ZERO DARK THIRTY


UPDATE: I’ve had a bit more time to think about ZERO DARK THIRTY and one of the things I really appreciated what it’s ability to address moral issues without beating the audience over the head with it. Hollywood has a tendency to get on a soapbox with these issues, but not here. It’s a fairly “sterile” portrayal of things like torture and allows the audience’s own moral compass to decide what is right and what is wrong (and how wrong it may be). — Alan Yudman

WOW! Just WOW! Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have done it again. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, ZERO DARK THIRTY is the story of the hunt for and killing of Usama Bin Laden (they call him “UBL” in the film, so I figure I’d go with their spelling). Bigelow won an Oscar for THE HURT LOCKER, the story of a bomb tech in Iraq. That was a much more personal film. It was a study of Jeremy Renner’s character and how his job shaped his life. This is about war and intelligence gathering. It’s also about obsessive revenge as brought to life by Jessica Chastain. The movie punches you in the emotional gut right away, opening with a black screen and police & fire radio traffic, voicemails and 911 calls from 9/11. Then Chastain arrives Pakistan to begin the hunt. The scenes of torture are disturbing. You know they were necessary, but it still is hard to watch and in the beginning Chastain’s Maya has as much trouble watching as the audience does. But one terror attack after another happens and Chastain and her CIA team run into one brick wall after another. The innocent bodies pile up and they are no closer to finding Bin Laden. A point brought home during a visit by a CIA supervisor brilliantly played by Mark Strong. He screams “bring me some targets to kill”. Once they figure out that a courier can lead them to the Al Qaeda leader, that’s when the action picks up. Then finally, months after discovering the compound in Abbotabad the Navy Seals are sent in to get their man. We all know what happened and generally how it happened. But that does nothing to lessen the suspense and emotion leading up to the moment when Bin Laden is killed. ZERO DARK THIRTY may be faulted for glossing over some of the decision making. But this isn’t about how the Obama administration decided to get their man. It’s about the manhunt. It’s about one woman’s obsession with a target and revenge. It’s edge of your seat entertainment. It’s emotional for any American who lived through 9/11 and May 1, 2011. Bigelow is a master of this type of movie and may very well take home her second Best Director Oscar. Chastain should get a best actress nomination without question. If she doesn’t win it would be a crime. ZERO DARK THIRTY is simply fantastic and may be the best movie of the year. — Alan Yudman

Torture. Reading files. Surveillance. All of these tactics and more were used to find Bin Laden and we see them in action in Zero Dark Thirty. This story is so compelling there is no need to focus on a main character…but they do and that is the movie’s biggest problem. Jessica Chastain is sorely miscast..no presence despite the fact every other character seems in awe of her toughness. Her very Hollywood-esque lines took me out of several scenes…her dropping the word “mother——” during an intelligence meeting for no apparent reason other than to show the audience how badass she supposedly is…telling one member of the Seal Team “kill him for me”…yeah, they killed Bin Laden for her. Stupid lines a better actress MAY have sold take away from the real drama: the hunt and the raid that killed Osama. The manhunt and the mission are riveting and are the heart of the movie. Even the ending felt off: instead of focusing on the aftermath of the raid, we watch the lead character sit and stare into space for five minutes…with tears. Sorry, wrong movie! The worst torture scenes were the moments Chastain opened her mouth and bombarded a very intelligent movie with eye rolling cliches. — Stormy Curry

MOVIE 43

Hugh Jackman’s hairy balls hang openly in their scrotal sac — from his neck, swinging from side to side as he converses. Halle Berry uses one of her massively enhanced naked breasts to mix up a batch of guacamole. Anna Faris wants nothing more than for her boyfriend to defecate on her. Chloe Grace Moretz’s first-ever menstrual blood ends up staining the sofa and smearing the kitchen wall. In the spirit of KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE and AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (and, as Stormy noted, THE TEN), this multi-part hodgepodge of sex comedy sketches, including fake commercials with a (weak) framing device, from multiple directors with a large cast of name actors is hit and miss. But each of the segments has at least one good laugh. The scrotum gag is the movie’s most outrageous visual, with Anna’s fecal obsession close, er, behind. Yet not all the best moments are gross-outs: Kieran Culkin and Emma Stone’s ECU spat/seduction (inadvertently put out over a supermarket PA system) makes you want to see more of them together. And Terence Howard’s increasing exasperation at failing to get his black players to understand a racial axiom is a scream. It all goes down easily and goes by quickly and had the added benefit of introducing me to the band The Royal Concept and their kickass single, “Gimme Twice”. — Jeff Schultz

