RIORI Redux: David Fincher’s “Zodiac” Revisited


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The Players…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, with Brian Cox, Charles Fleischer, Elias Koteas and John Caroll Lynch.


The Story…

A notorious serial killer known only as “The Zodiac” is on a creepy spree in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s left several victims in his wake and taunts police of his motives with letters and ciphers mailed to newspapers. It’s only when crossword freak cartoonist Robert Greysmith accidentally cracks the Zodiac’s code that both the media and the police gets a lead. However, following the lesson of history, the case still remains one of San Francisco’s most infamous unsolved crimes.


The Rant (2013)

Let’s, you and I, talk about fear.

Okay, that line there is one of my favorites in the entire English language. I boosted it, not surprisingly, from an intro to one of Stephen King’s books. But still, let’s talk about fear, you and I. I’m not really talking about the fear of the unknown, although that’s a popular one and one of the most basal. I’m talking about the fear of being hunted. Like prey. Like you’re being followed. That liquid, paranoid panic you get at the base of your stomach. That you are one of a millions other souls our there that could, under the proper circumstances, end up no less that someone’s trophy. That eerie obsessed feeling, where the fight, flight or faint instinct should kick in at any moment. You want to hide, but there’s no place to go. You want to run, but you’re in the crosshairs. You are being watched, prodded, toyed with. Hunted. You are made to feel a victim of some fate breathing down your neck, almost literally. Haunted. The slight, breathless pants on your shoulder of a person or persons unknown that want to get you. Harm you. Even kill you.

For no apparent reason at all. You’re just prey. Game.

That’s what San Franciscans must’ve felt like back in the 1960’s when some hunter of men took to task terrorizing the Bay Area with the bizarre, groundless and still unsolved murders as the Zodiac killer. Part documentary, part psychological thriller, part one man’s obsession, Zodiac is David Fincher at the top of his game, carefully and quietly ratcheting up the dread level over two plus worthwhile hours.

It’s unfortunate that this film fell into the bracket of “poor box office” tallies.

Zodiac may have fallen victim to the “too intellectual” tag, or the long running time turned people away (seems most audiences have only enough of a fluid attention span to fill a thimble), or how the film moves at its own languid pace, possibly inviting boredom in some. I don’t know. Just conjecture. One thing this guy is sure of: Zodiac is a great, thrilling and sometimes rather scary film.

Dread is the watchword of this film. Not terror, per se, and definitely not serial killer horror like, say, The Silence of the Lambs. But dread. That looming fear of something horrible that could happen if you would let your guard down. Epitomizing this feeling is Robert Graysmith, portrayed by Gyllenhaal, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and avid puzzle wonk. Graysmith is the unlikely protagonist of this story (and also the real-life counterpart who wrote the book upon which the film is based), more or less tumbling over the Zodiac’s intentions by the anonymous threat letters that get mailed to the paper declaring the killer’s motives, intentions and nary a whit of his identity. Gyllenhaal plays skittish very well, like a kid on the outside of the club. That haunted look hangs on his face, exemplifying that dread as we the audience are meant to feel. As was said, Graysmith is puzzle geek, and when the Zodiac sends cryptic ciphers along with his threatening letters, the challenge of cracking the code becomes an obsession.

Greysmith’s aide-de-camp in this escapade is crime beat reporter, the effete and boozy Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr., in a role that somehow mirrors the character of Tony Stark he would portray a year later in 2008’s Iron Man). Cynical, crass and opportunistic, Avery plays the perfect foil to Graysmith’s boy scout like demeanor. Somehow they trade barbs with each other over the Zodiac’s motives and identity with each accompanying letter, as well as when the body count starts to rise. All of Zodiac’s intensions are posted to the Chronicle’s editors, leaving our intrepid newsies at the frontline of what the killer might do next.

Of course, all Avery and Graysmith can do is speculate and play around with screwy codices. On the frontline is Det. Dave Toschi, portrayed gamely by future Hulk Mark Ruffalo. He and his partner, Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are the cops that get the call about a murder of a cabbie in downtown San Fran, connecting it with the Zodiac killings. Ruffalo’s performance of Toschi is just great, unlike the wary wounded Graysmith, Ruffalo is the warm and steady straight man caught up in the mystery, just trying to do his job to nab the criminal at large. Ruffalo has the feeling of stability you need in this dreadful business in hopes that there will be an end to this mystery, even though the Zodiac case is still unsolved to this day.

Zodiac starts as a crime drama, and ends as a docudrama. The first act’s pacing feels a bit rushed, but it flows. For a crime investigation film, the pace has to be swift, but there’s a lot, a lot of info that needs to be core dumped on the audience to get what the hell is happening, and there’s a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it velocity that zips by in the first act. Fincher’s films are almost always clinical pieces of technical exactness, and Zodiac is no exception. It has all the hallmarks of a Fincher film, from the muted color scheme to the surgical precision of the camera work. It makes for an excellent documentary film, as if cut for a PBS production, but with excellent acting and a bigger budget.

The core trio of actors all play well off each other, which is surprising considering how different each one’s personality is. Graysmith’s boy scout to Avery’s rake to Toschi’s procedural give the audience a united front of cracking the code of the Zodiac, so to speak. Each actor has his place in handling the mystery, and although it’s ostensibly Gyllenhaal’s show, Ruffalo’s treatment of the film is what kept me engaged.

Not to dismiss Gyllenhaal. He’s just so great in this. He brings that haunted innocence he used so well in Donnie Darko to the fore here. As Graysmith, he becomes so obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac that he loses almost everything he holds dear, from his job to his family. He becomes his own pawn in the Zodiac’s game, almost to the point that Toschi seems to let Graysmith do his dirty work. Let the crazed kid hunt the identity of the hunter. The case dragged on for years with nary a break until it was all but swept under the rug. Graysmith’s crusade, Gyllenhaal’s obsession is what pushes the movie forward. The game.

The prey comment I made earlier may be the crux of the whole Zodiac m.o., both as crime and film. From what little I know about profiling serial killers, they all take some trophy, some winning from their prey. The Zodiac’s was the game. The toying with – hunting – other humans. Sport. The cryptic letters and ciphers. Game. Thumbing his nose at the authorities, taunting them, daring them to try and stop him. The short story “The Most Dangerous Game” is commented on often in the film, and is used as an analog for the killer’s motives. A key scene, and maybe the best in the movie, is the interview between Toschi and Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen has the history and hallmarks of a hunter, and dearly enjoys messing with the officer’s heads. Poking holes and creating new ones in the fabric of their investigation. This scene may be the lynchpin of the whole movie, if not the case at large. The play was the thing with the Zodiac. A game to play that ends up playing you. Making you question your safety, your security. Making you feel like prey.

Yes, Zodiac is a truly fine film, or rather three films in one. There’s the obvious mystery story, Graysmith’s Moby-Dick-like crusade and the game of the hunt. All three meld well into one very satisfying narrative, complete with all the custom touches of a masterful director at the wheel. Zodiac is a tight and sometimes harrowing journey, just like cat-and-mouse game the Zodiac put San Fransisco through some 40 years ago. Times of dread into paranoia into being haunted.

Or hunted.


Rant Redux (2019)…

Yeah, I got this one right out of the gate. This might’ve been a sign of me learning to not blog like some frothing yo-yo later on. Might.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. Boom.


Next Installment…

We retool The Machinist (rimshot).


