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Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best Films of 2012

Every year I write up a top 10 of the year list that ends up containing anywhere from 10-20 films in 10 spots.  2012 was an unusual year for film.  There were quite a few films that were surprisingly great (Your Sister’s Sister, The Color Wheel, and Magic Mike) and even more that were disappointing (The Dark Knight Rises and Les Misérables).  This year, I have seen 81 films.  I will continue to watch more.  So without further to do, here are my top 13 films in 10 spots.

Honorable Mentions: 

Compliance (Dir. Craig Zobel) Compliance was one of the biggest surprises of the year because I went in expecting something and ended up getting something completely different.  I will not disclose anything about this movie as it is best going in knowing nothing about it.  What I will say is that this film and my number one film were the two most visceral movie-going experiences of the year.  Compliance was great because it was extremely effective.  It used no fancy special effects, gore, or particularly disturbing images, but it nonetheless succeeded in making me feel extremely uncomfortable.  When watching this movie, I was squirming in my seat and sweating.  And what made this movie worse was that it is completely true.

The Master (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) – The Master was a great film largely due to its      performances and strangeness.  Loosely based on the start of Scientology, The Master follows a man (Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of his career) who comes back from WWII an alcoholic with PTSD.  One night, he encounters a group of people who take him in and try to help him.  The group is a cult-like new “religion” called The Cause and is led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  This film is beautifully shot and scored, but the acting is what takes it to the next level.  Hoffman and Phoenix playing against each other is a sight to behold.  Sparks fly in their scenes together.  Phoenix’s performance is the best performance that I have seen all year.  With The Master, writer/director Anderson has crafted another thought-provoking, but cryptic film that rewards multiple viewings.

No (Dir. Pablo Larraín) No was one of the most unique films of the year.  It follows the true story of an ad agency who campaigns to convince the Chilean public to vote “no” when the dictatorship decides to let the people decide whether to keep them in power.  Led by a subtle performance by the versatile Gael García Bernal, No succeeds due to its clever and often very funny script and different filming style.  To make the film and the historical footage blend seamlessly, director Larraín decided to shoot the film using U-matic, the format that ‘80s TV shows were shot in.  

10.  Your Sister’s Sister (Dir. Lynn Shelton) – This was the most underrated film of the year.  Lynn Shelton’s film is honest, heartfelt, and unpredictable: terms not usually applied to romantic comedies.  Shot on a very small budget in just a few weeks, Your Sister’s Sister is a hidden gem with three outstanding performances from Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosmarie DeWitt.

9.   Killing Them Softly (Dir. Andrew Dominik) - I absolutely loved Killing Them Softly because it was a well-acted and shot (the assassination scene!) crime drama that doubled as a brilliant political allegory.  Dominik realizes that crime dramas actually can be dramas with little to no action and this works in the movie's favor as it gives it time to breathe and talk.  The last line of Killing Them Softly was quite possibly the best line of the year and really brought the point home.

8.  West of Memphis (Dir. Amy Berg) - This was one of the year's most moving films.  It is an exhaustive documentary about the West Memphis Three trial.  With the 146-minute running time, Amy Berg explores every aspect of the case and does extensive interviews from everyone involved creating a fascinating portrait of injustice.  This documentary is riveting and maddening and will surely enrich just about everyone who views it.

7.  Amour (Dir. Michael Haneke) - Master director Michael Haneke's meditation on old age is brutal, but is humane and honest.  Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant give two of the best performances of the year.  Darius Khonji's shots are carefully composed and the long takes bring an extreme sense of realism to the film.  This is filmmaking of the highest order.  It is moving and painful, but is a beautiful view of love in old age.
6.   The Queen of Versailles (Dir. Lauren Greenfield) - The Queen of Versailles is the year's best documentary.  It shows the American Dream in an extreme form (the multi-billionaire Siegel family) and what happens to that Dream when the 2008 crash hits.  The story of the Siegel family is fascinating.  Greenfield had unprecedented access to them and showed every detail of their lives.  What is most impressive of this documentary is that it does not judge.  It presents the facts and shows all perspectives of the story, even the Siegel's housekeeper's.  The Queen of Versailles is a thorough character study of Jackie, the oddly sympathetic matriarch, while also being a thought-provoking, smart, and entertaining film.

