Spotlight (2015)

2016 #144
Tom McCarthy | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue
2016 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 2 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams), Best Director, Best Film Editing.



SpotlightThe most recent Best Picture Oscar winner tells of how the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism unit, the eponymous Spotlight team, exposed the widespread sexual abuse of children by the local Catholic Church — and, just as shockingly, the way the institution itself swept this under a rug for decades. As a film, this story is effectively a conspiracy thriller: a team of journalists expose a wide-reaching criminal cover-up within a respected and powerful institution. If it were fiction, you’d struggle to believe it, the scale of the conspiracy so vast that the very notion of it would be implausible. So it’s all the more astonishing — and horrifying — that it was real. And, as the closing title cards reveal, far larger than the Spotlight team realised even when they went to print.

There are many fascinating true stories that have produced merely adequate movies, so it’s something else again that transforms Spotlight into a Best Picture winner — albeit a somewhat controversial one, in that it came in a year when the top award went to one of three different films at the major awards (the others being The Revenant and The Big Short), rather than a consensus emerging as the various ceremonies all rewarded the same film (as usually happens, more or less); relatedly, it was the first Best Picture winner for over 60 years to only nab one other gong. More pertinently, doubts about the film’s deservingness stem from criticisms of its relatively plain directorial style, its focus on the plot rather than the characters within it, and its monomaniacal attention to the process of investigation rather than the thing being investigated.

In my opinion, the film’s storytelling would be better described as no-nonsense. It actually takes confidence to be this understated, I think. Tom McCarthy’s direction isn’t slickly shot and edited to make the story seem like a whizz-bang fast-paced thriller; nor is it affectedly artistic or indie, the kind of style this sort of low-to-mid-budget drama often resorts to nowadays. Talking around tablesInstead, it lets the story and the events speak for themselves, with the screenplay being the real powerhouse here. On that scale the directing isn’t even in second place. That’d be the performances, as the actors carry the delivery of information while still feeling like human beings pursuing an investigation, rather than mere narrators of what they discovered. McCarthy’s work is therefore the kind of helmsmanship that wouldn’t attract awards attention, except maybe by association with the film’s overall acclaim (he did get nominations, but the cynical side of me doubts awards bodies genuinely appreciated the qualities of what they were watching). Nonetheless, awards are not the be-all-and-end-all, and the low-impact style was surely the right way to go. This is a tale bigger than auteurist showboating, and McCarthy handles it with appropriate respect.

I think the perceived lack of characterisation for the journalists is due to similar reasons — both that the film has different fish to fry, and also that it goes about such business with greater subtlety. Personally, I think you come away with a really good sense of who these men and women are as people; at the very least, how they are in their work environment, which at the end of the day is where we’re observing them. This is accumulated through how they behave in interviews and meetings, how they react to developments and revelations, how they do their jobs. It’s good writing and good acting, because there are no scenes devoted to merely “exploring character” or whatever. There are allusions to their private lives without making them full-blown subplots, and that’s a good thing — this tale doesn’t need embellishing with a shoehorned romance or a failing marriage. That said, Walking down corridorsthis is also perhaps where the film’s only egregious bum note comes in: Ruffalo’s shouty speech about how they need to go to press now, which was naturally used across all the trailers and clips. It feels like that is precisely what that speech was designed for — that it was written, directed, and acted with the “here’s our big dramatic trailer moment” in mind. It’s not entirely out of character in context, but it is a bit much.

One reason it feels out of place is that the film perhaps hasn’t quite whipped up our fury at the situation to the same level. That’s not to say it’s soft on it — there are horrifying tales and facts related — but while the film is about historic Catholic abuse, it’s really about journalism. Other critics of the movie accuse it of telling the abuse story in a way that could be better covered through a documentary or reading a Wikipedia article, but I think that misses what makes Spotlight really tick. It’s the process the journalists go through — how they uncover the story as much as what they uncover — that the film is demonstrating for us. Sure, you can read a Wikipedia article to find out what they unearthed, but without them unearthing it in the first place there’d be no Wikipedia article to read. That’s what the film is really about. These events happened 15 years ago; the truth they outed has been a massive story ever since — that’s not something that needs fresh exposure (other than it never hurting to remind people). But as the world moves away from proper journalism, into the realm of amateur bloggers rehashing press releases and ‘professional’ organisations running endless clickbait listicles because that’s where the advertising revenue is, it’s a timely reminder that it’s this kind of proper, old-fashioned journalism that can expose massive, important issues; issues that you might think the police or legal system should expose, but which they’re sometimes (maybe even often) complicit in.