THE LAST STAND

Like THE LAST ACTION HERO, this movie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger… and bombed. And even more than HERO, it did not deserve to. It’s brisk, funny, unpretentious and thoroughly entertaining, with expertly delivered (in the context of his usual non-acting) Arnold one-liners and a lot of help from a game supporting cast. I’ll ask the same question I asked about another undeserved mega-flop, THE LOVE GURU: What were people expecting? LAST STAND has a solid premise that gives it a dramatic edge from the get-go (an escaped convict’s flight south to Mexico in a souped-up car that races ever closer to Arnold and his posse) and enough comedy to tip us off that the gunplay and violence are more cartoon than carnage. That said, being released just one month after the Sandy Hook massacre, the movie’s gushing blood, including a victim’s head exploding, and an arsenal of weaponry meant for mass killing treated like the coolest of toys might make you squirm a bit. But the emphasis is on fun, not fear; thank Arnold, Johnny Knoxville, Luis Guzman and the too-quickly-dispatched Zach Gilford for that. — Jeff Schultz

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN

Sixto Rodriguez was a foik/rock musician in the early 70’s. He released two albums and disappeared, never to be heard from again. That is unless you lived in South Africa. There, Rodriguez was a legend who had legends written about him. Was he dead? Alive? Suicide? No one knew anything about him. And find those truths is the driving force behind SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN. It’s the story of Rodriguez and his unrealized potential in the U.S. and how some huge fans in South Africa searched for him. I loved this movie on two levels. The way the story is told is suspenseful and interesting and draws you right in. It has a wonderfully satisfying payoff and you learn about the amazing man behind the music. The other is the music itself. It is a revelation. How Rodriguez never hit it big in the U.S. is a mystery. Probably attributed to the corruption and exploitation of the music business of that era. But he is Dylan. Maybe even better than Dylan. His songs resonate even today, and were apparently the soundtrack to the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN definitely deserves its Oscar nomination for best documentary feature! — Alan Yudman

MAMA

Elegantly shot hokum. At the beginning, this middling thriller seems like it’s going to be a psychological horror story whose “monster” is the incarnation of a spirit bent on vengeance, a la PUMPKINHEAD. But then comes a further supernatural twist about a drowning tragedy from the past involving an institutionalized woman and her daughter, a la THE RING. Along the way, characters are pretzeled into questionable motivations and action in order to set the various scares in motion. Jessica Chastain (who must have signed onto this because Guillermo del Toro’s name was attached — but be warned, del Toro is only the Executive Producer) plays a tough girl rock band performer not overly fond of children who apparently loves her boyfriend (charisma-free, barely there Nicolaj Coster-Waldau from “Game of Thrones”) so much that she barely thinks twice before giving up her musical dreams and life in the big city in order to care for the boyfriend’s nieces, two feral girls found living alone in the woods. Coster-Waldau is dispatched to a hospital by way of a clunky device in order to get Chastain home alone with the children — and with “Mama”, the spirit who seems to possess (or at least obsess) them. The apparition is nicely conceived, although it’s much scarier inside the house than in the film’s final outdoor segment, where it’s much more stylized, almost artsy. The resolution makes sense, but the movie is too long and should maybe have been shortened to MOM. — Jeff Schultz

GANGSTER SQUAD

Any lingering doubt about Ryan Gosling’s ability to make women moisten their… lips (and the swollen corollary for certain guys) is laid to rest here when Ryan picks up Emma Stone (looking spectacular, looking not like herself) right from under boyfriend Sean Penn’s big Jewish nose. Sean Penn is L.A.-based gangster Mickey Cohen, and he plays it all big — the rages, the spitting, halting voice and the physicality. Penn finds a way to make Cohen’s anger and corruption come to life in his features, which seem to have lives of their own, his mouth, his nose; like Stone, he ends up looking nothing like himself. This is scenery chewing at its finest, immensely enjoyable as is the whole movie, which balances Penn’s vivid viciousness with stoic, square-jawed, noir-y Josh Brolin (interesting to speculate what DICK TRACY would have been like had Brolin played him) and Gosling, who’s almost in another movie, but who was born to wear those period suits and who absolutely smolders on screen. Gosling and Stone have the kind of glamour that’s been missing for so long, we usually define it citing Golden Age names from last century. If anyone can bring it back, they can. As history, GANGSTER SQUAD rightfully advises in an opening credit that it was merely “inspired” by the story of Mickey Cohen: the screenplay amps him up as an all-powerful threat to civilization, a real-life Bane. There are also “Mission: Impossible”-style turns that don’t quite work, and a few humorous moments seem out of place. But I got goosebumps even before the movie began when the Warner Brothers logo came up. This is the studio that invented the gangster flick (THE PUBLIC ENEMY, LITTLE CAESAR, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG). GANGSTER SQUAD is a worthy addition. — Jeff Schultz