5.  Skyfall (Dir. Sam Mendes) - After the disappointing Quantum of Solace, I was worried about the future of the long-running James Bond franchise.  However, on the 50th anniversary of the franchise, Bond is back in Sam Mendes' Skyfall.  Everything went right for this film.  Daniel Craig was suave and complex as Bond, Javier Bardem played a certified psychopath as Raoul Silva, and Judi Dench showed a lot of depth as M.  Roger Deakins' cinematography was the best of the year, best showcased in the opening sequence and the Shanghai skyscraper sequence.  In all, this movie had a compelling story, a crazy villain, and heart-pounding thrills that came together to create one of the greatest action films of all time.

     Looper (Dir. Rian Johnson) - Rian Johnson's time-travel film Looper is another brilliant action film.  Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt, Looper has everything: strong performances, suspense, and badass action sequences.  In addition, the film grounds itself in a more realistic future, one where there aren't cars flying everywhere and things look very different.  This sense of reality makes the film more relatable.  Writer/director Johnson also gives the movie a heart, something lacking in most sci-fi films.  I cared what happened to the characters, and thus was more involved in the film.

4.  Chicken With Plums (Dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud) - This was the biggest surprise of the year.  Satrapi and Paronnaud created a visually stunning, but emotionally lacking adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis in 2007 and this is their next film.  Chicken With Plums follows a man, Nasser Ali (Mathieu Amalric), who decides to die after his wife breaks his beloved violin.  The film details his last eight days on earth.  With Chicken, Satrapi and Paronnaud fused the gorgeous visuals with an engaging story with a big heart and created one of the biggest knockouts of the year.  That scene in the movie theater is just beautiful.

3.  Moonrise Kingdom (Dir. Wes Anderson) - Wes Anderson's beautiful and poignant Moonrise Kingdom is not only one of the best films of 2012, but Anderson's best film yet.  Following two pre-teens who fall in love and run away from their New England town in the 1960s, Anderson creates a unique world and captures the period immaculately.  Everything in Moonrise looks straight out of a doll house or a 1950s or 1960s children's book.  The abundant references to Peter Pan drive this home.  With his talented cast and smart dialogue, Anderson's film is pure magic that is funny, sweet, and sad in equal measure.  This is the work of an extremely talented and visionary filmmaker who is working at the peak of his powers.

     Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir. Benh Zeitlin) - And going off of magical films based around children, we have Sundance Dramatic Grand Prize-winner Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Beasts follows a young girl, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives in a small community south of the levee in Louisiana with her ill father, Wink (Dwight Henry).  When a storm hits and her dad's health starts to fail, Hushpuppy's world begins to fall apart.  This film is a small miracle.  Lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis is only nine years old now, but her performance shows something far beyond her years.  Her performance has an innocence that only a child can deliver and has a soul and beating heart.  Dwight Henry, a non-professional actor, also gives a powerhouse performance as Wink.  Beasts has a gorgeous score by Dan Romer and first-time co-writer/director Benh Zeitlin, amazing hand-held 16mm cinematography by Dan Richardson, a heartfelt script by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar (author of the play from which this film is based), and a unique look and feel.  This film is alive.  All members of this cast and crew have bright futures ahead of them.

 2.  Silver Linings Playbook (Dir. David O. Russell) - Writer/director David O. Russell (The Fighter) has obviously hit his stride.  Silver Linings Playbook is the work of a genius.  It follows Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a man diagnosed with bi-polar disorder who tries to get his wife back and life on track after being released from jail.  Upon getting out, he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman with problems of her own who helps Pat heal.  I have now seen Silver Linings Playbook three times and can safely say that it gets better after every viewing.  The dialogue is quick and witty, the story is engaging, and the direction is tight and electric.  The performances out of the entire cast are universally excellent.  As Pat, Bradley Cooper shows depth that he has never shown before.  He makes Pat a real person that I cared about, not some caricature.  Jennifer Lawrence gives another great performance as Tiffany.  Her scenes with Cooper are fantastic, as the two have great chemistry.  Robert De Niro gives his best performance in ages as Pat's dad who has OCD and Jacki Weaver plays well with him as Pat's mom.  Russell's script is brilliant for many reasons, most notably because it shows these mentally ill characters as real everyday people.  It doesn't pander to Hollywood stereotypes.  Silver Linings Playbook epitomizes the smart romantic comedy/dramas that should be made more often.  I could watch this films another three times and never tire of it.

