Best of 2009

The Hurt Locker

My guess is that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker will be henceforth taught in cinema courses as a masterly illustration of how one stages and pieces together an effective action sequence on film. There are several of them to choose from throughout this riveting Iraq War drama, each one demonstrating Bigelow’s shrewd command over the manipulation of space, time, and rhythm. Her battle scenes reap the maximum of suspense and terror in this story about a bomb disposal unit serving amidst the firestorm of the Iraq War in 2004.

One of Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s riskiest gambles is that they essentially have a protagonist — the unit’s leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) — who undergoes little to no change in the course of their story. In fact, James resists any change to his manner and attitude towards war. His men see him as a reckless thrill-seeker, a man obsessed with cheating death if there’s an adrenaline rush to be had. The two in James’s charge, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) spend a great deal of the film clashing with James, questioning his sanity, but, in the end, performing courageously — though resentfully — alongside him. James is really a ball of manic, destructive energy roiling beneath an assured facade. On the other hand, James has a conscience: Bigelow shows us as much when he has a nervous breakdown following the death of a young Iraqi boy whom he’d befriended. Just as quickly, though, James is back on the job, eager for another set of ticking bombs that must be defused, another firefight in which he could narrowly skirt death.

Renner plays James unflinchingly, only rarely giving us a glimpse of the damaged soul lurking beneath the soldier’s bastion of toughness and professionalism. At the risk of alienating his audience, Renner stays true to James’s cool exterior, delivering an unforgettable depiction of how war can warp and distort a man’s spirit. Matching him scene for scene is Anthony Mackie as Sanborn, James’s moral opposite. Baffled, even horrified, by his commanding officer’s matter-of-fact attitude to a high-risk assignment, and his readiness to expose himself and his men to danger, Mackie calls out James time and again; he, along with Geraghty’s Eldridge (another excellent performance), stand in as our moral counterbalance in a crumbling state where life has lost its value.

In an otherwise apolitical film, Bigelow provides a poignant sociopolitical critique with one single cut. Late in the film, we see a traveling shot of Iraqi children, seen through the window of a Humvee, running along the roadside. A cut retains the camera movement but now, instead of children, we’re looking through the glass doors of a supermarket freezer section, staring at an endless row of pizzas of all varieties. We’ve cut from Iraq to America, a place of deprivation to one of plenty. But, more than that, in cutting from children to meaningless products, Bigelow juxtaposes a gross disparity in values: In a single cut, we’ve shunted from a place whose future hangs in the balance, from faces of children who may not live to see it, to one with arguably no future at all, or whose values can be summarized by a vision of a supermarket freezer section.

The Hurt Locker is a top-notch suspense picture in the old-school mold, fashioned after the B-movie masterpieces of Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller. Boal’s script can feel episodic to a fault — it’s essentially a series of battle scenes with time-outs for conversation and for providing the grim details of the soldiers’ off-duty lives in the barracks. But what saves his and Bigelow’s film, ultimately, are the deeply etched characterizations, the sense of evolving relationships between soldiers and between Americans and Iraqis, that make each successive battle not just an action scene but a crucible in which these relationships are tested. Perhaps most startling of all the film’s accomplishments is how it approximates the soldiers’ feeling of utter anxiety as they fight a war on foreign soil: This isn’t Iraq so much as a completely different planet, hostile and hateful of their presence, in which everything and everyone is a potential enemy, and even the ground before you can explode and swallow you whole.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, Christian Camargo

Cloud Nine

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Inge, a 67-year-old woman plunges into an affair with a 76-year-old man, Werner, and faces the consequences it brings to her 30-year marriage. Add a dollop of senior citizen sex and nudity, and Cloud Nine sounds like a tasteless spin on the marital drama. But director Andreas Dresen — who made the wonderful ode to enduring friendship, Summer in Berlin — guided by a sensitive script (which he co-wrote), and aided by a first-rate cast, has created a sincere, thoughtful tale of the human heart.

