Saturday, January 26, 2013

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle and Jason Clarke

Right from the earliest scenes of her latest political thriller, director Kathryn Bigelow proves  her skill at displaying raw human emotion in even the most heart-pounding sequences.

Working again with screenwriter Mark Boal, who penned the script of her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has crafted one of the finest cinematic experiences of 2012.

Despite the swirl of controversy over the torture sequences -- an issue that hangs over the film like a wet blanket -- Zero Dark Thirty combines an investigative political thriller with a complex character study.

The film slowly unfurls over a span of 10 years; the length of time the in-depth manhunt for the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden took to reach its conclusion. While the subject is obviously derived from a true story, many will question its accuracy considering the shroud of secrecy that cloaked the government reports. However, although Bigelow and Boal insist they interviewed pivotal figures involved in bin Laden's death, the debate over whether or not the film is entirely based on reality is ultimately irrelevant.

What Bigelow has created is a plausible scenario that has scenes of action, interrogation and government verbal battles that all brim with complex decisions made by people who are neither good nor evil. Nothing is black and white in Zero Dark Thirty and every action can be called into question.

At the centre of the investigation is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a new CIA recruit sent to close in on bin Laden and bring the world's most wanted man to justice. Along the way she is faced with government suits (led by Kyle Chandler as U.S. Embassy chief in Pakistan, Joseph Bradley) who shoot down her theories and suppositions on the whereabouts of bin Laden. Her frustration is palpable at times, but her steely resolve pushes her through to the end.
As played by Chastain, Maya displays a remarkable composure that only falters a few times. Her perseverance and insistence on acquiring intelligence through investigative techniques -- her face displays her open revulsion at torture tactics -- forces others to follow her direction. Chastain gives one of the years best performances, subtly conveying each and every emotion that Maya struggles with -- whether it's the death of a close colleague or her frustration at the lack of support from her higher-ups.

Zero Dark Thirty plays out like a documentary, all of which is told from Maya's point of view. While we do eventually meet the Navy SEAL team that ultimately take down bin Laden, it's all through shadows and night-vision goggles.

Whether or not Zero Dark Thirty walks away from the Oscars as a big winner still remains to be seen, but there's no denying its smart script and note-worthy performances, all of which speaks to various important issues we confront in our news on a daily basis.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Movie Review: Life of Pi

Suraj Sharma
Life of P (2012)
Directed by: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain and Tabu

"I suppose in the end the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye."

Life of Pi is a visual feast, and the power of oral tradition is alive and well in Ang Lee's masterful Oscar contender.

Based on the novel by Yann Martel, and adapted for the screen by David Magee, Lee has culled together all the difficult narrative threads from the original source and crafted a beautiful film from a novel that was once deemed unfilmable.

Life of Pi opens in Montreal where an older Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) meets with a young writer (Rafe Spall) interested in hearing his life story. In flashbacks, we are taken back in time to young Pi's youth in India. Born a Hindu, Pi's insatiable desire for knowledge and understanding leads him to take a deep interest in Catholicism and Islam. Armed with a complete faith in all three religions, Pi confronts his father (Adil Hussain), a man of science who rejects tradition and openly embraces a new India. "If you believe in everything, you end up not believing in nothing at all," his father cautions. When a teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) is forced to leave India along with his family at his father's request, the youth struggles to come to terms with an event that he has no doubt will change his life forever. While packed on a Japanese cargo ship headed for Canada where Pi's father and mother (Tabu) hope to start a new life in Winnipeg, a torrential storm upends the ship, leaving Pi stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a zebra, hyena, orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker. Lost at sea for an astonishing 227 days, Pi is forced to reevaluate his earlier notions of fate and the universe as his faith is put to the ultimate test.
Suraj Sharma
The meandering plot could easily have alienated viewers in the hands of a lesser director. Lucky for us, Lee has a knack for making even the quietest moments resonate with an emotional power. Life of Pi stays afloat thanks to lead actor Suraj Sharma, who carries the entire weight of the film on his young shoulders. It's a career-making performance that will undoubtedly put Sharma on the map.

