Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • Partners in Crime… (2012)
  • Charlie Bartlett (2007)
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)


    Partners in Crime…
    (2012)

    aka Associés contre le crime… “L’œuf d’Ambroise”

    2016 #189
    Pascal Thomas | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France / French & Italian | 12

    Partners in Crime…

    André Dussollier and Catherine Frot star as Agatha Christie’s married investigators Tommy and Tuppence (here renamed Bélisaire and Prudence) in this third in a series of French adaptations of Christie stories (best I can tell, the first two aren’t readily available in English-friendly versions).

    Based on the short story The Case of the Missing Lady, it sees Tommy and Tuppence Bélisaire and Prudence investigating the disappearance of a Russian heiress at a suspicious health farm, while also quarrelling about their relationship. It’s very gentle comedy-drama, even by the standard of Christie adaptations, with a thin mystery, thin humour, and thin character drama, which all feels a little stretched over its not-that-long-but-too-long running time. I shan’t be seeking out its two antecedents.

    2 out of 5

    Charlie Bartlett
    (2007)

    2017 #9
    Jon Poll | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Charlie Bartlett

    Anton Yelchin is the eponymous rich kid trying to fit in at a regular high school, which he does by becoming an amateur psychiatrist to his classmates, in a comedy-drama that plays as the ’00s answer to Ferris Bueller. It starts out feeling rather formulaic and predictable, running on familiar high school movie characters and tropes, but later develops into something quite emotional. It’s powered by excellent performances from Yelchin and Robert Downey Jr, as the school’s unpopular and unprepared principal.

    4 out of 5

    Florence Foster Jenkins
    (2016)

    2017 #34
    Stephen Frears | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG / PG-13

    Florence Foster Jenkins

    Try to ignore the fact Meryl Streep nabbed an Oscar nomination away from someone more deserving (for example, Amy Adams. Well, no, definitely Amy Adams), and she gives a good turn as the titular society lady who couldn’t sing for toffee but thought she was fantastic, and used her wealth and influence to launch a concert career. She’s only enabled by her doting… assistant? Lover? Husband? You know, the film blurs that line (deliberately, I think) and I’ve forgotten what he was. Anyway, he’s played by Hugh Grant, who is also good.

    It’s a gently funny comedy, as you’d expect from the subject matter, but one that reveals a surprising amount of heart and depth through Florence’s attitude to life, as well as how her men (who also include The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as the third lead; also good) attempt to care for her needs.

    4 out of 5

  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #49

    Sex. Murder. Mystery.
    Welcome to the party.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 103 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R

    Original Release: 14th September 2005 (France)
    US Release: 21st October 2005
    UK Release: 11th November 2005
    First Seen: cinema, 2005

    Stars
    Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin, Zodiac)
    Val Kilmer (Top Gun, Batman Forever)
    Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible III, Source Code)

    Director
    Shane Black (Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys)

    Screenwriter
    Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout)

    Based on
    Bodies Are Where You Find Them, a novel by Brett Halliday.

    The Story
    After accidentally getting cast in a movie, fugitive crook Harry Lockhart is given on-the-job experience with private eye ‘Gay’ Perry van Shrike. When the pair become witnesses to a murder that it looks like they committed, they become embroiled in a conspiracy that they’ll have to untangle to save themselves.

    Our Heroes
    Harry Lockhart is our narrator: a crappy thief who stumbles into an acting audition while on the run from the cops, and ends up whisked off to Hollywood to play the lead in a mystery movie. To help him prepare for the role he shadows Gay Perry, a top L.A. P.I., who’s consistently, hilariously sarcastic. Also, homosexual.

    Our Villains
    It’s a murder mystery, so, that’s kind of a spoiler. Also: almost not the point.

    Best Supporting Character
    Harry happens to run into his childhood crush Harmony Lane, now working as a waitress in L.A. Soon she’s asking him to investigate her sister’s recent suicide, which she thinks was actually a murder. That subplot isn’t at all related to the main case. Nope.

