Zero Dark Thirty: Revenge, American Style

Finally got my new video critique up, this time about Kathryn Bigelow’s eternally controversial Zero Dark Thirty and how it’s a much more conventional revenge thriller than you might think.


The Revenant or (the Expected Vice of Pretension)

So it’s Oscar season again and all the newspapers, blogs and news sites are banging on about the big awards films being thrown out around this time, whether it’s Jennifer Lawrence trying to pass for forty, Eddie Redmayne donning his latest outfit of exaggerated physical tics bearing the name of a real person, or Leonardo DiCaprio being raped by a bear. That last one’s not actually accurate but was what largely drew my attention to The Revenant, despite Alejandro Iñárritu’s name plastered all over it like a giant, wailing pretension alarm. In interviews the storied director said “I don’t consider [my] film a Western, Western is in a way a genre, and the problem with genres is that it comes from the word ‘generic’, and I feel that this film is very far from generic,” which is an interesting opinion since his finished product is about as generic and uninspired a revenge story as exists in cinema.

The Revenant is adapted from the novel of the same name, a loose retelling of the story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper who clawed his way through the American wilderness after being left for dead by his friends following a bear attack. The story as it’s told in the movie is that after the mauling Leonardo DiCaprio is left behind by his party, with only cartoon villain Tom Hardy (wielding an equally cartoonish accent) and his half-Indian son (who exists only so Hardy can kill him and run off) for company. After Hardy’s done the deed he throws DiCaprio in a shallow open grave, and much of the remaining runtime is spent watching DiCaprio crawl his way across the frozen Canadian tundra in a way not so much reminiscent of The Grey as of Homer Simpson’s attempt to jump Springfield Gorge.

A few subplots are thrown in, with an ongoing feud between a Native American tribe and some French soldiers crossing paths with our hero from time to time, but overall the film is shockingly dramatically inert. DiCaprio is the only character with any depth, and about eighty minutes worth of  plot, character and theme are stretched over twice that length, leading to a largely forgettable movie that drags interminably. It’s actually hard to find much of interest to talk about unless you find DiCaprio’s gritted teeth face inherently interesting. This lack of effective drama also leaves the violence largely bereft of weight, causing me to laugh at the bloodshed and dismemberment instead of being in any way horrified.

For all that’s been made of the film’s technical achievements they don’t feel in service of much. It’s superficially pretty but many shots serve no purpose besides trying to ape Terrence Malick, and the much-publicised filming with natural light is undercut by the constant fisheye photography making it feel remarkably artificial. Iñárritu also tries to return to the long takes he used in Birdman, but while he clearly wants to be Alfonso Cuaron he lacks one of Cuaron’s most important talents in that field, that of knowing when to end a long take for dramatic effect. Whereas the famous tour of the warzone in Children of Men and Gravity’s eighteen-minute opening shot end in a way that propels the central drama of the moment to the forefront, Iñárritu’s takes keep going until they just kind of stop, creating a film full of weirdly inconsistent editing.

Heaven’s Gate is the obvious comparison here, another prestige Western by a prima donna director whose ever more ridiculous demands lead it way over budget. But while The Revenant shares that film’s visual spendor and distension of a thin plot and central theme that’s nowhere near as deep as it thinks it is, in the end Heaven’s Gate is just a very, deeply okay, if pretty, film while The Revenant is outright terrible, an interminable, pretentious slog only tolerable if you can laugh at brutal violence (and the brief moment where the bear appears to have sodomised DiCaprio). So it’s an almost certain shoe-in for Best Picture in a month or so.

Jupiter Descending

Aww shit. Even after the six-month delay, rumours of reshoots and re-edits, a poor preview showing at Sundance and reviews charitably described as ‘savaging’, I was still looking forward to this film. The Wachowskis hold a special place in my generation’s hearts, being responsible for our childhood classic The Matrix, which may just be the perfect action movie for teenagers (though that discussion’s for another time). While the sequels were less than great and I still haven’t seen Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas was a modern classic and in my opinion their magnum opus. So when they announced a $175m space opera starring Mila Kunis, with Channing Tatum as some sort of wolf-man I was intrigued, their blend of crazy and optimism seeming like a bright spark in a world where Superman destroys cities. A spark I just watched being pissed on for two hours.

So, the plot. Jupiter Jones, a toilet cleaner and second-generation illegal Russian immigrant, finds out she’s actually the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of the Abrasax family, an interstellar human-farming business which minces people to provide life-extending drugs (are you getting this subtle anti-capitalism message kids?) and she’s targeted by bounty hunters sent by her three heirs (as she left herself the earth in her will). One wants her dead, one wants to marry her and you can see the problem with this already, can’t you? So much happens in this movie, it collapses in on itself almost immediately. Every possible idea is thrown at the screen: genetically-engineered animal people, robots with human faces, people refineries hidden inside Jupiter (the planet, Mila Kunis is sadly not eating people), space weddings, Russian family comedy, egg-donation hijinks and it’s all too much from the get go. The first five minutes show Jupiter’s parents meeting, discussing what they’ll name her, dad getting shot by the mob and mom’s emigration to America in a shipping crate. It’s like if someone tried condensing Dune into two hours – oh wait.

