Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Yesterday, Kathryn Bigelow’s arresting thriller Zero Dark Thirty was released on Blu-ray and if you have yet to see this firecracker of a film, you need to go out right now and pick it up. Seriously, it is collection worthy. Zero Dark Thirty was easily one of the best films of 2012 and is the type of epic film that rewards with each new viewing. The Blu-ray features a look at the making of the film, a look at how the cast trained for their roles, and a look at Jessica Chastain’s role as the tough-as-nails Maya. If you wish to see where Zero Dark Thirty fell in my top 10 films of 2012, click here to find out, and if you wish to read my review of the film, click here. So, it is that time again to whip out those credit cards and add a kick ass movie to your movie collection!
-Theater Manager (Steve)
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
If I have learned one thing at the movies this summer, I have learned that Tom Hardy is one scary man. I think if I were to pass him on the sidewalk, I’d quickly cross the street to avoid him. As if his villainous turn as hulking terrorist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t enough to make this guy one intimidating bastard, wait until you get a load of him in director John Hillcoat’s Lawless, a Prohibition era thriller about bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia. Based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Hillcoat’s thriller, which is based on a true story, does find a few common gangster movie qualities blotching the screenplay by Nick Cave. However, Lawless is saved by the explosive performances from this must-see ensemble cast, who all seem to be relishing this material. Still, I really wish I could say that Lawless avoided things we have seen from movies like this in the past but sadly, it gets caught in the same web that many of these films do. The story line does gasp one breath of fresh air by its use of Prohibition as the backdrop for these outlaws. I also admired the setting, far away from the big city bustle and nestled in the hills where Mother Nature isolates the Bondurant boys behind her natural wooded wall. Yet Lawless is sent into the stars by the terrifying turn from Hardy, a role that I can only hope is not forgotten come Awards season.
Welcome to the hills of Prohibition era Franklin County, Virginia, a serene and seemingly peaceful place where bootlegging runs rampant. The stars of this bootlegging party are the Bondurant boys, who seem to be on top of the world just out of the clutches of the law. The Bondurant boys are made up of the quiet but threatening Forrest (Played by Tom Hardy), who is also the leader of the group, hothead Howard (Played by Jason Clarke), and runt Jack (Played by Shia LaBeouf). The boys run their illegal business out of their dusty roadside bar but they soon find themselves harassed by flamboyant Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Played by Guy Pearce), a hot shot from Chicago who wants a cut of the profits that the Bondurant boys bring in. After Forrest refuses, Rakes comes down hard on the bootleggers nestled in the hills and slowly begins shutting down their operations in the most brutal ways he can. After a nasty run in with Jack and a murder attempt is made on Forrest, a war is sparked in the Franklin County hills but the Bondurants have no intention of shutting down their business.
Cold and bristly, with tons of blood to get tossed around the furiously exhaustive sets, Lawless sure is one hell of a vicious ride into an untamed world. Prohibition is something that you never hear too much about, so it comes as a major shock to see it done with so much fury. People are harshly stabbed, shot, tarred, feathered, rapped, tortured, and beaten, cutthroat punishments for a cutthroat business I suppose. Despite the horrific violence (trust me, it is horrific), the film itself boasts rich amounts of cinematography from Benoit Delhomme, who makes every scene of the film appropriate to cut out and frame on your wall. While the film has plenty of violence to go around, there are some thick dramatics draped over this lawless world, so thick that you could almost cut it with a dull and rusty blade. There are two delicately delivered romances, one between Forrest and bar waitress Maggie Beauford (Played by Jessica Chastain), a former dancer looking that desperately wanted a quiet life but has stumbled into something worse and one between Jack and Bertha Minnix (Played by Mia Wasikowska), a seemingly innocent preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak. Both are delivered with heart-on-the-sleeve compassion, making us root for both love stories to triumph in this world of blood.
