“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

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“ZERO DARK THIRTY” (2012) Review

Following the release of her 2009 movie, “THE HURT LOCKER”, director hit Oscar gold when the movie won Best Picture and she picked up a Best Director statuette. Three years later, Bigelow returned to the setting of the Middle East in this historical drama about the operation of the C.I.A. for the manhunt of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Quaeda whom the U.S. government held responsible for the terrorist attacks on this country in September 2001. 

The movie begins two years after the September 11 attacks with the arrival of a C.I.A. agent named “Maya” to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Although she had been gathering information on al-Queda for two years, Maya becomes familiar with interrogation methods used by fellow agent Dan on several Islamic detainees, including one named Anmar. Maya evolves into a hardened, yet overzealous veteran. Over the next several years, Dan transfers to the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia; Maya and her friend and fellow agent Jessica survive the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Mariott Hotel; and Jessica is killed during a suicide bomber’s attack on Camp Chapman, Afghanistan in 2009. Although Maya is eventually reassigned to Langley following a personal attack on her outside her home, she continues the search for bin Laden. The efforts of Maya, Dan and two other agents named Hakim and Larry eventually leads the Agency to bin Laden’s location in a suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The movie ends with an attack on the compound on May 2, 2011 authorized by President Barack Obama.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” has acquired a good deal of acclaim and accolades since its release. Conservative critics of the Obama Administration accused Bigelow and her fellow producers of plans to release the movie before the 2012 Presidential election as a boost for the President’s re-election campaign. GOP Congressional leaders also accused the Obama Administration of providing Bigelow and her team access to classified information during their research for the film. More liberal critics accused the director of using the movie’s torture scenes as justification for U.S. intelligence use of torture on his prisoners. Bigelow and Columbia scheduled the movie’s release date to December 2012 for a limited release to theater and January 2013 for a wide release. It has been proven that Bigelow and her team never received any classified information from the Obama Administration. As for the accusation that Bigelow is pro-torture . . . I believe it depends upon the individual moviegoer’s point of view.

How do I feel about “ZERO DARK THIRTY”? Generally, I believe it is an excellent movie that benefited from a talented director and cast. Bigelow did an excellent job in capturing the tense, yet meticulous methods that the C.I.A. used to track down bin Laden. Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal’s screenplay pretty much did solid work in giving the movie a documentary style aura in this historical drama. The character of Maya is supposed to be based on an actual C.I.A. agent who had worked on the bin Laden manhunt. Thanks to Bigelow, Boal and a superb and award-winning performance by Jessica Chastain, audiences saw the gradual development of Maya’s character from C.I.A. newbie to hardened intelligence agent and negotiator, and finally to a woman obsessed with the capture of the man she not only held responsible for the September 11 attacks, but also for the death of the close friend who was killed at the Camp Chapman attack.

“ZERO DARK THIRTY” also featured some top-notch performances from the rest of the cast. Jason Clarke, who had previously worked with Chastain in “LAWLESS”, gave an excellent performance as Dan, the intense and ruthless C.I.A. agent who initiated Maya into the brutal world of intelligence interrogations. Kyle Chandler handed in another top-notch and complex performance as former C.I.A. Islamabad Station Chief, Joseph Bradley, who seemed to be at turns both impressed and exasperated by Maya’s obsession with the bin Laden hunt. I was surprised to see Jennifer Ehle in this movie. Then again, I have been seeing her in a great deal of American productions, lately. In “ZERO DARK THIRTY”, she gave a first-rate as Maya’s friend and colleague, Jessica. The movie also boasted some solid work from the likes of Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Harold Perrineau, Édgar Ramírez, Fares Fares, Stephen Dillane (who did possess a shaky American accent) and James Gandolfino.

I am perplexed about one thing about the cast. Could someone explain why Joel Edgerton was billed over Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle and Mark Strong? All three had bigger roles than Edgerton. I realized that the latter portrayed one of the U.S. Navy SEALs that conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. But I do not see this as a reason for him to receive billing over Chandler, Ehle and Strong. Another problem I have with “ZERO DARK THIRTY” is that the movie struck me as a bit schizophrenic in its style. The movie’s first hour – which featured Maya and Dan’s interrogations of Ammar and other detainees and some detailed investigations struck me as rather dry. I would have fallen asleep within an hour if it were not for the torture scenes. And honestly? I find that rather disturbing. The movie’s second half seemed to shift in tone with the Islamabad Marriott Hotel and Camp Chapman bombings. The major characters – especially Maya – became more emotional. The second half also featured verbal conflict between Maya and Bradley, and also an attempt on her life. Once the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound, the movie’s tone shifted back to its dry and documentary style.

