dir. David Fincher

Since the passing/ascension of Stanley Kubrick, no director has better conveyed the impression of complete and utter cinematic dominance as David Fincher. (To mangle that creepy old Outer Limits intro, he controls the vertical, the horizontal, and darn near everything else, right up to the movement of individual air molecules.) As with Kubrick, however, there can be a downside to such supreme control. Awe inspiring as the work of both filmmakers can frequently be, I sometimes find myself helplessly looking for some sign—a weaving extra, a sloppily painted wall, anything—indicating that the picture was at some point touched by human hands.

Zodiac, Fincher's first film since 2002's Panic Room, stands as the director's most impressive monolith to date, a sprawling, three-decade-spanning infodump that, for all its virtuosity, occasionally feels like being locked in the file cabinet of a conspiracy junkie. Adapted from Robert Graysmith's speculative bestseller, James Vanderbilt's script follows the obsessive, dogged attempts of editorial cartoonist Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) to uncover the identity of Northern California's notorious (and media-savvy) Zodiac killer. Rather surprisingly, the actual murders are dealt with in a few early scenes, leaving the lion's share of the 150-minute running time to exploring seemingly every slim theory ever generated on the subject.

Make no mistake, Fincher's handling of such unwieldy, complex material is unquestionably the work of a master. Still, somehow, the totality of such single-minded brilliance has a strange distancing effect, resulting in a film that's often easier to admire than it is to embrace. Thank the cosmos, then, for the presence of Robert Downey Jr., whose supporting turn as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery consistently finds ways to jump out of the film's predetermined groove. Fincher may have built the perfect procedural beast, but Downey, bless his erratic, showoffy heart, generates its pulse. ANDREW WRIGHT

Black Snake Moan

dir. Craig Brewer

In this ridiculous piece of southern-fried exploitation, Christina Ricci stars as Rae, a small-town slut so notorious she needs a booster seat just to be considered poor white trash. Saucer-eyed and skanky, saddled with a chronic cough, Rae has some major self-esteem issues, not the least of which involves leaping on the nearest dick whenever horniness overcomes her. After a particularly squalid night of drinking, pills, and being treated like a heavy bag, she winds up on a dirt road, bloody and unconscious. And that's right where a man named Lazarus (subtle choice of name; played by a predictably bombastic Samuel L. Jackson) finds her, carries her home, and chains her to the radiator so that he can cure her of her sinful nature.

It's that whole black-man-chaining-a-white-woman-to-the-radiator bit that had early word of Black Snake Moan buzzing, but as it turns out, writer-director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) has bigger tricks up his sleeve. Most notably, the blues, which saturates the film in both soundtrack and conversation. Lazarus is an ancient blues man, led astray by marriage and church, and Black Snake Moan is at its best when Jackson is strumming a guitar and belting out a tune—the only moments Brewer is able to temper his exploitive antics and let his characters breathe. So much of the film is in hysterics—be it Ricci shrieking, Jackson sermonizing, or Brewer overstylizing (the slow-mo shots of Ricci grinding on the dance floor are particularly painful)—that it eventually exhausts you. Brewer has an obvious fondness for pulp; in Black Snake Moan he can't help but turn his audience into it. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Tears of the Black Tiger

dir. Wisit Sasanatieng

There was an incident at the 2001 Seattle International Film Festival, the actual details of which have long been swallowed up by rumor and shadow. Speaking as a participant, all I can say with any surety is that said event occurred at the Cinerama, at the screening of a Thai film from an unknown director. Two hours after the house lights went down, the dazed audience all seemed to share a common, unvoiced thought: Did we really just see that, or was paint thinner being pumped through the vents?

Fortunately for the dwindling sanity of all involved, the pad-thai Western Tears of the Black Tiger has finally been freed from the vaults (after an extended postfestival purchase/burial by Miramax), and, well, it's just as gloriously Day-Glo bugfuck as before. Somehow, someway, director Wisit Sasanatieng's debut film manages to be simultaneously a cranked-to-11 camp happening, a berserk splatter film, and an achingly sincere love story. This uniquely fractured approach even holds true for the part with the midget and the rocket launcher.

