Tag Archives: documentary

Inside Job proves that David Cameron shouldn’t be let off the hook for the phone hacking scandal


I just watched Inside Job. It was one of those films I felt I had to see, rather than desperately wanting to. I am glad I did watch it though. I am still reeling from the impact of its message.

I was expecting to agree with the thrust of the film’s argument about the excesses and ludicrous risk taking of the financial sector but I wasn’t prepared for just how persuasive its case would be. I find it hard to disagree with the view that the banking system should be divided into small high street firms for the general public’s savings and more adventurous, some might say dangerous, investment arms, prone to failure. In fact it’s my personal view that such a separation is the sensible and right course of action for both future fairness and stability.

But I had a feeling that Inside Job’s argument would only preach to the converted. It would not make a dent in the ideologies of those who believe in minimal regulation and a laissez faire approach to economics. Many in this camp are brainwashed and privileged; too stubborn or selfish to admit that the global collapse that began with Lehman Brothers in 2008 changes everything they supported. However some have genuine intellectual and pragmatic reasons for insisting too much government control is a bad thing. They need to be won over to a middle way that recognises not all regulation is bad and that indeed given what has happened, some is vital. An essentially left wing argument, with elements of conspiracy hinted at by the title of Charles Ferguson’s film, would not convince this group.

Whilst there are elements of what I predicted in the content of Inside Job, it actually fashions an argument independent of political viewpoint, based primarily on undeniable facts, which cannot be ignored. The film’s title refers to the overlapping and conflicts of interest between key segments of the banking crisis; from government to investment bank CEOS, from rating agencies to universities. This is not an unfounded or merely possible conspiracy but a cold, hard reality of vested interests, dominated by a handful of men, which control the world’s fortunes through their self interested greed.

Time and again Inside Job illustrates how bank bosses pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bonuses would crossover into so called “regulation” jobs for the US government, and then leave to go back to working for banks which they could have favoured during supposedly impartial decisions about government policy. The rating agencies that approved risky transactions were paid by the banks, so had no reason to be accurate or give warnings. The decision makers would then lecture at prestigious universities like Harvard to justify what they and others had done and ensure the next generation does the same. The justification would always be that finance is too complicated for us plebs to understand.

Whatever your opinion on the right solution to the problem, whatever your political allegiances, it’s clear that conflicts of interest on such a scale could only lead to corruption or at the very least incompetence. When the credits for Inside Job rolled I found myself not only digesting its gobsmacking and concise revelations but looking at the recent phone hacking scandal in a new light.

In many ways the News International crisis has gone beyond party political differences. Parliament voted as one to block Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of BskyB. Political leaders of all colours were condemning the illegal actions of rogue journalists and private investigators, as well as their own close relations with the media. MPs responded to public outrage. But on Wednesday Labour leader Ed Miliband was accused of being partisan when he grilled the Prime Minister in the Commons about the reasoning behind his appointment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who it now seems must surely have known about or even sanctioned illegal practices. David Cameron counterattacked Miliband’s interrogation by labelling him as a hypocrite and opportunist. Despite some awkward questions from other MPs, which
Cameron refused to give straight answers to, he generally wriggled out of a
tight spot.

Some might say this is fair enough. The incidents being analysed throughout this scandal took place under a Labour government. The Prime Minister has released details of his meetings with editors and News International, to be “transparent”. Tony Blair’s New Labour started the culture of greed which made not just aspiration but being rich ok and desirable, and also created the Westminster culture of spin with media handlers like Alastair Campbell at every Downing Street meeting. Cameron’s relationship with Andy Coulson might even be described as refreshing, given that he refused to ditch a man he regarded as a friend at the first sign of trouble.

Even before watching Inside Job though I disagreed with the way Cameron shot down Miliband. As leader of the opposition it’s Miliband’s duty and his job to pressure and question the Prime Minister. He also has genuine reasons to doubt his integrity, fuelled by public demands for clarity. After watching Inside
Job
I can see that conflicts of interest like the one David Cameron found himself in, working with Coulson and leading a government approving the BskyB
takeover, are just tiny steps away from catastrophe and corruption. Miliband
must continue to expose Cameron’s mistake and continue to ask for public
assurances that it won’t happen again.

