Monday, December 31, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

Boy, I love that title.

It refers, in code, to the planned time of the strike on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abottobad, Pakistan. Half past midnight. Zero dark thirty.

How great is that?

And I love Kathryn Bigelow.

She made the immortal Point Break in 1991, as well as 2008's Best Picture winner, the superb The Hurt Locker. The latter film was a result of her collaboration with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal, with whom she developed an artistic pespective -- work in a political arena, but stay out of politics; focus on the human experience -- and an aesthetic: bleached out colors and an unsentimental attitude.

Now she and Boal have made a movie about the hunt for and capture of Osama bin Laden.

It's just got to be good.

Ugh.

What befalls Bigelow this year is the same thing that befell Spielberg, and Zemeckis, and practically that whole generation of esteemed film-makers.

She got safe.

Unlike The Hurt Locker, ZDT latches onto the biggest piece of existing intellectual property in the world of modern war.

It then populates that story with wildly recognizable actors. When Hurt Locker came out, Jeremy Renner was an unknown. But Jessica Chastain, the CIA protagonist of ZDT, is hardly unknown. She's the It Girl of the moment.


And she's surrounded by a bevy of well-known character actors, including Joel Edgerton as a SEAL Team Six commando, James Gandolfini as the CIA Director, and Kyle Chandler in his 35th FBI/CIA Guy role of the past three years.

These actors march through bland scenes and shopworn dialogue, as Chastain's CIA Agent pursues her man with the ruthless intensity of a maverick detective in a cliche cop movie from the seventies. Her bosses are always threatening to take her off the case. She's always following up on leads no one believes in. And of course she's always right.

But ZDT has a weakness those cop thrillers don't. Because it's based on a true story, Bigelow and Boal feel compelled -- for reasons that escape me -- to preserve fidelity to the facts. CIA directors -- Maya's big boss -- change actors halfway through, because the actual CIA Director changed. But that kills the existing character relationship.

Prominent characters dominate the narrative early on -- like the bullish CIA interrogator played by Jason Clarke in the movie's best performance by a hundred yards -- and then fade to insignificance as the movie crosses its midpoint.

Most glaring of all, the movie takes a sharp turn when bin Laden's compound is located. We get a new cast of characters -- the SEAL team -- and a new objective -- not to find bin Laden; now it's to take down bin Laden. Most devastating, our main character Jessica "Maya" Chastain plays no role in the raid. She can't. Only commandoes go in. And I understand this is logically necessary, but it means our main character, our protagonist, is sitting on the sidelines for the last forty-five minutes of the movie.

That's a fatal narrative flaw.

Part of this is beyond Bigelow and Boal's control. They set out to make a movie about the unsuccessful hunt for bin Laden. Halfway through development, bin Laden was found and killed. The film-makers did a sharp 180 to incorporate this new event into their story, but it's a bit of bad luck for them, because it destroys the conceptual purpose and structure of the film.

What finally emerges is a total mess, much harder to sit through because of boredom than because of the supposedly grisly torture scenes which are getting all the play at the moment. The torture scenes, like almost everything else in the movie, feel recycled from other movies and TV shows. There's nothing we haven't seen before.

It must be mentioned, of course, that the final forty-five minutes -- the raid on bin Laden's compound -- is gripping and intense cinema. It's got everything we want from a good story: compelling visuals, narrative simplicity, the highest of stakes, an unmerciful timelock, a limited location, and utterly no shortage of authentic conflict.

In a word, it's brilliant.

But it took an hour and a half to get there.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 31/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 44/100 (the stealth helicopters used in the raid are the coolest thing I've seen this year)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Well, I loved it.

Early critical reviews have been harsh on this Lord of the Rings prequel -- technically, Lord of the Rings is the sequel -- but I, not for the first time, am swimming against the tide.

I thought The Hobbit was better than any of the Rings films.

It might be my favorite movie this year.

What I love about it is how immersive it is. The film runs nearly three hours, but the time flew by. I attribute this to two things:

First, Tolkien's narrative is spellbinding. His Middle-Earth stories are among the best ever plotted. What lifts The Hobbit film above its Rings siblings is the fact that those movies had to compress their narratives substantially. It's hard to pack Frodo's saga, all thousand pages of it, into nine hours. Thus, there is a rushed quality to the Rings movies.

