Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Saturday, Mar 24, 2007


An elderly couple’s car has broken down along a lonely country road. With their tire flat, the man struggles to change it with little success. Suddenly, a motorcycle gang shows up, a bunch of leather-wearing weirdoes with their sleazy old ladies along for the ride. But instead of harming the aged pair, they proceed to repair their car and send them on their way. While still out for a sometimes illegal good time, this Harley-riding horde is also considerate and concerned for their fellow man. Recognizing that the freedom they seek must be provided to others as well, they only use their bad-ass image to undermine the Establishment.


When the girlfriend of a dead buddy’s brother is assaulted, the police naturally pin the crime on the Club. Turns out, it was a rogue officer that was responsible for the frame-up. With the help of the gal’s frantic father and a local weapons lover who masquerades as a nature-loving sportsman, the town hopes a little vigilante justice will drive the bikers away once and for all. Resolved to clear their name, the clan prepares for a showdown. A funeral for a fallen member provides the perfect backdrop for a standoff, and with everyone loaded for bear, it’s not long before the Northville Cemetery Massacre is in full, fatal swing.


Let’s just call this two-wheeled wonder Uneasy Rider and get it over with, shall we? Like Robert Altman directing a Roger Corman biker epic, Northville Cemetery Massacre defies description as precisely as it plays with certain cinematic classifications. Some sort of counterculture experiment by first-time filmmakers Thomas L. Dyke (his only credit) and William Dear (who would go on to helm Harry and the Hendersons and Angels in the Outfield), this combination of cinema vérité, born to be wildness, and standard cautionary storytelling is one bizarre bit of motorcycle mayhem.


Both embracing and examining the outlaw nature of the chopper champion, Dyke and Dear originally called their movie Freedom: R.I.P. , with good reason. This movie was meant to symbolize the inner corruption among so-called law-abiding citizens, including the police themselves, while striving to show the leather-wearing biker as a righteous dude with an undeserved rowdy reputation. Oh sure, there’s some bar-based fisticuffs, and the movie ends in one of the biggest bloodbaths captured on independent film, but at its heart, Northville Cemetery Massacre wants to draw a distinction between brutality based in the support of brotherhood, and cruelty as a sense of civic duty.


Buried inside all the “us vs. them” underpinnings are class-crossed lovers who just want to get high and roll in the hay. With a voice dubbed by a very young Nick Nolte, our slightly fey hero is an ex-Vietnam vet whose decision to drop out has a lot to do with the treatment of his dearly departed brother at the hands of authorities. His potential old lady is a typical small-town twinkie who’s lost in her own inner world of frilly drapes, romantic phone calls, and sexual assault at the hands of a psychotic sheriff’s deputy. Together, the duo makes an uneasy core for the average audience member. He feels like an afterthought to the whole narrative construct, a drive-in denizen who presents passion pitters with a like-minded weed head they can identify with.


As for the gal, she emanates about as much sex appeal as a socket wrench, and her moments of tasteful toplessness do very little to stir male viewing interest. It would be interesting to see a version of this film sans the lovebird life lessons, one that uses the real-life Detroit Scorpions Motorcycle Club as a foundation for a pragmatic look at how ‘70s society viewed such “gangs.” Instead, we get the gratuitous rape, the sportsman/serial killer who can’t wait to hunt that most dangerous of games, and an ending that’s both perfunctory and profound, questioning all that’s come before while offering little in the way of easy solutions.


For many a seasoned grindhouse fan, this sounds like solid sleazoid stuff, right? Well, the truth is trickier than that. While obviously aimed at an exploitation-appreciating throng, there is a strange, audience adverse approach to Dyke and Dear’s designs. Obviously unable to “direct” the real-life bikers, we get a clashing confrontation of styles and substance, amateur acting accented by professional performers trying to add to the authenticity. Many of the scenes are fascinating free-for-alls, dialogue constantly overlapping and conversations collapsing in on each other. We never really get to know the riders, and their women are pure props, positioned on the back of their Harleys for maximum hot mama effect. But this was probably not Dyke and Dear’s point. With that original title of Freedom: R.I.P. , they were clearly responding to the idea that America was becoming a nation divided along generational lines.


