Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, Evangeline Lilly
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

There is a popular debate among James Bond fans – could a woman ever direct a James Bond film? Many fans fear a female director would de-ball the ultimate male fantasy rogue, force him to wear sweaters and go to baby showers and shit. I’ve always thought the opposite, that a Bond movie directed by a woman – especially the type of woman who would want to direct a Bond movie – would be the most violent and libidinal film in the series.

Being a female with a track record in action, these discussions always end up on the doorstep of Kathryn Bigelow, whose history consists of stories of men and their ritualism in extreme conditions. Certainly her first film in a while, the scintillating Iraq War thriller The Hurt Locker, following a bomb-disposal unit through the paranoid streets of Baghdad, vindicates that position. Can a woman direct a war film? By the end of The Hurt Locker, you’ll wonder if men can.

For a film so focused on manhood, I’ll start this review in an unusual place – the brief, brief, brief time in which we see the masterly bomb defuser Sgt. White at home grocery shopping, scraping out rain gutters, and looking like he’s in hell. In the kitchen, one day, he reminisces about the war and mentions the Army’s shortage of experienced bomb techs. And his wife (Lost’s Evangeline Lilly) knows where this conversation is going. This is the moment that panty-waist males would insert the big “You have a family” harangue. You brace for it but it never comes. Instead, we get the wry smile of the only person who truly understands her complicated husband. And if she wanted to marry boring, the world is full of bankers.

The names inevitably dropped around The Hurt Locker are Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, the hypnotically tense 1954 film about men delivering nitroglycerin along the rocky roads of the Andes, and the hypnotically tense The Battle of Algiers, a First World-Third World contest of wills during the Algerian Civil War. But I’m struck by a comparison to something I’ve read about a film I’ve never seen – Werner Herzog’s documentary Lessons of Darkness, about the men who put out the oil fires after the first Iraq War. One Herzog essay described the men as modern medievals, effectively knights dressed in modern armor in a chivalrous joust with monsters of fire.

In similar modern moonsuit armor, Sgt. White exudes what Tom Wolfe identified famously in astronauts as “The Right Stuff, “a supernatural calm in the face of ultimate danger. In centuries past this gift might have been seen as holy madness, his noble mission a matter of divine calling amid the unholy carnage. He shows old wounds on his stomach, and rather than discourage him, you suspect this only re-inforced the conviction of his own invulnerability. And the battles, from the daily defusings to the hide and seek war games with the hidden bombmakers to a superb sniper shootout in the desert, come across as modern jousts. The war he fights, while nasty and even diabolical, always keeps this mysterious edge of chivalry.

It’s no great cinematic observation to say the arc of war film history runs from celebratory heroism to dehumanization. A few years ago, Sam Mendes’ so-so Jarhead, a tale of obsolete snipers in the first Gulf War, went past dehumanization to emasculation. And while screenwriter Mark Boal cites Jarhead as an influence, I find The Hurt Locker to be more of an antidote, as if war’s technological boredom has shrunk to a distance and revealed once again the qualities of men. Because what The Hurt Locker finds in war the immense terror, but also masculinity reaching its widest expression. By filming beautiful men doing masculine things in fierce circumstances, Bigelow captures the male peacock in full plume.

And while war opponents will sift the blast site for support, they will sleep through one obvious conclusion – that Bigelow has made the sexiest war film since Top Gun. The Hurt Locker manages to re-individualize and re-masculinize and re-sexualize and re-heroicize war and the war film in a responsible way that does not ignore the horror of the phenomenon.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Orphan

Orphan [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman
Director Jaume Collet-Serra

I laughed all the way through the evil child thriller Orphan. Was that a good laugh? Was that a bad laugh? I don’t know. I never figured it out. All I can report is that I was laughing.

When the little dark haired homicidal maniac forces a nun’s car off the road and kills her with a hammer? That’s depraved! When she asks her curly-haired kid sister to help hide the body? Am I chuckling to myself? When she takes off her bloody baby blue mittens and places them in a little girl backpack to stash in a treehouse? Oh, try stopping me from cracking up.

That’s the natural cycle of Orphan, tilting between routine horror flick non-shocks and out-there family satire. It is like an inverted and warped version of the Disney movie where the orphan finds a place in a loving home, this time with an eerie little psychopathic girl showing off a murderous Elektra Complex. It depicts a hidden, violent childhood world taking place under the nose of parents comically wedded too deeply to their perfect family values kitsch. If Orphan were not so dependent on cheap scares and a chipping undercoat of character stupidity, it might achieve the status of a cunning clandestine family satire.

