erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2009 posts

Friday August 21, 2009

Review: “In the Loop” (2009)


I think war is unforeseeable.

That’s the big joke in “In the Loop,” a British comedy about the insane and petty circumlocutions and politicking in a ramp-up to a U.S.-led war in the Middle East that will otherwise go unnamed. All jokes in the film stem from this one.

Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the minister for international development, is on a bland British radio show, dealing with the bland issues in his field; then he’s asked about the impending war, says the above line, and all hell breaks loose.

“He did not say ‘unforeseeable,’” says Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the hilariously profane Scottish director of communications at Number 10 Downing Street. “You may have heard him say that but he did not say that.” And there’s our modern political world in a nutshell. You didn’t hear what you heard. You didn’t see what you saw. Or turn it on its head: You know (ex: WMDs) what you don’t really know. You can probably divide politicians into these two camps. You can probably divide people into those two camps. Those who know what they don’t know, like Tucker, and those who don’t know what they know, like Foster. The former are full of passionate intensity while the latter lack all conviction.

Foster, lacking all conviction, backtracks while talking to Tucker:

Foster: I don’t think war is unforeseeable.
Tucker: What is it then?
Foster: I don’t know. Foreseeable?
Tucker: No. No!

The beauty is that Foster is right on both counts. In general, war is unforeseeable, since so many factors going into its creation. On the other hand, this war is foreseeable, since the big dog, an unnamed U.S. administration, is hell-bent on having it.

Which leaves Foster nowhere to go. He’s stuck on the tiny island of his statement and winds up spouting gibberish to reporters the next day:

Look. To the plane, in the fog, the mountain unforeseeable, but then it is suddenly very real and...foreseeable.

Because his original line is perceived as anti-war, he attempts, in this follow-up, to sound more martial:

To walk the road of peace sometimes we have to be ready to climb...the mountain...of conflict.

Disaster. But within the U.S. administration, he’s suddenly seen as both anti-war (the original statement) and pro-war (the follow-up), and both sides try to use him for their purposes. An anti-war general, Miller (James Gandolfini), talking with an anti-war assistant secretary of state, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), predicts, “You’re going to use him like a little meat puppet.” Meanwhile, Linton Barwick (David Rasche, doing a pitch-perfect Donald Rumsfeld), tapes the “mountain of conflict” line onto computers all over his department.

U.S. officials request Foster’s presence in D.C. for planning sessions, but even as he arrives with a go-getting assistant, Toby Wright (Chris Addison), he’s kept out of the loop. Most of the activity within the film, from Foster and almost everyone else, is to try to get in the loop—but only for the sake of being in the loop. So that one appears powerful. So that one appears to matter. Once there, though, and once called upon: disaster. No one, in the end, can use Foster because all of his energy is spent trying get to a place of consequence in order to act in an inconsequential manner.

“In the Loop” is good satire, necessary satire, but parts of it feel like weak tea. I went in with the highest of expectations (critics were comparing it to “Dr. Strangelove”), and they weren’t met. Don’t know whether to blame the expectations or the film. In other sharp, political satires (“Strangelove,” “Wag the Dog”), the characters (“Buck” Turgidson, Pres. Merkin Muffley, Stanley Motts) felt vivid in a way that these don’t, and it was a kind of “Ah ha!” moment when I discovered that the film was a spin-off of a British TV series, “The Thick of It,” about the inner workings of the British government. The film made me want to watch the series, but the fact of the series made me realize why the film seems small-screen.

I still admire it. I still recommend it. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s right. One of my favorite moments comes late in the film, when the pious Linton Barwick bumps heads with the profane Malcolm Tucker, in, all of places, the U.N. Meditation Room. Barwick, unable to swear, calls Tucker “a useless piece of s * * t,” pronouncing the last word, “ess-star-star-tee.” Tucker, unable to not swear, counters, “You are a boring old eff-star-star-CUNT.”

I roared. Brilliant.

