Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty had a lot to live up to in my mind – the plaudits (and criticism *) have come in fast and furious, declaring that this is one of the best films of the year while at the same time decrying its depiction of torture and various other crimes, etc. So while I did not really know what to expect (The Hurt Locker, part two, perhaps?). I entered the cinema not knowing what to expect. Well maybe that is a bit of a stretch – considering in general,  I feel  quite safe in Ms. Bigelow’s directorial hands.

ZDT

For those who may not know, Zero Dark Thirty is based on true events and tells the story of America’s covert operation to capture the “mastermind” (a term used advisedly) behind the events of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden (UBL). It is an unflinching at often at times unsettling look at the frustrations, small victories and major setbacks the intelligence community experienced in the years of infiltrating the terror networks of the Middle East, all in hopes of getting the Al Qaeda leader and many of his cohorts.

Our guide on this journey is the fresh outta Langely Maya (Jessica Chastain). At first she seems slightly ill at ease with seeing up close the tactics used by her colleagues, she gradually grows into her role until it is clear that her singular mission to see justice done to UBL at all costs.

I am certain there are several but one criticism audiences with have with the film is surely the now obligatory use of the “shakey-cam” – nearly a requirement for all military films to convey a sense of action and realism. While I agree that at times it is rather bothersome (especially as I had the good fortune of sitting in the first row of the theater – price paid for getting to a NYC theater ON TIME) it was not enough of a distraction or hindrance to ruin the film for me.

Kathryn Bigelow (I have always been a personal fan of hers) proves yet again to be an auteur at the top of her game.

Kudos to all the performances by the cast; this was an ensemble piece with Jessica Chastain leading the way. As I previously alluded to, there may not have been a great deal of character development given (not really needed, given the overarching subject matter), there was just enough that as the hunt for UBL progressed, Ms. Chastain conveyed the image of a woman on a mission singularly obsessed with personally capturing this target. And by the end, we see the toll this hunt has taken on her; there is a sense of ambiguity I felt at the close – it was not necessarily satisfaction, more relief and a moment to exhale.

If you want to find out more about the CIA character on who the character is based, check out this Washington Post article.

Overall, Dark Zero Thirty is a solid, well-executed military suspense / action /drama (with a couple of chuckle-worthy moments thrown in) that in spite of the audience knowing the endgame, will keep you on the edge of your seat. It has achieved what a lot of films aim to do but just fallen short of – hitting that sweet spot of telling a true life story that has the drama and tension of the best of those stories.


* Note: I know that there are many controversies surrounding the film’s politics – and while I do not want to be dismissive of those criticisms, I have left them out of my discussion of the film.

Hitchcock (2012)

Earlier this week, I entered the screening of Hitchcock with the highest of expectations, given my given love of the director’s body of work. Ninety minutes after seeing the film, I arrived at the following conclusion – in spite of an interesting premise and my enjoyment of several key elements of the film, ultimately was a hodgepodge of comedy, suspense, psycho-drama and, at the center of it all, the personal and professional lives of husband-wife-collaborators Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville (Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, respectively).

Based on a the book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello and directed by Sacha Gervasi, the movie starts with a rather startling opening sequence, made lighter by the presence of Hitch (Anthony Hopkins) giving a direct to camera monologue in the style of his television show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Immediately there is a shift to the premier of the 1959 classic North by Northwest. Hitch was in a pickle – he was looking for the next story; circumstances brought the true-crime book Psycho to his attention.

As Hitch becomes deeply immersed in the world of Psycho, the audience is given a glimpse into Hitch’s well-documented obsession with the “cool blondes” and the impact it had on his marriage. This collision of his personal neurosis and an increasing fixation on Ed Gein (the inspiration for the Norman Bates character) leads to slightly creepy yet at the same time misplaced sequences when Hitch is working out some of his darkest thoughts with the serial killer.

As I previously stated, the actual “story” of the behind-the-scenes of Hitch’s 1960 horror classic, Psycho is basically the b-story. But even in that regard, it is a well-developed sub-plot involving the making of the film.

Anthony Hopkins yet again proves that in spite of not looking like The Master of Suspense, he is able to (in great part this time through the magic of movie makeup) totally embody a character – whether fictional or real-life – almost without fault. The cadence in his voice was spot on. Equal kudos to Helen Mirren, who delivers a solid performance. She gives weight to the woman behind the man, a woman who may be unknown to many audiences but who in her introduction for many audience members to the woman behind the genius who was a genius and creative force in her own right.

