The movie Ava was never meant to have this title. The spy thriller was beset with trouble when the original director, Mathew Newton, dropped off the project after domestic abuse accusations resurfaced. Jessica Chastain, serving as star and as producer, reached out to her Help director Tate Taylor to come aboard and helm the project. Even with that upheaval, the movie went through production under the title of Eve, the name of Chastain’s character. Every person refers to her by this name throughout the movie, and it wasn’t until after the film was complete that some studio executive said, “What if her name was Ava instead?” The filmmakers then had to re-record every line of dialogue referencing her name to replace with this new identity. I cannot fathom a reason for doing so unless some exec really had a thing for that name or it was a concerted move to further distance themselves from Newton, who also wrote the screenplay. Just like that, Eve becomes Ava, and suddenly it’s a whole new creative project. Too bad they didn’t go further because whatever you call it, Ava is a fairly lackluster genre exercise for all involved.
Ava (Chastain) is a former soldier who was discharged from the Army and battled an addiction to drugs and alcohol. She’s gotten better and found a job that suits her, namely killing people for hire. Her fatherly handler (John Malkovich) tells her the marks, she dispatches them, and then collects the payouts. She assumes the men on her kill list are specimens of evil but begins to have her doubts, enough so that Simon (Colin Farrell) sends agents to snuff Ava out.
There’s very little presented in Ava you haven’t seen in any litany of other spy thrillers before except with this pedigree of cast. I kept questioning why all these actors had agreed to be part of this project. The characters aren’t exactly complex or original. The scenarios aren’t exactly intricate or subversive. The action isn’t exactly well choreographed or well shot. The movie isn’t even that long at 95 minutes or so. The screenplay by Newton is unremarkable in every way, no different than any direct-to-DVD genre entry. I could just as readily see, say, Kristanna Loken (BloodRayne) filling the role of Ava than I could an actress as accomplished and in-demand as Chastain. That nagging question of what made a generic spy thriller so appealing will never be answered, because Ava offers little to a viewer already steeped in genre thrillers. It’s more of the same, just with A-list talent voluntarily “slumming it” as underwritten archetypes.
By no means am I against genre movies as a whole. I love genre movies. They can be some of the most entertaining and exciting film experiences, and under the right guidance, they can be thoroughly compelling and rewarding and even enlightening. Plus they’re just fun. Matt Damon resurrected his career as Jason Bourne. If Ava was trying to do something along those lines, re-calibrate the spy movie as a jangly, nerve-wracking thriller grounded in realism, that would have been something. Or if the movie had embraced its genre tropes knowingly, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, it could have been an over-the-top hoot. Instead, Ava just presents the same tropes without any sense of self-awareness. Ava really feels like an imitation of one of the lesser Luc Besson (The Professional, La Femme Nikita) action thrillers, or maybe one of those Besson imitations of a Besson work (3 Days to Kill). It’s going through the motions of motions.
The domestic side of Ava’s life feels like a messy soap opera intruding onto a spy thriller, bordering into farce though without the awareness. Ava’s father died while she was out murdering others, and her sister Judy (Jess Wexler) hasn’t forgotten. Ava’s ex-fiancé, Michael (Common), is also now dating Judy. Michael is also struggling with his own gambling addiction and the debts he owes to local loan shark, Toni (Joan Chen), who has bad blood with Ava. Then there’s Ava’s mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), who has gone in and out of the hospital for heart problems and wants her family to get along. As you might assess, for a 90-minute movie, there is way too much going on there to keep checking in with. Every time we gain more understanding of the people in Ava’s life, the more ridiculous her life seems to evolve, and remember she also is a recovering addict who is wavering over the possibility of relapse. That’s a lot of capital D drama but the screenplay lacks the follow-through to make it matter. It feels like Newton just keeps piling on the complications rather than developing and twisting them. There’s one genuinely strong moment when Bobbi has a sit-down with her daughter and warns her about the costs of being honest and expresses her content to luxuriate in the lie of Ava’s cover story of a career. As Ava contemplates having an affair with her ex, her sister’s boyfriend, you may start to forget that you’re watching a movie about a trained assassin.
Taylor (The Girl on the Train) shows just as much affinity for directing spy thrillers as directing horror with last year’s Ma. It’s not a good fit, folks. Taylor lacks the innate ability to stage action in a pleasing and exciting manner. The fight choreography is mundane and there is no scenario that develops and transforms with complications. The final confrontation is literally a limping slow-walk foot chase that will draw more unintended laughter than suspense, especially as it keeps going and going and I questioned the character walking speed. There is one standout moment and it’s a knock-out, drag-out fight between Ava and Simon that breaks just about every stick of furniture in a hotel room. Both are left bleeding and bruised and fatigued. It’s nothing exceptional in choreography but the sustained duration is what makes it stand apart. I’ll grant Taylor some leeway considering he was a late hire for a project already moving forward. However, with the results of Ava as a finished film, I wouldn’t advise hiring Taylor for any other action movies.
Chastain (It Chapter 2) is of course a strong anchor. She taps into some of that ferocious power she had with 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, and I would have loved to see her kick all sorts of ass in a spy thriller worthy of her talent. Even something like 2012’s Haywire, which was built to showcase the raw fighting skills of MMA-fighter-turned-actress, Gina Carano, or 2017’s Atomic Blonde, which was expanded upon due to the balletic precision and capability of Charlize Theron. We needed something more for Ava. Chastain kicks and punches and stalks the grounds with her cold badass stares, but she could be doing so much more. The soapier plot elements betray her. At one point, she’s crying, laughing, holding a bottle and contemplating putting a gun to her head. It’s just so much that, again, it points to farce but can’t quite tonally commit.
I’m trying to fathom the reason anyone should watch Ava. It’s short. It’s got talented actors. It’s not offensive in any technical or storytelling regard. If you had 95 minutes to waste, you most certainly could do worse. But there’s nothing that separates this spy thriller from any other mundane, mediocre, cliché genre exercise. What about this script excited Chastain to produce and make sure the world could have the opportunity to see this story? Maybe it was her commercial gambit to tell more meaningful indies later, like when Michael Fassbender produced Assassins’ Creed. I’ll never know the full appeal. Maybe it all just sounded a lot better when her name was Eve.
Nate’s Grade: C
To be fair, It Chapter Two was always going to be the less interesting half. There’s a reason when they thought they would only get one movie that the producers and writers decided to focus entirely on the childhood storylines, and that’s because it’s the superior material. Director Andy Muschietti and most of the same team from the 2017 film return with a bigger budget, a bigger running time, and some new famous faces (not counting the cameos). At a whopping 169 minutes long, It Chapter Two rumbles into theaters as a big scary surefire hit, enough so that no other Hollywood studio scheduled a competitor during its release weekend. As anyone who saw the 1990 TV miniseries can attest, the adult half of Stephen King’s story is the harder slog, and Chapter Two makes it even sloggier (I’m making this a new word starting now).
