Critical palette also includes “Yellow Handkerchief,” “Ajami”
Would Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” have won the top 2009 Oscar on Sunday if its anti-Iraq War politics were less artfully tucked inside the hot-wired emotions of a bomb defusion team doing its job? Probably not, and Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” has commercial traction from cryptic Hitchcockean tensions, rather than its barbed slicing of Britain’s Tony Blair for being George W. Bush’s favorite war buddy (some critics have been reviewing it as if the film had no politics).
While not on the same artistic level, “Green Zone” is one of the most political of war films. Its hero, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) arrives in newly occupied Baghdad in 2003, ordered to find the coveted WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) of the fallen Saddam Hussein. He has a crack team, has the target maps, and knows how to cut through the new ruins, milling looters and smoking chaos to find the sites. Except, oops, there are no WMDs. There’s nothing but the rising stench of a “disconnect” as Miller begins to see that he is among the many millions duped by rigged intelligence.
Miller’s probing worries Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), who helped cook the policy books and is trying to impose “democracy” by using an imported stooge (based on the notorious Ahmed Chalabi) as leader. Miller makes the reporter Dayne (Amy Ryan) feel nauseous that she bought and helped sell the phony line. He goes looking for a top Saddam general (bald, imposing Yigal Naor) who can spill the real story and perhaps stave off civil war. Also in pursuit is Poundstone’s unit of military hard cases led by the fierce Briggs (Jason Isaacs).
“Green Zone” is like a ride on shrapnel, using the camera-dancing realism of director Paul Greengrass’ “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” (he and Damon pumped it up for two Jason Bourne movies). Shot largely in Spain and Morocco, it has a busted Baghdad of twisting streets where feral dogs look spooked, every shadow is an ambush option and the Americans are like aliens from planet Techtoy. Scripted by Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”), this is a fictional mashing of former Baghdad reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s acclaimed book on the city as the Green Zone became a new Oz, sane policy got trashed and years of tragic waste began.
There are some corny touches, like the scared Iraqi (gifted Kahlid Abdalla), a translator and virtual mascot who represents helpless hopes. Clearly, history is being funneled into rapid, engulfing action. But the nocturnal fire fight is gripping, Damon is ripely grooved, and the axe being ground (about WMDs, faked intel and bungled chances) has a sharp edge. Spirited debate, following this strong war movie, would be welcome at the multiplexes. (Opens Friday; rated R) ★★★
“Red Riding 1974”
Yorkshire reporter Eddie (Andrew Garfield) briefly leaves town in "Red Riding 1974." (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
The first part of the “Red Riding” trilogy occurs in 1974, with other pieces of the five-hour epic taking place in 1980 and 1983. Set in Britain’s Yorkshire, it has some of the cracked, fevered obsessiveness of old noirs. There are shadows, rain, trash, gypsies, explicit horrors and hand-held shots suggesting a richly smeared collage. The young and rather dumbly fearless reporter Eddie (Andrew Garfield) is hellbent to find a murderer of young girls, whose cases have been quickly buried by corrupt police.
His truth pursuit includes sleeping repeatedly with a victim’s traumatized mother. There is a flashy-trashy developer (Sean Bean) and a brutish cop called The Badger (Bill Malloy), and the haunting specter of the serial killer named the Yorkshire Ripper. Add torture, boozing, loads of lousy ’70s couture and a posturing gay man used as a fright freak. For all the strong acting by Garfield and others, thick Yorkshire accents were either poorly recorded or not meant to be fully understood. Subtitles would help.
The trio, on tap for a week at the Ken Cinema, requires three tickets and was made by three directors. Tony Grisoni scripted from four novels by David Peace, a West Yorkshireman. A promo booklet has critic David Thomson’s essay, which opens by calling the trilogy “better than ‘The Godfather.’ I’ll try to explain why.” Try he does, eloquently, yet my admittedly provisional (not having seen the other two films) impression is that this project is for deep fans of English misery. If I want the stretching of coy and murky plot threads, with a brutal beating or a sex scene every 12 minutes, I’d rather view the telly. With subtitles. (Opens Friday; unrated) ★★
“The Yellow Handkerchief”
William Hurt (left), Kristine Stewart and Eddie Redmayne bond as Southern travelers in "The Yellow Handkerchief." (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)
William Hurt has left stardom without losing his talent. There is a mild shock in seeing him as Brett in “The Yellow Handkerchief”: bulging, balding, nursing the quiet pain of a big man hauling a drag line of sorrow and bad luck. Brett is just out of prison (manslaughter). He rambles into a car ride down to post-Katrina New Orleans, driven by the hyper, engaging oddball Gordie (Eddie Redmayne), who is like a teen preview of a funny old man. Gordie desires Martine (Kristine Stewart), a runaway who finds him geeky but thinks Brett is a strong, sexy father figure.
