Tag: mark ruffalo

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.

Thanks for Sharing


Thanks for Sharing (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Adam (Mark Ruffalo) has been a recovering sex addict for five years. To maintain his sobriety, he frequents a support group. There, we meet his sponsor, Mike (Tim Robbins), whose son (Patrick Fugit) has returned home after disappearing for years, and a young doctor, Neil (Josh Gad), who is required by the court to attend due to public indecency. When Adam crosses paths with Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) at a party, there is immediate spark. Although fostering a healthy romantic relationship is encouraged by Mike, Adam worries that the sexual aspect of being with someone will send him back to engaging in self-destructive behavior.

“Thanks for Sharing,” based on the screenplay by Stuart Blumberg and Matt Winston, gets enough things right to overcome some pacing problems in the middle. Movies about addiction are difficult to pull off because balance is required as to not dip into sentimentality or making light of the matter. This film manages to be funny but at the same time it does not forget the every day struggle of someone who hopes to overcome a disease.

“Is that even a thing?” asks Phoebe right after Adam informs her about his private shame. The fact that Adam and Phoebe can be so open to one another is one of the shining aspects of the picture. They can be silly toward one another—a standout scene takes place in a restaurant—but they are never treated as less than adults which is refreshing. It is easy to want them to be together till the end but at one point we consider if it is the right time. And will there ever be a right time? I admired that the material takes itself a step further.

A subplot involves a friendship between Neil and Dede (Alecia Moore), a new member of the group. Unlike the romantic relationship which takes on some dark corners, their strand is more light-hearted. It is interesting that both of them are obviously a good fit but the screenplay is smart enough not to take it any further. If it had done so, it probably would have explored some similar elements that the central story was already dealing with.

I was lukewarm about Mike and his problems at home. The conflict between father and son should have been more moving. Perhaps the reason why is because the tension grows stale over time. There is bonding over a creation of a pond, meditation, and remembering the past. It is all very passive. There is even a cliché involving a playful wrestle between men with unresolved issues. Meanwhile, Adam and Neil’s stories have gone in interesting directions.

Directed by Stuart Blumberg, “Thanks for Sharing” is a comedy-drama with enough light entertainment and moments of difficult truths as well as nice moments that connect them. It offers no easy solutions. By the end, we are presented with one or two milestones but the effort and hard work continue.

Spotlight


Spotlight (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A long-term investigative group consisting of four journalists, known as the Spotlight Team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James), in The Boston Globe are assigned by the newspaper’s new editor, Marty Barton (Liev Schreiber), to focus their efforts on finding out more about a Catholic priest who has molested children in six different parishes since the 1970s, about eighty kids in total, but no one—not the law, not the media, not the Church—did anything about it. Although the investigation starts off with one priest, discoveries are made suggesting that perhaps more people within the Boston Archdiocese knew about the sexual abuse.

Based on actual events, “Spotlight,” written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, is a powerful piece of work that does not rely on sensationalism to enrage its audience. Instead, it focuses on how journalists do their job as they attempt to expose an institution that tolerates and protects pedophiles. The drama is in how their crucial story evolves, the dead ends the investigators encounter, the people they meet and clash against along the way, and what the story means to them not as journalists but as people who, in some way or another, has or has had connection with the Roman Catholic Church.

I am most intrigued with films that show how people do their jobs. Here, the camera has a habit of simply sitting back and observing how its characters work. Parallel scenes are often run together and we are given the chance to take notice of similarities and differences between how one journalist versus another approaches a task. For instance, does the interviewer prefer to write notes? If so, does he place his notepad on the desk? On his lap? How is her posture like when she is asking a victim difficult and probing questions concerning a traumatic event? How are the questions asked: straight to the point or are extra details toyed with first in order to lessen the blow?

There is a consistent sense of urgency in the story being tackled even though we already know how it will turn out. This is accomplished through the performances. For example, when characters are speaking on the phone, even when their backs are turned away from the camera, they look almost as if they want to reach into the phone itself and grab the information right away so they can have more time to work on the other parts of their assignment. We get a sense that every piece and every minute that passes matter.

Outside of their jobs, there are two or three scenes which depict the journalists taking the story personally. The conversation between Rezendes (Ruffalo) and Pfeiffer (McAdams) about why they stopped going to church commands power. We realize then that taking their work personally makes a lot of sense because they have invested too much time and effort to expose the injustice. More importantly, they hope that by exposing such a disgusting, immoral system, people would pay more attention and demand or take action.

“Spotlight,” directed by Tom McCarthy, makes a profession that seems non-exciting (at least to me) and makes it relevant, digestible, and even suspenseful at times. It relishes details rather than avoiding them, and I stared at the screen in complete fascination.