Cloud Nine calls to mind such “forbidden romance” antecedents as the equally beautiful, unconventional Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (by Dresen’s German Cinema progenitor Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Whereas Fassbinder’s film explored an elderly woman’s love for a younger North African in terms of the affair’s racial and cultural ripple effects, Dresen’s film plumbs the subtleties of Inge’s (Ursula Werner) strained home life vis-a-vis her wronged husband, Karl (Horst Westphal) — a coolly detached, intellectual type — counterbalancing it with the sense of pure, unfettered joy she feels in Werner’s (Horst Rehberg) amorous company. Dresen’s decision to cast older actors does smack of gimmickry to the extent that it distracts us from the fact that this is an all-too-familiar account of infidelity and marital breakdown. But, as familiar as any story seems, it’s the details that count. And here’s where Cloud Nine shines.

Choosing to tell the story of characters experiencing new love in the twilight of their lives plays to Dressen’s point that, no matter the lovers’ age, the yearnings and betrayals felt by the heart are the same at 20 as at 80. Psychologically speaking, Dresen breaks no new ground: Inge, Werner, and Karl harbor predictable sentiments. Their scenes of emotional strife — from Karl’s humiliation and rage in learning of Inge’s affair to Inge’s helplessness in the face of passion and Werner’s shows of tenderness — comprise the overused tropes of the romantic triangle sub-genre. Cloud Nine’s rewards, rather, are in its textures: in the brave, brilliant Werner, Rehberg, and Westphal’s masterful interplay of glances, gestures and moods; in the sounds of percolating coffee denoting domestic routine, the frequent (perhaps too frequent) motifs of trains and sudden, heavy downpours suggesting lives in fits of passion and transition. It’s through the film’s textures that Dresen and his cast communicate the complex inner lives of his characters, and, to any viewer attuned to it, the story reveals worlds of grief and joy that the surfaces of ordinary lives can only suggest.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Andreas Dresen
Written by: Andreas Dresen, Jorg Hauschild, Laila Stieler, Conny Ziesche
Cast: Ursula Werner, Horst Rehberg, Horst Westphal, Steffi Kuhnert

Up

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It’s pretty much a given that each new Pixar film is going to blow minds away with its rapturous digital artistry, and Up is no exception. With its clever, gorgeously textured evocations of everything from early American newsreels to misty, sub-tropical vistas, Up is every bit as ambitious and amazing as Pixar’s animation milestones as it spins its fable about retired balloon-seller and curmudgeonly widower, Carl Frederickson (voiced with gravelly gusto by Ed Asner), who looks the spitting image of the latter-day Spencer Tracy (think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).

The death of his wife, Ellie, has left Carl a sorrowful and bitter septuagenarian, nursing regret that he was never able to make good on Ellie’s dreams about one day going to Paradise Falls, a mysterious, exotic place somewhere in South America. Refusing to give in to real estate developers coveting his home as well as to the retirement-home orderlies who show up to take him away one morning, Carl takes off — literally — with the aid of a gigantic bouquet of candy-colored balloons and jerry-rigged sails, his sights set on Paradise Falls, vowing finally to honor Ellie’s lifelong wish.

No sooner has Carl soared over treetops and cityscapes — another of Pixar’s trademark vibrant montages — that he discovers he’s got a stowaway, the sweet, comically dim Russell (Jordan Nagai), a rotund boy scout who’d shown up on Carl’s doorstep the previous day and never quite gone away. Eager to win his final merit badge — to be earned after he helps out a senior citizen — Russell offers his services to the surly, petulant Carl.

This sets off a consistently engaging adventure yarn as Carl and Russell arrive at Paradise Falls and encounter a dapper, eccentric coot named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plu bmmer), an explorer-adventurer cut somewhere between Erroll Flynn and Howard Hughes. Carl has idolized Muntz since his boyhood. Indeed, in the wonderfully pitch-perfect mock newsreel that opens the film, we’ve learned how Muntz was the discoverer of the legendary Paradise Falls, from where he’d brought home the skeleton of a fabulous bird. When the authenticity of the skeleton was called into question, the zealous and disgraced Muntz embarked for Paradise Falls again, vowing to bring a live specimen. Ever since, Muntz has been on the hunt for the rare bird, using his spectacular Hindenberg-like airship as his base of operations, and a team of dogs as his assistants.

