Archive for July, 2009

Film: Kathryn Bigelow: The Hurt Locker (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews on July 9, 2009 by baker

Bare minimum, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker finally moves contemporary war films beyond Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) – which for years, to my mind, appeared to have accomplished the most experiential perspective on modern warfare that Hollywood has the patience to display.  But war feels distinctly immune to rhapsodizing; whenever characters are required to spill their emotional guts in polished monologues about how ‘it’s about the man beside you’, or ‘I just can’t take it anymore, man’, something ineffable slips away.  I no longer feel the dirt and fear that must, must reside alongside armed combat.  I just feel screenwriting.  Black Hawk Down suffers from far too much of this, and Scott is a lazy director (he can’t shoot to edit, and he’s prone to excessive music) but he does sustain two solid hours of wearying, soul-eroding strain.

That’s the easiest level on which Bigelow’s film works well.  Building scenes with extraordinary tension seems second nature to her here, and she does it mostly with carefully modulated performances, as well as playing off our expectations.  Shots that seem to suggest impending onslaught lead nowhere; innocuous chitchat on the periphery of battle doesn’t necessarily foreshadow imminent attack.  People chatter under pressure, and distant phones do ring, and helicopters will fly overhead without effect.  A civilian watching from a balcony, filming with a videocamera, might be as curious about the outcome as the soldiers who have just spotted him through their weapons’ sights.  It seems silly to commend a director for not slathering music all over her film, but Bigelow is judicious with her score – it offers occasional mood, little more.  Moreover, she recognizes the effect of technical flukes, and moves beyond the standard shaky camerawork and jumpy editing to letting us hear mic rustle and the muffled canned quality of an unmastered lavalier, buried in clothing somewhere around an actor’s throat.  I felt I was inside a film in the sweaty, claustrophobic process of creating itself.

Having twice in my life been far too close to gunshots fired in anger at live human beings, by people who would consider themselves combatants, I can say with certainty that the experience offers no insight beyond its own foolish inadequacy as human behavior.  Men don’t charge courageously into the maw of live fire; they run or hide from it, because it’s fucking awful.  I can only imagine warfare carries a crushing moral load, and incites greater indignation, as a sustained conflict between men committed to killing each other, and Bigelow seems to agree.  Her team of three bomb disarmament specialists works in constant, multidirectional alertness, often disarming a car bomb and keeping track of the men watching them from the rooftops nearby, any of whom could be carrying an automatic weapon or merely a cell phone with which to remotely detonate.  But when offered the decision to kill – as opposed to a reaction to return fire – all of these men hesitate, looking for an alternative, hoping for a mistaken intention or an optical illusion in the blazing desert heat.  It’s possible Bigelow milks these moments for more than they’re worth, straining behavior for drama, but at least two of these scenes present enormous moral choice, rooted in oppressive physical environment and/or disorienting cultural miscommunication, between people who would rather not partake of death but aren’t sure how to proceed.  Threats seem to get the ball rolling.

I could be losing my patience with feature-length films in general, but I would almost have been happy if The Hurt Locker was only as long as its opening sequence, masterfully built of continuous subjective discovery and some profoundly impressive acting by Guy Pearce in particular.  Yes, it paves the way for the story (which revolves around Pearce’s replacement, played by Jeremy Renner, in what is easily the film’s most conventional element), and also for another aspect of The Hurt Locker that struck me as sort of wonderful.  Several known character actors play bit parts – almost throwaway roles, destined in other films for supporting-role performers only, but they don’t feel like gimmicks so much as counterweights to the film’s otherwise appropriately even-keeled casting.  Nothing detracts from performance quite so much as an actor’s persona, and in filling the film with recognizable but persona-less actors, she directs our attention toward what they do, not whether they survive.  And then she gives us faces we can name, who are no more impervious to war.  Bigelow is a fine director of actors rather than stars.

What she’s not is a master sculptor, ultimately.  The film has long, fluid sequences – the extended, static shootout in the desert, for example – that play well because of their duration, but I suspect Bigelow thinks too highly of Mark Boal’s script and her actors’ fine work to cut too harshly into their playtime.  Certain other sequences – the hypermasculine drunken bareknuckle fistfight in the barracks loses momentum quickly, and acquires no residual dimension – carry on for no particular reason, and I’m of two minds about this.  On one hand, my guess is that this is probably closer to the way warfare works: in fits and starts, and long, long periods of interrupted unease that gradually dissolve a person’s mental defenses.  But on the other, I’m not sure such dissolution is Bigelow’s point.  I think she just loves this material, and badly wants it to stretch beyond the limitations of less ambitious storytelling, of less chunky content.  I’m inclined to side with her, if only to resist the destructive tendencies of producers who fear extended running times…but then again, that opening scene might have been enough for me.