Lawless achieves a must-see status due to the performances, especially the one from the hulking Hardy, who portrays Forrest Bondurant as a grunting bear of a man who speaks in a southern drawl that sounds like grinding gravel mixed with thick globs of molasses. While he is technically the good guy, Hardy owns any room he walks into and he leaves you wiping the sweat off of your palms when he leaves. The characters all whisper that Forrest is invincible and you will be left half believing it throughout the runtime. At times, he can be surprisingly funny, especially when Chastain’s Maggie tries to offer some affection his way. When he has his back against the wall, God forbid he reaches in his cardigan pocket and pulls out his dread brass knuckles, which he uses with precise savagery. While Hardy deserves a spot in the Best Supporting Actor category at the Academy Awards, he finds some competition from Pearce, a corrupt lawman with oily hair and dressed in fancy suits. Pearce, who I swear is incapable of delivering a lousy performance, is just as unpredictable as Hardy when it comes to his temper. Vaguely perverted and as slippery as they come, he is a corrupt soul who finds delight in bringing down a wave of misery on all who cross him.
In a way, it is almost a shame that Hardy and Pearce are so good because they actually overshadow the other great performances. LaBeouf, who has recently said that he is done with big studio films, punches in a subtle performance that slowly flares up into an uncontrollable rage. He’s a runt that becomes reckless and you will hate him for it, especially when he has a good thing right in the palm of his hand. That good thing is sweet Bertha, the gentle daughter of a preacher who hides her interest in the business that Jack and his brothers are into. Clarke gets to play the bloodthirsty psycho of the three Bondurant boys. You will cringe when Forrest decides to let him off his leash and you pray that Forrest puts him back on it the second he is unleashed. Chastain is as gorgeous as ever as the delicate Maggie, who has the hots for the closed off Forrest. Along with Wasikowska’s Bertha, they form a calming force that balances out all the violence. Dane DeHaan joins this gangster party as the handicapped Cricket, who helps the Bondurant boys brew the their liquor. Rounding out the supporting players is the superb Gary Oldman, who stops by to blow us all away as Floyd Banner, a mobster who enjoys carrying a Tommy gun around and blasting away right in front of an innocent audience.
As the sense of doom wafts through the trees of Franklin County, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide an appropriately nippy score that is all twanging guitars, bluegrass chants, and static hums that slowly build as the tension mounts. Lawless certainly suffers from some predictability but I will say that there are a few surprise scenes that really catch you off guard. Still, I am willing to forgive because Hillcoat’s work draws you in close and then refuses to let you walk away cleanly. He shakes you up and he does it in such a tasteful manner. While I can’t say that I liked Lawless as much as Hillcoat’s scorching Australian western The Proposition, I will say that I enjoyed the film a bit more than his previous big screen offering The Road. Overall, Lawless may be brewed from a recipe we have all tried before but this batch has enough burn going down and a unique lingering buzz to have you reaching for a second shot and maybe even a third.
by Steve Habrat
The Tree of Life is the first film from reclusive director Terrence Malick that I have had the pleasure of seeing. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe that someone who has studied film has yet to see a film from the acclaimed and beloved director. It’s not that I have objected to seeing one of his films, I’ve just never been presented with the opportunity. I have finally had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life, the divisive and perplexing cosmic offering from Malick. I’m sure you heard about this how this film makes absolutely no sense and how it was met with mixed reviews at Cannes Film Festival despite the immense hype from the art house crowd. Most who see The Tree of Life walk away either loving the film, praising its visual artistry and contemplating the questions of life, nature, grace, and how we got here or hating the film, feeling cheated, confused, and rejecting its disjointed narrative. I fall on the side of loving the film, admiring its beauty still in the hours after I have seen it and my mind still trying to wrap itself around the point of the film.
