Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Hurt Locker

I have a thing for war movies, the legacy of many weekend afternoons spent with my Dad in front of WWII flicks ranging from the shoot-em-up bravado of The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone (a tradition of war movie seemingly soon to be reincarnated in Brad Pitt's Inglorious Bastards) to veritable docudramas like The Longest Day, Patton, and Der Untergang (Downfall).

WWII is by far the conflict most covered by Hollywood, with the recent HBO mini-series Band of Brothers probably best capturing the individual soldier's experience of this conflict. With the exception of M*A*S*H, the Korean War seems to have been largely skipped over in the cinema, as it has been in the popular imagination (please correct me if I am dismissing classics of the genre). Vietnam, like WWII, has spawned as many films as casualties, with my favorites being Scorcese's The Deer Hunter, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Stone's Platoon, and, of course, Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

Modern conflicts are a little harder to address on the silver screen, or over coffee for that matter, as our culture has not had a chance to reach some form of consensus on them (WWII as a righteous campaign, Korea as a "forgotten war,"and Vietnam as superpower hubris). Perhaps for this very reason, the war films - modern and classic - that I love are ones that shy away from explicit judgements on the justification of the specific campaign and more on the individual experience of the soldiers posted to the maelstrom - and filmmakers have not shied from contributing to this aspect of the conversation.

For cinematic treatment of modern wars, my top picks include David O. Russell's Three Kings, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Stephan Gaghan's Syriana (a stunning film that is seemingly out of place, but very relevant in my opinion for its perspective on corporate involvement the US War on Terror), and the recently released The Hurt Locker.

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) (Park Lane) Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is replacing the bomb sapper in an active explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) unit nearing the end of its tour in Iraq. Tasked with finding and difussing the seemingly endless number of deadly contraptions that take young lives every day in Iraq, I can't think of a better scenario for investigating the bonds of trust and the sense of connection that I can only imagine that soldiers depend on in the field, each looking out for the other regardless of the grand political slogan that they are fighting for.

Indeed, when James arrives, one his new partners, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), welcomes him to "Camp Victory." Upon replying that he thought it was "Camp Liberty," James is informed that it was recently changed to something that "sounds better." So the slogans keep changing and soldiers have neither influence over nor allegiance to them, but they can do something about keeping each other alive. Period.

I don't think I need to go into detail regarding why a replacement sapper was necessary, but needless to say, the tight-knit team that James joins is counting the days til they can return State-side, and more than a little bit wary of the unknown quantity that has been thrust upon them. Is James someone that they can trust with their lives?

Early in the film, the recently arrived James is approached by an officer who queries him on his track record. A telling dialog ensues:

Officer: "How many bombs have you disarmed?"
James: "873"
Officer: "873! You're a wild man."

And herein lies the problem: James is a wild man. The dialog continues with the officer asking what the best way is to disarm a bomb, to which James replies "The way that keeps you alive." The thing is, James seems to care just a little bit less about staying alive than do the other members of his team, who quickly find his way or working to be uncooperative and even reckless. During an EOD assignment when James is sent to disarm a booby trapped Hyundai Sonata (product placement gone horribly wrong?), he removes his protective headgear with the glib comment "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable," and goes on to also remove his radio headset, cutting off communication with his frustrated and scared compatriots.

Where the Wild Men Are

The story arc of The Hurt Locker, in a sense, is how the team members come to trust each other through the process of understanding their individual reactions to being constantly haunted by the specter of death. James, Sanborn, and the younger and more timid Specialist Owen (Brian Gerachty) all share the seemingly standard soldiers' diversions of loud heavy metal music and heavy drinking, but each also has their own private coping strategy:

  • James cares less, seeming reckless to others but actually freeing himself of surely crippling fear. He lives by the seemingly contradictory coda that the less you care about living the more likely you are to survive.
  • Sanborn trusts procedures, relying on constant contact with the team to ensure that basic army protocols are followed: perimeters are maintained, standard procedures are adhered to, and x-factors (like James) are eliminated.
  • Owen has faith in the longevity of his more experienced peers, constantly turning to them for confirmation of the instincts that should be automatic survival mechanisms.

