Lita On Film

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The Hurt Locker (2009)

In Film Reviews on March 24, 2010 at 6:38 pm

The Hurt Locker stars Jeremy Renner (Dahmer) as William James, an American soldier in Iraq with a special

Renner in "The Hurt Locker"

mission: defusing the ubiquitous IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that litter Baghdad’s ghost-town streets.  With his two partners, anxious Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and terrified Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) James readily accepts every assignment his team is given, even when it means placing all three of their lives in serious jeopardy.  When removing a dozen bombs from the trunk of an abandoned car early in the film, James removes his protective helmet; is this because he is so foolhardy that he feels invincible, or because he is simply at peace with the fact that his death could be only seconds away? His partners, particularly Mackie’s character, seem equally unnerved by both possibilities.  The question is whether James is compelled to seek out life-and-death situations because of some perverse obsession, or whether he is simply in touch with the reality of the war on a level few of us care to imagine.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winner is set in Iraq in 2004, only a year after the war’s inception.  However, it is this strange, new, disjointed image of the war that translates into what New Yorker critic David Denby calls “the most skillful and emotionally involving picture yet made about the conflict.”  Unlike Rendition and other star-studded films ostensibly about the war (the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate comes to mind) The Hurt Locker has no interest in advancing a specific agenda, political or otherwise.  Rather, it is that rare war picture that actually maintains its focus onthe strange mixture of the frightful and the quotidian that its subjects, the soldiers, must endure.

Bigelow’s film doesn’t veer into either melodrama or propoganda, which is itself a remarkable achievement considering its subject matter.  However, what really keeps the narrative taut to the point of anguish are the prolonged, real-time scenes in which James and his partners are either defusing bombs or being attacked by insurgents.  There’s no John Williams score here, no platitudes or hystrionics–indeed, British leading man Ralph Fiennes makes a brief appearance only to be picked off almost instantly by an enemy sniper.  In a normal Hollywood film, the big names don’t get killed off in under five minutes–that’s practically an unwritten law.

But that’s exactly what Bigelow wants to accomplish in dispatching first Pearce and then Fiennes with so little pomp and circumstance: she wants the audience to feel as vulnerable and panicked as James and his squad do, and boy, does it work.  Even the final scene of the film, in which James is back in the States with his girlfriend and baby son, hums with an unspoken tension.  It’s clear to the audience, if not to the unfortunate girlfriend, that James just isn’t wired for civilian life, at least not anymore.  The film closes with a shot of James back in the bomb-defusing suit, marching triumphantly towards the next bomb in the sand.  We understand, as the credits start to roll, that James has been so changed by his experiences in the war that he simply cannot go back to the way things were.  What the film hints at, so delicately you may not even notice, is that the country as a whole may not ever be able to go back, either.

Bigelow was only the fourth woman in history to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar (in 82 years, no less) and the first to win.  That this momentous event was occasioned by a war movie is both a testament to Bigelow’s skill in directing within a completely male-dominated genre, and a strange sort of capitulation from the Hollywood establishment.  It’s worth noting that the first woman to break this glass ceiling was not someone like Nancy Meyers (Sleepless in Seattle) or Sally Potter (Orlando) or even Jane Campion, though she was nominated in 1993 for her tour-de-force The Piano.  Certainly, the first woman to be let into this ultimate boy’s club couldn’t have directed a chick flick or a gender-bending feminist manifesto–perish the thought.  It seems like the Academy had its collective hand forced with Bigelow’s nomination; she pulled off a manly film in a manly genre, and beat Hollywood at its own game.

Jeremy Renner also has been long overlooked for his award-worthy talents.  Though his first leading-man role was in the somewhat unfortunate Dahmer (2002) Renner didn’t allow the cartoonishly evil character he was playing to overwhelm him–somehow, he kept his performance human and believable.  Renner also has a reassuringly non-airbrushed look to him, physically; he actually looks like a real person.  His physicality is a major part of his character in The Hurt Locker, and, just as in Dahmer, he knows how to use his body, affect and appearance to give full life to his character.  I’d rather watch him than Sam Worthington (Avatar) any day.


