Pretty war or Ugly War? Avatar vs The Hurt Locker

The likely frontrunners in the Oscar race for Best Picture are Avatar and The Hurt Locker, directed, respectively, by former husband and wife James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow. This is an interesting match-up, not so much because they used to be married, or because they are also both nominated for Best Director, but because they both work within the action movie genre, and attempt, in quite different ways, to inject seriousness and ideas into that genre. Both Avatar and The Hurt Locker are, in their disparate ways, also war movies. Also interesting is that Avatar now stands as one of the top-grossing movies of all time, while The Hurt Locker barely registered at the box office. (If you're keeping score, that's over two billion dollars worldwide for Avatar, and a little under $18 million for The Hurt Locker.) In a popularity contest, Avatar wins, hands down. Audiences are more eager to watch pretty blue people on a distant planet fighting an imaginary future war, rather than watch a gritty, nerve-jangling movie about non-blue people fighting an actual war on this planet. Fair enough.

As in the classic David and Goliath matchup, scrappy David is the winner here. I make no predictions about how the Academy will vote -- one never knows -- but I'll be watching with interest. 

Avatar is good. It's quite good, but I don't think it's a *great* movie. I don't even think it's Cameron's best movie. The year is 2154, and Earthlings have invaded a distant planet called Pandora, a world that has the misfortune of being a rich source of unobtainium, a valuable mineral. Even more unlucky are the Na'vi, a race of tall, blue-skinned people who live in harmony with nature, and object to the strip mining of their world. The Na'vi have bows and arrows; the humans have heavily armed mercenaries with machine guns, hovering gunships, and mechas.

They've also got in mind to use a little deception. They've created avatars, hybrid creatures grown from human and Na'vi DNA, who look enough like the Na'vi to almost pass for the real thing (although the avatars have five fingers to the Na'vi's four -- the film is brimming with such small details). A human controls his or her Na'vi avatar from a remote, wired pod, walking among the natives in a tall, blue body. 

Cameron developed a new performance capture technique to create the Na'vi. Performance capture (or motion capture) uses live actors wearing sensors that track their movements, which are then used to digitally render them as animated figures. Efforts to use the technology thus far have generally failed, but Avatar gets it right: the faces of the Na'vi are expressive, dynamic, and alive. The overall movements of the Na'vi bodies are pretty close to perfect (the avatars are clunkier, as might be expected), and also a great leap forward. And Pandora, the beautiful jungle world, is  gorgeous: filled with bioluminescent plants and creatures, flying dragon-like beasts, little things that look like flying jellyfish, and a few carnivorous nasties lurking about among the giant ferns and flowers -- it's a glowing, shimmery, unspoiled paradise. A paradise that will be lost and despoiled if the greedy humans have their way.

Cameron wrote and directed Avatar, and it is peopled by the usual types that populate his films: heartless, mercenary military and corporate guys, a couple of nerds, and a tough woman or three. The Na'vi are pretty clearly meant to call to mind the aboriginal peoples of Earth, who haven't done so well by colonialists. In some ways, Avatar is a straightforward (if otherworldly) cowboys vs. Indians western, only the good guys are the Indians this time. It is also entirely possible (and no doubt intentional) that the allegorical story can support an interpretation grounded in contemporary conflicts and politics. There's also a running anti-corporate theme in Cameron's canon (also found in The Abyss and Aliens), and a seriously pro-green, anti-war tendency, which doesn't stop him from staging epic battles and blowing lots of things up. Avatar isn't just a long setup for a blow 'em up payoff in the third act: you're meant to care about what happens to Pandora and the Na'vi. Avatar invests in its characters, the good and the bad, creating an engrossing story and a world worth caring about.

But back to reality. The Hurt Locker is set in 2004, in Baghdad. Delta Company is an Army unit whose job is to find and defuse -- or detonate if necessary -- the deadly improvised explosive devices that seem to be everywhere in Iraq. The bombs range from simple pipe bombs to complicated car bombs to elaborate, byzantine networks of interconnected wires and cylinders that test the nerves, the fine motor skills, and the mental agility of Staff Sgt Will James (Jeremy Renner).

James joins Delta Company after their leader is killed. He's an unknown element to young, vulnerable Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) and straightlaced Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), both of whom are hoping to leave Iraq alive. It's hard to tell if James cares about that. He seems to love bombs though, and keeps a box of parts -- a kind of tactile scrapbook -- containing pieces of all the bombs that nearly killed him.