None of these three leopards is about to change his spots, so what we witness is a chain of increasingly intense encounters with progressively more complicated and essentially evil explosive devices planted to kill Americans and wreak havoc for "collaborators." Through these trials by fire we watch the slow and painful process of the three men learning to become - despite their differences - what Shakespeare so aptly called "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

I find it interesting that this film was made by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. In The Hurt Locker, if I recall correctly, there are a total of two female characters who collectively garner about 25 seconds of screen time. On the surface that makes this is a movie about men - brothers, so to speak - in combat, but in reality it probably makes it a realistic portrayal of the war experience. Women soldiers fought on the front line of operation Desert Storm, and, presumably, the subsequent Desert Shield campaign of "shock and awe," but I imagine that they remain statistically irrelevant in combat situations - and probably virtually non-existent in the ranks of EOD specialists that are a hair from death at every moment and reliant on highly specialized and very heavy suits and equipment that are probably still designed with men in mind.

One way or the other, Bigelow, like Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down, is masterful at her craft. The filming of The Hurt Locker is sublime, with explosive shock waves rolling across the screen like a ripple on a calm lake or the undulation in a flapping satin sheet. The ugliness of the surroundings and the sheer menacing evil of the bombs that James uncovers for our voyeuristic eyes is contrasted sharply with the strange sense of beauty that is evoked by the explosions themselves - the sense of catharsis that allows the viewer to relax again and take a deep breathe. To get a sense of this visual effect, it is only necessary to see the opening flash presentation on the masterfully designed movie homepage (http://thehurtlocker-movie.com/), which boldly declares that the film has "an intensity you can't shake."

I certainly left the theater with the shock waves rebounding in my head, and even a little bit of a feeling that I had experienced something of the EOD specialist's life. I didn't necessarily understand James, Sanborn, and Owen or agree with their individual coping mechanisms - but I felt that maybe I could trust them if, god forbid, I were ever to find myself in such ravaged climes.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) (Bayers Lake) Now for those of you in fear of your mortal soul just for having read the title of this potentially heretical posting, rest easy: the Vatican has officially approved the newest installment in the Harry Potter franchise. Apparently the learned guardians of a billion or so catholic souls around the globe are happy to endorse the film's "'clear' depiction of the eternal battle between good and evil represented by the struggle between Harry and his nemesis, the evil sorcerer Lord Voldemort."
Now I don't claim to have anywhere near the influence of the Holy See, but, for what its worth: I'm Yuri van der Leest, and I approve of this film. In fact, The Half-Blood Prince was my favorite of the books, and, after two pretty weak installments of the film franchise (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), is a welcome breathe of fresh air.

The pace of the film is masterful, with the story moving along quickly but engagingly - although there was one moment when I glanced at my watch, I quickly lost myself in the film again. This is largely due to the filmmakers having made some difficult choices to eliminate scenes from the book, an exercise that would have greatly benefited the jumbled mess that comprised The Goblet of Fire.

These plot choices make the story flow smoothly and produce a thoroughly enjoyable film, and are only questionable in retrospect: in the car on the way home, after the initial awe had started to give way to critical thought, we started to notice some of what was missing. The scene where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) travel to a storm-ravaged coast to secure a valuable object that can help weaken their foe is dark and painful in the book, but passes easily in the film. This is also apparent in the climactic confrontation between good and evil that pleased the Vatican so much: the epic confrontation of the novel is a passing occurrence on the screen.

What the filmmakers pay a lot of attention to, on the other hand, is the personal lives of the familiar magician triad of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson). As in the novel, by this installment there is romance in the air for the tight crew of apprentice wizards, each augmented by their respective "person of interest." Indeed, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are growing up (though perhaps not so fast as the actors that are playing them), and they are paying attention to more than just every-flavour beans and butter beer!

