Category: Film

Zodiac


Zodiac (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A deliberate sidestepping of overt action is the strategy director David Fincher employs in “Zodiac,” a true crime thriller surrounding the hunt for the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from 1969 to 1971. Highly intelligent, meticulous, and efficient, at times the picture embodies the texture of a documentary in the way it dares to break away from the expected plot and dramatic parabola. What matters is information, how it is presented, and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from them. What results is a film for a select audience: those who are tickled by the act of looking through a microscope and noting the beautiful, horrifying, surprising details of a specimen. It is not for viewers who wish to be entertained by ostentatious shootouts and car crashes where the bad guy drops dead in the final act. In fact, the climax consists simply of two people looking at each other in the eye, denoting common understanding.

Observe its use of violence. It is rapid, matter-of-fact, making a point to show how excruciating it is to get stabbed and shot. Notice how slow motion is used. Attention is not at the point of contact between weapon and flesh—as horror films tend to do—but on facial expressions of the victims. There is no score playing in the background when a person is being assaulted or murdered which makes the whimpering, the crying, the begging for help all the more deafening. Take note, too, how the victims’ desperation can be felt even after killing ends. The violence is meant to be ugly, traumatizing, and sad. Our sympathy is always with the injured or dying person, never the killer. These are designed precisely so that we wish for the Zodiac to get caught—even though we already know he never was.

The picture is an excellent procedural that brings to mind Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” We follow three men who dare to stare into the eyes of evil: San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and SF police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). We experience their day-to-day interactions with colleagues; following—sometimes overstepping—rules and regulations; wrestling with bureaucracy. There is excitement in the rhythm of their workspaces. Downey Jr., Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo deliver terrific, naturalistic performances. They have a habit of inviting us to question what it is they are thinking at any given moment.

Evil stares right back at these figures, however, and we watch their lives unravel throughout the course of twenty-two years: erosion of one’s physical and mental health, deteriorating relationships with family, coming to terms with one’s limitations as an investigator. There is a sense of surrender during the last third in particular. So many years have passed, people who were most enthusiastic to catch the killer then now just want to move on. Even the person who chooses to carry on the torch is forced to wonder at times whether his actions are still worth it. These are characters worth following not only because they are good at their jobs, getting to the truth is who they are.

Despite numerous details surrounding each murder (especially intriguing are scenes that allow us to walk a crime scene), handwritten letters that the Zodiac sent to newspapers, a dozen witness accounts, and endless paper trails, the labyrinthine mystery is told with urgency and clarity. For example, the screenplay by James Vanderbilt does not simply tell us that a partial set of fingerprints from an otherwise extremely cautious murderer is important. It shows how it is important and why. When a piece of evidence is presented, the astute and patience writing makes a point of relating the information to the bigger picture and so we always have an appreciation of the investigation. Does a seemingly reliable evidence make sense? How so? The film wishes to engage rather than spoon-feed us.

The picture is not without a sense of humor. In between gruesome deaths and barrage of possible case-breaking information are moments of exhalation: a date gone wrong (or gone right—depending on how one looks at it), police stations not having fax machines yet and so urgent files must be sent via snail mail, a character’s obsession with animal crackers, among many others. These did not need to be in the movie—and yet they are. Fincher wishes for us to be so invested into this world that he is able to find humor amidst terrifying events. Nearly every single change in tone is pulled off beautifully.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the Esquire article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod, the biographical drama “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” manages to stand out a bit from its contemporaries because it is able to capture the essence of Fred Rogers (known to many Americans as Mr. Rogers)—even though the work itself is not about him. It employs slow but purposeful pacing to fascinate, silence to give us room to consider, and irregular beats to draw us deeply into the conflict surrounding a man who cannot find it within himself to forgive his father.

Matthew Rhys plays investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel with a convincing weariness. One looks at his face even for just a few seconds and seething anger can be felt. But the anger is not menacing; rather it is the kind that eats up its host little by little, decade after decade. This anger reaches a boiling point when Lloyd’s father (Chris Cooper) is suddenly thrown back into his life. Rhys delivers a solid performance that stands strong alongside Tom Hanks’ interpretation of the legendary Mr. Rogers. When the two are engaged in a reflective exchange, for instance, they manage to hit every subtle emotion seemingly without effort. When the camera is up close and personal and emotions are exorcised, it feels like a dance.

