Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 29, 2010

2009 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

The Hurt Locker: Director Kathryn Bigelow delivers a taut thriller set in Iraq in 2004, as a three-man bomb squad faces one tense situation after another. (The title is trooper slang for being stuck in physical or mental pain.) Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is an adrenaline junkie and cowboy who's exceptional at his job defusing bombs, but also take gutsiness far into recklessness. The youngest member of the team, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), mostly idolizes him, but Sergeant J.T. Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) clashes with him over protocol and basic safety. The situations they face are often so challenging, though, that total mental stability may take a necessary backseat to survival. It's no surprise if they're all wound up far too tight; they do what they need to cope, and it's hard to blame them. Bigelow captures this dynamic and the tension extremely well, and also uses the bigger names in her cast (generally in small roles) very cleverly.

Like Michael (Robert DeNiro's character) in The Deer Hunter, James is someone who thrives in a war environment, and is much less sure on how to operate in a civilian life stateside (more so than most returning soldiers). One of best (and justly celebrated) shots in the movie comes in a grocery store stateside. Different viewers have characterized The Hurt Locker as glorifying war or anti-war. I'd say most of the great war films are pro-soldier, anti-war – sympathetic to the troopers fighting, but portraying war as horrible, something to be done only when necessary. (I also feel that's a pretty common sense stance.) I didn't see The Hurt Locker as a recruitment film, although viewers will of course have their own reactions. I felt it was very sympathetic to the pressures troopers face in a combat zone, and certainly didn't present those as pleasant.

I'd recommend The Hurt Locker with two major caveats. One is that is that it barely portrays the Iraqi perspective at all. With a few exceptions, the Iraqis are presented as the mysterious, dangerous Other, every one a potential danger. The other caveat is that many of the key details, some crucial for plot points, are apparently inaccurate, most of all that the bomb squad would have far more support and not be so isolated (more in the links below). I felt both these were artistic choices to increase the paranoia and tension, and effective at doing so. As long as The Hurt Locker is viewed more as portraying an emotional/psychological truth than a literal one, I would think it's fine. Thinking it's got documentary-level realism would be a mistake, though. The reaction to the film from military personnel has been split, with some veterans praising the film and others feeling its inaccuracies outweigh its other merits (links below).

SLIGHT SPOILERS: James clearly has the adrenaline bug bad if he's considering leaving Evangeline Lilly. (Plus, there's plenty of action on a certain island...)

(Here's director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal on Fresh Air, Jeremy Renner on Fresh Air and Mark Boal onThe Business. The issue of accuracy and Oscar maneuvering is covered by Movieline (read the second comment, too), the NY Times, the LA Times, Newsweek and True/Slant. You'll have to backtrack through some links, but those cover most of the criticism, and some of the praise.)

The Messenger: Pairing well with The Hurt Locker, The Messenger follows two soldiers as they deliver death notices to the next of kin stateside. Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is near the end of his tour of duty. He was injured in Iraq, and is considered a hero soldier, but doesn't feel like one. He comes home without many connections. His ex-girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone) gives him some welcome-home sex out of some affection and probably guilt, but she's pretty serious with her current boyfriend. The unit commander Colonel Stuart Dorsett (Eamon Walker) gives Will his assignment, and grills him about whether he can do it – it's a sacred duty, tough soldiers often become a tongue-tied mess, and it's hard for him to keep good people. Will is assigned to work with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who's very forceful about how important their notification job is, how they have to do things by the book, and why that's essential. Will also needs to keep a beeper on him at all times. The first half of the film is mostly Will and Tony delivering death notices. It's wrenching stuff. Everyone reacts a bit differently, but as Tony says, there's "no such thing as a satisfied customer." And while it's grueling for Tony and Will – we can see the cracks despite their tough demeanors – for those they notify, it's most likely the worst day of their lives. Apparently, writer-director Oren Moverman had Foster and Harrelson go in blind on some of the notification scenes, improvising in character, staying to their notification scripts. It gives some of the notification scenes a painful awkwardness and immediacy.

Things shift for Will after they notify Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), who handles the news with startling grace. She fascinates Will, and he starts coming round to help her with chores and with her young son, who's acting out. There's some mutual attraction, but it's an inherently awkward situation. Will continues to feel isolated. Kelly calls to ask him not to come to her wedding – she invited him, but her fiancĂ© isn't happy about it. One of the better scenes in the movie shows Will watching a welcome-home party for another trooper – the guy gets up to tell a funny story, and accidentally lets too much truth slip in, silencing the crowd. As Will says, coming stateside is like coming home from another planet.

