Favorite Film Friday: Zodiac

Zodiac traces the true story of the Zodiac Killer, a man who plagued the streets of Northern California and taunted police and journalists through letters, cyphers, and phone calls in the 1960s and early 1970s.

As you may well know, I really like biopics. Slapping based on a true story will probably draw me into watching just about anything that rolls around. Even better than a biopic is a true crime thriller. I love true crime documentaries, but I really love true crime dramatic films. The Zodiac Killer is one of the greatest unsolved murder mysteries in American history. Unless you believe it’s been Ted Cruz all along. Then mystery solved. But not only did the real Zodiac go on a rampage, he taunted police with haunting letters and threats, sending the whole state on high alert. This film follows the police investigation (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards) and the reporters (Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal) who pursued him.

My favorite thing that this movie did was cast different men to play the different sightings of the Zodiac Killer. Since the murderer was never identified, I like how they didn’t push you to any conclusion. If they were all the same guy it would lead you to believe that they were asserting that it was Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), the prime suspect that came to pass through the investigation. I always thought that was neat tactic that I had never seen used before. Although the plot does hint strongly that Leigh Allen was the Zodiac, it has enough twists in turns that constantly leave the viewer unsure.

The main focus of the plot ends up leaning to Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Robert Graysmith, who eventually wrote a book detailing the investigation after he became involved during his time at the San Francisco Chronicle. Gyllenhaal gives a great performance as the mild mannered cartoonist who grows obsessed with the unsolved mystery of the infamous serial killer. He portrays the mania he exhibits as he searches for the truth so well and you are pulled into the same mania and eventual frustration that comes from lack of closure.

I would say the only problem with this movie is that it’s two and a half hours. It’s not uninteresting or slow at all, but parts of the story could have easily been shortened or left out. Still, I love this movie. I wish Robert Downey Jr. had a more active role, mostly because I find him a likeable and energetic onscreen presence, but he plays his role extremely well with what screen time he has. Mark Ruffalo is also great as the homicide detective investigating the murders, and the film really captures the chaos that this mysterious killer caused an entire area of California. With serious threats he never carried out, and murders that he did, the Zodiac Killer caused mainstream panic and terrorized the community for years. This film is well developed, well acted, and tells a complicated story in such a visually breathtaking and intense way.

Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10

Throwback Thursday: Barton Fink

Barton Fink tells the story of a playwright who moves from New York to Los Angeles to write for the movie industry. His claim to fame is writing about everyday people and he takes the Hollywood job to fund his dream of opening a theater for everyone to enjoy his plays regardless of class.

As soon as this movie started I knew it was Coen brothers project. It shares the same kind of screwy, off-kilter performances that define a lot of their movies. The Big Lebowski is a prime example of their ability to make characters who are definitively off-beat but also likable and memorable. This movie shares the same kind of charm as their previous projects as we follow Barton Fink through his time in Los Angeles, staying at the distinguishably strange Earle Hotel. John Turturro plays Barton Fink, a likeable writer who has no idea how to write for movies (especially a “wrestling movie”) as he encounters the many types of people living in LA. As the film progresses it takes a darker turn, acknowledging the chaos and mental anguish of the writing process.

This film is insane in the best way. Turturro plays the character exceptionally equipped with all the mania that his character personifies, driven mad inside the walls of an incredibly creepy hotel. This has to be the creepiest hotel since The Shining, and the cinematography amplifies the creepiness factor through strange shots and symmetrical imagery. The ending really threw me off guard though. It gets pretty dark real fast. Still, my favorite part of Coen brothers’ movies has to be their ability to use dialogue to convey character so well. Everything a character says even how they speak conveys something important about their character. John Goodman is electric in his role as Fink’s neighbor, and it might be my favorite role he’s been in in a very long time. He commands every scene and his character development from the first half of the film to the second half is incredible, sudden but incredible.

I’m not going to lie, this movie is incredible as just a straight movie, but it has a lot of room for interpretation. It has many  allusions to World War II and can represent the rising chaos of America following the inclusion into the war and Fink trying to cope with it. I personally interpreted it as the stress of writing the “next big thing” driving Fink to madness, eventually snapping his hold on reality. He loses his mind going stir crazy in the hotel after Charlie leaves. This film is one of those great films that leave the audience with more questions than answers, but not in a frustrating way. It is jam packed with fantastic performances, clever and character-driven dialogue, and a Coen feel that never disappoints. Quirky and original, this is a great film by a talented pair of writers/directors.

Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10

Wildcard Wednesday: The Founder

The Founder tells the true story of how McDonalds grew from a single innovative idea to a massive franchise empire.

Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a struggling businessman who happens onto the McDonalds brothers Dick and Mac (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) who partner with him to help expand their new way of serving food (The Speedee System) to new locations. As they soon learn, you need to be more particular with who you trust.

Ray starts off the film as a pathetic salesman, trying to make ends meet after entering too many bad business decisions. After stumbling onto a small burger place in San Bernadino, he becomes increasingly interested in their business model. They had discovered a new way of making hamburgers quickly and efficiently while maintaining the same great quality as other slower places. They came up with the then-original idea of utilizing an assembly line system within the food industry. This was revolutionary at the time, and sensing the lucrative potential for expansion, Kroc leapt aboard as head of franchising. As he grows more and more greedy, he begins to take advantage of the trusting brothers as he tries to make more money.

Keaton plays the sleazy business man so well, and entirely becomes the character who escalates and changes as he realizes that this scheme may actually be a fiscally beneficial one. At the onset, he is kind of a sympathetic character. He is portrayed as a pathetic salesman who can’t get a break. But after the first half, you quickly lose sympathy for him as he progresses into a downright antagonist. I love how Keaton plays him (I mean I love how Keaton plays just about anyone), but this could have been a fairly boring story but Keaton does a great job portraying the real Ray Kroc.

The other standout performance is Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald. John Carroll Lynch is okay as Mac McDonald, but Offerman blows him away. Lynch could have been replaced by anybody, but Offerman gave such a great performance as the tough brother who tries to stick up for his soft-spoken brother. They have great chemistry together and you root for them even if you know it probably won’t end well.

This is a movie that really flew under the radar, but it’s a really good biopic. To this day if you Google who the founder of McDonalds is, Ray Kroc’s name comes up. He took over an idea and he made an empire. It’s an interesting story that I had never learned, but I’m glad that I know now. It’s well acted and interesting and will make you feel a lot worse about enjoying your next batch of McNuggets.

Amy’s Recommendation: 8/10

 

Tearjerker Tuesday: An American Tail

Remember when G-rated kids films actually taught kids about the complexity of immigrant life in late 1800s New York City? Yeah sounds crazy to me too, but then there’s this Don Bluth gem, An American Tail, which does just that. It shows the heartwarming journey of Fievel Mousekewitz as he flees from Russia with his family after his home is destroyed. On his voyage to America he is separated from his family and he must navigate the streets of 19th century New York in order to find them.

This film is surprisingly dark for a children’s film, but also profoundly deep and charming at the same time. We see this world through Fievel’s eyes, which makes normally scary things so much more frightening because it is seen through the lens of a lost child. Don Bluth never shied away from hard subjects, whether it is the Russian Revolution in Anastasia or the death and sometimes scary imagery present in the first Land Before Time film. I mean the first musical number in this movie is about how fascism and oppression affected the many different European communities of the time period and how they are all searching for a new and brighter start pursuing the American Dream across the sea. Proclaiming that in America there are no cats, and all of the different countries agree that America is where they can finally be free of their various oppressive groups. This is all in one song in a 1986 children’s film. It also tackles the confusing moment a family reaches Ellis Island and has to change their name to sound more American, how a family tries to assimilate while dealing with the loss of a child, and how even in America there are groups looking to take advantage of them.

I think this is one of those movies that offers up an interesting and well debated question. Are some things too complicated for kids? Should we shy away from presenting sometimes difficult questions to children, even if it helps explain some confusing things like immigration and oppression? This film has dark moments and presents interesting questions about the trials of immigrants that arrived on our golden shores in the late 19th century. Sure some of the cat imagery is actually pretty scary for a kid, but it’s still a sweet movie. It often runs parallel stories between what the people of the time were experiencing and then making it more accessible to the younger audiences through the parallel narrative of the mice. It’s kind of a nice idea. As the mice fight back to reclaim their own homes, they must unite rich and poor as a community to fight back against those that persecute them.

I haven’t re-watched his movie in a very long time, but I never realized how detailed it is. The artistic caliber of the animation is fantastic for 1986. The backdrop of New York City in beautiful watercolor really is quite cinematic, and the absolutely breathtaking scene where they fly around the Statue of Liberty is cinematically beautiful. This film is pretty notorious for the adorable rendition of “Somewhere Out There” that will bring a tear to you eye, even if it truly defines the word shrill. I mean if that doesn’t do it, the movie is essentially about a family trying to mourn the perceived loss of a child as that child keeps narrowly missing them on his search for them. Which will both frustrate and sadden you as poor little Fievel has to endure so many trials on his quest to reunite with his family.