Orphan has the type of slightly clever but ultimately limited premise that attracts actors whose careers aren’t quite living up to their ability. Peter Sarsgaard once seemed on the brink of supporting role stardom. Heck he once hosted "Saturday Night Live." Nowadays, I’m just happy to see him. Then I cringe at what he’s in. When Vera Farmiga isn’t collecting critics group awards, she’s usually starring in something beneath her talent.

In previous movies, Farmiga has a history of problems with children, Russians and perverts. Here, she has all three rolled into one. After experiencing a stillbirth, she and her husband plan to adopt a child from an orphanage. There, in a little room they meet an artistic, over-articulate Russian girl dressed mainly in black (Isabelle Fuhrman). How do you know when not to adopt a mysterious Russian girl? Here’s a primer:

1) You meet a 9-year-old Russian girl who seems wise beyond her years.
2) You meet her sitting all alone in a room singing eerie Russian songs.
3) There’s a crucifix hanging in the background at a perfect camera angle.
4) When you ask where she learned all those songs, she answers, “My dog taught them to me.”

OK, OK, OK, that last line isn’t actually in there. But it might as well be. So when people start turning up maimed, why does it take so long for the parents to put two and two together? Perhaps they don’t watch enough horror movies.

There is no way for Orphan to end in accordance with its best features. You can’t finish this type of film off with comedy. So you have to finish it with cheap, dumb, lousy would-be terror. It’s an ending that betrays the best and darkest spirit of the film. Such a shame.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Slacker Cinema: Films I finally got around to

The Brothers Bloom

One of the best cons for The Brothers Bloom is the one they didn’t play in the credits. If they had just swept the name “Wes Anderson” into the director’s spot, it would take a panel of world experts to declare it a fake. As it is, that spot is filled with the name Rian Johnson (Brick), who has watched plenty of Rushmore and especially Royal Tenenbaums. I must say, Anderson as elder statesman and influence makes one critic feel a little old.

At his best, Anderson is a collector of other people’s stories that he then makes his quirky own. The criminal wannabes of Bottle Rocket resemble the rebels for an afternoon of Godard’s Bande a Part, refracted through a nineties indie sensibility. The Brothers Bloom is a similar operation. Many reviews have called it a con film like The Sting, which is obviously true. What’s being missed is that it is also an anachronistic tribute to the screwball romance. The premise is plucked and the genders reversed from The Lady Eve, the classic con-woman-in-love trope from Preston Sturges, that Anderson hero.

The Brothers Bloom are legendary con men nearing the end of their rope. Having served since childhood as the vulnerable hero of his brother’s con game stories, younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) longs for a real life. Brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is the crafty creator of each sparkling illusion. He believes in two things. First, that in a good con, everybody gets what they want in the end. Second, the perfect con would be to tell a lie that’s so real it becomes the truth.

As a final target, Johnson yanks a zany heiress out of the thirties. Penelope Stamp leads an eccentric life in a New Jersey mansion of castle proportions, where she plays the harp on the front lawn and wrecks and replaces Italian sports cars. As a hobby, she collects other people’s hobbies, learning card tricks and chainsaw juggling and playing DJ to empty rooms in her home. If she were played by Katharine Hepburn, rather than the peerless Rachel Weisz, no one would blink.

As she joins the Blooms on a cruise ship and they take her deeper into a phony smuggling ring, she rises to it with guileless delight. Bloom may want out of the scripted life, but Penelope relishes the drama – leaving bored seclusion for an exuberant adventure. As she finishes one tricky mission, Penelope spazzes out with such girlish playground giddiness that it becomes one of the best film moments of this year. But the beauty of the film is how in a cynical tale of money and deception, the strongest force turns out to be Penelope’s innocence and decency.

And so the romance that develops between Penelope and Bloom is unusually touching. They are two emotionally stunted loners approaching middle age, whose lives have never allowed them to fulfill love. Hence they move childishly through the experiences like young teens wrapped in bodies beyond their years. It is not a love story that begs for true belief. It is happy to exist on its own affected terms, without feeling forced or hollow.