The movie moves through a series of incidents -- ghastly discoveries, agonizing, physically punishing firefights, and nail-biting, live-wire confrontations with unfeeling, uncaring tangles of wires and explosives. The movie has a documentary-like immediacy and unpolished roughness, and in each of these set pieces, more is revealed about the characters, and especially James. The movies peels back the layers of his personality -- he's reckless and careful, an improviser and a technician, he's smart and knowledgeable, but equally dependent on good instincts, he's callous and brutal, but also tender. He likes bombs -- he's a bomb defusing genius, a rare and specialized martial artist. Renner's performance is just as reckless and precise, full of bravado and contradictions.

The Hurt Locker is not a traditional war movie in any sense. It doesn't really take a position on the war, pro or con. Neither does it glorify war, or explosions, or death, nor use the brutal spectacle of war to generate mindless suspense or thrills. But through meticulous, hyper-realism, the movie drills down into the core of the war's psychological and moral complexity with its fascinating, riveting, and almost unbearably suspenseful portrait of three soldiers. Those soldiers are stressed out beyond comprehension, their daily existence filled with strategic and tactical maneuvers, with brute survival, and with violently releasing the pressure that builds up through each day of their tour of duty.

The Hurt Locker isn't a fantasy of war, served up as a vehicle for socio-political themes. That's not to minimize the themes in Avatar, which are interesting, and relevant. It's just to say that while the action and the ideas go down easy in a movie like Avatar, where the characters are blue and white and everything is crystal clear, The Hurt Locker doesn't go down easy at all. It's hard to watch, psychologically brutal, and it leaves you, more than anything else, feeling unsettled. Unsettled by a war that's hard to comprehend, and people who are complicated and defy easy categorization. And that, I suspect, is why one of these movies made two billion dollars and the other made a tiny fraction of that. It's harder to understand why audiences are willing to watch an elaborate hoax of a psychological thriller like Shutter Island, but not a genuinely thrilling, genuinely scary movie like The Hurt Locker.


Shutter island (2010)

As a regular Car Talk listener, and someone who counts genuine New Englanders among my friends, I can assure you that -- hilarious accent notwithstanding -- our neighbors to the northeast know how to say "escape." They do not pronounce it "ek-scape." I'm sure that goes double for police officers, who might have occasion to say "escape" in the course of their duties.

But Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) says "ek-scape." Teddy is a U.S. Marshal, and as Shutter Island begins, he is on a ferry, headed for the titular island, an isolated rock off the coast of Boston, home to a prison/asylum for the criminally insane. Cue dark skies and forboding music.

On the evidence of DiCaprio's laborious accent, Teddy's from Bahston. His new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) claims to be from Seattle. As a Seattle native, I can assure you that his accent is inconsistent with the (also sometimes hilarious) accents of our neighbors in the northwest. But never mind that. Teddy and Chuck are going to Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of a female patient, a woman named Rachel Solondo (Emily Mortimer), who recently disappeared from the high security prison, which, the movie will have you remember, is for the criminally insane. Rachel was there because she murdered her children. Her disappearance has everyone flummoxed. The island is inescapable, except by boat.

Something is amiss on Shutter Island. Something more than Rachel Solondo, that is. Teddy smells a rat, or possibly several of them. He's suspicious of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), a seemingly progressive and well-meaning psychiatrist who is slightly menacing because, well, mostly because he's played by Ben Kingsley with an air of slightly perceptible, calm menace. And possibly because from start to finish, the movie assaults the ears with a soundtrack that is really agitated and stabby, as if the entire film were the shower scene in Psycho, and psycho killers lurked in every dark, damp corner. Which apparently they do, since they are in a prison for the criminally insane which has an unusual number of leaky ceilings. But still, the music is awfully excitable. I don't think driving a Jeep up to the gates of a prison really requires quite such vigorous cello-ing.

Teddy is also suspicious of Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow), a cheery old gent whom Teddy suspects is German, and a Nazi to boot. He wears little round glasses, and he listens to Mahler, so Teddy is probably right. Teddy, you see, had a traumatic experience during the war, when he was among the soldiers who liberated Dachau. He has frequent flashbacks in which he sees piles of frozen corpses. He's also traumatized by the death -- in a fire -- of his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), who frequently appears to him in his dreams, dropping big fat clues about the mysterious goings-on at Shutter Island. Coincidentally (or is it?) the firebug who started the fire that killed Dolores might just be a patient at the facility, but he also mysteriously disappeared.

