Green Zone (Greengrass, 2010)

Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone orders a problematic opening mission – remember a world convinced Bush Administration politics were transparent and tactile. It all seems horrifically absurd now, some seven years after WMD’s, Saddam, and a loaded little word called insurgency. But Greengrass’ disturbing and self-serious reminder of the corruption, manipulation, and treason perpetrated during those early moments in Operation Iraqi Freedom eludes inconsequence by staying brilliantly on task. Greengrass frames the great deception of our country around the convincing patriotism and singular desperation of Sgt. Roy Miller (Matt Damon), an old-school military believer pushed off reservation by his burning need to uncover not just the truth, but the reasons behind the lies. And for every step forward, Miller’s fragmented and bloody quest through the dark alleys and cramped interiors of a fiery Baghdad takes two steps back. Continue reading

Best of the 2000’s: Discussion # 1

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– The following is the first of ten planned online discussions between myself and The Filmist regarding the best films of the 2000’s. These transcriptions have been slightly edited due to length, but the published content remains exactly as written.  After a short, casual introduction, we begin…

Topics: The Dark Knight and Blood Sunday

MATCH CUTS: I’ve seen The Dark Knight at least four times now, and I still have reservations about it. I’m curious why you think it made such an impact on people? It seems to delve into moral complexity, but at the same time establish a safety net of super hero conventions, with the exception of The Joker.

FILMIST: Well, I think it affected the movie-going public and the critics because it “transcends it’s genre,” while still remaining a distinct part of it. Much like, say, The Searchers is still clearly in line with John Ford’s previous Westerns while at the same time being it’s own work with it’s own set of layers. This kind of this is particularly rare with comic book films, which are almost the definition of cookie-cutter…And, I think it acknowledges those conventions to a point, and plays with them – like Rachel’s death, or Harvey’s sudden scarring. Scenes that kind of pull the rug out from under us, purposefully.

MC: I agree that it attempts to complicate both the familiar structure of the comic book film and the notion of heroism. But some of its layers are so much stronger than others. Ledger overwhelms the film in ways I still am unable to comprehend. He’ a force of nature that keeps upending the story. It’s as if everyone else, including the characters, are in just as much awe as the audience.

F: I think that’s intentional, really – and one of the reasons I like to view the film apart from it’s predecessor, which I’m not very fond of. He’s like a penny put stuck onto the train tracks.

MC: That’s interesting. You referenced Batman Begins in your piece and I was surprised you found it overwrought. I love the first film. It has a purity of purpose, a clarity and arc that the second film lacks. But I think Nolan is doing this on purpose. The Dark Knight is obviously an epic, whereas the first film is a character study on a more personal level.

F: The main reason I’m no particular fan of it is because of David Goyer – I do agree that structurally, it’s very well done. But here and there, the dialogue becomes floppy and overly expository – which wouldn’t really be a large problem, except that it’s a constant, throughout the film. And, while those kinds of things are still there in The Dark Knight, their presence is more minimal.

MC: My main issue with the film is Nolan’s impatience with scenes in the first hour. I’ve written on this a few times at the site. I called it “Narrative Bursts” in one piece, where short scenes pop up in rapid fire succession, never allowing for the actors or pacing to breath. It’s as if Nolan is attempting to set up a universe that’s too big, incorporating everything, compacting storylines and relationships down to a few minutes. What do you make of this style of pacing?

F: I think that the pacing is intentionally rapid-fire within that first hour or so – I think the only one who might possibly suffer from it is Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, although we do learn far more about him later on. Actually, I think one of my favorite scenes from the film is the one near the beginning that follows Alfred as he finds Bruce Wayne missing from his Penthouse. In contrast to what’s come before, the pace slows down here pretty measurably.