Posted at 09:50 AM on Aug 21, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Monday August 10, 2009

Review: “Julie & Julia” (2009)


Has a movie ever been made, in which past and present are juxtaposed, where the present is not found wanting? “The Godfather—Part II,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Lone Star,” all say, more or less, the same thing: We suck.

“Julie & Julia” says it, too, although, one asssumes, unintentionally. It’s less the point of the juxtaposition than a consequence of it.

Sure, there are similarities to the title characters' stories. Off-hand comments by husbands push each onto their respective journeys. Julia Child (Meryl Streep), unsure what to do with her life in France in 1949, learns French cooking and, in collaboration with two French chefs (OK, one French chef), writes a French cookbook for Americans that sweeps the nation. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), unsure what to do with her life in Queens in 2002, spends a year cooking all 524 recipes in the Julia Child cookbook and writes a blog about it that sweeps the blogosphere.

Those are the similarities. Here are the differences.

Julia Child begins by looking inward: What do I want to do with my life? Julie Powell begins by looking outward: My friends have successful lives; why don’t I?

Julia Child spends years, literally years, writing and rewriting and testing her cookbook, before a publisher finally agrees to publish it. Julie Powell spends months, literally months, blogging about Julia’s recipes before she’s written up in The New York Times and offers for book deals come flooding in.

The great impediment to Julia’s cookbook involves the national tragedy of her time, McCarthyism, which ensnares her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), and spins the couple from this to that foreign service assignment in this and that country. The great impediment to Julie’s blog is either her own self-absorption, which ensnares her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), and spins him away from her for a night, or the national tragedy of her time, the 9/11 attacks, since her day job is to listen to and direct complaints and ideas about the fall of the twin towers. But she feels she’s above it. In fact, the whole point of her blog is to avoid that day job; to avoid the national tragedy of her time.

Most importantly, Julia Child has a joie de vivre that’s infects even the most dour French merchant and brightens any room. Julie Powell has a solipsistic petulance that infects even the most supportive of husbands and drags down any conversation.

As a result, you want to be with the former and you want to run from the latter. You care about the former’s story, less so the latter’s.

Location helps. Paris in ’49, c’mon. Plus that wonderful relationship with Paul. Plus all that wonderful food. Plus Meryl. No modifier necessary. She’s always good, but you watch her in a role like this and you’re amazed all over again. A reviewer wrote that she inhabits the role, and she does. She takes a real person, who has been caricatured for decades, and humanizes her by moving toward the caricature rather than away from it. There’s a triple joy here: the joy Julia brings into the room, the apparent joy Meryl has playing her, and the very real joy we have watching her play her. I didn’t want those scenes to end.

We learn a lot about someone we thought we knew. Eric, Julie’s husband—who looks like every boyfriend that ever appeared on “Sex and the City”—delivers a key line: “Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child.” And she wasn’t. But a file clerk with the OSS? Who knew? It’s where she met her husband, a designer, and after the war he got stationed in Paris and she looked for something to occupy herself. “Shouldn’t I find something to do?” Meryl says in that high sing-song. She wanted to have children but couldn’t, which the movie deals with touchingly and efficiently. A glance in the park and a letter from her sister. Not a word spoken but a lifetime said.

She was a fighter. She had to fight her way into Le Cordon Bleu, she had to fight her way through drafts of the cook book, she had to fight the feeling it wasn’t worth it. She was all about taking the time to make it right, but we get a sense of where things are heading for our poor country when executives at Houghton Mifflin turn down her book as too imposing, too difficult for 1950s American housewives. Housewives, they implied, wanted quicker meals. But you speed up the timeframe and the meal isn’t the same. You speed up the timeframe and the life isn’t the same. We get 10 years of Julia’s life and one of Julie’s. Julia’s life is spread out like a ten-course meal while Julie’s is crammed into a Stouffers bag. Maybe that’s part of the reason Julia objected to Julie’s self-imposed year-in-the-life. The point isn’t to cram into; it’s to open up.

