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Nebraska

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In Nebraska, Alexander Payne paints a deceptively simple portrait of a complex character who’s become a withdrawn shell of a human being by a combination of senility, drink and disillusionment. Filmed in immaculate black-and-white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska transforms the Midwestern landscape of its titular region, with its endless highways, expanses of farm country and small, desolate towns into settings befitting the film’s themes of despair and one family’s quiet yet profound healing. The end result is Payne’s most accomplished and emotionally affecting movie since his masterwork, About Schmidt (2002). It’s a character study fashioned like a detective story; as viewers, we have to discover for ourselves a sense of Woody’s personal and family history through clues dropped in bits of dialogue and in the subtle dynamics between Woody and his world.

This is a family odyssey that begins as a road-trip variation on the father-son bonding story. Determined to redeem a notice that he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize, a bald-faced scam apparent to all but himself, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) sets out from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the cash. Hoping that by indulging this nonsense through to its logical endpoint, his old man might finally be dispelled of his delusional ways, his younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Lincoln.

After an on-the-road accident lands Woody in the hospital, his wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join the hapless pair in Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, where Woody’s older bother still lives. It’s an occasion for a reunion and for the family to revisit its past, for David to put the pieces together in his quest to understand why his father is the unreasonable, beaten-down drunk he is. Among the movies most profound moments is when the Grants stop by Woody’s childhood home, now a ramshackle ruin; here, with its combination of visual desolation, Woody’s terse words that hint at abuse at the hands of his father, we glean a disturbing picture of a bleak childhood. Another enlightening scene unfolds during a visit David makes to the publishing office of Hawthorne’s tiny newspaper where he encounters one of his father’s early sweethearts who, almost passingly, lets slip an important and traumatic detail from Woody’s service in the Korean War. It’s another clue in Payne’s character-study-as-detective-story.

As word gets out about Woody’s alleged millionaire status, everyone wants a piece of it, from members of his extended family to Ed Pegrem (an excellent Stacy Keach), Woody’s former business partner who wants compensation for all the losses incurred from Woody’s irresponsibility and drunkenness. He’s the closest we get to a villain in Nebraska; he’s all smiles on the outside but Ed soon shows himself to be a cunning, manipulative bastard. And, at first, Squibb is difficult to take; her performance, with is droll, plainspoken sassiness, feels stilted and recalls the charmless shrew she played in About Schmidt. But you warm up to her once you realize that this isn’t a case of a bad performance. Squib’s is actually a very good one as she plays Kate the way she needs to be played: a saucy, tell-it-like-is matriarch to the rest of her family’s reticence and repression. Her performance dovetails squarely with Dern, Forte and Odenkirk’s more colorful, hem-and-haw histrionics. And it’s that directness in her character that ultimately puts everyone in their place.

Bruce Dern gives an admirable, tip-of-the-iceberg performance; the actor’s calculated reserve offers an intriguing glimpse of an entire world hidden below the depths. If we allow ourselves to search his face, his defeated manner of speech and movement, and for what’s unsaid in the long pauses between his bursts of candid pronouncements, we excavate a potential gold mine of decades-old pathos and heartbreak. By the end, we wonder whether Woody is a truly senile drunk or a defeated soul whose childlike trust in others resulted in so much disappointment that he’s since retreated into his own imaginary world (one in which he’s a sweepstakes prize-winner), desperate now to show himself a success to those who’ve either come to pity him or given up on him.

The entire film–and the long section in Hawthorne in particular–provides Payne the opportunity for his patented blend of ethnographic realism and acerbic satire as it comments on life’s underlying sadnesses and the tragic, inevitable shattering of our dreams. Papamichel’s flawless cinematography, by the way, is aided immeasurably by Mark Orton’s gorgeously evocative score, a tender, yet haunting accompaniment to a thoughtful and provocative film experience.