A welcomed pleasure for me was the work of the supporting cast – especially from Jessica Biel (Vera Miles) and Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh). When I first heard of this project and saw the casting news, I had some reservations about how this would work – but it did. There were additional noted turns by James D’Arcy (Anthony Perkins) and Toni Collette as Hitch’s personal secretary.

And now for a few things that were not as effective for me. I have already mentioned the dialogue between Hitch and the Ed Gein of his mind was a little unsettling for me (maybe I am just a scaredy cat). In addition, the “direct to camera Hitch” presentations were a bit misplaced for me.

Script wise, I felt the dialogue had too many hints of exposition and information whose context would only be known with the benefit of hindsight. I cannot imagine any of the characters capable of delivering some of the words naturally in real life. However, let me play Devil’s Advocate to my own argument – I suppose this is due to screenwriter John McLaughlin creating dialogue based on the information from the source material – information that likely has the factual and reference points. That said, it just did not translate well as on-screen dialogue for me.

Another thing that did not sit well with me is the handling of the central relationship between Hitchcock and Reville. The fact that a tertiary character (in the form of Whitfield Cook, portrayed by Danny Huston) was inserted to form a potential romantic rivalry seemed unnecessary. I think just looking that the two people and not placing an emphasis on an “interloper” would have been more than enough.

Perhaps I am a little too close to the subject matter and am just being really picky. That said, let me take a step back and think about it for a moment; the question ultimately is do I think that a non-Hitchcock obsessive would enjoy this film? And unfortunately, the best answer I can come up with is maybe.

Good Evening.

When the Sky falls …

It has been nearly two weeks since I first saw Skyfall in the cinema. In that time, I have read a lot more on others’ positive (or negative) reaction to it. After all is said and done, one thing remains abundantly clear for me about this film: it is an exhilarating, action packed film that in my estimation is one of the finest 007 outings that has been produced.

From the onset, we know we are in for an exhilarating (literal) ride, with our intrepid agent chasing down someone who has information that if placed in the wrong hands (as presumably his are) spell disaster for M (Judi Dench) and her band of spies. As the story unfolds, it is apparent that this time, the end game is much more personal, closer to home – even as we enjoy the bits of globe trotting thrown in between. However it is the United Kingdom, and London in particular, that featured prominently. I think this made Skyfall more grounded in terms of time and space.

When I first heard Sam Mendes was coming on board to direct the next James Bond film, I was slightly bemused; surely I did not doubt his ability to direct, but my concern came from his ‘action-y’ bona fides. Any skepticism on this matter was shattered by my satisfaction with the big action sequences that blended so well with the dramatic action taking place around it.

In terms of the performances, it’s official – Daniel Craig has supplanted the Bond that marked my coming of age, Roger More. I know he might not be everyone’s cuppa, but I quite like his grizzled, world-weary and weathered British agent. On the flip side, Javier Bardem’s Silva had a gravitas and purpose to his villainous ways that did not have to resort to the caricature “wanting to take over the world” baddie that we all but expect to see in these types of films. For their part, the ‘supporting’ players – including Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw – up-and-down the line made the film all the more enjoyable for me.

And now, the bad news :( , a couple of quibbles …

Of course the ever-present, shoehorned product placement is something that I can ignore, but when my guard is down, there are those moments when I am jolted by the crass commercialization so clearly exhibited on screen. We can get past that.

One thing that bothered me a bit more was the role Berenice Marlohe’s Severine served – her presence in the film only seemed to serve 007’s pleasure, and when her ‘work’ was done, she was no longer be required. Perhaps, the further away I get from the film it is something that I have thought about a little more, but in the moment, it sort of washed over me because I was so invested in reaching the end point of the film. Then again, maybe I am overthinking this whole thing – it is a Bond film, albeit a grand, well crafted one, after all …

So, one may ask, was this observation enough for me to NOT recommend the film? After some thought, I feel comfortable in saying that for 007 fans this is a must-see film. Even if you are not a devotee of the film franchise (incidentally celebrating its 50th year with release of this film), I think there is enough in here – with all the drama, explosive action and yes – even a couple of punchy one-liners thrown in for good measure –to make Skyfall an enjoyable night at the movies.