    Memorable Quote
    Perry: “Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.”
    Harry: “Bad.”
    Perry: “Excuse me?”
    Harry: “Sleep bad. Otherwise it makes it seem like the mechanism that allows you to sleep—”
    Perry: “What, fuckhead? Who taught you grammar? Badly’s an adverb. Get out. Vanish.”

    Memorable Scene
    Arriving back at his hotel room after they’ve witnessed the murder, Harry goes into the bathroom to take a leak. As he’s doing that, he glances round… and sees the girl’s body in the shower. He turns to look at it in shock… and pisses all over it. Cue hilarious exchange when he phones Perry for help.

    Awards
    5 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (Robert Downey Jr.), Supporting Actor (Val Kilmer), Supporting Actress (Michelle Monaghan), Music)
    1 Phoenix Film Critics Society Award (Overlooked Film of the Year)

    What the Critics Said
    “the plot of the film is almost willfully convoluted. But it’s also largely beside the point, an excuse for quite a few good scenes, most of them equal parts homage and subversion. The familiar ingredients of the hard-boiled school (and the noir cinema it spawned) are all here: the half-glittering, half-seedy L.A. setting; the protagonist’s expository voiceover; the jaded but ultimately decent private eye; the dead body that mysteriously turns up exactly where it’s not wanted. But Black gives each element a satiric twist: the tough shamus is gay; the corpse is discovered in a bathroom and accidentally peed on; the first-person narrator is not so much unreliable as simply incompetent.” — Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

    Score: 85%

    What the Public Say
    “What’s unexpected about the movie is just how funny it is despite all the graphic murder, incest, torture, suicide, and dismemberment that occurs. […] Black effortlessly moves between legitimately realistic, unsettling violence (a murder witnessed by Harry midway through the film is a prime example of this) to wacky, slapstick violence (a late-in-the-movie Russian Roulette-style interrogation that does not, shall we say, go particularly well, for instance) without ever losing his balance. The real joy of the movie, though, is watching Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. bounce off one another.” — Jake Farley, 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective

    Verdict

    One-time “highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood” Shane Black made his directorial debut with this satirical neo-noir, which can be credited with reviving Robert Downey Jr’s career for the third or fourth time (it led directly to him being cast in Iron Man). The film’s best quality is probably its humorous dialogue — choosing just one memorable quote was hard, though many come in lengthy exchanges. Downey Jr is hilarious, of course, but even he’s outmatched by Val Kilmer as sarky investigator Gay Perry. Even more impressively, love interest Michelle Monaghan holds her own against them both. The plot may be so confusing it’s easily forgotten, but the whodunnit reveal is beside the point when the journey there is so entertaining.

    #50 will… retrace each and every one of the Baudelaire children’s woeful steps.

    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.

    Tropic Thunder: Director’s Cut (2008)

    2015 #24
    Ben Stiller | 116 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English & Mandarin | 15

    Tropic Thunder: Director's CutA bunch of obstreperous actors are too much to handle for the director of a Vietnam war movie, so he dumps them in the jungle to shoot it with hidden cameras. Things go awry; hilarity ensues.

    Conceived by co-writer/director Ben Stiller in the ’80s when all his actor friends were in war movies, “struggling” with training boot camps that made them feel like they were “really in the army”, the idea of skewering pretentious actors hasn’t dated in the intervening decades, though the specific targets may have been updated. De facto lead is Ben Stiller as a cheesy action star looking to go legit with a serious movie, but best is Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated turn as a Daniel Day-Lewis/Russell Crowe-type actor, who has an operation to dye his skin so he can play a black character. Less well-served among the leads is Jack Black, as the drug-addicted star of a series of ‘comedies’ based around fat suits and fart gags, who feels superfluous more often than not.

