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Archive for July, 2009

Hurts so Good.

Last of the past weekend’s offerings was Kathryn Bigelow’s lean, gripping The Hurt Locker. A taut, minimalist “men-in-combat” thriller that immediately goes up on the top shelf of Iraq flicks next to HBO’s Generation Kill (and, if you’re counting Gulf War I, Three Kings), The Hurt Locker is also that rare thing in the summer of Terminator: Salvation, Transformers, and GI Joe: a war movie for grown-ups. Very highly recommended.

As The Hurt Locker opens, we meet a three-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team out of Bravo Company doing what they do best: locating, examining, and disposing of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in the streets of Baghdad. Even on a run-of-the-mill call like this, and despite the jaunty banter among team members — the temperature is rising, the tension is thick, and the situation is life-or-death. For the IED in question could blow at any moment and take out everybody around…or it could be triggered by any one of the onlookers gathered, perhaps innocuously, perhaps not, to watch the soldiers work. Well, in this particular case of somebody-setting-us-up-the-bomb, things happen to go terribly awry. And, only six weeks out from the end of Bravo Company’s deployment, a crucial spot opens up on this EOD team.

Enter Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), an amiable, reckless, possibly suicidal fellow who, not unlike Harry Tuttle, “came into this game for the action, the excitement. Go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there’s trouble, a man alone.” (It’s this same devil-may-care attitude and notable lack of self-protective instinct, presumably, that eventually got him reassigned to zombie-stricken London.) Particularly showing up as he does so close to Bravo Company’s ship-out date, James’ cowboy moxie in the field causes huge headaches for his teammates (Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty), who even at one point contemplate fragging the guy. But, just as Jimmy McNulty is startlingly good po-lice despite his many disastrous personal foibles, Staff Sgt. James turns out to be surprisingly in his element whenever the situation deteriorates. And, amid the alleyways, warehouses, dust, and rubble of the Emerald City, the situation tends to deteriorate pretty much constantly.

The Hurt Locker isn’t really a commentary on our Iraq excursion like other movies in the genre we’ve seen of late. (Grace is Gone, Lions for Lambs) Like Generation Kill, it aims mainly to recreate the visceral experience of the war by getting us into the headspace of the men on the front lines. Inasmuch as there is a wider moral to this tale, it’s found in the epigram — “war is a drug” — taken from Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Or, if you’d prefer, the same point is found in the first ten minutes of Apocalypse Now: “When I was home after my first tour, it was worse…I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said ‘yes’ to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.

Scratch a little deeper, tho’, and you can find glimmers of a wider critique of the Iraq fiasco in Bigelow’s film — indeed, you could argue that these moments have more force because they’re so throwaway. After a Iraqi cabbie breaks a cordon, stares down the EOD team for unclear reasons, and is summarily carried away after finally backing down, James quips, “Well, if he wasn’t an insurgent, he sure is one now.” Later, David Morse briefly appears as some high-ranking muckety-muck akin to Godfather who has little regard for Geneva niceties, and Ralph Fiennes and Jason Flemyng also show up as British operatives looking to make some easy quid as bounty hunters on the side.

These small moments notwithstanding, The Hurt Locker is mostly apolitical, focusing mainly on the men (and it’s just men here) who find themselves deep in the midst of the suck. And, on that level, it’s a rousing success. In all honesty, the film cheats a bit by giving this EOD team a wider set of experiences than I think is probably likely — at various points they are forced into sniper and resource extraction missions by the course of events. But, that’s a quibble — for the most part Hurt Locker is as tense a thriller as I’ve seen in years.

Bigelow understands intuitively what far too many action directors these days miss: It’s not the size of the explosion or the volume of bullets fired that determine the quality of an action flick, but the slow, remorseless buildup to the potentially deadly events. In vignette after vignette, The Hurt Locker ratchets up the suspense by degrees, until you find yourself — like the EOD team we’re following — living out each moment in a heightened state of tension, endlessly waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s an impressive moviemaking feat, and it helps to make The Hurt Locker one of the best films of the year.

21st Century Fox.

Also in today’s trailer bin, stop-motion proves an art remarkably adaptable to the usual Wes Andersonisms in the trailer for the Wes-directed adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, with George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray. Well, maybe.

Srs Bsns.

