Zero Dark Thirty * * 1/2

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Director: Kathryn Bigelow.
Screenplay: Mark Boal.
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez, Harold Perrineau Jr, Stephen Dillane, Mark Duplass, Frank Grillo, Reda Kateb, Nash Edgerton, Jeremy Strong, Scott Adkins, John Barrowman.

So, after the Oscar winning heights of “The Hurt Locker“, director Kathryn Bigelow decides to stick to a winning formula and follow up that success with another war themed drama. Personally, I wasn’t keen on on her previous Oscar winning movie and I’m just as less enthusiastic about this one.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden becomes the prime target following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Heading the search operation is CIA intelligence analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) who commits ten years to tracking him down, while others around her have their doubts and reservations. In 2011, her commitment pays off as she believes that he has been in hiding in Pakistan and a U.S. Navy SEAL team are sent in to capture or kill.

Beginning with the events of 9/11, the film fast forwards 2 years where it dares to expose American torture tactics to find the culprits of that fateful attack on New York. Although distressing, they are brilliantly and bravely captured which has led to some controversy on Bigelow’s part. The film, basically, doesn’t waste time in getting down to business and although the early stages consist of interrogations, Bigelow does well to maintain interest and tension. After this, the film gets bogged down in an attempt to capture recent events that require much more than a 2 1/2 hour movie to sum up.
Apparently, the script of this film was changed during the filming; the original story was the hunt for bin Laden but his (supposed) capture and death occurred before the film was completed. As a result, we have the ending to this manhunt. Personally, I don’t buy bin Laden’s capture. That’s not to say that I think he’s still roaming the earth. He may well be dead but I just don’t believe that events played out the way we have been told they did. It stinks to me that we are supposed to buy the – almost hush-hush – news coverage of such a high-profile event in current affairs. Sadam Hussein’s death was plastered all over the media but with bin Laden we are to just accept with very little evidence produced. Call me a conspiracy theorist but I can’t (and won’t) readily accept everything I’m told in the media. I believe it to be western propaganda that only serves to instil a belief in people that an end to the conflict is near. People want to believe. People need to believe. Much has been said about the 10-year-long manhunt to capture and kill bin Laden but if, buffoonish, Bush Jr, wasn’t so hell bent on drilling for oil and finishing his dear old pappy’s lucrative business in Iraq then that time wouldn’t have passed.
Anyway, I digress. My write-up is becoming more about my personal beliefs than it is a film review. So let’s get back to the job at hand. This is a film that is, undoubtedly, well structured and captured but I found that it meandered and as a result, I began to write a big “lefty” spiel (which I have omitted here) on my opinion of the conflict that we, as the west, finds ourselves in. And the reason this happened? Frankly, it was because I was bored. It wasn’t until the hour mark that things begin to get interesting but just when it began to look good, it got bogged down in boardroom scenarios and endless eastern locations. I have been a big fan of Bigelow’s previous movies but her recent venture into political events doesn’t cut it for me. She’s a director that has vibrancy and energy that is hard to compete with but on recent evidence, she’s entering into a territory that doesn’t accentuate her skills.
What does work in this, is the performances; Jessica Chastain proves, once again, why she’s everywhere at the moment. Her progression from shrinking violet to doggedly determined shows good range and some supporting actors also deliver solid work; Jason Clarke (“Lawless“) is a standout in the earlier part of the movie and Kyle Chandler (“Super 8“) gets a chance to flex his acting chops in some tense verbal confrontations. James Gandolfini and Joel Edgerton are a couple of late inclusions and it’s only in the last half hour that Bigelow shows her abilities in staging the action set-pieces. By then, though, it’s too little too late. What she does do, in her defence, is portray the actions of soldiers less than heroic. Which is one of the few truths that she shows in the entire film. Another is the ambiguity in the identity of bin Laden. At one point Stephen Dillane’s character says “… bin Laden, do I give up all hope of possibly seeing a photograph of him?” Eh… I’m afraid so. As an audience, we have to, yet we’re still expected to believe that he was identified and located on a farmyard, killed and buried at sea and an agency expert visually confirmed his identity when she hadn’t, physically, ever laid eyes on bin Laden herself.

Gung-Ho, western propaganda at it’s most concentrated. Some of it is impressively handled but ultimately, it’s nonsense that masquerades as intelligent filmmaking. It’s far from it and another blip in Bigelow’s, seemingly, great reputation. As a surfer- dude once said, in her earlier psuedo-spiritual, action pinnacle… “Go back to the valley, man…“.

