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Tag Archive: Zodiac


By C.J. Bunce

Journalists in real-life tend to get a bad rap from folks who don’t understand how critical the Fourth Estate is in keeping the masses informed, upholding the First Amendment, and ensuring and fostering an open marketplace of ideas.  Journalists in fiction have been portrayed as good or bad, reflecting the realities of any profession.  Archetypes dating back from the days of yellow journalism survive to this day, in part because of the general nature of journalism and its origins as an apprentice-learned field.  We emulate the past leaders of our professions to some extent.  Journalists are practically unregulated.  Regulations resulting from the 1934 U.S. Communications Act that protected the public and set boundaries for the profession have changed over the years, loosening restrictions on reporters (at least in the States) yet the news business draws the same personalities–driven people who get a thrill from searching for a needle in a haystack, who won’t give up until they can quote chapter and verse about that needle.

In mirroring reality over the years, Hollywood has shown us as time marches on what real journalists look like, what they do in their profession that we like and don’t like.  You can see a shift from yellow journalism’s search for the biggest headline to journalists attempting to change the world, breaking barriers, asking questions, digging deeper, and often crossing the line to get the truth behind a story.

As Jeff Daniels, Sam Waterston and Jane Fonda headline The Newsroom, a new journalism-inspired TV series this airing this summer on HBO, let’s look at where Hollywood has done a good job (or not) in its depiction of newsrooms and their occupants.

I know a lot of journalism educators have their students watch some of these shows as part of understanding the history and nature of the craft of investigative reporting (mine did) and I often wonder just how much that has served to get students and future professionals in the mindset of the classic feet-on-the-street reporters.  Case in point: It Happened One Night (1934)  Clark Gable plays a reporter, cocky and sure-footed, yet a bit of a slacker who is not making the cut with his editor.  He pursues a spoiled heiress who runs away from home, played by Claudette Colbert, to get a big headline for his paper, and becomes romantically involved with her by picture’s end.  His reporter is the type depicted in film for the next several decades.  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 film State Fair starred Dana Andrews as a reporter covering the Iowa State Fair for The Des Moines Register.  Andrews’ confident character showed reporters as people to admire, and also illustrated that reporters are people, too, as he becomes involved with someone he meets (Jeanne Crain) while covering his story (like Gable’s character in It Happened One Night).  Even Dustin Hoffman’s take on Carl Bernstein in 1976’s All the President’s Men seems to emulate this strident reporter attitude, adding a bit of renegade to the mix.  Randy Quaid in the Ron Howard newspaper film The Paper is another variant on this guy–sleeping in the newsroom, seemingly some kind of drifter yet street smart, knows all the right people especially if part of the city’s underbelly, and just the guy you want when you need a partner on a big story.  Although The Paper seemed more of a caricature of journalism–complete with Michael Keaton shouting “Stop the presses!”–it definitely is a lighter entry in the catalog of journalism films.

The newsroom is the center of the biggest film ever made, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1939).  Charles Foster Kane’s classic line:  “I think it’d be fun to run a newspaper” connects with anyone running a journal, newspaper, or magazine.  And as loud and off-the-wall as journalists are depicted here, Welles got the film absolutely right, basing the entire story on the life and times of media baron William Randolph Hearst.  In pursuing the mysterious “Rosebud,” the journalist who bookends the story adds a double layer of truth with reporter as storyteller.  The excesses of yellow journalism and the abuse of the medium permeated many mainstream movies of that era, including Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941). Not entirely a newspaper movie, it does focus on an over-eager reporter played by Barbara Stanwyck who, like Kane, creates news where there is none for the sake of headlines.

Reporters as valuable, even crucial and noble members of society elevated the Fourth Estate to something of a venerable realm with movies like Call Northside 777 (1948).  There Jimmy Stewart picks up a dead case of a man convicted of a crime that only his mother believes he didn’t commit.  Based on a true story, Stewart’s reporter leaves no stone unturned in early Chicago, ultimately risking his own life to get the man out of jail (the film also reveals the first use of the lie detector machine as an investigative tool).  The height of the importance of newspapermen, of course, came with the Washington Post bringing down a presidency, as documented perfectly in All the President’s Men (1976), a film whose newsroom could not better reflect a real-life, working newspaper office.  Jason Robards, Jr. played Ben Bradlee as only a real editor could be played and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played young aspiring journalists Woodward and Bernstein in a mystery movie that could prompt anyone to enter the field.