“Well, breakdowns come and breakdowns go — what are you gonna do about it, that’s what I’d like to know.” For Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor in the Midwest circa 1967, it’s decision time in the “striking” brand-new trailer for Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, also starring Sari Lennick, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, and Adam Arkin. Always good to see the brothers back in town.

Teenage Wasteland.

Second on the weekend bill was David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth installment of the series (and Yates’ second directorial outing after 2007’s Order of the Phoenix.) On one hand, this year at Hogwarts is a deftly-made piece of work, and probably the most accomplished and filmic of the Potter movies (tho’ I still prefer Goblet of Fire overall.) But, on the other hand, Yates and the assembled cast are just gathering steam right as the source material is petering out. I racked my brains before the movie trying to remember anything about Half-Blood Prince the novel, and basically came up with the ending, “Slughorn,” “Harry’s Potions book,” and “Dumbledore drinks the crap.” These four things do not a movie make, particularly not a 150 minute movie like this one. You can pad it out with Quidditch and/or various adenoidal episodes on the Big Three’s part, but Half-Blood Prince — the movie like the tome — still feels somewhat overlong, unnecessary, and redundant.

Part 6 of the Harry Potter saga starts in media res — so much so that it feels like Yates & co. have basically given up on the non-readers — with a trio of the Dark Lord’s Death Eaters openly attacking London Muggles in broad daylight. Yes, it’s gotten that bad. But the potential Chosen One (Daniel Radcliffe) has his mind on other matters at the moment — mainly, getting to know the cute waitress at the local station cafe once her shift ends. Alas for Harry, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) apparates into the scene and bigfoots that plan relatively quickly — Instead, he enlists young Potter in an scheme to entice former Prof. Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) back into the Hogwarts fold. (Slughorn is an inveterate namedropper, and thus susceptible to Harry’s influence. That being said, the dance of seduction here all seems a bit more unsavory when viewed rather than read.)

Anyway, soon Harry — and Slughorn — and the rest of the gang have all returned to Hogwarts (with the exception of those schoolboys in disgrace, the Weasley twins, who are now making a mint in Diagon Alley.) But the darkness all around has now seeped even into Fortress Dumbledore — students become bewitched, various assassination attempts go awry, and the scion of Slytherin in particular, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), seems to be under more strain than usual. Perhaps worse still for the gang, the trickle of teenage sensuality seen in Goblet and Order has swollen to a torrent, and Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are now in the full hormone-fueled throes of adolescence. Honestly, after all the pregnant looks, strange urges, and attempted snoggings in the first hour, I half-expected Harry to whip out an ID named “McLovin'” and try to score some butterbeer.

The kids all acquit themselves well enough given the modicum of plot this time around. Still, with all due respect to the teens, the secret weapon of the Potterverse on film remains the long and growing list of distinguished British thespians on hand. From the starting cast (Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, David Bradley, Mark Williams and Julie Walters) to the later pick-ups (Michael Gambon, David Thewlis, Helen McCrory, Evanna Lynch), Half-Blood Prince is stocked to the gills with well-done character turns. The only person who noticeably stuck out as bad was Helena Bonham Carter — She’s wayyy over the top (again) and may be refining her Queen of Hearts here. (I also would’ve liked to have seen He Who Must Not Be Named at some point over the film, but I suspect he’ll be back for the next two installments.)

That being said, the best thing about Half-Blood Prince is probably Jim Broadbent’s turn as Slughorn. At first, he just seemed to be doing a slightly toned-down variation of his “snip, snip, slice, slice” cameo in Brazil. But Broadbent manages to infuse the character with a melancholy I never took away from his more glad-handing, Falstaffian persona in the book. This should’ve been the “Half-Blood Prince’s” movie, really (or Dumbledore’s, for that matter) — but, particularly given the notable absence of the high adventure or puzzle-solving plot dynamics of earlier Potter tales, it’s Broadbent’s haunted sense of regret here that leaves a mark after the credits roll.

Drag Me to Orgrimmar.

“‘At its core, Warcraft is a fantastic, action-packed story,’ said Raimi. ‘I am thrilled to work with such a dynamite production team to bring this project to the big screen.” This is old news by this point, but just to get it down for the record: Sam Raimi is confirmed for the upcoming World of Warcraft movie. Sigh…I get out, they keep trying to pull me back in.

The Other Side of Summer.

