True Crime, The Last Dossier, and the Melancholia of Moving Paintings and Black and White Photography

David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon sounds like a rip-snorting true crime epic.  The labyrinthine conspiracy that lead to the murders of numerous Osage Indians for their oil headrights and the botched FBI investigation that followed is rife with terror and tragedy, but although Grann attempts a few passages of ponderous heft, most of the book is a dry by-the-numbers procedural that presents far too many names and suspects to keep coherent track of, never allowing us to latch on to any one person, and leaving us lost in the immense scope of the dastardly deeds.  The book is slated for a film adaptation to be directed by Martin Scorsese, and if there is anyone who can provide both focus and pep to the story, it’s probably him…though Eric “hit or miss” Roth is to pen screenplay, leaving me to worry the Osage might never get their due.

Though it’s presented like a true crime book, Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier couldn’t be more fantastical and “out there.”  Mercifully brief (compared to The Secret History of Twin Peaks), this dossier compiled by Special Agent Tammy Preston following the events of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return is designed to feed the fans.  Continue reading

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Don’t Mess with Texas or Bernie

And I pray unto thee, Dear Lord Baby Jesus, that Bernie gets what he deserves.

I should preface this review by saying I’m no fan of Jack Black (though I think he sometimes gets an unfair wrap) or Shirley MacLaine (she’s a shrill weird old lady) or Matthew McConaughey (beat your bongos, son).  I like some of director Richard Linklater’s oeuvre – most notably Slacker, Waking Life, Dazed and Confused and the Before Sunrise/Sunset films, but he’s made plenty of duds especially when he tries to go mainstream.  Suffice it to say I didn’t pay any attention when this foursome got together to make Bernie

Yet I started to hear some good things – and the plot sounded interesting enough, and I was really bored one Sunday afternoon.  So there I was enjoying against all odds this tale of an affable busybody East Texas assistant funeral director (Black – nicely method and oddly endearing), the weird mean rich old bitty (MacLaine – well cast) he befriends, and the cocky country District Attorney (McConaughey – always better at comedy than drama and doing a tongue-in-cheek and dip-in-mouth riff on his own propensity to play impassioned lawyers) out to nail Bernie when the crazy lady turns up dead.

I’ve long made the case that the hardest film genre to pull off is the dark comedy.  But there’s a subgenre that’s even harder to pull off – the light dark comedy.  Successfully mixing elements of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune and the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest, Linklater is spot-on in his delivery of this true-crime comedy.  Continue reading

The Red Riding Trilogy

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…all good children go to heaven.”

You wouldn’t believe it at the start of the grim trilogy of films that aired on British television in 2009 and were released in art-houses stateside in early 2010 (and new to DVD this month).  Spanning almost a decade (from 1974 to 1983) and following a labyrinthine plot involving missing children, serial killers, conspiracy theories and corrupt police officers in northern Britain’s Yorkshire area, The Red Riding Trilogy is hard-hitting, trippy, convoluted stuff…the stuff of communal M-like nightmares.

The first thing that is so striking about the films is their look – dripping in period detail and directorial chutzpah that’s like Godfather-era Francis Ford Coppola as channeled through Danish Dogme ’95.  From a critical standpoint, the consistent tone running through all of the films is even more astounding when you realize each part was directed, edited, scored and photographed by different teams.  The first two parts were directed by Julian Jarrold and James Marsh respectively, and it’s only in the superior third part (1983, directed by Anand Tucker) do we see any kind of deviation, and that’s only in a few powerfully placed auteuristic flourishes involving flashbacks and voice-overs. Continue reading

A Review of Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”

Handsome Depp Gangster Flick Lacks Depth
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

Johnny Depp (in a subdued cool swagger) is Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, in director Michael Mann’s handsomely mounted but curiously distant riff on Depression Era Gangster Shenanigans.  Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, the G-man hunting down Dillinger’s gang, but the cat-and-mouse game never reaches the boiling point some viewers will desire, resulting in a tepid film designed to make you think you have to admire it.