The Losers Club from Derry, Maine have all grown up as 27 years have passed from that fateful day that they battled the evil Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) and lived. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) has stayed behind, cataloguing the events of the small town, waiting for the return of their nemesis. He alerts his old friends to once again return so they can take care of Pennywise as he feasts once again on the children and adults of Derry. Bill (James McAvoy) has become a famous and frustrated horror author. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) has married an abusive man. Richie (Bill Hader) has become a famous standup comic. Ben (Jay Ryan) has slimmed down and become a wealthy architect. Eddie (James Ransone) is with another overbearing woman and fraught with anxiety as an insurance risk assessor. Stanley (Andy Bean) is conflicted about returning as he views himself the weakest of the group. The old gang revisit the town of their youth and take turns remembering what they had selectively forgotten through the years. Only they can band together to stop Pennywise but they must all work together to survive yet again.
Every time It Chapter Two was cutting back to its numerous childhood flashbacks (more on that in a moment) I was reminded how magical this younger cast was together, how much more I cared, and I was secretly wishing the movie would just stay in the past for good. In short, the adult versions of these characters are pretty boring. They each only have like one note of added characterization for the ensuing 27 years after we’ve seen them, meaning I guess according to the movie that whomever you are in middle school is who you’ll be as a grown-up? That’s a scarier thought than anything Pennywise has to offer. It’s as if our understanding of them was put on hold for those 27 years as well, so there’s too little to unpack, or what’s there seems peculiar and unsatisfying. Richie’s big personal secret that Pennywise taunts him with seems decidedly less scandalous in our modern age. Bill has to suffer people telling him the ending to his book was unsatisfying. He also has survivor’s guilt over responsibility for the death of his little brother, Georgie. Beverly is with an abusive husband who she leaves in the opening scene. So that seems to be the end of that development. Ben is still nursing his crush from middle school on Beverly; the man hasn’t moved on from a middle school crush! He’s gotten rich, gotten in shape, and still waiting for this one girl to like him, which is a weird message. Maybe the movie is positing that all of the characters have been emotionally “on hold” since the childhood trauma they cannot remember, put in a stasis as much as Mike who elected to stay behind when the others wanted to get away. That feels like excuse-making to me. These versions of the characters just aren’t that compelling and given little to do and too much free time.
Structurally, this movie is a protracted muddle and could have sliced out a healthy 45 minutes. The first act checks in with each character for us to see where they are in life and then concludes with their reunion at a Chinese restaurant. The uncomfortably long second act follows each character wandering around the haunts of Derry and essentially having their memories activated. It follows a formula that gets to be rather redundant. The adult goes to a place, they have a scary flashback about that place as a child, then they have a scary moment as an adult. It means each character has two linked scary moments/set pieces to go through, and there are at least five characters to get through, which means this whole sequence takes up like an hour. Also trying your patience is the fact that there is no new information. You’re watching the characters try and remember things that you, the audience, already know, so it gets to be rather boring. Then there’s the extended ending that is undeserved for a two-part franchise. The ending gets drawn out so long, with so many little minor stops, that my father said, “It’s like everyone came up with a different ending scene, they voted and they all tied, so we got them all.” A Lord of the Rings-style sendoff was not needed for these characters. The misshapen and drawn out structure is a result of adapting a book where the narrative drive was from the childhood experiences using the adults more as a conduit to explore trauma and as a means to finally deliver a last confrontation. It’s hard to assemble a full movie out of that material but this doesn’t feel like it (pun intended?).
It Chapter Two is also noticeably less scary than the original movie. Part of this is because we have a baseline of expectations from the childhood spooks, but it’s also because the horror doesn’t seem to have the same level of care and craft attached. Because of that formulaic middle, there’s less an anticipation for Pennywise’s big scares and more a resignation. It’s a skipping record of scares, waiting for the non-scary thing/person to become the scary Pennywise. With the 2017 It, the scares were able to develop in fun ways, playing upon their childhood fears, and were developed with careful craft to heighten the tension. Pennywise was genuinely terrifying. Now in the sequel, because the scares aren’t delivering the same impact, the movie veers too often into comedy, which only further de-fangs the power of its demonic clown. The 2017 It naturally understood that its horror would take steps into the goofy but that made it scarier. With the 2019 sequel, the human characters are calling out the horror tropes, which doesn’t work. This is even more noticeable and unhelpful when the big scary scenes all involve some CGI monster. There’s very little actual Pennywise in this movie and too many dull CGI monsters rambling about. Then there’s a terrible over-invested secondary villain with a childhood bully breaking out of a mental hospital and being instructed to kill the adult Losers. Every time the movie kept cutting to him, I sighed. He doesn’t deserve the amount of screen time and importance he seems to have been given. I don’t care about this guy and the movie shouldn’t waste time trying to make me care.
The returning assets are welcomed, providing a sense of continuity that helps carry over our good feelings and good times from the 2017 hit. Muschietti (Mama) is a talented director and an excellent mood setter, but he’s also excellent at directing child actors. There’s one standout scene in It Chapter Two that would rank with the quality of the previous film. There’s one scene that follows a little girl with a splotchy birth mark on her cheek as she follows a firefly under the bleachers at a high school baseball game. Waiting below in the shadows is Pennywise, who plays upon her insecurity of her facial deformity, and his own, to promise her a better life. It’s the one moment in the movie I actually felt something close to fear. Muschietti draws out the development organically and plays upon the mounting dread, holding onto a moment of Pennywise frozen, like the creature below the facade is trying to remember what to do next. It’s a stellar little moment, beautifully directed and written, and it’s almost completely superfluous to the main story. The child actors are all still outstanding, even if some of them get a slathering of de-aging CGI to make them look more like their pre-puberty selves (sorry Finn Wolfhard). Then there’s the breakout sensation Skarsgard (Assassination Nation) as our favorite dancing clown. He’s under served by the story problems and the hazy rules leading to his eventual confrontation. I enjoyed every actual appearance from the character and Skarsgard’s eerie command over his physicality, the way he can simply move through a scene or fixate his face, is astounding. The degree of his brilliance in this role will get downplayed because of of its genre but he is doing remarkable acting here.
The adult actors all deliver capable and even great performances with what little they have. It doesn’t take a great actor to act scared, as judged by the litany of low-budget horror available, but it does take a great actor to try and funnel that into the narrow band of a character. Chastain (Dark Phoenix) is enjoyable, because she always will be, but her character is meant to sleepwalk through the movie, putting together the memories of old and becoming more aware. It makes for a restrained performance, which works for an adult woman raised with abusive men, but it can also mean that Chastain is given less material as an actor to work with. McAvoy (Glass) breaks into a childhood stutter when he’s really freaked out but even his character seems to vacillate between under-performing and over-performing, especially when he’s obsessed over saving one little neighborhood kid who probably views him as the real danger. His character was the unquestioned center of the 2017 It, but that center seems more with Richie with the 2019 It. Hader has taken a surprising and very affecting turn into darker dramatic work with HBO’s Barry, and his performance is the best of the adult Losers. He has his expected funny moments but it’s the sadness and anxiety that coats his words that Hader is able to bring out. His is the character that seems to open up the most through the second installment and Hader was a terrific choice to facilitate this.
