Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Sunday, December 20, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

A tough war picture in the tabloid journalist tradition of Samuel Fuller, The Hurt Locker avoids most of the sentimentalizing and editorializing of other recent films about Iraq. It focuses instead on the human drama of a trio of characters living under the sword of Damocles. Members of a bomb disposal unit, these men live moment to moment counting the days before their tour is up. Well, at least two of them. Their new Team Leader, Sgt. First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) is a guy with that thousand yard stare. He's the "man in the suit", the one who is sent into harm's way to actually diffuse the IEDs. While Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) sweat the days out, James seems like he's right in his element. If war is a drug, then William James is an addict.

While most films about war either glorify it or more often than not attempt to make a statement as banal as "war is hell", The Hurt Locker avoids that by just getting on with it. It simply takes place in a hellish, harsh environment full of paranoia and where the action is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. This isn't a film with designer violence but it doesn't avoid the ugly beauty of that violence either.

What really makes the film work is that Kathryn Bigelow directs it as a nail biting suspense picture rather than a war film. Like Clouzot's The Wages of Fear we watch breathlessly as James looks through wires as tangled as a plate of spaghetti. Bigelow cuts to random locals watching or walking by who may be the enemy waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. No one can be trusted and the environment is just as threatening-landmines could be anywhere but the sand and heat do their best to make man extinct by itself.

William James is the film's central mystery. What exactly makes this man tick? Smartly, screenwriter Mark Boal and Bigelow do not answer this or even allow James to explain himself at all. We can see it in his face when he goes home for a short break. The way he looks at his wife and the dislocation he feels standing in the frozen foods section of the local supermarket. He's going cold turkey and needs a fix.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

"The book was better."

This is the challenge for any filmmaker who dares to adapt a popular novel for the big screen. Well, of course the book was better. The book was perfect since it was yours. The novelist provides the spark but the fire rages in the reader's mind, colored by their own life experiences and imagination. In the end, the book belongs to the reader on a personal level. But a FILM belongs to the director who has no idea what you were thinking and can only color it with his own life experiences and imagination. Though much of the narrative is the same, this is clearly Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones and that is a mixed blessing.

Alice Sebold's novel would be a challenge for any filmmaker to adapt. The story is told from the POV of a 14 year old girl who was raped, murdered and dismembered as she watches from the afterlife the years that follow in the lives of her family and her murderer. That story is actually the catalyst for several others. That of the disintegration of a family overcome with grief, a suspense thriller about the investigation into the girl's death and a coming of age story for the dead girl herself, Susie Salmon, who finally accepts her death and all that it requires her to give up. That's just the body of the story. The engine behind it is the mournful tone which channels Thornton Wilder's Our Town for its expression of the fragility of life and the temporary nature of all things. This is a story about loss-the loss of life, a parent's loss of their child, but most of all the loss of human experience. Susie is killed just as she begins to experience her first love. At its most basic level, murder is a form of theft. Susie's murderer steals this precious experience from her and the whole story is haunted by the sadness of a life unlived.

Adaptations are all about making choices and sometimes drastic ones in order to capture the spirit of the book rather than the letter. The Lovely Bones requires a kind of high wire act in order to pull this off successfully so it's no surprise that Jackson along with his usual collaborators Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh seem overwhelmed by the task. This is the kind of material that requires a complete overhaul in order to work as a movie but it is also a popular novel which seems to beg for absolute fidelity or else face the wrath of its fans. Something has to give and if you are making a film you must fight for the film. It is the ideas and emotions in Sebold's story that have to make it to the screen not her character list. But instead of reshaping it into something more cinematic, they make the "safe" decision to tell the story as fast as they can including as much of the book as possible. Having to tell a thriller, a family drama, and a ghost story all at once and within a reasonable running time is ultimately self defeating. Especially when all three never seem to integrate effectively. Even at 135 minutes, the film leaves characters such as Susie's mother Abigail(Rachel Weisz, wasted)woefully underdeveloped while others are virtually props (Susan Sarandon). Sarandon is cast as the Salmon family's crazy grandmother and basically exists within one long, tonally flat and absurdly comic montage sequence which seems like an outtake from Stepmom. The core of the story would've been better served by dropping her character altogether. Imagine the film without her presence and you will find that nothing is lost.