 

i luv cinema’s Take on “Wuthering Heights” (Directed by Andrea Arnold)

Last week, I have the privilege of catching a sneak preview of Andrea Arnold’s latest film – her adaptation of the Emily Brontë classic Wuthering Heights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Equally exciting was the opportunity to participate in the Q&A session that followed the screening,  with the director herself live and in person.

Alas, I did not have a particular question to ask Ms. Arnold; but I did have a lot to think about, as I was still processing what I just saw on screen.

Having been a fan of her work and having seen two of her previous directorial outings (Red Road, Fish Tank) I knew that this film would not provide a stock, straightforward adaptation of the source material. Over the years, Arnold’s films have stood out in my mind for their depiction of an unflinching world in which her characters live and are often fighting against.

* Since this is a classic and must read for many a school-aged child, I will not drag on about the plot but will, instead, direct you to a fine synopsis of the novel here.

Going into the film, I  also had a little bit of a background understanding of some of the artistic embellishments added to the film, most notably in the casting of young, Black British men in the role of Heathcliff as a youth and as an adult. For some this was a controversial choice – for me, it was not that much of a stretch – in fact, I thought it allowed a contemporary audience to experience the treatment gypsy (as Heathcliff is in the novel) would have experience at the hands of people who lived in rural 19th century England. It especially gave his treatment at the hands of Hindley that much more weight. Although in our screening at least one viewer took exception to the “obvious” – his words not mine – characterization of Hindley as a skinhead. Ms. Arnold’s humorous retort was one that accepted this fact and swiftly moved on from it. And so shall I.

As for the film itself, very much like in the book, the external environment plays a vital role in telling the story the tragic lovers. However I must say in this version, the moors have a decidedly cold, remote feel to them. I would liken the coldness I felt here to my experience watching Jane Eyre last year. That said, the cinematography is quite good in capturing the landscape, even if at moments the use of the hand-held camera proved a little trying on my weary eyes.

As for the ever-important portrayals of Cathy and Heathcliff, I think that the performances of the younger pair (Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave) really rose to the occasion and worked better (for me) than of the actors who played the tragic couple as adults (Kaya Scodelario and James Howson).

Like many adaptations of Wuthering Heights, the story focuses on the central Cathy and Heathcliff relationship (this time the story is specifically viewed from Heathcliff’s perspective – as was Arnold’s stated intention) and cleaves the entire second half of novel, which is fine by me, since I felt the book was a bit of a letdown once Cathy’s fate is sealed.

One final thing that I am still undecided on is the ending … in particular the music that leads us into the final credits. Normally this is not something I pay too particular attention to, but in this case the music choice stands out in that it is most decidedly anachronistic (* if any of you have seen the film let me know what you think in the comments section below).

Wuthering Heights opens October 5th at the Film Forum in NYC. Followed by a wider release on October 12 in select cities nationwide.

 

A Quick Reaction To “Won’t Back Down” (2012)

I must admit that I did not go into this Won’t Back Down with the highest of expectations and unfortunately, that target was met. What I suppose was to be a powerful statement on the current state of the education system had a decidedly afterschool special feel to it.

Inspired by ‘actual events’ the story goes a little something like this: a hard-working, dedicated single mom in Pittsburgh, PA (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose daughter has dyslexia. The school she is currently in is essentially a poorly managed holding cell that has no intention of providing the resources that her daughter needs, not to ay anything for providing a basic education for her or any of the students. Elsewhere in the school you have a teacher (Viola Davis) from the same school who has her own obstacles to overcome – among them: fighting her own apathy at her present vocation, dealing with her own child (who may or may not have learning disabilities) and marriage hanging on by the narrowest of threads.

After the hopes of reaching the Utopia of a charter school where there are too few spots available there is the  “just in time” revelation that there exists “parent trigger laws” that essentially permits parents (with the support of the community and a majority of teachers) in a failing school to take it over. After some back and forth, our heroines decide to join forces and now we  have the perfect recipe for a fight-the-system story that takes all of its characters on a “journey,’ the end of which is a catalyst for change. I guess that is the point anyway – to leave its audience inspired. I felt anything but inspired; I felt this was an insincere attempt to manipulate my emotions. This is not even to speak of the film’s thinly veiled political message.

It all begins with the statement on the film’s official website:

Putting aside partisan divides and political agendas, WON’T BACK DOWN takes a raw and unflinching look at the current state of our country’s education system, and provides an optimistic and actionable point of view for parents, teachers, and community activists alike.

