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

Animal Kingdom – Review

Animal Kingdom (2010) 

Directed by David Michôd. Starring Ben MendelsohnJoel EdgertonGuy PearceJacki WeaverJames FrechevilleLuke Ford.

This is a really tough watch… And yet, it isn’t the violence itself, because actually there’s very little of it, but the constant sense of eerie dread and tension that permeates the whole film and makes it almost unbearable to sit through.

Some of the most violent acts happen all of a sudden (hence even more shocking), towards the beginning of the film and take you completely by surprise and then, in the words of writer-director Michôd, “you’re just left with the aftermath”. Supposedly that’s how violence is in real life.

It’s a clever device that throws the audience right off-balance from the start. From that moment onwards, we know we can expect anything at any moment. So the idea that something could happen at any point is more distressing than the violence itself.

That is the most successful aspect of”Animal Kingdom”, a film that otherwise threads through a well know pattern and feels like many other crime films.

But forget the jokey Tarantino of Pulp Fiction, or the epic almost-romantic Coppola of the Godfather, this is a serious crime film, and it feels real!

“Animal Kingdom” is a drama at every turn and twist and it depicts the lives of a family of criminals in Melbourne. Obviously it all benefits from having a series of (very convincing) performances from actors who don’t carry the burden of recognition.

Right from the start we are catapulted in the middle of it and it’s up to us to work out who’s who. I did confess I was a bit lost in the beginning and took me a while to actually be able to recognize all the characters. Also I didn’t think the main character (James Frecheville) was particularly interesting to watch: his face is pretty much black for most of the film, which I suppose is the point of the film (his mother dies right at the beginning and he doesn’t even flinch) and yet this detachment he didn’t make him particularly sympathetic and in the end I thought that was an error in judgement.

As the film unfolds, slowly we begin to see how terrifying these people (animals) really are, even the most innocent looking ones: the figure of the mother, Smurf, played by Jacki Weaver is one of the scariest creation I’ve seen in a long time. On the surface she’s a small, gentle, smiley mother who gives full-mouth kisses to his sons, but behind all that, hides the pure evil (witness a wonderful scene in which she asks for her own grandson to be killed).

Her Oscar Nomination for supporting actress is truly deserved.

Behind the (artificial) sense of reality, Michôd uses every trick in the book to make it feel cinematic at the same time : the slow-motion as people walk towards camera, the long elegant tracking shots (reminiscent of Scorsese’s early gangster’s films) and finally the music itself

As if the subject matter wasn’t tough enough, Sam Petty’s ominous score rumbles along through the subwoofer (that “.1” from the 5.1 surround sound) in a series of prolonged low monotones, which you almost feel in the stomach and make those tense sequences feel even more dangerous.

The only oddity, which I didn’t think was needed at all, and adds nothing to the film, is the use of voice over at the beginning and at the end (especially coming from a character as blank as J). In fact, generally speaking, the script is the most un-remarkable thing about the film.

When it all finally ended, I was gagging for some fresh air and I couldn’t wait to go outside in the freezing cold London of these days and breath with relief

This is by no means a criticism to the film, in fact quite the opposite: it’s the proof that the film worked for me. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to call it entertaining or  want to watch it again, but I’ll certainly look out for what Michôd will do next (hopefully with a more original story).

7.5/10

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