Foxcatcher


Foxcatcher (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Director Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a strange crime-drama, one that is based on a true story, in that it chooses to tell its story in a muted manner rather than through an expected, hyperbolic lens. Though credit must be given for having taken a risk, what results is a movie that is the opposite of interesting or entertaining. Its languorous pacing does not help to jolt us into paying more attention. Halfway through, I found myself at the edge of boredom despite a curious performance by Steve Carell.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) gets a call from John du Pont (Carell), a wrestling enthusiast and heir of one of the wealthiest families in the nation. Mark, who won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, hopes to participate in the event once again in 1988 and the plan is to be trained by his brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), also a renowned wrestler. du Pont offers to get him where he needs to be and the ambitious athlete, tired of standing in his brother’s shadow, seizes the opportunity. A bizarre symbiosis is created as Mark becomes estranged from David.

I found Carell’s makeup so distracting, it took away from an otherwise near magnetic performance. It is clear that the actor can deliver dramatically, even though many of us regard him as a comedian, so why is it necessary to make him look like the real person he tries to portray? The gimmick does not work because if one were to look closely, one would conclude that the makeup looks different from one scene to other. When it comes to dramas, I tend to focus on the characters’ faces in order to capture their essence and understand who they are underneath their behaviors. Here, we are constantly confronted by the makeup. It is not like we ever forget that Carell is in there somewhere.

Based on the first twenty minutes, the relationship between Mark and David is worth looking into. While understandable that they must spend time apart during a significant chunk of the picture’s running time, when they do get back together, the fascination is no longer there. Their relationship is reduced to a sibling rivalry, at least from Mark’s point of view, and I never felt their closeness, who they are outside of the sport.

The cinematography’s muted colors prove soporific. Combine this with a script commanding a silent, muffled energy and characters who mumble a lot, it becomes a real challenge to sit through its one-hundred-thirty-minute running time. By the final act, I felt unmoved by its life-or-death event. In fact, I just felt glad that it finally happened because it indicates that the film is coming to a close.

Halfway through the movie, I wondered if the story of “Foxcatcher” is one even worth telling. With so many movies about scarred but ambitious men who have issues with their mother easily available out there, what makes this one so special? For some, I suppose, it may be considered as an achievement to create one of the most tonally flat works to come out in recent memory.

Safe Men


Safe Men (1998)
★ / ★★★★

Sam (Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (Steve Zahn) fancy themselves as singer-songwriters, but they are unable to entertain a bar packed with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. When Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti), the right hand man of one of the Jewish gangsters in Rhode Island, has mistaken them for legendary safe crackers, they find themselves in a quandary: perform the job that Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner) wants done or get swim with the fishes.

“Safe Men,” written and directed by John Hamburg, is a farce that uses the lead actors’ chemistry as a crutch whenever the jokes miss the mark. And, boy, does it miss quite often. When the jokes work, however, I found myself smiling from ear to ear. Still, the ratio between unfunny to funny bits is far too large.

A standout is a scene involving the first safe that the hapless duo attempts to break into which happens to belong to another Jewish gangster, Leo (Harvey Fierstein), who runs a fencing operation behind a barbershop. Completely inept and constantly at each other’s throats about how certain things ought to be done, Sam and Eddie are caught by Hannah (Christina Kirk), Leo’s daughter. The funny thing is since she has a history of dating thieves, she does a surprising thing.

When the screenplay plays with our expectations combined with providing us a skeletal understanding of the motivations of characters who are about to commit bizarre actions, watching the interplay among the characters is fun and entertaining.

There are too many recycled ideas that distract from the plot. Frank (Mark Ruffalo) and Mitchell (Josh Pais), the real safe men, drop in and out of the story whenever it seems convenient. When they do show up, they act like baboons half the time and the script never bothers to convince us that they are smart and stealthy, two basic requirements, I would imagine, in being successful thieves. Maybe it would have been funnier if Frank and Mitchell had been completely different from Sam and Eddie instead of just playing a diluted version of them.

More frustrating is Giamatti not given a lot to do. I actually felt him wanting to be more challenged. The screenplay touches upon his character wanting to be treated like his boss valued him more. Once or twice there is a funny line or two about his line of work but there is not a time when we are given a chance to actually consider Veal Chop as more than a henchman. One serious moment might have given the character a semblance of dimension. If we were to ultimately believe his insecurities, we had to see him as a person.

Finally, the romance between Sam and Hannah is is not at all convincing. The way material likes to remind us they are a couple is showing a sloppy make-out session. It’s supposed to be funny. Why not just allow us to continually observe the sexual tension between Sam and Eddie grow until it is unbearable?

It is a shame that the writing is so bland and unfocused because Rockwell and Zahn seem willing to go to the extremes. For all the risks that “Safe Men” appears to take on the surface, what results is still a flavorless concoction of inanities.

Begin Again


Begin Again (2014)
★ / ★★★★

John Carney’s “Begin Again” needs to go back to basics and simply tell its story straight without the unnecessary gimmicks such as flashbacks that comprise of about fifty percent of the first half and showcasing overproduced songs that are supposedly performed live. I found it exhausting because it tries so hard to be authentic but it comes across very superficial and often in the doldrums with respect to pacing and overall mood.

Gretta (Keira Knightley) is approached by Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a former head of a record company, after singing in front of an audience whose reaction is lukewarm at best. Dan sees potential in her; he thinks she just needs to change her image a bit so people will find it easier to relate to her and her music. But Gretta is not interested in being signed because she wishes to be recognized for her talent, not the image she is selling. Eventually, however, the two find a common ground and decide to make a record.

