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Jason Flemyng

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The Bourne Adolescence.

I know one couldn’t tell from ole GitM here, which continues in its recent state of languish — hopefully not for much longer! — but the Easter holidays (and accompanying congressional recess) have finally given me a chance to catch up on some of the movies I’ve missed in recent weeks. First on the block, Joe Wright’s stylish spy thriller Hanna, a reasonably entertaining cross between Run Lola Run and one of the Bourne movies, with a splash of True Grit.

Hanna has some pacing issues for sure — The film peaks in its first forty minutes, and the middle hour, in which our young, ninjafied protagonist makes nice with a free-spirited family on European holiday, even flirts with boring at times. But the movie still has the benefit of some solid action setpieces, a soulful anchoring performance by Saiorse Ronan, fun (if sometimes over-the-top) character work by some real pros (Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander) and a catchy kinetic groove supplied by the Chemical Brothers. As with last April’s vaguely similar tale of father-daugher mayhem, Kick-Ass, Hanna makes for a smarter and more engaging thrill ride than we usually see this time of year.

Perhaps the main reason Hanna seems to lag out in its middle hour is that its opening moves so fast. We begin in a snowy wilderness, and a pale young girl (Ronan) is hunting an elk with a bow and arrow. As soon as she makes the kill, she is set upon by another stalker, who proceeds to pummel her for being unwary. That would be her father (Bana), who through a combination of warrior training, tough love, and choice encyclopedia-readings is instructing his daughter in the ways of the Super-Spy. Apparently, we soon discover, these two have been living hand-to-mouth and off the grid, somewhere near the Arctic Circle, since Hanna was an infant. But, now, her Jedi training is close to complete — girl, you’ll be a ninja soon — and it’s time for young Hanna to be released back into civilization, with a very specific target in mind.

That target: Marissa Wiegler (Blanchett, reprising her southern drawl from The Gift), a CIA hand with longstanding connections to the feral father and daughter duo. And so, pretending to be a guileless innocent, Hanna gets herself taken into CIA custody to meet her quarry. Alas, she misses her first shot at the ruthlessly efficient Wiegler, and soon all of the parties are engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase from Morocco to Berlin. But who’s the cat and who are the mice? The film helps clarify roles by having Wiegler enlist a creepy assassin (Hollander in a ridiculous tracksuit) to find her quarry, while Hanna falls in with a family caravan of innocents (headed by Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng.) Unfortunately, Dad never got around to explaining collateral damage…

It’s this middle section of Hanna — in which our heroine makes her first friend, has her first kiss, etc — where the impressive energy established in the early going begins to leak out of the picture, and the film never really gets it back. It is not helped in this regard by the clunky decision of the writers to have Hanna channel Data from Star Trek: TNG and/or Arnold Schwarzenegger in the second Terminator whenever she’s confronted with the vagaries of modern life. (For example, Hanna’s reaction to having a boy lean in for a kiss: “Kissing requires thirty-four muscles in the face” or somesuch.) Nor, given what we see of her skill set, does it even make much sense for Hanna to be running half the time regardless — The question of whether she is going to fight or flight her way out of any situation seems to be completely arbitrary and script-driven.

That being said, Hanna does have its share of bravura action moments. Even if it makes no sense for an underground secret CIA lair to have sequentially-flashing nightclub strobelights, I dug the heck out of an early, Chemical-Brothers-driven sequence when Hanna unleashes carnage and then makes a run for it. Later on, there’s a pretty great Batman Begins-ish reversal — the hunters becoming the hunted — in a nighttime chase scene through a container park. And, while I complained about a needlessly flashy and distracting stunt take at Dunkirk in his adaptation of Atonement, Joe Wright tries something similar here — when Bana runs into some trouble at the train station — to much better effect.

It helps that, its occasional Brothers Grimm pretensions notwithstanding, Hanna really has no subtext to live up to. If the title card (introduced with a bullet) didn’t give it away, this is a well-made genre exercise, no more, no less, and it’s really just about having fun. (It seemed like Blanchett and Hollander, the villains of this fairy tale, were especially having a blast.) Taken for what it is, and allowing for its sagging middle hour, this film mostly delivers. If you watched one movie about a young woman kicking ass and taking names while on a grand adventure this past month, I sure hope it was Hanna.

The Warriors Three (and a Team of X.)