 

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 19: Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)


The Day After Tomorrow


The Players…

Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm and Kenneth Welsh, with Emmy Rossom, Sela Ward, Dash Mihok and Jay O Sanders.


The Story…

Something’s a-stirrin’ in the Atlantic Ocean, and it ain’t just the tuna running.

When Jack Hall, a roguish climatologist and his team nearly perish in an ice flow cracking off the Antarctic shelf, he takes this to be a sign (at the very least) that his theories on climate change might be correct. Despite his credentials and impeccable data, Hall’s claims don’t do much to sway the US government into taking action. There’s been evidence for decades that global warming is a very real thing, and all of Hall’s research might be on to the reason why and maybe how to fix it.

And it’s not just all about a drastic increase in greenhouse gasses.

It’s far worse.


The Rant…

If you’ve been paying attention, the subject of climate change has been quite the hot topic—so to speak—in recent years, both in the scientific and political communities alike. Some claim global warming is due to man-made pollution. Others say it’s part of a natural cycle. A few say both. Most stamp their feet and say neither and return to that Game Of Thrones marathon and their Chex Mix.

Me? I don’t know what to think. I’m no climatologist. I’m not a politician, either (thank you and you’re welcome). But I’ll tell you what I know. Say you work in high places, and some Poindexter with multiple PhDs and a particle collider at the ready approaches you with some data suggesting a possible global catastrophe, wouldn’t you, as an elected government official serving the people’s interests, take at least some pause?

I would. And I have only one term limit: my life, and want to keep it as long as possible.

Hmm. I think this might be my first openly political diatribe here at RIORI. Sure, I’ve dabbled in the kiddie pool of partisan social commentary before. Hell, it’s part of this blog’s raison d’être (and movies. Can’t forget about movies). But actually taking a deliberate stand on a social issue? Not sure.

Too bad. I’m drunk and here we go.

Here’s a tale courtesy of the way-back machine. When I was a kid, way back in the bad ol’ 80s, I became aware of this environmental crisis which swiftly became a major buzz during the drowsy end of the Reagan years. Scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This layer of weird oxygen surrounds the planet serving to deflect most of the sun’s harmful radiation. Without it, all of humanity would be one big, walking melanoma. Down at the South Pole it went missing, and kinda began to f*ck sh*t up.

And the hole was getting bigger.

And later another hole over the Arctic joined the party.

Then Tibet got bit.

What was up? Turned out that all those aerosol cans of Aqua Net, Lysol and Silly String (yes, Silly String) sprayed over the decades were the culprit. Or rather, what made the stuff spray was to blame. The propellant those things used to pssssht were called chlorofluorocarbons. CFCs. They were found to basically eat ozone when their residue reached the upper atmosphere. And this only took—give or take—a little over fifty years to happen. A veritable blink in Earth’s history. All from a few hundred thousand A/C units churning Freon on a daily basis.

When all the research got added up, the US and many other industrialized nations quickly put a moratorium on CFCs. The disuse of said chemicals didn’t halt the damage to the ozone layer, but it was slowed. But the damage was done, and is still there. The consequence has been, besides the Dali Lama’s bros needing SPF 10,000 to work tai chi, an increase in potential global warming.

This was over thirty years ago, and efforts were made to fix it. Thanks in no small part to the vigilant guys in white coats.

So now. It’s thirty years later. Efforts were made back then and the environmental issue of depleting ozone got addressed, including the offensive chemicals being banned. Still global warming exists. Persists. And the majority of our present elected leaders are breaking their knuckles from jamming their fingers into their ears with force greater than tearing a phone book in two drawn between a pair of tanks (go watch the MythBusters ep). Um, huh? The scientists so esteemed then are but witches and goblins these days as regarded by House and Senate. There is no proof. Look at this snowball I brought in to this hallowed hall of government. Well, if said snowball hailed from Phoenix during July then I might be a tad concerned.

Where did this willful ignorance come from? Sean Hannity? Look, if there were any immediate threats to life on this planet, and the nerds came a-callin’ with their clipboards and slide rules to the powers than be and said, “Wait!” Well, you with your doctorate from Georgetown and not MIT, might be wise to take at least some heed.

Politicians are supposed to uphold the public need—the so-called “greater good”—for their constituency. If some well-educated, well-meaning dude—an expert in their field—pays you a call and tugs on your coat about a potential danger to your much-needed voting community, again, wouldn’t you take pause? At least to prolong the lives of the electoral season ticket holders? Some that even work for ExxonMobil or BP? Some that might be lobbyists possibly holding the unedited cut of the Zapruder film?

I dunno, maybe. Just maybe.

There. Lecture over. Please pass in your Blue Books and class dismissed.

*audience rushes towards the exit, some trampled into a molasses-like smear, now unable to catch the latest Michael Bay movie staring Jim Carrey*

Like I said, I’m neither a scientist nor a politician. I don’t know what’s going on, except that something is going on. In the sky and/or in the halls of Congress. But I reiterate, I’m no expert. If I want to get some facts on climate change, I think it best I consult a real expert.

Good thing I got Dennis Quaid on my contacts list…


The life and work of a dedicated scientist can be harsh. The life and work of a dedicated paleoclimatologist (say that five times fast) screams harsh.

Ask Dr Jack Hall (Quaid). He’s been globetrotting for years, lifetimes away from friends and family, all in search of clues. Clues to how our planet works. Clues to how our endless ice ages advanced and retreated. Clues to what makes the ocean currents tick. And after many years, while posted in Antarctica, Jack might have found some answers. Finally. In the form of a vast chasm that nearly swallows up his entire research party.

Wait. The clues weren’t leading up to this. The Shackleton ice shelf is breaking off into the ocean? Like that? Christ. More clues abound.

Hall has been studying the Earth’s ancient past it see if climate change then predicts climate change now. According to his data, the answer is yes but a helluva lot faster than a few millennia. We’re talking decades now. Maybe just decade. No matter when, the issue of global warming demands attention now. But for all his skills and exhaustive research, Hall’s warnings go all but unheeded by a US subcommittee headed by the man himself, veep Becker (Welsh).

With the global economy on his mind, and America’s place in it, Mr Becker recognizes a potential grave matter in a global catastrophe. However there isn’t enough resources going around to just jarring shift the world’s industrialized nations into a realm of tree huggers. Besides, the planet has fared far worse before humans began littering its atmosphere with greenhouse gases. How dire could this matter be? How rapid could these climate shifts move?

In a word: very.

Despite Congress bending an ear backwards, Hall has at least one advocate in the form of Dr Terry Rapson (Holm). Rapson is more or less Hall’s spiritual mentor regarding climate affecting the planet and vice versa, and since taken a shine to Jack’s work. His experience studying the ocean, particularly the ebb and flow of the North Atlantic Current might be pertinent to Hall’s theories. Perhaps it’s not just global warming that’s messing around with Mother Earth, and it might go beyond the polar caps melting at an alarming rate. Rapson warns there’s a distinct chance that rapid climate change could disrupt the planet’s oceans, namely the currents that serve as Earth’s natural thermostats. If the currents begin to shift—or even fail—we could see a precipitous decline of the world’s temperature, heralding in a new, aggressive ice age.

