Tag Archives: the hurt locker

The Filmist’s Obligatory Oscar Nomination Pool

In place of my usual slot of three reviews, I thought I’d finally set down finger to keyboard on the Oscar nominations, for the internet record. Aand you can call me on these, folks. In fact, I more than invite such a thing; I welcome a challenge to my authoritah, and I’d love to get some real discussion going on about this up and coming awards ceremony, as opposed to any of those – other film blogs, with their shiny banners and whatnot.

Best Picture

I’ll never be as big a fan of Pixar as everyone else seems to be – individual films, like WALL-E and Ratatouille, I certainly have a healthy fondness for, but as a whole, their output of work for the last decade hasn’t really pulled me in the same way that it has so many others. I love that they’re trying to keep what they call ‘traditional animation’ alive, but I think that too many of their films seem to fall just short of a concrete realization, either because too much of the writing comes off as overly sentimental, or the humorous elements often seem a little too pat, or any number of other things. Up! falls in with this crowd – like everyone else has said, the first ten minutes alone could easily win the Best Animated Short, but the film keeps going, and falls to the same problems that have faulted a lot of Pixar’s other movies, that I mentioned above. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds I  wasn’t all that crazy about, either – I picked his Kill Bill films for the “rest of the best of the decade” epilogue for the project some weeks back, but it’s this film more than any other that kind of defines all of the problems I have with his filmmaking style, something that I could probably write an entirely other post about. Of the giant crop to pick from, there are two that my heart really stands behind – those being Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker; though, if I had to bet money, it’d be the latter. The guiding hand of the former is obviously a new one to film, and in a few places, this does become a little overly obvious. The Hurt Locker, on the other (other) hand, comes with a sure and strong hand by a director already experienced with the form, and it more than shows. So, it ultimately gets my support – and, I have to say, I love the fact that three tried-and-true visceral action films have gotten nominated for the top prize. This kind of thing hasn’t happened in a long time.  And, I swear to Christ if AVATAR even comes close to winning I’m going to go crazy and do an Indian fire-dance, so help me.

Best Director

Similarly, with my preference for Best Picture being The Hurt Locker, I have to go with Kathryn Bigelow for this one, although this does pose an intriguing opportunity to present Tarantino with the award that he seems to be aiming for. I can’t say that I enjoyed Precious as much as so many others did – it seemed very much like a more contemporary version of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, or something like that. And, while that film was enjoyable, I probably wouldn’t present it with any sort of award, myself. There’s so much here that is almost laughably over-the-top and presented with such a glamorously greasy sheen that it just kind of makes you feel bloated and dirty after watching it. Why is James Cameron even here?

Best Actor

Here, I’ll deviate from my crush on The Hurt Locker for a minute – this one can only go to Jeff Bridges portrayal of Bad Blake from Crazy Heart, rightfully. I’ll be that guy and say I wouldn’t mind if this film replaced AVATAR in running for Best Picture – but, it’s Jeff Bridges understatedly humanistic performance that the entire film hinges on, one that gets so rightfully to the heart of its character that you feel like you’ve known this guy for a long, long time. His accent feels so well-worn, rough around the edges, that at times the film seems like it would almost need subtitles for anyone not accustomed to that kind of quick, Texan drawl he does so well at replicating. Indeed,  this character reminded me so much of my own father, in mannerisms and dress as well as the trace of his life through the picture, that it’s almost eerie. Go, Bridges. Go.

Best Actress

Yeah, we could all say, “does Meryl Streep really need another one of these?” And, the answer is – well, she deserves it, I think. Yes, it’s imitation, and the Academy seems to have a real thing for succinct imitation, obviously. But,  I think there comes a point where a performance can move past being just imitation and into being a character and performance all its own – and, Streep’s turn as cook Julia Child goes well past this barrier, seeming to capture that intangible familiarity behind the laugh of her character, something that would only emerge as hollow from any other, I’m certain. Also, it must be said that I can’t say that I found any of the other nominated performances that astounding, outside of maybe Gabourey Sidibe’s Claireece Jones, despite the rest of the film.

Best Supporting Actor

Unfortunately, the same could also be said for this category as well. But, despite the overall unfulfilling nature of the film it was a part of, Christopher Waltz’ Hans Linda from Inglourious Basterds is the one idiosyncrasy – it’s a shame there weren’t more, but what a twitchy, unpleasantly staid man Waltz has created, here. With a smile a bit too wide, and teeth within just a bit too white. Nervousness incarnate.