(Tolstoy and Dickens are hard to put on screen for the same reason.)

Tolkien's The Hobbit, by contrast, is only a little over two hundred pages, and it's being stretched into the same nine hours. Far from having to condense, the film-making challenge in The Hobbit is how to stretch.

This is natural and easy, as Tolkien's Hobbit is fairly plot-dense -- we get dwarves, wizards, trolls, orcs, wargs, goblins and a cave-dweller named Gollum in just this first installment. Furthermore, the storyline is embellished with scenes and episodes Tolkien wrote but did not include in his published material.

After Tolkien's death, everything he put on paper came out in his son Christopher's magnificent The Making of Middle-Earth series, and director Peter Jackson has used some of it to round out the picture of what is happening in Middle-Earth beyond the bounds of Bilbo's journey to the Lonely Mountain.

Namely, Jackson includes a scene showing the wizard Radagast encountering the deadly Necromancer -- nee Sauron -- in the forest stronghold of Dol Guldur. He includes a Rivendell discussion of this episode among the members of the White Council, which includes old friends Saruman and the Lady Galadriel -- Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett, respectively.

He also fleshes out the storied hatred between the Orc King Azog and the dwarven House of Thror, whose grandson, Thorin, is our lead dwarf. Azog is a big, pale-white, pockmarked, earless orc with a kind of rusty metal thresher for a left hand, courtesy of an earlier encounter with Thorin.

So these two don't like each other at all!

Jackson also beautifully imagines the awful coming of Smaug, dragon of dragons, to the Lonely Mountain in a ten-minute sequence that kicks off the movie with an incredible bang.

Jackson even accentuates a haunting aspect of the story better than Tolkien did (!!!), and that's the sad plight of the dwarven race in this period. Routed by the dragon from Erebor, and from Moria by the orcs, the dwarves have no home kingdom in Middle-Earth. The elves have two -- Lorien and Rivendell -- while men have their famous Minas Tirith, and even hobbits have the Shire. But the dwarves have nothing, which gives poignancy and power to their quest to return to Erebor, in Bilbo's company, and vanquish the dragon.

But I digress: I said there were two reasons Jackson's film is as immersive as it is. The second is the remarkable visual quality of the film.


Without going berserk on visuals like Stanley Kubrick, but never missing an opportunity to show terrain -- Tolkien would have approved -- Jackson wields his camera as well as he ever has. The three Rings films were good practice; Jackson is now an expert at guiding audiences through Middle-Earth. And his luscious camera swings are often accompanied by a gorgeous score from A-lister Howard Shore.

Plus, computer-generated special effects seem to get better every single year. I've been a holdout for a return to model-based special effects, but it's hard not get pulled on board the CGI bandwagon when the Great Eagles look as lovely as they do here.

Now, a word about the frame rate: much of the buzz surrounding The Hobbit in recent months has been about Jackson's decision to employ a frame rate of 48 frames-per-second instead of the usual 24.

Jackson hopes that 48, with its better continuity and crispness of image, will become the industry standard. Many early viewers have complained, however, of an unintended inauthenticity due to TOO MUCH screen sharpness -- rendering sets and costumes looking, well, like sets and costumes -- not to mention some cases of motion sickness.

I had no such reaction to the look of the film in 48 FPS. Maybe it's because I saw it in 3D, which darkens the image a bit anyway, but I thought The Hobbit was the best-looking film of the year, edging out the also-marvelous Life of Pi.

The Hobbit looks like a great film, it sounds like a great film, and it acts like a great film.

I'm forced to conclude that it is a great film.

My favorite of 2012.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 89/100

How Much I enjoyed: 94/100

Monday, December 3, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

So I jumped on Facebook the other day to publish this status update:

"Downton Abbey is the worst show on TV. It's not even close."

I was being harsh. Downton is certainly not the worst show on television.

But I got a reaction, as I intended. People love Downton Abbey. Love it. It does great ratings and has a rabid fan base. It is one of TV's current landmarks, beyond question. But I find it revolting. And I finally figured out why.

