# Zodiac: 10th Annivesary

It’s been a decade since David Fincher graced cinemas with Zodiac, which means it’s been 10 years since it climbed its way to the top of my favourite David Fincher films list, and remained there.

Zodiac is about the 1960s\70s manhunt for the San Francisco-area Zodiac Killer, who went on a murder spree-media frenzy, terrorizing people in several Northern California communities but evading police and justice to this day. The Zodiac Killer had held a dimming spot in our collective conscious for years when David Fincher got his hands on the material (a new book on the case by Robert Graysmith was the inspiration, though not terribly well-written) and turned a tired story into something that could take your breath away.

There are several brilliant strokes that make this movie more than just a movie.

1. It focuses on Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at a San Francisco newspaper (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Paul Avery, a reporter (Robert Downey, Jr.), who became obsessed with the case and played armchair detectives. This was effective story-telling be because Graysmith and Avery are just like us: outsiders. They have no business “detecting.” They have no privileged information. They’re just interested, and it makes us interested.
2. That said, this is a serial killer movie without the serial killer. The crimes were never solved. At best, he’s a shadowy figure in the movie (and brilliantly, Fincher had several different actors play this shadowy figure so we always feel a little off-kilter). This truly is about the regular people (and Inspector Toschi, a cop frustrated by the case’s dead ends – played by Mark Ruffalo), feeling more like Spotlight than Seven.
3. Although the movie works very well strictly as crime drama, that’s really just a superficial reading of Zodiac, the tip of the iceberg with a whole lot more waiting to be discovered underneath. The film’s tone lulls us into a trance. The score, the pacing, the editing, it all works together to draw us into this hyper-awareness that heightens everything, so that we watch raptly, watching office scenes with trepidation equal to the creepy, cob-webby basement scenes. We start to realize that the serial killer is not what’s threatening Graysmith; it’s the search for truth that’s ripping his life apart. Now that little nugget comes with a whole lot more cynicism that mere murder can provide.
4. The case and the film each build consistently, unrelentingly. You get pulled into it, dragged along. It’s not about the violence and blood (there’s very little of either), but about relentless pursuit, without resolution. That’s hard to maintain and in less capable hands, this could easily have been a dry and boring movie. But Fincher bring the suspense, and without us realizing it, he infuses that suspense into every scene. The suspense never lets up. It becomes an ache, one achieved not with fancy car chases or dramatic shootouts, but through methodical police work, the film as detail-oriented as the director himself.
5. There’s no ending. Or no satisfying one, at least. That goes against what usually makes a Fincher film great, those memorable last lines, a Beatles tune playing over the credits. But Zodiac goes without, because in real life, the Zodiac Killer got away. Maybe we know who it is. Maybe. But no arrest was ever made, no one ever served time. The film reflects this truth and denies us catharsis and our “Hollywood ending” as we understand them. The Zodiac murders weren’t just a news item, it was The Case for a generation, one that never got wrapped up. Fincher was part of that generation, and grew up in the area. It obviously stuck with him. In many ways, Zodiac is his most personal film, so he made it not about the killer, but about the people chasing him. The people trying to solve the ultimate puzzle, and paying the price when justice is ellusive.

Because life is cruel, Zodiac was NOT a hit at the box office, making a paltry $33M in the U.S. against its$65M budget. It was never going to be a hit. It’s not lurid or bloody. It’s an ode to method. And while today we’ve become obsessed with this method (Making A Murderer, OJ: Made in America), 10 years ago it was unknown. Maybe it was Fincher who invented it. He definitely perfected it, and without an entire season’s worth of episodes to devote to his subject, he imbues each scene with loads of meaning, making each one impactful and riveting. Maybe not as riveting as Wild Hogs, that atrocious piece of shit starring Tim Allen, John Travolta and Martin Lawrence (it opened the same weekend and beat Zodiac by about 30 million dollars), but in the past decade, it has impressed nearly everyone who’s sought it out. The cast is splendid, the script smart, the direction thoughtful and meaningful. But it did not win the Oscar. Know why? BECAUSE IT WASN’T EVEN NOMINATED!