Best Supporting Actress

I would love to see Mo’nique win, just for the sheer novelty of such a thing – that’s not a crack against her, you readers must understand. But, I used to watch The Parkers on UPN all the time, back in the day, and while it might be to my own detriment, I can’t help but see her still as “loud, man-crazy Mrs. Parker,” and all of that kind of thing. Maybe this is coloring my opinion of her work in Precious as well, but that’s kind of a given, isn’t it? I think my heart really lies with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s young mother, from Crazy Heart. There’s a particularly strong sense of honesty, here – and, I don’t know why this was relegated to the Supporting Actress position, as she occupies almost as much time in the film as Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake.

Best Original Screenplay

Up shouldn’t be here, I don’t think – really, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, this is only a contest between A Serious Man and The Hurt Locker, and again, I think this belongs firmly with the latter – I’ve written extensively about it elsewhere on the site, but if I were to try and summarize it’s worthiness for this particular award, this might be the only film that seems to fully represent the breadth of something as trying and as harsh as being an American soldier in these hazardous times. It’s something sparse, and elemental, and it is nothing less than, one of the best films of this past decade, saying nothing on its status among the films released this year.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The fact that Neil Blomkamp was able to take the spine of a six minute short film built around a single implicitly obvious political allegory and expand it into an entire film can do nothing less than cause a double-take. While, again, at times it is very much obvious that this is the trembling but sure hand of a new and beginning director of film being given the opportunity to work on a larger scale than he’d been prepared for, for his first picture, for the most part, this is a fully formed work, one of blackly humorous satire, Cronenberg-esque body horror, and some truly visceral actioneering.

Best Animated Film

While there’s nothing in the guidelines to prevent its nomination here, there’s no reason UP should’ve been nominated for both this and Best Picture – for all of the things it implies about the quality of itself and of the other films in this roster. For my part, I think my vote lies with The Secret of Kells, which I’d only just seen recently. It seems to stretch and take the animation techniques perfected in so many of the contemporary network animated series and move them toward their most ultimately personal form. Coraline is something to see, as well – while I’d always envisioned something a bit more MirrorMask-esque and closer to Dave McKean’s artwork for Gaiman’s children’s novel, but Selick’s hyper-cartoonish claymation approach acknowledges itself and knows exactly how to work within its own visual framework to create something entirely creepy, and other.  And, I love it whenever I hear Tim Burton’s name get mentioned in relation to it. It makes me chuckle. The Princess and The Frog – well, I like that Disney’s started a slow move back toward line-drawn animation, but this doesn’t bode well, outside of some startlingly idiosyncratic touches, like a certain character’s death, and the character of the antagonist in general. So, Kells. AVATAR belongs here, I think.

Best Foreign Film

Well, I’ve only seen A Prophet and The White Ribbon, and between the two of them, I think I’d probably like to see Jacques Audiard’s film receive the award just a little bit more – it’s a visually dynamic sole-character piece, charting the main character’s trajectory through a six-year prison term, framing the character’s mental deterioration in a familiar-yet-healthily-exercised framework of everyday prison ebb-tides, the exoticism of which is enhanced by the Frenchiness of the film.

And, then there’s the rest – those mostly technical categories, and stuff like that. Usually, you don’t write but a line about these, and so I’ll try and keep to that unspoken tradition.

Best Documentary Feature

The Cove – Louis Psihoyos

Best Documentary Short

The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant

Best Live Action Short

Kavi – Gregg Helvey

Best Animated Short

La Dama y la Muerte – Javier Recio Gracia

Best Original Score

A short note, here. My pick is, again, for Marco Beltrami and co.’s, score for The Hurt Locker. But, look at the other scores here, and remember how – outside of that for The Fantastic Mr. Fox – amazingly uninspired they all are, coming from their respective names. James Horner’s flat, unevocative score for Avatar, half-assedly utilizing old Disney-esque Pocahantas tropes. Sherlock Holmes score from Hans Zimmer, which feels – for him, anyway – like a strangely by-the-numbers affair. And, so on.

Best Original Song

Ah, but here’s a good one. Crazy Heart‘s “The Weary Kind,” by Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett.

Best Sound Mixing/Sound Editing

Star Trek – Mark Stoekinger, Anna Behlmer and co.

Best Art Direction

Sherlock Holmes – Katie Greenwood. What a wonderfully smokey steampunk-but-not, exaggerated England they’ve created, here. I want to see more of this.

Best Cinematography

The Hurt Locker – Barry Ackroyd

Best Makeup

Star Trek – Barney Burman and co.

Best Costume Design

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – Monique Prudhomme

Best Film Editing

The Hurt Locker – Chris Innis, Bob Murawski

Best Visual Effects

District 9 – Dan Kaufman and co.

