by Steve Habrat
After becoming the first woman ever to receive a Best Director Oscar for the 2009 teeth-rattler The Hurt Locker, the world anxiously awaited to see what director Kathryn Bigelow would produce next. It turned out that the next project she would tackle was Zero Dark Thirty, another War on Terror thriller that follows America’s efforts to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. Sparking controversy over the filmmaker’s access to classified information and its depiction of torture, Zero Dark Thirty could possibly be one of the most important American films of recent memory simply because it supposedly spills the facts that every single American is dying to know. While the debate still rages over whether the film is accurate, I can confirm that Zero Dark Thirty puts the viewer through the ringer, touching upon every single emotion that was collectively felt as a country from September 11th, 2001 through May 2nd, 2011. It begins with horror and confusion, opting to plunge the audience into the darkness of that terrifying day in September while frantic phone calls blare over the speakers and then instantly morphing into rage, then fatigue, then desperation, then hopelessness, and finally surreal relief. Despite how strong the picture is, Bigelow doesn’t drill into white-knuckle intensity as frequently as she did in 2009, leaving The Hurt Locker the true victor of the two films.
Zero Dark Thirty picks up in 2003 and introduces us to Maya (Played by Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer who is sent to work hand-in-hand with fellow officer Dan (Played by Jason Clarke) in Pakistan. Together, Maya and Dan torture and interrogate terrorist financer Ammar (Played by Reda Kateb) about the Saudi Group and the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. After a series of brutal interrogations, Maya and Dan finally trick Ammar into revealing more information about al-Qaeda and the name of bin Laden’s most trusted carrier: Abu Ahmed. With this new information and a blessing from station chief Joseph Bradley (Played by Kyle Chandler), Maya and Dan begin trying to locate Abu Ahmed but conflicting stories and information from other prisoners continuously prevent them from finding him. As the years pass and multiple dead ends are hit, the CIA’s determination to end the War on Terror begins to fade but Maya remains dedicated to smoking out Abu Ahmed and tracking down bin Laden any way she can.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline information overload. It is certainly hypnotic in its intimate moments of plan and debate and pinning in its suspense but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal always seem to find a way to remain politically neutral. They acknowledge the shift in approaches between George Bush and Barack Obama but they always leave you, the viewer, to form your own opinions on their approaches to this complex war. The film presents a horrifically brutal interrogation that will have your stomach tied in knots only to immediately cut to a bloody al-Qaeda terrorist attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which leaves multiple Americans dead. It is this staggering balance that will have the blood boiling and stirring up some lengthy conversations long after Bigelow closes the curtains on this manhunt, which to me is the mark of a really great motion picture. You can’t help but ask yourself or those you see the movie with, was torturing these men really the right answer? Was water boarding really necessary? Did humiliating them really get us any farther? Does torture really make us any better than the ones we are fighting? Bigelow leaves it up to you decide and she knows that these questions get under our skin.
The one who watches over this moral firestorm is Chastain’s Maya, a quiet yet self-assured CIA officer who will stop at nothing to take down the ultimate target. She is the iron lady standing tall next to a 100% guarantee that bin Laden is hiding in this mysterious compound in a room full of men who cower behind a soft 60%. She is simply magnetic the way sticks to her guns, chasing down every lead, and terrifying as she sharpens her torture skills, coldly detached when she warns one prisoner, “if you lie to me, I will hurt you.” Is she Oscar worthy? You bet she is. While Zero Dark Thirty verges on a one-woman show, the guys hold up okay too. Chastain finds a groove with Clarke, her disheveled partner who takes cigarette and ice cream cone breaks from the business-as-usual torture/interrogation. The casual manner that he approaches these situations does send a chill down your spine. He is constantly trying to escape Chastain’s engulfing shadow but he proves he can be one tough cookie when he needs to be. Chandler continues to prove he is the dark horse with a testy performance as Joseph Bradley, the station chief who dares cross Chastain’s ball of fury. I still cannot believe that he has not fully broken out yet but hopefully Zero Dark Thirty will help him become a household name. James Gandolfini drops by to play CIA director Leon Panetta, who is consistently impressed by the firecracker that is Maya. Chris Pratt (Parks & Recreation) and Joel Edgerton are also on board as Navy Seal Justin and Red Squadron Team Leader Patrick. Both are given minor roles but Pratt brings the funnies and Edgerton brings the macho toughness you expect.