Lots of action on the Marvel movie front this past week. The powers-that-be have granted us our first looks at Chris Evans as Captain America, and Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker, along with another shot of Chris Hemsworth as the Mighty Thor. Hmm…three-for-three, I’d say, although I still have a bad, straight-to-video-y feeling about the god of thunder.

Update: Just as I finished posting this, a promo image leaks from Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class. From left to right: “Michael Fassbinder as Magneto, Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert, January Jones as Emma Frost, Jason Flemyng as Azazel, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Lucas Till as Havoc, Zoe Kravitz as Angel Salvadore, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and James MacAvoy as Charles Xavier.” Looks…crowded.

Made of Stone.

After about a half hour or so of stilted, mind-numbing, make-you-want-to-claw-your-eyes-out exposition, Louis Leterrier’s interminable remake of Clash of the Titans, for some reason or another, takes a brief moment to badmouth Bubo, the metal owl from the 1981 version of the film. Well, say what you will about that goofy Harry Hamlin-Burgess Meredith-Lawrence Olivier flick and its Minervan comic-relief droid — At least it had heart.

This whiteboy-angsty retread of Titans, on the other hand, basically has no pulse whatsoever. It’s just a lumbering, CGI-ridden box office monstrosity not unlike its Cloverfield-ish Kraken, and one that could desperately use the same spark of life Zeus ostensibly once infused in mortal men. You remember that godawful tag line from the first trailer — “Titans will Clash“? Well, the FX processors notwithstanding, that’s about the level of effort put forth by this movie, as in none at all. Granted, Clash isn’t quite as awful as last month’s woeful Alice in Wonderland, but it’s definitely in the same lo-rent ballpark.

This iteration of Clash begins with a starfield and the demi-goddess Io (Gemma Arterton, late of Quantum of Solace, soon of Prince of Persia) in full expository mode, a la Virginia Madsen at the start of Dune. (Or, for that matter, Cate Blanchett in Fellowship — Leterrier explicitly bites from PJ’s Tolkien trilogy several times here — See also all the very LotR-like pans of Perseus & co. walking through Glorious Nature to wherever they’re going next.) So, anyways, this backstory is pretty standard — Zeus defeats the Titans, he, Poseidon and Hades divvy up the universe, etc. etc.

And eventually, along comes Perseus (Sam Worthington, more on him in a bit), a son of Zeus found lost at sea as a babe by a fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite, paying the mortgage). Unlike earlier iterations, this Perseus grows up a sullen, wrathful sort, and particularly after Hades (Ralph Fiennes, wasted) drowns his entire family as an afterthought to a fly-by shooting of sorts. Bent on revenge for these murders, Perseus soon enlists on a suicide mission to defeat Hade’s powerful pet, the fearsome Kraken — which, thanks to a bit of inopportune blasphemy by Cassiopeia, the queen of Argos (Polly Walker, wasted), will either be destroying the city or devouring its sensitive-soul, Peace Corps-ish princess, Andromeda (Alexa Davalos, unremarkable) in ten days time.

So this glum, grim, and altogether peeved demigod sets out with a team of soldiers — let’s just go ahead and call them the body count — to find a way to stop the Kraken, which may or may not include fending off giant scorpions, battling Calibos (Jason Flemyng), bartering with witches, and wrangling with Medusa (Natalia Vodianova). And, given the subject matter, it’s almost weird how boring all of this turns out to be. Partly because Perseus’ fighting style throughout is basically “run-in-the-other-direction-from-the-CGI-thingy.” Partly because the script…well, sucks. It’s just bad one-liners and lazy exposition all the live-long day. And partly because, aside from a pair of Asterix-and-Obelix-style hunters who tag along for the ride (Ashraf Barhom and Mouloud Achour), nobody’s having any fun whatsoever here. It’s all grimacing and cursing the Gods for this, that, or the other thing. Just deadly dull stuff.

Is this innate boringness Sam Worthington’s fault? Well…maybe. I said after the also-terrible Terminator: Salvation that Worthington “has presence, and I could see him being a A-lister if given the right material.” But after Avatar and this flick, I’m revising that statement. He’s had three bites at the apple now, and, while I suspect some female or gay readers may disagree — and making some allowances for the fact that, all three times, he probably spent a good bit of his days on set reacting to a green tennis ball — he’s really starting to come across as a charisma-free zone to me.

