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.
 

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED


A sweet bit of quirkiness about a writing intern helping a reporter do a story on a man who has placed an add in a paper looking for someone to go back in time with him (but must bring their own weapons because safety is not guaranteed—hence the title).   But in general terms, it’s really about people who want to return to the past, both literally and figuratively, in order to change their lives.  The irony of the story, though, is that the ones who succeed are the ones who decide to embrace the present and realize they don’t need to change their past in order to find happiness.  Can’t get much sweeter than that and the movie does have wonderful moments.  Derek Connolly, who wrote the script, has his characters down pat, getting them to reveal their various inner truths with a lot of warmth and witty humor and almost none of the cringing painfulness an audience often experiences when sweet and quirky characters reveal truths about themselves.   And it’s all done to a rousing and impressive, often crescendo building, score by Ryan Miller.  It’s not a particularly ambitious film.  It never really rises above what it is and has none of the daring or risk of such recent sci-fi movies like Timecrimes, Another Earth, Monsters or Melancholia.   Ambitious is also not a word to describe the direction by Colin Trevorrow who doesn’t really bring anything that special to the proceedings, though he certainly gets the job done.   The acting also does little more than get the job done as well; no one’s bad, but no one soars either.   Aubrey Plaza plays the intern and Mark Duplass, hero of many a mumblecore film, plays the time traveler wannabe.  They have a wonderful rapport together and Plaza has a smile that lights up the sky (so necessary since her basic arc is to go from Debbie Downer to someone who finds new meaning and excitement in life).   The ending is probably the best choice considering everything that came before.  It could have taken many a wrong turn at the climax, but to its credit decided on the option to really go there.  I won’t tell you what happens, but suffice it to say, I did leave the movie in much better spirits.

JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME


Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a shaggy dog story with a shaggy dog performance by Jason Segel in the title role (he’s referred to as Sasquatch at one point in the film and comes across as a hairless Chewbacca). It’s a feel good movie that gives feel good movies a good name. It’s written and directed by the Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark) who are earlier practitioners of what is called “mumblecore” films (low budget indies who tend to use unknown actors who have a reputation of mumbling–since they don’t have the training not to, I suppose). The duo made their screen debut with the Puffy Chair (during which I wanted to shoot myself in order to end my agony, a reaction that’s not unusual for me when it comes to mumblecore) and ever since have been making solid strides in getting away from their origins, starting with the fun film Baghead. After that, they made a tremendous artistic leap with the romantic comedy Cyrus. I was hoping for an even bigger leap with Jeff…, but though that leap isn’t there (the movie never really tries to be any more than what it is), it’s still a charming little film that should win most people over. It has as its theme and philosophy the idea of letting destiny be your guide. Jeff (who lives at home, appropriately enough, in his mother’s basement) is told by an infomercial to pick up a phone just when said phone rings; when Jeff does, it’s a wrong number for a Kevin; subsequently while on a bus, Jeff sees a teenager with the name Kevin on his basketball shirt; Jeff follows him and thus is set off on a series of adventures that entangles him first with his estranged brother who is having a midlife crisis and thinks his wife is cheating on him (played by Ed Helms, who is doing the Edward Norton thingy of wearing a goatee so we take him more seriously that if he’s clean shaven, as in his movie Cedar Rapids) and then with his mother who feels the world is passing her by until she gets a mysterious paper airplane mash note (Jeff’s mother is played by the wonderful Susan Sarandon who has graduated from leading roles to significant supporting ones as actors these days often do once they pass a certain age, one of the unfortunate results of the studio system collapsing). The basic farce structure, in which the last person you want or expect to run into is always the person you do, grows in increasingly frenetic plot turns until it reaches the moving climax that proves Jeff’s philosophy of life is the correct one. If the movie has any sort of real flaw, and it’s probably trifling to bring it up, it’s Segel, who is perhaps just a bit too shaggy a dog and laid back in the role; one may not notice because of the strong casting around him (Helms, Sarandon and Judy Greer as the possible straying wife; if you don’t have Muppets for a supporting cast, these will more than get the job done); Segel may be a tad lethargic, but no one else is. The sweet music score is by Michael Andrews. For those of you who care, the movie also answers the burning question, whatever happened to Rae Dawn Chong, who is perhaps even lovelier now than when she was an up and comer.