Inside Job is a surprisingly gripping watch. It lost me during some sections of economic explanation but for the most part constructs a message that resonates
independently of mathematical or political understanding. It remains topical
and relevant for a number of reasons, concluding with the revelation that
President Obama kept on the architects of the 2008 crisis to rebuild the
economy more sustainably. It is a sobering reminder of the huge limitations and
inequalities of life in a modern democracy.

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Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade


Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.

It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.

Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.

Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity. 

Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.

Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.

And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.

Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.

At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.

But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.

The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.

Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.

Blooded


You are a mega-bucks banker, a liberated twenty-something, a first class slut. You’re a whistling milkman, a tearaway toddler, a grieving widow. You’re a freedom fighter utterly consumed by ideological struggle. You’re a madman, a gunman, a best man. You’re an axe wielding gamekeeper in deep, sensuous love with your ladylike employer. You’re a sophisticated stalker, leering like an aristocratic butcher at young girls you view as goddesses; cheap meaty chunks of divine beauty. You’re a prisoner that’s only ever known the reality of four bare walls. You are human.

You’re barely clothed, stripped of decency and alone in the wilderness. You’re unreasonably frightened; terrified merely by nature’s regular and natural breathing. You feel an irrepressible sense of panicky foreboding deep in the truth of your gut. The cold bites greedily at your bare skin, sinking you deep into inescapable agony. You’ve never known anything like it; the never-ending needles of pain, the relentless rattle of your rib cage, the fear. The pain and fear of the hunted as you run for your life. As you run like an animal.

As you read this in the comforting light of your computer screen, chances are you are none of these things. And yet we can all imagine, however slightly, what the existence of a freedom fighter or a widow might be like. We can never truly know until we have lived it, and even then no two individuals will share identical emotions. But as human beings empathy remains one of the handful of characteristics that truly sets us apart from animals and beasts. There’s nothing quite like the sadness of feeling someone else’s loss as if it were your own or the failure of someone close to you to understand your own melancholy. Some may argue in favour of other traits and skills, like language and pure intelligence. In many ways though, empathy is the foundation to all art, the essence and gateway to all storytelling.

Empathy is at the heart of the intriguing central premise to Blooded, a British debut film out on the 1st of April. The release date of April Fool’s Day is fitting given that Blooded is part of the modern phenomenon of “is it truth or is it fiction?” storytelling. It makes use of a documentary/reconstruction format to tell the tale of the kidnapping of a group of pro fox hunting campaigners by an extremist animal rights group in the picturesque, but barren, Highlands of Scotland. Empathy becomes crucial to the story when the mysterious kidnappers release their captives across the wilderness in their underwear, before pursuing them with guns to make them experience the horror of being hunted.  Presumably the horror the foxes feel seconds away from a mauling by the hounds.

It’s certainly a distinctive and controversial concept for a film. The narrative is presented in unfamiliar layers compared to your average feature. We’re introduced firstly to the idea that a group of pro-hunters were filmed by a group of anti-hunters in the Highlands and that the resulting video became an internet sensation. We then meet the “real” pro-hunter personalities that lived through the event in classic documentary interview style. These interviews continue throughout the film through both voiceovers and close-ups. We also have the majority of the action shown to us via a reconstruction of the “actual” events, with different actors than those playing the “real” people. All of this is confusing and disorientating at first. But not in a bad way.

Just because Blooded has an unusual structure and deals with politically sensitive issues, does not mean it’s destined to fail. In fact last year I loved Catfish, a film in a similar truth/fiction style that dealt with current and also potentially dull and alienating topics. The cocktail of unconventional storytelling and thought provoking subject matter can prove a potent and satisfying one indeed. It has the potential to really set a film apart as an original success. Sadly though it’s a difficult balance to strike and Blooded doesn’t quite find it.

It’s a critical cliché to say that a film has an “identity crisis”. But there is no better way of explaining why Blooded’s bold ideas and execution don’t quite come together. The film opens with a character talking about extremism and how it essentially boils down to two sides trying to outshout the other. Watching it initially I couldn’t decide if this speech was meant to have humorous undertones or comment seriously on the issue. This becomes Blooded’s main pitfall.