Chilling. Literally. But Hall and Rapson’s theories are just that: theories. Global warming is unfounded. Ocean currents interrupted is the stuff of textbooks. And neither of these are compelling enough to get the world’s governments’ collective heads together and be proactive. Hall and Rapson, frustrated in their acts of environmental futility, bang their heads against the wall and wonder what’s it gonna take to make the powers that be understand a potential ice age is in the immediate future?

Well, the North Atlantic Current failing is a good start. Tornadoes ripping the West Coast apart might work. How about hurricanes the size of Greenland spewing ice, covering the Northern Hemisphere in fatal, white, fluffy stuff?

Maybe someone’ll pick up the phone then. Right after they find their mittens…


A few months back I dismantled another Roland Emmerich disaster film, White House Down. The movie was a hilarious, unapologetic Die Hard rip-off, with all the hallmarks of an Emmerich big screen clusterf*ck. We had memorable characters spewing chewy dialogue, rife with cheese-tastic one-liners. There were stunts a-plenty that flipped the laws of physics the bird. A bare thread of a plot that strung (heh) the offhand story together. And of course, lots and lots of collateral damage. Let the wild rumpus begin (sorry, wrong movie. Don’t care)!

All the above are trademark Emmerich popcorn fodder. He’s a master of disaster. His neo-catastophe epics harken back to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, only with big name stars and better pyrotechnics. His movies are designed to be loud, brash and fun, with zero philosophizing and the barest scintilla of coherence. You gotta be in the right mindset to catch one o’ Ronnie’s movies (namely being unpretentious and unplugged). Sometimes you need Solaris, but other times you want Event Horizon.

Emmerich understands this. His work fills a void in the cinematic universe: big, dumb, explosive fun. IMHO, he is the 21st Century king of the “Saturday Afternoon Movie.” You know. Steamy summer weekend. Bored? Have time to kill? Need to unwind? Stream Independence Day on a lazy Saturday. There ya go. It is here where the proverbial hog rolls in its waller. All we need to complete the scene is a sixer. Or a twelver. Whatever works.

*shakes head with a crooked smile*

For some odd reason, The Day After Tomorrow missed working by a hair. And considering the above criteria of a signature Emmerich boomfest, I think I figured out what was lacking this time out. I think I also figured out why a good chunk of his movies do work.

I mean, let’s face facts. All of Emmerich’s films are derivative. This is the point. Let’s keep and maintain the story at its absolute baseline. Let’s amp up the F/X to a ludicrous level. Let’s play connect-the-dots with story progression. Let’s just have fun, people.

But whatever we get out of his films, let’s not ever do these two things:

  1. Get all serious, and;
  2. Have boring, stock characters.

Day committed both these crimes, and that’s why it swiftly got bogged down resulting in a 2-plus hour long slog.

First things first (and this might be a first). Here’s an action movie with a sociopolitical/environmental message. Been done, and seldom well (Steven Segal’s On Deadly Ground springs immediately to mind, unable to be redeemed even by Michael Caine’s gravitas). It’s a tricky thing to make a mainstream movie with a serious message to get out to the masses. Socially relevant movies are as old as the medium (e.g. Birth Of A Nation) and all over the place. If you take a breath, all movies are socially relevant, from Silver Linings Playbook to the Watchmen adaptation (you can read those reviews here :)). Movies are farting out loud with social issues; the skill is executing such a movie without being too obvious or—heaven forbid—preachy. Emmerich’s movies are at their best when they don’t tax your neocortex too much. When they don’t act as a churchkey popping open a fresh can of paint. We want popcorn. We want jokes. We want boom. Boom, I tell you!

We don’t want the Weather Channel, no matter how well the writers did their homework.

There’s nothing wrong with having a big deal disaster film tackle so prickly a matter as climate change. Al Gore and friends did a pretty good job. If you think about it (something I don’t openly endorse regarding an Emmerich film), Earthquake and The China Syndrome were about environmental disasters, and both achieved what Day failed to: generate interest.

As I’ve said before, the glue that holds a story together and keeps it humming along, be it novel or movie, is tension. For all the chaos seeing Mama Nature at her worst time of the month, Day suffers from an acute lack of urgency. I know. Despite at the outset Hall and Rapson tell us about the ensuing weather calamity, when the sh*t goes down there’s a lot of tripping over feet. Stuttering. Sure, there are a lot of the the key Emmerich touches of crash and wow, but they stagger. Why? Mostly lousy editing.

Day comes across as too self-aware, especially with the heavy-handed environmental message in tow. The self-aware factor in Emmerich’s movies are always there, though. It’s that when it’s winking, it works. The goofiness factor of his films—be it with story, acting or pyrotechnics—make the flaws go down a lot easier. Just a little bit of sugar with the urine.

Day lacks that. It’s a fickle movie, in mood and execution. The film’s whole atmosphere, so to speak, is cranky and pessimistic. The story drags out in a terribly over-serious, PSA kind of way. It’s a cautionary tale with a very large budget and banks of digital tech (over)driving the message home. Now a lot of Emmerich’s films—if not all—have a message of caution. Be it the dread of an impending alien invasion, science going too far or governments sleeping with the enemy, it’s all a hook for his movies. It mostly works, but when his stuff gets too self-aware (read: self-important) as it does in Day, the helium goes out of the balloon. The urgency gets lost in the scuffle, and the actions scenes are like so many bookends encapsulating the message, always with the message. In short, Day got too serious for its own good.

Secondly, a great deal of Emmerich’s success relies on his movies’ casting. There’s a lot of awkward wedging of human drama into Day, video feeds or no, which ain’t Emmerich’s typical MO. It’s not organic here like his usual fare, for all its wanton and welcome (and in this case, needful) silliness. So take pause and listen up. I know you’re not gonna like this, and it might want to make you slam the book shut forever. I’m telling this for your own, movie-going good. It is true, but it is not necessarily fair:

Independence Day was a ridiculous film with a scattershot plot lifted from a billion S/F “alien invasion” films. It was derivative. It was obvious. And if you took a nanosecond to pick apart the plot holes, a singularity would occur over your head and all your memories would be transmogrified into the liner notes of a mid-70s Rush album.

But it sure was fun. Vintage Emmerich. Damn the torpedoes!

Why did ID4 work, what with all its contrivances? Casting. The folks at the casting call did their homework when it came to selecting dramatic personae for the mid-ninties update of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. We had fresh-faced Will Smith in all his winking, charming glory. We had eternal nerd Jeff Goldblum. There was the poor man’s Harrison Ford, stony Bill Pullman. Whack job Randy Quaid, Sage Judd Hirsch. Oscar-winner Mary McDonnell. The late, great character actor James Rebhorn as the irritant. Then piece-of-ass-of-the-moment Vivica A Fox. ID4 even had Commander Data, for Pete’s sake. With that eclectic line-up, how could a summer movie not entertain?

All of Emmerich’s movies feature ramshackle casting; folks you’d never see communing together except at a bar. With the example of ID4, it was a fun film, but not a good film. It was redeemed by its colorful cast. Pitting Kurt Russell and James Spader against the tranny from The Crying Game was great, chewy fun for Stargate (it didn’t spawn multiple TV series for nothing). Foxx and Tatum in White House Down made for a funny Abbott and Costello dynamic. Such casting saved potential turkeys from the sticky cinema floor because it kept the movies engaging. The characters held our attention, and quite well.

