Some Recent Films

Here’s the latest in my somewhat infrequent rundowns of recent films that I’ve seen.

The Hurt Locker is the latest film from Kathryn Bigelow, who always seems to go quiet for a bit between films. Previously she made such fare as Point Break, Strange Days and Near Dark.

This film is set in Iraq and it’s terrific. To say that this film keeps you on the edge of your seat is really doing it a disservice. We follow a group of three unexploded bomb experts – or more accurately one, and his two "team-mates." Bomb defusing is tense enough, and put it in a film where you’re never entirely sure which characters will live and die, and you have something that even the most die-hard horror fans will find uncomfortable.

The film opens with Guy Pearce leading a team as they send a robot in to defuse an IED somewhere in an Iraqi street. Something happens that means the company need a new bomb specialist and in comes Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renny). He’s a bit gung-ho and Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are immediately concerned that their lifespan might be colossally foreshortened. They only have just over a month left before their tour of duty is completed – getting blown up now is not on the agenda.

But we begin to learn more about the individuals through both a series of bomb defusing/detonation jobs and their evening rest and relaxation.

Despite being set in the army, we rarely venture beyond the threesome, with just an army psychologist and a handful of fellow soldiers ever seen on screen. Even then, the film creates a sense of claustrophobia and conversation rarely if ever extends beyond the three. There’s no radio chatter and no big scenes in mess halls or anywhere.

In one sequence our trio run across a group of British special forces out in the desert led by Ralph Fiennes, but even then there’s minimal communication between the groups, and the Brits are deliberately missing from the action. It’s a very purposeful device from Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who based this film on experiences he saw as a journalist shadowing real bomb specialists.

In terms of story, the development is really to do with our characters, who just take on the jobs they’re given. To that end, the only real objective is to simply stay alive. Every so often you wonder why there aren’t hundreds of other troops backing up the team, but we’re left on our own.

The performances are exceptional and the whole film feels enormously real.

One final note – the posters feature Lost’s Evangeline Lily. Now while it’s true she’s one of the few "names" in the film – Pearce and Fiennes having brief roles – Lily is also only in the film for less than five minutes. But don’t let that stop you seeing this film.

Mesrine is part one of a two part French gangster epic, and I’m impatient to see the second part. Vincent Cassell plays the title character and the film is based on a true story. We’re to believe that his "qualities" were based as a torturer in Algeria during the fifties, before Mesrine returns to France and gets mixed up in criminal activities. The level of crime ramps up and before long he has to escape to Quebec to avoid capture from both the police and other criminals.

The film has some excellent performances, and part two is imminent.

Frozen River has taken an awful long time to reach these shores. Starring Melissa Leo who won an Oscar nomination that nobody now remembers as Ray Eddy and Misty Upham as Lila Littlewolf, it’s set in upstate New York close to the Canadian border. When Eddy’s husband runs off with all their money just before Christmas leaving her with her kids, she ends up getting involved in cross border smuggling making use of the laxer law enforcement in the Native American territories and the frozen river of the title along the US/Canadian border.

I’m not surprised Yeo was up for an award, and if the Oscars weren’t just a mainstream marketing exercise, perhaps she’d have won. I remember her from David Simon’s first fabulous police series, Homicide: Life on the Street. And I see that she’s now working on Simon’s latest production Treme, set in New Orleans.

Finally a mention of Once Upon A Time In The West which was recently showing in a new print at the BFI Southbank. It’s still a visually stunning piece of work, and Morricone’s score is supreme. If you get a chance, this is the kind of film that simply isn’t the same on the small screen and needs to be seen in a cinema.