Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark ThirtyZERO DARK THIRTY

As an orchestrator of cinematic suspense, Kathryn Bigelow might currently be without peer in American movies. The sequences of Jeremy Renner dismantling explosives in the director's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker were miniature masterpieces of sustained excitement; despite our knowing, through much of the film, that it was too early for Renner's Sergeant William James to be killed off, each masterfully shot and edited act of bomb disposal vibrated with legitimate threat. In Zero Dark Thirty - Bigelow's and screenwriter Mark Boal's fictionalized docu-drama about the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden - nearly every scene feels like a ticking time bomb. There is, of course, never any doubt about the narrative's outcome, yet Bigelow's gifts for composition and pacing ensure that you still watch the picture with rapt attention and dread. And blessedly, she's also a spectacular entertainer. The movie is tough-minded and sometimes tough to watch, but even when Bigelow is fraying your nerves, she's tickling your senses.

In actuality, Zero Dark Thirty is less about the hunt for bin Laden than bin Laden's presumed courier, Abu Ahmed - the go-between whom the film's CIA investigator Maya (Jessica Chastain) spends the better part of eight years pursuing. Described as "a needle in a haystack," this rarely glimpsed man and his white SUV, Maya believes, will eventually lead directly to bin Laden. Bigelow's movie, however, goes into fascinating detail showing how intensely frustrating that process was, with the CIA's efforts routinely waylaid by dubious government officials, bureaucratic red tape, misinformation, and plain old bad luck. (Some of it really bad, as in the cases of two fatal explosions here that hit you with the force of unexpected slaps to the face.) Like David Fincher's Zodiac, Zero Dark Thirty is a procedural that boasts the escalating excitement of a classic thriller; it makes apparent inaction seem like the zenith in high-stakes filmmaking. Much of the movie takes place in dimly lit rooms and in front of glowing computer screens, yet the characters' concentration, Boal's biting dialogue, and Bigelow's riveting framing keep you on the edge of your seat even when the manhunt appears to be in stasis. And when the time comes for Bigelow to stage a knuckle-whitening scene of tension - none more exquisite than the climactic, 15-minute assault on bin Laden's compound, shot mostly in a sickly green tint that replicates the experience of night-vision goggles - Bigelow's subtle yet powerful staging hits levels of near-unbearability that are almost inseparable from rapture.

In addition to being a savvy technician and choreographer, Bigelow has proved herself a quite wonderful actors' director over the years, and with Boal providing loads of conversation that crackles, performers such as Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Harold Perrineau, and the magnificent Jennifer Ehle all deliver smart, incisive portrayals here. But in terms of screen time, it's Chastain's movie, and she owns it. Given almost nothing in the way of a backstory for Maya, the radiant star creates a flinty, obsessed, borderline unlikable character who's also staggeringly intelligent and deeply empathetic; the inner pain that routinely surfaces in Chastain's beautifully invested performance is that of someone who's simultaneously too smart for the room and worried that her smarts, in the end, might not make a damned bit of difference. (The film's final shot - a simple, lingering image of Maya on a plane - is emotionally wrenching because without saying a word, Chastain allows you to understand the personal toll behind 10 years of single-minded devotion to a cause that no longer exists.) In one scene near the film's end, Gandolfini's CIA director asks a roomful of operatives how sure they are about bin Laden's whereabouts. Most respond that they're between 60 and 80 percent sure, but Maya flatly says, "One hundred percent. I know certainty freaks you guys out, so I'll say 95, but it's 100." If I waffled, I could say that Zero Dark Thirty is 95-percent extraordinary. But it's 100.