“Julie & Julia” is more than two hours long and I wanted more. I wanted to see how Julia got on TV. I wanted Julia, in her 90s, to appear at some moment in Julie’s life. I wanted more Julia, obviously, and more Meryl, who should get another Oscar nomination for this, and maybe, finally, that elusive third statuette. Our time comes off wanting, sure, but it is. But in that wanting, in that juxtaposition, a truer path is revealed. There’s no way our culture will take this truer path—the momentum is all in the other direction—but it doesn’t meant you and I can’t.

Bon appetit.

Posted at 08:20 AM on Aug 10, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Thursday August 06, 2009

Review: “Funny People” (2009)


“Funny People” is a naturalistic comedy the way that musicals about singers and dancers are naturalistic. It makes sense when those guys sing and dance, and it makes sense when these guys—stand-up comics at various stages of fame in Hollywood—are funny. That’s what they do. They don’t laugh much, either. They might nod and say, “That’s good,” but they don’t laugh. We do, though. I did. Harder than at any movie I’ve seen this year.

Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a stand-up comic turned world-famous movie star, who, at the outset, learns he has a rare form of leukemia, and there’s little chance he’ll survive.

Confronted with his own mortality, he retreats to his Malibu mansion and watches, on five televisions, five versions of himself at various stages of his career. In the center image he’s young and doing stand-up comedy, and this makes him smile wistfully. The next time we see him he’s making a guest appearance at one of the local improv clubs. But his material is unfunny and solipsistic: “Who’ll make you laugh when I go?” etc. He hasn’t told anyone yet that he’s dying so maybe this is his way? Maybe he can only be serious through comedy? But it merely leaves an uncomfortable silence in the room. In true improv fashion, though, he tries to riff off that silence. “You hear that?” he whispers. “I think I can hear the freeway.” He’s pushing into the uncomfortable in search of the humorous but doesn’t find it. The amateur following him, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), whose own material isn’t working, does. He comments upon the weirdness of the George Simmons appearance, and everyone laughs, and by the bar you see Simmons’ face fall. He’s become the butt of the joke rather than its teller.

In the parking lot the two encounter each other—Simmons has been crying in his SUV—and while Ira acts the fan (“We kinda grew up on your shit”), Simmons is both complimentary and insulting, and he offhandedly offers Ira a gig writing jokes for him before insulting him one last time and driving off. The next day Ira’s at home. He has two roommates. Mark (Jason Schwartzman) is making big bucks on his crappy “inner city” sitcom, “Yo, Teach!,” while Leo (Jonah Hill), who had a more successful set at the improv club, is getting millions of hits on YouTube with his trojan-horse kitten videos. Meanwhile Ira is working the deli counter at Otto’s grocery store. Until George Simmons calls. George is serious about the writing gig, which he offers to both Ira and “the triple XL version of you”—Leo—but, with hardly a glance back at Leo, Ira says his friend is too busy but he’ll take it himself. He fucks Leo over, in other words. This is this world.

Ira now enters Simmons’ world, where his job is not merely to write jokes but to be Simmons’ friend. But Simmons is where he is because he’s quick and brutal, and now he’s quick and brutal and rich and famous, and used to getting his way, and Ira is none of these things. It’s a tough go. He becomes the guy who holds Simmons’ hand while he’s falling asleep; the one who, with a perfect 2:2 babe-to-Jewish-schlub ratio, winds up alone. He’s also the guy who writes Simmons’ lines for a MySpace appearance but uses the material himself when forced to open. Apparently all’s fair in love and stand-up.

And he’s the guy to whom Simmons reveals his disease. One wonders: “Doesn’t Simmons have anyone else?” The short answer is no. He’s rich in money, poor in friends. The anti-George Bailey.