I think it is a challenge to pull off this type of script. A jaded person crossing paths with a saintly figure and the former learning to have a more positive outlook on life by the end of the story is nothing particularly new. However, there are enough fresh ideas here to blindside the viewers from identifying the more familiar turns of the plot—like taking Mr. Rogers’ empathetic/humanistic approach of dealing with “the mad” one feels, which is targeted toward children, and applying this idea to adults. Had it been helmed by heavier hands, it could have been reduced to yet another Lifetime drama where everyone cries during the climax and all is happy by the end credits. Marielle Heller’s direction is careful and nuanced, so the journey comes across genuine.

Having seen Morgan Neville’s terrific documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, I admit I was put off by Hanks’ performance initially. The film opens with Mr. Rogers entering his home, making eye contact with the viewers, taking off the blazer, putting on the famous red cardigan… while singing the theme song. Although I did not grow up with Mr. Rogers or his television program, I felt as though Hanks is more on the side of imitation rather than simply inhabiting.

Having said that, I grew to enjoy his version of Mr. Rogers about a third of the way through—when the character is no longer shooting another episode in front of the camera. Curiously, he remains to be a saint-like figure. It is acknowledged Mr. Rogers is not perfect and does feel anger from time to time, but this is shown only once. The fact that he had challenging relationships with his sons is mentioned, but it is disappointing that it is not delved into. It would have been appropriate because the central conflict revolves around father and son. The thought of the picture being afraid of putting a stain on Rogers’ memory and legacy crossed my mind.

Despite this key shortcoming, I was emotionally engaged by the film. I wondered not necessarily whether Lloyd would choose to forgive his father but rather if he could forgive himself in allowing so many years to pass for harboring so much anger and hatred. Make no mistake that this is Lloyd’s story, not Mr. Roger’s. It does, however, make an appropriate and worthy companion piece with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in that both provide layers worth examining closely.

The Yellow Sea


The Yellow Sea (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Yellow Sea,” written and directed by Hong-jin Na, is a highly entertaining, sometimes confusing but always interesting, action-thriller from South Korea. It engages the audience by presenting a seemingly straightforward situation and slowly the tentacles of deceit creep out of their hiding places as the protagonist gets deeper into his mission. In addition, the picture offers a sharp eye when it comes to its action scenes, proficiently balancing white-knuckle suspense and well-placed humor.

Gu-nam (Jung-woo Ha), working as a cab driver in China, grows increasingly worried and jealous that his wife, who traveled to South Korea for work, has been cheating on him with no intention of ever coming back—even to provide financial assistance to their child. The pressure to get in contact with her increases with each day because debt collectors need the money that Gu-nam and his wife owe for the visa. It appears most opportune when a leader of the Chinese mafia, Myun (Yun-seok Kim), approaches Gu-nam with an alternative: to go to South Korea and kill a man. Doing so would pay his debt in full. Gu-nam feels he is left with no other choice.

Despite a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, there is never a dull moment because the writer-director has complete control of the material’s tone and tonal changes. Notice that the first third is quite slow, more concerned with showing a man’s difficult situation rather than complicated stunts, and we get a chance to understand how the protagonist’s thinks and recognize his strengths and weaknesses. The rest of the picture offers an opposite approach: fast-paced, adrenaline-driven, noisy. It tests the man to his limits as he follows the strands that might lead to his wife’s whereabouts.

Its chase sequences are especially strong. One takes place in a high-rise apartment building and the other in and on a cargo ship. I found these refreshing because there is something about a mob, whether it be composed of cops or criminals, chasing a man that makes the scene scarier. In many American movies, chases usually involves only two or three people, certainly almost never more than five.

The constant movement in the background, accompanied by screaming and yelling, locks the viewer into paying attention as the distance between the main character and his potential captors grows shorter. In addition, the writer-director is not afraid to make the choice of minimizing the use of guns. Knives are used most often. I smiled at a character using a really thick animal bone, likely to be a femur, as a club. There is creativity here and Na makes smart choices in order to elevate the feel of action sequences.

Another impressive aspect is the film’s use of real cars smashing against one another coupled with really tight editing and most convincing sound effects so that the audience can almost feel the impact of every bump and glass shatter. There is a wonderful balance between close-ups and wide shots so we feel as though every decision by the person behind the wheel counts. There is plenty to appreciate in seemingly simple moments.

