Thursday, July 30, 2009

"The Hurt Locker" Review

Property of The Daily Gamecock

* * * * / * * * *

Hollywood’s Iraq, that is to say, how Hollywood has imagined and presented America’s conflict in Iraq, has thus far produced some less than compelling results. Too often, it seems filmmakers have used the war to stage a battleground of their own ideologies, launching left-leaning tirades on anti-terrorism tactics, decrying US foreign policy, or relying on an index of negative Arab stereotypes instead of trying to get to the heart of the issue.

The United States is now six years divorced from the inception of our military operations. We have witnessed violent setbacks and steps forward, and experienced a regime change at home while trying to establish a legitimate government overseas.

Perhaps only now is the cinema ready to deal with one of the defining issues of this decade. Where others have failed, director Kathryn Bigelow’s relentlessly tense thriller/drama “The Hurt Locker” sends shockwaves to the core.

The film follows several months in the tour of a US bomb squad stationed in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James, played with immense power by Jeremy Renner, propels them headlong into dangerous situations while remaining seemingly indifferent to death. He is committed to disarming bombs at all costs, causing more than one confrontation with the more orthodox Sergeant Sanborn (an equally impressive Anthony Mackie).

In writer Mark Boal’s screenplay, the loose and largely episodic narrative is held together by the constant threat of violence in the dense, clustered urban streets.

As the team is called on to disarm bombs lurking in car trunks, under rubble, and buried in mere inches of sand, Bigelow goes through great lengths to capture an almost overbearing sense of verisimilitude.

Director of photography Barry Ackroyd does great work setting up handheld shots that gracefully swerve in and out of the action, while film editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski find a perfect rhythm in crosscutting close-ups against longer shots, allowing many sequences to unfold in near-real time.

“The Hurt Locker” ratchets up a devastating amount of suspense. At times, it feels charged with loose electricity, as if the screen itself could explode from a single misstep.

Even if it is a film fueled by its realism, Bigelow dramatizes certain moments through extreme slow motion. The triggering of a bomb, the drop of a shell casing, and sand blowing in the wind all take on poetic quality through their distended movement.

Beyond its immense technical accomplishments as a well-crafted thriller, the film remains respectfully apolitical; it searches more for the core of its soldiers than it does any form of redundant political statement.

It is a drama of observation, where the camera is allowed to capture extremely complex moments of internal strife in all the leads. Bigelow and her actors never overplay their hands, but each actor (Renner and Mackie in particular) embodies tormented souls stirred to life only by the drug of war.

“The Hurt Locker” is an impressive step forward in re-thinking how the Iraq War and guerrilla warfare can be presented on film. It paints an uncompromising, mature, and very exacting portrait of chaotic violence.

Not only is it the best dramatic film about the Iraq War to date, but “The Hurt Locker” is perhaps the first important American film of 2009.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"30 Rock" Leads Emmy Nominations with TWENTY TWO

30 Rock leads comedy categories with 22 nominations. Mad Men leads dramatic categories with 16.  HBO's Grey Gardens leads the TV movie/miniseries categories with 17.  Here're the nominees in all major categories:

Outstanding Comedy Series

Family Guy
The Flight of the Conchords
How I Met Your Mother
The Office
30 Rock

Outstanding Drama Series

Big Love
Breaking Bad
House M.D.
Mad Men

Outstanding Made for Television Movie

Coco Chanel
Grey Gardens
Into the Storm
Prayers for Bobby
Taking Chance

Outstanding Miniseries

Generation Kill
Little Dorrit

Outstanding Lead Actor, Comedy Series

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Steve Carell, The Office
Jemaine Clement, The Flight of the Conchords
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Tony Shalhoub, Monk
Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men

Outstanding Lead Actor, Drama Series

Simon Baker, The Mentalist
Gabriel Byrne, In Treatment
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House M.D.

