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

Super 8 – Review

Super 8 (2011)  

Director/Writer: J.J. Abrams Stars: Elle FanningAmanda MichalkKyle ChandlerRiley GriffithsGabriel Basso

To say that I couldn’t wait to see this movie is an understatement: ever since the trailer was released a few months ago “Super 8” smelled like the best Spielberg with whom I’ve been growing up during my childhood: it looked like a mixture of E.T, The Goonies, Poltergeist, Gremlins and all those Spielberg classics from the early 80s I used to love, but also it had something from Stand by Me, or It (a terrible movie but a great book).

All the elements seemed to be there: the teens friends, the suburban environment, the secrets “grown-ups” are not supposed to know about, the bicycles, the fat kid, the bad US army, the single parents, even the same time period (1979) and the same style of cinematography (night-time flares on the lens) and big soundtrack (a rousing score, mixed in with gentle and intimate piano cues).

But are all those elements enough to reach the perfection of films like E.T.- The Extra-Terrestrial? If you were cooking from a recipes book and you had all the right ingredients, would you still get it the cake right? You can easily guess the answer.

J.J. Abrams is certainly a talented man. His TV credentials are some of the most solid ones of the last decade (Alias, Lost, Fringe), his Mission: Impossible III brought some credibility back to the franchise (and some pretty amazing action sequences), his Star Trek was not only very reverent to the original but also engaging enough for the newbie injecting some new energy on a series which was on the verge to becoming just about OK for the Trekkies out there.

Unfortunately with “Super 8” that energy seems to have faded away a little. Despite all the good intentions and this being a sort of love letter to the Spielberg he too admired, J.J. hasn’t been able to replicate that sense of wonder and discovery, nor the exciting action and edge-of-the-seat thrills of those early classics. There are some really good scenes in the first act between all the kids (and some very good acting!) but after a while it all felt too much by-the-book and gave us nothing new or unexpected.

It’s as if everything was a bit too calculated and clinical, even its sincerity and honesty and its well-observed sense of nostalgia (not just for the era, but for a certain kind of film-making) was not enough and never really went beyond the ovbious clichés you would expect from this sort of story. The kids did everything they were supposed to, the army was bad as you would expect and it all worked as a well-oiled-machine.

Even its film-making style, though handsomely made,  wanted to ape those 80s classics so much that it in the end it forgot to give us the kind of magic  those films were really great at: in the end I can’t quite point out a single memorable “cinematic” imagery or moment out of “super 8” (there was definitely no bike flying over the moon, nor mash potatoes shaped like a mountain but not even some classic line like “they’re here….!”).

There was really nothing massively wrong with Super 8 (the film is well done, well acted, is even under two hours and I’m sure it will please most of the crowds out there), but sadly there was also nothing original or surprising either: even the big monster, so much teased throughout the whole movie, once it’s finally revealed cannot be anything else but disappointing. But most crucially the film seemed to lack that humour films like Stand by me or even the Goonies had.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but from a duo like Abrams and Spielberg I wanted something a bit more than just a half life-less homage.

Once again, I’m not saying that “Super 8” is bad (in fact I wish all the summer blockbusters were as honest, pure and simple like this one: thankfully this was a film that cared about its characters more than just explosions and one-liners!!), but despite loving its intentions and its heart, and its style, I couldn’t quite love it as a film… Or maybe I just wanted to like it too much…

6.5/10

If you liked this, you might be interested in reading about my review of STAND BY ME or my post A REAL MOVIEGEEK or a TIRED OLD CINIC

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