So you’re probably wondering, how exactly does Bigelow handle the climatic raid on that compound? She handles it like a pro, filming in gritty night vision as the SEALs move stealthily from one floor of the compound to the next. Even though we know how this is all going to turn out, Bigelow still keeps you on the edge of your seat and holding your breath in spots, especially when the SEALs begin to draw the attention of the people living around the compound. Bigelow continues to jolt the viewer with sudden movement, shadows dashing for cover, and even return fire. This is all complimented by children’s cries as bodies fall limp and the women dive onto the bodies of these fallen terrorists and weep, “YOU’VE KILLED HIM!” When it comes to the money shot, with bin Laden staring down the barrel of a gun, it was handled quite differently than I expected. It is all a bit sudden, blurred, and even slightly surreal, something you really need to see for yourself. The wall of emotions that come crashing down after the shots are fired are really something else but they get tangled in the mad dash to get out of the compound as quickly as possible. The sequence is a real nail biter.
Sadly, Zero Dark Thirty has been attacked by the left as a pro torture film and dismissed by the right as simply left-wing propaganda to make President Obama’s administration look heroic. While I can imagine that some of the events that play out on the screen are fabricated for the sake of drama and action, I really wish people would leave their politics at the door when viewing the film. I admire the film because it has the guts to include it all and then leave it up for debate. Bigelow and Boal are practically screaming at you to view it as it as is and form your own decisions about what you see. It should also be noted that Bigelow and Boal dare to slice the tension in spots and actually make us laugh, something that they were not overly enthusiastic to do in the relentlessly serious The Hurt Locker. Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is an aggressive and massively essential thriller that is ripe with hard-boiled performances and brooding tension. It is a film that every American should see.
by Steve Habrat
Even though Quentin Tarantino did not direct the 1993 romantic thriller True Romance, one would swear that it was made by the vigorous film buff. Directed by the late Tony Scott and written by Mr. Tarantino, True Romance is a fast, funny, gory, and sexy tale about gangsters, drugs, pimps, comic books, Sonny Chiba, Elvis, and some of the strangest characters you are ever likely to see in a motion picture. Hot of the success of 1992’s indie Reservoir Dogs and made just before 1994’s star-studded Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s script is a fiery blast of nerdy dialogue and fizzy romance matched up with an all-star cast (Christian Slater! Patricia Arquette! Samuel L. Jackson! Dennis Hopper! Brad Pitt! Christopher Walken! Val Kilmer! Gary Oldman!), who all give insanely memorable performances. You can feel Tarantino’s energy humming through the entire project but it’s Scott’s edgy and flashy directorial style that makes this nearly two hour film seem like it is only about a half-hour long. Seriously, I couldn’t believe how quickly this film moves and how short it actually felt. While True Romance is always fun and exciting, the film sadly looses a little steam near the climax. Maybe I was just fatigued from the Scott’s hyperactive style and Tarantino’s fast paced film-referencing conversations that led up to the final confrontation. I mean, did you ever think there would be a film that references both The Streefighter and Terrence Malick’s Badlands?
True Romance introduces us to comic book store clerk Clarence (Played by Christian Slater), a nerdy loner who attends a kung fu triple feature on his birth. While at the movies, he crosses paths with a beautiful blonde named Alabama (Played by Patricia Arquette). The two hit it off instantly over pie and conversations about Elvis, comic books, and kung fu. After a night of steamy passion, Alabama reveals that she was a call girl hired by Clarence’s boss as a birthday present but that she has fallen madly in love with him. The two marry and Clarence decides that he is going to seek out Alabama’s pimp, Drexel (Played by Gary Oldman), and let him know that his blonde bombshell is quitting. This meeting between Clarence and Drexel doesn’t go according to plan and Clarance ends up killing Drexel and accidentally leaving with a bag of stolen cocaine. Unsure what to do, Clarance seeks out the help of his estranged father, Clifford (Played by Dennis Hopper), and plans to flee to California. Hot on Clarence and Alabama’s trail is a gangster Vincenzo Coccoti (Played by Christopher Walken) and his sadistic enforcer Virgil (Played by James Gandolfini). Once they arrive in California and hook up with Clarence’s buddies Dick Ritchie (Played by Michael Rapaport) and Floyd (Played by Brad Pitt), things really get dangerous.
True Romance is loaded with juicy Tarantino moments, the ones where characters sit down to have a completely quotable conversation. You will be fighting off a grin during a diner conversation between Slater’s Clarence and Arquette’s Alabama. Comic geeks will swoon when Clarence takes Alabama to the comic shop where he works and they share a kiss over the first issue of Spider-Man. Fear not, folks, the great chatty moments don’t stop there. There is a hilarious scene where Hopper and Walken fire up cigarettes and have a war of words before one of them is staring down the barrel of a gun. And we can’t forget any dazed zinger that comes from Pitt’s Floyd. For as talky as True Romance gets, Tarantino and Scott deliver some seriously nasty moments of violence. The showdown between Drexel and Clarence will get the blood pumping something fierce with all its claustrophobic brutality while Alabama receives a vicious beating from Virgil, as he demands to know where the big bag of cocaine is hidden. And then there is the strangely beautiful gunfight at the end that has three groups going toe to toe as feathers and cocaine fly through the air.