Outstanding Lead Actor, Miniseries or Made for TV Movie

Kevin Bacon, Taking Chance
Kenneth Branagh, Wallander
Brendan Gleeson, Into the Storm
Kevin Kline, Great Performances: Cyrano de Bergerac
Ian McKellen, King Lear
Kiefer Sutherland, 24: Redemption

Outstanding Lead Actress, Comedy

Christina Applegate, Samantha Who?
Toni Collette, United States of Tara
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, The New Adventures of Old Christine
Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds
Sarah Silverman, The Sarah Silverman Program

Outstanding Lead Actress, Drama

Glenn Close, Damages
Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters
Mariska Hargitay, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
Holly Hunter, Saving Grace
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

Outstanding Lead Actress, Miniseries or Made for TV Movie

Drew Barrymore, Grey Gardens
Jessica Lange, Grey Gardens
Shirley MacLaine, Coco Chanel
Sigourney Weaver, Prayers for Bobby
Chandra Wilson, Accidental Friendship

Outstanding Supporting Actor, Comedy

Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men
Kevin Dillon, Entourage
Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock
Tracy Morgan, 30 Rock
Rainn Wilson, The Office

Outstanding Supporting Actor, Drama

Christian Clemenson, Boston Legal
Michael Emerson, Lost
William Hurt, Damages
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
William Shatner, Boston Legal
John Slattery, Mad Men

Outstanding Supporting Actor, Miniseries/Made for TV Movie

Len Cariou, Into the Storm
Tom Courtenay, Little Dorrit
Ken Howard, Grey Gardens
Bob Newhart, The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice
Andy Serkis, Little Dorrit

Outstanding Supporting Actress, Comedy

Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies
Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock
Elizabeth Perkins, Weeds
Amy Poehler, Saturday Night Live
Kristin Wiig, Saturday Night Live
Vanessa Williams, Ugly Betty

Outstanding Supporting Actress, Drama

Rose Byrne, Damages
Hope Davis, In Treatment
Cherry Jones, 24
Sandra Oh, Grey's Anatomy
Dianne Wiest, In Treatment
Chandra Wilson, Grey's Anatomy

Outstanding Supporting Actress, Miniseries/Made for TV Movie

Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Saddam
Marcia Gay Harden, The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler
Janet McTeer, Into the Storm
Jeanne Tripplehorn, Grey Gardens
Cicely Tyson, Relative Stranger

Outstanding Variety Series

The Colbert Report
The Daily Show
Late Night with David Letterman
Real Time with Bill Maher
Saturday Night Live

I didn't take the time to post the dozens of tech, writing, directing categories they have.

Ceremony is Sunday September 20

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bruno: Social critic or empty charade


* * 1/2 / * * * *

In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen made monumental waves across American popular culture, capturing our attention in a heated discussion of what is satire and what is taste and what "Borat" was all about, culminating in a Golden Globe for Best Actor and an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.  In his mockumentary about a naive, good-natured-but-ill-behaved Middle-Eastern immigrant searching for the real American character, Cohen rubbed his nose in some awfully brown stuff.  By holding true to his chameleon-like ability to stay in character, he duped everyone from powerful politicians to "simple" Americans, from high class to low class in a dazzling display of Western hypocrisy.  Borat ultimately put the "American is Number One" attitude on trial at the exact moment the 2006 elections shifted power to the Democrats in a nation-wide display of (supposed) dissatisfaction with the Bush administration's policies abroad.  Of course, whether you buy into that left-wing idea or not is up to you, but in the post-9/11 environment of xenophobia and racial profiling, Borat showed us how afraid we are to emerge from our shell, and how the help we try to extend always seems to be for our personal gain (my favorite image from the film remains Borat asleep in front of the church, homeless and defeated, as dozens of Christians walk past him without so much as a glance, a brief moment that perfectly encapsulates the film's entire tone).

Now, Sacha Baron Cohen re-teams with "Borat" director Larry Charles to expand another persona from "Da Ali G Show" - Bruno, a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion commentator - into a feature mockumentary.  After being "blacklisted" by the Austrian fashion community and abandoned by his man-lover, Bruno travels to Los Angeles in search of worldwide celebrity.  For the first forty minutes, Cohen and Charles seem on shaky ground: their film goes haphazardly all over the place as they explore various venues for Bruno to try and gain instant celebrity.  With a chief interest in the "fakeness" of celebrities who jump on the world's latest bandwagon, and the intensity of media "whore-dom," Bruno's antics seem most bizarre and scattershot in these first segments, as if the filmmakers were looking for a path to take their film down.

Granted, there are some lovely moments.  When CBS agrees to screen a pilot of his potential talk show to a focus group, only to find bits of erotic dancing (including a penis), a pregnant celebrity discussion called "Keep it or Abort it," and an exclusive interview with Harrison Ford (which is merely Bruno accosting Ford on the street, to which Indy Jones yells "fuck off!" and keeps walking), the group can only stare flabbergasted.  Yes, it's bizarre, ridiculous, and offensive - but the implication is that it's only a step below our current celebrity talk shows, that regularly gossip and interrogate popular culture with a variety of bizarre sideshows.

