Friday, July 31, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The first Gulf War produced only one good movie: David O. Russell's "Three Kings."

The second Gulf War, a much more protracted struggle, has finally produced a worthwhile movie of its own: director Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker." "Locker" follows the tense and often grim adventures of a three-man bomb squad in Iraq. Making things tenser and grimmer is the fact that the leader of the squad, Staff Sergeant William James (played by newcomer Jeremy Renner), has reckless tendencies that sometimes border on the suicidal.

That's the bad news. The good news is, he's also kind, thoughtful and extremely good at defusing bombs, to the point that he keeps a basket of interesting trigger devices under his bunk.

What's striking about "The Hurt Locker" is its authenticity. All three of our bomb-squad guys are fully-rounded human beings with the same fears, doubts and desires as the rest of us. Not once did I question whether what I was seeing was real.

Until British actor Ralph Fiennes entered the picture.

It's not a movie-killer, but it is a misstep. About halfway through the story, Fiennes turns up as an Australian mercenary -- at least I think that was an Australian accent he was affecting -- and suddenly we're watching a movie again in a movie theater. Later, Evangeline Lilly -- Kate from the TV show "Lost" -- puts in an appearance, thrusting us once more out of our verisimilitudinous pleasure.

What kills me about decisions like this is that they are so unnecessary. The only payoff to casting name actors in bit parts of arthouse movies is that it gives the director greater peace of mind about the caliber of project she is working on. And that is unacceptable. A good director must sacrifice her peace of mind for the sake of the movie. (Coppola nearly went insane directing "Apocalypse Now." That's the kind of dedication we like to see!) Bigelow generally does an excellent job here -- her camera choices are consistently effective and often unconventional -- but she should have spared the movie, and the audience, the presence of movie-star distractions.

But back to why "The Hurt Locker" is so good. The plot is essentially a string of bomb-defusing episodes, each one, in its way, an escalation of danger and suspense. Defused bomb by defused bomb, our investment in the characters grows and grows. By the end we can barely stand the idea that one or more of our bomb-squad intimates will get pulped in an explosive finale.

Contributing to this sense of dread is a cruel superscript that pops up to inform us how many days remain in the company's active duty rotation. The number is always dwindling, but anyone familiar with the universe's sense of irony knows the danger is greater at the end of a tour than it is at the beginning.

The finale isn't quite as good as it should be, partly because an episodic plot structure has a harder time reaching a satisfying climax than a more traditional narrative. But there's an additional problem. Toward the end, the movie's focus goes slowly fuzzy as Bigelow and writer Mark Foal get interested in symbolic allusions to the US military's overall effort in Iraq.

The temptation to comment on the murky, frustrating and perhaps quixotic situation in Iraq proves too great for the filmmakers. That's too bad, because the bomb-squad micro-drama is more than compelling enough to justify its existence without any larger geo-political commentary.

Great war movies, after all, aren't really about war, they are about combat. As long as "The Hurt Locker" limits itself to a study of men in combat, it succeeds brilliantly.

Late in the movie, James asks his subordinate, Staff Sergeant JT Sanborn, if he knows why "I am the way I am." James is actively hoping for an answer. But Sanborn, after giving James a long look, just shakes his head and says no. James looks out the front window of his humvee despondently. It's a great moment.

There are many great moments in "The Hurt Locker." They may not add up to a perfect movie, but they add up to an excellent one, and if that's not good enough for you, your standards are too high.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 84/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 84/100

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

"(500) Days" is a breezy love story with likeable young leads and a gently humorous script.

Crucially, it takes a hard and honest look at the notion of romantic love when the central relationship finally melts down (and it always melts down). That look is what I take away from this movie, and it's the principal reason I enjoyed it as much as I did. But we'll get to that.

Obviously there is no young love without young lovers. The young lovers of "(500) Days" are Tom (played by rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who works at a greeting card company writing pithy homilies, and Summer (played by current arthouse star Zooey Deschanel), the new girl in the office.

It's love at first sight for Tom, but only mild interest at first sight for Summer.

The movie skips around in time. We might have a scene from day (314) of the relationship followed by a scene from day (7).

The non-chronological structure is a clue that this story has been done before, and is in need of a gimmick to make it feel fresh.

In addition to the fact that there are no new situations here, there are also no new characters. The affable, love-besotten protagonist, the pretty but somewhat bland love interest, the wacky friends, the wiser-than-her-years younger sister. We've met all these characters dozens if not hundreds of times before.

But this is not a fatal flaw, for the movie is propelled not by characters or situations but by an idea, and it's a good one: Tom falls in love with Summer, and while they have a relationship, she never falls in love with him. Eventually, of course, she goes and falls in love with someone else.