Mark Walker

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68 Responses to “Zero Dark Thirty * * 1/2”

  1. Love the honesty – no band wagon-ing here! I’ve yet to see this but I am interested – I really liked The Hurt Locker.

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    • Thank you sir. I had a much more scathing review to begin with but I edited a lot of it. I’m not out to please anyone but I could have seriously offended some people with it and ultimately it was unnecessary.

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  2. I wasn’t was as into The Hurt Locker as everyone else was either Mark. I haven’t seen this yet but I miiiiiight skip it. Not sure yet.

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    • Yeah, I thought The Hurt Locker was very disappointing and certainly didn’t deserve the awards it got. It’s hard to say whether you’d take anything from this but I wish I had avoided it. Cheers Ryan.

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  3. Ok, this ‘honestly sharing your opinion’ is not very becoming for a movie critic. You’re supposed to fall in line. LOL!

    Anyway we’ll disagree on this one bro. I was really taken by this movie. It certainly does get chatting through the middle parts but I was completely engaged from the opening 9/11 scene. I also loved the ending with the by the books military procedure that never tried to Hollywoodize the action.

    I think the biggest reason we disagree is probably because of the politics. I can see where someone would not react to this film very well if they believed this was nothing more than western propaganda. I see that differently which in turn makes me view the movie differently.

    Anyway to each his own brother. I appreciate the honesty and the straightforward review. Often times these are the reviews that bring the best discussions. Good job!

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    • LOL. Fall in line like a good little soldier? πŸ˜‰

      I appreciate that some (or many) will not share my views on this film or the conflict itself. I found it really difficult to separate my feelings from the film itself. I had the same problem with The Hurt Locker.

      As for the film itself, it was structured and shot very competently but I found it laborious and monotonous.

      I think I’ll have to agree to disagree with many on this one though.

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  4. Sorry you didn’t like this one. I thought it was fantastic and one of the best films of the year. Nice review.

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    • Thanks man but this shouldn’t be included in the Oscar nominations for me. The Impossible was a far better film than this and that got snubbed. Didn’t take to this one at all.

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  5. ray brayne Says:

    Brought a lot of bile to this viewing, didn’t you? I have no doubt it was Bin Laden, to easy to disprove if it weren’t. Remember Hussein was captured and tried so every day we saw his puss on TV. Other enemies of the U.S. were killed without much proof. Admiral Yamamotos’ plane was blown to bits thanks to Intelligence work. No pictures there. I feel sure somewhere in the bowels of the CIA there’s DNA proof of Bin Laden’s demise.
    But as to the movie. I loved it. Best Picture 2012. I was not a fan of “Hurt Locker”. Seemed like a conventional war movie. ZDT is not. There is no background story or exposition at all. Totally focused on the female agents’ dedicated efforts and sacrifice to bring this terrorist down. A slow crescendo builds to a tense and satisfying ending. This is the movie that “Hurt Locker” should have been, if that makes any sense. The real agent is still unknown and for good life-saving reasons. Bigelows’ film is quite an ode to her work!

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    • I brought plenty of bile Ray. Didn’t like it. I don’t deny that bin Laden is dead but I seriously wonder about how it happened. He could have died squeezing out a shit for all we know but credit will always be taken. It’s opportunistic man.
      That aside, I thought the film was a total borefest. Bigelow handled herself competently but my god, it was dull. I suppose believing in the events themselves might have helped my enjoyment here. But I don’t believe and I didn’t enjoy. Simple as that, I’m afraid. πŸ˜‰

      Always great to hear your views, though, Ray. I appreciate your input.

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      • ray brayne Says:

        Mark, I’ve hated American Foreign policy my whole life. The Vietnam Era was my bailiwick. So spiel all you want. I’m still glad this movie got made. Bigelow shunned all involvement with the Pentagon and White House to make this. That way the bastards couldn’t have anything to say about it. She wanted a simple story about the people in harm’s way for us and what it’s like for them. This movie maybe the only answer we have to a lot of questions, Why aren’t these events being discussed, why weren’t pictures taken and shown of the raid? ZDT might be the sole representation of these historic events.

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      • I’m not a fan of the foreign policy either Ray. If truth be told, it gets my back right up. I do admire Bigelow shunning the pentagon etc. I also admire her bravery in tackling some of the events that took place. It’s a good point that you make this film being a reflection of these times but it ultimately doesn’t provide the answers either. And to approach it, in such a way where it depicts this revelation and 10 year long tactics is still hearsay. That aside, on a film viewing level I still found it laborious and dull. It didn’t provide the tension for that if did for others.

