Saturday, March 03, 2007

Movies opening this week

Black Snake Moan (Christina Ricci, Samuel L. Jackson, Justin Timberlake, dir. Craig Brewer)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Is this movie brilliant or is it bullshit? Honestly, I'm still not sure, but the fact that I am still pondering that makes me pretty certain it's a movie worth seeing. It is obviously a bit sexist, and it remains stubbornly ignorant of any racial subtext, but at the same time that's sort of the point - this is a lurid, stylized and ultimately fake parable about a condition that certainly does not exist, at least in the form it's portrayed in the movie, and actions that no real person should ever engage in. Yet that's precisely what's fascinating about it, that it takes all that and then dives in anyway, daring you to challenge the totally fucked-up world it's created. Can't we just agree that it's brilliant bullshit? Wide release

The Secret Life of Words (Sarah Polley, Tim Robbins, Javier Camara, dir. Isabel Coixet)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This one, though, is just straight bullshit. Annoyingly pretentious, with characters existing to impart heavy-handed lessons, and scenes ending with fades to black that scream at the audience to think about all the deep stuff they've just witnessed. Polley is a great actress, but I think she takes on too many of these solemn, good-for-you roles, and doesn't lend her talents enough to bigger, more entertaining films (Dawn of the Dead notwithstanding). I'd love to see her in a Hollywood period epic, or at least in a movie where she could crack a smile. Opened limited Dec. 15; in Las Vegas this week

Zodiac (Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., dir. David Fincher)
I had high expectations for this movie, given my great admiration for Fincher's past work and the intriguing premise and promising trailers. But it exceeded even those expectations, and is not only the best movie of 2007 so far (in a two-month period in which I have seen a surprising number of excellent films), but also better than any movie I saw in 2006. Fincher's control over his material is remarkable (although maybe not surprising, given that he reportedly shoots up to 70 takes of certain scenes), and the movie is an engulfing, claustrophobic look at the daunting nature of criminal investigation and reporting. It is not, as some people might hope, a serial-killer thriller; the real Zodiac was never caught and was confirmed to have killed only five people, and Fincher meticulously sticks to the documented facts of the case. He reigns in most of his flashier visual tendencies to instead focus just as proficiently on getting every little period detail and case detail correct, and when he occasionally does resort to a visually distracting device (an aerial shot of a cab moving around town like a dot on a map, a CGI time-lapse of a building going up), it's noticeable and jarring, serving to underline whatever point he's trying to make (the route was simple and exact; so much time has passed investigating this case that the whole cityscape has been altered).

Although it's hard to call this a character-driven movie, I want to say that it's a plot-driven movie in which the focus is on how the plot drives the characters, if that makes any sense. The facts of the Zodiac case determine how almost all of the characters live their lives, in one way or another, and become such a huge and unstoppable force that they drive those people to extreme, unnatural ways of living. The movie, too, is as obsessed with facts and documents as the characters are, pulling the viewer in to the overwhelming world, dangling false leads and false hope in front of you and thwarting them in the same way the real investigators were thwarted. Rather than an unsatisfying movie, as some viewers and some critics are saying, it's a movie about dissatisfaction, about the way that things like this linger until either they consume you or you move on. This movie so impressed me that I'm not sure I can quite articulate what's so great about it, so I will also point to cogent reviews by Walter Chaw, Nathan Lee, Manohla Dargis, Nick Schager, Sean Burns and Scott Foundas, all fine critics who perhaps better elucidate why this is such a valuable film. Wide release

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