Knightley and Ruffalo share absolutely no chemistry. Over the course of the two characters working together, there is supposed to be a whiff of friendship and possible romance blossoming between them, but neither connect in such a way that we feel, deep down, they are kindred spirits. The scenes that do work somewhat are short exchanges where Gretta and Dan disagree and create friction. However, these are supposed to be “mature” people and so an argument ends just before the scene ends.

A subplot involving Dan’s wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) is a minefield of boredom. Keener’s character is written to be as dull as possible. Meanwhile, Steinfeld’s character is not given anything to do other than to look sort of moody and hormonal—a stereotypical movie teenager—while wearing skimpy clothing. Surely Keener could have signed up for a project that is equal to her talent. I was more disappointed, however, that Steinfeld chose this role because she is usually pretty good at selecting characters with substance to them.

I will not even begin to describe the contrivance of Adam Levine’s character who starts off as a humble artist and becomes a complete jerk—all within a span of a month. As with Ruffalo, Knightley shares no genuine connection with Levine and so when their characters are supposed to be bonding, sharing things with one another, or having fun, it appears completely disingenuous. To me, their relationship is one that exists only in the movies.

I did not enjoy the songs—with the exception of “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” the first track featured in the film. The rest of the soundtrack is nothing special, most of them sound exactly like other female singer-songwriters on MySpace trying to break into the music industry. Because of this, we are never on board that Gretta is truly an undiscovered diamond who should become the next big thing.

“Begin Again” is largely unfocused and quite depressing in spots—not because of the content but because the work should have been more alive, executed with a sense of urgency, capturing that excitement of introducing an artist that the world should know about. Instead, what we are given is sub-mediocrity packaged in a dull box with the writer-director’s name written on the tag.

The Normal Heart


The Normal Heart (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made. — Lawrence K. Altman, “The New York Times” (1981)

Before acronyms HIV and AIDS came into the picture, there is only “the gay cancer,” formerly believed to be a plague that affected only gay men. Thus, the government, instead of acting with utmost urgency, chose to turn a blind eye and go on as if the problem would just go away on its own. “The Normal Heart,” directed by Ryan Murphy, tells the story of Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), partly based on the activist and playwright Larry Kramer, in his very personal war to force the American government and its people to pay attention, look past discrimination, and offer some kind of help for a minority but a part of the American society nonetheless against an unknown epidemic.

The picture is at its best when showing desperate individuals trying to deal with the hand they’ve been given. Dr. Brookner (Julia Roberts) starts to notice that many of the patients she sees are immunocompromised, most of them ending up dead within weeks, sometimes months, due to diseases that normally do not kill people. Roberts injects a most necessary intensity into the role. Although her character is confined to a wheelchair, she turns the character into a fighter, someone who wants to understand the new epidemic and genuinely help the men who come to see her. Roberts has a chilling scene with government officials who are convinced that the disease is far from a priority.

Of course, the story’s focal point is Weeks’ perspective and the hoops he goes through so that everyone would be on the same page. I admired that the screenplay makes the character so unpleasant at times that we understand why he is not chosen by his friends to become the president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization that provides services from counseling the afflicted to executing fundraisers for research. Credit goes to the casting directors for choosing Ruffalo to play Weeks because although he looks very accessible, the actor can deliver dagger-like fury in an instant. The contradiction makes the character more interesting because there is an unpredictability to the performer.

But the film is not only strong when someone is having an outburst. There is great sadness when it depicts the gay community in 1981 not taking the disease seriously even though their acquaintances and friends are ending up dead. It makes a case that sometimes a tragedy is allowed to continue because people are not willing to stop for a second, consider, and listen.

Admittedly, it took some time for me to wrap my head around the fact that people still choose to engage in sexual activities, often with random partners, when there is already suspicion that the disease might be sexually transmitted. It is expressed that the community feels that the whole thing might merely be a ruse so that the government can take away the freedoms that the queer community have long fought for. The screenplay ought to have provided a better, clearer context for those who were not aware or alive during that time.

Conversely, we see Weeks’ softer side when he is around Felix Turner (Matt Bomer), a writer for The New York Times and Weeks’ eventual lover. We learn details about the protagonist and consider possible reasons why he is so uptight and ready to fight all the time. Bomer is another good casting choice because he knows how to downplay his character just enough—playing him more reserved, a bit quiet, and sensitive—as to not overshadow his co-star’s role in the story being told.

“The Normal Heart” ought to have featured more shots of bodies infected with AIDS. Although we see a few, from skeletal frames to skin lesions, we need to see many, almost on an overwhelming level. I wanted that camera to be as close as possible, almost functioning as a magnifying glass, to the bodies and really force the audience to see what the disease can do. Would that have disgusted or repelled audiences? Yes. And that is good. AIDS is neither a pretty disease nor is it easy to understand. Otherwise, we would have a cure by now. Thus, its ugliness and complications should have been shown through and through.