42 (2013)

There is something about baseball that translates so well to the silver screen – especially when it is a story well told. Sure, as I have gotten older, my interest in the national pastime as a spectator sport has been supplanted by the tennis and international football (soccer), but when it comes to sports on film, I would say nothing beats a good, nostalgic baseball tale.

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Last week, I attended a special screening of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42.

For even the most casual of sports fan, the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier transcends the realm of sports history and is now woven into the fabric of the larger American story. But for the sake of context, it may help to go into a little more detail –

42 chronicles Robinson’s (played here by newcomer Chadwick Boseman) early years as he works his way from the Negro Leagues, to the minors and finally spans his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The film also examines Robinson’s relationship with his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), his Dodgers teammates and Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford).

What resonated for me was watching a man who understood what his presence meant at this particular place and time in history; the burden he shouldered with an almost unconscionable, dare I say, “superhuman” amount of resolve is something I could not even imagine.

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I have read where some suggest that the sentimentality spin and old fashioned structure of the film will not work for everyone. My retort? Au, contraire! I think given the setting and central story being told, this style of the film is just right.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the performances – across the board, they were good. I would like to serve special notice to Chadwick Boseman filling the shoes of a legend.

So you may be wondering what made this screening special? Well, in attendance was no other than fellow Mount Vernon-ite and Robinson teammate Ralph Branca, who participated in a post-screening question and answer session in which he talked about growing up in Mount Vernon, NY and his remembrances of playing with and being in the locker room with Jackie Robinson.

This story (and all that surrounds it) holds a special place in my heart – it is yet another cinematic reference that brings to mind my beloved dad. Raised along the eastern seaboard in cities like Baltimore and New York, he spent his formative years Brooklyn, attending Boys High School and being a die hard Dodgers fan. Even when the Dodgers “betrayed” their fans and fled to the greener pastures of Chavez Ravine (Los Angeles, CA), pops continued to follow the team from a distance. As a teacher and lover of African American history Jackie Robinson’s story had immeasurable impact (I imagine) on his life and that was passed on to us.

Have you seen it? Let me know what you think by posting your comments below.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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As I mentioned in an earlier post upon seeing the trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness, I was a bit concerned that the film would be too earnest for its own good. The trailer came off as dark and menacing. Not that these elements in of themselves are enough to turn me away from the movie theater doors, I was fearful that the sequel would lose some of the charm and whimsy that made the first movie a wonderful surprise.

I have no idea why I doubted JJ Abrams’ ability to make a sequel that is equal parts entertaining, funny and dramatic. In summary, Star Trek Into Darkness did NOT disappoint.

The action starts off with the USS Enterprise going on a mission that does not go quite as expected; the result being the demotion of our fearless/reckless Captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine). At the same time, there appears to be an imminent threat to the Star Fleet and it resources. The suspect is an enigmatic figure, one Jon Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). His actions set into motion circumstances that place the newly re-appointed Captain Kirk and his crew on a mission that has many twists and turns.

At the center of all the amazing action sequences and set pieces continues to be the relationships – principally the one between Kirk and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto). While Kirk is all emotion, Spock seems to fight against his human nature for his own self-preservation, as he tells Kirk and Uhura (Zoë Saldana) in a very moving sequence. What you are left with is an intriguing picture of a friendship forged from the most unlikely duo. Even though most of us are familiar with the Kirk/Spock relationship from the TV series, Abrams’ take is so very touching.

Now to the principal villain. I do not want to spoil ANYTHING (I actually was blissfully ignorant as to who was what in the film), but the main villain that everyone is aware of is the always delightful to watch Benedict Cumberbatch. Let’s face it – that man has a face marked for villainy, especially of the urbane variety. That said what is haunting is the cold way in which he delivers his brutality.

Yeah I know I mentioned in my Iron Man 3 interview I bellyached about the IMAX 3D experience, so chances were I would not want to relive that experience a second time. But call me a glutton for punishment I went ahead and paid for the privilege. To add to my enjoyment for the evening, this was not a bad 3D experience. So while I may not 100% sold on 3D for cinema-going yet, it does seem like for those who are willing to part with a few extra dollars, you may want to part with it here.

In discussing the film after the fact – someone brought up an interesting point to me – while the Star Trek films have been fun to watch, the ‘campy’ references to the legendary TV show run the risk of wearing thin as future installments of the franchise are released. We know that the Star Trek universe has limitless story possibilities, so this is a great time to explore those narrative opportunities. I am SO here for all of that!

