A new year, a new start. After an awful lot of inactivity, I’m refocusing with a new blog entitled In the Mood for Movies. I’d really appreciate it if you took a look!
The screen is black, the walls are black, the voices are black. The voices sound confused and frightened. They overlap, cutting in and out, emanating from the walls and the ceiling and the floor and from your very seat. You want it to stop, you want it to be over, you tell yourself to just look away but you can’t because the screen is empty and your mind is full.
This is Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for 2009’s The Hurt Locker, is arguably the most suspense-savvy filmmaker since Hitchcock himself. She is a master at making you as uncomfortable as possible, at ratcheting up the tension until it becomes almost unbearable. Zero Dark Thirty is not an easy to movie to watch, and I can’t say I enjoyed myself. This is a challenging, and at times disturbing film, but it’s also a masterful muddlement of blunt, detached journalism and electric, resourceful storytelling.
Bigelow opens the movie with the aforementioned 9/11 emergency dispatch calls, and she doesn’t allow us time to breathe. We are plunged into the gritty grunge of the CIA’s Black Site in Pakistan, one of many prison complexes across the Middle East specifically designed for the manipulation and interrogation of terrorist detainees. The cell we are shoved into is dank and dimly lit, with only a grubby pail and an ominous cooler lying in the corner to keep its prisoner company. He is strung by his hands and feet to the floor and ceiling as he’s if a fly strewn across a spider’s invisible web.
There are two disparate spiders circling their prey. Dan (Jason Clarke) is a beefy, bearded CIA agent who calls his prisoner “bro” and affectionately plays with the monkeys kept outside the compound. Maya (Jessica Chastain) has just arrived from Washington and lurks in the shadows, her queasy unease masked by the well-pruned visage of a woman who sees everything but betrays nothing.
Dan tells the al Qaeda operative that he does not like using torture to extract information, but that if he hears a lie he shall be forced to, ah, enhance his interrogation methods. The prisoner is silent. Maya fills a bucket with water. The prisoner cries out in pain.
Clarke plays a man who is ferocious and feral, the epitome of American arrogance and animalistic aggression. Yet he is never vile or unsympathetic, for we glimpse in his brief conversations with Maya that he recognizes the necessity but also the brutality of his vocation. In contrast, Maya is intelligent and analytical, distant and dispassionate. She never questions the CIA’s methods, and her coldness slowly turns into a kind of madness.
Maya is fixated on an al Qaeda courier named Abu Ahmed, who numerous detainees allege is the missing link between key organization officials and bin Laden himself. Maya bets on Abu Ahmed and hopes for the jackpot. The large majority of the film is her poker game – bluffing, folding, winning, losing, always staring into the cold, hard eyes of the man across the table. The CIA analysts are cramped into small, yellowing office walls and shabby boardrooms, rattling off theories and retorts with lightning quick Sorkinian speed. They have plastered the faces of the countless high-ranking al Qaeda officials at large over every inch of their offices. Screenwriter Mark Boal fills the film with anonymous names and complex connections, murky machinations and silent suspicion. For anyone without formal training in espionage, it can all get rather confusing, but like All the President’s Men it’s not so much the information conveyed in each scene that’s important but the beats and emotions from moment to moment.
It goes without saying that the performances in this film are magnificent. Chastain is fierce and vulnerable, screaming and crying with the same ease and power. Maya’s emotional journey throughout the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of American morale – as well as American morality. Jason Clarke acts his all through the eyes and facial muscles in a curiously overlooked performance that’s certain to catapult him to fame, or at the very least infamy. Mark Strong and Kyle Chandler portray dueling sides of the same CIA coin, but both are overshadowed by James Gandolfini’s extended cameo as the legendary Leon Panetta, who’s often referred to simply as the Director.
One of the finest members of Zero Dark Thirty's ensemble is surely Jennifer Ehle, as an analyst named Jessica who befriends Maya after overcoming an initial rivalry. There is a sequence in which Ehle's character must conference with a key source at a CIA compound, hoping the defector will reveal the location of bin Laden himself. The scene is masterfully executed. Maya and Jessica text feverishly, littering their conversation – about a terrorist organization – with emoticons and exclamation points. A car approaches the gate, and Jessica orders the guards to stand down just this once lest they scare away her source. A sickening sense of dread fills our stomach. The anticipation in Jennifer Ehle's quivering countenance is tangible. Bigelow allows for a rare unbroken shot as the car rolls through barricades under the hot Afghan sun.
I have decried the use of shaky cam in films like Les Misérables and Green Zone for their justification of haphazard filmmaking with flimsy claims to the elusive idyll of realism. Kathryn Bigelow does not make films with realism in mind – they are nightmares of the fiery obsession kept closely guarded by long-extinguished protagonists. Her handheld camerawork defies conventional rules of composition; it establishes the wisp of a clean, sturdy shot and quickly overturns it, wryly tricking her audience in much the same way the film’s protagonists operate.
