Movie Project #2: Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]
Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/History
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, Ray Wise
Running Time: 93 minutes

Good Night, and Good Luck takes us back to darker times in the United States, specifically the 1950s when the fear of Communism was running wild. The notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy only added to the hysteria by claiming that large numbers of Soviet spies had infiltrated the U.S. Government. This led to anyone with any connection to Communism, no matter how minute (or even non-existant), getting shunned by those in charge. Who knows what would have happened if CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow didn’t call him out on his bullshit?

George Clooney’s second directorial effort tells the story of this very public feud between Murrow (David Strathairn) and McCarthy. Murrow first targets the senator’s unlawful attack against Milo Radulovich, a Michigan man who was forced to resign from the US Air Force merely because his father subscribed to a Serbian newspaper. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as the trial of Annie Lee Moss, an alleged spy inside the Pentagon, makes the news. Soon McCarthy is attacking Murrow directly, making false accusations about the newscaster being a past member of a communist organization.

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

To Murrow’s credit, he is able to remain calm and level-headed even as he is knee-deep in McCarthy’s pile of lies. He is especially impressive in how he is able to convince his superiors — those who risk damaging certain professional relationships — to stick with him as he fights back against the delusional anti-Communism parade. His rational and sensible demeanor is expertly portrayed by David Strathairn, who got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance.

While much of the focus is on Murrow and McCarthy (the latter of whom is only seen in archival footage), there are two other subplots involving those within CBS. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play a married couple who are forced to keep their relationship secret due to laws within the company. Also, Ray Wise plays Don Hollenbeck, the host of the CBS News show that follows Murrow, as he struggles to deal with an often slanderous press. The latter storyline fits in perfectly with the overarching theme of the film, but the RDJ/Clarkson subplot received perhaps a bit too much attention. The film is relatively short — just 93 minutes — and it almost feels like their story arc was included to pad things out a bit. The rest of the newsroom is fleshed out with small, but crucial performances from the likes of Clooney himself, Frank Langella and Jeff Daniels.

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

The film is authentic in its approach, with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography interspersed with actual news footage from the era. This provides an almost documentary-like feel to the proceedings, adding even more to the immersion into that era. You can almost smell the smoke-tinged air as everyone puffs away at their Kent-branded cigarettes. For the realism alone, the film succeeds.

It’s said that history repeats itself. Perhaps in 40-50 years, we’ll get another film of a similar nature, this time documenting the frenzy caused by the National Security Agency’s breach of privacy that is happening today. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need an Edward R. Murrow.

8/10

Movie Project #2: Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]
Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/History
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, Ray Wise
Running Time: 93 minutes

Good Night, and Good Luck takes us back to darker times in the United States, specifically the 1950s when the fear of Communism was running wild. The notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy only added to the hysteria by claiming that large numbers of Soviet spies had infiltrated the U.S. Government. This led to anyone with any connection to Communism, no matter how minute (or even non-existant), getting shunned by those in charge. Who knows what would have happened if CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow didn’t call him out on his bullshit?

George Clooney’s second directorial effort tells the story of this very public feud between Murrow (David Strathairn) and McCarthy. Murrow first targets the senator’s unlawful attack against Milo Radulovich, a Michigan man who was forced to resign from the US Air Force merely because his father subscribed to a Serbian newspaper. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as the trial of Annie Lee Moss, an alleged spy inside the Pentagon, makes the news. Soon McCarthy is attacking Murrow directly, making false accusations about the newscaster being a past member of a communist organization.

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

To Murrow’s credit, he is able to remain calm and level-headed even as he is knee-deep in McCarthy’s pile of lies. He is especially impressive in how he is able to convince his superiors — those who risk damaging certain professional relationships — to stick with him as he fights back against the delusional anti-Communism parade. His rational and sensible demeanor is expertly portrayed by David Strathairn, who got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance.

