Newbie Wednesday – The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker (2009, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly
“War is a drug”. That is the part of the opening quote on screen that is highlighted as the rest of the words fade away. While protagonist Sgt. William James takes pleasure in his work of diffusing bombs left behind by the Iraqi insurgents, I don’t know if I would ever equivocate this with a drug. Kathryn Bigelow, ex-wife of James Cameron and an incredibly successful action movie director and producer in her own right, brings us this unusually quiet film about living and surviving in a war zone.
The film follows Sgt. William James, a specialist in bomb diffusion during his 40 day tour with a pair of soldiers assigned to the Explosive Ordinance Diffusal (EOD). There is no villain or A to B plotline, rather a series of episodes centered around different types of incendiaries. While James exudes a smug bravado about the work he does, however Sgts. Sanborn and Eldridge think James isn’t taking the weight of his job seriously. Back home, James has an ex-wife and infant son and his relationship with both exists in a vague “other” state. An incident occurs during a routine mission to recover some stolen mortars that send James into a nervous breakdown. The rest of the film plays this breakdown out in an unexpected way and leaves us with a lot more questions about the nature of war.
I found this film to be addressing a lot of issues related to our understanding of mortality. The men who suit up and walk right up to the bombs to lay C-4 seem so comfortable with death that it creates unease in the men working under them. One character feels so threatened by James that at one point he talks to another officer about how easy it would be to set off an explosive in the sergeant’s face. Despite James being a “wild man”, as one colonel says, there are scenes that illuminate a nurturer. As Sanborn lies prone with a scoped rifle, seeking out the insurgents firing on them, James grabs a Capri Sun and holds it so Sanborn can drink. While he does this he talks encouragingly to Sanborn about his belief in his ability to take the enemy out, like a father cheering junior on at a Little League game. James also develops a relationship with a young boy selling bootleg DVDs on base. It’s his relationship with this child that creates an interesting counterpoint to his seeming coldness towards his own infant son back home.
The Hurt Locker is a Tense movie with a capital “T”. Very few films have me cringing in expectation of some thing bad happening on screen. In so many films and television series we see people working to diffuse bombs and we never feel the urgency. Bigelow manages to squeeze that from us through masterful editing. The Iraqi citizens who watch the procedures from balconies are viewed with suspicion, not knowing if one of them is holding a cell phone used to trigger the bomb being diffused. On the flip side, the film makes sure to state that this is not Blackhawk Down, every person you see is not a secret terrorist. Most people are simply average joes, working to make enough to keep on living and surviving. In the same way, this is why James devotes himself to this line work. He knows nothing else. He knows he should love his wife and son, but he just can’t. All he knows is how to deconstruct these vessels of death and in doing so he defeats his mortality till the next time.

Film 2010 #16 – Goodbye Solo


Goodbye Solo (2008, dir. Ramin Bahrani)

It begins in the middle of a conversation between two men, Solo and William. William wants a ride to national park in Eastern North Carolina two weeks from now and is offering Solo, the cab driver, a $200 down payment to ensure this. At first, Solo can’t quite understand why William wants a one way ride to the middle of nowhere, but soon he begins to figure out William’s motives and decides to do whatever he can to stop him.
I first became of aware of Ramin Bahrani with his 2007 film Chop Shop. Bahrani has found his niche in taking unfamiliar faces and non-actors and placing them in very human and very compelling stories. Goodbye Solo is no exception, and it owes the majority of its grounding in honest humanity to the acting of Souleymane Sy Savane who plays Solo. Solo is so incredibly genuine in his caring for William, that you cannot help but be pulled into this deceptively simple story.
Director Bahrani presents a very complex view of suicide in this film. We are never given explicit reasons as to why William wants to end his life, but there are hints dropped and Solo does some investigating of his own and learns some things about the elderly man’s past. The two characters are excellent foils for each other: both very connected to their role as fathers and both determined in their own ways. Solo is just as bullheaded as William, except Solo has the charisma and smile to get people on his side.
The film’s resolution will probably frustrate people more accustomed with mainstream cinema. There is a lot of ambiguity and Solo reveals the complexity he hides to most people. Bahrani is one of the most powerful new voices in American cinema. His landscape encompasses both the urban and rural masterfully and the faces in his films are a true representation of the diversity present in our nation. Bahrani also chooses to focus on the working class in all his films and really taps into the zeitgeist of daily life and the state of the economy today. His films are in no one overtly political and seem only to yearn to find commonalities between diverse groups in America today. Goodbye Solo is a film that, if you allow it, will stay with you for a long time to come.

