Monday, January 28, 2013

Parker (2013)


Parker is the laziest movie to come down the line in a long time.  It is a re-make of a re-make.  Among other films, the director, Taylor Hackford, made Ray (2004), The Devil's Advocate (1997), and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982).  The writer, John J. McLaughlin, wrote Hitchcock (2012) and Black Swan (2010).  Did they just want to make a quick buck?  Did they get tired of more challenging films and want to cleanse their pallet with a 'no-brainer'?  They succeeded all the way.  

You have seen Parker before.  It was called Payback in 1999 with Mel Gibson and was called Point Blank with Lee Marvin in 1967.  Hollywood has not run out of original and creative stories yet; therefore, a re-tread of the double-crossed man exacting revenge on the crime syndicate which wronged him should not have already popped up in the hopper. yet  Shame on all involved here.

Parker (Jason Statham) is an extremely skilled thief, car-jacker, marksman, knife fighter, amateur doctor, and all around master planner.  We have no idea where he learned his tradecraft because the movie does not waste time with backstory; it begins right at the start of a major heist.  The score is one of the lamest targets in recent crime memory, the Ohio State Fair.  The guy who put the crew together, Hurley (Nick Nolte), says the fair pulls in over a million dollars in a weekend; that is a lot of cotton candy and snow cones sold.  Parker is the gang's point man and the other members include Melander (Michael Chiklis), Carlson (Wendell Pierce), Ross (Clifton Collins Jr.), and the big boss man's nephew, Hardwicke (Michah Hauptman).

After a successful robbery and get away, the rest of the gang double-crosses Parker and leaves him for dead on the side of the road.  Since the screenplay brings nothing new to this version of the story, Parker does not die and begins to track down the wrong-doers to get his money back and teach them a lesson.  Parker is a man with principles.  He frequently declares that if you say you will do something, you do it.  If you enter into a contract, you fulfill your end of the bargain.  These principles must have gotten Parker in trouble before because when he takes off his shirt there are more bullet hole wounds and knife scars than there is clear skin.  

The first half of the movie at least moves along.  Parker steals one car after the other, beats up one bad guy after another, and ends up in West Palm Beach where the gang is about to commence their next big score.  Here is where the film stops dead in its tracks and it is due to one character, fledgling real estate agent Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez).  She is deep in debt, lives with her mother, Ascension (Patti LuPone), and has never sold house or even condominium.  Her most effective skill is to kill any and all momentum Parker had going for him.  Leslie and her mother are also the least believable characters in years.

Leslie knows Parker is up to no good but out of nowhere, tracks him down and throws herself at him wanting to get in on whatever scheme he has going on.  Her mother is even worse.  Parker shows up at their house a bloody mess trailing guts and pints of blood all over the floor and Ascension doesn't even blink.  A cop shows up at the door and both ladies do their best to hide him because…well…we have no idea why; I suppose it is because the script just needs it to happen.  Since Leslie is played by Jennifer Lopez, there also must be scenes which have no business being in the movie except to make her disrobe and turn around for the camera.  Unlike Ben Affleck, Lopez has not recovered from Gigli (2003).  

Even though Leslie's character destroys the movie, Lopez is not the worst actor in it.  Michael Chiklis earns himself this dubious honor.  Every line is overacted.  He yells, screams, and makes his eyeballs bulge when just a scowl would have done the trick.  Wendell Pierce, who you will remember from The Wire, and Clifton Collins Jr. do their best to try and tone down Chiklis's ridiculous ravings.  

The fight scenes are adeptly thought through however.  The filmmakers envisioned blood, blood, and a bit more blood.  If script, pacing, and logic are not your things and you only love mindless and gratuitous violence, mayhem, and pulp, Parker is the movie for you.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)


The Brothers Grimm stories are aimed at children, but the original tales are far more gruesome than the Disneyfied, G-rated versions today's children are more familiar with.  Consider Disney created adaptations of Cinderella, The Frog Prince, and Rapunzel, but has so far steered clear of Hansel and Gretel.  Disney's writers most likely continue to stumble over how to polish the story of an abusive stepmother forcing children out of the house to starve and a cannibalistic witch.

The 2013 live-action twist on Hansel and Gretel transforms their parent's motives on why they end up lost in the woods yet stays true to the original story of the witch living in a candy house and her inevitable demise in the oven courtesy of Gretel.  This only occupies the first few minutes though until a title appears declaring, "Many years later."  The children nourished their newfound witch-slaughtering skills and are now known as Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  It looks like the siblings (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) are in their thirties and they are mercenaries for hire and have the arsenal to prove it.