If you want the antithesis of Normal Rockwell’s Freedom from Want (1943), that paragon of Americana, look no further than the family dinner-table scene in Nebraska in which you’re riveted to the sociological details of what this group of fringe Middle Americans are consuming even more than the almost-throwaway banter that interrupts the long silences and gulps of Old Mil. This scene is Payne at this best, offering–like so much else in Nebraska–a rueful, post-recession picture of America that’s compulsively fascinating to behold.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Angela McEwan, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Peter Jackson continues to his triple-feature cash-grab with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second part of his epic endeavor to split up one novel into three gargantuan features. Jackson’s approach interweaves elements from Tolkien’s ancillary writings and journals into the central narrative of The Hobbit and the results are, at times, ambitious and interesting and, at others, redundant, padding on more story than this trilogy needed.

Martin Freeman was the best thing about the first in the series, An Unexpected Journey. His seriocomic screen personality was the perfect fit for the role of the uptight, provincial, ultimately heroic Bilbo Baggins. But, apart from the final act, Freeman is largely relegated to the background in Desolation of Smaug, which concerns itself more with how the dwarves win the alliance of the elves (something not in the book) as the latter begin to suspect that the orcs’ hell-bent pursuit of the dwarves to keep their leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) from reclaiming his crown could, in fact, presage more ominous troubles involving the dreaded Sauron. So, Jackson sneaks in Orlando Bloom, resuming his role as Legolas, to please fans pining for more reminders of his original series along with Evangeline Lilly as the pretty elfin warrior Tauriel who (in another deviation from Tolkien) bats her eyelashes at the ruggedly handsome dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner).

The exploits of the elves and dwarves, with Bilbo in tow, are woven together with the story thread of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) journeying toward a confrontation with the orc chieftain at their mountain stronghold and his realization that Middle Earth’s current troubles are only a prelude to more epic confrontations to come. The Gandalf sequences are among Smaug’s strongest and feature something that Jackson excels at: Depicting physical menace, whether in the form of a hulking orc (the orc leader is really pretty terrifying in these Hobbit films), the orcs’ monstrous dog-like consorts or in the phantasm of a mocking Sauron. These figures, placed in the nightmarish setting of an evil and decayed fortress, combine to create a visually striking and an emotionally powerful experience.

Luckily, Jackson also scores in many other action sequences, principally in the lengthy confrontation between Bilbo and the much-hyped dragon, Smaug. The first half of it, anyway, when Jackson allows his effects designers to showcase the exquisite creation that is Smaug–richly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch–meticulously rendered from snout to tail. A glimpse of the Smaug is (almost) worth the price of admission.

The second half of this sequence, however, features all that’s wrong with Jackson’s handling of action; the entire sequence falls apart as the perils and pacing ramp up and any sense of spatial coherence is utterly lost. Once things get fiery and noisy and chaotic between Bilbo and the dwarves and Smaug, Jackson does whatever he feels like, spatially, for the sake of action-scene convenience (look to the Mines of Moria sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring for similar liberties taken, though why carp when that movie was so masterful in other ways?)..

It’s what drives me nuts, time and again, about these movies: the relative nature of space. The needs of the chase precede the logic of architecture, so the halls, the forge, the staircases are as spacious and as fluid as Jackson needs them to be, appearing arbitrarily as the scene hurtles onward. The effect is childishly silly, especially in the moment when Smaug finds himself facing a monumental statue of a dwarf-king. It appears out of nowhere–without explanation! How’d it get there? Who built it? When? Why?). As we’re wondering, the sequence disintegrates as the most lubricous climax is unleased.

Jackson fares better with the gorgeous evocation of Lake Town, a trading village near the dwarves’ erstwhile kingdom at the foot of The Lonely Mountain. It’s also where the best performance in Smaug can be found–from Stephen Fry playing Lake Town’s mayor, who’s deliciously pompous and corruptible. Though a caricature, Fry’s mayor gives Smaug a relatable human dimension.

It’s natural to be repelled by Jackson’s commercial- and franchise-minded motives, and there’s much about The Desolation of Smaug that falls apart partly because of the director’s complete inability to stage spatially disciplined action. But, ultimately, Jackson delivers escapist entertainment that–like its Hobbit predecessor–functions as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food as we find ourselves in settings and among characters we’ve come to love. And for fans of Tolkien and of Jackson’s big-screen adaptations (like me), that familiarity is often enough.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace

Her

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It’s tempting to dismiss this mopey techno-romance as just another spin through the solipsistic post-hipster universe of Spike Jonze, but Her is just too prescient about how humanity’s dependence on technology will escalate to include our total emotional well-being, too well-acted and, finally, too wise and gentle in its prescription for the survival of human interrelationships for any trash talk. While its limited characters can make Her a long slog, Jonze’s observations about the sad, misguided intersection of humanity and technology won me over.