Talking at desksSo was it the best film of last year? Perhaps that depends what you look for in movies. As much as I think the understatement fits, I also think it’s what stops it from being as cinematically exciting as, say, the visually-driven hyper-kinetic storytelling of Fury Road. But to focus too much on the deservingness or otherwise of awards is to miss the point. Much like it doesn’t need flashy camerawork or editing, or diversions into the characters’ private lives, so Spotlight doesn’t need awards to make you pay attention. It’s a story about the importance of independent investigation, told in a strong but no-frills fashion that befits the weight of the material.

5 out of 5

Spotlight is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

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Begin Again (2013)

2015 #188
John Carney | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Once’s writer-director returns with a film that could’ve been dubbed Once 2: New York.

Mark Ruffalo’s out-of-favour record exec discovers Keira Knightley’s singer-songwriter, stranded after her ex became a hit. Convinced she could salvage his career, he persuades her to record an album. They bond; will there be romance?

The songs aren’t as catchy (though some are decent) and the shape of the story is overfamiliar, but likeable performances from the stars, plus James Corden and Hailee Seinfeld, keep Begin Again a pleasant experience — albeit one that occurs more in the imagination of dreamy creative types than the real world.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

2015 #130
Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Foxcatcher (2014)

2015 #136
Bennett Miller | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The director of Capote returns with another true-crime tale. Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) feels overshadowed professionally by his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), so when John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), heir of the richest family in America, offers his support in the run up to the 1988 Olympic Games, Mark eagerly accepts. Moving to special facilities constructed on the Du Ponts’ Foxcatcher estate, Mark soon finds himself in an odd symbiotic relationship with John, which turns increasingly sour when Dave is finally persuaded to join their team.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because I was too young to be cognisant of events surrounding an Olympic Games held 27 years ago (the story’s climactic events actually occurred a few years later, but still), but I didn’t know what striking event happened at the end of Foxcatcher, just that something did. That tension — knowing something significant happens, but not what it is — lends the film a little air of the thriller. However, that angle is something entirely brought by myself (and anyone else who doesn’t know the story). The film itself is ‘just’ a character drama.

Fortunately, it has three leads who are up to carrying a narrative of that nature. In a rare dramatic role, and lumbered with a hefty prosthetic noise, Carrell’s John Du Pont almost feels like a caricature rather than a plausible human being… but apparently the film has actually toned down how odd the man was, so what are you gonna do? It’s a memorable performance none the less. Tatum is an understated lead, demonstrating he’s a better actor than you might expect as he displays emotional complexities in a man who doesn’t seem especially emotionally complex. Showing a character struggling with feelings he probably doesn’t quite understand is quite a feat, especially when it’s not explicitly conveyed in dialogue, so applause for Tatum there. Ruffalo, meanwhile, provides typically strong support, embodying a wrestler — right down to a very specific, unusual way of carrying himself — from the guy who plays Bruce Banner rather than the Hulk.

Unfortunately, for all their effort, the film is a little lacking in insight. Reading up some afterwards, it seems no one knows the true motivations behind the aforementioned surprising events, so it’s left to screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, and director Bennett Miller (for whom this story was something of a passion project), to posit any explanations. They do this subtly, leaving it up to the viewer to read what they want — or can — into everyone’s actions. However, it’s an issue that some facts have been bent to make for a more succinct narrative, making one wonder if anything the film may suggest is consequently wide of the mark.

As it finally shakes out, Foxcatcher is a solid movie, and certainly worth a look, but only really for the performances and the passing interest of finding out what happened, if you don’t already know.

4 out of 5

Now You See Me (2013)

2015 #79
Louis Leterrier | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 12 / PG-13

Louis Leterrier, helmer of the Clash of the Titans remake everyone would rather forget and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie everyone does forget, directs this magic-inspired thriller — a film all about misdirection that pretty successfully pulls off one of its own.

