Zero Dark Thirty Movie Review 0 114

Zero Dark Thirty movie review

A few years ago Kathryn Bigelow took the film world by storm with her Iraq-set bomb disposal war movie The Hurt Locker, going on to win multiple Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. Now she and screenwriter Mark Boal are back with another forceful, uncompromising film about the conflict in the Middle East, Zero Dark Thirty.

Set in the near past, the film follows the search for Public Enemy No.1, Osama bin Laden, detailing the government’s tactics to gain information and track him, headed by the determined Maya (Jessica Chastain). The title refers to a military term that describes half past midnight and in the words of Bigelow herself it, “refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade long mission.”

The film was initially being made at a point where bin Laden was actually still alive and evading capture. The fact that he was tracked down and killed part way through meant that Bigelow and Boal had there ending. The perfect ending you might say, a way to wrap up what is ultimately a revenge story, albeit set in the deep end of a very real and difficult point in history.

The film has already caused a lot of controversy, to go hand-in-hand with its multiple Oscar nominations, mainly due to its depiction of torture at the hands of government operatives trying to extract information on the whereabouts of that most famous of targets. It’s true that the film is very frank and open about the things it shows but the accusations of it somehow condoning torture are entirely unfair; the film is merely showing a problematic truth and dealing head on with a murky subject. To somehow blunt or omit those crucial scenes would be to deliver a dishonest experience for the audience. It should be difficult and unnerving to watch, this isn’t an easy story and the film is all the better that it doesn’t turn it into some sort of Bourne-esque tale where the action is number one on the priority list.

Central to the film working as well as it does is the cast – including the likes of Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton and James Gandolfini to name but a few – but particularly the performance of Jessica Chastain, an actress who has justifiably risen fast in Hollywood over the last few years. She has one heck of a difficult role here, playing a woman who has to make her mark as a strong-willed, capable individual surrounded by powerful men in suits. She’s our anchor throughout the film and Chastain manages the difficult task of making us believe in her and her quest to find her target without making her a figure we just have to feel sorry for and that’s it.

At almost two hours and 40 minutes, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t exactly a short film light on its feet. But thanks to a consistently compelling script by Boal, who once again brings an air of authenticity to the proceedings because of his experience as a war journalist, the film is never boring and completely justifies its hefty runtime. After a skillful build-up consisting of heated discussions, tactical planning and the occasional bit of shocking action (helped hugely by Alexandre Desplat’s subtle yet effective score), the film delivers an absolutely astonishing final act that bluntly showcases the NAVY S.E.A.L. Team closing in on bin Laden in his fortress-like compound. I’d be surprised if we got a more tense sequence anytime soon.

Bigelow should be applauded for what she’s achieved here, taking a very recent and very tricky true story and turning it into an intricate, challenging and compelling piece of cinema that, remarkably, has the power to keep the audience on the edge of their seat despite them knowing how it’s going to end. This is the kind of raw, nail-biting filmmaking that doesn’t come along very often.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 537

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 562

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

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