Neither a chain of spice stores nor a Food Network program, The Seasoning House is a bleak-as-nuclear-winter thriller set during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. A deaf girl named Angel (Brit teen Rosie Day) is taken from her home by soldiers who shoot her mother dead.
Paul Schrader’s The Canyons opens and closes with a montage of abandoned movie theaters. For this film in particular, that choice strikes one as symbolic in several ways: not only as a comment on the state of the industry, but on the state of The Canyons itself. You’re unlikely to find many 2013 films this empty.
What's a director of classic musicals doing in science fiction? Making Saturn 3, one of the worst of the genre Hollywood made in the immediate post-Star Wars / Alien era. Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) takes to it about as well as you'd expect; he's in over his head.
Military marksman Col. Jim McQuade (Gregory Hines, Running Scared) is called into top-secret duty to neutralize a surveillance robot gone haywire in San Francisco. It won't be easy, because for one thing, the android is undetectable from a human. For another, it has a built-in nuclear bomb that will detonate upon imminent threat.
I plead guilty: My friends and I have goofed around with a camcorder before and made stupid movies, but we were smart enough to know that no one outside ourselves would think they were funny. If only the makers of Caesar and Otto's Deadly Xmas realized the same.
Trusting them appears to be the cardinal sin of Zero Dark Thirty, a masterful, absorbing film
dramatizing the CIA's 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. It has been at
the center of controversy for its depiction of U.S. intelligence agents
using “enhanced interrogation techniques,” otherwise known as torture.
Some, including Republican Sen. John McCain, accuse director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who last collaborated on The Hurt Locker, of falsely suggesting that intel gleaned through torture is what led the CIA to bin Laden.
The controversy is at a fever pitch. Is ZDT a nearly journalistic work? Is it morally repugnant propaganda?
Mostly, it is a work of resolute, perhaps maddening, ambivalence. Opening Friday, ZDT details a remarkable manhunt in which horrific things occurred, but our reactions to what unfolds on-screen are far from clear-cut.
The approach is evident in the opening minutes, with an aural collage of real-life emergency scanner traffic and cellphone calls from Sept. 11, 2001. That sonic assault is abruptly followed by a scene, two years later, in which an al-Qaida detainee named Ammar (Reda Kateb, A Prophet) is subjected to brutal torture at the hands of a CIA operative (Jason Clarke, Lawless) who looks more like a coffeehouse barista than a sadist.
It is worth noting that the movie is much more than the uproar now surrounding it. Our protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain, The Help), tirelessly works to track down a mystery man, known as Abu Ahmed, whom she believes is bin Laden’s favorite courier. The search stretches from military bases in Afghanistan to secret prisons in Europe, from a Lamborghini dealership in Kuwait and, finally, to a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the Navy SEAL Team 6 operation that killed bin Laden.
With painstakingly created suspense disguised by a naturalistic, almost documentarian feel, the film is a dazzling CIA procedural. The narrative is smart and engrossing, and it builds to a third act, the May 2011 killing of bin Laden, that is gripping in spite of our knowing how things will end.
Chastain is tremendous as the single-minded agent. Her Maya is tough, driven and seemingly without a personal life. “I believe I was spared so I could finish the job,” she tells a colleague in the wake of another terrorist attack. ZDT has assembled a strong cast throughout — particularly Clarke, Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) and Mark Strong (John Carter) — but it hinges on Chastain’s credibility. And she delivers.
Still, the question remains: Does the film condone torture? Does it condemn it? Is it even accurate? This is more than a matter of mere academics. Truth in art does matter, especially if history is twisted to support morally dicey propositions. Birth of a Nation, anyone?
But the answers are shrouded by an ambiguity that amounts to a sort of Rorschach test for moviegoers. Ammar (whom Bigelow and Boal say is a composite) reveals a critical piece of information, the name of bin Laden’s courier, after he has been worn down by torture. But the name he gives up is an alias; Abu Ahmad’s real identity, as ZDT points out, is uncovered through channels that don’t involve U.S. interrogation.
In the end, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t scrutinize the morality of what happened — or the effectiveness or necessity of torture, for that matter. But torture by U.S. personnel, like the succession of al-Qaida terrorist attacks that followed 9/11, is part of the historical record. The film chronicles — expertly, thrillingly, profoundly — these events.