In near-future Los Angeles–gorgeously rendered by designer K.K. Barrett and art director Austin Gorg–the superb Joaquin Phoenix plays the lonely and soulful Theodore Twombly, one year removed from a painful split from his emotionally fragile ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara, who’s become a specialist in playing disturbed and/or volatile women). He’s kind of a proxy letter-writer working for an Internet company specializing in crafting customized letters commissioned by its clients to any variety of recipients (relatives, friends, the parents of fallen soldiers, etc.).

In his ability to exude empathy through these letters, Twombly is not unlike another lost urban soul–Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s greeting-card writer in (500) Days of Summer (another self-consciously quirky romance set in L.A.!). Whereas Gordon-Levitt’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl was the moon-eyed Zooey Deschanel, Twombly meets his ideal woman in Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system played by Scarlett Johannson. She’s a Manic Pixie Virtual Girl.

In fact, the whole world is awash in these revolutionary operating systems; people buy them up and, before long, there’s an entirely new economy and sub-culture created from millions of these newly formed hybrid relationships. After the iPhone and Siri, the advent of a sentient OS companion seems like the logical end point in our desire to synchronize consumer technology with our every human whim and need. And in a culture of dysfunctional relationships, serial self-absorption and a spiraling increase in our collective narcissism, it’s only natural humans would turn to the relatively nonjudgmental safety of a “personal” relationship with an artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, Her’s Los Angeles is an unending forest of skyscrapers and sleek surfaces–the fusion of Hong Kong and present-day L.A.–everything bespeaking a cool nonchalance. The city isn’t foreboding or unwelcoming–it’s simply disinterested.  As social satire, this is wickedly on-point and a much-needed commentary on where we are today.

The society that Jonze depicts isn’t so much bleak or alienating as it is fraught with the terror of failure and abandonment; disconnection and loneliness, therefore, are our default emotional settings. Still, it’s not Orwellian: Theodore enjoys a close friendship with his college friend/neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), who’s married to Charles (Matt Letscher), an absolute drip and control freak. And, at work, the cheery receptionist Paul (Chris Pratt) is a reliably sunny presence in Theodore’s life.

There’s misery here, for sure, but you look around, and you don’t see much to stand on: The characters we meet are all white, middle class, well-to-do, educated first-world citizens who’ve never–from what we know–suffered much or sacrificed. They’re over-the-hill hipsters who presumably moved out of their Silverlake bungalows and into gorgeous, ultra-modern downtown lofts when they hit their 30s and are still crying about how they can’t have a relationship. You want to scream, “Get the fuck over it!” But then we wouldn’t have this film and the rewarding ruminations that follow.

Those ruminations begin after Samantha enters Theodore’s life, and, quickly, he falls in love with her. Hyper intelligent and programmed to “evolve,” Samantha falls in love right back. Soon, Theodore is in the midst of a relationship more fulfilling than any he’s ever had with a human. This is when Her gets interesting as Jonze takes the tropes of the star-crossed romance and posits them into his novel framework. The results are fascinating as Samantha learns to feel everything from sexual ecstasy to embarrassment and shame, especially when the matter of her not having a body comes up. When Theodore, smarting from Catherine’s demeaning his relationship with an OS, lashes out passive-aggressively at Samantha, you can’t help but feel her pain, the sting of her wounded self-esteem. Then, you realize, you’re feeling deep sympathy for a computer. One moment stands out: When a little girl, speaking into the iPhone-like device where Samantha’s “lives,” asks why she lives inside a computer, she answers sweetly, “I have no choice.” I have no choice: An existentialist’s worst nightmare. And that is when, to me, she became tragic and beautiful, and when I fell in love with her myself. Moments like that are the film’s miracle.