While much of the focus is on Murrow and McCarthy (the latter of whom is only seen in archival footage), there are two other subplots involving those within CBS. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play a married couple who are forced to keep their relationship secret due to laws within the company. Also, Ray Wise plays Don Hollenbeck, the host of the CBS News show that follows Murrow, as he struggles to deal with an often slanderous press. The latter storyline fits in perfectly with the overarching theme of the film, but the RDJ/Clarkson subplot received perhaps a bit too much attention. The film is relatively short — just 93 minutes — and it almost feels like their story arc was included to pad things out a bit. The rest of the newsroom is fleshed out with small, but crucial performances from the likes of Clooney himself, Frank Langella and Jeff Daniels.

Good Night, and Good Luck. [2005]

The film is authentic in its approach, with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography interspersed with actual news footage from the era. This provides an almost documentary-like feel to the proceedings, adding even more to the immersion into that era. You can almost smell the smoke-tinged air as everyone puffs away at their Kent-branded cigarettes. For the realism alone, the film succeeds.

It’s said that history repeats itself. Perhaps in 40-50 years, we’ll get another film of a similar nature, this time documenting the frenzy caused by the National Security Agency’s breach of privacy that is happening today. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need an Edward R. Murrow.

8/10

Movie Project #47: The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writers: Joseph Delteil, Carl Theodor Dreyer
Country: France
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley
Running Time: 82 minutes

During this year’s 50 Movies Project, I have seen a number of great films, many of which I would now even consider among my favorites. None of these, however, could have prepared me for the experience of watching the 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, for the first time.

Before watching this highly-regarded Carl Theodor Dreyer classic, I knew very little of the true Joan of Arc story. This was something that I never learned in school or had even heard of until I was much older. Yet it resonated with me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

The film focuses on the trial of Joan of Arc, a 19-year-old French maiden who, claiming divine guidance, led the French army against England during the Hundred Years’ War. After being captured by a group of French who remained loyal to England, she is put on trial for charges of heresy. Unable to get a confession out of Joan, the English bishops begin to ridicule and torture her. This does not prove effective, however, as Joan is adamant about her visions and guidance from God. Claiming charges of “insubordination and heterodoxy”, the English eventually tie her to a stake and horrifically burn her alive.

The on-screen proceedings are based on the actual trial documents, and this fact only adds to the emotional experience provided by the film. The way Joan is treated by what is essentially a group of old, bald, white guys that represent the Church is absolutely disgusting. She is mocked and treated cruelly by most involved, and the actual execution is presented as if it were a circus (complete with carnival performers and men on stilts). In fact, it is not until Joan is literally burning at the stake that the townspeople cause a ruckus. I know the world was significantly different in the 15th century (obviously), but it’s just baffling that something like this could even happen.

The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]

Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan of Arc is widely considered to be one of the best of all time, and I’m not even going to try to argue that point. Her facial expressions, often shown through Dreyer’s extreme close-ups, will haunt you for days. Legends state that Falconetti was legitimately treated harshly on set, being forced to kneel on hard stone for hours at a time in an effort to provoke genuine emotion out of her. Perhaps this treatment is why she never starred in another film after this; a shame, too, given her flawlessness here.

Quite frankly, The Passion of Joan of Arc completely blew me away. I had my reservations about watching a silent film that would appear to be dialogue-heavy, but I was transfixed from the very first scene. The version I watched was the one Dreyer intended, meaning that it was completely silent — no orchestra or score to speak of. This added to the intensity on screen, but I would love to watch this again someday with one of the acclaimed scores created afterward. Almost 100 years later, this film remains startingly effective.

10/10

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes

No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s latest effort unflinchingly shows the horrific atrocities of slavery in the southern United States. In 1841, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist, he is offered the chance to go on tour with a band in a traveling circus. However, this turns out to be a ruse, as Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery during a night out in Washington DC.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Forced to use a new name, “Platt”, Northrup is now treated as if he were a piece of property, being traded among multiple owners. His pleas describing how he is actually a free man fall on deaf ears. His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), appears to have a slight bit of compassion, but make no mistake: he’s still a slaver. An incident on the plantation prompts Ford to send Northrup away to the only other owner who will take him: the brutally violent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). From there, Solomon’s plight only gets worse.