MC:  I’ve never been able to reconcile these moments. For me, the film begins and ends with Ledger, who stands alone looking down at a world so consumed with self pity and salvation that they never see the forest for the trees. Ledger’s Joker seems to be the only three dimensional character of the bunch, and we know the least about him. His ambiguity is a welcome change of pace, a far cry from the more transparent characters in the film, Dawes, Bruce, even Dent is pretty clear cut. But even with these reservations, I can’t deny the film’s importance.

F: I just love the film’s treatment of Dent’s arc – we see faint, unexpected glimmers on this All-American lawyer near the beginning, until finally we’re made aware of something deeper simmering underneath when he threatens that schizophrenic with the gun in the alley, and into his madness in the hospital. Which is another thing I wanted to write about in my entry for the film – those moments where the film’s sound cuts out, replaced by ambient waves, as the action on-screen becomes quietly frenetic. In this case, Dent waking up and his realization as to what’s happened…
Oh, yes. The film’s had a huge impact – although, it did lead to Zach Snyder’s Watchmen, so we can fault it for that.

MC: So what are your thoughts on Bloody Sunday?

F: As an Irishman, it really poked at my heart-strings. I particularly enjoyed Greengrass’ framing of the film in faux Newsreel footage – and, it’s interesting to contrast this with his more traditional films, like The Bourne Supremacy.

MC: I remembering seeing Bloody Sunday the first day it came out in Santa Barbara, when I was still in University, and it floored me, absolutely devastated me, and I think more so than any other film using this documentary approach, it denied the full articulation of the event, only catching glimpses, and this destroyed me. I guess I love it when a film lets my imagination fill in the blanks. If you look at all the films I’ve mentioned as favorites, they all share this in common.

F: Oh, indeed. That was one of the things I so enjoyed about it, as well – how we hear the first shots that sent everything rolling, but we don’t know where the sounds came from. And then, later on, we can see the marchers trying to hold back their own gunmen.

MC: History seems to be an evolving monster of inaccuracies, miscommunications, moments of indecision and guilt, and Greengrass captures the tragedy of this thought process.

F: I love that there’s a clear bias about the film, but at the same time, Greengrass doesn’t restrain himself from presenting the marchers as almost equally as frenzied as everything else in the film.

MC: The last scene in the film, where (James) Nesbitt’s character gives another press conference, definitely proves the theme of the film, radicalizing all of Ireland against the British, but also the escalation by the IRA, the ideology infecting the youth, is equally destructive. It’s a fascinating realization of the contradictions inherent in a traumatic situation like this one.

F: Yes, indeed. It actually reminded me a little of the ending of Animal Farm, for some reason. And, on a personal level, this interested me, because my father’s mentioned quite a few times that he’s sent large amounts of money to the IRA. Also, I think it’s funny that Greengrass took a more dramatic approach to his next rendition of real events, United 93, when this more verite aesthetic carried over so well for the subject matter – I think it could have had the same effect for that film, although I don’t know how well it would’ve worked, given that we’ve less concrete information about what went on inside that plane than the events provided in Bloody Sunday.

MC: Yeah, the dramatic rendering of United 93 seems to adhere more to the conventional, not as ambiguous, although equally as powerful. You could talk endlessly about how those films overlap. But Bloody Sunday allows you to get close to the characters, whereas United 93 sees them as emblems of 9/11 as a whole. Bloody Sunday feels untainted, a perfect understanding that history cannot be reproduced, just reinvented.

F: You know, I’ve never been able to understand the criticisms thrown at the film by the Irish critics at the time, that the film is too focused (too focused) on the leaders and the ideologues rather than those who’d decided to follow them. If anything, I think it’s an interesting perspective to view the film from – from the top-down.

MC:  But you do get a sense of the common man in the film, like the young man who’s dating the protestant girl, then gets dragged into the conflict by his buddies. You definitely get a feeling for the collective loss with his story. I don’t understand those criticisms either.

F: Well, I think it’s telling that a lot of those criticisms seemed to come from the guys who worked on Sunday,which was an Irish television movie about the events – it’s pretty traditional docu-drama TV movie stuff, but they were remarkably loud about how much better their film was than Bloody Sunday, which was strange. I’ve only seen the film twice, but it’s its critical reception that interested me the most, as you can tell.

