Archive for June 2009

The Hurt Locker

June 29, 2009

Before The Hurt Locker is anything else, it’s a first-class action movie. This tense and muscular film unfolds in and around various Iraq war zones but isn’t really an “Iraq War film.” It follows a bomb-squad unit, headed by risk addict Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who by his own count has disarmed 873 bombs. We don’t know whether James is brave or crazy or both, but we do sense that he wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. He doesn’t get cranked up before a mission — a Zen-like calm seems to fall over him. He knows how bombs work, and he knows how to make them not work. He’s in his element.

So is the director, Kathryn Bigelow. Absent from the big screen for too long, Bigelow was born to make action-thrillers (see Point Break or Strange Days), and The Hurt Locker may well be her masterpiece, the perfect fusion of director and material. Bigelow loves techno-POV shots; they were all over Strange Days, and this film opens with one, the staticky view of a radio-controlled robot rolling towards a concealed explosive. The action in The Hurt Locker is loose, caught on the fly and documentary-like, yet still perfectly readable. We always know exactly where the bomb squad is in relation to danger, and things slow way down during a shoot-out between snipers in the desert, during which any number of things go wrong (the ammo salvaged off of a freshly killed soldier keeps jamming because it’s too bloody, etc.). The action is frighteningly credible.

The movie is a salute to the soldiers who go in and get it done in the worst possible conditions, though it’s not an unabashed salute. James’ squad members occasionally freak out and break down; James keeps powering through, a good man (he takes care to treat the locals humanely) with some serious problems. Jeremy Renner, a great actor who deserves to be much better known than he is, shows flashes of the death wish under James’ laid-back demeanor. His men even briefly flirt with the idea of fragging him, because they figure he’ll get them all killed — is he a genius or just extraordinarily lucky? Either way, he chuckles as he strides into yet another death-trap, and speaks almost tenderly to the bomb components, some of which he keeps under his bunk later.

There’s not a scrap of politics in The Hurt Locker, as there also wasn’t in last year’s unfairly dismissed Stop-Loss — perhaps coincidentally, also directed by a woman (Kimberly Peirce). The two movies simply strive to be true to the experiences of those who serve or have served in Iraq. The film’s coda is almost a miniature Stop-Loss — a soldier comes home and can’t deal with things like chopping up carrots for dinner or shopping for cereal, and stop-losses himself right back into the fray.

Like its hero, the movie needs its adrenaline fix, but never at the expense of the drama that keeps the anecdotal narrative going. It comes by its thrills honestly, never losing sight of the potential cost in lives. These soldiers do their jobs while acutely aware they could be killed by some of the same people they’re trying to save, but they try anyway. The Hurt Locker goes far beyond action into almost existential excitement, fear, despair (one soldier bemoans how nobody except his parents, who “don’t count,” will care if he’s killed in action). Kathryn Bigelow has shown Hollywood how it’s done: The Hurt Locker is the strongest and most satisfying thriller in years.

Year One

June 22, 2009

If you’re of a certain age, you probably can’t help feeling a certain respect and affection for Harold Ramis. He co-wrote Animal House and Stripes. He directed Groundhog Day and the sadly underappreciated Multiplicity. He was one of the Ghostbusters, for Christ’s sake. For my generation, at least, he’s a great American hero of comedy. So it gives me no pleasure to report that Ramis’ new film, Year One, is a laughless dud. When Ramis went home every night from filming, did he honestly think he’d shot anything funny? Even the end-credits bloopers are weak.

Year One is a rambling saga, shaggy by design, about two oafish villagers, Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera). They get in all kinds of allegedly riotous adventures, though their main focus is on getting fed and getting laid. The script (by Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg — the latter two are veterans of NBC’s The Office) makes casual hash of history; it begins in hunter-gatherer times, then progresses through Biblical times. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that the situations Zed and Oh shamble in and out of are tired beyond belief. Even the Cain-and-Abel shtick has been done better and funnier by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman in comic books that weren’t even primarily comedic.

David Cross, as Cain, has a bigger role than you’d expect, which is nice; whenever Cross is up there, you can fool yourself into thinking the film is wittier than it is. But then you might remember Cross’s famous blog entry defending his appearance in Alvin and the Chipmunks — basically, because he wanted a new house. Maybe the house needed a new roof. Then again, I can easily picture Cross, Black, Cera, and many others in the cast eager to work with Ramis, and maybe everyone had so much fun on the set they really didn’t notice they were churning out slop. I laughed once — once — when Michael Cera listens to a warning about the whore-infested Sodom and Gomorrah, and asks which one has more whores.

