A Review of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”

Kathryn Bigelow creates imagery in THE HURT LOCKER that invokes the iconography of science fiction films as a way to diffuse viewers conflicted emotions over the harsh realities of war.

Kathryn Bigelow creates imagery in THE HURT LOCKER that invokes the iconography of science fiction films as a way to diffuse viewers' conflicted feelings over the harsh realities of war.

 Bigelow Detonates All the Right Marks
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the “wild man” team leader who has defused more than eight hundred bombs and has built his reputation on being an adrenaline junkie in order to mask his inability to cope with the emotional connections he feebly tries to make at home and on the job.  Sergeant JT Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) approaches his work with a by-the-book stoicism that can’t comprehend the recklessness of James.  Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is highly trained but still feels overwhelmed by his morbid thoughts on war and his role in it.  These are the members of the EOD Army bomb squad stationed in Baghdad in 2004, and The Hurt Locker is their story.

After failing to do so with the depressingly somber and obvious In The Valley of Elah, screenwriter Mark Boal wisely places politics and moralizing aside this time to give us an intimate look into one squad with a highly specialized job to do.  Hollywood has always loved to play with the grunt’s-eye-view-of-war-as-hell theme, but The Hurt Locker spins that volatile cocktail on its head and blows it up all over the screen by focusing on an elite team and proposes the notion that maybe war is a drug…for some.

Director Kathryn Bigelow hits all the right detonators with her fascinating presentation of modern warfare in the Middle East.  Bigelow hasn’t really made anything memorable since her 1987 breakthrough, the cult vampire/western Near Dark, but she has always managed to make interesting failures —  just take a look at her attempt to do a literary adaptation with the superficially obtuse The Weight of Water.  Often living under the shadow of ex-husband James Cameron or having to share the title of “that female action director” with Mimi Leder — until Mimi murdered her film career with the abominable Pay it Forward — Bigelow, determined to finally leave her mark, displays an astounding technical prowess with The Hurt Locker that can only come from the wisdom of experience.   Close-ups, slow-mo’s, quick cuts and inventive plays with the camera’s point-of-view are used sparingly and with pin-point precision to heighten tension.  Here she shows the “good ol’ boys” she once emulated but has now trounced that style can be used for dramatic effect but need not be excessive.  Her sense of space allows us to be right there with the bomb squad as they are faced with unimaginable danger.  We always know where each character is positioned in relation to the bomb, and we always find in turn our stomachs have hit the floor.  Her technique is brilliant and delivers a picture that is so taut it might be the most intense experience this side of Clouzot’s Wages of Fear.  Now knowing all the moves, however, I wonder how the film will hold up on return viewing.

The Hurt Locker  is not for those seeking generic thrills or anyone currently on medication for emotional problems.  It gets deep down into the gritty nature of bomb defusing by offering us lessons on suicide bombers, IED’s and body-bombs that will make your gut churn.  There are also some fantastically rendered sniper scenarios that are used not just for a visceral jolt, but also as a way to explore character development.  Soldiers are not only put in precarious situations during combat but also in their day-to-day life dealing with their own conflicted emotions on top of a moody Iraqi populace that includes people treating them as tourists and looking to make a quick buck, people looking at the carnage as a spectator sport, people suffering as innocent bystanders, and people who wish to kill the soldiers and any one else in any way possible.

While there are a few details one could quibble with — for instance, the title is never explained — The Hurt Locker is impossible to dismiss and sometimes hard to digest.  It paints a picture of war that shows there are no politics when it comes to the daily experiences of soldiers in the field.  Their everyday heroism is painted in varying shades of moral ambiguity, while their internal struggles are shown to receive no emotional closure.  As in real life, the story arcs of the fictional characters seen here are left open-ended, and the possibility of redeployment looms not just as an act of cruel fate but as a conscious and determined choice.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

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Weekending in Wildwood and Cape May

With the family renting a house for the week on Wildwood Crest, I spent the weekend at the Jersey Shore.  The Wildwood/Cape May area can be reached in about two hours from the South Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia for day-tripping or weekend escapes — though on any given day during the height of summer, traffic can be backed-up on both the expressway and back roads, so be patient.  While modern resort-style over-development threw-up all over the signature Doo-Wop hotels in Wildwood proper, the Crest is home to blocks upon blocks of rental houses that offer some quiet and removal from the hustle and bustle of the world famous Wildwood Boardwalk.  Meanwhile, neighboring Cape May continues to offer a more refined but no less in-your-face quasi-European Victorian Era feel for travelers.  Both “cities” (and their sprawling outliers) pride themselves on delivering different kinds of time warps while boasting some of the oldest inns and lighthouses and largest beaches along the coast of New Jersey.  But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of room for all the stereotypical Jersey Shore mainstays…the boardwalks, the rides, the tacky souvenir shops, the New Yorkers, the screaming children, salt-water taffy, fudge and the wonderful smell from the marshes that can only be produced in the Garden State.  Continue reading

Do Not Make Me Stop This Bus

From the low-brow satire of Sacha Baron Cohen to the high-brow satire of Irene Nemirovsky…from an obscene film preaching tolerance to a museum depicting the obscene cost of intolerance…it was an interesting, albeit low-key and contemplative visit to New York City this weekend.

Here’s the rundown:

Saturday Morning:  I hopped on the bus and endured sitting behind a trio of non-stop nattering nitwits.  Luckily I had my Best American Short Stories  book with me, and I especially enjoyed reading Johnathan Lethem’s hilariously pretentious “The King of Sentences” in the context of sitting behind my unfortunately histrionic and vapidly loquacious travel companions.  If only I could come up with a perfect sentence to describe the situation that would make the King proud! Continue reading

A Review of Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”

Handsome Depp Gangster Flick Lacks Depth
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher

Johnny Depp (in a subdued cool swagger) is Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, in director Michael Mann’s handsomely mounted but curiously distant riff on Depression Era Gangster Shenanigans.  Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, the G-man hunting down Dillinger’s gang, but the cat-and-mouse game never reaches the boiling point some viewers will desire, resulting in a tepid film designed to make you think you have to admire it.

Lifting material from the true crime book by Bryan Burrough, the workmen-like script from Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman tries clumsily to weave in too many secondary characters while staying on point with the historical events.  There are some decent attempts to anchor the film with a love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (played by the French actress Marion Cotillard, who is wisely striking while the iron is hot in her first stateside role since her Oscar win), but there’s not much else in the realm of character development, and no one is given any backstory.  The writers start “in media res” to give it that classical epic structure, but it doesn’t work when you can’t even identify the peripheral characters from each other.  What results is a cavalcade of apparently great supporting turns from a large professional cast, everyone spot on with their period cadence and mannerisms but no one leaving any kind of lasting impression in the wake of the great turns from Depp and Cotillard, the only two in the cast given anything to work with.  There are also some missed opportunities to explore Dillinger’s Robin Hood mentality and the public infatuation with his “celebrity” — just two of the potentially great subtexts that are only given brief surface level treatments by the screenplay.

Cotillard makes a successful first stateside bid for stardom.

Cotillard makes a successful first bid for stateside stardom.

From a technical standpoint, there’s plenty to chew on here for thoughtful audiences.  Continue reading