A HAUNTED HOUSE

A spoof ultimately done in by its own ambition. HOUSE isn’t content to merely string one gag after another, HELLZAPOPPIN-style, as the SCARY MOVIEs do. Yes, much of it is parody (mostly of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies; also, one funny reference to BLAIR WITCH). But large parts of it seem aimed at genuine story development, when all we really want are the jokes. Too many times a scene begins in what I call “reset mode” — by which I mean that stuff that’s gone before which scared the crap out of the protagonists is utterly forgotten so that they can once again be frightened just like the first time. Those protags don’t bring much to the table. Marlon Wayans hasn’t much to do and what Essence Atkins does is just bad. Leave it to four solid comedians to provide the fun — especially Nick Swardson and Cedric the Entertainer, along with David Koechner (a regular in these kind of flicks) and Affion Crockett. Four reasons why you shouldn’t miss this movie: Swardson’s “Have you ever been with a man?” interview, Koechner’s emotional meltdown while installing security equipment, any and every line Cedric delivers (including the end credits), and a sex scene involving stuffed animals that is the dirtiest set of position variations since the (unrated) TEAM AMERICA slow jam. — Jeff Schultz

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Quentin Tarantino has never been a director to hide his influences. He embraces them and that’s never been truer than in DJANGO UNCHAINED. Part spaghetti western, part blaxploitation film.. Django steals the best from each genre. The movie is set in the south just before the Civil War. Christoph Waltz plays a dentist turned bounty hunter who buys Django (Jamie Foxx) from slave traders in Texas. They strike a bargain. Django will help Waltz’s bounty hunter track three men and in return Django will be set free. That resolution comes fairly quickly with a lot of blood spilled along the way (Sam Peckinpah is smiling down, knowing his slo-mo blood spurting lives on in such capable hands). Then the movie turns into a rescue mission. Waltz agrees to help Django help rescue his wife from a Mississippi plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Like all Tarantino movies, it sometimes is too much in love with its own dialogue, but the film never drags and is endlessly entertaining. The banter is sharp and witty and a lot of times side-splittingly hilarious. There’s drama, comedy and lots of action, gunplay and death. You got to give Tarantino this much, he doesn’t spare his audience the realism and brutality of the power of guns. Blood and bullets fly everywhere. And the only one who doesn’t seem to pay a price for it is Django himself. The acting is beyond great. Waltz seems born to deliver Tarantino’s words. Foxx is menacing and funny. Samuel L. Jackson is brutally hilarious. And DiCaprio, who almost never plays a villain and never does comedy shows an exceptional gift for both. Add in a fantastic soundtrack and score and it all adds up to another Tarantino masterpiece. — Alan Yudman

For all the gunshots that find their marks and trigger all the exploding blood sacks, this gory revenge tale is a dreadful misfire. A sprawling, jelly-limbed epic wanna-be, it’s the Quentin Tarantino of DEATH PROOF, not the Tarantino of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, long and flabby. Plus, it provides uncomfortable evidence that QT may be a five-trick pony, his power to surprise and delight brought low by repetition. Things like the sudden, unexpected violent demise of a major star, multiple film history references, the casting resurrection of actors from the era to which the director is paying homage (or is that parody?) — all resurface here with little of the freshness that so captivated us when he first burst on the scene. Tonally, it’s all over the map, an inconsistent hodgepodge that includes one comic scene about a KKK-type raid that could have come from BLAZING SADDLES, and another (the only moment of honest emotion in the movie, though it lasts for mere seconds and has no place in the rest of the film) involving a boy’s shock at the death of his Pa. A long set-up introducing us to Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx leans more lightly on the subject matter than the even longer middle section, where Leonardo DiCaprio (better than usual, but still a boy in a man’s role) darkens the mood with what’s meant to be a growingly suspenseful vise-tightening toward the inevitable grand shootout. It takes forever. (Contrast it with the gripping, breathless opening to BASTERDS — the Jews hiding in the basement — and see how length can undermine tension.) But then comes the shock that we still have about another third to go, in an extended coda during which all steam is lost. Waltz gives the best performance, the only one really who manages to be more than a caricature. Foxx has one note, and it’s flat from the get-go, little more than a soft-voiced scowl. The crowd-pleaser here is Samuel L. Jackson, but it’s all F-words and doddering exaggeration. Expectations are always high for Tarantino, whose output is small. Here, they are not met. — Jeff Schultz

