The Hurt Locker

This film covers a month in the life of a 3-man military team in Iraq whose job is to defuse unexploded bombs. The “war in the small” approach gives a better idea of what life must be really be like in a war zone than any number of big-budget war films. An extended scene where the UXB guys lose their combat virginity when they areunexpectedly pinned down by enemy snipers is particularly well done.

There’s not much narrative line here, and I’m not sure I understood the characters at the end any better than at the beginning. The cast is mostly composed of actors I’ve never heard of, with more established actors in small roles (watch for Ralph Fiennes as an Englishman in the desert). The film is well worth seeing, but don’t expect something that’s really great — it doesn’t live up to the hype.  Available on DVD.

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Broken Embraces

Almodovar and Penelope Cruz — again — but this time Cruz has a smaller role, and the characters are, for Almodovar, relatively normal. The protagonist is Harry Caine, a blind screenwriter, who used to be a sighted film director named Mateo Blanco — and thereby hangs a tale. In flashback, we learn that Mateo once directed a movie starring Cruz, the mistress of Ernesto, a crooked plutocrat who also happened to be the movie’s producer. You get the idea. We get extended scenes of the movie Mateo is making  with Cruz, “Chicas y Valetas” (roughly, “Chicks with Suitcases”) — a silly comedy that plays off against the increasingly serious real-life drama of the protagonists. For movie buffs, there are scattered references to Hitchcock and other classic US films (probably many more than I picked up).

All the characters are interesting here, but for me the soul of the film is Judit, Harry’s literary agent, sometime caretaker, and longtime friend.  Why is it that some of the best roles for women in film today are being written by a gay Spanish man?

Avatar

The best movie of the year, by a long shot, and probably the best sci-fi movie I have ever seen (if I think of a better one, I’ll let you know).  The plot is predictable, and you can figure out how the movie is going to end within 15 minutes (the ship sinks).  But that knowledge of the likely ending doesn’t impair your enjoyment of the journey.  The Kumbaya politics are simplistic — the right wing blogosphere is probably already littered with exploded crania — but the point of view at least coherent, and consistent.  Best to think of it as a particularly well-executed fairy tale, which, like LOTR, you can enjoy regardless of political leanings.

As a feat of visual imagination and sheer moviemaking, Avatar is unmatched — as far beyond the Star Wars trilogies as Lucas’ films were ahead of everyone else’s in their day. The Navi society — part pre-Columbian North America, part sub-Saharan Africa, part Pern — is a remarkable construct.  Some of the most astonishing scenes in the movie involve running, falling or flying — breathtaking even in flat screen. The colors are spectacularly beautiful, and the visual variety of the plants and animals depicted simply stunning. Odd and strange as this world is, though, it is firmly grounded in human experience. Like the creatures in the original Star Wars films, the flora and fauna here are based on things that exist in the world we know, albeit — like the jellyfish fairies —  in unusual forms.

Motion capture technology has also advanced. The actors no longer have to tape alone in front of a green screen, but can, with the magic of special VR headsets, see a mockup of how their actions, and those of the other actors, as they will appear on the screen.  And Cameron was smart enough to give the individual Navi the characteristics of the actors portraying them, to help us emotionally connect with them. We recognize, in the Navi’s motions, the eyes and mouths of their human counterparts have, so we also accept the pointy ears and tails that they don’t.

Most of the actors were unknown to me, although Zoe Saldana, the female lead, was Uhura in the recent Star Trek film. (Think she’s going to be sent every genre script for the next 20 years?) Sigourney Weaver’s performance as the hard-edged, heart of gold leader of the scientific team — “where’s my cigarette” — was a real gift.

Cameron’s true magic is the way he immediately draws you into the world of the movie. I don’t know how he does it (it was true of Titanic too). But in the Friday afternoon performace we saw, which was packed with children of all ages, there was none of the back talk and commenting that mars so many trips to the movie theater these days. Not a single cellphone went off during the show — probably the best sign of the success of this movie as a piece of cinematic art.

Run, don’t walk.