Have you seen Star Trek Into Darkness? Hit up the Comments section of my post!

 

Just a Few Questions Concerning Iron Man 3 (Contains Spoilers)

These are just a few thoughts/open-ended questions that have been swirling in my mind since I saw Iron Man 3 yesterday (yeah yeah I know suspension of disbelief and all but for reals, this stuff was kinda sorta nagging me, so bear with).

  1. Will Happy slip back into a coma after watching season 3 of Downton Abbey?
  2. How did Tony Stark pay for all of that hardware when he was in exile in Tennessee? ILCs Theory: emergency stash of cash in the Iron Man suit.
  3. Speaking of Tennessee, that little kid – precocious or just plain annoying?
  4. Why didn’t they have the Thermal Soldiers [copyright ME ;)] guarding the ‘hideaway’? Side Note: bullet to the kneecap ALWAYS looks so painful.
  5. Rebecca Hall’s appearance, a bit of a letdown?
  6. Why is Miguel Ferrer always playing a bit of a creep?
  7. Exactly how does one reverse making someone a thermal person? I see you Pepper Potts …
  8. Guy Pearce + Don Cheadle two actors I am glad to see on the screen and collecting (what I imagine is) a nice paycheck. Well done boys.
  9. 3D AND IMAX, really?
  10. Why did I stay until the end credits?

In spite of these asinine questions and observations I have just presented, I really did enjoy the film – more than the second (well except for this bit):

and not nearly as much as the first one.

Robert Downey Jr. always sells the role enough to keep me interested in seeing where the character is going. The ‘peripheral’ characters (a term used advisedly) did not hold as much sway for me.

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A lot of the charm in the Iron Man canon was the levity and humor that was here, mainly in the form of Sir Ben Kingsley (spoilers), was patchy at best. Frankly I was expecting a little more since Shane Black was affiliated with the film but then I remembered this was a PG-13 film whose goal was to shoot straight down the middle and fill as many theater seats possible (still salty about the whole 3D/IMAX ‘experience’ but I digress – really is my own fault).

Let me know what you think in the Comments section below.

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The Central Park Five (2012)

 

As a child bought up in the greater New York City area during the 1980s, I was privy to the highly charged racial politics of that era. It seemed like every week, there was a media account of a crime that had a racial dynamic – they involved people such as Bernie Goetz, Eleanor Bumpurs, and Michael Stewart; to this day, this moment in New York history continues to fascinate me. Although I was in the ‘burbs, the climate generated from cases such as the subject of this post, the Ken Burns directed documentary, The Central Park Five (based on the book written by his daughter, Sarah) reverberated and left a lasting impression on me, which to this day – even in the midst of a revitalized and thriving city, dampens my spirits. For readers who may not know too much detail about NYC during this time, let me put my perspective in the simplest of terms: as a child, I was not too keen on venturing out into the city.  No one place encapsulated my fear more than Central Park, the scene of this particular crime. I remember when a friend of the family went to the park in 1983 to see Diana Ross perform; I was so worried for her personal safety. But I digress.

 

For the details of the case in particular, I refer you to case history on the Innocence Project website. This case also brought the term wilding into the common vernacular. Unfortunately for the young men, the media scrutiny that accompanied the trial did not see its way to the re-examination of their case. The film illuminates many details that I was unaware of at the time, often told from the perspective of each of the Central Park Five and reporters, etc. who were covering the stories of the time. While watching the film, I felt equal parts anger, abject sadness (had the tears to prove it), and joy and exultation.

 

As a fan of Burns’ other works, the pace and tone was definitely a departure of form, but that does not make the storytelling any less effective. It just proves that Burns is one of the finer authors of the many facets to the American experience.

 

During my screening back in February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a question and answer session was held with two of the five exonerated men (Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam). It was at points heartbreaking but ultimately, like the documentary itself, an inspiring display of what persistence and grace can deliver. I especially appreciated the care and consideration given not only to their plight, but also to the plight of the victim, then and now.

 

While the film received a cinematic release in late 2012, it is now available on video and TOMORROW it will premier on PBS at 9PM EST! So check your local public television station for more broadcast details.

