Month: January 2013

January 10, 2013

Holiday Hangover, Special Guest Reviewer Edition: Midnight In Paris

Midnight In Paris – Direction

*This review is being provided by guest contributor; Nicole Schiavo.  Thanks for the submission Nicole and we look forward to having more guest submissions.*

Direction in this movie, starts from the very top, the direction provided by arguably one of the most influential directors in the business, Woody Allen.  After a string of ill contrived and marginally received flops, “Midnight in Paris” brings Allen back into the (in my opinion well deserved) critically acclaimed; he once again found his direction.

The film features Owen Wilson’s portrayal of Gil, a likable but somewhat flaky writer (I would like to think that Allen, would have played Gil had he been 30 years younger.  Wilson. in my opinion, is a fine replacement) engaged to unlikable Inez, played by Rachel McAdams (“Mean Girls” Regina George all grown up).

The story is driven by Gil’s complete lack of direction – in his work as a writer and in his complete lack of navigational skills – getting lost on the city’s narrow time-worn streets, he winds up getting lost down a small unmarked alley and whisked away at midnight by a 1920s-era vehicle.
This magical vehicle (suspend reality here) brings him smack in the middle of 1920s Paris – where Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald mirror the relationship of Gil and Inez (and we all know how well that ended), Gertrude Stein and Hemmingway are writing buddies, and where Salvador Dali is as strange as we have always imagined.
Getting tossed back in time lets Gil live out every fantasy that an overly romantic writer could have – why should he want to go back to the “now”?  Ever the romantic, Gil not only relishes this amazing opportunity, he doesn’t question it, ever (Slight gripe, but keep the reality suspended, throw it out the window, this is a fantasy).
In the most literate way, Gil had be to completely lost in Paris in order to regain his sense of direction, in his writing, in his relationships, and more importantly his life.
This movie is just pure fun – the cast is great and the setting is romantic, beautiful Paris.  Peel back the layers and hidden a little deeper in the film is the realization that although nostalgia is a great place to visit, you can’t really live there – direct oneself in the now and all its possibilities.

January 8, 2013

Holiday Hangover: Zero Dark Thirty (Matt’s Take)

Zero Dark Thirty – Resolution

It’s fun to follow the career of a director; take my recent reviews on Quentin Tarantino as an example.  Take a director like Kathryn Bigelow.  If you look at her career you can say she’s done it all.  Horror movies (Near Dark), crime films (Point Break), neo-futuristic noir (Strange Days) and war (The Hurt Locker).  You can honestly say she’s grown-up from genre films to Academy Award-winning fare, and of course it doesn’t hurt that at one point you were banging James Cameron, but I digress, as I do so often.

I remember the day 9/11 happened; I was a senior in high school sitting, or probably sleeping, in AP Psychology class.  We had someone run into our classroom and tell our teacher to turn on the TV.  The next thing I see is one of the World Trade Center towers on fire.  It was a little perplexing and it almost seemed like a prank, albeit an extremely odd prank.  Next thing I know a plane runs into the 2nd tower, and shortly after the first tower succumbs to the fire and collapses.  This was my “JFK” moment.  If you were alive when John F. Kennedy was assassinated you remember where you were at that moment, the same goes for the generation that saw the Twin Towers fall and coat Lower Manhattan in a cloud of dust.  A surreal moment in World History.  The following 10 years we were haunted by the al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated many terror attacks that cost the lives of thousands of people around the world.  It wasn’t until May of 2011 that another moment occurred that you may remember; Barack Obama would appear on TV and tell the world that bin Laden had been killed in a compound in Pakistan.  I personally felt relatively unchanged.  Sure, a terrorist leader was dead, but did it make us that much safer?  That is a question you have to ask yourself when you finish watching “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Bigelow has cornered the market on dramas that include both the Middle East and our never ending “War on Terror.”  Despite some shortcomings, “The Hurt Locker” was a well done film centering on a bomb disposal team and the stress of the job.  “Zero Dark Thirty” lacks the action, and luster, of “Locker” and focuses on the daily grind of select CIA officials as they cut through government red tape, and personal tragedies, to finally target, and eliminate, bin Laden.  If you’ve watched the trailers and expect a slam-bang, balls-to-the-wall action thriller, you’re watching the wrong film.  This film is a grind, but there is resolution.

“Thirty” follows CIA operative Maya who has just been sent to Pakistan to oversee the CIA’s Detainee Program a few years after 9/11.  Told through a series of vignettes, the film navigates through many of the tragic events that lead to the eventual whereabouts of Usama bin Laden from the London bombings in 2005 to the bombing of the Marriott in Islamabad.  The movie isn’t as much of a mystery as it is a procedural, similar to something that you might see on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”  The one difference is that you see the toll a grueling manhunt can take on the human psyche and how the government can be a hindrance when it comes to completing a mission.