The casting aspects never quite gel in Day. It’s not for lacking a great cast, the classic Emmrich ace-in-the-hole. I love Dennis Quaid, and he’s no stranger to sci-fi action films. I remember his roles in nifty B-movie homages like Dreamscape, Enemy Mine, Wilder Napalm and Innerspace. Hell, there was that recent s/f calamity tale Pandorum where he got to play the demented bad guy. His bro did great in ID4. With Dennis’ credentials, he should’ve been a round peg here.

Nope. His Jack Hall, although in reliable Quaid form, is stiff, disconnected. He doesn’t really engender much empathy from the audience. Sure, he’s the pinion on which the plot spins. He’s a got a solid backstory (also derivative, but I’ve already hinted at giving Emmerich a pass about this). He’s got family issues. He’s got drive. And he is wanting for an emotional investment from the audience. The Quaid movies I mentioned above were fun because he hammed it up some. This is an Emmerich film. Isn’t the hero supposed to crack wise with regularity? Not with Hall. It’s all shrugs and worry. Again, I blame the subtle-as-neon message up against the neck. It robs the movie of any potential verve.

Let’s talk about the rest of our players, shall we? Like I intimated, Day isn’t lacking for an eclectic cast. Holm is a delightful character actor, and I remember him best from his role as the psychotic android in the original Alien as well as the fidgety priest in The Fifth Element. His acting chops are terribly underused here. His Rapson was so terribly laid-back in Day, the calm voice of reason and/or herald of impending danger. Sure, it’s nice to have at least someone keeping their sh*t together in the face of impossible odds of survival, but I’ve watched Holm freak out, and it would’ve added some spice here. Kinda like smooth operator Captain Kirk losing his crackers in the original Star Trek ep “The Enterprise Incident” (what? Too abstract? Too bad, film nerds).

What I found rather amusing about the casting in Day (besides trying to accept him as a teenager) was seeing Jake Gyllenhaal in all his pre-Oscar glory. Jeez, Bubble Boy has come a long way. In Day, young Jake doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. His character is terribly awkward, and not because of his obvious geekiness. He appears aware that he was too old to play a teen, and being a young man unable to convince himself of acting so otherwise. That and his Sam is a cipher. Isn’t the whole strained father/son dynamic over and done yet? I know that Emmerich likes to play with classic Hollywood character tropes, giving spin. No spin with Sam. He’s rote, that and totally lacking any chemistry with Quaid, especially when their interactions get mawkish by the third act. It’s a shame what with these two usually reliable actors.

Now Welsh as VP Becker was a stitch. There was a none-too-subtle analogy going on there with a Cheney/Bush portrait (and Perry King as the bewildered Prez with maybe only one line of stumbling dialogue drove the point home). Welsh was the only interesting character in the whole movie. Sure, he was the “bad guy” and they always get the best lines, but it was how they were delivered that mattered. It’s easy to peg a villain that twirls his mustache. It’s more interesting to try and peg an antagonist who carries themselves so calmly and rationally as an antagonist. Remember Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter? He wasn’t the villain. Ostensibly it was Buffalo Bill, but Lecter was calm and calculating. Bill was clearly disturbed. Who won the Oscar? Now no, Welsh didn’t eat anyone, but he exuded slimy confidence of a dyed-in-wool politician that would never accidentally shoot a hunting buddy in the face. This appeals to me (not the shooting-in-the-face part. Sorry).

Sela Ward was pretty. Moving on.

Enough grousing. There were some aspects of Day I dug. You gotta find the sweet amidst the bitter, right? I think I spent enough time being bitter here for now. Instead, how ’bout those signature Emmerich F/X? As always, strategic and dazzling. The weather effects are great. They’re also totally plausible. Over the top, yes, but the “atmospheric anomalies” kind of reminded me of a Jack Kirby comic. What he drew didn’t exist, but looked like it should. Even those multiple tornado touchdowns in LA could never happen (based on the laws of physics, which are rigorously never adhered to in an Emmerich movie, thank God) looked like they should’ve happened, at least within the context of the story.

Apropos of nothing, I’d be remiss to mention that Day—for all its awesome spectacle—got a lot of flak for so much urban collateral damage so relatively soon after 9/11. This must’ve hurt the box office takeaway. I don’t think any terrorist attack undercurrent was part of Emmerich’s story, but people can be a might fickle regarding a city under siege, be it a bomb or a hurricane. This possible oversight on the studio’s behalf might’ve done some damage to the movie’s rep (but I think the fragile acting might’ve been a more likely culprit).

Day did have another significant thing going for it. My darling, bitchy muse pacing was sated here. Despite the bumbling plot and protracted running time, the movie had a mostly smooth pace. I know, I know. How can that be with all my moaning and groaning about lackluster story and clunky acting? Well, we understand the plot was convoluted and at times felt kind of non-linear (not to mention lacking in following interior logic, but hey again, Emmerich movie), but it strangely all hung together well. The subplots, though generally unnecessary, didn’t muddle the flow of the film. The overall muted acting didn’t distract from the story’s momentum. Despite all the other hiccups, Day rolled along with nary a hitch in context. I think that last bit’s the key. In context. I guess with this aspect, the sum was greater than its parts. If only in this aspect.

Lightening up, let’s not forget the funny. Like with all Emmerich films, there’s a good deal of humor in Day. I’m not gonna get into (again) the whole Bill Shakespeare thing. I lamented earlier that this film needed a healthy dose of silliness. While not on par with the hijinks of ID4Day had its tongue-in-cheek moments. Seems all that overarching self-awareness wasn’t lost on our heroes winking understanding about how ridiculous and surreal their circumstances are. And they are ridiculous. Emmerich hasn’t lost sight of screwiness here, even though it gets all bleary with needless melodrama and an overly serious message. Some comedy is better than none when the entire planet’s atmosphere is malfunctioning, I guess.

I’ve found precious few directors who can so cleanly set up shop the way Emmerich does, making their movies their signature own. Spielberg, Scorsese, Zemekis, Gilliam, Fellini and Kurosawa are others (not to name-drop). Now I’m not placing Emmerich in their camp, not exactly, but you have to respect a filmmaker who knows his station and can sell it so well to audiences. To be so unashamed to lay it so think like so much peanut butter that audiences get all up in that. Like I said in the White House Down installment, Emmerich’s stuff is such silly fun, and not designed to win any awards (barring Best Visual Effects and most ka-booms per frame).

With Day, the man slipped up a bit. Sure, all the nuts and bolts were there to make it another surefire Emmerich blockbuster, but the parts weren’t connected properly. Too many loose ends. Too much philosophizing. Not enough one-liners. No Jeff Goldblum. You hear what I’m screaming.

I repeat, Emmmerich is the modern day king of the disaster film (maybe the only king), a sub genre that’s been more or less absent until his rise to power with ID4. We need chaos and creation like his. We need stupid stunts and even stupider jokes. We all need to sit back, get all comfy with our Slim Jims, turn on one of his films and let them delta waves do their thing. It’s just that simple. And Day was not. It was a fantastic, visually-rich disappointment. It was also a movie of contradictions in execution. Smooth pacing, jerky storyline. Great cast, lame acting. Interesting plot, preachy story. Again, screaming.

If there was one message I got from Day—besides the subtle-as-neon enviro one—it was this. One for Emmerich, actually: You be you, so don’t make us think. Keep that ID4 sequel nice and goony and maybe I’ll return your calls, just so long as a colossal electric storm doesn’t drop over the Eastern seaboard and generates enough amps to create an EMP to wipe out all the cell towers from here to Venus.

