Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Can you make a good movie from a bad script? Yes, and that movie is called Zero Dark Thirty.

Most of the film is the informative, though poorly told, story of a young woman at the CIA whose job and obsession is to find Osama Bin Laden. We are given vital pieces of information, and experience the frustrations, of this global manhunt. Along the way, unfortunately, the petty ‘n’ plucky heroine has to constantly assert herself as correct. She just thinks something is so, and then it becomes right. She is so infallible that it is both exhausting and eye-rolling to watch her. She is also so arrogant it makes her impossible to root for; in the film’s most ludicrous line, she states that she believes her colleagues died and she survived because she is “meant” to find Bin Laden. What?

Fortunately, it all comes together in the last 30 minutes or so. The climax, a retelling of the operation that killed Bin Laden, is so well told and thrilling that it almost makes up for the rest of the film. Better yet, the information we were told throughout the film (what is Bin Laden’s complex like? who will be there?) helps orient us during what is an otherwise dark and jerky sequence. This was a prime example of quality filmmaking, which most of the movie could not live up to.

There has been much controversy over the film’s torture sequences; I personally did not find much stock in them, but that is up to the viewer to decide. What I found interesting was how it didn’t seem to take much for interrogators to resort to waterboarding; whether that is fiction or fact, I don’t know.

Which is what makes my critique of the film a bit reserved – without knowing the facts, I don’t know how far I can criticize the film. Maybe Jessica Chastain’s character really was right, all the time, always. Even if she was, though, that’s not how you make a movie. I like my protagonists with a touch of fallibility, and Zero Dark Thirty does not meet this base requirement.

Stray observations:

  • Did anyone else notice the Windows 7 and Google Chrome on a computer in a scene taking place in 2005?
  • Did the brunette woman get a southern accent halfway through the movie or was that just me?

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

In a ho-hum year for American cinema, Silver Linings Playbook gleams out of the dull woodwork as a modest film about people with modest ambitions, told at such a painfully honest level that it rises above as the best film of 2012.

The straightforward narrative, of a middle-aged man living with his parents and dealing with bipolar disorder, is enhanced through superb performances and powerful imagery. Bradley Cooper (who I’m usually not a fan of) giving a daring and moving performance as the protagonist, Jennifer Lawrence as the heartbreaking but electrifying heroine, and Robert De Niro as the well-intentioned but pathetic father lead the extraordinary cast in this tragicomedy. All three start off the film recovering from bad places in their lives, and try to build them back up.

Reconstruction proves difficult, emphasized in moments like Cooper’s character moving home, seeing his brother’s picture hanging on the wall while his own has been taken down and is leaning on a table. Lawrence’s character (in one of several memorable monologues) tells of having to constantly give all of herself, only to receive nothing back. While the circumstances the characters face are more extreme than most of us will face in our lifetimes, they hint at positions we have all had to grapple with, in varying degrees of questioning one’s own self-worth.

This film all seems to take place within several square miles. The characters’ dreams are not impossible ones. The biggest ambition seems to be getting a 5 out of 10 at a dance competition, an underwhelming feat that provides one of the film’s biggest laughs. Yet despite the understated attributes in the content of the film, the final product and emotional impact are profound and powerful, giving audiences one of the most rewarding and moving comedies in recent years.

The Young Don’t Cry (1957)

The Young Don’t Cry is a surprisingly ahead-of-its-time coming of age film, with a message less of faith in humanity and more of trusting one’s own instincts.

To be honest, I watched this specifically because it stars Sal Mineo, one of my favorite 1950s teen idols. He gives a fantastic performance as a teenaged orphan at an all-boys’ school who befriends a chain gang convict. From the very beginning of the film, we see how his character suppresses himself, forcing himself to speak in a more neutral tone of voice, but when challenged and confronted, he breaks out a sneer and a Brooklyn accent, revealing character attributes beyond those outlined in the script.

The entire movie has this otherworldly weight to it; the audience is asked to suspend its disbelief in a variety of ways, including but not limited to the chain gang that works surprisingly close to the boys’ school, and the middle-aged woman who lives alone in a cabin and offers comfort to the boys who feel lost or forgotten. Logically, much of the film borders on ridiculous, but the sincerity of the performances and the weight of the emotions make us believe what is transpiring.

One of the film’s highlights is a successful alumnus of the school, who comes back to mentor the boys. He turns out to be a greedy asshole, but, as Holden Caulfield might argue, these are the type of people we are supposed to idealize and strive to become. This figure is foiled with that of the prisoner, convicted with manslaughter after getting in a bar fight initiated by his wife being insulted. The moral ambiguity displayed in this Hayes code-era film is engaging and intriguing, particularly for its time.

Mineo’s character, Leslie, is consistently faced with difficult ethical choices and is caught in several crossroads throughout the short duration of this film. While there are no easy solutions, the mother figure in the film reminds him “Bad men make excuses. The good ones don’t have to.” He learns that his intuition and his inherent moral compass will take him further than fulfilling a destiny society decided for him.