The year 1976 also highlighted the more modern arm of journalism, broadcast journalism, in the popular film Network, which caused  viewers to repeat forever the phrase “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  But here, it seems dated now, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch just seem to have shed a light on the problems of any business in crisis, and despite its focus it does not make my recommendation list that well-document the journalist experience.  However, where Network shone a dark light on broadcast journalism, the timely China Syndrome reflected the value of reporters in society.  Jane Fonda’s bright and cheery fluff reporter who wants to report hard news is as real and inspiring as it gets, and Michael Douglas’s role as photographer who pushes the envelope to get a story rounds out a great reporting team.

Genre movies based on comic books have revealed to most of us our view of the editor and reporter in a big city newsroom, and the result doesn’t miss the mark so much.  Jackie Cooper as The Daily Planet’s Perry White in Superman (1978) and later, Lane Smith’s work in the same role in the Lois & Clark (1993) TV series revealed a tough-as-nails editor every bit as real as Ben Bradlee at the real Washington Post, although Smith’s take brought Cooper’s 1950s-1970s era version into a version more familiar to 1990s newsrooms.  A more cartoonish but similar role was played well by J.K Simmons as Peter Parker’s editor J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-man (2002).

Modern Hollywood, and perhaps modern audiences, latch onto the journalists as sleuths.  That thrill and danger that may not be the stuff of daily working journalists certainly happens in real life from time to time and more modern films exemplify that.  In Pelican Brief (1993) Denzel Washington gives a textbook performance as an investigative reporter.  In The Insider (1999) Russell Crowe and Al Pacino reveal journalists as watchdogs, taking on big tobacco and the media themselves as politics prevents the long-time respected TV news show 60 Minutes from telling the story the reporters want to tell.  Good Night and Good Luck took us back to the same CBS newsroom 40 years prior, as Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his team (including a memorable performance by Robert Downey, Jr.) take on McCarthyism in the 1950s.  Veronica Guerin (2003) revealed the true story of a reporter played by Cate Blanchett whose pursuit of the story shows the extent reporters will go through for their cause–the pursuit of truth.  There is simply no more exciting and gritty film about newspaper reporting than David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), following Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal in pursuit of the Zodiac killer in 1970s San Francisco.

Most recently British television has reminded us that classic news stories still make compelling entertainment.  You can probably ignore the U.S. remake of the same name starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, but the British original TV series State of Play (2003) follows newshounds John Simm and Kelly MacDonald as they work for a brilliant newsroom manager played by genre actor Bill Nighy in their pursuit of the truth behind the death of a young political worker who may or may not have gotten too close to an up-and-coming politician.  Like Robards, Cooper, and Smith mentioned above, Nighy crystallizes for us the role of the newsroom editor/manager.  Then last year the BBC’s The Hour (2011) took us back to 1950s fledgeling broadcast journalism, including the pressures of England’s complex government and politics and the impact of censorship laws on the media.  Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw star not as news anchors but producers behind the scenes in a refreshing new look at the business of news.

As media evolve into multimedia, Hollywood will no doubt keep pace with more fascinating storytelling, and we’ll be on the lookout for the next great journalism films.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

As major mainstream movies are concerned, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo leaves the viewer with a lot to think about.  Some good, mostly bad.  At the end of the movie we are left with a new super heroine of sorts.  As viewers, we uncomfortably accompanied her on an ugly and brutal path.  But at the end, we are left wanting to see what happens to her next.  The plot of the movie itself is complex but not complicated, yet the picture gets spun out of control into just another piece of shock cinema, and despite some good storytelling in building up the mystery, the climax is absurd, leaving us with a lackluster payoff.  There’s too much of everything in this picture, and not enough of what it does best.

I’m not sure this was meant to be a likeable movie, as it was too disturbing to be “likeable”.  Some parts were entertaining.  Some parts were done very well.  Other parts weren’t.  Look for spoilers ahead about what you will see in this movie, but I’ll give none of the actual story and mystery away.

At one level, it’s hard not to get sucked into an investigative reporter mystery.  And the unusual private eye-type job of the female lead in the movie was the coolest feature.  But ultimately we don’t really get to know much about her, and what makes her tick, except that she’s repeatedly been a victim of the system.  The director didn’t get into the daily job she had at the beginning of the film as much as I would have liked and the story meandered into other areas I cared less about instead.

Having watched the first third of the original Swedish version based on the late Stieg Larsson’s novel, I stopped to wait and watch this U.S. theatrical release first.  The original version is up there with the most graphic, disturbingly real-life violent movies ever made.  This new version is not substantially different, and beyond the first third of the movie the violence only builds.  Think of the most disturbing parts of Deliverance, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Fargo, and Silence of the Lambs.  Like all these films, I would expect this one to do well around award season.  Movies that shock the conscience of the mainstream tend to succeed that way.  If you’re sensitive at all to true-life violence, skip this picture.  If you go, you’ll see graphic rape and torture scenes, numerous crime scene photos and dialogue about torture, rape, and murder.  And you’ll see several full-on sex scenes, none of which substantially contribute to the plot.  As we mentioned here in our first look at the movie trailer, you may recall that the original novel’s name translated from Swedish is Men Who Hate Women.  Ultimately, in both the main story, the back story and the subplots, that is all this movie is about, backed up with a corresponding vengeance story.

