Monday, March 9, 2009

Overlooked: Zodiac

According to Box Office Mojo, Zodiac made about $33mm in American theaters. That placed it No. 81 on the list of top-grossing films in 2007. I already rolled my eyes at the meaning of gate receipts as it pertains to movie quality, so I ... don't ... need ... to ... tell* ... you ... why ... you ... can't ... trust ... the ... numbers.

*Alvin and the Chipmunks? Are you effin' serious?

Then again, to paraphrase a great song, who am I to wave my finger? I didn't see Zodiac in theaters, either. Heard good things. Was intrigued. Probably stayed home and watched Entourage instead.

Now? Since first catching Zodiac on TV about three months ago, I've watched it far more times (about 10, give or take) than any half-hour segment of Vincent Chase complaining about his life*.
*Can we get an Ari-only spin-off, please?

So why is Zodiac so infinitely watchable?

Serial killer flicks are as played out as the whole Obamicon thing. But Zodiac is not a serial killer flick. It's about the obsession -- namely, the obsession of those pursuing the killer, not the killer's own craze. It contains no phony suspense or chases or climaxes. You don't see the perp in some basement, showing all his sadistic glory to the camera*.

*Like, ya know, in The Silence of the Lambs. Yeah, I'll say it -- overrated.

Plus, the whole thing features straight-up, chronoligcal storytelling. It starts at the first killing (notice it only recreates the crimes that were witnessed) and navigates through the story of a cartoonist-turned-author, a drunk/drugged-up reporter, a determined cop, and several others who tried to answer the question: Who was this Zodiac Killer who terrorized the Bay Area in the 1970s (and perhaps took credit for more murders than he actually committed)?

It's not so much a whodunit as an account of the proceedings. And it absolutely grips you from the opening scene, not letting go until you see credits roll 160 minutes later.

Part of that comes from the source material. But also credit the screenplay, a brilliantly un-Hollywood piece from James Vanderbilt (who, if Wikipedia is to be believed, had some earlier run-ins with script changes). This one certainly doesn't seem meddled-with. It sort-of, kind-of has a resolution, but nothing that resembles the Last Big Showdown/Climax/ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE! AHHHHHH! garbage that most suspense films devolve into. As mentioned above, it just tells a story.

It also does so with sharp, witty dialogue ("I'm eating here, Bill") and exceptional attention to detail (example: the S.F. Chron newsroom, amazingly, looks and sounds like a newsroom).

David Fincher gave us Seven, the underrated Alien3, and this one (which arouses more film students than any Cinemax After Dark special ever did). Fincher also got nominated for his solid work in Benjamin Button.

But none of it reaches the level of Zodiac. He leads a Thomson Viper digital camera through this maze of a story, making what could have been a dull, made-for-TV-type film seem wholly cinematic. From the composition of shots (they look like paintings, thanks to Fincher, that Thomson Viper and cinematographer Harris Savides) to the perfect pacing to the construction of several scenes (especially the TV show phone call ... see that one below), this is a top example of the craft.

After all, killings aside, the whole movie is a bunch of talk. So why is it so thrilling? Credit Fincher for quite a bit of it.

For some reason I'm an editing junkie (which leads to a number of rants when the wrong movies get nominated for the Oscar ... no Minority Report in 2002? Ugh.) Speaking of which -- Zodiac at least belonged in the conversation in 2007 . Just check the way the morning show scene is cut. Wow.

Take a look at this thing. They're not all great songs by famous artists, but there's hardly a cliche on there. Unlike in some other movies.

If you watch a lot of movies, and then you watch Zodiac, you'll be saying a lot of "I know that guy" here. I mean, the cast features one of the one of the McPoyle Brothers from Always Sunny, the voice of Roger Rabbit, and The Actor Who Is In Every Movie (plus a Holiday Inn commercial starring a NASCAR driver).

Who could argue with that?

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