Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: The Hunt for Truth

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Reviewed: 22 January 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

War journalist Chris Hedges stated, "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."  Kathryn Bigelow opened her classic Oscar-winning war film "The Hurt Locker" with Hedges's words, and that tense film explored the lives of bomb-defusing soldiers in Iraq.  It was an unforgettable cinematic exploration of modern warfare as well as its cost.  Bigelow's follow-up film "Zero Dark Thirty" chronicles the hunt for Osama bin-Laden (ubiquitously referred to as UBL) and the network of C.I.A. agents, administrators, politicians, and soldiers who physically embody our national vengeance.  It is one of the most powerful films of the year.

Bigelow opens this film with a dark screen with layered sounds of urgent, desperate phone calls from September 11th, 2001, citizens begging and urging the 911 operators to help and save them.  The responders on the other end of those fateful calls were powerless; nothing could be done.  American citizens burned and jumped out of towers, dying in smoke and fear.  That emotional core is where Bigelow begins: America's impotence.  The remaining story deals with our national obsession for revenge, the relentless and morally dubious search for UBL through oceans of paperwork, countless video files, torture and subsequent confessions from detainees, as well as bureaucratic mazes of right and wrong.  It is a relentless film.  Bigelow zeroes in on Maya (Jessica Chastain), an indefatigable C.I.A. agent who interviews detainees, chasing down leads to possible couriers who could lead to USB.  Her task, as a colleague reminds her, is the proverbial needle in the haystack, and there is no one else by the late 2000’s doing this exhaustive work.  Chastain’s supporting cast includes Jason Clarke as Dan, a fellow agent, Kyle Chandler as a station chief Joseph Bradley in Afghanistan, as well as Mark Strong and James Gandolfini as unnamed C.I.A. higher-ups in the government who are ultimately responsible for pushing President Obama to make the decisions leading to the strike in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1st, 2011.

Bigelow slices her film into chapters that leap forward in time, players change out, leaders and policies change, showing the cost of the grind of conducting the war on terror, the paranoia of missing the next attack.  Chastain carries the film, proving fully capable of being the only woman in the room during the important meetings.  Her performance is one of quiet, tired relentlessness, devoid of many showy speeches and moments, but undeniably powerful.  For whatever unspoken reasons, Maya sacrifices her life for the hunt.  Maya is Clarice Starling for the 21st Century, except she is not charmed by her Hannibal Lecter.  She absorbs immense pain and becomes a target herself, yet remains committed to the cause.  Bigelow wisely puts Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the background as talking heads on televisions, speaking in generalities miles away from where sound bites meet gritty realities.  The film is not about them.  It is about the people who execute their orders.

Bigelow takes the audience for the first time inside of detention centers and torture in gruesome, painful detail with Dan leading and prodding but Maya following, witnessing, and participating.  By depicting horrific acts done to fellow human beings by agents of the US government, Bigelow shows torture in all of its degradation.  Yet, the film offers a measured look at such actions.  Did such torture help lead to the inevitable raid?  Do the ends justify the means?  Bigelow’s point may be that whether intelligence was gleaned or not may be immaterial.  This country tortured and in its collective bloodlust the United States hurt and destroyed countless people, innocent and guilty, in pursuit of vengeance.

Bigelow’s confidence in her story allows scenes to play out at length.  She crafts the story slowly, accruing each painful piece.  A tracking sequence in a crowded marketplace is enthralling for its low-tech bare bones qualities.  The needle in the haystack.  The final thirty minutes of the film achieve a near documentary feel for the actual Navy SEAL Team Six attack on the compound.  I understood for the first time that this raid was an American attack on a sovereign country's soil with the possibility of sparking a third war.  There are neighbors who hear the helicopters land in Abbottabad and come out to look.  There are the risks of a failed mission, a helicopter crash, unspoken shades of the botched rescue mission in 1979 Iran with untold political implications.  Bigelow lets the attack play out in real-time with no cutting back to the base or to D.C.  At this stage in the hunt, the mission is in the capable hands of the soldiers who are the very best at what they do.  And the green-hued scopes and goggles of the SEAL Team 6 peer into the compound, hungry but lethally dispassionate.  Their goggles and green light give them an alien appearance that is unsettling.  Bigelow delivers the ending of the raid with restraint and a deep reverence for their workmanlike abilities and attitudes.  Celebratory is not a word that comes to mind.  This is work.

Bigelow’s final shot of the film, a wonderful symbolic evocation of where vengeance leads, moved me more than nearly any cinematic image this year.  Movement and stasis.   Destination and arrival. Addiction and fix.  With “Zero Dark Thirty,” Bigelow continues to explore modern warfare and policy in the most adult and serious of ways.  In many ways, her two most recent films are the most bracingly honest cinematic depictions of the last twelve years of American history.

