A dad and his daughters, loving life in New York City

Monday, March 5

Winter Movies: Part 3

With only three more weeks until Spring, here's a quick look at what I've seen lately...

It isn't often that a guaranteed Top-10 best movie of the year is released in March, so make sure you take advantage of this late-winter gift by seeing Zodiac, David Fincher's all-around outstanding film about the eponymous serial killer who alternately terrorized and fascinated 1970's California. There is so much that is so good about this movie. The entire cast is superb, led by three excellent actors at the top of their respective games: Mark Ruffalo as SFPD Inspector David Toschi (the real-life model for Steve McQueen's Bullitt, by the way); Robert Downey, Jr., as Paul Avery, the hard-partying, fuck-authority crime reporter of the San Francisco Chronicle; and Jake Gyllenhaal as that same paper's nerdy and naive, but clever and dogged, cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who ultimately becomes the most obsessed of them all with finding the Zodiac. Also terrific are Anthony Edwards as Ruffalo's partner, Chloë Sevigny as Gyllenhaal's wife (their first date is just one of the movie's many, many perfectly-played scenes), and John Carrol Lynch as a key suspect.

The art direction is dead-on; a wonderful recreation of that era, from the just-right hair and clothes to the wood paneling and smoke-everywhere offices to Gyllenhaal's mustard-color VW Rabbit—the exact same model and color of the car Debbie passed her road test in! The soundtrack is great—especially Three Dog Night's "Easy to Be Hard" in the opening credits, and Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man", which becomes a sort of theme song for the killer—without being lazily relied upon by Fincher to set a mood. The camera work is interesting without interfering with the narrative, the pacing is well-handled (this is a long movie that doesn't at all feel that way) and the script is totally brilliant: based on the actual police files as well as Graysmith's books on the subject, it takes us effortlessly through many years of an extremely complicated, lurching, untidy story without ever losing a thread or relying too heavily on exposition. Add to that a brilliant portrait of a slowly-consuming obsession as well as several seriously unnerving moments, and Zodiac offers a truly thrilling night-at-the-movies experience.

Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, The Lives of Others is another beautifully crafted movie that captures, down to the smallest detail, a now-vanished time and place... in this case 1980s East Berlin before (and, in a brief coda, immediately after) the wall came tumbling down. There are several twists and turns in this story of a Stasi agent ordered to find something treasonous on a popular writer who has always been loyal to the party, and I don't want to give anything away, but I will say that the narrative arc is tightly constructed; the characters believable and sympathetic as they try to survive a system designed to crush and confuse (though Debbie thought a key change-of-heart by one player was a little too pat); and the art direction and cinematography brilliant in conveying an overall atmosphere of menace and despair. Hard to believe this place existed in the real world, and not so long ago.

Chris Cooper's excellent performance as CIA agent Robert Hanssen, one of the most successful traitors in American history, makes Breach worth putting in your Netflix queue. I'd suggest trying to catch it in the theaters before it disappears (which looks to be by the end of the week), but co-lead Ryan Phillipe was so unbelievable as the young agent assigned to catch Hanssen in the act of delivering the goods to the Soviets that he nearly ruins what could have been a fine, taut thriller. I mean, how could Hanssen, so shrewd and ruthless, NOT know that this transparently nervous, overacting kid was spying on him? I didn't buy their relationship at all, nor the interaction between Phillipe and his boss, the usually solid Laura Linney, though Debbie thinks that I—and many other critics—are being too hard on the young man.

Gallery expert Eric hooked Debbie and I up with a screening of Grace is Gone, a small, too-occasionally moving movie about a father (John Cusack) who can't bear to tell his 12- and 8-year-old daughters that their mom has been killed in the Iraq War... and so takes them on a three-day road trip to Disneyworld, here called Enchanted Gardens. Although Cusack and the two girls deliver strong performances (particularly the enormously likeable Shélan OKeefe as the elder Heidi), and the family dynamics were handled honestly and well, there was something too empty about the first half of this non-story that the more engaging second act couldn't quite save. There are several strong, touching scenes—like the one in which Cusack allows the kids to get their ears pierced in a Walmart, or when Heidi leaves the hotel room in the middle of the night just to sit in the parking lot—but it lacks a greater structure to go with its heart.

Debbie and I went to the Avenue Montaigne last Saturday night, and although we both thought all the characters were attractive and appealing (in a very upper-class Parisian sort of way) and totally worth rooting for, the story was far too slight—mostly: middle-age rich-people angst, and what to do about it—and the atmosphere too stale to sustain our interest. This is a short movie that feels way too long.

Finally, pining for a romantic comedy, I went solo to Music and Lyrics on a cold Monday night... and sort of wished I had stayed home and watched an episode of the Wire instead. Yes, there are charming moments to be had in this tale of an 80's pop star has-been (the always-game Hugh Grant) who gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reignite his career... but only if he can persuade his perky plant-waterer (Drew Barrymore, cute as a button) to write some lyrics. Unfortunately, that's all that happens over the course of the entire movie. Oh, and they also fall in love, but I didn't believe that for a second.



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