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The Brothers Bloom (2009)

Con movies work thanks to P.T. Barnum’s belief that the audience wants to be fooled. We all enjoy being conned to some degree. The excitement of con movies is being outsmarted and figuring out how it was accomplished. The Brothers Bloom, by writer/director Rian Johnson, one of the more exciting new filmmakers in Hollywood, is a con artist caper that understands the rules of the game and then aspires to transcend the game. Whether or not it succeeds depends on how much whimsy you can stomach in a two-hour duration.

Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are a pair of con artist brothers. Stephen has been drawing up elaborate schemes ever since childhood, and he always uses his brother as the face of the operations. The brothers have a third member to their team, the mysterious and mute Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), who, we’re told, just appeared out of thin air one day and they expect she’ll leave in the same style. Bloom is tired of playing characters and roles and wants out, but his big bro comes back with one last con in the works. Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) is rich, peculiar, and lonely, ripe for the taking. Bloom snares her with the exciting prospect of being apart of an adventure. There’s a globetrotting plot to profit from selling a book to some shady characters (Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell), and it’s just what Penelope needs to feel alive and leave the confines of her large cage-like home. Naturally, Bloom falls for the “mark” and feels conflicted, but was this part of Stephen’s plan all along? Is he setting up some form of a happy ending for his little brother? Is Penelope in on the con? Who’s conning whom?

The Brothers Bloom is steeped in whimsy and at times runs dangerously close to falling into the inescapable gravitational pull of “cutsey.” Some have compared the film’s quirky, precocious style to Wes Anderson, but the movie reminds me more of the style of Barry Sonnenfeld, a filmmaker who made outsized whimsy seem like everyday reality; Anderson’s movies seem to exist in their own impeccably handcrafted worlds. I loved the opening 10-minute prologue which explores the childhood history of Stephen and Bloom, examining their first con on local rich kids. It’s quick-witted, snappy, and even has Ricky Jay provide narration, reminiscent of Magnolia or the David Mamet con movies. The Brothers Bloom has a sunny disposition that doesn’t come across as smug. Stylistically, the movie never crosses the line into feeling overly mannered. The Brothers Bloom exists in some unknown time period. The cars are modern, the clothes are from the 1930s (everyone wears a bowler hat with such flourish), and the sets look like they’re from the 1960s. There is no dependence on technology, just good old-fashioned brains and charm.

And yet this is more than an exercise in style. Just as he did with the adroit, neo-noir movie Brick, Johnson takes a genre and subverts its expectations. The Brothers Bloom treats cons more as storytelling, and it positions the film and its characters in an interesting new light. Bloom yearns for an “unwritten life” because all he’s known have been roles in his older brother’s games and cons, and the poor sap doesn’t even know if he has an identity beyond fabrication. Stephen has also begun to blur the lines between reality and his cons, and his life’s ambition is to stage the perfect con where “everybody gets what they want.” Get that? The Brothers Bloom aims for deception that gives everyone, including the deceived, a happy ending. It almost sounds like a charitable goal. Johnson has injected the con artist genre with some pathos and self-reflection. Too many con artist movies are only good for one viewing; once you know the particulars of the con, do you feel invested in watching it play out again? Johnson puts some melancholy into the mix and it gives the film more weight than being the sum of its many quirky parts.

The acting across the board is superb. Ruffalo is his typically low-key yet engaging self, and he seems sincere even when you know he isn’t. His love and concern for his little brother is touching. His schemes are all for his brother to get out of his shell and experience some level of happiness. Brody embraces the weariness of his character. He is confused and tired and feels like he cannot trust human connections; he’s paranoid that all roads lead back to some machination from his brother. His affection for Penelope is like an awakening for his character, and yet he cannot fully give into it because is it genuine? This incredible level of uncertainty with every aspect of life casts a heavy toll, and Brody convinces you of that toll. Kikuchi (Babel) makes great use of physical comedy and has a lot of fun with her mysterious character. She’s mute for practically the entire film yet manages to communicate plenty. But it is Weisz (The Fountain) that steals the movie and steals your heart. Her screwy eccentric is deeply lonely but radiates a ditzy glow. She fully embraces the prospects of adventure and bounces in glee. This woman is powerfully adorable.