The weaponry is out of place because the witches are more powerful than Hansel and Gretel.  They are stronger, faster, jet away on broomsticks, and deflect bullets with their hands.  No matter how many times Hansel and Gretel unload a shotgun or cross-bow at a witch, they never connect.  The fights always end up at hand-to-hand combat.  Perhaps they carry around the firepower to seem more imposing to impressionable villagers.  To show just how contemporary his take on Hansel and Gretel is, director/writer Tommy Wirkola and co-writer Dante Harper add a healthy dose of the f-word, use slang such as 'hillbilly', and oh yeah, the anachronistic firearms.

The small village of Augsburg, Germany has a witch problem.  The sheriff (Peter Stormare) is happy enough grabbing any lady off the street, staging a show trial, and burning her at the stake to appease the superstitious villagers.  The mayor (Rainer Bock), on the other hand, requires a bit more evidence of witchcraft and hires our witch hunters to ferret out the local coven.  The head witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen), has big plans of her own.  A once in a generation blood moon is approaching and if she and her fellow extremely ugly witches massacre 12 children, they will become immune to their greatest nemesis, fire.  

There is no sex in this fairy tale so it earns its R-rating with strong violence and gore.  Witches are destroyed every which way and if a human meets his end, its usually with a few pints of blood jettisoning out with sufficient velocity.  The blood spatter and violence is more campy than real though; it trends toward the cartoon end of the spectrum.  While it is billed as an action/horror genre film, it is really more of a black comedy with some frenetically edited action sequences juxtaposed with Hansel's interest in a local maiden and Gemma Arterton's leather pants.  

The only reason for anyone to label it horror is due to the witches' aesthetic.  These girls are hideous.  One has horns, there is an albino, a fat one, one with no legs, and they appear to have scales instead of skin.  Only Muriel has any true conversation skills as her sisters click and scream.  When they do speak, it sounds as if it is through an ounce of two of phlegm.  Hansel and Gretel's most effective attributes are the witches; they are the most original pieces in the film.  Compared to previous movie witches (Narnia's White Witch, the Witches of Eastwick, Hocus Pocus, Oz's Wicked Witch of the West, et al…), these ladies are bloody, violent, are formidable fighters, and are ready to chomp on a child at moment's notice.  

If the rest of Hansel and Gretel were as original and creative as the witches, it would be a much better movie.  Unfortunately, the script is stale, the plot is more than predictable, and as Famke Janssen even admitted, one gets the feeling the actors showed up here strictly for the paycheck and that's about it.     

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Amour (2012)


There is nothing fake or plastic about Amour.  It will show you to an unpleasant degree the ways the human body, once capable and independent, will break down until the inevitable end finally descends.  Depressing?  Moribund?  Why shy away from it, this is the one guarantee which will happen to all of us.  Hopefully, you have someone with you at the end to lean on.

Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) has Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant).  After decades together in marriage, Anne is about to start her path towards the end.  First, she stares off into space for a full two minutes while Georges tries to bring her around, then the first stroke hits.  Fast forward and Anne is in a wheelchair but still has the use of the left side of her body.  She can still read, enjoy music, converse, and try and convince Georges not to worry so much. 

Music is quite important to both of them.  An early scene has the camera on a stage staring into the audience.  You do not see the action on the stage but quickly realize it is a piano concert performed by a master.  When the master, Alexandre Tharaud (playing himself) comes to visit Anne, we learn she was his teacher and a skilled player herself.  Amour's script never cheats.  It take time to learn Alexandre was a pupil and that both Anne and Georges were performers.  Another woman visits, Eva (Isabelle Huppert) and it is only a after a time we learn she is their daughter.  

Mainly classified as a French art-film, Amour is also a candidate for kitchen-sink realism.  There are not too many movies where there are dirty dishes in the sink, this mars the aesthetic.  In Amour though, dishes are consistently scrubbed, the tea pot persistently kept full, and after awhile, the realities of aiding Anne with her toilet regimen takes on a whole new realism of its own.  Anne is extremely proud and independent.  For her body to fail and require diapers, someone else to shower her and brush her hair is as close to agony as any of the real pain she feels.  

Director Michael Haneke tells the entire story in flashback.  The opening scene shows firemen breaking down the door, a concerned concierge, and tape molded around door frames.  The ending is shown to the audience even before we first see either Anne or Georges.  Since the central themes are the emotional pains of a decomposing body and stark ideas about mortality, there is only one logical ending for the story to have.  It is interesting that Haneke chooses to start the film in this manner.  The concluding scenes make more sense and perhaps move at a brisker pace than they would have had Haneke not pulled back the curtain already; however, any suspense the audience would have had for what happens in the end is curtly nipped in the bud.