But, that being said, everybody here, with the possible exception of Casino Royale‘s Mads Mikkelsen, seems devoid of charisma here, even usual stalwarts like Liam Neeson and Fiennes (both phoning it in, as is brother Poseidon, Danny Huston — But, to be fair, Huston only has one line.) True, handsome/pretty stiffs like Worthington and Arterton so far seem to be shapely blanks no matter what film they’re in. But somehow or another, this movie has the power of Medusa over everyone involved: It just seems to suck the life right out of people. My advice, if it’s not too late: Don’t attempt to look this one in the eyes. By the Gods, save yourselves and turn away.

2009 in Film.

Merry Christmas, everyone. As we’re at the halfway point of the big decade list — Pt. 1, Pt. 2 — now seems like a good time to uncork the usual end-of-year movie list. Think of it as a new-stuff sorbet before we move to the final fifty.

I should say before we start that there are a few movies I’ll very likely see from 2009 — most notably The Lovely Bones, A Single Man, and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus — that aren’t included due to their limited release schedule — most don’t arrive around these parts until 2010. The better-than-expected Sherlock Holmes, which I saw yesterday and have not yet reviewed in full, is also not here, although I did think of slotting it in at #20 before the Victorian-era tazer and remote-controlled cyanide bomb showed up. And there are still a few other stragglers I wouldn’t mind catching at some point, most notably Invictus and The Messenger. But if any of these are really, really great, they’ll either get backdated in or show up in next year’s list, as per usual. So don’t worry — credit will get paid where due.

In the meantime, as has been the standard — and although the decade list has been working differently — we start at #1 and proceed from there. And without further ado, the…

Top 20 Films of 2009
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008]

1. In the Loop: “Tobes, I don’t want to have to read you the Riot Act, but I am going to have to read you some extracts from the Riot Act, like: Section 1, Paragraph 1: Don’t leave your boss twisting in the wind and then burst in late, smelling like a pissed seaside donkey.” Even if I hadn’t moved back to DC this year for a ringside seat to the clusterfrak, Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop would’ve been at the top of my list. I’m not normally a huge laugher at movies, but this flick had me rolling.

Basically, In the Loop is Office Space for people in politics, and it’s a smart, wickedly funny entertainment. And like Judge’s film and The Big Lebowski, I expect it will enjoy a long, happy, and very quotable renaissance on DVD. If you find The Daily Show or Colbert Report at all enjoyable, this is a must-see. And, even if you don’t, well the choice Scottish swearing should get you through.

2. Moon: While Michael Bay, McG and their ilk tried to top each other with gimongous explosions this summer, Duncan Jones’ moody, low-key Moon just aimed to blow our minds. A throwback to the seventies big-think sci-fi that has fallen out of favor in the post-Star Wars-era, Moon‘s big special effect, other than Sam Rockwell, of course, was its clever ideas. And in a year of hit-or-miss (mostly miss) blockbusters, Rockwell’s quiet two-man show turned out to be the sci-fi extravaganza of 2009.

3. A Serious Man: Oy vey. This existential disquisition into wandering dybbuks, sixties Judaica, quantum mechanics, and Old Testament justice was yet another triumph for those devilishly talented brothers from Minnesota. The Job-like travails of Larry Gopnik introduced us to several colorful, Coenesque personages (Sy Ableman, Rabbi Nachtner) and offered vignettes (the Goy’s Teeth) and quotable philosophy (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you“) that cinephiles will ponder for awhile to come. The Coens abide.

4. The Hurt Locker: Bombs away, and we’re not ok. Other than Modern Warfare 2 and Generation Kill, this immersive, nail-biting account of an IED team’s travails in the midst of the suck was the best pop culture simulator out there for feeling embedded in Iraq…and stuck at the wrong Baghdad street corner at just the wrong time. And with the tension ratcheting to uncomfortable levels in each of the ordnance disposal scenes, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Lockersorry, King of the World — was the action movie of the year.

5. Coraline: In an auspicious year for both regular (see #10) and stop-motion (see #13) animation, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was the pick of the litter. It sorta got lost in the early-year shuffle, but Selick & Gaiman’s dark, twisted fairy tale delivered the goods, and hopefully it’ll find more life on DVD.

6. District 9: For those who find Moon a little too talky and slow, I direct you to Neil Blomkamp’s little (ok, $30 million) South African indie that could. Alien Nation meets Cry Freedom with healthy dollops of Cronenberg body horror and old-school Peter Jackson viscera-splatter, District 9 came out as more than the sum of its parts, and (with #8) was one of the most purely enjoyable films of the summer.