It's melodrama masquerading as drama.

This may not sound earth-shaking, but it made me think of Silver Linings Playbook, the new flick by moody auteur David O. Russell, and suddenly I understood why I hated that movie too.

Like Downton, SLP is melodrama masquerading as drama.

And I hate that.


The movie follows Bradley Cooper as a guy just getting out of a mental institution. His malady is bipolar disorder, which manifests itself in rage episodes primarily centered around his ex-wife, Nikki, who had him shipped off to the crazy house after he pummeled her illicit lover upon discovering them in the shower together.

So for the first hour of the movie, we see Bradley Cooper act like a real nut job as he wakes up his parents, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, to rave and rant about Ernest Hemingway. We see him take frequent jogs wearing a garbage bag, because he's convinced he'll be able to get his ex-wife back once he gets into shape. He's even a lunatic in his interactions with hot It-girl of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Tiffany, a girl who gets set up with Cooper by neighbor friends Julia Stiles and John Ortiz.

She's a bit of a nut, too, suffering from an unidentified disorder following the death of her husband in a tragic accident.

By the way, De Niro plays a somewhat crazy person himself, cursed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder tendencies which manifest prominently during Philadelphia Eagles games.

So there's our theme: we've got a bunch of mentally disordered people. And there's our metaphor. Aren't we all disordered in one way or another?

But then there's the story, which, I'm sorry to say, is the very lowest form of melodrama. Jennifer Lawrence enlists Cooper into a dance contest, for some unimaginable reason, which De Niro somehow ends up betting his entire life's savings on against his close friend/nemesis, a character named Randy whom we don't get to know at all. The third act of the story is this dance contest, witnessed by all, including Cooper's ex-wife Nikki, who was inexplicably brought along by neighbors Stiles and Ortiz, and who ridiculously falls back in love with Cooper because of his accomplished dancing.

This leaves Cooper to decide whom he loves more, ex-wife Nikki or new love interest Jennifer Lawrence.

Of course, since we've seen Jennifer Lawrence all movie long, and since we don't know Nikki from a hole in the wall, we're rooting for Jennifer Lawrence. And that's who we get. Cooper chases her down the street in the most hackneyed convention in all of cinema, professes his love, and they kiss in the gentle snowfall.

The end.

Good golly...

Here's what I've figured out about melodrama:

Melodrama is a story in which the audience gets, at the end, precisely what they wanted at the beginning. This describes Silver Linings Playbook to a tee. We knew immediately that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence belonged together, because they're both nuts and they're both played by movie stars. We got exactly what we wanted.

This also describes Downton Abbey. No matter what obstacles intervene -- be they war, pestilence, vengeful ex-spouses, unjust class prejudice or financial misfortune -- we know damn well that Anna will end up with Bates, Lady Mary will end up with Matthew Crawley, and Downton Abbey will remain in the beneficent hands of the Granthams for generations to come.

That's melodrama.

Here's what drama is:

No matter how much we want Rocky to beat Apollo, he loses the fight. All he gains, in the end, is self-worth. Something he never knew was his deepest desire.

No matter how much we want Bogie to end up with Ingrid Bergman, she goes off with Victor Laszlo. All Bogie gets, in the end, is self-worth. Something he never knew was his deepest desire.

There's a pattern here!

In drama, characters, and, by extension, audiences, don't get what they want. They get what they need. And it's infinitely greater than the feeble trophies they had in mind.

In melodrama, the trophies are everything, and no matter how much those trophies are threatened, they are always granted to our heroes in triumphant fashion.

And just so I'm clear, there is a place for melodrama. One of my favorite movies this year, the sci-fi actioner Lockout, is sheer melodrama. Guy Pearce runs around a space station trying to free the President's daughter before the station burns up in orbit or she is killed by violent Euro-trash prisoner types. And you know what happens? He saves the President's daughter.

Melodrama.

So we're getting into real murky territory. Personal preference assumes a dominant role. Is Silver Linings Playbook your preferred brand of melodrama? Read my synopsis, make up your mind, and go with God.

But it's not my preference.

I think it's garbage.

SCORE

How Accomplished: ?/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 37/100