Beyond the shock factor of the violence, there is more to discuss, both good and bad.

Rooney Mara (Social Network, remake of Nightmare on Elm Street) playing the title role’s Lisbeth Salander as a down in the dumps, arguably insane yet intelligent, Goth street urchin is pretty much perfect for this role, and there was obviously a lot for this actress to go through, both as a character and in real life as an actor.  For what I saw of the original film, Noomi Rapace in the same role was equally good, however.  In fact all the scenes tracked the original as far as I watched the original version and the actors were all equally good.  For this American version, an Oscar nomination for Mara is certain.  Her best scene is in the final 20 minutes, a denouement that sets us up nicely for a sequel.  We can hope the continuing adventures of Salander in the next movie are better than in this one.

Another contender for an Oscar should be Christopher Plummer (Star Trek VI, Sound of Music, Wolf, Twelve Monkeys, Dragnet, Dreamscape, Somewhere in Time), who took a fairly minor role and made us care about him (maybe more than anyone else) from the beginning of the film to the end.  I was a little concerned about his character being a bit laughable, as in the movie previews he reminded me of Hume Cronyn’s dying character in Brewster’s Millions, yet Plummer’s skill as an actor brought some overall necessary credibility to the picture.  And he gets to utter the classic phrase “The enemy of my friend is my enemy.”

Unfortunately, Daniel Craig (Golden Compass, Road to Perdition, Layer Cake, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall) didn’t get a lot to work with in the screenplay as the lead male but secondary character, a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist.  His character makes stupid choices and he is hard to like, other than saving a stray cat (and yes, as with several other predictable components of the movie, whenever there is an animal in a film like this, you can be sure it doesn’t make it to the last scene).  Like literally every named character in the film, Craig’s character’s life is a mess.  He is flawed and weak, yet his character never gets beyond that state, where in another story it would be cause for some good character growth.  His partner/love interest is played by Robin Wright (The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump, Unbreakable, State of Play), who is the only lead character to sport a Swedish accent.  I wouldn’t blame Wright for this–it was an odd directorial choice, and similar oddities and inconsistencies are peppered throughout the film, with some signs and papers in English and others in Swedish.  Usually a director will pick a path and stick with it.  I’ve always loved the way this was done in The Hunt for Red October, where dialogue begins in Russian, then subtly switches entirely to English.

And speaking of The Hunt for Red October, that movie’s co-star Stellan Skarsgard (Thor, King Arthur, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Avengers) gets a lot of screen time here as one of Plummer’s creepy family members.  Skarsgard is a good actor, and it’s no surprise seeing him cast in this film.  The rest of the cast performs well, too, and there is both a current cast of characters and a younger set shown in flashback.  In fact at the beginning of the film you can’t help be hopeful for a Clue-like whodunnit.  We get a mystery, but it has too many components, with riddles answered too conveniently, to make this a great picture.

The payoff in the film should not be surprising considering every crazy thing leading up to it.  Yet we get there and everything is too nicely tied up, too convenient, too quickly the riddle is solved and it’s just not as satisfying as it should be.

Some nit-picking:

The opening credits may be the worst opening I have ever had to sit through for a mainstream movie.  They consist of bodies plunging in and out of black oil, oil that makes you think the key to the riddle will somehow involve oil, and when you see an overturned tanker halfway through the film it makes you over-focus on it.  Were this a James Bond movie of pure fantasy, this elaborate opener might be appropriate, because it obviously took great skill to create, but for this kind of real-life subject matter it was just long, annoying and irrelevant.

The soundtrack and overall sound effects were too loud and obnoxious throughout–so loud that it often drowned out the dialogue of the actors and contrasted with, instead of amplified, the power of each scene.  Maybe this was the fault of the sound editors.  It was as if the final editors realized that telling us the story in long explanatory sentences quietly was too boring, so some wild, jumpy background music would somehow make us think this was exciting.  It didn’t work.  The setting of the movie is ugly.  A travelogue for Sweden, this is not.  As setting is concerned there is no relief, no light at the end of the tunnel.  Humorously one character gets to have a good line mentioning an IKEA table.