Later, when Bruno "adopts" an African baby and tries to find other children to perform in a photoshoot with it, he interviews children's parents to shocking effect: one mother says she'll force her 40 pound daughter to lose 10 pounds in a week if it will get her the part.  And when Bruno parades his baby on a talk show, it's wonderful to watch him turn the audience into an angry mob-sans-pitchforks.

But then other bits, like trying to coerce Ron Paul into making a sex tape with him, are stretched beyond thin and into cringe-worthy poor taste.  It's hard to figure out what Cohen was even trying to tease out of Paul, or why he would keep the footage in the final film.  All he manages to do is exploit and embarrass the man, making no real lasting comment on hypocrisy or intolerance.

But then, roughly halfway through the film, Bruno decides that in order to be famous, he must become straight (like Tom Cruise, he says).  In the next decidedly hit-or-miss half of the film, Cohen plummets headfirst into a mostly-Southern and mostly-male world of rigid heterosexuality, where sex remains the final taboo.  And Bruno, with his incessant flirtation, his intense sexuality, and his ridiculous outfits, is like a poison dart meant to be shot into the jugular of this lumbering giant.  For if sexuality is still something to be hushed, Cohen seems to ask, where does that place HOMOsexuality, and why are we still hung up about it?

Of course, the basic argument against Cohen's approach (roughly similar to Borat), is how he can possibly expose ignorance or hatred when he's approximately embodying a set of stereotypes so outlandish and absurd it's impossible to take him seriously or imagine him as anything but inciting homophobia while exposing it.  That would, of course, ignore a very strange truth of Bruno - that people believe he's for real.  While more of the film is obviously staged than Borat, he still manages to wrestle bizarre, often violent reactions from his subjects.

But what makes Bruno harder to swallow is how forcefully misanthropic it can be.  The beauty of Borat is the character's simplicity, how his soft naivete invites people to spill their intolerant views, how his backward philosophy somehow complements those he interviews, and how he slowly penetrates each situation to its breaking point.  Bruno though, is much less gentle.  He's always on the offensive, always pushing people - like a group of hunters - to their breaking point through an almost exhausting set of gay charades until all they can do is push back or sit in gawkish embarrassment.

The gags in Bruno are almost unforgiving.  Their sheer conception and execution is like watching a tightrope walker sprint over a pit of fire.  But like that stunt, it also incites you to close your eyes or wince in some kind of imaginary pain.  Despite the enormity of Cohen's comedic talent and (depending on your view) genius, of which there is much, it's hard not to feel Bruno comes up a bit short.  It's not a remarkable second strike of lightning because it doesn't feel as fresh or as all-consuming in its social penetration.

Cohen's ability to improvise and immerse himself in any situation and stay in character is stunning, and his ability to use a thick German accent and subtle plays in diction to alter the entire direction of a conversation is remarkable.  He knows how to throw people off, and he knows how to turn situations to his advantage.  But so much of his gibberish and word games feel left over from Borat, and even the episodic structure of small vignettes strung together by an imagined plot feels remarkably copy/paste (it comes as no surprise that the two films had the same set of screenwriters to fill in the blanks between the stunts).  And while more of the film does appear staged, more of it also feels pushed past the point of extremity, begging the question, "did he REALLY do that?"  In merely provoking the question, he engages the "mockumentary" in a way that invites those "in" on his joke to investigate how deep the reality goes.  Of course, the turn-around to that question is, if the filmmakers are merely staging more of their film in order to get to that point of ultra-extremity, doesn't that render the entire point of the novelty moot?

For instance, when Bruno goes to a swingers party and wanders room to room, watching straight people have sex until getting roped into to an S&M encounter with a woman who beats him with his belt over and over, it's hard not to stare open-eyed at how bizarre sex can be behind closed doors, but it also forces us to think about whether he REALLY put himself in that deep (no pun intended), or if they were in on it.  And if they were, does that deflate the humor?

