31 January 2013

Exclusive 'World War Z' Super Bowl Spot

Get a first look at the Super Bowl (3 days early) spot for the upcoming Brad Pitt film coming out June 2013. Sheer panic throughout the entire world. Welcome to World War Z.

How Samuel L. Jackson Nearly Killed Everyone on Pulp Fiction

In a riveting Vanity Fair piece about the making of Pulp Fiction, there is an alternate universe look at a world where Samuel L. Jackson almost didn't play Jules Winnfield:

"The role of Jules Winnfield proved difficult to cast, mainly because Samuel L. Jackson was under the impression the part was his, until he found out he was in danger of losing the role to Paul Calderon. Jackson flew out to L.A. for a last-ditch audition with Tarantino. “I sort of was angry, pissed, tired,” Jackson recalls. He was also hungry, so he bought a takeout burger on his way to the studio, only to find nobody there to greet him. “When they came back, a line producer or somebody who was with them said, ‘I love your work, Mr. Fishburne,’” says Jackson. “It was like a slow burn. He doesn’t know who I am? I was kind of like, Fuck it. At that point I really didn’t care.”

"Gladstein remembers Jackson’s audition: 'In comes Sam with a burger in his hand and a drink in the other hand and stinking like fast food. Me and Quentin and Lawrence were sitting on the couch, and he walked in and just started sipping that shake and biting that burger and looking at all of us. I was scared shitless. I thought that this guy was going to shoot a gun right through my head. His eyes were popping out of his head. And he just stole the part.” Lawrence Bender adds, “He was the guy you see in the movie. He said, ‘Do you think you’re going to give this part to somebody else? I’m going to blow you motherfuckers away."

It's hard to imagine anyone but Samuel L. Jackson delivering the Ezekiel 25:17 speech. Everything about Jules is hardwired into Samuel L. Jackson's performance. A wise choice for Bender and Tarantino to cast him.

Still, it was good to see that Samuel L. Jackson took everything in stride even as far back as 1994. Fun guy, that Mr. Jackson. I hope he never finds out I'm the guy that scratched his Mercedes a few years ago...

29 January 2013

Second 'Trance' Poster and Release Date

The marketing campaign for Danny Boyle's Trance is proving to be an unique one. Last week's poster was worthy of hanging on my wall and this one is similarly handsome. I am very much looking forward to the next piece of artwork for the film.

Fox Searchlight will release Trance on April 5, 2013. Count this as one of my highly anticipated films of 2013!

"Simon (James McAvoy), a fine arts auctioneer, teams up with a criminal gang to steal a Goya painting worth millions of dollars, but after suffering a blow to the head during the heist he awakens to discover he has no memory of where he hid the painting. When physical threats and torture fail to produce answers, the gang's leader (Vincent Cassel) hires psychotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to delve into the darkest recesses of Simon's psyche. As Elizabeth begins to unravel Simon's broken subconscious, the line between truth, suggestion and deceit begin to blur."

(Courtesy: Allied Media)

28 January 2013

Oscar Happenings: Too Soon?

Regardless of what the Academy eventually chooses for Best Picture, Director, and Actor over the coming months, some will be shouting "again?!" when the winner's name is announced.

Out of all the nominees, nearly none of the leaders in major categories are new to the Oscar derby. Previous winners like Robert DeNiro, Sally Field, Denzel Washington, Joaquin Phoenix, Helen Hunt and Philip Seymour Hoffman could all add to their totals on Oscar night. And those are only a few names; the entire Supporting Actor category is made up of former winners!

With the exception of Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild, the majority of the nominated films also have winners behind them. Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) won Best Director three years ago for Hurt Locker, Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) is a two-time winner for Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List and Ang Lee (Life of Pi) also won a Best Director Oscar previously for Brokeback Mountain.

Read the rest over at Film Annex

25 January 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot #14

The game where I throw out one of cinema's more obscure quotes and you try to guess it. No one got last week's answer, so readers are currently 8 for 13. Let's see if you can name the film this quote is from:

"Men, you are about to embark on a great crusade to stamp out runaway decency in the West. Now you men will only be risking your lives, whilst I will be risking an almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor."

23 January 2013

Review: The Vacuum of L.A. (Gangster Squad)

Gangster Squad starts with Sgt. John O'Meara commenting on the current state of Los Angeles in 1949. Several characters mention the City of Angels has turned into a cesspool since the arrival and subsequent takeover by gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). What we see and are shown never alludes to anything other than a hell-hole, but Sgt. John O'Meara's words must mean something.

To Sgt. O'Meara (Josh Brolin) honor and integrity are tangible things, they can be sought out and reclaimed. He has returned from The War to see his home ravaged and manipulated into a gangster's playground. His wife is pregnant and just wants him to take the check and keep low. After busting up an entire operation by himself, O'Meara has let it be known: he won't take this sitting down.

Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) has taken the opposite approach: retreat into liquor and women because the worst has not gotten here yet. Wooters' apathy hides a great deal, but O'Meara knows better. A travesty outside a nightclub Wooters frequents changes his mind pretty quickly. With the addition of several street-savvy members to the crew, including a gun-slinger and a wireman, O'Meara is ready to take down Cohen.