The film very well could’ve ended with a shot that appears two thirds of the way into the film, the moment when Maya watches the SEAL Team Six chopper commence its fateful mission. Instead, Bigelow had the guts to epitomize Zero Dark Thirty’s intense and exhilarating dramatic recreation of history with a sequence that is visceral, engaging, and utterly mesmerizing. It’s true that the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound is essentially a group of anonymous heroes against an anonymous villain, and with a lesser auteur at the helm this might’ve been a thorny flaw in the film’s structure. Not here. Alexandre Desplat’s muted score reverberates quietly through a series of establishing shots of the helicopters inching through the vast, shadowy Afghan mountains. Throughout the sequence, we are terrified, we are repulsed, and we are in awe.
A small minority of critics and a large majority of political pundits with an itchy outrage finger have declared Zero Dark Thirty to be the work of depraved, radical filmmakers seeking to generate a nefarious bonfire of rah-rah-rahs for either – depending on who you ask – a justification of Bush administration torture, a celebration of Obama administration intelligence operations, or plain old personal publicity. I have even heard the word ‘fascistic’ whispered in some corners. Zero Dark Thirty is not a sly propaganda film, nor is it a gleeful revenge picture. The CIA agents depicted never question whether it is acceptable to gain information via torture, nor whether revenge is the acceptable response to al Qaeda – after all, the film was previously titled Kill Bin Laden. The film depicts a world where there is seemingly no alternative to violence, where desperation justifies inhumane acts, and where there is no concept of allies or friends, only enemies. That’s hardly endorsement.
Did the end justify the means? Maya doesn’t know, and if Bigelow and Boal do they certainly won’t tell us. This is, after all, history – entertaining, deplorable, and riddled with paradoxes of logic, emotion, and ethics. It’s also marvelously melancholy filmmaking. Zero Dark Thirty makes no statement about the politics or the semantics of the hunt for bin Laden. It sadly tells us that, for better or worse, we will never forgive, and we will never, ever forget.
I have a theory that the movies you remember most are the ones from your childhood. As a teen movie critic, I may have to wait to test it. But ask your parents what their favorite movies are. The most common answers? Star Wars. The Breakfast Club. E.T. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Stand by Me. You never hear the story of when they were thirty two and their eyes were wide with amazement in front of the screen, but I’ll betcha anything you’ve heard at least one story of that one magical time when your grandparents took your parent to a movie as a special treat.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an adolescent event equal to, if not greater than, all of the classics above. Come twenty years, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprise if it were referenced in the same breath. It is a story about teen struggles and triumphs, friendship and isolation, love and loss. Watching this film is a bit like alternating between being emotionally drunk and emotionally high.
The film follows Charlie (Logan Lerman), a shy and sensitive high school freshman counting down the days until he’s finished with high school. Charlie’s idea of participation is listening to the Smiths’ depressing and masterful song “Asleep” on a loop. His best friend shot himself a year before the events of the film. “Kind of wish he’d left a note,” Charlie says. If it seems like a rather strange and sad thing to say, it is. Charlie also torments himself over his beloved Aunt Helen’s (Melanie Lynskey) death years earlier.
Like the incredible book Perks is based off of, Charlie narrates the film in the form of letters to an anonymous “friend” who Charlie’s heard “didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have.” The narration is used sparingly and economically in cinematic format, and plays to Lerman’s strength in vocal subtleties.
Nobody seems to notice Charlie, unless they happen to be interrogating him about his English abilities (he’s already written the term paper for To Kill a Mockingbird for his kindly teacher Mr. Anderson, played in a winning supporting role by Paul Rudd). Then Charlie plucks up the courage to sit next to flamboyant senior Patrick (Ezra Miller) at a football game. Patrick delights his peers in the freshmen shop class with his impersonation of their decidedly “fascist” teacher and has the loudest scream in the entire football stadium - though that may be because he’s secretly dating the quarterback (Johnny Simmons).
Then Patrick’s stepsister Sam (Emma Watson) arrives to sit next to Patrick and Charlie. It’s a pretty darn incredible shot, and Sam looks like an angel to the anxious Charlie. She is free-spirited and attractive, and Charlie harbors an enormous crush on her masked by his even greater desire to see her happy.
Together the three explore the world of sex, drugs, and the Smiths. The film takes place in the early ’90s, and the soundtrack is absolutely transportative. At homecoming, Sam and Patrick start dancing to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” (“Living room routine!” “Living room routine!”). Patrick and Sam also dance in hipster Mary Elizabeth’s reenactment of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Mary Elizabeth (the marvelous Mae Whitman) later proves to be a catastrophic first girlfriend for Charlie, resulting in several very comical episodes.
Perks depends entirely on its three lead performances, and they are magnificent. Miller steals every scene he’s in with mischievous grins and perfectly timed wisecracks, managing to be flamboyant without delving into the stereotypical. He’s got a great scene near the end that starts joyful and turns so terribly sad. With this film, Watson proves that she is a bona fide movie star. She steps onscreen and she shines. She is a very good actress, but it’s her presence that blows us away. She is warm and familiar, and the audience is bound to smile when she waltzes onscreen.
