Zero Dark Thirty (2012) [400+]

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

“Devastatingly real.”

GRADE: 5/5

by Richard Rey

             September 11, 2001: An overture of cries and feeble pleads erupts over the pitch black screen: each voice demanding our attention, each sob sinking us deeper into the stark, shocking reality of the most terrifying historical event in contemporary American history: the bombing of the World Trade Centers. Solemnity washes over us and we feel that lump in our throat indicating this could be the most significant, truthful piece of its time. Following the events of 9/11 is this shocking portrayal of our manhunt for the terrorist ringleader Osama bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty boldly immerses us in the thrilling decade long manhunt for the 9/11 terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Led by the impeccable Academy-nominated Jessica Chastain (The Help) as Maya, the historic-drama offers a behind-the-scenes look into the gritty underbelly of the CIA including spine-chilling, controversial footage of torture techniques used by the U.S. in remote military camps of the middle-east. Maya’s super-objective is cold and clear: find and kill Osama bin Laden.

With a near-perfect script written by Mark Boal and a winning ensemble featuring Jason Clark, Joel Edgerton and Kyle Chandler, Bigelow meticulously propels us forward frame by frame, moment by moment, with the tact and vigilance of a sniper. Her keen eye for capturing contemporary life is unprecedented. Each scene is central, each character imperative, and each word vital. Vital to what? The honest-to-God uncensored depiction of an obsessed covert ops force led by a relentless, shit-or-get-off-the-pot Lysistrata willing to go to absolutely any length to quench her nearly insatiable need for justice and peace of mind in the assassination of the Al-Qaeda commander.

The film is not performed – it is lived. An edge-of-your seat nail-biter that is simultaneously unsettling and fulfilling: a true master of its craft containing little artifice but tremendous depth.  Zero Dark Thirty, like United-93, needs no critique because it speaks for itself. Now… who among you is willing to listen?

 

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clark

Written By: Mark Boal

Runtime: 157 min

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

*Writers Note: Due to the politics surrounding the films torture scenes in which members of the Academy such as Martin Sheen rallied against the release/screening of Zero Dark Thirty, the film (in my view) was shunned of Oscar-nominations it deserved, namely that of Bigelow as Best Director.

Queen of Versailles (2013) [400+]

Queen of Versailles (2012)

“A documentary about a billionaire and his family who may lose it all.”

GRADE: 4/5

by Richard Rey

 

The Queen of Versailles is a tribute to the human condition we experience in our lives: all of us have lost something important. Shot over a 2 year period, the documentary follows billionaire David Siegel and his family. At first we witness the success, fruition, and personal fulfillment experienced by Siegel as CEO and founder of Westgate Resorts & Hotels – what he claims to be the largest timeshare company in the world. As the film progresses, we see how the Wall Street crash of 2008 effects the Siegel family’s overtly luxurious lifestyle and the impatient and stubborn David. A man of few choice words and a natural knack for doing business, the struggle to face what he fears most: the loss of his material possessions, including his prized 90,000 square foot dream Versailles home priced at 75 million, roots itself deep inside his heart, first disturbing then humbling him. We follow the lives of his 7 children, who he seems to love profoundly, yet understands so little about. We are both bemused and bemoaned as we follow his trophy wife Jackie, a former Miss Florida. Intellectually she seems to have a good handle on the goings on within the  family, yet doesn’t know how to fulfill her role as wife and mother when the nannies and cooks are let go due to the unsettling economic crisis. We enjoy every moment spent with her in her struggles to find her new niche in the family. The three nannies that are left to help out act as great supporting characters with an understanding about life that the Siegel family has yet to achieve: luxury isn’t everything. Though Jackie says she could make due with a simple four-bedroom 300,000 dollar house if she had to, the truth remains that she has lived a bourgeoisie life for so long that even she can’t seem to kick her old spending habits. She piles board games into her carts at Walmart that will never be played, and even purchases a brand new bike for one of the children. When one of the nannies unloads the bike and heads through the garage, we see heaps of bikes that look brand new laying around in disarray. The image is powerful and effective. Living within our means seems to be the message David Siegel would leave with us, his ambition to do so is highlighted towards the end of the film when he refuses to acknowledge his love for his wife or children after they’ve refused to turn the lights off in the house when they’re not using them.

Despite the fact the film is centered around a once-billionaire family facing first world problems, both the emotions and ignorance are genuine, the characters affable and the stakes high. It’s clear that the intention of the piece was not to show us how inhumane high class snobs live their lives, but to show that we all fight our own battles. We care about what will become of them and their lives: in the end it’s not about the money and it’s not about the Versailles mansion that’s finally put up for auction and saved. It’s about people, people coming together during hardships and facing new challenges: for the children attending a public school; for the mother: coming to grips with the loss of the Versailles mansion; for the father: learning to live providently and repave his way back to the top. The story is an intriguing and pleasant one that suspends us to a luxurious reality most of us will never face yet one with which we can all identify because, after all in the end we’re all the same.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) [300+]

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

“A patriotic look into the life of the American baseball legend Jackie Robinson.”