The first half hour feels hacked down and I’m not sure it’s for the worse. I reckon there’s a 2 1/2 hour cut out there somewhere, but I can’t begrudge Warners for saving us from the wacky comedy hijinks of Jupiter’s Russian family, who act like no human beings in existence. I’m guessing Tom Tykwer directed the funny parts of Cloud Atlas, as this film has no sense of comedic timing. The latter acts feel more complete, but nothing could make up for how disjointed everything is. We never get a feel for the greater picture here, and so the universe feels paradoxically tiny and condensed. We only ever hear of the Abrasax clan, so are they the only power in the galaxy? Well no, because we also meet the space police (or rather one space police cruiser), siding with the heroes for some reason, but do they have power over the villains or is this a Chinatown situation? There’s a galactic bureaucracy in an extended Brazil homage, complete with Terry Gilliam cameo and few laughs, but how does this factor into the grand scheme of things?  For all the endless detail thrown our way there’s very little worldbuilding, despite the endless expository dialogue on that very subject.

Regarding characters, the film is all over the place. Channing Tatum’s dog/human hybrid hunter Caine (subtle) gets his dark past relayed to us and that’s about it, which is true for pretty much all the good guys. Everyone speaks in flat exposition or attempts at humour, leaving bugger-all room for character development. Two of the three villainous heirs are completely superfluous, one existing to exposit and show off her rear end before disappearing after five minutes, and the other just for a retread of Shrek, with Caine and Sean Bean (whose death I can only assume is on the cutting room floor) having to crash the wedding before she says ‘I do’. Eddie Redmayne’s makes surprisingly little impression as the main villain, despite a performance you’d expect to be a camp classic, but the weirdest is Jupiter herself. Despite supposedly ascending over the course of the film she has no real agency in it. She’s kidnapped repeatedly and tossed between bounty hunters, has to be rescued before marrying Lord Farquaad and doesn’t even really get a final confrontation with Redmayne, who just kinda drops out of the movie. She’s more of a human MacGuffin than a lead.

This movie is a perfect example of what happens if you have no limitations while making a film. When every idea in your mind can be realised on an unlimited budget, your imagination just runs away with you. It’s the Wachowski equivalent of Sucker Punch, where Warners hit it big with a director and just threw money at their pet projects to try and recapture that success, climaxing with disastrous, indulgent sci-fi mashups of whatever the director thought was cool at the time (though with great action scenes). This film marks the nail in the coffin of the Wachowskis getting this kind of creative freedom and budget again, and I think it would be good for them to make a small, $15-20m movie set in the real world, just to regain a sense of perspective. Given Snyder’s track record though, I think it’s more likely we’ll be seeing a Wachowski Aquaman in three years time.

The Imitation Game

The phrase ‘Oscar bait’ is starting to lose all meaning. Does it mean film’s made solely to win Oscars, like The Iron Lady? Is it a label applied to anything fitting the academy’s pre-existing tastes, like Schindler’s List? Or just an cheap putdown for anything you consider pretentious?

The Imitation Game is exactly the sort of film this label gets attached to, being a relatively light and easy take on a difficult subject matter, featuring great performance from its leads who will undoubtedly go on to gather nominations and coming hot on the heels of the last ‘this only won because the academy has no testicles’ film The King’s Speech (which for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed). But is it fair?

The film is the story of Alan Turing, the late mathematical genius who cracked the German Enigma code, helping the Allies to win World War II, but who was prosecuted a decade later for being gay and killed himself not long after. A very delayed pardon came from the British Government last year, but it remains a deeply shameful chapter in British history.

Turing’s life is depicted here in three chapters: Alan at school falling in love for the first time, his work cracking Enigma at Bletchley Park during the war, and his conviction for ‘gross indecency’ in 1953. The final chapter is mostly used as a wraparound story, with Turing revealing his life in the interrogation room (with the movie beating ‘this guy is the audience proxy’ into our heads with a piledriver) but it’s all for naught as the voiceover only tells us only what we could easily infer from the images onscreen, the framing device never mentions his school days and it catches up to itself 3/4 of the way through, but the film keeps jumping timelines until the final scene. It almost feels like a reshoot out of fear the audience wouldn’t keep up with the chronology.