# Collateral

It’s probably never a good day to be a cab driver, but Max is having an exceptionally bad day: he’s just trying to put in his time until he can get his own limo business going, minding his own business, when by a stroke of bad luck, Vincent climbs into his backseat.

Vincent (Tom Cruise) turns out to be a contract killer. We know this because he intends to use Max (Jamie Foxx) as the getaway driver in a series of murders across L.A. The first unlucky victim takes Max by surprise when he crashes through his windshield. That fearsome windshield crack will be a thorn in Max’s side, but it’s just a small obstacle in a rather wild ride. Max is a hostage but under surveillance by the cops he looks rather like an accomplice. Good thing Detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) is on the case! He’ll save him!

But not before Max realizes he’s the only one who can save Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), an attractive lawyer who coincidentally gave him her number earlier that day. Turns out she’s working the wrong case, and her name is on Vincent’s hit list. Yikes.

Director Michael Mann once drove cabs; so did his father before him, and his grandfather owned a taxi company.

Considered to play the role of Vincent: Russel Crowe, Edward Norton, John Travolta, Leonardo DiCaprio, Colin Farrell

Considered to play the role of Max: Adam Sandler, Cuba Gooding Jr, Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp

I’m glad we got the Cruise-Foxx combo because they made such a great pair. It’s refreshing to see Cruise as the villain and he channels sinister very well. I’m sure Foxx felt it, particularly in those tense scenes in which Cruise is sitting right behind him, leaving Max vulnerable and twitchy. Collateral may be a but formulaic but it’s a highly polished thriller with some great performances. Michael Mann stylishly serves up heaps of tensions, and the performances are great, never overcooked.

# Just Like Heaven

Three-time Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo and Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon can’t wait to debase themselves in a romcom.

She plays a comatose woman whose “spirit” haunts the current occupant of her beautiful San Francisco apartment. David’s not really into having a ghost for a roommate, especially not a bossy, judgy one, but the real estate situation in that city must be tough enough that he puts up with it for a surprisingly long time. He doesn’t take it sitting down though (well, okay, technically he does – David is especially fond of couches – but he does bring in a variety of spiritual advisers (including Napoleon Dynamite, who wouldn’t be my first choice, and come to think of it, wasn’t his either) but in the end he finds it’s just easier to fall in love with her than to exorcise her, so he does.

The falling in love bit turns out to be convenient for Elizabeth, who was a bustling doctor before her accident and never had time for things like love, or living. So it’s nice to have this last affair as she lays dying. If only we could all be so lucky! Unfortunately her unsuspecting sister has plans to pull the plug, which is basically going to terminate their unconventional relationship, and if David wants to continue to look like a stark raving lunatic (remember, Elizabeth is a ghost and no one else can see her), he’ll have to do some bath salts or something.

Just Like Heaven is cornball to the max and I’d like to write it off completely but the truth is, I watched it in bed while doing the “spark joy” tidy method on my underwear drawer and it turned out to be just the thing. Reese and Ruffalo are a pretty great team and director Mark Waters ensures there are plenty of cherries adorning the sundae. Sure it’s a blatant ripoff that doesn’t want to touch those awkward end-of-life issues with a ten foot pole, but it’s also, you know, adequate.

# Social Anxiety & Celebrity

Sean and I watched Neal Brennan’s stand-up special 3 Mics on Netflix earlier this week. Neal Brennan was the co-creator and co-writer and co-everything else on Chappelle’s Show, which meant a whole lot of success all at once, and then even more abruptly, nothing at all. He has since reinvented himself as a stand-up comedian, but what you get from watching 3 Mics isn’t your typical routine. It’s got plenty of laughs, particularly from the “one-liners” mic, but he’s most riveting when he’s at another mic, a less funny mic, the one where he talks about  “emotional stuff.”