This does what every movie should do: it makes the main character re-examine his or her most closely held beliefs. In this case, Tom -- poor, romantic Tom -- has to re-evaluate how he feels about the existence of ideal love in a less-than-ideal world.

He concludes that it doesn't exist; that all our pop songs, Hollywood movies and, yes, cheerful greeting cards -- amount to a big lie.

This conclusion is not definitive, even within the context of the movie, but it is heartfelt and played for maximum authenticity. The realization that actual human love is not what one thought -- and not the ideal our culture promotes -- is a vastly important moment of growth in a person's life, and to see Tom go through it with all the pain and despair the moment demands makes "(500) Days" worth the price of admission.

Beautifully, the moment where Tom joins the rest of us in the adult world (you're with me here, right???) occurs not when Summer breaks up with him. That's too easy. A break-up, for all its misery, is still the stuff of melodrama and its grand, adolescent emotions.

Tom's real moment of change occurs when he runs into Summer by chance, some time after the break-up, and she invites him to a party taking place at her apartment later that week. In a brilliantly clever touch, the film-makers present two versions of the party in split-screen format, one side labelled "Expectation" and the other labelled "Reality." Ay yi yi! Who doesn't know what that's like?

I could have done without the standard "go be an architect" subplot. The classy success a career in architecture represents has been forever spoiled for me by George Costanza of "Seinfeld," who eternally wished he was an architect because it sounded so impressive.

In real life it seems to me that hardly anyone actually becomes an architect, and that architects aren't more productive or impressive than anyone else, but it's a small quibble in a movie that takes a wry and wise look at a subject much larger than architecture, a subject that dominates ninety percent of every artistic endeavor ever undertaken, and offers something useful in a kind, friendly way.

Thus proving that even five hundred days of summer can go by quickly if you are having a good time.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 73/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 73/100

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bruno

There's something almost sad about hearing a really good joke a second time around.

It's still funny, but suddenly you can see the workings of craft. You realize you are being set up from the beginning, and while you may appreciate the skill of the joke-teller more than before, the surprise is gone for good. And what's humor without surprise?

I guess it's Sacha Baron Cohen's new comedy, "Bruno."

Like Baron Cohen's previous comedy with a title five letters long starting with a "B," "Bruno" follows an outlandish foreign character with a predilection for making others uncomfortable by exposing, rather than concealing, his sexual desires.

In this incarnation, Baron Cohen plays a flagrantly homosexual Austrian dance show host. Watching Bruno, it's impossible not to think of Mike Myers' "I am Dietrich and this is Sprockets!" Saturday Night Live character.

At the outset of the story, Bruno finds his television show cancelled and his Q rating in a nosedive. Convinced a life of obscurity is not worth living, he journeys to America where he intends to achieve mega-stardom by any means necessary.

The hi-jinks that ensue are hit and miss. Bruno's attempt to "go straight" by participating in a hetero sex orgy is a hit. A foray into hunting country with three uncultured hicks is a less eventful miss.

Overall, the quest to "get famous" may be too vague to provide sufficient narrative thrust, even for a farce like this. The earlier Borat's stated intention, to marry Pamela Anderson, was much more specific and had an underlying pathos that put the comedy into sharper relief.

Try as one might, it's almost impossible to get away from basic storytelling principles and live to tell about it.

Sacha Baron Cohen's own celebrity is lustrous enough that he will certainly make a third movie -- presumably "Ali G" -- within the next couple of years. Here's hoping he tacks back to the more solidly-grounded "Borat" instead of following the formless trajectory "Bruno" suggests.

And here's hoping he finds a new way to surprise us.


SCORE

How Accomplished: 57/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 53/100

Public Enemies

Some movies, perfectly adequate in their own right, suffer from being lesser echoes of a director's previous masterpiece. "Public Enemies" is one such movie. It is to Michael Mann's earlier "Heat" what "Casino" is to Scorcese's earlier "Goodfellas."

All the same building blocks are involved but the earlier magic is somehow absent.

"Public Enemies" follows the true story of Depression-era bankrobber John Dillinger, a charismatic folk hero who stole from the rich, etc. Dillinger was handsome, stylish and resourceful: he escaped from prison not once but twice. At a time in American history when ordinary people felt helpless in the grip of larger economic forces, Dillinger represented the indomitable spirit those ordinary people wanted to believe still existed.

Johnny Depp plays the Hollywood version of Dillinger and gets his (probably fictional) attitude just right. His opposite number is an FBI lawman played by a stone-faced Christian Bale.

Both Depp and Bale play essentially moral characters whose calling in life necessitates a decisive use of violence, which is an intriguing moral premise.

