At the heart of Miss Sloane—and a cool heart it is—lies a question. Why does the title character walk out on her lucrative career as one of D.C.’s highest-paid lobbyists to join an underfunded nonprofit in its quixotic attempt at changing some gun laws? The question keeps the movie from falling into the easy do-gooder outline of Erin Brockovich. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain, all stiletto-heel precision) might possibly be stirred by a sense of social justice, but she might also just want to win a game that everybody tells her is unwinnable. We’re talking about an alpha female who isn’t content with mere victory—she gives you the impression she also wouldn’t mind hearing the lamentations of women (and men) on the field of battle. It’s crucial to this movie’s crisp watchability that we’re not sure what motivates her battle plan. Maybe battle is just her thing.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD) has been described, incorrectly, as Gothic horror. This is Gothic romance with notes of horror, bathed in the unreal and magical colors of a giallo and brought to life by Guillermo Del Toro’s beating heart of compassion in the face of evil.
As lush and atmospheric a film as the American cinema has created in years, Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska (whose wide eyes and open face evokes the gothic heroine incarnate) as a smart, passionate American heiress, the daughter of a self-made man (Jim Beaver as the model of paternal affection and American responsibility) and a writer with a romantic streak and an unsullied innocence, and Tom Hiddleston as the dashing suitor from overseas, a handsome aristocrat with a haunted soul whose mystery captures the American’s heart. His calculating sister (Jessica Chastain), however, who dresses in blood red and death black gowns that give her the spiky presence of a predatory insect, has all the warmth of vampire. Suddenly orphaned and swept away to the desolate hinterlands of rural England, she moves into the most haunted manor you’ve ever seen in the movies, a rotting mansion that lets the snow and rain and bitter cold in through the collapsed spire of the roof and literally bleeds red through the floorboards and down the walls. That it is explained away as a geological phenomenon, the churning red clay of hill seeping into the house as it sinks into the hill, doesn’t make it any less ominous. It’s the seeping of that same clay into the winter snows that gives the hill its name.
The movie begins with a hurricane on Mars, a life-threatening debris storm, and a spaceship that might not be able to lift off in the chaos. And that’s the easy part. After the rocket finally blasts from the surface, an astronaut—presumed dead—is left behind on the Red Planet, and he’s got to figure out how to stay alive by himself until a very improbable rescue mission could pick him up. That will take many, many months, if it happens at all. So The Martian is a problem-solving movie: How will castaway Mark Watney (Matt Damon) figure out the fundamental problems of food, shelter, and communication? The movie doesn’t waste much time worrying about issues of loneliness; after we’ve spent time with Watney, who has a complete lack of introspection and neurosis, it’s no wonder.
Interstellar (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD) – Christopher Nolan used his clout as the director of the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy and cerebral caper film Inception to get this big-budget science fiction epic made on a scale that otherwise would be out of reach. It’s set in a near future where overpopulation and global climate change has been catastrophic for the food supply and the culture has become hostile to science, as if it’s the cause of the problems rather than the only hope to solve them.
Matthew McConaughey is a widower father and former astronaut turned Midwest farmer who is essentially drafted into a covert project to send a ship across the galaxy to find a planet suitable for human habitation. That means abandoning his children, one of whom grows up into a physics genius (played by Jessica Chastain) who holds onto her grudge for decades. This is a film where complex concepts of quantum physics and powerful human emotions are inextricably intertwined and the ghost that haunts the farmhouse has both a scientific explanation and a sense of supernatural power.
In the wintry air of A Most Violent Year, a would-be business magnate named Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) sports a handsome camel-hair topcoat. He’d like to achieve success the honest way, and that immaculate coat is like his shining armor. Problem is, this is 1981-era New York, the business is heating oil, and nothing stays clean for very long here. Writer/director J.C. Chandor is skillful with these details—this is a very intricate story—and quiet in his approach. Abel’s jacket is the flashiest thing about the movie.
Everybody in Interstellar keeps talking about Gargantua, a massive black hole that must be delicately negotiated during space travel. Christopher Nolan’s movie is similarly scaled: This 168-minute epic contains vast sights and wild images, and exerts a heavy gravitational pull. At its center are some basic, reliable sci-fi ideas. They’re just intriguing enough to justify the film’s poky sequences, but in Nolan’s universe this one falls shy of the ingenious spectacle of The Dark Knight and Inception.
The very slow opening reels introduce us to Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut now involved in Earth’s last-ditch effort to grow crops. The future is starving to death, but Coop has a shot at saving the day when he’s called back into astro-service for a do-or-die mission.