Now romance has not been entirely absent from the franchise, Harry's junior-high courting of Cho Chang (Katie Leung) in The Goblet of Fire for example, but was largely a side-show to the action adventure and served - in the films - primarily to highlight the ineptitude of actors chosen more for marketability than talent (I believe). Not so in The Half-Blood Prince, which admittedly overplays the budding relationships as key plot lines, but at the same time highlights the fact that Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson must be taking acting classes: Watson has always been the strongest among the three, but even Radcliffe, a cringe-inducing bad actor in the last few installments, manages to convey subtle emotions. This admittedly could have to do with David Yates' direction, but is welcome nonetheless.

What Yates most certainly has a hand in is the overall look and feel of the film, which is awesome to behold, composed as it is with rich set pieces, luxurious, vibrant colors, and beautiful costumes that create a convincing fantasy world capable of completely encompassing the viewer for the entire 2.5-hour run time. The cinematography literally stunned me from the opening shots, which follow Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and Narcisca Malfoy (Helen McCrory) through narrow, shadow-filled, cobbled alleyways in the dark of night, the camera panning widely to use the long, narrow, seemingly cavernous space to gorgeous effect.

I am aware, of course, that the visual effects that I am praising - and even the warm, glowing ambiance of the film as a whole - are largely the result of the same computer graphics (CG) that I often lament, but they are used to such great effect in this film that I can find nothing to impugn. Indeed, the computer effects in The Half-Blood Prince are used like the paint on an artist's palette. Perhaps my favorite scenes are those that occur in the pensieve, a shallow bowl of water in which thread of memory are deposited and can be revisited at will. When Harry plunges his head into the bowl, we see the memory slowly coalesce in a shadowy form reminiscent of ink diffusing in a bowl of water.

It must be apparent by now that I am recommending this film whole-heartedly, so will thus tie up this posting with a shout out to one of the most delightful additions to the franchise's cast and character roster: Jim Broadbent playing Professor Horace Slughorn. A veteran of such classic fare as Time Bandits, Brazil, Richard III, and Gangs of New York, I am used to seeing Broadbent in minor roles in excellent films. Not so in The Half-Blood Prince, in which he portrays a key character beautifully and convincingly.

I understand that the final Potter chronicle will be adapted for the screen in two parts. Whether the logic of this is to milk the series for every last drop of cash or to relate the story as faithfully as possible, I cannot say, but I can venture one vote for keeping Yates at the helm and using The Half-Blood Prince as a benchmark.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Adoration, Great Expectations

This week's headline movie is the perfect cure to the generally abysmal quality of cinema fare at this point of the summer blockbuster season. If you have already suffered through Transformers II, I have the perfect prescription: Adoration.
Adoration (Atom Egoyan, 2008) (Bayers Lake) As a translation exercise, Simon's (Devon Bostick) French teacher reads his class an article about the attempted bombing of an El Al flight to Tel Aviv - the would-be bomber had planted explosives in his pregnant wife's carry on luggage. Having lost his father, Sami (Noam Jenkins) and mother, Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), in a questionable accident years earlier, the article inspires Simon to write a dramatic monologue re-imagining his past through the lens of this scenario: with his middle-eastern father as the bomber and his Canadian mother, a concert violinist, as the hapless bomb mule.

Simon's French teacher, Sabine (Arsinee Khanjian), also of middle-eastern extraction, encourages Simon to polish the monologue and to present it at the school drama festival. Although the school principal vetoes this idea, the simple but powerful narrative seems to take on a life of its own as Simon posts it on the internet and more and more people are touched by it.

The movie follows the growing shock waves created by the monologue on the internet through Simon's laptop computer screen, which starts with a nine-person video chat discussing the issue but slowly expands to 30, 40, 50, and maybe even 60 small windows filled with strangers united by the monologue but bitterly divided by the political, religious, and social beliefs that they impose on the narrative - all in the belief that it is a non-fiction account of the actual events surrounding the attempted bombing

This virtual widening of the influence of the monologue is mirrored in Simon's real life, where - like their internet counterparts - many seem unaware that the events described are inspired by true events and personal trauma rather than a direct recounting of the facts of the matter. Indeed, scenes where Simon reads from his composition are chilling, with his voice a matter-of-fact monotone relating a compelling but confusing and frightening tale: for most of the movie I was unaware that the monologue was fictional, although in retrospect there is nothing to suggest the opposite - a confusion that I think Egoyan exploits beautifully.