Speaking of both the torture and bin Laden compound raid sequences, both seemed to stretch out a bit too long. I understand that the C.I.A. used torture to gather information for their manhunt. Honestly, I am not surprised. I did not believe that the scandal over the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would end such interrogation methods. Personally, I find them repulsive. But I doubt that the C.I.A. or the U.S. government would care less about my feelings. But the torture scenes struck me as too long. I could have dealt with a minor on-screen torture scene. But I think Bigelow stretched it too far. I could also say the same about the SEALs’ raid on the bin Laden compound. I realize that Bigelow was trying to milk the suspense for all it was worth. I am sorry, but I found it difficult to accept the idea that the SEALs were in so much danger. I was not that impressed by the Camp Chapman sequence. I never knew about the attack until I saw this movie. But I pretty much guessed what was about to happen in this sequence at least five minutes before the actual attack. How disappointing.

I have noticed that the media has been consistently labeling Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, has been labeled by the media as a “revenge tale”. I find this ironic, considering that the movie’s protagonist seemed more interested in saving a loved one than revenge. On the other hand, “ZERO DARK THIRTY” practically reeks of revenge. Some movie critics have noted this, but the movie has not really acquired a reputation as a “revenge tale”. I find this odd. Very odd.

I understand that “ZERO DARK THIRTY” earned both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. On one level, I believe the movie earned those nominations. Thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s direction and Mark Boal, it is basically a well made movie that featured some top-notch performances from a cast led by Jessica Chastain. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I loved the flim. I barely liked it. It strikes me as a bit too cold for my tastes.

“THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” (2007) Review

“THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” (2007) Review

“THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” marked the adaptation of author Robert Ludlum’s last novel about the amnesiac CIA agent/assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). Considering that the first two movies – “THE BOURNE IDENTITY” (2002) and “THE BOURNE SUPREMACY” (2004) – barely resembled the novels from which they were adapted. one can honestly say the same about “ULTIMATUM”. Most diehard fans of the novels would obviously be upset over these loose adaptations. But since I am not a big fan, it did not really bother me. But this last movie did continue the saga that began in the first movie. And in a surprising way.

Before I saw the movie, I had heard rumors that production on it began at least six months after the events of “SUPREMACY”. The rumor turned out to be slightly false. The majority of the movie was set six weeks after the 2004 film.  The first scene, which began in Moscow, occurred after Bourne had killed Marie Kreutz’s murderer Krill during a high speed chase and apologized to Irena Neski for murdering her parents. Then the story jumped another six weeks. But screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Scott Z. Burns managed to plant a surprise within three-quarters into the film that has strong connections to“SUPREMACY”‘s final scene in New York City.

As for the rest of the movie, it turned out to be high-octane action thriller and mystery. Upon his arrival in Paris by train, Bourne reads an article that revealed his past – including his relationship with Marie – and his connections to Treadstone. The article also exposured a new CIA assassination program called “Blackbriar”. Realizing that the reporter Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) of THE GUARDIAN might have a source within the C.I.A., Bourne heads for London and attempts to help the reporter evade capture and possible death at the hands of a Blackbriar assassin named Paz (Edgar Ramirez). Bourne fails to save Ross and he spends the rest of the film tracking down the journalist’s source – a CIA section chief named Neal Daniels (Colin Stinton). He also has to deal with a paronoid C.I.A. Deputy Director official named Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who wants Daniels dead for treason. Vosen also wants Bourne dead, because of the latter’s suppresssed knowledge of the Treadstone program and the Blackbriar programs. Along the way, Bourne acquires the help of former Treadstone handler, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) and C.I.A. Deputy Director, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who finds herself working with Vosen to track him down.

There were three sequences that I found well-written and very exciting:

*Bourne’s attempts to keep Ross alive in London.

*Bourne and Nicky’s adventures in Tangiers, while dealing with Blackbriar assasin Desh (Joey Ansah).

*Bourne’s memories of his true self’s [David Webb] decision to become a Treadstone assassin.

I found a good deal of Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi’s screenplay rather excellent. And I have to take my hat off to the writers for creating an exciting script. But . . . I have to point out a few flaws. One – what happened to C.I.A. Director Marshall (Tomas Arana) from the previous film? According to the 2007 movie, C.I.A. Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) had approved of the new Blackbriar program. But the Blackbriar program was first introduced by Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) in the first film. Only Marshall could have approved to jump start the program, not Kramer. Two, Nicky Parsons had claimed that she and Bourne had shared a past . . . in Paris. I found this claim rather startling, considering that the previous movies had never hinted of any romance between the two. The only past that Nicky and Bourne could have shared was one between handler and assassin in Paris, along with his interrogation of her in Berlin.  The action in the movie’s first 45 minutes occurred a little too fast for my tastes and with very little breaks. I think Greengrass and Gilroy seemed bent upon speeding up the movie’s pacing just a little too unnecessarily. And three, the final scene featured fugitive Nicky Parsons learning about the exposure of the Blackbriar and Treadstone assassin programs on the news . . . and the arrests of Vosen, Kramer and psychologist Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney). Frankly, I found this conclusion unrealistic. Yes, one can consider it a crowd pleaser, but there is no way on earth the C.I.A. would allow its dirty secrets (at least recent ones) to be aired on any national news program. And I doubt that Landy would have sent Vosen’s secret files to the media – not if she wants to maintain her career at the agency. Chances are the C.I.A. would have suppressed news of the black-ops programs and killed Vosen, Hirsch and Kramer discreetly.

