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Monday
Jan182010

The Hurt Locker (2009)

A Dull Roar

Watching The Hurt Locker was, for me, a roller coaster of an experience—but not in the way I thought it would be. Instead of being mesmerized by this highly acclaimed film, I was put through the emotional wringer of loving large stretches of it and hating the nearly half-dozen fatal story mistakes, a series of innocuous splinters that eventually became a giant stake through the heart. By the end of The Hurt Locker, I’d found a new, lowered threshold for the amount of awkwardness that I will let slide before I officially dislike a movie that I’d initially enjoyed.

The movie centers on a three-man American bomb-disposal unit patrolling Baghdad in 2004. In the opening scene, the head of the unit is blown up by a roadside bomb; he is quickly replaced by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a hotshot with a record of disarming more than 870 bombs. James goes out of his way to frustrate the other members of his unit by not responding to them during tense situations and frequently darting off on his own without notice. Much of the first two-thirds of The Hurt Locker centers on the dynamic between James and his men as they head from one informant’s tip to another, deactivating explosives and avoiding gunfire.

These scenes are very effective and quite stylish. Director Katherine Bigelow, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski team up to create some wonderfully tense moments. A typical call for the unit involves James walking slowly towards a pile of rubble while the other two cover him, watching rooftops and ridges for any signs of insurgents or detonators; through whirling shaky-cam and intense close-ups of the soldiers, the gathering crowds and, inevitably, the bomb wires, we feel the paranoia and panic of a desperate situation—one that plays out day after day for these men.

Sadly, it isn’t enough for The Hurt Locker to rely on this visceral drama. Someone, be it the studio head, the director, or screenwriter Mark Boal, felt that the movie needed a plot; this in itself is not a bad thing, unless that plot is less interesting than simply watching bombs get defused—and unless the way in which the plot unfolds is a sloppy, clichéd mess. Boal has a certain amount of credibility on the film’s subject, having been an embedded journalist in the Iraq war. But his screenplay is just a grim ‘n gritty version of Top Gun loaded down with some half-baked ideas about war being a drug.

Let’s back up a second and look at the three specific problems I have with The Hurt Locker. These are the main issues that tried my patience and ultimately soured me on the film. If you noticed them, they may not have had the same effect on your perception of the overall movie, but for me they represent an unforgivable undermining of the hard work that went into the rest of the project.

1. The Cast: The three leads in this picture are relative unknowns, and they’re surrounded by famous supporting actors. I found this to be distracting and weird. Why have Ralph Fiennes show up in a picture if he’s going to be killed literally five minutes after he’s introduced? Why give a bit part (and that’s being generous) to Evangeline Lilly if she’s going to spend half her performance in silhouette and the other half chopping carrots (with a close-up on the carrots)? When David Morse shows up early on as another unit leader who kills a captured bomber, I figured, “Oh, cool, this guy’s going to be an interesting villain.” But, no, he enters and leaves the picture as if he’d just shown up to earn his SAG card.

The only cameo that worked was Guy Pearce’s as SSgt. James’ predecessor. If Psycho, Scream, and Executive Decision taught us anything, it’s that you can have a famous person open a picture and then get killed off right away—allowing the cast of unknowns to shine. But having random stars show up and not be involved in the main story just creates confusion and frustration—especially when one of your three leads (Brian Geraghty, as the lowest-ranking member of the bomb unit) isn’t a particularly interesting actor.

2. The “Plot”: The Hurt Locker suffers from a similar problem as District 9. It wears the skin of credibility of a documentary, but also wants to inject a story into “real-life” situations. Like I said before, following a Baghdad bomb squad is exciting enough. We don’t need a lame sub-plot about James avenging the death of a local kid, especially when that sub-plot becomes a parody of 24; James sneaks off base in a hoodie and cammo-pants, breaks into an apartment waiving his gun around, and is finally kicked out by a woman brandishing a hot tea set. What’s worse, we get a tense scene of James making his way through a shady neighborhood where people begin to notice that he’s an American. But instead of this leading to anything, the scene just cuts to James calmly walking onto the base some time later.

There’s also an earlier vignette in which James’s two subordinates contemplate killing him with a detonator while he’s out retrieving his gloves from a blast test site. This was two weeks after James’ arrival in the unit, and while I understand how annoying it might be to have to put up with a cowboy commander who’s like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Maverick from Top Gun, I would think the first two or ten steps in dealing with the problem might involve reporting his behavior to high command (that’s another nagging issue with this movie; the bomb unit is shown as being completely autonomous; there are absolutely no consequences for any of the three lead characters when they leave the green zone to go on their own search-and-destroy mission in a neighborhood—during which one of them is kidnapped and shot in the leg—or allow one of the base psychiatrists to be blown up during a ridealong).