Since Amour is a Haneke film, not everything will be straight forward as he has a reputation of making the audience work overtime during and after the movie thinking about and discussing what a character's real motivations are and who may or may not be behind an act.  Remember how open-ended Cache (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009) were.  I still have no clear idea about certain events which happen in those movies.  While The Piano Teacher (2001) was just as intimate but in an entirely different way, Amour is much deeper and cuts no corners showing Anne and Georges accepting little by little the new parts they must play.    

In a way, Amour is also a realistic horror film.  Imagining yourself growing old, losing your abilities, and requiring someone else to perform the simplest task for you is downright scary.  What adds even more weight to it is we know it will happen someday.  None of us are going to figure out a way around it or buy it off.  Here's to hoping we have someone there so we don't have to go through it alone.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Mama (2013)

If a horror film’s story is strong enough, then there is no need for it to resort to the ‘cheap scream’ technique used to manipulate the audience.  A loud, closing door during a quiet period will elicit the cheap scream as will a figure walking by a window with a sudden, shrieking violin.  There is no earthly reason for a piercing violin to sound in the real world, but the director employs this trick to make the audience jump when his story is not quite up to scratch.  Remember two great horror films, Jaws and Pan’s Labyrinth.  Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro respectively used zero cheap scream tricks because these two stories shocked their audiences by themselves without having to rely on shady editing techniques. 
Mama, on the other hand, has the shell of a strong story but is underwritten.  Therefore, director Andres Muschietti uses most of the tricks in the book to make the audience jump.  Doors slam, lights decide on their own to flicker and blink revealing a hint of a supernatural presence with the requisite violin shriek, and screams accompany people waking up from dream sequences even though nobody actually screams.  A horror film is supposed to scare the audience and make them jump every now and again, but it is telling on how exactly it goes about doing it.  Mama uses cheap screams instead of story.
The recent recession causes daddy to kill some co-workers and mommy.  Escaping town with his two daughters, Victoria and Lily, they stumble upon a forgotten log cabin deep in the woods where daddy attempts to kill his daughters but gets taken out by ‘mama’ first.  Who/what is Mama?  She/it floats, contorts her joints, and makes guttural clicking noises while keeping the girls alive for the next five years until they are found living like feral cats and taken away to go live with their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain).
Annabel makes it frequently clear she “did not sign up for this.”  She plays bass in a rock band, wears way too much eyeliner, and has too many deliberately-placed tears in her tight jeans.  She is saddled with taking care of the girls by herself quite soon after they move in because Lucas has an unfortunate run-in with Mama and spends a good chuck of the film in a coma.  The girls, 8 year old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and 6 year old Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) occupy different parts of the wild animal spectrum.  Victoria remembers how to speak a little bit and interact with other humans at a basic level, but Lily was one year old when she was taken to the cabin.  She does not speak, sleeps on the floor under the bed, and prefers to walk on all fours like a dog.    
Mama follows the girls to their new home, oh, and Mama gets jealous.  In between scenes where Annabel hears strange sounds and suspicious thuds, more and more of Mama’s backstory is revealed.  This should be the film’s meat and potatoes and what could have made it an almost good movie.  If Muschietti wrote a scene or two more and strengthened this part of the plot, Mama would be so much stronger.  As it is, he falls back on spooky sounds, dark lighting, and the occasional maiming/death when someone ventures too close to discovering Mama. 

Some folks are confusing Mama as a Guillermo del Toro film; he is only the Executive Producer and neither wrote nor directed it.  He does het top-billing; however, with the title, "Guillermo del Toro presents..."  That is usually a harbinger of a second-rate genre film.  Think of the times you have seen "Quentin Tarantino presents..."  If movie poster and credit titles told the truth, it would say, "Guillermo del Toro present a second-rate horror film which kind of liked but chose not to direct himself because it is not up to his caliber of work."  Guillermo del Toro saw what the audience will see, all tricks and no story.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