What follows next is almost cartoonish in its depiction of destabilizing a criminal organization. Faces are bludgeoned to a pulp, cops are out wasting thugs left and right, explosions go unnoticed, every procedure is thrown out the window. One expects tough antics, but when fisticuffs take place instead of slapping cuffs on in every occasion, the film makes it hard to take any of the proceedings seriously.

As jarring as some of those scenes are, the film's true downfall is Sean Penn's Cohen. Penn gnashes his teeth against everything in sight: fellow actors, scenery, his lines. His fierceness is never doubted, but it is hard to picture who would let his man be in charge of anything. Psychopaths tend not to be the masters of economics that they think they are.

On paper, Gangster Squad could easily have been the next Untouchables, but it rarely has the drive or charm that film had. The shoot-outs are loud and often though they leave no mark. For all of the action sandwiched into the runtime, it is hard to care about the stakes. A shame considering the worthwhile cast and lively cinematography. Gangster Squad is so reminiscent of other better flicks that it has no identity of its own.


22 January 2013

Why Violence in Cinema Is Good

Depictions of violence in film have been made into a relevant debate again. Questions of how responsible it is to portray scenes of killing, assault, and the like are being considered by committees and concerned groups. While too often schlock like Hobo with a Shotgun is made and blood-drenched horror franchises are launched with little to no reason, let's take a minute to recognize the important function that violence serves in cinema.

To read the rest of the article, head over to Film Annex!

21 January 2013

'To the Wonder' Quad Poster

Say what you want about Terrence Malick's occasional lack of coherence, but his visual eye is always leads to something stunning. To the Wonder hits theatres April 12th.

'Superhuman' on Kickstarter

Superhero movies big and small largely follow a formula. Superhuman, on Kickstarter, doesn't seem to follow anything close to a typical summer blockbuster.

"Set in the distant future our superhero Lathan Devers wakes in a nocturnal cityscape overrun by the neon red lights and speeding blur of ballet-spinning robots on the eve of the singularity. Lathan must use his future human evolutionary powers to fight through the robotic waves to reach his little sister Ria Devers at humanity's last stand; the Eden Barrier; before time runs out."

"SUPERHUMAN is a high-octane science fiction action film with an aurora of intense speeding bullet fight scenes and powerful awe-inspiring visual effects. Lathan has LIGHT VISION; the next stage evolutionary ability to see beyond the veil of this reality and see a shimmering. Sparkling. Divine photonic energy field known as THE LIGHT FIELD."

Superhuman looks to incorporate a lot of visual effects into its finished product, so if you're feeling in a giving mood, donate to Superhuman at the link above.

20 January 2013

'Trance' Poster is Hypnotizing

Finally, an unique poster, winter brings out some of the best that cinema has to offer, but the poster selections are a bit boring. Also worth being excited about, Danny Boyle's return to genre film looks to be an enthusiastic one. Boyle's style infused Oscar-bait with a sense of liveliness, but it is here in genre films that he can really play with the screen.

(Courtesy: Awards Daily)

19 January 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot #13

The game where I throw out one of cinema's more obscure quotes and you try to guess it. Readers are currently 8 for 12 . Let's see if you can name the film this quote is from:

"I'm like my mother, I stereotype, it's faster."

18 January 2013

Review: Frightening Lullabies (Mama)

A mother's love is perhaps the strongest bond there is. It has the power to make a child better and, alternatively, fester into something unholy.

The night of their mother's murder, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) escape to a cold, battered cabin for the better part of five years. How they managed to survive is unknown. Over that time they become feral and dependent on Mama to live. Eventually, they are discovered by a passerby and transported to an institute where they are treated.

Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) searched frantically for them over that time and when they are found, the couple offers to take Victoria and Lilly in. Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) assures the two of them that Victoria and Lilly will readjust to society with few hitches. He would like to keep the two girls there for further study, but something about the man sets Lucas and Annabel on edge.

While Lucas seems ready for this sudden change, Annabel isn't terribly suited for the role of caregiver, she is in her own state of arrested development. Her introduction as a punk-rock bass player celebrating a negative pregnancy test seems contradictory to all of the mothers Chastain has played before (Tree of Life, Take Shelter), but Annabel gives her a chance to stretch.

Hesitantly, Annabel imparts onto the girls a new way of life. The anti-establishment rocker is now called Mom. As she grows closer to the two, the love imparted onto Lucas and Annabel is too much for Mama to bear. She will reclaim her young.

Transitioning a short into a feature-length film is seldom easy and infrequently does it turn out as well as the inspirational piece (Neil Blomkamp's District 9 being the exception). Creature design, as usual in Del Toro productions, is a plus. Mama shifted from being primarily a CGI creation in the short to a monster made up of practical effects.

Practical effects, make-up, and some computer modifications are used in stunning effect to create one of the better horror characters. Partially inspired by the Modigliani painting the Muschiettis had, Mama is so disturbing because she could pass for human at a distance, but the closer she gets to the screen, it is terrifyingly clear she isn't human.

While Mama is only a Guillermo Del Toro production, the fairy tale themes embodied throughout are always a welcome reminder of how effective the genre can be when the material is treated with honesty and an authentic passion for horror rather than gore. There are a few technical flaws with the film's editing, but most of that is easily ignored because of Chastain's lead performance and the drama unfolding onscreen.