3. The “Message”: The thrust of The Hurt Locker’s story is that, to some soldiers, war is a drug they just can’t kick. That’s a fascinating idea and a great premise for a movie; but this is not that movie. The theme isn’t clearly stated with an effective through-line; rather it just kind of pops up from time to time, and is occasionally left to interpretation (as evidenced by James’s obsession with finding the Iraqi kid’s killers—does he really care, or is he just hoping to find more danger? I’m inclined toward the latter theory, only because he doesn’t seem to give much of a shit about his own infant son back home—who he addresses in one of the most unintentionally funny moments I’ve seen in quite awhile). The message might have worked had James not operated in such a vaccuum. By the end of the film, his nutty behavior has damaged his teammates—just like in any other drug movie—but we still don’t have a handle on what turned James on to war or why he’s obsessed with danger—which is the hallmark of any good drug movie.

Much like the old joke about Hollywood pitch meetings (“It’s like Die Hard...on a boat!”), I found The Hurt Locker to be nothing more than a very stylized gimmick picture, with the War on Terror standing in for crack or heroin. I think the only way this movie could have worked would have been if Bigelow and company had A) stuck with a straightforward faux-documentary that revealed its characters’ motivations through their reactions to their job or B) written a complete script—that’s beginning, middle and end, kids—with fully formed ideas, plot points that connected with one another, and characters who transcended their genre stereotypes.

There’s a lot that works in The Hurt Locker, but not enough to recommend.

Sunday
Jan172010

It's Complicated 2009)

Revenge of the Rom-com

Five months ago, Meryl Streep starred as Julia Child in Julie & Julia. I found the film to be so deplorable and soulless that my only way to cope with its awfulness was to start a movie blog. Had you told me then that less than half a year later I’d be writing a rave review about another Streep picture in which she plays a frenetic chef, I would’ve shit my pants and called you a liar. But here we are, and here’s my rave review.

I’ll lead off by stating publicly that whoever cut the trailer for Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated should be tried for crimes against the movie-going public and then dragged through the streets while on fire. The previews are exactly what kept me away from this picture for more than a month, and I’m just glad I got roped into this as an alternative to bowling (or Jackie Chan’s The Spy Next Door). I thought surely that I’d seen the entire picture in the course of two minutes: Streep and Alec Baldwin are divorced but have an affair; Streep giggles with her girlfriends about how men are dumb and silly; then Steve Martin shows up to complete the cliche love triangle; all of course played out against a Whimsical Romantic Comedy Soundtrack and gags about getting high and having Internet sex. While it’s true that all of those elements are part of the movie, this is in no way a simple pratfalls-and-revelations rom-com; it’s more serious than that; more (ugh) complicated.

Meryl Streep’s, Alec Baldwin’s and Steve Martin’s characters are the closest this genre has come to well-rounded, believable people in at least a decade. Streep and Baldwin play Jane and Jake Adler, a wealthy divorced couple; Jake has moved on, marrying his decades-too-young mistress and becoming a surrogate father to her child; Jane is single and still kind of shell-shocked from the decade-old divorce, and having a really hard time seeing the last of her three children leave the nest. At their son’s graduation, the exes run into each other at a bar, drink way too much, and fall into bed. This sets up a reluctant (on Jane’s part) affair that also comes to involve Adam (Martin), the architect who’s overseeing an extension on her home. This messy situation lends itself to comedy, but the film’s bright, beating heart is the honesty with which the principle actors imbue their characters. Watching It’s Complicated, both my mind and heart were engaged, and not once did I feel bored or insulted by lazy writing.

That’s due in large part to Meyer’s script (she wrote and directed the film). It’s such a personal story that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was inspired by true events. There is such a fine level of detail in the dialogue and the situations that reveal truths not only about how love blossoms, dies, and occasionally blooms again, but about growing old and prizing family above all else. Just about everything in It’s Complicated works; I could’ve done without the scene in which Jake spies on Adam, or the entire Jake-goes-to-the-fertility-clinic sub-plot—those reeked of the desperate, sitcom-level nonsense that can be found in tripe like 27 Dresses, The Ugly Truth and He’s Just Not That Into You. But over all, this movie deals with the kinds of issues that real people care about; Nancy Meyers realizes that there’s enough comedy and drama in everyday life that there’s no need to turn her characters into cartoons in order to elicit laughs and empathy.

