Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ocean's Twelve

This one I actually wrote a while ago, but it still describes how I feel about this film. Also, it's rather short, but oh well.


“Ocean's Twelve” is almost like an art-house heist movie. Don't make the mistake of walking into it expecting a very coherent plot, at least not on the first go around. Those who look for action here are bound to be disappointed. One shouldn’t try to take the frankly ridiculous heist seriously. Its best moments are, indeed, its most ridiculous. What the director, Steven Soderbergh, does with this movie is something very different than what he did with Ocean's Eleven, which was witty, but was still basically a straightforward caper, focused largely on the cleverness of the action. This movie is not really about a heist at all, per se. It is about the way people talk to each other. Despite the enormous cast (all the originals plus Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vincent Cassel—and look for the great little cameo by Bruce Willis), the dialogue is the real star here. Soderbergh throws us into the deep end of a colorful pool of misunderstandings, jokes, banter, threats, tricks, insults, deflections, accusations, confessions, end-arounds, double-crosses, realignments, reinterpretations, and reversals—all intricately constructed and delivered with flair. Characters in this movie even sometimes talk in riddles just for the sake of it, such as in one brilliantly absurd scene where Brad Pitt and George Clooney allow Matt Damon to tag along on a tricky negotiation session and neglect to inform him that the whole meeting will take place in a delicate and bizarrely indecipherable poetic code. And even this scene is tipped on its head later. The movie observes and joys in the barbed banter and convoluted communication, but it does not sit back passively, but rather wraps the talk in as much flashy style and setting and luxury and music (a lively and fitting score by David Holmes) as possible, so that it feels like the stars just having a party. Fortunately, we're invited, and the final scene confirms and makes literal the inclusive party tone, ushering us in to simply hang out with all these glamorous, well-paid entertainers. But don't be fooled by the dazzling surface. Underneath is a virtual handbook on verbal communication in the movies. Whether this will entertain you and make you think, or annoy you with its shallow extravagance, I don't know, but in a weird and counter-intuitive way, it worked for me.

Ocean's Twelve (PG-13) ****

Friday, January 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

It would have been so easy to make a terrible, terrible film about the hunt for Usama bin Laden, one that was gung-ho and reveled in and celebrated America’s great and long-awaited revenge, that exalted the CIA agents or Seal Team Six as obvious and unquestionable quasi-mythic heroes and brought out the string section and the glowing sunset shots. Some conservatives worried it would be a paean to Obama. Perhaps I’m imagining the Michael Bay version. The “oorah” version. Perhaps we will still get that movie.

But with “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (reuniting after the Oscar-winning “Hurt Locker”) have thankfully not made such a film. The tone is largely somber, especially in the last few minutes, which seemed appropriate to me. The characters here are presented primarily as workers, toiling endlessly away at jobs that involve a lot of making phone calls, driving around, and staring at computers. Also, they happen to involve torturing prisoners and hunting one highly elusive mass murderer. One character in specific stands out—a new officer named Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. The character, said to be based on a real person or persons, was recruited straight out of high school, and in her time at the CIA has worked on nothing but the hunt for Usama bin Laden (UBL). And now she is in a station in Pakistan, watching first with marked unease and later with cool indifference as a bloodied and exhausted al-Qaeda man is subjected to waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogations.” (There has been a lot of controversy over whether this film makes a case for the effectiveness of torture or not. It seems somewhat ambiguous to me:  at one point a tortured prisoner is screaming random days of the week while being shoved into a box, but at another point, a man gives information and points out that his motivation is that he does not want to be tortured.)

Chastain gives a powerful but subtle performance, mixing intensity with intelligence. Maya is our through-line; we know next to nothing about her as a person, but we latch on to her fierce obsession and it pulls us through the film. She is always focused, always driven, and every now and then bursts forth in a potent frustration and impatience with the less dedicated or less certain around her. Maya’s single-mindedness, and Chastain’s fragile harshness (an example of great counter-intuitive casting), creates an energy and urgency that keeps the film from stagnating, even though that is exactly what is happening to the hunt for much of the middle of the movie.

Nonetheless, it is that middle section of the movie that is the weakest. It is long, and gets repetitive, with leads failing, sources lying, bosses yelling, and logistics obstructing in what feels like an endless cycle. And continued terrorist attacks (in Afghanistan and London) serve as ruthless punctuation. The chapter titles used to demarcate the film are not especially helpful in this regard, as they make it feel like whole episodes of a TV series might be passing. Momentum is definitely lost during the back half of these stretches, and Bigelow also risks losing our interest. But I think the elongated nature of this part of the film serves a specific purpose. “Zero Dark Thirty” runs over two and half hours, and when Maya and co. are stymied again and again, you feel the length of that running time, substituting for the length of years. And, as Mark Strong’s superior officer points out, they are spending billions of dollars and have nothing to show for it.