5 Broken Cameras (2012)

The on-going feud between Israelis and Palestinians over land in the West Bank is extremely politicized.  Most days, only harsh words are fired back and forth between Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements and some days rock projectiles and even bullets escalate the situation to tragedy.  What Emad Burnat’s camera does is watch the back-and-forth chest pounding.  There are no interviews, few editorials, and no slick editing or visual effects.  Emad’s cameras just observe.
I write ‘cameras’ instead of camera because Emad is on his sixth camera; the first five were either knocked or shot out of his hands by the Israeli military and in one case, Jewish settlers.  Emad started filming the increasing level of bitterness between his fellow Bil’in villagers and the encroaching Jewish settlements when the Israeli military showed up one day and started building a fence.  The Palestinians accuse the Israelis of a land grab because they say the land being sectioned off for new Jewish settlements belongs to Bil’in.  Their olive orchards and grazing lands are getting cut in half along with the village’s main livelihood.
Soon enough, those olive trees are set on fire by the settlers.  Is it a land grab?  From Emad’s camera it looks like it is but there is no exact proof offered because there is no view from the other side of the fence.  A traditional documentary would interview all parties involved, research the historical evidence, and provide clues to which aggrieved party has the stronger claim.  That is not the job of Emad’s cameras though; they just watch.
They watch weekly demonstrations as most of the villagers walk out every Friday to the fence, chant slogans, yell at the Israeli soldiers, and then inevitably run away when the tear gas arrives or call for an ambulance when an Israeli sniper decides to take one of them out.  Two of the most shocking scenes Emad’s camera captures involve Israeli assault rifles.  The first shows one of Emad’s brothers get shot in the leg.  This would not normally amount to much; however, the brother is already in Israeli custody ready to be transported to jail when a soldier holds him upright while another soldier aims point-blank at his femur and fires.
The second incident involves the town’s most beloved and respected resident.  Popular with the children and adults alike and safely chanting slogans on the Palestinian side of the fence, a sniper casually shoots him in the chest from afar.  Seen through Emad’s camera, the crowd at first thinks it was a grazing wound or a rock or any number of things.  Only gradually do they realize the gravity of what just happened.  Emad is not spared the rod either.  Israeli soldiers arrest him multiple times on trumped up charges because they really do not like being filmed firing tear gas at kids or being caught red-handed shooting prisoners. 
One of Emad’s own sons, Gibreel, is a focal point of 5 Broken Cameras.  Gibreel is born right when the fence starts to go up during the phase of Camera #1.  As time passes, the viewer watches Gibreel learn to walk, hears his first words which include ‘wall’ and ‘army’, and see him celebrate his fifth birthday soon after his friend is shot in the sniper incident mentioned above.  All Gibreel knows in the entire world is his small village, the wall, Israeli soldiers with their itchy trigger fingers, and his father with a camera. 
There is no doubt a complete other side to this story as seen from an Israeli point of view.  The audience does not see that point of view though, they only see what Emad’s camera sees and that represents enough frustration and disappointment to last a lifetime.  5 Broken Cameras is nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar so it should come as some solace to Emad and his fellow villagers that there is a wider world which now will be exposed to their visual autobiography.        

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Last Stand, The (2013)


The Last Stand is not a movie; it is a paid advertisement for Chevrolet.  Before you see Arnold, you see the Chevy emblem on the front of his Silverado.  We see a shiny red Camaro in the next scene.  Finally, a Corvette ZR1 is a supporting character in this film and gets more screen time than Forest Whitaker and Johnny Knoxville combined.  Minutes of dialogue are devoted to how it is a concept car stolen from a show, how it has over 1000 horsepower, and how it can outrun a helicopter.  

If you are a bad guy on the run from the law, why would you deliberately hop into the most visible and recognizable vehicle imaginable on the road from Las Vegas to the Mexican border?  If you take a Chevy Malibu, you could at least blend in.  Ah, but then where would the chase scenes go?  Unlike a Malibu, this Corvette car-of-the-future can turn off every single light and drive by an infrared screen.  The Corvette can go underneath an SUV, flip it over, and have the ensuing scratch marks on the hood look like an off-road racing stripe.

There are three writers listed on The Last Stand's credits and they are listed as Andrew Knauer - screenplay, Jeffrey Nachmanoff - rewrite, and George Nolfi - writing supervisor.  I don't think I have ever seen that before.  The producers hired a guy to write this story, another guy to re-write it, and a third guy to make sure they wrote something resembling a screenplay around the featured players aka the cars.

The Last Stand is a loose remake of High Noon; however, I do not remember Gary Cooper standing around while the corporations of the day flooded the screen with their wares.  Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a small town sheriff on the U.S./Mexico border and is there to appreciate the quiet life.  His deputies are under-trained goofballs (Luis Guzman, Jaimie Alexander, Zach Gilford), the town drunk is a former Marine who will readily remind you of his Iraq and Afghanistan service (Rodrigo Santoro), there is a maniac with an extreme firearm fetish (Johnny Knoxville), and the majority of the townspeople drove to a high school football away game for the weekend so there are only a handful of characters left to follow.  