MC: It got universal acclaim in the States, yet it seems to have faded from memory here. None of the top critics are mentioning it for the end of the decade lists. I still thinks it’s an essential piece of historiography. Timeless really.

F: That is strange – kind of a sudden drop off, when you think about it.

MC: I guess that’s why we do what we do. To defend the films we feel passionate about.

– Next week we’ll tackle the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the equally hefty The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Best of the 2000’s: #10

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In 2002, Bloody Sunday premiered to almost universal critical acclaim introducing Americans to British journeyman director Paul Greengrass, whose previous work included mostly television movies and two feature films. In the years since, Greengrass successfully graduated to Hollywood (United 93, The Bourne Franchise) and Bloody Sunday has become noted as a fine beginning for an important film artist.

But for whatever reason, Bloody Sunday does not get mentioned much anymore, especially amongst the canon of great films. Ironic, considering the film specifically functions as a lasting cinematic memory for a crucial traumatic event: The Bogside Massacre of January 30, 1972 in Derry, Ireland.  To this day, it still makes quite an impression both as a cinematic historical document and emotional/political tragedy.

Re-watching Bloody Sunday for this project harkened the intense emotions I felt upon first viewing, the haunting feeling history was unfolding in front of my very eyes, paralyzing my senses with authenticity while illustrating the contradictions and gaps within a disastrous situation. The film confronts the very idea of memory, perception, and reality, challenging our historical timeline as a clean, linear roadmap. It creates a confused state, leaving us with cluttered observations and distinct anger, ultimately shaken more by what we don’t see that what’s actually on screen.

When considering the best films of the last ten years, Bloody Sunday remains a landmark achievement for many reasons. Like no other film in recent memory, it masterfully recreates both a specific physical time and place and the defining emotions and tensions running under the surface. The impact is substantial, even when history tells you what to expect.

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This detailed structure regarding social and political contexts immediately defines Bloody Sunday. The film opens with a stunning sequence crosscutting between Derry Civil Rights Leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) and British Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), each embroiled in a press conference addressing the political climate of Northern Ireland circa 1972. Cooper stresses non-violence as the only option, promoting a massive protest march with the backing of the populace. Ford yearns to send a message of force due to the increasing violence perpetrated by the IRA, vowing a crackdown if the march goes forward.

These two contrasting ideologies evolve into representations of collective stories on both sides, foreshadowing the innocent loss of life for the protestors and the indelible guilt felt by some of the British soldiers and high command. Greengrass utilizes a deceivingly simple editing technique – fading to black after each scene – overtly illustrating the breaks and gaps within memory and trauma. The final goodbye between sister and brother, the casual conversation between preacher and disciple, the last embrace of two lovers, all represent the small, but devastating human toll of the event itself.

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Aside from the meticulous editing, Bloody Sunday brilliantly displays the improvisation and realism inherent to the Cinema Verite style of filmmaking. The gritty hand-held cinematography by Ivan Strasburg evokes an immediate, on-the-ground vantage point, positioning the viewer in a delicate and fleeting position to watch the characters interact before the heart-wrenching ordeal, throughout the panicked bloodshed, and finally during the grief-stricken haze of the aftermath. History unfolds through minute details, and this documentary-style approach captures them with stunning clarity.

Even as the massacre occurs, the camera becomes an extension of the viewer’s incomplete point of view, capturing a collection of sporadic shocking moments. Shots are fired, but rarely are bullets seen hitting the protestors. The camera simply pans and finds bodies lifeless, bleeding, suffering, focusing on the horrific aftermath instead of the act itself. Most impressionable are the moments when the camera stops, holding on the cowering survivors screaming and crying, watching in disbelief as their loved ones disappear from this world.

Bloody Sunday remembers a complex and shifting community battling for a sense of identity. We get all the inner workings of familial structures and relationships, between loyalty, religion, and revolution, while constructing these contrasting visions within a society connected by collective angst.