But even after the two make up, Jonze isn’t finished as he enters the territory of distrust, jealousy and heartbreak that marks the full maturation of a relationship that’s taken its bruises … and the writer-director keeps on going, beyond considerations of mere romance and into the meaning of life and death itself. This is American filmmaking venturing out to its very edge, and Jonze manages to balance himself beautifully. He does it the way of all great storytellers: By journeying from the anxiety of the ego–which occupies everyone in this film from the first scene–to deep into the soul where Theodore finds self-realization in moments captured with lyrical beauty and emotional honesty. Her does American cinema proud.  

Grade: B+

Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Matt Letscher

All Is Lost

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All is lost and nothing gained in writer-director J.C. Chandor’s one-man, high-seas survival saga in which Robert Redford plays the lone occupant of a beleaguered yacht crippled in the Indian Ocean. Known in the credits only as Our Man, the traveler spends the movie’s 105-minute running time just trying to stay alive as, first, his yacht then the lifeboat to which he has to retreat fall apart. It sounds like a terrific existentialist adventure story and perhaps an inquiry into why we choose life over death, into our impulse to survive despite the universe conspiring against us. But the 31-page outline from which Chandor directed provides only the scaffolding for a more ambitious movie; the scant script, for what it is, gives the Cliffs Notes version of the deeper, more profound character study that never transpires on-screen.

To their credit, Chandor and his cinematographers Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini maintain steady control of what we see. There is an admirable barebones quality to the film’s aesthetic: Mostly, we watch Our Man go about repairing his yacht after it suffers a collision with an abandoned shipping container, detail by detail, from sizing up the situation and pumping out the seawater to patching the hole in the side of his yacht and making fixes to the mast. We relish these details purely out of the novelty of watching a yachtsman tending to his vessel.

But Our Man’s lot turns for the worse–and doesn’t stop turning in that direction for the duration of the movie–after a storm destroys the yacht and nearly kills him. The storm sequence is harrowing, visually thrilling at times, and I really found myself pulling for Our Man out of a simple knee-jerk sense of sympathy for a given story’s protagonist. The remainder of All Is Lost is spent in a deteriorating life raft as Our Man learns to navigate his way into the local trade routes and hailing down a passing container ship. Again, as a beat-by-beat examination of details, this is sturdy, watchable filmmaking.

The problems, though, begin with Chandor and Redford’s scant–there’s that word again–treatment of their lone character. It’s not that we know few circumstantial details about him–his family, where he’s from, why he left civilization–these details don’t matter much in comparison to what drives his heart and soul, his inner life. Redford is an eminent screen figure so I found myself giving him a lot of slack as I found myself straining to understand his character, to read (possibly too much) into every little morsel of information for signals of that inner life: What he ate, drank, how he dressed, how he slept, and to decipher every facial expression for something, anything. A detail I greatly enjoyed was how he shaves (calmly? spitefully?) while a possibly deadly storm brews outside–I found that bit fascinating–but, beyond that, there’s nowhere near the exploration of his character, which needed to be as generous as the ocean surrounding him.

I’m not saying we needed more dialogue or exposition. I mean that Chandor and Redford could’ve been craftier and more tantalizing in what they revealed of Our Man. Reveal, like the layers of that proverbial onion, what his heartbreaks have been, what his soul pines for through the details revealed when he thinks you’re not watching: The books he reads, letters, photos, visible tattoos, anything that could offer us a way in and a reason why this man has chosen exile over suicide. As is, Our Man is a blank: nearly expressionless (except for one awkward, too-little-too-late outburst), and, as viewers, we struggle to care much whether he lives or dies.

Chandor’s previous credit was the interesting but very prosaic drama about the Wall Street financial scandal, Margin Call. It was a talky, visually flat affair. All Is Lost, meanwhile, required radically new skill sets: a wholly different artistic temperament and a fluency with the medium that ultimately Chandor doesn’t have. This story needed a filmmaker with a commanding talent at depicting physical struggle–Robert Zemeckis’s Castaway is the far better option if you want to see an against-the-elements survival drama. Chandor doesn’t have the stature and isn’t up to finding ways to keep us rooted to a single character in the midst of a featureless environment, and neither he nor Redford fully take on the challenge of bringing Our Man to life.

