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Zero Dark Thirty
*****
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Joel Edgerton

Zero Dark Thirty will stay with you. Long after the credits roll, days after, it’ll stick with you.

Kathryn Bigelow’s reserved but intense recounting of the search that led up to the discovery and death of Osama Bin Laden (based on the accounts of people actually involved in the operation) features a phenomenal turn from Jessica Chastain as Maya, a CIA case officer.

Focusing on Maya, the story follows the painstaking development of “the greatest manhunt ever” from 2003 until 2011 when SEAL Team Six mounted a covert operation on the compound in Pakistan where the Al-Qaeda leader was hiding out.

Less an exercise in flag-waving, Zero Dark Thirty emphasises more the grind of work in the information community.

Maya, a recent arrival to Pakistan, joins Dan (Jason Clarke) and the rest of CIA agents embedded in the US embassy and quickly makes a name for herself as being tenacious and uncompromising. She also latches on to the idea that Bin Laden’s most trusted courier, Abu Ahmed, may be a key source of information and weathers years of political and social upheaval and setbacks in pursuit of her lead.

Torture is also a character unto itself. The characters engage in it. They acknowledge they’re skirting, if not overstepping, the boundaries of propriety and the cost it may have on their souls. Beyond not shrinking from the brutality of water-boarding and the sensory deprivation techniques used in “information gathering”, however, no particular stance is taken on the issue.

Also gratifyingly shorn of trumpets or gratuitous back-slapping is the film’s final act as the soldiers make their final move against Bin Laden.

The long scene, shot almost entirely in the green and black of the SEAL’s nightvision, is a taut affair, despite the end already being known and emphasises Bigelow’s talent for tackling realistic action scenes.

In a field of excellent actors Chastain and Clarke, who shared the screen in John Hillcoat’s Lawless, deserve special mention.

Nominated for the best actress Oscar, Chastain is brilliantly unsympathetic as the “killer from Washington”, avoiding many of the holes a lesser performer may have fallen into.

Similar to former co-star Tom Hardy, Clarke is expert at playing the brilliant brute. Dan comes from the more rough-and-tumble end of the intelligence community but Clarke imbues him with a believable intelligence that undercuts his lunk persona.

Zero Dark Thirty is never going to be anything less than a political hot potato but Bigelow and writer Mark Boal do a fine job of making it exciting and thought-provoking without overtly expressing an opinion of how the intelligence community functions.

A fascinating flick telling a story that shouldn’t be taken as Gospel but should be paid attention to.

Hansel & Gretel:
Witchhunters
***
Directed by: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare

There must have been a moment during the filming of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters when the cast and crew realised that the flick was bad.

Undeterred by this revelation, however, it seems they decided to buy an extra few hundred gallons of fake blood and miscellaneous goo, embrace their inner schlock monster (and an 18 cert) and, in doing so, ended up with a really fun film.

The film takes up years after the fairy tale leaves off with the brother and sister duo, played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, now older, bolder and known far and wide for their powers of supernatural asskickery.

The pair find themselves in Augsberg, where witches are being blamed for a rash of child disappearances. As they investigate the kidnappings, they discover there’s more than a few missing kiddies to worry about and the grand poobah of black magic, Muriel (Famke Janssen in top scenery-chewing form) is planning to unleash an army of fireproof witches on the world.

It’s silly as all hell but manages to be great fun, thanks to some elaborate set pieces and a sense of humour reminiscent of the Evil Dead films.

Renner and Arterton aren’t going to make their careers on such stuff but it’ll hardly hurt them either and the film serves as a reminder that getting a little goofy is seldom a bad idea.

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