Shutter Island is prone to dark and stormy nights, especially after a hurricane starts lashing the island, thus stranding Teddy and Chuck. Teddy's flashbacks keep getting worse, and he suffers from migraines, so he suspects that the doctors are trying to drive him insane in order to cover up something. But what? Nazi experiments? Murder most foul? Between the melodramatic weather and the hysterical music, it must be something big and terrible.

Shutter Island, as a movie, is neither big nor terrible. But neither is it especially good. Directed by Martin Scorsese, here experimenting, as he sometimes does, with film genres, the film was written by Laeta Kalogridis, and adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River).  It's a cumbersome, overly long movie that's a thorny thicket of plots, subplots, and backstories. This thicket requires considerable hacking through, which  requires lurching shifts from talky exposition (for which Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley are brought on board, briefly), to action scenes requiring the climbing of vertiginous cliffs, vigorous swimming, and a fair bit of punching. The inmates of Shutter Island natter on about television and the H-bomb (the movie is set in 1954) and homicide, the psychiatrists natter on about man's violent nature, and the bad old days when patients were cruelly tortured. Everybody smokes all the time, which gives the director the chance to play with tendrils of smoke that swirl around Teddy's already foggy head. There is an obvious Hitchcockian influence at play in the lingering sense of paranoia and self-doubt that afflicts Teddy. The "is he crazy or is it the place that's crazy?" questions cling to him like a damp shirt. He also has a lot of damp shirts clinging to him in this rain-lashed, leaky-roofed contraption of a psychological, psychiatrical thriller. The director is apparently employing the ol' Chinese water torture to get the audience to crack -- there's more pointless drippiness here than in a 1980s music video. 

Film Noir and horror influences lurk too, and despite all the silliness with the inconvenient weather and the movie's pileup of Cold War paranoia, ghosts, conspiracy theories, cover-ups, zombie-like patients with bad teeth, psychiatric horror, Nazi horror, espionage, tombs, castles, spiral staircases, flashbacks, and hallucinations, Scorsese manages to craft a movie that often looks pretty good, and feels sporadically foreboding even though the whole crazy contraption is always on the verge of falling apart. Tucked into the movie are some great little moments of sheer nuttiness, but Shutter Island never quite achieves a sustained mood of suspense or anything else because it's as distractible as a three year old. Ooh, look how lightning makes the statues scary! There's Teddy's dead wife again! Why is her hair wet?

And then, it turns out that Shutter Island is one of those movies with a surprise twisty ending, which is a narrative device too frequently employed to cover up an implausible plot that doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. When a character at the end of a movie has to explain everything that went before, it amounts to this:  the filmmakers think the audience isn't bright enough to have followed the whole thing through all the misdirection and malarkey, even though it all adds up, really. I don't buy it. If the twist really makes sense, if it ties up all the loose ends and pulls the whole story together as it flips it all over, it won't need explaining. But if, on looking back at that trail of clues, it turns out they were mostly randomly scattered breadcrumbs, half of them meaningless, then no amount of directorial sleight of hand and shouty music is going to make sense out of nonsense.

The Wolfman (2010)

Funny word, laughable. On the face of it, inducing laughter wouldn't seem to be a bad thing. We all like a good laugh, right? But to be laughable, of course, is to induce laugter unintentionally, often by being inept. I wonder when that particular linguistic turn happened, when "suitable to induce laughter" became "so ridiculous, it's funny."

The Wolfman, I am here to tell you, is unintentionally funny. It is thoroughly laughable. The other funny thing about things which are laughable: They don't leave you feeling happy, as you might after seeing a genuinely, intentionally funny movie. No, happiness is not the feeling one is left with after The Wolfman is over. 

A needless remake of the 1941 Lon Chaney classic, The Wolfman adds nothing new to the horror genre, or to werewolf mythology, except for some competently rendered computer graphics that allow the werewolf in question to run along rooftops and sprout fur, fangs and claws before our very eyes. Our by now very jaded eyes -- it takes a lot more than insta-grow claws to make a movie interesting. 

