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.
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Wild Card Tuesday – Reality Bites


Reality Bites (1994, dir. Ben Stiller)

Starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garafalo, Steve Zhan, Swoosie Kurtz, John Mahoney
Have you ever gone back and read some piece of poetry or short story you wrote as an adolescent or early 20-something and cringed at how naive and oblivious its sentiments and ideas were? A similar feeling is felt when watching Ben Stiller’s directorial debut 16 years past its time. Intended to be a thesis statement of post-grad Generation X, Reality Bites feels like the standard love triangle movie with a 90s-grunge facade.
Our protagonist is Lelaina, a wannabe documentarian and resident of Austin, TX who wants to produce work of substance about real life issues. She employed by an inane morning show who cannot stand her and lives a typical pseudo-slacker existence with her roommate (Garafalo) and their two guy friends (Hawke and Zahn). Into Lelaina’s life steps Michael (Stiller), an upper class yuppie and executive for a music television channel “like MTV but edgier”. Hawke’s Troy becomes jealous of Michael’s presence and thus the love triangle centered around poor Lelaina.
The deck is unfairly stacked in Troy’s favor from the get go as the film plays into every romantic stereotype in the book. Troy is the philosophy reading, lead singer in a grunge band, pretentious artsy guy who has typical abandonment issues (dad left when he was young and Troy had been rebellious ever since as a result). Michael is a materialistic geek who “just doesn’t get” the “real” disaffected Gen X youth. I found myself rolling my eyes an unusual number of times because of how broad these characters are played. Not for a second did I believe Lelaina would end up with anyone BUT Troy. The film telegraphs this from the characters’ first scene together.
At the time, this film may have felt surprisingly fresh but now it feels like an attempt to cram everything that defined the 90s slacker type into an hour and half. That doesn’t leave much room for honest character development. The two poignant moments in the film (Garafalo’s AIDs scare and Zahn coming out to his mother) last all of a few seconds and then its back to the completely uninteresting trails and tribulations of Lelaina. The characters seem to be oblivious to how terrible they are at their lives: for a documentary filmmaker Lelaina doesn’t know how to hold a camera that isn’t askew and Troy is complete and utter asshat. At the end, the love story here feels like it has as much depth as the Twilight films.

Wild Card Tuesday – Gentlemen Broncos


Gentlemen Broncos (2009, dir. Jard Hess)
Starring Michael Angarano, Jemaine Clement, Sam Rockwell, Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, Halley Feiffer, Hector Jimenez

In 2006, after he had been hired to develop the score for Nacho Libre, singer-songwriter Beck said of director Jared Hess, “No filmmaker since Fellini has had such an eye for amazing characters”. That’s a pretty strong statement to make about a filmmaker who had only released one feature film at the time. And while Nacho Libre left me wanting for the disjointed narrative of Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos has shown me exactly what Beck was seeing.
It may come as no surprise at how much I loved Broncos as it definitely hit me where I live. The film’s protagonist, Benjamin Purvis (Angarano) is a homeschooled, amateur science fiction writer who has developed a novel based on his late father. He attends a young writers conference with a group of fellow homeschooled students from his co-op and meets his idol, Ronald Chevalier (Clement) who proceeds to steal Benjamin’s story and change key details to hide the theft. Simultaneously, Benjamin sells the film rights of his novel to an incredibly amateur filmmaking duo, one of whom has romantic intentions on Ben.
The level of the theatrical grotesque in this film is so incredibly over the top. As bizarre as this world is, it feels so familiar and fleshed out. There are so many rich details and background pieces of minutiae that part of me didn’t want to leave this universe. Added to all of this are dramatized excerpts from both Benjamin and Chevalier’s versions of Yeast Lords (the name of the stolen novel). In both versions Sam Rockwell plays the protagonist and proves once again why he is one of the most talented actors working today. In Benjamin’s version he plays the hero as a gruff, Southern accented redneck and in Chevalier’s is a lisping, albino.
Aside from Rockwell, there were many great performances, in particular Hector Jimenz (also in Nacho Libre). I have no idea what sort of acting choices Jimenez made for his role as Lonnie Donaho, the auteur responsible for making over 80 films (most of them trailers he tells us) but they result in one of the strangest characters I have ever seen on the big screen. The moment I knew Lonnie would be one of my favorite characters to pop up in the film comes early on. He and Tabitha (Fieffer), Benjamin’s love interest, take a seat next to Ben on the bus heading to the writers conference. Tabitha asks Ben to give her a hand massage, and as he does Lonnie proceeds to blow in Tabitha’s ear with a sound resembling a clogged vacuum cleaner.
Jared Hess, and his wife and writing partner Jerusha, have renewed my hope in their work. They come across as a combination of the clean, crisp filmmaking of Wes Anderson and the love of the mundanely bizarre of Tim & Eric. I think Nacho Libre’s flaws came from having a third party intervene and make rewrites to make the film more “palatable” for mainstream audiences. Hess isn’t built to make mainstream cinema and the more freedom he is allowed to pursue his skewed vision of middle America the better.