He talks candidly about his depression, his childhood, his career, his father’s alcoholism and emotional abuse. He talks about the void where self esteem usually goes, and how he spent many years all too happy to hide behind his more gregarious partner, Dave Chappelle. Still fighting his demons, he is nonetheless up on the stage, and he’s getting very honest about how hard it is for him to be there, and why it’s so important that he stay.

Which set me to thinking a couple of days ago when I was at a USS concert. Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker is the best band you’ve never heard of, an electronic-based alt-rock duo (comprising a singer-guitar player named Ash and a hype man called Jason) who describe themselves as “camp fire after-party” and sound kind of like if kurt cobain and kanye had ever met and made an album – only not, it’s way more unique than that, and so, so listenable. Singable. Danceable. Turn-uppable. Bliss outable. And it just so happens that the singer-guitar player dude, Ashley Buchholtz is a notoriously shy “hyper-introvert” who’s battled his own demons, struggled with self worth, and even now, to a crowd of adoring fans, admits that singing the songs we paid to hear is hard for him – his greatest fear, actually.

So that made me think about how we view performers as people who are outgoing, and who seek the spotlight, even though that’s not always the case. And as I read up on actors I’d heard were particularly shy, I heard over and over that performing was a way to overcome shyness, but for a lot of people, it’s never completely overcome. Carol Burnett felt she could only perform “in character” and would clam up if she was just being herself. Barbara Streisand rarely performs live because even after decades of super-stardom, she’s still a pack of nerves before every show (so, reportedly, is Adele).

Adam Sandler is so shy he rarely does press and when he does, it’s almost always in character. You’ll notice that when he sings, it’s almost always in another voice; funny accents help him overcome his nervousness.

Kim Basinger struggles so much that when she won her Oscar in 1997 (best supporting actress – L.A. Confidential), she was hardly able to speak. She has agoraphobia, panic attacks, and social anxiety: some days, leaving the house is more than she can bear.

Kristen Stewart has a reputation for being cold and distant, but the true source of her reserve is crippling shyness. She worries so much about what others think of her, she can barely stand to talk about herself, and comes off guarded and sullen in interviews.

Nicole Kidman has overcome the stutter that made her so shy as a child, but even now there are days she can’t stand to walk into a restaurant or a party alone. Richard Gere was so shy as a child that his parents wondered if he could even speak. Evan Rachel Wood was too shy to even order a pizza.

Courtney Cox has said that her shyness has limited her career. Being too nervous to audition, to risk rejection, she hasn’t pursued a movie career like other Friends.

Mark Ruffalo describes himself as an introvert and a bit of a “depressed person” who negotiates happiness for himself on a day to day basis. Director Tom Ford thinks of himself as a loner, and  “Very introverted. I’m very shy. I’m very emotional.”

Of her anxiety, Jennifer Lawrence says “I have a prescription.” She doesn’t think it’s likely to get any easier, either: “No, I’m always just very nervous. I never feel like, ‘I’ve got this.’ I’m always very nervous and aware of how quickly people can hate you and that scares me.”

Sarah Silverman adds “People use “panic attack” very casually out here in Los Angeles, but I don’t think most of them really know what it is. Every breath is labored. You are dying. You are going to die. It’s terrifying. And then when the attack is over, the depression is still there.”

Emma Stone’s panic attacks were so intense when she was little, it led to agoraphobia. She manages them better today, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get them, it just means she’s learned some ways to cope. The red carpet life must be extra-stressful for anyone who suffers with social anxiety. I think it’s really cool to pursue your passion even when it butts heads with your fears. I applaud anyone who has to work hard just be among people, and I’m even more impressed with those who find a voice with which to speak out, and to remind us that we’re never alone. Someone else is feeling it too.

Words of wisdom from USS: Chill out. Be easy on yourself.

# Now You See Me 2

I only saw the first Now You See Me (1)  grudgingly, which is to say, on a plane. It’s amazing what you can get me to watch when I’m hurtling through space in a glorified tin can. Anything to distract myself, even Jesse Eisenberg doing “magic.”