To the conservative clans who held the power, a group like the Scorpions represented lawlessness and defiance. That many of them were actually decent people drawn together by a sense of family that was sadly lacking in a post-‘60s society never really mattered much to those in charge. Bikers were an easy breed to pick on (the Hell’s Angels not helping matters much). By turning them into amiable anti-heroes here, the directors manage the mirror reflection on the culture that so many movies of this kind miss. For those who long for the days of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper puffing their way across a dying America, Northville Cemetery Massacre will be a big, bad, bloody mess. But for those looking for more depth than defiance in their motorcycle storyline, this movie makes a very strong, if rather surreal, point.


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Friday, Mar 23, 2007


Serafina Delle Rose is a proud woman. She has a pompous self-importance that makes her stand out among the other Italian women in her small Gulf Coast community. Her marriage to truck driver Rosario saved this destitute wretch from a miserable life in the old country, and she has faith in his love and affection. Unfortunately, Rosario has secrets, and when he dies in an accident, the truth comes pouring out. He was not only transporting produce—he was smuggling, and cheating on Serafina with a local slut.


Pregnant with a son when Rosario died, Serafina had a miscarriage, and now spends her days in a stupor, unable to connect with herself or with life. Her teenage daughter, Rosa, worries about her mother, fearing that she will fall deeper into depression. Serafina feels the need to protect her child, especially when she learns how serious Rosa’s relationship is with young sailor Jack Hunter.


Then one day, Serafina meets Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a vibrant, slightly silly man who instantly falls for the melancholy madam. Naturally, Serafina wants nothing to do with him. But slowly, and gradually, she learns that there is more to life than the memory of her late husband and the scandal with which he left her. Serafina must forget the past and embrace the future. With Alvaro, she has that chance.


It is said that the legendary playwright Tennessee Williams was desperate to craft a vehicle for his longtime friend and occasional muse, Italian actress Anna Magnani. Hoping to showcase this fiery, intense diva with a play equal to her supreme stature, Williams devised a simple story of an Italian widow wounded by her dead husband’s infidelity, only to be courted by a new, brash beau. It would mix elements from his previous literary successes as well as celebrate the Sicilian heritage he learned from his companion, Frank Merlo. The result was The Rose Tattoo, featuring another of Williams’s certified strong, slightly unhinged women at its center.


The stage was literally set for Magnani to take Broadway by storm. Problem was, as the time came to essay the role of Serafina Delle Rose, Magnani balked, claiming her English wasn’t good enough to effectively bring the character to life. She refused to appear, and Williams was left to recast the part. He got the far younger Maureen Stapleton for the lead, and The Rose Tattoo opened on the Great White Way in February 1951. It was another Tennessee Williams smash, going on to win four Tonys, including Best Play and acting honors for stars Stapleton and Eli Wallach (as Mangiacavallo). When the time came to make the movie, Magnani was again approached. Again, her English was less than graceful. So, via a very unique performance style, Magnani was fed her lines by a dialogue coach, and she mimicked the sounds she heard. The result was a monumental thespian turn, earning Magnani an Oscar as Best Actress.


Magnani is indeed the main reason to visit The Rose Tattoo. Those who enjoyed—or suffered through—the works of Williams while in school will recognize the arcane, poetic writer’s style all throughout this early piece. Tattoo was written after The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire (two classic works of theater if ever there were any), but before Williams’s other successes like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth.


Specifically crafted to emphasize—and perhaps stereotype—certain ethnic Italian ideals, as well as to showcase the fall and rise of a stubborn, selfish immigrant, Tattoo has all the trimmings one associates with a stage show. Magnani must work around all the obvious imagery, shuttling symbolism (especially the awkward title emblem) and incidental iconography within this standard slice of melodrama to make Serafina a real, vital individual. It is to her well-deserved credit that the actress takes what could have been a harsh, almost unsympathetic character and imbues it with life and substance.


Magnani is all sex and shame in The Rose Tattoo, a mixture of Old World classicism and New World haughtiness molded into a defiant, somewhat desperate woman. Though she is dowdy and depressed throughout most of the film, Magnani manages to hint at both the life and the love still locked inside Serafina. Saddled with a couple of obvious showpiece moments (her visit to the church bazaar and the confrontation with Rosario’s mistress come to mind), she still managed to cement this overwrought work with the earthy neo-realism of her amazing performances from Italian cinema. She is the heart and soul of The Rose Tattoo, and after watching her for nearly two hours, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.