Andres Muschietti’s original short Mama was only about three minutes long, but it delivered scares in rapid succession. This incarnation of Mama does not disappoint on that front either.


13 January 2013

Review: Manhunt (Zero Dark Thirty)

An event eleven years in the making, the hunt for one of the world's most sought after men. Kathryn Bigelow, relatively fresh after her run with The Hurt Locker, was the most qualified director to take this material and go.

Immediately the stakes of the film are ratcheted sky-high. Audio feed from phone calls on the morning of 9/11 are played against a black screen. The next sequence feeds off of that grief. Dan (Jason Clarke) and Maya (Jessica Chastain) are introduced during an interrogation of a terrorist, this interrogation will feature torture.

Zero Dark Thirty right now is being defined on terms of whether or not it defends torture. This stance is an unfair one as Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal don't take a side on the issue one way or another. It is covered in an ambivalent manner. Just because something is shown in an unflinching manner does not make it complicit with what is happening onscreen. Morality has evolved in a post 9/11 world, and so have the tools.

Hunting one man across the globe requires a certain mindset, a drive that borders on the obsessive. Maya (Jessica Chastain) possesses such a mindset. Throughout the ten year period that it takes she loses sleep, loses friends, alienates co-workers; Maya does anything she has to to bag Bin Laden.

The lifespan of a CIA analyst is not a lengthy one. The job burns you out and you can either choose to retire, transfer to Washington, or stare down hostiles with rifles aimed at your head.

It would have been all too easy for Maya to give up, but she didn't and that is why she is the focus of Zero Dark Thirty. She has the killer instinct. Jessica Chastain has been climbing her way up the A-list of Hollywood the last three years with The Help, Tree of Life, Take Shelter, etc., but here is where she makes her mark.

It is a shame that Kathryn Bigelow didn't receive another Best Director nomination for her work in ZD30, in a lot of ways she is working with more complex material than The Hurt Locker and accomplishes greater things. Kudos also go to cinematographer Greg Frasier for capturing the order of the chaos during the raid. In a scene that could have way too easily been jumbled hand-cam, the audience is treated to a first class operation handled by professionals in front of and behind the lens.

In the midst of the last thirty minutes of the film, a slowly building sense of tension creeps out from the screen and lures audience members to lean forward. The final op to take down the man who caused so much pain for so many years is a cathartic one. One handled with a tasteful grace.

***1/2 out of ****

12 January 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot #12

The game where I throw out one of cinema's more obscure quotes and you try to guess it. Readers are currently 7 for 11 . Let's see if you can name the film this quote is from:

"Slow down, raisin bran..."

