September 12, 2008

Toronto Dispatch. 6.

Sean Axmaker on The Hurt Locker, The Brothers Bloom and Adam Resurrected. Notes follow. Updated through 9/18.

Toronto 08 It hasn't escaped anyone's notice that the American line-up at TIFF 2008 was singularly lacking in heft and ambition. Just a year after such challenges and delights as No Country for Old Men, Into the Wild and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, not to mention the sheer fun of Juno, the absence of almost any American film striving for something with courage and conviction and evocative storytelling to match is, to say the least, a disheartening sign for a festival that is supposed to launch the Oscar season.

There was The Wrestler, which came late, straight from a Golden Lion win at Venice, a film which I missed at its sole, sold-out press screening (thanks to the entwining factors of illness, insomnia and spotty wi-fi in my hotel, I was out-of-touch with the Venice buzz and had no idea its pedigree had shot up in the ensuing days since I arrived and became one of the scores of folks shut out), but what I heard from those who did see it suggests a minor film with major pleasures, adored for its simplicity and sweetness.

There was Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, which I wrote about earlier and is indeed a beautifully carved-out picture in the InDigEnt style by a veteran talent refreshing his creative juices after a long fallow spell. Apart from his concert films, we've been waiting a long time for Demme to get his groove back and this may be it, a film that looks nothing like his past work but creates a living, vibrant sense of community unseen in his work in decades.

The Hurt Locker But the only American film I saw that really sank its teeth into something and never let go was Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. It will likely be described as her take on the Iraq war drama, which is accurate to a point. It follows the final days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit (the days count down with each mission) with a new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a real maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old western showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms. He doesn't follow the rules and he treats every bomb like a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he's vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which, in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs, can be myriad. In one stand-out sequence, a desert stop to help out some the private soldiers (led by Ralph Fiennes) back from a bounty hunt becomes an ambush. It's the closest the film gets to a classic war movie: they become a team centered by James, who serves as spotter to Sanborn on the precision long-range rifle and gives verbal support to the less-steely Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) watching their backs. So many war movies get the chaos of battle and the suddenness of death; Bigelow is just as interested in the stillness, the patience, the importance of waiting until you have some certainty that there is no one else out there waiting to kill you. These guys do their jobs, trust one another to stay vigilant, and team leader James, earlier seen as just a maverick without rule, shows himself to be an authentic leader and a crack soldier.

This may be the same sun-bleached Iraq of dusty dirt streets and open deserts we've seen in other Iraq war films, but it's a different kind of movie. Bigelow's handheld camerawork roams like a spotter's eyes, always surveying, always getting another look, and the cuts are shifts of perspective that both keep you off-balance and give a sense of how vigilant they are. Bigelow shows us the way they must view the world to stay alive and demonstrates that the quote by Chris Hedges that opens the film, "... war is a drug," is not all about thrill. It's about the need, not to kill, but to what you do. Jeremy Renner is remarkably effective as James, a man of action in the manner of a Howard Hawks hero: he's defined by what he does and how he does it, not what he says. There's no political message here, nobody questioning their mission or arguing policy. More than anything, Bigelow is interested in how these men go about their work, because the how is the difference between going home at the end of the rotation in one piece or not.

The Brothers Bloom You can't get much different from Bigelow's unforgiving portrait of men in war than The Brothers Bloom, the second film from writer/director Rian Johnson. After the almost color-leached images of his high-school noir Brick, Johnson puts more brightness in his palette and more spring his step for this con-man fantasy about stories and storytelling. In a way, each con is a little play, a piece of living theater by elder brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), who "writes cons like Russians write novels, full of story arcs and symbolism," to give his younger brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) the role of the romantic leading man, a part he's is too paralyzed to play in real life. Not that there is much real life in this bright little comedy, from the bouncy backstory of orphan brothers perfecting their craft as mischievous kids with brimming imaginations to the globe-trotting con that sweeps their current mark, madcap but lonely New Jersey heiress Penelope (Rachel Weisz), into some very improbable scrapes and escapes. Oh yes, there is also their "fifth Beatle," Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), an explosives expert who lets her nitro do the talking for her (her silent comedy performance is hilarious).

It's a charming fantasy of a con movie that is less interested in the well-played con than the colorfully executed idea of a con. It's a film with more ideas than it can successfully juggle, and it doesn't really make sense, but it does have a good time playing out its stories. Weisz plays Penelope as a real screwball heroine, all gumption and impulse and eager abandon, another dream girl to fall into Bloom's arms and a romance with an expiration date: when the con is over, so is the stage romance. Stephen scripts Bloom as a tragic anti-hero, but Penelope, as much a storyteller as Stephen and a playactor as Bloom, does some improvising of her own (in true screwball fashion), and she just may be the rewrite he's been waiting for.

