January 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Explains How The Counter-Terrorism Machine Works And Does It Brilliantly

How much do you really know about the war on terror? Think about it, for a war that "started" on September 11th 2001, how much to do you know about the gritty details of the war against Al Queda that has been raging ever since? Sure you may have some general concepts of it, but where do they come from? Do they come from popular television shows like "24," "Homeland," and "The Unit?" Or maybe they're rooted in films such as "The Kingdom," "Syriana," "Act of Valor," or "The Hurt Locker?" Does it come from massively popular counter-terrorist video games like "Call of Duty" and "Medal of Honor?" Does it come from journalists who have exposed atrocities like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay?  Face it, you don't really know much about how it all really works.

"Zero Dark Thirty" provides a thrilling vision for how the machine works. Screenwriter Marc Boal and Kathryn Bigelow have done their research (and are in some hot water in Washington over it) and presented us with a two and half hour movie that compresses 10 years of counter-terrorism. And man, what a movie they have delivered. The anchor of the whole story is a female CIA agent known as Maya (Jessica Chastain), who pretty much dedicates her life to finding Bin Laden. Other characters played by recognizable actors come and go for periods of time, but it is her who is always front and center. This is no easy task and Chastain absolutely knocks it out of the park, capturing the fierce tenacity of her character but also the small cracks in her stoicism. 

Like Chastain's incredible acting, nearly everything in the movie is dynamite. Her co-stars are always on point. The sound-design, editing, and cinematography are all incredible. The final scene of the raid on the compound is astounding. A combination of first person camera shots, multiple characters in different floors, and sudden violence is a master-class in tense action cinema. And finally Marc Boal's script zooms along like a fighter jet, never once was I bored, something I can't say about other Academy Award nominated films this year. But these are elements that you would expect from the an Academy Award Winning filming team. The true strength of "Zero Dark Thirty" lies in the power of it's moral convictions about the sweeping and somewhat disturbing power of American vengeance. 

With the frantic calls of people trapped in the towers on 9/11 opening the film and other terrorist attacks shown in terrifying detail, the film does an effective job of showing why it was so important that we decimated Al-Queda. As each part of the "greatest manhunt in history" unfolds you get a real sense of the American Intelligence and military system and it's hard not to feel proud that we were able to accomplish such a momentous task as finding and killing the man responsible for destroying so many innocent people. Not since "Saving Private Ryan" has a film so accurately portrayed the people who dedicate their lives to our country. And unlike Spielberg's film where almost everyone is noble and true, many of the characters in the story, particularly those involved in the films controversial torture scenes bear the scars of the damage they inflected onto others. The final shot of the film, which I won't' spoil is a perfect example of this emptiness even in the face of "victory."

As a huge fan of "24" and reluctant "Homeland" addict I will be tackling some of the films politics in a future post, but for now, this is my official recommendation that this is my favorite film of 2012, and one that is highly informative about how, for better or worse, the counter-terrorism machine works.

January 6, 2013

Return to Formula: Why The Hobbit is Both Exhilarating & Dissapointing

At one point in Peter Jackson's new film "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" two villains square off in an epic showdown. How epic are we talking here? We are talking everything around them burning creating an arena of fire. We're talking blaring choral music on the soundtrack reminding that this brawl is gonna be serious. And finally we get characters that we care about/despise battling in slow motion. It's satisfying, thrilling, and well, nothing you haven't seen before. And this scene pretty much sums up the entire film.

You see the film follows the blue-print of it's predecessor "The Lord of the Rings" so completely it almost feels like you're not watching a new film, but just the ridiculously long deleted scenes of the ones that came before. Of course if the ones that came before were incredibly Oscar winning borderline masterpieces, that's not a bad thing, but it's also kind of a reminder that's it not anything new. That's not to say the story isn't different. Instead of destroying a ring, now we have a fellow of money hungry dwarves going on adventure to reclaim their piles of gold the terrible dragon Smaug took from them. Yes, even in Middle Earth, CASH RULES EVERYTHING AROUND ME. Joining them on this journey is hobbit handkerchief aficionado Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the wise wizard.

Here are just a couple of the stylistic elements from the LOTR trilogy that make into this "new film."

  • Epic sweeping vistas accompanied by swelling orchestrations. 
  • A wide variety of evil creatures including trolls, goblins, evil ghosts, and maybe orcs but I may be getting those confused with the goblins. 
  • Heads getting lopped off.
  • Heroes jumping from different platforms inside collapsing caves.
  • Jokes are made about zany wizards doing too many drugs.
  • A groovy visit to the waterfall mega chill resort / Elf hangout spot Rivendell
And yet despite all these similarities, some of which are rooted in the text, the film still works. I mean the ingredients may be generally the same, but the end result is a different meal. Around the halfway point (1.5 hours in mind you!) I found myself really invested in the adventure of it all. The whole thing just really clicks and even though now and then you're like, damn, I saw this scene in the previous movie, it's still awesome. 

So if you were wondering, "The Hobbit" is a lot of fun. But, it also seems completely in director Peter Jackson's comfort zone, so much to the point that's it feels like he's not really trying to show us anything new. It should be noted that Jackson got his dwarf on and didn't agree to make the film until his haul from the Rings movies was adjusted so there is kind of a sour element to it. Also visionary director Guillermo Del Toro was linked to the project for a long time before leaving due to delays. On the screen I was marveling most the of the time, but also felt myself longing for a movie that like Bilbo Baggins, wasn't afraid to go on a random adventure.

As for my theory on it that I wouldn't dig the movie because of Game of Thrones, the film is so different from Thrones it doesn't really matter. But what does matter....Winter is Coming!