Sunday, January 27, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

The month of January has been hectic workwise, which is why I haven’t had the chance to review many movies. With that said, I did have one day at home and made it a special points to see Zero Dark Thirty, the new film by Kathryn Bigelow that has been generating a lot of Oscar buzz.

Here’s how Jim Beaver described the film’s premise on IMDb: “Maya is a CIA operative whose first experience is in the interrogation of prisoners following the Al Qaeda attacks against the U.S. on the 11th September 2001. She is a reluctant participant in extreme duress applied to the detainees, but believes that the truth may only be obtained through such tactics. For several years, she is single-minded in her pursuit of leads to uncover the whereabouts of Al Qaeda's leader, Osama Bin Laden. Finally, in 2011, it appears that her work will pay off, and a U.S. Navy SEAL team is sent to kill or capture Bin Laden. But only Maya is confident Bin Laden is where she says he is.”

The film was originally conceived to tell the take of the unsuccessful hunt, but that all changed in 2011 when Bin Laden was killed. A couple of scripts rewrite by Mark Boal, and Bigelow was able to tell the whole take. Now it’s important to remember that this isn’t a documentary, rather a dramatized account pieced together through interviews, research, etc. While it’s based on fact, it’s not historically accurate—at least that’s what acting CIA Director Michael Morell said when he took the unusual step of issuing a statement about the film and contradicting the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (AKA torture). "That impression is false,” Morell said in the statement. “We cannot allow a Hollywood film to cloud our memory." 

As previously mentioned, Zero Dark Thirty has been generating a lot of Oscar buzz and is a critically acclaimed film. For those reasons I was excited and had high expectations, but I must be honest, it didn’t blow me away (I know, a bad pun given the subject matter). It certainly was a good film, but it wasn’t exceptional. There were a lot of things I liked about Zero Dark Thirty, but then again there were some things I didn’t.

Let me start with the things I did, because on the whole the film was satisfying. First and foremost was the ability for Boal and Bigelow to generate so much tension and suspense involving events that stretched out over the course of a decade. In reality, the hunt for Bin Laden was long and tedious, and the film does a good job imparting this without actually encompassing it. What’s more, both managed to bring that suspense to a satisfying climax—the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. While the audience already knows what's going to happen, it was still an intense, and seemingly realistic, account of Bin Laden’s final moments.

I also like the fact that neither Bigelow nor Boal shied away from showing some “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Deny as much as they’d like, these sort of things most certainly happened and it’d have been wrong to gloss over it. Speaking of these scenes, Jason Clarke did an excellent job playing the character Dan, who was responsible for ascertaining vital information. He was calm, cool and collected while doing he job, but you could tell that it was chipping away at his soul. In my opinion his was the most developed character in the film. More on that shortly.

Finally, I love the film’s realism. Even though it was a dramatization, and liberties were taken for entertainment purposes, it still came off as a realistic account—much like Bigelow’s Academy Award winning film, The Hurt Locker, did back in 2008. I highly enjoyed one scene where security procedures were skipped and those who did so were duly punished. For me, it brought the unceasing danger associated with war to life.

Now, let me touch upon a few of the things I felt were lacking. First and foremost were the characters. I already mentioned Clarke did an excellent job, and for the most part I thought the rest of the cast did as well. Jessica Chastain was great as Maya, the CIA protagonist, while Mark DuplassJames GandolfiniJoel Edgerton and Chris Pratt did well in their limited roles (Pratt’s Navy Seal character was the perfect amount of comic relief); however, the problem was they were barely featured and hardly developed.

Another thing I hate is when films underutilize and essentially waste quality talent. That’s what they did with Stephen Dillane, who played a National Security advisor in the film. I was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, which is a shame for the man who ahs tackled big roles such as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones and Thomas Jefferson in the HBO miniseries John Adams.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought Zero Dark Thirty was a very good film, it just wasn’t as great as I was led to believe. It’s nominated for Best Picture, and it could very well win as the competing films don’t hold a distinct advantage. I wouldn’t be disappointed if it won, the same way I wouldn’t be if either Beasts of the Southern WildLife of Pi, or Argo won (I haven’t seen AmourLes Miserables and Silver Linings Playbook and don’t believe Django Unchained nor Lincoln deserve the honors); however, I do feel Bigelow, who got snubbed for Best Director, deserved a nomination as she’s a tremendous director, a fact she proved once again with Zero Dark Thirty.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 80%

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Django Unchained

I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino. My fandom began in 1992 with his first feature film, Reservoir Dogs, and solidified two years later with the now classic Pulp Fiction. I was also a fan of 1997’s underrated Jackie Brown, but I really fell in love with Kill Bill—especially Volume 2 (the performances by Michael Madsen and David Carradine are among my favorite in modern cinema). Needless to say, I was excited for Tarantino’s newest project in three years—Django Unchained.