10 January 2013

85th Academy Award Nominations

Lincoln leads all contenders with twelve nominations to its name, but the big surprise of the morning was Kathryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck and Quentin Tarantino being left off for Best Director. Did not see that one coming. Also worth mentioning, this year has the oldest nominee for Best Actress and youngest ever (Emmanuelle Riva, 85, for “Amour” & Quvenzhane Wallis, 9, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”). And a point for consideration, can we swap Flight for Looper in Original Screenplay?
Best motion picture of the year:
"Argo" Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, Producers
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Dan Janvey, Josh Penn and Michael Gottwald, Producers
"Django Unchained" Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin and Pilar Savone, Producers
"Les Miserables" Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward and Cameron Mackintosh, Producers
"Life of Pi" Gil Netter, Ang Lee and David Womark, Producers
"Lincoln" Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers
"Silver Linings Playbook" Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
"Zero Dark Thirty" Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow and Megan Ellison, Producers
Best Achievement in directing:
"Amour" Michael Haneke
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Benh Zeitlin
"Life of Pi" Ang Lee
"Lincoln" Steven Spielberg
"Silver Linings Playbook" David O. Russell
Best Performance by an actor in a leading role:
Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln"
Hugh Jackman in "Les Misérables"
Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master"
Denzel Washington in "Flight"
Best Performance by an actor in a supporting role:
Alan Arkin in "Argo" 
Robert De Niro in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master"
Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln"
Christoph Waltz in "Django Unchained"
Best Performance by an actress in a leading role:
Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour"
Quvenzhana Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Naomi Watts in "The Impossible"
Best Performance by an actress in a supporting role:
Amy Adams in "The Master"
Sally Field in "Lincoln"
Anne Hathaway in "Les Misérables"
Helen Hunt in "The Sessions"
Jacki Weaver in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Best animated feature film of the year:
"Brave" Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
"Frankenweenie" Tim Burton
"ParaNorman" Sam Fell and Chris Butler
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" Peter Lord
"Wreck-It Ralph" Rich Moore
Best Adapted screenplay:
"Argo" Screenplay by Chris Terrio
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" Screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin
"Life of Pi" Screenplay by David Magee
"Lincoln" Screenplay by Tony Kushner
"Silver Linings Playbook" Screenplay by David O. Russell
Best Original screenplay:
"Amour" Written by Michael Haneke
"Django Unchained" Written by Quentin Tarantino
"Flight" Written by John Gatins
"Moonrise Kingdom" Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
"Zero Dark Thirty" Written by Mark Boal
Best Achievement in cinematography:
"Anna Karenina" Seamus McGarvey
"Django Unchained" Robert Richardson
"Life of Pi" Claudio Miranda
"Lincoln" Janusz Kaminski
"Skyfall" Roger Deakins
Best Achievement in costume design:
"Anna Karenina" Jacqueline Durran
"Les Misérables" Paco Delgado
"Lincoln" Joanna Johnston
"Mirror Mirror" Eiko Ishioka
"Snow White and the Huntsman" Colleen Atwood
Best documentary feature:
"5 Broken Cameras"
Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
"The Gatekeepers"
Nominees to be determined
"How to Survive a Plague"
Nominees to be determined
"The Invisible War"
Nominees to be determined
"Searching for Sugar Man"
Nominees to be determined
Best documentary short subject:
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
"Kings Point"
Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider
"Mondays at Racine"
Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan
"Open Heart"
Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern
Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill
Best Achievement in film editing:
"Argo" William Goldenberg
"Life of Pi" Tim Squyres
"Lincoln" Michael Kahn
"Silver Linings Playbook" Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers
"Zero Dark Thirty" Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg
Best foreign language film of the year:
"Amour" Austria
"Kon-Tiki" Norway
"No" Chile
"A Royal Affair" Denmark
"War Witch" Canada
Best Achievement in makeup and hairstyling:
Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane
"Les Misérables"
Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell
Best achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
"Anna Karenina" Dario Marianelli
"Argo" Alexandre Desplat
"Life of Pi" Mychael Danna
"Lincoln" John Williams
"Skyfall" Thomas Newman
Best Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
"Before My Time" from "Chasing Ice"
Music and Lyric by J. Ralph
"Everybody Needs A Best Friend" from "Ted"
Music by Walter Murphy; Lyric by Seth MacFarlane
"Pi's Lullaby" from "Life of Pi"
Music by Mychael Danna; Lyric by Bombay Jayashri
"Skyfall" from "Skyfall"
Music and Lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
"Suddenly" from "Les Misérables"
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; Lyric by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil
Best Achievement in production design:
"Anna Karenina"
Production Design: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Production Design: Dan Hennah; Set Decoration: Ra Vincent and Simon Bright
"Les Misérables"
Production Design: Eve Stewart; Set Decoration: Anna Lynch-Robinson
"Life of Pi"
Production Design: David Gropman; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson
Best animated short film:
"Adam and Dog" Minkyu Lee
"Fresh Guacamole" PES
"Head over Heels" Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
"Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare"" David Silverman
"Paperman" John Kahrs
Best live action short film:
"Asad" Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura
"Buzkashi Boys" Sam French and Ariel Nasr
"Curfew" Shawn Christensen
"Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw)" Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele
"Henry" Yan England
Best Achievement in sound editing:
"Argo" Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn
"Django Unchained" Wylie Stateman
"Life of Pi" Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
"Skyfall" Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
"Zero Dark Thirty" Paul N.J. Ottosson
Best Achievement in sound mixing:
John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia
"Les Misérables"
Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
"Life of Pi"
Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin
Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins
Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson
Best Achievement in visual effects:
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White
"Life of Pi"
Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott
"Marvel's The Avengers"
Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick
Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill
"Snow White and the Huntsman"
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson

Christopher Nolan to Tackle Time-travel Next

With The Dark Knight trilogy officially behind him, Christopher Nolan has announced his next project: Interstellar. Interstellar was originally set aside to be directed by Steven Spielberg, but Robocalypse left him little choice but to move on.

Jonathan Nolan scripted the feature, he has previously collaborated with brother, Christopher, on The Prestige and Memento. He also co-wrote The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.

"The story is about a group of scientists who travel through a worm hole, and it comes complete with alternate dimensions and time travel." Wow. So Mr. Nolan's next project is going to be a time-travel film, I wonder if I can team up with Rian Johnson and sneak into 2015 and see what it looks like?

(Courtesy: THR)

09 January 2013

The Oscar Nominations Are Tomorrow

Before tomorrow's Academy Award nominations are announced, I would just like to take a second to offer a few predictions about Best Picture.

One of these films will have 10+ nominations
Zero Dark Thirty

These Films Are Locks
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty

They Will Be Happy Just to be Mentioned in Any Way
The Dark Knight Rises
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook

Let the drunken brawl between Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty for the shiny gold man commence!

08 January 2013

The Year It All Nearly Ended (Best Films of 2012)

2012 saw the world's collective obsession with the apocalypse take place on the silver screen on numerous occasions. Whether it was a downbeat comedy, team-up comic franchise, or exploration of our origins, most protagonists saw themselves battling a cataclysmic event. The planet has nearly been blown up, invaded by aliens, lorded over by evil geniuses and the like.

Batman, the Avengers, 007, Django, and even Abraham Lincoln fulfilled the collective wishes of moviegoers to have someone stand up for others in a time when seemingly there are no heroes left. Perhaps it is for this reason that so many of the year's best films were centered around good guys.

If it wasn't the end of the world, it was the end of line for the characters. Bernie desperately trying to avoid prison, Ottway fending off a pack of wolves systematically eliminating his crew, Bond facing a betrayal from one of MI6's own. The end days have been on the mind of many.

This year was also strangely reminiscent of the 70s: a time where character studies and genre efforts could be both commercially successful and high-caliber films as well. Flight and Argo both did well critically and commercially. An exploitation themed Western hit big screens on Christmas and grossed over $100 million—who would have seen that coming at the dawn of the aughts?

