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.


Movie Review: Argo [2012]

Argo [2012]

Argo [2012]
Director: Ben Affleck
Genre: Biography/Drama/Thriller
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin
Runtime: 120 minutes

It’s always a joy to watch a film that is based on a true story so unbelievable that it just couldn’t be a work of fiction. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort focuses on one such tale, a CIA case that was not declassified until nearly 20 years later in 1997.

Argo begins in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution. The film faithfully reenacts the depiction of a large group of Iranian revolutionaries protesting outside the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The protests grow larger and more violent, and eventually the mob swarms the embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage. A group of six men and women manage to escape before this happens, and they are eventually taken in by the Canadian embassy.

Argo [2012]

Faced with an international crisis, the U.S. State Department begins looking for ways to extract the escaped six before the Iranians realize they are missing. This is where CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes in. Faced with a number of unfeasible extradition suggestions (one of which entails giving the group some bicycles and telling them to bike 300+ miles to the Turkey border), Mendez comes up with one of his own: pretend to be a Canadian film scout who is visiting Iran as a possible shooting location. In return, he will bring back the six Americans as members of his film crew.

As the “best bad idea” the CIA has, Mendez gets approval from his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), and heads to Hollywood to set up a fake studio. With the help of John Chambers (John Goodman), a master makeup artist, and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a film producer, the trio set up a phony office to lend credibility to the project. They even invite the press to their fake shooting in order to get additional publicity. It’s a wild idea, no doubt, but Mendez is determined to see it through, and he flies to Tehran in hopes of accomplishing his goal.

Argo [2012]

Now, since this is based on a true story, many will already know the outcome of the film. Pay no mind to this — knowing what happens does not lessen this film in any way possible. As a director, Affleck knows how to ramp up the suspense, creating a number of tense, memorable moments that will leave viewers doubting their recollections of the actual events.

Affleck also nailed the 1970s setting. Everything here is expertly portrayed, from the absurd fashion choices — complete with shaggy hair, thick moustaches and large-rimmed glasses — to what looks and feels like authentic archival footage of the revolution. Seriously, the man did his homework.

Argo [2012]

It helps to have a strong, witty screenplay, especially one that is delivered by an impressive arsenal of top Hollywood stars. Affleck shines in the lead role, but it’s especially fun to watch the group of character actors attached to the project. Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin (who gets to deliver the film’s most memorable line), Kyle Chandler, Philip Baker Hall and others all turn in memorable performances, even if they are ever so small.

It’s hard to find fault in Argo. Perhaps more emphasis could have been placed on character development when it comes to the American Six, but they are just pieces in what is a large, encompassing operation. As far as historical films go, this is a great one, and it is one of the year’s best. Don’t be surprised if Argo comes up in quite a few categories in this year’s awards season.


Movie Review: Super 8 [2011]

Super 8 [2011]

Super 8 [2011]
Director: JJ Abrams
Genre: Mystery/Sci-Fi/Thriller
Language: English
Country: USA

As some sort of weird mash-up of the Goonies, E.T. and Cloverfield, Super 8 wears its influences on its sleeve. This JJ Abrams-directed and Steven Spielberg-produced summer blockbuster never really tries anything new; instead, it frequently relies on the tried-and-true tactics of old favorites to lead the way.

Set in the small fictional town of Lillian, Ohio in 1979, Super 8 follows a group of middle school-aged boys who are attempting to create their own zombie film. When they are filming a scene at the local train station, they witness a massive train crash caused by a truck that appeared to deliberately drive into the train’s path. This creates a *huge* explosion that sends pieces of the train flying everywhere, and the entire spectacle of it all is impressive — and LOUD. When the U.S. Air Force quickly shows up to clear out the area, it is obvious that this train was holding some very important cargo, something that the government does not want the public to know about.

The town of Lillian begins to experience some mysterious occurrences after the crash. Dogs are running away to other counties, people are missing and the power keeps flickering in and out. Naturally, the U.S. military has no intentions of cluing the villagers in on what’s going on, so it’s up to the kids to take matters into their own hands.

Super 8 [2011]

It’s at this point where the film started to lose me. The entire plot is pretty much basic paint-by-the-numbers stuff, and if you think something is going to happen then it will. It’s all very predictable, and the movie is full of hackneyed cliches that are more laughable than anything. The child protagonist, Joe (Joel Courtney, who reminds me a lot of Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous), struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with his father, Sheriff Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), after losing his mother in a factory accident. At the same time, Joe is attempting to hide a blossoming romance with his friend Alice (Elle Fanning) since their fathers hate each other. Alice eventually becomes the de facto “damsel in distress” and I’m sure you can guess where the story goes from there.

The ending, which I won’t discuss for obvious reasons, is perhaps the guiltiest culprit of all. It is unbelievably cheesy, and in typical JJ Abrams fashion leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Throw in some ridiculous moments such as characters conveniently knowing where to go and how to escape certain predicaments and you have a thoroughly disappointing film. I will give some credit to the group of child actors in the movie — all of them performed admirably, especially Elle Fanning, even though their characters had little redeeming values. There’s an obligatory fat kid who gets harped on about his weight and has a habit of yelling “Mint!” every other minute. There’s a kid with braces who is a pyromaniac, and his backpack full of fireworks is always brought up in an attempt to get a cheap laugh or two. There’s also a kid who vomits profusely when the going gets rough. Outside of the main protagonist, I didn’t care about any of them.

Super 8 [2011]

Super 8 is essentially a retread/homage to the old Spielberg blockbusters. There are so many plot holes, cliches and moments where the audience’s intelligence is severely questioned that it never comes close to reaching the levels of its influences. Perhaps I am not in the target audience — which seems to be 1) kids and 2) adults who still have a soft spot for the 70s/80s Spielberg movies they grew up with — but I just didn’t care at all for Super 8. It has its moments, such as the impressive train-wreck and some of the shots from the kid’s zombie film, but for the most part this is a fairly lackluster summer title.