1.  Zero Dark Thirty (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow) - When Zero Dark Thirty was announced, I was worried that director Bigelow was simply trying to make another The Hurt Locker.  I was wrong.  With Zero Dark Thirty, she has crafted another masterwork of cinema.  The film spans 10 years and follows the true story of one CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), in her obsessive hunt to track down terrorist Osama Bin Laden.  At 157 minutes, Zero Dark Thirty is long, but it wastes no time and is never less than completely compelling.  Jessica Chastain and cast turn in strong performances and Greig Fraser's cinematography is great.  Producer/writer Mark Boal's script is sharp.  His condensation of material is astonishing.  His script is thorough and never takes sides.  Boal and Bigelow execute this film smartly, as they never take a political or moral stance on the sometimes horrific images that they show (the first 20 or so minutes of the film are scenes or torture).  They trust in the intelligence of the audience and let them make their own decisions about the material presented.  Bigelow's direction is another example of a director working at her peak.  She knows how to build suspense and catch the audience completely off guard.  The most impressive aspect of Zero Dark Thirty is that I was riveted the entire time, was kept white knuckle on the edge of my seat, even though I already knew the ending.  Argo, Ben Affleck's film about the Iranian Hostage Crisis, was another true story for which I already knew the ending.  While Affleck did a fine job directing the film, I felt no suspense.  I knew the ending and that worked against Argo.  Where Affleck used cheap suspense-building tactics, Bigelow used silence and realism.  The silence used in the raid on Bin Laden's compound was far more engaging and generated far more suspense. Zero Dark Thirty is a document of our time and will continue to stand as a historical portrait of one of America's greatest triumphs in one of its darkest hours.

     Holy Motors (Dir. Leos Carax) - Holy Motors is writer/director Leos Carax's way of giving traditional cinema the finger.  Breaking all traditional rules of story structure and logic, Carax created a masterpiece that was this year's most entertaining film and the best example of pure cinematic joy that I have felt all year.  Holy Motors follows Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as he travels around Paris attending nine "appointments".  At each "appointment", he assumes a different identity.  In addition, each appointment represents a different genre of cinema.  One is a comedy, one is a musical, one is a drama.  I don't want to give away too many of the surprises that Holy Motors has in store, so I won't divulge any more about its plot.  Watching Holy Motors was exhilarating.  Most films that are broken up into multiple sections tend to be uneven; some sections are much better than others.  Holy Motors somehow manages to avoid all of those problems.  Each section is so bizarre and so unique that I always looked forward to the next one.  This film wouldn't work without the extremely talented actor Denis Lavant who shows a level of dedication to his performance as Monsieur Oscar that few actors give.  With each genre/appointment change, he must mold his performance to fit that genre and does so masterfully.  In a perfect world, he would get serious awards recognition.  He delivers a performance so masterful, so different, and so perversely brilliant that much of the film rides on him.  His work here must have been a real challenge and is something that only the best actors could do.  In yet another year where sequels, prequels, and remakes dominated, Holy Motors was a breath of fresh air.  I still don't know what it all means, but it doesn't matter.  When viewing Holy Motors it is just best to just go with it.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