As the other major element in the movie, Burt Lancaster is a bit of a problem, albeit a very minor one. He has the size and the heft to play Alvaro Mangiacavallo, and as an actor, he matches Magnani’s efforts bravura to bravado. But he makes an ethnically blank Italian. Lancaster, who was purely Anglo-Saxon, tries his hardest, and sometimes he succeeds. When not required to mutter and bumble over Williams’s culturally queer dialogue (there are times when The Rose Tattoo feels like a parody of a Mediterranean melodrama), the usually magnificent actor finds the sincerity and strength at the center of Alvaro’s persona. We are supposed to feel an instant connection between Serafina and the strapping suitor, and it’s as much a testament to Magnani’s smoldering sexuality as Lancaster’s matinee idol attractiveness that the combination works.


There is a tendency in The Rose Tattoo to see the actors as working at stylistic cross-purposes within the film. Magnani wants to keep Serafina grounded while still successfully existing within Williams’s mannered circumstances. Lancaster, on the other hand, wants to go with the hyper-realistic flow, to make his character as large as—or occasionally larger than—the life the author prescribed for him. Such a dichotomy would normally kill a film, but it works in The Rose Tattoo only because of the immense talent of both actors. Had director Daniel Mann—a Hollywood journeyman responsible for such diverse films as Come Back, Little Sheba, Butterfield 8, and Willard (1971)—utilized someone like Marcello Mastroianni or Anthony Quinn, the film may have been more culturally sound. But Lancaster brings something to Tattoo that both adds and subtracts from the experience.


For a modern moviegoing audience, the real enemy here is the stagy, almost claustrophobic nature of the film. Mann keeps the majority of the action inside the cramped, closed-off Delle Rose home with its shuttered windows and low ceilings. While all the ominous trappings are supposed to suggest the cloud of grief overwhelming Serafina, one has to wonder how much of her dilemma comes from the death of her husband, and what percentage derives from a lack of sunlight and fresh air. There has been no real attempt to “open up” the play, to make it less like a single setting circumstance. Certainly, the scenes at the festival, and Serafina/Alvaro’s trip into town are an excuse to introduce the real world into the insular domain of the Delle Rose’s, but the overall impression given off by the film is of a distinct, compact world (which may be what both Mann and Williams wanted).


Equally uncomfortable is the standard subplot silliness of Serafina’s teenage daughter, Rosa. All the clichéd checkpoints are here: a child embarrassed by her mother’s raging ethnicity, the over-attached puppy love for a milquetoast man (the sailor, Jack), and a near-constant sense of public and private adolescent angst. Marisa Pavan is given the difficult, if not impossible, task of trying to find a compassionate center to what is basically a living, breathing reminder of Serafina’s shame. While such a blatant object—either human or otherwise—may work on stage, it’s far too obvious a device on film. Though it is occasionally hampered by such histrionics, The Rose Tattoo is still a solid drama with excellent performances piercing through the poppycock.


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Saturday, Mar 17, 2007


During a standard shift at the local funny farm, Dr. Widesworth consults with Dr. Godwin about a girl, named Julie. She’s been diagnosed as a “cutter”, a self-mutilator. Convinced she can add some insight, Widesworth wants Godwin’s help. Meeting with the decidedly sane psychotic, the docs become privy to Julie’s bizarre, unreal story. Seems she once did the old University thang with a group of her best friends. One day, a new girl from Hawaii showed up. Her name was Amy and she was introverted and inhibited. Naturally, Julie’s catty clique instantly classified her as a ‘loser’. When it becomes obvious that the withdrawn islander had eyes for drama teacher Mark Bernardi, the crew determines to play a joke on the Pacific princess. Unfortunately, it resulted in Amy going comatose. When Julie’s Aunt Maylea arrived to care for her, she brought along an ancient Polynesia cure. She then used an enchanted Tiki doll to avenge Amy. She believed that, only through the systematic killing of everyone involved, could her niece’s soul be saved - apparently. And thus the massacre began…