The Workshop


The Workshop (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The quietly alluring “The Workshop,” written by Robin Campillo and Laurent Cantent, is courageous because it asks the viewers to empathize with a young man who has the potential to become radicalized by the extreme right. The keyword is “potential” because the material, for the majority of the time, is vague in terms of which path the curious character might take. He shows a number of so-called warning signs of a person who might shoot up a school or a grocery store: He is a loner, he possesses an above average intelligence, he has a proclivity for violence in terms of ideation and media consumption, and he listens to extremist right-wing rhetoric—“so-called” because I do not believe any of these factors, singular or in combination, necessarily lead to violence.

The subject is named Antoine and he is played by newcomer Matthieu Lucci, whose future is so bright should he wish to pursue more challenging roles as he so willingly tackles here. I found that his choices are fresh, particularly in how he portrays Antoine who thinks he is already a man but, in actuality, he is only a boy. Lucci commands great intensity when required and he is readily able to exude warmth at a moment’s notice. Notice how he interacts with adults, especially those who have some sort of power, versus his peers and children. Here is a performer with the potential to make a career of pretending to be someone else. He finds subtleties in his character’s frustration and anger.

The strongest moments in the film involve a successful novelist named Olivia (Marina Foïs) leading a group of diverse teenagers to brainstorm what sort of thriller they should write during the summer. Every single participant commands a distinct personality; even the quieter ones have something important or insightful to say, whether it terms of their group dynamics (sometimes they disagree to the point of physical confrontation about to break out) or the story they attempt to write.

It is so rare, especially in mainstream American films, to show teenagers as they are—flawed, challenging, contradictory, full of vitality—instead of some Hollywood idea, a fantasy of how teenagers ought to think, or act, or talk. Due to the screenplay’s sharply drawn characters, I enjoyed their fierce clashes as well as their unity. Each one has a reason for attending the writing workshop. Most importantly, by sitting in their sessions, we come to understand why the members choose to return for the next meeting even when the previous session may have been awkward, uncomfortable, or downright ugly.

But the main push of the plot involves the instructor’s suspicion that one of her students, Antoine, is a bomb waiting to go off. Although still quite solid, particularly with regards to the author being attracted to fear and threat of violence, I found her investigation to be less interesting than Antoine’s moments of isolation. Lucci communicates so much by simply looking at a distance or the way his body language changes when Antoine senses lies. I think the two would have been more interesting together if the material had further explored the twisted attraction between them. There must be a reason why Antoine follows and spies on his instructor. No, it is not due to a sexual nature. I think it is because, finally, someone recognizes his potential. Look at his family and friends. No one engages him on his ideas.

Some viewers will take one look at Antoine and label him as a young extremist. Although unfair, that’s the kind of world we live in—and I believe that’s the point the film attempts to make, how we are built to judge based on patterns that fit—or at least seem to fit. It has been a while since I have encountered a project that deals so intelligently with a misunderstood young person.

Anna


Anna (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Luc Besson’s action-thriller “Anna” tells the story of a Russian woman (Sasha Luss) recruited by the KGB during the intelligence war against the CIA. A victim of domestic abuse and a drug addict, she considers working for the government as a short-term solution that might lead to a better life, but, after having proven her efficiency as a tyro agent, her superior (Eric Godon) demands that she serve for the long haul—or die. Occasionally entertaining are the ridiculous action scenes in which Anna must storm a place and shoot every person in a suit or uniform, but there is a disconnect between the complex, glossy choreography and the titular character’s desperation to achieve freedom. And so when the busy buzzing of bullets and cracking of bones die down, the personal drama comes across rather disingenuous most of the time. It lacks a certain abrasiveness that allows the drama to become convincing and compelling. The picture, however, is elevated somewhat by supporting actors who strive to deliver solid performances: Luke Evans the brooding KGB officer, Helen Mirren as the sharp and tough KGB handler, and Cillian Murphy as an unwavering CIA agent constantly on Anna’s heels.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco


The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” brings to mind the great filmmaker and photographer Agnès Varda because of the way it focuses, studies, and falls in love with regular faces. Black faces specifically—of varying age, skin color, and personality—are front and center in this beautiful and pensive picture, so filled with small surprises and big emotions without feeling the need to cultivate and deliver a plot driven story where things happen just because it is expected. A case can be made that the fact that things don’t happen, at least in ways we thought they would—is what makes the work special. The film is freedom translated to moving images and I hope that aspiring filmmakers would look at this movie and follow its example. It is an original.