In perhaps the most obvious concession to the kiddie-movie crowd, Muntz’s dogs are all outfitted with collars that vocalize all their thoughts in a variety of cartoonish voices. It’s here that Up threatens to teeter into the pedestrian pandering of lesser studios’ animated fare (i.e. Paramount’s Ice Age franchise or Dreamworks’ Shrek). That the talking dogs are often so endearingly funny, and the jokes cute and clever without ever feeling derivative or infantile is a testament to Pixar’s high standards relative to its industry peers.

Of course, Carl and Russell promptly encounter the very bird — a dopey hybrid of a dodo and an ostrich — that Muntz has been seeking for decades. As reluctant as Carl is to befriend the creature, he resolves to help Russell save the bird once they catch wind of Muntz’s sinister motives towards it. Hence, Up locks itself inevitably into the groove of a by-the-numbers chase-and-rescue picture, embellished — thankfully! — by the vertiginous imagination and clever plotmaking of Pixar’s storytellers.

As entertaining as Up’s second-half is, it’s a far cry from the cinematic and emotional tour de force that opens this film: A lovely and telling montage of Carl and Ellie’s lifelong romance and married life, alternately tragic and joyous. These vignettes richly and efficiently portray lives of dreaming, togetherness, loss, and disappointment that would make cinema forebears like Griffith and Chaplin proud. Indeed, the first 20 minutes of Up rank as the best thing to roll out of the Pixar factory, perhaps ever.

Up deflates a bit of its early potential once it recognizes itself as a mass market film and, hence, falls into the familiar devices of an action-oriented, beat-by-beat plotline to keep the multiplex audience interested. Paradise Falls, for instance, loses the early sense of awe and wonder that cloaked it to become simply a backdrop to the plot-driven antics that power the bulk of the movie. Luckily, when it’s all said and done, Up lingers in the mind with its tale of an old man’s redemption, his honoring of the love of his life, and the rejuvenation of his own spirit, proving that, where it counts, Pixar’s magic still has sparks to spare.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Written by: Bob Peterson
Cast: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, John Ratzenberger, David Kaye, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary

Herb & Dorothy

First-time filmmaker Megumi Sasaki’s documentary Herb & Dorothy is as simple and straightforward as the subjects of its title: a sweet, soft-spoken New York City couple that, over a 30-year period beginning in the early ’60s, amassed more than 4,000 works of minimalist and conceptual art whose value is estimated in the millions of dollars. Herb and Dorothy Vogel, now both retired, financed their collection using Herb’s salary as a postal clerk, while Dorothy’s income as a librarian covered their living expenses. Over the decades, their collection grew to fill every square inch of their one-bedroom, hobbit hole-like apartment.
Read it here…

Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight

Milton Glaser is so intelligent and articulate an artist and thinker that any documentary about him would have to be grossly inept for it to be anything less than likeable. Thankfully, we’re in smooth, sure territory in Milton Glaser: To Inform & Delight, Wendy Keys’s warm, affectionate portrait of the iconic New York City commercial artist. As a seasoned director of several tribute films for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Keys is skilled at biographical profiles of her subjects, and that facility serves her beautifully in crafting an in-depth look at Glaser’s art and career, as well as his work’s social and philosophical underpinnings.
Read it here…

Adventureland

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“It’s funny because it’s true” has always been a handy and accurate adage in describing perceptive observational comedy. The humor doesn’t have to try hard to land its punchlines because it’s all grounded in easily identifiable but no less painful truths about day to day life. It’s this infinitely rich, varied, and, yes, truthful terrain that writer-director Greg Mottola sets up shop to tell his semi-autobiographical tale, Adventureland, about college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) slumming it as a games concessionaire at a chintzy Pittsburgh amusement park. The year: 1987, a time that Mottola handily evokes with a power pop soundtrack fueled by such era staples as The Cure, Crowded House, INXS and, of course, Falco, whose “Rock Me Amadeus” becomes the target of a recurring, affectionate gag.