There are actually two werewolves in The Wolfman. One of them kills poor, unfortunate Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells) in the first few minutes of the movie, thereby setting the plot in motion. Ben's bereaved fiancee Gwen (Emily Blunt) then writes to Ben's estranged brother Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), an American Shakespearean actor who happens to be touring England. Because if there's one thing England has always needed us Yanks for, it's performing Shakespeare. Presumably, Lawrence's stint in the colonies explains his lack of a British accent, and presumably, Del Toro was game enough to don a furry suit, but not game enough to try on an accent. So I guess we won't be seeing him doing Shakespeare at the Old Vic any time soon. Lawrence returns to the home he left as a child (when he was shipped off to America, you see). He is frequently haunted by dreadful flashbacks to his childhood. Home is a dark and dreary castle full of smoke, dead leaves, cobwebs, and taxidermy. It's occupied by Lawrence's dear old dad, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), a gun-toting lunatic, and his faithful Sikh manservant Singh (Art Malik). Although the year is 1891, Sir John apparently prefers candlelight to gaslight, which gives the old homestead a lot more ambience, though not in a good way. (The cinematography by Shelly Johnson is nicely atmospheric, and makes good use of dim light.) Gwen mopes about the place, and then Lawrence joins her in moping about the place. 

In the course of investigating Ben's untimely and brutal death, Lawrence is bitten by the werewolf. No surprises there. A gypsy woman (Geraldine Chaplin) saves his life, but of course, come the full moon, Lawrence turns into a howling, rampaging, bloodthirsty beast. Sir John seems quite delighted by this turn of events, for reasons that will surprise no one. A Scotland Yard inspector named Abberline (Hugo Weaving) rolls into town, and starts looking about the place with shifty eyes. Lawrence is packed off to an insane asylum, where he is tortured to near insanity by mad Dr. Hoenneger (Antony Sher), who means to cure him of his "wolfman" delusion. Ha ha! you say. Just wait until the next full moon!

Indeed, the education of Dr. Hoenneger provides one of the few satisfying moments in The Wolfman. I was also quite pleased when the deer -- a poor beast tied up so as to lure the werewolf into a trap -- escaped unharmed. But at a certain point in the movie, I realized that I really did not care for any of the characters. Only Gwen is remotely sympathetic, if blindly optimistic. Lawrence is so miserable all the time I couldn't figure out why he didn't just kill himself. And there's one of the problems with The Wolfman. Only Hopkins, who chews the scenery like a lycanthrope tearing into a fresh villager, seems to be in on the joke -- and The Wolfman is pretty much a joke. Hopkins has evident fun as crazy country squire Sir John, who is one bad dad.

As directed by Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III), The Wolfman is an utterly predictable movie with a split personality, which, I guess, makes some kind of sense given that a werewolf has a split personality too. Lawrence is a genteel artiste tortured by his inner beast (we see glimpses of him playing Hamlet, in case it wasn't clear how haunted and tortured he is). The movie tries to recapture the gothic horror of the original movie, while goosing the action and upping the gore quotient with a lot of special effects. So on the one hand, you get your picturesque English country town full of shifty-eyed villagers who sit around the pub blaming gypsies for everything. And a dark and gloomy mansion set on a dark and gloomy, fog-shrouded moor, with beastly screeches and howls filling the night air. It's all fairly corny, but in a quaint kind of way. But on the other hand, there are a lot of dismemberments and disembowelings, which I like as much as the next person, don't get me wrong. Add to that the creature effects (by special effects makeup master Rick Baker), and all the CGI of those super speedy werewolves cruising the countryside, and something about the old fashioned and newfangled just doesn't mesh, and the whole thing feels wrong and corny in a laughable way. It's neither realistic enough to be worth all the effort, nor exciting and thrilling enough to inspire so much as a shiver of dread.


Crazy Heart (2009)

You don't have to look very far to find country songs about broken hearts, blown chances, lost dreams, lonesome highways, and whiskey. You'll find all those essential ingredients in Crazy Heart, a country song transferred to celluloid, with a few movie cliches tossed into the mix. Crazy Heart, written and directed by Scott Cooper, and adapted from Thomas Cobb's novel, is the tale of Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), a broke-down, hard-drinkin', hard-livin' country music singer whose best days are already pretty far behind him, and getting farther. Bad's hit a long patch of bad road, playing two-bit bars and bowling alleys on a kind of last gasp tour of the American Southwest. He's got a string of broken marriages, he's drinks too much, smokes too much, and he's got the lungs and beer gut to show for his efforts. But when he's good, he's very good -- a singer with a voice like a country road, and a talent for songcraft. Trouble is, he's bad more often than he's good.