There are a handful of missteps in the narrative. The movie likely lasts twenty minutes longer than it needs to, with false endings and even a false third act. Audiences are used to con movies revealing the larger scope by the end after a bevy of last-minute twists. This is not the case with Bloom. The movie gets more muddled and introduces new conflict that isn’t ever really resolved. Audiences expect clarity by the end of the third act, not confusion. I feel like I’m missing something with the duplicitous Diamond Dog character (Schell), and maybe that’s the point; perhaps I’m supposed to be in the dark about his connection to the brothers Bloom. I won’t get into spoilers, but I was expecting more reveals at the end of the movie, perhaps Stephen showing one last final box, and the movie gives you nothing. I suppose the purpose is to play against con movie conventions and the surprise is that there is no real surprise by the end, no “I was in on it” or “It was all part of the plan” a-ha moments of ironic revelation. That’s nice but it doesn’t always make a movie more satisfying. The ending would be more moving if the audience didn’t already feel spent by the time they have to process something more emotional.

Johnson’s follow-up to his immensely entertaining debut is a solid winner, though it leaves you hanging and wanting at the end. The movie is quirky and heavy on the whimsy, and yet it also squeezes in some pathos. Yet the movie falls short of its ambitions and the talent of Johnson. The Brothers Bloom will seem enchanting to some and insufferable to others; it defies expectations and genre conventions, and sometimes would be better off adhering to them. It’s an amusing caper comedy but it could have been something even more special. It just needed a little less narrative sleight-of-hand.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Reservation Road (2007)

What happened here? Director Terry George was coming off of 2004’s stirring Hotel Rwanda, he had A-list talent like Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly and the results end up feeling like a parody of awards-hungry prestige films steeped in grief and set in suburbia. To be fair, the acting is mostly respectable even if the characters start yelling a majority of their lines. The film moves at an absurdly swift pace that doesn’t allow much time for the actors to react reflectively about grief and guilt. The movie is kept afloat by some contrived coincidences, like Ruffalo’s lawyer being hired by Phoenix to find the culprit responsible for the hit and run that killed his son (surprise, it was Ruffalo behind the wheel!). Reservation Road doesn’t dwell too long on the plot setups it crafts and stumbles into a sudden and convenient epiphany by Phoenix. The conclusion is neither satisfying nor emotionally grueling, and the movie just kind of ends abruptly with little resolved, crushed under the weight of failed pretensions. This movie wants to dig deep and say Big Things about the human condition but it’s hard to do when you’re as emotionally inert and dramatically flaccid as Reservation Road. Seriously, what happened here?

Nate’s Grade: C

Zodiac (2007)

Zodiac is something altogether different from a genre best known for cannibalism, skin suits, and express shipping of human heads. It has more in common with All the President’s Men than director David Fincher’s 1995 masterpiece, Seven. This is a serial killer thriller steeped in police procedural, closed door deliberations, and the slow drip of a decades long investigation into the Zodiac killings that terrorized California from the 1960s and 70s. Watching close to 3 hours of procedure with nary a car chase or a shoot-out may not sit right for fans of the genre, but I enjoyed the film for the same reasons people will decry it — the details. I loved how methodical this film is, how dogged and stubborn it is, and I found myself being enveloped into the minutia of the case.

It all began with a young couple looking for a bit of privacy in 1968. They park at a lover’s lane and nervously engage in a bit of the old “neckin.” A passing car interrupts them, and then that car returns with its headlights blasting into the couple’s faces. This man then takes out a gun and starts firing, killing the woman and badly injuring the young man. Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when a curious letter has stirred up a lot of discussion. It’s a cryptic message with a puzzle attached made up of symbols and codes. The author demands his puzzle run in the newspaper, and if not, more will suffer at his hands. There are further attacks along the California coast and the mysterious figure finally gives himself a name at the end of one of his letters: Zodiac.

San Francisco detectives David Toschi (a great, raspy Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are called in after Zodiac executes a cab driver in the city. The Chronicle‘s star crime reporter, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), pesters the police for details and eventually gets under Zodiac?s skin. Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case through a life-long love of puzzles and the case eventually consumes him, dooming his marriage to a pretty girl (Chloe Sevigny). Thanks to the tutelage of Avery, Graymsith becomes an amateur detective of his own, and his zeal to solve the case outlasts the actual police.

