Friday, December 21, 2012

Your Gritty Weekend at the Movies

Posted By on Fri, Dec 21, 2012 at 10:52 AM

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Zero Dark Thirty: It was striking to watch The Hurt Locker after months of hype to find that its alleged edge-of-seat qualities had more to do with psychology than storytelling. The Hurt Locker isn't a thriller, or even a drama, really: it's a character study that comes to some disturbing if obvious conclusions. Zero Dark Thirty, which reteams Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, arrives at an even more obvious ending: it's about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and climaxes, unsurprisingly, with the famous but secrecy-shrouded raid on his compound in Pakistan. Like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty looks at our recent overseas entanglements through the laser-focused eyes of its central character, but Thirty's CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain), driven and single-minded as she is, is also more tightly hinged than Jeremy Renner's Hurt Locker daredevil. She needs to stay in control; terrorist hunting has an awful lot of hurry-up-and-wait.

The movie doesn't get far enough into Maya's head for Zero Dark Thirty to be another character study; this one is Bieglow's wartime procedural, a detail-oriented epic of torture, dead ends, and dodgy leads. I'm forever and probably unfairly comparing most epic procedurals I see with David Fincher's Zodiac, and this one, while better than most, doesn't measure up to that lofty standard; it lacks that movie's crazy quilt of details and eccentric characters, not to mention its sense of dread. It doesn't get under your skin; you just watch the case get under Maya's. In Zero Dark Thirty, details don't quite fit together or add up, then they sort of do, and Maya becomes possessed by her hunch. She thinks she knows where bin Laden is, and for her that's as good as actually knowing. To the extent that this movie mimics Hurt Locker's attention to character, it's because Maya keeps focus through sheer, dogged determination.

Chastain is terrific: hard-nosed, simmering, often isolated even when supported by three acts' worth of ace supporting turns: part one, in the early days, includes Jason Clarke as a bro-ish but worn-out interrogator and Jennifer Ehle as an initially skeptical colleague; part two has a lot of meaty material for Mark Strong's Bush-league supervisor; and part three introduces a SEAL team including Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt. Everyone does strong work, but there are long passages where Zero Dark Thirty sags with so many detailed and intricate knots; its apolitical faux-journalism dries the movie out.

It could be that Bigelow is after something brainier and more analytical than thriller mechanics; it could also be that she's a touch overrated as an action director, because I wasn't always certain there was much below the surface of this accomplished, often fascinating movie. There are some beautifully lighted images, particularly of Chastain in deep concentration, and the climactic raid manages to be filled with jittery tension even after worldwide dissemination, but much of the movie is shot with the same handheld-ish immediacy. In other words, it's not unlike Paul Greengrass with more tripods and fewer control rooms. Zero Dark Thirty is very good at what it does, maybe even better than Hurt Locker, and I hope Chastain wins awards like crazy, but its point feels as hazy as some of its detective work.

This is 40: I like Judd Apatow's newest comedy, though probably the least of his four features as a writer-director so far; the rambling boy's-club improv that put many off of his earlier features here becomes rambling married-couple strife. Much of it is still quite funny, but the marriage of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) just ebbs and flows from fighting to making up; Apatow doesn't enforce the movie's relatively tight timeframe, and it begins to feel shapeless. Still, there's something wonderful about a foulmouthed, sometimes stinging comedy of tough marriage coming out on a heartwarming James L. Brooks release date.

On the Road: Not since the New Moon/Adventureland double feature of 2009 has a smaller-scale movie thrown into such sharp relief how totally decent Kristen Stewart can be when unencumbered by Twilight. This year's contrast extends beyond that now-dead franchise to include Snow White and the Huntsman, a better-designed but equally vacuous fantasy would-be series where Stewart comes across as fidgety, reticent, and mannered when she's supposed to be some kind of ass-kicking heroine (I know Twilight's Bella is mostly not even intended as an ass-kicker, but even after four movies in Bella jail, seemingly itching to escape, her supposed newfound vampiric awesomeness doesn't come across in Breaking Dawn Part 2). But over in On the Road, an honorable but not entirely successful adaptation of the Kerouac novel, Stewart is fine: more confident and charismatic as a lost teenager than she's ever been when front-and-center for fantastical wish-fulfillment. The whole cast is pretty good here, but the movie resorts to shots of people at typewriters, narrating about being a writer—the last (or, even worse, first) refuge of the classic-novel adapter.

Not Fade Away: I wanted to like David Chase's semi-autobiographical feature about New Jersey teenagers trying to make it as a band in the 60s, but despite good dialogue and performances, and a couple of excellent scenes, the narrative gets away from him. I think it kind of wants to be That Thing You Do! with more grit. Instead, it's like That Thing You Do! without incident (or Steve Zahn!).

The Impossible: I wonder if some of the feelings I have about the way Zero Dark Thirty shows something, and shows it well, and makes it interesting, and yet doesn't seem to have a particularly strong attitude about it, will carry over to this tsunami survival drama. It looks impressive; the trailer also makes it look like the theme of the movie is: sometimes, terrible things happen, and then miraculously non-terrible things can also happen!

Jack Reacher: When Tom Cruise commits to something, he commits hard. So back in the mid-to-late 90s, when he decided he was going to work with the best directors possible, he blew through Brian De Palma, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, John Woo (hey, it was the late 90s), Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, and Bryan Singer. Now Cruise has committed to getting his commercial groove back, goddammit, and so he's going that way, hard: he did a very successful Mission: Impossible follow-up last year, stole scenes in Rock of Ages this summer, has the pulpy Jack Reacher out for Christmas, and booked two sci-fi movies (spring's Oblivion and 2014's All You Need Is Kill) to fill the time between the inevitable MI5. It's kind of fun to see Movie Star Cruise again, especially after the overexertions of Knight and Day, but it's hard not to notice the second-tier-at-best filmmakers this direction has employed: although he snagged Brad Bird for his signature franchise, since then he's worked with Adam Shankman, Christopher McQuarrie, Joseph Kosinski, and Doug Liman. Not the worst (except Shankman) but not exactly Mann or Spielberg, eh? Anyway, McQuarrie made Jack Reacher, and his screenwriting for Bryan Singer has been solid, plus he made The Way of the Gun, a likably amoral noir from over a decade ago, so maybe this commercial play will have some grit.

The Guilt Trip: You know, Seth Rogen did Observe and Report after Knocked Up made him a star, and has worked with (speaking of director roll calls) Michel Gondry, David Gordon Green, and Sarah Polley, so I guess we can cut him some slack for his first official Beneath Your Talents comedy, working for Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, The Proposal, and I'm not just condescending to the material when I say those movies are terribly, terribly crafted) and Barbra Streisand (last seen ducking into Stiller's Beneath Your Talents franchise). Pretty much all comedians do 'em. Sometimes they're unfathomably terrible, like so many Stiller comedies; sometimes, they're surprisingly tolerable, like so many Will Ferrell vehicles. Screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love; a bunch of Disney stuff) has kind of a hacky humanism to his work, but at least he's not Lowell Ganz or Babaloo Mandel, so that's something. And a Streisand/Rogen mother-son pairing could be funny, in theory. In theory.

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