The plot structure of “Zero Dark Thirty” is also interesting in that it emphasizes the cost, not just in dollars, of the “greatest manhunt in history.” The film opens with the haunting sounds of 9/11, and then goes pretty much straight to torture. Action, reaction. It underlines that this is our response to that. Atrocity for atrocity. Maya is dismayed at first, but grows accustomed to it, presumably as most involved had to. Then comes the middle act of the film, which involves us deeply in the tense and frustrating hunt for bin Laden, and with Maya’s growing personal obsession, and then stretches that hunt out (perhaps testing our patience too far). Finally, after Maya has pushed her certainty through the levels of power, Bigelow depicts the raid itself. But it is not like an action-movie raid. It plays out in what feels like real time, painstaking and precise. The sparse, tense dialogue of the marines, the alternating darkness of the Pakistani night and the green glow of the night vision goggles—it all feels incredibly realistic. And that realism extends to the fact that unarmed men and women are shot; that children are moaning in terror. Maya, alone on a plane back to the US after having identified bin Laden’s body with a silent nod, is quiet and tearful, feeling catharsis no doubt, but we are on the outside, wondering at the cost.

Zero Dark Thirty (R) ****


Chase!                        (a story fragment)

            They were in an empty side street.  There was no one to stop or interfere.  The gun wavered in between them as if it were somehow detached, balanced between the rigid lines of their standing figures.  In fact, it was covered in Roth’s white, bony knuckles, at the end of his long arm.  His baggy coat sleeve was whipping around it sloppily in the wind, back and forth, making the whole situation look even more unsteady than it really was.  Roth’s eyes were tight slots, squinting against that same bothersome wind, and his sunken chin and cheekbones looked more thoroughly gaunt even than when Jamie had seen them in prison.  Jamie had his elbows bent, his hands up to either side of his body in a careful gesture of surrender.  A small, burlap bag was behind his feet.  He was trying to keep his eyes on Roth’s face, behind that wobbling gun.  He didn’t want to miss anything, miss a moment’s opportunity he might get to escape, but he kept blinking, a nervous habit that reminded him of being called on in middle school and not having any answer ready to give to the demanding teacher with her haughty eyes behind the crisp glasses perched on her too-long nose.
            “Just give me the bag already,” said Roth.  “Don’t be idiot, Jamie.  Is this silly game worth taking a bullet for?  Give me the stupid bag.”
            Jamie shifted on his feet slightly.  “Okay, man, but you just said to put my hands in the air and keep them there, and that’s what I’m trying to do here.  You realize you’re giving me contradicting orders, don’t you?”
            The gun shifted in response.  “Just kick it to me,” said Roth.  His chipped front tooth stood out to Jamie.  That must be new.  I hadn’t been there in the old days.
            “You don’t want this, Roth,” he said.  If he could hold him off for just a few minutes, maybe Emma could find them.  She would have the professor with her by now, and he would know what to do.
            “Oh, I think I do,” said Roth.  “Just kick it to me, or you’ll never see your precious girlfriend again.”
            Jamie bit his lip, desperate to stall.  “We’re . . . we broke up.  Emma and I broke up.”  He gulped, trying to look emotional.  “She, uh, she was always in love with you.”
            The tip of the gun dipped for a second.  Just a second.  It came back up at once, quivering more than ever.  Roth’s slits widened. “What?”
            “She told me that.”  He shook his head.  “That she always regretted—”
            “Stop!” Roth snarled.  His lip was quivering.  He took a step toward Jamie.  Now the business end of the pistol, a deadly extension of Roth’s thin arm, was just inches from Jamie’s forehead.
            Jamie shuddered for the first time.  Bringing Emma up had been a mistake.
            A bead of sweat snaked down Roth’s high, pale forehead and ran into his right eyebrow.  “I don’t want to have to do this to you, Jamie, but believe me, I will.”  He stepped closer again, and the cold metal tip of the gun touched the skin between Jamie’s eyebrows.
            That step closer let Jamie see the thin red strands of red in the whites of Roth’s eyes.  Suddenly, he believed him.
            He took a breath.  “Okay,” he said.  “You can have it.”
            Roth took a step back again.  “Kick it to me,” he said.
            Jamie nodded.  He stretched his right leg behind him and scooping the bag with his foot, slid it across the uneven bricks of the alleyway until it bumped into Roth’s feet.
            Roth gave a smile, too wide by half.  “See?  That wasn’t so hard.”  He dipped his chin in exaggerated politeness.  Thank you, Jamie.”
            “Don’t break it,” said Jamie.
            Roth’s smile died.  “Who do you think I am, a library doofus?  A clumsy nerd who’s gonna drop it?”  He bent down, his gun and eyes staying pointed at Jamie the whole time, and picked up the bag.  He peeked inside.  The smile reappeared, marred only by that one chipped tooth.  “I know what this is, and I know how to be careful.”  He gave a short, barking laugh.  “Unlike you, apparently.”  He backed off down the alleyway, and then bolted.
            Once Roth and his gun were out of sight around the corner, Jamie gave them both the finger.  Then he whipped out his cell phone and hit speed dial 2.