Well, I may not have cable or home-internet yet. But, on the bright side, I have settled into my new home multiplex (look, ma, stadium seating!) only a short bike ride away, and have started catching up on my recent flicks. First up on a three-picture bill this past weekend, Marc Webb’s heartfelt yet surprisingly jagged “romantic” comedy, (500) Days of Summer. This won’t be a film for everyone — It’s often too cute or clever by half, and I’ll concede that it probably reeks of forced Little Miss Sunshine or Juno-style indie cachet to people who don’t roll with it. I can envision a lot of folks — particularly those fortunate souls who’ve never been on the wrong end of a bad break-up — finding it boring and/or hating it.

But I’m not one of those people. For me this definitely goes on the Garden State “vaguely-guilty pleasure” pile. (500) Days of Summer tells such a particular and yet relatable story that I readily fell for it. Like our unfortunate protagonist, I was willing to think the best of Summer, and forgive its obvious flaws, once I’d chosen to succumb to its charms. It’d be hard to sum up (500) Days better or more succinctly than the tagline at the official site: “Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn’t.” If this has ever happened to you, and lordy has it happened to me, I suspect you’ll enjoy 500 Days of Summer quite a bit as well.

(500) Days tips its doomed-romance hand right away, opening with a Fargoesque gag about the film’s provenance: “Note: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental…Especially you, Jenny Beckman. B***h.” From there, we briefly glimpse our star-crossed lovers on day 488 of their 500-day story, before venturing back to Day 1. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a would-be architect slumming it as a writer of greeting cards. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is the boss’s comely new assistant. Tom has spent a lifetime listening to mopey acts like The Smiths, New Order, and Joy Division (check), and has convinced himself that there is a One out there for him, somewhere amid this sea of despond. (And when he meets her, it’ll be Fate! There’ll be a Light that Never Goes Out!) Summer, meanwhile, is a child from a broken home, one who long ago gave up on capital-L Love, and now she prides herself on keeping a distance from everything and everyone around her. Did I mention this will end badly?

Nonetheless, Tom falls head-over-heels for Summer, and, going with the flow, she reciprocates his affections, even though she warns him she wants nothing “serious.” Weeks and months go by — They shop for records, they indulge their IKEA nesting instinct, they reveal intimate details to each other. But all the while Tom is falling deeper in passion, Summer is skating along the surface of things. The problem is, Tom can’t see it because he’s living out his own romantic reverie (and because the object of his affection is played by the adorable Deschanel), but Summer is actually kinda awful. She’s a bit of a poseur. She’s a relentless Debbie Downer. She’s needlessly and almost unwittingly cruel, in the way that madly self-absorbed women often tend to be. And, really, how can you trust a gal whose favorite Beatle is Ringo? (Not that Tom wasn’t warned. Early on, he asks his best friend (Geoffrey Arend, most recognizable as the wacked-out college kid from Super Troopers), “Why is it that pretty girls think they can treat everybody like crap and get away with it?” The obvious answer: “Centuries of reinforcement.“)

If you’re sensing a certain amount of raw post-traumatic breakup disorder pique issuing forth from (500) Days, it’s definitely there. (Co-screenwriter Scott Neustadter has been admitting in interviews that this film was basically therapy for him after a particularly virulent dumping.) But, with two to five crappy, by-the-numbers romantic comedies coming out a weekend, I find it a bit refreshing to see a closer-to-real-life alternative for once. Thing is, this isn’t really a romantic comedy at all, so much as a story of a guy who once felt like Han Solo when ’round a certain girl (check), now digging in the dirt, trying to figure out how he ended up in such a godforsaken hole. And, in that regard — I’ve lived down there, so don’t go there — I definitely warmed to it.

The film’s got problems, for sure — There’s a half-baked voiceover (by Leslie Nielsen) that fades in and out whenever a point needs to be hammered on. There are a lot of scenes out of Indie Screenwriting 101 — the hipster karaoke date, the Howard Beale breakdown at work, the 7-11 trip in the Lebowski bathrobe. But, like I said, you either go along with things like, say, Tom’s confessor being his preternaturally mature 12-year-old sister (Chloe Moretz), or you check out. For me, I went along with the ride. The worst thing you can say about (500) Days of Summer in the end is that it’s Annie Hall-lite. (And, funnily enough, Joseph Gordon Leavitt has already been in Miller’s Crossing-lite with Brick.) Well, to my mind, there are worse things in the world than rehashing Annie Hall for a few hours. Getting dumped, for example.