I’d like to take a moment to praise Steve Martin’s wonderful performance as Adam. While a lot of attention has been given to Streep (who is great) and Baldwin (who plays Jake as Jack Donaghy with a touch less flash), Steve Martin is the hero of the movie. I haven’t truly enjoyed one of his performances since Bowfinger, as both he and Eddie Murphy have toiled in lame family-friendly garbage for most of the last decade. But here, he is genuinely funny and very touching. The scene where Adam and Jane make chocolate croissants on their first date—all two minutes of it—is a better, more romantic film about food than all of Julie & Julia.

If you haven’t seen It’s Complicated yet, you owe it to yourself to check it out right away. I smiled throughout most of the movie—even during some of the dramatic scenes, just because the active was so damned good—and came away feeling like I’d just watched a movie for grown-ups. It’s the exact opposite of what I expected, thanks to those awful, unforgivable commercials.

Note: It’s Complicated is rated “R” due to “Some Drug Content and Sexuality”. This is utter bullshit, folks, and it’s an outrage. The only “sexuality” that might elicit this rating is an eighth-of-a-second shot of Alec Baldwin’s (body double’s) ass. And the “drug content” refers to the pot-smoking scene—only because the people doing it (who were adults, mind you) suffered no consequences for getting high. As I understand it, had they been arrested or driven into a tree because of that crazy, evil reefer, the film may have garnered a PG-13 rating.

I’m going to go on the record here and state that anyone who is inspired to smoke weed because they saw Meryl Streep and Steve Martin share a joint in a movie is a Grade-A imbecile who would be better off playing in traffic rather than fucking up the delicate Bell Curve of our American ratings system.

Saturday
Jan092010

Daybreakers (2010)

The Sun Also Rinses

I just read an article about how Michael and Peter Spierig’s Daybreakers is one of three new films that are taking aim at dethroning Avatar as the current box office champion. There’s no way in hell that’ll happen. Avatar is a cultural juggernaut, having captured the imaginations of millions of people worldwide, while Daybreakers is the millionth serving of vampire-flavored pop candy to hit in just over a year (thanks, Twilight). But there is a legitimate financial discussion to be had regarding these two films in that Avatar cost more than any other film to produce, and Daybreakers is very obviously a low-budget picture that was lucky to get a theatrical release—even in the dead zone of January. Fortunately, the Spierig brothers realized that a filmmaker’s best investment is not in computer effects, but in the screenplay.

Set in the year 2019 following a vampire outbreak that has brought the human race to the brink of extinction, Daybreakers centers on a hematologist named Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke). He’s a vampire in a world where vampirisim is no longer special; people still go to work and order over-priced lattes in subway stations—the only difference is that they’re immortal and prefer Type-O to soymilk. Edward works for the Bromley Pharmaceutical Corporation, whose president (Sam Neill) tasks him with developing a blood substitute that will sustain the population once the last human has been drained. Edward sympathizes with the humans’ plight and falls in with a small band of renegades who themselves want to find a solution to protect their species.

If this sounds like the setup to a half-dozen other “enemy of the state” movies, it is; Daybreakers treads very familiar ground. The key difference is that the Spierigs, who wrote and directed the picture, have followed in Quentin Tarantino’s footsteps by throwing all of he best elements from their favorite action movies and vampire stories into a narrative vat and tweaking the recipe; the result is a smart, briskly paced movie that delivers both good jump scares and great ideas. The Spierigs pay tribute to the first two-thirds of The Matrix (before it devolved into a really boring stunt show), Equilibrium, Dark City, Day of the Dead, and Children of Men—all of which dazzled audiences with action as well as solid stories and interesting characters.

What I love about this story is the texture the Spierigs bring to the vampire mythos and the ways in which they follow the lore out to its logical conclusion. Vampire society is inundated by sexy advertising for teeth whitening services and shielded cars that allow one to drive around during the day. As the blood supply dwindles, the vampire population begins to devolve from wealthy consumers into hideous, bat-like “under dwellers”; yes, the monstrous forms that are often regarded as the “cool” incarnations of vampires in most movies are the homeless, crazy derelicts of Daybreakers (there’s even a vampire army of humvee-driving soldiers who hunt under dwellers and humans alike). Another nice touch is that there’s not a high council or brotherhood of thousand-year-old vampires that Ultimately Must Be Stopped; in this universe, vampirism began as a blood disease—which is why, I think, it only took ten years for immortality and super-strength to become mundane characteristics. The synthetic blood storyline is the film’s greatest surprise, and I’ll leave it for you to discover; suffice it to say, we’re presented with an idea that I’m sure will pop up in vampire stories for generations to come.