The trailer makes the film’s characters out to be fairly heartwarming but they’re not. It makes it seem that Simmons’ brush with death makes him a better person but it doesn’t. After Ira enters his life, George contacts friends and family he’s lost touch with—including Laura (Leslie Mann), the girl who got away a dozen years ago. When the experimental drugs work and the disease goes into remission, he is determined to get Laura back—despite her husband, Clarke (Eric Bana), and their two girls. Like most things in life, George gets what he wants. And like most things in life, he fails to appreciate it. Laura, ready to leave her husband, shows George and Ira footage of her eldest daughter singing a song from “Cats” at a school function. While Ira is overwhelmed, George spends his time checking his blackberry. As soon as he does, we know he’s doomed. Many things happen in the interim, but this is the true reason Laura retracts her offer and stays with her husband. Why risk everything on such a selfish prick?

On the ride home George tears into Ira, and that ends that. Life returns, more or less, to where it was at the beginning. George is not sick, Laura is with Clarke, Ira is working the deli. But we do get some small reconciliation. George shows up at the deli, apologizes, and he and Ira talk stand-up. They spitball ideas. They feed off each other, and the camera pans back and the movie ends. It’s a sweet scene.

Everyone keeps saying that Apatow’s films go on a half-hour too long, and they do, but it’s interesting why they do. Most films give us superclean plotlines. The filmmakers assume we know where the third act is going and take us there without the stickiness of life. Apatow is all about stickiness. He knows that any kind of change, particularly positive change (toward responsibility), is full of starts and stops and stutter-steps. One of the most off-handedly funny things “Funny People” gives us is the George Simmons oeuvre—crap comedies like “Merman,” “My Best Friend is a Robot” (with Owen Wilson) and “Sayonara, Davey!”—and we see scenes from, I believe, two of them. In “The Champion,” Simmons is stuffing his face in a hot-dog-eating contest and the camera pans to the audience where a young boy shouts out, “Dad! This won’t bring Mom back!” (Even writing it down makes me laugh.) In a longer scene, from “Re-Do,” Simmons plays a man who wishes to be young again but is turned into a baby by a wizard. It’s Simmons’ head on a baby’s body. You might’ve seen the footage making the internet rounds a few months back. At one point he gets into an argument with his son (Justin Long) and then comes to this realization: “You know, it took me becoming a baby to realize what it means to be a man. ... Now let’s go find that wizard!”

This is devastating satire on the schlock psychology and easy epiphanies of Hollywood movies, and it’s what Apatow’s fighting against. He knows there are no easy answers. He knows comedy isn’t heartwarming. “Funny People” is an anti-Hollywood movie. It's an anti-movie movie. It's like Eisenhower's farewell address. It's a warning from inside.

Posted at 09:08 AM on Aug 06, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Thursday July 30, 2009

Review: “(500) Days of Summer” (2009)


Here’s how difficult it is to do a love story. “(500) Days of Summer” is one of the smarter, more original romantic comedies released in some time and yet it still reminds me of other love stories. The jumbled chronology, the attempt to remake a magical moment (“Our sink is broken”) and the bittersweet end all recall “Annie Hall.” The architect showing the girl his favorite buildings is like Sam Waterston in “Hannah and her Sisters.” The characters talking directly to the camera, documentary-style, about the time they fell in love, is reminiscent of “When Harry Met Sally,” which itself is reminiscent of “Annie Hall,” while the protagonist’s relationship with his overly mature little sister is straight out of the Holden/Phoebe School—a school that, let’s face it, should’ve closed a while ago.

But at least I was reminded of good stories. More, and to the film’s advantage, I was reminded of my own story—and to an uncomfortable degree. When I was young, like Tom Hansen, the greeting-card writer/architect played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I was short, sensitive, and somewhat passive, and I was once in love with a girl with long dark hair and wide eyes—a girl with whom the world seemed to be in love, too. One difference. 500 days, Tom? Piker.