Unfortunately the movie squanders every opportunity to confront this moral complexity.

Depp's Dillinger inexplicably works alongside the anarchic Baby Face Nelson, who does all the "bad stuff" so Depp can be a criminal without a dark side, which is not only ridiculous but a wasted opportunity. Remember Depp's progenitor, De Niro's Neil McCauley in "Heat," who would not hesitate to put Pacino's cop down? Not for a second?

There is no trace of Neil McCauley in "Public Enemies." Our anti-hero isn't anti- at all.

Likewise, Christian Bale is instructed by J. Edgar Hoover to "take off the white gloves" when it comes to the Dillinger case, but at the critical moment, when Dillinger's girlfriend (Marion Cotillard) must be harshly interrogated to locate Dillinger, Bale's character is conveniently "en route" and unavailable, which leaves Bale's fatter, uglier colleague to smack Cotillard around, thereby sparing Bale's character the dilemma of actually confronting the reality of Hoover's directive.

Are these dodges the result of "writers flinch" -- the desire to spare one's beloved characters any true moral hardship -- or the demands of the movie stars, that their characters be flawed but not really?

That's a hard question to answer in the absence of inside information, but the result is all too easy to see. "Public Enemies" avoids making a statement, and therefore it fades quickly from memory, alongside the summer blockbusters it was ostensibly meant to be counter-programming against.

Instead "Public Enemies" IS a summer blockbuster, all flash and no substance.

This doesn't mean it's a bad movie, but it does mean... it's no "Heat."


SCORE

How Accomplished: 68/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 58/100 (disappointment factor)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Whatever Works

Woody Allen has written 42 original screenplays. Stop and think about it.

If he didn't loathe the award he'd have two best screenplay Oscars on his shelf and fourteen nominations. Did you get that? Fourteen nominations. He's written both comedies and dramas. Actors work for free just to appear in his films.

Times may have changed. The culture may have moved away from him. But Allen himself is what he always was. Through a forty year Hollywood career, the man never burned out. He never grew bored with his art. He never fell victim to drugs or alcohol. Never got fat. Never turned into an egomaniacal, self-destructive recluse.

(Okay, so he married his step-daughter. But that was hardly a self-destructive act. It hurt his image, sure, but if anything it reinvigorated his interest in art and life. Something an alcohol addiction never does.)

Woody Allen is seventy years old and still writing. Every day.

It's time to admit the obvious:

This guy is Mozart. This guy is Shakespeare.

The list of great screenwriters in movie history should begin with Woody Allen and leave the next four spaces blank out of sheer respect.

42 original screenplays in 40 years. End of argument.

So what works in Allen's latest effort, "Whatever Works?"

Lots.

First off, Larry David works as main character Boris Yellnikoff. Boris is a sour-tempered ex-physicist who teaches chess and commiserates with old cronies who tell him to lighten up. By the end of the movie he does.

The catalyst for this transformation is a teen runaway named Melody St. Ann Celestine, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She begs to be let into Boris' apartment one night, and once there she refuses to leave. Through Melody, nearly every other character in the story is brought to Boris' generally disapproving attention: her southern baptist mother and father, her age-appropriate suitors, even an unlikely love interest for Boris at the very end.

"Whatever Works" is a simple story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl and -- you guessed it! -- boy finds new girl. But while it may not break new ground, neither does it bore us, confuse us or waste our time. It takes us somewhere familiar with a lot of laughs and a lot of emotional honesty along the way.

There are small gems everywhere, like the pointed (though unspoken) observation of how women can alter their personalities to please whatever men can help them most at a particular point in their lives.

Likewise, the men in "Whatever Works" are largely concerned with impressing women, usually by feigning much more intellectual prowess, wisdom or romantic spirit than they actually possess.

If this makes the men shallow and the women expedient, well, so be it. The movie does not judge, nor does Boris. (Unless he judges everyone lacking alike.)

Larry David's Boris is grumpy, pessimistic and reliably funny. He thinks life is pointless and full of disappointment, but he's old enough to take it all with a philosophical shrug.

When Boris discovers a measure of happiness at the end of the movie, he takes it with the same philosophical shrug. He knows that happiness does not come and go at the whim of mortals but follows a more headstrong impulse. We may think at times we have life all figured out, but we are much mistaken.

He thus achieves the ultimate insight of any artist, which is, of course, that no ultimate insight is possible. Maybe no insight of any kind is possible, except that whatever works for a given person at a given time... is good. In a universe where everything is relative and nothing lasts for long, let alone forever, that's as good a polestar as we are ever likely to find.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 75/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 82/100