Zero Dark Thirty – Film Review

Zero Dark Thirty Poster2012 will be remembered as the year the movies took back their time slot. The year the industry remembered they have a super power; making big, ambitious, thought-provoking pictures and damn the running time or who might be protesting. Six major feature films released in the fall/winter season topped the two hour twenty minute mark. That’s right, cinema is for adults again, serious filmgoers, and it’s about time.

Kathryn Bigelow gave us The Hurt Locker, now she revisits the post 9/11 world on the ground again. Her mission, to tell an even more complex and messy story. The decade long manhunt to find and kill Osama bin Laden. The film has come under significant criticism from many about the graphic nature of the scenes depicting prisoner interrogations. The complaints state that the intelligence the CIA uncovered to kill UBL was not linked to information gathered during these types of sessions. We will never know for sure.

This is another fascinating aspect of this past year’s film season that really excites me. Filmmakers with a purpose. Willing to take a risk because it matters. All of a sudden if feels like movies are re-determined to push the envelope. Argo used declassified documents and first hand accounts to weave a dramatic account of the Iran prisoner episode. Lincoln was unabashed about telling the story of slavery and the Civil War and most importantly what really goes on inside the capitol dome with all those politicians. Oliver Stone was the pioneer in this arena and others have come forward to update it and shape it for today.

Bigelow partners once again with her writer colleague Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) who has given us an on the “edge of your seat” script. He has a variety of factions to write for and a daunting task to pull the thousands of details together in a way that is interesting, dramatic and clear. He succeeds.

Maya 5

Jessica Chastain plays Maya an obsessed and driven (aren’t they all) CIA operative recruited into the intelligence machine directly out of high school. At first Ms.Chastain seems an unlikely choice for this role with her glowing reddish hair, porcelain skin and slight build. But this is Ms. Bigelow’s world and it’s chocked full of powerful women. Maya’s first in country experience places her in an interrogation session run by Dan (Jason Clarke). It gets ugly fast and Maya is clearly uncomfortable. She cringes at some of Dan’s tactics, but very quickly reloads her nerve endings for a second go. This is an important moment for her. She now knows what it will take.

At first it was an assignment to track down UBL. But after a suicide bomber kills several of her fellow operatives at a military camp, a clear set-up, her purpose is transformed into a  personal vendetta. Like anyone who is singularly focused, everything becomes heightened. Yes, I thought about Carrie Mathison from Homeland, but without the bi-polar issue. Maya wears t-shirts when everyone else in the CIA station comes to work in business attire. She never backs down and it’s her insistence that gets her what she needs to discover the compound in Abbottabad. Maya is 100% convinced UBL is living there. There is no question in her mind.

We know what’s coming in the end but Bigelow and Boal unpack the story so skillfully that we are in no hurry to get there.The picture spans more than a decade of events so the filmmakers make liberal use of onscreen way markers, displaying dates and places so we can more easily follow the narrative. We are kept unhinged, helpless, as we watch one explosion after another. Some we know are coming, like the London bombings. Others are more of a surprise, the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan bombing, because they are in the deeper recesses of our memory. As a result we become hyper-sensitized, expecting a bomb to go off at any moment, bringing us closer to what things were really like for these operatives.

Maya reminded me of an updated Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the first two Terminator films. Involved at a young age. Didn’t really ask for the assignment, but was more than up to the task. Maya is Sarah in so many ways but without the muscles or military training. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day Connor is sitting in a room of doctors who are trying to pin a diagnosis on her when she explains what’s about to happen. “Anybody not wearing two million sunblock is gonna have a really bad day, get it?” Maya’s parallel is her daily storming to the office window of her boss and scribbling the number of days that nothing has happened since they found the compound.

Maya and Sarah

Maya and Sarah Connor

Ms. Bigelow employs actors we don’t easily recognize. It’s a crafty move to keep the audience focused on the scent of information the players so desperately need to keep alive in order to capture their target. If these parts were played by movie stars it would be distracting and less effective. There is one actor that stands out, James Gandolfini plays the CIA Director.

At the two hour mark we arrive at the mission scene. Cinematographer Greig Fraser gives us breathtaking shots of the choppers weaving through narrow canyons toward the compound and the target. The sequences are skillfully executed and align with the military precision used by the Navy Seals to execute the operation. Most of these scenes are filmed through night goggles, tuning everything an unpleasant green. The film crew shot the mission sequences twice to be sure the got every angle necessary for the editors. The Navy Seals got one chance, the filmmakers had the luxury of being able to go to take two.

Alexandre Desplat’s score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra is moody and at times electronic. The sound design for the film is spectacular and the dialogue is so important the filmmakers use the music sparingly. When it does take the spotlight it is eerie how well it meshes with the visuals. We sometimes hear a middle-eastern influence, but mostly it’s written to increase the suspense. It does. Mr. Desplat also wrote the score for Argo, which means he’s responsible for the music in 20% of the Oscar nominated pictures of 2012. Impressive. He has a deep respect for what’s on screen and does not overpower, simply support. He works in the background, almost inconspicuously, to prop up the narrative and make a point.

Highly recommended. The official film web site is yet another attempt to be interactive. I found it lacking in additional, interesting information. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards. Jessica Chastain won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a drama.

Photo credits: Columbia Pictures

Arbitrage – Film Review

GereEver since Bernie Madoff and the financial meltdown it’s fashionable to dislike the Wall Street uber-rich. In Arbitrage, Richard Gere’s portrayal of hedge-fund manager Robert Miller ushers in the next level; despising them. As the picture opens Miller is reflecting on his third stage of life and is looking to get out of business and “spend more time with his family.” The big problem is he’s spent 60 years getting himself in too deep to make a graceful exit.