Not only was I excited because it was a Tarantino movie, I was also anxious to see Christoph Waltz back in action. If you recall, he played the vile Col. Hans Landa in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, which earned the 56-year-old German actor a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It was another great casting decision by Tarantino and instantly vaulted Waltz into superstardom. Furthermore, A-listers Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson joined him in the film.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here’s a description of the spaghetti western as described by BenLobel on IMDb: “Former dentist, Dr. King Schultz, buys the freedom of a slave, Django, and trains him with the intent to make him his deputy bounty hunter. Instead, he is led to the site of Django's wife who is under the hands of Calvin Candie, a ruthless plantation owner.”

The aforementioned Waltz played Dr. King Schultz, and once again he did an amazing job. I don’t know what it is, but Waltz manages to captivate every second he’s on screen. This was especially true as a villain in Inglourious Basterds, but Django Unchained also proved he made a good protagonist (with his charm, wit and intelligence, Dr. King Schultz was basically a good version of Hans Landa).

Playing his counterpart and the title character was Foxx, who accepted after Will Smith, who Tarantino had in mind when writing the film, declined the role. I have no reservations saying I’m a bigger fan of Smith than Foxx, but to be honest the latter did a great job. I tend to think Foxx hogs the spotlight, but that wasn't the case at all here. That allowed the other characters to shine through and strengthen the film as a whole. Interestingly, Foxx used his own horse, Cheetah, in the film, which I heard (him being as experienced with riding) helped him earn the role.

While both Foxx and Waltz made a fun duo, they didn’t strike me as iconic, which many past Tarantino characters have. If there was one in this film, it would have went to either DiCaprio, who was originally going to play the aforementioned Landa in Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino decided a native German speaker was best), as plantation owner Calvin Candie or his head slave, Stephen, played by Jackson. This was the first time in nearly 15 years the former wasn’t billed as the headliner in a movie, and it was refreshing to see the talented actor play a menacing villain in a supporting role. It was a nontraditional part for the star, and he did an amazing job. He was sick, demented and a gamesman, but pulled it all off under the guise of charm, tradition and etiquette. He was friendly scary if that makes sense.

Carsen Nachreiner was the buddy for Django Unchained.
As far as Jackson was concerned, he was scandalous and treacherous as Candie’s head slave, who was the real slave driver on the plantation. It was a prime example of the dog of the king being the king of the dogs. Jackson, who has appeared in five Tarantino films, really owned the role as the cantankerous mastermind and he was a pleasure to watch.

Rounding out the performances, I was glad to see the talented Walter Groggins in the film as Ace Woody, which was originally Kevin Costner’s role until he had to drop out, but Groggins was underused in my opinion (interestingly, others previously linked to a role that didn’t pan out included Lady Gaga, Kurt Russell, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Sacha Baron Cohen).

Regarding the story, it was a fairly typical western theme; in fact, it was inspired by the 1960s spaghetti western Django starring Franco Nero (Tarantino gave Nero a cameo as a bar patron—the one that says, “I know,” when Django explains, "The 'D' is silent"). Tarantino gave his own spin on it, and it flowed relatively well. By that I mean the plot naturally progressed while the characters were developed. Meanwhile, tangents were kept to a minimum and the underlying love story/fairy tale aspect was kept in check.

I don’t really have any qualms with the film, other than the fact that it went on a little long; in fact, there was one logical stopping point where I assumed the movie would end. It opted to go a bit further, which was fine, but the missed opportunity to end it smoothly did not go unnoticed. Other than that, I think the film was slightly pigeonholed by the various delays, script changes and actor turnover, which took a bit of shine off the film as a whole.

Django Unchained wasn’t Tarantino’s best, but it fit nicely into his portfolio. The characters, while not iconic, were well developed and entertaining, which was the strength of the film—at least for me. Of course there was the trademark Tarantino over-the-top blood and gore, which gave a distinct feel to what could have been a mundane western, or “southern” as Tarantino called it since it’s set in America’s south. If you like Tarantino, you should like Django Unchained. I left satisfied and feel it's worth the price of admission.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 84%

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