If “war is a drug,” what does that make America?

And, where do we go from here?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Difficult to Watch, Difficult to Look Away: The Impossible

Movie Review: The Impossible

Director: Juan Bayona

Reviewed: 7 January 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

What makes a family?  In "The Impossible," Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play couple Henry and Maria, who along with their three young children, stay at a resort in Thailand and are caught in the tsunami in Thailand on the day after Christmas 2004.  Based on real events, the film chronicles the family's separation, the horrific tsunami itself, as well as the devastating aftermath.  We follow the characters on their journeys through the wreckage, the hospitals, and streets of the beachfront, and although Bayona struggles with the end of the film, he has created an emotional and powerful film.

Acting is physical and embodying and moving as a character.  I can get caught up in the speeches, histrionics, the voices, and the craft, but sometimes a memorable performance is simply an actor doing something.  I think of Josh Brolin in "No Country For Old Men," with his wordless physicality.  Naomi Watts' now Oscar-nominated performance in "The Impossible is such a performance for the first half of the film with her wounded, relentlessness.  Her act of walking becomes as dramatic as it can be.  I wanted to see even more from her.  McGregor is fine as well as the father who confronts the mess and refuses to give up.  There is a scope to this film that is both limiting and freeing.  By only seeing the tsunami and its aftermath through the characters' eyes, we are pulled underwater with them in terrifying sequences.  However, we miss the greater worldwide context of the event, and there is no clumsy narration or summation or recitation of facts.  However, by that nature, there were times watching this film that I longed for the wider lens, the examination of this horrific event beyond its effect on just this one, privileged family.  The ending frustrated me.

For me, "The Impossible" earns its emotional moments, had me gasping and wincing, and the sequences of the waters rushing and the family trying to keep each other in sight is the highlight of the film.  The film's second half is less successful in its depiction of the chaos.  Bayona's sets are painstakingly realized, with a cast of thousands of extras covered in sand and blood, and the film points no fingers.  Instead, there are the acts of kindness that are unprompted, unexplained, unable to predict that move several of the characters around without payoffs or speeches.  Ultimately, "The Impossible" is about the triumph of the human spirit.  A last minute use of CGI to recreate an earlier scene does not work for me, and I think that it kept this film from achieving brilliance.  In fact, I think there were several moments towards the end where Bayona could have stopped the film and achieved an even more powerful effect.

"The Impossible" is a well-done film, and I recommend it.  It is mesmerizing at its best moments, as well as heart-breaking with its narrow focus on one family in one of the most terrible tragedies of our time.  I am glad to see McGregor and Watts deliver such fine performances, as well as the outstanding child actors who play their children.

Friday, January 4, 2013

An American Classic

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Reviewed: 3 January 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

In 1950, William Faulkner flew to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  In his famous speech, Faulkner explained the art of story-telling within the burgeoning apocalyptic age:

"I decline to accept the end of man...I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past."

In Benh Zeitlin's audacious new film Beasts of the Southern Wild, Faulkner's tenet that humanity's survival hinges upon our "compassion and sacrifice and endurance" was never more clear to me then when watching six-year-old heroine Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) navigate the rising waters.  Hushpuppy narrates the film, living in a makeshift bayou community called The Bathtub which looks to be outside of the levees outside lower Louisiana.  She finds the beauty in her world, stopping to listen to the heartbeats of animals, to feel the grass in her fingertips, to hold her memories close.  Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in ramshackle houses along the water, but there is always food, friendship, teaching, beauty, and laughter.  And stories.  A beacon of light always shines in the distance, calling to her.  The ice-caps are melting, her father tells her.  When the storm hits and the water rises, Hushpuppy and Wink must fight for their family and their community against all forces.

To say more would be a crime since part of this film involves Zeilin's jaw-dropping moments of beauty and wonder.  I was confused during parts of this movie in the best way possible.  There are moments of magic and terror.  Zeitlin, with a small budget and cast, has crafted a film that is impossible to forget.  I woke up this morning having dreamed about some of the images in this film.  Hushpuppy is no Katniss Everdeen, no happy warrior.  She is a precocious and inquisitive six-year-old girl in a world of unstable transformation: water and land, life and death, peace and terror.  Quvenzhane Wallis's performance is otherworldly and immensely powerful; she deserves every accolade and award possible.  She is sure to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but I hope that her co-star Dwight Henry will as well for Best Supporting Actor.  And full credit should go to the vision of direct Benh Zeitlin who has an eye for visual style and frame composition.  Zetilin positions The Bathtub as both an alternate reality and a community apart from modern values.  The totality of his creation is so strong that sixty minutes into the film the simple long shot of a piece of recognizable modernity is utterly shocking.  I read the film as a Hurricane Katrina allegory, but there are no simple answers here as the film wrestles with, among other things, defining a government, a community, and a family.  Zeitlin's confidence in his camera and story-telling immersed me in Hushpuppy's universe.  What more can you ask of a film?

