The Hurt Locker is a riveting experience, but it's not without its problems. Also, we recap some of the most notable offerings from the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Hope everyone has a relaxing and safe Independence Day. "Relaxing" and "safe" – those are definitely two words that wouldn't describe The Hurt Locker. I review that harrowing war movie, but I also want to draw your attention down the page to the astounding films I saw as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival's terrific "Films That Got Away" series, which gives little-seen modern-day classics their first L.A. screening.
The Hurt Locker (Summit Entertainment) It was 11 summers ago that Saving Private Ryan ushered in the modern war movie, and even now when another comes down the pike Steven Spielberg's film is the one we compare it to – not because it's some unimpeachable masterpiece but because it's the one that created the template for how so many of them since look and feel.
There are moments in The Hurt Locker that recall the unvarnished terror of that earlier film – I had forgotten what it was like to watch a war movie and sense that danger lurked on every square inch of the screen. The hand-held camera, the brutal nonchalance of the battle scenes, the total immersion into the unremitting uncertainty of a war zone where there is no safe place to hide – these are the cinematic elements that Saving Private Ryan gave us, and they're what director Kathryn Bigelow has brought to the trickiest of current genres, the Iraq War movie.
But Saving Private Ryan's other legacy is here as well, and it's less impressive – the emphasis on realistic battle scenes over developed characters. No matter the commitment and rugged authenticity Jeremy Renner brings to his bomb defuser, the character plays like a frontline cliché – the cocky, confident hot shot destined to finally run into emotions he doesn't know how to handle. As for his co-stars, you've got the same pluses and minuses – despite the film's unpredictable rhythms, you can feel rather confident guessing who will survive or nor based simply on the way the characters are drawn by first-time screenwriter Mark Boal.
Lord knows Bigelow is 40 times the action director Michael Bay is, and her battle sequences cover the gamut – visceral, silently tense, satisfyingly gritty, with only the occasional traces of the sort of melodrama that can make life-or-death fictional moments come across as manipulative. (I expected better from this film than to have one especially troubling sequence get kick-started by a character informing another that, don't worry, this is just going to be a routine day.) But it’s worth nothing that 22 summers ago to the day that The Hurt Locker came out, a war film called Full Metal Jacket opened, and while Kubrick's movie has obvious faults, its insidious anxiety has transcended the specific war it was supposed to be portraying. It's impossible to know if Bigelow's undeniably gripping film will be remembered as a landmark or just a very well-done genre movie, but I do worry that for an Iraq War movie, it doesn't have all that much to say about the Iraq War – or any other war, for that matter.
The Girl From Monaco (Magnolia Pictures, opens July 3) What is this, a Woody Allen movie? Older man befriends a nubile weathergirl who inexplicably has the hots for him, leading to scenes of comic befuddlement and impressive cleavage. French writer-director Anne Fontaine’s The Girl From Monaco may just be a romantic bauble, but highly disposable pleasure goes down a lot smoother if you like the characters, and I really enjoyed all three leads. Fabrice Luchini plays Bertrand, a cultivated attorney whose latest case demands that he be protected by Christophe (Roschdy Zem), an imposing bodyguard who’s taciturn and a ladykiller. In walks Audrey, a beautiful weathergirl played by an actual weathergirl, Louise Bourgoin, in her first film role. Bertrand falls for Audrey, Audrey and Christophe have a past, Bertrand is the defense counselor for a high-profile murder case, and Audrey is really, really gorgeous and really, really promiscuous. It’s probably easiest to classify this thing as an upscale sex comedy.
Others have pointed out that Audrey’s lack of morals would seem misogynistic if The Girl From Monaco was directed by a man, but the film isn’t – Fontaine has imagined her as a sexual whirligig whose pursuit of her own desires has a real nobility to it, even if she professes to love Bertrand while occasionally shagging other men. By comparison, the two male characters’ vague ideas about masculinity and relationships are just limp pieces of paper that get swept into the air by her carnal force.
The Girl From Monaco is never deeper than a thimble, which doesn’t mean that it’s dimwitted. Still, I wish its surface pleasures added up to a little more, which would have helped when Fontaine goes for a poignant ending she doesn’t entirely pull off.
Soul Power (Sony Pictures Classics, opens July 10) Soul Power won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and it’s easy to understand why. Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte has put together footage from “Zaire ’74,” the epic R&B concert that took place in Africa to coincide with the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight bout chronicled in When We Were Kings, and one of the smartest choices he makes is not to include any contemporary interviews. Instead, we’re transported back 35 years into the past, watching as the concert gets organized in America and realized in Zaire, culminating in some terrific musical performances. The Bill Withers and B.B. King sets are great, several others are good, and James Brown simply isn’t on enough – there’s no need to explain how fantastic he is in Soul Power since rock and pop critics have spent the last 45 years or so going into the details of his genius.
