Archive | June, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

27 Jun

zero dark thirty

 

 

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Writer: Mark Boal

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 157 minutes

 

Zero Dark Thirty is the award winning film of the hunt for Osama bin Laden (OBL) from the award winning director Kathryn Bigelow. The film and manhunt start with the 2001 terrorist atrocity in New York and end with the 2011 raid on the compound in Abbottabad in northern Pakistan. The opening phone recordings of people trapped in the twin towers are distressing. That the film jumps straight to a black site where a CIA operative is engaged in water boarding a prisoner is telling.

The film-makers are clearly keen to try and debate the subjects of rendition and torture, but ultimately fail to do so as they simply don’t commit to a position. Later in the film a CIA man complains that since they ‘scrapped the detainee program’ they cannot confirm if OBL is in Abbottabad. He feels that holding and interrogating detainees is critical to success in the so-called war on terror, but what do the film-makers think?

The central character of this movie is Maya (played by Jessica Chastain). It is her crusade to locate and kill OBL that drives the film forward. Most of her CIA colleagues lose interest, but she is obsessed and consumed by the hunt. Why that is the case is not clear, but the brief glimpses of Maya’s non-military life reveal a woman with little else to fill her time. She is a loner and she is socially inept. That is not enough to flesh out the character and a flaw with the film is the ambiguous and flat aspect to Maya’s personality, especially when compared to the far more interesting Dan (played by Jason Clarke).

Another flaw is the length and pacing of the film. It is brutally long at 157 minutes and it cannot sustain that duration. Why pad out a film where everyone knows the ending? I got the feeling that Kathryn Bigelow was so excited by her access to participants of the manhunt that she got carried away retelling the story. Certainly there is no need for the endless array of situation room briefings, debriefings, meetings and planning sessions in which operatives mumble away at each other in hard to fathom CIA speak. Talk is quick, elliptical and strictly for insiders. That might be highly authentic, but it does little for the audience.

There are a few positive aspects to this film such as the raid on OBL’s compound. That is a very well-conceived and tense segment with excellent use of night vision. Jason Clarke as Dan is very good and there are good cameos later on from Mark Strong and James Gandolfini. Unfortunately, that is not enough to redeem the film. It sidesteps the serious subject of the role of detaining and torturing prisoners and the central character of Maya is far too opaque. Those are big flaws and I am surprised that Bigelow missed them. Why, after all, did she make the film?

Gangster Squad

23 Jun

gangster squad

 

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Writers: Will Beall, Paul Lieberman (book)

Stars: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 113 minutes

 

Los Angeles either side of WWII was a city in flux and seemingly a hotbed of conflicted police officers, femme fatales and gangsters. Great books and films have focused on LA’s growing pains before and after the war including Chinatown and LA Confidential. Crime and noir are the most synonymous genres as propagated by Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, and Jonathan Kellerman etc. There is a dark heart to Los Angeles and plenty of folkloric tales to mine for fictional gold. I have mostly lapped it up and count those films and those writers as firm favourites.

Unfortunately, this movie is not worthy enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Chinatown and LA Confidential. There is a San Fernando Valley sized gulf between them. That’s possibly an overly harsh criticism as I’m sure that the film-makers had much lower ambitions. However, LA has produced such great gangster inspired books and films that you cannot be complacent or arrogant and it’s those traits that mostly affect this insipid effort. Great gangster stories are engrossing and complex. The characters are hard to pigeon hole and the plots twist and turn around themes of greed, ambition, jealousy and fear. Chandler, Ellroy and Kellerman run the gamut and deliver in spades. Go read them and don’t bother with this.

Sean Penn, so caked in make-up that he resembles Al Pacino from the 1990 Dick Tracy, plays mobster Mickey Cohen. He is taking over LA and that wrangles with renegade cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin). Cohen is a sociopathic megalomaniac. He rules with an iron fist and has the LAPD in his back pocket. It forces Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to turn to O’Mara and a small team of hand-picked cops to bring Cohen down. That team are incorruptible or untouchable IE this is The Untouchables moved from Chicago to LA.

Penn huffs and puffs, but never convinces in the way that De Niro did as Al Capone. Elsewhere Brolin proves that he is not a leading man and that the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men was a superb anomaly. Behind those two Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone simply look miscast and their scenes together could easily be from a whole different movie. The film is a mess and the budget must have been spent on the actors as there are too few locations too many night scenes (with indistinguishable dialogue). This is a gangster film for the 15 – 21 year old market, but even so it serves that open-minded audience very poorly indeed.

Movie 43

16 Jun

movie 43

 

 

Directors: Bob Odenkirk, Elizabeth Banks, 11 more credits

Writers: Rocky Russo, Jeremy Sosenko, 28 more credits

Stars: Liev Schreiber, Emma Stone, Richard Gere

Motion Picture Rating: R

Runtime: 90 minutes

 

Actors are a notoriously fickle group. Many seek approval if not adoration from their audience and once obtained can too readily lose their grasp of reality. Even if they start out with ego nicely in check the approval, adoration and applause goes to the head and causes them to forget who they are, what they do and where they started from. It is why some turn to alternative therapies and cults, others decide that they can save the planet and / or third world orphans and it is why Russell Crowe thought that he could sing in Les Miserables. It’s hubris. It’s being surrounded by an entourage. It’s the blinkered view of the world that delivers vanity projects such as Movie 43.

