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Aug 10, 2009

Fletch's Film Review: The Hurt Locker and Paper Heart

"But when a supposed piece of fiction turns out to be more of a documentary than every other documentary made - in that it truly just documents the proceedings - you have to wonder if it wouldn't have been better off being a little less aloof about it's reason for existing."

I wrote that five months ago about the French film The Class, but I could very well say the same thing about Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, an exciting, pulse-pounding and [insert other synonyms here] film about a bomb squad in Iraq circa 2004. I'd imagine that - if nothing else - that makes me the first (and possibly last) person to compare those two films to each other. But it's true. They each had me wondering the following sentiment upon exiting the theater: if you were to take away the handheld cameras that directors have seemed so addicted to over the past few years, what would you have remaining?

You'd have a piece of fiction with few real characters and nary a narrative to be found; in other words, you'd have a bad movie. But something about that "real feeling" seems to trick the mind into thinking that the sum is greater than the whole of its parts. Perhaps it is, after all.

In The Hurt Locker's case, we have a film that follows around a core group of three members of Bravo company as they travel around Iraq diffusing one bomb after another. In each case, the tension grows, the stakes raised higher either by the circumstances of that particular bomb, the company's unpredictable leader, Staff Sergeant James (28 Weeks Later...'s Jeremy Renner), or both. The tension is palpable, and we come to sympathize with the squad as they take one step forward and two steps back; their unseen enemies are constantly a step ahead of them, like computer viruses getting harder and harder for McAfee or Norton to crack.

However, outside of a short detour into Emotionland when the circumstances of a particular bomb hit a bit too close to home for James, the film does little more than trail a few yards beyond the group. Locker has been praised for being the best of the Iraqi War movies to date, partially (or is ist particularly?) for being so impartial, in that it doesn't take sides, neither condemning or condoning the war or our reasons for being there. But when the visceral rush is the only thing that remains, aren't we left only with a "roller coaster" action film with stock characters? If there no message, no conclusion, no lessons learned, then what was the point?

Of course, all that being said, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the movie. Opinionated or not, it does put you in the situation like few other films, and as much as I rail on films that seem dreadfully longer than their run times, the 131 minutes fly by. On top of that, Renner and his co-stars (an excellent Anthony Mackie, playing our conscience and common sense, and Brian Geraghty, the nervous rookie) don't seem to be playing characters at all; they are these guys, and the only shame is that we learn so little about them.

Paper Heart, on the other hand, exists seemingly for no other reason than to toy with your expectations of what a documentary are. Comedian Charlyne Li and her crew (shown onscreen in the person of director Nicholas Jasenovec) refer to the proceedings on multiple occasions as a documentary, but the film is practically anything but.

Long story short: Yi's premise is that she believes that she is incapable of falling in love, or at least of feeling as though she is. Being the curious cat that she is, she decides to travel all over the country in search of some eternal truths: what is love, how do you know when you're in love (or out of love), and what were the paths that people took to get to being in love with another person?

It's a noble (yet Quixotic) quest, and the audience (and her crew) is certain to doubt Yi's proclamations from the start. Her interactions with "real folks" around the country - amongst them, a gay couple in NYC, a judge and attorney in Texas, and a divorcee in the South - are endearing, made better by the Gondry-esque re-enactments shown while the interviewee tells their story. Created by Yi, they're crude paper-and-cellophane (or whatever other cheap tools she had at her disposal) constructions, but aside from being charming, they are filmed incredibly, with excellent angles and a strong eye that makes their MS Paint-level quality feel damn real. They are far and away the best thing the film has going for it.

However, they seem also to serve only as yet another reminder that this is not in fact a genuine doc driven by curiosity but merely a vehicle for Yi to showcase her appeal to Comedy Central execs, maybe in the hopes of landing herself a show. Reinforcing that is the unnecessary name-dropping done by the film early on as Yi "interviews" (if one question and 20 seconds of screen time qualifies as an interview) her "friends" such as Seth Rogen, Demetri Martin (who indeed has or had a Comedy Central show), Martin Starr, and David Krumholtz (who is shown but not interviewed).

It's not long after this that the film falls off its wheels. Yi meets Michael Cera at a party; soon after the two are dating, though the way each acts, you'd think they were auditioning to be dating. The director, lights in his eyes, sees their relationship as gold for the doc: here she is filming a doc about love, and she just might be falling in love! How perfectly serendipitous!

Only it's not. At all. What little truth there might be in the real-life relationships of Yi, Cera and Jasenovec are revealed to be no more real onscreen than the paper re-enactments. It's all a big act - a joke of Andy Kauffman-like proportions done at the audience's expense, sold all the more by the likability of the "stars."

Cuddly as they may be, don't buy it.

Fletch's Film Rating:

The Hurt Locker

"Darn tootin!"

Paper Heart


20 people have chosen wisely: on "Fletch's Film Review: The Hurt Locker and Paper Heart"

Luxlucky said...

I as of yet have to see the hurt locker, but now that you have stated that it really does not have a story line point, I am now iffy about it...

Great assessment over all!!!

but I will still see paper heart!! lol

Nick said...

I think that's the most negative I've heard anybody speak of The Hurt Locker. Granted, I haven't read or heard any in-depth reviews, just snips here and there, but mostly things how it's "the best film ever made," or at least "the best film of the year, hands down."

I was curious about how Charlyne Yi would do as a lead, considering almost all anybody has seen of her was in Knocked Up as one of the stoner friends.

Fletch said...

Well, after all that I said, I still gave The Hurt Locker a positive review. It's good, and I understand where the love is coming from, but something about the structure stuck with and bothered me. I think it's a great illustration of the fine line between a great film and a brainless action pic, and I think it sits on that line.