Will does grow closer with Tony, who all but orders him out to go out at night, and they engage in some joint self-medication, drinking at the local bar and trying to pick up women. It's hard to fault Will and Tony too much, given their gig, and the stories they eventually tell. But unfortunately, sometimes they go past self-abuse and recklessness into being real assholes, and not just to each other. All the performances in The Messenger are superb. Woody Harrelson deserved his Oscar nomination, and it's probably his best serious work. I've always loved Samantha Morton, but she gives a very nuanced, touching performance here. Both she and Ben Foster deserved more recognition for their performances. Jena Malone and Steve Buscemi (as one of the notified parents) are also excellent. The Messenger avoids any political commentary on the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Like The Best Years of Our Lives and a few other films, it shows the aftermath of war and its effects very well. I do wish that every chickenhawk saw this film and The Fog of War, though, because while going to war in this or that instance can be honestly debated, there's no excuse for not treating war as the matter of deadly consequence it is. I've been told that death notifications, at least in some branches of the service, are never a regular, long-standing detail. However, from what I've read, the Marines and Army handle the notification and follow-up a bit differently (more below).

(Here's Oren Moverman on The Treatment and Woody Harrelson on Fresh Air and on playing the role. Here's Lieutenant Colonel Paul Sinor, former chief of the army's Killed in Action branch and an advisor on the film. Here's a Fresh Air episode with Colonel Steve Beck, who does casualty notification for the Marines. And here's a piece on casualty notification written by a Marine who did it in the Vietnam era.)

Up in the Air: Jason Reitman's on a roll, going from Thank You for Smoking to Juno to Up in the Air. All three have been smart comedies with substance and memorable characters. Up in the Air is witty, sharp and good in its own right, but with its focus on layoffs, it also really captures the zeitgeist. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies around the country, firing people for bosses too gutless to do it themselves. Ryan's doing a dirty job, but like Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking, he's a self-aware scoundrel with some style, so somehow we don't hold it too much against him. He also fires people with some measure of grace and respect. Ryan likes the predictability and anonymity of his air travel lifestyle, and has it down to a science. He says, "All the things you probably hate about travelling - the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi - are warm reminders that I'm home." He's also pursuing the elusive goal of logging ten million miles in the air. Trouble brews, though, when his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) wants to move to a cheaper model of firing people - over the computer. It's an innovation from overly confidant recent graduate Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who Ryan challenges and unbalances. Naturally, Craig assigns Ryan to train Natalie and show her the ropes. Ryan's not thrilled about it, but it does allow him to expound his worldly, cynical, practical approach to life. (Natalie: "Can you stop condescending for one second or is that one of the principles of your bullshit philosophy?") Along the way, Ryan, wary of marriage or emotional attachments, connects with his female double, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), and they start a steamy affair, coordinating their schedules and layovers. (Alex reassures him: "Think of me as you, but with a vagina.") Natalie soon falls apart, and Ryan and Alex try to mentor her – but Ryan begins to discover he's less sure of his own worldview, too.

Up in the Air loses some steam in the final act as Ryan goes home to attend his sister's wedding. There's still good stuff there, but the pacing slows and there's less comedy – it's the sober morning after the party. I also didn't quite buy that Alex would withhold certain information – but I loved her character overall, and it was nice to see an adult, assured female character on screen. Farmiga and Clooney have fantastic chemistry and banter wittily, and Anna Kendrick shows a nice comic feel, especially when Ryan and Alex take Natalie out on the town. Reitman makes it look easy, but this is confidant, skilled filmmaking with a tight script, strong performances, and a good feel for both comedy and drama. The opening montage is sharp, and the final scenes are good in a different way. More like this, please.

(Here's writer-director Jason Reitman on The Treatment and on Fresh Air. Here's the book's author Walter Kirn praising the adaptation and on Fresh Air. Here's some of the real fired employees from the film discussing it.)

Up: Cranky old man Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) doesn't just want everyone to get off his lawn, he wants to get his own house off his lawn - by tying hundreds of balloons to his home. He travels south through the sky in search of adventure, honoring an old promise to the great love of his life, his now dead wife, Ellie. He accidentally picks up a stowaway, Junior Scout Russell. Along the way he runs into his old idol, explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a talking dog, and a giant bird. Pixar just continues to make wonderful films. The premise is fantastical, but we gladly buy it and it all works somehow. WALL-E used many silent film techniques, and Up continues that. The early montage of young Carl and Ellie marrying and their life together is a beautiful little film in its own right, more affecting than most entire features, and the best 10+ minutes of cinema the entire year. Forced to take care of Russell, and faced with a wondrous new world, Carl's crotchety shell gradually starts to crack, and he begins to re-evaluate his life. Pixar spends about four years to produce each feature, but the bulk of the time is on the story and script. While Up has a wonderful set of gags throughout (the old man fight, the dogs), it's all in service of character and story. It's a fun, entertaining film, but also moving at times. (The short film preceding it, "Partly Cloudy," is great, too.) If you haven't seen Up yet, seek it out.

(Here's director Pete Docter on The Treatment and The Business.)