A suicide attempt, hauntingly staged: Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) walks across a New York City bridge on a pleasant day, and at one point abruptly dodges out of frame. The startled reaction of a passerby tells us where she goes. The rest of the movie is an attempt by Eleanor—and her family, friends, and husband Conor (James McAvoy)—to figure out what happens after she survives her fall. This is the backbone of a film with an earnest disposition and a complicated release history.
The name: It’s explained that Eleanor’s parents are Beatles fans. That’s cute, although it’s hard to understand what the gimmick lends the movie other than gravity-by-association with the Fab Four’s plaintive song.
Zero Dark Thirty (Sony) has been praised as the best American film of 2012. It’s also been accused of justifying American torture of detainees and turned into a political football by members of congress demanding an investigation into the intelligence provided to the filmmakers by the administration.
That’s testament to the complexity of the film and the volatile nature of the subject matter. The direction by Kathryn Bigelow, who won Oscars for Best Film and Best Director in her previous film “The Hurt Locker,” is fierce and focused and Mark Boal’s screenplay grapples with the messy history of the eight-year-long intelligence operation to find Osama Bin Laden by refusing to make a spy thriller out of it.
As in The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty shows us what this kind war does to the soldiers in the field, in particular Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a fictionalized take on the real CIA agent who unrelentingly followed the slimmest of leads and synthesized seemingly unrelated pieces of information into a map that led to Bin Laden. But the focus is not on the personal sacrifice so much as on the enormity of the job and the tenacity of one agent (“Washington says she’s a killer,” is the one-sentence resume offered on her arrival) to doggedly follow the trail while the bureaucrats and politicians weigh resources and shift focus with each new threat. After the tension and anxiety builds through the investigation, Bigelow pays off with the raid on the compound, played out in real time without movie heroics.
This isn’t documentary, mind you, and Bigelow and Boal take some dramatic license in the details, but it’s in the service of exploring the real story of the investigation as well as the culture of intelligence work and the reality of agents in the field battling bureaucracy on the one hand and terrorists on their own home field on the other. It is intelligent, uncompromising, and utterly compelling, and it begins right off by showing the torture and waterboarding of a prisoner, a man that the lead interrogator (Jason Clarke) admits right off will never be released.
That’s the reality of the war on terror in 2003 and priority #1 is finding and capturing Bin Laden. By refusing to duck the role of torture, and even more daringly refusing to have Maya verbally condemn it, Bigelow drew some heat. While the government vainly tried to claim it somehow distorted American policy (when in fact the policy itself was distorted), others have charged that the film makes the case that torture was a successful tool, when in fact Bigelow and Boal show us that it never produced any information that wasn’t already gathered through other means, and failed to produce reliable intelligence on pressing threats.
Bigelow leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions — on the morality of torture as well as the effectiveness of it — and it appears to have become a Rorschach test for audiences. The controversy fueled interest in the film but it may have cost Bigelow an Oscar nomination for her direction, which by my measure is the most accomplished and the most gripping American film of 2012.
It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Chastain), and Best Original Screenplay, and won for Best Sound Editing (shared with Skyfall), and it was the number one choice on MSN’s critics’ poll.
The Blu-ray and DVD both present four featurettes, all under ten minutes. “The Compound” is the longest of them and it is indeed a guided tour of the set built to serve as the Bin Laden compound. “Geared Up” looks at the equipment used by the actors playing SEAL Team Six and the training they went through for the invasion scene and “Targeting Jessica Chastain” is a brief profile of the Chastain and the character of Maya. Though brief, they offer a lot of detail on the preparation and research behind the production. The least of the supplements, in fact, is “No Small Feat,” which purports to be the “making of” production but is actually a four-minute promotional piece. The Blu-ray also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Criterion), an unconventional wartime drama from The Archers (director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger), was made against the wishes of the British government and went on to become one of the most beloved British films of all time.
This dashing, deft epic begins with the dinosaur of an old soldier, Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (a curmudgeonly Roger Livesay in a bald cap and walrus mustache), getting ambushed by the new young army in an attempt to jolt the old man out of his outdated notions of a “gentleman’s war” against the Nazis, and then drifts back to show just how Candy got here. Livesay is warm and witty as an ambitious young officer with a prankster’s streak, who becomes devoted to his German rival (Anton Walbrook) and falls in love with a series of beautiful women (all of them played by Deborah Kerr), all the while petrifying as the world changes around him over the course of three wars.