It’s strange – there are a lot of films missing that seemed like they would’ve been essential to the running, and there are films present that  probably shouldn’t have come within a million, million light years of being nominated – like Transformers 2 or Nine, which should both be allowed to go into that deep, inevitable abyss alone and unloved like the ugly little monsters they are. Still, the presence of ten nominations for the Best Picture has done it some good, I think – it’s been a long time in coming since an action film, any action film, has been nommed’ for the top prize, and here, there’s not just one, but four. And, while I’m opposed morally and spiritually to The Big One, the other three are more than welcome examples of the form. I hope we see more of this, in the future. We’d damned well better.

Now, let’s see just how right I am. I’ll throw twenty in the pool – any takers?

Tagged , , ,

“Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Fourth

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

After a short delay, it is so that we return –

history_of_violence_ver2

 

TheFilmist: Let’s start with your film, howzabout?
MatchCuts: For sure. For me, A History of Violence is Cronenberg’s most disturbing film because it’s all about the interior character, something that he plays with in beautifully constructed conflicts that build in violence, literally ripping this small town family apart. Did the film have this type of effect on you?
F: It was certainly an affecting film, and all the more so because I’d read the graphic novel it was based on beforehand. And, it’s filled with a lot of really, really over-the-top violence, without much focus – so, it was especially astounding the opposite direction Cronenberg went, deciding to move inward instead of outward. Although the film is not without it’s physical violence – generally any time Tom Stall is prodded into action – it seemed to be more about emotional violence.
M: And how emotional violence begins in these small little moments of indecision, of mistrust, the breaking apart of these relationships. Even though some of the dialogue is over the top, the emotional violence you mentioned just seems to ooze under the surface. You see this especially with the son and with Tom’s wife. The doubt of it all.
F: Oh, certainly. I love the moment just before the attack on the family’s lawn between Tom and his wife – but, it becomes especially potent afterward, in the hospital when Tom admits everything to Edie.
M: Her reaction, violently throwing up, almost purging that trust from her soul, is really an astounding moment, and Bello’s performance goes toe to toe with Viggo’s astounding turn. It’s the one Cronenberg moment where the viral themes of his previous films comes into play.
F: And from then on, there’s an almost opaque aura of mistrust around the two of them, when we see them both at the dinner table and driving home, finally culminating in the – I don’t quite want to call it a rape sequence, but you know of what I’m referring to.
M: That second sex scene is all about Edie challenging Tom to bring out his alter ego, the violence in the sex, that love really doesn’t play into it, the control she wants him to show in order to prove his other self really does exist. She’s seen the violence, but now she challenges him in the bedroom, and the result is devastating for them both. Especially for Tom, he his truly torn between past and present.
F: What was interesting to me about that scene was that it acts as a parallel to the earlier, more gentle sex scene between the two, and how – in contrast to that one – there’s absolutely no real warmth between the two. It’s almost completely mechanical.
M: The two sex scenes are crucial to this film Rosenbaum talks about it in his great review for the film, about how this film is a series of flip sides to a coin. Similar Interactions between characters that take place at different points in the film, but have very different tones, outcomes, and consequences.
F: This is true.
M: And I really think Cronenberg achieves this perfect vision of an alternate world, where global issues reside in the local, the violence of protecting one’s property, be psychological or physical property at stake.
F: I also love the son’s arc – well, love’s not the right word, because it’s not really a positive arc, but it’s so well-rounded, even if the bullies he constantly has trouble with do seem just a little over the top at times. What cinched it for me was that scene of himself and his (as The Dude would put it) special lady friend smoking pot outside of that downtown building – that’s essentially what it’s like, living in a small town like that. Either that, or you go to Wal-Mart.
M: The son is really the most over the top character in the film for me, in that his arc is the most drastic like you said. The opening introduction to the family is so exaggerated, and his story about the monsters, very strange, then where he ends up by the end of the film, full of hatred toward not understanding his father, or himself, it makes the bullies look tame in comparison.
F: I can see that. I mean, forgive my course language, but he is kind of a whiny bitch throughout the whole movie, almost to an excessive degree.
M: Yes, and I think this is the point. The contrast in characters. Father and so are about as far apart as one could imagine. But after the violence he commits, the son is on the road toward becoming his father.
F: Yes, indeed. After he shoots Fogarty in the face, he does seem to become a gradually more brooding character, disaffected by such things – then, there’s that final sequence, where Joey arrives home, and through the aura of almost complete and total distrust between everybody in the room towards him, his son pushes his plate nearer to him.