People are complaining about two things in this film; the torture scenes and how information was gained for the making of the film.  Look, every country that has been involved in some sort of war theater over the past 100 years has probably been involved in some type of interrogation efforts that weren’t in the Geneva Conventions.  It’s not just America to blame for abuse of these Conventions, and I don’t think “Thirty” took it too far, they just called it like it is.  I’m sure there have been grave abuses during our “War on Terror” but to play Devil’s Advocate, the “War on Terror” isn’t really a war, it’s more of a mantra.  We have not declared war in this country since 1942 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II.  Is this an excuse for torture, of course not, but we can’t get upset when we know practices such as waterboarding have been used on terror suspects and detainees.  As far as classified information obtained by the makers of the film, I’ll just leave it at that, I don’t need anyone knocking on my door after reading this.

What bothered me about “Thirty,” weren’t the torture scenes or acts of violence carried out by the terrorists, it was the relative lack of character development.  We gain from the film the fact that Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, has been on the hunt for bin Laden since she left high school and it’s the only thing that she has worked on while with the CIA.  We know it’s personal, to a degree, and that her obsession has led to her leaving a daughter and possibly an entire family, or maybe even losing a family member during 9/11.  As she comes to the end of her search we see her first real emotion, as she cries.  Her tears can mean many things; the fact that bin Laden has finally been killed, the fact she is finally going home, or just maybe the fact that her search is over and she is left with nothing, and nobody will know her sacrifice.  She has to go back into a world that will never know her work, and she has nothing left to work for.  Her life came down to one man, who is now gone.  It’s deep stuff, if you take the time to look at it from all perspectives.

Aside from the character development, “Zero Dark Thirty” is an epic retelling of the 10 years after 9/11 and the eventual killing of Usama bin Laden, the boogeyman who had been haunting the lives of Americans since that fateful day in September.  Has Bigelow done it again, and will she capture Oscar gold again?  Only time will tell.

Fun Fact:  SEAL Team Six, a branch of the US Navy, carried out Operation Neptune Spear, the operation which eliminated their target, Usama bin Laden, in May 2011.

January 6, 2013

Holiday Hangover: Zero Dark Thirty (DJ’s Take)


Zero Dark Thirty is not just a film.  To me, it is a bookend to one of the greatest American tragedies in history.  It serves as our first real glimpse into the events leading up to May 2, 2011.  Some may argue that Zero Dark Thirty, as a film, is overrated.  Some may argue that Zero Dark Thirty, as a historical chronicle, is inaccurate.  However, you would be hard pressed to say that Zero Dark Thirty is not IMPORTANT.

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatic account of the decade long search and capture of Osama bin Laden.  A subject that IMPORTANT was a cinch to rile up a debate on how to properly portray it.  Some might expect a kick-ass, romanticized war epic leading to a balls to the wall Seal assault on that compound in Abbottabad.  Thirty isn’t that type of film at all.  It is about the slow, grueling process government officials had to go through in order to finally pull the trigger on bin Laden.  It isn’t romantic or fun.  It isn’t fast paced or action packed.  And as recent criticisms have suggested, it is controversially disturbing right from the beginning.  But that is the film’s point.  The steps our government and military take to accomplish their goals are almost unfathomable for a regular person.  Especially when you account for the small amount of fanfare or celebration they enjoy when a mission is actually accomplished.   The nuances of governmental decision making, puzzle solving, tactical strategies, and yes, torture, are the compelling pieces to this compelling film. 

The moment I heard the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death, I knew a film about it had to be made.  And as more of the details about the mission’s circumstances surfaced, I knew how great of a film it could be.  My mind immediately went to hoping Kathryn Bigelow would helm it.  Bigelow had already made and been honored for her stellar film The Hurt Locker.  As chance had it, she was already developing a film about the search for bin Laden before he was killed.  And after watching Zero Dark Thirty, I can’t think of anyone who could have handled this film better.  Bigelow just knows how to shoot this material.  Much like the way Scorsese knows how to shoot gangster films or Tim Burton knows how to shoot…um…weird films.  She immerses the audience in this world and doesn’t give them room to flinch.  Every scene, every interaction between characters feels like she’s pulled the covers off of something we shouldn’t be allowed to watch.  The fact that she has already won an Oscar for directing the similarly styled Hurt Locker is the ONLY REASON she isn’t a frontrunner again for Zero Dark Thirty. 

Jessica Chastain is a revelation in this film.  Especially for me.  I had only recently been familiar with her work in Lawless and The Help.  However, my unpreparedness worked well for loving the main character of Maya.  She is a stone cold, no nonsense, sh*t kicker that takes everyone by surprise from start to finish.  It is so hard to portray that type of woman in a film and not come off as wooden or boring.  See January Jones for further evidence.  Despite Chastain’s cold demeanor, however, you can tell that there is still an angry, emotional wreck underneath.  Chastain allows it to peak out at just the right moments.  Even with a cast of constantly solid actors like Mark Strong, Jason Clarke, James Gandolfini, and Chris Pratt, Chastain shines the brightest.