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the most creative and innovative American stories that I have seen in a while, and I hope that it gets the audience that it deserves.

Hushpuppy will endure: she will prevail.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

This is disappointing.

Movie Review: This is 40

Director: Judd Apatow

Reviewed: 2 January 2013

jamesintexas rating--**

Judd Apatow's indulgent new film "This is 40" assembles an astonishing array of comedic actors: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Chris O'Dowd, Jason Segal, Albert Brooks, and Lena Dunham.  Despite the pedigree of the cast, the story collapses under its stars, meandering far from its central couple and struggling to sustain any sort of focus.  Mann and Rudd play Debbie and Pete, a couple last seen in Apatow's "Knocked Up," which used their chemistry well in small bits to contrast the central couple of Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.  Here, Debbie and Pete are front and center, as are Maude and Iris Apatow as Sadie and Charlotte, the couple's daughters.  The film is concerned with a couple aging together, their relationship possibly changing, and the pressures of job, family, and life bearing down upon two people who love each other and simultaneously drive each other crazy.

The film plays loose and episodic with little governing the narrative besides a looming birthday party for Pete (Debbie does not want a birthday party) which serves the messy purpose of uniting multiple story arcs together into one bloated sequence.  The film is 134 minutes long.

Don't go looking for the Apatow of "The 40 Year Old Virgin" or even "Knocked Up" here.  "This is 40" more closely resembles the Apatow of "Funny People," the Adam Sandler-Seth Rogen-Leslie Mann film which was similarly uneven and bloated in length (146 minutes).  There are the ingredients of a funny film in here, but Apatow (or someone) must reign in his tendencies to throw so much at an audience.  There are stretches without laughter and multiple punchlines that miss the mark.  I repeat, there is a funny movie here, somewhere, in the struggle of a couple adjusting to entering their forties and in small, heartfelt scenes with their children.  I loved seeing Mann dance with her children or Rudd sneak cupcakes.  Similarly, more could have been done with winning trainer Jason Segal or record store employee Lena Dunham, given nearly nothing to do.

But amidst long artfully filmed bicycle rides, tone deaf financial problems (If you're struggling with the bills, might I suggest not catering a birthday party like it was a wedding, not driving a Lexus and a BMW, and not buying boxes of Crave cupcakes?), and a nonsensical subplot involving fraud, the movie distracts itself from its own premise.  Rudd and Mann can shine if given good writing, believable conflict, and time onscreen together.  Both impress at times in this film.  However, there are too many writer-heavy preachy moments that ring false in this film.  Maybe, despite how much it might hurt, removing the subplots of her trainer, his job, and both of their parents (floundering work by Albert Brooks and confusion from John Lithgow) could have streamlined this story and improved it.

There are laughs and moments of silliness.  I just think that everyone assembled can do better.  Judd Apatow has made four movies, two of them that work.  I am inclined to give him another chance.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

There Will Be Blood: It's a Quentin Tarantino film.

Movie Review: Django Unchained

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Reviewed: 1 January 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Going to see a QT film is an event for me.  No modern director looms as large as QT in my cinematic consciousness, and I expect more from a Tarantino film than from any other kind of film.  In the early nineties, I discovered "Reservoir Dogs" through audio clips of Harvey Keitel and Michael Madsen spouting nasty dialogue as it was played by Jay Marvin on his WLS Chicago AM talk radio program.  After renting "Reservoir Dogs" on VHS from Nu-Time Video in ninth grade, I bought the soundtrack and memorized the film's speeches.  I think I was struck then by the music and the profanity, the assuredness of stories well-told by great actors.  In eleventh grade instead of going to the Homecoming Dance, my friend Ed and I went to the Yorktown Theater to see "Pulp Fiction" on opening weekend, and its viewing remains a turning point for my film education.  The fall of 1994 was the moment when film exploded with possibilities and I began wanting to know more.  It was when the fingerprint of a director, an auteur, became worth knowing and more important for me than the actors involved.  I took a film class the next semester and jumped into David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, and Alfred Hitchcock.  And for me, Tarantino is one of my guides, pushing me to study his films and examine why I loved them.  I have seen every Tarantino film in order, and post-"Reservoir Dogs" all have been seen in the theater.  "Pulp Fiction" was seen many times, and then "Jackie Brown" on opening day one Christmas in college, and then "Kill Bill, Volume 1," which felt incomplete without "Kill Bill, Volume 2," followed by "Death Proof" and the audacious "Inglorious Basterds."