In the Loop:
"We don't need any more facts! In the land of truth, my friend, the man with one fact is king." – Linton Barwick

""Climbing the mountain of conflict"? You sounded like a Nazi Julie Andrews!" –Malcolm Tucker

Take the run-up to the Iraq War and turn it into a satire with complicated maneuvering and a screwball comedy's extremely snappy patter. Oh, and add ruthless bureaucrats, bumbling officials, cocky aides and swearing Scotsmen. Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is a British official with a talent for screwing up official statements and talking when he should shut up. When asked about the possibility of war on TV, he offers a convoluted answer that's heavily scrutinized, and seized upon by both the pro-war and anti-war factions in the U.S. Government (shades of Chauncey Gardener in Being There). The anti-war crew are battling the bullying tactics of the imperious, pro-war Secretary of Defense, Linton Barwick (David Rasche). The British contingent heads over to America, where they're generally treated as a junior partner. Competing interests in both governments maneuver for position ruthlessly and ineptly in a complicated dance that's often damn funny. The entire cast is superb, but Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker is a standout.

In the Loop's understated tone can hide exactly how bold its core idea is. It's original and creative, and I'm interested in seeing how it holds up in a few years. It's sort of like The West Wing with the comedy dialed up, the sensibility of British humor and the style of The Office. It's both funny and frightening to realize how accurate its portrayal of lying, conniving and behind-the-scenes maneuvering is. Director Armando Iannucci didn't want to tie the film too exactly to real events, preferring that audiences could think of the run-up to the Iraq War, but also think, "This could be happening now." To a degree, I think first-time viewers may be better off not knowing that a given character was based on this or that real person. In the Loop is based partially on reality, but it's still fiction and the filmmakers create their own world and characters, so trying to do a straight de-code can be misleading and confusing. Likewise, the maneuvering in the film gets awfully convoluted at times, and the bureaucratic in-fighting may lose some viewers. However, I think most people will get the office politics angle, which is more important than the actual policies. Meanwhile, if you don't like creatively abusive profanity delivered in a thick Scottish accent, this ain't the film for you. (But your loss.)

I suspect, like Waiting for Guffman and other understated, nuanced comedies, In the Loop will get better with age and repeated viewings. Guffman is funny on its own, but even better if you've done any theater (particularly community theater) because of that joy and pain of recognition. In the Loop is much the same for political junkies or anyone familiar with office political warfare.

(Here's Armando Iannucci on The Treatment, Fresh Air and Democracy Now. Here's a swearing tirade by Malcolm, another one from the crossest man in Scotland, the "You're a legend" bit, "How to Swear," "Alastair Campbell Watches In the Loop" and Anna Chlumsky on the film.)

The Invention of Lying: Not since Groundhog Day has a comedy started with such a good "high concept" and fully explored it. (As Jon Stewart told Ricky Gervais, "Why didn't I think of that?") Ricky Gervais writes, directs and stars in The Invention of Lying, which takes place in a world where not only people always tell the truth, they're harshly candid about it. We start with Mark Bellison (Gervais) going out on a date with Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner), who matter-of-factly informs of his physical shortcomings and the remote chance of them having sex. She's not trying to be cruel, but in this world, there's no internal censor and few social niceties. It takes a deft comic touch to get the feel for this right – Anna demonstrates a sort of friendly, oblivious cruelty, but with a touch of sweetness as well, so it's hard to completely dislike her. Meanwhile, it's difficult not to sympathize with Mark as he amiably bears his own degradation. The opening date may be the best part of the film, but the rest is pretty good, too. A sort of mean Social Darwinism rules in most of Mark's interactions. He's extremely put-upon, in danger of losing his job and apartment, and one day at the bank, he just snaps – and claims he's owed more money than he possesses. The teller apologizes and gives more money to him. Mark is alarmed, and scared of getting caught – but soon starts to experiment with this new and potentially dangerous power.

One of the more fascinating elements of the film is that Mark often lies to help people out, such as bucking up the spirits of his suicidal neighbor Frank (Jonah Hill). Honesty may be the best policy, but the utter frankness of Mark's world has left no consideration for anyone's feelings. When Mark visits his mother Martha (Fionnula Flanagan) in the hospital, she's not predicted to last the night, and she's absolutely terrified of dying. To assuage her, Mark starts to tell her of a wonderful afterlife - and basically invents religion. But the doctors and nurses overhear him, and want to know more about this afterlife and this "Man in the Sky" Mark's described, and he's soon mobbed for more details – and everything snowballs. Needless to say, this plotline has not been popular in some quarters. Meanwhile, Mark continues to try to woo Anna, who likes him but is scared of having ugly, unsuccessful children, and is thus susceptible to the advances of handsome scumbag Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe).

It was entirely predictable that some people would find The Invention of Lying heretical, although one could say it portrays some other world and not ours. I found The Invention of Lying to be original, creative, funny, thoughtful and thought-provoking. The endearing thing about Mark is that, while he sometimes lies for his own gain, at key points he restrains himself – especially from lying to Anna. There are times he could easily get what he wants, but he knows it wouldn't count. On some matters, people need to choose for themselves. The Invention of Lying features a ton of great comedians in small roles or cameos, has a funny, sweet performance by Gervais, and it's probably the best performance by Garner since Juno. Perhaps I'll be less charmed by The Invention of Lying on subsequent viewings, but honestly, it was one of the most funny, entertaining, thought-provoking and surprisingly moving films I saw all year.

(Here's Ricky Gervais on Fresh Air.)

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