Zero Dark Thirty Review (Kirk Haviland)

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Zero Dark Thirty (2013)

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Chris Pratt and James Gandolfini

Written by Mark Boal

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Returning to the big screen for the first time in four years, Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow goes back behind enemy lines to bring us Zero Dark Thirty. Zero Dark Thirty is the tale of the hunt and eventual termination of the world’s most wanted terrorist: Osama Bin Laden. The real question is can Kathryn Bigelow deliver a film based on the saga of the hunt for Bin Laden that is as gripping and thought provoking as The Hurt Locker?

Starting from the attacks of September 11 2001, exhibited here as only sounds over a pitch black screen, we follow the career of CIA operative Maya (Chastain) as she starts her decade long obsession into finding Osama Bin Laden. From bleak interrogation rooms in CIA black sites, Maya quickly learns under master interrogator Dan (Clarke) the extremes her fellow countrymen are willing to go to for leads and answers. Maya’s own obsession starts with trying to find the Abu Ahmed, allegedly one of Bin Laden’s most trusted men. The search continues for a decade, until an oversight is discovered that sets the movements in motion for the raid that ended Bin Laden’s life.

Zero Dark Thirty

As much as director Bigelow’s last theatrical film, 2008’s The Hurt Locker, was a mainly insular and ultimately star-making turn for Jeremy Renner, Zero Dark Thirty belongs utterly and completely to Jessica Chastain, and she is more than up to the task. We see her Maya go from a young, enthusiastic, hopeful lady to a hard-edged, worn and ferociously tenacious woman through the course of the film. The supporting cast, aside from strong turns from Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle, are mainly background characters who help push the story along – this is Maya’s story. The only other actor given ample time is the impeccable Jason Clarke who is fantastic here. Clarke’s Dan becomes one of Maya’s most trusted allies in the fight for her desire to chase after Abu Ahmed when everyone else thinks she is chasing a ghost. The final scene with a imploding Maya as she realizes she has done nothing but chase this man for a decade and has forsaken everything else, including a place to actually call ‘home’ is pure cinematic brilliance in her performance.

Zero Dark Thirty

Boal has crafted another intelligent script that makes you feel like an insider, behind the walls where all the decisions are made. Bigelow has made a smart choice in going with mainly traditional camera and not all handheld like Hurt Locker was, which plays so much better considering the more epic scale of the story being told. Her framing works very well and the steady hand behind the camera keeps the story focused and on point with Maya, even when it does go off on tangents like Ehle’s character, Jessica’s meeting with a potential spy within Al Queda, it returns it focus back to Maya almost immediately. The film is hardly short with a running time slightly over 2 ½ hours, but the time flies by as the film itself is enveloping and never feels like it is taking too long to get anywhere. In fact its running time will likely be shocking by the end of the film. The careful recreating and crafting of the sets and locations lends another level of authenticity, the Bin Laden compound looks pitch perfect and the other compounds and black sites are painstakingly recreated.

Zero Dark Thirty

Never feeling like an over the top propaganda film, in fact Zero Dark Thirty is pleasantly devoid of a lot of those politics and shines a harsh light on some of the practices of US interrogators. Zero Dark Thirty is an enthralling account of the hunt for one man and the obsession of one woman. A more complete, grand scale and satisfying film than Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty stands to be Bigelow’s most accomplished and rewarding film to date. Zero Dark Thirty is a strong recommend.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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Argo Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

Argo (2012)

Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Taylor Schilling, Clea Duvall, Tate Donovan, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Scoot McNairy, Victor Garber, Sheila Vand, Kyle Chandler, and Philip Baker Hall

Directed by Ben Affleck

Instead of shooting an expensive montage, Argo efficiently uses a prologue of storyboards to contextualize Iranian anger. And even in this business-like decision or omission, the movie still captures the shades that make Americans and Iranians more alike than they think they are. It shows a young Iranian woman spewing the Revolution’s ideologies, even if an American character (most likely Arkin’s) looks at her on television with a cynical distance. It also shows, as I should have expected, that not all Iranians are frothing at the mouth with anti-Americanism. Some want to emigrate to the US, despite possibly being caught by revolutionary guards as traitors. They also risk facing racism, as the movie shows news footage of Americans mobbing on one Iranian in the States. There’s also a maid in the ambassador’s house named Sahar (Vand) who has to decide what to do to her new and suspicious guests. But that’s because her suspicions are right – that the guests are six American workers (including Donovan, Denham and Bishe) trying to hide from the guards instead of being hostages at the embassy.

Argo also renders the Americans with variation. As noticed by other reviewers, the prologue shows American culpability in the Iranian Revolution. The fact that it’s showing the hoorah-ers in a derisive way is evidence to its own healthy national self-deprecation. Those ‘Mericans are the opposite of the upper brass in Washington (including Cranston, Chandler and Baker Hall) who are more balanced, and concerned about the hostages. In fact Argo shows the characters in Washington hating each other more, their infighting and oversights inadvertently letting the Crisis drag on longer than it should have. And besides, while the six Americans in hiding are having dinner with their host, Cora Lijek (Duvall) tells everyone in the table that she agrees with the revolution’s demand to put the Shah on trial.

Thankfully Cora doesn’t have to deal with tense conversations and tense everything. That’s because across the Atlantic, CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) plans to get her and her coworkers out with the best dumb idea ever – for Tony, Cora and the other five to pose as a film crew. Speaking of which, the transitions from sombre political drama to snappy heist movie is as delicate as watching someone walk on water. The people Tony enlists in California (including Goodman) make repetitive jokes but Goodman and Arkin’s delivery of those jokes are subtle enough that they don’t make their side too distasteful nor oppositional in tone compared to the other.

Yes, Argo emotionally manipulates us in telling a story in which we know the ending. Affleck is the perfect person to direct this movie because his earlier ones feature characters with malleable sympathies and can mold from one polarized group to its total opposite. There’s a scene where (spoiler) one of the six Americans, Mark Stafford (McNairy), convincingly argues that a half-naked woman drawn in a storyboard is relate-able to a Revolutionary Guard. His movies also tie sinewy knots instead of bows, refusing to give us perfectly happy endings. I say this particularly because of Sahar’s ending which, and I’m projecting here, makes me worry about her. There’s a part of me that, because of the movie’s endings, thinks Affleck is a sadist but we can argue that he’s also a realist. The brutal honesty in his films is a refreshing feeling even if it gives us equal bouts of discomfort.

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