Despite the retro-fitting of these films, the fatalistic nature was still there: Flight depicts the end of a man's career and free life, Argo watches on helplessly as hostages are taken in the Middle East, Silver Linings Playbook lived in the shoes of a blue-collar Philadelphia family whose mental health too often rests with the city's most beloved/hated team. For these films, it is the death of a way of life.

We are the species most fascinated by our end, we are unique in that regard. Whether it ends with a whisper or bang, we are right there waiting for the fall.

And on that note I bring you my favorite ten films of 2012.

Just Missed It - The Master

10. Bernie
Comic, but never hurtful in its depiction of a man whose genial surface let him get away with murder.

9. Seven Psychopaths
Martin McDonagh's second U.S. release knows no limits in going for a laugh and for a film about getting a script finished in Hollywood, there lies promise.

8. The Dark Knight Rises
A lie built on hope turns ghastly when a masked terrorist throws Gotham off its axis and a disgraced hero must rise again. Rises may not be the best Batman film, but it definitely is the send-off that this icon deserved.

7. Argo
Ben Affleck proved he was capable of making more than crime films in Boston with this picture, it managed to keep breaths baited even though we all knew the ending beforehand.

6. Lincoln
Rather than glorifying our sixteenth president, Steven Spielberg deconstructed the myth and left us a man capable of doing the seemingly impossible.

5. The Grey
What could have simply been a vehicle for Liam Neeson to punch wolves became a tone poem that meditated on grief.

4. Django Unchained
Slavery. It's a divisive issue and one made all the more compelling when placed in the Tarantino-sphere, yet Django is more about the lengths that one man will go to save his wife.

3. Skyfall
James Bond turned 50 and turned in the best caper of his career. An aging spy tasked with resurrecting himself and his country connected in ways a Bond film previously never has. Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig killed the immortal hero and left in his stead a living, breathing man.

2. Looper
We never really escape our past and this inventive thriller from Rian Johnson couldn't have proclaimed that more boldly.

1. Zero Dark Thirty
"In the midst of the last thirty minutes of the film, a slowly building sense of tension creeps out from the screen and lures audience members to lean forward. The final op to take down the man who caused so much pain for so many years is a cathartic one. One handled with a tasteful grace."

'Star Trek' App is Intuitive

For technophiles also fond of Star Trek, Paramount and Qualcomm have released an app for J.J. Abram's upcoming Star Trek Into DarknessThese cutting edge technologies are being showcased in a never before-seen way and will enable users to automatically engage with a wealth of movie related materials by utilizing their real-life surroundings to auto-complete integrated missions by employing audio scan, geo-location recognition, and image recognition functionality powered by Qualcomm Vuforia.

During the second quarter of the Super Bowl, the app will allow users the ability to unlock the first of many surprises during the airing of the Star Trek Into Darkness tv-spot, making this one of the most unique and interactive apps ever created for a movie.

• New “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” content, such as videos, images and wallpapers delivered directly to users’ mobile devices;

• Exclusive opportunities and special offers only available to app users;

• One lucky sweepstakes winner will be rewarded with the grand prize of attending the “STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS” U.S. premiere.

To be the first to get the app and enter the sweepstakes, visit www.StarTrekMovie.com/CES.

It's times like this that I wish I had a smartphone. J.J. Abrams is a wiz at promoting his films, I can only imagine the cool stuff he has in store for app users.

07 January 2013

Start Watching 'Justified'

Justified may have been on for three years already, but it isn't too late to catch up with one of the best shows on television right now. Here are a few reasons to start watching now:

Raylan Givens
The central lead of the show is not your typical figure of authority. He's not particularly gifted, not insanely large, or a picture of sound psyche. His father is an ex-con, his "best friend" has tried to kill him multiple times and he lives above a bar. Dirty Harry isn't around anymore, but don't let that stop you from thinking quippy law enforcers with itchy trigger fingers are gone from the scene.

No one is one-dimensional Boyd Crowter (Walton Goggins) has gone from Neo-Nazi to Revivalist Leader to Vigilante in a matter of three seasons. Ava has gone from abused housewife to right-hand woman in the most efficient criminal organization in Harlan. Even background characters like Dewey Crowe have their own histories.

If you're a fan of Deadwood, you may recognize a few faces
Along with its star, Timothy Olyphant, several regulars from Deadwood have made appearances in Harlan County. Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), Dan (W. Earl Brown), Johnny (Sean Bridgers), Harry (Brent Sexton), Reverend (Ray McKinnon), Hugo (Stephen Toblowsky), Stapleton (Peter Jason), and Mose (Taylor Pruitt Vance).

The villains are always worth watching
Margo Martindale won an Emmy for her turn as the murderous matriarch of Bennett County, Neal McDonough had, perhaps, the most memorable goodbye of any FX character ever and Boyd, depending on how you feel about his transformation from thug to kingpin, is always entertaining.

Justified's fourth season debuts Tuesday 1/8 on FX

06 January 2013

'Only God Forgives' Teaser

Nothing good ever happens to Ryan Gosling...

05 January 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot #11

The game where I throw out one of cinema's more obscure quotes and you try to guess it. Readers are currently 6 for 10. Let's see if you can name the film this quote is from:

"This box is full of stuff that almost killed me."

04 January 2013

We're 4!

