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what i watched last week

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007). Phil Dellio made this #10 on his Facebook Fave Fifty list. It’s safe to say I didn’t have it on my list, but Phil convinced me to give it another try. The thing that most interested me about his take was the way he compared it to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Before reading what Phil had to say, I would have thought such a comparison to be silly, but he made a good case, and having watched Zodiac again, I see exactly what he meant, for both movies are in part about obsessions. So why did I put Close Encounters on my own Top 50 list, while I find Zodiac hard to sit through? I think it’s because there is nothing appealing about Robert Graysmith’s obsession. When I wrote about the film a couple of years ago, I complained that there was no setup to convince me that Graysmith would be such an obsessive. Watching this time, I had a different problem with the movie: I found Graysmith to be thoroughly unlikeable. In Close Encounters, Roy Neary’s obsession leads to a meeting with the cosmic angels. He becomes estranged from his family, but in the name of a higher power. Zodiac doesn’t care about higher powers. Robert Graysmith is presented as a man obsessed, a man whose life falls apart while he searches for … what? Phil quoted Neary, saying “This is important. This means something”, claiming this held true for Graysmith as well. And I’m sure Graysmith would agree. But just how important was Graysmith’s obsession? He made a lucrative career for himself as a true-crime writer (besides the two books he milked from the Zodiac killer, he has written about everyone from the Unabomber to Bob Crane, the latter leading to another movie I didn’t like, Auto Focus). Graysmith didn’t get religion … except in his own mind, you could argue he didn’t even get Zodiac. Next to Roy Neary going inside the Mothership, Graysmith’s accomplishments seem pretty paltry.

But much of this confuses me, for I am not a religious person myself (Close Encounters is one of the few religious movies I like), and in fact I am much more like the Robert Graysmith of Zodiac than I am like Roy Neary. So perhaps in the end, it’s just a case of me being uncomfortable seeing myself portrayed so accurately and in such an unlikable fashion. I’m left with something I said to Phil in the comments to that post back in 2009. “This all points to something I often find true: two people agree on what they've seen, but not on what it signifies.” Because everything I’ve seen of Phil writing about Zodiac strikes me as right on target. But he thinks that makes Zodiac his 10th-favorite movie, while I think 6/10. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They agrees with Phil: it’s #24 on their Top 250 films of the 21st century list.

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009). George Clooney is an interesting case. He’s smart and has great on-screen charisma. He moves with ease between simple entertainment and more complex films.  He’s done good work as a director … in the case of Good Night, and Good Luck, much more than good. He is surely the best choice to play the lead in Up in the Air, a character with a black hole in his soul who gets by on charm and the ability to give people bad news is an acceptable way. Clooney being Clooney, we understand how he works that charm, because we feel it in the audience. And Clooney being more than just a handsome face, we understand what’s going on underneath the charm. Yet there is something almost flippant about Up in the Air. It takes place during a serious economic low point, and pretends to address this social problem, but really, it’s just a movie about a soulless man finding something deeper in his heart than mere charm. That’s a good subject for a movie, and Clooney does well with it. But I kept getting the nagging feeling that the people being fired in the movie wouldn’t have liked the film all that much (even, or perhaps especially, the actual non-actors who, having recently lost their jobs, were asked by Reitman to play versions of themselves). I liked this quite a bit, but only a day later, I already feel like it won’t age well. #194 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011). It’s a George Clooney Film Festival! The Ides of March has a nice blend of top stars (like Clooney and Ryan Gosling) and top actors (like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and Jeffrey Wright). It has an interesting script that isn’t particularly profound but which keeps your attention. It’s a movie for grown-ups, and that’s nice. It’s just missing that unknown something that would make it great instead of good. It occurs to me that Clooney is becoming the director people think Clint Eastwood is. Eastwood wins praise and Oscars for being simple and efficient, trusting his writers, actors, and crew to get things done quickly and correctly. He directs like he acts; there are few extraneous moves. Clooney also stays out of the way. He seems to like actors, and he gives them room to shine. He also tends to treat his audience like grown-ups (there’s that word again). Yet Clooney has only been nominated for one Best Director Oscar and one Directors Guild award, both for Good Night, and Good Luck (in fairness, he’s only directed four movies), plus he has one Best Supporting Actor Oscar on his shelf. Eastwood, on the other hand, has two Best Director Oscars and two DGA awards. But for my money, Eastwood is no better a director than Clooney. 7/10.

Corridors of Blood (Robert Day, 1958). This week’s Creature Feature is a different kind of cheapie. It’s British, and while it’s not a Hammer production, it has the same feel, accomplishing a lot with a small budget (in this case, 90,000 pounds). It was the first of two films that co-starred Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, although at this point in their careers, Lee takes a backseat. The subject matter is serious (Karloff plays a London doctor in 1840 who is trying to create the first anesthetic for surgery), and there are no real “creatures” in the film. It’s not prestigious enough to win over those who want their historical dramas to be high-class affairs (although it was eventually released on DVD by Criterion), and it’s not really all that scary, either, so it sat on the shelf for four years before it was released … when it hit the States, it was double billed with Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory. Still, the scenes of Karloff operating on patients in the pre-anesthesia era are hard to watch, even though you see little. Karloff does a fine job … he experiments on himself, and ends up hooked on the opiates he puts into the anesthetic. It’s an admirable little production, but it’s no classic. 6/10. (Since I seem to be continuing this tradition of a weekly Creature Feature, I need to plan ahead … most of the movies I watch are chosen in a semi-random fashion. So I can tell you that if all goes well, next week’s Creature Feature will be Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, with the incomparable Barbara Steele. Check it out … there will be a quiz.)