As the award season approaches, Zero Dark Thirty is starting to pull away as a favorite in many categories.  Despite my praise, I don’t think it is the best picture of the year.  This is only due to entertainment reasons.  It isn’t paced or put together the way an audience might find traditionally appealing.  Though, Zero Dark Thirty is undoubtedly a must watch.  A film that we will look back on and debate for years as to whether it properly captured such an IMPORTANT time in our nation’s history.  Watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

January 4, 2013

Holiday Hangover: Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds – Tension

I don’t think any war in our nation’s, or world’s, history has been done to death like World War II.  There have been romantic, comedic, heart-wrenching, and just plain bad tellings of “The War to End All Wars.”  On the top of my list I have “Saving Private Ryan” and the so-far-under-the-radar “Enemy At The Gates,”  whereas craptastic crap like “BloodRayne” remains at the bottom of the English Channel.  But you know that when a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino gets a bug up his ass that he wants to make a war film its not going to be like any war film you’ve ever seen.  Enter, “Inglourious Basterds.”

Before I dive into “Basterds,” I’ll preface;  I was actually going to review all of Tarantino’s directorial efforts in order, but the holidays sidetracked me and I ended up skipping right to “Django Unchained,” where you can read that review right here.  I’d like to think of “Basterds” as the moment where Tarantino went mainstream, and I mean REAL mainstream.  “Basterds” was his first film to feature a TRUE leading man in Brad Pitt, and he finally was able to reward one of his actors with an Academy Award in Christoph Waltz.  In a way it was also one of his most accessible efforts in theaters where it was the largest release for a Tarantino movie to date, “Kill Bill Vol.1” was a close second.  And it was the first of his films to be available in a Digital, DVD, and Blu-Ray format (since the writing of this review you can pick up the Tarantino XX Blu-Ray Collection that features all of his films in an HD format).

“Inglourious Basterds” follows the exploits of a group of Jewish-born Army Mercenaries and their commanding officer Lt. Aldo Raine as they merrily maraude across Europe killing, scalping, and branding Nazis.  But that is just a small portion of the film, which also follows a French-born Jewish female theater owner planning her revenge against Nazis who are planning to premier a propaganda film entitled “Nation’s Pride.”  Included in attendance are Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler.  As you can imagine there are twists, typical Tarantino humor, and scenes of fantastic violence.  The difference between “Basterds” and Tarantino’s other films is the tension and you can cut it with a knife in several scenes.  The best examples include the Strudel scene and the Bar scene.  What you also start to see, and this might have started after QT finished up his “Kill Bill” saga, is the change in his tone of film.

Tarantino began making and writing films with an edge, a very gritty edge.  He dealt with the wrong side of law in thieves, murderers, sadists, and hit-men   And for the most part, it all seemed to fit in some realm of reality.  When “Bill” was released you began to see a different side; which included more fantastic plot devices and stories that revolved more around revenge and the bloody road that leads to it.  I’m not going to say that Tarantino is getting lazy, its really just a maturation process in his filmmaking, or an evolution if you will.  He’s moved from the gritty streets of Los Angeles, to a fantastic Earth 2 of DC proportions.

Look at any war genre film from the 1960s and 70s, and “Basterds” has its fingers all over it.  From the original “Inglorious Bastards” to “The Dirty Dozen” and maybe in throw in a little “Wild Bunch” and you have “Basterds” in a nutshell.  What Tarantino really brings out is the fact that a so-called “foreign” film can be accessible to any audience.  There are a ton of subtitles across this nearly three hour epic, but the actors who read the dialogue do it so well, and with such fluidity, that you get seduced by their delivery, no matter if its in German, French, or Italian.  I brought up Christoph Waltz winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Col. Hans Landa, aka, The Jew Hunter, and part of that victory must have come from his ability to act and deliver dialogue in English, German, French, and Italian with gusto, hilarity, and conviction.  Every time he appears on screen you are transfixed on his slimy SS Officer.  You both hate and love Landa, and there aren’t many characters in the history of film you can say that for.

Is “Inglorious Basterds” a good movie, of course it is.  While some viewers saw it as a little boring, uneven, and maybe even a romantic take on Nazis and World War II France, there is still plenty to take away from “Basterds.”  Also, I would put money on the fact that the ending of “Basterds” is one of the most satisfying in any Tarantino film to date, even “Django Unchained.”  If you haven’t already, or maybe if you’ve even seen it a few times, check out “Inglourious Basterds,” it’s tons of fun, and started a new chapter in the career of Quentin Tarantino.

Fun Fact:  Eli Roth, who appears as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka The Bear Jew, in “Basterds” directed the scenes from the film-within-a-film, “Nation’s Pride.”

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