Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Here's a fact that the dreamweavers of Hollywood don't want you to know: you can't outrun an explosion. Most solid high explosives have a velocity of detonation in excess of 4000 meters per second. Meanwhile, Usain Bolt's world record in the 100 meter dash is 9.72 seconds. If you're unfortunate enough to find yourself within the blast radius of a bomb when it detonates, you'll most likely end up being buried in a number of garbage bags. The myth of the escapable explosion is one of many action and war movie cliches Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is bent on demolishing. The most provocative of the film's subversions is the suggestion that war veterans can be traumatized not only by the horrors of combat, but also by war's addictive rush.

The script, by Mark Boal, who embedded with a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, offers a detailed glimpse into the daily routine of bomb defusers, led by adrenaline junkie Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). Bigelow generally hues to a hyper-realism reminiscent of Paul Greengrass in documenting the alternately nerve-rending and mundane task of neutralizing IEDs and facing off against insurgent snipers. The approach serves to heighten the tension of the moment, and also to keep the characters at a certain remove. As Sergeant James takes greater and greater unnecessary risks in his pursuit of danger, the viewer struggles to figure out what makes him tick. His inscrutability is aided by Renner's mask of offhand machismo and the character's inability or unwillingness to articulate his feelings. When James defuses a bomb or flags down a speeding taxi with only a handgun, there's nary of glimpse of exhilaration or the mild satisfaction on his face. As his exploits become more extreme, his cool stoicism makes more sense. He approaches his job with the same grim, determination as a junkie fixing himself a shot of heroin; the joylessness of someone who has no choice.

At key moments in the film, Bigelow switches from realism to the grammar of action movies: close-ups and dramatic slow motion. The action gimmicks echo the way Sgt. James comes to view his relationship to the war; as a man living inside an action movie. Even after being repeatedly confronted with the sobering consequences of his compulsion to look death in the eye, he is unable to stop courting destruction. He can's stop because, in contrast to his increasingly terrified subordinates played by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, he doesn't really think he can die. He's the hero of his own personal action flick, and the most sacrosanct myth of the action canon is that the hero never dies.

The Hurt Locker is the first Iraq war movie to concentrate on the day-to-day reality of fighting the war, and it's also the least ideological. Yet Bigelow's painstaking attention to detail and pungent sense of atmosphere make certain facts about the war jump into harsh relief. One of these is the futile nature of occupation duty. When any civilian is a potential enemy, its impossible to view them as anything other than that. Another is that the sheer totalizing force of life in a war zone has the power to render civilian life absurd, and perhaps, drive a man to seek out war's eternal present tense.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Sasha Baron Cohen's 2006 provocation Borat was an uproariously funny bit of meanspirited prankery. It was not, contrary to a number of critical raves, a potent satire of American xenophobia. Mostly, it was middle-Americans politely nodding along to the heavily accented ravings of a mustachoied foreign weirdo. With Bruno, Cohen finds the mark and delivers a lacerating expose of American fame-hunger and, most pointedly, homophobia. While Borat consisted largely of Cohen saying outrageously bigoted things and people bascially ignoring him, Bruno features Cohen acting extremely gay and people basically losing their shit because of it. Bruno doesn't reach the audacious comic heights of Borat, partially because the shock value of penis close-ups has lost some of its impact, but the satiric targets are chosen with more precision. When air-headed Austrian fashionista gets a sucession of would-be stage parents to agree to let their infants undergo a series of increasingly dangerous stunts for the chance to be in a photo shoot, you see the sickness of celebrity-obsession in hilarious high definition.

Of course, there is another issue that makes Bruno's critique of homophobia problematic. Sascha Baron Cohen is straight, while his character Bruno traffics in a number of rather retrograde gay stereotypes, including gerbil-abuse. It's like if Cohen made a movie about rascism by dressing in blackface and flashing gang signs. Cohen tries to have his ass-cake and eat it too by alternating between raunchy sight gags about gay sex and pointed zingers about America's uncomfortable relationship with homosexuality. While it's amusing to think about the average Borat-impersonating knucklehead going from laughing at Bruno's fey antics to cringing at the pscyhotic displays of gay panic in the film's climax, there's a tinge of disingeniousness that sours some of the humor.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Public Enemies

Bryan Burrough's nifty book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI 1933-1934 is filed with fascinating characters and daring capers. John Dillinger, J. Edgar Hoover, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Melvin Purvis, and the underrated criminal mastermind Alvin "Creepy" Karpis. The Kansas City Massacre, Little Bohemia, the Crown Point jail break. A director could make a dozen different movies utilizing different narrative and thematic angles from this material. Judging by the two and half hour running time and the numerous failed digressions, it seems that Michael Mann tried to make all of those movies at the same time. Parts of Public Enemies seem to be about J. Edgar Hoover's clever exploitation of the 30s-era bank robber epidemic to expand the power of the nascent F.B.I. Other parts frame the antics of Dillinger and company as the last gasp of a free-wheeling criminal underworld, soon to be crushed by increasingly organized crime and professionalized law enforcement. Sometimes, the movie's about John Dillinger's relationship to his celebrity, which grew into legend before his very eyes. Most of the time, it seems to be about the love between Dillinger and his devoted girlfriend, Billie Frechette. Mann would have been well-served to pick one these strands with an eye towards creating a cohesive hole. As it stands, the tangential style crowds all of these notions and more to the margins, leaving nothing to fill the center of the frame.