What I Will Choose From For My Top 10 List

Act of Valor
21 Jump Street
The Raid: Redemption
The Kid with a Bike
The Deep Blue Sea
The Cabin in the Woods
Titanic 3D
The Hunger Games
The Avengers
Sound of My Voice
The Intouchables
Moonrise Kingdom
Red Lights
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Safety Not Guaranteed
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Magic Mike
Your Sister's Sister
Killer Joe
The Dark Knight Rises
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Damsels in Distress
The Amazing Spider-Man
The Campaign
Hope Springs
The Queen of Versailles
Underworld: Awakening
Ruby Sparks
Searching for Sugar Man
Chicken with Plums
The Imposter
Lola Versus
The Master
I'm Carolyn Parker
Dredd 3D
Life of Pi
The Sessions
Seven Psychopaths
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Cloud Atlas
Holy Motors
West of Memphis
Silver Linings Playbook
Anna Karenina
Bad25 (TV version)
Rust and Bone
Zero Dark Thirty
Django Unchained
A Royal Affair
Killing Them Softly
Not Fade Away
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
The Hobbit:An Unexpected  Journey
The Impossible
Les Misérables
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
The Grey
The Color Wheel

Monday, December 24, 2012

Not Fade Away Review

Paramount Vantage
Not Fade Away Review
2012, 112 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, some drug use and sexual content

This film marks the directional debut of David Chase, best-known for creating the hit TV series "The Sopranos" and it is definitely a mixed bag.  This is the perfect case of a perfectly fine film being derailed by an inept ending.

Not Fade Away follows a group of teenagers in the 1960s who try (and fail) to become the next big rock and roll band.  Sound like Almost Famous?  It should as it is very similar, albeit inferior, to Almost Famous.

This review will be divided up into two sections: what works, and what doesn't.  I will start with the "what works" section.  The acting in this film is pretty good, but not anything special.  James Gandolfini, however, is the standout.  Gandolfini has appeared in quite a few films that have been released recently, including Killing Them Softly and Zero Dark Thirty.  He plays Pat, the main character's tough-love father, with great sincerity and truth.  He has energy and a big heart that no other actors have in this film (partially because they aren't given much of a chance to shine).

The soundtrack for the movie is also fantastic featuring music from many 1960s rock groups such as The Rolling Stones.  The music also gives the movie a little jolt.

Now I'll move to the "what doesn't work" section.  The ending.  Plain and simple.  I enjoyed Not Fade Away up until the end.  Up until then, it was a perfectly enjoyable, albeit very generic, nostalgia picture.  However, the ending, or lack of, came along and completely derailed the film.  The movie didn't end.  It provided no closure (I don't necessarily need closure, but it is nice to have something that resembles an ending) and seemed like Chase didn't know how to end the film, so he just decided to leave us and wrap the move up with a little "food for thought" speech (the "food for thought", however, is nothing original or remotely interesting) that comes out of nowhere and is awkwardly placed and performed (you'll know exactly what I mean if you see it).  While I thought Red Lights had a terrible ending, at least it seemed like the filmmakers actually tried for something interesting.  This is just the result of laziness.

In addition to the ending, I didn't care for any of the characters, except maybe Gandolfini's, and the story took some eye-rollingly cliche turns, but still managed to be somewhat enjoyable.

Overall, Not Fade Away is not worth the money to see (my show was free, so I can't complain about paying to see something this unsatisfying).  It is a serviceable film that adds nothing new to the "nostalgia movie" genre.  I just seriously cannot believe that someone dared end a movie this way.

-Joshua Handler

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Impossible Review

Summit Entertainment
The Impossible Review
2012, 107 minutes 
Rated PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity

The Impossible is truly an experience to watch.  It is realistic, brutal, and compelling.  Director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) has crafted a film that captures the overall sense of horror of being in a natural disaster while never straying away from his characters.  The film follows a family who, when vacationing in Thailand, get separated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The acting in The Impossible is the high point.  Naomi Watts turns in an emotional performance as Maria, the mother.  While she is lying on a hospital bed for much of the film due to her wounds, her performance is powerful because it never feels anything less than real.  Watts, a movie star, sheds her movie star image, as Cotillard did in Rust and Bone, to show horror and pain.  Her connection with Tom Holland, who plays her eldest son, Lucas, feels genuine.  While these two are only actors in a movie, they always felt like mother and son (they were separated from the rest of the family), which is a testament to the acting talents of both.