What it appears we have here is a classic case of  “the lady doth protest too much.” The story DOES have a strong statement to make, if not an outright agenda, concerning teachers’ unions as stalwarts of the status quo. There is one particularly vile portrayal of a teacher who shops on an online website while her students run amok and terrorize Gyllenhaal’s daughter. In more than one instance, this teacher even seems complicit in giving the unfortunate girl a hard time.

Putting politics aside (please), as far as the acting is concerned, Viola Davis, for all of her acting prowess , turns in what has become her standard solid performance. She really does the best she can with the material. For her part, Maggie Gyllenhaal is also making the best out of a clichéd and hokey script.

In the end, given the current state of education in this country, I imagine that there are many stories out there to be told – indeed, some of them are probably even destined for the silver screen. Hopefully, these future tales will spin a more balanced and naturally uplifting narrative.

Reaction Piece: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

This film first caught my attention following the buzz it had coming out of the Sundance Film Festival. At the time, I really did not know too much about the plot or themes of the film, but from what I could gather, it was a story from another place (and possibly another time).

Over time, I gained a little more insight into what the film was about until, I visited the film’s website for a pretty comprehensive synopsis:

In a forgotten but defiant bayou community cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee, a six-year-old girl exists on the brink of orphanhood. Buoyed by her childish optimism and extraordinary imagination, she believes that the natural world is in balance with the universe until a fierce storm changes her reality. Desperate to repair the structure of her world in order to save her ailing father and sinking home, this tiny hero must learn to survive unstoppable catastrophes of epic proportions.

It is true; this film has an otherworldly quality to it especially when one considers that it is set in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – even if it is not an America that we are used to seeing. Still it is but it is magical, mystical and yet a very natural place.

Of course the credit for this visioning goes to director Benh Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson.

Equal credit props to the relatively inexperienced cast, who all turn in solid performances. In particular, the film’s young star, Quvenzhané Wallis, shines bright in a role that could easily have sunk into unbearable despair. She captured the audience’s heart and minds with a performance that usually belies someone of her age, wisdom or (lack of) experience.

Granted the ending did not yield any waterworks on my part – it does not make it any less emotive and touching. In fact, I connected with our heroine from the perspective of a person (albeit a little older one) who is dealing with the imminent loss of a parent.

Overall, the film left me feeling that in spite of the tragedy that has fallen upon our hero, she will persevere and rise above her circumstances and be all the stronger for it.

TDKR = Epic Awesomeness

PLEASE NOTE: This is not necessarily a review. Partially because I am lazy and do not have the time to produce the fully developed, well-reasoned analysis this film deserves. Also, whenever possible I enjoy bucking convention when it comes to a critical reaction to a film; I think it makes things more exciting :)

I do recognize, however, that after seeing The Dark Knight Rises this past Friday, I could not let the moment pass without letting the readers (at least) know what I thought of the film – as if the title of this post were not indication enough.

As we know, films like these that come in 3’s usually can be a bit of a let down in its closing installment. So automatically, the expectation and excitement I had for this film was a bit tempered. But, as you will see by the following aspects of the film that I have highlighted below, The Dark Knight Rises left me with an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and completion.

 

The slow burn. I felt like the action that awaited us largely in the remainder of the movie was well earned by the dramatic tension, pathos and humor experienced in the early stages of the film.

 

Anne Hathaway. While I have my favorite actors/actresses, I try not to invest too much time and energy in those thesps that I look upon less favorably. In the case of Anne Hathaway, on the best of days, I have remained relatively ambivalent about her. Here in The Dark Knight Rises, she delivered the goods. I was quite impressed with her performance. And better yet, I want her personal trainer :)

 

The cast at large. As with many comic book adapts, the law of diminishing returns holds. When I saw the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises I was a little apprehensive – there were too many people that I recognized! How would they all get a fair share of screen time? Well leave it to Nolan to balance everyone’s role and create a true ensemble piece.

 

Those nice little surprises. From the cameos to little plot twists, this installment gave it to you all.

 

It truly was a communal cinematic experience. In a world of flat panel monitors and home cinemas, people have started to question the need for the multiplex, movie house, or any incarnation of film exhibition that lies in between.  A large part of my enjoyment from watching the film was that I was in a room full of strangers who were laughing, crying and clapping along. In other words, we are all there to have a good time – and we did. And in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy of this past weekend, that was a warm, reassuring experience to have.