Who knew that watching a teen boy grapple with religion, contemplate the meaning of life and bond with a vicious tiger could result in one of the finest film experiences of 2012?

Life of Pi is a fable, a film that revels in the art of storytelling. Through a combination of Magee's deft adaptation of a complex novel and Lee's lush visuals, Life of Pi is the kind of spectacle that proves even big-budget films with blockbuster-level CGI can be a thought-provoking work of art at it's very core.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Movie Review: Django Unchained

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx
Django Unchained (2012)
Written and Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson

Revenge is a dish best served cold and, when it comes to revenge, no one doles it out quite like Quentin Tarantino.

In recent years, Tarantino has endowed his central characters with ample opportunities to get even in instances where they have been painfully wronged -- whether it's The Bride exacting revenge on the man who tried to kill her or a group of Basterds on the hunt for Nazis.

Tarantino, with his almost unnatural ability to understand the plight of those who were once downtrodden and his evident love for the world of cinema, has crafted his maturest film to date with Django Unchained.

Riding high on the coattails of the much-lauded Inglorious Basterds (2009), Tarantino's latest blood-soaked  tale sets its sights on the years leading up to the American Civil War. When we first meet a chained Django (Jamie Foxx) he's a recently purchased slave who is unexpectedly freed by a personable German bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz makes plain his motivation to a thoroughly stunned Django -- he's on the hunt for Django's previous owners and requires his help in pointing out their faces in a crowd. However, as with all Tarantino films, the opening 40 minutes merely scratches the surface of the plot.

The real draw is in Django's search for his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), now under the ownership of the brutal Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- a man so villainous that he forces slaves to battle one another to the death in what he calls "mandingo fighting."

Schultz and Django devise a way to work their way into Calvin's good graces, earning a place at his dinner table under the guise of slave traders wanting to offer him money for some of his "mandingo" fighters.

With a nearly three-hour run-time, Django is on par with Tarantino's previous films with regards to longevity and plot twists. However, those coming into Django expecting the usual clever, dialogue-heavy flair that has become the director's staple will be surprised that such extended scenes of jabber are lacking this time around. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. And that's not to say that Tarantino's dialogue has lost its bite. As amusing and scathing as Tarantino's conversations can be, Django involves far more character development and explosive (not to mention extremely violent) action sequences.
Leonardo DiCaprio
And while Tarantino, as writer-director, is a draw in his own right, his bang-on casting choices are always guaranteed to pack the threatres.

As the titular anti-hero, Foxx has the right intensity -- his anger on slow-burn, brimming just beneath the surface before it erupts in spectacular fashion. It's undeniable that Foxx fits comfortably in Tarantino's universe. While Django is less showy than some of Tarantino's previous creations, Foxx excels in the role with a quiet, subtle and touching performance.

However, it's Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, DiCaprio as the vicious Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as Candie's loyal house slave, Stephen, that all vie with each other to steal the show. In a smaller supporting role, Jackson gives arguably his best performance in years. As Calvin, DiCaprio is genuinely terrifying, shattering any remaining comparisons he may still encounter with his earlier roles in Titanic or Romeo + Juliet. He's all fire and brimstone and some of his best exchanges occur alongside the equally wonderful Jackson.

But it's Waltz, once again, who nearly steals the film right out from under his co-stars. As he did with Basterds, Waltz savours Tarantino's dialogue, using his unique cadences to give his director's words even more meaning and intensity. He's so suited for Tarantino's hyper, ultra-violent homages that the two will undoubtedly continue to work together for years down the road. His Schultz is the perfect mentor to Django and, part of why the film excels, is because of their palpable chemistry.

Django is a whole new venture for Tarantino; more mature, violent and controversial than any of his previous films. But there's no denying that this auteur still has the goods and his work packs a punch few other American directors can get away with -- or would even risk trying.

Once again Tarantino goes big and delivers -- his critics be damned.