I may be putting this movie over a bit too much. While parts of it are perfect, there are a few things that could have stood to be left out. First, I’m getting really, really tired of the “noble” vampire that doesn’t drink human blood. It was a cool idea once, but nowadays it seems the rabbit and pig populations of most vampire stories are in more danger than that of the humans. I’ll give Edward in Daybreakers a bit of a pass, though, because we’re shown just how much the decision affects him. What is unforgivable is a sub-plot involving one of Edward’s lab-mates who devolves from semi-interesting-character-with-potential into puppet-of-the-plot; it’s clear that the Spierigs hit a block with this guy, as he disappears from the story and pops up twice near the end in two developments that stink of desperation. These and the awkward staging of a couple of scenes are minor detractions from an otherwise sterling effort.

Those concerns aside, I urge you to check out Daybreakers in the theatre. There are a number of story points and characters that I haven’t even mentioned because I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them. Michael and Peter Spierig have taken their shot at the big time, employing wonderful practical effects, solid actors, and enough brains and passion to make them, potentially, the Coen Brothers of genre films. Daybreakers may not be a blockbuster, and will likely vanish in James Cameron’s big blue shadow, but it is the superior picture.

Tuesday
Jan052010

Paranormal Activity (2009)

Turn Off Your Cell Phone and Pay Attention!

I’m glad I didn’t see Paranormal Activity in a theatre. The hype machine was in full churn last Fall. Limited screenings built word of mouth, which gave rise to commercials showing audience members screaming and clutching one another; many of my friends reported incidents of morons who, if not talking and joking during the “boring” parts, were obsessed with letting all of their friends know—via text message—that they were watching a movie. Now that the film is on video, I was finally able to enjoy Paranormal Activity the way it was meant to be seen: in the dark, on a comfortable couch, with people who—for the most part—know how to shut the fuck up.

Still, the word of mouth on this picture had me scared. I’d heard that it was a fine movie if one simply “turned off their brain” and “went along for the ride”, which is average-idiot-speak for leaving all possibility of quality or surprise behind. Fortunately, this film proved to be much smarter than I’d ever hoped for. Writer/director Oren Peli has created the perfect slow-burn horror movie with a meager $15,000 and three natural, compelling actors.

What I love most about Paranormal Activity is the way it plays with audience expectations. The film starts out as an apparent rip-off of the similarly successful The Blair Witch Project: a day-trader named Micah (Micah Sloat)has purchased a fancy, expensive video camera with which he hopes to capture evidence of the ghost that has been causing weird things to happen around the house he shares with his girlfriend, Katie (Katie Featherstone). Not long after, we learn that the Katie has been followed by a spirit for as long as she can remember, and that the ghost may have been responsible for burning down her childhood home. Micah, the skeptic, finds the whole endeavor ridiculous, until the two call in a psychic (Mark Fredrichs), who warns them that they’re dealing with a demon, not a ghost. The layers of complexity build in this story, revealing not only secrets about the characters, but the key to the film’s very frustrating middle section, which has divided many people I’ve talked to.

You see, Micah begins acting in a way that many seem to think is unrealistic, or just plain douche-y. He borrows a Ouija board to make contact with the entity; he provokes the demon with taunts and an evolving sense of bravado that could be misconstrued as being out of character. Though the movie is a crowd-pleaser, it doesn’t hold the audience’s hand in explaining away Micah’s behavior; the answer is there, and it is brilliant. Though I won’t spoil any more than I already have, I will offer a solid, two-word clue to die-hard horror fans (one that the casual observer will likely have to Google): Jack Torrance.

Okay, yes, the movie’s clever; but is it scary? You bet! And not in the bullshit, slow motion CG ghost child manner that has, sadly, come to define mainstream horror in this last decade. No, Paranormal Activity aims for genuine creepiness and the kind of mundane scares that will keep new homeowners away from this movie for quite awhile. Oren Peli knows what would give many of us goosebumps: doors that swing just slightly, for example, or hallway lights that turn off and on a few times while we sleep, completely unaware of the occurrence. Micah’s video camera captures all of this and many more minor disturbances, which eventually become major ones—and, finally, full-on evidence of Hell on Earth. But the movie never comes off as showy. It’s like the first forty-five minutes of Poltergeist, when we jumped because kitchen chairs stacked themselves; it is unlike the last forty-five minutes of Poltergeist, in that there are no tree monsters or muddy upended graveyards.