The poster gives us fair warning. “This is not a love story,” it says. “This is a story about love.” So we expect the end but we still root against it. We want things to turn out right in art, as Alvy Singer says, because they rarely do in life. Also we’ve been conditioned by a million other movies: boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl. How many movies does that describe? “We sell lies,” Tom says of the greeting-card company he works for, New Hampshire Greetings, just before he quits, and he could be talking about Hollywood. He is talking about Hollywood. “What does that even mean—love?” he says. “And we’re responsible. I’m responsible. We do a bad thing here.” This movie is a corrective. It’s Hollywood’s latest mea culpa for feeding us the lies we want to believe in.

Theirs is an unremarkable relationship, isn’t it? Maybe that’s part of the mea culpa. The things Tom and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) do together are the things city couples do together. They go to museums and mock the modern art; they go to IKEA and make jokes about living there; they go to art houses (“The Graduate”) and shop at hip record stores. They have memorable snatches of dialogue. “Nobody loves Ringo Starr,” he says. “That’s what I love about him,” she says.

They already feel bored. I’m sorry. Even at IKEA, a high point in their relationship, they feel heavy and unremarkable together. It’s not like the lobster scene in “Annie Hall,” which is memorable and funny. Maybe it’s because they’re shopping. We see Annie and Alvy cooking together, being together, while we see Tom and Summer shopping together. Shopping is not being.

What’s the most memorable thing they do as a couple? You remember Tom’s magical musical number, his dance with the world after they consummate their relationship; and you remember the world turning gray and dissolving after she breaks up with him. But what happens in between? IKEA? “The Graduate”? Ringo Starr? “Penis”? You could say nothing becomes their relationship like its breaking up.

The movie again offers the male perspective. I hate to keep referring to “Annie Hall” but it's a compliment. You could say there are four tiers of contemporary movies: bad; good; good enough to compare to the best and found wanting; good enough to compare to the best and belong. “(500) Days” is third tier. Not bad. For some youngins not already steeped in “Annie Hall” it may even seem fourth tier. They’ll learn.

So one of the nice things about “Annie Hall” is that we get Annie Hall. She’s a real person. We see her clearly even as she develops, even as she changes. Maybe especially because she changes. The problem with Alvy is that he doesn’t change. His famous line about relationships being like a shark could be self-referential. A person has to keep moving forward or he dies, and Annie keeps moving forward and he doesn’t. He dies. Particularly when he tries to move backward via the second lobster scene.

But who’s Summer? She begins as an unknown and ends as an unknowable. Why does she do what she does? Why is she the way she is? The third-person narrator is no help, either; he tells us about him but not her. The movie buys into her beauty (spiking sales of Belle & Sebastian records; double-takes on the bus) and then implies it’s all in Tom’s head and heart. Do we have to go back to Tennyson to explain her? “Oh if she knew it/To know her beauty might half undo it.” She’s oblivious to her charms but not completely. Maybe she uses her obliviousness as armature—to keep the world out—and maybe that’s why the world keeps trying to get in. Or why Tom does.

The scene at her party is devastating—the true bookend to his magical dance number. Tom tries to tamp down his expectations but the film gives us both, expectations and reality, in a split-screen format. At first reality is a muted version of expectations; then it veers off humorously; but as soon as Tom sees her with the guy, obviously her boyfriend, then showing off her engagement ring to another friend, the difference between expectation and reality isn’t funny anymore. The questions he asks her later at the park bench are the correct questions. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you dance with me if you were going out with someone else?” The unasked question is the question we keep asking: Who are you?

Their relationship is framed by discussions of “the one,” the “meant to be,” the soulmate. He buys into it and she doesn’t. He’s the romantic and she isn’t. There’s a sweetness, I suppose, to the fact that, when she first meets her husband, and falls for him, she thinks of Tom and their discussions. “You were right,” she tells him at the park bench. “It just wasn’t me you were right about.” Tom wins the argument but loses the girl.