And now we come to his eighth film, "Django Unchained."

"Django Unchained" offers one of the most unique and disturbing stories of this year and it has to be considered as one of the year's best.  German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) frees slave Django (Jaime Foxx) in order to help him hunt down and kill people for money.  Schultz needs Django's knowledge of slavers and partners with him in exchange for agreeing to help locate Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of the infamous Candyland plantation in Mississippi, site of vicious mandingo fighting.  So, Tarantino's film is a western revenge film.  A freed slave with deadly accuracy unites with the silver-tongued wordsmith (and phenomenally fast draw), and they make their way across the South, posing as slavers to secure the confidence of Candie and rescue Broomhilda.

My initial impression is that "Django Unchained" contains all the exhilaration and daring expected of a Tarantino film with strong performances from the taciturn Foxx, the garrulous Waltz, and the mannered DiCaprio.  DiCaprio in particular is a marvel as the nefarious slave owner whose evil is belied with his hand gestures, codes of civility, and fastidious dress.  I liked seeing him deliver Tarantino's dialogue.  Stalwart and five-time Tarantino film veteran Samuel L. Jackson plays a minor role to the hilt, and supporting actors are each memorable in small sequences.  There is comedy (in particular, a scene of a nighttime raid) that works, though most of the film is not what I would describe as either fun or funny.

I have never seen slavery depicted in film beyond the horrible whipping scenes in "Glory" in 1989.  I've read nearly all of William Faulkner's Mississippi with its post-Civil War defeated culture.  I've seen Griffith's haunting "Birth of a Nation."  However, I was unprepared for the depiction of a fully functional Southern plantation in the middle of this film.  It is not just for its viciousness and cruelty (which there is certainly enough of, and the sight of a person being whipped seems more violent and disturbing than ever).  And it is not just the history of seeing actors standing and playing roles in the same spaces that served as actual plantations less than two hundred years ago.  It was that brutality juxtaposed with gentility.  There is something despicable and haunting about seeing manners, fastidious dress, and fine dinner service contrasted with the horrors of slavery: the subjugating of human beings,  the separation of lovers, the description of men and women as show ponies.  Well-dressed ladies and gentlemen drink tea and lemonade and engage in civilities while a human being is kept in a metal hotbox out in the scorching Mississippi sun.

Tarantino's camera zooms in quickly on characters' faces, showing quick reaction shots in a manner which must be alluding to a particular film or style that I do not know.  He continues his penchant for structuring his film in chapters and lovingly draping music throughout.  A James Brown & 2Pac song was a highlight for me.  Tarantino's script, at first glance, seems to be his weakest with a blood-soaked final third where style at times can overwhelm story. Waltz has a lovely moment of crisis late in the film, and the story is simply weaker when Waltz is not onscreen.  Kerry Washington's Broomhilda needed more to do.  Not every strand of the story pulls together or works.  And yet, in signature Tarantino style, I could watch all of his characters interact for a ten hour movie instead of a nearly three hour one.  The man knows how to craft story and character.

There are haunting moments from "Django Unchained" that will never leave me.  The close-up shots on Waltz's face as he flashes back to a horrific violent incident and seems to settle his mind upon a course of action.  The wearing of medieval slave masks and the barbarity of torture.  The spooky masked riders appearing over the edge of a hill at night.  Dr. Schultz's use of a ruler to level off a beer drawn from the saloon.  The blood-sprayed cotton plant.   There are the speeches that Tarantino's characters are known for giving, and there's an astounding amount of blood-splattering violence (Ed Mattis calls it "Gallagher-esque" which seems quite right to me).  Nothing in the avalanche of gunfire in the film's final third compares with two earlier sequences of violence (one never shown fully shown as two slaves grapple brutally inside of an elegant plantation parlor within feet of Candie as he comments on the action and coaches; one occurring in the forests surrounding Candyland as he metes out barbaric punishment to a runaway slave.  Both sequences are stomach-turning, eye-closing, and difficult to watch.  And necessary.  Tarantino is infusing a deeply American story and iconography (the western revenge saga, the cowboy tale) with its blood-soaked roots, yet still retaining his flair for visual power and the power of violence, both seen and unseen.  A shot of white cotton plants sprayed in one character's blood occurs mid-film and seems a signature shot to me.  There was always blood on that cotton plant, whether we see it or chose not to see it.

Later in the film, when Candie notes Schultz's squeamishness at one of the aforementioned violent acts, Django utters something about Dr. Schultz "not being as used to America as I am" which cuts to the heart of this film.  No audience could be prepared for "Django Unchained," and Tarantino's mastery over his art takes us to dark, unseen places in American culture and history.  The film is a significant achievement.