Stampp of Excellence.

“‘He was really a pioneer, demolishing the magnolia and mint juleps view of slavery,” said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia. ‘And the Reconstruction book was in the same revisionist mode, sweeping away myths. Among serious history scholars, nobody is going to go back before Stampp.’Kenneth Stampp, 1912-2009. (By way of Ted.)

Next Stop Wonderland(s).

In the trailer bin of late:

  • She’s given up, stop: Mia Wasikowska, a.k.a. Alice, takes a tumble down the rabbit hole anew in our first look at Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, also with Johnny Depp (frontlined a bit much here), Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Christopher Lee, Alan Rickman, Matt Lucas, Crispin Glover, Noah Taylor, and Timothy Spall. (Looks like a good start, although clearly there is still much CGI-rendering to do.)

  • In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where naturally Gary Oldman is up to no good, a Mad Maxish Denzel Washington may be carrying the secret to something-or-other in the trailer for the Hughes Brothers’ The Book of Eli, also with Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour, and Michael Gambon. (It’s good to see the Hughes, of From Hell and the underrated Menace II Society, back behind the camera. But I’m betting this’ll seem a bit been-there-done-that, coming so soon after John Hillcoat’s The Road.)

  • Kate Beckinsale uncovers something deadly, dark, and dangerous in the furthest reaches of Antarctica in the straight-to-video-ish trailer for Dominic Sena’s Whiteout, also with Gabriel Macht and Tom Skerritt. (It looks like The Thing, with shower scenes. Beckinsale is probably one of my bigger movie star crushes, but lordy, the woman needs a new agent.)

    And, as Comic-Con 2009 is just kicking off:

  • Pushing Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, Peter Jackson talks The Hobbit and Tintin. (Apparently, the script for The Hobbit is three weeks away, and four or five of the 13 dwarves have been front-lined. Spielberg has finished a first cut of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, and The Lovely Bones comes out Dec. 11, with a trailer Aug. 6.)

  • Jonah Hex gets a poster that is sadly devoid of Malkovich. (For what is here, the scar looks decent enough, Megan Fox in anything gives me pause (but I guess she’s a hot ticket after the Transformers sequel made so much bank), and the lettering looks a bit futuristic for the property…unless they’re going post-Crisis Hex.

  • TRON 2.0, a.k.a. TR2N, is now called the much-more-boring TRON LEGACY. But, hey, at least they’re not abusing the colon…yet. (More TRON news, of sorts, in the post below, and, since the weekend is young, undoubtedly more Comic-Con news to come.) Update: The TR2N footage that premiered last Comic-Con is now — finally — up in glorious Quicktime.

  • Back on the Grid.

    So, after a deep-end immersion into the Capitol Hill throng (as you might expect, it’s been busy ’round these parts, particularly by grad student standards) and a slow but steady establishing of a new home base here in the Beltway (I’ve secured a dog-friendly 1BR apartment in downtown Dupont, done 99.44% of the unpacking, acclimated the sheltie, and made the requisite investment in Swedish modular infrastructure — hat-tip, IKEA), I think I’m about at the point where I can officially log back on the grid.

    All of which is to say, tho’ I’m jumping the gun by a day here — the Comcast guys come tomorrow to wire the new pad, which should greatly facilitate posting — I expect normal updates at GitM should now resume. Hey y’all, good to be back.

    Also, speaking of “the grid,” — and since I’m playing catch-up below with the big stories that have occurred over the past twenty days — I’d be remiss if I didn’t include — the Lebowskitron. So now you’re, uh, privy to the new s**t. (And I should get back to the remarks for the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers…)Update: Actually, it was all lies. Not back on the grid yet — hopefully next weekend. Comcast — a company which [a] all DC residents are basically captive to in terms of cable and [b] has notoriously terrible customer service — couldn’t set up my Internet over the weekend because my TV hasn’t arrived yet. (Nor, obviously, could they set up the cable box so that I could just plug-and-play when said TV arrives. That would be way too convenient.)

    So, since the Comcast powers-that-be have posited the existence of a deep and unbreakable connection between having a screen to show a TV signal and the Internets, another week of relative quiet, I suspect. But back soon.

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