Monthly Archives: February 2013

Review – Zero Dark Thirty (15) [2013]

Zero Dark Thirty - title banner2

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Kathryn Bigelow – The Loveless, The Weight of Water, The Hurt Locker

Cast:

Music Composer:

When it comes to films about historical events, like Titanic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Lincoln, one knows how they will end before even starting them. Yet, such movies can be just as, if not more entertaining and gripping than movies where one does not know what is going to happen. The same is true for the arresting Zero Dark Thirty, which also sends out a potent message to America’s enemies.

The film is a politico-historical drama based around real events. ‘Zero dark thirty’ is a military codename for half past midnight, and it is the time that the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden took place on the night of 1st/2nd May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden's location.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden’s location.

Zero Dark Thirty is all about the CIA’s attempts to find the world’s most wanted man following his masterminding of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on 11th September 2011, and his subsequent vanishing. The film is an unhurried, yet captivating thriller that does not feel like it is 157 minutes long. Like with The Hurt Locker, it has a grounded feel, and therefore lacks the hyperbole and surrealism of 24. Even the ending mirrors this mood, which is rare and noteworthy for Hollywood.  It is too early to know how true Zero Dark Thirty is to the reality, but it feels like a realistic and fair representation of events. First, it illustrates how dangerous it is for Americans to be in Afghanistan/Pakistan, thereby emphasising how heroic they are being out there. Second, it demonstrates some of the difficulties CIA agents face operating in the field, trying to unearth information about their targets (who have multiple identities and never seem to stay in the same place twice). Third, the movie shows the CIA adopting dubious torture methods and degrading treatment upon suspected and actual terrorists in undisclosed locations in their desperate bid to find leads on Bin Laden.

There has been much controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s depiction of torture adopted by US personnel in 2002 and afterward (when it was officially outlawed). Arguably, the film enables Bigelow to reveal her anti-American/anti-war bias again, like she did so painfully in the critically-acclaimed The Hurt Locker. Yet, it is doubtful that she glorifies torture here. Instead, she lets viewers decide for themselves, in a similar vein to Rendition, if torture is ever necessary or useful, which is an intelligent way of kicking off a moral debate on an important and current subject.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) arguing with his and Maya's boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke, right) arguing with his and Maya’s boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler, left), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

But what is even more striking than the portrayal of ‘enhanced interrogations’ in Zero Dark Thirty is how the film has painted the War on Terror as merely Osama Bin Laden. Yes, he is the figurehead of modern-day Jihadi terrorism and his death is a symbolic hammer-blow to the cause. But by 2011 it is dubious how influential Bin Laden was to the pursuit of world Jihadism, due to the emergence of numerous Al-Qaeda splinter groups, such as Al-Aqaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Shabaab, among others. Yet, these other terrorist groups are barely given a mention, which is strange considering the security threat they pose to the world.

Additionally, Zero Dark Thirty does not explore, even for the sake of context, the complex and conflicting relationships between America, Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the contradictory nature of the Pakistani state itself. (Anyone remember David Cameron saying that Pakistan looks “both ways” on terrorism?)

However, if one can ignore the lack of political background, one can enjoy strong performances from all the cast. At the forefront, is Jessica Chastain, who demonstrates, for the first time, that she can play a leading role just as solidly as she can a supporting one when given the chance. Her single-minded character, Maya, is given the central task of finding Bin Laden. Maya might get her way sometimes in a contrived manner for reasons of plot, but Chastain looks so natural in the role, and the way Maya changes under the circumstances is indicative of Chastain’s talent.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Maya’s solemnity is in mild contrast to her two main colleagues, the tough-yet-amusing Dan (Jason Clarke) and the bitchy Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Both Clarke and Ehle play well, and are more empathetic than Maya. Nevertheless, they are both outshone by Chastain’s performance.

Over-all, Zero Dark Thirty is a sincere and honest attempt to recreate the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden. That one knows how the movie will end is irrelevant, as it is an engrossing and tense watch. The film might be devoid of much of the current context vis-à-vis the War on Terror, and it might be overly-simplified; yet, what it lacks on those fronts, it makes up for in compelling performances, not least from Jessica Chastain. Furthermore, Zero Dark Thirty sends out a stark message to America’s enemies: it doesn’t matter where they hide or for how long they hide, America will find them and bring them to justice.