But if the performances make you nostalgic, so will Soul Power’s structure, which recalls the warm, you-are-there vibe of Woodstock and The Last Waltz as we follow along like a giddy fly on the wall, watching history happen. The concert documentary has become another marketing tool for bands, but Soul Power remembers when they used to be chronicles of events – that sort of experience, like James Brown himself, isn’t coming back any time soon. Música Nocturna (screened as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival’s “Films That Got Away” series) Though not mandatory, I recommend seeing Argentine director Rafael Filipelli’s marital drama as late at night as possible. Música Nocturna doesn’t offer a ton of story, but what happens happens late in the evening in Buenos Aires, which not entirely unlike Stanley Kubrick’s equally nocturnal Eyes Wide Shut becomes this sort of sleepy netherworld somewhere between real and dream. Novelist Federico (Enrique Pineyro) and playwright Cecilia (Silvia Arazi) are the married couple who are, technically, still in love but are going through separate temptations and doubts about their bond. Filipelli quietly observes Federico’s creative paralysis and Cecilia’s midnight strolls with a potential flame, and anybody who’s been in a long-enough relationship will recognize the hints of betrayal, anger and fear that pass by unspoken in Música Nocturna’s quiet passages. Maybe Federico and Cecilia will stay together, maybe they won’t. But this is the sort of film you might want to check back in on every two or three years just to see how your impressions change over time.
United Red Army (screened as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival’s “Films That Got Away” series) Two colleagues advised me how best to approach Japanese director Kōji Wakamatsu’s three-hour epic about the titular paramilitary group: “It’s densely layered, but the rewards are worth it,” one said; “Just make it through the first hour,” the other said, “and you’ll be fine.” They’re both right – United Red Army occasionally feels like a history textbook that’s gone to an awful lot of trouble to bookmark and footnote every detail, but if Wakamatsu didn’t care so much about laying out Japan’s political unrest in the 1960s and ‘70s in his film’s first hour, what happens in the next two hours wouldn’t matter as much. That’s not to say that the film didn’t inspire a fair share of walkouts at the public screening I attended during its second hour – after we get 60 minutes of history, then we get 60 minutes of systematic brainwashing as the revolution’s leaders sadistically break down their members. Several people around me were shaking their heads and sighing in frustration as if wondering why we were being subjected to such mental torture, but I think this is the finest of United Red Army’s three hour-long sequences: Wakamatsu very methodically is illustrating how ideology can lead to moral rot if it’s not given enough oxygen. Then comes the film’s final hour, a grim standoff with the police which, to my mind, is Wakamatsu’s way of giving these revolutionaries a shot at spiritual redemption. The festival program notes called United Red Army a “Japanese Che,” but Steven Soderbergh’s film reveled in its intellectual dispassion. Wakamatsu views his young revolutionaries with sober eyes, but there’s no chill to United Red Army. It’s a demanding, obsessive, satirical, angry, sympathetic movie. And it’s smart enough to warn future revolutionaries that the leaders they shouldn’t follow might be the very ones within their own ranks.
The Silence Before Bach (screened as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival’s “Films That Got Away” series) As I get older, it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that I get off on other people’s pleasure. Whether in art or in real life, I don’t necessarily need to agree with the individual’s passion – all that matters is that he or she loves it dearly and can articulate that love to the rest of us. Spanish director Pere Portabella adores Johann Sebastian Bach, and so he’s gone about making an anti-biopic about the composer as reverent and provocative as the one Todd Haynes made about Bob Dylan. But where I’m Not There occasionally got tripped up on the minutiae of Dylan’s public persona, The Silence Before Bach is pure – pure sensation, pure emotion, pure cinema. The film has no narrative – it’s just a loose collection of vignettes that bounce around between time periods and characters – but I can’t think of a movie that so brilliantly segued organically between its non sequiturs, which are linked together by some seemingly subliminal connection between art and beauty and wonder. I know nothing of Bach, and I can’t say I “learned” much about him from The Silence Before Bach. But that’s not what Portabella’s after. As he pushes 80, it’s impossible not to see the film as a final thanks to the power of art to elevate and inspire. Not every sequence works perfectly, but I hardly cared – so many of them peak so high that they compensate. Here’s a film where you walk out babbling about the cellists in the subway train, the male choir, the player piano that seems to glide down the hallway on its own. Movies this indebted to the wealth of their sensory experience can diminish a little in repeat viewings when you know what to expect. We’ll have to see if that occurs here, but all I can say now is this movie is a colossus.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.