It Chapter Two falters in comparison of the first film where the qualities all felt so wonderfully organic, arranged, and developed. It was a grade-A funhouse of goofy terrors. The sequel is far far too long, misshapen structurally, overextended, underdeveloped, lacking in sustainable tension, overusing CGI and comedy, and strands the talented actors with little to do. I heartily enjoyed the first chapter and that’s why I’m feeling as let down as I am for Chapter Two. It’s certainly not a bad movie. It still has enough slick technical skill and good acting to warrant a viewing if you’re a fan of King’s novel or the 2017 movie. Just be prepared for a longer, duller, and less satisfying concluding half that seems to be running on half the imagination. It might work well enough but it only makes me appreciate the charms of Chapter One even more.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Dark Phoenix is the end of the X-Men as we know it. The franchise is arguably the reason that Disney bought Fox, to combine its Marvel properties under one creative universe, and hastened its ultimate demise. The franchise kicked off in 2000 when nobody knew what a Hugh Jackman was. Over the course of 19 years we’ve had ten total X-films (the original trilogy, four prequels, three Wolverine solo films — I’m not counting the two Deadpool entries) of varying quality. Dark Phoenix is longtime series writer Simon Kinberg’s debut as a director and was originally intended for a fall 2018 release before it got pushed back for extensive reshoots. There was even some doubt whether Disney would release Dark Phoenix or shunt it to its new streaming service (that’s my prediction for the long-delayed New Mutants, which released its trailer… in 2017). Ultimately this is the final X-Men movie, as we have known them for 19 years, and it’s the equivalent of a mayonnaise sandwich at room temperature: something nobody really wanted and delivered in a package not designed to satisfy.
In 1992, the X-Men are called upon by the president when the government is left with no other options. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) watches over as shape-shifting Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) leads the younger X-kids, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), into space to save some astronauts. A strange cosmic energy cloud zaps Jean Grey and supercharges her telekinetic powers. At first she feels more alive but is losing control and worrying her friends. After a tragic confrontation, she runs off to find Magneto (Michael Fassbender) while a mysterious alien woman (Jessica Chastain) seeks to gain the “phoenix” powers.
Thoroughly mediocre, Dark Phoenix is a pitiful ending to a franchise that kicked off the superhero era of the twenty-first century. This is a pretty sad ending to a franchise that has admittedly had more downs than ups (I’d say four of the ten X-Men movies have genuinely been good, two were fine, and four have been different levels of bad). What’s even more peculiar is this is Kinberg’s second attempt at the Dark Phoenix storyline, arguably the most famous in X-Men comics, and it doesn’t work — again. At least 2006’s The Last Stand had other storylines that presented topics of interest, like the choice over taking a mutant cure and whether this should be a choice after all. The problem with Dark Phoenix is that it’s nothing but Dark Phoenix with little variation but it doesn’t ever expand on the Dark Phoenix dilemma. Act Two of the film seems to consist of the same scene on repeat, where Jean Grey complains about her power struggles to some character, warns them, doesn’t want to harm people, and then something bad happens and more characters elect to try and murder her. It’s like watching the same TV show recycle the same plot but just changing the characters. It makes for a saggy mid section that loses momentum and cannot regain it. The last act feels like a different movie because… it is. Thanks to late reshoots, the final act is a series of clashes aboard a military train. There are some fun moments of mutant-power action, especially Magneto and Nightcrawler. It doesn’t make much sense to what came before (when questioned why Magneto is trying to save Jean after literally trying to kill her ten minutes earlier, he says, “I had a change of heart”) but the sequence is at least diverting and visually playful in a way the rest of the movie had been missing. By the end of the film, much of it feels rushed and little feels earned, especially the time you’ve spent watching it.
I’m going to declare that the villains in Dark Phoenix are actually the worst in the entire universe of X-Men movies. They’re aliens adopting human form and they talk… so… slowly… and in unshakable monotone. They’re an alien species that wants the powers of the super space cloud. That’s it. That’s all you get. I have no idea what attracted Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game) to this role and almost feel like it must have changed at some point. She walks around in a zombie-like daze with a giant platinum blonde wig that makes her look like an albino. At no point are any of these aliens interesting. At no point do they present personalities. At no point does their overall powers become clear. They seem invulnerable to anything, except when the script needs them not to be, and their vaguely defined powers seem limitless. Because of the creative choices with Jean Grey and how she developed her Dark Phoenix powers, extra emphasis is placed on the villains to carry the burden, and they could be eliminated entirely and not be missed in the slightest. It’s genuinely hilarious to watch them walk so stiltedly and then break into a run. The best thing Chastain does is strut in stilettos while taking a dozen blasting firearms to the face.
There are just some weird moments in this movie. Apparently Charles Xavier watches the students have their beer blasts in the woods and also keeps a thermal heat analysis of them during these moments (“That student’s really hot… I mean… getting really hot…, uh…”). That’s so weird and possibly perverted. There’s a running clothing item with blood that never gets changed. You’ll listen to “whose blood is that?” close to ten times. It’s always been inherently goofy watching these trained actors make silly strained faces while pretending to do things with their mind powers. Except this movie it goes a step further. There’s a moment of goofy strain face versus goofy strain face while the actors thrust their arms out, and there’s a scene where Jean Grey only has one arm out and then, to power up, she throws out her second arm. That’s not how mind powers work. There are several character jumps that seem rushed and unearned, like Charles becoming a focal point of disdain amongst his fellow X-people over his catering to public relations. Everyone is so quick to jump on the murder wagon when it comes to Jean Grey, which makes me wonder if they never really liked her and have just been waiting for a good excuse to kill her. The seesawing public support on mutants can be extremely confusing. The action sequences are filmed in a very haphazard way with replenishing bad guys to be disposed. During key stretches of the movie, I didn’t know who was on screen, where they had come from, and what relations they were to one another until punches started being thrown.
Continuity has never been a thing the X-universe cherished, especially once you started throwing in time travel with 2014’s Days of Future Past. However, Dark Phoenix complicates matters with its disregard for the overall continuity. Firstly, I am not a fan of the idea that these prequel films all take place in separate decades. It worked with First Class which tied the cultural revolutions and changing mores to the characters and their selfI identity, plus the Cold War paranoia. It even worked for Days of Future Past being set in the early 70s, during the malaise of the optimism of the 1960s. That related to the character arc for Raven on her quest for vengeance and the individual versus society. But what did Apocalypse have to gain by taking place in 1983? What does Dark Phoenix gain by taking place in 1992? Plus it means that these characters have hardly aged in 30 years and in less than a decade James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are going to look like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (no offense to McKellen, but that’s quite a sudden, precipitous drop). Let’s even say the older movies are eliminated from the timeline after the reboot of Days of Future Past. Just in the LAST movie they established that Jean Grey had the powerful phoenix spirit and abilities within her, as it was the final push to topple the bad guy.