So far, this review doesn’t fully capture the loopiness of The Brothers Bloom. Oversized binoculars. Steamships to the Continent. Crazy classic fashions. A silent demolition expert who only speaks when singing karaoke. The wackiness is carried forward nicely by a gifted cast. Writing “Rachel Weisz is the best thing in the film” is a film critic’s habit that should never get old. The Brothers Bloom might not be a great film, but it is a deeply memorable good one.


Sunshine Cleaning

I’ve been an Amy Adams skeptic. I’ve felt she has been overpraised for playing the same virginal character in most of her outings. She’s always been fine, but more than any other actress I’ve needed to see a film in which fire shot out of her ass. Her trademark cheer doesn’t disappear in Sunshine Cleaning. But at least the film gives her room to introduce a dose of bitterness as well as her considerable sexuality. And perhaps we finally see a single puff of smoke rising out of her – mmmm, I’ll go with “admirable” – backside.

In Sunshine Cleaning, she plays an all-grown high school cheerleader stuck in the past. Working for a housecleaning company, raising a child alone and having an affair with her now-married high school boyfriend, she starts a crime-scene cleanup company with her screw-up sister, played by Emily Blunt. Unlike Adams, I have never had a doubt about Blunt as an actress. The only thing that she can’t do is convince me that she sprang from the same womb as Adams.

Writing newcomer Megan Holley’s script displays likable subtlety and exceptional character development. For two thirds, the film finds its niche between indie comedy and working-class drama. Unfortunately, Holley and director Christine Jeffs eventually lose faith in the things that have been working. A manageable couple of clich├ęs grows to five or six as the film unnecessarily scrapes for third-act drama.

Jeffs film is a study of optimism enduring in the face of hardship. In that way, it bears resemblance to Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Whereas Leigh’s film feels like a halting experiment in happiness by a committed miserablist, Jeffs film touches it with considerable sincerity, due in large part to the talent of its two leads. What Happy-Go-Lucky contemplates Sunshine Cleaning feels in its bones.

And in so doing, Jeffs discovers something about Adams that I fear we will never see again – that she has it in her to do what Monica Vitti has done forMichelangelo Antonioni, to be the humane redeemer of damaged worlds. Yet this film was conceived prior to Adams’ recent rise to mainstream stardom. Will Hollywood allow her to explore this angle, or will it stick her further and further in an emotional nunnery? I’m not optimistic.

Beyond noting that Alan Arkin apparently must star in all films set in Albuquerque that have the word Sunshine in the title, that’s all I have to say.


The Girlfriend Experience

Times are definitely getting harder. The second in producer Mark Cuban and director Stephen Soderbergh’s series of cheapies takes place among masters of the universe suddenly looking for bargains in everything but sex. Judging by this romp through the life of Sasha Gray’s high-end call girl, money doesn’t buy as much as it once did. Such as capable actors. Or tightly told stories. Or fantasy girls with womanly breasts.

The Girlfriend Experience is a luminously shot satire about how we commodify sexuality. A fine enough theme, but the film goes in circles. I wonder if “video star” Sasha Grey’s flat performance was an arty choice on Soderbergh’s part. Even if so, it doesn’t work. It simply makes a barely interesting story less watchable. While Soderbergh has told stories non-linearly before, even non-linear stories must have a linear concept organizing the story. This one does not. It’s a scrambled egg.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Grade: F
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Peter Yates

I’ve always thought that if the evil sorcerers really wanted to finish off Harry Potter, they would just kill his friend Hermione.

It would be such a cakewalk. People are so obsessed with the myth of Harry that nobody pays much attention to the brains of the operation. She does all the work. He gets all the credit. In countries where the Harry Potter books are less famous, the movie series is called Hermione: Female Genius Sorcerer or Hermione: Harry Potter’s Brain.

Speaking of fake titles, I haven’t decided yet. Should I mock this film as Harry Potter and the Half-Dead Prince? Or should I forego clever wordplay altogether and go with Harry Potter and the Relentless Afternoon Nap? No matter. I’m sure the filmmakers have lost track, too. And the last few have slipped and slid along the same retrievable outline. The student wizards return to school. They have dinner in the grand hall. A new devious character is introduced. A sliver of Voldemort’s evil plot is afoot. We take two-plus hours to discover a clue that supposedly brings us closer to the secret but never really does. Harry gets in trouble and Hermione bails his ass out. We witness the death of someone we’re supposed to love but don’t. There’s a funeral that takes fourteen minutes longer than we care to watch. The End. Throw in a bleach-haired assassin who looks like Gary Numan in the Tubeway Army days and you have The Half-Dead Prince.