I'd normally go into more detail, but to be honest, most of my critical and descriptive powers fizzle before a movie where an especially impressive shootout gets an instant rewind, a pastel-clad cowboy stops to play a harmonica in front of a (obviously) painted sunset, and a single drop of spilled blood can cause an entire river system to run luscious neon red. (There's also some surreal stuff.) Sasanatieng's film may ultimately be a bit too much of a good thing, but, at its best, it inspires the same happy, incredulous feeling as when Jackie Chan first bent the laws of nature or Chow Yun-Fat introduced the two-gun two-step. This is the sort of thing that can keep a movie junkie grinning nonsensically for years. ANDREW WRIGHT

Wild Hogs

dir. Walt Becker

If I'm shown anything more than a nanosecond of Tim Allen's flabby man boobs, I damn well expect some hilarity. Or at minimum, the apocalypse. But when director Walt Becker graces the screen with a prolonged shot of a naked-from-the-waist-up Allen bobbing around in a pond, there is, after a few torturous seconds, a subdued gay panic joke. That's it. Allen and his friends then mount their motorcycles and putter along to the next scenario in this profoundly mediocre middle-aged road movie.

Allen plays a Cincinnati dentist who wishes he were a doctor so his kid would respect him more. (This makes little sense in context, either.) His buddy Martin Lawrence has taken a leave of absence from his job as a plumber so he can write a self-help book. His other buddy William H. Macy is a nerdy bachelor who's terrified of talking to women. His other other buddy John Travolta just broke up with his swimsuit-model wife and is despondent. Over beers, they decide the solution to their woes is a male-bonding road trip across a swath of the picturesque Southwest United States.

Between the sweeping, pointless shots of red-rock canyons, there's a string of strangely tolerant gay jokes (commencing when a studly homosexual park ranger stumbles upon the men one morning, all cuddled up together on an air mattress), inadvertent gang warfare (the guys intrude on a biker bar presided over by a snarly Ray Liotta), and one courtly seduction (we are meant to believe Marisa Tomei finds William H. Macy foxy). Wild Hogs is supposed to be a comedy, but like its baby-boomer cast, the jokes are all flabby around the middle. And with the exception of a caricature of a domineering black wife, there's nothing particularly offensive about the movie either. It just passes by. ANNIE WAGNER

Days of Glory

dir. Rachid Bouchareb

The proper title for this square, though often effective, piece of World War II atonement is Indigènes ("Natives"). It's a reference to the film's main characters, a group of five North Africans who joined the fight to rid France (the "motherland") of Nazis in 1944. Useful during the struggle, yet unworthy of promotion or even proper equipment during that struggle, these Algerians nonetheless surrendered their futures for a home most of them had never seen—or been invited to, for that matter—only to be abandoned by the government once the mission had been accomplished. Insult upon injury: Each North African soldier eventually had his pension cut—an injustice that lasted 60 years.

Though the obvious reference to reach for is Edward Zwick's Glory, writer-director Rachid Bouchareb's film is actually more akin to the sort of postwar earnestness found in the likes of Story of G.I. Joe and The Best Years of Our Lives. Bouchareb has shot Days of Glory with an eye toward the past, refusing the much-imitated stuttering and grimness of Saving Private Ryan in favor of a more contemplative, pensive view of battle. All the trappings of the war epic may be there—big explosions, infighting among troops, a bridge in need of protection—but to Days of Glory's credit, it's not inordinately concerned with the heat of battle. Instead, Bouchareb's sympathies lie with the boys in fatigues, and their curious—and heartening, even in the face of outright racism—brand of patriotism. By its final act, Days of Glory has slapped you hard with the ugly truth of history, and even if the film often risks being too preachy, it's hard not to feel affected by the sermons. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

The Aura

dir. Fabián Bielinsky

In the middle of 2006, the Argentinean director of The Aura, Fabián Bielinsky, died of a heart attack in São Paulo. The Aura was his second and last feature-length movie. His first film, a short based on Borges's short story "The Wait," was made in 1983, and the gangsters (or closer yet, Hemingwayesque killers) in that early short are revived in the final feature, The Aura, whose main character, a taxidermist, is much like the character in another short story by Borges, "Funes the Memorious." Esteban Espinosa, as with Borges's Ireneo Funes, is a melancholy man with a photographic memory. In sum, Borges's literary madmen and killers were translated into cinema by Bielinsky.