Epps essentially serves as the film’s main villain, a drunken, religious nutjob with a tough wife (Sarah Paulson) and an obsession with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). If any of his slaves fail to meet his daily quota in terms of cotton picked, they are taken out back and whipped over and over again. Both Northrup and Patsey feel the rage of Epps, and these moments make up some of the film’s most disturbing scenes.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

By all means, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult watch. McQueen is relentless in exposing us to the heinous reality of slavery, particularly through his signature long takes. One of the most uncomfortable examples of this involves an unhinged Paul Dano (playing a plantation overseer) beating Northrup repeatedly before proceeding to hang him from a tree. Although Dano’s character is forced to stop, nonetheless Northrup is still left hanging, with just the tips of his toes able to support him on the ground. It’s a disgusting sequence, and McQueen makes sure to show us damn near every minute of it.

By the end of the film, I was a wreck. I was so angry at what was happening on screen, and it made me sit down and start to reflect on my country. Although legal slavery in the U.S. and the subsequent Civil War happened 150+ years ago, that’s really not all that long ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that this happened at all, let alone in the not-so-distant past. I felt like I was put through the wringer, and chances are most will feel this same way.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Everyone involved with this film is in top form here. Ejiofor is sure to get endless acclaim during awards season, and any accolades are well-deserved. I can’t think of a better leading man for this role. Fassbender is terrifying and unpredictable as a sadistic slave owner, further cementing his status as one of the best in the business right now. The supporting cast, which consists of such big names as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, all turn in noteworthy performances, but special mention must be made of two of the most prominent women in the film: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Paulson is the perfect counterpart as Fassbender’s wife, driven by her intense jealousy, and frightening in her own way. Nyong’o, in her first feature film, is given some of the worst treatment, but she is more than up to the task. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the near future.

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films I have seen in some time. Not only is it the best 2013 film I have seen this year, it is the best film I have seen all year, period. It’s often a difficult watch, but it absolutely must be seen.

10/10

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes

No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s latest effort unflinchingly shows the horrific atrocities of slavery in the southern United States. In 1841, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist, he is offered the chance to go on tour with a band in a traveling circus. However, this turns out to be a ruse, as Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery during a night out in Washington DC.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Forced to use a new name, “Platt”, Northrup is now treated as if he were a piece of property, being traded among multiple owners. His pleas describing how he is actually a free man fall on deaf ears. His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), appears to have a slight bit of compassion, but make no mistake: he’s still a slaver. An incident on the plantation prompts Ford to send Northrup away to the only other owner who will take him: the brutally violent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). From there, Solomon’s plight only gets worse.

Epps essentially serves as the film’s main villain, a drunken, religious nutjob with a tough wife (Sarah Paulson) and an obsession with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). If any of his slaves fail to meet his daily quota in terms of cotton picked, they are taken out back and whipped over and over again. Both Northrup and Patsey feel the rage of Epps, and these moments make up some of the film’s most disturbing scenes.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

By all means, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult watch. McQueen is relentless in exposing us to the heinous reality of slavery, particularly through his signature long takes. One of the most uncomfortable examples of this involves an unhinged Paul Dano (playing a plantation overseer) beating Northrup repeatedly before proceeding to hang him from a tree. Although Dano’s character is forced to stop, nonetheless Northrup is still left hanging, with just the tips of his toes able to support him on the ground. It’s a disgusting sequence, and McQueen makes sure to show us damn near every minute of it.