M: The last scene, at the dinner table, is one of my favorite in Film History. No words spoken, yet there is so much weight, so much action in these character’s faces. They way Cronenberg uses eye lines to connect certain characters and not others, all culminating in the innocent child getting Tom’s plate for him. It’s what all filmmakers should aspire to, telling a story through the eyes of its characters.
F: That’s one of the things that I feel should be stressed more often, certainly – attention to the eyes, because that’s where it all is. Especially in a visual medium.
M: And you see this motif throughout A History of Violence, when the bullies almost run into the killers, all they do is share a glance, and that‘s enough. Tthere’s an intrinsic understanding between both evil doers and innocents.
F: Indeedy. I love the look of the film, as well – the cinematography is almost sedate, in contrast to what it’s framing.
M: I always like to talk about the extreme violence in the film, how Tom almost seems like a superhero when he’s enacting these brutal death blows, he’s so swift, and his actions are incredibly potent. No one stands a chance against him, but his actions represent the evil inside of him. Like all great Westerns, you have to return to your evil ways in order to save what matters most. This is probably most evident in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, where Gary Cooper has to relive his days as a serial killing outlaw to save his new life. And this plays into the framing as well, As you stated.
F: Yes, and the impact of Tom’s actions are much helped by Cronenberg’s trimming all the excess fat from the film’s pulpy, pulpy source material.
M: There’s not a wasted scene in this film, and that’s the sign of a great director.
F: The contrast between the two is really most obvious when talking about the ‘Richie’ character, Tom’s brother in the film. His story ties into the weird, fragmented structure of the graphic novel – which is, half the time, about Tom’s escape from the mob. They capture Richie, cut off his limbs and string him up in a dark room, and torture him, which we’re reminded of constantly. Stuff like that.
M: Yes, how that would fit into Cronenberg’s vision is tough to reconcile.
F: And, yes – there’s a great and sudden visceral quality to those scenes where Joey is roused out of Tom’s stupor. Rapid-fire editing combined with brutal, unnerving violence.
M: Character through editing, not dialogue, Cronenberg does this to a great extent in Eastern Promises as well, I think it’s something about Viggo’s face that allows for such an approach, the wrinkles of his face, the complexity of tone.
F: He’s a great deal more interesting here than in the Lord of the Rings, I’ll say that much.
M: For sure. I also wanted to mention the opening long take, which is truly an astounding way to introduce characters. The slow, languished stroll of their walk, the restless, tired nature they seem to exude. These guys seem so beat, yet they will kill and kill, seemingly forever to stay one step ahead. Of what? Who knows. It plays into the fact that there is a whole other universe going on right under our noses, of evil men and murder.
F: I like the fluidity of that shot – it’s almost like a magic sleight-of-hand trick.
M: We wait for something bad to happen, but it’s already happened off screen, Just genius pacing, something Cronenberg does better than anyone.
F: Certainly.
M: I think the best segue way into The Hurt Locker is the Western angle. Both of these films seem to be using Western archetypes and iconography but in other genres, and extreme genres at that. The War film and the Thriller.
F: That’s an angle I relied upon a lot in my review, actually – in The Hurt Locker, the connection is more definitively stated, with the main character James’ nickname being “cowboy,” and the use of the desert. “The Hurt Locker” is a startling picture, I think – and, probably one of the only truly apolitical war films we’ve had in a while. Although, in a way – it does really become about the perils of war in a way that hasn’t been confronted all that much, and that is war-as-addiction, as an initial escape from a fractured home-life in James’ case that seems to spiral outward. But, also – it’s a film constantly fraught with visceral tensity, through it’s set-pieces.
M: When I first saw your list, I thought maybe it was too soon to call this one of the best of the decade, but it’s certainly a masterful piece, and I think that tense, constant onslaught of uncertainty, makes it a near masterpiece.
F: That thought had crossed my mind early on, but then a second one soon followed it, and that was – “oh, well. Better earlier than before it becomes too late.” It’s the one film I have in the whole of my selections that comes from this present year, actually – in contrast to the two I have from 2007 and the two from 2008 (but, now I’m spoiling things).
M: What struck me most about Bigelow’s direction, is her reliance on the POV shot, usually an omniscient POV from above, or the POV from potential attackers. It makes the build up just too much to bare. Where is the violence going to come from? Like many Westerns, the attack could come from any direction, and this plays perfectly into the current War’s in the Middle East.
