Taking On The RED RIDING Trilogy

This set of 3 feature length films based on David Pearce’s semi-true crime novel series “Red Riding Quartet” is currently playing in limited release theatrically and is available on IFC Films On Demand.


(Dir. Juliam Jarrold, 2009)

This first “episode” starts off with an air of a British ZODIAC, but a darker prism of power is revealed beyond the smoky newsrooms and seedy cop dives as the film reaches its brutally unsettling conclusion. In “The Year Of Our Lord” 1974, wet-behind-the-ears yet arrogant Yorkshire journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) sums up the scene as he arrives at a press conference: “A little girl goes missing. The pack salivates. If it bleeds, it leads, right?” When the girl in question is found murdered Dunford makes the connection to similar crimes involving children committed in the same area in the years before.

Like a classic film noir caper, there are many competing plot-lines for our intrepid reporter. A fellow scribe (Anthony Flanagan) has files full of proof of police corruption, the land where the girls were found is owned by a menacing local mogul (Sean Bean) who has plans to build a major shopping complex there if he can get rid of squatting gypsies, and, the icing on the cake, Dunford has just begun an affair with the mother of the most recent missing girl (Rebecca Hall).

The grim wasteland of the English countryside in the mid 70’s is the perfect backdrop for this study – not of serial killings, but of the twisted knots in the fabric of society that naive newbies like Garfield’s Dunford get tangled in with little hope of struggling free. Despite getting roughed up by thug cops on the take, Dunford routinely mocks his elders, but the suave cunning Bean posits that he and the rookie reporter are a lot alike: “We like to fuck and make a buck and we’re not choosy how.”

Although it doesn’t quite earn its TAXI DRIVER-ish climax, RED RIDING: 1974 is a compelling piece of cinema with a minimum of artsy touches and depth to its grit. Despite director Jarrold employing few gratuitous period flourishes it could be mistaken for an actual 70’s era thriller – one that’s as concerned with the darkness itself as much as what lurks in it.


(Dir. James Marsh, 2009)

Documentary film maker Marsh (MAN ON WIRE) helms this second installment which centers on Paddy Considine as Investigator Peter Hunter being brought in on the case of the Yorkshire Ripper in, again, as the title ominously tells us “The Year of Our Lord” 1980. Hunter believes that one of the murders, the girl from the first film, wasn’t committed by the Ripper. It muddies the waters that one of his team (Maxine Peak) is a former colleague with whom he once had an affair. It also impedes the investigation that seemingly every policeman on the force opposes Hunter for reasons that become shockingly clear in the second half.

RED RIDING 1980 takes its time getting going but when it does it becomes a Hell of a potboiler and, perhaps, the strongest of the trilogy. Considine anchors the film admirably, convincingly descending from confident determination to a mode of desperate obsession. The film itself is sturdier than its predecessor especially as its pace tightens with Marsh displaying a palpable mastery of tension.

(Dir. Anand Tucker, 2009)

“This is the North – where we do what we want!” This phrase is repeated throughout these films as both a declaration and a warning to outsiders, but its full impact is not really felt until this concluding chapter – or maybe that’s just the power of repetition. While the first one was seen through the eyes of a journalist and the second the eyes of a police detective, the third has 2 protagonists – a public solicitor named John Piggott (Mark Addy) and returning character Detective Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey). Each is on the opposite end of the case making their way into the murky middle.

The loose ends of the first 2 films are tied up competently here but there’s unnecessary usage of stylistic abstraction present. The sex scenes in the series before had a perfunctory feel to them but here they’re completely stitched in with no passion present. Only the spare moments of violence have visceral energy and those don’t come off as effectively as in the previous chapters. Though Morrissey effectively personifies repressed stodginess, the 2 leads aren’t strong enough to guide us through the subdued action which drags down the pace. It’s certainly possible that these 3 films could’ve been much better if tightened into a single epic movie, but maybe we’ll see how that well that works out if Ridley Scott takes on an Americanized remake (yes, I know he’s British).

All 3 RED RIDING films are worthwhile but the first 2 are the essential ones – the third provides resolution. Oddly, only the first one has English subtitles. Since this helps a lot with the heavy accents, it’s a pity that the others don’t follow suit. Yet even with the matter of some impenetrable dialogue and though the films’ total running time of over 5 hours makes taking in the whole trilogy into a bit of a slog – it’s a mostly satisfying slog.

More later…

Benjamin Button’s Back Pages

“Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

– Bob Dylan (“My Back Pages” 1964)


“I’m seven but I look much older” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) says in his early old age upon meeting somebody new. He is, of course, not kidding. He was born a wrinkled wizened man in his 80’s, albeit the size of a tiny baby, so his curious case is that he is aging backwards. His tale is told through the recollections via his letters and writings from the deathbed of a former lover (Cate Blanchett) to her daughter (Julia Ormond) while the hard winds and rain of Hurricane Katrina pound her hospital window. He appears through the help of seamless CGI with the face of Pitt grafted on a child’s (or little person or such) body as he is brought up by New Orleans nursing home caretakers (Taraji P. Henson and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) after being abandoned by his ashamed wealthy father (Jason Flemying).

Adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, the tale has a familiar FORREST GUMP-esque sweep which isn’t surprising being that it was co-written by the same screenwriter – Eric Roth. As Button grows younger he falls for Daisy, first played by Elle Fanning (Dakota’s sister), whose grandmother lives in the nursing home. He goes to sea working on a tugboat (again GUMP) under the wing of crusty Captain Mike (Jared Harris) writing his love at home from every possible port. He has an affair with Tilda Swinton as a married British woman in Russia, fights in World War II, and inherits his father’s fortune all while still pining for Daisy who has grown up to be an elegant Cate Blanchett. Their relationship is obviously doomed or at least destined for extreme sadness but they still give it a go.

The narrative is handled so delicately that it’s as if it might break. As our hero gets younger the film seems to lose its already fragile grasp on the character. A sense of whimsy flows through that’s so light and airy that the film feels at times like it might float away. Also the digital trickery can often distract. The early scenes with Button largely crafted by CGI effect, while flawless executed, are hard to embrace because the gimmick overwhelms the emotional response. When Button appears to Daisy as a younger than he is in real life Brad Pitt by way of the marvels of modern make-up, she tells him “you look perfect” which is true but again the scene barely registers as anything but a pretty picture.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a lavish over-sized coffee table book of a movie. The accompanying text may be sorely lacking but it’s a visual feast and much to its credit it doesn’t feel like it’s just shy of 3 hours long. Being a fan of much of Fincher’s previous work (especially FIGHT CLUB and ZODIAC) I found this to be his most blatant exercise of style over substance and I’m not forgetting PANIC ROOM. From the first frame that depicts the Paramount logo rendered in shirt buttons to the fleeting final shots, there is much to admire about this movie if not fully love. Still, TCCOBB is a worthwhile watch even as a technical triumph over an emotional one and it’s definitely got a few deserved awards in its near future. I did actually get emotional a few times for it but I yearned for more joy to be involved; a poignant pathos seemed to be all it was going for. Though, in these troubled times that we all are desperately trying to outgrow, maybe that’s just about right.

More later…

ZODIAC – A New Film Babble Blog Favorite

“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”
– Roger Ebert

I fully agree with Mr. Ebert. Many are grumbling about the length and density of the movie in question below but you won’t find any grumbling here :

ZODIAC (Dir. David Fincher, 2007) A murderer clothed in darkness or with a black hood exterminating make-out parking or picnicking young couples, police and press continuously taunted by letters and cards sent by a serial killer at large, and an obsession with solving a perplexing nightmare of a mystery that derails the lives and careers of investigators and reporters and alienates the ones closest to them – these are all thriller genre elements that have been arguably done to death. David Fincher’s ZODIAC though beautifully builds upon those frameworks with excruciating attention to detail and a sense of personal purpose that can be felt long after the film is over.

The film is based upon the infamous string of Northern Californian murders in the late 60’s and early 70’s by a man who indentified himself as Zodiac and who was never caught. Our protagonist and guide through this is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall) a ex-Eagle Scout turned San Fransisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist who while not assigned to the story immerses himself in the chilling codes and cryptic pronouncements that his paper and the authorities receive from the Zodiac. The Inspectors on the case David Toshi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) follow every possible lead, dissect every single angle, and interview every single suspect but still come up severely short on the crucial conclusive evidence needed. As time goes on with a long silence by the Zodiac – the trail grows cold leaving our heroes spiritually stumped and forever floored by the lack of closure.

With few of the stylistic flashy touches of Fincher’s previous work (SE7EN, THE GAME, FIGHT CLUB, PANIC ROOM) ZODIAC is a meticulously mesmerizing masterpiece. Despite it’s over 2 and half hour running time not a scene is wasted and it’s admirable that 70’s period piece cliches aren’t exploited. Couldn’t be any better cast – joining the principles are Robert Downey Jr, Brian Cox, Chloë Sevigny, Phillip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney, and John Carroll Lynch who all play the right notes with even incidental characters given sharp memorable turns by reliable bit-players (Donal Logue, Charles Fleisher, Ione Skye *, John Ennis, Adam Goldberg). Eerily effective and extremely absorbing with its “histories of ages past” and “unenlightened shadows cast” as Donovan’s * “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (the song that book-ends the film) playfully but darkly suggests, ZODIAC deserves the oft quoted critic line this season never lives without – it’s truly the first great movie of the year.

* Donovan has both a song and a daughter in this film. Good for him.

New release DVD reviews and more next time on film babble.

More later…