 

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Everybody Has a Plan (Todos Tenemos Un Plan) Argentina, 2012

First off – sorry this review is posted so late; but as the following passage in the Robert Burns poem, To a Mouse states:

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

I so had the best of intentions last week and while I had bits of my commentary written out, I just could not manage to finish and refine it on time. ANYWAYS, I am finally there and so, here we are.

Normally when I am posting a review/response to a film, I do not look at what others say. This time however and for this film in particular, I was a bit curious. When I read the IMDB rating and the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate, as well as read some of the corresponding reviews, I was a bit surprised. While I would not put this film up there with the great thrillers of this or any other era, it is not the as bad as some would characterize it.

Indeed the film is held together for the most part on the strength of its lead, Viggo Mortensen; but there is another element that captured my notice – the environmental setting, known in Argentina as the Tigre Delta. It seems the perfect location and backdrop for a story shrouded in mystery; one that relies on the revelations of the unknown.

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Directed and written by filmmaker Ana Piterbarg, Everybody Has a Plan (Todos Tenemos Un Plan) tells the story of brothers Agustin and Pedro (Mortensen in a dual role), who could not be any different. By all accounts, Agustin is respectable doctor who lives with his wife in Buenos Aires. Eventually the audience is made privy to the uneasiness that Agustin has with his staid life and is seeking life’s ‘next big adventure.’

His identical twin brother, Pedro, lives in the aforementioned Delta of their childhood. Early on, it was not totally apparent to me what he was involved in, but it definitely looked a little shady. Almost immediately, my suspicions were confirmed.

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At the moment of Pedro’s untimely (?) death Agustin decides to put action to his thoughts about pursuing that adventure, assuming his brother’s identity and returning to the Tigre Delta. Upon his arrival ‘home,’ he soon discovers the many layers of his brother’s less-than-noble activities.

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So what did I think about the film? Off the bat, I must admit, that yes, some of the criticism (and praise) I have read was reasonable. On the plus side thee was the already referred to performance of Viggo Mortensen.

On the negative side, on more than one occasion, I was not sure what this film was trying to be – was it a straightforward crime thriller? an intense family relationship drama? a taught mystery?

Now, this is not to say a film cannot have ALL of these elements but rather that at its most effective, a film more or less follows an identifiable narrative path. The process of moving beyond this convention to surprise and shock an audience is usually left to the most artistically adventurous of filmmakers.

For Mortensen’s part, I can totally see why he would take on this project (he is also credited one of the film’s Producers). Having spent his early years in Argentina, this marks a homecoming of sorts. It is obvious in his portrayal that he is comfortable and at ease with the material and the language.

So to recap, not a great film but definitely a terrible one either (at least in my opinion).

Filmed in Spanish with English subtitles; total running time of 118 minutes.

 

“The Sapphires” is Quite the Charmer

The Sapphires (2012) is based on the 2004 stage play of the same name, itself loosely based on a true story. The film is directed by Wayne Blair and co-written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, who also wrote the play (another ‘fun fact’ about Briggs – his mother and aunt are two of the real-life “Sapphires”).

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The year is 1968 and before we anything taking place on the screen, we are given a little historical context for what we will see over the next couple of hours. As someone who has always been fascinated by the plight of indigenous populations, I knew a little about the “Stolen Generation” – that is the Australian policy of taking fair-skinned Aborigines who could “pass” from their settlement homes and integrating them into white society. The next (startling) factoid to appear in black and white was that, until the 1970’s indigenous Australians were classified as part of Australia’s “flora and fauna.”

Set against the tumult of the war in Vietnam, the audience is witness to the journey taken by four young women of the – headstrong Gail (Deborah Mailman), bubbly Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who has been away in “mainstream” Aussie society and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the young one with the powerful voice. A chance encounter with Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) failed entertainer extraordinaire takes them from Melbourne to the Vietnamese war zone in a mixture of comedy, tense drama and of course, MUSIC.

In terms of the acting, Chris O’Dowd again proves his comedic/romantic leading man bona fides as the feckless manager who falls for one of the singers. I am not as familiar with many of the other performers, but they are all entertaining in their roles. The other standout for me is Jessica Mauboy, who is featured as Julie, the lead vocalist of The Sapphires; in fact, Ms. Mauboy is a known quantity in her native Australia, where she is a popular R&B singer. SIDE NOTE: she sure has some pipes on her.

