole relationship between the two for the audience.

Director Rupert Goold has a unique style that is quite interesting. He likes lots of close-ups, but very close, almost the way an independent filmmaker would frame his shots, and uses a lens that distorts the images slightly giving them a subtle fisheye look. The scenes with Franco alone in his cell are punctuated with flashbacks of him with his family, idealized scenes that are atmospheric but give nothing away. The set design is also interesting. Both the newspaper in New York as well as the jail and courtroom in Oregon are a stark white, with the images manipulated to heighten the brightness even further. Hill’s home in Montana, meanwhile, is full of warm earth tones, wood polished to a burnished orange, dark floors and furniture. Despite these manipulations, there’s an overwhelming sense of reality that the picture is imbued with, especially in Goold’s screenplay. The same goes for Robert John Burke who plays a local police officer who wants Hill to cooperate with them before the trial begins. Felicity Jones also does a very nice job of being concerned for Hill’s complete belief in Franco while still refusing to indulge in clichéd negative behaviors with him. In fact, the film is full of subtlety, and that’s what makes it great. It’s not reactionary, but Goold flatly refuses to give in to standard plot and character devices, and in doing so he has made a tremendous work of art that deserves to be understood rather than dismissed. True Story comes highly recommended.