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Review – Les Misérables (12a) [2013]

Les Mis - title banner2

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

Cast:

At the beginning of 2012, audiences were treated to the silent film, The Artist. It was unexpectedly charming and something different in an age of formulaic, clichéd blockbusters. A year on, and audiences are treated to something different once again in the form of the marvellous Les Misérables.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

The storyline is based upon the 1862 historical-fiction novel by Victor Hugo and the subsequent theatre production. It loosely centres round Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Javier (Russell Crowe). Jean Valjean is a convicted man, who breaks his parole and seemingly vanishes in his bid to start a new life. Javier, the Inspector, upon discovering what Jean Valjean has done, is determined to find Prisoner 24601 and bring him to justice.

The plot for Les Misérables is more detailed and layered than that, especially as it has a large cast all with roles to play before the story ends. Unlike the stage version, the film does a good job of keeping the narrative understandable and easy to follow, despite having to take out chunks from the book. This is no small achievement, considering that more or less the entire movie is sung. Credit should rightly go to Tom Hooper for this, as well as for successfully turning a theatrical play into an Oscar-nominated film. (It should be borne in mind that The Woman In Black was the last time a director attempted to translate a play into a movie, and the less said about that film the better!)

However, in spite of Hooper cutting out sections of the book, the film still seems too long and somehow bloated at 158 minutes. The Artist, it should be noted, is only 100 minutes and, consequently, does not feel over-stuffed. Part of the reason for why Les Misérables feels this way is due to the numerous sub-plots taking place throughout the story, many of which have only questionable importance to its outcome.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Yet, more significantly, does the story actually matter? When one watches Les Misérables in the theatre, one is more likely to be awed by the music and the mechanics of the stage, than taken in by the (slightly contrived) narrative. But the movie does not have an innovatively-devised podium. Additionally, it suffers from a cast that, while stellar in name, generally lack the powerful vocals of their stage counterparts.

Russell ‘wannabe-Napoleon Bonaparte’ Crowe and Hugh Jackman, the two leading men, are particularly guilty of this. It is not that their performances are bad, it is just painfully obvious that they are actors first and singers a distant second. One might argue that this is what Hooper desired as he claimed to want the vocals ‘raw’ and conversational, rather than melodramatic. (Then again, he could have been saying this as a defence of his cast, in hindsight, after realising that he should have used stage actors instead of Crowe and Jackman.)

Also, the more one sees and hears the supporting cast, the more Crowe and Jackman are shown up; in particular, against Anne Hathaway. Hathaway, as Fantine, might look pale and terribly thin with her skin, bone and flesh emaciated a la Natalie Portman in Black Swan, but she most certainly can sing. In Rio I, Hathaway showed that she can sing well and nicely. But in Les Misérables she takes her talents to a new level, acquiring immense vigour in her voice, despite clearly lacking in nourishment.

No-one else looks starved like her, but Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, as the rebel Marius and Éponine, respectively, have very good voices; Amanda Seyfried, as Cosette, illustrates that she’s a better singer than actor (and that she can exist without her incongruous pink lip-gloss, unlike in the medieval-themed Red Riding Hood); while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, respectively, show us that they may not have noteworthy vocals, but that they can still make us laugh whilst in tune.

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Yet, if one is truly bothered about the singing not being up to scratch with the stage performers, one can still admire the sceneries and the visuals. Cinema, as opposed to theatre, is not limited by the area of a stage (however impressive the mechanics of it may be), and Hooper uses this to his advantage to give viewers a true feel for the (miserable) neighbourhoods that our characters come from in a way that the theatre perhaps can’t convey as deeply.

All-in-all, Les Misérables is very impressive theatrical production-cum-film. The cast’s vocals may not be as strong as those actors on the stage, and the movie lacks some of the charms of the theatre. Nevertheless, like The Artist, Les Misérables is something different, and it should be celebrated that an operatic-style film can be delivered in such a superb and entertaining manner.

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Review – Lincoln (12a) [2013]

Lincoln - title banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Steven Spielberg – Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Indiana Jones I-V

Cast:

  • Daniel Day-Lewis – Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, Nine
  • Sally Field – Mrs Doubtfire, ER, The Amazing Spider-Man I & II
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt – The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Sin City II
  • Tommy Lee Jones – No Country For Old Men, Captain America: The First Avenger, Emperor, Bourne V
  • Jackie Earle Haley – Watchmen, Shutter Island, Robocop
  • David Strathairn – LA Confidential, The Whistleblower, The Bourne Ultimatum & Legacy
  • James Spader – Boston Legal, The Office, By Virtue Fall
  • David Oyelowo – The Last King of Scotland, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The HelpInterstellar
  • Michael Stuhlberg – Steve Jobs

Music Composer:

  • John Williams – Star Wars I-VI, War Horse, Indiana Jones I-V

All democratically-elected state leaders, whether they are presidents or prime ministers, have an ambition for reaching their respective position. For some, it is about power and/or aggrandisement; for others, it is about putting their names down in the history books. But for an exceptional few, it is about being uniquely in the right place at the right time and enabling their ideologies and actions to make them stand out from among their peers. President Abraham Lincoln (1860-65) belongs to the last category, and Steven Spielberg’s admirable biopic, Lincoln, illustrates why this is the case.