Sabine is almost immediately ensnared by the influence of the monologue, and ends up intimately involved not only with the fictional account of Simon's bereavement, but with the non-fictional reality of its legacy. This legacy includes Tom (Scott Speedman doing an excellent job with a complex role), Simon's older brother and reluctant guardian since the death of his parents, and the specter of racial intolerance - embodied by Simon's grandfather, Morris (Kenneth Walsh) - that has haunted the family since Rachel first brought Sami home

Simon maintains an impressive/disturbing equanimity through this entire process. He seems like a dispassionate documentarian weaving his unsettling fiction on the one hand, even as we learn his version of the "real" story of his parents meeting, marrying, and ultimately dying through a series of flashbacks on the other. A story that intimately touches the lives of Simon, Tom, Sabine, Morris, and - of course - Sami and Rachel - in a web of fear, loss, and recrimination. There is light at the end of the film, however, as Simon, Tom, and Sabine seem to reach a point where they can move beyond the trauma that has brought them together.

Adoration is a complex film that probably warrants multiple viewings to fully understand the relationships between its main characters, the issues that each is working through, and the highly relevant theme of intolerance. It is beautifully shot in dark, saturated colours that often present the speaker as if in a spotlight, with shadows behind, giving an intimacy and immediacy to what is being related. I was also struck by the music, which seemed to be integral to the theme of each scene both in terms of ambiance/tone and subject matter. In particular, I think of XTC's Dear God, which played in the background as a member of the internet chat forum raves about the 40 virgins said to be awaiting Muslim martyrs in the next world.

I loved this film, passionately. It seemed to caress the viewer like gentle waves on the surface of an inky-black lake that is as beautiful as it is chillingly cold and frighteningly inscrutable in depth.

Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron, 1998) I finished reading Dickens' Great Expectations this weekend, and feel like I lived a whole life inside the novel, a feeling I remember having after David Copperfield as well. While reading the novel I made a resolution to revisit Cuaron's modern reinterpretation, which I first viewed in the theater in Seoul. I remembered greatly enjoying the film, but had only blurred remembrances of its substance.

So, with Dickens' words echoing in my mind, I closed the back cover of the novel, flicked on the flat-screen, and pressed play. From the opening moments of the film I was in love with this modern re-imagining of Pip's trials and tribulations, as told through the story of Fin (Ethan Hawke, fitting the role, but looking overly pathetic when introduced), a budding young artist, his unattainable love Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the snarling, pit bull convict/benefactor Lustig (a powerhouse performance by the brilliantly cast Robert DeNiro giving ). I could go on an on about the cast of this film, which also includes a picture-perfect incarnation of Joe (Chris Cooper) and a delightful, aging-hippy Mrs. Dinsmore (Anne Bancroft) standing in for Dickens' Miss Havisham.

From the Page to the Screen
But what of the film's relationship to its Victorian progenitor? How does the essential tale stand up to being shorn of half its cast of characters, its sooty London locale, and the host of side stories and diversions Dickens' furnished us with? (As people love to complain, Dickens was paid by the word :) )

Well, there are two main differences that come to mind, one wholly acceptable and one less so. Firstly, in the film Estella is not quite the ice queen of Dickens' imagining. Indeed, she does more than her part to arouse Fin's interest and fire his blood, making his infatuation with her all the more understandable. Now it might seem that this dismisses the central tension of the novel, but actually it is a wise reworking of the premise by filmmakers who know that the great stuff of literature does not necessarily directly translate into great stuff on screen. In this case, Cuaron and his crew need to foster the viewer's attachment to both Fin and Estella and their relationship, so that we will care about their fates despite having known them for such a short time (two hours vs ~400 pages). Bottom line, it works.

