Friday, March 19, 2010

Green Zone

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010) (Park Lane) The buzz preceding Matt Damon's latest outing established the film as a continuation of the Bourne series set amid the political intrigue and heavy artillery combat of Iraq as Operation Desert Shield approaches George Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished." Essentially an intelligent action movie that addresses relevant political and social issues alongside thrills and chills. This is a laudable goal, and one that Katherine Bigelow's The Hurt Locker made seem achievable, but is apparently much more difficult than one might think.

The film follows Miller (Matt Damon), a US Army officer leading a team charged with securing Saddam Hussein's purported store of WMDs in the days immediately following the advent of the second Iraq war. The opening of the film, a collage of news footage interspersed with scenes of Miller's team infiltrating a reported WMD site, evoked memories of where I was and what I was thinking as the second Iraq war began - establishing a sense of immediacy and relevance.

The purported WMD site, alas, is empty - and apparently is not the first empty site that Miller and his men have risked their lives to secure on the strength of woefully inadequate intelligence. Returning to base and able to find no answers regarding the source of the faulty intelligence, Miller has no choice but to go rogue, delving into dark corners of political intrigue to learn the dirty secret behind America's reasons for going to war. It is Matt Damon against a global intelligence conspiracy - Bourne 4.0 indeed!

The problem is that, much like Body of Lies before it, Green Zone is not what it claims to be/tries to be/pretends to be. The political intrigue - what shady deals were worked out behind closed doors and in torture rooms to ensure US involvement in Iraq - is paper thin and in no way illuminating. The action sequences - shot in the same annoyingly jerky Bourne style that made The Quantum of Solace so difficult to watch - are distracting and disjointed. And Matt Damon - the darling of the intellectual action film scene - is flat, lifeless, and very out of place shlepping an M16 in uniform and shouting orders (huwah!).

Green Zone is a mess! And, sadly, Matt Damon, whom I have always considered a sign of a film worth paying attention to, proves yet again how limited he is as an actor. Like many of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Damon essentially plays himself in every role - he has never hit one out of the park by playing brilliantly against type a la Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love or Reign Over Me (both HIGHLY recommended). I found The Informant flat and lifeless despite a brilliant back story, and Green Zone essentially boring despite impressive explosions and - again - a compelling back story.

The Iraq wars have not fared well in the theater to date, producing one brilliant film, Bigelow's Hurt Locker, and a bevy of interesting and entertaining films that never really rise to the challenge of delving into what many claim to be the Vietnam of our age: an ill-conceived, mismanaged military folly in a place that the US little understands and has even less right to interfere. I understand that documentary film has done a somewhat better job of tackling the subject, but have not sampled any of these films.

Among the interesting and entertaining films that I can recommend are some that are very worth spending a few hours with. A few that come to mind are: Three Kings, Jarhead, the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and Brothers, which, against all expectations, succeeded in engaging me and bringing tears to my eyes (by the end it even had me impressed by Tobey Maguire, something I am loathe to admit!).

Green Zone, on the other hand, is a solid, non-qualified PASS.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Not Crazy about Crazy Heart

With the Oscar buzz still echoing in our ears and the big winners enjoying renewed interest at the megaplex, I am truly at a loss as to how to write about how much I wanted to like Crazy Heart and how disappointed I was with Crazy Heart.

Let's start on a positive note: Jeff Bridges. The dude, as they say, abides. On the radar since the Coen brother's cult hit The Big Lebowski, Bridges deserved his best actor nod for his portrayal of Bad Blake, and continues a tradition of the academy rising above politics to recognize true dramatic brilliance by lauding artists such as Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, and Mickey Rourke, among others.

In fact, the casting of CH is entirely above reproach, which Colin Farrell fitting in the skin of a "new country" idol as if he had lived the part, and Maggie Gyllenhaal playing up her fleshy, sex-kitten, come hither look for all it is worth. This cast simply works together, giving flawless performances against a seamless backdrop that is a testament to the craft of legions of set designers, wardrobe experts, lighting crews, and sound men.

In fact, the whole film fits together as smoothly and elegantly as its cast, rendering it slick and shiny as a new dime that is worth about 2 cents.

The thing is that CH was a phony. It is a paper-thin, paint-by-numbers, stock Hollywood tale: man at rock bottom meets woman, woman inspires man, man makes mistake and breaks woman's heart, woman dumps man, man returns to rock bottom and finds new hope in: a) woman's forgiveness; or b) realization he can live a respectable life without her.

Wonderfully inspiring stuff!
I am really being a lot harder on CH than I should, considering that I was entertained by it. The thing is that there are some films that I go to with the mere expectation of entertainment - think Casino Royale or the Bourne series - rather than serious intellectual engagement. CH, on the other hand, sold itself as more than light entertainment: The Christian Science Monitor, along with virtually every other newspaper and website, gushes "Bridges draws us deeply inside Blake’s moment-to-moment heartbreaks. He makes us root for him as we would root for a dear friend. Ultimately, his triumphs become our own."

I saw the movie that the Monitor is talking about, and it is called The Wrestler. An edgy tale of redemption that takes risks, pushes boundaries, and takes us deep into the dark recesses of its protagonist's heart and soul. CH suffers in agony by the comparison, maintaining its slick patina by playing it safe all the way, never taking any risks. At one point Maggie Gyllenhaal's character asks Bad Blake if Colin Farrell's character is "real country" under his "new country" guise - maybe CH is real dramatic brilliance under its slick Hollywood guise, but I resent having to search for it.

To return to the critics by way of closing, it is impossible to miss the fact that few of the rave reviews really spend much time talking about the movie itself. In the end most seem to be reviewing Bridges' absolutely brilliant performance rather than the film: The New York Times proclaims CH "A small movie perfectly scaled to the big performance at its center."

I expected more than a one-man show...