I realize, as I approach the end of this review, that I really ought to have savaged this film more, on principal.  It’s vulgar cinema, stymied by directionless writing and conventionally chaotic editing, and tries far too hard, in the end, to pinpoint its obvious message.  In spite of many of the reviews, it is not an artistic masterpiece.  But there is a scene in a bomb-making warehouse, involving the body of a young boy and the stitches holding his stomach closed, that illustrates just how committed Bigelow is to this film, as an experience for us and an apparent obsession of hers.  Her command of this film is as assured and relentless as Renner’s bomb specialist, as committed as Ralph Fiennes in his tiny cameo, as professionally illuminating as her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s range (he shot The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) on steady long lenses, in perfect control of lush color).  All of which, eventually, is what The Hurt Locker is about.

“Plastic” casting – July 24th, NYC

Posted in Uncategorized on July 8, 2009 by baker

Airfield Films is casting ‘Plastic”, a thirty-minute film about the aftermath of a mature relationship between a teacher and a pilot that haunts them both, literally and lyrically.  Andrew Baker writes/directs, Matthew Griffin produces, and Rob Featherstone shoots.  Rehearsals will be started as soon as possible, and the film will be shot on super 16mm over the course of several months, one or two days at a time, for roughly six days total.  Filming locations TBD, in New York City and environs.

Seeking ROB, 30s.

Please submit an email with a headshot and resume, and one or two lines about yourself, to airfieldfilms*at*  Auditions to be held in NYC on Saturday, July 24th by appointment.  If you are not available that day, please note this in your email.  Non-SAG, but some pay.

Film: Ari Folman: Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on July 6, 2009 by baker

With its literal facade, film is a pristine quantifier of certain realities, as well as a clunky forum for exploring intangible things like memory and the soul.  What it shows is at some level unassailable, and denies interpretation: a chair is a chair, a tree a tree, and for the most part – particularly in motion pictures – action is certain.  Its great virtue is showing things happening: Eadweard Muybridge’s galluping horse, the Lumieres’ Arrival of a Train at a Station (1895), the overwhelming impetus of modern cinema as a whole.  What it is not good at, from a mechanical standpoint, is casting light on how experience shapes us.  What makes us who we are as individuals.  Most films, then, provide backstory that gives a character personal purpose, a reason for strong action, and a clear goal, as a bullheaded (but efficient) solution to the alternative: that watching action as we actually live it would offer terrifyingly little closure or purpose for our wayward lives.  In this way, understanding a film need not strain the bounds of basic observation.

Up til now, the closest I’ve ever seen a film come to representing memory as a transient vapor would be Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 (2004): jagged, full of color and shape but such fleeting detail.  Fluid and impressionist, Wong captures time and experience out of the corner of his eye, as roaches darting across the kitchen counter: a few he catches and squashes, but most get away under the toaster, half-seen in a glance.  Richard Linklater tries something similar in Waking Life (2001), this time building an entire film out of floating, animated gestures, little snatches of scenes befitting his main character’s dreamy semi-consciousness.  But it’s the animation that sets the film alight: elusive pseudo-shapes, defined by color and form instead of detail, and entirely free to wobble and distort at will.  Both films abolish the illusion of observed reality that film so easily conjures, and the next logical progression would seem to be Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.

I’ve heard that Folman has never worked with animation before this film, and if it’s true, it’s my opinion that he’s found a wildly effective style that lifelong animators should envy.  Formally, his animation is not overwhelming or advanced, mostly three or four layers composited into largely static frames.  And after a spellbinding opening sequence featuring a pack of dogs tearing through city streets, Folman settles on talking heads for a while.  But slowly his method shows itself.  Even in these chatty scenes, specific moody details appear: rain, cigarette smoke, breath in a snowy field.  Eyes peer.  Folman builds these scenes out of natural, subtle behavior, as his characters (a filmmaker, ostensibly Folman, and his various wartime buddies) do shots in a bar, smoke, pause in speech to collect their memories, observe each other.  The details are critical for setting up what follows, and what makes Waltz with Bashir an enormously powerful emotional experience.

