ZERO DARK THIRTY



There are some movies, we all have been there/done that, that are praised to high heaven by the critics and rapturously spoken about by fellow movie goers, but somehow leave you cold.  I’m afraid to say that this is how I felt about Zero Dark Thirty, writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the search for Osama Ben Laden.  I really don’t get it.  I really don’t understand why everyone likes this movie as much as they do.
The movie centers around the character of Maya, a government operative who is obsessive in her hunt for the man responsible for 9/11.  And this is probably where the movie either works for you or doesn’t.  But for me, Maya is one of the least interesting characters I have come across in a major movie in some time.  She has no personality that I could tell, unless you consider bland and boring to be a personality; well, I guess it is, but I don’t think it’s a particularly dramatic one that can carry a movie.  And Jessica Chastain, who is one of the flavors of the month (ten points for anyone who can remember when that phrase was the phrase de jeur—or flavor of the month), doesn’t seem to have that necessary quality, that imperceptible something, to give the character what the writer didn’t in the way that actors like Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and even Joan Crawford could.
Maya is part cliché, part superhero, part saint.  She’s that character you’ve seen in dozens of films, the only one with the truth, the voice crying in the wilderness, who has to fight tooth and nail against the non-believers in order to make everyone else see the light.   She has some of the most ludicrous exchanges with her higher ups, especially one where she blackmails her boss, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler repeating his bureaucrat Babbit role from Argo—at least he has an excuse for having no personality, it’s in his job description), into giving her support to follow one of her hunches (she does this by telling him that if he doesn’t, she’ll tell the government how he stopped her from going after Ben Laden—how I wanted him to tell her to go ahead, that if it didn’t hurt Bush’s chances for reelection, there’s no way it will cause him any problems).  The only scene that was even more uncomfortable to watch is the dressing down Mark Strong, as May’s boss in D.C., gives his minions—when he slapped his hand on the table, I had a very difficult time not giggling.  Perhaps the oddest moments here are when a character describes Maya and Chastain’s performance is totally at odds with the description (at one point she’s called at killer—yeah, right; and at other times, she’s described as worn and needing time off—all I could think is that I wish I looked so good for being so worn.)
Her character arc is structured like a Spiderman/Superman/Batman movie.  The first third is the origin story in which Maya gets bitten by a radioactive spider (here the Ben Laden bug) and vows revenge against the bad guys when her Uncle is killed by the bad guys in which she feels some sort of guilt (here, it’s the death of her co-worker).  The next section is the various evil deeds the super villain commits that no one can seem to stop.  And the final section is the super hero taking out the super villain.  Of course, this also shows part of the problem with the film.  First, there is no proof that the super villain is responsible for any of the evil done in the central section (people try to tell her that Ben Laden is no longer in charge of Al Qaeda, but she won’t listen).  And in the final section, she can’t actually participate in the final climactic fight.  So, in retrospect, I’m not convinced that this was the best structure to go for.
But finally Maya is also portrayed as Joan of Arc.  She is on a mission from God (at one point, she says she believes she was spared dying in a terrorist attack to bring Ben Laden to justice); she is the only one God is talking to; she has to convince the Dauphin (played here by James Gandolfini) to let her head the troops into battle; and when she does, the troops (led by Joel Edgerton’s Patrick) only have faith in the mission because she has faith in the mission.  All that’s missing is a burning stake at the end. 
However, in its favor, the movie does surround Maya with a strong supporting cast that does bring that something more to their roles.  The best performance is probably given by Jason Clarke as Dan, the torturer who is starting to realize he may be going down a dark hole he may not be able to find his way back from (he also gave the best performance in the moonshine drama Lawless).   Other actors also make their mark in even smaller roles:  Safe House’s Fares Fares; Edgar Ramirez (who played Carlos in the amazing Olivier Assayas series); mumblecore’s Mark Duplass; and Contagion’s Jennifer Ehle (she of the impossible high check bones)…in fact, almost anybody other than Chastain.
The most impressive moments in the script are not the interactions between the characters (which always feel a bit flat), but the moments that Bigelow excels in, scenes of high tension that often result in devastating violence (and even though you know that the scene is going to end in an explosion, that only makes the scene more nerve wracking).  And, of course, there’s the final tour de force of the assault on Ben Laden’s compound.  It’s in these scenes that one can see what the movie could have been.  But when there’s a vacuum at the core of the movie, as if feels like there is here with the role of Maya, it’s a little hard to make the movie work as a whole.
I can’t conclude a review of this movie without talking about the most controversial aspect of the film and that is the use of torture.  From my perspective, this is how torture is portrayed by Boal and Bigelow.  The first third of the movie is a series of scenes in which people are tortured or people are shown who have been tortured.  The torture is not posited here as something that had to happen, but as something that did happen.  In fact, at the end of this section, everyone realizes that all this torture has done nothing to stop Al Qaeda because the explosions and attacks just keep on coming.  The only thing the operatives get from the torture is a name that eventually leads them to Ben Laden’s compound.  But by that time, Ben Laden is a paper tiger, someone who needs desperately to be killed for symbolic reasons, but not for practical ones.  So, the movie basically says (though I’m not sure it realizes fully that this is its message), that all this money, time and effort spent on dehumanizing not just their fellow man, but the torturers themselves, did nothing to stop Al Qaeda, but did help the U.S. stop someone before he…well, did nothing, because Ben Laden was no longer doing anything.  And the question one has to ask oneself is whether all that torture was worth it if that was its only result.  I’ll leave that to you.
 