    Following events from the safety of Hollywood are a pre-McConaissance* Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s agent, and a Surprise Cameo™ as the film’s other best character, studio head Les Grossman (I imagine you’ve learnt who that is at some point in the last seven years, but in case not…) There’s an element of Hollywood-insider comedy to some parts of this, I suppose, but the characters are broad enough to generate laughs from a wider audience too.

    Character buildingThe film may run a little long in the middle, though I don’t think that’s the fault of this extended cut. It adds just over 17 minutes across many little changes and extensions according to movie-censorship.com, but the most notable of these are character-building beats that struck me as fairly worthwhile. Nonetheless, it’s not so padded that it outstays its welcome, generating pretty consistent laughs.

    While not all the gags or characters may land, there’s enough that works (mainly thanks to Downey Jr and Mr Surprise Cameo™) to render Tropic Thunder a jocular pillorying of The Movies.

    4 out of 5

    * I would like to apologise now for using that term. ^

    Iron Man 2 (2010)

    2011 #56
    Jon Favreau | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / PG-13

    With Thor out a couple of weeks ago and Pirates of the Caribbean 4 just hitting cinemas, 2011’s blockbuster season is well and truly underway. While you all head out to the cinema and enjoy this year’s delights (or disasters), I intend to do some catching up on the tonne of stuff I’ve missed from the last year or two (or three, or more).

    Starting, naturally, here…

    Iron Man 2I’ve always contended that the first Iron Man film was overrated. That’s not to say it was a bad film — I gave it four stars and, having re-watched recently, I liked it even more — but I think it took critics and audiences by surprise and that led to a level of praise from both sets that was unduly high. It’s not unreasonable: who would’ve expected anything special from the movie adaptation of a B-list superhero, helmed by a low-recognition director, starring a one-time leading man just about on his comeback? When it turned out to be both fun and funny, I think people overreacted. I saw it later, after hearing all that praise, so I think (without wishing to sound immodest) my view was slightly more tempered.

    It’s for similar reasons I think Iron Man 2 has been underrated — I would contend that it is, more or less, as good as the first film. That didn’t seem to be the consensus at the time of release, which ranged from mediocre to rubbish. I don’t agree at all — and, again, I think this is in part due to viewers’ expectations. When one thinks a first film is better than it is, expectations for the sequel are heightened; when said sequel is only as good as the first film really was, it looks a lot worse by comparison — it fails to reach the audience’s over-raised expectations.

    That’s my take, anyway. This being a review, I shall now offer more thoughts on why I think it’s a good action-adventure flick.

    Techy techFor starters, it relies on the story rather than the action. There are certainly some good sequences of the latter (more about those later), but there’s also a lot of story in between them — it’s not wall-to-wall explosions and punch-ups. Neither was the first, if you remember, and so it fits in that respect. It’s helped along by the ending of the first film, in which Tony Stark revealed he was Iron Man. That’s not something you do in superhero movies, which immediately lends this one a few new plot devices to play around with. Considering the burgeoning critical assessment that all superhero movies ever only tell the same two or three stories (an argument I think has a lot of validity), it’s nice to see anything to challenge the norm.

    So does the reliance on technology. Yes, Batman uses kit rather than powers gifted via supernatural or ‘scientific’ means, but even Christopher Nolan’s real-world version of that character takes the tech as read and gets on with some moral-based superhero antics. Iron Man does less of the hero stuff (see again: fewer action sequences; also, Stark’s self-centred character) and indulges a little more in arms-race tech-development, a very plausible side effect of this superset being unveiled to the world. The development of the technology is as much part of this story as the genre-typical mental anguish of the hero(es) and/or villain(s), which, again, makes it a little different.