No director has taken to digital cameras with the enthusiasm and skill of Michael Mann, and Public Enemies unsurprisingly benefits from Mann's embrace of the technology. Digital film and handheld cameras give the film an immediacy that is often difficult to achieve in a period piece. The performances are generally solid. Depp's Dillinger is a typical cauldron of brooding charisma, but the movie is so busy that his terse opaquacy never becomes accessible. Marion Cotillard is surprisingly affecting in the usually thankless role of devoted lady friend. Christian Bale's G-Man Melvin Purvis throws around a lot of disapproving glares and affects a Carolina drawl adequately The only guys having any real fun are Stephen Graham in a sadly underdeveloped role as Baby Face Nelson, and Billy Crudup, whose J. Edgar Hoover speaks with that great, extinct accent that olde timey radio announcers used. The story of how Hoover rode the 30s crime wave to power unprecedented for a bureaucrat is a fascinating one, and with Crudup's delightfully idiosyncratic take on the character, its easy to imagine one of the several great movies that Public Enemies could have been.

Instead of any of those movies, Michael Mann's inability to find a consistent point of view leaves us with a competently exectued police procedural. Even with scenes that gesture towards Dillinger's singular place in American criminal history, including one sequence of Dillinger looking at a wall full of newspaper clippings about himself that strongly echoes a similar scene in Mann's similarly unfocused Ali, there isn't much here in the way of insight into the Dillinger phenomenon or the experiences of those Depression-era criminals. Change the character names, turn the Tommy guns into AK-47s and the De Soto's into Honda Accords, and Public Enemies would be an unremarkable tale of cops and robbers.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Transformers 2: Rise of the Fallen

There are certain things you know you're going to see when you watch a Michael Bay movie: slow motion running, sweaty close-ups, gargantuan plot-holes, thundering stupidity, insultingly broad stereotypes, painfully unfunny comic relief, and incoherent action scenes. Pretty much all of those are on glorious display in Transformers 2: The Something of the Something, with one surprising exception. Michael Bay has reigned for years as the worst director of action in Hollywood. His twin obsession with close-ups and rapid cuts typically results in migraine inducing abstractions. The first Transformers is a perfect example of Bay's raging deficiencies as a director, exacerbated by the inherent difficulty of staging fight scenes between nearly-identical piles of CGI scrap metal. Which makes it even more puzzling that the action scenes in Transformers 2 show an unprecedented directorial competence. Instead of filling the screen with inscrutable, spark-shooting chunks of steel, Bay pulls his camera back far enough to see the whole robot while its shooting its laser gun or punching another robot in its metal face. In particular, Bay stages a forest battle between Autobot leader Optimus Prime and a horde of Decepticons with a near-Kubrickian sense of distance and perspective. This newfound restraint reveals an eternal truth that's easy to forget when Bay straps his camera to the head of a marmot: giant robot battles are inherently awesome.

Or course, awesome robot battles take up less than a hour of Transformers 2's interminable two and a half hour running time, which means that most of the time you're not watching two robots punch each other. Instead, the audience is punished with endless scenes of Shia Labeouf sweating all over alleged actress and suspected sentient blow-up doll Megan Fox, inept comedic business staring LaBeouf's oafish parents and/or ebonics-spouting robots, and nonsensical expository dialogue. It's all about what you'd expect from a movie that prominently features Hasbro in the opening credits. The humans and the robots behave with similar complexity and depth of emotion, giving ample opportunity for bathroom and snack breaks. Connoisseurs of bad dialogue and juvenile pandering should stay glued to their seats, though.

While most of Transformers 2 is garden-variety summer dreck, the last half hour reaches ecstatic peaks of illogic, not to mention slow motion running and shouting. All of the half-baked mythology indifferently spewed forth during the first two hours becomes relevant, culminating in a visit to a magical land that could best be described as robot heaven. The very concept of robot heaven is so left-field nuts, not to mention borderline sacrilegious, that it almost redeems the indifferent plotting and perfunctory emotional beats. Coming on the heels for some genuinely rousing robot-on-robot action, it helps raise Transformers 2: Rise of the Fallen above the run of awful Michael Bay movies into its own category of awfulness.