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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

TIFF – Day Six Is The Charm

On the day known in the industry as the unofficial end of the Toronto International Film Festival, the festival felt like one of the great ones, if only for the day.
The best Iraq movie so far (closely nipping Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha) and the best new American film at TIFF that I have seen this year is Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, which really isn’t so much an Iraq War film as it is a war film that happens to be in Iraq. Mark Boal’s screenplay does what so many screenplays dealing with big subjects do not… it narrows the field down to a subject that can be contained by 2 hours, offering full, rich, human emotion on the playing field, which in this case is the Iraq War.
In many ways, Hurt Locker is like a third half of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Bigelow, who does her best career work here, isn’t quite the magician that Kubrick was – and who is? – but she brings her own style to the proceedings and does not, almost surprisingly, ever cross over into excess style. (There is, actually, one exception… in an early explosion, there were, for my tastes, one too many cool slo-mo shots… especially after we learn where the movie is going. I think the operatic style of the images there undermines the lack of same style later in the film. But this is a nitpick.) Along with Boal’s script, Bigelow chooses make the characters say little and to let their choices define them when the hard moments come.
The film uses three acting-celebrity cameos in an interesting way, I think trying to unbalance the audience a bit so we don’t know what to expect. I certainly don’t want to give it away, though I can guess now that a certain movie by a certain director will be referenced in over 75% of reviews when the movie is ultimately released.
Anyway…
The central trio of the film is made up of Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. Bigelow and Boal conspire to make sure that we never know what might happen to any one of the three, from the first time they are in a scene together to the last. The wild man in the trio is Jeremy Renner, who plays his role perfectly. He has so internalized his work as a bomb tech that he has no fear when faced with a situation, no matter how insane being fearless might be. But his sense of honor is equally unshakeable and leads him down some dark alleys.
The only downside to Renner being so real in the role is that not being a movie-star charismatic makes you wonder what the commercial potential is for the film. He’s handsome, but it’s a doughy-faced kind of handsome. He seems fit, but not strikingly tall or cut or lithe. He is what you might expect the real guys who do these jobs to look like. And it would be dead wrong to criticize the movie for not taking the easy way out. But you kinda want everyone to see this one and now and again, the craving for a little stunt casting creeps up on you.
Anthony Mackie, who killed in Half Nelson, is uptight here, an intellectual stuck in a harsh, ugly war zone. He gets is right, much of his dialogue shouted through helmet-to-helmet mics, like poetry or a rock song or Shakespeare, it demands a certain precision and he gets it – and the emotions behind it – just right. My guess is that he is the most likely stand-in for the film’s audience.
Brian Geraghty is the innocent. And he another character who could so easily have gone someplace irritatingly obvious, but does not.
In many ways, the film is of the Michael Mann oeuvre, with half a dozen or so major set pieces that are complex, dramatically compelling, and make you feel like you are experiencing the moment first hand. The drama between the set pieces is not as stylized as Mann’s, but in this case, that raw energy feels dead right.
Hurt Locker is looking for distribution here and while it seems riskier – given the industry’s heightened fear of Iraq-related movies – that The Wrestler at $4 million, the opportunity to buy a movie that you know carries some real impact is undeniable. I also have a strong feeling that the film will actually get better on multiple viewings.
Meanwhile… the rich just get richer.
Fox Searchlight has had a very quiet 2008, but they started to prep to bring just The Secret Lives of Bees here… added Slumdog Millionaire a few weeks ago… and now leave with a third fall film in The Wrestler. All of a sudden, they have a very muscular and busy fall/holiday season to come.
But back to Slumdog Millionaire.
Wow.
Dumping this film… or simply acknowledging that they don’t know how to market it… or don’t get it… will stand for a long time as one of the great embarrassments of Warner Bros’ history.
Just a great movie movie.
The story is basic… classic. Our central character has won big on India’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, in spite of not appearing to have the education to pull it off. He is interrogated as to how he cheated, because they are convinced that he did. And as he explains how he answered each of the questions, his story unfolds… starting with childhood.
And what a tale of survival it is. I don’t want to give away details, but a significant portion of the film is about kids, followed by their teen selves, and then as young adults. The stories of the luck and trouble and joy and horror they go through are so theatrical, yet never veer into storybook fantasy.
It’s an amazing journey into adulthood, almost Wizard of Oz, but you know how they say, truth is odder than fiction. This fiction feels like the oddest of truths. And that is a great tribute to Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle, the writer and director.
Boyle is at his absolute best here. You can go back to Trainspotting and Shallow Grave to see the origins of the skills he brings to bare here, but unlike those, this never feels like a young director trying to show off. There is a rugged self-assurance in creating some amazing images, pushing the editing (via editor Chris Dickens), and mostly, telling the tale in a remarkably efficient and entertaining way.
The casting – you’ll recognize no one but the great Irfan Khan – is spectacular. All three age groups are dead on and completely compelling. The boys fit the evolving story of their personalities. And we hope that Freida Pinto can get over her debilitating ugliness some day.
But mostly, it is a romp through some of the most disturbing terrain on the planet. It is, in many ways, an Indian version of City of God with a lot of Dickens and Dumas to boot. It’s funny. It’s scary. It’s romantic. It’s horrible. It’s violent. And did I mention… it’s very funny.
If this weren’t a film set in India, it would be explosively commercial. But instead, it should just be a well-sold, modest hit for Searchlight, standing up honorably for telling a story that is richer than it absolutely has to be. We are all richer for it.
It’s interesting that it is getting Oscar buzz in Toronto. Perhaps people are deluding themselves because the fest has been so sparse. But perhaps not. I do think for this film to get there, a domestic gross of over $50 million is absolutely mandatory… and I don’t know that $50m is possible. But it should be. So maybe living in hope isn’t so bad. Just as Slumdog Millionaire.

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“A lot of us felt blindsided,” Van Vliet told me. In the seventies, Van Vliet was drafted out of film school by Industrial Light & Magic, where he worked on The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now 62 and semi-retired, he said, “Once you get into your fifties, you’re pretty disposable.” Van Vliet was in the middle of reviewing DVD screeners before casting his Oscar votes, a process he estimated would take a hundred and twenty hours. “The Academy is essentially asking us to give them three weeks of labor, and then they’re going to take our results, put them into a ceremony, and sell it,” he said, referring to the seventy-five million dollars that the organization earns from the television broadcast. “Then they’re turning around and kicking us in the teeth.”
~ “Shakeup At The Oscars”

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