Latest Pieces

In Film Reviews on March 8, 2010 at 9:22 am

Check out my latest pieces:  “The Wolfman,” “In The Loop,”  and “Shutter Island”!

Del Toro’s Wolfman Stays in the Doghouse

Universal’s Attempt to Reclaim Past Monster-Movie Glory Falls Short

Feb 26, 2010 Lita Robinson

Universal’s 2010 remake of their own 1941 creature-feature masterpiece, also titled “The Wolfman,” fails to thrill the way its predecessor did.

The Wolfman, directed by Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park 3) and starring Benicio Del Toro, is a 21-st century update to the 1941 Universal classic starring Lon Chaney, Jr. While its fealty to its source material is admirable in our age of filmic ADHD, its lack of introspection–the quality that made the original film so compelling–ultimately robs it of both poignancy and true horror.

Granted, the advent of CGI and other special-effects wizardry does make the 2010 version more eye-popping than the original, but you can really only watch so many livers get untimely ripped from their rightful owners before you’ll inevitably start to wonder, “is this it?” The computer-generated scenery also tends to detract from the story rather than adding to it–it’s the live-action footage of the crumbling family mansion, where the Wolfman takes refuge, and its surrounding woods and moors that give the story its admittedly small ration of believability and gravitas.

2010 Version Offers More Mayhem, Less Introspection

The story follows Lawrence, played here by Del Toro–a casting decision some have called unwieldy–an aristocrat turned actor who returns to his ancestral home after the untimely death of his brother Ben (by werewolf). There, he must confront his increasingly eccentric father (Anthony Hopkins, not taking things too seriously) with whom he has had a strained relationship since the long-ago untimely death of his mother (also, as it turns out, by werewolf). Once back home, Lawrence begins to develop feelings for his brother’s widow, Gwen, who is played with a gritty (but ultimately useless) earnestness by Emily Blunt. Soon, Lawrence joins the country folk in their hunt for the beast that killed his brother–a roving band of gypsies is suspected–and ends up having a very close encounter with the creature itself, who bites him and leaves him to die. But, of course, Lawrence doesn’t die; he becomes a werewolf.

Much mayhem ensues as Lawrence tries to prevent himself, unsuccessfully, from going too crazy during his nocturnal rovings. Naturally, there is much blood and gore to be had–a surprising amount of gore, actually, so much so that one gets the distinct sense that the “gotcha!” strategy being implemented is really covering up for a larger lack of true scariness. Indeed, things really tip over into the realm of camp when Lawrence is thrown into a mental institution, where he is tortured and subsequently made into an exhibition for a “psychiatrist” who seems to be a mixture of Freud, Oscar Wilde, and Pee Wee Herman.

More’s the pity, really, because the psychiatrist-exhibition scene is supposed to be a crowning tableau for the film as a whole. Lawrence is bound to a chair in the center of an old-fashioned surgical theater (an especially apt term in this instance) and is forced to have the moonlight shine upon him without being able to escape. The quack psychiatrist, who clearly is too flamboyant to understand the gravity of supernatural afflictions, thinks that Lawrence’s fear of moonlight is a psychological hangup that will be easily cured. Of course, when the moonlight does hit him, Lawrence makes the painful transformation into the Wolfman before our very eyes. (He then proceeds to literally throw the psychiatrist out the window, which is, you know, a nice touch). Sadly this transformation scene, which was revolutionary in the 1941 version, lacks any real sense of horror. I’m tempted to say that this is due to the film’s reliance on now-familiar CGI techniques which, once you recognize them, are difficult to take all that seriously. As soon as your brain stops accepting what you’re looking at as a real person, it’s difficult to stay invested or frightened for long.