It’s the summer between college and the rest of his life and, too broke to join his friends on a summer-long European jaunt, James is stuck at the titular park — a kind of metaphorical limbo as James struggles to sort out his future. He’s a brainy, idealistic and romantic kid, but full of artistic and intellectual ambition. He’s still a virgin by default because the opportunity to close the deal with the girls he’s dated never presented themselves — okay, this kid may be too neurotic for his own good.

But at Adventureland, James falls like he never has for Em (Kristen Stewart), a co-worker — a saturnine beauty, adrift romantically and nursing bitterness towards her father for his past callousness towards her late mother, and towards his tawdry new replacement wife. Both unsure and afraid of what the future holds, yet eagerly faithful to its possibilities, James and Em strike up a solid friendship that soon wavers into a tentative romance. It’s complicated, though — it always is, right? — because Em is carrying on a sad, hopeless affair with the park’s married handyman and would-be musician, Mike (Ryan Reynolds) — the kind of cad whose good looks spare him from complete loserdom. Torn with jealousy, James tries straying with the resident lust object, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), but, while Mike is clearly contemptible (he claims to have once jammed with Lou Reed, James’ idol, but is oblivious to the song “Satellite of Love”), he’s too pitiable for both James’ and us to level much scorn on him.

James’ journey is one of finding self-assurance through inner wisdom, not shows of bravado — a hard-won skill that the nerds among us perfect as we grow up. James develops a warm, charming rapport with his fellow young exile, Joel (Martin Starr), and it’s here, in the camaraderie among Adventureland’s underpaid, ennui-ridden employees — conversing through the haze of pot smoke, the blur of booze, and with a pop song on the radio or blaring through the park’s loudspeakers — that the movie mines its romantic and existential riches. Mottola’s cast is uniformly winning, especially Eisenberg, who’s maturing into an excellent and nuanced actor, and Stewart who gives Em equal parts sass and vulnerability. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig provide the otherwise aching, wistful material a welcome off-kilter goofiness, and help counter less successful casting choices, like Reynolds, who’s got the swagger and the looks of the narcissistic Mike but none of the foxiness by which such characters prey and seduce.

What keeps Adventureland in the merely “very good,” rather than “excellent,” range is a combination of its unimaginative look and a second act that feel repetitious and earns its rewards with falsely amped up confrontations. On the latter score, James and Em’s on-again-off-again quasi-romance goes through the motions of jealousy and heartbreak once too often. Meanwhile, Mottola jumps the gun in portraying Em’s face-off with her parents — a long-awaited moment that still feels abrupt and melodramatic, full of fire, yet premature because their dynamics are underdeveloped.

While Adventureland may be among the year’s most pleasing comedies, it’s also among its ugliest looking films. It’s the same drawback that I found in the Mottola-directed Superbad — a sharp teen comedy with a saggy script and God-awful visual palette. The palette in both films is bleak, steeped in despondent browns, yellows, with washed-out reds and blues, with no attempts at visual experimentation that youth films — with their emotional and physical energy — demand (see Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together as an exemplar).

I understand that adolescence is messy, grimy, frequently joyless and ugly, and perhaps Mottola tries for an aesthetic approximation in his cinema. But, in the end, a flatly composed, uninteresting look is just that, and there is no aesthetic defense to justify it. I hope that Motolla develops more creative, inventive uses for lighting and camera is his future portrayals of youthful angst. On balance, though, Adventureland is one of the most honest, tender and heartfelt coming-of-age comedies to come along since Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), which also starred Eisenberg. The movie’s rewards outpace its flaws by a mile and give us another reason to follow the career of a gifted young lead actor.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Greg Mottola
Written by: Greg Mottola
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Bill Hader, Matt Bush, Martin Starr, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Reynolds, Paige Howard, Margarita Levieva