After that scene on the park bench, the last scene with the two of them together, we keep following him but I’d rather follow her. What is she like in that relationship? How does she differ from the way she acted with Tom? Him we know. He has to move on, as he does, with an impossibly good-looking girl named Autumn. Seasons change. Cute.

It’s a good movie. Third tier. It should be getting a wider release than it’s getting. Smart kids will like it. It’s not a lie, like greeting cards, like most Hollywood love stories, but it is one-sided. Its omniscient narrator wasn’t so omniscient as to fathom girls.

Posted at 08:51 AM on Jul 30, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Monday July 20, 2009

Review: “The Hurt Locker” (2009)


In 10th grade, we watched a short film in history class about a soldier trying to survive World War I. I remember little about it except that he was handsome, died hours before peace was declared on November 11, 1918, and one of the girls in class moaned with sorrow when it happened. He was so close, so close. It’s a common trope, seen just as often, if not moreso, in police stories: The older detective getting killed just days from retirement.

The makers of “The Hurt Locker,” writer Mark Boal and director Katherine Bigelow, are aware of such melodramatic tropes. From the start they give us a countdown: 37 days left; 16 days left; 2 days left. Time ticks away, like the IEDs in Iraq, and we expect an explosion. It’s a great framing device because it plays into our expectations but doesn’t deliver on them. It upends them. “The Hurt Locker” is a suspense story interested in a different kind of suspense. It’s an heroic story interested in a different kind of hero. It takes our tropes and skews them ever so slightly so we don’t quite know what we’re watching.

It skews them right from the start. The scene is familiar: a dusty street in Baghdad 2004, where a U.S. Army company, Delta Company, arrives and sets a bot (a small, droid-like robot) in motion to uncover and then disarm an IED. But the bot malfunctions and the star of the movie, Sgt. Matt Thompson, who looks remarkably like Guy Pearce, puts on “the suit,” reminiscent of astronaut gear, and goes to work disarming it himself. Several Iraqis are watching from the sidelines and one of them pulls out a cellphone. Immediately Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) leaps into action, yelling orders at both Sgt. Thompson (to get away from the IED) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who advances on the man with weapon drawn, yelling at him to put down the cellphone. In the audience I’m thinking, “Aren’t they overreacting?” But they’re actually underreacting. Most movies give away too much, and in such clearly delineated fashion, that courses of action are obvious. Not Boal and Bigelow. We in the audience are in the same situation as the men in the movie. We don’t know citizen from terrorist, and the guy with the cellphone is a terrorist who uses the cellphone to detonate the IED. As Sgt. Thompson is knocked over by the blast, one sees, or thinks one sees, blood splatter in the glass of his helmet. Is he wounded? How badly? A scene later we get our answer: He’s dead. That was Guy Pearce, and he’s not the star of the movie. The star of the movie, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), arrives to replace him.

Within minutes we’re back in the same situation—IED in the middle of a dusty, Baghdad road—but the caution Sgt. Thompson and Sanborn exercised is tossed away by James. He ignores the bot. He straps on the suit. Then he walks down that Iraqi road less like a clumsy astronaut than with the swagger and purpose of an All-Star walking out to centerfield. We’re on tenterhooks but he’s relatively cool, and disarms one device, then follows the wires until, in the shot captured on the movie poster, he uncovers half-a-dozen live IEDs encircling him. It’s a horrific moment for us but not for him. He almost seems delighted. Urged to flee by Sgt. Sanborn, he instead sits down and disarms them all, then walks back to the HUMVEE and enjoys a quiet cigarette.

The epigraph at the beginning of “The Hurt Locker” is a quote from New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges that war is a drug, and that’s the case for James. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He gets high off danger. He’s also good at his job. Most of us gravitate toward what we’re good at, and James just happens to be good at something that could kill him at any second. How good? After he takes off the suit to disarm a complex car bomb (“If I die, I want to die comfortable”), a nearby colonel (David Morse) corrals him, admires his courage, and asks how many bombs he’s disarmed. He deflects the answer. He’s asked again. “873, sir,” he says. Then the colonel asks him what’s the best way to disarm one. “The way you don’t die, sir,” he responds.