Year One is also startlingly retrograde coming from someone as presumably evolved as Ramis. There’s a great deal of homophobic “humor” (mostly via Oliver Platt’s mincing, mascara’ed high priest), and the female characters, though lovely, are zeroes; June Diane Raphael, a comedy writer herself, puts a quirky spin on her lines as Maya, a gatherer Zed has his eye on, but as written Maya exists to be lusted after and rescued. There’s grossout gags for kids — Zed licks a bear turd, Oh pisses all over his own face (as pointed a metaphor for how Cera’s and everyone else’s talents are wasted in this movie as any) — and there are more “adult” gags (an incest joke, an F-bomb, much much too much foreskin humor). The word is that Year One was trimmed to avoid an R rating. In that case, who was its intended audience at the filmmaking stage? It’s too infantile for adults and often too risqué for kids (there’s also a fellating-a-banana bit).

Harold Ramis is a smart man, although not infallible — he made the funny Analyze This, for instance, and then couldn’t leave well enough alone and made the inferior Analyze That. His previous film, 2005’s bitterly witty The Ice Harvest, pointed at an edgier and darker direction for Ramis, but that film tanked, so no more dark and edgy for Ramis, I guess. It may be that Ramis just wants to work with funny people and have a good time (one reason why he might’ve wanted to return to the Analyze well); sometimes that works out for all of us, too, and sometimes what we’re left with is an unfunny home video of a lot of talented people throwing a party we weren’t invited to.

Pop Art

June 17, 2009

Pop Art, based on a short story by Joe Hill, is just about the most touching and mystifying fifteen minutes of film I expect to see this year. It does full justice to the tale Christopher Golden — and I agree — called “transcendent…the single best short story I have read in years.”

Writer/director Amanda Boyle streamlines Hill’s story, focusing on the relationship between lonely schoolboy Toby (Bill Milner) and Arthur, or Art, an inflatable boy. Hill never explains how an inflatable person can exist. Neither does Boyle. Art simply shows up in class one day, introduced by the teacher as “special.” He can’t talk, so he scribbles out notes. He’s pretty much like any other boy except that he fears puncture.

The friendship between the boys develops naturally and unsentimentally. They tease each other, sit around and shoot the breeze. Toby’s mum died a year ago, and his dad still hasn’t gotten over it (this part reminded me of Paul Hornschemeier’s brilliant graphic novel Mother Come Home); the family dog sits neglected. In Hill’s story, Toby’s mom ran away when he was three, and his dad sat around the house all day on disability; the dog had to be blockaded from Art or else he’d bite him to shreds. The changes Boyle makes suit the smaller, more intimate story she’s telling.

Pop Art ends ambiguously, without the breathtaking button of Hill’s final line (his story jumped forward a few years to find Toby getting married to an inflatable woman — I mean one like Art, not as in Lars and the Real Girl). No actor is credited as playing Art, even in the shots in which there could be someone inside an inflatable Art suit, so I have to assume he’s the real deal all the way. And yet this plastic bag of air, who can’t talk and can’t emote, winds up making us feel for him and his final decision. I was stunned by how much of the feel of Hill’s story made it into this primarily visual, not very talky short, and I was surprised at how moved I was.

Pop Art was made available for one week in May 2009 on the BBC Film Network site (; it may still be accessible if you try. If it turns up as part of a film festival near you, or surfaces on a DVD compilation, I can’t recommend it more highly. It is, if you will, the flip side of Up; both films are rooted in sadness yet express the longing to float up, up and away.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

June 15, 2009

To watch the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and then to watch the new remake is to witness, irrefutably, the decline of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Now, the original’s director, Joseph Sargent, is no master — he also gave us Jaws: The Revenge and Goldengirl. But Sargent is a workaday director who can sometimes rise to a good script. On the other hand, Tony Scott, the director of the remake, shows here that he no longer knows what to do with a good script. The premise is pretty much the same, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland works up some sharp, pungent dialogue. Scott, however, stomps all over everything with his restless, headache-inducing Cuisinart style. This director is terrified to lose you for a split-second — either that or he gets bored very easily.