By the end of the film, I was a wreck. I was so angry at what was happening on screen, and it made me sit down and start to reflect on my country. Although legal slavery in the U.S. and the subsequent Civil War happened 150+ years ago, that’s really not all that long ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that this happened at all, let alone in the not-so-distant past. I felt like I was put through the wringer, and chances are most will feel this same way.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Everyone involved with this film is in top form here. Ejiofor is sure to get endless acclaim during awards season, and any accolades are well-deserved. I can’t think of a better leading man for this role. Fassbender is terrifying and unpredictable as a sadistic slave owner, further cementing his status as one of the best in the business right now. The supporting cast, which consists of such big names as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, all turn in noteworthy performances, but special mention must be made of two of the most prominent women in the film: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Paulson is the perfect counterpart as Fassbender’s wife, driven by her intense jealousy, and frightening in her own way. Nyong’o, in her first feature film, is given some of the worst treatment, but she is more than up to the task. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the near future.

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films I have seen in some time. Not only is it the best 2013 film I have seen this year, it is the best film I have seen all year, period. It’s often a difficult watch, but it absolutely must be seen.

10/10

Movie Project #29: All the President’s Men [1976]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

All the President's Men [1976]

All the President’s Men [1976]
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writers: Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward (book), William Goldman (screenplay)
Country: USA
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards
Running Time: 138 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is considered one of the greatest journalism films of all time, as well as one of the best from the 1970s.

Accolades: Won four Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor), nominated for four other Oscars (including Best Picture), 10 BAFTA nominations, National Film Registry, AFI’s 100 Cheers, 100 Thrills and 100 Movies lists

All the President’s Men is film that focuses entirely on one story: the investigation of the earth-shattering Watergate scandal. Everything else is trivial.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are assigned to cover what appears to be a relatively unimportant news story: the burglarization of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. When it is revealed that the men — all of whom had CIA ties — had bugging equipment, it’s clear that there is more to this than meets the eye. What follows is some truly incredible journalism work, as Woodward and Bernstein go down every single possible route in order to unearth more information about this political scandal.

The two reporters call anyone and everyone who knows the men related to the scandal, they go door-to-door in hopes of securing interviews, and they search through public records, trying to find any little shrivel of information that may break their case wide open. Their attention to detail is absolutely incredible, and their persistence is admirable. Most journalists would have likely given up after reaching a dead end or two; for Woodward and Bernstein, that was even more motivation to keep going.

All the President's Men [1976]

A vital part of the story’s breakthrough comes from the mysterious figure known as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook). This anonymous source, a senior government official, agrees to help Woodward, but only by meeting privately in an unlit parking garage. He seems to only drop hints here and there, but having an inside source is just the ticket needed to keep pushing through.

Eventually, through meticulous piecework, the two journalists are able to bust the case open, discovering a massive governmental scandal that runs far deeper than anyone might have guessed. Of course, as they say, the rest is history, with this scandal later culminating in President Nixon’s resignation.

All the President's Men [1976]

What’s most impressive about All the President’s Men is that it focuses almost entirely on this procedural gruntwork, yet it manages to remain gripping throughout. This is a political thriller where the outcome is well known, but there are still times where it’s easy to second guess what might happen. This is a testament to the excellent script, as well as the strong performances from Redford and Hoffman. These two men effortlessly gel into their roles, making them feel like bona fide newspaper reporters. Not once do they feel like actors playing journalists; they *are* the journalists. Special mention must be made of Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his terrific supporting role as Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Post. Bradlee trusts his reporters, but he demands absolute thoroughness before their stories can hit the front page.

Now, as well-written as the film is, it can still be difficult to keep up with the investigation. Many, many names are dropped, and dozens of people are interviewed and/or called. With so many people involved, it is a bit of a struggle to tell them apart — only the important figures truly stand out.

Still, All the President’s Men is a momentous piece of filmmaking. It is especially enlightening today, as a whole new generation can look back and learn about one of the most significant news stories in our nation’s history. Watergate was a bit before my time, so I was shocked to learn just how deep the buggings ran. For its historical importance alone, this is a film that begs to be seen today, and it should be mandatory viewing in school.