Lifting material from the true crime book by Bryan Burrough, the workmen-like script from Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman tries clumsily to weave in too many secondary characters while staying on point with the historical events.  There are some decent attempts to anchor the film with a love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (played by the French actress Marion Cotillard, who is wisely striking while the iron is hot in her first stateside role since her Oscar win), but there’s not much else in the realm of character development, and no one is given any backstory.  The writers start “in media res” to give it that classical epic structure, but it doesn’t work when you can’t even identify the peripheral characters from each other.  What results is a cavalcade of apparently great supporting turns from a large professional cast, everyone spot on with their period cadence and mannerisms but no one leaving any kind of lasting impression in the wake of the great turns from Depp and Cotillard, the only two in the cast given anything to work with.  There are also some missed opportunities to explore Dillinger’s Robin Hood mentality and the public infatuation with his “celebrity” — just two of the potentially great subtexts that are only given brief surface level treatments by the screenplay.

Cotillard makes a successful first stateside bid for stardom.

Cotillard makes a successful first bid for stateside stardom.

From a technical standpoint, there’s plenty to chew on here for thoughtful audiences.  Continue reading

A Review of David Fincher’s “Zodiac”

Effectively Creepy and Engrossing True Crime Tale, 6 March 2007
8/10

Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

David Fincher has taken nearly five years off between films, and he has returned a more mature and accomplished director with his fascinating “Zodiac.” It may not reach the cult status of his “Seven” or “Fight Club” or find the box office success of “Panic Room,” but by many measures it may be his most carefully crafted film. More in line with the crime epics of directors like Michael Mann than with the typical serial-killer thriller, “Zodiac” is propelled by inventive direction, a great cast, engaging attention to detail, and a killer soundtrack of classic songs from the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

Based on the book by Robert Graysmith (played effectively here by Jake Gyllenhaal), “Zodiac” is meticulous in its details (both in dialogue and Fincher’s finely painted visuals) and sprawling in plot and its parade of intriguing characters. Mark Ruffalo is especially compelling playing the lead detective who becomes obsessed with the case, and Robert Downey Jr. does his best macabre comic relief job as the boozing and drugging reporter Paul Avery who was targeted for a brief time by the infamous killer. There’s also a fine supporting cast featuring Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, and John Caroll Lynch among many others, all doing top notch work.

Fincher’s digital VIPER camera lends itself surprising well to the period detail and look of the 1970’s. Though some of the more brightly lit shots aren’t as clear and in focus as you would like, this is the first movie I can think of shot on all digital where some of the cinematography could actually be called beautiful (check out any of the skyline shots and the great overhead of the Golden Gate Bridge). Fincher crafts some truly creepy moments using simple lighting techniques featuring characters hopping into strange cars on deserted highways, traipsing through dimly lit homes, or nervously making their way down a dark creaky staircase into a fathomless basement. There’s also some nice freak-out moments in the classy and sharply filmed murder scenes and when characters receive eerie phone-calls from the so-called killer or his equally sick copycats. I didn’t realize how effective Fincher’s technique was until I went home alone to my dark apartment and felt a sudden lump in my throat when a friend made an unexpected late night call.

There are times when the film becomes bogged down with police procedural aspects, and its epic runtime is apparent, though most of the slow parts still remain engrossing. Graysmith makes it clear who he thinks the killer was, though the case was officially unsolved. When all the pieces finally fit together, the audience feels the same sickening giddiness as Graysmith and the detectives long plagued by the cryptic case that held much of San Franciso hostage knowing that the prime suspect will never be convicted on so much circumstantial evidence. In the end, Fincher leaves you with some haunting feelings, and if anything is certain, it’s that Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” will never be listened to the same again.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

http://imdb.com/title/tt0443706/usercomments-109