What’s funny is that the script introduces backstories for its two antagonists — New York subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) and a jeering, tattooed hijacker calling himself Ryder (John Travolta) — where there were none in the 1974 film. Schlumpy Walter Matthau was on one side, ice-cold Robert Shaw was on the other, and we knew nothing about them other than what they did and said in the film. Here, we meet Garber’s wife and we hear about Ryder’s past life as a Wall Street inside trader, among other things; none of it is really necessary.

Washington has gone on this ride with Tony Scott once before, in 1995’s much superior Crimson Tide, wherein he did the same thing he does here — act as a soothing voice of reason in counterpoint to a loudly crazy white man. Where Robert Shaw was spare and stoic, John Travolta bounces off the walls, dropping F-bombs like pocket change, with a side order of bargain-basement Hannibal Lecter when Ryder pries the truth out of Garber about why he got busted down to dispatcher. Scott and Helgeland have reworked Pelham into a battle of wills between two temperamentally opposed men; at certain points Ryder starts to need to hear Garber’s voice, bleating for his return to the mic like a baby bawling for milk.

None of this especially matters, though, because the true star of the ‘74 Pelham was New York. And though the remake was likewise filmed on location, you wouldn’t know it from the way Scott fractures the footage into tatters. Ryder’s cohorts are interchangeable; the great Luis Guzman is one of them, but he never gets anything to play. John Turturro and James Gandolfini, as a hostage negotiator and the mayor respectively, aren’t allowed to show much personality; hell, Gandolfini did more with a few minutes of screen time as an affectionately sadistic hit man in Scott’s True Romance. Tony Scott has always been a hack, but in the past, like Joseph Sargent, he knew enough to chill out and let a good screenplay steer the ship. Not any more.

The original Pelham went like a shot without sacrificing the wonderfully irate character of the city or the thrills of the story. This one goes 100mph right out of the gate and loses — no, disregards — everything that made the old classic work. I knew it within thirty seconds: the original began with a confidently cool main theme by David Shire, this one kicks off with “99 Problems” by Jay-Z. There you go: the movie tries so hard to be hip it can’t possibly be cool.

The Hangover

June 8, 2009

On the IMDb message board for The Hangover, one of the subject lines reads: “Vulgar, Obscene, Offensive. Is this what comedy is?” Yes, but it’s not vulgar, obscene and offensive enough. What passes for transgression these days is pretty weak sauce; last week’s Drag Me to Hell is far less wild and crazy than everyone wants you to think it is, and so is The Hangover, a calculated outrage wherein three thirtysomethings get wasted during a Vegas bachelor-party bacchanal and, in the morning, can’t remember anything that happened.

Cynical teacher Phil (Bradley Cooper), henpecked dentist Stu (Ed Helms), and hirsute man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis) take soon-to-be-wed buddy Doug (Justin Bartha) to Sin City for one last blow-out. Past a certain point, everything’s in a fog. You may have seen the ads: they wake up in their expensive villa room with a chicken clucking about, a tiger in the bathroom, a tooth absent from Stu’s mouth, and a baby in the closet. The Hangover is structured so that the protagonists, and we, gradually find out most of what all this is about. Unfortunately, the explanations either strain logic (the tiger) or smack of convention (the baby). I’m kind of glad the chicken is never explained, though. More of the movie should’ve been left to our wicked imaginations.

There’s a better cast here than there deserves to be, starting with Ed Helms, with his elongated Herman Munster skull tapering down to an accountant’s face, as a guy who apparently has a few too many wild oats to sow. We only really see Stu getting crazy in still photos, but Helms brings a manic streak to Stu, a superego desperately seeking an id. Ken Jeong scores high as Mr. Chow, a diminutive gangster who enjoys himself flamboyantly. Zach Galifianakis is the true id (Bradley Cooper is the ego, rounding out Freud’s psychic apparatus), a soft bear who’s clearly had too many nights home alone to linger over his bizarro fantasies. They’re a good comedy trio (Justin Bartha’s Doug is hardly in the movie, since the others lose track of him during the night), and they deserve a more daring script.