    This time, Iron Man faces two enemies. A recipe for disaster, some would say — look at Batman & Robin or Spider-Man 3. That conveniently ignores Batman Returns or The Dark Knight though, doesn’t it. Here it works because they’re two notably different characters and they complement each other — Villainous Vankoit’s the Penguin and whover-Christopher-Walken’s-character-was rather than Mr Freeze and Poison Ivy, if you will. They play to different sides of the hero: one is fighting Stark, one Iron Man (though there is naturally crossover); though they’re both intelligent, one functions as the brains and the other as the brawn. Mickey Rourke may go slightly underused, but it’s also part of the character, a quiet, thoughtful, intelligent hulk partnered with Sam Rockwell’s jabbering wannabe-Stark.

    Turning to the action sequences, I think they’re better all round than the first film’s efforts. Iron Man comes up against things that are his match, rather than just the occasional virtually-unopposed rescue of a third-world village or what have you. The climax is certainly better than that in the original. Iron Man 1‘s climax was a brief encounter lacking punch, literally; here we have a more advanced villain with some variety in his weapons — it makes for a more visually interesting affair. Both films have been criticised for being just robot-on-robot fights, the same fault that riddled Transformers. I disagree. In Transformers you couldn’t tell who was who; in both Iron Mans, you can — that’s kinda important. Sure, a non-robot-suited villain would make even more of a change, but I don’t think it hampers this finale too much.

    I also wonder if some negative reaction stemmed from being shown too much in the trailers. I distinctly remember how underwhelming I found Wanted at the cinema because I felt like I’d seen it all; watched again later on Blu-ray, I enjoyed it a lot more. With Iron Man 2 I’m obviously distanced from trailers by a good year or so, and though one of their best moments is missing from the final cut, and the suitcase-suit is unavoidably spoilt by being so thoroughly screened during the promotion, watching now doesn’t have all the trailer-generated expectation to live up to. That famous Onion spoof about the first film’s trailer is, perhaps, even more applicable to the sequel.

    Despite that cut I mentioned (the whole little sequence where Pepper throws Iron Man’s helmet out of the plane, for the interested; which, actually, would make a nice counterpoint to one of the final scenes — maybe that cut is a fail after all), other nice moments abound — Rhodey’s opening line, for instance, which acknowledges the change in cast member without harping on about it. Admittedly, however, there’s no comic highlight quite as memorable as the best bits from the first film, though I did laugh out loud plenty often throughout (when I was meant to, I hasten to add).

    The greatest negative reaction, however, seemed to be reserved for one subplot: some called the film little more than a two-hour trailer for The Avengers. That’s unfair. Furious FuryAside from one unnecessary scene featuring Captain America’s shield and Agent Coulson leaving for New Mexico, and the fact that the film assumes everyone will know who Nick Fury is despite him being introduced fleetingly after the credits of the last film, the whole S.H.I.E.L.D./Avengers Initiative thing is worked into the plot well. If we didn’t know it was the beginning of the build-up to The Avengers, I think it would have sat much better with viewers. Even if it does end up blatantly laying the foundation for further stories, that’s hardly uncommon in franchise films of all kinds these days — at least we know this series will definitely pay it off, unlike so many franchise-wannabes that don’t make it past their first film. Plus, the film’s primary plot has its own villains and comes complete with a resolution; Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. and co are a subplot that feed other subplots.

    Naturally the film isn’t perfect — it’s a bit slow in the middle and some bits could stand to be chopped — but overall I think it stands up much better than the critical and audience consensus implied. While watching I kept waiting for it to turn sour; to suddenly see what everyone had moaned about. Halfway through the screen fades to black, then fades back up to introduce Nick Fury — “oh, here we go,” I thought, “everyone moaned about the Avengers stuff; this must be where the whole film goes south; and handily marked by that fade too” — but no, I kept on enjoying it. The clock kept ticking, it kept not getting bad.

    I enjoyed Iron Man 2 more or less as much as I enjoyed Iron Man, and that’s rather a lot.

    4 out of 5

    Iron Man 2 begins on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:45pm and 8pm, and is on every day at various times until Thursday 26th May.

    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.