GRADE: 3.5/5 Stars

by Richard Rey

The Jackie Robinson Story is a biographical sports drama surrounding the events of the legendary baseball player’s life. While the film is by no means a biopic masterpiece, it does stand as a tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers first basemanwho starshimself in the 1950 film.

Here wefeel the taunting and bigotry throughout rather than merely hearing about it: men shouting at Jackie, asking him for a shine while he’s in the batter’s box, sneaking a black cat into the stadium, hefting watermelons into the dugout, and an unexpected postgame visitby three violent good old boys.

Chaos and inner-turmoil is captured most effectively in a scene where we hear the racist cries of the crowd withRobinson at bat, determined to beat segregation through his ballplaying.

Though idealistic Leave It To Beaver moments appear throughout the film, there’s a certain voracity captured here that wasn’t in the 2013 release 42, truths that keep us on-edge and attentive as audience members. Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickeyconsidered leaving Jackie in the minors instead of pulling him up to the majors right away. The stat bookis standing proof thatRobinson struggled at bat during a stretch of his rookie season – so much so that a scene between Jackie and his wife Rae (Ruby Dee) discussing itis dedicated to that aspect of his early career.

In spite of the hardship, Jackie wins out in the end and so do we in this brief biopic that pays homage to baseball’s most important figure. Still,an uncensored, guts-on-the-floor movie about the real life of Jackie Robinson has yet to be made, so for now all we can do issit back and keenly anticipate its arrival.

 

MPAA: NR

Runtime: 76 min

Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport

Director: Alfred E. Green

Writer: Arthur Man, Lawrence Taylor, Louis Pollock

Starring: Jackie Robinson, Ruby Dee, Minor Watson

Theatrical Release Date: May 16, 1950

 

*Writers Note: Watching the 1950’s film was inspired by my viewing of the 2013 film “42”. 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012) [400+]

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012)

“The central message of faith is kept intact, yet the story will only appeal to romantics who enjoy the taste of sloppy cliché Hollywood seconds.”

GRADE: 3/5 Stars

by Richard Rey

Though Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’s (2012) sole intent is to help rekindle lost faith, its use of salmon fishing does anything but reel us in. The film opens with Miss Harriet Choturdle-Tolbert (Emily Blunt) typing an email to one Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) on behalf of a major client: a visionary sheikh who proposes salmon fishing in the Yemen. Dr. Jones (Fred), a fishery specialist for the English government, responds by saying the notion is fundamentally unfeasible.  When Fred’s line manager receives an all too threatening call from the Prime Minister’s Press Officer, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), he leans on Fred leaving him two options: sign onto the project or sign his own letter of resignation. Fred concedes and meets with Harriet who is smitten by a military man she’s known all of three weeks.

At the meeting, Fred lashes out sarcastically presenting the problems one by one through stick figure-esque drawings and pre-school answers: salmon need water, there isn’t any bloody water in the Middle East. In spite of the fiery-tongued doctor’s presumptuous points, Harriet seems to have an answer for each and every doodle, forcing Fred to admit that though the project is nonsense, it works in theory.

Fred’s personal life is lived out in a flat with a wife who is so incredibly numb to his presence (even in bed) that it’s a wonder they’re still together at all. Her ambitions are not to settle down with him, but to free herself of him by moving to Geneva to further her career, something she doesn’t bother to tell him until she’s already packed to go. Fred handles his deepest concerns by throwing bits of bread to fish in his Koi pond – an image seared into my heart because of my own father’s way of dealing with besetting times.

Fred and Harriet are forced to work closely together and develop something of an unspoken, quiet friendship. They visit the sheikh, Muhammad bin Zaidi (Amr Waked), in the paradisiacal rocky deserts of the Yemen, and are there met by the tremendous faith that this man possesses.

Upon their return to Europe, Harriet’s canonical world comes to a standstill when she gets wind that her boyfriend has gone missing in action. The reaction of Blunt is memorable and the emotion real yet it is in nowise because the plot justifies it but rather comes as a result of the artifice in her craft being so carefully masked – only a teenage girl moonstruck with puppy love would cry this much over a man she knows so little of. It takes Fred a few phone calls, a homemade sandwich, a bottle of wine, and a bit of faith in Harriet to win her over as a friend – he does feel after all.

We flip back and forth between the UK and the Yemen following the project, at times befuddled wondering how we skipped so quickly from one continent to the next. Eventually, the sheik receives a visit from the highly outspoken dog eat dog minded Patricia Maxwell who insists that farm salmon will have to meet the needs of the project rather than wild ones from the rivers of Northern Europe. The sheikh is taken aback and calls off the project, the funding is frozen, and Fred resigns when he refuses to return to his office in the UK. All the while, the relationship between Harriet and Fred deepens, inhibitions are left behind, and the colleagues’ bond turns to unvoiced love. The connection between McGregor and Blunt is alive because it is grounded in honesty and builds subtly moment to moment.