Many critics have admired the supposed “heart-stopping action” of the film, and obviously there are certain tensions when watching someone defuse a bomb—particularly with friendlys or unfriendlys in the area. Why does that guy have a camera? Why aren’t those guys waving to us? Are they waving to us? Or are they waving at the cameraman? Yet after one or two IEDs, the action isn’t so heart-stopping. Either the thing blows up or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, there’s another tomorrow.

No, to me, the real drama is in the tensions between the three men. James is reckless, Sanborn is procedural, Eldridge is guilty. Eldridge knows Sgt. Thompson would be alive if he’d only shot the cellphone-carrying Iraqi, and he carries this with him every second. A desk colonel, John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), tries to get him to open up but Eldridge will have none of it. He demonstrates what’s wracking him by shooting his now-empty rifle. Dead. Click. Not-dead. Dead. Click. Not-dead. Then he guilts Cambridge into coming out of the Green Zone, where, of course, Cambridge gets killed. Yet another thing for Eldridge to carry all his life. He can’t win.

James can. He’s the hero but he’s not. At one point, while exchanging macho stomach punches, Sanborn pulls a knife on him and lays it at his throat. James leans into it. When Sanborn asks him, “Do you think I got what it takes to put on the suit?” James replies, “Hell no.” Which makes us wonder what it does take. Which delivers this answer: A lack of concern about living.

In a way the movie doesn’t go deeply enough into this tri-part relationship. I wanted to know more about Sanborn. I wanted a better discussion of procedural vs. reckless. Might not reckless actually be safer? We saw procedural at the beginning and it sure wasn’t safe for Thompson. Using the bot allowed crowds and enemies to gather. Better to act like James and walk down the street like you’re walking to the beach. Either the thing blows up or it doesn’t.

Boal and Bigelow keep playing with tropes. James befriends, in an offhand way, an Iraqi boy who sells blackmarket DVDs; but when he finds him dead on a table, cut up into a human bomb, he loses it. He goes after the boy’s boss, he breaks into a Baghdad apartment, he runs through the streets of Baghdad after midnight. Then the boy turns up. The dead boy was not his boy. We were already wondering how stable James is and this gives us a better idea. Something ain’t working there.

The best trope in the film is still the countdown to being shipped home. In “The Deer Hunter” there’s that great transition where one moment our boys are partying in rural Pennsylvania and the next moment they’re in a deadly firefight in Vietnam. Boal and Bigelow do the opposite. There’s two days left, James has just met his match with a human IED (although James survives), and our boys are in their HUMVEE getting pelted with rocks from Iraqi children. The next second James is standing in an American grocery store, frozen food aisle, muzak in the background. He’s wearing civilian clothes. He looks ordinary. The grocery store, particularly compared to the bright heat of Iraq, feels cold, devoid of life, awful. It feels like a dream but not a pleasant one. You feel the cultural dissonance James must feel, the dislocation, the difference between that and this. And as awful as that was, this feels worse. The fluorescent lights are not real lights, the music is not real music, the food is not real food. Everything is false. And yet this is what we’re fighting for. It’s one of the best scenes of the year.

It also prefigures James decision to re-up and return to Iraq. The final shot of the film is James swaggering down yet another dusty street in his moonsuit. He could be a cowboy in the Old West. 365 Days Left. But until what? Until the deadness of the frozen-food aisle again. There is no safety.

It’s probably dangerous to see Sgt. James as more than just Sgt. James but I can’t help it. Is he representative? Does he represent us? In other words, is our incessant foreign adventurism the result, in part, of having a home life, and a home culture, that feels like a lie? American culture isn’t what we’re fighting for; it’s actually what we’re running from.

Too broad a stroke, I know. And yet. And yet.

Posted at 08:08 AM on Jul 20, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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