Lord Almighty, but you have to adore Tiki! Oh sure, it’s a schlock revisit to the Charles Band school of scares, with just a splash of Dan Curtis’s Trilogy of Terror thrown in for gory good measure. Writer/director Ron Ford obviously suckled on the Zuni Fetish Doll’s Movie of the Week teat for several years, resulting in this Polynesian prank that’s more marvelously tacky than a blistering bowl of rotten poi. All the characters are jerks, barely able to provoke our curiosity, and the plot is so staggeringly mechanical that we keep waiting for the creepy old guy to turn up and tell the rest of the prospective victim’s pool that they are, indeed, “all doomed!” But thanks to a perfectly satisfactory puppet assassin, as well as the unrestrained bliss of seeing said plaything track and take out a cluster of clods, this incontrovertibly non-scary homage to horror’s blatant b-movie ideals is spectacularly silly. You’ll cackle at all the logic leaps and piss-poor intrigues, while at the same time championing a little island icon with a voracious craving for bad actor body parts.


It goes without saying that our star, an ersatz actress named Jolene Smith, is extremely unappealing. Even when she’s gussied as Eliza Doolittle in preparation for her part in Pygmalion (emphasis on the first syllable, please), those shrieks you hear aren’t paranormal beings yelping at the moon. It’s viewers around the world wondering how this attractiveness-addled performer ever got a callback. While it may appear unjust to highlight such an observable visual aspect of the film, it definitely supports the homespun spirit that helps make Tiki what it is. In the hands of some veteran specialists and teeming with onscreen CGI-sores, we’d be groaning at all the dumb dialogue, retard line readings and obvious continuity errors. But by hook or by crook, our title terror makes it all tolerable. Perhaps it’s the retro recollection of Karen Black taking on that vicious little blade wielder with a yap full of fangs, or the current island-oriented model who darts across the screen, little wooden feet tapping away in full sonic mode. Whatever the reason, Ford has found a way to make the monster movie fun again. And he does it by concentrating almost exclusively on the villian.


Indeed, without our new shock symbol, Tiki would flop quicker than a family-oriented Robin Williams comedy. The little wooden wonder is the gratuitous glue that holds this otherwise middling fright flick together. The nudity is nauseating (especially a Disgusting Girls Gone Wild style lesbian sequence – ew!) and the bloodletting is awesome, but limited to just a few memorable moments. Some of the set-ups are completely uproarious (one corpulent boytoy and his equally balloonish-babe make bile-producing whoopee in a hayloft before Tiki performs his serial public service = GO! TIKI! GO!) and the climax lays the groundwork for a possible sequel, which means more of our featured fright figurine. While one lone element doesn’t usually rescue a failing genre effort, the title treat in Tiki has enough cinematic charisma to save several subpar scare films. Ron Ford deserves plenty of fright fan Frenchings for delivering on what could have been a major macabre calamity. If you want a wonderful reminder to the diabolical doll era of terror, this talented little island idol will definitely deliver the terrific Trader Vic’s goodness.


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Friday, Mar 16, 2007


300 defies description. Every attempt by mainstream critics to categorize or contextualize the film is more or less wrong. This is not some manner of anti-war propaganda piece (or worse, a pro-US boast for its Arab/Persian aggression). About the only real connection to the world of video games comes in the stylized presentation of violence which, frankly, is no more poetic than what Frances Ford Coppolla accomplished with the infamous “baptism” scene at the end of The Godfather. It is neither a historically accurate recreation of a famous battle, nor is it a slam against any specific region or peoples. What Zach Snyder has accomplished here is something quite miraculous. What he’s made—thanks in part to Frank Miller’s imagination and a ton of computer processing power—is a real Rorschach test for why people go to the movies. 


Think on that for a moment—why DO you go to the movies. To be entertained? To spend a few hours away from the family? To lose yourself in worlds only imaginable through the lens of a cinematic artist? To be moved? To laugh? To cry? As the famous one-line once said, to kiss $8.50 goodbye? Within each or all of these questions lies some element of the answer. Of all the mediums, it is often said that film is the least personal and most group-oriented. There are those who argue that horror films are scarier with an angst-filled audience surrounding you, sharing the dread. Others recognize that the mob mentality of such a communal experience renders even the most routine comedy uproarious. So it’s clear we come to film as kind of a litmus test, to weigh our opinion against that of our fellow filmgoers to determine an entertainment’s true value.