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  6. Ahah, you’re such a conspiracy theorist Mark πŸ˜€ Regardless of whether one believes in Bin Laden killing or not, I still think the film works as a thriller. As Keith pointed out, political films often have polarizing views as people can’t simply disregard their worldview going into it. That said, as an immigrant living in the US, I don’t feel that the filmmaker are painting the soldiers or even Maya as heroes though, it could’ve easily been done in such a manner.

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    • I enjoy a good conspiracy theory Ruth πŸ˜‰ But because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. (as a wiser fella than myself once said) LOL

      I did find it hard to separate my personal feelings from the film itself and I appreciate that the characters weren’t painted as heroic but there was still a bit of flag waving involved. My anti-war stance is hard to shake off and this film seems to revel in the conflict and “the hunt to kill”. It’s hard for me to take.

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      • War is just bad on all fronts, I agree. I wish we could all live peacefully but the fact of the matters is, there are psychos who are hellbent on destroying others and they had to be stopped. Anyway, I appreciate your honesty in reviewing this Mark.

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      • I do agree that war is bad on all fronts as well Ruth. I really do. I approach life from a Buddhist perspective, yet I believe that WWI & WWII were justifiable. Now, that almost sounds like a contradiction but these were wars to stop atrocities and I don’t believe that that the war against Iraq was justified (at that time). Afganhistan was different, I know, but Osama Bin Laden was only a productive of U.S. training and armed by the U.S. to combat the Russians as it suited America at that time. There are links to him and the Bush (sr) administration years ago. Deals turn sour and bad things happen but as bad as it sounds, 9/11 wasn’t the start (or the end) to many deaths during this ‘business transaction’. I always get passionate about these type of issues πŸ˜‰ but as a wiser fella than myself one said… “War is Business”

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  7. You know, I feel like Ive seen 301 reviews of this movie….. πŸ˜‰

    This is one I agree with the most though. For me, I loved Clarke, he was the best thing in it, and if the Academy werent scared of the shit they would get honouring someone who does a bit of torture in a movie he should get an oscar. I dont like Chastain, just found her annoying…..maybe she was meant to be, but I would of preferred the original choice and watched Rooney Mara in that role.

    Not enough with the soldiers either, they were the best bit. I cant believe anyone would poke their head out hearing their name though πŸ™‚

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    • LOL. the 301st you say? Didn’t realise you’d seen it man but since you have I appreciate the compliment very much.
      This didn’t cut the mustard for me at all. I can see why some would lap this up but I can’t separate my personal views from this film. I campaigned hard in Glasgow against Bush and his empirical fucking views. This type of gung-ho mentality doesn’t impress me and the film didn’t either.

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  8. Very interesting to hear your thoughts Mark. I’ve not seen this yet but my main worry about it was that it would be flag waving propaganda. I’m very interested to see it just to make up my own mind about it but I am definitely going into it with a skeptical head.

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    • Thanks Chris. The only reason I watched it was to make my own mind up as well. I don’t much care for the subject matter. Some claim it’s not propaganda but I wonder how a film made by Afganhistan’s about 9/11 would be perceived? Of course, it’s one sided and I will give Bigelow her due. She doesn’t paint everything rosie but the end result is still the same nonetheless. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts when you get around to it man.

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      • I’m off to see it this coming week hopefully so I’ll definitely have a review up afterwards. My first thought when I heard about this was that it reminded me of the kind if thing that used to happen during the Second World War with countries pumping out propaganda films, although the fact that the film was originally about the hunt rather than killing of Bin Laden at least suggests that’s not the case. I wonder what the film would have been like if he hadn’t been found?

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      • Absolutely Chris. It would have been very interesting if the film was just about the hunt rather than the kill. Some disagree with me on the propaganda front but you hit the nail on the head there. This film has been made while the conflict is still ongoing. Is there any other way to view that than propaganda? It feeds the public (or masses) with info that is a requirement for them. Just to maintain a belief in a nice comfortable little western existence.

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  9. Fine review, Mark. Keep’em coming, my friend. Thanks.

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  10. “… western propaganda at it’s most concentrated…” Bingo.

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  11. The main reasons I can understand you not liking this are the fact that you didn’t like The Hurt Locker either (A very similar film which I also loved) and the culture difference. Honestly I didn’t see it as propaganda at all, after all the depictions of torture indemnify our country more than praising it. Oh well, we can’t agree on everything

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    • I agree on the torture scenes Andy. Bigelow was was wise and brave to depict that but it’s still a bit of a flag waving exercise. If the Afganhistan’s made a movie about their “achievements” on 9/11, that would (rightly) be seen as propaganda material. This is no different. Even though it sheds some dark light on American activities, it ultimately glorifies hunting and killing a human being. Not to mention the fact, that there is no concrete evidence that these events even happened. If they didn’t happen, then that says even more about a nation that would love to have you believe that that’s how they take care of business.