            “Hello?”  Emma sounded breathless.
            “Where are you?”
            “On our way.  Driving as fast as I can.  Have you seen Roth?”
            “Yeah,” said Jamie.  “He’s got it.  He took it from me.”
            “What??”  Emma’s shrill exclamation made the phone crackle harshly.  “Where is he now?”
            Jamie stepped out of the alley in time to see Roth hopping onto his moped.  “He’s on his moped.”  Roth turned onto Brill St.  “He just turned onto Brill St.  Pick me up and we’ll catch him.”
            He hung up before Emma or the professor could call his plan into question, and a minute later he was piling into Emma’s little Volkswagen.  “Can this thing maneuver at all?”
            She nodded.  “Yeah.”
            He looked into the back seat.  “Where’s the professor?”
            She looked down.  “Jamie . . . he died.  He bled out.  One of Roth’s goons but a bullet through his shoulder.  There was blood everywhere.  I’d never seen so much blood.  I didn’t know a human shoulder had that much blood in it.”  She choked up.  “I, I tried to bandage him, but I wasn’t fast enough.”
            Jamie had frozen, seat belt half on.  “He’s dead?”
            She just nodded.
            Jamie shook himself out of his stupor.  “We have to go after Roth anyway.  We have to recover that bag.”  He buckled.  “It’s what the professor would have wanted.”
            Emma nodded again.  “Okay.”  Her tires squealed as she pulled out of the alley.
            The sidewalks and street signs whipped past them.  Jamie silently promised himself he would never forget this, would never disrespect her Volkswagen again.
“There’s Brill,” he shouted a moment later.  “Turn now.”
The wheels squealed again, and suddenly they both saw Roth up ahead, resting uneasily on his moped, stuck at a long red light.  The precious bag was slung over his shoulder.
“There he is!” he yelled.  “Go, go, go, go, go, go!”
Emma put her foot down hard on the little pedal and they roared forward, devouring the distance between them and Roth.
Roth looked over his shoulder and saw them.  They were gaining so fast, Jamie thought he could see Roth’s eyes go big in fear.  Their prey jerked his moped around suddenly into a tight left turn.
“He’s heading into the ethnic market neighborhood!”
“Yeah, I see that,” said Emma through gritted teeth as she wrestled the steering wheel.
They turned onto a narrow street.  Small shops and stands crowded both sides, and vendors were shouting like mad in strange accents.  Roth had pushed his dinky yellow moped to the max and was almost at the end of the street already.
“We’re losing him!” shouted Jamie.  “We can’t let him get away with the bag!”
“I know!” shouted Emma.  Again she stamped on the gas pedal.  The Volkswagen lurched forward with a growl of its tires on brick and loose gravel.  An unlucky fruit cart slipped into their path and was smashed.  Brightly colored fruit flew harmlessly up their windshield and everywhere else, a beautiful explosion of color.  Next they narrowly avoided two men carrying a giant glass plate window across the street.  Emma laid on the horn, her beautiful face flush with the excitement of the chase.  Jamie had never seen her look so sexy.  He almost wanted to lean over and kiss her right then.
Suddenly there was a flash of motion in front of them.  Emma shifted with a yelp to the brake pedal, but not quickly enough.  There was a sickening thud.  The car stopped. Screams erupted.  “What’s going on?” yelled Jamie.  “Why aren’t we going?”
“I hit something, you idiot,” hissed Emma.  She opened her door and stepped out.  The small bloody body of a child lay crumpled beneath their front tires.  Blood was dripping from his mouth and nose, and his head was snapped back at a horrible angle.  She stood frozen for a second, and then fell on her knees next to him.  The screams of the neighborhood mothers and grandmothers and cousins were in her ears.  She tried to reach under the boy’s broken head to cradle it, but the minute she felt slippery blood there, she pulled back, her hands red.  The kid’s eyelids were still flickering, and for a moment his eyes met hers—small, brown, and uncomprehending.  Emma was shaking.  She became vaguely aware that Jamie had run around the car and was trying to lift her to her feet, to shove her back into her driver’s seat.  But the shocked crowd were screaming at him and slapping at him.  Emma just stared at the gurgling boy.  He was gone, mere seconds after Roth disappeared at the end of the narrow street.

Friday, January 4, 2013


Greetings one and all,

If you have found your way here, you probably know me; there's an off chance you do not. (If so, check the "About Me" section.) However, that aside, I'm here to tell you thatdue to various excellent suggestions from some of the assorted wonderful people I call my friends and family (you may be one of them!), and some stirrings that faintly resembled thoughts that I found within my own headI've decided to start a blog. And if you haven't guessed, this is in fact that blog.

The purpose of this little corner of the internet is to give me a space to semi-regularly (hopefully) throw some of writing at you, whether it be a movie review or a previously written story or just some of my random musings about the goings on in the wide world and my activity or inactivity therein. It also gives me a place to share links and such, so that I don't end up being so random on Facebook, as well as a place to send people when they want to see samples of my writing or ascertain that I do indeed have a presence (however faint) online.

Anyway, that's it for now. Hopefully soon I will have some real content here.

'Til then,

Dan Faultersack