Four low-key magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious, unseen other to stage a massive Las Vegas show, in which they teleport an audience member to a bank in Paris and rob it. But they didn’t, of course, because magic isn’t real. Or did they? So begins a cat-and-mouse tale, as the FBI (represented by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (represented by Mélanie Laurent) chase their ever-mounting criminal campaign, followed by a magic debunker (Morgan Freeman) and big-money investor (Michael Caine).

Really, the whole film works on many of the same principles as a magic show: it’s there to dazzle you, confound you, make you guess how the tricks were done. That there’s eventually a reveal and a twist is an end unto itself, regardless of the believability of the plot or the depth of the characters (neither of which you get in most magic shows, of course). Personally, I love magic, and I love finding out the truth behind it, so both of those boxes were ticked for me. OK, this isn’t real magic, a fact only emphasised by an over-reliance on CGI at times; but it plays by enough of the right rules to work for most of its running time.

That seems to have made it pretty divisive, however. Reading online comments, it’s a real love-it-or-hate-it movie, in quite a literal sense — some people properly despise it. Their criticisms aren’t wholly unfounded: the characters are thin; at times it’s unclear which side we’re meant to be following or most invested in; the use of CGI in the magic somewhat undermines it; a good deal of the plot stretches credibility. Conversely, the credibility is questionable from very early on, so the counterargument goes that it’s the whole MO of the film — you don’t complain about Iron Man not being possible in real life, do you?

The biggest flaw is perhaps that of the characters and the issue of whose side we’re meant to be on: at times it seems like we’re meant to consider the magicians the good guys; at others, the agents chasing them. Does the film want to have it both ways? It can’t, either because that’s never possible or because Leterrier and co aren’t up to pulling it off. Nonetheless, there’s not enough time invested in any of the characters. When at the end one of the magicians comments that they’ve “had an incredible year together”, we just have to take them at their word because we’ve not seen any of it, not even a montage. That preserves the film’s mysteries, but when every character is hiding something — or if they’re not, we need to suspect they might be — it’s hard to relate to any of them. For me this isn’t a huge issue — I can live without likeable or engaging characters when the film has other stuff going on — but I know it’s a deal-breaker for some.

If nothing else, the film is slickly made, the camerawork and editing swish and flashy in a good way. Again, some people don’t approve of this aspect, but I don’t quite understand people who criticise it. I don’t mean people who criticise the film for just being those things, people who want it to offer more in terms of character or plot because they think it’s lacking — that’s a fair enough accusation. But why is a slick/swish/flashy style inherently bad in and of itself? Such a style certainly fits the magic world. I guess it’s just not to everyone’s taste.

Ultimately, Now You See Me is no more than an entertaining thrill ride; the kind of film that races breathlessly ahead so as you don’t have time to think too deeply about its mysteries, or its plot holes. Clearly it’s an experience you have to get on board with or you’ll loathe it, but, personally, I was entertained and thrilled.

4 out of 5

Jesse Eisenberg’s new movie, American Ultra, is flopping in the US now and out in UK cinemas from September 4th.

Shutter Island (2010)

2015 #73
Martin Scorsese | 138 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Shutter IslandAdapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane (whose work also inspired Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone), the fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio stars the latter as US Marshal Edward Daniels, who in 1954 is dispatched with this new partner (Mark Ruffalo) to the Ashecliffe facility on the titular island, a prison/hospital for violent, mentally ill criminals run by Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow), where one of the patients has disappeared from her locked room. Her presumed escape seems to be impossible, the staff are remarkably unhelpful, and Daniels has a theory about something much darker and more sinister being conducted on the island… Naturally there’s an almighty twist, which will either keep you guessing or you’ll spot early on so you can brag about how you thought it was very predictable in order to make yourself look big and clever on online comment sections (because that works).

In fairness, the twist — or, at least, key elements of it — are fairly guessable if you’re playing that game. Equally, the film leaves enough doors of possibility open that if you set your heart on one answer (even the right one) then you’re perhaps being a bit blinkered and not indulging in the fun of being strung along by a well-built mystery. And as I always say, most twists are only “predictable” if you predicted the right thing. The mystery certainly kept me engrossed and guessing. I did suspect certain things that turned out to be correct, but there were enough other possibilities floating around that I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs waiting for the reveal.