Don’t forget to recycle!


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Sorry, folks. If you’re looking for style over substance, look elsewhere. Just watch out for the storm front first.


Stray Observations…

  • I really dug the opening credits. Cool camera work.
  • Emmerich sure likes to do a lot of globetrotting in his movies.
  • Nice touch with the tree flick in the foyer.
  • Erasing the Hollywood sign? Roland you sly devil, you.
  • “So much for one in a billion…”
  • What was Tomita up to between here and Karate Kid 2?
  • “Terrible weather!” “Tell me about it!”
  • Amazing service that lady in the library has.
  • “We’re all gonna need it.”
  • “There’s a whole section on tax law down here we can burn.” Come to your own conclusions.
  • “Just dropped in to do a little shopping.”
  • Thank you for not showing Sanders’ impact. A rare display of restraint on Emmerich’s part.
  • “Have you ever seen the sky so clear?”

Next Installment…

Disney leads Pixar Studios into a Brave new world, and the results are rather pretty. Maybe too pretty.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 31: Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead” (2005)


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The Players…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaime Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Brain Geraghty and Evan Jones, with Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert.


The Story…

The true story of how US marine Anthony Swafford endured training, heartbreak and service during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 90’s. Swaff learned hard that what it takes to be a soldier, and what’s after Basic, is not all its cracked up to be. Turned out to involve mostly sand.


The Rant…

I have known no war. At least not on the other side of a CNN camera.

I’ve made a few veteran friends in my days. All of them decent, upstanding guys who don’t talk much about the action they’d seen, unless you ask. Even then their stories are short, and delivered with humility, self-effacing modesty and more than a little melancholy. Any veteran who was in country, be it in WW2, Vietnam or the Iraq War doesn’t do a lot of heavy boasting or proffering up the glory of patriotism. Not a lot of flag waving; it mostly comes down to the edict, “I was just doing my job.” Following orders. A good example of this reticence was illustrated in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Brief conversations with the actual vets who were Over There bookended scenes were honest, describing the action they saw, friends they had lost and to demands of “doing their job.” There was none of that bootin’-rally mentality with these guys. Just a somber, sober retelling of the experiences, conveyed alternating between humble pride and some sadness and self-resignation. To me it seems the real rabble-rousing patriotism associated with gun racks on the backs of pickups, Calvin decal pissing on the likeness of Bin Laden’s head and a lots of cans of Bud being held aloft accompanied with chants of “USA! USA! USA!” is not present in the men and women who actually served their country, overseas or otherwise. To them, to repeating it very mildly, it was “just doing their job.”

I, like many bloggers, have given over their sites to a great deal of social commentary. Hell, the subtitle here at RIORI is “A Social Study of Middling Movies.” Like others, I reserve the rights to spout facts and figures about this and that. It’s what blogs are primarily for: self-expression, in addition to railing against Hollywood, corporate radio, struggling with addictions, parenting, posting recipes and giving in to foaming-at-the-mouth ranting. Sometimes even I get that way. At RIORI, I do it couched in the reflections of how so-so films relate to the dreary sh*t we all endure daily. This is usually done rambling on and on and on about my experiences with this topic or that, often rabbit-trailing down the hole into self-parody.

This time out I’m covering a cultural matter I have no personal experience with, carried along only by the stories and musings of others I’ve encountered. From their stories alone I’ll try to hold together a hypothesis. I’ll try to behave myself.

Once again we find our intrepid blogger dragging his stinky, whisky-addled carcass out on yet another business junket. Nightly I was at my outer office, being served by possibly the best bartender I’ve ever abused. His name was Pat, and although he never outright talked about his military career—he was in the Army’s Special Forces—he had plenty of stories to share about his time in the service. Mostly were just humorous tales about his fellow soldiers and the shenanigans they got into. Some were about the many people he met while being stationed in Scotland and Grenada. Some were life lessons; pieces of advice he would impart on his customers to enhance whatever drunken chatter we were yapping about. He was personable, but maintained the attitude and demeanor of a soldier. You couldn’t bullsh*t him.

Pat never talked about his tours. He actually never saw any active combat. He did however share (on rare occasion) second-hand tales of action his peers saw. None in great detail. Mostly we heard about his friends’ exploits delivered in patient, stern tones. Pat always stared off into the distance when he told such stories. His tales weren’t necessary gloomy, nor were they stories of horror. According to Pat, most, if not all of the vets he knew that saw action didn’t wax poetic about it. His peers were soldiers, patriots and honest men who saw and experienced things that didn’t—as he put it—expect civvies to really understand. I could only glean by such consternation, that what he heard wasn’t worth repeating, at least to us “civvies.” It sounded without sounding so like heavy sh*t, such was the casual gravitas of Pat’s delivery. I had to respect that.

Moving on. Chapter two of my firesides.

Out of college I worked part-time at the local coffee house. It was comfy mom-and-pop place (okay, mostly a mom place) where mom served the requisite beverages and treats. It was close to both the local high school and a college, and naturally became a haven for students and bookish people alike. The clientele was a crazy quilt of adolescent nervous energy, thoughtful scholarly contemplation, chain smokers and armchair philosophers. All of whom needing their daily fix. Nice, homey place.

We had Bill the preacher, who was a Lutheran minister, always nose deep in some theology text working on next week’s sermon. We had another Bill, the ex of the shop’s owner, always loaded with stories about everything and nothing and smoked so many cigs that it eventually was his undoing. He was a car nut, a real gear head. He was a kind of guru to the local teens who had tricked out their rides. Every so often, some custom set of wheels would cruise by the shop and instinctively he’d wave the young driver down so they could talk shop. We had Barney, an earnest bibliophile with a healthy knowledge about comic books and science fiction in specific and literary criticism in general. A fave fact about Barney: he was set about to write Harlan Ellison’s biography at the man’s behest—they were buddies—only under the cranky s/f writer’s decree that he’d be dead before publication. Such was our little corner of the corner.

And there was Joshua.

He name really wasn’t Joshua. I just call him that to honor some privacy. Joshua fell into the camp of a reader. Quiet, seemingly only interested in coffee, that week’s haul from the library and keeping to himself. Through the unique social osmosis that only tightly knit patrons of a café can produce, we came to learn that he was a Vietnam vet. One of the high school kids was doing a paper on Vietnam, and figured it would be a good idea to talk with Josh, get some firsthand history. I overheard his story. I wasn’t exactly eavesdropping. I only happened to be nearby, within earshot. This is was I roughly heard Josh tell the kid:

Josh was a comm officer in Vietnam. He was the soldier you saw in movies squawking on the radio, lugging that pack that resembled an aqualung attached to an old school telephone receiver. It was his duty to relay details from his CO’s operations back to HQ, radio for help and call in the air strike if needs be. Josh told the kid that after his commanding officer, the guy on comm was the next target of roving Viet Cong rebels. You see, without the comm officer, none of the things listed above could be accomplished. If the guy giving the orders was dead, and then the soldier whose job it was to call for help was gone, well…

Joshua lost half his platoon on one mission, including his CO. He lost a lot of friends, some of whom he trained with at Basic. He said that Vietnam was a beautiful country, and was saddened by what happened during the American invasion. That’s the word he used. Invasion. Josh had this faraway look in his eyes as he told his stories, and he used sentences that were simple and short. The time he served in country was wrapped up in a few paragraphs. When the kid asked the immortal question, “Is that all?” Josh answered that that was all he could remember. Then he went back to his book and latte.