So in truth, 300 cannot work the same for all of us because it is the kind of movie that challenges the very nature of why we love, or hate, film. It takes a decidedly hoary old genre—the sword and sandal epic—infuses it with all the technological magic it can, and then sticks a fuse of fantasy straight into its belly. Once said wick is lit, the resulting fireworks either inspire or enrage you. There is no real middle ground here—people either adore or deplore this incredibly well choreographed dance with death. Far better than the highly overrated Gladiator (a true blight on Oscar’s already tenuous history) and a mighty millennia away from the pulpy peplum of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Synder wants to turn such tales back on their origins. He wants to use celluloid to re-establish the literal meaning of such a tale’s ‘epic poem’ status.


No two words better describe this film. This is vision amplified by ability, lyricism made manly by the imposition of well-formed physiques. Make no doubt about it, the Sparta at the center of the story is a brutal world overloaded with ego, testosterone and sweat. It’s the kind of country that kills off the weak and unwieldy, even hours after they are born, and believes in such forgotten human virtues as duty, honor, and glory. It may seem overly simplistic and a tad shortsighted, but this is not the modern world. This is not a planet interconnected and constantly communicating with each other. This is the land of myths and legends, oracles and gods. This is a place of men, in all their strengths - and all their superstitions.


As a result, some may be put off with all the moralizing and mysticism. They will see the sequence where the diseased priests prophesize—with the help of their naked teenage girl Oracle—that no war can occur during the High Holy days and scoff at such a suggestion. They will see Xerxes in his fey, flouncing demeanor, face painted up like an Egyptian drag queen, and giggle at the implied femininity. They will wonder where the various monsters come from, how an executioner can look like a boss from their favorite Playstation product, and believe this a film for an entirely different generation. But the truth is that 300 is a return to the world of visual storytelling, a place rarely visited by our mainstream manufacturing plant known as the Hollywood film business.


Indeed, we have forgotten the power in images. We forget what it felt like when the Mothership first appeared over Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or when Neo first realized he could defy both time and physics in The Matrix. Peter Jackson or George Lucas can overwhelm us with their ideas (and the realization of same) and yet the effects seem to fade the minute we leave the theater. This is home video’s truest legacy. As a result of such overwhelming access to any and all cinematic stimulus, we’ve lost the inherent naiveté required to really enjoy someone’s creative approach. Instead, we play a never ending game of considered comparison, wondering what that scene reminds us of, contemplating if said shot actually adds to a film’s overall narrative language.


It’s a shame our eyes are so jaded now, because lying in wait, right outside the typical and the remade, are persons ready to reinvent the old magic. They will take a sword fight between two Spartans and hundred of Persians and manufacture it in such a way that every clang of metal, every spray of blood, becomes another stroke on a grand master’s canvas. They will render even the most meaningless scene—a conversation between husband and wife, king and queen—into a stunning experiment in shadow and light. Call it an attempt to jumpstart our imagination or a metaphoric map to rediscovering our inner joy, but 300 is built for spectacle, not scholarship. All it wants to do is present a piece of the movies’ past in a new and novel light. And it accomplishes said goal amiably.


This is a rousing, reinvigorating effort, the traditional reason why people USED to go to the movies. A couple of famed critics who sadly stand as the last of a literally dying breed used to say that movies act as kind of a mental vacation. They are meant to whisk you away to places, and introduce you to people, that you wouldn’t normally visit in reality. Like 300, film is supposed to inspire awe and disregard expectations. It is its main purpose for being. But for some reason, perhaps due to their ready availability and post-modern disposable nature, we no longer value such statements. To the new moviegoer, film is fodder for endless online conversations, debates over issues that, more times than not, have very little to do with the movie in question.


But Zach Snyder steps up and asks—nay, DEMANDS—to be taken seriously as a director of sound mind and superb vision. This is a movie as sumptuous feast, an eye candy extravaganza that never once becomes overpowering or overblown. Instead, all the stunningly stylized violence fills a void usually lacking in this kind of action film—the sadistic nature of war and battle. Where once gore was avoided to keep the nobility of the heroes intact, Snyder uses it as a symbol of determination. The more blood that’s shed, the lesser the enemy’s resolve. He also accomplishes his fatalistic determination by careful, clever casting. No one would ever imagine the man behind the mask in Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera would pack on the pounds, bulk up his body, and turn into the very emblem of Spartan pride. But Gerard Butler is a stellar King Leonides, containing everything we’ve come to expect from such a character. When he makes his stand against Xerxes, determining the fate of his men, and his country, the power within his persona—and the performance - shows through. 