To be honest, I hate magic. I hate the spectacle and the artifice and the hammy, tan people who “perform” it. I hate it. I HATE hate it, the way I hate Nazis and speeding tickets and being tricked into eating vegetables. I have to remind myself, with a shock, that some people actually pay to see magic, while I would gladly pay to not see it. I’d rather not even walk by a street magician, if I can help it. But I’m half-willing to give it a go in the movies because while I also hate Nazis, I concede that some fairly wonderful movies have been made containing them. So I don’t rule Now You See Me out just because it has magic. Or just because it has Jesse Eisenberg, who is quickly ascending my list of things to avoid.

Jesse Eisenberg is joined by 3 other magicians (including a token girl!) to form the “4 horsemen” – the Robinhoods of the magic scene, they spent the first movie stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. You can’t do that without consequences, so they’ve been in hiding this past year and are only revealing themselves in the sequel when their magical governing body, the Eye, calls on them to do so – for a very good cause, I’m sure.

Safe to say a sequel to this blip of filmdom is one trick I never saw coming, unlike all the tricks in the film, which I saw from a mile away. There is no “magic” is Now You See Me 2, which is a real tragedy in this renaissance of practical effects, unless you count the “magic” of CGI. Or the magic of marketing, I suppose. Definitely not the magic of film making, because this guy was seemingly made in a vacuum of personality. There is no fun in watching card tricks when you know the cards were added digitally, after the fact. And the tricks are not replicable in the real world, so Now You See Me 2 is just another CGI-bloated entry into the super hero genre, only these heroes are super lame and the costumes even lamer (though Eisenberg’s sporting a more Lex Luther-appropriate hairstyle than he did in Batman v. Superman).

But the greatest crime this film commits is its end. We, the audience, have spent 2 hours watching the 4 horsmen play tricks on their audiences, their enemies, their government, and each other. Now they seek to play one on us, and a two minute monologue discredits everything that’s come before and tells us we’ve been played for fools and what we thought was happening really wasn’t. Gotcha! Except the script does absolutely nothing to earn this. To set this up, a script has to leave breadcrumbs, it has to set it up, carefully, craftilly, but dutifully. Or else it’s total baloney. And this, my friends, was grade F deli meat, straight from Oscar Mayer himself. It’s like me suddenly telling you that I’ve been writing a Finding Dory review this whole time…TADA!

What do you mean you’re not convinced? I said ta-da, dammit. What more do you want? A viable story? Some forethought? Common sense? I mean – what do you expect here? This isn’t magic. It’s just a little trickery, and you can either buy in or opt out. It’s up to you.

# Everybody’s got a Christmas Movie

Instead of skeletons in their closets, celebrities have Christmas movies.

I recently came across a real piece of work art called The 2nd Day of Christmas that I can only imagine keeps Mark Ruffalo up at night. It stars Mary Stuart Masterson as the aunt of an orphaned 7-year-old girl who she trains up as a pick-pocket. Their Oliver Twist act is pretty fruitful too, until they get caught by a department store security guard (Ruffalo) at Christmas. Holiday Movie Law applying, the owner fails to call the cops, or child services, and opts instead for his ‘prisoners’ to be guarded by Ruffalo in his own home over the holidays. And guys – you totally won’t believe this, but they fall in love. I know! How can that happen? In 24 hours? While being forcibly imprisoned against your will? Hard to believe, and yet this is what Christmas schmaltz is all about.

The second movie I watched, called Happy Christmas, is apparently titled ironically. Also, it’s an indie movie, in every sense of the term: it looks bad, it sounds bad, and it costars Lena Dunham. It’s about the fuck up family member that everybody has – this time, Kevin’s little sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is moving into his basement and no one really knows why. Job? Breakup? Drinking problem? Kevin’s wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) is a stay-at-home mom who is both exasperated and enchanted by her irresponsible sister-in-law. Christmas only exists on the absolute periphery of this movie, and as long as you like your holiday classics with a fair bit of pot smoking and erotica, and almost a total absence of cheer or hope or merriment, this one’s for you.