F: This is true. And, speaking of the cinematography, that was one of the more interesting technical aspects of the film, was her use of multiple camera on the same take. And, the POV shots are of particular note – fleeting shots from the back of an abandoned car, on the side of the road, from the window of a building above, quickly – making us jumpy, and expectant. It’s a disarmingly simple device, but one that’s of particular effect, when suddenly – WHACK!
M: A sniper’s bullet rips through a body.
F: But, speaking of the POV shots of the film, the ones that stand out the most for me are the most are the ones that come to pass during the unnaturally long and held-out sequence in the desert, the almost High Noon-esque standoff between the snipers in the broken building husk some miles off, through the haze and desert heat.
M: Best scene of 2009. Just monumentally long, drawn out to the extreme, we get to feel the sweat and dust on their faces, and the action is just brutal.
F: You keep wondering when the scene is going to cut, and it doesn’t – not for almost fifteen minutes, nearing twenty.
M: It doesn’t let you off the hook, ever.
F: And it’s really in those scenes that the character James seems to come alive, almost – he’s over there, buzzing encouragement in their marksman’s ear, and he’s down there, tending to the guy who got shot down in the crevice. Which is what’s really interesting about him – initially, he seems to be the newest iteration in the cool and silent stranger, coming into this new unit a hot-shot with a long history of success at what he does. But, slowly Bigelow reveals him to be the most vulnerable out of all of them – even the officer who was mentioning to the psychiatrist his contemplations of suicide.
M I don’t get it when critics say James isn’t a complex character, that he’s one note. Come on! The last scenes with him are down right dynamic. The choices he makes, the contradictions he experiences, just incredible stuff.
F: I’d say those critics probably fell asleep in the second hour, but things start bubbling under the surface with him during that scene relatively early on, where he has a startling reaction to the rough-housing of his fellow cadets, and we hear the details about his home-life for the first time.
M: James gets tempted so many times to develop human relationships, and it almost seems like it war, that’s the last thing you want to do, get attached, which is why he is so reckless, so perfectly attuned to the environment over the personnel who are his support team. He’s a true lone wolf.
F: Yes – and then, everything falls apart during his saga with the boy, eventually even leading him to break into civilian’s homes.
M: He just breaks down, and becomes this frantic roaming soldier who has no connection with the enemy or his comrades, just a blatant need to diffuse situations that he deems dangerous, no matter how perilous.
F: – which really makes the ending all that more unnerving, really. That he decides to throw himself back into those same situations over again.
M: For James, the life of diffusing bombs is easier than dealing with the reality of stateside existence. Like I said in my review a while back, the walk down the grocery store isle is more dangerous for James than that final walk of the film.
F: All those cereal boxes – the aisle just becomes daunting. Still, I’d probably feel the same way, and I’m not even a soldier. There’s just too many cereals, man.
M: Ha ha, for sure. It’s pretty scary though, everyday decisions are just moot in the face of extreme danger. And this makes perfect sense. It’s the reason why people buy into the fact that War is indeed a drug.
F: Exactly.
M: The cameos in this film are first rate, especially Ralph Fiennes and David Morse, just brilliant incarnations of the macho war film persona, yet slightly askew.
F: Yes, and they’re so well-integrated that you hardly register them on your first go around. And then – ‘hey, it’s Ralph Fiennes!” Of course – he doesn’t last long.
M: No one really does in this movie, mentally and physically.
F: True. They all become rundown in some way or another.
M: What about the slow motion in this film? Just great uses of an overused action aesthetic. Makes what seems cliche fresh again, it brings this breakneck film to an almost serene state.
F: Those almost surreal shots of James in the bomb-suit, making his way down the deserted street – they’re almost haunting.
M: The moment where the ground shifts under their feet, the pebbles and sand just slowly moving away. Let’s talk about Bigelow’s treatment of these extreme situations. How does this play into her other films? You mentioned Point Break in your review, which is a great example of subverting action film tropes to create an interesting genre film.
F: Bigelow uses a lot of devices that have become somewhat stale in recent years, and she does so in a way that actually makes them feel new – partially, I think this is because she integrates them so well throughout the film: an action sequence charged with viscerality slows down suddenly to witness the idiosyncratic site of the army-man in his balloon-shaped bomb-suit make his way down the street, or plumes of dust rising up from their feet. All of her films seem to be about the dynamic of male camaraderie in these extreme situations, really. She just seems so — fascinated by us, for some reason, and “Point Break” is another example.
M: Yes, and even though many of her films are quite cheesy, they can be linked through these auteurist traits. Like it or not, she’s a fascinating artist. And The Hurt Locker is maybe her best and most accomplished films.
F: Oh, I’m fine with those two statements – I actually enjoy “Strange Days” quite a bit, although “Point Break” is phenomenally cheesy, I agree. What with the Swayze and the Keanu, and all.
M: yes, Keanu doesn’t exude seriousness.
F: Well, he tries.