I would argue that this film should be regarded as an animated classic. More animated films that aren’t Dreamworks, Pixar, or Disney films need to be shown so much more love, including the great works of Don Bluth. Anastasia, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven, and An American Tail are great works of film and don’t shy away from potentially scary imagery. I don’t think that giving kids horror-fueled nightmares is a good idea. But showing that even little Fievel can face scary and threatening situations and overcome them can teach kids about resilience, quick-thinking, and being brave in pursuit of what is right.

Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10

P.S. I really miss the to vocal talent of Dom Deluise. He was A Don Bluth staple and such a charismatic voice in this movie. Tiger doesn’t get enough screen time in this flick because he really is such an charming presence. A goofy presence, but a genuinely fun one.

Monster Monday: The Number 23

The Number 23 follows Walter (Jim Carey) as he slowly becomes obsessed with the number 23 after his wife finds a weird book in an old bookstore.

Jim Carey is rocking some serious middle-aged bangs as he opens the film as a dogcatcher (you know such a likeable job position) as he is sent after a mysterious bulldog. As he is totally not phased by the fact the dog manages to vanish…right in front of him…he gives up the hunt and goes to meet his wife to celebrate his birthday party. Right from the start, he is established a generally unlikable character even if they push the empathy with a nice relationship with his son and wife. He’s the human equivalent of a saltine cracker.

Then there’s the narration issue. Over half of this movie is comprised of Jim Carey wandering around reading the book aloud through narration and fantasizing about it. The sheer amount of voiceover is distracting. Narration is such a lazy way out of interesting story telling, and no one wants to be read a separate book inside a movie where Jim Carey plays a gritty detective instead of his actual annoying character. It just makes two annoying characters for the price of one.

As Walter escapes farther and farther into the book (written by Topsy Kretts. You know Top Secrets. So subtle) he begins to identify with the character and obsessively begins to take on the same obsession with the number 23. He begins to find himself surrounded by the number and also stalked by the dog that bit him from the beginning of the film. His wife, Agatha, and son (played by Logan Lerman before he got hot) struggle to understand his obsession as he becomes convinced the character in the book shares too many similarities to be a coincidence.

Let me tell you, this movie is one giant plot hole. Literally nothing makes sense. It has an interesting idea, and a pretty cool opening intro, and then it loses all sense of what it’s trying to accomplish. It could have been an interesting mystery involving paranoia and how an ideology can infect seemingly normal people. But trust Joel Schumacher to shit on a good idea. Sorry I don’t think I’ll ever get past what he did to Batman. This movie is just a waste of time. It’s not offensively bad, even if it makes no sense at all, it’s just a really long string of nothing. It’s tediously narrated, wastes the potential for Jim Carey to do anything by giving him the most boring character ever, and presents an interesting plot idea and goes no where with it. I dare you to try and explain away some of the more actually impossible plot points it tries to pretend aren’t ridiculous. It’s not scary at all, so if you’re looking for the blandest horror option, this one reads more like a bad thriller than a horror flick. I wouldn’t watch it again, but its harmless and the dog (that he is constantly trying to freaking kill) is cute so at least it has one redeeming quality. Ned the dog may be one of the very few Schumacher casting decisions that make sense. If you don’t believe me he also casted Schwarzenegger as Dr. Freeze, Gerard Butler as the Phantom of the Opera, and an over thirty year old Diana Ross as the teen Dorothy in the Wiz. So fight me.

Amy’s Recommendation: 2/10

Showtime Favorite Film Friday: Primal Fear

Primal Fear is a courtroom drama that follows Richard Gere’s Martin Vail as he tries to defend a innocent-looking 19 year old Aaron (Edward Norton) as he is accused of a high profile murder of an archbishop.

I love a good murder mystery and a good legal drama, and this one qualifies as both. As Gere tries to find a motive to defend this stuttering, innocent looking altar boy the case presents new twists and turns that makes the real murderer harder to pin point. Once the final reveal hits, it isn’t what anyone expects at the onset. The film also grapples with the complex questions of the ethics behind defending a client you suspect might be guilty.