The Zodiac killer was really the first mass media serial killer. As the news of brutal attacks spreads, the media ate it all up and enlarged the figure of Zodiac to grand heights. And he was eager to help inflate his image, taking credit for crimes and slayings that were not his doing. The killer used the media age to terrorize the populace and increase his notoriety, similar tactics used by today’s stream of terrorists. The detectives didn’t just have to navigate all the shifting evidence but the formation of an urban legend.

This is before the day of DNA and super computers, so all progress comes from good old-fashioned police work. Long hours are spent pouring over mounting evidence while coordinating around bureaucracy; because Zodiac has struck in several different small communities it can take a saint’s patience to figure out the correct jurisdiction and compile the various parts in various offices. The film packs a lot in its running time introducing scores of information, suspects, witnesses, and varying theories, but the film cannot be faulted for pace; nearly every scene takes place weeks, months, even years after the last.

Zodiac is Fincher’s most restrained work even at a gargantuan running length. Fincher is a master tactician with slick visuals but has a penchant for getting too dazzled by needless visual flourishes (did the camera really need to zoom through the handle of a coffee pot in Panic Room?). He tones down the excess but still maintains a refined visual palate that makes the film feel fluid. The period detail is incredibly reconstructed, giving an authentic feel for a very serious story. But Fincher knows that with Zodiac the impetus lies with the story, and he devotes his considerable style to the service of the story. The mood balances nicely with intrigue, humor (after Zodiac singles out Avery fellow journalists start wearing “I’m Not Avery” buttons), and some truly terrifying moments involving the Zodiac attacks. The violence is sparse but when it does occur it is shocking, particularly watching a knife plunge repeatedly into the writhing body of a woman at a lake. One key element of sustaining such an ominous mood is fabulous song selection. Very often pop songs can be counter-productive to a movie, coming across as a lazy attempt to cobble together a soundtrack to shill. With Zodiac, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” becomes a powerfully haunting medley for the killer and the sonic linchpin for the film.

Fincher does an excellent job of transporting us back in time and recreating the sense of paranoia that grappled many. There is a great scene late in the film where Graysmith comes to the sudden realization that he may have walked right into the spider’s parlor. The scene plays out to an agonizingly uncomfortable length, and you too feel like running out the door as fast as your legs can take you. By not knowing definitively who the Zodiac may be, the film gets a boost of suspense from a multitude of creepy suspects. In an interesting decision, Fincher uses different actors of different shape during the Zodiac attacks, playing against the varying reports from witnesses and survivors.

There?s a sizeable danger trying to find a climax to a case that remains open to this day and where no one has been officially charged. Zodiac does as good a job as possible to present a fitting, mostly satisfying conclusion. The movie presents the best theory and points a convincing finger at who Zodiac perhaps really was.

Zodiac is expertly crafted but has a handful of minor flaws that hold it back. The overall script is rather nimble with how it dishes new information to digest, however the intricacies can amass and become too great, and some scenes congest too much without needed forward momentum which causes the flow to get caught up in an expository pile-up. Still, the film is demanding but not overwhelming and not without reward. The film follows the ups and downs of the Zodiac investigation, and that means characterization runs short and simple. I fear the only false note amongst a vastly talented cast is Gyllenhaal, an actor I adore. He works fine in the portrayal of a young kid in the newsroom trying his hand at crime solving, but it’s the film’s second half where the actor falters. He fails to sell the obsession and desperation that dominates his life, instead looking wiped out but no worse for wear, like the temporary results of an all-nighter before a big test.

It was five years since Fincher’s last film, and he wasn’t sitting on his laurels when he crafted Zodiac, an exceptionally intelligent and demanding movie. Decades pass, suspects weave in and out, evidence and testimony contradict one another, it’s all a lot to keep track of but I found myself absorbed in the case just like Graysmith. This is a serial killer movie that could bring the smarts back and redefine the genre, that is, if fans are willing to sit through 3 hours of police work. If not, well they might get their kicks out of the more genre loyal The Zodiac, released in 2006. And that movie’s only 97 minutes long.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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