When Folman slips into the half-formed memories of the Israeli-Palestinian war, screen time passes much slower than dream time; attention darts from one exploding tank to another, and bullets drop bodies with messy, indistinct bursts of gore.  A sniper shoots a tank commander through the throat; the man standing beside him can’t understand why he’s slumped over and not moving even as both of them are sprayed with his blood.  Spatial confusion sets in; a boy fires an RPG through a sun-dappled forest.  The soldiers acknowledge that it is a boy, and destroy him with gunfire.  Another soldier finds himself the sole survivor of an ambush, and he swims to safety in the calm, dark Mediterranean, under cover of night and the soul-wrenching isolation that accompanies him.  Bashir acquires a meditative dreaminess on par with its clearest ancestor, Apocalypse Now (1979).  As the story’s filmmaker struggles to recollect curiously absent memories from the war, a fragmented, druggy flow comes over the film, and for a time all narrative pretense drifts away as we march, huddle, and float with these characters in their own ill-focused, impressionistic memories.  Which are all too often not their own, or vary from one another’s.

To be sure, Folman is animating things happening, but he adds a further layer that confounds a simplistic interpretation of observation: that we are most definitely watching a film.  Acknowledging a film’s filmness from within has the capacity to uproot a motion picture from a place of storytelling and replant it in the realm of highest art, bestowing a greater sense of purpose on film as a unique art form.  It speaks to us with strengths – and weaknesses – as nothing else can, and Folman asks us to consider that a film is neither reality nor truth, but rather a depiction of moving image, full of its maker’s opinions and elipses, and utterly crafted toward a broader design.

Folman’s protagonist, a filmmaker, has somehow blocked out his memories of war, and spends the film in discussion with his old friends.  Their stories are to us what they are to him: vague illustrations replete with impressions of emotional memory: tracers zipping through fields; haunted, empty streets; a row of men executed by machine gun against a wall.  But then there is a reporter, whom the soldiers witness walking calmly through gunfire as his cameraman crouches in terror.  The reporter has no fear, completely insulated from danger by his camera.  A psychiatrist offers the filmmaker the story of a soldier who brought his camera with him during the war, and only began to feel fear after his camera broke.  And masterfully, Folman includes a small touch criticizing the truth in the act of filming, when one of the protagonist’s buddies gives him permission to illustrate his child at play – but with drawings, not a camera.

One final gracenote in Bashir arrives at the very end, and coming as it does after such loving attention to the way our dreams and memories reveal themselves to us, it is startling, profoundly disturbing, and beautifully justified, giving absolution to the suffering and reflection of Folman’s characters.  War films are incredibly hard, it seems, to make anew, as Hollywood fetishizes dismemberment and softer films focus on conventional character development, with war as backstory.  Folman sifts Waltz with Bashir down to our tangible disturbance in failing to grasp what lingers in our subconscious – and eventually, I believe, in the closing shots, to what’s necessarily destroyed should we ever grasp it: the reason for making art at all.

Film: Michael Mann: Public Enemies (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on July 3, 2009 by baker

I don’t want to slip into wanton Mann-bashing.  He’s responsible for some giddily elegant stuff in the past – the confrontation between Christopher Plummer and Gina Gershon in The Insider (1999), Daniel Day-Lewis’ ghost-cat sprint through the forest in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Val Kilmer’s gut-wrenching departure from Heat (1995) – and even when his films momentarily overdose on melodrama or Mann’s frequently hamfisted dialogue (perhaps De Niro and Pacino were never meant to share a screen), he compensates with scenes of extraordinarily disorienting violence, rarely bloody but appropriately sudden, and bat-out-of-hell loud.  All of which he shoots with a borderline poetic finesse – less in regard to meaning or substance, but with a keen sense of character and environment – that rises like a soft glowing mist above the grit and grain of his vulgar stories.  But that’s in the past.

By now, it may be that Michael Mann has honed his generic niche – the dueling professionals, generally cop versus criminal – ad glossy absurdum; I’m not certain there’s (a) anything more he has to say about it, or (b) IS anything more to say.  Two men of opposing moral directives pursuing each other through the night has some shiny, vague psychological overtones, having to do with obsession, responsibility, and a blindingly blunt masculinity, but to my mind Mann plumbed the hell out of them in Heat and has merely repeated a few since.  And the few times he’s strayed from the dichotomy into the single man in dogged pursuit (Ali (2001)), or the two men in obsessive tandem (The Insider), I suspect Mann sought a great deal more to be mined on a human level rather than the genre-bidden abstract, and I’d argue he’s never made a film more personal, more befittingly neurotic, than The Insider.