But there is also some Dostoyevsky in The Aura. The taxidermist is epileptic and the plot revolves around a casino that's far from Buenos Aires, deep in the woods, about to be closed, and soon to be robbed. Dostoyevsky was addicted to gambling and suffered from epilepsy. The cause of the Russian writer' s frothy fits was a near-death experience (he was almost executed); though the cause of the taxidermist's fits is never mentioned in the film, he does have a near-death experience—he is almost executed by the Borgesian killers. As for the movie's title, it of course raises the spirit of Walter Benjamin.

Though the movie is packed with literary references, ultimately The Aura is a noir thriller of the first order. Every scene, frame, and moment matters. You have to pay close attention to what is said, to what is not said, to the clothes, the wind stirring the leaves, the crepitation of footsteps on a forest floor, the eyes of a wild dog, the bruises on a young woman's back, the slightest twitch on a face. All of it is part of the plot's machinery, which moves at a powerful pace from beginning to end. CHARLES MUDEDE

Céline and Julie Go Boating

dir. Jacques Rivette

The centerpiece of Northwest Film Forum's Jacques Rivette retrospective is a work of art so exuberant that you almost forget to notice its glut of ideas, still overflowing after 30 years. Rivette's fifth feature—sixth if you count both versions of his super-rare marathon Out 1—follows Julie (Dominique Labourier), a librarian with a passion for the occult, as she spies and pounces on the best friend of her dreams. Céline (Juliet Berto), the main draw in a magic act in a seedy Montmartre cabaret, acknowledges Julie's not-so-furtive attentions by sneaking into the children's section of the library and wantonly defacing a pile of books. Then, after a traumatic encounter at a mysterious mansion in the Paris suburbs, a bloodied Céline shows up at her newfound friend's apartment, ready to drive off her suitors, torture her fish with the stem of a dried daisy, and eventually lure her into a stilted wonderland—one where spectatorship and performance are blurred and questions of authorship settled by Rivette's Nouvelle Vague peers are raised all over again.

The girls alternate visits to the mansion, remembering their exploits only when they suck on the candy that materializes in their mouths each time they're ejected from the premises. Within the mansion, it appears, a seriously lame melodrama is taking place over and over again. Two beautifully coiffed women compete over a hunky widower as his daughter languishes in bed, then suddenly dies. Céline and Julie appear—separately, at first—as the girl's nurse, and as they struggle into consciousness of the narrative, they discover they can mess up the nurse's lines, go places she wouldn't, and even enter the story together. Using their narrative tools (and the ever-effective power of spectator laughter and derision), they resolve to prevent the murder of the daughter. There is a surreal lake scene at the close of the film, but Céline and Julie Go Boating is really, it seems, about a kind of feminine camp: how to talk back to bad art and claim it for your own.ANNIE WAGNER

Northwest Film Forum's Rivette series continues through March 18; see Film Shorts for more information.

Rural Route Film Festival

Various directors

This film festival for country-living fetishists mostly concerns America—Michigan asparagus farmers hurt by a free-trade agreement, a tale narrated by John Waters about a California vacation spot turned into an ecological disaster—but there is one charming short about a Siberian man who sings, strums a jangly instrument, and paints nudes. Some are narrative, the best are documentary, and all concern places with more plants than buildings. The shorts program is probably the best bet: There are films about an ad hoc farm in south-central L.A., a beautifully shot study of Montana plainsmen who strap on skis and tether themselves to galloping horses, and a poetic homage to conifers entitled Land of the Pines, or, Trees 'n' Shit.

Homemade Hillbilly Jam, a representative documentary feature, is about families who live in the Ozarks, their religion, their music, and the definition of hillbilly. According to Ol' Uncle Dupe, hillbillies "make a livin' up in these hills—if we have to cut timber to do it, if we have to plow these old rocks... Top of that mountain up there, the year that Debbie was born, I took a little three-legged mule—he was all crippled on that hind foot—and I built a hook on that hind foot so he could pull and I farmed them tomatoes up there. Then I went to workin' out here, there, and yonder and got my cows and stuff." Sounds like a hillbilly to me. BRENDAN KILEY