Showing posts tagged Film

Zero Dark Thirty

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Kathryn Bigelow’s critically overlooked drama takes an objective view of ten years of CIA work that ends with the ultimate payoff. 

On 2nd May 2011 US Navy SEALS stormed a complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan, shooting dead Osama bin Laden. Bigelow’s film takes an unflinching look at the decade-long process leading up to his death through the eyes of Jessica Chastain’s Maya.

Nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, Chastain’s Maya is an elegant wildfire. Focused, disciplined, and with an almost pathological sense of purpose, Maya’s hunt for bin Laden could easily engender an aloofness that would leave her character just plain unlikeable. It is much to Chastain’s credit that Maya is as complex a character as the convoluted trail she follows. Every moment of clinical insight or militaristic assertiveness is tempered with pockets of individuality; she licks the peanut butter straight off her knife, she IMs her friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), ‘cool!’. 

There’s a danger that this could stray into clichéd territory, the ice queen with a soft side. Chastain, working with Mark Boal’s excellent, pared-down script, neatly negotiates this throughout the film’s arguably most controversial scenes. The depiction of torture in 0D30 has been of great debate in the popular press, with the main concern being the justification of such methods. Chastain’s character develops through it by believing in its necessity to do her job, so single-minded is her focus, yet she never supports or denounces it. Jason Clarke’s Dan is the primary human face for these acts of violence, but he neither revels in his work nor suffers a psychological breakdown in its wake. The torture shown is presented simply as an inherent part of the process, an almost verité approach to the actuality of events.

Alongside the violence of the subject matter, a word or two must be said on Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score. Subtle, infusing a strong regional musicality with a prelude to war that remains aware of its focus (this isn’t a film about the war, it’s a spy film, a tech film, a historical drama that leaves the triumphalist bombast of America’s rising chords firmly in America), Desplat’s composition perfectly complements Boal’s efficient script, a jargon-heavy piece that demands the viewer’s attention. The near-ensemble cast of famous faces come and go in an orderly fashion, their screen time reflective of their input in the chase through Maya’s contact with them. As audience members we are privileged to see the whole thing unfold, and so our role demands the greatest attention be paid. 

Bigelow’s direction has been sorely ignored by the Academy; it is a beautiful piece of work. Certain shots shine, particularly the interplay of long shots and close-ups of Maya, but the overall effect is one of (to steal a phrase) tradecraft. This is a director at the very top of her game, blending the stylistic choices and visual flair of Hollywood direction with the singlemindedness of the mission, the unitary, clinical focus on the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. Bigelow might have happened upon a jackpot resolution when OBL was killed during writing, providing the natural end to the script, but that still left the small matter of how to film it. The end result is an immersive and fascinating realisation of events that recalls the verisimilitude of David Simon’s and Ed Burn’s 2008 miniseries Generation Kill.

Zero Dark Thirty is a captivating dramatization of one of the most important events in modern history. The combination of direction, screenplay and score binds together ten years of history into a pacey two and a half hours, all anchored by Chastain’s excellent turn as Maya.

Oz the Great and Powerful

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Tinker, Quadling, Munchkin, WIZARD.

That’s right folks, welcome back to Oz, or should that be Welcome to Oz, as Sam Raimi’s prequel takes us behind the curtain to show us the legend of the man behind the curtain.

That man is Oscar (James Franco), a conjurer of sorts, a trickster and a womaniser, and part of a travelling circus currently performing in Kansas. With the help of his stagehand Frank (Zach Braff) he bumbles his way through a performance, incurring the wrath of the crowd before a timely tornado whisks him away. This opening twenty-five minutes is Raimi’s attempt at a lovingly crafted homage to The Wizard of Oz, a black and white slice of 1.33:1 cinema that transports audiences just as much as bad weather hauls off our protagonist. It is unfortunate then that these expository vignettes feel as artificial as Oz’s tricks and charms. The traditional aspect ratio looks uncomfortable on the modern screen. Hyperinflated negative space frames the action, a sideways glance and you are looking outside of the film at, well, nothing.

The attempted homage is admirable, if flawed, and does at least lend the switch to 2.40:1 widescreen a certain awe-inspiring quality. This (perfectly seamless) transition also comes with the change of monochrome to colour, a change that emphasises the saccharinely sweet palette of Oz reminiscent of our first steps into James Cameron’s Pandora. This is an almost Glorious Technicolor adventure, the brightness of the image foregrounded and bursting off the screen, the background a collection of sumptuous CGI matte-effect paintings that again recall Garland’s old Hollywood. It is, however, an awkward adventure.

Simply put, Oscar is not a likeable man. Though his development does eventually see him evidence a change of sorts, it is nevertheless inherently difficult to root for a protagonist who is so cocksure, and often downright rude. Moreover, the film seems confused as to how it wants to represent the rest of Oz’s inhabitants. On the one hand, Finley the Monkey (Zach Braff) calls Oscar out on how he stereotypes his simian ways, on the other it is happy for Tony Cox to play Knuck, who may as well forgo a name entirely and play ‘Angry Black Dwarf #1’. Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) is a thankless part, the embodiment of a prototypically angelic caricature that simply doesn’t exist in contemporary cinema (society), and feels all the more mawkish for it.

Equally, Rachel Weisz’s Evanora never quite lives up to the HBIC craziness of Charlize Theron’s Ravenna from last year’s Snow White and the Huntsman, and whilst Mila Kunis’ Theodora is a wide-eyed wonder at first, what becomes of her is not much of a cut above Dr. Who villain-of-the-week; a jarring anachronism in this contemporary rendering. Spare a thought for Joey King, who steals both the show and our hearts as the porcelain princess China Girl (would it have killed the producers to give her an actual name instead of leaving her sounding as if she is a B-rate Bond girl?).

Oz is a poor film. It is overlong (particularly for a children’s film, clocking in at 2hrs 10mins) and lacks strong, likeable characters. What it does do is something that has been very popular in film of late. It celebrates filmmaking, a celebration made even more poignant in the wake of the current SFX industry crisis. Simply put Oz does not exist if not for the work of the marvellous men and women and their green screens. Now there’s an Emerald City worth saving.