8/10

Movie Project #3: The Battle of Algiers [1966]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

The Battle of Algiers [1966]
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Genre: Crime/Drama/History/War
Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi
Running Time: 121 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is considered one of the greatest and most important war/political films ever made.

Accolades: Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival, three Oscar nominations in two separate years (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay), ranked #6 in Empire magazine’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema

It’s rare to find a war film that doesn’t pledge its allegiance to one side of the battle. In the U.S., we are so accustomed to films that either act as tributes to our soldiers, or those that paint us as bloodthirsty warmongers. There is usually no middle ground.

The Battle of Algiers has no commitment to either of the two sides it shows at war, and that’s what makes it so refreshing and still relevant.

The film acts as a capsule of the Algerian War (1954-62) between native Algerians and its French colonists, with the greatest emphasis placed on the Battle of Algiers. This is a war I knew nothing about, but the film does a good job getting viewers up to speed. The first half of the movie follows along with the urban guerrilla tactics of the insurgents in the National Liberation Front (FLN). Their goal is simple: they want their freedom back, and they will do anything to get it.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

Many of the acts of the FLN could be considered flat-out terrorism. There is one particularly gripping scene in which a trio of Algerian women get haircuts and ditch their traditional garb in order to casually stroll past the French checkpoints in their city. Once through, each woman obtains a bomb, heads to a populated area and leaves their purse — containing the bomb — behind in a hidden location. The destruction is horrifying and we are there to see it all — the effects are made worse due to the fact that we are shown shots of people sitting down, eating, talking, basically not knowing that they are living the last moments of their lives. The shot of a little boy eating ice cream slayed me.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

With the FLN it’s all or nothing, and while we can empathize with their request for freedom, we sure as hell can’t sympathize with their terrorist actions.

The second half of the film focuses on the French army paratroopers who are sent in to find and kill all of those active in the FLN. This group of elite soldiers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), are there to do their job, nothing more, nothing less. Their tactics are as ruthless as the rebels — torture, assassinations and lynch mobs are just some of the Draconian methods they use. Their method is to systematically take down the movement, one-by-one, before ultimately reaching the head of the group.

The Battle of Algiers [1966]

The Battle of Algiers is shot documentary-style, making the presentation even more effective. While everything is staged, certain scenes could easily pass as news reel footage. Director Gillo Pontecorvo made sure to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating that this was shot live. The cast is composed of almost entirely unknowns, with Jean Martin being the only professional actor in the bunch. As such, there is little in the way of character development; instead, Pontecorvo relies on the war itself to tell the story. We know some of the participants in the revolution (the actual insurgent, Saadi Yacef, even plays someone loosely based on himself), but they are bit players in the grand scheme of things. This is a battle between two nations.

The influence of The Battle of Algiers is still widely present today. In 2003, during the beginning of the Iraq War, the film was screened for Pentagon employees. In the late 60s, it was mandatory viewing for Black Panthers. The film is perhaps most relevant today, given the recent Arab uprisings in Egypt, Libya and other countries. This is one that has stood the test of time, and will almost certainly continue to do so.

9/10

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writers: Mark Boal
Genre: Drama/History/Thriller
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt
Running Time: 157 minutes

When Osama Bin Laden was killed by American forces a year and a half ago, a movie release was inevitable. How could Hollywood pass up such a juicy story as the hunt for the man responsible for the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans? Although such a film was expected, it was still a surprise to see it released the very next year. Even more shocking is that it is a damn good film getting all sorts of Oscar buzz, although it certainly helps to have the talented Kathryn Bigelow at the helm.

Zero Dark Thirty begins in 2003 with the introduction of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who has been reassigned to work at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. She is teamed up with Dan (Jason Clarke), a fellow officer who has been interrogating detainees as to the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden (“UBL”) and other Al-Qaeda terrorists. As this is the early 2000s and during the Bush administration, this involves gratuitous torture, much of which we are there to witness. In fact, many have deemed these scenes to be controversial, some stating that they glorify torture. I don’t see it that way, as none of the interrogators are actually enjoying the torture, especially not Maya, who seems startled by it at first. It’s also hard to say just how much the torture helped in the hunt to find Bin Laden — it’s not like the only helpful information came from those who were abused. But I digress.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

A few years later, Maya has her eyes on a well-concealed man known as Abu Ahmed. She is determined to find him, whose whereabouts are unknown according to every detainee she talks to. Others involved in the CIA, including the top chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), tell her she is wasting her time. Yet Maya is anything if not persistent.

