Zero Dark Thirty – Review

Zero-Dark-Thirty-Trailer

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) rating 6.5/10

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jessica ChastainJoel EdgertonJason ClarkeKyle ChandlerJames GandolfiniMark Strong.

The film opens in darkness: almost two minutes of black screen as a sound montage made of screams, 911 calls and that all-too-familiar crying. There is no need for pictures, somehow those bits of sound are just as recognisable… And we get it straight away. It’s an effective, un-exploitive and subtle way to take us back to 9/11 without having to resort to the abused images of the collapsing towers… Also by using actual archive sound, talking about real about events, real dates, real names and victims, the film establishes certain boundaries of reality which makes it feel pretty much like a documentary… A dangerous and a rather questionable game to play… But more on that later.

Zero Dark Thirty essentially tries to do three things at once: to give us an account of the Osama Bin Laden manhunt “based on firsthand accounts of the events” leading up to his killing, but it’s also a look at black ops‘s modus operandi and their way of obtaining information by means of torture, and finally it paints a portrait of a woman who seems to have no other purpose in life than finding the Al Qaeda leader: unfortunately her character is really paper-thin (kudos for  Jessica Chastain for actually making something out of it and for that getting Oscar nominated too) and this ends up being the weakest part of the film, in my view.

There is no denying that Kathryne Bigelow is a skilled director who knows how to tell a complicated story in the clearest of terms, while at the same time cranking up the tension but without falling into the obvious Hollywood clichés. There are certainly interesting, riveting and compelling sequences throughout this handsomely made film, while a lot of serious, important and controversial issues are touched upon… But to me that’s the key problem: they’re just touched upon. Not only the film never really seems to ask any real question, but even when it looks like it does, it never actually gives any answer. Of course, a good movie doesn’t necessarily have to ask questions, nor give answers, but when the subject matter is something as serious as this (including the showing of graphic depictions of Americans torturing their prisoners in order to obtain information) and when you’re doing it in such a manner that the audience assumes this is all real, then you’re beginning to have certain responsibility too.

There are glimpses of an interesting and challenging film here and there, (including an extract from a news report showing Obama stating “America condemns torture”, which happens to be just after a torture sequence), but to me it was all too a bit too little and spare.

This is not meant to be a real documentary, in fact the end credits tell you that this is to be taken as a dramatisation… Well, if that’s the case, the characterisation of every single person in the film is pretty weak (including the already mentioned “super-woman” protagonist).

So if you take it as a drama, it’s all pretty standard fare and rather flat and superficial film. As a piece of documentary and a critique to the “American System”, it’s just too diluted in among all those bad lines of dialogue (“who are you?” -“I’m the motherfucker who found this place”, or “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job”) which in the end diminish the impact that such a subject could have had.

The last 25 minutes of the film follow the actual mission to capture and kill Bin Laden (sidelining even our main character, who completely disappears from the film). It is pretty much shown in real time, without any music (mercifully, because for the rest of the film the score is as obvious and bland as they come). It is a sequence which is meticulously executed and wisely stirs well away from easy heroism or American triumphalism and yet, because of course we all know how it ended, it felt to me not only a bit anticlimactic, slightly voyeuristic, but also a bit pointless, which in a way sums up my thoughts about the whole film.

Certainly a lot of people will talk about the issues raised, but mainly because of the issues themselves, not  because the film.

Of course we’ll never know the truth (In fact recently some criticism has been raised about the actual veracity of the facts), but as it often happens with these sort of real-case stories (whether it’s about the birth of Facebook with “the Social Network”, or a terrorist attack with “United 93” or simply Che Guevara’s road trip in the “Motorcycle Diaries”…), this film will eventually become THE VERSION of the truth we’ll all believe, which in this case might be a bit troubling and very questionable.

6.5/10

The Tree of Life – Review

The Tree of Life (2011) 

Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Brad PittSean PennJessica Chastain.

