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Reviewed: 'Zero Dark Thirty,' 'The Impossible' and others 

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ZERO DARK THIRTY

***1/2

Bold, provocative and challenging in ways not even attempted by other current award contenders like Lincoln and my 2012 fave Argo, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty recalls what President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said after screening D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: "It's like history written with lightning." Like that silent classic, this galvanizing picture is a work that's steeped in controversy, yet unlike that hearty shout-out to the glories of the Ku Klux Klan, the uproar here isn't nearly as clear-cut as it was when confronted with Griffith's racist ideologies.

Bigelow reteams with scripter Mark Boal - both won Oscars for 2008's The Hurt Locker - for a movie that relates in painstaking detail the CIA's decade-long search for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Delivering a sublime performance of ferocious intensity, Jessica Chastain headlines as Maya, an agency operative who makes it her personal mission to ferret out the murderous al Qaeda head. Stumbling across helpful clues is, as someone notes, like trying to locate that proverbial needle in a haystack, but while other figures come and go over the years for various reasons (Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle play the most prominent of these co-workers), Maya is determined to see this through to the end, no matter how much resistance she meets from her superiors in this patriarchal organization.

Zero Dark Thirty is such a potent work - a methodical mystery, a political potboiler and a rueful American drama all rolled into one - that it's unfortunate it's become embroiled in a scandal which, frankly, it doesn't deserve. Erroneously denounced as taking a pro-torture stance by politicians trying to cover their own asses as well as by well-meaning but misunderstanding activists, the film actually does nothing of the sort. It instead acknowledges the very real presence of torture on the post-9/11 landscape - had the subject been ignored, the movie would be little more than vile, jingoistic nonsense, made to appease rabid Tea Partiers and naive liberals alike.

But in a break from traditional Tinseltown thinking, Bigelow and Boal insist on treating viewers like intelligent, discerning adults, able to absorb complexities and weigh knotty material. It's a risky gamble on their part, but without it, we wouldn't have a movie as important - and gratifying - as this one.

 

THE IMPOSSIBLE

**1/2

One of the deadliest natural disasters in history, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami obliterated several countries' coastlines and resulted in over 230,000 deaths. It touched people all over the globe, those who were moved enough to contribute financially (global donations reportedly totaled $14 billion) and those who were affected on a more personal level (Tom Schwerk, one of my best friends from high school, perished while vacationing in Thailand, although his wife and two small sons thankfully survived).

There are countless tales to relate from this tragedy, and rather than focus on several in the schlocky manner of a '70s disaster flick, director Juan Antonio Bayona elected to center on the ostensibly true-life story of Maria and Henry Belon, a Spanish couple on holiday with their three boys in Thailand when the tsunami hits. Many have already criticized the film for largely ignoring the plight of the locals while focusing on a privileged European family, while others have lambasted it for further Anglicizing the project by casting Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor instead of Spanish actors as the parents.

Sidestepping these issues, it's clear that the problem with The Impossible is that the second half collapses after a powerhouse opening hour. The sequences involving the tsunami are incredible, and genuine tension is maintained as Maria and oldest son Lucas (an excellent Tom Holland), separated from the rest of their brood, desperately try to stay alive amidst all the carnage. Watts is superb as Maria (she recently received the film's sole Oscar nomination), and it's a shame her ailing character is largely confined to the sidelines during the less impressive second half, a stretch that culminates with a series of coincidences so laughable, they belong in a vintage screwball comedy instead. The Impossible has enough going for it to earn a mild recommendation, but it's unfortunate that it ends up self-destructing as rapidly as one of those Mission: Impossible messages.

 misguided screenplay that most recalls a tattered dime-store novel -- lurid, superficial and hardly worth the ink or paper.

GANGSTER SQUAD

*1/2

Is it professional laziness to dismiss Gangster Squad with the simple declaration that it's nothing more than a dimwitted cross between L.A. Confidential and The Untouchables? Perhaps, but such an action is still nowhere near as lazy as those exhibited by the makers of this lackluster crime meller, which poorly cribs from so many previous movies that the end result suggests Sarah Palin attempting to digest speaking points from Stephen Hawking.

Set in 1949 Los Angeles, the picture, which claims to be "based on a true story" but turns out to be as authentic as The Flintstones in Rock Vegas, finds William Parker (Nick Nolte), the city's controversial chief of police (who didn't actually obtain the post until a year after the movie's setting, but never mind), deciding that the best way to stop gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) from taking over the entire city is to organize an elite team to work outside the law in an attempt to being him down. The crew hits every demographic for today's all-embracive audience: the workaholic team leader (Josh Brolin), the wisecracking heartthrob (Ryan Gosling), the experienced old-timer (Robert Patrick), the soft-spoken Latino (Michael Pena), the switchblade-wielding black cop (Anthony Mackie) and the morally torn egghead (Giovanni Ribisi) who absurdly asks how they're any better than the mobsters they're fighting (I'm not sure how bugging Cohen's living room remotely compares to Cohen having rivals physically torn in half by two cars, but maybe that's just me).

Penn's Mickey Cohen is as cartoonish as Al Pacino's Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy, Gosling again dazzles his Crazy, Stupid, Love co-star Emma Stone (as Cohen's moll) with his flexing pecs, and the risible dialogue stings like an ear infection. "Here comes Santy Claus!" bellows Cohen before shooting up everything in sight - a reminder that some movies have no more worth than that proverbial lump of coal.

PROMISED LAND

*1/2

By all accounts, Matt Damon is a smart fellow and a sincere progressive, but it would be nice if he left his politics off the screen. It's not that I object to filmmakers dragging their beliefs onto the screen, but if one is going to pursue that route, then for God's sake, at least make the movie more than a tired polemic.

The actor's 2010 release Green Zone found him playing a U.S. Army officer whose search for WMDs in Iraq instead leads him to conclude that -- say it ain't so, George! - the whole war was based on a lie perpetrated by the Bush administration. And now we get Promised Land, which finds him playing a natural-gas company spokesperson whose selling of the hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) technique to small-town rubes instead leads him to conclude that - gasp! - corporations really aren't people, regardless of what the Supreme Court insists.

Adapted by Damon and co-star John Krasinski from a story by Dave Eggers and directed by the wildly inconsistent Gus Van Sant, Promised Land employs endless screeds and silly plot maneuvers to push a scenario that would have benefitted from more depth. The controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing deserves serious treatment, and Damon and Krasinski (as a happy-go-lucky environmentalist) surround themselves with competent co-stars (Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver), but the end result is simply a fracking mess.

 

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