It’s a long paper trail to Osama Bin Laden, and when the CIA finally believes to have discovered his location, they are anything but certain. Everyone involved have varying levels of confidence as to whether or not “UBL” is in the targeted compound, and there is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not they should go through with the raid. Of course, we all know how this plays out, but it’s still fascinating to watch as we follow the breadcrumbs leading to the world’s most wanted fugitive.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

While many are bound to praise the scene during the final raid inside Bin Laden’s fortress, I found the thrill of the hunt to be far more enthralling. I only vaguely remembered hearing about some of the “smaller” terrorists attacks over the years, and it was quite stunning to see them reenacted on screen. Watching Maya piece together every lead or hint she found became an intriguing process, even if the end result was known.

Perhaps most interesting is that the film focuses so heavily on a female’s perspective. I was not aware that Maya (or rather, her real-life counterpart) had such a crucial role in the pursuit of Bin Laden, and without her persistence it’s hard to say whether he would still be alive. The role of Maya is played admirably by Jessica Chastain, who continues to rise to the occasion with every new role she takes. Maya’s progression (or rather, deterioration?) over the last decade is remarkable, as she toughens up with every attack, even becoming a bona fide badass by the end.

The rest of the cast is impressive as expected, another who’s who of great character actors. Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler have important roles in the CIA, the former of which caught my eye as someone I hadn’t even heard of before. Familiar faces such as James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle and even Mark Duplass all make welcome appearances, each playing a small, but important part in the film.

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

While Zero Dark Thirty succeeds in many areas, I am a little surprised by the overwhelming praise surrounding it. The film’s running time — nearly three hours — could have used a little trimming, and the final raid was surprisingly anticlimactic. It’s kind of amazing that the operation had so many mistakes and yet the mission was still accomplished; however, this is well-known information and still fresh in the mind. Perhaps with a few years perspective, this could have been more riveting.

Regardless, I rather enjoyed the film overall, and any reservations I have had are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Bigelow has been on a roll lately, and it will be interesting to see where she goes next.

8/10

Movie Project #19: Paths of Glory [1957]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Paths of Glory [1957]

Paths of Glory [1957]
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Genre: Drama/History/War
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready
Runtime: 88 minutes

War is hell. I don’t know if there is a director that has illustrated this better than Stanley Kubrick. His 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove, was a pitch black comedy that satirized the Cold War, and 1987’s Full Metal Jacket disturbingly portrayed the dehumanization of soldiers during the Vietnam War. With Paths of Glory, Kubrick shows us how those doing the actual fighting are just pawns in the grand scheme of combat.

Set during World War I, Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, a commanding officer in the French Army who is ordered by his superiors to embark on a “suicide mission” to take over the German position known as the Anthill. His superiors, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and General Mireau (George Macready), know the attack is ill-fated, but Mireau convinces himself it will succeed once he learns he may get a promotion afterward. Natually, Dax objects to the assault, but there is little he can do about it.

Dax and his soldiers commence the attack, and the results are as expected. Numerous casualties fall to the ground as the first wave makes absolutely no progress. Another group of soldiers bluntly refuse to even leave their trench because death is inevitable. Dax retreats and tries to rally the next group of men, but ultimately he realizes the onslaught is futile and he aborts the mission.

Furious that his soldiers are “cowards”, General Mireau demands punishment for their actions. After initially requesting court martials for 100 soldiers, the General is talked down to reducing the number to three — one from each company. While knowing the trial is going to be a total farce, Colonel Dax decides to defend the men anyway. He makes a strong and valiant case for each man, but it doesn’t matter. The three soldiers are sentenced to death, just as expected.