What really makes me angry about this film is that behind the preposterous, pretentious, tediously slow, shockingly simplistic muddle of philosophical clichés, there was actually a good story waiting to be told by a potentially great director.

Those scenes with the kids for example (whose acting was particularly graceful and natural) were indeed nicely handled and gave you a little hint of how much better the film could have been if only director Terence Malick had been a little bit less full of himself.

Instead he decided to cram it all with heavy, pretentious, superfluous, confusing and rather conventional voice over, plastered all over the soundtrack, preventing his audience from any emotional response to the film.

All that was enhanced even more by the constant choral musical score (including requiem from Bach, Mozart, Gorecki, Respighi, Holst and God knows how many others) which gave the film the same monotone feel throughout.

It’s as if there was only one gear controlling the pace of this film.

The parallel with Kubrick’s 2001: A space Odyssey comes quite natural: in a way this film has the same ideals and touches most of the same grounds as Kubrick’s classic and because of that, dare-I-say, falls into the exact same faults: the sketchy narrative, overblown abstractions and the slow pace.

By while in Kubrick’s’ case, those “faults” were also counterbalanced by the gripping relationship between man and machine and a strong sense of wonder towards heaven and earth, in the case of Malick’s Tree of Life, there’s a certain pompousness which makes it really annoying. Also it is both too inaccessible and too obvious. Finally Malick’s detatched style makes it really hard for anyone to care: in my very humble view the film should have been much more focused on the central story.

There was absolutely no need to show us the beginning of the Universe, nor the end of the dinosaurs age (incidentally, the dinosaurs looked better back in 1993 when Spielberg made Jurassic Park!). In fact, there was probably not even need for Sean Penn to be there at all: everything the film wanted to tell us was right there within the central story of the American family in the 50s.

And there was definitely no need for that terribly smultzy and contrived final sequence which was supposed to show the end of the world and give us a vision of “heaven” but  actually ended up looking more like some outtakes from the actual film’s wrap party, with all the actors re-uniting again and congratulating each other on how good they all were. Or was it just Malick’s own version of the finale of the TV series LOST?

Everything in the film is heavily soaked in symbolism and religion. I read somewhere that Brad Pitt’s character was supposed to symbolise the “Old Testament” and his wife was the “New Testament”. I did noticed that the two of them were never shown talking to each other, and if they were it was always through a glass or from far away or  even off-camera, preventing us from hearing their dialogue or to see them interacting with each other.

But does all this stylish trickery and heavy subtext really make the film any better? Certainly not for me.

In fact it  is all too disappointingly literal and frustratingly patchy that in the end it just comes out  as cold and distant. So much so that I just couldn’t really care about anyone in this film… and for a film that’s about life and love that is a terrible fault.

All these attempts to elevate the small-scale, intimate family drama by intercutting cosmic sequences of the beginning of the universe in order to give a deeper meaning to the soul-searching of the characters are finally not enough to compensate for a lack of dramatic involvement and in the end, they just overwhelm the actual story.

Even the beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (where everything seems to be filmed at magic hour) becomes self-indulgent, repetitive and tedious. There’s only a certain amount of trees, waterfalls and shots of glinting sun flaring at the lens you can take.

It’s hard to believe that this is only Terence Malick’s 5th feature film as a director since 1973. The Tree of Life has all his distinct signature trademarks (the beautifully photographed shots of nature, the use voice over and music and the themes of the film themselves), but are they just trademarks or is he  actually making the same sort of film over and over again?

Whatever the answer is, apparently all this was enough for the judges in Cannes to assign it the Palme d’or, back in May 2011.

Some people in Cannes said that Malick is more of an “artist” then a film-maker. But as somebody once also said “to make art is to fail” and he clearly does fail with this film, mainly because he just tries too hard. If only he hadn’t aimed so high, he would have certainly made a better film, but as it stand “The Tree of Life” is an epic failure…

5.5/10

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