DocuMondays – Beautiful Losers


Beautiful Losers (2008, dir. Aaron Rose, Joshua Leonard)

Starring Shepherd Fairey, Harmony Korine, Mike Mills, Jo Jackson, Chris Johansen, Geoff McFetridge, Margaret Kilgallen, Thomas Campbell, Barry McGee, Ed Templeton
Artists have always precariously walked the line between commerce and staying true their vision, and culturally we consider those who are able to commoditize their work to have succeeded. The reverse of this is that elements of strictly commercial art have been adopted by artists who have no interest in marketing iconography. My personal understanding of art is probably summed up as “I like what I like”. And the art and artists featured in this film I like.
The documentary chronicles the work of artists who came up in director Aaron Rose’s Alleged Art Gallery in Manhattan during the 1990s. The vast majority of the personalities profiled here came out of the skateboard or punk scenes and ,when you look at the methodology of their art, it makes sense. Pop art has been the strongest influence in the work of these now fortysomethings, in particular retro advertisement art. Painter Jo Jackson states that she loves old advertisements for products that are now obsolete because the seductive properties of the capitalism behind it has died.
The frustration of many artists in this documentary is with how quickly their work was gobbled up by a system that looks to make everything a commodity. There were stickers and buttons being sold at Hot Topic adorned with their work and they admit it felt like having a piece of oneself taken. On the other side, graphic artist Geoff McFetridge was responsible for a Pepsi One advertising campaign and admits he was happy to do it, but also fearful of how the artistic community around him would react. Their reaction was very positive and Geoff hinges this on the fact that he never compromised what made his work his.
The male artists featured, particularly those from the skateboarding community, are constantly wavering the line between their adolescence and adulthood. A major turning point for a lot of them came during an extended stay and series of shows in Tokyo that ended when Margaret Kilgallen, painter and wife of Barry McGee, learned she was pregnant and almost simultaneously that she had cancer. Kilgallen gave birth to her daughter and about two weeks later succumbed to the cancer. The film focuses on this as the moment where a lot of the artists’ personal visions became clear and the air of “punk” lessened a bit. This became a Do It Yourself mentality that is a hallmark of contemporary youth culture today.

Shadows in the Cave Digest #02 – February 2010


Features

Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices: 1970-74, 1975-1979, 1980s/1990-92, 1993-2006
The Alien Quadrilogy: The Evolution of Ellen Ripley Part One, Part Two
Director in Focus: John SaylesMatewan, Men With Guns

Reviews
Hypothetical Film Festivals
Coming next month: Cinematic Television, The Burton/Depp Collaborations, and much more
Programming note: I’ll be assigning themes to days of the week starting in March for what sort of film I will watch. It will be as follows:
DocuMondays (documentaries)
Wild Card Tuesdays (whatever suits my tastes)
Newbie Wednesday (new films in theaters or on DVD)
Jolly Good Thursdays (British cinema)
Friday Imports (foreign language cinema)
Seventies Saturdays (1970s American cinema)
Maybe Sundays (I reserve the right to either take a day off from the blog or watch a random flick and post)

Director in Focus: John Sayles – Men With Guns


Men With Guns (1997)