PILGRIM’S PROGRESS: OR ROMANTIC COMEDY IS ALIVE AND WELL IN LOS ANGELES: reviews of Cyrus and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World


I read not long ago that many feel the romantic comedy is dead. Usually when someone makes a statement like that, what is really means is not that the genre is dead, but that the person may be looking in the wrong location. When one speaks of modern romantic comedy, people usually drop the names Jennifer Anniston, Sandra Bullock, Katherine Heigl and Julia Roberts, what might be called the Irene Dunne/Claudette Colbert, Ernst Lubitsch/Leo McCarey approach, a sophisticated, battle of the sexes. In reality, perhaps they should have been looking at a more Preston Sturgess/John Hughes approach to romance, something a bit more messy and anarchic. Last year we had (500) Days of Summer. This year we have Cyrus and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

I have never been a big fan of mumble core films. I never could get that emotionally involved with the characters. For me, this subgenre of a subgenre of films have been about overeducated people who think they are interesting, but aren’t. Baghead is one of the few mumble cores that have worked for me, possibly because it didn’t seem quite so self absorbed. Instead of containing the usual suspects found in this type of film, Baghead was about someone who was tired of not making a movie, so he decides to make one; and an entertaining good time it was, too. The makers of Baghead, Mark and Jay Duplass, aka the Duplass Brothers, have now made a new movie using the mumble core style (the feeling of improvisation, the hand held camera, the low budget look), and possibly because it isn’t about the same olds, same olds usually found in these sorts of films (including, for me, The Puffy Chair, also by the Duplass Brothers, which in full faith and disclosure was one of those films I didn’t care for), all I could think is that it’s amazing what one can do with this style when you have a good script and even better actors.


Cyrus (Jonah Hill) is the son of Molly (Marisa Tomei), a widow who has perhaps grown a bit too close to her offspring. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Cyrus has grown too close to his mother. Molly still goes out and tries to live her own life, keeping herself open to a new romance. Meanwhile, though Cyrus has reached the age where most kids have fled their home for saner pastures, he’s holding on to the homestead with all the tenacity of a farmer threatened by cattle barons in a studio western of the old days. The cowboy who wants to cut down all the barbed wire Cyrus has put up is John (John C. Reilly), a sad sack downer of a person who has never recovered from his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) leaving him and who left because, well, he’s kind of a sad sack downer of a person. But there’s no hard feelings. Jamie’s the one who gets John to go to the party where he meets Molly who rescues John from an evening where he’s flummoxed from one embarrassing scene to another with all the geeky, yet balletic, beauty of a Woody Allen (and who’d have thought one would ever want to hear the song Don’t You Want Me, Baby again). When Cyrus meets John, it becomes take no prisoners as the two fight to the death (almost literarily at one point) over Molly’s attention.

Cyrus is very funny in one of those dark, edgy, almost sick comic ways. In other words, it’s my cup of tea, Sweet ‘n Low laced with a bit of arsenic. The direction, by the Duplass brothers, is very clever. They have a habit of pushing the camera in just at the right moment to take advantage of a funny moment, almost like a laugh track (which should be a negative, but here just seems to add a punch line to a punch line). The camera almost never seems to be on the person talking, but almost invariably on the person reacting as the other person talks, the last place you would think one would want the focus to be. Yet, this decision is one of the sources of all the humor. Of course, it helps to have a great reactor in Reilly, one of our finest character actors, supported more than ably by Tomei and Keener. The weak one of the bunch is perhaps Jonah Hill, but he fights to his last bated breath to keep up with the others and doesn’t let the movie down. I’m also not convinced that Reilly’s character is totally consistent. John starts out as a person who’s every waking hour seems to suggest a person out of his depth; then he meets Molly and he becomes one of the most brilliant strategists since Napoleon. But if he’s not consistent, Reilly does too brilliant a job of covering it up. In fact, the whole thing feels a bit shaggy dog, as shaggy dog as Reilly looks. Cyrus may be caustic, but so oft is the course of true love. And when the last frame vanishes from the screen one is a tad verklempt at the possibility of two lonely people finding each other.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is awesome. It’s amazing. It’s even better than that: it’s swell. If it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s certainly one of the most fun. Scott is a guitarist in a band who is fake dating a seventeen year old high school student; who lives and sleeps in the same bed as his gay friend; who hasn’t been able to get over his last girlfriend, who is now the lead singer of the next big band; and who falls hopelessly in love with Ramona Flowers, a woman hopelessly out of his league. Just a typical day for the new generation, apparently, since no one seems that surprised at his predicament. Ramona, in turn, does begin to fall for Scott’s lack of charm (he’s the nicest person she’s ever dated, normally the kiss of death in any relationship, but here it actually seems to work in Scott’s favor, who knew?). But in order to win Ramona’s hand in dating, Scott has to defeat in battle her seven evil ex-boyfriends, something he starts doing before he even realizes that that’s what he’s doing.