What sets this film apart from other legal thrillers out there has to be the star power of Edward Norton. Gere has played the scummy Chicago lawyer before (albeit he had more musical numbers in Chicago), even if he has an equally good performance here too. Laura Linney is great as the prosecutor. But they pale in comparison to Edward Norton. This is only Norton’s second IMDB credit, and in 1996 he was considered a newcomer. His performance in this movie may still be my favorite Norton role right behind Fight Club. He’s so engaging and the acting he does with just his face is incredible. In a performance that feels utterly reminiscent of Anthony Perkin’s breakout in Psycho, Norton plays the possibly sinister floppy haired awkward teen in fantastic fashion. Is this movie the same caliber as Psycho? No. But I think what really sets this movie apart from others in the same genre is the absolutely engaging performance of a young Edward Norton.

If anything had to be fixed in this movie, I feel like a lot of potential interesting loose ends were just dropped and the big twist was revealed way too early in the movie. Like what was carved in the victims chest. That could have been more interesting, but they kind of just made it a random clue. Still, even when you think you know the full story never underestimate little Edward Norton. An outstanding cast elevates this typical legal drama above the rest, but without a doubt Norton steals the show.

Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10

 

 

Showtime Throwback Thursday: 12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys is a trippy sci-fi apocalyptic film that tells the story of James Cole (Bruce Willis) who is sent to the past to gather information about a virus that is set to wipe out 99% of the world’s population.

As he is sent back and forth through time, he starts to lose hold of what is his own reality and his mental capacity diminishes. Meanwhile, a skeptical psychiatrist is dragged deeper into the mystery as coincidences begin to corroborate Cole’s story. This complicated and twist-filled journey force them to work together to save the world.

Bruce Willis plays the lead, James Cole, alongside Madeline Stowe as his psychiatrist Kathryn Rally. Willis shifts from marginally sane to completely out of touch in expert fashion and plays a sympathetic character trying to save the world, while also  resorting to violence while trying to accomplish his task. Still I must say the true highlight of this movie is Brad Pitt’s insane performance. A totally disillusioned young man, Pitt devolves from simply neurotic to a violent cult leader that influences his henchmen through his psychotic ramblings. He is a crazed individual that goes off on his incoherent ramblings at random creating a jittery, unstable character that you can’t trust.

Still the finale still throws you for a loop. That’s the tricky thing with time travel movies, they really mess with timelines and you really never know what is possible. The film is honestly pretty insane, but it’s a fun kind of insane. The whole time you really don’t know what to trust or what is real, but everything is cyclical as time travel films usually are. Packed with great performances and an actually engaging mystery, 12 Monkeys is a sci-fi flick that fully immerses you in its world, even if it is a chilling world that could very well be our own. Is the plot almost too muddled at times? Yes. But it’s still really enjoyable and has an engaging mystery plot with interesting visuals and an original idea.

Also in an interesting bit of intertexuality, Cole and Ralley sit in a theater playing Hitchock’s Vertigo and later The Birds. This bit alone warns viewers that there may be more than meets the eye and to not trust what is right in front of you, while also warning of the dangers of nature. Both of these themes are present in this film, and this inclusion is a nice little nod to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10

Showtime Wildcard Wednesday: The Bank Job

The Bank Job tells the story of an amateur group of British thieves who are commissioned to rob a bank, unaware that a much higher authority has ordered the task. Draining the security deposit boxes of London officials, they manage to create enemies from top officials, MI5 officers, and the seedy London underground.

This gritty British, Jason Statham-led action thriller gathers an interesting ensemble cast together to pull off a huge heist. Unbeknownst to them, they are working as pawns to recover blackmail material currently held by a shady Black Power advocate who calls himself Michael X.

This movie was entertaining enough as a typical heist movie, but then they turn around and tell you it was all a true story. Now I assumed this was a Blair Witch kind of true story, where is was all made up to boost sales. This story seemed a little too outrageous to be true. But apparently, it was actually a legend that was confirmed by a collaborating informer who was in touch with the directors of the film. Adding the true story element actually makes this story all the more intriguing and incredible.

Jason Statham plays the lead, Terry, who is dragged back into the business through an ex-lover Martine. As he tries to get one last score for his family he drags his whole team into more danger than they could have imagined. Suddenly finding himself mixed into the underground world of sex and drugs present in London, he creates powerful enemies that threaten his friends and family. This is added to the enemies he creates in both the police department and higher government. If indeed this is a true story, which considering many of the true elements I’m sure it is, it truly is an incredible story.

