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Weekend Movie Preview: ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ & ‘Promised Land’

January 5th, 2013 5:03pm EST

Zero Dark Thirty Poster Happy New Year! I thought I’d start out the first week of 2013 with a Weekend Movie Preview column since it’s been a while. Things were pretty hectic last month between the holidays and voting on my favorite movies from 2012 with my colleagues in the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Now that I’m rested up and I’ve seen a few films, I’m ready to tell you my thoughts about them.
The flicks I’m going to discuss today have already received limited release in theaters, but they’re opening in Boston this weekend, which means I’m allowed to talk about them now. Today’s column contains my reviews of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land.”
ZERO DARK THIRTY

"Zero Dark Thirty" is a chronicle of the ten-year hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. The tale focuses on a CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who obsessively devotes herself to gathering the intelligence needed to track him down. In the film, we see how her efforts led to the operation by the Navy SEAL Team 6, which raided bin Laden’s compound and killed him in May 2011.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker,” “K-19: The Widowmaker”)
Writer: Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”)
Notable Supporting Actors: Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton
MY TAKE: "Zero Dark Thirty" was at the top of my list in 2012...as the most overrated movie of the year. My colleagues describe it as masterfully directed, taut, well-acted, and pulse-pounding, but I don't feel like I saw the same film. From top to bottom I was unimpressed and unengaged by this thriller.
Although I wasn’t wowed by Bigelow's previous flick "The Hurt Locker" either, I at least understood the appeal. In it Bigelow tells a gritty story about army bomb diffusion experts where every day could be their last. The director creates a palpable sweaty tension and even though the film becomes a bit monotonous, it worked for me.
I didn’t experience that same intensity at all with “Zero Dark Thirty.” The movie works at a plodding pace as it traces the decade-long hunt for bin Laden, making it difficult to get excited. Adding to the agony is the no frills, pedestrian directing which creates little sense of urgency during the film. Even parts that are supposed to be riveting, are predictable and drawn out like the endlessly long scene where you’re waiting for a car bomb to kill someone and the protracted raid on bin Laden’s compound.
Another annoyance is that there’s almost no character development for Maya. We know that she’s smart and the only thing she wants is to catch bin Laden, but we have no idea why she wants to do it, where she comes from, why she’s the right person for the job, and how she knows so much about this field. It’s hard to root for her as a result.
Chastain’s performance did little to engage me as well. Most of the time to show her character is stressed her hair is disheveled and she has a spacey look in her eyes. This look is one you see several times in the film: a close-up of her spacing out. Despite scenes where she becomes angry and starts yelling it’s also hard to feel the true conviction behind her actions. I will say though, that in the final shots of the film she does turn up the intensity and creates a compelling moment. I wish there was more of that level of acting throughout.
A lot of people have argued with me that the reason this movie is so great is because it’s so restrained and it recounts everything as it happened without sensationalizing it. But that’s exactly why I find it boring. If you want to tell something exactly how it happened, make a documentary. If you want to make a feature film, take a few artistic liberties, even if they’re minor. You can still tell a story that’s mostly true and entertaining (See “Lincoln” and “Argo”).
My Grade: C

PROMISED LAND

Hotshot energy salesman Steve Butler (Matt Damon) arrives in a rural town with his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand) hoping to quickly close a major deal. Butler and Thomason believe that they can use the promise of economic revitalization to convince citizens to accept their company’s offer for drilling rights to local property. However their situation becomes thorny due the protest of a respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbook) and support from a grassroots activist (John Krasinski), who challenges Steve personally and professionally.
Director: Gus Van Sant (“Milk,” “Good Will Hunting”)
Writers: John Krasinski (“Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”) and Matt Damon (“Good Will Hunting”)
Based On: Story by Dave Eggers (“Where the Wild Things Are,” “Away We Go”)
Notable Supporting Actors: Titus Welliver, Rosemarie DeWitt, Lucas Black, Scoot McNairy
MY TAKE: Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon, and John Krasinski’s collaboration “Promised Land” is very ambitious. Not only does the film strive to raise important economic and environmental questions, but it also endeavors to explore one man’s struggle to preserve his character in the face of professional challenges. It impressed me for largely accomplishing these goals successfully.
What I like the most about the movie is that it’s written so that it can take place in Anytown, USA, where decreased agriculture has created economic depression. As a director, Van Sant uses lots of aerial and wide shots of the landscape to play up the American heartland setting. The universal fiscal troubles of the townspeople in this movie make it easy to relate to their perspective, even if you aren’t from small-town America yourself. Their issues make you realize how easily energy companies like the one in the film could prey upon desperation for better times. In that way it’s quite scary.
Damon does a fantastic job painting his character as Mr. Corporate sellout, a former rural guy playing for the other team. Steve Butler is a smug, self-assured guy who’s used to getting everything he wants because of his false down-to-earth nature.
Butler’s overconfidence is what makes his conflict with Frank Yates (Holbrook) and Dustin Noble (Krasinski) so engaging. Yates gets Butler to reexamine why he’s working for a big callous company, and Krasinski’s Dustin throws Butler against the ropes, serving him a big ole’ slice of humble pie. Dustin becomes the perfect foil for Steve, dashing all of Steve’s efforts with panache and self-satisfaction. I enjoyed watching Damon’s character try to deal with the concept that he might finally lose a battle.
The dialogue that Damon and Krasinski penned for the movie is humorous and light with a genteel quality even during the arguments. They raise a lot of valid concerns on both sides of the natural gas (fracking) issue, and throw in an unexpected twist partway through. However their movie falls apart in the last act because they aren’t aggressive enough to take a stand about whether natural gas is ultimately good or bad for this town. The ending is just too open-ended and politically shy to be satisfying.
My Grade: B-

Related: Promised Land, Zero Dark Thirty, Starpulse Exclusives, Movies, Movie Reviews, Columns, Weekend Movie Preview

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