Back in Vegas, FBI Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is in charge of an extremely large and blatant convoy transporting a Mexican drug lord, Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), from some nameless place to some other nameless place to be executed.  Through a ridiculous and Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner scene of escape, Gabriel eludes an entire FBI task force, takes an FBI agent prisoner, and hops into the Corvette ZR1 for the rest of the movie.  Driving at speeds between 120 and 180mph, Gabriel races south through police roadblocks, SWAT convoys, and will try and cross the border at Sheriff Ray Owens's outback town.  Thank goodness his small town has its own firearm fetishist with an armory double the size of any guerrilla warfare outfit.  

Give Arnold Schwarzenegger a little credit for trying out a new character.  While his contemporaries Stallone and Willis continue to pump out Rocky and Die Hard movies, Schwarzenegger is jumping back into the film industry, post-Governator, in a different (and regurgitated) movie formula.  He could easily have requested another Terminator movie.  Perhaps after The Last Stand inevitably tanks at the box office, another Terminator installment will be on the way to recoup some monetary losses.  After some really atrocious acting on Arnold's part, a machine would be the perfect character for him to try next.  The Corvette ZR1 and Camaro give more convincing performances than Arnold.

In High Noon, it was Gary Cooper against the world.  He was the lone man to stand up to the bad guys coming to town because it was his responsibility to do so.  This concept is now abducted, stretched thin, filled with inane and cartoonish sidekicks, and is saddled as a comeback vehicle for a former major action superstar.  I feel bad for the sheriff against the world concept, it deserves better than The Last Stand.   

Friday, January 18, 2013

Gangster Squad (2013)


Some years ago I learned 1930s and '40s era gangsters learned to talk 'gangster' from the motion pictures.  James Cagney probably had more to do with coining gangster lingo and slang than John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, and Al Capone combined.  Gangster Squad gets the clothes right, does a decent job with 1949 era Los Angeles, but is noticeably weak in the dialogue department.  A standard pulp fiction picture from the 40s would talk circles around these mugs.

Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is becoming the biggest wise guy in Los Angeles.  He came out west as part of the Chicago mafia but is now going into business for himself and kicking out the old crew.  Mickey used to be a professional boxer and has the battered and scarred face to prove it.  He owns nightclubs, paints stores, a haberdashery, and every other venture in between.  He also runs prostitution houses, gambling rings, and has a major hand in the drug trade.  There are entire neighborhoods where the corrupt LA cops do not dare stray because "that is Mickey Cohen territory."

Chief of Police Parker (Nike Nolte), unlike his legal and political peers, is not on the take though.  He growls at the direction his city is headed and enlists one of the only honest cops in the whole department, Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), to lead an undercover task force solely focused on shutting down Cohen's illegal operations.  In true 'let's get a team together' montage, O'Mara cobbles together a ragtag crew of cops each with their own one-dimensional skill.  Officer Kennard (Robert Patrick) is a crack shot, Officer Harris (Anthony Mackie) is the black guy who knows everyone in the Central District, Officer Ramirez (Michael Pena) is the Mexican guy, Officer Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) is the gadget guy, and Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) is the wise-cracking sidekick who launches his own vendetta at Cohen after his favorite shoeshine boy is accidentally shot in a gang shootout.  

Conveniently, Jerry's current piece on the side is Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).  Grace just happens to be Mickey's girl too.  They have nothing in common but her presence is explained away as she is Mickey's protocol tutor; she corrects him when he uses the wrong fork at dinner.  This motley crew of police department underlings are probably the most racially diverse partners ever seen in 1949 as well.  Nobody mentions it or takes a second look to notice how culturally assorted their little squad is.  This is good for 2013 audiences, but as for 1949 authenticity, not so much.  The rest of the film is quite predictable.

There are shootouts, fist fights, montages of the gangster squad cleaning up the streets and Mickey Cohen ranting and raving why none of his henchmen can stop these guys.  Mickey's make-up and over the top cartoonishness would not be out of place if he were one of Big Boy Caprice's boys in Dick Tracy.  For an R-rated film, the violence is mostly limited to bloody fists and bullet sprays from tommy guns.  I would love to see Quentin Tarantino take on a 1940s era gangster film; his mastery with violent scenes would be more than welcome here.  Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) takes a step backwards with Gangster Squad.  The casting is first rate, with the exception of Emma Stone, so perhaps the languid feeling the audience leaves with is from screenwriter Will Beall.  This is Beall's first feature film credit and he based the story off of Paul Lieberman's book of the same name.  