7. (500) Days of Summer: “This is a story of boy meets girl. The boy, Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met The One. This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total mis-reading of the movie ‘The Graduate’.” Speaking of said music, here’s a movie the early Elvis Costello would love. Sure, (500) Days is unabashedly for folks who’ve been on the wrong end of a break-up. But, even if it is ultimately Annie Hall-lite in a lot of ways, it had more truths to tell than most of the rom-coms out in any given year…combined.

8. Drag Me to Hell: Shaking off the Spidey 3 doldrums, Sam Raimi went back to his gross-out Evil Dead roots for this carnival concoction. Besides being easily the most explicitly anti-gypsy film since Borat, Drag Me to Hell was also, in its own way, as much of a Great Recession cautionary tale as Up in the Air. One hopes that when the Senate takes up financial services reform next year, our erstwhile reformers in that esteemed body will note what happened to Alison Lohman when she, against all better judgment, decided to do the bidding of the Banks.

9. Star Trek: There was admittedly a whole lotta stupid in J.J. Abrams’ Star Warsy revamp of the Star Trek franchise — Once exposed to the light, the movie’s basic premises completely fall apart. But, like the stomachache that accompanies eating too much candy, those regrets come later. In the moment, Star Trek was more fun than you can shake a stick at, and as solid and entertaining a franchise reboot as 2006’s Casino Royale. Let’s hope The Revenge of Khan or whatever it’s called turns out better than Quantum of Solace.

10. Up: If the movie were just the first ten-fifteen minutes, this might’ve been in the top five. But even more than WALL-E, the good stuff in Up is front-loaded. And, after the story of a lifetime ended a quarter hour in, I wasn’t much in the mood for talking dogs and big, funny birds (even birds named Kevin) anymore. Still, Pixar is Pixar, and Up carried their usual mark of quality.

11. The Damned United: Frost/Nixon for the futbol set, Tom Hooper’s ballad of Clough and Revie was a low-key character study that made up for an awkwardly-frontloaded bromance with another great performance by Michael Sheen and plenty of “Life in a Northern Town” local color to spare. You can practically smell the mud off the cleats in this one.

12. Duplicity: Perhaps I’m giving too many props to well-made breezy entertainments this year (see also Nos. 8 & 9). Nonetheless, Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity was a sleek espionage caper and a decently sexy love story that was all the more amusing because the stakes were so small. As it turns out, Clive Owen had just taken on evil corporations with a global reach a few weeks earlier in The International (a movie I caught on DVD, and which was most memorable for its Gunfight in the Guggenheim) — He’s more fun when he’s on the payroll.

13. The Fantastic Mr. Fox: If you see one clever stop-motion adaptation of a sardonic children’s novel this year…well, see Coraline. Nonetheless, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was also one of the better entrants in the 2009 line-up. It was ultimately a little too Wes Anderson saccharine for my tastes, but, of course, your mileage may vary. And at least Fox didn’t wallow in the emo like, you know.

14. Inglourious Basterds: After a decade of languishing in the shallows, Quentin Tarantino found a bit of his old magic in this sprawling alternate history of WWII. Yes, it needed a good and ruthless editor, and some rather longish scenes don’t really work at all (I’m thinking mainly of Shoshanna’s lunch with Goebbels and Linda.) But at certain times — the basement cafe snafu, for example, or the memorable finale — Basterds is the best thing QT has done since Jackie Brown. Let’s hope he stays in form.

15. Public Enemies: Michael Mann’s high-def retelling of The Last Days of Dillinger was a strange one, alright. Like Basterds, it was long and languid and sometimes seemed to move without purpose. But, like Mann’s last grainy-digital foray into tales of manly men and the women they love, Miami Vice, Public Enemies has stuck with me ever since. Say what you will about the hi-def video aesthetic, it somehow seems to match Mann’s haunted, Hemingwayesque sense of poetry.

16. The Informant!: The tragedy of The Insider retold as farce, The Informant!, like many of Steven Soderbergh’s films, was experimental in a lot of ways. Some things worked (the ADM-buttery sheen); Others didn’t (the distractingly peppy Hamlisch score); Others still were hit-or-miss (the in-head bipolar voiceover). Nonetheless, The Informant! is mostly a success, and it’s good to see Soderbergh out there trying new things — I wish I’d gotten around to catching The Girlfriend Experience. (Ahem, the movie, that is. Sheesh, some people.)

17. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: I had definite doubts going in, but Werner Herzog’s Grand Theft Auto: New Orleans turned out to be a surprisingly fun gonzo trip. After years of hanging with the Kinski, good ole Werner sure knows his way around the crazy, and by pairing Nicholas Cage on a savage burn with hyperreal iguanas, voodoo breakdancers, and the like, he’s done Abel Ferrara’s Gloomy Gus version of this tale one better. There’s no Catholic angst for this Lieutenant — just reveling in sordidness…but then again, isn’t that the whole point of Carnival?

18. Watchmen: “At midnight, all the agents and the superhuman crews go and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” True, Zack Snyder’s attempt to recreate the Alan Moore graphic novel on film is flawed in a lot of ways. (The longer DVD version smooths out some of these issues while introducing others.) And I still wish the project had stayed in Paul Greengrass’ hands. But, give credit where it’s due — For all its many problems (most notably the fratboy-indulgences into “cool” violence), Snyder’s Watchmen got a lot of things right, from Dr. Manhattan sulking on Mars to Jackie Earle Haley’s turn as Rorschach. Snyder couldn’t match the degree of difficulty involved in the end, but Watchmen was still a worthy attempt.

19. The Road: In the Future, There Will Be Cannibals: John Hillcoat’s film version of Cormac McCarthy’s dabbling in the apocalyptic form definitely captured the resonances of the book. And this is a quality production through and through, with solid performances by Viggo, the kid, Charlize Theron, and all of the HBO All-Stars (with particularly big ups to Robert Duvall.) Unfortunately, I didn’t think much of the book either, and in its monochromatic grimness, The Road never seems as memorable as Hillcoat’s earlier film, The Proposition. All work and no play makes Hobo Viggo somethin’ somethin’.

20. The Men Who Stare at Goats: I’m sure a lot of lists would’ve found room for Avatar or Up in the Air in their top twenty, and both have their merits (even if Avatar‘s are almost completely technical.) But if Avatar was too flat and Air too glib, The Men Who Stare at Goats was a frothy excursion that delivered on basically the terms it promised at the onset. Ok, there’s not much there there, but sometimes a couple of likable actors having an extended goof will go farther than Big, Oscar-Worthy Messages and World-Beating Tech. Hmmm, if you think about it, the “sparkly eye” technique probably would’ve gone over better with the Na’vi than all those Aliens-loaned cargo-loaders anyway. Score one for the First Earth Battalion.

Most Disappointing: Where the Wild Things Are, Terminator: Salvation

Worth a Rental: An Education, Avatar, Cold Souls, Eden (2006), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The International, Paranormal Activity, Sherlock Holmes, A Single Man, Taken, Up in the Air, Zombieland

Don’t Bother: 2012, The Box, The Brothers Bloom, Extract, A Girl Cut in Two (2006), The Hangover, Invictus, Jennifer’s Body, State of Play, The Tiger’s Tail (2006), Whip It, World’s Greatest Dad

Best Actor: Sam Rockwell, Moon; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds; Robert Duvall, The Road
Best Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies; Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds

Unseen: 9, Nine, Adventureland, Angels & Demons, Amelia, Antichrist, Armored, Astro Boy, Black Dynamite, Blood: The Last Vampire, Bright Star, Brothers, Bruno, Capitalism: A Love Story, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Crank: High Voltage, Crossing Over, Everybody’s Fine, Funny People, Gentlemen Broncos, GI Joe, The Girlfriend Experience, Good Hair, The Education of Charlie Banks, The Great Buck Howard, Hunger, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The Invention of Lying, It’s Complicated, Julie & Julia, Land of the Lost, The Limits of Control, , The Lovely Bones, I Love You Man, Me and Orson Welles, The Messenger, New York I Love You, Notorious, Observe & Report, Orphan, Pandorum, Pirate Radio, Ponyo, Precious, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, The Proposal, Push, The Soloist, Surrogates, The Taking of Pelham1-2-3, Taking Woodstock, Thirst, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Two Lovers, The Ugly Truth, Whatever Works, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Year One

    A Good Year For:

  • The Apocalypse (2012, Zombieland, The Road)
  • Demons (A Serious Man, Drag Me to Hell, Jennifer’s Body, Paranormal Activity)
  • George Clooney (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air)
  • Going Undercover to Play Both Sides (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Duplicity, The Informant!)
  • Guy Pearce Cameos (The Road, The Hurt Locker)
  • Hipsters with Unresolved Childhood Issues (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Where the Wild Things Are)
  • “The Jews” (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man)
  • Matthew Goode (Watchmen, A Single Man)
  • Melanie Lynskey (Up in the Air, The Informant!)
  • Stop-Motion (Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox)