US MarshalsBesides, the film has other delights beyond being an elaborate guessing game. One of the things Lehane set out to do in his novel was write “a gothic”, and Scorsese and co have taken that ball and run with it. It’s overflowing with a fantastic atmosphere: unsettling, creepy, chilling, horror-movie scary when needed (some sequences are properly hair-raising); truly gothic-feeling. Every aspect of filmmaking — the direction, the photography, the editing, the sets and locations, the music — work in harmony to create a coherent mood.

To single out two, it’s gorgeously shot by Robert Richardson. There are a couple of dream sequences that are a show-off for that kind of thing, but it’s true more widely, the storm-bedevilled island presenting a rewardingly overcast palette. There are instances of what one might call dodgy green screen… but, combined with the continuity-troubled editing, I sense it may’ve been a conscious choice to enhance the disquieting sensation (the editing is certainly deliberate — that some commenters seem to believe Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker could make so many basic errors is bizarre).

The second is the music, put together by Robbie Robertson. Scorsese and Robertson decided against a traditional score, instead choosing to compile fragments of other works (many of them anachronistic) and chop them up in different ways. It’s probably to Robertson’s credit that it doesn’t feel like a jukebox soundtrack; indeed, I assumed it did have a fully composed score, and really rather liked parts of it.

Thoughtful LeoAnd then, after Scorsese and co have done their best to shred your nerves, in the final half-hour the pathos is immense. Quite without realising it had brought me to that point, I had a tear in my eye. This is in part thanks to some great performances, though you do need to reach the twist to fully appreciate them. Everyone reveals more levels once you know it, and indeed it’s clear a great amount of effort went into ensuring re-watchability — that if you view it again knowing the answers, you can spot things; not clues, per se, but elements in the performance, the design, the staging, that tie in to the reveal.

DiCaprio has the showiest performance, though he never goes too far with it — it’s resolutely plausible at all times. Ruffalo may give the best turn of them all, in retrospect — if you watch it a second time (or, for a quick fix, check out the clip-laden making-of documentaries where they discuss the acting), you can really see what he’s doing. Kingsley, too, who without changing his performance is both threatening and kindly.

Incidentally, reviews criticise the brevity of the documentaries on the Blu-ray, but with over half-an-hour of content they could be considerably worse, and they’re quite focused — I learnt a lot from them. No, you’re not getting a scene-by-scene breakdown like you would in an audio commentary, and there’s minimal detail on the usual moviemaking details, but there’s a solid overview of the film’s themes and how they were translated to the screen.

All is not as it seemsI think the more you let Shutter Island percolate after it’s over, the better it becomes. Solving the mystery and guessing at the twists occupies so much of your time on a first viewing that you almost miss the details in the characters and the world, but they build up nonetheless. There’s layers and depth here, and a plausibly realistic depiction (even according to an expert) of something that’s incredibly hard to depict in fiction. You can view Shutter Island as just an atmospheric gothic mystery chiller, and as that it’s a quality piece of work, but it’s the extra depth that mark it out as, actually, a great movie.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Shutter Island is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

Shutter Island placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

The Brothers Bloom (2008)

2011 #84
Rian Johnson | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Brothers Bloom“Crikey, time flies!” I thought when I compiled this listing and saw that The Brothers Bloom was released in 2008. Somehow it felt like it was only last year, not three (or, if at the start of 2008, closer to four) years ago.

Then I happened to spot the UK release date on IMDb: June 2010. That explains that then.

From the director of the acquired taste that was Brick, The Brothers Bloom looks like it might be a little more mainstream: it’s got a lead cast who are all Oscar nominees, and half of them winners too, and it has a con/heist plot — always popular — and a light tone — a very funny and enjoyable trailer, I thought. But while it’s not as specialised as Brick’s near-impenetrable dialogue and considered (over-considered?) tone, it’s certainly Quirky.