Allow me to get into more detail why this disregard is so troublesome and erroneous. Judging from the trailers and marketing, I thought Dark Phoenix was going to be an addiction metaphor, with Jean Grey embracing a self-destructive thrill that made her feel good even as it pushed others away and forced her down a darker path. Despite the ads emphasizing this aspect, the actual movie ignores this addiction metaphor for a cosmic illness she contracts. Kinberg and the filmmakers have dropped that Jean Grey had this power within her and have made her a victim of an external force from space. This is far less interesting because it makes the story of Jean as reactive from external forces taking over. Space clouds resembling a pink Parallax (the poop cloud monster from 2011’s Green Lantern) did it all. That’s boring.
Think of the stronger version already within reach that examined the power within her that Charles has been keeping limited thanks to withholding her memories of her parent’s deadly accident. Because she was denied this essential part of her past she was never able to process her trauma and work through it. The man she trusted, the father figure telling her how to best control her feelings and powers has been inhibiting her the whole time and manipulating her. That betrayal could reignite the power already within her, and her journey would be about self-discovery while also confronting the gaslighting by those she trusted. You could even go further and have Charles eventually revealed as a villain for psychically altering people’s memories and minds to his ideal of what is right. That’s the better movie. They might as well have gone all-out and ended with the destruction of the Earth and the death of everybody we know because why not? What we get with Dark Phoenix is a woman who glows a lot thanks to an inscrutable pink space cloud.
It’s hard for these talented actors to hide their disinterest; some have been eyeing the exits since the last film. I challenge every reader to look at the painting of Chastain’s face on the very poster, which to me reads loudly, “Let’s just get this thing done with.” Turner (HBO’s Game of Thrones) is the best thing in the movie and yet the screenplay doesn’t give her an actual character arc with depth. It feels like she has three or four stages in the movie where Kinberg just asks her to repeat the same note over and over. Many of the actors that have been here since 2011’s First Class feel like they’re on autopilot. It’s simply another level of mediocrity that ends up defining this disappointing movie.
If you asked writer/director Simon Kinberg, in private so he could be truly honest, whether he would have repeated what happens in Dark Phoenix as the very last X-Men movie, and I legitimately think he would say no. That’s the problem with the movie is that it’s a double dip that, surprisingly, doesn’t get better. The story is boring and repetitive, the action is bland, the characters are at the mercy of a story that has no interest in them, and the resolution does not provide any satisfying finality. It feels like the close of a weekly television episode that knows more is to come except it’s been cancelled. The X-Men movies have been at their best when they’ve been about something, when they’ve gone inside their characters and the conflicts of living in a society of oppression and prejudice and fear. The franchise lends itself to being more than spandex-clad superheroes fighting each other. The division between the good X-Men movies and the bad X-Men movies is wide and clear; nobody is going to put Logan and Apocalypse in the same grade. It’s easy to tell when the plots connect to character and have exciting themes to go with their exciting action sequences. Coming to a shrug-worthy series conclusion, I think I’d rather rewatch The Last Stand than the second go-round of the Phoenix saga. The X-Men ultimately go out with a whimper but that doesn’t take away from the greatness of the other films. It’s been nearly two decades, and I’m grateful for the ride, but it’s a shame it had to end this way.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.
Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.
In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.
I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.
Molly’s Game: A-
Call Me By Your Name: B-
Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) are the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Germany invades and occupies Poland. Their animals are slaughtered or moved to the Berlin Zoo, under the care of Nazi party member and amateur geneticist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). Feeling impotent to the horrors around them, Antonina and Jan risk everything to hide Jews in their zoo and eventually smuggle them out to safe houses.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is one of those slice-of-life stories about good people risking much to save lives during the Holocaust that come from obscurity to remind you that there are still fresh, invigorating stories from a topic that can feel tapped out after 70 years. However, it’s also an indication that you need the right handling to do it justice. The Holocaust is by nature such a horrific subject matter that it’s hard to do it justice with a PG-13 or below rating, but it can be done with the right amount of artistic restraint as long as the overall story doesn’t feel hobbled with limitations. Reluctantly, The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too sanitized for the story it’s telling. When it comes to cruelty and human atrocity, you don’t need to shove the audience’s face in the mess to fully comprehend its distaste, but overly avoiding the reality can also be a detriment. The Zookeeper’s Wife, as a PG-13 movie, does not feel like the ideal way to tell this real-life story. It feels too restrained and some of those artistic compromises make for a movie that feels lacking and distracting at points. Fair warning: there are plenty of animal deaths in this movie, though they are all dealt with off-screen with implied violence. The edits to work around this can be jarring and would take me out of the picture. This is only one example of an element that, in order to maintain its dignified PG-13 rating, unfortunately undercuts the realism and power of its story.
For a Holocaust story set in Poland, the stakes feel abnormally low. The zoo is a sanctuary compared to the Jewish ghettos. The danger of hiding over 300 Jewish people over the course of the entire war feels absent, which is strange considering it should be felt in just about every moment. There are a handful of scenes where we worry whether they will be caught but they’re defused so quickly and easily. After Antonina is caught talking to a very Jewish-looking “doctor” in her bedroom by the housekeeper, they just fire the housekeeper who leaves quietly and never comes back again. It’s a moment of tension that can be felt and it all goes away in a rush. This scene also stands out because the narrow escapes and close calls are surprisingly few and far between. Even when Antonina’s son commits stupid mistake after stupid mistake, including impulsively insulting a Nazi officer to his back, there’s little fear of some sort of retribution. The movie can also lack subtlety, like watching Heck say three times he’s a man of his word and will be trustworthy. We all know he’s going to fall short. There’s also a moment where Jan is literally loading children, who each raise their arms in anticipation, onto a train car. It’s like getting punched in the stomach with every child. Much of the time spent on the zoo is with the quiet moments trying to make the Jewish survivors feel like human beings again (the animals-in-cages metaphor is there). The details of the smuggling and hiding are interesting but cannot carry a movie without more.
The biggest reason to see this movie is the promise of another leading Chastain (Miss Sloane) performance. Ever since rocketing to prominence in 2011, Chastain has proven to be one of the most reliably excellent actors in the industry regardless of the quality of the film. She’s been dubbed a Streep in the making and Zookeeper’s Wife allows her to level up to her “Sophie’s Choice acting challenge stage” and try on that famous Slavic accent that turns all “ing” endings into “ink.” Chastain is terrific as a person trying to navigate their way through the unimaginable, calling upon reserves of courage when needed, and she’s at her best during the moments with Herr Heck. She has to play the dishonorable part of the possible lover, and Heck definitely has his heart set on Antonina. The scenes with the two of them draw out the most tension and afford Chastain a variety of emotions to play as she cycles through her masks. In some ways I wish the more of the movie was focused on this personal conflict and developed it even further.
There was a small practically incidental moment that got me thinking. As stated above, the film has a PG-13 rating and one of the reasons is for brief nudity from Chastain. Now the actress has gone nude before in other movies so that’s not much of a shocker, but it’s the context and execution that got me thinking. Antonina and Jan are lying together in bed after sex and Chastain does the usually Hollywood habit of the bed sheet being at her shoulders while it resides at the man’s waist (those typical L-shaped bed sheets). No big deal. Then, during their discussion over what to do, Antonina rolls over and exposes her breast for a second before she covers herself up again. The reason this stood out to me, beyond the prurient, is because it felt like a mistake. It seems obvious that Chastain was not intended to be seen naked in this intimate post-coital conversation but it was used in the final cut anyway, which made me wonder. Was the take so good, or so much better than the others, that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland, USA) and Chastain said “the hell with it” and kept the briefly exposed breast? Did they enjoy the happily accidental casual nature to the nudity, creating a stronger sense of realism between the married couple? Or in the end was it just another selling point to help put butts in seats? I’m thinking best take is the answer. You decide.
I am convinced one of the main reasons that Chastain wanted to do this movie, and I can’t really blame her, is because she would get to hold a bunch of adorable animals. Given the subject matter, I was prepared for a menagerie of cute little creatures, but I started noticing just how many of them Chastain is seen holding. She holds a rabbit for a monologue. She holds a lion cub. She holds a baby pig. She holds a monkey. She even kind of holds a rubbery baby elephant doll (talk about Save the Cat moment, this movie takes it even more literally). There may very well be animals I simply have forgotten she held. I would not be surprised if in her contract there was a rider that insisted that Ms. Chastain hold at least one small, adorable animal every third day of filming on set.
Stately and sincere, The Zookeeper’s Wife is an inherently interesting true story that should have more than enough elements to bring to life a compelling film experience. It’s an acceptable movie that’s well made but I can’t help but feel that there’s a better version of this story out there. It feels a tad too safe, a tad too sanitized, a tad too absent a sense of stakes, like it’s on awards-caliber autopilot. Chastain is good but her Polish accent becomes a near metaphor for the larger film: it’s polished and proper but you can’t help but feel like something is lacking and going through the motions of what is expected. This is a worthy story and I’m sure there are great moments of drama, but The Zookeeper’s Wife feels a bit too clipped and misshapen to do its story real justice.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Miss Sloane is an intelligent and exacting political thriller that should appease fans of the genre who enjoy a good arm-twisting from a powerful manipulator, in this instance the towering and intimidating full force of Jessica Chastain. She plays the titular Sloane, the best lobbyist inside the beltway, and a woman who leaves the comfort of her firm for the challenge of taking on the gun industry to help pass a reform bill. From there it’s an underdog tale powered by the winds of moral righteousness and given a tough-talking yet flawed hero that will burn down whatever she can, including her own reputation, to win. The biggest draw is the performance from Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) as she gets to yell at people for approximately two hours and look good doing it. It’s a game of persuasion and leverage and D.C. voter politics, and she makes the constant stream of information accessible while providing a focal point for our interest. It’s a pretty information heavy film with a minimal of supporting characters that stand out (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a school shooting survivor-turned-team member is the notable exception). With her victory never in doubt no matter the odds, the movie establishes that it exists in a parallel world where actual gun control reforms can be advanced. In the wake of doing nothing from Sandy Hook, this must be a fantasy world. Director John Madden (The Debt) keeps the tone as cool and calculated as his heroine. The script by Jonathan Perera is plenty smart though the final act relies upon some unbelievable shenanigans that betray its sense of pragmatic realism. Still, the cunning gamesmanship of a pro working the levers of power for a worthy cause allows for some liberal fantasy indulgence. Miss Sloane is a suitably entertaining thriller that whisks you away and says even “bad people” have a purpose in our broken political system.
Nate’s Grade: B
Based upon Andy Weir’s nuts-and-bolts scientific “what if” tale, The Martian is the movie equivalent of Apollo 13 crossed with Cast Away. Just far less personable volleyballs. But there are potatoes. Space potatoes.
After a powerful storm on Mars forces NASA’s crew to flee, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead and left behind. He wakes up hours later, shrapnel in his gut, and retreats back to the Mars mission base. He has to survive close to two years before he has any hope of being rescued on the hostile world. Before that, he has to establish some kind of communication with NASA, and even before that he has to somehow grow food in the arid Martian soil. Back at home, NASA is debating their limited options to bring back Watney and whether or not they should tell his crewmates that he survived.
In conversations with my friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey, he said that The Martian was the opposite of Gravity, a film he subsequently loathed, because it was smart people making smart decisions. There is an inherent enjoyment watching intelligent people tackle and persevere over daunting challenges, and this sets up The Martian for lots of payoffs and satisfaction. We see both sides of the problem and it provides even more opportunities for challenges and payoffs. Naturally the stuff on Mars is more compelling because of its extreme dangers and isolation, but the Earth scenes are also enjoyable as the NASA determines the soonest they might reach their lost astronaut. Just like the similarly themed Apollo 13, there are challenges to be overcome and the solutions are not without risk themselves. I enjoyed how the screenplay kept throwing out new obstacles; just when you think you can breath for a while the status quo is upset again. The slew of new obstacles doesn’t feel contrived either but rather realistic setbacks. It’s a wonderful storytelling structure that constantly keeps things moving forward and ramps up the urgency. As a result, we don’t ever feel safe right until the climax, and even then you’re still sweating it out because of all the complications and adjustments.
It’s revitalizing to watch a movie that treats science with a sense of reverence. Mark Watney endures in the most hostile of environments through his ingenious use of the resources he has because of his understanding of science and math. Just as MacGyver proved there was something satisfying about watching a guy make a bomb out of a toilet paper tube, some chewing gum, and a bobby pin, it’s entirely enjoyable watching Watney think his way out of problems, and this starts early on. Watney’s first problem after he regains consciousness is to remove an embedded piece of shrapnel in his gut. The scene plays in a methodical fashion without any obtrusive edits, allowing the full task to settle in with the audience. The man has to perform surgery on himself and dig inside himself, and if he doesn’t get this done soon, sepsis might set in (no doctors without borders here). From there, the situation only gets more serious as Watney’s food supply, even when generously rationed, will only last a fraction of the time it would take NASA to send a rescue team. He has to grow food on an alien planet. That itself could be its own movie, a glossy crossover special from the SyFy Channel and the Home and Garden network. This is a survival story that doesn’t rely upon coincidence or some sort of divine intervention but on the understanding and admiration of science and its possibilities. Though America’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that in this movie universe, all the science decisions are being made by science professionals rather than, you know, politicians who adamantly open ignorant statements with, “I’m not a scientist.”
Another aspect I wasn’t quite expecting but took hold of me is how uplifting The Martian turns out to be. It’s a celebration of human endeavor and particularly cooperation, as the United States reaches out to other nations for assistance. Watching the determined souls risk their lives to retrieve one fallen man is the kind of thing that represents the best in us. Sure, there’s something to be said about the fact that it’s one prized American life that countries are spending billions of not trillions of dollars to rescue and perhaps that money would be better spent helping more lives on Earth. There’s also the curious fact that the world has spent a ton of money rescuing Matt Damon in movies. From Saving Private Ryan, to Interstellar, and now The Martian, we seem to value Damon above all else.
This isn’t exactly a one-man show with half of the running time flashing back to Earth but Damon’s star quality and acting chops makes it so you don’t mind being marooned with this man. Watney’s recorded messages are a slick way to deal with the internal thinking of its protagonist while giving the character more opportunities to charm thanks to a rich sense of gallows-level humor. At no point is Mark Watney flippant about his unique predicament but his sense of humor goes a long way to further engender the audience’s good will. He’s not moping and having existential crises; he’s getting to work, and it’s through the problem solving that we get to know this character, his ingenuity, his personality, his fears, and his distaste for disco music. Damon steers clear from playing the character too large and bearing his soul as the metaphorical representative for all of humanity and its place in the cosmos. He’s just one guy who happens to be lost millions of miles from his home planet, and he’s making the best of it.
Being a Ridley Scott film, naturally the film is downright impeccable from a technical standpoint. The photography is great, communicating the frightening and awe-inspiring scope of the alien topography, especially when compared to maps for scale. The visuals find ways to further help communicate Watney’s dilemma and diminished resources. Scott’s visual sensibilities are so naturally attuned to developing tension. I was holding my breath at times from the suspense of certain sequences even though I long assumed that Watney would make it back home safe and sound. A scene with a desperate need for duct tape was a real nail-biter. There isn’t a bad performance among the star-studded cast of actors who must have been grateful for even a tiny morsel of screen time. I have no idea what Kirsten Wiig really does in this movie as the NASA PR person besides fold her arms in rooms, but hey, she’s there, along with Donald Glover as a socially awkward physicist. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) gets to pour over the regret of leaving a friend behind, Jeff Daniels gets to once more practice his skill of being an authoritarian blowhard he honed from The Newsroom, and I even was able to tolerate Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), so that’s something.
The Martian is a natural crowd-pleaser. It’s engineered from the start to engage an audience with its survival thrills, present a series of increasing payoffs with new challenges and solutions, and by the end of our journey we’re treated to a rousing finish that carries a poignancy and sense of inspiration about the best in all of us, what can be accomplished through grit and cooperation and sacrifice. It’s a movie that let’s the science of survival be the ultimate star, with Damon serving as a handsome host to guide us through the marvels of the universe and duct tape. When dealing with the vastness of space and the vulnerability of human life, it’s easy to feel insignificant in comparison, but that’s where the human will to endure and to work together comes in and reconfirms the possibilities of the collective inhabitants of this giant blue orb. The Martian is a sci-fi thriller, a potent human drama, and one of the best times you can have at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A-
While arguably the industry’s most ambitious blockbuster filmmaker, Christopher Nolan hasn’t released a film to his name that I would call a misstep; even the weaker but still altogether thrilling Dark Knight Rises. Until now.
In the twenty-first century, food shortages and climate change will render Earth inhabitable. The planet is dying and the only hope is to find a new home in the stars. Conveniently, a wormhole near Saturn has opened and a secret NASA mission sent 12 brave astronauts through to send back information on the 12 potential worlds. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is the best pilot in the world, a former NASA employee, and trusted by the project’s leader (Michael Caine) to lead a team (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) to the other side of the universe. Cooper is hesitant to leave his children behind, particularly his ten-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), who says a peculiar ghost is haunting her in her room. The greater good wins out, and Cooper reluctantly blasts off into space to save his children and all Earth’s children.
Interstellar is clearly a personal film for Nolan. It’s about nobility, exploration, sacrifice, but really it’s about a father trying to get home to his daughter (the son doesn’t really seem to matter as much in the story). Nolan’s catalogue of films has been able to straddle the line between blockbuster and art, providing mass appeal with uncommon intelligence and nuance. However, I don’t think Interstellar is going to work for most audiences.
Maybe I’m just too savvy for my own good having seen plenty of movies, but I could accurately predict every single plot turn and Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan made it easy. When we’re told about a ghost within minutes and it’s a movie about space travel, you shouldn’t need any help. And then the ghost ends up speaking in Morse code and communicating, “stay,” that’s Nolan hitting you over the head with what to expect by the end (a conversation how parents are ghosts for their children is too much). You should also be able to figure out who Ellen Burstyn is going to be, and it’s not going to be Talking Head #3 in a television interview. Likewise, the illustrious astronaut Dr. Mann is referred to but purposely never shown, so you can assume it’s going to be a familiar face, which it is. Then once that A-list actor is onscreen you know there has to be more to this character because why would a movie star agree to play a part that amounts to merely, “Yeah, this planet is good. We’re done here”? Because of the slow nature of the film it makes the easily telegraphed plot turns more frustrating. The supporting characters are presented so incidentally, as if they didn’t merit extra time. Amelia (Hathaway) has one mushy monologue about the power of love, tipping the film’s philosophy, but that’s all there is to her character. The rest of the cast amounts to stuff like Black Guy on Ship and Bearded Wes Bentley. Nolan’s past work has been very generous to the characterization of his supporting players, especially with the Dark Knight trilogy. These people mattered. With Interstellar, their impact is purely in the name of plot and serving the father/daughter relationship.
And yet, the movie also precariously dips into the danger zone of boredom. Quantum physics isn’t going to be a popular conversation topic for your average moviegoer. There’s a reason that Back to the Future has a wider audience than Primer. By no means am I advocating for a lobotomized science-fiction experience, but Nolan seems to only have two modes when it comes to his characters and their dialogue here: treacle or science jargon exposition. I paid attention but it’s easy to zone out or just have your eyes glaze over as characters talk about the ins and outs of time travel, black holes, relativity, and gravity. The equally frustrating part is that all of the emphasis on science is thrown out the window for the film’s protracted resolution, offering a climax that intends to close a time loop but really only opens further questions when you know the identity of the “they” in question making all the plot mechanics happen. It all just ends up as a simple message to spend more time with your kids. The plot is dense without being particularly complex. The pre-space sequences take up far too much time and in general the Earth plots just don’t compare with the alien planet space exploration. When Cooper is venturing into a rocky alien world, I don’t want the film cutting back and forth between that struggle and his daughter on a dusty Earth. I wish all of the Earth sequences post-liftoff were jettisoned from the screenplay.
For a solid chunk in the middle, Interstellar becomes the exact film I wanted it to be. The crew has traveled through the wormhole to another galaxy and now has to deliberate. Which planets will be visited? What are the risks? Is data more important than human messages? Is returning home more important than fully exploring the worlds? What happened to the explorers? I could have dealt with the entire movie playing out this intriguing and conflict-driven scenario. You feel the immense magnitude of every one of their decisions. The future of humanity depends on them. Every planet provides a new mystery; what’s it like and what happened to the explorer? When you’re dealing with a finite supply of fuel and time dilation, there are debatable options as to what is best for the numbers. There’s always Operation Repopulate as well. If you have to start somewhere, McConaughey and Hathaway are not bad genetic pools. For this stretch, Interstellar is fabulous. It’s a shame then that the film then engineers a plot conflict that dominates the direction of the third act.
Nolan hasn’t lost his gift for crafting eye-popping visuals and bringing a rousing sense of scale to his movies. Interstellar is blessed with spectacular images of our universe, alien worlds, and mankind’s place in the whole realm of the cosmos. Nolan’s usual DP, Wally Phister, was unavailable, taking time to direct his own debut, Transcendence (probably the last film he directs as well, like Janusz Kaminski’s little-seen, little-remembered Lost Souls). The change of DP does Nolan good, giving the film a different, Earthier feel under Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Let the Right One In). Nolan isn’t the greatest stager of action but he is remarkable about putting together memorable set-pieces, and Interstellar has some standouts from the hostile alien environments to a thrilling space-station docking that is not for those susceptible to motion sickness. The special effects are terrific and the retro cubist robots are a fun addition. The only technical element I found lacking is the score by Nolan’s usual accompanist, Hans Zimmer. It’s bleating organ music intended to add a spiritual sense to the cosmic awe but it mostly becomes annoying. It sounds like a church organist died atop their instrument.
There is one great moment of acting in the film. Not to say there is an overabundance of bad acting, more like over emoting with a script and dialogue that do not deserve the waterworks. It involves Cooper after a mission, catching up on video messages sent from his children on Earth. In this very efficient scene, the magnitude of the consequences of Cooper’s decision is emotionally raw and he is overpowered with regret. McConaughey has been on a record-breaking tear of supreme acting performances, especially if you count his mesmerizing turn in HBO’s True Detective. Nolan allows the moment to play out, to sink in, without overdoing it, and it succeeds wildly. The other times Interstellar tries to wring out emotion feel too facile and maudlin to be effective.
This is my first real Nolan disappointment, a bloated film struggling to be important and say Important Things about the Human Condition but coming up short. It has its moments of excitement and awe but more so those moments are surrounded by too much dead space. The story is dense while still being undercooked, with too many listless supporting characters that amount to nothing, and easily telegraphed plot turns that are frustrating. Interstellar snuffs out all the intriguing possibilities it has to come back to its sappy father/daughter relationship that never truly feels earned. By no means is Interstellar, Nolan’s space travel opus/ode to Stanley Kubrick, a bad film. Unless you’re a sucker for easy sentiment, it will likely be a disappointment in some way, whether it’s too long, too boring with its science, too cloying with its emotional tugging, or just underdeveloped and overcooked at the same time. Interstellar is ambitious with its vision but seriously flawed and ultimately an obtusely personal sci-fi snoozer.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to the things that go bump in the night. He helped shepherd the horror film Mama to the big screen, and his love of heavy atmosphere and creepy, agile, lithe figures of terror is still evident. This is a rather effective and very creepy little horror movie that has enough little scares, big screams, and plain skin-crawling moments to recommend. The plot involves two little girls left to fend for themselves out in the wilderness. The two young actresses are fantastic, with terrific physical command of their bodies, able to slink and hop around like feral beasts. They help emotionally ground what could have been an otherwise ordinary ghost story. Oh yes, the girls prayed to a protector known as “Mama” who happens to be a malevolent and jealous spirit. Pity Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), not just for her Gothic haircut and heavy eyeliner, but also as the girl’s reluctant foster mom. I’m shocked at how disturbing it is to watch a highly articulated physical specimen bend and snap and scurry at odd angles, broken arms bouncing like insect mandibles. And director/co-writer Andrés Muschietti knows how to properly tease an audience with just enough show and tell. The end is rather rote and familiar but, due to the emotional connection, has moments of genuine poignancy. Credit the considerable talents of the little ones as well as the devious vision of Muschetti and the guiding hand of del Toro. Give Mama a look.
Nate’s Grade: B
Director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, Oscar winners for 2009’s Best Picture-winner war film The Hurt Locker, were hard at work on their next movie when fate intervened. They were about to start production on a film about a 2001 incident where U.S. Special Forces almost nabbed Osama bin Laden, the notorious mastermind behind 9/11. Then on May 1, 2011, the world learned that Seal Team Six stormed bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan and executed the most wanted man in the world. Bigelow and Boal scrapped all plans and rewrote their movie from scratch. Now they had the ending we’d all demand; isn’t a movie where we get bin Laden way better than one where he narrowly escapes? Zero Dark Thirty (military terminology for well after dark) is the stunning result of Boal’s impressive reporting and condensing, Bigelow’s masterful direction, and a great supporting cast that brings history to vivid life. If you’re like me, you’ll walk out of the theater whistling to yourself, speechless at the spellbinding artistic achievement of the movie. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what essential, invigorating, quality filmmaking is all about.
We may know about Seal Team Six and the lead presented from tracking the courier, but few people know of the CIA analyst at the heart of the manhunt. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young agent stationed in Afghanistan who desires nothing more than to be the one who helps ensure that bin Laden gets killed. We follow her decade-long quest as she chases down leads, interrogates prisoners, and successfully presses the CIA brass for action, resulting in the fateful raid that took out bin Laden.
You can tell early on that Zero Dark Thirty is going to be an excellent film. Given the pedigree of is creators, my expectations were enormously high. I rated their previous collaboration as my top film of that year. I knew I was in capable hands when the film opens on September 11, 2001 but skips any visuals. We sit and watch a minute of a blank screen while the sounds of desperate 911 calls become a wall of sound. It’s enough to reassert the stakes while still being restrained. Bigelow’s directorial command is astonishing, pitting you in the thick of the action. There are a lot of moving parts with a movie like this, wheels within wheels, and Bigelow keeps everything moving and focused. It helps that the bigger manhunt is broken up into a series of mini-missions over the ten years. Bigelow and her talented production team have recreated the ends of the world to bring this story to life. That added sheen of verisimilitude gives every moment a sense of magnified power, an electric sense of relevancy. You’ll get goose bumps as they start circling the actual location of bin Laden. Bigelow, who won an Oscar for her virtuoso work on The Hurt Locker, still knows how to play every one of your nerves. There’s a clandestine meet up with a possible turncoat that is stuffed with dread. Every checkpoint, every safety procedure waved, you’ll be biting your nails, the voice in your head clearly saying, “Oh no, this isn’t going to go well.” Zero Dark Thirty is more crime procedural than the action thriller. Even so, Bigelow’s direction is top-notch and brings an intense, churning verve to the film, down to the smallest detail.