Focus on the Body is Key to Real Horror

What made the Lon Chaney transformation so surprising and frightening was the fact that Chaney’s actual body was indeed changing, just as the story said. Though now it’s easy to look at the original film and snigger at the lack of technical bravado on display–he looks like he’s wearing a onesie!–the fact that Chaney’s body itself was the site on which the horror of the film played out makes the film as a whole so much more affecting than this latest interpretation. Even though portions of the 2010 version were, in fact, done in live action with hours’ worth of makeup, the critical transformation moment really loses the horror of the film by being so essentially modern. Not only is the body on display obviously not real most of the time, but the camera keeps cutting back and forth to accentuate the grotesqueries of individual body parts. The fingers bend the wrong way! The teeth sprout from nowhere! His toenails are turning into claws!

This film could really do with a lesson from the 1981 horror classic An American Werewolf in London, in which the always-pivotal transformation scene actually manages to live up to the horror of its film lineage while not detracting from the rest of the film. Having nabbed an Oscar for Best Makeup, it stands as the major Western werewolf film between these two versions of The Wolfman, binding together the 1940s and the 2010s. Though there are, of course, more modern special effects used in London than in the original Wolfman, the sense of bodily reality is maintained; you never lose the feeling, when the protagonist transforms, that you are watching a human change into a non-human. This is what’s essential to making horror films truly horrifying: the audience, presumably human, has to have a way to physically identify with the characters onscreen. Otherwise, you may as well be watching Avatar.

Overall, the film is a fine diversion, but not much more. You’d do better to rent An American Werewolf in London, save yourself $10, and settle in for a real thrill.

DVD Movie Review

“In The Loop”

By our guest blogger, Lita Robinson

“In The Loop” is a frantic British farce that imagines the beginning of the war in Iraq as one giant miscommunication between British politicians, who are incompetent, and American politicians, who are crazy.

The story centers on Toby (Chris Addison), a young aide to minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander, excellent as always). When the film opens, Foster has just gone on a well-known British radio program to discuss his opposition to the British and American governments’ desire to go to war together against Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, when the interviewer ambushes him with an Iraq-related question, Foster’s bumbling response ends up sounding like an endorsement of the impending military offensive.

Soon, Foster is being hounded by the Prime Minister’s chief of communications, Malcolm Tucker (played with cheeky venom by Peter Capaldi), who is determined to avoid another public-relations meltdown. Foster’s comments are then picked up by American politicians eager to try and stop the rush to war on their side of the Atlantic, and soon Foster, Tucker and ingénue Toby are flying back and forth from London to Washington in an effort to clarify Foster’s position on the war.

Naturally, the more everyone else focuses on Foster’s position, the less sure he becomes of what his position really is, and much hilarious dithering ensues. The film ends in almost as much chaos as it begins, with Toby now woefully educated on the dangers of political talking points, and both the British and American governments still steaming together toward impending war.

The storyline of this film is really less important than its structure, which essentially is just a series of gaffe-filled vignettes strung together with breathtaking speed. The film’s director, Armando Iannucci (whose screenplay has been nominated for both a BAFTA and an Academy Award) has lots of experience in television, and that sort of smash-cut sensibility is what animates the film. Imagine “Notting Hill,” but on fast-forward, full of truly amazing obscenities, and about war rather than love.

James Gandolfini’s appearance as a retired Army general trying to stop the rush to war is especially inspired (choice quote: “Once you’ve been to war, you never want to go back unless you absolutely have to. It’s like France.”). In fact, the cast as a whole works together very well, with each insane political operative acting even crazier than the last. Watch this film if you’re a fan of “Dr. Strangelove” and other classic war satires–just be prepared for some updated, truly R-rated language.

Grade: B+

Scorsese’s Shutter Island

DiCaprio and Scorsese’s Latest Film is a B-Movie Mashup

Mar 6, 2010 Lita Robinson

Scorsese’s latest film wants to be a great horror movie, but its ’50s B-movie roots pull it back down to earth.

Shutter Island is ostensibly a film about Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Federal Marshall who, in 1954, is called to a mental hospital on the eponymous island because one of its patients has mysteriously vanished. What it’s really about are the 1950s paranoia films and low-budget B-movies that its director, Martin Scorsese, grew up on.