OSCAR RACE 2012–BEST DIRECTOR



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Continuing my Oscar predictions, the next category is Director.  In certain ways, picking the director nominees used to be fairly easy.  You selected which five films you thought would be nominated for best picture and then try and decide which one wouldn’t correspond with a director (there often was one difference).  But now that it is possible for there to be up to ten picture nominees, this sort of throws a monkey wrench into the system.
In many ways, you still make your guesses using the same principle.  You decide which five movies you suspect would have been the nominees if the rules of up to ten weren’t in existence and you take that as your cue for your basic list of for the director’s category.
Like all the other categories, the top five seem to be slowly rising to the top.  So to the list:
Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty to win.  It’s not just the double whammy so far of winning the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review awards.  There’s no guarantee that that translates into an Oscar win, though at the same time, it don’t hurt.  Part of what is helping here is that Argo, which had the lead, peaked and was being overshadowed by Spielberg and Lincoln (which was more successful than was originally thought) and is now being overshadowed by Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty as well.  Will she win?  Right now it’s all buzz, but the buzz is deaf impairing, so unless the movie opens and then crashes and burns, it seems she’s got it (the first female director to win twice; the first to be even nominated twice).
Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.  This seems like a done deal, not just because it’s Lincoln directed by Spielberg, but also because it did much better than anyone expected (which is important since people expected it to do well as it was).
Ben Affleck for Argo.  Once the front runner for winning, but has now been eclipsed.  But his nomination still seems like it’s in with the in crowd.
Tom Hooper for Les Miserables.  My only hesitation here is that the movie hasn’t opened and I’m a little loathe to make a prediction for a musical (I still remember Nine), but it looks like a sure thing.
David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.  It’s a serious comedy and that doesn’t hurt and people just seem to love it to death. 
Now there are definitely other possibilities, but here is where things get tricky.  If you think that another director is going to get in there, you’re going to have to decide who won’t make it.   Right now, I think only Tom Hooper and David O. Russell have a chance of being unseated and replaced by: Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master (the issue here is that the critics loved it, but the public, which includes the voters, didn’t); Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild (deserving, and the strongest possibility for an upset as far as I’m concerned); Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained (the movie is too unknown a quantity and it may open too late to really excite people); Peter Jackson for The Hobbit (he’s already got it for The Lord of the Rings, I can’t see them doing it again and some people haven’t been happy with some of his directorial choices; it may also be opening too late for people to care); Michael Haneke for Amour (probably deserving, but he’s probably going to get shut out; and since it’s going to win Best Foreign Language Film, they’ll probably nominate it for screenplay and forget the direction); Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom (forget about it, it will be Zeitlin before Anderson). 

MEN AT WAR: Reviews of Star Trek and The Hurt Locker


Star Trek 2009 is probably the best interpretation of that sic-fi concept to date, including the original series (and I was there for the very first one with Shatner and Nimoy, so there). The writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, achieved this through very simple means: they make Kirk a rebel without a cause with daddy issues and Spock an uptight nerd with mommy issues (you know, a variation of the character Sheldon Cooper as played Jim Parsons on the Big Bang Theory). Who knew creating back stories could be so fun? But when all is said and done, the most brilliant addition to the Star Trek mythology is to make Uhura and Spock an item; this alone will earn Orci and Kurtzman their place in sci-fi history. The movie is entertaining and moves at a good pace, except whenever Leonard Nimoy is on board. The poor guy is saddled with what seems a ton of exposition; in addition, he speaks as slowly as David Carradine did in Kill Bill, II, not a good role model. Eric Bana’s also on board in a role he seems to think is one of those bad guys that can change the course of an actor’s career; he’s perfectly fine, but no one’s going to remember him here.

The Hurt Locker is probably Kathryn Bigelow’s best film since Near Dark mainly because she doesn’t over direct in an effort to distract everyone from the silliness of the screenplays she usually has to deal with (End of Days or Point Blank anyone?). Though the story by Mark Boal takes place in Iraq, it’s not about Iraq. It’s a character study of an adrenaline junky played frighteningly well by Jeremy Renner. It has all the intensity of waiting for a bomb to go off, which is probably appropriate given the subject matter. The structure’s a tad off; it begins with one central character (played by Anthony Mackie), but then switches horses to focus on Renner. But outside of that, it’s perhaps the best American made film of the year so far.