Of course, Scott is not battling her exes. He’s actually defeating the baggage they left her with. It’s a metaphor. In fact, the movie is nothing but one huge metaphor. Almost everything is both literal and symbolic. Scott must defeat the bad effect Ramona’s exes had on her in order to free her up to love him. The real scary part is how accurate a metaphor this is for love. One doesn’t have to win the present, one also has to defeat the past, which is much more difficult. And it’s all played out metaphorically in which each battle is one level of a video game with each level becoming more and more difficult. The fights are battles right out of Asian anime: love’s a game and a battlefield at the same time.

It would be interesting to know how much the look of the film came from the director Edgar Wright; the screenplay by Wright and Michael Bacall; or the source material, a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. It would be very difficult for me to believe that the style of the movie didn’t come directly from the graphic novels themselves. The movie uses every CGI trick in the book. Scott hits his head on a telephone pole and the word “thunk” appears on the screen (Holy insert, Batman); his 17 year old fake girlfriend says she loves him and the word comes out of her mouth like a smoke ring and he bats it away before it can reach him; Scott opens a door and he’s across town; people leap at each other like an animated version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; defeated characters turn into coins worth points in a game; swords appear inside Scott. It’s like Annie Hall on acid. But it works and when Scott and Ramona find each other at the finale, one feels like the two have earned their happy ending. Some have commented that this approach overshadowed the emotion of the story. I disagree. For me, Wright and Bacall found the perfect balance to showmanship and emotional empathy.

Most of the criticism of Scott… has focused on Scott, or actually, Michael Cera, who plays Scott, as perhaps not the best choice for the role. And I can’t say I disagree with them. Cera has a rather nerdy look and his humor comes from underplaying his emotions and talking out of the corner of his mouth. He’s not the most dynamic of personalities, which is actually the key to his comic timing and success. But it is a bit hard to believe that Ramona would ever give him the time of day. She is truly out of his league. The role might have worked better with someone more like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also has a slight nerdy look (at least if he wants to have it), but is a much stronger performer. At the same time, Cera commits himself to the role and the directors and writers have so tailored it to his abilities, that Cera never actually hurts the movie and his droll, dry, arid delivery gets more than its fair share of laughs. The best performance in the whole movie is probably given by Kieran Culkin, though, as Wallace, Scott’s friend who has allowed Scott half his bed and residency in his extremely small studio apartment. It’s probably also one of the best written gay characters in American movies in some time. It also shows where modern society is when a straight man can share a bed with a gay man without any fear of being called queer, yet at the same time can ask Wallace not to stick around the night Scott has Ramona over for fear Wallace might gay up the place (and then in actually, it’s Scott who’s the real danger of gaying it all up). This is the real threat to Prop 8.

BOYS WILL BE BOYS, PART DUEX – REVIEW OF HUMPDAY


Humpday is about two straight men who decide to have sex on film as an art piece with the plan of entering it in a film festival called Humpfest. Actually, from my perspective, it’s about a writer and director, Lynn Shelton, who thinks she is doing something daring and unique, when, as in the movie The Art of Being Straight, she is hopelessly behind the times. The comic high point of the story, unintentionally so, is a party that the two breeders, played by Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, attend. Duplass calls the party Dionysian, but the party is only Dionysian to people who think the orgy scene in La Dolce Vita is a realistic orgy. Of course, that may be the point here, but Shelton doesn’t let the audience know whether she actually believes the party is Dionysian or whether we are suppose to laugh at Duplass because he actually thinks it is. This is actually topped when Leonard suggests that for Humpfest he and Duplass do something unique—film two straight men having sex. Now this is only unique to people who have no idea what’s been going on in the world of pornography in the last ten years or more where “gay for pay” has been one of the most popular and fastest growing subsidiaries (this Dionysian party actually has a couple of gay men there, yet none of them decided to point out the absurdity of Leonard’s statement). In the end, the two men can’t go through with it (thankfully; if I’m going to see two straight men having sex, it sure ain’t going to be two men with mediocre bodies like this). So what is the point of the film? What did these two people learn about themselves? It’s not clear, at least to me, that Shelton really thought that through. It’s as if she thought all she had to do was come up with a high concept mumble core film and the rest would fall into place, but I question whether it did. I still remember the wonderful morning after scene in Y Tu Mama Tambien in which the two male characters, after having a three way the night before in which they kissed, wake up in horror realizing that terrifying fact that two straight men can actually enjoy having sex together; the result was that they never wanted to see each other again. I’m not convinced that anything like that happens here.