Four years ago today Never Mind Pop Film was created. I could never have anticipated how much it would grow and where it would lead to over the last few years, but I want to thank every reader, contributor and fellow blogger that has helped the site get to where it is today.

There were times when hits were low and it almost didn't seem worth continuing anymore, yet every time those feelings cropped up, one of you would make it all seem worth it again.

Just a few mentions: Sam of Movie Mezzanine for helping sustain that drive.
Andrew of A Constant Visual Feast, Darren of The Movie Blog and Aiden from CTCMR for spurring me to write better reviews.
Rodney, Maurice, Dan and Scott for always providing a valuable comment that incites discussion.

Thank you all, I look forward to another wonderful four years.

03 January 2013

To Torture or Not to Torture

(this piece is written by Mark Bowden of The Atlantic)

There are two ugly interrogation scenes in the opening minutes of Zero Dark Thirty that haunt the rest of the experience, and that have come to haunt critical reception of the film itself.

After we hear the terrified voices of Americans trapped on the upper floors of the burning towers on 9/11 against a black screen, the movie opens on a character named Ammar, suspended from the ceiling by chains attached to both wrists. It is two years later. Ammar is bloody, filthy, and exhausted. We learn quickly that he is an Al Qaeda middleman, and a nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammad, architect of the 9/11 attacks. Ammar is believed to know details of a pending attack in Saudi Arabia, and he is uncooperative.

His brutal questioning by CIA officer Daniel is uncomfortable to watch. It is cruel and ultimately futile. As his tormenters fold him into a small punishment box, demanding the day of the attack, Ammar murmurs "Saturday," then, "Sunday," then, "Monday," then, "Thursday," then, "Friday."

In the script, referring to the frustrated Daniel, the scene closes with the words, "Once again, he's learned nothing."

The subsequent Saudi attacks occur. Daniel accepts responsibility for the failure, along with his new associate, the film's heroine Maya. This is all in the first minutes of the movie. Torture has been tried, and it has failed. It is Maya then who then proposes something different. Why not trick him?

And it is cleverness, coated with kindness, that produces something useful. It is too late to stop the Saudi attack, but Ammar offers them a name. More correctly, a pseudonym, what in Arabic is called a "kunya," a nom de guerre: Abu Ahmad al-Kuwait, the father of Ahmed from Kuwait. Maya doesn't know it yet—indeed, she won't find out for years—but this is the first small clue on the long trail to Abbottabad.

Zero Dark Thirty, by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, is an extraordinarily impressive dramatization of the 10-year-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, one that I wrote about in far more detail in my book The Finish. Warmly praised by many film critics (The Atlantic's Chris Orr named it the best film of 2012) and so far a box office hit (it goes into wide release on January 11), it is sure to be in the running for major recognition during the coming awards season. But it has also been attacked by some viewers as a false version of the story that effectively advocates for the use of torture. Those viewers argue that the film, while brilliant, shows torture to have played an important role in finding bin Laden, which they say is not true. It is reminiscent of the late movie critic Pauline Kael's memorable putdown of director Sam Peckinpah as a virtuoso of "fascist" art.

This no doubt comes as a shock to Bigelow, whom I have never met, but who has been described to me as the kind of gentle soul who "would stoop to lift a snail off the sidewalk."

The criticism is unfair, and its reading of both the film and the actual story seems willfully mistaken. Torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America's messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and Zero Dark Thirty is right to portray that fact.

A screenplay is more like a sonnet than a novel. Action on screen unfolds with visceral immediacy, but any story with sweep—this one takes place over nearly a decade—can only be told with broad impressionistic strokes. The challenge is greater when trying to tell a true story. The interrogation scenes in the beginning color the entire tale, but they are necessary. They are part of the story. Without them, I suspect some of the same critics now accusing it of being pro-torture would instead be calling Zero Dark Thirty a whitewash.

The charge that the film is pro-torture is easy to debunk. I have already noted the dramatic failure depicted in the opening scenes with Ammar. The futility of the approach is part of the more general organizational failure depicted in the movie's first half, culminating in a dramatization of the tragic 2009 bombing of Camp Chapman, in Khost, Afghanistan, where an Al Qaeda infiltrator wiped out an entire CIA field office. The agency is shown to be not only failing to find bin Laden and dismantle Al Qaeda, but on the losing end of the fight. In case the point hasn't been made clearly enough, a visit from an angry CIA chief to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan in the next scene underlines it:

"There's nobody else, hidden away on some other floor," he says. "This is just us. And we are failing. We're spending billions of dollars. People are dying. We're still no closer to the defeating our enemy."

The work that leads to Abbottabad in the second half of the film unfolds as dramatic detective work in the office and the field, and ends with a faithful and detailed reenactment of the raid on the Abbottabad compound. Through it all, Maya is playing a long game, in dogged pursuit of a lead, battling those in command more preoccupied with short-term goals—finding and killing Al Qaeda operational figures. Torture is presented as part of this story, something Maya accepts. But it's also shown to be at best only marginally useful, and both politically and morally toxic.

So, how true is it? It was a mistake for those involved in the film to suggest that Zero Dark Thirty is "journalistic," and to have touted their access to SEAL team members and CIA field officers. No matter how remarkable their research and access, the film spills no state secrets. No movie can tell a story like this without aggressively condensing characters and events, fictionalizing dialogue, etc. Boal's script is just 102 pages: fewer than 10,000 words, the length of a longish magazine article.