He stopped coming by the café shortly thereafter. I guess he went off looking for some peace. Again.

One more thing; a coda if you will:

My wife’s dad was a doctor in Vietnam, a surgeon. He told her his lone war story once. It was short and simple. Dad got up in the middle of the night after a nightmare. He wandered to the fringe of the jungle encampment to relieve himself. Minutes later there were explosions; Viet Cong descended on the camp, knowing nothing of the Geneva Convention and preceded to burn the mobile hospital to the ground. There was a lot of screaming and gunfire. Her dad was one of a few medics to escape unharmed. Most of the injured just burned.

That was all.

Soldiers’ stories of service are ultimately private things. Prideful, duty-bound, sometimes happy, scary or downright boring. But there they are. The soldiers, they were there. They saw it all. I didn’t. I’m a civvie, and can only imagine further what the reality really was. Putting it all into perspective, I guess I’m just not supposed to know. I just didn’t—as they say in the service—have clearance.

Which makes the story behind Jarhead a bit of a curiosity to me. If so many soldiers are reluctant to share their stories while in the service, save some older guys who have the luxury of distance between the war then and their lives now, then how—why—does a movie like Jarhead exist…?


Anthony Swafford (Gyllenhaal) comes from a proud family military tradition. His grandfather served in WW2, his father Vietnam. Seeing how he found out the hard way that he wasn’t quite college material, he chose to follow in the family footsteps. Be a Marine! Serve your country! Impress your girlfriend! See the world!

The world f*cking sucks. And his girlfriend does also, much to Swoff’s chagrin.

The world means the Saudi desert. Sand. Lots of sand. And lots of nothing. Some bully named Saddam Hussein sent his meager army to invade the small sultanate of Kuwait, and since Kuwait (again, small) is a major exporter of crude to the US, well, America’s mightiest forces better swoop down and defend its lowly citizens. Swoff was trained to be a sniper and expected to take kill shots at desert rats on the line. Defend freedom. Kill r*gheads. Glory!

Mostly it’s digging holes, cleaning out latrines, disassembling and reassembling your weapon over and over again like battling a Rubik’s Cube and making nice for CNN. Swoff did not endure endless backhands to the skull to just clean his rifle. Again. And again.

The life of a Marine is simple. Follow orders. Be punctual. Be respectful. Keep that rifle in proper working order. Forget about that girl you left home who is probably banging a readily available college guy. Maintain the initiative your fathers swore by (who’s women weren’t as hypersexed as yours turned out to be). Whack off crying. Enjoy lots of virgin sand occasionally stained by the smears of crude oil spewing from busted wells that you were dispatched to defend. Oh, and maybe also defend some Kurds while you’re at it. Get ignored by the higher-ups. Clean that rifle some more. Get high. And then get drunk. Oo-rah.

Yes, it takes plenty of hard work, brutal training, suffering much humiliation and eventual boredom to serve as a Marine in Desert Storm. Your muzzle grows ever colder. Your sleep gets ever lighter. You begin to piss out sand. You often wonder both was it this way for your fathers, and who your luscious former girlfriend is f*cking now? Not you, that’s for sure, but perhaps the Bush administration.

It’s all in just, you know, defending American values. And their interests…


Director Sam Mendes received both a lot of praise and eventually a lot of flack for his Oscar winning American Beauty. Beauty, IMHO, falls into the same category as Crash, Dances with Wolves, Chicago, and The Greatest Show on Earth (The Quiet Man was f*cking robbed back in 1953): a Best Picture winner that should not have won. Beauty was a good film, although gussied up by an ignorant press as the film to see for 1999. Probably because star Kevin Spacey got high and nymphet Mena Suvari played a reluctant Lolita. Titillation always works to grab an audience’s attention. Worked for me.

So Mendes endured some slings and arrows for his Oscar win, its artistic merits in question. His over-hyped follow-up, Road to Perdition, got some heat too. It was merely a comic book adaptation, after all. We all know that comic book movies are fragile darlings. That and Paul Newman will never die. Road also panned out in the same style as Beauty; it was overwrought, heavy-handed and also had an intrusive atmosphere. But it had Tom Hanks! As a bad guy! Against type!

*snore*

And now we have Jarhead, a bio no one was asking for. Unlike the stories I was privy to about military operations, I wanted to know more about those, but I “didn’t have clearance.” With Jarhead I got full disclosure. Where can I get reprogrammed?

Mendes’ directorial style is very—well—direct. He lays it out and on with very little metaphor. The whole underlying message of Jarhead is basically, “This happens.” It’s the overall feel of his movies. Here’s what happens, take it or leave it. Thud.

But Jarhead is a tad different from Mendes’ other films. For one, it’s a bio, and; two…it’s been done before. Many times before. The “soldier’s story” is a tried and true Hollywood trope. It gets audiences’ butts in the seats. Mostly civilian butts. They come in droves to see drama, horror, blood, explosions. Especially explosions. Jarhead has a few (explosions that is), but precious little of the rest.

The curiosity I mentioned earlier relevant to the “war stories” relating to a narrative like Jarhead’s is thus: if so many vets are reluctant to speak about their life and times, then why would Swoffard think he’d have anything to say about a subculture which appears to be decidedly recalcitrant, especially to civilians? That being said, why would he say anything? I’m not saying there aren’t stories to tell, but the hell of it is—at least concerning movies that lift from real soldiers’ stories, i.e. Band of Brothers—most commercial adaptations are either honestly compelling but rather infrequent, like Patton or Sergeant York. Either that or gussied up to make them more palatable to the Hollywood crowd, a la Good Morning, Vietnam or Born on the Fourth of July against the sake of honest portrayals. In other words, they are either carefully chosen and/or doctored for their grittiness and/or accessibility. Such as it is.

Jarhead follows neither of these tenets. It’s a biopic based on a soldier’s story where basically nothing happens. Does an audience really wanna hear a war story about not being involved in battle?

In all fairness, Swoffard’s story is unique in the pantheon of real-life war stories as far as I have seen. His experiences depict the sheer humdrum of service as a US Marine in the Persian Gulf. Unlike all the films listed above—where sh*t actually happens, fabricated or no—Jarhead and ostensibly Swoff’s real-life service was more of less a study of surviving boredom and loneliness, not combat. If anyone out there can cite a war movie, biopic or otherwise, that examines the mundane of military service, please share. I willfully admit my ignorance here.

That’s the whole gimmick for Jarhead. It neither depicts the glory nor the horrors of war. It just shows us the monotony of it all. The downtime, the restlessness, the freakin’ boredom. Apart from the few scenes of actual tension—very few of them deal with being “in the Suck”—in the movie, Jarhead is an insular exercise in alienation and frustration. There’s a lot of navel-gazing. Interesting navel-gazing, but hardly compelling.

I understand that Jarhead is based on actual events, yet while watching it I could not escape the feeling of embellishment. One would think for a movie that I have attested is about nothing happening would demand a little more meat on the bone. But this feeling was not about elaboration for the sake of drama. It was for comedy. Maybe this is the Shakespearean trick of enhancing tragedy coupled with humor. Maybe the dark streak of humor that runs through Jarhead is meant to temper the drama with levity. Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there.