Tagged , ,

“Best of the 2000’s” – #7: Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”

 

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

Much like The Dark Knight, The Hurt Locker is a film I’d already written about in short measure – so, in deciding to write about it for the Project, I decided to go back and retroactively expand my original review – which was about 500-600 words – into what’s below.

***

They’ve been out here for hours, by now – in the desert, their heads poking up every so often over the crest of the crevice they’ve taken position in. The heat rises in waves from the ground, distorting their view of the building away and far off, a low-hanging and beaten concrete housing, the innards gutted. They sweat. Fingers press tightly on triggers, and their breath is caught in their throats.  Somebody – barely indecipherable – flits past the window of the building, and there’s a brief glint of light announcing a short hail of bullets. “You’re doing fine,” the cowboy says.

thehurtlocker1

Like Point Break before it, Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker continues her utter fascination with the dynamics of male bonding in extreme environments – this particular study is set in the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit Bravo Company, during the first few months post-invasion in Iraq.  However, given the landscape, she also takes the opportunity to explore the after-effects of war – both the addictive adrenaline rush and the repulsiveness it provides. Embodying this almost wholly is James, portrayed by relative new-comer Jeremy Renner – his face all lines of permanent stress mixed almost equally with the occasional devilish grin and steely gaze, like a new Paul Newman. And, like Paul Newman, he often seems to find himself in conflict with his superior officers – in this case, Anthony Mackie’s Sergeant JT Sanborn, who seems to find himself both fascinated and filled with disdain for this obstinate young man with the graceful hands.

Based on a screenplay by journalist Mark Boal who found himself caught in just such a situation in 2004, the film does seem to take an ostensibly objective eye to all that occurs – when we happen upon the body of a certain character lying cut open on a slab near the tail-end of the film, poignancy is conveyed slowly, creeping up on the back of the neck. And, then we see Renner’s face, with the color drained from it,  and it begins to all sink in.

The film begins with a simple white coda over black, “war is a drug,” from Chris Hedges 2004 anti-war bestseller, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and it ends with the main character trapped in a cycle of dangerous repetition. Initially, he appears to be a character of derring-do, and of his own volition – he makes the first move, strapping on the padded protection suit and wading out toward the danger zone without a prior word, and certain scenes paint him as an artist at work, fingers nimbly flitting around this cable and that. Interestingly, Bigelow avoids any sort of tried-out “is it the red wire, is it the blue wire” routine, opting instead to move herself around in these scenes in the same way that another director might portray a chase sequence – which is startling, because the film is actually relatively still, even in it’s set-pieces. While there is the occasional burst of movement, here and there, it’s often slow and pondering, arduous and in a giant, puffy bomb-suit. No, Bigelow moves from one still shot to another so gracefully that the overall impression is one of movement – but, it’s all an illusion.

But gradually, Bigelow reveals her character James as one who runs for this kind of thing the way a smoker does a pack of cigarettes in times of  emergency; we’re told he believes that his wife and he are divorced, but she won’t leave him. And, one wonders how many times the kind of relationship he’d developed with the young Iranian boy Beckham had run it’s course, before the opening credits. His attitude is his armor, and the most used tool in his trade-skill bag, outside of his wire-cutting picks and prods. When that attitude begins to falter, and break, James finds himself without a railing to hold on to – and, he lashes out with vivid right hooks at anyone who might have come too near, be they fellow team-mates or the bootleg video-peddler out in the street. He eventually finds himself breaking into civilian’s houses and holding them at gunpoint while he attempts to verify his own suspicions about the boy’s death – small cracks that build and become larger and larger, as water begins to trickle through. The title of the film comes from the box that Renner’s character James keeps under his bunk – a collection of “things that have almost killed me:” the used wiring of defused bombs, shrapnel and his wedding ring hanging from a tarnished chain. He can pick out the used wiring of a bomb and remember it’s context, as if it were a small trophy he’d attained from something or another.

This may be the first and only really apolitical war movie that we’ve had in the last ten years – and, we’ve had a lot of war movies in the last two years alone, from the perfectly-coiffed Tom Cruise in Lions For Lambs to Kimberly Pierce’ Stop Loss that oddly reminded me of Varsity Blues more than anything else –  being as it is not so much about the impetus that’s pushed these men out into the desert (although it’s hinted that it has more to do with the field being a form of escape than it does any sort of political belief), but about what happens when they step off the plane and try to shrug it all away.  Really, this is a film that’s all about it’s final ten minutes – as James finds himself at home with his wife and young daughter, and tries to find anything familiar in the yawning shopping center aisles and the rows of carefully organised cereal boxes. When washing the dishes with his wife, he begins to tell her the bloody details of battle as if it were a common, almost every day thing, and she begins to pull away from him.