In addition, 300 does indeed reinvent the notion of how action accentuates and accessories a film. In something as obvious as a battle scene, where we know blows will be exchanged, it is up to the filmmaker in charge to keep us engaged and interested, less it all become a mere free for all. With his carefully controlled compositions, expert framing, and desire to deliver both the Spartan and Persian attacks in grand operatic style, Snyder gives us real insight into combat. We learn the strategies meant to conquer as well as the mistakes that lead to defeat. We also recognize where heroism and valor lie. It’s not in the remarkable moments where heads leave bodies in balletic grace, nor is it in the sequences where arms and legs are sheered away. No, where true gallantry lies is in the guts to face almost impossible odds, and laugh squarely in the face of said annihilation. And nothing cackles quite as convincingly as 300.


So complain all you want to about the lack of factual accuracy. Argue that Snyder is all style and no substance, or that his cast is made up of out of work Chippendale dancers trying to turn slaughter into something serene. But whatever you do, don’t dismiss 300 as anything less than a work of visionary expertise. While your aesthetic complaints may have merit (albeit a minor amount), from a truly technical standpoint, this is what the cinematic artform actually looks and feels like. Instead of chastising a movie for taking such a risk, we should be celebrating. It’s a shame we’ve lost that ability. Thankfully, we have electrifying efforts like these to remind us of what we are missing.


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Tuesday, Mar 6, 2007


It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work. Lots of late nights. Way too many cups of coffee. Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged.


Beginning in December of 1968 and ending in October of 1969, an unknown perpetrator terrorized the Northern region of the state of California, centering most of his activity in and around the San Francisco area. His were motiveless, random crimes – one couple would be shot while they parked, another would be stabbed as they picnicked near Lake Berryessa. As the investigations began, police and the newspapers started receiving letters from the fiend, along with elaborate ciphers that supposedly explained his rationales. It’s these heinous crimes that make up the basis for this film’s storyline, which also follows the involvement of reporter Paul Avery, cartoonist David Graysmith and police Inspectors William Armstrong and David Toschi.


In the hands of any other filmmaker, someone incapable of placing the darkness of the subject matter directly into every scene he or she puts on celluloid, this would be a magnified TV mini-series. We’d get the snippets of nastiness at the start, the fading film star taking on the daring lead role, and anticipate those little forced fade-outs announcing the next commercial break. But in the skilled cinematic grasp of the amazing David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), a case that pales in comparison to California’s other notorious Peace decade murder maelstrom - Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter spree – turns into a concrete reflection of its tenuous times. It uncovers the flaws in pre-technology crime solving while celebrating those willing to sacrifice their mental lives to overcome these investigative chasms.


The first thing Fincher does right is purely aesthetic. He so perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1960s/‘70s setting that you feel completely immersed in the time period’s patina and gloom. And it’s not just the details – the TNT 8 Track player, the viewmaster sitting on an old fashioned counsel television. No, what Fincher finds in the era between analog and digital, footwork and laptops, is the last legitimate signs of a post-War America. Sure, San Francisco is an amazing city, the backdrop for a hundred well-remembered movies. But here, the city’s not so much a character but a stand-in, a metropolitan mock-up waiting for the inevitable evil to start seeping in. From the first senseless killing (the aforementioned couple parked near an overpass) to the last crime we actually see (a cabbie being shot at point blank rage) death is the disease that begins the process of unraveling our slipshod social fabric.


Similarly, Fincher casts the film flawlessly. Looking – and indeed acting – like a young Chris Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo leaves behind an inconsequential career canon to deliver a true star making turn as Inspector David Toschi. With his hair piled into two shoddily parted slabs and a wardrobe that feels slept and perspired in, he’s the symbolic face of the law. He’s concerned. He’s confident. He’s sure that regular old police work will lead to a suspect – and the lack of one is eating him up inside. Every time Ruffalo delivers a line, it’s a lesson in multi-layered performance. No sentence is simple, each statement covered in concerns, fears and undeniable guilt. Also amazing is Robert Downey, Jr., playing the kind of cavalier jock journalist that would come to personify the decade’s Fourth Estate eminence. He’s the sort of reporter who does as much drinking and disagreeing as he does writing. He’s the first indirect victim of the story, a man made and unmade by what he knows – and by the pieces of evidence he doesn’t have.