There is some comedic undertones running through the film. Like other biopics covered here at RIORI (Cadillac Records springs immediately to mind), Jarhead employs the device of narrator; Swoff’s accounts of boot camp to the desert read as though lifted directly from the text, punctuated with self-deprecating jokes and tongue-in-cheek non-sequiturs to either make light of his troubles or enhance them. In any event, the narration, like Mendes’ direction, falls flat and too direct. No inferences. This happened. Then the next thing happened. And so on. The story plods.

As hinted above with my secondhand war stories, I am ignorant of actual combat. From what I did hear from vets is that there is a lot of “down time” in between missions. Actual battle, however brief, more than makes up for the lag. A minute of action balances out the hours of nothingness. Jarhead if anything illustrates this fact keenly. Three-quarters of the movie is not about the missions, but the waiting. Waiting to be a soldier. The rest of the time is divided between cleaning your rifle, watching porn, masturbating and other such shoe-polishing. It’s routine documentation of…well…routine in the life of a grunt is the unique facet of Jarhead. Sure, there have been other war movies that furnish the audience with the non-events of actual fighting (now MASH springs immediately to mind), but they were usually boosted with comedy or pathos. Not Jarhead. Swoff’s tales are simply a journal about waiting to “get on with it.” In fact, that’s how I felt watching the bulk of this movie, my eyes continuing darting to the counter on the BD player (“We’re how far into the movie and still no action?”).

A positive thing that tempers the languid tone is the nice pace. Jarhead has a nice flow. It’s easygoing, albeit a bit long. The film is seamless, edited well and has few hiccups. The cinematography, especially in the desert scenes, is flawless. What really accentuates the loneliness and alienation theme of the movie is seeing our cast either marching out in the middle of a sandy waste with no landmarks or bunkered down in endless, nameless bivouacs that are supposed to be, but don’t feel like mobile outposts. Gyllenhaal and his cast mates are more nomadic and seemingly rudderless than the Bedouins they encounter.

Jarhead also sports some pretty decent acting too. Nothing standout, save one role. But before that, let’s say that Gyllenhall has come a long way from Bubble Boy. This was his follow-up to Brokeback Mountain, in which he was superb. Here, his Swoff is a cipher; a blank slate for the audience to walk, or march—endlessly march—with in his boots. Most of the time, he fades into the background although he’s supposed to be the protag. Even his bouts of tragedy don’t come across as real or engaged. This happens.

On the other hand, both Foxx and Sarsgaard are very entertaining. Jaime Foxx’s Staff Sgt. Sykes is great. He’s very funny without being overt. His performance feels like it screams to the audience, “You’re in on this joke, right?” Toeing the line between being a commanding officer with all the baggage that comes with it paired with being an ambassador of goodwill to CNN (with all the baggage that comes with that) makes for a humorous and cutting take on what the Gulf War meant to soldier and homefront alike. And thanks to 24-hour cable news, the homefront was very directly involved.

Sarsgaard as Troy is yin to Gyllenhaal’s yang. Swoff entered the Marines as more or less legacy as well as not finding any place in civilian life. He conveys a cavalier, “what-the-hell” attitude. Troy is there because there is nowhere else he should be. Collected, mature and quietly wise beyond his years, Sarsgaard is the good acting/story rule of “less is more.” His performance has a definite economy of dialogue and action that is engaging, designed to get the audience on to what happens next with this guy, even more so than Swoff’s trials.

There are a few period touches to the movie that I liked. The use of the pop music of the early 90s does wonders to punctuate the feel of the times (the dream sequence set to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” is chilling), as well as the contributions from Naughty by Nature, Social Distortion and C&C Music Factory. The soundtrack keenly complements the emotions of the actors almost perfectly. The omnipresent specter of CNN dogging the troops. We remember that on cable, Wolf “The Scud Stud” Blitzer was the talking head there on the frontlines in Kuwait, and we were glued to the tube every night for the casualty updates, yellow ribbons and all. No less under pressure were the troops, hounded to look busy and patriotic while sweating to death. These were the first real “viral videos” that so captivated the nation. It made the war seem more like a TV show than an actual conflict, and the movie makes no bones about CNN nosing in wherever and whenever it can.

An aside: it’s curious how slow it was to admit the (first) Iraq War was a mistake. Vietnam happened slower, lasted longer, and had the kids at home in an uproar for the better part of a decade. Just sayin.’

Despite the cynicism, there’s a vein of sentimentality running through Jarhead; a scent of nostalgia. These weren’t the best days of Swoff’s life, but they end up being the most significant. The training, the heartbreak, the monotony, the transformative power of “friendly fire”, all of it left an indelible mark on our hero. But it is mark of, simply, this happened. There just wasn’t enough oomph to Mendes’ direction and Gyllenhaal’s Swoffard.

Jarhead, for all its flat affect, is a stylized biopic. Mendes tried to add some weak flair to a decidedly weak story. Swoff’s accounts read as a cautionary tale. It’s not anti-war, it’s anti-lonely. It can even be gloomy at times, outright boring; the argument can be made that this was the point. At other times, Jarhead plays out like a poor man’s Full Metal Jacket. There’s a false, but somehow convincing sense of reality illustrated by the non-action your average Marine must endure. It’s kind of like being a cop. Sure, it looks exciting being on the case like in Law & Order. But any police officer can tell you it’s mostly desk work. Pushing papers (or reassembling rifles) drenched in disparagement and lowliness does not a stirring war moving make. At times interesting, but not stirring.

So Jarhead, the Janus-faced war chronicle. Poignant? Quietly. Honest? Probably. Engaging? Seldom. Tone?

Boring, and most likely on purpose.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. There are better soldiers’ stories out there, not unlike the ones I heard. I guess if you really want the dirt on combat, seek out your local vet. But chances are, he’ll be tight-lipped. I learned there’s a reason behind that.


Stray Observations…

  • “Thou shalt not kill…F*ck. That. Rule.”
  • I have heard that on the line, snipers do not blink when making a shot. Something about maintaining accuracy. Can anyone verify this?
  • “Metroid” doesn’t have nine levels. It only has five. Hey! Ow! F*ckin’ beer cans…
  • “Those were my sausages.”
  • Rain in the desert? How convenient. Must be the first time in 100 years. Climate change, I tell ya.
  • “…Welcome to the Suck…”

Next Installment…

“Nothin’ else matters in this whole wide world, when you’re in love with a Jersey Girl. Sing sha la la la…”


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 5: David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007)


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The Players…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, with Brian Cox, Charles Fleischer, Elias Koteas and John Caroll Lynch.


The Story…

A notorious serial killer known only as “The Zodiac” is on a creepy spree in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s left several victims in his wake and taunts police of his motives with letters and ciphers mailed to newspapers. It’s only when crossword freak cartoonist Robert Greysmith accidentally cracks the Zodiac’s code that both the media and the police gets a lead. However, following the lesson of history, the case still remains one of San Francisco’s most infamous unsolved crimes.


The Rant…

Let’s, you and I, talk about fear.