With a gritty and fast-paced plot and interesting and engaging ensemble cast, The Bank Job is a fantastic heist film. Statham plays a powerful lead, and although his action scenes are not as numerous as most of his other films, they are still well coordinated. Not to say this movie isn’t violent, of course it is, but Statham plays a more grounded character that fights his way out of trouble with both his brain and his fists. It’s a smart film with true tension, real-life intrigue, and a complex and interesting story. A heist movie that focuses on its characters just as much as its action is refreshing and this film does not disappoint.

Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10

Showtime Tearjerker Tuesday: Carol

Carol is a period piece about two women, drawn to each other, and eventually lovers in 1950s New York City. Nominated for six Academy Awards, the performances of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett shine in this brilliant adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s classic, The Price of Salt.

In this tale of a tumultuous relationship, Rooney Mara’s Therese plays a confused young woman who seeks love in an older woman she meets at work. She is my favorite part of this movie, as she struggles to find herself while losing herself in other people. Cate Blanchett’s Carol plays an older woman trying to keep custody of her child while also trying to find love. The two tasks get harder and harder to accomplish as they both intersect and cause potential problems. Carol must deal with devotion to another woman, growing love for Therese, and battles with her ex-husband.

Although slow, this film is beautiful and well acted. The two leads are electric and steal every scene they find themselves in. In essence it is a film about two women, trying to come to grips with the situation they find themselves other in. Finding each other helped them cope with deep feelings left unaddressed in a society that explicitly banned expressing them. Carol is a beautiful and touching film that examines the need for human connection and companionship even in a time where such companionship is deemed illegal.

The score and soundtrack for this film are one of my favorites, and the score chosen for end scene will make you weepy. Never mind the ambiguous fade to black. It’s a truly lovely ending. Still I would argue that it can mean different things to different people. Throughout the course of their relationship it can be argued that although they had chemistry, their relationship could be viewed as problematic. Not because they are gay, but because Carol has such a hold on the quiet Therese that she only really found her niche after Carol left. Even Carol comments that she looks so much better, and asks if that’s what happens when she leaves. Therese grew up and became a better character when she was alone because she found her own voice instead of people talking for her. So depending on how you personally feel about the relationship will affect how you feel about the ending. Still the movie is a dramatic and emotional piece with impressive performances by its two powerhouse female leads.

Amy’s Recommendation: 8/10

 

Showtime Monster Monday: The Thing

John Carpenter, a true master of horror, creates the perfect blend of dread and claustrophobia in his classic, The Thing. Kurt Russell stars in this ensemble horror epic as a researcher on an Antarctic base, trying to battle an alien that has the ability to disguise itself as any living thing.

Although there is a lot more dog murder than I would have preferred, the special effects, palpable tension, and examination of humanity present at the core of this film earns it its right in the horror canon. Still I am not going to lie, out of all the iconic and disturbing imagery throughout this film, the dog murder thing is definitely the worst. That might just be me.

The special effects really are a wonder in this film. Brutal and disturbing, they are advanced and impressive for any time period, never mind as early as 1982. I am a huge proponent for practical effects, and the over the top insanity of the ones used in this film make it a true feat for the genre. Carpenter got a lot of flack for the incredible gory imagery in this movie, and it is one of the most gory films I’ve ever seen. Still, the actual work it must have taken to make these effects reality must have been intense. I read that the leader of the special effects department, Rob Bottin, had to be hospitalized for exhaustion due to the heavy workload.

Besides being a technical marvel, this film is equally strong in plot. Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” written in 1938, the central story of the film follows the lengths humans will go to as suspicion begins to cloud judgment. Unsure of who the Thing could be at any moment, the natural paranoia that comes from such a situation is the central focus of the film. The gore is an additive measure, but one I don’t believe was wasted. The claustrophobia of being in a frozen wasteland and being hunted down by people (and dogs apparently) that you were once familiar with is a terrifying premise that Carpenter completely rolls with, amping it up even more with the insane effects choices he used.

This movie is legitimately gross, scary, campy, and iconic in all the right places. The score builds a perfect environment of dread and tension, and the cast’s performances, especially that of Kurt Russell is justly memorable. I’m usually pretty blasé about monster movies, because usually I am underwhelmed with the reveal of the monsters. They never live up to the hype surrounding the rest of the story they usually fit into. This is not one of those cases. The Thing is imaginative, changing, and genuinely inventive and dominates the film, rather than existenting as an accessory to its own narrative. The ambiguous ending is superb, dark, and will make you think long after the credits roll. The Thing is truly a horror classic.

 

Amy’s Recommendation: 9/10
(It would have been ten but just too much dog death Carpenter you heartless man)