This so bad it hurts film is advertised as having ‘the biggest cast ever assembled’. Along with that highly debatable claim the film-makers describe the ensuing carnage as epic, jaw-dropping and side-splitting. Wild claims indeed. There are various stars assembled as per writers and directors, but the movie that they deliver is a huge failure and a classic vanity project. This one contains 8 or 9 unconnected episodes that run for about 10 minutes each. Within them the likes of Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Emma Stone, Richard Gere, Naomi Watts, Halle Berry and Gerard Butler embarrass themselves.

I don’t know the origins of this trash, but the various episodes seem like outtakes from other films, inside Hollywood anecdotes or bad bar jokes. There is very little here that is original and most of the episodes are childish, low brow and insulting. I laughed once or twice in the home schooling segment featuring Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber, but that was about it. Episodes with makeshift tampons, mangled dicks and violent leprechauns did make my jaw drop, but not in a good way. The only reason why such big name stars got involved has to be hubris and vanity – the type that convinces them that they too can get down with the kids and make a gross-out comedy.

Warm Bodies

9 Jun

warm bodies

 

Director: Jonathan Levine

Writers: Jonathan Levine (screenplay), Isaac Marion (novel)

Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 98 minutes

 

 

This one feels like a first; a zombie rom-com (with the rather clever tagline ‘Boy meets, and doesn’t eat, the girl’). In a movie landscape blotted with zombie films, such as Zombieland, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and the Resident Evil franchise, at least the film-makers on this one have tried to put some heart into the undead. It is a worthy effort and there is a fair amount of charm on display as well as some romance and a little comedy.

Nicholas Hoult plays an atypical zombie called R. He might be a part of the apocalyptic walking dead, but he retains a young man’s angst. His opening voiceover is funny and telling as he asks “What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible”. It is tongue in cheek stuff and rather refreshing. Hoult is actually a fairly charming zombie and it’s not long before he saves the life of and starts to fall for a beautiful young woman called Julie (played nicely by Teresa Palmer).

The thrust of Warm Bodies is that we all need to make a connection, however far off the tracks we might have veered. Zombie R makes his connection with Julie and thereafter starts to transform from shuffling flesh-eater to likeable young man. And his epiphany starts to affect the other zombies with whom he shares a derelict airport. The central romance acts as a type of cure for all, but the very far gone zombies called bonies due to their skeletal form.

The central premise here is good and the acting is fine. There is a good soundtrack too. Sadly there are not enough laughs so the ‘rom’ is much more effective than the ‘com’. It is cute and it has charm, but this is a small film and it does not do enough with the original idea. In hindsight this might have made a better TV movie or even a TV series much like Buffy. As a movie it is a little under-powered and that’s a pity as I wanted to like it more.

Life of Pi

6 Jun

life of pi

 

Director: Ang Lee

Writers: Yann Martel (novel), David Magee (screenplay)

Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain

Motion Picture Rating: PG

Runtime: 127 minutes

 

I knew about the castaway Indian boy in the lifeboat with the Bengal tiger. I remembered the book by Yann Martel although I had never read it. The film trailer caught my eye, but I did not see Ang Lee’s Oscar winner at the cinema. Something held me back from the Life of Pi. I was partly worried about overdosing on cod philosophy and whimsy – too many quaint Indian proverbs, ruminations on God and the like. I also struggled with the idea that lifeboat plus boy plus tiger could hold my attention for 200 pages or for 2 hours. In hindsight, I was wrong.

The start to this film, that tracks the early days of lead character Pi, is quirky in that Jean-Pierre Jeunet way. Think Amelie of the East India Company and you’re almost there. It is sweetly innocent and well shot and acts as a nice preamble to the main event. We also get our first glimpse of the CGI animals that inhabit the zoo of Pi’s family and it is immediately clear that the computer designers and animators are on very rare form.

The CGI work in this film is what sets it apart. The huge number of programmers and technicians has collectively delivered a wonderful spectacle and a work of art. It is stunning to look at. The storm and the capsize of the cargo ship, that forces Pi on to that lifeboat, are breath-taking pieces of cinema. As 90% or more of the film was shot against blue screens, and in one large indoor tank, the goals of the film-makers seem reckless and yet their achievements are truly something to behold. There are many beautiful and fantastic shots in the film and the final ‘storm of God’ is both moving and draining (in keeping with Pi’s journey).

Whilst I was awed by the spectacle of Life of Pi and kept entertained by it, I have a few minor criticisms. There is definitely a lull in proceedings for ca. 20 minutes around half-way. Also, the 3D element, that requires contrived set-ups to be engineered whereby animals often jump towards camera, is annoying. I thoroughly enjoyed my 2D experience and do not understand why Ang Lee felt that he had to add 3D to the already complex mix.

Suraj Sharma playing Pi is wonderful. How he managed to act so convincingly against blue screens and on his own in that tank dumfounds me somewhat. He carries the film on his slim shoulders and along with the technicians makes you forget that the tiger and other animals are computer generated. It is another achievement in a rightly lauded film. The story is simple, probably a little too like an Aesop fable for its own good, but the eventual questions raised, about the importance of any form of belief, are actually handled with restraint. Unsurprisingly for an Ang Lee film this Life of Pi is a beautiful, charming and captivating piece of work.

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