Peter Jackson is a fine filmmaker but he may not have been the right fit for this material. Jackson seems to see the story as a kind of bookend to his earlier film, Heavenly Creatures and uses much of the same mix of blatant fantasy and stylized reality here. What worked in that film is a liability in this one and the Candyland visions of heavenly worlds break the tenuous threads that hold the story together. It is Susie who must hold the film together. It is her presence as witness to the events following her death that gives the story meaning. Visually placing her in a goofy CG landscape for much of the running time separates her too much from the rest of the film. She seems stranded in that "Palm Pre" commercial . What was needed was the matter of fact surrealism of Luis Bunuel so that the veils between worlds would feel more uncanny and human than some digital Magritte. In fact, the more one thinks about it David Cronenberg would've been the best choice for this film. His work during the psychic vision sequences of The Dead Zone are very effective in mixing the real with the unknown.

What Jackson does get right and pulls off superbly is the evocation of 1970s suburbia. The street that the Salmon family lives on seems not so much a realistic depiction of time and place as a slightly hyper-real memory of it. In the film, Susie is a budding photographer chronicling the world around her with a tiny Kodak Instamatic. This idea seems to have inspired Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Leslie to visualize the real world as one of those vibrant and slightly unreal Kodachrome snapshots. Particularly interesting is the home of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) with its pastel green exterior contrasted by an alarming red curtained window.

Jackson has also cast the film perfectly. No matter what the flaws may be, the film holds great power in its central role. Saoirse Ronan is absolutely perfect and heartbreaking as Susie Salmon and it is her performance that makes the film work in spite of its flaws. Giving her fine support is Mark Walhberg as Susie's father Jack. Wahlberg underplays the role very effectively and not the way he "underplayed" in The Happening. The sooner we can forget that performance the better. This is easily one of his best dramatic performances. Stanley Tucci's George Harvey is a kind of archetypal serial killer. We learn nothing about him except that he has a mania for making dollhouses (without dolls) and appears to live in one. But this is OK since he is not really supposed to be a psychologically credible character. He is the story's "big bad wolf" and Tucci is very good at reminding you of every weaselly murderer from our cultural history. You look at George Harvey and can see right through him to the BTK killer. Rachel Weisz is fine as always but her character seems to have been left on the cutting room floor.

The strangest thing about Jackson's approach is how chaste it is. The whole film is just a bit too tasteful to achieve real catharsis. Jackson seems to be a prisoner of his PG-13 rating and because of this, the darkness of the crime is left a bit anti-septic. This was the story of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered. She is now only murdered. There is a difference especially with its themes of awakening sexuality. Jackson's film is filled with the sentimentality of innocence lost but it remains empty since that sentiment has to be earned through pain that the audience needs to share. The ending is another false step though one it shares with the book. It's just too tidy for a story that wants to express the chaos of the world.

Directed by: Peter Jackson.
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold.
With: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver and Christian Thomas Ashdale.

Friday, December 11, 2009

CRUISING Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

This is a film that has been obscured by controversy. A cause celeb when released in 1980, the film was rarely discussed on its own terms. Looking at it now, almost 30 years later, it boggles the mind how a film like Cruising could even get made especially with the backing of a major studio and starring one of the '70s biggest stars. It's about as dark a depiction of mankind as any you will ever see.

New York City circa 1980 as presented by director William Friedkin is completely sick. At it's best it is cruel and corrupt. At its worst, deviant and deranged. No matter how much anyone complains of the modern anti-septic NYC with its commercialized Times Square(aka "Mickey's Asshole"), it is an improvement over the conditions seen in this movie. Perhaps the city was more inviting in real life, but as seen through Friedkin's scum smeared lens, the NYC of CRUISING is a nightmare world, a contemporary Sodom or Gomorra where the cops Protect and Serve themselves amid an orgy of sex, drugs and murder.

Al Pacino plays a straight cop named Steve Burns who is sent into the pre-AIDS gay "underworld" of New York's leather bars and sex clubs to act as bait for a Jack the Ripper-like murderer preying on gay men. It seems that all of the victims resemble his physical type. Which must mean that they all had nice perms.

Burns lives with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen) whom he keeps in the dark while he goes out at night and literally "cruises" the club scene. Burns is the classic voyeur, window shopping without buying. This is one of the central tensions of the film-will he or won't he? Friedkin keeps us in the dark-setting up tantalizing situations and focusing on Burns' enigmatic reactions to very blunt sexual advances before fading the scenes to black. The film unfolds in an elliptical, suggestive manner that keeps the narrative ambiguous. In fact, everything that happens in the film remains ambiguous throughout. There may be more than one killer, he may be gay or homophobic or both, Burns may have engaged in homosexual sex-or not, and finally, Burns may have committed a murder.Or not.

Friedkin makes no attempt to clear these matters up. Indeed the film is meant to be as blurry as possible. Even our ostensible protagonist-Steve Burns-is a mystery. Ambition is one thing, but a promotion in the NYPD is just not worth being sodomized in a hotel room.