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But the film also delves into the procedures of military occupation, all the miscommunications, inactions, and moral ambiguities inherent with such a venture. The panic of young soldiers, the brutality of seasoned officers, and the regret of guilty subordinates make up a startling mosaic exposing military hierarchies and contradictions.

Bloody Sunday shows the devastating culmination of a society slowly ripped apart by fear, two sides moving away from peace because of human miscalculation and arrogance. Greengrass’ masterpiece stuns the viewer with moments of hope and tragedy, violence and calm, and in the process constantly reminds how easily one can shift to the other in a single heartbeat, by the sound of a gun, or a cry for peace.

Note: The Filmist’s epic consideration of his #10 choice, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, can be found here.

“The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing discussion between Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

The Bourne Ultimatum (Greengrass, 2007)

Let’s not beat around the bush – The Bourne Ultimatum doesn’t have what can be traditionally construed as a script. In fact, the film is basically five chase scenes strung together, but as a continuation and evolution of both Greengrass’ hand held style and the series’ kinetic motifs, The Bourne Ultimatum works beautifully as an engaging upgrade from the overwhelming nature of Supremacy. For starters, the action in Ultimatum walks a fine line between lyrical madness and chaotic incoherence, and Greengrass instills a sense of history in every punch, every growl of a motorbike, and with each crunch of breaking bones. Bourne, stoically played by the now withered Matt Damon, has come full circle since Doug Liman’s masterful first film, using his emotional and physical scars like a scalpel, dissecting the stagnant corruption of his C.I.A. handlers. The Bourne Ultimatum never lets up, and this might be it’s greatest asset. Greengrass uses little connective tissue between the chases, jumping cities with the quick ease of an edit and a wide angle establishing shot. Bourne, like the audience, is thrust from one place to the next without much preparation, creating an almost breathless pace, one which fits the hero’s desperate attempt to finalize his forgotten identity. I was completely taken aback by Greengrass’ stylistic departure in the second film, retreating from Liman’s glossy fluidity, enveloping Bourne in a frantic, quick cut atmosphere of change. In The Bourne Ultimatum, Greengrass has found a happy medium between the two, and even though the story uses little to no character structure, the overall scope of the work goes interactive, a “where in the world is Jason Bourne” type mythology which pits him around every corner, in your office, invading the evils of the past to combat those of the future. The C.I.A.’s inability to chase down their own monster says a lot about our current state of global affairs, but Damon and Greegrass smartly focus on the personal – the idea of failed loyalty, sacrifice, and the realization of those failures in a violent way. Bourne has plenty to be mad at, but at the end of Greengrass’ latest, he changes quite drastically, and his shift affects those of his lethal ilk. Pretty amazing subtext for a Hollywood Blockbuster threequel.

The Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004)

In this second film of the Bourne Series, director Paul Greengrass abandons Doug Liman’s seamless, glossy approach for a kinetic, often distracting hand held camera style. But it’s not just the shaky angles or countless cuts which end up making The Bourne Supremacy a drastic downgrade from the first film and a tired effort on it’s own. The main problem with Greengrass’ revenge story revolves around Bourne’s evolution, or lack thereof, as a character. The beauty of the first film rests in trying to understand Bourne’s plight as he’s discovering it himself, through the blurs and shadows of amnesia. Now, some two years later in the story, Bourne’s simplistic motives (his woman is killed, must strike back!) lend very little to his overall arc as a character. Only in one of the final scenes, when Bourne approaches the daughter of his first kill, does Matt Damon and in turn the character begin to surprise and enthrall. What The Bourne Supremacy lacks in character, it makes up for with impressive action sequences, specifically the last car chase through Moscow. But in the grand scheme of things, this film leaves a cold impression, snake bitten by a safe, sometimes boring stasis in character, ultimately a huge disappointment considering the conflicted assassin at the helm.