Let it be known there is a lot going on here. As I mentioned at the open, the fun of this film is set alongside some serious topics – war, racial discrimination and the like. This is particularly evident in the parallel drawn between the plight of the indigenous population and African Americans half a world away (and in one pivotal scene, on the Vietnamese battlefield. On one hand, it connects to the thread of the essence of what soul music represents – the struggle and the triumph of the human condition.

However at times I felt it was more window-dressing and used as a means of driving the plot and interaction between a couple of the members of the group and less about informing the audience. For my part, I admired the effort, even if the execution was not 100% to my satisfaction.

In spite of these quibbles and although in places, the film fell victim to the conventional tropes one finds in similarly themed movies about the rise (and in this case) stall of a girl group, that does not detract from the wonderful I say WONDERFUL film I had the pleasure of seeing yesterday. It left me laughing, tapping my feet and in some instances, crying. It is all heart and soul.

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“Django Unchained” Breakdown: Yeah, I Liked It

Happy Thursday ILC Readers –

I FINALLY have gotten around to catching the 2012 release of Quentin Tarantino’s latest, the Oscar-nominated (and Oscar winning) homage to the spaghetti western, Django Unchained. Let me preface this post by stating that I have not seen the film that serves as an “inspiration” for the film, Django (decidedly WITHOUT the chains, but with some of the same baggage).

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Anyhoo, below are a few of my initial observations and reactions to the movie (in no particular order). Enjoy!

The film’s music was on-point. I really like this soundtrack. The juxtaposing of the classic western theme music with modern hip-hop and everything in between just worked for me. Tarantino is after the man who reminded how much I LOVE Let’s Stay Together by one Reverend Al Green. Respect.

Samuel L. Jackson is hilarious. True this is a statement of the obvious (seriously check out dude’s Twitter feed for evidence), but his turn as the not-so-subservient servant Stephen at least for me was one for the ages. The classic “wise fool” bluff.

DiCaprio should do really, really dark more often. In general, Leo does seem to edge slightly in the role of anti-hero when selecting his roles (kinda sorta can’t wait for his turn as Jay Gatsby). But here as the proprietor of one Candyland, Mr. DiCaprio was especially menacing NOW I know why folks felt like he was snubbed of an Oscar nod. Still that does not take anything away from …

Mr. Christoph Waltz. Man, what a screen presence. Sure I am the last person on the planet NOT to have seen Inglorious Basterds (Note to self: really need to work on that one, ILC) but he really takes the cake for me.

Kerry Washington is just so … durned pretty and apparently, a master of linguist.  Heck, I was convinced by Brunhilda’s German – granted, that is a pretty low bar I suppose. I felt like she spoke more German (or nearly as much) as English in the time she was on screen (and actually spoke).

The film coulda used a little trimming around the edges. Now I must say that I was not bored in the slightest, but especially near the end, I felt like the film could have been trimmed down a bit. A nearly three hour commitment (without an intermission) is quite a lot to ask of an audience. At the end of the day it is a credit to the film itself that so many folks enjoyed it, in spite of its running time.

Franco Nero (The O.D. – Original Django) likens “The Most Interesting Man in the World”. I just wanted to put that out there because I was so proud that I spotted his cameo, all the while not expecting it. Five points for Ravenclaw (Blasted Sorting Hat!)

Jamie – ruffles and blue silk, or whatever that shiny material was, is not a good look. That about says it all [wink].

 

Now is this film for everyone? OF COURSE NOT. This holds especially true for those who are perturbed by a high level of on-screen violence and/or the overuse of certain harsh (to put it mildly) turns of phrase.

So as you can see, all controversies aside (definitely a discussion worth having – I have already had several, including a long-planned one with my hairdresser), I actually enjoyed this film, and quite more than I expected to. I even laughed at some pointed moments (see note on Sam Jackson above).

That is to say I did not think I was going to see a turkey, but considering the last QT film I saw in the cinemas was Kill Bill, Volume I … you can imagine my initial trepidation – alas when the final credits rolled, all fears were allayed.

 

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Honestly I did not know what to expect when I entered the movie theater on that cold rainy Friday night. The only thing I did know about the film I was about to see (Silver Linings Playbook) was that it had just received a slew of Academy Awards nominations. I sat in my seat rearing to go.