The capital Q may give a clue that I think it may be too forcibly quirky at times. Genuine quirkiness can be a lot of fun, though there’ll always be people who don’t get it, but if you force it then it comes across as weird; silliness for the sake of silliness; trying to be Cool. I don’t think Bloom goes quite that far, but I did feel those involved were trying too hard.

Despite that, it can be surprisingly dramatic in places, at least more so than the trailer suggested. It’s not quite as all-out-fun as it looked… The titular Brothersbut then the job of a trailer is to sell you a film, so if the end result doesn’t match it 100% is that a failing? How are you meant to summarise the entire tone of a film in a two-minute spoiler-free sales burst anyway? That dilemma is emphasised in this case because it’s the opening that feels least like the trailer. I mean, the pre-titles is kinda quirky-fun, but then it gets a little serious and slow, and later — perhaps half-an-hour or three-quarters of an hour in — you get to all the stuff the trailer was selling. And then the last act is back to something more unusually — or, if we’re to be unkind, unevenly — paced and toned. I can imagine the marketing meetings for this were a struggle…

Despite (or perhaps because of) all those shifts, it drags a bit at times, but it still has lots of amusing, quirky and fun moments to help make up for that.

I’d heard the last act was incredibly twisty; too twisty, according to some. Perhaps it was because I read that and was prepared, but I didn’t find it to be so. It has twists, sure, but this is a con movie — con movies have twists. That’s almost the point. They weren’t all the twists I was expecting either, which is probably a good thing.

The cast of the conPerhaps the problem for others was that the ending doesn’t quite spell everything out. I’m certain every question you might have is answered, more or less, but it doesn’t lead you by the hand back over the film pointing everything out, as many twist-ending-ed films do. Part of me appreciates this assumption of intelligence; part of me would like it all handily explained so I don’t sit here wondering it for myself. I don’t feel completely lump-headed not wanting to do that — there’s no Deeper Meaning or Philosophical Insight gained from sorting this out, I don’t believe; just an understanding of who was being conned and when, and who knew what and why.

I score most films right after watching them, even if I don’t post the review for many months. I thought I’d given The Brothers Bloom a three, but coming to write this I find it has a four. Make of that what you will.

4 out of 5

Zodiac: Director’s Cut (2007/2008)

2011 #16c
David Fincher | 163 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Zodiac: Director's CutHow time flies — I’ve been meaning to re-watch Zodiac ever since I first saw it, but as it turns out it’s taken me 2½ years! It doesn’t seem that long. (Maybe this in some way explains why watching 100 films in a whole year (when at least two blogs have sprung up recently merrily — and, thus far, successfully — attempting it in 100 days) is a challenge to me.)

This time round I’m watching the Director’s Cut version of the film (you may’ve guessed). What’s different? Very little. It’s not just because I haven’t watched it for so long that the changes passed by unnoticed: five minutes of new material comes mostly in 15-second-ish snippets of dialogue. The most significant addition lasts just over two minutes, detailing everything the police have against a key suspect, while the others that contain particularly memorable material are 43 seconds of Avery’s gradual descent into alcoholism and a 59-second extension to the black-screen news montage. As ever, timings and details are courtesy of Movie-Censorship.com. Note that Fincher also deleted a whole four seconds from the theatrical version, plus the end credits are now more complete. Clearly this material wasn’t missed in the theatrical version, but considered in isolation you can see most of it brings something to the film, be that a spot of humour, a character beat or added clarity to the investigation.

Zodiac researchAs the changes have little impact on the film’s fundamental quality, the points in my original review still stand (if you do read it, just skip the first paragraph — it’s waffly and unrelated). That was quite short, though, so a few extra points I’d like to make after watching it again follow.

The film is incredibly well researched and consequently very fact-based, almost more like a documentary rather than a drama in places. Some might say it’s dry, but the case is so enthralling that it needs to do little more in my opinion — it had me thoroughly glued to my seat, both times. However much I love long movies, there are few that can keep me completely engrossed throughout every minute, but Zodiac is such a film. Besides which, there are little touches of humanity and character peppered throughout, mainly about Graysmith — his kids, meeting his second wife, the eventual breakdown of their relationship — but also for the likes of Avery, showing his slide from popular hot-shot who became part of the story to a forgotten alcohol-soaked has-been.