Back to Emma Stone.  Grace Faraday is a femme fatale, the boss's girl, a girl you know not to touch.  She needs a deeper voice like Lauren Bacall, wit and sex appeal like Barbara Stanwyck, and overall glamour like Lana Turner.  Emma Stone is becoming one of Hollywood's 'it' girls, but she is too young and too slight to play a real smoldering woman who make men do stupid things.  Scarlett Johansson would make a more convincing dangerous lady to sidle up to in a smoke-filled bar.  As for her paramour, Ryan Gosling chose to play Jerry with a voice a half octave or so higher than his normal voice.  From the preview, I thought this would be ridiculous; however, Gosling proves once again he knows what he's doing.  Jerry works perfectly with a voice which does not seem quite right because Jerry himself is not quite right, there is something a bit off about him.  

In the right hands, there is still a good market and appreciative audiences for re-imagined wise guy movies with their slick talk, slick hair, and impeccable suits.  Unfortunately, Gangster Squad's script is flat, the direction uninspired, and the special effects are too gimmicky for the time its takes place in.    

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)


TV is the place to find fictional dramatizations of stories based on real events.  Lifetime is currently advertising their upcoming movie of the week about the Casey Anthony trial and the History Channel already produced a version of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden back in 2011.  Feature films rarely tell stories as recent as this; consider that events surrounding Abraham Lincoln continue to produce popular movies.  The only other recent example I can think of in recent history is Oliver Stone's W. (2008) which was more tongue-in-cheek spoof than serious drama.  

Another complication with Zero Dark Thirty's material is that the entire world already knows the ending.  Everyone has seen the picture of President Obama and his advisors huddled together in a small room monitoring the action and we all know what Osama's compound looked like from the relentless news footage of the operation's aftermath.  What the audience does not know is the front end of the operation, the decade leading up to pinpointing the correct house in a town where nobody ever thought the al Qaeda mastermind would be hiding out.  We also were unaware of the CIA's relentless analyst who the film claims doggedly pursued every possible lead to find bin Laden, alienating her co-workers in the process, and running close to the edge of fanaticism herself.

In 2003, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a brand new CIA operative dropped head first into the Islamabad station and assigned to the detainee interrogation program to glean any and all information leading to the whereabouts of al Qaeda's leadership.  2003 was a time of CIA black sites, rendition, and 'enhanced' interrogation techniques.  The news media had yet to enlighten the world with the definition of all of those words.  Maya and her colleagues would put detainees in stress positions, humiliate them with nudity, shove them in boxes, and waterboard them over and over again.  Many argue these scenes show that torture works.  After repeated abuses, a detainee finally gives up a name, Abu Ahmed.  Director Kathryn Bigelow does not editorialize in the torture scenes.  She does not tell the audience these techniques are either effective or just plain wrong, that is for you to decide.  Did the pain finally break the detainee or would they have gotten the name through more humane methods?  That is also for the audience to puzzle out for themselves.

Once Maya gets the name, she obsesses over who it belongs to for close to 10 years.  During this time, al Qaeda continues to conduct terrorist attacks all over the world and after each attack, Maya considers herself at fault for failing to discover the link between Abu Ahmed and bin Laden.  Her co-workers, and more importantly her boss, Pakistan station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), grow tired of her hypotheses and wish she would just get down to the business of catching lower level bad guys.  The film's first two-thirds are noticeably, and I believe deliberately, slow and methodical to make the audience feel the staggering amounts of time it took for Maya to finally track down her needle in a haystack.

Exactly how Abu Ahmed's real name lands in her lap after someone else connects a few dots is still a mystery to me.  The conversation is quick, the details are fuzzy, and most likely the real way Abu Ahmed's true identity was figured out remains classified which is why Mark Boal's otherwise effective script merely glosses over such an important event.  Now the heavy hitters can get to work.  No actual politicians are named in the film, but it is obvious that the rotund guy who sucks all the air out of the room is CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) and the risk-averse politician who remains so skeptical about the mission is the National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon (Stephen Dillane).  Maya's evidence is definitely thin; however, the corresponding case she makes surrounding it sounds quite convincing.  She is the only person in the room who will say with 100% certainty Osama bin Laden is in that compound.  She has worked too many years to even consider it is not him walking around in there.