True Romance may be a whirlwind of geeky chats and stomach churning violence, but it would be nothing without the oddball performances from its all-star cast. Slater is a knockout as Clarence, a comic and B-movie geek who finally gets the girl. His opening moments with Arquette are out of this world as they get to know each other over popcorn, pie, and Sonny Chiba. Arquette as a ray of sunshine with a violent streak, moved to tears when Clarence kills someone for her. Oldman gives a jaw-dropping performance as Drexel, the dread-locked pimp who chows down of Chinese while taking in The Mack. He taunts Clarence by calling him a “regular Charlie Bronson!” Walken gets a fine cameo as a soft-spoken gangster who cackles when Hooper insults him for his Sicilian background. It’s a small role, borderline cameo, but Walken nails it like he is the star of the show. Hooper leaves crazy on the shelf as Clarence’s father, a washed up ex cop who seems to be living a lonely existence with his dog in a rundown trailer. Pitt is absolutely hilarious as Floyd, a stoner rooted to the living room couch. He’s hysterical when he asks a handful of gangsters if they want to get high. Rapaport is his usual restless self as Dick Ritchie, an aspiring actor who is consistently exasperated with Floyd. And then there is Val Kilmer as Elvis, an apparition that appears and whispers words of encouragement to Clarence.
If you’re a cinema buff or a comic book fan, True Romance should be essential viewing for you. It’s consistently clever, retro, funny, pulpy, and heart pounding all while bopping along to Hans Zimmer’s score that pays tribute to Malick’s Badlands. When the film swaps the snowy streets of Detroit for the sun-kissed streets of California, the film looses some of the momentum it had gathered early on. The end showdown is visually thrilling and certainly a bloody, gory show, but the viewer is suffering burn out from the white-knuckle pace of the rest of the film to really appreciate it. Still, its worth catching True Romance simply to see this cast really let their crazy sides fly and it’s the true definition of entertaining. It’s also worth it to catch Pitt in a hilarious haze of marijuana smoke and lukewarm beers. Overall, its hard not to wonder what Tarantino would have done with the film had he directed it but Scott shapes all the action into a banshee of a thrill ride. Just make sure you keep a B-movie history book close by and you brush up on your comic knowledge. It will lead to a deeper appreciation of the film.
True Romance is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I can’t really say that I’ve ever left a crime thriller with my stomach in a knot. I didn’t know it was possible for the crime thriller genre, which seems to be stuck on repeat and incapable of surprises, was fully capable of coming up with something that would truly shake me to my core. Well, along comes director Andrew Dominik’s black-as-night Killing Them Softly, a darkly comedic and politically charged look at the underbelly of society. Set against the economic meltdown of 2008 and hanging its head while John McCain, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush utter reassurances that America will get back on track, Killing Them Softly possess an icy apocalyptic feel as the camera pans across abandoned strip malls, rotting homes, and trigger happy ghettos. It certainly is the ugliest crime thriller ever made and a rabid dog of a movie, one that is furiously chewing through the leash that is containing it to the point where its gums are bleeding. Yet for all the savagery on display, Killing Them Softly has some chilling moments of rich character development, especially in Brad Pitt’s cool-as-a-cucumber Jackie Cogan, a hitman who seethes as McCain, Bush, and Obama reassure us all that America is one community. With an ensemble cast, a doomed atmosphere, razor sharp humor, and one of the coolest soundtracks around (a jaw-dropping beating is followed up by the cheery ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ by Jack Hylton & His Orchestra), Killing Them Softly will make you feel like you’re sitting on a block of ice.
Set in 2008, Killing Them Softly picks up with three low-level thugs, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Played by Vincent Curatola), Frankie (Played by Scoot McNairy), and Russell (Played by Ben Mendelsohn), robbing a mob controlled poker game that is watched over by hot shot gangster Markie Trattman (Played by Ray Liotta). It turns out that a few years earlier, Markie set up an inside job, robbed his own poker game, and then drunkenly admitted to doing it in front of a room full of gangsters. Since Markie is so well liked, the thugs decided to laugh it off and forgive him. Squirrel, Frankie, and Russell spot an opportunity to pull the robbery off in the hope that the mob will just blame it all on Markie. The plan appears to work for a small stretch of time but the mob isn’t so eager to let this one go. They bring in cool and calculating hitman Jackie Cogan (Played by Brad Pitt), who quickly determines that Markie wasn’t the one behind the robbery. He convinces the mob’s lawyer Driver (Played by Richard Jenkins) to allow him to bring in another bitter and unhinged hitman known as Mickey (Played by James Gandolfini) to help him smoke out the amateurs behind the job. When not dealing with personal demons, Jackie and Mickey slowly get to the bottom of the robbery and leave a trail of dead bodies in their wake.
