Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
"ZERO DARK THIRTY"
Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow traces the hunt for Osama bin Laden in this satisfying revenge thriller. Collaborating again with investigative journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal, Bigelow not only matches but exceeds the tension and suspense she generated with "The Hurt Locker" (2009).
Realizing that the outcome is now part of 21st-century history, Bigelow and Boal concentrate on the arduous process of tracking down the elusive leader of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. That's how this dense docudrama begins -- with a dark screen and emotional sound-bites of phone calls from terrified people trapped in the Twin Towers that morning.
Two years later in Pakistan, a nephew of bin Laden has been captured, brutally interrogated and sexually humiliated. A single-minded CIA analyst -- simply called Maya (Jessica Chastain) -- is working on the case, patiently gathering and diligently collating scraps of information from various sources. Gradually, she becomes convinced that, contrary to the opinion of the dismissive men who outrank her, bin Laden is not hiding in a cave somewhere in the hills. Instead, he has taken refuge with his extended family in a suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he can continue to mastermind al-Qaeda operations. Although no one else is as totally persuaded of his location as she is, including top-level Washington operatives, her unwavering determination prevails in the decision-making process. The title is military jargon for 12:30 a.m. -- the precise time of the Navy SEALS' raid on that compound on May 2, 2011. "Kill bin Laden for me," Maya tells them.
The outcome of that venture has been previously documented in Matt Bissonnette's best-seller "No Easy Day" and the SEALS' endorsed film "Act of Valor." Nevertheless, Bigelow's eerie, intricate rendition is provocative and powerful. Chastain's understated performance is outstanding, and she's ably supported by Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong, Chris Platt, Mark Duplass and James Gandolfini.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Zero Dark Thirty" is an uncompromising, intense 10, packed with naturalistic authenticity.
Violence-obsessed writer/director Quentin Tarantino ("Inglorious Basterds," "Kill Bill") pays tribute to the Spaghetti Western genre with this action-packed, blaxploitation/revenge fantasy.
Set in the South two years before the Civil War, this is the story of Django (Jamie Foxx) -- the "D" is silent -- who partners up with a genteel, yet ruthless, German-born dentist/bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an expert at psychological gamesmanship. Their first order of business is to kill three murderous Brittle brothers and claim the hefty reward.
After spending a winter honing his gunslinger skills, emancipated Django is determined to find and rescue his enslaved wife, incongruously named Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington). Sold at auction in Greenville, Miss., she's owned by smarmy, smooth-talking Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio); her job is to pleasure Mandingo fighters at Calvin's disreputable Candyland plantation. While Schultz concocts a clever scheme, their motives are discovered by skeptical Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie's complicit slave/confidante.
Predictably, the cruelty is brutal and shameful, as are the racial epithets. But what's surprising is how absurdly comedic the anecdotal, character-driven script is, particularly when a Klan raid turns into a Mel Brooks routine, as riders argue about not being able to see through ill-fitting hoods.
Quentin Tarantino named Django after a coffin-toting Sergio Corbucci character played by Franco Nero, who appears briefly. Supporting players include Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, Russ Tamblyn, Tom Wopat, Michael Parks and Bruce Dern. Idiosyncratic Tarantino appears in two cameos: one with Jonah Hill as a Klan member and the second with an Australian accent. Filming took place at Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, Calif., a familiar location for Westerns, like "High Noon" and "Gunsmoke," which was once owned by cowboy star Gene Autry.
Insofar as historical authenticity goes, several prominent scholars, including Howard University's Edna Greene Medford, have disputed the existence of Mandingo fighting (bare-knuckle death matches between brawny slaves) as an economically unfeasible sport for slave-owners.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Django Unchained" is an indulgent, excessive 8 -- Tarantino at his bloody best.
It's a nightmare come true. A British family of five is spending the holidays in a beach bungalow at a hotel on Khao Lak in Thailand when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits. This is based on the true story of their harrowing experience -- and it's not for the squeamish.
British businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor), his doctor wife Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three sons are celebrating the Christmas holiday, frolicking on an island in a tropical paradise. But on the morning of Dec. 26, they're suddenly swept in different directions by an immense tidal wave. Along with thousands of others, they fight not only to survive but to find one another amid the mayhem. Struggling through the shattered trees and scattered debris, Maria spies their oldest son, terrified but courageous Lucas (Tom Holland), but she has no idea what happened to Henry and the two younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast).
Inspired by Maria Belon's recollections, writer Sergio G. Sanchez, director Juan Antonio Bayona and cinematographer Oscar Faura (previous collaborators on the far-more-subtle Spanish ghost story "The Orphanage") melodramatically dramatize the catastrophe, delineating incidents of kindness and compassion among strangers. Propelling the picture, Watts is fiercely brave and empathetic, acting with every muscle in her body, while McGregor's urgency is suspenseful and gripping.
The compelling depiction of tsunami devastation and carnage is even more staggering than Clint Eastwood's prologue to "Hereafter," as Maria is repeatedly submerged under the rushing water, relentlessly struggling to the surface. Then, badly injured and in excruciating pain, she must make her way through muddy rubble with Lucas to seek help, get to a local hospital and, somehow, locate the missing members of her family amid teeming hoards of anxious refugees and unidentified corpses.
Unfortunately, there are also unnecessary plunges into ponderous sentimentality, the most grievous being an impromptu philosophical interlude between Lucas and an elderly survivor (Geraldine Chaplin).
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Impossible" is a viscerally vigorous 7, a grim, gritty, graphic chronicle of disaster.