In 10 Words or Less
Building a real-life mystery
Loves: Good documentaries, conspiracy theories
Likes: Crazy folk
Dislikes: REALLY crazy folk
Hates: Conspiracy theorists, grafitti
A good conspiracy, or at least a good conspiracy theory, is great fun (unlike most of the people who push forth these theories, as they tend to be rather ridiculous and frequently obnoxious.) A good conspiracy theory has a touch of the unbelievable, along with a healthy helping of reality and a great sense of mystery. You can buy into a good conspiracy, even if it tends to be on a scale that's far too big to actually work, and it pieces together correctly on a logistical level, but it also has a flair that's normally found in fiction. But they don't tend to be as tangible, real or as finite as the tale of the Toynbee tiles.
For those who aren't in the know, the Toynbee tiles are graffiti plaques originally found embedded in the streets of Philadelphia, with an odd bit of vague text, saying "Toynbee Idea. In Kubrick's 2001. Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter." The tiles, featuring increasingly paranoid "side statements" and varying designs, were then spotted in several other states, as well as in South America, but no one had seen one installed, nor was the message understandable. But with some investigation, which here is carried out by Justin Duerr, Steve Weinik and Colin Smith, a trio of Toynbee tile enthusiasts, a more complex picture emerges of a secret organization, insane personalities and a back story that's far more intriguing and involved than it seems at first. As the group narrows the identity of the "tiler" down to three possibilities, only to see it explode in new directions that offer teases, incredible coincidences and frustrating dead ends, the mystery becomes even more intense.
That's mainly because the focus of the film isn't so much about the tiles or who laid them, but the group's pursuit of the identity of the "tiler", a point driven home by how it all ends. The investigation has all the elements of a classic mystery story, including plenty of red herrings, unique characters (with far more unique Philly accents) and covert sources, including one dramatic right turn that leads the story in a whole new direction. It's hard to not just tuck in and get lost in the search, because as the mystery gets more involved, including the involvement of David Mamet, Larry King and the secret world of shortwave radio, things just intertwine and converge to the point where, if you wrote this plot, you might be considered a hack.
Director Jon Foy tells the story with true style, mixing interviews, recreations and limited animation, unfurling the story smoothly and effectively. As things come into focus, one gets the same feeling that came when the ending of The Usual Suspects played out, a chilling sense that all the bits and pieces have come together perfectly. The only thing that is a bit off-kilter, aside from the possible lack of satisfaction one could have at the end, is the way Foy seems to try and make this the story of Duerr, focusing on his troubled upbringing and the parallels between him and the suspected tiler. Yes, his obsession is key to the story, but the personal history lesson feels a bit shoehorned in and its value is questionable. But if there being too much story is one of the few issues, it can probably be forgiven.
A one-disc release packed in a standard keepcase with a promotional insert, this DVD has an animated, anamorphic widescreen menu, with options to play the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the extras. There are no audio options, though subtitles are available in English SDH.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer looks quite nice, reproducing the film's various looks, including simplified color palettes and grainy reproductions, without issue, as the black levels are solid, the colors are appropriate and there's no evidence of noticeable digital distractions. Overall, it's a fine looking film.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation doesn't offer much in the way of a challenge for your receiver, but what's offered is handled fine, keeping the center-balanced audio sounding clear and clean without distortion, but without anything in terms of a dynamic mix either.
The big extra is an audio commentary with Foy and the three investigators. Though it can be hard to keep the voices separate and they do step on each other a bit, they offer up plenty of thoughts about the topic of the tiles and stories about the filming, while filling in info that didn't make it onto the screen and answering questions they've received when screening the film. It's a great stand-in for a Q&A, and offers a more rounded picture of the guys' experience.
There's more of the quartet in the tile gallery, where they share their thoughts on various tiles that have been found, as you look at pictures of them. Some of this is covered int he film (and the feature commentary) but the detail and focus is appreciated. A trio of deleted scenes follows, one with Duerr attempting to make a tile, and two about a device created to communicate with the dead. They wouldn't have added anything to the film (other than another red herring) and were better off cut.
There's a very short, but interesting piece on the film's music, titled "Investigators Motif Score Analysis." Foy not only is the director (along with several other credits) but he also composed the score, and he wrote a small four-note theme for the investigators that was used as the basis for several variations in the movie. It's a bit of interesting insight into the art of composition.
The extras wrap with the film's enticing theatrical trailer.
The Bottom Line
Coming into this film, I thought I knew everything about the Toynbee tiles, but even so, this movie tells the tale in a way that even the knowledgeable can enjoy, while newcomers could have their minds blown. The presentation is solid all around, and the extras offer some quality bonus features that will be welcomed by anyone who enjoys the film, which will include fans of mysteries, conspiracies and simply good documentaries. If I could make a recommendation to Foy though: next time, do numbers stations.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.