Friday, March 09, 2007

No clear signs in "Zodiac"; "Breach" shows bureaucratic face of evil


directed by David Fincher
starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, Philip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney, Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch, Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, many others

As serial killers go, the Zodiac, more than most, was a tease. At once maddeningly elusive and insatiably greedy for attention, the man who terrorized northern California throughout the 1970s committed three brutal sets of murders and claimed responsibility for many more that followed—yet no conclusive evidence has ever supported the majority of his claims. He loved puzzles and led police, press, and public a convoluted chase through a series of cryptograms laden with codes and allusions—yet none of his puzzles, even when solved, ever revealed anything substantive about his identity. He made threats on children that set the nerves of every Bay area parent permanently on edge—yet never made good on these threats.

Thus, the Zodiac is simultaneously one of the most fascinating and frustrating figures perhaps ever to be invoked on screen. Director David Fincher isn’t the first to try, but he may be the first who’s done justice to this dual quality of the very real murderer who’s also, in all senses, a mere tantalizing cipher. The result is a film that serves as both an advancement and a subtle critique of the flashy, hollow, and fundamentally tidy thrillers (“Seven,” “Fight Club,” “Panic Room”) that put Fincher on Hollywood’s “It” List.

However, it’s also a film that ultimately lacks a coherent sense of purpose. “Zodiac” may wear the (occasionally grisly) trappings of a killer-thriller or crime procedural, but because it’s based on an unsolved case, it doesn’t build towards resolution. Waves of tension crescendo ominously, only to subside without either pattern or release; promising leads are dropped, seemingly forgotten, then picked up again, only to end in a cold trail; while potentially crucial clues are only checked out for the first time years after they first came to light. All this is probably intended as a deliberate reflection of the effect the Zodiac killer had on the public consciousness over the course of two decades, and the messy, unwieldy nature of the investigation that failed to track him down. But its effect on the film is a recurring sense of deflation and a curious feeling of narrative aimlessness. Moreover, while Fincher seems to be principally interested in the psychological impact of the mystery on the men who became involved with it, he doesn’t altogether succeed in conveying why and how it affected them so profoundly.

Hard to say why. It’s certainly not for want of effort or talent in the acting department, though the actor who eventually emerges as the lead (Jake Gyllenhaal) is frankly the weakest link in the cast. Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, the editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle whose fascination with the Zodiac eventually led him to research and write the books on which the film was largely based. Gyllenhaal is appealing enough, and fits the bill initially as the fresh-faced, socially awkward Eagle Scout who wants to get to the bottom of the mystery. Unfortunately, his Graysmith never grows any older, either in appearance or in affect, which detracts from his portrait of a man who over the years gives himself over completely to his obsession.

For better or for worse, Gyllenhaal is consistently upstaged by both Mark Ruffalo, terrific as always as Dave Toschi, the slick yet conscientious celebrity cop assigned to investigate the Zodiac’s homicides, and Robert Downey, Jr. as Graysmith’s loose-cannon colleague Paul Avery, the slick yet conscientious reporter for the Chronicle whose gradual crackup—aided by alcoholism and substance abuse—seems to be related to his attempts to assert mastery over the Zodiac story. So we’re led to infer, anyway, yet the strength of Downey’s performance is never quite matched by the development of his character: there's no real illumination of what exactly about the case causes him to unravel. Ruffalo’s Toschi fares the best in this respect, bolstered by able supporting turns by the underrated Anthony Edwards as Toschi’s partner and Dermot Mulroney as their superior. Another standout is John Carroll Lynch as Arthur Leigh Allen, the prime suspect in the case, who has some riveting and memorably creepy scenes with both cops and with Graysmith.

Fincher pays meticulous homage to the films of the ’70s, most obviously “All the President’s Men,” and gets the period detail of the era down pat—from the drab hues of brown, yellow, and olive-green that furnished everything from bedroom to boardroom, to a truly hideous checked jacket that achieved the unthinkable feat of making me want to avert my eyes from Mark Ruffalo. Yet the movie, despite its ambitiousness and dour good looks, lacks the basic thrust that lay beneath the narrative and textural density of the classics it seems to salute. The problem may be that “Zodiac” is fundamentally a movie about getting bogged down; perhaps unavoidably, it succumbs to the force it seeks to explore.