But it’s Lerman who deserves the standing ovation here. If all you’ve seen him in is the ill-fated Percy Jackson adaptation, don’t judge just yet. Here is a performance that is nuanced and filled with worries and purposeful imperfections. Every time Lerman smiles we see so much light and joy and we see just how much Charlie’s been through. Like in the book, Charlie is a pure human being. His thoughts and emotions are inside each and every one of us - powerful, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and unequivocally honest.
Going into The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I had far too high expectations, to say the least. Stephen Chbosky chose to adapt and direct his own hit novel, a rather risky decision. The novel is wrenching and profound, and it’s easy to worry that the movie would shortchange us cliches for emotions or leave out key parts. This could be the start of a very great career for Chbosky. He perfectly blends time, place, emotion, and character into each shot. His camera is economical, a delightful mix of indie style filmmaking and mainstream shots.
I went to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower with three friends, all of which had recently read the book and loved it. We laughed throughout. When it came to the final twenty minutes, we cried and our mouths were agape. Our eyes were wide throughout. The final scene is a simple and beautiful monologue delivered by Lerman. When the credits rolled, my friends and I all hugged and cried and told each other that we loved each other and hugged some more and cried some more. I looked around and parents were embracing their teenagers. Husbands and wives had their hands clasped firmly together. I’m pretty sure, for two hours, our little movie theater felt infinite.
Argo is one of the most exciting and entertaining movies you’ll see, and one of the best movies of the year. If you’ve seen any of the trailers or read a synopsis for the movie, you’ll likely know the ending, or at least be able to guess. Argo’s strength is in how the tension is manufactured, how director Ben Affleck manipulates the suspense. It’s a taut thriller, perfectly evoking the desperation and paranoia of films like chase drama The Fugitive and recent historical war snapshot The Hurt Locker.
Argo is set smack dab in the middle of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, during which time Iranian revolutionaries held fifty two Americans working in the US Embassy hostage after President Jimmy Carter granted asylum to an ailing – and controversial – former Iranian shah. Only six diplomats escaped, tucked away in the relative safety Canadian ambassador’s residence. The opening sequence, in which a chanting crowd demolishes the embassy gate and gains access to the building, is astounding. The mob’s mayhem is intercut with embassy employees, who have been instructed to burn and shred everything. We watch as employees either surrender to their fate as hostages or else outrun the mobs quickly gaining access to the building, always just a floor above and a few footsteps behind. Scenes like this are fascinating just because they show how things work. From the view of Affleck’s objective, documentary-style camera, it’s the most thrilling portion of the movie. I will probably never be a part of a violent political mob, or escape from a building in the heat of what is practically battle, which makes it all the more interesting to watch.
Once the opening sequence is complete, we are introduced to Tony Mendéz (Affleck), a CIA wiz who specializes in extracting hostages and undercover agents from the midst of hostile situations. Bryan Cranston dominates every scene he’s in as Affleck’s mid-level CIA boss, especially when shouting across untidy government cubicles. Affleck’s idea is ludicrous and foolhardy: with the help of makeup effects supervisor John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), Affleck will escort the fugitives on a commercial flight out of Tehran as a Canadian film crew. After much deliberation and quipping by senior CIA officials, the “Hollywood option” gets the greenlight. There are some very funny scenes set in L.A. with Arkin and Goodman in the remaining exposition, though you’ve heard most of the funnier lines if you’ve seen the trailer. Regardless, the campy flatness of the dialogue in Siegel’s “fake hit” Argo is great fun, as are the strange Star Wars and Star Trek costume parodies. The whole film, right down to the opening title sequence and grainy film manipulation to goofy mustaches is filled with pure ‘70s schlock.
From there the film takes off. There are edge-of-your-seat moments when you think the Affleck character’s fragile plan will fall apart before your very eyes – especially when the six fugitives begin to argue with Affleck and amongst one another. The ending, in which a plane is chased down the tarmac by military convoys and police cars, is silly, but it’s a great kind of silly. Too many “thrillers” depend on guns and sex and explosions to excite us. Argo reminds us why we’re attracted to the genre in the first place – that watching an action movie isn’t just a hollow time to turn off your brain, but to genuinely thrill and move us. We watch, our mouths agape in the darkened theater with popscorn cascading down our laps, and we are amazed.
Hello all! You may have noticed I don’t post as much as I used to (and haven’t posted for awhile). A couple of reasons: firstly, I watch way too many movies to write one thousand word reviews about them all! Sometimes, I’d rather watch another one instead of writing about it (I’m lazy, I know). Secondly, I am absolutely swamped with schoolwork. Thirdly, I have a new writing position at TheYoungFolks.com! You can follow me there writing news articles, reviews of current books, films, and TV, essays, lists, and a whole lot more. I may post here again on occasion, if I simply must unload about an old film, but for now, farewell, and I hope you follow me to The Young Folks!