Ewan McGregor also turns in a raw performance as Henry, the father.  Much of the second half of the film is devoted to him and he carries it beautifully.  McGregor shows more depth in this performance than just about any other that I have seen him in.  Why he isn't getting as much awards attention as Watts (she has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and SAG award for Best Actress) is beyond me.

The direction by J.A. Bayona is masterful.  This is a director working in his element who has complete control over the film.  Bayona bravely doesn't stint on the graphic details of the disaster, showing images of bodies, wounds, and destruction, all rendered in meticulous detail.  The film, unlike many other disaster or tragic event films, shows the disaster from a ground-level human perspective, not an above-ground overview.  By choosing to show the disaster from this perspective, Bayona creates an emotional connection.  

The opening disaster sequence itself is one of the most vivid recreations of a disaster ever put on film.  It is terrifying and looks very realistic.  Again, showing it from a human point of view makes it scarier and more wrenching.

Finally, I will say that The Impossible is a manipulative film, but these manipulations are not in the least bit exploitative of the tragedy and are unavoidable.  This is a film that would literally be impossible to make subtle.  A film about a family separated by a disaster is going to be full of big emotions. 

Overall, The Impossible is a must-see film.  It is very hard to watch due to its honest and graphic recreation of the tsunami, but is a very rewarding experience.  I was more moved by this film than any that has come out this year.  J.A. Bayona crafted a really amazing document of one family's struggle for survival in a time of disaster.  Bravo.

-Joshua Handler

Rust and Bone Review

Sony Pictures Classics
Rust and Bone Review
2012, 120 minutes
Rated R for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence, and language

This is a perfect case of what happens when some great acting (almost) saves a mediocre story.  Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception) and Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) give what are easily two of the best performances of the year.  I am so glad that Schoenaerts is starting to star in more higher-profile films as he truly is fantastic.  Before I delve into more details regarding the acting, let me talk about the basics of this film.  Rust and Bone is the new film by Jacques Audiard, director of 2009's masterful Oscar-nominee A Prophet and follows a whale trailer, Stephanie (Cotillard), who falls for a single dad who's also a bare-knuckle boxer, Ali (Schoenaerts), after she loses her legs in an accident during a show.

The acting is, as mentioned, some of the best of the year.  Cotillard is nothing short of a revelation as Stephanie.  She is not afraid to do anything and lays it all bare.  In one scene, towards the beginning after the accident, Stephanie wakes up in her hospital bed and realizes that her legs are gone.  With this realization, she breaks down.  Cotillard once again strips down her movie star image to turn in one of the most natural, real, and beautiful performances of the year.

And Schoenaerts is the perfect match.  After an impressive performance in the Oscar-nominated Bullhead, Schoenaerts gives another performance as a brute that is as good, if not better.  It is made all the more impressive given that his character isn't developed much.  The lack of character development is a major flaw of the film, as is the fact that Schoenaerts' character is very unlikable.  Unlikable characters can be good if it fits in the film (as in a Noah Baumbach movie), but here it takes out all emotional connection to the character.  The ending of the film is contrived and melodramatic (as is much of the latter half of the film), which deprives the film of the emotional punch that it needs to be a complete success.  The first chunk is great, though; full of compelling story and interesting scenes.  And, on a side note, the cinematography for Rust and Bone is gorgeous.

Overall, Rust and Bone is a movie about acting and individual scenes.  It isn't a great film, but is not by any means a bad one.  It will definitely work for many people, but it just didn't pack the punch that I wanted it to.  Expect an Oscar nomination for Cotillard's performance.  It's that good.

-Joshua Handler

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Django Unchained Review

The Weinstein Co./Columbia Pictures
REVIEW by Joshua Handler

Django Unchained
2012, 165 minutes
Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity 

"Adult supervision is required," says Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Quentin Tarantino's brave new film Django Unchained.  And he could not be more right as Django is brutal, gory, and twisted.  Not to mention gut-bustingly funny.  Django Unchained is Tarantino's latest film to take the best elements of a '60s or '70s fringe genre, put his own spin on it, and make it great.  The genre this time is the spaghetti western.  Spaghetti westerns were westerns made in Italy primarily during the 1960s.  Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci were arguably the most famous spaghetti western directors.  Leone made The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Corbucci made Django, from which this film takes nothing but its title.  