All of this, of course, takes place within the confines of Hogwarts Academy, where expert wizards tutor a gigantic flock of apparently useless junior wizards, better at gossip than sorcery. And appropriately as their hero they nominate the most useless of them all, Harry Potter, Old Ritalin Eyes himself. Heros are supposed to master their destinies. Harry Potter never does shit about shit. Hell, his girlfriend ties his shoes. This film confirms what you’ve long suspected, that if Harry ever got in a scrap with a real wizard, like Alan Rickman’s Severus, the supposed Chosen One would get his ass run over. During this film I laughed only once, at the end when Hermione tells him, “I’ve always admired your courage.”

At least Harry has dumped his old girlfriend, the one who made him look like Mr. Personality (Or did she die in the last one? You can tell she made quite an impression.). Now he has an eye on his friend Ron’s sister, a girl who at least seems like a trade up. For some blonde-moment reason, Hermione has an unrequited crush on Ron. In a movie about teenage wizards flying on broomsticks, this seems like the most unlikely thing around.

I mildly liked the last film, The Order of the Phoenix. Despite a bland story, it presented Harry Potter with his first taste of adult morality, with choices that have unpleasant consequences. For just one moment, he must realize that his heroic destiny might require more than playing quidditch, glowing in ridiculous overpraise, and being repeatedly rescued by a 94-pound girl. I’d hoped that maturity would continue in The Half-Dead Prince. Instead it’s right back to Hormoneville. They returned director Peter Yates perhaps in a bid for consistency. But the most noticeable consistency in Harry Potter films is how different directors manage to replicate the same stupid face when any girl proves desperate enough to kiss the guys.

Then again, maybe Harry Potter is the perfect hero for the Obama Age. Living in a bubble of magical reality, Harry has no accomplishments to his name, but all he hears is that he’s the Chosen One. He has no grand talent beyond the ability to absorb misplaced adulation. In a time when people have soured on bailouts, Americans will flock this weekend to cheer on the ultimate bailout expert, a boy who has mastered the art of waiting for authority figures to step in and save him. I weep for any generation that has this twerp forced upon them as a hero.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bruno

Bruno [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Sasha Baron Cohen


How will you know if Bruno is your type of film?

Answer this question. How do you feel about a running gag involving an exercise bike converted for use as a super-dildo? Funny? Or obnoxiously revolting?

Compared to Sasha Baron Cohen’s breakthrough in Borat three years ago, Bruno is more outlandish, more perverse, more obvious, more rambling, more gag-oriented, more unfocused, much more outrageous, about as hysterical, maybe even moreso, and missing a certain sweetness. It will be interesting to see how it plays to gay audiences – whether it is condemned or championed.

That’s because Bruno is a gay stereotype taken to extremes, like a comic version of Shaft for homosexuals. This comic creation is a truly flaming Austrian fashion show host who comes to Los Angeles with the sole goal of ascending to stardom. His European flamboyance confronts and exposes the real and semi-real Americans that he meets in his travels. In England they refer to this as the art of “taking the piss.”

That approach, of course, is a repeat of the tactics of Borat, a film that’s extreme humor outweighs its patronizing European confirmation bias about American life. While there is a certain sense of easy targeting that keeps both films from being decisive social commentary (homoerotic clenching at a ultimate fighting venue is pretty easy material), they make consistently amusing set pieces.

There’s a certain game you play while watching Cohen’s films. I call it “Actor, Non-actor, or Playing Along.” The idea is to guess the status of any single “regular” American appearing. Some are normal people unknowingly confronted with the outrageous. Others are normal people aware they are in a movie and playing to the camera. A number of the apparently “real people” are probably scripted actors, I would guess. Do you really truly think that even the worst showbiz mom would swallow hard and let her toddler play a Nazi stuffing another baby into an oven? The result is a three-headed film. Occasionally you have to guess which film you are in.

Yet in its send-up of fame and its callous lack of taste, Bruno is profanely hilarious. His simulated imaginary fellatio on the dead member of Milli Vanilli in front of a shocked showbiz psychic is an unforgettably perverse gem. And just as you think the humor is running low on its gaydom, Bruno decides to go straight, which opens a whole ‘nother can. It’s a second wind for a film that seems to have seven of them.