You’ll ask yourself questions after the film.  The biggest is:  Do you need to fully show viewers the full extent of real-life violence to feel complete sympathy for victims of violence?   I think most of the shock was unnecessary to tell this story.  Others may think you need this blatant depiction of violence to get the audience inflamed enough to cheer for the unlikely heroine.  I think we’d cheer for her either way.  How far could you go if you had to fight back?  How much would you help someone like the main character in real life?  What the heck does the dragon tattoo have to do with anything?  Yes, the girl has tattoos, but they are irrelevant to the story.  Ultimately it’s just a catchy title to lure us into the theater.

Is this just an updated version of the La Femme Nikita story?  I was reminded of it several times and it was fun seeing what the Internet can now do to contribute to the investigative process in a mystery movie.  I have to say I found Bridget Fonda’s version of Nikita, Point of No Return, although a lot thinner film, more entertaining than this movie.  And for a real-life mystery, the often overlooked Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., and Mark Ruffalo, is a far better and scarier, whodunnit and suspense thriller.

Ultimately what is in store for the viewer is a mixed bag of opposites.  The negatives are very negative, and the positives are pretty positive.  Unfortunately the negatives left me disappointed with this film.  I can’t over-stress the violent content, and if you don’t believe me check out this great summary on the Internet Movie DatabaseThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Rated R, but years ago would have easily been an NC-17.   3 of 5 stars.

Review by C.J. Bunce

My best reaction to movies comes from those films that are not over-hyped, and that have trailers that do not show too much of a film’s content.  Examples are Inception and Avatar, two movies that were so hyped that by the time I saw them I was disappointed.  Not so for Source CodeSource Code is so innovative and interesting that you may keep talking about it, keep thinking about the different elements, the different choices made and possibilities the story reveals.  If they only made sequels to movies like this.

For one, my favorite sci-fi movie subject involves alternate realities, whether they are parallel timelines, time loops, time travel, or alternate histories.  On a basic level you will encounter time loops, a discussion topic from earlier this week, and you may encounter other alternate reality topics in Source Code.  Despite its title, it is not a computer techno-romp like The Net.  That’s a good thing.

Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man on a train who appears out of nowhere and believes he is an American soldier whose last memory was fighting a battle in Afghanistan.  He is pulled out and replaced into a confined space, and from the trailer we know this place is a train that has a destiny with some type of horrible explosion.  Like Unstoppable, reviewed earlier here, only a handful of characters and tight locations are necessary to tell this tale.  The grandiosity of the typical blockbuster is not necessary here to deliver fast-paced action and harrowing circumstances for Gyllenhaal and co-star Michelle Monaghan, and uniquely difficult decisions for a project leader played by Vera Farmiga.  The is a small film, but high concept.

Gyllenhall fails to disappoint.  Joining Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis, his films always deliver.  His acting project choices, like this film, will hopefully continue to propel his career forward.  Like his character in Zodiac, the suspense mystery about the search for the real-life Zodiac serial killer, his character in this film struggles with confidence, angst, and a desire to break out of his confinement, his lot.  His performance here is as equally exciting as his acclaimed role as a troubled youth in Donnie Darko.

Source Code contains traditional sci-fi elements, to the point you would swear this was based on a Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke or Ray Bradbury story.  It has the feel of a classic sci-fi story.  Like with Bruce Willis’s Twelve Monkeys, Gyllenhaal’s Colter Stevens is a traveller, not by choice, not in the way we all dream about what you could do if time travel were possible.  Like characters in Connie Willis books (To Say Nothing of the Dog, Lincoln’s Dreams, Doomsday Book, All Clear) Stevens has a mission to complete, but not all is as it appears.  Rounding out the key characters of the story is Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), a lead actor type who is always equally solid in a supporting role as “the man behind the curtain.”  Look for the voice of Scott Bakula as Stevens’ father, not entirely coincidental considering this Quantum Leap-inspired quest.  And see how this could be considered another borg story, not unlike The Six Million Dollar Man.

Source Code could be compared with the Matrix, but Source Code is much better, much smarter, and more compelling.  As with movies like War of the Worlds, you are forced to ask yourself “what would I do if I suddenly awoke in Stevens’ shoes?”  Directed by Duncan Jones, this film does not follow any typical pattern and the story begins in the middle of the action, like a lot of TV shows, such as Heroes, have been filmed in recent years.  The pace works really well here.  You may be able to stay ahead of the action and decisions a few times throughout the movie, but I’d wager no one could predict the branches the story ultimately follows.  What contributes to the gravity of the characters’ situations is the believability of the circumstances in our current era of varying colored alerts.

While you’re buckling down for Irene to arrive this weekend, you could do a lot worse than renting Source Code on DVD or Blu-Ray.  Source Code’s creative story, action, and good acting earn 4.5 of 5 stars.  This may have fared even better in theaters, because so many details contribute to the story understanding that even on a decent size small screen you may miss some of these bits and pieces.

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