Adam Resurrected In Paul Schrader's Adam Resurrected, Jeff Goldblum plays Adam Stein, once a celebrated cabaret clown in Germany, broken in the camps by the Nazis, and now (circa 1961) the most popular inmate at a sanitarium for damaged holocaust survivors in the middle of the Israeli desert. He was made to play the dog for his camp Commandant (Willem Dafoe) while his family was marched to the gas chambers, and now he becomes both repulsed and fascinated when he finds a boy in the hospital who believes he is a dog: a heaven-sent opportunity for Adam to break through his own torment by saving this child.

I wanted to like Schrader's previous film, The Walker. Both films yearn for a stronger hand, a more discerning eye, a more careful sculptor of performances than Schrader seems able to provide these days. Schrader, who didn't script the film, never gets past the surface of overt symbolism and dramatic convenience and his compositions are slack and unfocused. He appears to have lost the vitality that found less literal, more visceral expressions for his ideas and Goldblum, while charming and dapper and restless as Adam, never communicates the pathos and the tragic torment beyond his armored surface of reflexive charm and surface affectation. Yes, he's locking his grief and torment in and all other emotions out, but we never feel anything terrible and combustible inside. Coming from the director of Affliction, a film pulsing with rage both subsumed and unleashed and shot with a cold intensity that hones in on all that increasingly uncontrollable fury, it's all the more puzzling. Without the lifeblood of a man's experience coursing through the character and the film, the danger and heartbreak remains just another theory debated by his doctors.

- Sean Axmaker

First, a mention of previous entries: The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married and The Hurt Locker.

More on The Brothers Bloom:

The Brothers Bloom

  • "It's the sort of unapologetically self-conscious movie that requires a little generosity but also rewards it," writes JR Jones for the Chicago Reader. "Johnson is a witty writer, and he does a lot more with the camera here than he could afford to with Brick. Strangely, though, The Brothers Bloom seems less novel than its predecessor, which actually used the noir mythology to comment on the ruthlessness of high school kids. The Brothers Bloom is every bit as quirky and literate, but without the earlier movie's edge, it kept reminding me of Wes Anderson's comedies (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). One Wes Anderson is enough for me—though, given the choice, I'd rather have another of him than another Michael Bay."

  • James Rocchi, writing at Cinematical, finds it "a magic trick of a film; the second it's over, you want to see it again so you can try to catch how you were tricked, but you also want to see it again so you can return to the joy and wonder of being wrapped up in the nimble, deck-shuffling hands of a born showman." James also interviews Weisz.

  • "It would be unfair to tag the film with the hubris of Guy Ritchie's Revolver because it seems clear that Johnson was aiming for a whimsical light-hearted touch, but the film unfortunately does share glossy posturing and pseudo intellectual chest thumping whilst simultaneously lacking any desired emotional (or intellectual) payoff," writes Kurt Halfyard at Twitch.

  • Bob Turnbull caught the Q&A with Johnson, Ruffalo, Brody and Weisz: "I can certainly understand why people go to the star studded events - it can provide a good deal of surprises and entertainment. I just wish I could say the same for the movie itself."

  • Brick "was one of my favorites of 2006," blogs the Boston Globe's Ty Burr. "This, by contrast, is a full-on sophomore work, woozy with filmmaking ambition and abandon yet lacking the chops to back it up."

  • "It's hard to make a movie about the existential trials of a man who feels like a character in a story without getting pretty meta and even a little cutesy-poo, so if you're not up for a movie that features a woman who 'collects hobbies' (for example, juggling chainsaws on stilts), an Asian sidekick who only knows three words of English (apparently 'campari,' 'fuck' and 'me') and an opening Ricky Jay narration in rhyming verse, then The Brothers Bloom is definitely not for you." Warns Noel Murray. Also at the AV Club, Scott Tobias: "Films can have a strange alchemy sometimes: All the elements can be in place and the whole thing can still blow up in your face."

  • Jeffrey Wells finds it "a sumptuous but impossibly silly and logic-free jape in the vein of... frankly, the movie it most reminded me of was the 1967 Casino Royale, which still reigns as one of the emptiest wank-off movies of the mid to late 60s."

More soon on Adam Resurrected.

Update, 9/13: "Adam Resurrected is an out-and-out stinker, and I'm sorry to say it." Still, James McNally has audio from the Q&A.

Update, 9/18: Kevin Kelly talks with Rian Johnson for the SpoutBlog.

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Posted by dwhudson at September 12, 2008 8:25 AM