At the very least, Burns seems "Bi-Curious" throughout and personally disturbed by it. His heterosexual relationship with Nancy is strained as much by his secretive work as his sexual confusion. The film's one heterosexual lovemaking scene depicts Burns violently "making love" to Nancy as though he had something to prove.

Even stranger is the film's odd shifting of POV. It begins as an omniscient narrative chronicling the activities of the killer, his victims, and the police. It then shifts into a more conventional single protagonist structure. Specifically it makes use of the "undercover cop" subgenre of crime films which hinge upon the cop identifying with his prey to the point of becoming a doppelganger to him. Burns stares into a lot of mirrors in the film, gazing at himself gazing back. But slowly, and slyly, Friedkin pulls away from him. This is a masterstroke. Burns becomes enigmatic-and even sinister in the final third of the film. He is seen as a stalker from the POV of the most likely suspect who suddenly becomes the focal character. This final shift pulls the rug out from under the viewer's feet. Burns may have been mysterious but this guy is clearly deranged, hallucinating conversations with his dead father. From this point on, we don't identify with anyone since our identification figure-Burns-has been removed. But the feeling isn't the same as it was when Janet Leigh was murdered in Psycho for example. In that film, the original protagonist was murdered not transformed. Here, Burns remains onscreen and yet he seems inexplicable. We are as uncertain about him as we are about the killer. Friedkin uses the soundtrack subliminally to keep the audience in a state of uncertainty. Music and sounds from Burns' experiences in the clubs start to bleed into his life during the day, often under other music and sounds creating a very avant garde aural collision. This feeling of uncertainty builds throughout culminating with a tense confrontation in a well lit but very threatening Central Park. At this point we are not sure about anything. By the time the end credits roll, you'll feel as though you missed something-a shapeshifting story that remains tantalizingly out of reach.

Much of the criticism of Cruising has centered on it's supposedly negative portrayal of homosexuality. The scenes in the sex clubs present open drug use, sexual promiscuity and acts such as "fisting" which are not often seen on the classical silver screen. At least not the one of Tracy and Hepburn or Astaire and Rogers. But since Friedkin is so ambiguous, the film could be saying anything. An argument could be made ( as it has been made) that it endorses the idea that homosexuality leads to psychosis and murder but one could also be made that it presents the NYPD as Nazis. Several scenes show the police using violent interrogation techniques that go way beyond water-boarding-including the positively surreal image of a large black officer wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, boots and underwear and who is brought in to pound on suspects.

Part of the problem lies in Friedkin's approach to filmmaking. He is unique among his contemporaries for exhibiting an almost complete lack of humanity in his work. Even De Palma at his most mechanical seems to care for his characters. Friedkin makes the kind of films that a pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers might make given the chance. But this is not really a liability. It remains the reason why a film like The Exorcist is still frightening. There is something in the blankness of the author's voice that makes Friedkin's films positively chilly experiences. Cruising is a kind of apotheosis in this direction. It takes all the experimentation with form that the director was toying with in earlier films and uses them all for a single goal: the creation of an almost blank narrative where anything is possible and all things could be inferred. Cruising remains fascinating because it doesn't just ask but rather demands that the viewer fill in the blanks themselves. It is the complete opposite of the goal of most Hollywood films: the creation of as much synthesis as possible and expressions of mass emotion. Cruising intends only to get a reaction out of its audience. What that reaction is says as much about Cruising as it does about you.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

INVICTUS Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

The Presidency of Barack Obama supposedly ushered in an era of post-racialism. Of course, this is nonsense but it does set up an interesting parallel with the Presidency of fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. Mandela's goal was to create a post-racial South Africa or at the very least a racially cohabitable South Africa and this becomes the core of the new film by Clint Eastwood. Attempting to unify rather than divide, Mandela creates his own "team of rivals" by forcing his black security officers to work side by side with white ones. The fact that these very men may have been their oppressors a few years earlier is not lost on anyone. But Mandela believes in the power of forgiveness and rejects all objections. He intends to prove that the fear Afrikaners have of a South Africa run by blacks is unfounded and that South Africa is for South Africans, white and black. His tool in doing this is a down on their luck rugby club known as the Springboks. Many view this team with their green and gold colors as a symbol of Apartheid and want to change their colors and name. Mandela doesn't agree. He sees the Springboks, much loved by white South Africa, as a way of uniting his country through a shared national pride. When he asks their team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to afternoon tea, Mandela has a simple goal: to inspire the Springboks to win the 1995 World Cup. Not surprisingly, Pienaar is speechless.