Where I feel All Is Lost lost me was the instant the camera left Redford’s side and Chandor opted for recurring underwater shots of marine life swimming past the underside of the raft. It’s a very generic kind of image, first made famous in the shark’s-eye shots from Jaws. But in Jaws, these shots identified with a character’s point of view, namely, the shark’s. But in All Is Lost, they’re just something to vary up the coverage and otherwise serve no purpose. We already know there’s danger and uncertainty surrounding Our Man; we don’t need the underwater shots of menacing fish to underscore it. It’s instances like this–when great material meets an average approach to it–that are the real bummers at the movies.

Grade: C+

Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford

Gravity

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Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has the experience of journeying through outer space been treated with the kind of awe, reverence, terror and–pardon the pun–gravity that it is in the latest from master director Alfonso Cuarón. The depictions of space flight, spacewalking, the specifics and limitations of technology and that fragile, frightening dividing line between life and death that astronauts must tread make for an intense, one-of-a-kind viewing experience. Gravity is one you absolutely have to see on the big screen–the biggest screen you can find. Cuarón also designed the film as a 3D spectacle and, on that score, Gravity acquits itself pretty magnificently. There are moments in the 3D experience that made me dizzy and terrified as the camera took in the grandeur of the view above Earth, especially in the story’s opening minutes.

On the level of technical skill and in capturing moments of sheer peril–and there are many in Gravity–the movie taps into our innate terror of the unknown, of loss of control, and our revulsion of danger and death. Integral to the story’s cinematic power are the breathtaking photography from Emmanuel Lubezki and the hypnotic, dread-inducing score by Steven Price. As with his emotionally gripping 2006 dystopian thriller, Children of Men, Cuarón expertly mines our common fears, terrors, our empathies and instincts for nurturing life in stories that connect with our nervous systems instantly. But instantly doesn’t necessarily mean deeply, and often in Gravity, there is the feeling that, intentionally or not, Cuarón is exploiting basic human impulses in crafting an edge-of-your-seat thriller, without actually developing novel and original characters. In the bargain, he offers us a cinematic spectacle without equal in the tradition of mainstream blockbuster cinema. So, is that deal worth it? In the end, I’d have to give a solid yes.

The story is a succession of heart-stopping disasters as a team of space-shuttle astronauts encounters a freak storm of flying debris, unleashed after nearby satellites are involved in a series of collisions. The debris destroys the shuttle and most of the crew (instantly killing off a thickly accented Indian spacewalker, I might add), leaving two marooned survivors–astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock)–to improvise a plan to save themselves and return to Earth. While Kowalksi is an old pro on his last mission, Stone is a newbie–she’s an engineer who can’t wait to be back on Earth if only to settle her stomach.

When disaster strikes, Kowalski, being the problem solver, guides Stone (and the audience) through a series of actionable steps. At this point, the screenplay busies itself with goal-oriented objectives. And the audience watches with bated breath as a scenario in which the odds of survival are infinitesimally low becomes more and more tenuous as one possibility after another begins to falter, beginning with depleted oxygen and propellent.

Cuarón, who penned the script with his son Jonás, gets the nuts and bolts correct. That is, he fastens down a trajectory of rising tension and rivets in the wrinkles and reversals of increasingly danger-filled second and third acts. But, in Stone and Kowalski, he gives us connect-the-dots characters. Here is what we have: Kowalski is the glib, hyper-competent man’s man, a career astronaut who loves his gig if only to forget the wife who ran out on him years ago; Stone is the wild card–grieving after the loss of a young daughter, she gives indications of deep self-loathing and loneliness (her father, she says off-handedly at one point, wanted a son, hence her masculine name). Seeking a thematic through-line, the Cuaróns find one in Stone: Gravity is as much about survival as it is about Stone finding her self-confidence, her self-worth, her groove. Cue, then, a succession of heavy-handed imagery symbolizing her re-birth, starting with the image of her floating in a fetal position within the embryo of a space pod. The moment marks the inception of Stone’s re-defining herself, the first in a series of images and moments that underscore her transformation. But, ultimately, all this is just a thematic convenience, a blanket on which the propulsive dynamics of the action is overlaid. In the absence of closely felt, organic characters, the Cuaróns’ attempt at character development don’t get past screenwriting-class mumbo jumbo.