Within these limits the film is remarkably accurate, and certainly well within what we all understand by the Hollywood label, "based on a true story," which works as both a boast and a disclaimer. There was apparently was a female CIA field officer who performed heroic service in the 10-year hunt for bin Laden, and whose fixation on "Ahmed from Kuwait" helped steer the effort to success. In the film she is seen butting heads with an intelligence bureaucracy that regards her fixation on Ahmed as wishful thinking. This makes for some dramatic scenes, and gives Jessica Chastain a great many chances to brood with ethereal intensity. The real life "Maya" may have been even more lovely and tenacious, but she was just one of many officers and analysts focused on "Ahmed," in an agency that never stopped regarding him as an important lead. The Saudi attacks in the beginning of the film, identified as the "Khobar Towers" incident, actually occurred in 1996, six years prior to the action in the film. The raid itself involved four helicopters, two Chinooks and two Black Hawks, not the three Black Hawks shown. Key planning sessions that happened in the White House Situation Room, chaired by President Obama, are depicted as having happened at Langley with CIA director Leon Panetta. Indeed, those who have accused the current administration of rolling out the red carpet for Bigelow and Boal in the hopes of hyping its role may be surprised to find that the president, whose participation was central throughout, has been almost completed edited out. The list could go on, but so could the list of fudged details for any film "based on a true story," whether it's the Jerry Bruckheimer/Ridley Scott version of my book Black Hawk Down or Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln.

Everyone understands the rules of this game. Theater is theater, not a scrupulous presentation of fact. We ought to feel betrayed only when filmmakers depart egregiously and deliberately from the record, as Oliver Stone so often has done, substituting what he thinks might be true or perhaps would like to be true for what is known. Reality, after all, is messy and only rarely lines up neatly enough for a two-hour script. Hollywood's "true story" aims only to color safely inside the lines of history.

In this broader sense, Zero Dark Thirty is remarkably true. The hunt for bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders began with efforts that were clumsy, costly, and cruel. We wrongly invaded Iraq, for instance. We stupidly embraced a regime of torture in our military prisons. Some of the steps we took were tragic and are likely to endure as national embarrassments. But tactics, priorities, personnel, and even administrations changed over those years. The nation learned how to fight this new enemy intelligently. Through it all, the search for bin Laden proceeded with bureaucracy's unique talent for obduracy. This isn't as sexy or dramatic as watching Jessica Chastain paling before the stink and blood of rough interrogation, a red-tressed Ahab pursuing her white whale through bullets, bombs, and boneheaded bosses ... but it stays within the lines.

As for the real story, the question of what role torture played is more difficult. I wrote about coercive interrogation at length in this magazine—"The Dark Art of Interrogation," in October, 2003. I argued then, before the revelations of Abu Ghraib and other scandals, that the use of such morally repugnant tactics may yield important information and may even be morally compelling in certain rare circumstances, but that it ought to be banned and that interrogators who practiced it should do so only at risk of being disciplined or prosecuted. The word "torture" itself is pejorative, in that it equates keeping a prisoner awake with the most sordid practices of The Inquisition. But even mild pressure does tend to lead rapidly to severe mistreatment, as we saw during the Bush administration, which made the mistake of authorizing it, a step that predictably led to tragic and widespread abuses. These have been ably documented by, for one, Alex Gibney (a prominent critic of Zero Dark Thirty) in his stirring documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, and by tenacious journalists like Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer, not to mention by the candid and devastating snapshots of depraved American military jailors.

Dick Cheney and others have argued that this coercive regimen produced vital information that prevented terror attacks. So far we have only their word for it, and plenty of other informed voices that contradict it. I do not know the answer, although the reluctance of the current professedly anti-torture administration to explore and punish past abuses may suggest such practices were not altogether useless. The one thing that is certain is that they happened, and on a large scale. The abuses became such a scandal that the Bush administration itself halted the use of coercive methods in 2004. But by then the early interrogations that put "Ahmed from Kuwait" on the CIA's radar had all happened, and nearly all had involved torture.

These are facts. Critics of these practices, and of the film, now find themselves in the curious position of arguing that torture played no role in the intelligence-gathering that led to Abbottabad. This is presumably because if the opposite were true, then the hunt's successful outcome might lead weak minds to conclude that torture has been proved effective.

Their logic has become, forgive the word, tortured. The key interrogation that focused the CIA's attention on "Ahmed" concerned Mohammed al-Qhatani, whose relentless months-long ordeal was detailed in a particularly gruesome Wikileaks disclosure and prompted the Defense Department to rewrite its guidelines for interrogation—part of that overall course correction in 2004. Qhatani said that "Ahmed" was a key Al Qaeda player and one of bin Laden's prime couriers, a fact that elevated him to high importance in the search. Those who now say that torture played no role in Qhatani's revelations argue that he offered the information before the rough stuff started. I don't know if that's true, but I'll accept it for argument's sake. It hardly removes torture from the mix. The essential ingredient in any coercive interrogation is not the actual infliction of pain or discomfort, but fear. There can be little doubt that far before Qhatani was actually tortured, he knew damn well that he was in trouble. In Zero Dark Thirty, "Ammar," who is a fictional amalgam, gives up the name after, not during, his torture sessions. Does this mean that the prior pain and discomfort played no role? In either case, real or fictional, torture creates a context. It creates fear. The only way to know if Qhatani would have been cooperative without being pressured is to have conducted a torture-free interrogation, which did not happen.