Film 2010 #9 – Cold Souls


Cold Souls (2009, dir. Sophie Barthes)
Starring Paul Giamatti, Emily Watson, Dian Korzun, David Strathrain

The premise is an intriguing one: Paul Giamatti playing an actor named Paul Giamatti, is having trouble tackling his role in an upcoming production of Uncle Vanya. His agent informs him of a new soul extraction service and hints that this might help him overcome his difficulties. Giamatti hems and haws over it and finally agrees and finds he’s lost his ability to act completely. Sounds like it could be good, right? Sadly, the film fails to explore its concepts fully and provides a picture that is moderately engaging.

Giamatti’s story is paralleled by that of Nina, a Russian woman who traffics souls back and forth to be used on the black market. Because the only safe way to transport a soul is to have a person carry it inside them. A side effect is that fragments of carried souls accumulate in a person and they begin to lose touch with the world. This story takes up more of the narrative and is eventually tied into Giamatti’s plot strand. It feels that the cleverness and originality of the plot concepts it lost on director Barthes.

The film owes a lot to the work of Charlie Kaufman, most notably Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Unlike those movies, there is an undeveloped nature to this script. The Giamatti angle doesn’t feel fully explored the true plot is Nina’s. In addition, Barthes creates a much darker landscape than Kaufman has ever attempted. His world’s lean more to the fanciful, while Cold Souls has merely dipped its toes. There seems to be a lot of influence from Russian literature and absurd and satiric theater, specifically that of Eugeneg Ionesco. There is not much humor in this picture, and for myself that is where I felt myself distancing from it.

I truly wanted to love this movie after seeing the trailer and seeing the interesting angle Giamatti was going to take. However, I finished it with a sense of dissatisfaction, wishing I could have seen the movie I had prepared myself for in my head. I wouldn’t encourage someone to not see this film, because there are some wonderful concepts and ideas, I just wouldn’t be able to recommend it enthusiastically.

Film 2009 #180 – Ballast

Ballast (2008)
Directed by Lance Hammer
Starring Micheal Smith, Jr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs

It begins with the discovery of a man who killed himself with pills. His body is found in his home during the winter in a Mississippi Delta township and has a life-changing effect on the last three members of his family.

In the hands of a Hollywood studio this film would have felt the need to be over-emotive in its themes. Instead, first time feature director, Lance Hammer shows considerable restraint. Reactions are subdued and brooding, a truer reflection of how people deal with tragedy in their families. The landscape of rural Mississippi during the bitter winter adds to the tone of grief felt by the three main characters of the film. It’s interesting to note that the landscape is so wide open yet the characters all seem to be constrained and locked up in how they interact.

The plot follows Darius (Smith, Jr), Marlee (Riggs), and James (Ross). Darius is the deceased brother who attempts suicide on himself after discovering his brother. After recovering from the attempt, he delivers his brother’s will to the ex-wife and estranged son. Their various problems in life come to the surface and through their tense relationships with one another they come to an understanding.

The film presents an angle of the African-American experience rarely seen on film. Typically, we see only urban black youth in our theaters and Ballast focuses on the rural experience of the culture. The economic struggle appears more desolate and hopeless mainly because of the void-like expanse of nothingness surrounding them. Hammer chose to use local non-professional actors in the film and the choice results in amazing performances. The sadness and anger is so natural and real and truly displays the after effects of a suicide on the people left behind. The most revelatory aspect of the film is its abruptness. Throughout the film, jump cuts are used but most importantly the beginning and conclusion of the film are sudden. There’s a lot about the past we can assume from passing pieces of dialogue. As for the future, there are lot of plot points left unanswered but it fits with the cinéma vérité like tone of the picture. At the end, Ballast exists as a slice of life depiction of people dealing with tragedy across all fronts of their lives.