The vibrant screenplay is written by Joe Talbot (who directs), Robert Richert, and Jimmie Fails; it is apparent they grew up and love San Francisco because every breath the movie takes is not a negative space or moment like so many generic films tend to offer. Observe that in between “action” are shots that communicate culture: an old building, a sunset, the night sky, a famous bridge, a strange mode of transport, an antique, people briskly walking to their destinations, an unkempt street corner, the traffic downtown, a mom and pop store. No wasted image.

When characters are engaged in conversation, whether it be outdoors or indoors, there are details that prove not one scene is shot in a studio. Some events are unplanned; the performers go along with them. At times magic is created from happenstances. Look closely enough and notice regular folks—who may not be aware there is a movie being filmed—making direct eye contact to camera. Every second is alive, a risk, a joyous celebration of making a movie, and it feels like being in a specific place at a specific time. At its best, it feels like a documentary. Accidents or mistakes are turned into strengths. There is overwhelming positivity and so we are inspired to embrace imperfections.

The plot—for those who need it—revolves around Jimmie (Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), best friends who decide to squat in a Victorian home after the owners leave due to a death and resulting family drama. Jimmie lived in this particular house when he was a boy and he feels the need reclaim it, especially since it is said that his grandfather built it in the 1940s. There is a four-million-dollar asking price for the house. (Finn Wittrock plays the real estate agent.) There is convincing drama because we know that Jimmie is fighting against the impossible. Time is against him. So is the system. He is not rich. He is black man in a mostly white neighborhood. Just because you want it badly enough does not mean you get to have it.

Homelessness lies in the center of this thoughtful piece. There is the physical definition that every one of us is aware of. After all, people tend to equate San Francisco with its growing homeless population. But then there is the spiritual definition which the film so beautifully explores. Jimmie is so driven, so obsessed, to live in this house he does not own that his identity becomes tethered to his imaginary ownership. When his need is threatened, trauma is revealed not in predictable ways. There is a reason why we meet his father (Robert Morgan), aunt (Tichina Arnold—a very welcome warm presence), and mother (LaShay Starks). We look away from the homeless; Jimmie yearns to be seen.

Before I Wake


Before I Wake (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

“Before I Wake” combines dark fantasy and horror with mixed results.

On the one hand, there is an interesting story involving a foster child, Cody (Jacob Tremblay), who has the ability to turn his dreams into reality, but he is not yet able to control it. There is a curious dynamic between the boy and his most recent foster parents (Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane) because there is immediately a question in our mind whether the couple would choose to use Cody’s double-edged gift so that they could see and interact with their recently deceased son (Antonio Evan Romero). The screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, the former directing the picture, does not shy away from human nature—even at the expense of putting a child in danger.

The picture invites the viewer to look at it closely, especially during dream sequences. We are provided peaceful images of butterflies fluttering about in well-lit, well-decorated rooms yet the tone can pivot just as quickly toward darker territory. This is where horror elements come in. Silence is used effectively, particularly during tension-building early in the picture when the audience does not yet have an idea of the threat Cody mentions: The Canker Man, how it appears in his nightmares sometimes and eats people. Notice the careful use of shadows to prevent the viewer from seeing too much too soon. Flanagan has an understanding of how horror pictures work—not a surprise considering he helmed the excellent but largely undiscovered “Absentia.”

On the other hand, the film can be quite repetitive. Jessie and Mark trying to stay awake in the living room by drinking loads of coffee just in case Cody dreams of their son suffers from diminishing returns. Must we really endure yet another discussion regarding how much the couple misses their son? Must we look at yet another family picture with the smiling dead child in it? Perhaps the point is to establish a molasses-like pacing in order to communicate the crippling depression of the household. Repetition can work but the wrinkles in the formula must be introduced with great energy to keep the material from becoming stale.

Although the screenplay gets to it eventually, there is not enough investigation into Cody’s interesting past in order for the mystery to be resolved. For example, the reason why Gore Verbinski’s interpretation of “The Ring” works so well is because it works as a detective story. Time is utilized to soak us into its deepest secrets. Here, only about fifteen minutes is dedicated to stealing official documents, talking to the right creepy people, and going through red tape. As a result, the final third comes across as rushed and superficial.

With a few more passes of revision, “Before I Wake” might have offered a superior experience. The right elements are there, but fat needs to be shed in order to make room for meaty details. As is, it is tolerable but not particularly memorable.