This is one of the artful indies, such as “The River Rat” and “Love Song of Bobby Long,” that hugs Southern atmosphere like a warm blanket. It has Asian traces. Udayan Prasad sensitively directed for moody saturation (big help by Chris Menges’ crisp photography), and the story draws on Yoji Yamada’s 1977 Japanese film with the same title. The source for both was a yarn by New York’s Pete Hamill, but tendrils of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote sneak in.
The film dips its hankie a bit obviously with Brett’s flashbacks to his love crush on a riverside free spirit (Maria Bello), who punctured his wary isolation. The teens are pulled into his feelings. Prasad has the taste not to fixate on brief violence, and he gently coddles the growing rapport of the three leads, as the travelers test and sustain one another. Hurt is excellent, a sensitive roughneck. The ending is both foreseeable and sentimental, yet brings satisfaction. (Opens Friday at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas; rated PG-13) ★★★
The weary old “eye for an eye” concept fits many films coming from the Middle East, and seems the background text of “Ajami.” Directed by Yaron Shani (Israeli Jewish) and Scandar Copti (Israeli Arab), this Oscar-nominated movie is a docu-dramatized cascade of churning, overlapping lives. It occurs mostly in Jaffa, an ancient and mostly poor town, now a suburb of Tel Aviv dominated by Muslims and some Christians. Deflatingly, the elaborate plot depends on that pulpy old reliable, a drug deal that goes wrong.
“Ajami” is political, yet not in a hot-news way. Its fault lines run back for centuries, through clans, families and contending faiths. The men, including cops, are often fired-up bulls and more emotional than the women. The sectarian lines are somewhat porous, and a desperate young Arab seeks protection from a Christian power broker (acted with great force by Youssef Sahwani). Money, blood and religion are like flexible exchange rates of survival, and when a Muslim court of elders heals a feud, cash figures are tossed around with the repeated name of God, as if it at a sanctified auction.
Urgent with love and fear, “Ajami” too often puts kids in danger. Its real downside is the slice-and-dice storytelling. Built up from workshops using amateur players, and shot chronologically, the movie was edited so that the stories corkscrew and double-back and finally converge in ways that are ostentatious, even confusing. A brilliant director (Fernando Meirelles, “City of God”) can sustain that kind of looping suspense, and a genius (Orson Welles, “Mr. Arkadin”) can make it great fun. For all their rooted sincerity, Copti and Shani are not working on that level. (Opens Friday, Landmark La Jolla Village; unrated) ★★1/2
STARS: FOUR (ace), THREE (worthy), TWO (involving), ONE (dud), ZERO (nil)
RECOMMENDED (and Current): “Avatar,” “Crazy Heart,” “Fish Tank,” “The Ghost Writer,” “Green Zone,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Shutter Island.”
Fest lights up for lit: The 17th San Diego Latino Film Festival, just launched (and delineated in last week’s column), has joined with the San Diego Public Library and station KPBS to present a “Library Night” of five movies next Tuesday (March 16). Present a library card and you get $2 off the standard ticket for: “Carlitos y el Campo de los Sueños” (4 p.m.) ,about a Spanish orphan who dreams of futbol and a new family; “Cosas Insignificantes” (7 p.m.), about a teen waitress in Mexico City; “Nevando Voy” (7:30 p.m.), about Spanish factory workers who transform work into a party zone, and “A Mi Me Gusta” (8:30 p.m.), about an aspiring Venezuelan chef and her Anglophile romance. Finally, “Norteando” (8:30 p.m.), a drama of frustrated border crossers in Tijuana. The site is UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas, Hazard Center, and info is at www.sandiegolibrary.org or at www.sdlatinofilm.com
Star-gazing: For almost 20 years the Hubble Space Telescope has been a tiny dot in the sky, circling the Earth every 97 minutes. It has the best view in (or right near) our world, image-grabbing galaxies up to 13 billion light years away. The IMAX film “Hubble” is up on the domed screen of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, starting March 19. The 43-minute documentary on the Hubble’s space achievements and periodic fix-its (the last was done last year by a shuttle team) is narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Its makers, who also did “Space Station,” were led by director Toni Myers. Daily shows at the Fleet have tickets from $8 to $14.50, and the enjoyably informative museum is on the Prado near Park Blvd., in Balboa Park. Contact: www.rhfleet.org
Go, stop-mo: Animation fashions its own world, which is the attraction of Tatia Rosenthal’s “$9.99,” a twisting and slightly twisted serving of stop-mo animation. Stories by Edgar Keret were the source of overlapping tales about Aussie apartment dwellers, rich only in attitude. Retro in a fresh way, the tropically colorful, amusing (and slightly sexual) comedy of surreal encounters is voiced by Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia and others. The 78-minute movie shows free at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, March 22, at the Central Public Library, 820 E St. downtown.
A QUOTE (not a blurb!): “You’re full of hate, 41. That’s good! Hate keeps a man alive” – Arrius (Jack Hawkins), dropping some imperial Roman wisdom on galley slave Judah (Charlton Heston) in “Ben-Hur” (1959).
David Elliott is the SDNN movie critic