Bruno

Bruno [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Sasha Baron Cohen


How will you know if Bruno is your type of film?

Answer this question. How do you feel about a running gag involving an exercise bike converted for use as a super-dildo? Funny? Or obnoxiously revolting?

Compared to Sasha Baron Cohen’s breakthrough in Borat three years ago, Bruno is more outlandish, more perverse, more obvious, more rambling, more gag-oriented, more unfocused, much more outrageous, about as hysterical, maybe even moreso, and missing a certain sweetness. It will be interesting to see how it plays to gay audiences – whether it is condemned or championed.

That’s because Bruno is a gay stereotype taken to extremes, like a comic version of Shaft for homosexuals. This comic creation is a truly flaming Austrian fashion show host who comes to Los Angeles with the sole goal of ascending to stardom. His European flamboyance confronts and exposes the real and semi-real Americans that he meets in his travels. In England they refer to this as the art of “taking the piss.”

That approach, of course, is a repeat of the tactics of Borat, a film that’s extreme humor outweighs its patronizing European confirmation bias about American life. While there is a certain sense of easy targeting that keeps both films from being decisive social commentary (homoerotic clenching at a ultimate fighting venue is pretty easy material), they make consistently amusing set pieces.

There’s a certain game you play while watching Cohen’s films. I call it “Actor, Non-actor, or Playing Along.” The idea is to guess the status of any single “regular” American appearing. Some are normal people unknowingly confronted with the outrageous. Others are normal people aware they are in a movie and playing to the camera. A number of the apparently “real people” are probably scripted actors, I would guess. Do you really truly think that even the worst showbiz mom would swallow hard and let her toddler play a Nazi stuffing another baby into an oven? The result is a three-headed film. Occasionally you have to guess which film you are in.

Yet in its send-up of fame and its callous lack of taste, Bruno is profanely hilarious. His simulated imaginary fellatio on the dead member of Milli Vanilli in front of a shocked showbiz psychic is an unforgettably perverse gem. And just as you think the humor is running low on its gaydom, Bruno decides to go straight, which opens a whole ‘nother can. It’s a second wind for a film that seems to have seven of them.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Public Enemies

Public Enemies [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, David Wenham, Stephen Graham, Rory Cochrane, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Channing Tatum, Lily Taylor, Leelee Sobieski
Director: Michael Mann

While watching Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, I was reminded of a particular character in Heat, the getaway driver who drops his day job on the spot for the slightest hint of a heist.

That’s the essence of a Mann criminal – they really know nothing else. Such is the case with his version of John Dillinger, aced by Johnny Depp, born only to rob banks and die young. Mann fashions the infamous Depression-era outlaw into a figure of charisma, ruthlessness and suicidal audacity.

Like a pop star with the lifespan of a bottle rocket, the Dillinger of history terrorized the Midwest for a grand total of one crazy year of bloody bank jobs, jail breaks, and shootouts with the Bureau of Investigation. Mann transforms Dillinger into a legendary self-made American Original being squeezed by an increasingly conformist and corporate nation. The cops are scientific and powerful. The mob is turning into a dull business. Robbing a bank is a childish joyride. He stands as an emblem of the times, yet he is already a charismatic anachronism.

Mann is so enamored of his Dillinger that he balances him with an FBI that, given the context, borders on the silly. The film links the FBI to Italian Fascism, suggesting that their tough tactics are the heirs of a spoiled legacy. It’s as if trying to stop a bloody crime wave were merely a bunch of squares harshing on an outburst of originality and initiative. Perhaps he would like to explain to Mexican citizens that they currently are experiencing a vigorous outburst of individualism.

Mann gets a quietly eccentric performance from his lead, backed with an excellent but miscast. Marion Cotillard as his gun moll Billie Frechette. Enamored with his central villain, Mann leaves Christian Bale to a series of mannerisms as underdeveloped G-Man Melvin Purvis, too large of a role to be the cipher it is. The failure to develop Purvis as an adequate balance keeps the film from reaching the epic weight that it seeks.

Public Enemies won’t help any teenager pass a test. It conflates incidents, ignores others. At times, such as the parade-like trip to jail in Indiana, the film can seem too much like gangster movie porn – a director sating a childhood fascination with Tommy Guns, running boards and gun molls. At other times, such as the monster night-time shootout between G-Men and a group of legendary bank robbers at the Little Bohemia Lodge, Public Enemies takes your breath.