As the opening of the film developed, I began to think of Blooded as an incredibly subtle mockumentary. The selection of hunting as the central issue seemed to be a swipe at all the modern day life and death disagreements about ultimately trivial things. The self-important tone of the music in the background, coupled with the overly sincere acting at times and some sweeping shots of grand Highland scenery for the titles seemed to say, gently, “look at this sad bunch of tossers who got mixed up in such an odd ordeal over something as pompous as hunting as if it were life’s defining feature”.

The film walked the line so finely between a tone of mocking and seriousness that I thought Blooded had the makings of a truly brilliant comedy spoof during its steady opening segment. Even beautiful cinematography of the stunning Highlands shrouded in mist and fog and sunshine seemed hilarious when viewed in the right jokey light at times. There were some good funny moments which utilised both the reconstruction and interview format to excellent effect. Most notably, when an American girlfriend of the group has shot her first stag, the experienced hunter takes some blood from the creature and wipes it on her face. He assures us she didn’t seem to mind this “Blooding” ritual, only for her to immediately respond in her interview “I resented that immediately”.

As the film progresses however the laughs are increasingly unintentional, as the story morphs into some sort of horror/political comment hybrid. The problem is that the hazy humour hovers over the rest of the film so that none of the “scares” are shocking. The animal rights activists, whilst extreme and clearly nutty to pull off such a stunt, just have too much of a conscience to be truly horrific foes.

Far too much emphasis is placed on the political issue. After watching Blooded, I delved through production notes from the filmmakers about their intentions and witnessed the “is it real?” marketing campaign online drumming up substantial interest. The filmmakers insist Blooded has no political agenda. It’s a thriller in documentary form and is not intended as a mockumentary. Blooded is meant simply as a thought provoking thriller, shot in a distinctive way, with some vague allusions to modern extremism.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers and director Ed Boase, Blooded fails as a thriller. I think it could have worked as very clever and subtle humour, had there been some more obvious signposts. Blooded ends up being controversial for the sake of it. It’s not enough to be simply thought provoking, especially when the entertainment is feeble and vague. The filmmakers must at least have an idea as to what sort of thoughts they want their audience to be thinking.

Watching Blooded with a friend of mine, neither of us could make sense of it. He said that the ending was “weak” as the film petered out and I agreed with him. As with so many films, Blooded tries to be several things at once, with the result that it does none of them well. My instinct on the one hand is to applaud Blooded for trying something different, but a much stronger voice of reason on the other is saying that the filmmakers needed to think harder about what it was they were trying to do.

Catfish


When I first heard about Catfish, it sounded like a ramshackle film cobbled together to capitalise on Facebook fever, and in particular, the enormous success of David Fincher’s The Social Network. Looking deeper, at the artwork and a synopsis of the plot, I was inclined to think the same thing. The visual design of the title and posters, whilst clearly modelled on the Facebook logo itself, unavoidably now conjure associations with The Social Network, a wonderfully shot, acted and scripted film that seems destined to claim best picture at the imminent Oscars ceremony. The vague summaries of the plot of Catfish all make it sound like the generic, potentially lucrative tale anyone would decide to tell about the phenomenon of social networking. It’s described as a “reality thriller” and the production companies settled on tag-lines like “Think before you click.”

But then there was the avalanche of positive critical comment surrounding the film. A quick check on Rotten Tomatoes will show up a healthy 81% fresh rating but dig deeper once again and you’ll find some reviews that give Catfish unbelievably glowing, game-changing references.  It’s enthusiastically endorsed by various newspapers; The Mail, The Guardian, The Mirror, The Telegraph and The News of The World. The decisive factor that swayed me to ensure I saw it a.s.a.p. however was the recommendation of characteristically cynical movie blog, Ultra Culture.

Ultra Culture hailed Catfish as its film of 2010. The explanation of this choice is eloquent and as funny as always and does an admirable job of trying to touch on all the big, intellectual reasons Catfish is so masterfully compulsive and spot-on, as well as the smaller reasons it’s a quality piece of filmmaking. Any review of the story will fail to capture the myriad of ways it could be interpreted. Such is its nature and its accurate reflection and encapsulation of the interconnectivity of our times.

Let’s start with those smaller reasons Catfish is just, plain and simple, good. It has a captivating original soundtrack, which perfectly complements the action of the story. In many ways the soundtrack is as varied as the narrative itself, encompassing everything from sentimental, heart-warming songs to lively, modern pieces which keep things interesting during transitional moments consisting mainly of screen-shots from a computer. These in-depth snippets of technology are crucial to the feel of the film; quotes from Facebook chats, pictures, YouTube videos or Google earth animations, all handled beautifully and interestingly. Catfish feels at once relevant and familiar, without ever becoming boring.