I originally put Arbitrage on my must see list of films for the season based on what I had read about the picture, Gere’s performance, and the subject matter. It was a bet on an independent film by a director (Nicholas Jarecki) who was on his first feature film. I was half right. The film tries to be a thriller and a social statement but ends up as an interesting story about the bad things people do.

This is Gere’s film and he owns it. He occupies 75% of the frames, speaks at least half the lines in the screenplay and carries it off wonderfully on his slight frame and gray mane. Miller always expects the world to bend to his will, mostly because it has. He strikes grand bargains and usually wins. But now he has made a tragic miscalculation by investing in a copper mine in Russia where unpredictable politics has frozen his money. He still wants out of the day to day so he has to do some creative clerical work to pass an audit in order to be acquired by an ailing Standard Bank.

Miller has a large family around him as often as he can. A daughter and son, both who work for him, grandchildren and naturally his wife, Ellen Miller (Susan Sarandon). It seems well balanced but that’s only a skin deep illusion. Miller is constantly telling everyone that people count on him. That if doesn’t do what he knows he must do people will get hurt. He’s completely blind to the fact that he causes casualties on a daily basis. Of course he has a mistress on the side, Julie Côte (Laetitia Casta) a French art student that has aspirations of starting her own gallery. Miller sets her up with an apartment and buys lots of paintings and spends evenings with her. His excessiveness and age suddenly catch up with him.

It’s a long set-up before we get to the crucial events that propel the film forward into a thriller involving crooked Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) investigating a death he doesn’t really care about. Detective Bryer has had it with these rich types always beating justice and so Mr. Jarecki brings him down to Miller’s level. No high roads here. Miller keeps his cool and enlists trusted advisors to help him brainstorm himself out of some serious trouble.

No we don’t like Robert Miller and are rooting for him to be locked under the jail. But Gere keeps us on his side throughout the picture. We secretly hope he gets out of trouble because we love to see that look on his face when he knows he has the answer. It’s success and power and we all want to understand what that feels like.

So many victims, suffering, betrayal and blackmail (pardon me, negotiating). I believe that’s why the film doesn’t have an ending. Mr. Jarecki simply turns off the camera. We all avert our eyes to the things we can’t control and don’t want to see.

Technical aspects are professional but not extraordinary. Score by Cliff Martinez is moody and electronic. At first I thought it wasn’t a fit, but repeated listenings got me more comfortable. We also get to hear Bjork sing I See Who You Are. Yes we do.

The official web site for the film is not worth visiting.

Nomination: Golden Globes: Richard Gere, Best performance by an actor in a drama

Winner: National Board of Review, USA: Top Ten Independent Films

Photo Credit: LionsGate plus all the others.

Slumdog Millionaire – Film Review

Update: Slumdog Millionaire nominated for 10 Academy Awards! Go to official Oscar site here.

slumdog1I settled into my seat in the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park, Illinois expecting to see an interesting film set in India. I knew it was the story of an indigent young man from Mumbai who has a reversal of fortune through his performance on a television game show. I didn’t expect Slumdog Millionaire to be the serious and powerful film experience it turned out to be.

We are spectators, sometimes voyeurs, in the lives of Jamal (Dev Patel), his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and Latika (Freida Pinto), a girl they encounter purely by chance. After a brutal episode of communal violence, the boys lose their mother and are on the run completely alone, save for Latika. They set up temporary residence in a city dump and are lured to an orphanage home by two men with cold bottles of Coca-Cola. The men teach the children to beg for coins in the street and both Jamal and Salim become proficient. Soon they discover that some of the children become disabled at the hand of these men and escape in the night on a train. Although they try, they fail in their effort to bring Latika along.

The boys learn the grifter trade quickly and steal from tourists who visit the Taj Mahal. They get in deeper and deeper, when something happens that cannot be undone in their effort to reclaim Latika. The brothers’ relationship sours as Salim asserts his place as the elder and casts out Jamal to be with the girl. Over time Jamal finds Latika and his brother again, but is unable to pry her away from life in the underbelly. Jamal lands an opportunity to be a contestant on the most popular TV show in the country, Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He believes that she will be watching, and might make a getaway on her own.

Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) draws us into Jamal’s life though the questions that are asked on the show. Each question triggers a scene from Jamal’s life that advances the story as well as provides the answer to the question. Is it luck or fate that these particular questions are chosen? Jamal progresses further than any one ever has and is arrested on suspicion of cheating. The police inspector walks him through every question via a video tape and asks him to explain how he would know the answer. Jamal has a believable story and is released to return to the show for one more all or nothing question.

slumdog2Mr. Boyle captures the frenetic movement of India during day, night, bright color and muted darkness. Movement and music are his grammar. We see Jamal’s tin-topped slums transform into soaring high rises as India takes its place on the world stage. This financial progressiveness is what gives Jamal his fairy tale chance.

The performances are strong where they need to be; Jamal, Latika and the game show host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) are the pivotal characters and do a splendid job of keeping the audience guessing and propelling the story forward. There are an array of locations and settings, all well lensed and nicely edited into a rich quilt of a story.

Slumdog Millionaire took four Golden Globe awards, including Best Motion Picture (drama) and Best Director. However, I haven’t seen it overwhelmingly show up on critic’s Oscar nomination predictions, which puzzles me. Perhaps it may be the fact that in the end it’s a love story. Or that Mr Boyle enlists the two stars and a train station full of extras to perform a dance number over the credits. Not sure why that’s there except maybe the filmmakers thought they needed to release some of the pressure they built up along the way.

Recommended for serious filmgoers who appreciate international movies. Visit the official Slumdog Millionaire web site here. Buy the soundtrack. It’s fast, loud and highly repeatable.

Photo credits: Fox Searchlight Pictures.