The approach to each chapter is disappointing to say the least. His school days and falling for his classmate are portrayed decently, with a standout performance from newcomer Alex Lawther who is largely why this sequence has any meaning. It could be easily cut from the film entirely as the only way it informs the other chapters is telling us why Turing named his codebreaking machine Christopher. Or it would, were that not a blatant fabrication by the writer. Any cursory research (or a tour of Bletchely Park that you come away from with an Alan Turing Monopoly set motherfuckers!) tells you the machine was named the ‘Bombe’, making this section not only pointless but a little insulting in its blatant attempts to tug on heartstrings.

It also brings up another major problem with the film, which is that it’s so fucking chaste. Turing’s sexuality is a major part of the narrative but while it’s spoken of repeatedly it’s never felt. There is no sexual tension and aside from the school section you never see Turing in a remotely intimate situation with anyone. When your film is less sexual than a Christopher Nolan picture, it’s not a good sign. The film actually tries to play his sexuality as a reveal (thankfully before the half-way point) and the Bletchley section is largely focused on his (non-sexual) relationship with a female colleague. Turing’s actual openness about his sexuality (source: my tour guide) is ignored in favour of him him keeping it secret (and being blackmailed by a man he likely never met), which is taking the old 90’s ‘not too gay’ route if I’ve ever seen it.

Bletchley Park makes up the majority of the movie as we see Turing and the other codebreakers of Hut 8 build his Enigma-cracking computer. This section most embodies the film’s greatest flaw, which is just how unambitious and unexceptional it is. Graham Moore’s script leaves no cliché unturned, and his attempt at the next ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ is like sandpaper to the eardrums. Director Morten Tydlum started working in Scandanavian television and he makes everything feel like a TV movie. Nothing about the direction stands out or is notable in any way, save for the constant cutaways to anonymous scenes of warfare in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes.

It almost goes without saying that Cumberbatch is excellent here and if he wins his Oscar for this I will not begrudge him. His natural gift for introversion works for the solitary character, whose extreme literalism he makes believable despite the sheer weight of jokes trying to crush that (he comes across like Drax). In the final part of Turing’s story he conveys the loneliness and despair of a man whose life is crushed before his eyes well, though much of the 1950’s segment is rather pointless. It’s framed as a detective story of a policeman investigating a mysterious break-in at Turing’s flat, furthering the script’s insistence on crowbarring this into a closet story by making the burglar a prostitute Turing was seeing, who he refuses to discuss with the police. In reality the burglar was an acquaintance of Turing’s boyfriend, and Turing’s free admission of that relationship to the police was what got him arrested. Aside from this point there is little to say about the sequence save for the ending, as it largely functions as the previously-mentioned framing device.

But now we get to that ending, because when faced with the telling the story of a man who was destroyed by the country he helped save, the filmmakers have decided to cop out. The film’s closing scene has Turing’s friend Keira Knightly visiting him following his conviction and chemical castration by the courts, and amidst his despair over the ruination of his life she consoles him with the reminder of how much he brought to the world. A reasonable statement you may be thinking, but she’s talking to the audience as well. Yep, the filmmakers have decided to end this on an inspirational note. Turing’s suicide is relegated to text at the end, a little ‘Oh by the way, he killed himself’ so as not to offset the upliftingness of it all. This is nothing short of a disgrace, as if Grave of the Fireflies ended with the kids playing by the riverbank, with nothing but a title card to say ‘Everything went to shit later’.

The Imitiation Game is an uninteresting, unexceptional and at times insulting retelling of the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest geniuses. It is a film sure to be talked of on release in worthy, admiring terms, win a bunch of awards and then vanish into the collective ether within five years. There is little of any lasting value here and so, in the end, it is nothing more than Oscar bait.

American Hustle

The first movie I saw this year was David O Russell’s latest bid for Oscars American Hustle. The fictionalised account of the ABSCAM FBI operation (the opening title says ‘some of this actually happened’) into political corruption has Christian Bale and Amy Adams as two con-artists employed (under threat of arrest) by Bradley Cooper to help him take down more and more important people. I was expecting a lot from this film based on the critical buzz prior to its release but I was left underwhelmed by the final product.

The film is very well-made, with good directing by Russell and excellent performances by the entire cast (although Jennifer Lawrence looks far too young for her part). The characters are well-rounded and the moments of humour work well (particularly a bit involving a microwave). But about two-thirds of the way through I suddenly noticed that I was starting to stop caring about what was happening in front of me, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. It wasn’t that the story was uninteresting or too hard to keep up with (even if it does seem to be trying to out-tangle Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). I think the thing with American Hustle is that beneath at the gloss and performances the really isn’t much at the core of the film, and it feels like it doesn’t have much of a particular focus. It has all the superficial elements of a great film, but not the substance.