Zero Dark Thirty
Grade: C+ | 1st viewing
Would United 93 still be a great movie if 9/11 had never happened? Does the film gain importance merely because it is the guttural dramatization of true events*, or would it be just as powerful and thrilling if removed from its historical context? I say the latter—one of Greengrass’s achievements with that film (and his Sunday Bloody Sunday, come to think of it) is making it compelling in its immediacy. Though you might be sick with dread knowing how those movies end, they feel as if they are happening now, right in front of you.
It is not so with Zero Dark Thirty, the latest Kathryn Bigelow film and her first since the surprisingly similar The Hurt Locker. On the heels of Best Picture wins from the Boston, New York, and Washington Societies of Film Critics, ZD30 (as its abbreviated Twitter hash tag goes) is being marketed as a high-octane thriller—which it is, in fits and starts. Mostly though, and much to my disappointment, the film plays like a piece of long-form journalism; it’s as if Mark Boal wrote about the search for Osama bin Laden for The New Yorker or Vanity Fair, and instead of adapting his treatise into script form for the movie, submitted it to Bigelow as is. Intertitles saying “Human Error” and “The Canaries” read like subheadings for a news article more so than appropriate filmic chapter titles, but this is just a symptom of a didactic and plotless film. Not to say that this material is uninteresting, but Bigelow structures Zero Dark Thirty like a documentary, and much of the footage plays like an informational reenactment. You shouldn’t have to rely solely on your audience’s innate interest in your subject matter to foster attention (see the Footnote review below).
Still, the acting is solid across the board (though I find acting noms for Chastain somewhat perplexing; she did far more with less screen time in pretty much every one of her 2011 outings), and Bigelow does know how to shoot an action sequence. But overall, ZD30 is a disappointingly shallow experience.
Endnote: For those wondering about the film’s stance on torture, I’m not sure what to say. The torture scenes are graphic and disturbing to say the least—and no matter what the hell Kyle Smith or George W Bush say, waterboarding is definitely heinous torture. But people asking whether the film is pro- or anti-torture can only get one of two answers from me: Why does it matter? or Who cares?
Grade: C+ | 1st Viewing
Now here is a film that tears a huge event from recent headlines and manages to immerse the viewer in the experience. If you ever wondered about the horror of living through the 2004 tsunami, this is pretty much as close as you can possibly come to understanding it without living through it yourself. The first reel of The Impossible is masterful disaster filmmaking, following a British family (Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and magnificent newcomer Tom Holland) as the giant wave literally sweeps them away, and wreaks destruction upon everything in its path. Eastwood’s Hereafter hasn’t prepared you for what to expect.
After the powerful opening sequences, however, the film descends into sickly Lifetime Movie fodder, shamelessly crafting saccharine scenes (complete with swelling musical score!) designed solely to plunder and defile your heartstrings. I might have been able to have an honest emotional reaction to the material if director Juan Bayona (The Orphanage) hadn’t been so damn cloying with it. To contrast The Impossible with the contemporaneous Amour by Michael Haneke: Haneke’s film also deals with devastating subject matter, but Haneke lets his material speak for itself, as opposed to forcing his audience savagely into every emotion like Bayona.
I can already hear the cries of people calling me a jaded cynic. But consider this: the 2004 South Asian Tsunami killed a quarter million people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and ten other Asian countries. The Impossible concerns itself exclusively with how the tragedy affected rich, white Westerners. Am I really the cynical one, here?**
The Rabbi’s Cat
Grade: B | 1st Viewing
This is just the damnedest movie. A rabbi lives in Algiers in the 1920s with his daughter, cat, and parrot. One day, the cat eats the parrot and suddenly gains the ability to speak. He challenges the rabbi on all manner of Judaic concerns, such as why god exists, why the cat can’t have a bar mitzvah, why/if Islam is inferior, and a further cornucopia of philosophical subjects. Eventually (and quite fittingly), the plot leads the characters through a long trek in the desert.
Le Chat du Rabbin is eligible for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, but won’t be nominated. Too few people have seen it—because after all, how many people want to see an animated film about religious philosophy when you could instead see one about reanimated dogs, or Irish mama bears, or regretful zombies, or video game characters, or… I’m being unfair. I enjoyed those other movies. But The Rabbi’s Cat is one of the better films of the year, in all its messy, contemplative glory, and you’d do well to seek it out.
Grade: B+ | 2nd Viewing
Speaking of Judaica… Footnote concerns an Israeli scholar finally receiving the Israel Prize for his contributions to Talmudic study, only to find that there was an error, and his son was actually the intended recipient. If intense Talmudic minutia doesn’t seem an interesting subject for a fiction film, don’t worry; Joseph Cedar’s brilliant script mines the emotions of entitlement, jealousy, guilt, regret, and ties them all up in a package of intense family dynamics. Cedar begins Footnote as a bit of light comedy, and switches dramatic streams so delicately, it becomes a different film entirely without your being aware of it. Great acting and a great score round out one of the year’s very best films.
Grade: C+ | 1st Viewing
If you haven’t already heard about the real-life strip search prank call scams, I urge you to read up on them, as they are a fascinating study in human beings’ deference to authority. Briefly, these scams involved a man calling a fast-food restaurant, like McDonald’s, pretending to be a law enforcement officer, and convincing a supervisor that one of his employees was a suspect in a theft. The caller would then proceed, through various deceptive methods, to persuade the manager to strip-search the patient, or maybe worse…
Director Craig Zobel dramatizes these events about as well as can be expected for the first hour or so. His manager is here played brilliantly by Ann Dowd, who perfectly illustrates the submissiveness and self-deception necessary to exploit and shame someone in such a manner. As the employee suspected of theft, Dreama Walker is far less compelling. She never actually seems to be horrifically humiliated by what’s going on; the first time she’s told to strip, her facial expression makes it seem like it’s an annoying inconvenience rather than an extreme violation. The fault for this, however, I believe lies more with Zobel than Walker. Zobel seems afraid of coming across as exploitative, so he softens Walker’s humiliation at the hands of this telephonic prankster. But by doing so, he only makes the true vile nature of what is happening onscreen less compelling, and less impactful as a result. Sure, it could be exploitative to amp up the humiliation factor, but by not doing so, Zobel almost doesn’t give his material a chance. Also, he has no idea how to end his film, and therefore, does so poorly. Still, Compliance has a gripping premise, and is definitely worth a view.
* 9/11 conspiracy theorists, kindly exit the website.
** If you answered ‘yes,’ kindly add The Yes Men Fix the World to your Netflix queue.