Sean Penn and Josh Brolin in Gangster SquadGANGSTER SQUAD

Originally scheduled to open last summer, just a few weeks after The Dark Knight Rises, Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad had its release delayed, it was explained, because of a scene in which gunfire unexpectedly breaks out in a movie theater, a sight that audiences would likely (and understandably) not be in the mood to appreciate. Unless it happened when I wasn't paying attention, the scene in question no longer appears in the film. But I can't be wholly positive about that, because I found myself unable - or rather, unwilling - to pay attention to so much of the film. A trifling, unengaging noir lite in which a group of avenging angels take on crime boss Mickey Cohen in 1949 Los Angeles, the movie is by the director of Zombieland, and it's nearly as silly as Zombieland. The giggles, though, are almost never intentional ones; Fleischer's movie trots out one hoary, gangster-flick cliché after another, and between the fraudulent, almost cartoonish production design and screenwriter Will Beall's lame attempts at tough-guy and -gal banter, derisive laughter seems the only logical response. The titular squad, meanwhile, could almost be a parody of the Capone-hunting feds in The Untouchables - with Josh Brolin doing a Kevin Costner, Michael Peña doing an Andy Garcia, and Giovanni Ribisi doing a Charles Martin Smith (so you know what fate's in store for him) - while poor Emma Stone looks hopelessly out of her element and Ryan Gosling just looks embarrassed. As for Sean Penn's Mickey Cohen, it's the sort of grandly god-awful performance that only a truly great actor can give. He grimaces, he grunts, he squawks out of the side of his mouth, and as with Gangster Squad itself, you don't believe in him for a second.


Nick Swardson and Marlon Wayans in A Haunted HouseA HAUNTED HOUSE

Based on its cast, previews, and print ads, you should know exactly what you're getting with director Michael Tiddes' A Haunted House: a loud, crass, obvious horror-flick spoof in the mode of the Scary Movies, top-heavy with crudity and completely devoid of subtlety. I'm happy to report, though, that whenever the film is keeping its focus narrow - in this case, poking fun at the entries in the Paranormal Activity franchise - it's actually, amazingly, pretty funny, boasting smart, satirically accurate compositions and an especially excellent nod to PA3's rotating-fan gimmick. The movie eventually runs out of inspiration and Marlon Wayans' mugging is a tad grating, but the cheerful, gross-joke blitheness of it all is surprisingly winning, with Essence Atkins providing a first-rate comedic turn as Wayans' alternately freaked-out and possessed spouse. (Her channeling of the supernaturally inhabited lead from last year's The Devil Inside is, for the few viewers who remember that film, especially enjoyable.) Oh, and in his role as A Haunted House's aggressively fey psychic who can't keep his clothes on, Nick Swardson is hilarious. Yes, that Nick Swardson. I know, I didn't see that coming, either.


Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Hopkins, and Helen Mirren in HitchcockHITCHCOCK

I caught director Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock in the Chicago area over the holidays, and when referencing the film in an article last week, I wrote that I was "delighted that it hadn't made its way to the Quad Cities. The movie's so obvious and deathly bland that I have no interest whatsoever in reviewing it." Well, this lightweight drama on the making of Psycho has indeed made its way to the Quad Cities - the film is currently playing at Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas - and so I suppose a review is now warranted. But because life is too short to sit through some crap movies twice, there was no way I was going to subject myself to the experience again. Instead, here are 10 memories of my ill-fated afternoon on Christmas Eve. (1) Anthony Hopkins, despite being buried under facial (and now Oscar-nominated) prosthetics, didn't look like Alfred Hitchcock, nor did he sound like Hitchcock, nor did he look or sound awake. (2) Helen Mirren gave a perfectly adequate, perfectly unremarkable performance as faithful spouse Alma Reville. (3) Scarlett Johansson and James d'Arcy were reasonably entertaining as Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. (4) Danny Huston played a scumbag, because Danny Huston always plays a scumbag. (5) The sets looked tacky and cheap. (7) Gervasi's compositions were static and contrived. (7) John J. McLaughlin's script gave absolutely no insight into the creative process behind moviemaking in general, or Psycho in particular. (8) The subplot involving Hitch's suspicion of his wife's infidelity routinely ground the film to a halt. (9) The mere act of having characters speak ground the film to a halt. (10) My mother hated it. If a 70-year-old movie lover can't get on board with a Hitchcock bio-pic starring Hopkins and Mirren, something's seriously wrong with this picture.

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