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  12. 😦

    On Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 10:07 AM, MARKED MOVIES

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  13. Good review. One of the best of last year and just a flick that got me right away, and never let go. Chastain is great and lord only knows if she’ll be getting that Oscar.

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    • Cheers Dan. Unfortunately, it didn’t do it for me. I enjoyed the opening and to begin with, it looked like it was going to be great but before long it petered out and recovered. I was bored with it but I can see why some would enjoy it.

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  14. I haven’t seen this movie yet, and I am very intrigued by the fact that I’m reading such mixed reviews. It sounds like there were things you appreciated, particularly Chastain’s performance, even if the film as a whole didn’t work for you.

    I enjoyed your political opinions. And I would’ve enjoyed your leftist spiel too. πŸ™‚ Though you’re preaching to the choir here. I’m all too aware of how the West, particularly the U.S., created a lot of this mess. *Sigh*

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    • The performances were good Steph but really there wasn’t a lot that impressed me.
      My Lefty spiel was quite fun to write, I must admit πŸ˜‰ but as a film review, it wouldn’t have been appropriate. I did find it hard to separate my personal politics from the events depicted here though.

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    • I’m afraid I’m going to have trouble separating my personal politics from the movie, too. I’ll try to check my opinions at the door and keep an open mind about the film, but I do have strong opinions. πŸ™‚

      Maybe you can post the lefty spiel as a separate essay?

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      • My opinions are strong also Steph. I can’t help it, though, it’s part of my working class upbringing and political awareness. πŸ˜‰

        I might still have the majority of my lefty spiel but it wouldn’t be fair to impose that on everything. I’m not out to convert. Although, it is very tempting LOL. πŸ˜‰

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      • I can understand why you might feel this isn’t the place for a political post. πŸ™‚ However, I don’t think a political opinion post means you’re out to convert. I think it’s more about encouraging people to think and sparking thoughtful debate and discussion. Just my two cents.

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      • …and a fine two cents worth it is Steph. πŸ˜‰ Some of my opinions have came out in the comments section but I find, in general, that people would rather talk about the film itself. I’m always up for a little debate and discussion though. πŸ˜‰

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  15. I thought it was an impressive movie, but can understand your points. Whether it happened or not the final bit was thrilling to watch.

    btw, Mark, I’m going to interview Paul Verhoeven on Monday (have 5 minutes) about his new crowd sourced movie and I’m asking my blogging friends if they have any questions for him (to go with the crowd sourced approach). So drop by on my blog if you have a question you would like to ask and I’ll try to ask him.

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    • Cheers Nosta. I do admire some of the film and Bigelow’s approach but ultimately it didn’t impress.

      That’s fabulous news on a Verhoeven interview. Is that you Dutch guys helping one another out πŸ˜‰ Superb my man. I’m wracking my brains with what to ask now but even if if don’t come up with one, I’d be very interested to read that.

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      • Yeah, he needed some help so I agreed to interview him πŸ˜‰ Looking forward to doing it and interested what he has to tell.

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      • That’s quite a scalp man. I’ve been dithering with the idea of asking a few of my own countrymen for interviews also. Don’t really know how to go about it, though. I suppose it’s just braving it?

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      • I have to admit I was lucky. I got an invite for a premiere and could apply for an intereview, which I of course couldn’t say no to!

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      • Well done man! I’m going to contact a few through twitter. Primarily, Robert Carlyle as he’s probably the closest chance I’ve got at getting one. If he says yes, who knows what it might progress to. Kudos Nostra! Kudos my friend πŸ™‚

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      • Hope you’ll manage to arrange it!

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  16. daveackackattack Says:

    Mark I have to agree with you about the film and The Hurt Locker. Didn’t like them as much as I thought I would. ZDT was too long and slow and not in a good way. While Bigelow did an admirable job I can’t put this up there with the very best films of the year. (Notice that she didn’t get nominated by her peers for Best Director this year?) Technically brilliant and fine acting, sure, but pacing wise it just killed it. Then again Affleck’s Argo was certainly exciting but the last 15 minutes was complete fiction added for effect. (He didn’t get nominated either). Hmmm. Personally I’d give it to Spielberg this year. He knocked it out of the park.