Okay, that line there is one of my favorites in the entire English language. I boosted it, not surprisingly, from an intro to one of Stephen King’s books. But still, let’s talk about fear, you and I. I’m not really talking about the fear of the unknown, although that’s a popular one and one of the most basal. I’m talking about the fear of being hunted. Like prey. Like you’re being followed. That liquid, paranoid panic you get at the base of your stomach. That you are one of a millions other souls our there that could, under the proper circumstances, end up no less that someone’s trophy. That eerie obsessed feeling, where the fight, flight or faint instinct should kick in at any moment. You want to hide, but there’s no place to go. You want to run, but you’re in the crosshairs. You are being watched, prodded, toyed with. Hunted. You are made to feel a victim of some fate breathing down your neck, almost literally. Haunted. The slight, breathless pants on your shoulder of a person or persons unknown that want to get you. Harm you. Even kill you.

For no apparent reason at all. You’re just prey. Game.

That’s what San Franciscans must’ve felt like back in the 1960’s when some hunter of men took to task terrorizing the Bay Area with the bizarre, groundless and still unsolved murders as the Zodiac killer. Part documentary, part psychological thriller, part one man’s obsession, Zodiac is David Fincher at the top of his game, carefully and quietly ratcheting up the dread level over two plus worthwhile hours.

It’s unfortunate that this film fell into the bracket of “poor box office” tallies.

Zodiac may have fallen victim to the “too intellectual” tag, or the long running time turned people away (seems most audiences have only enough of a fluid attention span to fill a thimble), or how the film moves at its own languid pace, possibly inviting boredom in some. I don’t know. Just conjecture. One thing this guy is sure of: Zodiac is a great, thrilling and sometimes rather scary film…


July 4th. Vallejo, California. A pair of teens out for an evening drive. Any casual audience member with a fleeting notion about the film’s source material knows that these two are the harbingers of doom for the next few hours, the Maguffins for the Zodiac’s being. The movies wastes precious little time in setting the stage for the overall atmosphere of the film: dread. Paranoia and dread. The drive-by that mushrooms into a murder scene (played against the trippy tones of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”) sets the stakes. We’re against the wall with a murderer on the loose. And we’re all helpless fools for it…


Dread is the watchword of this film. Not terror, per se, and definitely not serial killer horror like, say, The Silence of the Lambs. But dread. That looming fear of something horrible that could happen if you would let your guard down. Epitomizing this feeling is Robert Graysmith, portrayed by Gyllenhaal, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and avid puzzle wonk. Graysmith is the unlikely protagonist of this story (and also the real-life counterpart who wrote the book upon which the film is based), more or less tumbling over the Zodiac’s intentions by the anonymous threat letters that get mailed to the paper declaring the killer’s motives, intentions and nary a whit of his identity. Gyllenhaal plays skittish very well, like a kid on the outside of the club. That haunted look hangs on his face, exemplifying that dread as we the audience are meant to feel. As was said, Graysmith is puzzle geek, and when the Zodiac sends cryptic ciphers along with his threatening letters, the challenge of cracking the code becomes an obsession.

Greysmith’s aide-de-camp in this escapade is crime beat reporter, the effete and boozy Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr., in a role that somehow mirrors the character of Tony Stark he would portray a year later in 2008’s Iron Man). Cynical, crass and opportunistic, Avery plays the perfect foil to Graysmith’s boy scout like demeanor. Somehow they trade barbs with each other over the Zodiac’s motives and identity with each accompanying letter, as well as when the body count starts to rise. All of Zodiac’s intensions are posted to the Chronicle’s editors, leaving our intrepid newsies at the frontline of what the killer might do next.

Of course, all Avery and Graysmith can do is speculate and play around with screwy codices. On the frontline is Det. Dave Toschi, portrayed gamely by future Hulk Mark Ruffalo. He and his partner, Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are the cops that get the call about a murder of a cabbie in downtown San Fran, connecting it with the Zodiac killings. Ruffalo’s performance of Toschi is just great, unlike the wary wounded Graysmith, Ruffalo is the warm and steady straight man caught up in the mystery, just trying to do his job to nab the criminal at large. Ruffalo has the feeling of stability you need in this dreadful business in hopes that there will be an end to this mystery, even though the Zodiac case is still unsolved to this day.

Zodiac starts as a crime drama, and ends as a docudrama. The first act’s pacing feels a bit rushed, but it flows. For a crime investigation film, the pace has to be swift, but there’s a lot, a lot of info that needs to be core dumped on the audience to get what the hell is happening, and there’s a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it velocity that zips by in the first act. Fincher’s films are almost always clinical pieces of technical exactness, and Zodiac is no exception. It has all the hallmarks of a Fincher film, from the muted color scheme to the surgical precision of the camera work. It makes for an excellent documentary film, as if cut for a PBS production, but with excellent acting and a bigger budget.

The core trio of actors all play well off each other, which is surprising considering how different each one’s personality is. Graysmith’s boy scout to Avery’s rake to Toschi’s procedural give the audience a united front of cracking the code of the Zodiac, so to speak. Each actor has his place in handling the mystery, and although it’s ostensibly Gyllenhaal’s show, Ruffalo’s treatment of the film is what kept me engaged.

Not to dismiss Gyllenhaal. He’s just so great in this. He brings that haunted innocence he used so well in Donnie Darko to the fore here. As Graysmith, he becomes so obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac that he loses almost everything he holds dear, from his job to his family. He becomes his own pawn in the Zodiac’s game, almost to the point that Toschi seems to let Graysmith do his dirty work. Let the crazed kid hunt the identity of the hunter. The case dragged on for years with nary a break until it was all but swept under the rug. Graysmith’s crusade, Gyllenhaal’s obsession is what pushes the movie forward. The game.

The prey comment I made earlier may be the crux of the whole Zodiac m.o., both as crime and film. From what little I know about profiling serial killers, they all take some trophy, some winning from their prey. The Zodiac’s was the game. The toying with – hunting – other humans. Sport. The cryptic letters and ciphers. Game. Thumbing his nose at the authorities, taunting them, daring them to try and stop him. The short story “The Most Dangerous Game” is commented on often in the film, and is used as an analog for the killer’s motives. A key scene, and maybe the best in the movie, is the interview between Toschi and Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen has the history and hallmarks of a hunter, and dearly enjoys messing with the officer’s heads. Poking holes and creating new ones in the fabric of their investigation. This scene may be the lynchpin of the whole movie, if not the case at large. The play was the thing with the Zodiac. A game to play that ends up playing you. Making you question your safety, your security. Making you feel like prey.

Yes, Zodiac is a truly fine film, or rather three films in one. There’s the obvious mystery story, Graysmith’s Moby-Dick-like crusade and the game of the hunt. All three meld well into one very satisfying narrative, complete with all the custom touches of a masterful director at the wheel. Zodiac is a tight and sometimes harrowing journey, just like cat-and-mouse game the Zodiac put San Fransisco through some 40 years ago. Times of dread into paranoia into being haunted.

Or hunted.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Of course rent it. Zodiac is the kind of film you’ll want to watch on a lazy Saturday night with friends and then later again just to analyze and deconstruct not only the film, but the Zodiac mystery as well. Also, the movie’ll make you rethink crank calls ever after.


Stray Observations…

  • “Does anyone have any Animal Crackers?”
  • Melanie: “What’re you doing at a gun range?” Robert: “Reading.”
  • Edwards’ hairpiece is rather distracting.
  • Charles Fleischer who portrays Bob Vaughan was also the voice of Roger Rabbit. Really.
  • Toschi: “Is this true?” Robert: “I’ve walked it.”

Next Installment…

Christian Bale looses some sleep (as well as sanity) as The Machinist.