Also saw:


directed by Billy Ray
starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Philippe, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert

Based on the true story of one of the most unfathomable turncoats in FBI history, “Breach” is, in every sense of the word, a solid movie: solidly conceived, solidly executed, solidly acted. That means slow going at first, as director Billy Ray takes quite a bit of time and care in laying the foundations of the culture that produced such a figure as Robert Hanssen. But patience—both Ray’s and the viewer’s—ultimately pays off, with what feels like a completely true and accurate picture of the colorless, seemingly windowless federal bureaucracy tasked with managing (or mismanaging) our national intelligence. It probably helped that Ray consulted closely with the real Eric O’Neill (played in the movie by Ryan Philippe), the agent-in-training who helped turn Hanssen in. The film’s other ace card is Chris Cooper, who delivers a chilling, totally credible performance as the man who caused unprecedented damage to the nation’s security, yet who to this day remains fundamentally an enigma. Mid-level bureaucrat, master of counter-intel, technophile, rigid Catholic, sexual pervert, traitor to his country, Cooper’s Hanssen hints at deep-lying motives, vexations and mental instabilities without diminishing the essentially creepy and unknowable nature of his character. Near the end of the film, he observes that why he did what he did doesn’t matter - only the fact that he did it. True enough; yet the strength of “Breach” lies in its ability to make us feel otherwise.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Fumbling towards humanity in "The Lives of Others"


written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
starring Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck

What do loyalty and integrity mean in a world built on oppression, fear, and distrust? The power of “The Lives of Others” lies in its realization that they can be compromised, yet also redefined and reaffirmed, rather than simply destroyed. As such, the film emerges as both a tragedy and a testament to the human spirit.

Most of “The Lives of Others,” an impressive debut by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, takes place in Berlin of the 1980s, before the thawing of the Cold War. The film captures a society in which surveillance and brutal interrogation are the rule rather than the exception, and where even a simple question can support suspicion of treason. The overall effect is a perpetual, low-grade paranoia with a drearily quotidian feel, perfectly embodied in the gray-clad figure of Stasi agent Hauptman Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe). We first meet Wiesler methodically extracting a confession from a subject who slowly wilts before his dogged persistence. Operating with the intentness of a true believer, Wiesler registers as not so much inhumane as simply inhuman. He’s so distilled the purpose of his existence to unearthing traitors and dissidents (synonymous in his eyes) that he seems, at first, to have no other dimension. It takes another man from an entirely different side of Berlin—a man he doesn’t even meet until nearly the end of the movie—to reveal unsuspected depths in his own character.

This other man is a charming, urbane, and successful playwright, Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch), who’s somehow managed to be read and renowned on both sides of the Iron Curtain without running afoul of the East German authorities. Nevertheless, an order from a high-ranking minister (Thomas Thieme) with his own axe to grind puts the probe on Dreymann. Wiesler is tasked with wiretapping the playwright’s house—a beautiful old building with graceful architectural lines, lived-in furniture, and warm lighting that pose a stark contrast to the bleak sterility of Wiesler’s own apartment—and monitoring all conversations, meetings, and activities that occur there. From this position he becomes intimately acquainted with the details of Dreymann’s life, particularly his relationship with his lover and muse, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a famous actress who stars in his plays. And what Wiesler observes begins to work a gradual change in his thoughts and attitude towards his mission and the regime he serves, even as his doubts find a kind of unwitting echo in the changing thoughts and feelings expressed by the seemingly unimpeachable Dreymann.

Not all viewers may find Wiesler’s inner conflict convincing. Certainly the incorruptible Stasi man does seem to act out of character a little too early on, especially in a chance encounter with Christa-Maria that doesn’t quite ring true. At the same time, the gulf between the emotional and aesthetic poverty of Wiesler’s existence and the music, poetry, intellectual sophistication and sexual passion that fill the lives of the “others” can’t help making his turn feel a tad overdetermined. Still, Mühe’s performance is so compelling that it overcomes all such quibbles. He conveys an aspect by turns menacing and pathetic, icy and yearning, all with the subtlest shift in his clear blue eyes—the only striking feature in his otherwise nondescript appearance.

Next to him, Koch and Gedeck exude a poignant vulnerability as Wiesler’s foils and victims, while Ulrich Tukur stands out as his superior officer, a shrewder and smoother operator than Wiesler who knows that moral conviction is not what oils the machinery they run. It’s Wiesler’s slow arrival at this same realization that indirectly precipitates the inevitable catastrophe, underlining the terrible toll that state-coerced espionage can (and did) take on the private lives and relationships of individuals. But “The Lives of Others,” which works as both a crisply plotted thriller and a quiet morality play, ultimately concludes on a note of hope rather than despair. Neither a false uplift nor a direct affirmation of either Wiesler’s or Dreymann’s choices, the film's ending simply recognizes that in questioning their respective paths, they may have remained truest to themselves and to what they most deeply believed.