That leaves the inherent appeal of the film’s stars to bolster the script’s shallow characters. Clooney trundles out his typically gabby, twinkle-in-the-eye self, a modern approximation of both Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. It’s a serviceable schtick without being very interesting. Bullock’s ability to exude vulnerability and competence in the face of crisis is put to maximum use as Stone is called on to buck up and take charge. The limited role calls on Bullock’s talents to reel us in and root for her. And we do–ardently and with sweaty palms–for no other reason than to see this poor woman back on Earth.

Some have called Gravity a masterpiece. I suppose it is, of sorts: Gravity demonstrates virtuosic filmmaking, engineered for maximum suspense and thrills. From beginning to end, it is a masterful job. But what I couldn’t help but wish was that Cuarón had opened up his story more for the sake of his characters, perhaps even given them scenes of their lives on Earth prior to launch or simply moments of existential contemplation on-board the shuttle rather than start (literally) with a bang. Perhaps then we might’ve been more invested in Stone and Kowalkski as distinctly developed human beings rather than as mere instruments in a survival story. More Tarkovsky, less Zemeckis! Now that would’ve been a masterpiece.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

Zero Dark Thirty

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Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal offer up a workmanlike blow-by-blow of the CIA’s efforts to hunt down Osama bin Laden following the September 11th attacks. Purely as cinematic exercise, Zero Dark Thirty is an exhilarating piece of work. But, beyond its for-the-times subject matter, the work does not linger whatsoever. Except for Bigelow’s masterful calibration of suspense throughout, her film has almost no point of view, no thematic underpinnings, and not a single character worth remembering.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA operative who becomes obsessed with tracking down bin Landen–the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Because Bigelow, Boal and Chastain present Maya as essentially a cipher–an absolute blank, a young woman with a shady past, a murky inner life, and absolutely zero human connections (familial, romantic or otherwise)–they risk giving us a two-dimensional protagonist whose zeal to see her goal through must suffice in sustaining our rooting interest. Inasfar as Chastain’s character is concerned, we find a potentially interesting and headstrong individual with nothing for the audience to really cling to. She’s not as obnoxious as Claire Danes as the pathological human train-wreck Carrie in television’s Homeland, but she’s not far behind. Maya’s triumph at the end of Zero Dark Thirty is exactly what Bigelow intends–a Pyrrhic victory, an empty and meaningless futility in the endless fight-fire-with-fire crusade against al-Qaeda–but, because we don’t actually care about Maya, we don’t sympathize with that realization (or perhaps lack thereof). Rather, we just sink back in our seat, exhausted, our nerves strained from the anxiety that Bigelow’s razor-sharp technique manages to conjure up in her viewers. Other than that, we wonder for what purpose, other than as a suspenseful journalistic chronology of well-known events, the film exists.

Zero Dark Thirty is a draining and brutal experience emotionally. The acting is generally solid; the performances are as restrained and unrevealing as the screenplay. And much has been made of the film’s frank depiction of torture as an occupational moral hazard in America’s great fight. Bigelow takes no stance vis-a-vis torture. Representation is not an endorsement, she has said, and she is right. Her aim here is to present the events as they happened. But because the characters are all battle-hardened and morally weary, they aren’t our best guides through this terrain. Zero Dark Thirty is packed wall-to-wall with humans in peril, whether it’s the prisoners at the interrogation sites or the Special Forces soldiers on their fateful mission at film’s end. In terms of individual sequences–the helter-skelter hunt to intercept a cell phone caller in a crowded city market, for instance, or the climactic raid on bin Laden’s compound–there are several in the film that could be used as examples of how to modulate a suspense scene in any cinema class.