Other skeptical people are the members of Seal Team 6 who take over the last half hour of the show.  Once they get going, Maya drops out the film and the guys with guns take center stage conducting the operation on a building which looks exactly like the one we have seen in the news footage.  With calm efficiency, the strike team who operate with no discernible names, but whose leaders are played by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, show a very convincing version of what the assault that night may have looked like.  The follow-on strategic ramifications concerning Pakistani sovereignty and bin Laden's body are all ignored.  It is not that they are not important, but Zero Dark Thirty is not about that.  

The film takes place down in the tactical trenches with tired analysts and operators sweating over lies and riddles from tortured detainees and bosses who expect results.  Kathryn Bigelow's previous film, The Hurt Locker (2008), was even dirtier, sweatier, had more intense situations than any you will see in Zero Dark Thirty, and is overall the better film.  Is it because we did not know the end of The Hurt Locker and know with certainty the inevitable conclusion to this film?  Perhaps.  It is most likely because the events portrayed here are just too fresh to be seen with a completely objective eye.  By the way, it is too bad bin Laden didn't live just long enough to learn it was the work of a woman behind his demise. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Not Fade Away (2012)


Mick Jagger and Keith Richards knew each other as children, but the more appealing version of their later meeting on the Dartford Railway opens Not Fade Away.  Mick has a stack of vinyl R&B LPs on his lap which Keith takes an active interest in and so began the Rolling Stones.  This vignette also launches writer/director David Chase's first feature film.  David Chase is best known as the creator of The Sopranos and sticking with familiar territory, Not Fade Away is set in New Jersey and stars James Gandolfini.  

This is not a mob movie though, it is a coming-of-age tale with 1960s rock and roll as a supporting character.  What the world considers the '60s, however, did not begin on 1 January 1960 (that was still firmly ensconced in straight-laced '50s culture) but with the November 1963 assassination of President Kennedy and the British invasion a mere three weeks later.  Hair grew longer, drugs grew more popular, ideas grew edgier, and a distinct generation gap opened up between the parents who came of age during the depression and World War II and their increasingly alien children who are maturing under the influence of rock and roll.

Douglas (John Magaro) is a skinny kid from a stereotypical Italian-American family who realizes the only way to pull girls in high school is to either be a jock or be in a band.  He has some decent talent on the drums, some singing chops, and more importantly, latches on to the new lingo about R&B tunes, guitar amps, and the perils of life on the road when you make it big.  Instead of spending their time practicing and learning their trade playing covers and lowly gigs, Douglas's band enjoys planning out how they will act accordingly when they naturally launch into the stratosphere as rock superstars.  Douglas's dad, Pat (Gandolfini), on the other hand, considers the whole idea of spending your time playing silly tunes and talking like a commie about Vietnam ridiculous.  He would like nothing better than to literally knock some sense into Douglas about the real world.

Pat, who resembles Fred Savage's dad from The Wonder Years in temperament and imposing frame, is only one of the character cliches which litter Not Fade Away.  Douglas's mom, Antoinette (Molly Price), has curlers in her hair 24 hours a day, shuffles around her small house in a shabby bathrobe and slippers, and operates an ironing board in the kitchen morning, noon, and night.  There is the girl who tries LSD and goes insane, the kid from high school who joins the marines and is Vietnam bound,  and every other character you would draw up if you were casting the 1960s.  Not Fade Away is a movie about the entire '60s though, not just 1964.  Douglas does not stay in high school very long.  The timeline abruptly jumps between scenes usually between winter holidays and summertime to provide the audience a clue as to how far into the future the movie jumps.  Douglas also starts to eerily resemble a young Bob Dylan as times progresses.  

Not Fade Away feels like a 12 hour network miniseries about a specific part of '60s culture crunched into a two hour film.  Famous '60s terms, people, and events are name-dropped to shove the timeline forward and the kids at the center of it all grow more adept at practicing pretension.  One band member says he is only interested in advanced time signatures like 5/4 and 6/8, Douglas's girlfriend, Grace (Bella Heathcote), casually states she dated an adjunct Harvard professor of medieval Persian poetry, and Douglas himself declares that rock and roll does not keep you young, it is a serious art form.  The worst of these horrible conversations includes a reference to the new sexual revolution and how Douglas wouldn't care if Grace cheated on him now, but Grace cheated on him back in '64 before the revolution so that really hurts his feelings.

The ideas behind Not Fade Away are strong and what makes this film so frustrating is that you can see the potential for a really good film in here somewhere.  David Chase is paying homage to his rock and roll youth but it is diluted with a trough of unnecessary segues such as a motorcycle accident, a trip to L.A., and one too many awkward dinners with the extended family ending with someone, usually Douglas, storming out of the house.  Just because you grew up, experienced, and remember every year between 1963 to 1969, it doesn't mean you must saddle your film with a stop in each of these years.  Not Fade Away is a good example of where less would have been more.  Focusing more on Douglas and Grace or Douglas and his father or just Douglas and his love of music would be much deeper than the forgettable chaff which should have been cut to the editing room floor.