As the final act of the film ensues, the highly energetic feel that makes the second act so incredibly vibrant is lost. The dialogue begins to lose its caviar-like zest and we are swept downstream by a current that takes us to the shores of a film we had banked so much on, yet winds up bankrupting us so terribly we haven’t the courage to withdraw. Clichés ensue as the Easterners of Yemen make an assassination attempt on the sheikh that’s disrupted in such an unrealistic way we can hardly hold down our popcorn. Further troubles lurk in murky waters when the dam is broken and when Harriet’s love interest is finally found. He’s flown to the Yemen, rather than home to his family, along with enough journalists to fill the press conference rooms shot in recent Christopher Nolan Batman films. The war hero emerges from the eastern dusts like an Expendable (which, undoubtedly, he is), and Harriet is forced to choose between the man she thought was dead, and the colleague she’s grown so deeply fond of.

Overall, the sheikh puts it best as he describes that it was never about the salmon to begin with – a statement that rings true only because the story is about faith, not fish, yet we wonder why the writers would see fit to use these bottom-feeding filthy creatures at all. Since we don’t get to know the Yemen people nor how the project will positively affect them, we are continuously unmoved, stagnant up a creek whose name isn’t fit to be mentioned here. The film tiptoes the line of magic and reality but commits to neither. The central message of faith is, however, kept intact, yet the story will only appeal to romantics who enjoy the taste of sloppy cliché Hollywood seconds.

MPAA: PG-13

Runtime:  107 mins

Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Amr Waked

Written By: Simon Beaufoy, Paul Torday (novel)

Promised Land (2012) [400+]

Promised Land (2012)

“A forgettable film with few unforgettable parts, Promised Land is merely acceptable.”

GRADE: 2/5 Stars

by Richard Rey

Promised Land follows the life of Steve (Matt Damon), a man who works for a natural gas company called Global. His job involves going to rural farm towns and convincing them to allow Global to purchase and drill on their land in exchange for large sums of money. The subtext of Damon’s acting suggests he has mixed feelings towards his career, though we are told in exposition that he may just be the best at what he does. As we follow Steve and his business partner Sue (Frances McDormand) in a beat down red pickup to the town of McKinley the film offers us beautiful aerial shots of green pastures and plush meadows. The townspeople of McKinley seem to have been warned that the “natural gas people” will soon arrive and nearly all of them greet Steve and Sue with a cold shoulder. Steve and Sue disguise themselves as best they can as farming folk, wearing cliché flannel shirts and working boots and begin to speak to the families one by one. They promise them large sums of money, a better future for their children, and a lifetime of rest from their arduous labor. Neither characters seem to want to be in McKindley, and as a result, neither do we. The movie’s pacing is grueling – just at the time it picks up, even just a little, it slows back down to a nearly catatonic state.

The opportunities for us to care about this farming community and the characters as a whole are few and far between since the script doesn’t allow for it. The film is, however, at times endearing, charming, light, fun, and in some ways even heartwarming. Unfortunately, the slowness of the movie puts out any of the warm fuzziness we may occasionally stumble into. The scenes that should touch us most are those that drag the longest – the fine line between small-town farm togetherness and cheesiness (no pun intended) is crossed time and time again, even during some of the most pivotal scenes of the film. A scene in the local gymnasium proves thus. An old biology teacher named Yates stands up against the idea of the drilling when the town politician suggests they vote on whether or not to  sell their land. All of the farmers, who admittedly need the money Global would provide them, seem to have their minds already made up on the matter: Global is an evil corporate beast that will suck the life out of their farms, families, and homes. The one-sidedness of this theme is so blatant and beaten over and over and over so many times that the remnants of the dead horse it once flogged have since decomposed – twice over.  For whatever reason, the town will put the matter to a vote three weeks later, allowing the ‘natural gas people’ to offer them sums of money they will inevitably reject on the basis that people come before wealth and that things inherited are things to be cared for.

Consequently, Steve’s involvement in the McKindley project is on the line when Global finds out about the town’s reaction towards drilling in spite of the fact they had promoted him a few days earlier. As if the town’s eye-closing, ear-plugging, breath holding tactic against Global weren’t enough, in steps Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) – an environmentalist who has the evidence necessary to prove to the already-convinced townspeople that Global has indeed harmed other farming communities in its dark past. For one reason or another, the entire farming community seems to greet Dustin with open arms as they would a best friend in whom they have confided for years. Steve gives up on himself and the project, drinks heavily and stops caring – the problem being that if he doesn’t care at all about this, then why should we? There’s no fight in the dog, if any dog in the fight at all, and unthinkably the movie slows down even more. The final result is an ending that is unpredictable for all the wrong reasons and that takes so long in its revelation that no one, not even Matt Damon, buys into the idea that the story was worthwhile in its conception. It would’ve been better off shot as a documentary, where we know bias is involved rather than making a cheap sneak-thief effort to not wake daddy while blowing whistles, sounding trumpets and clashing cymbals throughout the house. A forgettable film with few unforgettable parts, Promised Land is merely acceptable.

MPAA: R (language)

Runtime:  107 (grueling) mins

Director: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, John Krasinski

Written By: Matt Damon, John Krasinski