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And Now For Something (Kinda) Completely Different…

Jeff Lester

Still working on my reviews for Part II, but since I did just see five movies in five days, why don’t I try something a little different? In the order I watched ’em (and maybe a little spoilery):

TENACIOUS D AND THE PICK OF DESTINY: As the great John Kricfalusi opening made clear, my wife and I were not the target audience for this as we weren’t even slightly stoned. After a brilliant first ten minutes (I think they should have gone faux rock opera for the entire thing), the movie settles down to being an extended Tenacious D sketch with a decent story hook and okay execution. I think if I had been baked, I might have died laughing at Sasquatch/strawberry river sequence (which almost killed me as it was) and there’s two or three bits I really enjoyed, but this was OK, no better and no worse. Consdering my opinion of Hollywood comedies, however, that’s comparatively high praise.

ZODIAC: As a San Franciscan who twice read the book (although probably over a decade ago) this was based on, I thought this David Fincher flick did a great job of telling the facts, nailing most of the small details, and rolling at a good clip without falling back on manufactured shocks or typical Hollywood moments (considering the movie is over two and a half hours that’s a considerable achievement). There’s the occasional strange choice (Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo each seem to age about a week over the course of 15+ years, presumably to avoid distracting the audience with weird make-up changes, and yet Anthony Edwards is filmed throughout with an old gray cat disguised as a wig sleeping on his head) but nothing horrible, and it’s laudable how Fincher takes real life material and doesn’t go for a cheap hammering home of his theme.

Nonetheless, it’s pretty easy to walk out of the theater wondering what the hell the point was, and it’s tempting to conclude that Fincher didn’t have one. Thematically, Fincher’s an oddball director–his movies are always technically stunning but it’s hard to talk about, say, the themes of Panic Room without feeling like a pretentious dumbass–yet I’d argue his movies feature protagonists unable to either completely withdraw or completely engage with the culture around them and forced at the end to acknowledge the neurosis/psychosis/devouring-alien-within that causes this inability.

And so, in Zodiac, we have three ordinary men (Toschi the cop, Avery the reporter, Graysmith the cartoonist) driven to hunt the Zodiac at the risk of losing their humanity (much is made of the story/film “The Most Dangerous Game” where we are told repeatedly that “to hunt man is to hunt the most dangerous game of all”) but, since this is real life, it’s arguable whether any of them men lose anything other than a certain amount of sleep and a certain number of years, before ultimately resuming their lives on the same paths they would’ve pursued anyway.

In fact, it seems likely that Zodiac killer himself is the closest thing the movie has to a standard Fincher protagonist, and considering how rarely he appears in the movie, we’re left–quite deliberately, I think–to see him only in how he affects the world around him. And if there’s a part where Zodiac falls short, it’s precisely there; despite all the beautiful, telling details and one breathtaking sequence to show the passage of time, Fincher doesn’t (and maybe can’t) show how the Zodiac killer changes the world around him–how his appearance heralds the end of the peace-and-love Sixties and ushers in the lock-your-doors paranoia of the Seventies–because it’s too big a change to catch on film (you get a sense of this at the Dirty Harry premiere, and it’s great). All he can really do is use Donovan’s “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” to suggest everything he can’t show, which for some of us may be enough. I’ve had that damned song stuck in my head all week now and it’s creeping me out.

So, yeah, Zodiac‘s Good, not great. And unless Alan Moore decides to do “From Hell II” about the Zodiac killer, it’s probably going to be about as good as we’re going to get.

BABEL: Babel is like a two hour AT&T commercial that wants to hurt you. Although it proclaims itself to be an examination of the universality of human hope and suffering, Babel‘s main argument seems to be that Americans are a bunch of entitled, self-absorbed whiney-woos who freak out at the slightest bit of disaster and so indirectly cause children to be shot and housekeepers to be deported after spending nightmarish nights wandering about in the desert. If they hadn’t made this case in the broadest, emotionally manipulative way possible, I would’ve found it easier to agree.

Also, watching Cate Blanchett act in a scene with Brad Pitt is like watching a woman play handball against a very attractive, artificially aged wall.

Also, apparently you can be a beautiful sex-crazed Japanese teenage girl in Tokyo and still not get laid. On this point, Japanese pornographic manga has dramatically misled me.

Lovely to look at, but it’s not gonna make me break out 21 Grams anytime soon. Eh.

ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW: It can be a challenge to find movies to watch with Edi since she finds most of my DVD library inaccessible or unsavory (she wasn’t nearly as happy when I came home with a digitally remasterd copy of Bullet In The Head as I was, for example) so I figured this acclaimed indie film might make a good flick for the two of us. I thought it was a little bit like an early Jeffrey Brown comic–twee, self-conscious, but occasionally tremendously moving–if instead of scratchy, sketchy drawings you had gorgeously composed camera shots. Despite a lot of the scenes feeling like they were alternate transmissions from Planet Retard, this had some good laughs, gorgeous images, and something to say. We could’ve done worse. OK.

300: Hugely entertaining, even more so than the original work by Miller which I never took to (it was few more years before I realized that Miller had abandoned depth, or at least the illusion of it, for tone–which tells you how I can really be the last one to get the memo sometimes). This sucker is filled with enough gratuitous blood spatter, battle elephants, ninjas and gorgeous visuals to make up for any hunger one might have for plot, characterization or consistency (I love how Leonidas explains the strategy of the phalanx, but the movie continually has the Spartans abandon it so it can have all the bloody slow-mo stabbity-stab it desires). There is a chewy layer of subtext when the movie’s considered in the context of current events, and I admit that if the film had come out in, say, 2002, it would’ve worried the hell out of me, but in 2007, when the national response to war and bloodshed is much more ambivalent, I can’t imagine it polarizing anyone except film dudes looking to squabble about whether it’s better than Gladiator. (I say yes, by the way, if for no other reason than as soon as 300 starts to get old, it’s over 20 minutes later.)

In fact, I walked out admiring the film for sticking to its guns (gaudy, Abercrombie-&-Fitch-meets-Triumph-Of-The Will shaded guns though they may be) and telling a brutally simple story so directly (but with such gorgeously complex execution). Plus, this movie will singlehandedly increase guy-on-guy experimentation by college dudes by twenty percent and that’s probably a good thing. Far from a great movie, but I had a highly Good time watching it.

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