    A Bad Year For:

  • Goats (Drag Me to Hell, The Men Who Stare at Goats)
  • Robots from the Future (Transformers 2, Terminator: Salvation)
  • Pithy Movie Titles: (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
  • Summer blockbusters: (GI Joe, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers 2, Wolverine)

2010: Alice in Wonderland, All Good Things, The American, The A-Team, The Book of Eli, Brooklyn’s Finest, Clash of the Titans, A Couple of Dicks, Daybreakers, The Expendables, Greenberg, The Green Hornet, Green Zone, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1, I Love You Phillip Morris, Inception, Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Kick-Ass, Knight & Day, The Last Airbender, Legion, The Losers, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Morning Glory, Predators, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Red, Robin Hood, Salt, Season of the Witch, Shanghai, Shutter Island, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Toy Story 3, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, The Wolf Man, Youth in Revolt, more needless ’80s remakes than you can shake a stick at. (Footloose, The Karate Kid, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Red Dawn), and…

TRON 2. 2010, y’all. It’s the future, and no mistake.

The Kraken meets Dokken.

Hey, Perseus: Cloverfield called — they want their Kraken back. The Avatar trailer bounty continues with another 300-ish trailer for Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans remake, with Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Pete Postlethwaite, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Mads Mikkelsen, Jason Flemyng, and Alexa Davalos. Eh, ok. They’re still angling too hard for the meathead demographic imho, but at least they lost that embarrassing “Titans will Clash! tagline from the last go-round.

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.

Once (or Twice) in a Lifetime.

“A man only gets a couple of chances in life. It won’t be long before he’s sitting around wondering how he got to be second-rate.” Lots of choice stuff in today’s trailer bin: First up, President Josh Brolin braves pretzels, Poppa Bush, and enough JD to kill a small horse in this fun extended trailer for Oliver Stone’s W. (I can’t wait.) Elsewhere, Frank Miller borrows from Robert Rodriguez, who, of course, borrowed from him, to mine Will Eisner’s back-catalog in this short new teaser for The Spirit. (I’m still not sold.)

Also up recently, Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio forsake the Titanic to suffocate in the suburbs in the first trailer for Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road. (Ok, altho’ it looks Little Children-ish.) Tom Cruise leads an all-star team of character actors in a plot to kill Hitler in the second trailer for Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. And Brad Pitt moves from age to wisdom in the second trailer for David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Not as haunting as the teaser, but close.) I gotta say, it’s good to finally hit the Oscar stretch for 2008 — I haven’t seen nearly enough movies this year.

Update: One more, via LMG: Philip Seymour Hoffman puts on a play — and gets stuck waiting in the wings — in the trailer for Charlie Kaufman’s much-anticipated Synecdoche, New York, also starring Hope Davis, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Emily Watson, and Michelle Williams.

Update 2: Ok, what with Marky Mark, Ludacris, Bridges the Lesser, the lousy whiteboy angst-metal, and the highly Matrix-derivative gun-fu and explosions throughout, the recent trailer for John Moore’s Max Payne looks Skinemax bad. But, then again, it does have The Wire‘s Jamie Hector (Marlo) briefly playing Exposition Guy with an island accent, so that’s enough for a link. Hey, I’m easily amused.

I was so much older then.

“I was born under unusual circumstances.” The moody and mesmerizing teaser for David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, from the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and youtubed in Spanish a few weeks ago, is now officially online, and in hi-def.

Grow Young or Die Trying.

As seen in front of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (twice), Brad Pitt goes back in time in the trailer for David Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button, from the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and also featuring Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Julia Ormond. (Until it officially is released, this is the Spanish-language version.) Looks intriguing…and is it just me, or is it exceedingly strange to see Swinton and Blanchett in the same film?

Also in today’s trailer bin: Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino look for two full hours of that Heat magic in the second preview for Jon Avnet’s Righteous Kill, also starring Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, 50 Cent, Brian Dennehy, and Donnie Wahlberg. (I’m not sold yet, even if Inside Man‘s Russell Gewirtz is the scribe.) And, over in former Soviet Union, the new international, R-rated trailer for Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted pops up on the grid, with James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Common, Terrence Stamp, and Thomas Kretschmann. Definitely maybe…although Night Watch had a good preview too.

Update: I neglected to post this one the other day: Uptown girl Nicole Kidman and cowboy Hugh Jackman find love during World War II in the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s historical epic Australia. Not really my cup of tea, but you never know.

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