Django Unchained takes place in 1858 in the deep South.  Tarantino wanted this not to we a western, but a "southern".  The film follows Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter who teams up with a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), to find a vicious group of outlaws called the Brittle Brothers.  In return for his help, Schultz will help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda from evil plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Mississippi.

Django is a really interesting film in that it is one of the first films to truly show an in depth, honest, brutal portrayal of slavery in Hollywood history.  Tarantino doesn't hold anything back in his depiction of the horrors of slavery.  He shows brandings, forced slave fights, dog attacks, and whippings, all in graphic detail.  Uncharacteristically of Tarantino, none of these are played for laughs.  Don't get me wrong, much of the violence in this film is played for laughs, but that which is is against the white plantation owners and workers.  The violence mentioned above is directed against African-American slaves and is extremely disturbing.  This was a very gutsy move of Tarantino, but I think it is great.  He doesn't use that violence as exploitation, but simply as a means to expose America to the true brutality that they want to forget.

Django is undeniably messy towards the end, but works on so many levels.  The acting, unsurprisingly, is top-notch from everyone.  The standout is Leonardo DiCaprio who turns in a performance that is not only his best to date, but one of the most frightening and menacing villains in recent memory.  DiCaprio's Calvin Candie is, like Waltz's Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, a charming, but vile villain who I just loved to hate.  He commands the screen every time he is onscreen.  I sometimes think DiCaprio is a little stiff when executing a dramatic performance as he was in J. Edgar, but here he was relaxed and comfortable.  He seemed like he was having a blast shedding his nice-guy image for this new face as the ultimate bad guy.

Jamie Foxx is surprisingly good in the lead as Django.  He, too, is charming, witty, and cool.  However, behind the coolness is a sense of shame and longing which Foxx shows with heartbreaking authenticity.  Christoph Waltz is Oscar-worthy as Dr. King Schultz.  Tarantino really knows how to get the best out of him.  He speaks the language of Tarantino like a natural and delivers every syllable perfectly.  While this seems like a bizarre piece of praise, it is not, as Tarantino's dialogue is written in a very particular way that, if not delivered correctly, could sound unnatural (in the Tarantino film's world).  Finally, we come to Samuel L. Jackson who steals nearly every scene he's in as Jackson, Candie's slave who is also his right hand man.  Jackson's facial expressions are pee-your-pants funny and the energy and charisma he brings here is a joy to watch.

Django Unchained contains all of the usual anachronistic music that Tarantino usually uses and contains the usual black humor.  There are some scene in Django that should not be funny, but I couldn't help but laugh.  And, as an homage to spaghetti westerns, Tarantino nails the style with everything from a new Morricone song to the dramatic extreme close-ups.  If you've seen The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and other films of that era, this film will be that much funnier.

Much as this is a typical Tarantino film, it is different in a couple of very noticeable ways.  One of them is that there is an emotional connection to Django and Broomhilda.  Tarantino's movies ride on their style and smarts normally (and this one does too), but with the added emotional romance element, I felt more connected to the characters which made the ending more satisfying (and if there's anything Tarantino knows how to do it is pull off one hell of an ending).  Another big difference, as mentioned,is the dead serious historical context.  After viewing Django, I really thought (and still am thinking) about the effect of slavery and racism on America and how it can still be felt in some ways today.  While trying to show a dark side of history, Tarantino never preaches or tries to convey some large message.  He just gives us the cold, honest facts and lets us make of them whatever we want.  That was Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's strength with Zero Dark Thirty: they never let a political message get in the way of the honest truth.  They let us, the audience, decide what to make of them.

While Django is most certainly a great film, it does have some issues.  One of the most glaring is the editing.  Fred Raskin took over for Tarantino's usual editor, Sally Menke, after her death a few years ago and it is very noticeable.  The film is not as tight as Inglourious Basterds or other Tarantino films and due to the extensive cuts made on the film to bring down the running time, there are some weird, seemingly out-of-place shots and transitions.  In addition, the film could have ended in many places, but didn't.  While the places it went were very interesting and fun, a little tightening wouldn't have hurt.  

