Place of pain

In Iraq the term, “hurt locker” is a colloquialism among soldiers for a place of ultimate pain, a place where you go when a bomb explodes, a prison from which there is no escape except through death.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Award-winning film, The Hurt Locker, traces the final 39 days of deployment of an elite bomb squad within the US Army’s Bravo company. The film begins with a quote by former New York Times war correspondent, Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”. And Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is addicted. Each of the 873 bombs he’s disarmed is a hit. “What’s the best way to go about disarming one of these things?” asks one of his superiors in the army. “The way you don’t die, sir”, he replies. Just like that – don’t die.

James arrives at Camp Victory in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad – a little ironic since victory is a very distant concept in a war that has been dragging on since 2003. He’s taking over as team leader of the squad after his predecessor died while disarming an IED, or Improvised Explosive Device. Iraqi cities are full of these homemade roadside bombs, which are much harder to detect than conventional bombs, and therefore much deadlier.

James joins Sergeant JT Sanborne (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) in their uphill battle to clear the streets of the city. While Sanborne and Eldridge display a healthy fear in the execution of their task, James seems intent on taunting death. He dismisses the body suit that would protect him should a bomb explode while he is busy working. He keeps a box full of bomb parts or other “stuff” that nearly killed him. There is only one thing he loves, one thing that makes him feel alive – the immanence of death.

This isn’t your average Will Smith action movie. It’s something like a terror-suspense-drama-action. There is no hardcore rock music playing in the background as the hero walks away from an explosion in slow motion. In fact, there’s little background music at all. Because in real life, in a real war, there is no soundtrack. The soldiers don’t brush off the shrapnel and bullets like flies. Real soldiers are shit-scared. They know they can die any minute. There’s no way to tell which of the locals are friends or foes. In one scene a local films the squad as they disarm a bomb and Eldridge wonders whether they will soon be YouTubed (executions of American soldiers by Islamic militants are often broadcast on the web).

The film caused a lot of ‘buzz’ in Hollywood, perhaps because of its competition with, Avatar. While the latter has now become the largest global box-office hit in history, The Hurt Locker is the lowest-grossing film ever to win the Oscar for Best Film. Then there is the fact that the directors, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were previously married. And Bigelow’s Academy Award for Best Director was the first given to a woman in that category.

There was never any doubt that the Academy would pick either one or the other to walk away with the top award. The question is: which film deserved the golden statuette more? Well, the films are so different – Avatar is a fantasy while The Hurt Locker tries to portray the gritty reality of war. Avatar is visually beautiful and easy to watch. The Hurt Locker is none of these. Avatar is effect-driven. The Hurt Locker is plot-driven. Although film as a medium naturally relies on the visual, giving Avatar the edge, it lacks depth. And then there is the ideology of war film.

Although the Academy praised The Hurt Locker for being “apolitical”, just because a film isn’t overt propaganda, doesn’t mean it isn’t ideologically imbued. American soldiers suffer in Iraq, and the film’s portrayal of the realities of working for a bomb squad is pretty accurate judging by a recent documentary broadcast on the investigative journalism television show, Carte Blanche. However, like the documentary, the does have a one-sided slant. In all likelihood, it may be impossible for an American to make a film that isn’t just a little sympathetic in its attitude towards the war against terrorism. And US Defence Secretary Robert Gates liked The Hurt Locker, which is enough for me to detract ever so slightly from its credibility. However, there’s no denying that the film is less sexy than other Hollywood productions like Kingdom of Heaven or In the Valley of Elah.

The Hurt Locker at least has some indie-cred – it’s low budget and there are no big names attached to it. I didn’t even recognise the director’s name until I Googled it and saw she had directed the surfer cult-classic, Point Break. And the lead actor, Jeremy Renner has also been flying under the radar for a while with supporting roles in films like 28 Weeks Later.

Bigelow does lend some hope that American directors are now trying to distance themselves from rhetoric and instead, tell ‘real’ stories. The upcoming (South African) release Matt Damon’s upcoming Green Zone, which has been huffed and puffed about for its supposed “anti-American” sentiment. We can but hope this is trend…

Director: Kathryn Bigelow – Point Break (surfer cult classic)
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Awards: 6 Oscars including Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
Rating: 4 out of 5

Singularly brilliant

Many critics aren’t fond of novel-to-film adaptations because they believe the visual can’t capture the nuances of the written word, particularly third-person narration. And I tend to agree. While The Scarlett Letter is a classic piece of literature, the on-screen version left much to be desired (although it could be because Demi Moore played the lead). The same happened with Perfume (Tom Tykwer), Love in the time of Cholera (Mike Newell) and, although it’s narrated in the first-person, the recent The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson) – all great books because the narratives are expressed through thought rather than dialogue or action. And all films that lack the weight of the central characters’ self-contained worlds.

Perhaps that is why I fell in love with A Single Man (I’ve also been in love with Colin Firth for a while) – I didn’t read Christopher Isherwood’s novel, upon which the film is based, and so, I can’t venture an opinion on the appropriateness of using first-person narration in film as an attempt to translate the imagination of the protagonist, something which is more easily captured in words. And that is probably a good thing because there is a chance I would not have appreciated the film as much had I read the novel first.

Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut is a film scholar’s dream. It has everything that is necessary for a film worthy of analysis: plot, character, award-winning actors and the kind of cinematography that makes you want to weep for its beauty. Every mise-en-scène has been carefully constructed so that everything has meaning. Ford has been heavily criticised for making the film ‘too beautiful’. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it “Bereavement by Dior”, while Mail & Guardian reviewer, Shaun de Waal, though it “over-styled”. But film is a visual medium after all. It is like comparing paintings by Kandinsky and Hieronymus Bosch and calling the latter cluttered.

The film traces a day in the life of George (Firth), a gay literature professor living in Los Angeles during the Cold War-obsessed 1960s. He’s grieving the loss of his life partner of 16 years, Jim, who died in a car accident eight months before. George struggles to carry on, partly because he’s never had the chance to go through the ritual of saying goodbye to his lover (Jim’s family refused to let him attend the funeral). The death of a loved one results in a sense of disconnectedness from everyday life – how does the world simply go on while one’s own has stopped? As George sits in his bathroom he stares out the window and observes the outside world: his neighbours arguing, a little girl playing in the dirt, a young boy squashing a butterfly – echoing the brevity of life. “Just get through the god damn day”, he tells himself.

George meticulously plans his suicide as he goes through the routine of the day and the contrast between his thoughts and actions results in something that recalls theatre of the absurd. George’s life, as life in general, is made up of a series of moments that seem meaningless at times. However, as the day progresses, he encounters different people who all make him reassess his life – a conversation with a struggling actor, dinner with his best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore) and a drink with a student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). These moments are ones of “absolute clarity, when for a few brief seconds the silence drowns out the noise and [he] can feel rather than think, and things seem so sharp and the world seems so fresh”.

What makes the film so enjoyable is that there is plenty of dark humour behind the drama. The scene in which George tries to kill himself is comical in its absurdity. He wants to shoot himself but can’t get comfortable on the bed. He then decides to rather kill himself in the shower (perhaps to save someone the trouble of cleaning up all the blood off the sheets) but he slips and falls down. He then rather bizarrely proceeds to lay out a sleeping bag on his bed and zip himself up completely. The phone rings, ruining the ‘moment’ and he postpones his plans.

In A Single Man, Firth has managed to score his ‘role of a lifetime’. While he’s always been a solid lead actor, he’s never been this emotional, this immersed in a character. And Julianne Moore is radiant (as always) as Charley – Firth’s drama queen former lover and closest confidante. Nicholas Hoult on the other hand is barely recognisable – the cute kid from About a Boy is gone and in his place is a grown-up, sexy and promising young actor.

A Single Man shows how life is about human relationships, about our connection to others. Grief serves to cut us off from this but, just as in every shot of the film, there is something that has meaning and that maybe, as George concludes, “everything is exactly the way it was meant to be”.

Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Colin Firth (George), Julianne Moore (Charley), Nicholas Hoult (Kenny), Matthew Goode (Jim)
Awards: Oscar nomination for Best Male Actor – Colin Firth
Rating: 5 out of 5 (I don’t seem to have watched any really awful movies lately?!)

Uncomplicated fun in Streep comedy

Finding a witty romantic comedy that isn’t drenched in clichés is like finding something in your size (that you would actually consider wearing) at a clothing sale – highly unlikely. Then again, few romcoms can boast the talents of one the greatest actors of our time, Meryl Streep, or the comic genius of prime-time television giant, Alec Baldwin (30 Rock). With It’s Complicated, writer-director Nancy Meyers manages to hit the funnybone yet again, following her success with The Holiday (2006) and Something’s Gotta Give (2003).

Jane Adler (Streep) has been divorced from Jake (Baldwin) for ten years, after he left her for a younger woman. Jane has moved on with her life – she’s finally renovating her house, she runs a very successful confectionary and she looks absolutely incredible for a woman her age (the exact number is never mentioned in the film but it’s safe to say she’s probably somewhere in her 50s). However, she laments the fact that she has no sex life or even the possibility of romance.

Then, at their son’s graduation, Jane and Jake have a little too much Pinot Noir and end up in bed together. Despite Jane’s initial reservations and feeble protests, the two embark on a delicious affair that sees them questioning whether their relationship could have a second chance. At the same time, Jane’s newfound spontaneity leads her to date her architect, Adam (Steve Martin).

While Streep is not new to comedy (she did win a Golden Globe for The Devil Wears Prada), we’ve never seen her let loose the way she does in It’s Complicated, and it is a feast. Funnyman Steve Martin hasn’t been, well, funny, in quite some time. But, after a string of feeble comedies over the past few years, he’s back and he makes good use of his all-too short time in the film to show that he can still elicit some laughs.

It’s Complicated is the Sex and the City for women over 50 – it explores ideas around women, sex and relationships in the later years of life. The plot is fabulously uncomplicated but Meyers treats the story with intelligence and a sense of fun. It’s pure, light-hearted, Saturday night, I-don’t-want-to-think-of-anything-serious-right-now entertainment.

Writer & Director: Nancy Meyers
Cast: Meryl Streep (Jane Adler), Alec Baldwin (Jake), Steve Martin (Adam)
Rating: 3½ out of 5

Golden Globe nominations:
Best motion picture – musical or comedy
Best actress in a musical or comedy
Best motion picture screenplay