# TIFF 2015: Spotlight

My Asshole compadres and I were enthusiastically discussing and comparing notes on all the wonderful films we’ve seen at TIFF over guacamole and cocktails when I raised the question of how difficult it can be to stay objective through TIFF-coloured glasses.

TIFF is exciting. I’d forgotten how exciting. The red carpets, the thrill of seeing eagerly anticipated movies before anyone else, and the frequent false alarm celebrity sightings (I could have sworn I saw Hillary Clinton last weekend outside TIFF Bell Lightbox but began to doubt myself when I heard her speak with a Ukranian accent) all make for as thrilling a trip to the cinema as you can get. Separating the quality of the film itself from the experience has been- I’m not going to lie- a challenge.

The anticipation I feel going into a TIFF screening and the focus I keep at all times at what’s happening onstage and onscreen made it particularly surprising that the couple sitting next to me at Monday’s international premiere of Spotlight, the true story of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, were making out through the beginning of the movie. That’s a TIFF first for me.

So you’ll excuse me- I hope- if I was a little distracted for a little while at the beginning. Luckily, the urgency of Spotlight soon caught even my neighbors’ attention and we could all sit back and enjoy the show. Well, maybe “enjoy” is the wrong word. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Keaton play real-life Boston Globe journalists who exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse at the hands of approximately 90 local priests. It’s not always an easy movie to watch. The interview scenes where survivors disclose the details of the abuse are harrowing and stomach-turning and the extent of the corruption on the part of the Church and so many others who turned a blind eye is infuriating.

Last week, I named All the President’s Men, The Insider, and Zodiac as my three favourite films about journalism. All three are based on real journalists and maintain suspense throughout while mostly avoiding melodrama. Spotlight works for many of the same reasons as those films did but doesn’t quite measure up to my favourites. It’s not always as tightly written as those  films and even drags a little in the middle but Keaton- who can’t seem to believe his luck getting great parts two years in a row– gives a passionate performance that always keeps things moving. He may get his second shot at Oscar with this film.

# Infinitely Polar Bear

Jordan over at Epileptic Moondancer wrote about this great film he saw, and he made me want to see it too, only, it never came. Well, not quite never, since it’s here now, only it’s just playing at our local art-house theatre (shout out, Bytowne, we love you!) and as far as I can tell, didn’t get much in the way of a release.

And that’s too bad because Mark Ruffalo, whom I normally loathe, does a bang-up job of portraying a husband and father who struggles with the mental illness that is now known as bi-polar (not so much in the 70s, when this film is set). His wife (a strong Zoe Saldana) married him optimistically and learns about his disease the hard way. In the throes of a manic phase he’s erratic at best, and scares his wife and two young daughters. They lose him to a psychiatric ward, and a halfway house, and to loads of mood-altering medications, and in his quest to come back to them, he agrees to care for his girls while his wife goes off to NYC to get a business degree and a real shot at a job. She’s putting an awful lot of faith in a man who, most days, doesn’t seem capable of caring even for himself, but this is what he needs, and what their family needs, and needs must.

It’s easy to applaud this intimate and sympathetic look at a challenging illness. Writer-director Maya Forbes cast her own daughter in the fictionalized version of herself, a young girl caught between a father she dearly loves and a disease she doesn’t fully understand. This is clearly a deeply personal movie, stemming from a deeply personal place. And if this is how she experienced her father’s mental illness, then good for her. The movie makes it seem more like a quirky inconvenience than the devastating illness I know it to be, but if you ever have the misfortune of this diagnosis, then I fully hope that you get the bi-polar that Forbes lived with, and not the one I did.

