ZERO DARK THIRTY gathers the facts from 9/11 to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Kathryn Bigelow has worked with primary material to create a time-line ellipsis from the point of the terrorism, to U.S. troop anger, to a standstill and eventual information from a luckily found source leading to bin Laden. The film is the straight story, without agenda, presenting major and minor incidents, as testimony is tossed aside, the wrong directives taken: in essence, the difficulty the C.I.A. had in homing in to the final clue to the million piece jig-saw. Jessica Chastain is Maya, and agent drafted out of high school, a natural investigator put in charge of the hunt for bin-Laden. Events flow from torture to street bombings so we are never out of danger and never having enough knowledge to clarify the nature of the enemy. Meanwhile, the power in Washington would just as well end the hunt but Maya is trusted and her instincts are quite strong. Detainees’ questionable legal rights are taken for granted as is the torture and street incidents. Responsibility and morality are not a consideration—only the bottom line. Zero Dark Thirty represents a style of cinema which shows writers and director making no judgments though there are complaints that presenting torture is to rationalize it for our country’s reputation. Not only was it done as harshly as possible without judgment, the detainee gave no information leading to anything more than a pretty mild Al-Qaeda agent who claimed also to know nothing. Bigelow’s spare style and slightly detached view precludes the events, not having to introduce characters (Maya hardly knows most of them anyhow) to emerge at the end with a finality to the goal, but not for Maya whose life has known nothing else. I felt it eye-opening and gripping from the first sounds of telephone communication during 9/11 to Maya, alone in a troop transporter, deciding where to go next. Jessica Chastain gives a great performance becoming Maya in our eyes; it is her point-of-view we follow throughout.
DJANGO UNCHAINED is one of those pictures that people have tried to throw under the bus claiming that because Quentin Tarentino made a movie that about slavery in a style criticized by many African-American leaders and entertainers. Perhaps they are unfamiliar with “Inglorious Basterds” in which a holocaust-driven Europe is used as a backdrop for eye-popping fantasy–anything but historically accurate. Well, Django is the same fictional piece, different plot, different characters. Django (Jaimie Foxx) is in a line of chained slaves walking to his new owners’ plantation when a Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) finds the short caravan, kills the two leading gunslingers, frees all and takes Django as a cohort in the bounty hunter profession. Schultz also trains Django on how to handle himself as a freed slave. The two work together, make good money, and head for Mississippi where Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) was taken when the two were separated at an auction years before at. In the midst of this, they are chased by bandits, slave traders and just plain bad guys. But their final visit is to visit the plantation of Calvin Candle (Leonardo di Caprio) and his butler, Stephen (a well made up Samuel L. Jackson). There’s lots of blood, guts, gore, various body parts and mayhem for his next movie well. He also had a Ku Klux Klan band humorously roaming around, but stop when they can’t see through the holes in their hoods. The Klan was created after the Civil War, not in the film’s pre-war years. However, this is a Quentin Tarentino film and who are we to say that we don’t expect these bloodbaths after “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” Tarentino’s goal was to make a spaghetti western (with the common “n” word in almost the style of Sergio Leone) and of using some of Ennio Morricone, His scores helped form a new movie standard. It is an entertainment and if seen as history, there is a serious knowledge gap in this country. Tarentino is not African-American, nor is he Jewish, nor is he Japanese, nor a lot of things, just as his critics have spoken and performed have worked outside their culture, race and religion. And stupidity followed as Tarentino, criticized a film God when he stated that he hated John Ford because he had worked at several roles in front of, and behind the camera during the making of “The Birth of a Nation.” If Tarentino were in Los Angeles in 1915, he would have given his left arm to get the same opportunity and experience, not to mention the money, to work in the new industry. I think that there is always room for criticism, but it should include having seen the object in its real context.
PROMISED LAND is about fracking. It is also about power, money, integrity, truth and reality, if there is one. Fracking is a controversial way of extracting natural gas from the earth by drilling and forcing water and toxic chemicals into and through the layers of sediment and rock and ultimately driving the gas to the surface. The companies who do this tell you it’s safe, the opinion ignored by those who sign away their mineral rights to the land for the handsome compensation as do agents of the state who frequently give them a pass, deciding for their own share, as well as the state’s. The other side claims that land will lay fallow with unwanted chemicals reaching the surface. It would also result in contaminating the water table (not to mention streams and rivers) leaving water headed for cities and no filtration system to take out the toxins – leaving many people without drinking, bathing and cooking water. Sales people Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Francis McDormand) enter a town representing a corporation that want the land.. Money is the prime mover until Frank (Hal Holbrook) mentions the first doubts about the value of the town as it is and how much everyone would lose if the town were to allow this. The town folk, still favoring the land sales, then contend with Dustin (John Krasinski) an environmentalist with all the tools, including a winning personality, to show what can happen to land abused by the corporation. Of course, money talks, and that leads to a split of those who care and those who want the money. If enough sign up, then the rest of the town would probably follow suit. But there is more to it than what meets the eye. No matter how I feel about the subject, it is a bit loaded against the giant corporation. The way the main characters do their work does undermine integrity. Promised Land flows nicely even with a few stock characters, but the acting is almost too good and believable. There are a few sticky and confusing points but it’s is a good one to see.
NOT FADE AWAY is the story of a 1960s high school rock ‘n’ roll band that came of age around 1960, but found a voice after the Beatles ascendance in 1964. The road was going to be tough, playing in bars, bowling alleys, the seedier the better for the experience. To give credence to this story is David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos’ (James Gandolfini has a fat role) and a first time feature director. He had long wanted to make this movie, an autobiographical venture with a band featuring Douglas (John Magaro) who seeks more from life than as a lead singer in a quartet frustrated at every turn. The film moves along chronologically to create its own form of maturity but there are anachronisms, most noticeable in the band sound as if it was ten years later, a few years after the Sex Pistols made their debut in the U.K. That’s just my ears and my experiences at the time, being the same age as Chase. Also working on the film, as his assistant, is Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos.” Altogether, Not Fade Away is recommended to all of us young at hearts.
Appearing presently is the Criterion Collection’s restoration of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 opus and quite full of himself also. Forget that this is early in his career just before the big breakthrough with “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (also a DVD/Blu-ray Criterion). The Man Who Knew Too Much, an hour shorter than the remade version (1956) with James Stewart and Doris Day, is the story of kidnappers, creeping lines of passing music and a race to the finish. Peter Lorre is in his first film outside Germany and perfect playing himself, as he would do for the rest of his long career. There’s no Morroco (the opening local in 1956) here, just the Swiss Alps in 1934 with the spies, the maguffin, the reworking of known ethical standards and a lot of fun. It also looks as it likely did in a first run house back when. It’s worth every penny.
New in stores is the collection: DARK CRIMES: FILM NOIR THRILLERS (1942-1946, Warner Home Video). This entry into the series has “The Blue Dahlia” with Alan Ladd, “Rope of Sand” with Burt Lancaster, “Union Station” with William Holden and Charlton Heston in “Dark City.” Each is unique, not only with its youthful stars, but as exciting “studio” films that most of the public really did see at the time.