Sunday, January 13, 2013

Recent History Portrayed Well: The Impossible and Zero Dark Thirty

This wasn't planned to be a two-movie post; I was just going to write up Zero Dark Thirty, which didn't have any other reviews on eFilmCritic, and get back to the massive TWIT backlog, but something about The Impossible stuck in my head.

It is, basically, that the movie does an unusually good job of not playing the card where the protagonists are assumed to deserve survival more than everyone else. That's probably a horribly unfair way to put it, in that I doubt that the average filmmaker is trying to say that the other characters (and, in the cases of these movies, real-life people) are less worthy. More likely, they're just trying to personalize the stakes for the audience - make the story something relatable to the audience member who maybe doesn't grasp the disaster but does understand not wanting to leave things badly with a loved one, or praying, or wondering why something didn't happen to them, as well. The "these guys are more important" thing is a side-effect.

It shows up a little in Zero Dark Thirty, and is one of those more Hollywood moments that kind of surprised me - Jessica Chastain's Maya actually says that she feels as if she survived so that she could be the one to track down UBL. It works in part because that's not just arrogance on the writer's part, but Maya's - she does have the sort of focus for that to seem like a believable attitude, and it's not presented as particularly modest, the way it might in a movie with a more faith-based bent; at least, admitting that this is a self-centered attitude rather than the false modesty of accepting the generosity of a higher force makes it more palatable to this viewer.

Beyond that, there's something very enjoyable about how both stand back and endeavor to show what happened rather than trying to get the audience to feel some particular way about it. It's okay to be conflicted about the actions in Zero Dark Thirty or to simply observe what happened to the family in The Impossible without finding a message there. Just as I like documentaries that impart knowledge more than those which try to convince me of a point of view, I like this kind of "based on a true story" more than what we typically get: It just puts the audience in a spot, rather than trying to say how we should feel about it.

The Impossible

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 January 2013 in Regal Fenway #11 (first-run, 4K digital)

It's easy to be cynical about certain aspects of The Impossible, and I share the reservations of anybody frustrated at this particular story from the 26 December 2004 tsunami being the one to get the highest-profile big-screen treatment. But once the decision has been made to tell this story, there is almost no reason to quibble with the execution; it's exceptionally well-made and avoids the most ubiquitous pitfall of its genre quite nicely indeed.

An English family living in Japan - father Henry (Ewan McGregor), mother Maria (Naomi Watts), and sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) arrive in Thailand on Christmas Eve to spend the holidays at a resort. Henry is worried about his job security; Maria thinks it may be time to return home and for her to return to the workforce (she's a doctor) in any event. Those problems, of course, will be dwarfed by what happens on Boxing Day, when a wall of water slams into the resort along with the rest of the coast. The next thing she realizes, she's floating in the middle of a flood, with only oldest son Lucas anywhere to be seen.

The flood itself is an amazing sequence of horrifying spectacle, both in the special-effects shots of watery death rapidly approaching and the aftermath. The initial scenes with Maria and Lucas are extraordinary, exactly what one wants from this sort of movie: Exciting pieces of action, sure, but also packed full of information and characterization - seeing how they swim toward each other desperately and trust each other completely, without hesitation is quite the demonstration of how a picture is worth a thousand words.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Zero Dark Thirty

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2013 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, 4K digital)

There are times in Zero Dark Thirty where the audience might stop and think that the moment is kind of Hollywood compared to the stark, nonsense-free material that surrounds it. For some, that may be just what this nuts-and-bolts movie needs, and those looking for just the facts likely won't find that it makes the movie less than riveting.

The story picks up two years after the attack that destroyed the World Trade Center. CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) has just been assigned to the US Embassy in Pakistan, though she also spends a fair amount of time across the border in Afghanistan, observing and assisting another agent, Dan (Jason Clarke), as he interrogates captured Al Qaida prisoners. That produces very little actionable intelligence until Maya gets him to mention a high-level courier, and she doggedly follows that lead as far as it will take her.

It's no spoiler to say that Maya's work will eventually lead to a midnight raid on a fortress-like residence in Pakistan, or that said operation is a success; that is recent, widely-reported history. So, what do director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who previously collaborated on The Hurt Locker) have for the audience? Details. Here is how quick thinking allows an investigator to turn a terrorist attack to her advantage; here is how a modern electronic dragnet lets the CIA find a needle in a haystack. Boal & Bigelow don't spend a lot of time explaining how things work or foreshadowing when things go violently wrong, and only rarely does it seem like they've altered or emphasized events to fit a conventional narrative; they're telling how something happened, rather than fitting history to a familiar character arc.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

1 comment:

movies said...

I like non fiction movies. Zero Dark Thirty and The Impossible are entertaining true stories.