October 23, 2010

The Beyond

Last night I went to the Five Points Horror Movie Fest and saw Lucio Fulci's 1980 shocker The Beyond. My familiarity with Fulci's body of work extends only to his 1979 walking dead flick, Zombie, which was marketed as a sequel to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead in Europe (Dawn was released to European audiences under the title Zombi, and so Fulci's film was appropriately titled Zombi 2, although it has no real connection to the Romero film aside from the common bond of zombies walking the earth).

I knew from my viewing of Zombie that I was in for two things: lots of gore and very little logic. The Beyond delivered these in spades: it's set in Louisiana where a New York woman (Katharine MacColl) inherits a creaky old hotel that apparently serves as one of the seven gateways of Hell. Such a foreboding curse should be enough reason to vacate the premises, but MacColl's feeble-minded character seems intent on staying, despite some strange deaths that occur rather soon after her arrival.

Fulci and his technicians aren't big on subtle horror: everything is glaring and pulsating from the synthesizers to the the oodles of blood and gore. The movie fetishizes violence and dismemberment (particularly to human faces and eyes even more particularly), and the camera seems like a vehicle through which Fulci can revel in the ecstasy of shock.

The drunk guy sitting behind me actually bolstered my enjoyment of the movie. Most of us in the audience were laughing at it, shaking our heads, making comments to friends about the idiocy of the whole spectacle. However, the guy sitting a few seats to my left --adorned in a Beyond shirt-- probably left the theater shaking his head, exclaiming to himself, "They just don't get Fulci!"

Sweeping generalization: American audiences want logical movies. They want things to flow succinctly, smoothly, and clearly from one shot to the next. Italian audiences seem less interested in this kind of composition if their horror filmmakers are any indication. Fulci, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava all seem to forgo the necessities of plot for the galvanizing display of gore.

It might be acceptable if the characters weren't so stupid. David Warbeck, as MacColl's half-hearted love interest, must shoot ten zombies in their torsos before finally realizing that only head shots will destroy them. And yet, he continually wastes ammo making below-the-head shots. This happens so often that you throw up your hands in exasperation at the ineptitude of the movie and its characters.

The worst part is the death of the guard dog...he's the only character in the movie you care about, and the only actor who didn't volunteer to be in this crummy enterprise, so you feel rather cheated that Fulci would do the dog in. Alas, the only justice of this movie is that the dumb characters get what they deserve for being so dumb, and the audience is able to have a good time laughing at their stupidity--and the film's.

October 16, 2010


With Halloween nearing, I thought it appropriate to revisit a movie that's particularly chilling this time of year, the David Fincher-directed Zodiac (2007), which I think is one of the finest movies of its decade. Fincher is perhaps better known for directing the grisly thriller Seven (1995) and more recently The Social Network.

Zodiac is based on the book by Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who's there when the first letter from the Zodiac, a serial killer who first struck in the Bay area in the late 1960s, arrives, confessing to a recent murder and to a double murder from a year earlier, and taunting the press and the police with a bizarre cipher revealing some important but ambiguous information about the killer's identity.

Fincher doesn't present the movie as a prying look into the deranged mind of a serial killer. Instead, the movie taps into the fascination of the public with true crime stories. Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes obsessed with the case to the point of losing his job and alienating his family. Likewise, a reporter named Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) languishes in a life of drugs and boozing after he is unable to figure out the identity of the killer (who begins sending him ominous letters--including a Halloween card containing bloody cloth from one of the victims-- after Avery suggests in an article that the Zodiac is a "latent homosexual").

One of the things that struck me about the Zodiac movie when I first saw it was the way it so meticulously recreates the look and feel of 1960's San Francisco--or at least, the way I imagine San Francisco looked in the late 1960s. (Not having been alive or in San Francisco at the time, I suppose I'm not the most qualified judge of Fincher's skill at period detail).

Watching it again, it began to register how much the movie focuses on the horror of obsession over the horror of the crimes. The crimes are displayed fairly prominently in the first hour, but Fincher doesn't revel in the violence. The editing and the lighting make it look real without the need for plunging knives and exit wounds--and our minds do the rest. We imagine the horror and pain of the victims, and it in turn horrifies us.