I dare say that Paranormal Activity is a modern classic. At the very least, it is a thinking-man’s horror film, one that stimulates both the nerve endings and the mind. It’s also a fine example of how carefully considered characterization and storytelling can evoke real emotion in an audience without resorting to cheap scares or hiding behind a gigantic effects budget. The only thing scarier than Paranormal Activity is the people who find it boring.

Wednesday
Dec302009

August Underground (2001)

Down with the Sickness

I met Fred Vogel at last month’s HorrorHound convention in Cincinnati. I’d recently heard a great interview with him on Deadpit Radio, where he spoke at length about horror films and his production company, Toe Tag Pictures; it was cool to meet him, even though I’d never seen any of the August Underground pictures for which he is perhaps best known. Fred was very nice and—as in the interview—well spoken, passionate, and knowledgeable. I came away happy to have plopped down some cash for the trilogy, sight-unseen, knowing that I was supporting the efforts of a cool human being.

Today, I finally watched the first film, titled, simply, August Underground. Frankly, it’s the best independent film I’ve ever seen, and a wonderful example of what someone with enough imagination and talent can produce, even with the sparest of budgets. The problem is, I don’t know who the hell I can recommend it to.

You see, August Underground is a mock snuff film. Wholly devoid of plot and redeeming social value, it is the ultimate exercise in both style and tolerance. The film takes place in Pittsburgh, and centers on two unnamed guys who pass the time by kidnapping and torturing people. If this sounds like a Saw or Hostel knock-off, keep in mind that this film was released in 2001, and it is also shot as cinema verite: both the actors and the gore effects are so convincing that the only way to make it through the film with a clear conscience is to marvel at the performances and the artistry. This is sick stuff.

The conceit of the film is that it is a “found” VHS tape, I guess in the vain of The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. But Vogel’s commitment to the material is so absolute that the movie will cut from a woman bound and bleeding in a basement to a rave party at a local club to a pasture in which a cow gives birth. The image jumps and warps just as would a tape that had been recorded over multiple times, which means there are scenes that stop in the middle and open onto others that are thematic opposites. It’s style is the total absence of style.

Which is not to say that the movie is a pointless exercise in violence. On top of the acting and makeup effects, August Underground is a study in both set design and camerawork as storytelling devices. The assailants’ basement lair is a hellhole of arrested development, littered with cutouts from adult magazines and a bathtub filled with decomposing bodies; the cameraman (Allen Peters) giggles and lingers on exposed privates, taunting his friend (Fred Vogel) with ideas for how to further degrade and terrify the victims. While these shots seem random and repetitive, they begin to tell us something about the person taking them, peeling back the layers of psychosis but not providing any answers.

This subject matter has been tackled before, in films as far ranging as A Clockwork Orange and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to American Psycho. But August Underground pushes the ideas, almost to their extremes (I say “almost” because, much like David Fincher’s Se7en, we see mostly the aftermath of the violence; there is a good measure of assault, sure, but Vogel is surprisingly conservative in how much he actually shows). In the other films I mentioned, the audience understands that they’re just watching movies, stories with a first, second, and third act; and that, likely, the killer be punished, or at least disposed of until the sequel. August Underground is free to just be a crazy tape, and that makes the experience of watching the movie totally unpredictable.

Going into the movie, I expected the worst. Vogel and his films are considered by some to be the progenitors of the “torture porn” trend, and I had no interest in watching people get cut up for two hours (the first film is mercifully short, at 70 minutes). But having seen the movie for myself, I can say that it’s not a cheap splatterfest.

August Underground is a beautiful, gruesome, dark piece of art that will probably turn a lot of people off within the first two minutes. But for any aspiring filmmakers reading this, it is a must-see. There is no longer an excuse for amateurish acting, shoddy special effects, or stories that fail to elicit emotion; with very little money, Fred Vogel created a serial killing duo, crawled inside their twisted heads, and produced a video diary that will make the most jaded moviegoer squirm. I don’t know what it says about me that I really enjoyed this movie, but I take some solace in knowing that it’ll be a good long while before I check out the sequels.

Note: I typically post these reviews with a still from the movie at hand. There are literally no good, representative images that I can put up in good conscience. So here’s a happy picture of Fred and me; it’s the only happy picture associated with August Underground.