INVICTUS is based on a true story and never has a true story seemed more like a bag of movie cliches. This must be an example of life imitating art and B movie art at that. Basically the film is your garden variety underdog sports flick placed within an historical context. You've seen this before in films like Rocky, Rudy, The Bad News Bears, and Hoosiers. All the bases of that genre are covered-the seemingly "impossible" goal of winning, the initial lack of teamwork, and believe it or not, the "star" player is even injured before the big game. Anyone care to guess if he shows up to play before the final quarter?

The intersecting of these sports story cliches with history is what distinguishes the movie. Working from John Carlin's book "Playing the Enemy", screenwriter Anthony Peckham gives Eastwood a real spine to bring it all together: William Ernest Henley's poem, "Invictus". Latin for "Unconquered", it was a source of inspiration for Mandela during his time in Robben Island prison, a mantra that kept him from giving up. He gives these words to Pienaar to inspire him and the spiritual words of human courage and dignity allow him to walk a short distance in Mandela's shoes giving him the drive to unite and motivate his team. Two stories about politics and sport become one story about the power of the human spirit.

Clint Eastwood has gone from the most underrated filmmaker in America to the most overrated in less than a decade. A concious shift from thrillers and action movies to Stanley Kramer type Oscar bait subjects has created an illusion about him. INVICTUS is no different in aesthetic than SUDDEN IMPACT or BLOOD WORK and yet those films didn't garner him BEST DIRECTOR accolades. Eastwood just does what he has always done and that is to tell the story in the simplest, most unaffected way possible. There are no dazzling shots here, no slight of hand montage or startling transitions. He has mastered the form of classical Hollywood studio filmmaking. A form that prided itself on making the gears as invisible as possible. This could be construed as old fashioned and right from the start there is something very quaint about the way Eastwood tells this story. Everything seems stripped down to the most basic of elements. It seems as if he were retelling some ancient myth about heroes and not a realistic story at all. There is virtually no characterization in the film that goes beyond the archetypal. Both star roles are defined as much by the real life figures as by the star persona playing them. The Mandela presented in the film is the one most of us hold in our imaginations-a man of near indomitable will and courage. Morgan Freeman plays the role with all the gravitas and dignity he carries with him in even the smallest of roles. Any suggestion of complexity such as his divorce or his estrangement from his daughter is used merely to create a sense of isolation around the man. He is meant to be a kind of Gandolf figure in the story, a dead "father" whose spirit inspires a nation.

Matt Damon's Francois Pienaar is even more abstract. He isn't a person so much as an idea-white South Africa coming to terms with it's past. To go a bit further with this Joseph Campbell reading, the "Invictus" poem is used like the Force from STAR WARS. When Pienaar meets Mandela, he is visibly shaken by the experience as though he were touched by God. The voice of Mandela reading the stirring final lines of the poem, "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul" play out repeatedly in Pienaar's mind until its ghostly power finds a context when he visits Mandela's 6 foot square cell on Robben Island. Pienaar and Mandela, white and black, politics and sport all come together there.

You might think from the above description that the movie is actually "good". In one respect you would be right. INVICTUS sometimes works better than it deserves to as an old fashioned,predictable entertainment. In another filmmaker's hands the Capra-corn would just be too much. Eastwood's poker faced style keeps the film grounded-not in reality but in some old movie world of myth. But in the end the film is just too obvious and simplistic to have any lasting effect. Everything is a slave to three act storytelling taking us from racial divide on both sides to forced equality and finally racial unity symbolized by hugs. The Springboks at first refuse to sing the new National Anthem but of course at the World Cup they do and with great pride; Pienaar's father spews racial venom throughout but relents when his son has an extra ticket for their black housekeeper-a woman seen previously as an employee at best; Mandela's rainbow guard begin full of suspicion and anger but end up as real colleagues and friends-even playing Rugby themselves on the Presidential lawn. Not only does Mandela proudly watch this from his window with an approving smile but he is then made to say, "See. Do you still think it's just a sport now?" The director even includes a kind of Greek chorus of songs co-written by himself that are awfully unsubtle as in the appropriately titled "Colorblind". That one actually made me cringe a bit.

Regardless of the fact that INVICTUS is based on a true story, the film is exactly the kind of film Eastwood has always made. A genre film not some deep and moving treatise on the human condition. It's a popular entertainment in which the "good guys" in green and gold beat the bad New Zealanders in BLACK. Believe it or not, they are even known as the "ALL BLACK". Mandela gets his moment for South Africa on the international stage and gives the cup to Pienaar who thanks him for being so awesome. All that was forgotten once again was a medal for Chewbacca.