Based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is about as character driven as they come. There are drawn out moments of dialogue as these scumbags sit around in cluttered offices and smoky hotel rooms sipping beers, smoking cigarettes, shooting junk, and droning on about their failed love lives, why they detest feelings, and, yes, sexual intercourse with animals. It’s all very gross, pathetic, and profanity laced but Dominik cleverly writes it and he manages to get a few chuckles even if you are rolling your eyes in disgust. When the conversations turn to murder, things get really tense and prickly, with an unshakable sense of realism that almost shellshocks the viewer. Driver explains that they don’t want one of their guys hurt, just roughed up a little so he’ll talk. Pitt’s numbed Cogan laughs in his face and tells him the mob has gotten soft and then wonders allowed about what has happened to America. It’s in these moments that Killing Them Softly really takes hold of the viewer, churning the stomachs of those who thought they had been desensitized to this sort of material. Hell, I thought I was but I was scared stiff when Pitt explains that he hates killing up close because of the emotion. Trust me, it’s a conversation that settles like a brick in the bottom of your stomach.
Then again, maybe it is Pitt who is just really good at selling this chillingly bleak cynicism. He is a man who stares out at a boarded up America wasting away in the shadow of an Obama “Change” billboard, blowing cigarette smoke at it almost like mockery. He faintly grins as President Bush nervously rambles on about the financial situation in America and ponders how it should be dealt with. Pitt’s Cogan is angry, fed up, and driven simply by money. He is so detached that he doesn’t even flinch when he stops his car in a rough part of town and overhears a group of street thugs arguing and fighting over territory. He doesn’t jump when gunshots ring out and one of them falls to the ground in a heap. He is almost like a plague in a muscle car; spreading his searing and sobering philosophy that America isn’t one community that is in this situation together, but just a business where everyone is on their own. He’s a cynical force with his hand out for the money he was promised and God help the person who doesn’t pay up. If he isn’t careful, he may wind up with a Best Actor Oscar for that earth shaking speech he gives in the closing moments of the film. It’s honestly a performance I couldn’t pull away from and that I won’t soon forget. Pitt is THAT good!
While Pitt steals the movie, the other performers do their best to keep up. Liotta is absolutely fantastic as Trattman, a man who is silky smooth during his poker games but a whimpering, bloody mess when he has the tar kicked and beaten out of him in a rainstorm. This particular sequence where two mob enforcers rough him up has to rank as one of the most violent and startlingly beatings I have ever seen in a motion picture (Those with a weak stomach may want to shut your eyes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.). Jenkins is a brooding force as he tries to reason with Pitt’s Cogan. They share a number of conversations that point out that times are tough for mobsters too. Gandolfini shows up as the bitter Mickey, an overweight hitman who sucks down martinis and beers like he may never get another one in his life and verbally abuses hookers who shrug him off. He may be able to intimidate a waiter but is unable to stand up to his wife who is constantly threatening him with a divorce. Scoot McNairy’s Frankie is all nervous gulps as he slowly realizes that he may not make it out of this situation alive and Ben Mendelsohn is on point as the sweaty junkie Russell, who is constantly stumbling around in a junk-induced haze.
In the end, Killing Them Softly is a barebones film about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other. It’s shockingly pessimistic as it wears its frustrations on its blood soaked sleeve. At times, the sound bites of Bush, McCain, and Obama are a bit distracting and heavy handed, leaving the viewer wishing for a much more subtle approach to the politics. The film also has some incredibly unnerving and ironic use of music. I think I was the only person in the audience who laughed when Dominik follows up Liotta’s savage beating with ‘Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ and Pitt guns down a poor gangster to Ketty Lester’s haunting ‘Love Letters.’ While I can see many being disappointed with Killing Them Softly, walking away wondering just what the big deal was, I just so rattled by the whole experience and how real it truly felt. It never felt sensationalized and it lacked the typical gloss that Hollywood applies to films as gritty as this. It doesn’t go down easy and I really admired that. Approach Killing Them Softly, one of the strongest motion pictures of 2012, with extreme caution.