Then there are the ancillary turns – takes on famous faces (Brian Cox’s brilliant Melvin Belli, a more or less forgotten name in the world of limelight legal personalities) and hardworking underdogs. All throughout Zodiac, Fincher features performers who meld seamlessly, never once coming across as too contemporaneous or outside the era. He’s working off iconography – providing as many human as thematic symbols to illustrate his ideas. Toward the end, when Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Charles Fleischer shows up as a potential suspect, his one time comedic craziness makes a perfect starting point for what ends up being one of the more sinister performances in the entire film. Fincher gets a lot of legitimizing specificity out of these smallish, insignificant roles. They keep Zodiac from slipping into standard, by the book docudrama.


But the real work is put in by Jake Gyllenhaal. His is indeed the hardest part to play. At first, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith is nothing more than a fly on an already filthy wall. He wants desperately to be part of the editorial process, to add what little knowledge he has to the overall reportage of the case. But as an outsider looking in, he is kept at a distance, and this is a risky move for both actor and auteur. For Gyllenhaal, it makes his third act transformation into a sort of ersatz private eye (Graysmith actually existed, and wrote two books upon which the movie is based) a tricky twist to sell. As for Fincher, it needs to feel liquid and inevitable. Such a shift in personal point of view is always difficult for a director, but in the case of Zodiac, we are dealing with a cold case, no real substantive suspects, and a previous path strewn with equally concerned casualties. Turning a hanger-on into a hero is a tough task to accomplish, but Fincher finds a way to make it work. As a matter of fact, the last half of the film is far creepier than the blood and body scattered opening.


This is indeed a directorial tour de force for the moviemaking maverick, a perfect combination of engaging storyline and intriguing style. Fincher loves to look at life through a distorted, twisted lens, and he employs his signature visual variety here. There are certain shots that just bowl you over with their beauty (a tracking shot which follows a cab on its fateful fare, a look at Gyllenhaal’s car crossing the Golden Gate Bridge) while others announce their intention with obvious conceptualization (the time-lapsed construction of the Transamerica Pyramid to mark the passage of time). Still, it’s the way he handles specific scenes that are the most impressive. When the police finally narrow their focus to a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, his interrogation in a factory’s employee break room absolutely sizzles with squalid suspense. Indeed, much of Zodiac crackles with a kind of corrupt electricity, an overriding feeling of discomfort that makes even the conversations between couples ache with an aura of unease. Even at more than 158 minutes, the movie still feels rushed and ready, always on the brink of breaking under its own sustained stress.


There will be those who bemoan said run time, who recognize the non-ending ending the movie manufactures (we wind up with a theory, but no real closure) and simply shout “sell out!”, but that would really be missing the point. Zodiac was never designed as a whodunit. The clues are not clear enough, and the facts more faded than the memories of the people who survived the killer’s slapdash attacks. Fincher never intends a conclusion. Instead, Zodiac is a clever commentary, a look back at how careless and confounding the criminal justice system could be. A modern audience may scoff at how Toschi’s partner William Armstrong (an extremely solid Anthony Edwards) must maneuver through four different jurisdictions and his own internal red tape just to coordinate the evidence, but that’s the way it was back then. Crime was considered local, and even the most celebrated cases played more importantly to the surrounding constituency. It’s also the reason why they call serial killers the first post-modern murderers. It requires contemporary thinking – and techniques – to stop their reign of terror.


But as Fincher so masterfully reminds us, there was no snarky CSI to save us back then. Convictions were built from the circumstantial inward. Even before the closing credits, the film lets us know that certain facts that we feel are incontrovertible have been placed in substantial doubt by computer matching and DNA testing. But since Fincher’s not trying to find the killer, we really don’t care. Instead, we are mesmerized by a movie that takes its time explaining the impact that fear and frustration have on those assigned to bringing the bad guys to justice. When Ruffalo walks away after his final meeting with Gyllenhaal, the look of peace on his face is genuine. Similarly, when Graysmith finds Allen, all he wants is to keep a promise he made to himself and his wife. Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK, that hoped to unravel the contradictory conclusion of the Warren Commission to suggest another theory on the assassination of the President, Fincher is fine with Zodiac remaining an enigma. Besides WHAT he was had more of an impact on everyone involved than who he was.


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