Bigelow actually pulls off quite a feat because the events she depicts have all already happened, the outcome of this story is already familiar to all of us, and yet her mastery of the craft still plays us all like a piano. In that sense, her film resembles Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) with the key difference being that, in the latter, the characters all feel like fully rounded, lived-in human characters rather than connect-the-dots archetypes. Zero Dark Thirty is an expertly made, 157-minute torture mechanism with no real payoff. That’s ultimately the point, I suppose, because there is no payoff in this War on Terror. Everything is relative–how one defines torture, how one defines victory, etc. But, on a strictly old-fashioned narrative level, Bigelow can’t pull back enough from her boiler-room atmosphere of tense meetings, interrogations, fire fights, and terror attacks to give us a truly human chronicle of this latest chapter in our messy geopolitical history.

Grade: B

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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Peter Jackson brings audiences back to the New Zealand-inspired grandeur of Middle Earth — complete with copious aerial panorama shots, snarling orcs and goblins, and picture-book imagery of fantasy landscapes — in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a somewhat entertaining, entirely unnecessary adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s prequel to The Lord of the Rings. When word of Jackson’s three-part production came out, the whole thing reeked of a money-grab — the product of a coddled, over-zealous filmmaker attempting to cash in on his most successful property. The Hobbit is a children’s book and lacks the majesty and thematic power of The Lord of the Rings, but by delving into Tolkien’s diaries and notes, Jacksons pads out the dramatic stakes (there are story ideas, plot lines and characters non-existent in Tolkien’s novel) of the film as well as the god-forsaken running time. The Hobbit runs about a half-hour too long, stuffs more action set pieces than it needs by half, and the result is a drag-down, mildly diverting entertainment.

Tolkien’s story, in essence, deals with the homebody Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who’s lured from the coziness of The Shire by Gandalf the Gray (Ian MacKellan) to embark on a mission alongside a twelve-member group of dwarves to reclaim treasure stolen from them by a horrible dragon. The dwarves are led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), the deposed heir-apparent of the dwarf kingdom — a kind of dwarf equivalent to Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. Armitage is a smoldering, righteous prince, hell-bent not only on reclaiming his land’s treasure but also on seeking revenge against the Pale Orc, the muscular brute who killed his father in a long-ago battle.

There is also a parallel sub-plot about an encroaching necromancer — the foreshadowing of the rise of Sauron. One of The Hobbit’s real pleasures, in fact, is seeing this sub-plot unfold, as the eccentric wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) investigates a dark, secretive force unleashing black magic across Middle Earth. Radagast’s scenes in The Hobbit comprise some of the movie’s most striking moments, ranging from the fearsome sequence in which Radagast tracks down the source of the black magic to a ruined castle to the exhilarating visuals of the wizard, borne along on a sleigh pulled by hyper-kinetic rabbits, being chased by a tribe of orcs astride giant wolves. It’s in these moments that Jackson’s essential pulse as a cinematic storyteller comes alive, and where we feel the director’s vitality for image-making. And delightful as McCoy is as Radagast, Jackson truly lucked out when he cast Freeman as Bilbo. Freeman is the best hobbit ever cast; with his trademark mix of comic nervousness and dramatic sincerity, Freeman ably spins the fussbudget Bilbo into a charming, endearing reluctant hero.

But, alas, The Hobbit is also overloaded with ridiculousness. There are entire sequences here that feel ill-conceived, over-wrought, and fatally drawn-out. A case in point is the entire goblin hall sequence that sags the latter half of the movie. I characterize it as Jackson’s “Jabba the Hutt” moment because of how it trumps dread and danger with silliness and cartoonishness. The goblin king himself — warts, wattle, bug-eyes and all — is just an updated Jabba the Hutt, the bloated baddie in what was the weakest of Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy. Jackson wants to make this sequence the movie’s Mines of Moria (from The Fellowship of the Ring) analogue, but it’s a failure: The goblins are cartoons, the chase is as ludicrously manic as any Looney Tunes outing, and the perils are too outlandish to really grab our emotional involvement. Most of The Hobbit functions at this outlandish level, as if the lesson that Jackson took from The Lord of the Rings is that bigger is better. But The Lord of the Rings also boasted sympathetic, dynamic characters — the dwarves in his movie are, again, just cartoons save for Thorin — and sincere storytelling that served a captivating narrative, whereas The Hobbit often feels like a cynic packaging a Happy Meal and calling it magic.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ian MacKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, James Nesbitt, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee