At The Movies-Zero Dark Thirty

A riveting, powerful film

At the Movies

At the Movies |

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“Zero Dark Thirty” is a grim depiction of the war that Al Qaeda declared against the United States in 1998 and continues to this day.

The opening third of the movie shows some very harsh scenes in which terrorists are questioned to discover and stop ongoing terror operations. This is not pleasant viewing.

The middle part of the film has a fanatically dedicated CIA analyst doggedly tracking the courier that connects Osama bin Laden to his terror network. In the film, it is only her dedication that eventually leads to the demise of the world’s chief terrorist.

Jessica Chastain plays the analyst, a young woman who spent a third of her life tracking almost non-existent clues.      

In spite of the good work of Chastain, and also Jason Clarke as a CIA field operative, both good actors (James Gandolfini is also good in a tiny role as CIA chief Leon Panetta), the film is a directorial triumph. Director Kathryn Bigelow made a movie that is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Her last film, “The Hurt Locker,” won Best Picture as well as Best Director and four other awards.

Her assignment this time was to make a compelling film from a near-time historical event when everyone in the theater watching the film knows the outcome. Osama does not survive the event. Bigelow manages to pull it off in grand style.

Only the last bit of the film deals with the actual attack where American special operations troops terminate the terrorist leader.

The rest is build up, creating tension and keeping the whole enterprise interesting. After two straight Oscar nods for Best Picture, Bigelow can be safely ranked among the best directors in the business.

This is a long movie too, at two hours and 37 minutes, but not one that sags and lags in the middle. We may not like the scenes of bad guys being questioned, but we are riveted to the narrative. We can’t turn away. Bigelow forces us to confront the reality of the early days of the war on terror with an unflinching eye while she builds a strong four saw blade movie.

The writing is also well crafted by Mark Boal. Boal worked with Bigelow on the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker.” The pair also produced both “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” As producers, their $40 million budget will surely come into the profitable zone. The film has brought in $32 million at the worldwide box office so far. The Oscar nomination should propel the film well into the money-making arena.    

“Zero Dark Thirty: is rightly rated a strong R for violence. This is a very powerful film that gives the viewers a realistic, unromantic look at the current war between Al Qaeda and us. It might not beat “Lincoln” for best film this year, but it is a great film on its own.

Gangster Squad

Stellar cast — disappointing movie

What a stellar cast we have in “Gangster Squad.” Sean Penn plays 1940s gangster Mickey Cohen — a murderous real life thug and ladies man whose girlfriends included Tempest Storm, Candy Bar and Beverly Hills. In the movie his lady friend is Emma Stone who is drop dead beautiful in slinky evening gowns.

Ryan Gosling is effective in an under stated role as one of the squad members.

Josh Brolin, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi and Robert Patrick are other name actors and squad members.

What a shame to have so much talent squandered on a film so lacking in dramatic interest. It isn’t a terrible movie, but with such a fine cast, we really expect a film to match the actors. Other films set in post war L.A. have done much better, see “L.A. Confidential” or “Chinatown” for comparison.

Penn as Cohen — a notorious gangster who made headlines and had a fan base in real life — opens the film by pulling another gangster apart using cables and two cars. This set the tone for the film. Irrational violence is done with expert professionalism by director Ruben Fleischer.

The culminating battle has the cops of the Gangster Squad absurdly facing off against Cohen’s thugs with Tommy guns at a range of 40 feet.

The romance between the gangster’s moll (Stone) and the young copper (Gosling) doesn’t make much sense either. I am an Emma Stone fan and the more screen time she gets the better I like it, but I can still recognize that the moll/cop romance is stupid. 

Sometimes we suspend our disbelief, often in fact. But we want a reward greater than stilted writing and irrational violence. Director Ruben Fleischer also directed the very entertaining “Zombieland,” also with Emma Stone, so we know he can make excellent films.

The producers must be faulted for entrusting the script to first time writer Will Beall. With a budget of $60 million they could have afforded enough talent to make us love, like or at least be interested in the characters. The best developed and most likable character is the very minor character of the wife of squad leader Josh Brolin. She has some good lines in the very few minutes she has on screen. Sadly, she is the only one who does.

The disappointing “Gangster Squad” rates a sub-par two saw blades. Fans of mediocre cops and gangster films will still enjoy it, as will Emma Stone fans.

“Gangster Squad” is rated R for lots of violence, some of it pretty gross. It has pulled in a thin $31 million so far and might struggle to get the producers’ money back. That should teach them a lesson. Make better movies.

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