A comedy like this needs to ramp it up a notch, take us places we haven’t been before. When one of the mysteries leads to a subplot with an unrealistically amiable Heather Graham that has a cop-out resolution, you know the movie is pulling punches when it should be bashing you into submission. As it is, the only thing here that truly tests the limit of the R rating is a series of photos of Zach Galifianakis during the end credits (I’m guessing the MPAA folks didn’t stick around till then). Two films from eleven years ago, There’s Something About Mary and the much-underrated Very Bad Things (a genuinely biting “what happens in Vegas” satire), were far more subversive — and far funnier — than this effort, which teases us with hints of unspeakable degeneracy and then wimps out. Truly, if you’ve seen the ads, you’ve seen what you need to see; your own explanation for where the tiger comes from, and what Mike Tyson has to do with anything, will probably be funnier than the movie’s explanation.

Drag Me to Hell

June 1, 2009

In Sam Raimi’s revenge-of-the-gypsy horror flick Drag Me to Hell, Alison Lohman takes one grotesque liquid after another in the face. She also suffers what might be cinema’s most epic nosebleed, almost drowns in a muddy grave, and generally gets bashed around. A less dignified role for a young actress would be hard to imagine, but then if you want dignity you don’t look to Sam Raimi in his manic-diabolical B-movie mode. Raimi, the cult-favorite auteur behind the madly inventive and sensationally entertaining Evil Dead series, has been playing with the big boys lately (his last three films were the highly lucrative Spider-Man trilogy). Drag Me to Hell is his welcome-home to the low, disreputable fun of his drive-in-schlock roots. But there’s a note of mean-spiritedness I haven’t detected in his work before. The movie is manic and gross, all right, but not much fun unless you enjoy watching an attractive 29-year-old woman getting punished repulsively over and over. It should be a big hit with guys who collect bukkake porn.

Lohman, in the role of nice but eager-for-promotion loan officer Christine Brown, is being punished for refusing to grant an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) an extension on her mortgage. Raver, a TV veteran, is required to remove her dentures in lurid close-up and beg Christine on her knees for mercy — and that’s before she reappears as a grasping, murderous harridan. Drag Me to Hell certainly expresses disgust at ambitious young women and destitute old women; the gypsy is still doing revolting things even when she’s dead. Christine’s callousness has brought a curse upon her, and the old crone doesn’t just want to send her to hell outright — she wants Christine to suffer first.

All right, setting aside the film’s troublesome misogyny, Drag Me to Hell is clearly intended as a Saturday-night flick to make teenagers howl and squeal and gag. Most of it isn’t scary, though. “I recognize terror as the finest emotion,” Stephen King once wrote, “and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” Raimi isn’t proud, either. The style is disappointingly earthbound coming from a man who once had to make his own cheap camera mounts to get the insane, looping shots he wanted — a good portion of Drag Me to Hell looks like television, and even the spooky stuff is largely a matter of bumps in the night and ooga-booga shadows. The horror is very tame.

The script, by Raimi and his brother Ivan, had been sitting around collecting dust for decades, and maybe there’s a reason for that — the story is blithely padded out to allow for maximum torment of the heroine, at the expense of logic. Christine tries all sorts of things to free herself of the curse, pumping money into a sympathetic spiritual counselor for advice that never works, and he waits till her time (and the movie’s time) is almost up before telling her something that actually might work. While she and we wait, there’s more gross-out stuff, and a seance that rather haplessly calls back to the floating Deadites of the Evil Dead films while missing those films’ cracked, spectral beauty (there’s nothing in this movie to equal the possessed woman’s macabre dance by moonlight in Evil Dead II).

Drag Me to Hell doesn’t feel like something Sam Raimi has been passionate to make for years and decided to cash in his Spider-Man clout to realize his vision. It feels like an “All right, all right, here’s a damn horror film” capitulation to old fans (many of whom will crow that “Sam’s still got it,” though the evidence here is sketchy) and a recruitment for new fans, who won’t have seen all the tricks here a thousand times before. The old Raimi used to leaven his splatstick with wit and an almost elegant sense of style (that dancing Deadite in Evil Dead II rolled her head down her arm like a top hat). But aside from a few Dutch angles and the prerequisite cameo of the ’73 Delta 88 Oldsmobile, this doesn’t feel like Raimi at all; it plays like one of those awful moneymakers his Ghost House shingle has been producing for the last few years, and it’s rather squalid and ugly and cynical. Maybe the horror genre has missed Raimi more than he’s missed it.