Then there’s the dubious documentary status of the movie. Catfish falls into that guaranteed hype-inducing category of projects that may or may not be staged. Most reviewers, myself included, conclude that Catfish does not feel faked, despite some clearly crafted moments. More importantly the majority of verdicts on Catfish state in black and white that they couldn’t care less whether or not the events are real. As David Edwards in The Daily Mirror says; “Is it real? When a film’s this good, that becomes secondary.”

What’s the general gist of this snapshot of contemporary life then? Well, as is so often the case with genuinely fantastic films, to say too much would spoil the experience. It’s also so many things and deals with so many themes, that it’s impossible to categorise. Essentially though Catfish is a refreshingly hands-on, unique take on the internet, and specifically relationships conducted over the web and purely by virtual means. The key figure, Nev, begins the film receiving inspirational packages from an eight year old girl, who paints. Her creations are increasingly based on Nev’s photography and then his life and appearance in general. Nev and his filmmaking friends eventually journey to meet his artistic pen-pal and her family. Nev’s even fallen for her older sister. But who are we to know what love really is?

In many ways the transformation of the film from an uplifting hymn to the connecting, liberating power of the web into something darker, is predictable. The warnings it holds about forged identities and the potential for sinister outlets are there. But as several reviews, including Ultra Culture’s, point out, Catfish is not meant to be a powerful cautionary tale about complacent trust online. What confirms this is the surprisingly insightful explanation of the title, delivered in working class tones by a simple character as the film concludes. Catfish, he explains, were used to exercise cod fish as they were shipped on long journeys. This kept their flesh fresh and stopped them becoming tasteless. We need enigmatic, metaphorical Catfish in our lives, to “keep us on our toes” and give life spicy variety.

To inadequately sum up then: Catfish is a gripping mystery, packed with incredibly emotional moments. Its twists and turns are always beguiling, stunning and (mostly) unpredictable. It is both sinister and disturbing, and heart-warming and stirring. At 83 minutes it’s the most concise and thrilling “documentary” you’re ever likely to see. It’s funny. Most importantly of all it’s a study of the realities of our modern existence. It highlights more themes than I can mention but ultimately uncovers the unifying, depressing deceptions of millions of lives. You’ve never seen anything quite like it.

 The Social Network is a worthy Oscar winner and a truly fabulous story about the origins of Facebook and the excesses of its creators. Catfish however, is the real movie about the internet, about the actual effects of social networking. I now understand the marketing around Catfish and it wasn’t all about jumping on the Facebook bandwagon. The Social Network was rarely about Facebook itself; Catfish explores some of the same universal themes of the human condition, and more, and is genuinely THE Facebook movie.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell


Sitting in a luxurious hotel lobby in Spain last week I came across an article by the actor Hugh Bonneville in The Times which was part of their Christmas appeal. It was about Liberia and in particular a young mum, who claimed she was 21 but was in fact 17. She was having her third child. Even if it survived birth it would struggle to make it out of childhood, such are the overwhelming health risks for children in Africa. I wish I could quote the striking figures about infant mortality in the article but they are tied up behind Murdoch’s News International online paywall, although that is another matter entirely. The unsettling truth is that I would not have lingered over the article had I not known I would be writing a review on a documentary about Liberia’s turbulent recent political history on my return to British soil. I was holidaying in a country with 20% unemployment and an expanding prostitution industry, and the depressing fact is that we are all guilty of choosing to focus on these more manageable economic and moral woes of developed nations, than look with unblinking eyes at the seemingly insurmountable challenge of Africa. We need documentaries like Pray The Devil Back To Hell to jolt us out of our ignorance and indifference now and again and spark good souls into action.