The film plays out like an absorbing, hard-hitting piece of investigative journalism, recreating the steps and false turns over the ten-year manhunt for bin Laden. There is a lot of information to process and over 100 speaking roles, and Boal and Bigelow do not stoop to pander to the less intelligent in the audience. You will be expected to catch up or fall behind. It can get confusing at points but Boal does an exceedingly articulate job of narrowing the particulars of the bin Laden case and presenting a clear through line. It’s a story that hops around the globe through a series of mini-missions, from a meet up with a possible al Qaeda spy to locking down a phone number to trace a courier in Pakistan. You see every step, every deal, and every effort that it takes to land the big break, namely tracking down bin Laden’s trusted courier to his Abbottabad compound. Boal even separates his narrative with titled sub-sections like a lengthy piece of journalism. We all know where the story is going to end up, but Boal’s supreme talent is making every step meaningful and tense leading up to that fateful raid May 1, 2011. The level of reportage detail is completely enthralling and will be relatively unknown to most filmgoers. Beyond 9/11 and the London bombings, I confess to being ignorant of the other al Qaeda attacks highlighted throughout. Therefore, not only is Zero Dark Thirty an exciting manhunt, it’s also an educational endeavor for most Americans.
The proceeding two hours are an engrossing manhunt, but when Zero Dark Thirty gets to the raid sequence, that is when the movie ascends to a level of cinematic excellence unsurpassed this year at the movies. There is nothing else in 2012 that comes close to matching the 30-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound. My heart was in my throat the whole time. I was physically shaking. I was pinned to my chair. The conclusion, nabbing bin Laden, is one of the most riveting sequences in film I have ever seen. It’s like Bigelow has complete control of your senses, and even though we all know how this story ends, you’ll be glued to the screen, pulse racing, anticipating every step. After the film ended, I told my friend Eric that I felt like I needed to start smoking, thus was how exhilarated I felt leaving the theater (message to kids: don’t smoke, even if you see Zero Dark Thirty). My head was bustling afterwards. All I could think about was the masterful conclusion to a very good movie. The raid sequence is brilliantly recreated and just about portrayed in exacting real time; you feel like you’re right there along with the members of Seal Team Six. For a civilian, it’s fascinating jut to watch the minutiae of what went down, but under Bigelow’s taut direction, it’s the moment every American has been waiting for since September 11, 2001. Bigelow is also careful not to portray the death in any sort of jingoistic, fist-pumping context. She sticks with her docu-drama approach, avoiding sensationalism, and you don’t even see the shot that takes down bin Laden. The film is also very careful not to linger on bin Laden’s dead body or even reveal his face; she doesn’t, as President Obama said, “spike the football.” Bigelow deserves a second Oscar just for her superlative handling of those unparalleled 30 minutes of pure filmmaking bravado. Plus, it’s the best ending of the year at the movies.
Let me address the brewing controversy ensnaring the movie regarding its depiction of torture. Zero Dark Thirty does demonstrate torture but it never glorifies it or presents it as anything less than dehumanizing and morally repugnant. But torture did happen (I’m sorry Dick Cheney… “enhanced interrogations”) and to whitewash this regrettable period of time from the historical record is a disservice to the truth. This country, as well as any other, engages in extreme and detestable measures; we only hope that our leaders have the moral clarity to make these ethical lapses as few and far between as possible. Now, the politicians and bloggers have attacked Bigelow’s movie as tacitly condoning torture, indicting that it was successful in getting that big break. This is not the case. Zero Dark Thirty shows a variety of methods being used, and yes we get a heavy helping of torture and humiliation, but it’s when Maya and others start treating the detainee like a human being again, offering food and conversation, is when the progress is made. The film does not explicitly declare one interrogation method successful, however, I can see where people will draw their own (wrong) conclusion. If anyone wants to read my exact stance on torture, just check out my lengthy review of the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side. In short, torture does not work and Zero Dark Thirty does not purport that it does, though many may conclude otherwise. It seems to me that the critics don’t have enough faith in the audience to accept ambiguity.
2011’s breakout actress, Chastain (The Help), is the focal point of the movie and she delivers. Her character has no life outside of doggedly hunting for bin Laden. She’s completely driven by the goal of killing him, and as such she gets to uncork some dandy angry monologues dressing down her colleagues for their failing dedication. Chastian does a fine job of keeping a veneer around Maya, shrouding her emotions into a mysterious calm, which seems realistic given the nature of the character but also makes it tricky to connect with her emotionally. This movie is not the great character study that The Hurt Locker was, and so Maya gets some rather shrift characterization: she’s a workaholic fighting for credibility. The real star of the movie is the story so all the characters take a back seat to Boal’s journalism. While Chastain is quite good, I have to shrug my shoulders at the various critics groups throwing Best Actress accolades her way (go Jennifer Lawrence).
The supporting cast doesn’t have a weak link amongst them, from Kyle Chandler (Super 8) as an outpost boss, Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a CIA superior screaming at the bin Laden team to “find me targets to kill,” Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) as Maya’s closest friend in a hostile land, James Gandolfini (TV’s Sopranos) as CIA director Leon Panetta, Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones’ Stannis Baratheon) as a skeptical NSA head, and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) as a member of Seal Team Six. That’s right America, TV’s Andy Dwyer helps cap bin Laden. But the real standout is Jason Clarke (Lawless) as an interrogator who eventually leaves the field for an office but still makes headway for Maya.
Much like The Hurt Locker, here is a movie that transcends politics and genre. Zero Dark Thirty is a nerve-wracking thriller, it’s an intelligent crime procedural, and it’s an engrossing and powerful work of relevant art. It operates on such a high level of artistic achievement that little else from 2012 even comes close. This thorough, intense, provocative, thought-provoking, morally ambiguous, thrilling, and generally tremendous movie is taken to a whole other level with its concluding act, brilliantly recreating the raid that took down Osama bin Laden, the most cathartic and satisfying ending of the year. You’ll be liable to whistle in awe at how accomplished Zero Dark Thirty is. Of course audiences should not accept every thing they see in the movie as unimpeachable gospel, as dramatic license is needed to help shape a formidable narrative. This is still a movie that desires to entertain and yea does it entertain. I look forward to the American public getting a chance to experience the same riveting theatrical experience that I had with my critical brethren, as well as the sense of catharsis and relief by film’s end. Zero Dark Thirty forgoes sensationalism for modulation, eschews moral righteousness for ambiguity, and expects the audience to keep up with its retinue of information. And you’ll be grateful to be given the chance to tag along. Run out and see this remarkable movie when you have the chance. Movies don’t get much better than this, folks.
Nate’s Grade: A