    Did they use torture to find Bin Laden or did they not as the government claims? Is he really dead? I personally think he is. Bin Laden doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d let the US of A dance on his grave and not make his presence known just to embarrass the US. As far as what went on I don’t think we’ll ever know. I mean we still don’t know who really killed the Kennedys. Although I don’t think I’d put the film up there with Triumph of the Will I didn’t see it as propaganda on Boal’s and Bigelow’s part. I mean the government didn’t want anything to do with the film. Is a lot of it speculation? Sure. But then again Hollywood’s never let the lack of actual facts get in the way of a good story.

    I thought Chastain was pretty good but she’s reaching critical mass for me with her omnipresence. Personally this year I thought Jennifer Lawrence was even better. I mean she made Bradley Cooper look like a real actor and a real human being… now that’s something. LOL.

    BTW ever see the doc Standard Operating Procedure by Errol Morris? Check it out if you haven’t.

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    • Thanks Dave! Glad to hear you’re in agreement here. Bigelow done some fine work but overall, it didn’t work. Everything you point out, I agree with; good performances, slow pace etc.
      I haven’t seen Argo or Lincoln yet so I couldn’t comment on who should get the Oscar. So far, it’s Ben Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild for me.

      As far as Bin Laden being dead, I’d agree. I think he is but I don’t buy the events in which we’re told happened. He might just have been found that way (in a crossfire or something) and a longwinded (successful) manhunt story was concocted to show the superiority of U.S. military intelligence. Who knows for sure but something stinks to me.

      I’ll swing by on that link later Dave, Cheers man!

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      • daveackackattack Says:

        Whoops… thought you’d seen Argo. Anyway I can’t recommend enough Argo, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook. Now those were some of the best films of the year.

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      • No worries man. I’ll get around to Argo and Lincoln when I can but I’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook. I loved it. Still working on a review. Not had the time to put it together yet.

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  17. Personally I don’t really care how they killed Bin Laden, the marketing campaign for this movie was kinda hilarious with those pathos-filled words and the ludicrous ‘greatest manhunt” line. Really, outside of US there are much bigger problems than one guy hiding in the cave and it doesn’t surprise me that outside of US the film wasn’t this enthusiastically received.

    Anyways, I didn’t enjoy the movie – I thought Chastain was bland, Maya was annoying and the whole film was filled with lies and half-assed research. There were some good things, mainly the way the film was made technically-wise and supporting actors, but other than that it’s weak 6/10 for me.

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  18. I thought this was ok but I did not really see what all the hype was about. Certainly, in no hurry to run out and re-watch it anytime soon.
    I still have my Bin Laden most wanted poster hanging up in my garage. With friends like Pakistan who needs enemies?

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  19. Popcorn Nights Says:

    Great stuff Mark. I am with you on The Hurt Locker, I also thought it was overrated, but enjoyed the tension in a few of the scenes. Haven’t seen ZDT yet and so can’t really comment further, but enjoyed the review anyway.
    I wonder whether we’ll get bin Laden sightings in the same way we have had decades of Elvis sightings? Maybe they’ll end up working together in a chippy in Cleethorpes!

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    • Cheers man. Yeah, The Hurt Locker had it’s moments but overall very disappointing. This is much of the same with even less tension.

      Yeah, who knows man. Sightings of Bin Laden in Starbucks may happen yet! πŸ˜‰

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  20. Nice review. You and I had a similar reaction to the film.

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  21. Great review, Mark! I’ve not seen this yet but am really interested to view it now after reading this – it seems to have been given such excellent reviews so far but i suspect i’ll be with you on this one: I agree with you on the Hurt Locker too, it was tense, but so overrated.

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    • Thanks Georgina. Most reviews are very positive but I wasn’t convinced. The Hurt locker did have it’s moments of tension but overall, it was quite dull. I found the same problem with this one. Surprising really, as I’ve always enjoyed how exciting a director Kathryn Bigelow can be.

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  22. I’m kind of glad you didn’t like this too much, it’s okay that a movie makes a statement, i sense that is what it is doing (a very often repeated rhetoric) but it’s an entertainment media, so a balance has to be struck. The fact that i have no intention watching this kind of tells its own story. I really liked Hurt Locker, it entertained and was more of a story rather than a statement, whether zero dark thirty (daft title by the way) does that i may never find out.

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    • For many this didn’t make that much of a statement but I thought it did and it was a statement I wasn’t keen on. I’m very much interested in the background and events that it deals with but I didn’t care for it’s approach to them. If I were you, I’d continue to avoid it.

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