 

I could not have imagined a better send off for the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” canon.

(For the uninitiated, not to worry – you can always catch up on the first two in The Dark Knight trilogy by signing up and watch movies online for free).

La Délicatasse (Delicacy), 2012: A French Confection

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of the film La Délicatasse (Delicacy) at the new, 20 seat Screening Room of The Picture House. All I can saw is wow! I want this setup in the “home cinema of my mind.”

This film is all about moving on and tells the story of Nathalie (Audrey Tautou) and her (in)ability to move on from the loss of her beloved husband. As is my experience with French cinema, this is not handled in the most straightforward of fashion. There are unreal transitions into the imagination – some used to compress time while others are established as a means of reflection. In addition, there were a lot more lighthearted moments that I expected, especially given the subject matter.

While I would not place myself in the category of Tautou fan-girl, this film provided further evidence to me what her appeal is. I say this in a non-pejorative tone – she embodies all that I envision as being quintessentially French. I was fixated to the screen, in particular wondering where I could find those cute shoes she wears in the film.

But I digress – among the things I liked about the film were the acting, lead by Ms. Tautou and the music – it was wonderfully integrated into the scenes to reflect the mood and action happening onscreen.

While unconventionality of how (and with whom) she has decided to move on is very clichéd, it is handled in such a manner that it did not detract from my enjoyment at watching the film.

So if you like your tragedy served with moments of humor, whimsy and a lot of French, then this is the film for you.


The film is directed by David Foenkinos, Stephane Foenkinos with a screenplay by David Foenkinos, based on his novel.

Quick Reaction to “Prometheus”

I will save the “good stuff” for my upcoming LAMBcast. But I thought I would take a moment to reflect on some of what I saw on Tuesday evening.

Things I liked about Prometheus:

  • The marketing: I know some people were a bit overwhelmed by the viral marketing campaign. In fact there were even times when I thought that it may be too much. But after watching the film I must admit that it really did not give too much away but instead provided some good context for the proceedings on the screen.
  • The acting: especially the thespian triumvirate of Theron, Fassbender and Elba. Oh yeah and Pearce, too
  • The surprisingly immersive 3D experience. Prometheus one of the few films that I did not mind employing the gimmick use of technology.
  • The set design: Director Ridley Scott outdid himself with the set pieces on this film it was in a word – beautiful.

The things I did not like about the film:

  • Plot details: I feel like there was too much stuff crammed into the film; a few plot details could have fallen by the wayside for the sake of a clearer narrative.
  • An ending seemingly designed to hint at taking the story further (likely a studio version) because I cannot imagine Scott would think of the Alien ‘progenitor’ all by himself.
  • Not enough Rafe Spall :)

Overall, despite some flaws, I enjoyed the film.

One Day I Was Watching “One Day” …

My goodness. This weekend while channel surfing, I stumbled upon a film that until this point, I had successfully avoided – the Jim Sturgess Anne Hathaway tearjerker One Day. Despite its best intentions the film just did not do anything for me. Well, there was that wince inducing moment near the end that I did have a slight chuckle. However, I do not think that was the response the filmmakers desired.

The story of One Day is adapted from the bestselling novel by David Nicholls (also wrote the screenplay). Upon getting together on graduation night, Dexter (Jim Sturgess) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) develop a friendship that we, the audience, drop in on, on the same day July 15th (St. Swithin’s Day), over the course of 20 years. Whereas in the novel, each chapter chronicles a single year, the film does not have this luxury so the narrative skips a few years at a time, still focused on the “one day”. This aspect of the movie is well executed.

The performances overall were quite good; the excellent supporting cast includes Rafe Spall, Romola Garai and Patricia Clarkson. The one slight disappointment is Ms. Hathaway. This is not entirely her fault for, if I am honest, the kerfuffle in the media at the time of the film’s theatrical release regarding her Leeds accent was a bit of a distraction when watching her onscreen.

The film is wonderfully shot under the direction of Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners). So one would think that this is a wonderful formula for an emotive, romantic piece. But, as stated in my introductory paragraph, this was not the case.

What escapes me at this point is why, for the life of me, I walked away from the film thinking it ended as a bit of a mess. It had so much potential – unique narrative device, a great cast and director, but misfired where it mattered most – eliciting the necessary response from the viewer (me).

This is where you, fair readers, come in – what am I missing? Did you see One Day? If so, let me know what you think in the comments section below.