While "Bruno" will most likely incite heated discussions in even the most devoted Cohen fans - issues of taste, of the realms of satire, of the film's accomplishments (if any), of what it all means, if Bruno has a hidden agenda or if it's really just a hollow shell of shenanigans - that still hasn't answered the question that should guide any review: is it good?  And I honestly don't have an answer to that one yet.  I can say that at the film's climax, Cohen unites his themes of homosexual hate and sham celebrity in a single public event so mesmerizing, so insane, and so uber-theatrical, so laced with deeper meanings about society that it brings the whole scattershot film together in one glorious moment.

While I'm inclined to say that I think Sacha Baron Cohen is a remarkably intelligent comedian, and Larry Charles is a capable director who together create a character so other-worldly, so impossibly unrealistic that he can only inflict massive chaos wherever he goes, I'm also inclined to say that Bruno lacks a funnel for its ideas, of which it has many.  Cohen has taken a nutcracker to our society once more, but it's hard to see how deep he goes beyond posing the slightly obvious question that sex is simultaneously natural and kinky no matter who is doing it.

If it sounds like I'm being too critical of the jester, I both agree and disagree.  I think Cohen's humor only invites the sharpest sociological critique, chiefly because he himself is so intelligent and speaks so eloquently (when he's not in character) about the issues he tries to bring out in his work.  Beyond knee-jerk disgust or nervous laughter, "Bruno" should be used as a volatile tool to talk about cultural issues, perhaps most especially in the mere design and employment of sexuality as an accessory.  But while *conceptually* I feel the film is keyed into a lot of important ideas, the *film* as a product doesn't match up, going for broke instead of giving more food for thought.

Perhaps Cohen felt too pressured to push his material, or to press the boundaries of his own audience - who smugly laugh since they "get" it.  But by squeezing America's nuts this hard, he produces a lot of shock without enough awe.  

Monday, July 6, 2009

Laziness in Spades

So I had a hectic week of work and couldn't motivate myself to do that "30 Days of Films" thing I promised.  Yep, I'm that cool.  But at least I wrote two new full-length reviews!  I'm actually planning on doing a retrospective piece on Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad" sometime this week, and maybe a couple other interesting things if I have the time.

That said, I also just finished reading Peter Bondanella's "Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present," something I'm sure very few people care about, although it's a terrifically concise history of the country's best filmmakers and all its woeful problems in developing its own national voice.  He's a good author, even if he makes some noticeable stretches when he's talking about "lesser" filmmakers to try and make his thesis about Italian cinema work.  Entertaining history read though for any wacky people who'd want to jump into something like that.  Or just love Fellini.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"Away We Go" Review

It's interesting to watch Sam Mendes's "Away We Go" only half a year after I washed the dry taste of "Revolutionary Road" out of my mouth.  In many ways, these are companion films, and part of me feels Mendes made Away We Go to liberate himself from the strict confines of Revolutionary Road.  If Road is about the breakdown of suburbia, about the illusion of family where all the relationships ultimately disintegrate under the weight of infidelity, lies, and emotional torment, "Away We Go" is about a couple about to begin a family with all the ideals still ahead of them.  They are displaced, virtually homeless, two soul-searchers united by a desire to settle down.

In truth, this is what all of Sam Mendes' films have been about.  American Beauty is another study of the collapse of suburbia through two refracted families that ends in violent and oddly cathartic tragedy.  Road to Perdition is about a hitman trying to protect his son from his violent life after the brutal murder of his wife and other child, while Jarhead examines the soldier as part of a family unit, where father figures and brother figures replace typical ideas of the family.  Partnered with Revolutionary Road, all these films are about the persistence (or lack thereof) of "the family" and how violence intersects that image in unexpected ways.

Away We Go doesn't have a hint of violence, but it is about family.  John Krasinski ("The Office") and Maya Rudolph ("SNL") star as Bert and Verona, two self-employed, independent thirty-somethings who are about to have a child out of marriage.  When Bert's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara in wonderful cameos) announce plans to move to Belgium just before the baby's birth, Bert and Verona take off on their own journey to find the perfect home for their family.

Along the way they meet friends and family in different cities.  These characters, each with their own accessible quirks, are meant to represent different ideas of parenting and of lifestyles.  The strength of the screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida is that they are sure to criticize this quirkiness, keep it at arm's length, and not let it overtake their film.  With a sharp eye for language and human frailty, Eggers and Vida craft Bert and Verona into lived-in characters, and as the film goes on the superficial humor fades from quirky wordplay to a defense mechanism each character employs to cover up deeper tragedy that, you guessed it, relates back to tensions and issues from family problems.