Django Unchained is Tarantino’s best movie since Pulp Fiction. “Basterds” was a hit or miss affair that took itself too serious for what it was. Kill Bill had QT’s signature snappy writing but was waaaaaay too long and didn’t warrant two movies. This one is just a great ride, something that would have made a better fit in “Grindhouse” than “Death Proof”. Foxx is fantastic, Waltz is mesmerizing, and Samuel Jackson is hilarious and hiss worthy as Stephen, a real “snake on the plains”. But it’s Dicaprio who steals the show. For the first time ever it seems, Leo plays a true villain and chews up every second on screen. Leo gets some of the best lines, including a chilling show and tell explaining his theory on the lack of intelligence in blacks. Leo’s acting, Tarantino’s words, a saw, and a skull are all that’s needed to create what will go down as another classic Tarantino scene. Everyone in Django seems to be on the same page and the results are on screen. Welcome back Quentin, we missed you! — Stormy Curry

LES MISERABLES

Unless you’ve been in a French prison for 20 years (spoiler alert.. not!) you know LES MISERABLES is the story of Jean Valjean and Javert. The musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel of a French policeman’s 20-year pursuit of a parole skipper, was turned into a historically successful musical that won countless Tony’s and worldwide fans. And I must say, I don’t get it. At least based on this movie. Obviously Broadway is worlds apart from a movie musical. I have never seen the Broadway version. I can only hope it is better than this. The people on the screen weren’t the only ones who were miserable. I was too! Apparently Tom Hooper thinks singing can only be done on a close up, because every person singing is shot tight….really tight! The singing is apparently live to film, so it’s there warts and all. That’s not bad. Just putting it out there. I’ve seen people slam the hell out of Russell Crowe, saying he cannot sing. Wrong! He can sing. He can’t sing THIS! He’s a rock ‘n’ roll singer. Jackman, Hathaway, et. al. are Broadway singers. There’s a difference. And because Crowe can’t carry his vocal weight, his just isn’t menacing enough as the obsessed police investigator. It’s boring and cloying and everyone is unhappy (they’re Miserable!!), but in a totally melodramatic fashion. The songs are the songs. The music is wonderful, just not the way it is performed in this dud. And the acting..oy.. this is a masters course in overacting (I’m talking to you Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne). The only saving grace in this mess was Sacha Baron Cohen Helena Bonham Carter who seemed to be the only two people having fun. Oscar nominations came out earlier today and this film got a bunch, including best picture. All I can say is “sacre bleu”!?! — Alan Yudman

TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D

Not just awful, God-awful. Not just a bomb, an abomination. Worthless. A piece of crap. Bad actors in a screenplay that stumbles from points A to B like a jalopy with stripped gears in a stretchy premise that loses even more credibility by how badly it’s developed.  Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake not only proved you can rethink the first, Tobe Hooper version and come up with a good movie, it actually improved on the original, adding psychological terror and really creepy acting. (Where are R. Lee Ermey and Kathy Lamkin when you need them?) This turgid garbage is slack from the beginning, with not a single memorable kill or suspenseful moment. It falls flat in an area where even crappy slasher films excel: the girls aren’t sexy and the boys aren’t cute. Alexandra Daddario from the PERCY JACKSON movies is a clueless lead, blank and unpleasant, coming off like a lower-rent Kristin Stewart. Scott Eastwood, bless his genes, is fairly embarrassing. The one recognizable face is character actor Richard Riehle (believe me, you’ve seen him), who seems anxious to get away from the proceedings, and who can blame him? — Jeff Schultz