So it’s not a great big shock, following the emotional blandness of Ali or the strident simplicity of Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006), that Public Enemies should be so dull on the craft and substance fronts, but it’s disappointing anyway.  Good directors can be forgiven their chaff for their fine strudels, and while never a full-fledged artist, Michael Mann has been among the most seamless of modern American artisans.  But Enemies is a mess.  The basic problems – lack of focused, unique character development, the decidedly HD look of its HD look – could have easily been overlooked (as they always can) if the film had strived for, or stumbled across and ran with, something grander than its parts, but nowhere in Enemies is there the impression that Mann feels anything for this film.  His sense of John Dillinger and company is spectacularly generic, and he illustrates their escapades with a detached speed unwarranted by the story or performances.  Mann seems unusually committed to injecting a briskness into the pace of the film, but his script, which he cowrote, contains every scene demanded by genre expectations; there is little he could do in the editing to make Enemies feel more dynamic, or less clichéd, than any Scarface (1983) or The Untouchables (1987).

On that note, the comparison to De Palma is a-crying-shame fitting, because until recently Mann had somehow evaded the clumsy directness that De Palma can’t transcend.  No amount of technical playfulness can salvage a cheesy script riddled with pop-psychological melodrama, and there’s nothing purely cinematic about employing every Hitchcockian maneuver in the book at the expense of thought or honest emotional complexity.  De Palma has traded of late his self-conscious visual virtuosity for an overwrought faux-documentary style, owing nothing to the way human beings spontaneously discover imagery.  He only wants to suggest unmediated photography to the extent that it sells immediacy, in effect playing off the kind of visual expectations his earlier films endorsed.  Mann has taken the same path.  If films like Manhunter (1986) feel outright dated at this point, composed as it is of unwavering static frames and thick, colorful compositions, there’s something cheaper about his latter-day handheld approach, full of close-ups and dizzying motion.  It doesn’t have to feel cheap, but Mann doesn’t employ it symbiotically with his stories anymore, as in The Insider.  He just uses it, as though the style lends intrinsic weight or depth.  It does not.

Mann and De Palma share another trait, this one more disturbing: they both fetishize the hell out of violence.  De Palma tends to be grotesque about it, slathering the screen with swatches of hideous brutality – the Vietnamese girl’s exit from Casualties of War (1989), for example, or the mind-numbingly horrifying – and, to my taste, utterly tasteless – decapitation of the American soldier in Redacted (2007).  He treats cinema like a baton, a blunt club with the capacity to crack skulls wide open.  He’s not wrong.  He just lacks the taste or the moral judgment not to use movies like that, as a wife beater lacks the foresight to engage in discussion instead of a closed fist.  The bigger problem is that De Palma’s violence is tinged with pretentions of sincerity, as if his tactless handling wields effective, focused force.  Swinging too hard sends the bat right out of the batter’s hands.

Mann, on the other hand, and to his credit, is more interested in violence as behavior.  Its effects are substantially less important to him than the godawful aggression enacted in the moment – nothing stands out quite so much as the deafening boom of automatic weapons on a wide Mann street, as cops and criminals duke it out from behind their cars.  A few die.  Some are maimed.  And in the best of his work – the post-bank robbery shootout in Heat, copied almost verbatim but without the pathos in Enemies – this content falls neatly under Mann’s gracefulness as a filmmaker, as does the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998) for Spielberg, or the chilling executions in Zodiac (2007) for Fincher.  In these sequences, violence as human behavior rises above the pop miasma around it, for brief moments illuminating the decisive behavioral extremes human beings can reach, reason aside.

I’ll take a moment now to acknowledge how little I’ve said so far about Public Enemies.  It’s because Michael Mann is a thoughtful, engaging filmmaker, and commands respect for the gracenotes in his films that separate them from the work of less deliberate directors.  Here, he displays so little of his gifts for craftsmanship (his frequent cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, embraces a digital look that smacks debilitatingly of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves; HD technology is now light years past 1996) or for the quality of story and character development on which he’s built his feature reputation.  It’s not hard to see what, thematically, appealed to Mann to approach this stuff in the first place – and Johnny Depp is a reliably interesting performer, if not always best suited to drama – but this is beneath him.  Which makes me wonder whether Mann ever had a ton on his mind to begin with, and has simply stumbled once or twice across projects that elicited his absolute best.  As a conscious filmmaker, the only consistency is his need to energize the screen with kineticism and wit, both of which are on minimal display in the indifferent Enemies.