President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) forcefully telling his cabinet that he intends to proceed with the amendment and that they must help him.

President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) forcefully telling his cabinet that he intends to proceed with the amendment and that they must help him.

Lincoln revolves round events in America during January 1865. At the time, no-one was certain as to how long the Civil War (1861- April 1865) would continue. The Unionists, led by President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the armies of the north, are in a strong position. But the rebel Confederacy, led by Jefferson Davis and the armies of the south, are not about to surrender either.

The latter’s resolve is further stiffened upon hearing that, despite the war raging on, President Lincoln intends to push through Congress the highly contentious Thirteenth Amendment (the abolition of slavery) before the legislature ends its session at the beginning of February. The Confederacy’s hatred of black people and their slavery-based economy cannot allow for it. But will their attempts to block the proposed amendment succeed?

Lincoln’s storyline is intelligent; yet, slightly lacking in depth and, at 150 minutes, drawn out. Despite being potentially confusing for someone who has no knowledge of the era, the political wranglings going on behind the scenes throughout the film are great to watch because they are amusing and appear realistic. They also indicate that there was more than an element of corruption in American politics in the 1860s. (Then again, does The Ides of March show us that American politics is significantly different today?)

Moreover, the debates on slavery and freedom throughout Lincoln are intellectually stimulating. In the present era, it defies belief to learn that President Lincoln was a ‘radical,’ even among his key allies, for wanting the abolition of slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment was a measure that America (apparently) wasn’t yet ready for in 1865 (almost sixty years after Britain and France had abolished the Slave Trade, and four years after Tsar Alexander II had passed the emancipation of serfdom in Russia).

However, one only has to read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to realise that Lincoln fails to illustrate the inherent racism towards black people that existed even among abolitionists. Similarly, the movie says nothing of the four Union states that permitted slavery, which is strange as those four states could have been portrayed as a thorn in President Lincoln’s side.

Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) welcoming home her eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) welcoming home her eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Furthermore, the film only deals seriously with two issues: the amendment and the Civil War. While they understandably dominated Lincoln’s presidency, surely there were other matters for the president to consider, such as the annual budget and foreign relations? None of these are ever mentioned, which has the indirect effect of making President Lincoln appear almost two-dimensional.

But to say that the ex-president was anything less than a highly-complex and gifted man serves to undermine him, and Daniel Day-Lewis exemplifies this with a performance of remarkable consistency. He captures the former president’s quirkiness, social awkwardness and witty humour fantastically, as well as his indefatigable zeal and reason for his ideals.

Day-Lewis undoubtedly dominates Lincoln, but that does not mean that the supporting cast should be ignored. With the exception of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is average at best and whose role, as the ex-president’s son, Robert Lincoln, could easily have been shelved, Sally Field as the ex-president’s worrisome and frenzied wife, Mary Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones as the savvy Republican Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens; David Strathairn as the cautious Secretary of State, William Seward; Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens, the racist Vice-President of the rebel Confederacy; and even James Spader, as the underhand Mr. Bilbo (no, not Baggins) are all superb.

President Lincoln exploring the aftermath of a battlefield, knowing that his decisions have cost many Americans their lives.

President Lincoln exploring the aftermath of a battlefield, knowing that his decisions have cost many Americans their lives.

Equally good are the costume and make-up designs, which truly bring the 1860s to life. Likewise, John Williams should be praised for writing a soundtrack that does not sound remotely like Star Wars, Home Alone or Indiana Jones. Indeed, Williams’ score here is more subtle in nature. It adds a touching element to Lincoln that makes the movie that bit more poignant when it matters most.

Over-all, Lincoln is a venerable film with clever dialogue, a beautiful set and enchanting acting. The movie might be a little long and simplifies some of the historical issues, but this should not negate that President Lincoln was one of the rare few leaders who have managed, almost single-handedly, to change the course of history. He understood the uniqueness of his epoch and acted upon his conscience, despite knowing the storm it would cause (as well as unknowingly making him pay the ultimate price for it). Lincoln demonstrates all of this wonderfully and shows us why President Abraham Lincoln is rightly regarded as the archetypal president that so many of his successors have tried (and often failed) to emulate.

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