Coming out of the theatre, Sean asked what I thought. And I genuinely thought it was a brilliant movie, so well-acted by all involved. I also think it makes bi-polar look kind of fun. And the thing is, like any mental illness, and like many illnesses period, I suppose, the symptoms and severity and experience will vary from person to person. So while some may enjoy riding bicycles in bathing suits as their low, when I lived with someone who was bi-polar, I spent long months in a sad, scary, violent, life-shattering space. It’s not always as fun as it looks in the movies.

But Mark Ruffalo does an excellent job of hitting both highs and lows with some subtlety, playing each note, finding the heartbreak. Saldana is vulnerable, and even though I never stopped asking myself how she could leave her kids alone with this man, I still felt warmth toward her for trying so hard to make bi-polar just another thing to live with. I’m still queasy about movies that romanticize mental illness, but I’m also blown away by some fantastic performances that thrive and come alive despite a saccharine script.

# Begin Again

Jay watched and reviewed this movie awhile ago and I can’t say that mine would look much different than hers so I won’t bother with a full review of Begin Again,  director John Carney’s somewhat disappointing attempt to relive the magic of Once. All I’ll say is that Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo do their best to replicate the improvised feel of Once but it really would have worked better with less recognizable faces.

What I do want to comment on is the recent Oscar nomination for Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois’ original song Lost Stars. The music really is the best part of the movie. Even when the songs don’t leave a lasting impression the way those in Once did , Carney films the recording sessions in a way that makes you want to pick up a guitar and jam with them. Carney has always been good at capturing the evolutions of songs as their written and continue to change each time that they’re played.

There are a lot of songs written for Begin Again and I’m not sure Lost Stars stood out for me. It is one of the better examples though of a song evolving over time with Adam Levine’s hilariously over-produced butchering of it alone making the song worthy of recognition.

It can’t win though. I had mostly forgotten about the song almost as quickly as I had forgotten about the movie itself and, when being forced to compete with a movie with the emotional impact of Selma and a song with the emotional impact of Glory, there’s really no contest.

# Begin Again

A music producer\label owner (Mark Ruffalo) is disillusioned and displaced and drinking himself deeper into depression when he happens upon a waif in a bar (Keira Knightley) who is used to herself and her music taking second place to her cheating-asshole-ex-boyfriend’s (Adam Levine, very fittingly).

Begin Again is Once, with a budget. There are movie stars, and pop stars, and production values. And some artifice. And less heart.

Which is not to say it’s bad. Once is just so good. Sean and I were lucky enough to catch the Broadway musical on stage in NYC and it was incredible and inspiring, an amplification of the movie. We saw it again when it was in Ottawa, at the NAC, with all 4 Assholes in attendance, so safe to say it’s near and dear to our collective heart.

This movie doesn’t really start until about 48 minutes in, which is a long time to not start. And you already don’t trust it because Mark Ruffalo’s had this “epiphany” where he envisions instruments playing themselves to back up Knightley and her lonely guitar. It’s amateurish and should be beneath everyone involved. You could practically see the strings levitating the bows as they “magically” played themselves. Sheesh.

But I admit I kind of adored the whole record-an-album-on-the-fly thing this movie had going, a fuck you to the studio sound, and even better that it was set on the actual streets of New York. Nothing gives life and energy like New York City. Of course, you’re hyper aware, watching the movie, that what you’re seeing and hearing are two different things. Knightley’s character may strive for  “authenticity” but you know damn well these songs were recorded in a studio after she had months of voice lessons and that the actors are just lip-synching for the camera, and that the cab horns and kids playing stick ball (did that really happen?) are just sound effects added in. The conceit is obvious, and over-produced, and hard to forgive.

I did love that Mos Def was cast as The Man. Thank you, universe, for that. And Adam Levine sporting a beard that made him look like he wandered in from the set of TLC’s reality show “Breaking Amish” was a nice touch. Plus, the vintage Jag.

This movie profited from my low expectations. I enjoyed it more than I thought it would, and while not nearly as good, it’s at least less soul-crushing than Inside Llewyn Davis, which is the movie I’d rather you watch if you only have the stomach for one.