As for the acting – well it was top notch as usual. In what turned out to be his last “BOURNE” film (so far), Damon made the Jason Bourne [David Webb] role as his own. Julia Stiles continued to prove, as she had done in “SUPREMACY” that she and Damon have great screen chemistry . . . despite the discomfort and awkwardness between the two characters. This awkwardness came about Bourne’s revelation of his distaste of his role as an assassin and a scene in which Nicky changed her appearance, dredging up memories of Marie doing the same in the first film. Joan Allen’s portrayal of Pamela Landy was marvelous as usual. In fact, I believe that her performance in this movie was a minor improvement over the second film. Edgar Ramirez gave an intriguing performance as Blackbriar assassin Paz. Paddy Considine was effectively paranoid as the doomed reporter Simon Ross. And both David Strathairn and Albert Finney proved to be remarkably creepy and unpleasant. Although I believe that Strathairn was as good as Brian Cox, I found him to be an improvement over the slightly over-the-top Chris Cooper (as Alexander Conklin).  Somewhat.  He had his moments of being overly dramatic.

Paul Greengrass’ direction seemed top notch. But I have one major complaint. I had barely tolerated Greengrass’ handheld photography in “SUPREMACY”. In “ULTIMATUM”, my toleration nearly went down with the Titanic. I almost had a headache dealing with the shaky camera work. My other complaint deals with this movie’s rendition of Moby’s song, “Extreme Ways”. Quite frankly, I hated it. I hated Moby’s new updated version of it and wish that the producers had stuck with the old one.

Despite some of these changes, the hand held photography and what I believe were flaws in the script, “ULTIMATUM” proved to be just as exciting as the first two movies. And together, Damon, Greengrass, Kilroy, along with Doug Liman and Universal Pictures created a first-rate movie trilogy and franchise.

“VANTAGE POINT” (2008) Review

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”VANTAGE POINT” (2008) Review

”VANTAGE POINT” is a tightly woven thriller about eight strangers with eight different points of view of an assassination attempt on the President of the United States, during an anti-terrorism summit in Salamanca, Spain. Directed by Pete Travis and written by Barry Levy, the movie starred Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt.

When I had first saw the trailer for ”VANTAGE POINT”, I had assumed it would be one of those remakes of the Japanese film, “RASHOMON” (1950). I figured there would be an assassination attempt on the President and the film would follow with various points of view on the incident. This is what happened in ”VANTAGE POINT” . . . but not quite. ”VINTAGE POINT” did reveal the assassination attempt from various points of view. In ”RASHOMON” and other versions of the film, those views are shown as flashbacks. But in ”VANTAGE POINT” each point of view is not a flashback. Instead each POV merely gives a certain view of the story, while the story moves forward. For example, the movie started out with the point of view of a news producer (Sigourney Weaver) and the newscaster (Zoë Saldaña) that worked under her, before ending at a particular point in the story. The next point of view belongs to Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), which ends a little further in the story than the news producer’s POV. And so on. The movie ends with an exciting action sequence told from the various viewpoints of the major characters – heroes and villains.

The more I think about ”VANTAGE POINT”, the more I realize how much I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the tight setting of Salamanca, Spain (actually the film was shot in Mexico). I must add that one of the things I enjoyed about this movie was that Levy’s script had a way of putting a twist on any assumptions anyone might form about the plot. I loved how Travis handled the film’s action, making it well-paced. I enjoyed the performances of the major cast members. I was especially impressed by the performances of Dennis Quaid as the emotionally uncertain Barnes, who eventually pieced together the real plot. I also enjoyed the performances of Matthew Fox as his fellow Secret Service agent, Forest Whitaker as an American tourist and Edgar Ramirez (”THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”) as a Spanish Special Forces soldier blackmailed into participating in the plot against the President. But more importantly, I loved Barry Levy’s script, which put a twist on any assumptions the moviegoer may have formed about the story’s plotlines and characters. My only quibble with ”VANTAGE POINT” was the interaction between Whitaker’s character and a Spanish girl, which I found slightly contrived near the end of the movie.

I suspect that ”VANTAGE POINT” will never be highly regarded by critics and moviegoers.  It is the type of movie that forces the audience to think. And I suspect that most moviegoers would prefer a film that lays everything out in the open. And I especially doubt that many moviegoers will have the patience to deal with the constant rewinds in order to show the viewpoints of various characters. Since I have a history of liking movies that are not popular with the public or film critics, all I can do is hope that I will have the chance to see the movie again, before it leaves the theater for good. Personally, I would recommend ”VANTAGE POINT”.