After 2 hours, would I declare this a hit or a miss? Read down further to find out …

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We open by meeting Pat (Bradley Cooper) as he is being treated in a facility for what we find out is a previously undiagnosed mental ailment – which itself is the aftermath of engaging in a disturbing manic act, one that may have otherwise landed him in the slammer. Now released to the custody of his mother and father (Jackie Weaver and Robert DeNiro) he is determined to reclaim that life taken away from him. Enter Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) recently widowed and sister to Pat’s estranged wife’s friend (played by Julia Stiles). Pat and Tiffany are two people meet at a very low point in each other’s lives and are trying to fight their way through their troubles. As the movie progresses, the idea that they might just get there if they work together and support each other.

Sounds heavy, right? Well, in the end what you have in this film that is a variety pack: a romantic comedy/family drama/session on the psych’s couch. And, to my pleasant surprise, it works. We shift through the various layers and stories at play seamlessly. I found myself laughing out loud at times and at other times genuinely feeling for the angst I saw on screen.

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Onto the performances. While I have been one to admire many aspects of Bradley Cooper it seemed to me at least like there was something missing from the performances on screen. Alas with Silver Linings Playbook I feel like he hit a sweet spot. In fact this got me reflecting more on that fact that there are a lot of talented people out there in H-wood and sometimes it is simply a matter of finding that material which out the best in you. Maybe it had something to do with shooting the film in and around his native Philadelphia (I do my research) but there seemed to be even tone to his performance as ironically a man who was battling a crippling mental ailment.

Cooper’s co-star, Jennifer Lawrence, carries on the role as the longing, grieving and heartbroken widow with an aplomb that belies her age. I know folks are ready to crown the America’s next sweetheart and all, but please just let her grow into her craft and go from strength to strength.

The supporting cast is nothing to scoff at either. I think my personal favorite is Chris Tucker, Pat’s friend from his time inside, who turns up at the most random moments to great comedic effect.

Of course this praise of the film is due in large part to finding a director that can bring out the best in you and weave all of these story elements together – much dap to David O. Russell for doing this with his cast of characters.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, I did find myself asking if it deserves the plaudits that have been heaped upon in. Why not is my response. During the awards season, I think that many of us get caught up in the notion that if a film is to be a serious awards contender it must be overly esoteric or dramatically epic. That position really does diminish the value derived from the simple act of moviegoing and purely enjoying oneself. In the case of Silver Linings Playbook you have a well-constructed story, very well acted. Thus making it a film well worth watching.

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Video Review: Pitch Perfect (2012)

Okay I admit it – I was a Season 1 “Gleek.” And while my enthusiasm for the television series has waned what has not waned is my love for the good ole singing and dancing numbers that sometimes accompany film and television. So when I found out about the film Pitch Perfect you can imagine my anticipation with seeing it.

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About 90 minutes later, while I found the number routines quite fun, the “narrative” left me a little flat. Not that I think there was much concern for that anyways because most of us were there for the song and dance anyways.

Add to that the fact I am pretty sure I am not the target demo for this film (being well past my teens and all) I can excuse some of the plot contrivances common among teen comedies – most notably the whole “boy meets girl” scenario, band of misfits, etc. – for the sake of some unadulterated fun.

Pitch Perfect was directed by Jason Moore and is loosely based on the non-fiction book of the same title written by Mickey Rapkin. Largely set on the fictional campus Barden University, the film opens at Lincoln Center in New York City; we are smack dab into the final round of a nationwide a cappella competition. The Barden Bellas, the all-female group, experience an unfortunate onstage incident which makes them the laughing stock of their campus and the fodder of ridicule especially at the hands of the award-winning all male rival group on campus – the Treblemakers.

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Desperate to right the wrong done to them the Barden Bellas set out on a mission to bring in some new blood – this is where “the misfits” enter, headed y teen wannabe DJ Beca (Anna Kendrick) and “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson). It instantly becomes a clash between old and new and rivalries heightened as the march toward a cappella greatness continues …

Ironically, there are a couple of references to another teen oriented comedy from nearly 30 years ago, The Breakfast Club (DANG it is that long ago? I’m old). Unfortunately for me, this reference to that film was a reminder on some level what this kind of genre can be at its most earnest (minus the singing and dancing of course). Okay so maybe that is not a fair comparison to make since Pitch Perfect is not a film that takes itself too seriously. All the more fun!

In addition to some good musical numbers and solid performances by the leads, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the a cappella group from my alma mater – The Hullabahoos – have a cameo in the film. WA-HOO-WA!

But as I said earlier despite this (unfair) comparison, Pitch Perfect ultimately strikes the right note.

 

 

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.

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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.