The second major alteration, and the one that I am not as comfortable with, is the revision of Fin's/Pip's ultimate fate - I warn you to stop here if you do not wish to encounter any spoilers. In Dickens' Expectations, Pip loses his great fortune and fall from all expectations, ending up working a nine-to-five job (so to speak) and living a normal middle-class life. Not so Fin, who ends the film firmly possessed of "portable property," which means to say that he is very very rich - as heartbroken as Pip, but rich nonetheless. Now Fin's ending is in keeping with his character throughout, which is generally even-tempered, kind, and unassuming vs Pip's decent into a spendthrift, snobby, overbearing, boorish, frat boy of the novel, and perhaps it can be justified as stripping out Dickens' moralizing message and focusing on the essentials of the story. Nonetheless, it hit me like a curve ball.

I don't mean to impugn Cuaron's beautiful and lovingly crafted film with this dissent, as I am aware that this is a re-imagining of Great Expectations, and that the main character is renamed expressly to distance him from his inspiration. Overall I think that the spirit of Dickens' novel was admirably captured in Cuaron's film, and highly recommend it for Paltrow's stunning beauty in her early scenes if for no other reason ;)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Public Enemies, Easy Virtue, Transformers II

As the Halifax summer has to date been typified by angry, black-gray, rain-swollen skies of a decidedly apocalyptic tone, I have seen a fair number of films of late, but have not, you may remark, blogged on many. To begin addressing this backlog, I will dispense of those films viewed at home and instead concentrate on my visits to the theater, which, I lament to relate, have not been rewarded by silver screen magic for the most part.

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009) (Park Lane) I have tried several times in the past few days to write about Public Enemies, and I just don't seem to be able to get my thoughts on "paper". The problem, you see, is that I was greatly anticipating the film, and even after watching it I still want to love it so much - I mean, what's not to like? Depression-era Chicago echoing with the bass thunk-a thunk-a thunk-a of tommy gun fire, gangsters playing cat and mouse with earnest G-men prosecuting J. Edgar Hoover's "war on crime" with the "latest scientific methods," gleaming straight-8 Ford sedans powering away from the heist. There's also Johnny Depp, portraying John Dillinger, recently paroled and out to reclaim his crown as the king of the waning golden age of bank robberies, and Christian Bale playing Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent charged with tracking down public enemy number one. The movie poster alone still gives me a thrill...

That's a lot to love, and we can add to that the fact that the film nods to some of the serious issues arising from the prosecution of the war on crime: the birth of the FBI and Hoover's Congressional battle to be granted interstate jurisdiction, the advent of modern scientific techniques in police work, and the mob making its shift from gun-blazing larceny to the more "respectable" pursuit of corporate crime such as sports gambling (and one can assume prostitution and drugs).

So why didn't I love this movie? Well, the easy answer is that despite lavish sets replete with highly polished hardwoods, gleaming chrome, and snazzy pin-striped suits, the film did not manage to create a convincing world. Throughout the 140-minute run time I was keenly aware that I was sitting in a theatre watching a film - a beautifully crafted film, but still one that did not invoke my sympathies or raise my ire.

I think that there are two main reasons for this. The first has to do with the filming itself, and is a little hard to describe. Whereas most big budget movies you go to see have a soft, post-processed patina over them that renders them "dream like" and allows for easy entry by the viewer, Public Enemies shifted between this soft-tone picture and a higher-contrast "real life" visual mode in which lighting popped and edges were sharp and defined. Essentially, I found myself always aware that I was watching actors on a set playing roles - think about the difference between watching your favorite drama (Say Sopranos) and then watching the "behind the scenes" special features where raw footage is shown. (Addendum: I have recently learned that Mann shot Public Enemies with digital HD cameras, which could go a long way to explaining its sterile feel. Oh for the days of cracking and popping celluloid!)

Which brings me to the second problem, which I am well aware borders on sacrilege. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale never became believable characters for me: I never felt like I identified with or was emotionally invested in the plights of either main character. The movie didn't touch me. Now this is partially a deep-rooted flaw in the film as a whole, which focuses very strongly on the characters of Dillinger and Purvis but is so concerned with looking slick and polished at every moment that it never lets us into the messier recesses of their hearts or minds. But it is also partially - here it comes - a problem with Depp and Bale, who play their roles with a cool reserve that seems almost arrogant.