Starring Federico Luppi
Throughout history it is apparent that the people who get to make the rules are the ones with the bigger weapons. The entire continents of Africa, South and North America were conquered simply because Western civilization developed guns and gunpowder before the aboriginal peoples of the New World. And even now, with an annual budget of $708 billion for defense, the United States rules because it has the “guns”. Its this situation and state of humanity that director John Sayles starts out from in this film. Instead of sticking to the grittiness of reality, Sayles opts for a more magic realist mode which is appropriate for the picture’s setting in an unnamed Central American country.
Doctor Humberto Fuentes is an aging man, physician to members of his country’s military echelons and father to adult children who seem to grate on his last nerve. Dr. Fuentes holds a group of med students he mentored up as his true children, proud that they helped him form a program to administer medicine to the native people living in the jungles and hills of his country. This dream is shattered when he witnesses one doctor in the city, working as a fence for illegal goods. He questions the man who tells him to visit another student doctor in a rural village to understand why it has come to this. Dr. Fuentes embarks on journey that takes him from remote outpost to remote outpost and introduces him to a cast of characters who represent ideas and icons much larger than themselves.
The film is a spiritual successor to many great myths, the Wizard of Oz, and the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The people that make up Fuentes traveling band by the end of the film are all slightly larger than life. As the term “magic realism” implies they exhibit that larger nature yet are still individual characters with very distinctive personalities. One of the most interesting characters is Padre Portillo, a priest who has a death warrant from the military on his head for the suspicion of collaborating with rebel guerrillas. Portillo refers to himself a “a ghost”, believing that the moment he had to abandon the village where he was stationed, and in effect abandon the Church, he was no longer alive or dead.
Much like Lone Star and Matewan, Men With Guns allows John Sayles to examine the concept of hierarchies. In all these films, the authority only retains their power through harsh, absurd violence. The victims of this violence often have no understanding of the method behind, and they frankly don’t care. All they know is that a gun barrel is pointed at them and they simply don’t want to die. Sayles is asking us if we follow the strictures of society because we truly believe in them or because we fear the guns. Dr. Fuentes is representative of the upper class, he practices philanthropy and simply assumes his good works filter down to the people at the bottom of the social ladder. Instead, his journey reveals to him that the very power structure he has had unblinking faith in burns villages down to “protect” the very people who live in them.
Next: Casa de los babys

Robert Altman: Chorus of Voices Part Four

1993 – 2006


Short Cuts (1993)
Starring Andie McDowell, Bruce Davidson, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr, Madeline Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Lyle Lovett, Huey Lewis, Buck Henry

Combining one of my favorite directors (Altman) and one of my favorite writers (Raymond Carver) has got to result in a film I love, right? Right! Short Cuts is the sort of fragmented, mish mash and series of sour notes I love Altman for. Influenced by the jazz music of his hometown Kansas City, the director takes a cleaver to Carver’s best short stories and tells them in interwoven pieces. Moments are found where a minor character in one story can be the major character in another. Altman is at home with Carver’s ambiguity and sudden endings as well. There is a little resolution here and it reminds me of some of Altman’s best naturalist films in the 1970s. Life simply just is in the end, without rhyme or reason. Our paths cross with others, some times that causes an event to occur and some times it doesn’t matter one bit that we met them. Certain moments could be played for cheap sentimentality, but the snark of Altman refuses to let that happen.


Gosford Park (2001)

Starring Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Bob Balaban, Ryan Phillippe, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Richard E. Grant
Robert Altman never met a genre he couldn’t twist into knots. Here he takes on the British murder mystery and turns it into an upstairs/downstairs look at social class, which becomes less and less about the murder and more about the divides between us. Even the two detectives who respond the country manor when a body shows up are mirroring the social gap. Thompson (Fry) is quite at home with the gentlemen of the house, while Dexter is down to the task at hand of finding clues and uncovering the murderer. One of the most impressive facts about Gosford Park is that Altman was 76 when it was filmed, and not showing the sense that his was flagging in his commitment to his craft at all.


A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Starring Woody Harrelson, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin
This was to be the final entry into Altman’s career. Garrison Keillor and the director collaborated in developing a film based on Keillor’s popular NPR variety show. The film features the real life performers on the weekly radio series alongside actors portraying fictional members of the troupe. On the night of the performance when the film takes place, a woman arrives claiming to be the Angel of Death. Her presence is muted for most of the film but Altman makes sure we know she is there until she plays her role at the end of the picture. This is assuredly not his best picture, but it is still a decent film from a master filmmaker. During filming, Altman would request help from P.T. Anderson as the elder man was suffering from some health problems. It is more than a little appropriate that Anderson would take part; his films Boogie Nights and Magnolia are the spiritual children of Altman’s huge ensemble pictures.
He never made a film he didn’t want to make. There were times when studios propositioned him with a concept or a script, but if he agreed it was going to be on his terms and no one else’s. Just like fellow auteur Stanley Kubrick, Altman never received an Academy Award for directing. Though he did receive a lifetime achievement award months before he passed away. He was intensely close to his family, especially his children. His son Mike was involved in writing music for MASH at the age of 14 and worked alongside his dad for decades. There is a little chance we will see another director as singularly bullheaded as Robert Altman AND able to get his pictures made on the studio’s money. And we will be the poorer for it.
Four Altman Films You Have To See!
1) 3 Women
2) The Long Goodbye
3) Secret Honor
4) Short Cuts