Bigelow has a real command of the mostly urban landscape of the film – hers is a browning, creaky and worried, not to mention increasingly lyrical, mise-en-scene that almost reminds one of  a Western, in places – trash floats by quietly like tumbleweeds over the dusty, littered roads, and all of the set pieces seem to result in a stand-off of some sort – but in particular the first real sequence in the film, which actually feels a lot like High Noon between the man in the bomb-squad suit, and the bomb; the main character is even called “wild man,” and “cowboy” throughout the film by multiple characters. And, when her camera is still enough (which I’ll get to in a second), her sense of composition has shown itself to have grown considerably; her action sequences are staged as taut strings, plucked every so often, and pulled almost to the breaking point. She prolongs them, she delays reaction – taking time to confront the jamming of a gun or the suspicion of a shop-keeper far off from the action at hand – and, throughout, her characters seem to almost “drift about like balloons caught on a gust of wind” in the empty streets. In particular, one sequence in the middle of the film where James gets the chance to strut his legs – strap on the suit. As the scene builds, and becomes increasingly more and more frantic, every so often it’s interrupted almost casually by a quiet, jolting shot of James working his way down the deserted street, leg after leg, a moonwalker in uncertain shoes.

the-hurtocker

Her sense of suspense is disarmingly simple, in the best way – shots of eyes in the rear-view mirror of an unknown car, fleeting movements in the building just opposite. And, always her point-of-view shots, here placing us into the darkened back alleys and forests of the Jordanian city at night – making us watch for what’s around the corner. Of note particularly is Bigelow’s innovative use of multiple, roaming handheld cameras at the same time, which allowed her to edit scenes not from different takes, but from different perspectives within the same takes, allowing those more visceral scenes a very fluid feel, which does occasionally become harried, but only a little – and, very rarely.  There is lyricism here, and it’s hard and fast.

And, then there’s this new face in the middle of it all – Jeremy Renner, who’s seemingly materialized out of thin air, all of the sudden. Almost immediately after the release of the film, rumors came from all sections – he was the new Mad Max, he was going to be in Michael Mann’s next movie after Public Enemies, he was running for president – and, they’ve yet to really subside. If he had been around before, he’d been quiet. With this, he hits the ground running, and now he’s just everywhere. And, with the announcement just earlier today that The Hurt Locker was entering into the 2009 Best Picture race, it seems a given that soon enough we’ll hear his name under the category for Best Actor.

This may be the shortest of my “Best of the Decade” essays, I’ll admit, but the virtues of this film are obvious, and it’s flaws nary a scratch or worthy of mention, in the great scheme of things. This is a terse picture, and it deserves a terse piece in turn. These are our modern warriors – traipsing back and forth over the grim and barren desert, smothered in their own self-doubt while being almost too sure of themselves, trying to avoid the weird stares of the civilians who back away, while allowing themselves to be taken in by a boy who’s found his way on the base with his soccer ball.

At the end of the film, the counter resets. James steps down off the plane and feels the familiar rumbling beneath him. And, he feels right at home.

 

***

Glenn Heath’s own pick for his #7 spot, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, can be found here.

Tagged , ,

Brief Thoughts on Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo.”

-the-hurt-locker-89the-hurtocker

Like Point Break before it, Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker continues her utter fascination with the dynamics of male bonding in extreme environments – this particular study is set in the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit Bravo Company, during the first few months post-invasion in Iraq.  However, given the landscape, she also takes the opportunity to explore the after-effects of war – both the addictive adrenaline rush and the repulsiveness it provides.

The film begins with a simple white coda over black, “war is a drug,” from Chris Hedges 2004 anti-war speech, and it ends with the main character trapped in a cycle of dangerous repetition. Initially, he appears to be a character of derring-do, and of his own volition – he makes the first move, strapping on the padded protection suit and wading out toward the danger zone without a prior word, and certain scenes paint him as an artist at work, fingers nimbly flitting around this cable and that. Interestingly, Bigelow avoids any sort of tried-out “is it the red wire, is it the blue wire” routine.

But gradually, Bigelow reveals her character James as one who runs for this kind of thing the way a smoker does a pack of cigarettes in times of  emergency; we’re told he believes that his wife and he are divorced, but she won’t leave him. And, one wonders how many times the kind of relationship he’d developed with the young Iranian boy Beckham had run it’s course, before the opening credits. The title of the film comes from the box that Renner’s character James keeps under his bunk – a collection of “things that have almost killed me:” the used wiring of defused bombs, shrapnel and his wedding ring hanging from a tarnished chain. He can pick out the used wiring of a bomb and remember it’s context, as if it were a small trophy he’d attained from something or another.