Fear was a part of the climate of American interrogations in those years. In a May 2007 Atlantic story entitled "The Ploy," I detailed the clever and essentially nonviolent interrogation of a detainee in Iraq that led to the successful targeting of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The story was later told in even greater detail in a book, How to Break a Terrorist, by the interrogator himself, who wrote under the pseudonym Matthew Alexander and offered the story as proof that an artful interrogator need not employ coercion. Yet the detainee in his own story voluntarily submitted to questioning in part to avoid being sent to Abu Ghraib, which by then had a fearful reputation.

The most prominent among those who now insist torture played no part in the bin Laden hunt are Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain. All three serve on congressional committees with access to classified material and are in a position to know what they are talking about. Indeed, in a letter protesting Zero Dark Thirty to Sony Chairman Michael Lynton last month, they claim to have reviewed "six million pages" of intelligence records, which may help explain why Congress has such a hard time getting anything done.

But there is lawyerly subtlety here. In the letter, they raise the rather fine point about the timing of Qhatani's mention of "Ahmed" as proof that torture was not involved, and write that the CIA "did not first learn" of the courier's existence "from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques." True. They first heard the name from Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was arrested in 2001 at the behest of American authorities and questioned in that country and in Jordan. He says he was tortured. I believe him. Acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, another critic of the film's veracity, has been more careful. He does not deny that torture is part of the story, although he uses different words to describe it:

"Some [information leading to bin Laden] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well," he wrote. "And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved."

Torture is part of the story, but not a key part of it. The story of finding and killing bin Laden makes a good case neither for nor against torture.
I'm with Morrell on this. Torture is part of the story, but not a key part of it, just as the film depicts. The story of finding and killing bin Laden makes a good case neither for nor against torture. It makes a poor case for torture because neither of the original sources, Slahi nor Qhatani, necessarily realized they were giving up something terribly important by naming "Ahmed from Kuwait." It's doubtful they even knew who he really was. Neither they nor their questioners could have imagined that "Ahmed" would end up sheltering bin Laden in Abbottabad. Khalid Sheik Mohammed could not have known this either, but he certainly realized the man's importance. Despite repeated waterboarding, he lied about "Ahmed." So much for torture producing a breakthrough. Ironically, Mohammed's mendacity—his claim contradicted everyone else's—further piqued the agency's interest. Under torture he lied, but his lies helped.
We don't know much about the key breakthrough that led to bin Laden. That came years later, when the CIA was finally able to connect the pseudonym "Ahmed from Kuwait" with a real person, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. In the film this moment is handled perfunctorily. A young CIA officer simply hands the information to Maya and says, "It's him," explaining that she happened across the nugget while "painstakingly" reviewing "old files." My sources at CIA refused to say how the connection was actually made, saying only that it involved sources from "a third country." One high level agency official told me, "You could write a book about how we [did it]." The agency says torture was not involved, and there's no evidence to suggest it was.

If you start the story of finding bin Laden from there, and only from there, then the hunt was torture-free. It's almost a passable argument. Until then, after all, "Ahmed from Kuwait" was just one insubstantial lead among many, just a semi-fact in an ocean of facts. But torture was in the room when that semi-fact was delivered up, and belongs in any truthful telling of it.

Gibney, an especially influential critic given his standing as a filmmaker and as a principled opponent of such methods, agrees that it was right for Bigelow and Boal to show the torture, but argues that they ought to have used these scenes to more clearly demonstrate how futile and "ridiculous" such tactics were. He sees the subject of torture as "one of the great moral issues of our times," and views this story as one that could have made a strong argument against the use of torture. Bigelow and Boal might well agree with him about this. If the film leans in any direction on the subject, it is in this one. Gibney doesn't see it that way. He is a passionate artist, and makes films that are shaped by his convictions. That is a fine thing to do. But pure storytelling is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It is can be simply about telling the truth. Because torture was in the mix during all of the early interrogations, it would be wrong to ignore it, and impossible to say it had no effect.

The truth about torture itself is not clear-cut. Those who argue that it simply does not work go well beyond saying that it is wrong. They may not even consider it a moral question. After all, if threatening or mistreating a detainee will always fail to produce useful intelligence, who other than a sadist would bother? I am not convinced. I think the moral question arises precisely because torture, or fear, can be an effective tool in interrogation. If we as a nation ban it, we do so despite that fact. We forego the advantages of torture to claim higher moral ground. In order for that be to a virtuous choice, as opposed to a purely practical one, it means we must give up something of value—in this case intelligence that might forestall tragedy.

That is not the choice our nation made back in 2001, when this story begins. The fear that contaminated our military prisons in subsequent years became a scandal. It would be very neat to conclude that it was not only wrong, but useless. Zero Dark Thirty doesn't do that, nor should you.

01 January 2013

Bond Crosses $1 Billion

Skyfall did something that no Bond film had done previously in its 50 year history. It crossed the one billion dollar threshold, making Skyfall the highest-grossing Bond film ever. Now maybe 007 can afford  to carry around something other than that Walther PPK.