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Zero Dark Thirty

SOME critics have inferred that Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is somehow pro-torture because it suggests "enhanced interrogation" led directly to the execution of Osama bin Laden.

Other complained that it is not sufficiently conventional as a reality-based thriller.

I find both arguments spurious. Bigelow does not shy away from the fact that torture was used in the hunt for bin Laden. In fact, her film graphically gives the lie to the Dick Cheney/Fox News claim that water-boarding isn't really torture.

But Bigelow doesn't whitewash the nastier side of that hunt any more than she draws a straight line between torture and mission accomplished.

The thing to take away from Zero Dark Thirty is that war has changed and war movies must change accordingly.

Bigelow's film is a scrupulously wrought delineation of 21st-century warfare in the era of terrorism, conducted in far-flung intelligence field offices, or in the dark corners of secret military installations.

The beginning of the film starts in darkness, with a kind of aural collage consisting of scraps of sound from 9/11, a sombre reminder of the motivating force behind the hunt for bin Laden.

A novice agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) doggedly seizes on a spectral figure said to be Osama's courier. If she can find him, she can find Osama.

But that process turns out to be an arduous one. Information comes in scraps that are, by turns, maddeningly sparse, contradictory, or just plain deceptive.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal based the figure of Maya on a real CIA analyst, but trying to ascertain what is true and what is fictional in this movie would be as exasperating as the search for bin Laden himself.

But it feels authentic in the details, whether depicting an interrogation at a "black site," a sketch of a grudging friendship that develops between Maya and a fellow female analyst (Jennifer Ehle), or in the film's fascinating final half hour, a depiction of the assault on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, depicted in relentless real time.

Chastain provides a centre for the film against formidable odds. While admirable for her superhuman strength of purpose, Maya is not exactly a sympathetic figure. But the centre holds. Bigelow's film is so compellingly real that we do not begrudge the fact the character is as much an enigma at the end of the film as she is in the beginning.

As war movies need to be redefined, so too do heroes. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö

Les Misérables

THE long-awaited film version of the hit stage musical is based on a Victor Hugo tale as downbeat as literature gets. But while this may not be a feel-good movie, it's doubtful there has been any movie so invested with such raw feeling, especially a musical.

It is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whom we first encounter finishing a 20-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. Once free, he wanders from town to town, shunned by respectable folks until he finds transformative acceptance in the house of a priest (Colm Wilkinson). Years pass, and Valjean rises to respectability as the mayor of a small town, until the ruthless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) reappears in his life. He is forced to flee, but not before he befriends the embittered prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and adopts her daughter Cosette.

Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) eschews choreographed, toe-tapping spectacle. Reasoning that most of the songs are as serious as a deathbed testament -- and at least a couple of them are just that -- he shoots many songs as he would a dramatic soliloquy, in close-up with a minimum of editing.

This can result in transcendent moments. Fantine's rendition of the musical's most famous song, I Dreamed a Dream, is interpreted with wrenching dramatic potency by Anne Hathaway, who won a supporting actress Oscar for out-Piafing Edith Piaf.

But this device gets a little too intimate. I'll bet more than a half an hour of screen time is devoted solely to Jackman's yawning rictus. A musical theatre vet, Jackman is a strong singer and a good-looking guy -- but geez, there are limits. 'Ö'Ö'Ö1/2 stars

This Is 40

ONLY two things evoke laughter: familiarity and surprise.

Judd Apatow's 2007 film Knocked Up was largely an exercise in surprise, detailing how a one-night stand between a career-oriented woman and a slacker guy becomes a transformative experience when she becomes pregnant.

This sort-of sequel puts the focus on a pair of peripheral characters from Knocked Up: Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), a married couple with two daughters. Befitting the more common experiences of love, marriage and planned pregnancy (more or less), it is a comedy of the familiar.

If Knocked Up got its laughs cataloging bad male behaviour, This Is 40 is largely observational about travails of marriage coupled with the indignities of middle age, especially in a medical montage in which Pete and Debbie suffer through his-and-her checkup. She reacts to a mammogram as a medieval torture device. He is equally disturbed by the prostate exam and his doctor's breath on the back of his neck.

The ebb and flow of the relationship doesn't follow any particular rom-com plot. This is character comedy, and while it goes on too long, it benefits from strong comic performances from Mann and Rudd, actors who have never been content to look pretty. 'Ö'Ö'Ö

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

"ALL good stories deserve embellishment," says the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in this first of three movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

I agree in principle. But only if the embellishment is as good as the story itself.

Director Peter Jackson, who rendered The Lord of the Rings trilogy so indelibly a decade ago, gratuitously stretches things out, pulling nine or so hours of cinema from the comparatively slim single novel The Hobbit.

Hence we find the young Bilbo (nicely played by Martin Freeman) as a hobbit homebody whose sensibilities are offended upon the home invasion of Gandalf and a party of 13 raucous dwarfs. They have chosen Bilbo's hobbit-hole to discuss a mission to return to their gold-laden fortress home after being expelled by the vicious dragon Smaug. It is the intention of the de facto dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to take back their legacy by making the dangerous voyage to The Lonely Mountain.

The film's dramatic centrepiece is the meeting of Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis), the malicious yet pathetic cave dweller who figured so prominently in LOTR. This is a nice, self-contained retelling of the Riddles in the Dark chapter and constitutes the best payoff for Tolkien fans, a miniature symphony of whimsy, tension and terror.

But other scenes, especially a sequence involving warring man-mountains, feel decidedly like padding.

And it feels better to watch the movie on Blu-ray disc. Jackson's most unnecessary augmentation for the theatrical release was a 48-frames-per-second resolution that was supposed to render more vivid moving picture images, but ended up looking like a video, lacking the fluidity and gloss of a film image. Screened in 2D on a high-definition television, the movie actually looks more like a movie.

The Blu-ray includes loads of extras in the tradition of all those DVD iterations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 'Ö'Ö'Ö1/2 stars

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2013 C14

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