It’s also an unusual serial killer film narrative. Partly because the killer is never officially caught — that’s just the truth; and anyway, by the end there seems little doubt about who did it. Questions still hang over the conclusion — handwriting samples, a 2003 DNA test, etc. — Averybut the sheer weight of evidence the other way seems to leave little room for doubt. More so, then, is that the murders are done with before the halfway mark. That’s because it’s still following the story of the investigation, true, but a lesser filmmaker could have weighted it differently, rushing through Graysmith’s later enquiries in a speedy third act. Instead, Fincher’s focus throughout is on the people looking into the crime, and it’s as much the tale of their obsession — and what it takes to break their obsession, be it weariness or pushing through ’til the final answer — as it is the tale of a serial killer.

Despite this atypicality, there are still some properly chilling scenes. Best — by which, all things considered, I mean “worst”; or, rather, “most scary” — of all is Graysmith’s visit to the house of a suspect’s friend, Bob Vaughn, at which point a series of revelations question who exactly should be under suspicion. Knowing that what we see actually happened too… why, it’s the kind of scene to haunt your nightmares. Another review describes it as “one of the single most chilling scenes ever committed to film” and I’m inclined to agree.

Another triumph of direction comes in how effectively Fincher conveys the time periods the film crosses using relatively subtle means: popular music, appearing in snatches in the background rather than blaring out at us; the actual passage of time with time-lapse shots of a skyscraper being constructed or an audio montage of the major news in a skipped period; Chillingand place-and-time subtitles too, but hey, sometimes you need specificity.

Despite the minimal number of changes, the Director’s Cut of Zodiac is certainly the superior version. Not by a lot, obviously, but if you had to choose between the two, everything else being equal, then it’s the Director’s Cut to go with. And it’s still an exceptional film, one of the very best I’ve seen in this blog’s lifetime.

5 out of 5

I watched the Zodiac: Director’s Cut as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

Zodiac (2007)

2008 #64
David Fincher | 151 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Context time: I’m a David Fincher fan. Se7en and Fight Club number among my favourite films of all time; I’ve always found The Game to be an immensely enjoyable thriller; much the same can be said of Panic Room, especially the famous slow motion sequence, which is one of my favourite action scenes ever; and I love The Hire series of short films, which Fincher produced but (sadly) never directed. I’ve never seen Alien³ (or Aliens, or any other entry in that series bar Ridley Scott’s first for that matter), but considering its troubled production history one might say it barely counts. All this considered, why’s it taken me so long to see Zodiac? Well, laziness, to be honest, but I’m here now. And unlike another recently-viewed highly-anticipated film (namely, Southland Tales), this was more than worth the wait.

As other reviews have pointed out, Zodiac is really a film about obsession, and it makes for as engrossing a tale as the case was for those investigating it. In following the story the film chooses to eschew normal structural niceties for fact-following, yet structure is never a problem. Yes, it jumps from character to character, and if you step back and analyse it that’s odd, but while watching it doesn’t matter one jot — this is more like real life than some shallow crime thriller dependent on a twist ending. That level of realism is key throughout, be it the period detail or the exemplary performances — both are excellent and accurate without being showy. Much like Fincher’s direction, in fact, which is appropriately more restrained than usual, though he can still display a suitable level of flair when warranted.

Some have called it slow, even dull, but I was totally engrossed throughout and never overwhelmed by the number of facts being thrown around — and I was watching it in the middle of the night when I should have been asleep. At 5AM, when it finally ended, I was even wishing there was more. (It seems a shame that the recently-released (in the UK) director’s cut adds barely five minutes.) It does exactly what it aims to: it’s not about the killer’s mind and it’s not a whodunnit; it’s about procedure, obsession, and how one deals with an unsolved mystery. The fact it isn’t definitively solved — and yet, for all the characters, there’s a way out or a solution that satisfies them — is possibly the most telling part of the whole film.

After the disappointment of the long-awaited Southland Tales, it’s especially pleasing that the long-awaited Zodiac is such a triumph. It’s easily up there with Fight Club and Se7en, and perhaps even surpasses them both. My most unreserved full marks since Dark City.

5 out of 5

Zodiac placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.

My more thorough review of the Zodiac: Director’s Cut can now be read here.