Bad's a man in free fall, until an unexpected meeting prompts him to put on the brakes. He meets an aspiring journalist named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mom with a cute four year old son. Jean wants an interview with the legendary Bad. He pours on the charm, such as it is. Jean's earthy and earnest and swears she knows better than to fall for another loser. In the country music dictionary, Bad's pretty much the definition of a loser. Jean falls for him anyway, and the implausibility of the romance -- they're decades apart in age, he's a dissolute, self-destructive alcoholic rogue who can barely be trusted with a lit cigarette let alone a child -- runs the movie right off the road. 

The romantic plot of Crazy Heart just doesn't work -- it's implausible on multiple levels, and like a few other plot developments, glib and too easy  -- but the movie's other elements do work. Plot aside, the screenplay features believable dialogue and there are strong performances and great music. Bridges is really terrific as Bad, giving a worn-in, lived-in performance that's all sweat, flab and heart. Bridges does his own singing too, as does Colin Farrell, who plays Tommy Sweet, a one-time Bad Blake protege whose star has risen as Bad's has fallen. They've got some mighty fine songs to croon, songs of loss and longing and better days written by T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton.

Crazy Heart is a sad, moving portrait of a world weary, self-pitying man sliding into self-inflicted oblivion with a howl, but not really putting up much of a fight. He's not so far gone, though, that he doesn't recognize a last chance when he sees it.


A Single Man (2010)

A Single Man is the story of a man dying -- literally and figuratively -- of a broken heart. A shattered heart, more like, and he carries the pain of it around with him as if the shards pressed constantly against his insides.

The man is George (Colin Firth), an Englishman, and an English professor at a Los Angeles college. The year is 1962 -- the radio buzzes with paranoia-fueling news of the Cuban missile crisis. George's longtime partner Jim (Matthew Goode) has been dead for several months, but grief still looms over every part of George's daily existence. Perhaps because he cannot publicly acknowledge his grief, or his love, it is all the more painful and intractable. A Single Man follows George on one long and fateful day, from his morning routine, to teaching a class, to an odd encounter with a flirty student (Nicholas Hoult), and dinner with his friend Charly (Julianne Moore), another miserable British ex-pat. At some point, George buys bullets. He plans for this day to be his last.

A Single Man is based on Christopher Isherwood's groundbreaking 1964 novel of the same name. It is directed by Tom Ford, the fashion designer, who shows a sure hand here in his first film. Ford co-wrote the screenplay with David Scearce, and it is a meticulously detailed and frequently moving study of grief, of being closeted, of maintaining a facade. A Single Man moves at a stately and considered pace, the camera drinking in the details and routines that are George's visible, surface life. Firth's performance is equally detailed, and nuanced, and stares with heartbreaking clarity into the abyss of George's aching emptiness.

Not surprisingly, Ford is interested in what his characters are wearing -- there is obvious attention to clothing and hair, as George lays out the suit he apparently intends to be buried in, complete with instructions. Appearances are meant, too, to tell us about the people we see -- are they hipsters or squares, are they friend or foe? Likewise, the set design is beautiful and quite interesting, but none of this serves as an undue distraction. It easily could have, since A Single Man is not heavy on plot -- there really is no plot -- it simply recounts from start to finish a long, strange, and interesting day. The images are sometimes a bit static, and they can looked a tad overly staged -- a bit like a classy high fashion ad. Ford uses an expressive cinematic flourish to reveal what George conceals within: the color palette is muted shades of grey and brown, the dull, dreary world as George experiences it. But when George is interested in something, or someone, his outlook brightens, if only for a while, and he and the world bloom with vivid color.

Firth's performance is weighty enough to keep the whole film securely anchored in reality, and there's no danger of it drifting away on flights of fanciness. The key to George, to the story, is the radical notion (which is, sadly, apparently still radical) that he, a gay man, is also an utterly ordinary man -- a single man like any other, with a life like any other. It is only the world that makes him unusual, so that he needs to recede into himself, to turn inward, where he finds only love and loss.