Overall, while not the best film Tarantino has made, Django Unchained is still excellent and will satisfy most of his fans.  It is an honest, moving, brutal, and hilariously funny take on the spaghetti western set during our nation's darkest hour.  This should get a substantial amount of Oscar nominations come January.  A warning: if you are not a Tarantino fan, stay far away from this one.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty Review

Sony Pictures
Zero Dark Thirty
2012, 157 minutes
Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

Zero Dark Thirty Review
by Joshua Handler

So many films this year have been disappointments.  The Dark Knight Rises wasn't the brilliant conclusion that I had hoped it would be, Argo was good but lacked suspense and emotional resonance, and Cloud Atlas was ambitious but never came together.  When I saw that Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) was making another war film, I immediately became suspicious that she would simply try too hard to make a film like The Hurt Locker and fail.  However, much to my surprise, I was completely wrong as she has crafted what is, for my money, the best film of 2012 (I still have yet to see Django Unchained and Les Misérables, but that will be taken care of soon enough).  

Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden and the CIA agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who invests everything into finding him.  Written by Mark Boal (Oscar-winner for The Hurt Locker), Zero Dark Thirty is very smart and fast-paced, while still being easy to follow and riveting for all 157 minutes.  Boal writes some great dialogue and always makes sure that everything is believable.  His script keeps the drama mixed well with the thrills which sets the foundation for this film.

From the start of the film, it is obvious that Zero Dark Thirty is not going to be a fun ride as it starts off with 15-20 minutes of torture; waterboarding, sleep deprivation, you name it.  While the men being tortured are terrorists, it is nonetheless no easier to watch these scenes.  Director Bigelow doesn't shy away from the graphic details and that is one of the reasons that this film is what it is.  Bigelow tells her stories with no sugar-coating and an unflinching sense of reality that makes her films the most around.  I get more white-knuckled with Bigelow films than any other.

If this film doesn't earn Kathryn Bigelow a second Best Director Oscar win, something is wrong.  She has a knack for catching the audience off guard during a quiet moment and subsequently setting a bomb off when you least expect it.  This kind of approach to scene construction ratchets up the tension.  When something comes out of nowhere, it turns the audience on high alert.  But, Bigelow knows how to turn off the high alert and bring the audience back down so that she can go for another shock.  Also, she knows that action does not always equal thrills and suspense.  The raid on Bin Laden's compound sequence uses silence to build suspense; a very smart directorial decision.

Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life) gives a powerful performance as Maya.  Whenever I watch Chastain, no matter what film, I never remember that I am watching her.  I always believe that I am watching whatever character she is playing.  As Maya, she captures the ambition and personal pain convincingly.  However, what distinguishes her performance more than anything is the change that her character goes through from rookie CIA agent, barely watching during a torture session, to tough, no-nonsense agent with a drive like no other.  Her arc is really interesting.

The supporting cast is also phenomenal.  Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, and Mark Strong all play crucial roles in the film and all do really well in their respective roles.

Alexandre Desplat (The King's Speech, Fantastic Mr. Fox) creates an Oscar-worthy score for this film. It is subtle, haunting, and gets the heart pumping when needed.  Greg Fraser's cinematography is excellent.  The use of (steady) handheld camerawork added a sense of grit and realism to the film that made the film feel documentary-like.

Watching a film like Zero Dark Thirty because it is one of the only historical films in recent memory in which I vividly remember the history.  I distinctly remember President Obama announcing the death of bin Laden last year and I remember the attacks on 9/11.  Seeing these events unfold in a time that I remember is very frightening, but also all the more satisfying.  I could connect emotionally to the death of Osama bin Laden.  When he is finally killed, I felt such a sense of pride simply because I remember this event happening, not because the film uses any manipulative devices.

One last note about Zero Dark Thirty is that I find it admirable that it refuses to be political.  It doesn't pass judgments about the War on Terror, torture, or any other controversial topics.  It is simply out there to tell a great story.

Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is another masterpiece from Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal.  I'll leave it at this: they are quite the team.