It was weird, then, seeing Paper Heart just days later, a movie that fits into no genre.

Yi is definitely an oddball, and likable, and I'm thrilled to see any movie starring an Asian-American in a non-stereotyped role. I just felt betrayed by it, but maybe I'm just a sucker and/or someone who went in with the wrong expectations for what it was.

I've always been a Cera defender, but I will say this: Michael. You're rich and famous. Branch out that wardrobe just a skoosh, okay? You need not wear a skinny hoodie every freakin' day. If I had a nickel for every one he owned, I'd probably have, like $2.65.

JLG said...

What about Cera's skinny toga in Year One - that's branching out, right?

Ceri said...

That's a shame about Paper Hearts. I like that crowd Yi seems to be involved in and was looking forward to that film. :P

Nick said...

The crowd Yi is involved in? Like... the Apatow gang?

Fletch said...

JLG - great point. As were the short shorts he sported in Juno. Wouldn't say that they were an improvement, necessarily, but they were branching out.

Ceri - though in the end I couldn't get past my issues with Paper Heart, I wouldn't disrecommend (that's a word, right?) someone from seeing it altogether. You could do a lot worse, and it has its share of moments. I'd just recommend waiting until DVD/TV to do so.

RIPE Creative said...

Pssst - Shaky cam warning should be posted in all caps bold italic underline for the Hurt Locker.

Fletch said...

Crap, I forgot all about Mrs. Fletch's request that I call out the shakicam-ness of The Hurt Locker.

I will make this up to you, I promise. And soon...you'll see.

Hokahey said...

I enjoyed The Hurt Locker but it was lacking impact. The best scene is the sniper standoff in the desert - and that scene is almost a digression. But that scene is suspenseful, it has the feel of realism to it, and it shows more about James's character than the bomb disarming scenes.

Farzan said...

Paper Heart looked pretty stupid from th TV spots I have seen. I have yet to see The Hurt Locker, but I heard mixed things from this. My friend Alex loved it and said "it was pretty intense."

Anh Khoi Do said...

I wasn't upset by the fact that 1) we learn so little about the characters of Sanborn and Eldridge; 2) there's no real conclusion as you pointed it out.

Obviously, since I liked the film, I'll say that as a film that looks like a documentary (with scenes that are less significant than others), The Hurt Locker is just a study mostly focused on Staff Sgt. James. In fact, I guess that the director's goal here was to expose how Renner's character lives by war the same way others live by mountain climbing without gears, for instance. Moreover, as the film advances, we also get to see how Staff Sgt. James' love for his job is perceived by Sanborn and Eldridge.

Finally, as for Paper Heart, it looks like I didn't miss something.

Ceri said...

Ah, that's cool, Fletch. Think I'll do just that. :-)

blake said...

I liked both these films a smidge more than you. Well, a lot more than you, but you brought up some excellent points, especially about Paper Heart. I was completely enamoured by it when I saw it at Sundance, but the more I think about it, the more I think I was fooled.

Fletch said...

Farzan/Hokahey - I think that between your two comments, you hit the nail on where Hurt Locker should be seen critically. It's a fun, very well made ride, but that's about as deep as it gets.

AKD - I guess if you want, you could say that "what the film is about" is summed up with the quote shown in the beginning, with everything else just pounding that point home as it relates to James. Looking solely at that, it says the "what," but I don't think does a good enough job of showing the "why," particularly after what he had to go through with the little boy. If anything, I would have thought that would have hit too close to home for him and pushed him away from his 'drug,' rather than the opposite.

Blake - at the least, you can come away with this pearl of wisdom from our former President:

"Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again." - George W. Bush

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

I'm a big fan of Kauffman, so odds are that I'll like Paper Heart...if it ever comes out here.

elgringo said...

The Hurt Locker blew me away. After 2.25 hours, I eventually exhaled. She is not afraid to let a scene play out. Even when a bomb would be disarmed,I still nearly watched through my fingers as my heart raced.

As for Paper Moon, I had the chance to see this at Sundance and opted to see something else. Now I'm not sure I made the right choice. The trailers make it seem like a movie tailor-made for myself. On the other hand, I can't remember which movie I skipped it for so I guess we'll never know.

Zach said...

The Hurt Locker was amazing and one of my favorites films of the year so far...Paper Heart? Not so much...

Tom said...

My wife and I just returned from seeing "The Hurt Locker," which we both found frustratingly simplistic, predictable and old-fashioned in its characterization and, to a lesser degree, in its plot. Some of the visuals were striking, but there was just nothing and no one to care about. So I'm going through all the reviews on the external sites imdb references, amazed at all the thoughtful critics who liked the film, and you are the first person to allude to some of the flaws we saw in the film (although you liked it better than we did, but at this point I'll take what I can get!). I just wanted to praise you for seeing and pointing out the cliches and the emptiness we saw, just below the well-filmed, well-acted surface.


Fletch said...

Thanks very much, Tom. It seems to me that, as with the latter two Bourne films (and perhaps with United 93, though I've not yet seen that), that people get swept up by the glory and the power that is Shaky Cam. Its mere existence is able to amp up the intensity and make things seem better than they perhaps might be otherwise. Perhaps that's not the case and I'm just imagining it, but I keep wishing that we could get two versions of all of these films so we could see if the reactions matched up.

The Hurt Locker does have something important to say; problem is, it TELLS you within the first ten seconds what that is (the title card), and only then spends the next two hours showing that to you. Perhaps even the removal of that title card would have added some impact to the storytelling; I don't know.

Anyway, glad I could be of service to you! :)