Having said this, badly made documentaries can also turn an audience away from an issue, so it was an enormously important and difficult task that directors Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker took on. They were trying to summarise a long and bitter struggle and in particular distil the bravery and brilliance of ordinary women that formed a peace initiative that restored calm to their country. Liberia had once been envied as one of the few independent African republics, but just like other nations on the continent it encountered its terrible problems when the dream of a nation founded by free slaves on equality went sour over generations, leading to a sporadic civil war raging from 1989 to 2003. The conflict reached new and devastating heights at the beginning of the 21st century, so events remain chillingly fresh in the minds of those involved and are surely too close to be dismissed as mere history. Given the harrowing plight Liberians still face today according to The Times appeal, it’s clear this documentary had the potential to convince viewers why Liberia was as deserving of sympathy and aid as other better known African nations in crisis and poverty.

This is the story of an unlikely coalition of brilliant women, and given their brilliance the filmmakers are wise to let the women tell the story in their own words. From the beginning we are guided by the words of the charismatic leading light of the movement, and from then on the documentary is a painstaking fusion of moving interviews and dramatic archive footage. Initially the speakers set the scene of everyday life, then emotional interviews detail the atrocities carried out, both by the rebels supposedly fighting for democracy and the government forces commanded by President Charles Taylor, elected on the back of a campaign of fear. Having thus captivated the audience the film plunges into the remarkable story of the women that set out angrily to put a stop to the bloodshed in their villages of their friends and relatives. This story speaks for itself and is a tale of the power of peaceful protest that we in cynical developed nations may not think possible in the modern age.

Originating as a Christian movement the women’s plan for peace soon spread into the Muslim community and these two often divided groups of mothers proceeded to present a formidable and determined united front. Indeed the film is certainly a convincing advocate for the continuing good of religion in the modern world when its message is simplified to easily understandable, universal goods, namely peace in this case. Wisely the directors do not ram religion down the throat of the audience however; it is a key factor behind events but comes second to the sheer humanity of the story.

What’s especially extraordinary is that not only do the women force peace talks with their organised action, but they maintain the momentum to ensure the implementation of genuine democracy for their country, even after the ceasefire, to keep the widespread violence from making a comeback. As the momentum of the campaign builds so does that of the film and it’s easy to get swept up in the struggle. This is a story full of big and shocking ideas and issues but one with an ultimately idealistic message. There are rapes, murders and corruption, religion, race and reminders that our interconnected modern world means those in developed countries cannot afford to sit back and let the suffering play out (extracts from articles show that President Taylor had links to Al-Qaeda and other threats). In the end though the very real and authentic rhythms of African rhetoric, chanted by peaceful protestors clothed in harmless white, won the day. People power and perhaps as the Spice Girls said, girl power, conquers in a world where the odds are stacked against it. There is certainly something irresistibly inspiring about it all.

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter some atmospheric opening titles with colourful African images and music, along with a concise running time of 72 minutes and the powerful likeability of the women, avert a gloomy lecture of a film. In any case the drama of the story itself would make it hard to make a boring film about such stirring events. Even with the ongoing challenges suggested by the article that I read this story has a happy ending that makes it possible for help to reach those who need it most in Liberia. One would certainly hope that now heartfelt donations go directly towards the care of children and young mothers like those I mentioned at the beginning, rather than into the pockets of corrupt officials or towards the production of weapons. Watch this film over the festive season to see how deserving many Liberians are of our gifts and goodwill. Watch it to spare a moment for those less fortunate than ourselves. Watch it to be gripped by something real, not a contrived and fake blockbuster but a story with actual characters that personify a selfless Christmas spirit.

Zodiac


Today I rejoiced in the death of summer. Like a smug old miser I strutted contentedly amongst the pug faced, mourning proles, at once detached from and amused by their sodden gripes and moans. The streets were pelted a gloomy grey and everyone lamented the arrival of the dreary and the damp. I on the other hand basked in the murk and inhaled the invigorating moisture of decay. I smiled at the amber dying leaves on the trees through wet windows clustered with restless droplets. I watched the drones as they collided with other droids in the street and promised to meet up, both equally delighted at any sort of forthcoming event to disrupt the bleak routine, and felt satisfied with my own ongoing, indefinite ok-ness, which was somehow above the desperate need for meaning so evident here in their drizzle beaten faces. I would enjoy the death throes of autumn as they confined the summer to the past and await the renewal.

I suspect that this sort of contented and acceptable lonely misery is but a few misplaced steps from disaster. It’s not natural or healthy to find comfort in a puddle, joy in soaked litter or amusement in swaying, torturous supermarket queues. But such are the pitfalls of isolation and having too much time on your hands. Before you know it you’ll be getting such weird fulfilling highs and exciting kicks out of misery that you’ll be actively seeking out other people’s or worse dabbling in a little sadness creation.