There is no happy ending in Paths of Glory. While the vast majority of directors during this time period would have opted for some sort of positive resolution, Kubrick prefers to show the sheer brutality of atrocities committed during war. While the commanders and generals make political powerplays, the private soldiers are sent to do their work for them while getting little recognition in return. It’s disgusting, but that is war in a nutshell.

Paths of Glory [1957]

It’s amazing how well Paths of Glory holds up today, some 50+ years later. The anti-war message is loud and clear, and it resonates just as much today as it did back then. It certainly helps that Kubrick was behind the camera for this one, as his work in this film is legendary. Some of the long tracking shots are unforgettable, especially when we follow Dax through the trenches as he makes his way past frightened soldiers with gunfire and explosions going off nearby. The battle scene as the men push toward Anthill is remarkable.

Even though it was strange to see American actors posing as French officers, I could not imagine anyone other than Kirk Douglas in the lead role. He is phenomenal here, delivering a performance for the ages. The supporting cast is also terrific, led by Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready.

Paths of Glory runs at a crisp and concise 88 minutes, and I almost wish it went a little longer. While I wouldn’t consider this one of Kubrick’s best (a testament to his outstanding career), this is still a powerful movie with a strong message.

8.5/10

Silent Film Review: Battleship Potemkin [1925]

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

Battleship Potemkin [1925]
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Genre: Drama/History/War
Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov
Runtime: 75 Minutes

This review contains spoilers of an 87 year old film.

One of the most powerful propaganda films ever created, and one that could still light a fire under the right audience even today.

Sergei Eisenstein’s second feature film focuses on the (very real) mutiny that occurred in 1905 aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin. Tired of poor working conditions and general disrespect, the ship’s crew reaches a breaking point when they are told to eat rotten meat that is crawling with maggots. The captain, in an attempt to dispel the outrage, orders those who refused to eat the food to be shot and killed underneath a tarpaulin. However, one crew member, Vakulinchu (Antonov), speaks up right before the guns are set to fire and appeals to his squadmates to ignore the orders. They agree, and a massive battle transpires, resulting in the deaths of multiple officers as well as Vakulinchuk. The Potemkin, now in control of the crew, sails to the port of Odessa where Vakulinchuk’s body is put on display, making him something of a martyr to the townspeople.

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

The revolution is underway. As more and more civilians flock to the harbor to see the body, many remain on the large flight of stairs overlooking the water. At this point, the Tsarist regime has noticed the giant gathering and begins to march in their direction, firing at anyone and anything in their paths. Men, women and even children are murdered in a disgustingly barbaric display of violence. The Potemkin fires back at known military locations, but it is too late: countless lives have already been needlessly lost.

Fearing an attack from the shore, the battleship leaves the area only to find a squadron of warships waiting to retake the Potemkin. A tense series of moments occurs as both sides prepare for war, but at the last possible second the battleship is allowed to pass through, and the Soviet brothers wave their hats in friendship. It seems brotherhood has prevailed over politics, at least in this instance.

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

There is no denying the power of Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein expertly portrays the Tsarist regime as pure evil, especially in the legendary Odessa Steps scene. This display of brutality was unheard of in 1920s cinema, and I looked on in horror as innocent women and children were mindlessly murdered on screen. Who wants to see that? These images are blunt and forceful, and bound to stir up powerful feelings from any viewer.

While the 1905 mutiny really happened, the aforementioned massacre did not. Eisenstein clearly took some liberties with the movie, inserting the violence for dramatic effect. He wanted to hammer the point home, and he easily accomplished this goal.

Propaganda aside, Battleship Potemkin is a fascinating piece of cinematic history. The film shows both the positive and negative sides of a revolution, and it is a perfect demonstration of just how powerful the medium of film can be.

Battleship Potemkin can be viewed in its entirety for free on YouTube.