Krasinski and Rudolph are luminous, each giving smart nuance to their relationship.  Mendes gets the roll of an eye, the smirk of a lip, and the touch of a hand just right.  If there is a flaw to "Away We Go," it is its optimism.  We never doubt the two characters are in love, that their love is real, or that their family will work.  We don't doubt it because we believe they don't, either.  It is, I think, more about FAITH than family.  It is an optimistic, undeniably heartwarming film.

The soft camera work from DP Ellen Kuras and calm edits from Sarah Flack allow the director's sense of perfectionism to flourish, as motion in the cutting feels exquisitely timed and lighting in the shots feels wonderfully calibrated.  But unlike other Mendes projects, where he has been criticized for being too controlling of his frame (I in fact criticized him of this in Revolutionary Road), he seems to view Away We Go as an opportunity to liberate himself.

By relaxing his aesthetic, he lets his screenwriters and actors do a lot of the hat tricks.  "Away We Go" is a calm, low-key, and warm film, one whose final impact is just short of beautiful. 

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The gangster as mediated image, "Public Enemies" review

Public Enemies

* * * 1/2  /  * * * *

Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard

            In the 1930s, the gangsters of movies lived and died by a strict code.  No, it wasn’t anything to do with honor, loyalty, or murder, but a code imposed from above that dictated gangsters must die in films, the law must always win, and the lifestyle must ultimately be condemned.

As Hollywood turned out dozens of films about fast-talking, fedora-wearing, machine gun-toting anti-heroes, the Bureau of Investigation did everything in its power to stop the real-life cavalcade of bank robbers-turned-celebrities.

            In “Public Enemies,” director Michael Mann (“Heat”) tells the story of real-life robber John Dillinger as distilled through the imagery of the movies.  Johnny Depp stars as Dillinger in a charismatic if surprisingly low-key performance that always simmers below the surface instead of erupting across the screen.  Depp’s Dillinger is a man of action, whose loaded pistol says more than he ever could.

With a camera geared more towards capturing the shadows a fedora makes across the eyes, the bloody impact of a shotgun blast, or a myriad of finely tailored suits, “Public Enemies” is not so much a definitive historical epic of cops and robbers as it is a masterfully constructed series of images and motions meant to recall a lasting piece of lumbering mythology that grew out of America’s Great Depression.

            Using high-definition digital film, Mann and his director of photography Dante Spinotti wistfully move in and around the action with quick, punctuated camera motions, taking in mounds of sumptuous production and costume design that realistically immerses the film in its setting. 

Refusing to step back and criticize the action or explore a deeper psychological connection between Dillinger’s motives and that of his predator, Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, here full of stoic intensity), Mann forces his camera to rattle, swerve, and shake with every calculated move of the two protagonists.

With carefully choreographed, if occasionally cluttered film editing courtesy Jeffrey Ford and Paul Rubell, “Public Enemies” fully captures the rat-a-tat blaze of machine gun fire in its pulsing and at-times unforgiving chaos and momentum.

By opting for digital film that is alternately clear and grainy, choppy and intensified film editing, and a camera that always feels a part of both sides of the law, Mann has delineated his film’s sense of a historical reality.  “Public Enemies” owes more dept to the iconography, the character types, and the typical plot devices of Hollywood’s classic gangster dramas than it does to the social or economic conditions of the Great Depression that actually fostered Dillinger.

As his film is more a collective set of images of the cop and the robber as individuals more than it is a serious consideration of the “how” or the “why” of the people, it is appropriate that the film should be preoccupied with Dillinger’s status as a celebrity.

On multiple occasions, Depp stares thoughtfully at his own picture in police stations, in movie theaters, on newspapers, and as he trades jibes with reporters upon arrest towards the end of the film’s first act, it’s clear that Michael Mann sees John Dillinger as a star.

And when Depp smirks enigmatically at Clark Gable’s performance of a gangster in the middle of a crowded movie-house, Mann cuts cleverly between close-ups of the two gangsters – one real and one imagined.  Perhaps only then, in the calm moments before the final bullets rain down, does the true weight of Mann’s ultra-stylized aesthetic reach its fruition. 

“Public Enemies” considers the conventional images and stories of the American gangster through unconventional means, reaching towards a celebration of how the movies have shaped our own continued infatuation with a world of guns, booze, and women that we always keep at arm’s length, as if rejecting its reality allows us to revel in the power of the fantasy.