But there were a number of crimes the Zodiac confessed to that he didn't do (likely, more than the ones he did commit). The red herrings are in fact equally as creepy. (Gyllenhaal winds up in the home of a possible Zodiac suspect, and it's the most chilling moment in the movie). Mark Ruffalo, a San Francisco cop who's trying to solve one of the murders, is equally caught up in the sensationalism of the crimes, until he too is burned out by the labyrinthine angles and clues and possibilities and the bureaucratic miscommunication between multiple police departments.

At the end we have a movie that taints us with the fascination of the Zodiac--we are left with the elusiveness of the story, and we have shared in the obsession of the main characters. It's a terrific movie, and one I'm always eager to revisit.

October 01, 2010

The Social Network

Perhaps the timing of the movie of how Facebook came into existence is itself a statement about how fast things move today: It's remarkable that only seven years after its inception, Facebook and its founder are the subject of a movie. As Mark Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg accentuates the characteristics that the public has picked up on through various media about the computer-whiz-kid-billionaire, namely the social awkwardness (ironic for a guy responsible for creating a social networking site, and yet, not so) and the abrasive cockiness that alienates him from every social circle he idolizes. It is this alienation, this supreme idolatry, that motivates Zuckerberg, we're led to believe.

Eisenberg as an actor is one who disarms you: he's scrawny and geeky but also likable and he has a fresh face, and good comic timing. We were rooting for him in The Squid and the Whale even when he plagiarized that Pink Floyd song, and we wanted him to survive the frenetic madness of Zombieland. Here, however, his likability disintegrates. It seems all too obvious that he (as Zuckerberg) means what he says exactly how he says it: he's not a victim of bad social skills, he just doesn't make the effort to follow the same rules as the world he lives in. (One character puts it best: "You're not an asshole. You're just trying so hard to be one.") He's a Harvard student who has the intelligence but not the charm that so often goes hand in hand with the world of good breeding and old money and suits and ties. (Rather than the jeans-and-hoody apparel Mark dons throughout the movie; from the classroom to the corporate headquarters, he has no airs about dressing toward a certain perception.)

The supporting cast is headed by Andrew Garfield, as Mark's only true friend and business partner, Eduardo Saverin. Eduardo isn't willing to take the risks that Mark is, and his cautious lip gets him in the end, but ultimately it's Eduardo we identify with: he's the one we care about, while Mark is left holding the bloody knife. Justin Timberlake plays on the sleaziness of his own persona as Sean Parker, the founder of Napster (in real life his name is Shawn Fanning), who oozes with the kind of seedy, shameless, suaveness Mark wants. When Sean enters the story, he tears them apart, but he makes Facebook stronger. Good business and bad friendship go hand in hand. Armie Hammer and Josh Pence play twin brothers (both Harvard students) who file a lawsuit against Mark for allegedly stealing Facebook from them.

As a movie, The Social Network captures both the condescending upper-crustiness of ivy league culture and the sexy, glittering allure of fame and fortune. If you want the former, we're told, you can finish your degree at Harvard and participate in exclusive final clubs and do crew and get a job in N.Y.C. The sexy glittery stuff, however, is L.A.'s department. Indeed, The Social Network captures the fascinating rift between these two cultural centers, places of such stylized, unyielding self-importance that they are gulfs apart from each other in the ways and means of achieving it.

 One of the best things director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin do is limit the exposition. If you need to know who Mark Zuckerberg is and what Facebook is, you certainly don't need to watch The Social Network. Rather than spoonfeed the audience such details (one of the benefits of filming this so promptly), the makers go back and forth between the execution and the arbitration. We see the details unfold, and we see the rift that has occurred at virtually the same time. The storytelling power isn't in finding out what will happen so much as finding out how it does. The opening scene between Eisenberg and the girl he wants, the girl who in effect sets the events into motion for him, allows us to instantly dislike his character, so there's not really a question of reverberating loyalty. We're in it for Eduardo, even though he should have seen things as they were. His niceness--his blindness--gets in the way.

The movie isn't mean--it's pretty objective. Eisenberg may not be likable, but you don't really feel yourself hating him, either. He's like Ebenezer Scrooge in a way--you feel sorry for him after you see the events of his life, many of which unfolded the way they did because of his greed. And yet, he gets the gold in the end. This is the fairy tale where they didn't all live happily ever but they didn't care because they had enough money to fill in the unhappiness.

With Rashida Jones, Joseph Mazzello, Rooney Mara, and John Getz. Adapted from the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. 120 min. ½