Bigelow has a real command of the mostly urban landscape of the film – hers is a browning, creaky and worried mise-en-scene that almost reminds one of  a Western, in places – trash floats by quietly like tumbleweeds over the dusty, littered roads, and all of the set pieces seem to result in a stand-off of some sort – but in particular the first real sequence in the film, which actually feels a lot like High Noon between the man in the bomb-squad suit, and the bomb; the main character is even called “wild man,” and “cowboy” throughout the film by multiple characters. And, when her camera is still enough (which I’ll get to in a second), her sense of composition has shown itself to have grown considerably; her action sequences are staged as taut strings, plucked every so often, and pulled almost to the breaking point. She prolongs them, she delays reaction – taking time to confront the jamming of a gun or the suspicion of a shop-keeper far off from the action at hand – and, throughout, her characters seem to almost “drift about like balloons caught on a gust of wind” in the empty streets.

Her sense of suspense is disarmingly simple, in the best way – shots of eyes in the rear-view mirror of an unknown car, fleeting movements in the building just opposite. And, always her point-of-view shots, here placing us into the darkened back alleys and forests of the Jordanian city at night – making us watch for what’s around the corner. However, there are a few points in the film where her use of handheld technique becomes almost too harried. Often, it’s very effective, and conveys a sense of visceral reality that, apart from Blomkamp’s District 9, hasn’t really been done as well in quite a long time. But, there are times when it descends into almost Greengrass-esque levels of incomprehensibility – where it would’ve had more impact to hold the camera still. But, these moments are fleeting, luckily enough.

Jeremy Renner is an interesting figure; his face scored and lined, yet he doesn’t appear to be a day over 39 – and, this film appears to be the one that let’s him loose on the world, formally. Now he’s being rumored to be the second man to take up the mantle of Mad Max – which I can certainly get behind, although he seems to be an explicitly American actor, and Max is by now an Australian icon. We shall see what we shall see. And, he and Howard Mackie are a far better example of the straight man-wild man dynamic that Bigelow employs in most of her films than, say – well, Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves.

shot0067

Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo is a film that spins out from a simple base premise: a chance meeting in a taxi between an older man, played by former Elvis bodyguard Red West, and his driver  Solo, played by newcomer Souléymane Sy Savané. West’s character tells Solo that he’ll pay him a thousand dollars up front to drive him to a spot Blowing Rock in the Blue Ridge Mountains in about a week and a half and leave him there, and this piques Solo’s concern – there’s no real mention said throughout the film of what it is that West’s character William intends to do, but the implication hangs in the air above the characters. The way the film starts is interesting – thrusting us mid-sentence into the moment when William offers the deal to Solo, and in a sense this epitomizes the approach the film takes to the characters. We really only know of them what they allow each other to know, and we know the relationship that develops between the two is a temporary one. They seem to acknowledge it, as well.

Solo actually reminds me a lot of the cab-drivers that have picked me up, over the past couple of years or so – he seems to be genuinely getting enjoyment out of his job, because he seems to just like people. Savané spent months riding around with the taxi-drivers in his area, and it was interesting to watch him talk with West’s character at the beginning of the film, just chatting back and forth – or trying to – just as so many I’ve paid fare to have done, and then to keep watching, as the film continues on and explores his life outside the driver’s seat, his relationship with his wife and step-daughter. And, even more so when he begins to involve William in his situation.

The title is never spoken aloud during the course of the film, but it underlines one of its more important scenes, near the tail-end.  Bahrani’s style is slow, and drawn out – in some places even pointedly so; here, for example the final moment between the two is a shared look that lasts over a minute. But, Bahrani invests in the eyes, and in this he has chosen his actors well.  It’s the eyes that give a lot of power to much of the quieter scenes – West’s hooded and full of regret, set in a face of rough-hewn leather from a similarly cast life. And, Solo’s – bright and observing, here and there watery.

Bahrani, being of this new “neo-neo-realist” (you see, because it’s not just neo-realist, it’s neo – neo realist. Blame A.O. Scott) aesthetic, seems to shy away from becoming consciously operatic. His films bear a lot of similarities to Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy visually, and his is a style of slow, reined in movements and extremely naturalistic lighting.  But, his sense of composition is always evident, and here and there, images seem to creep their way in that, if they were held for a second or two longer, would become semi-iconic. He credits Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997  film Tastes of Cherry,  as one of the partial inspirations for the film – in terms of both the base mechanics of the plot and it’s look, here interspersed with almost kaleidoscopic shots of the colored leaves of the fall, “which may remind astute viewers of the director’s “Life and Nothing More.” But tazmin only demands of its practitioners to, as the director sees it, ‘make it your own and create something new.’ “*

shot0063

Tagged , , ,