We all know Scorsese–or at least we think we do. The director of such seminal works as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, Scorsese’s reputation as a meticulous visual choreographer has been well-earned. However, he’s not the first director who pops to mind when the phrase “psychological thriller” is uttered–and that’s what Shutter Island is. This doesn’t necessarily detract from DiCaprio’s character or the momentum of the narrative–one just gets the feeling that the ambiance of Shutter Island may be better conceived than the actual plot.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (who also wrote the source material for Clint Eastwood’s excellent Mystic River), the story follows Teddy Daniels to the mental hospital perched on the ominous island, where he and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) begin their investigation. From the beginning, the hospital’s chief psychiatrist (Sir Ben Kingsley) seems reluctant to fully cooperate with the Marshall’s investigation. Even more suspicious is another chief psychiatrist, played by Max Von Sydow, who may or may not be a retired Nazi and whose German accent and air of nonchalance instantly set Teddy’s alarm bells ringing.

Intimations of the Holocaust

Here it is necessary to point out a major plot device which pops up repeatedly in the film: Teddy Daniels, we discover from both his own conversations and his frequent, debilitating flashbacks, is a veteran of World War II and was present at the liberation of the infamous Dachau concentration camp. Periodically, Teddy’s vision is overtaken by horrific scenes of the camp, which show throngs of freezing, starving prisoners next to piles of denuded, frozen bodies. If this sounds like a cheap way to both give Teddy’s character some gravitas and to add some extra horror to the film, well, it is.

Let me be specific, though: invocations of the horrors of WWII are not out of place in this film, considering its time period, especially as its plot begins to revolve more and more closely around the subject of trauma and mental illness. But it’s the particular ways in which these sequences are staged and shot and the meanings that are layered upon them that I, among other reviewers, find objectionable. The shots of dead bodies in piles next to train cars are somehow too lurid, too in-your-face for them to have the real sense of apocalyptic horror that actual footage of concentration camps produces. Instead of feeling like you’re bearing witness to something as awful and enormous as the Holocaust, you get the feeling that the film is just trying to goose you with the ghosts of history.

Conspiracy…or Paranoia?

Teddy’s flashback sequences grow more and more elaborate, until they begin to feel like they were dropped into the film by a different director all together; David Lynch, perhaps, or maybe even Baz Luhrmann. As they become more frequent and more lengthy, the audience begins to have trouble distinguishing between the parts of the film that are “real” and the parts that are taking place only inside Teddy’s mind.

This, of course, turns out to be the real point of the story–the mystery of the mental hospital isn’t really in the hospital, it’s inside Teddy’s head. Without spoiling the rest of the plot entirely, suffice it to say that in the end, Teddy’s search for the truth uncovers something far more disturbing than even his wildest paranoid fantasies. I should mention that DiCaprio, who I don’t usually admire these days, does some good work in this role; he is easily believable as a man on the edge of sanity.

Back to Shutter Island‘s 1950s roots. As is mentioned several times throughout the film, we are in the height of the Red Scare when Teddy ventures onto the island; the general air of suspicion at first seems like a realistic relic of the times. Many films of this period present physical places as manifestations of such Communist paranoia: think of the different settings in Vertigo, to which Jimmy Stewart is compelled to return, or the suddenly dangerous suburbs of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. Shutter Island itself looms out of the mist in the beginning of the film much like Skull Island in King Kong. It’s clearly a malevolent place, and the film’s totally over-the-top score, which sounds like stripped-down Wagner on steroids, adds to what’s already very obvious: this is not a place anyone should visit, let alone someone already losing his grip on reality.

If Scorsese had really embraced the schlocky-ness of some of the more lowbrow 50s classics, particularly those produced and directed by horror legend Roger Corman (for whom Scorsese worked when he was just starting out), Shutter Island might be able to succeed as a half-scary half-campy homage. However, its desire to harken back to these earlier film traditions while simultaneously taking itself so seriously ends up hampering the film, turning it into a confusing muddle of movie traditions rather than the elegant, modern update on paranoia that it wants to be.