The Tree of Life has three main plots. The first plot is the creation of the universe that is utterly breathtaking to watch. The second is set in the 1950s and follows the O’Brien family. We voyeuristically watch their upbringing of Jack (Played by Hunter McCracken) and his two younger brothers. Malick then focuses on the boy’s relations with their placid and naive mother Mrs. O’Brien (Played by Jessica Chastain) and their stern and forceful father Mr. O’Brien (Played by Brad Pitt). Early on in the film, we happen to learn that one of Jack’s younger brothers dies when he is when he is nineteen in the 1960s. The third plot is adult Jack (Played by Sean Penn) reminiscing about his days growing up and his deceased brother.
Boasting cinematography that practically knocks you out, The Tree of Life dazzles us, like many other films this year, with images and expressions over hollow CGI. Even if you find yourself loathing the film, there is still much to admire in the images. I marveled at the creation sequence and was chilled to my core by the glimpses of the afterlife. I was wrapped up in the time spent with the O’Brien’s, feeling like an invisible, otherworldly visitor floating around their home. But while the images scorch the viewer, there are also sequences that were immensely powerful in their subject matter. Jack and his friends go on a trek through nature, setting off firecrackers in a bird’s nest and tying a frog to a rocket. A scene when Mr. O’Brien lashes out at two of his sons, sending the third to his mother’s arms, sobbing and terrified is one you’ll never forget. Adult Jack reuniting with his father in the afterlife is warm and overwhelming despite their thorny relationship.
Malick’s pet project relies on its unforgettable imagery to carry it but if it weren’t for the flesh and blood performances, The Tree of Life would be nothing. This is Pitt’s film from the first frame to the last and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. He puts the fear of God in the viewer in the way he lashes out at his children. His character has so many layers; multiple viewing will be needed to pull them all away. He is a cynical man who gave up on his dreams and doesn’t fully appreciate what surrounds him. He is intimidating and stern, putting you on the edge of your seat in the way he commands Jack to return to the screen door and shut it properly several times as punishment for slamming it. Then there is Jessica Chastian’s Mrs. O’Brien, a woman in awe of everything around her and bursting with affection for her children. She preaches a message of love to her children and whispers about the sky being where God lives. When she has to convey the devastation of losing a child, there are no words to describe what Chastain pulls off. She’s a delicate flower to Pitt’s whirlwind force of nature.
And what about Sean Penn and the cosmic opening sequence? Yes, they are all there too. Penn isn’t given much to do by Malick and that is one of the downsides to the film. He wanders around in a city staring up at the sky, skyscrapers, and then in visions, he wanders the desert in a suit. For the most part, he sits around and broods. Penn really gets to flex his acting muscles when he is reunited in the afterlife with his family. The opening cosmic sequence and the closing end-of-the-world montage are sublime and feel like something ripped from a planetarium. You have to see it in HD to really get the exhaustive effect. Malick even gives us a few dinosaurs! But what do these scenes of creation have to do with the story of the O’Briens? Malick mirrors the creation sequence with the progression of the O’Brien family. The family grows, matures, evolves, and experiences overwhelming devastation just like the universe itself.
The Tree of Life takes some contemplation and it is certainly not for casual moviegoers. The film is like a Rorschach test to the viewer with Malick being the one asking us what we see. I feel that anyone who sees The Tree of Life is going to emerge with a different viewpoint on the film, but I suppose I can offer up what I thought the film was trying to convey. The film pits evolution against creationism but it never seems to ask us which side we fall on. In fact, it seems like Malick points these two theories out to us and then asks: does it really matter how we got here? He instructs us to stop, take a breath, and just look around at, as Mr. O’Brien calls it, “the glory” around us. Things will happen that disrupt our existence (anger, heartbreak, pain, grief, loss), but those should not distract us from living and loving. There was a beginning and there will be an ending but with that ending comes a reuniting. Is that reuniting spiritual or natural? That is up for you to decide. Either way, I was immersed in the cosmic voyage that Malick took me on and I will never forget it the eye-opening splendor it presents.
The Tree of Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.