Every now and then the movie escapes a little bit from '60s montage and shows something original.  Executive producer Steve Van Zandt wrote a catchy original song for the band to play, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and the concept of Not Fade Away as a sort of love letter to rock and roll is a good bit of nostalgia even if the attached plot and dialogue are pretty thin.  The by-chance meeting of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at a railway station is a good story about the launch of one of the most famous bands the world has ever known.  Not Fade Away, however, reminds us that for every Rolling Stones, there are thousands of other bands you have never heard of, each of them with their own coming-of-age backstory.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Deep Blue Sea (2012)


Unrequited love stings.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez began Love in the Time of Cholera with the famous line, "It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love."  Granted, the bitter almonds line does not convey a lot of gravity to the enormous pit in one's stomach when you realize the immense feelings you have for another person are not returned.  On its surface, The Deep Blue Sea focuses on a love triangle where two of the people involved suffer unrequited love and the third is too oblivious or drunk to know what he feels.

The current iteration of The Deep Blue Sea is at least the third go around for its post-World War II London story.  It was first a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan and a 1955 film starring Viven Leigh.  This time, directed by Terence Davies (best known for another tedious and off-putting film, The House of Mirth (2000)), the scenery of a still bomb-ravaged and ration card saturated London is just as important as its slow and meandering plot.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez began Love in the Time of Cholera on a lighter note before diving into the rough waters of depression and rejection.  The Deep Blue Sea uses an attempted suicide as its lead-off batter.  

Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) swallows a bunch of pills and lays down in front of a gas heater to do the deed.  Her attempt fails.  Why did she do it?  The man she is in love with, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), lives with her and is still in love with her, but he is not as in love with her as she is with him.  He also forgot her birthday.  Hester says she did not try to end her life over anything Freddie did or did not do, it is her psyche which drove her to the edge.  Freddie is not the most stable and mature guy to handle something as heavy as an attempted suicide, so he immediately runs out of their shabby, rented boarding house room to the local pub when he finds out.  Hester then chain smokes her way through an endless supply of smokes to get through the rest of the day.

Collyer is Hester's married name by the way.  She is still married to a much older man, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a respected judge and not only has no need for such things as ration cards, but has a hard time understanding why a woman deliberately chooses to jettison a life of ease for something as silly as romantic love or lust.  William is very much in love with Hester and frequently stops by her boarding house in his chaufered luxury automobile to see if she has come to her sense's yet.  William refuses to grant Hester a divorce, his right in 1950 London, but he is not a very easy character to have any empathy for either.  His domineering mother (Barbara Jefford) is so passive aggressively cruel to Hester, she could have run away from her marriage based on her mother-in-law alone.

Hester's attempted suicide makes no sense whatsoever.  She is whip-smart; her intellect compared to simple-minded Freddie is a frequent source of consternation between the two of them.  She is well aware of Freddie's limitations as a boyfriend and a provider, but she loves him unconditionally or even because of those qualities.  She should most likely have expected he would go out golfing with his buddies instead of remembering her birthday.  The film's plot and believability is quite thin due to Hester's questionable start.  Most of the movie is relayed in flashbacks to explain how Hester arrived at such a low point and even though it is a mere 98 minutes long, it feels much longer than that.  

However, there are two instances which make the drudgery of The Deep Blue Sea almost bearable.  One is its creative camera work, specifically in a scene in the London underground during a nighttime bombardment in the Battle of Britain.  In one long take, the camera starts at one end of an underground platform, tracks across a family sleeping on the tracks, some policemen, a lone singer, and finally ends on Hester and William who are huddled together during the thunder of the bombing and looking quite out of place in their finery.  The other is Rachel Weisz's performance.  Hester as a character is almost ridiculous, but Weisz is mesmerizing.  She shakes, she cries, she stares, she smokes like a chimney, and she dominates every scene she is in easily overshadowing her male co-stars.  A Hester sans Weisz may have set up The Deep Blue Sea as one of the worst film's of the year.   

The only reason to sit through an updated version of this unrequited love story is if you want to see a well-done, stylized version of post-World War II ravaged London or perhaps if you are a Rachel Weisz fan.  Otherwise, stay away from The Deep Blue Sea and get your love triangle fix elsewhere.