I enjoyed Public Enemies, but, as I mentioned earlier, I didn't love it and can't recommend it out of hand. As I overheard one audience member tell a friend he met in the lobby after the show, "It was great at the beginning when they were robbing shit and shooting everything up, but then it got kinda slow." Well, the slower part - the adagio, so to speak - should have been the best part, uncovering the persona under the swaggering gunman...but never did.

As an addendum, I believe that Slate Magazine may have said it best: "It's like spending an afternoon...at a beautifully lit wax-museum display inspired by earlier gangster movies."

Easy Virtue (Stephan Elliott, 2008) (Bayers Lake) I was out last night with a friend who is a working actor in Halifax's performing arts community, and she was aghast to learn that I had not been swept away by this screen adaptation of a Noel Coward play - perhaps some stories are not meant to escape the stage to the silver screen. I went to see Easy Virtue on a Sunday night in every expectation that I would be treated to an hour or two of delightful whimsy - an incisive, Wildean stab at the heart of upper-class Victorian manners.

John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) is returning to the sprawling family estate to present his scandalous race car driving, pant wearing, cigarette smoking, American wife, Larita (Jessica Biel), to his stiff-upper-lip, no-sex-please-we're-British family. The family estate, ruled with staunch propriety by Mrs. Whitaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), is fading into financial ruin but still keeping up appearances, a fact little known by John's sisters and met with indifference by her husband (Colin Firth), who long ago stopped caring about appearances and tradition.

A delicious scenario for a comedy of "old-country manners meets new world vigour" to be sure, but is ultimately squandered and ends up largely bland and lifeless - which is a shame as it starts out with some degree of promise. The odd gag elicits laughs, such as when Larita accidentally sits on and kills Mrs. Whitaker's dog, but the dialogue - which is reputed to sparkle on stage - falls largely flat in the incapable hands of the cast. This should perhaps be laid largely at the feet of Ms. Biel, extends to Mr. Firth, who has never been known for dramatic range, but certainly not to Ms. Scott Thomas, who, despite her impressive credentials and arguable strong performance even in this film, just is not strong enough to pull the whole film up by its bootstraps.

Catch Easy Virtue the next time it plays on a stage near you, I am sure your local theater group will breathe more life into it than this crew has.

Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay shudder, 2009) (Bayers Lake) Let's be brief: pure, utter, unadulterate, SHIT. Painful dialogue that makes you cringe delivered by hacks that insult the words actor/actress (Shia LaBeouf should be taken out and shot), sophomoric jokes that range from dogs humping legs to Mom getting high by mistake and chasing all the university hotties. The intelligence that conceived this travesty of a film is akin to the brilliance of the political and military minds that ended its mildly more interesting precursor, Transformers, by deciding to stash the recently defeated carcass of the most dangerous alien robot in the world at the bottom of the ocean - where no one would ever find it. Evil laugh. LAME.

But you don't go to this kind of film for brilliant acting or sublime scripts, right? You go for special effects and action, right? And state-of-the-art special effects films are a legitimate creation, after all, often pioneering new techniques that allow other artists in the industry to add to their collective palette. Except that this rationale is wearing thin these days, with CGI having reached a point where it, in itself, seldom manages to blow the tech-jaded audience away.

In addition, Transformers II did not even manage to leverage the technology that it had at its disposal to good effect - I would have loved to have seen the Autobots and Decepticons transform from cars, airplanes, and motorcycles into awesomely powerful super robots, but was even cheated of this. Every transformation starts with the disguise incarnation starting to convulse a little, upon which the camera zooms in and shows a bunch of randomly shifting pieces of colored metal before pulling back and showing the massive resulting robot, which has a mass at least an order of magnitude large than the original, and massive weaponry to boot (hmm, I guess that that five-foot-long, barrel-girth cannon was hidden in the muffler...).

Why oh why did I not walk out of this 2 hour and 30 fricken minute travesty? Why oh why was the surely 100s of millions spent to make this lemon not spent to completely eradicate hunger in any of numerous countries around the world where suffering is so rife?