So perhaps serial killers simply have too much time on their hands and so do the hacks that get fascinated by their exploits, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Robert Graysmith in David Fincher’s 2007 “lightly fictionalised” film Zodiac, of the Californian murders. Fincher’s latest project will star rising Brit Andrew Garfield and is a largely factual account about the creation of social networking site Facebook and the odd personalities behind it. Similarly Zodiac treads the ground of a true story and follows a number of insular, eccentric and withdrawn individuals who become consumed by the case and the need to break the code left repeatedly by the killer as the key to his identity. Indeed at times the film feels like a fly on the wall documentary following the investigation, flipping between various angles such as the police department and the journalists captivated by letters sent to their papers. The period detail is vividly executed and both Fincher’s direction and James Vanderbilt’s script must be praised for a striking realism. However the sizeable chunk of the movie that deals with the years in which the murders themselves takes place flashes by without focus, jumping rapidly through weeks, months and then years at a time, never quite deciding whether or not to follow the progress of the detective, the reporters or Gyllenhaal’s awkward, gifted cartoonist.

The disjointed nature of the first half of the film may not be Fincher or the script’s fault, as it may simply reflect events. The fact remains though that once Graysmith the cartoonist becomes properly fixated on the case the story is anchored and becomes far more engaging. During the first half of the movie Gyllenhaal’s character is introduced but then quickly becomes a periphery figure, only for him to become the much needed focus later on, with better opportunities for character development. Graysmith’s obsession drives a wedge between himself and his family, as he dredges up the past during a time when the Zodiac killer is not even active. He begins to piece together bits of the puzzle, bits the audience has already seen in the frenetic fast moving first segment of the movie. The film’s actors such as Mark Ruffalo, who plays his detective in a brilliant Columbo style, finally get the chance to act rather than simply move through events as Graysmith confronts them and tries to get them to confront their failures in the past investigation and to convince them of the importance of resolving the case. Robert Downey Jr also shines in this section after regressing to a failed drunkard from high flying crime reporter. If Fincher’s new Facebook biopic is as good as early reviews say then it is likely it follows the more focused approach of the latter part of Zodiac, as opposed to its wide ranging opening.

That is not to say there are not a number of good points about the first half of Zodiac, simply that it could have been better with clearer structure and better pacing. As I’ve said the film is always lovingly shot and the period sensually evoked, right down to the ear splitting rings of the telephones during high points of the crisis. There is also a piece of dialogue between police offers from different States over the phone that is at once humorous and sickeningly frustrating, as bureaucratic barriers and petty rivalry block an easy coordinated approach to handling the evidence. Mark Ruffalo’s Columbo lookalike Detective also forms a partnership with fellow investigator Anthony Edwards that is genuine and funny at times and makes the audience care, but sadly the film neither dwells on this relationship long enough for it become truly significant, whilst also lingering too long to damage the rest of the narrative.

The murder scenes themselves are perhaps not surprisingly some of the most gripping in the film and you sense Fincher had more creative freedom whilst shooting them, obviously due to the fact that these sequences had to be more “fictionalised” than others. The first murder is tense and creepy, with sexual undertones hinting at the killer’s motivation. The scene in which the killer kidnaps a mother and baby is distressing and chilling, with suspense hanging thick in the air. Not because you don’t know it’s the killer, the discrete camera angles and suspicious behaviour make this obvious, but because his reaction to the presence of the baby is surprising and what he does will prove just what a monster he is or not. Perhaps the most brazen murder and the one that truly kick-starts the investigation, the shooting of the cab driver in San Francisco, is filmed with a visual flourish reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto the computer game. Fincher has the camera follow the cab from a bird’s eye view as it passes through the bustle of the city, as the player views their vehicle in the early GTA games, with radio music blaring out and then interrupted abruptly by gunshots, and the slow motion splash of blood, followed by children’s screams and a 911 call.

All in all there is no doubt that Zodiac is a well made film full of decent performances and given the sensitive subject matter it was perhaps more important that it presents an accurate factual record than an entertaining story. However those looking forward to Fincher’s new fact based film will hope it pulls of the feat of both documenting history and making it exciting throughout.