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Monday, July 27, 2009
STERRITT ON HURT LOCKER:
"UNCRITICAL CRITICS" PRAISE THE APOLITICAL TO A FAULT
"Nobody benefits when critics are as apolitical as the films they criticize," writes critic David Sterritt in regards to the critical praise heaped on Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, currently making its way in theaters throughout the U.S. The critical consensus does seem to be that Bigelow's film lacks any political viewpoint (is this even truly possible?), and that it is all the better for it. There have been a couple of negative reviews of The Hurt Locker posted at Andrew Breitbart's conservative-minded Big Hollywood, where John Nolte sees "unnecessary" political messages throughout, and Alexander Marlow calls it "a left-wing film."

"While the film is excellent in some respects," Sterritt writes of The Hurt Locker, "its politics are worrisome – not because they’re wrong, but because there are no politics in a film about the most politically fraught conflict in recent memory. And the eagerness of critics to overlook or excuse this bothers me just as much." Sterritt agrees that Bigelow's film has more "hair-raising action" than either Brian De Palma's Redacted or Paul Haggis' In The Valley Of Elah (the latter written, like The Hurt Locker, by Mark Boal). But, Sterritt states, the Hurt Locker "comes up extremely short in the politics department." Sterritt doesn't just criticize the filmmakers for being shortsighted in failing to address the politics involved in the war in Iraq-- he also chastises critics for praising the film's apparent lack of ideology:

Dana Stevens of Slate wraps up a rave by saying The Hurt Locker is “without question the most exciting and least ideological movie yet made” about the Iraq war, as if excitement sans ideology – any ideology – were the formula for top-grade cinema. Numerous reviewers find the film’s vagueness about geopolitics, and even geography, a plus rather than a minus. “It so happens that The Hurt Locker takes place in Iraq,” writes Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly. “But geography is almost beside the point.” Kenneth Turan says in the Los Angeles Times that “it’s unfair to burden The Hurt Locker with the Iraq label” since there’s “no sense of winning or losing a war here, no notion of making a difference or achieving lofty geopolitical aims,” echoing Boal’s dubious distinction between movies that actually think and movies that just move. Politics don’t even occur to Roger Ebert, who calls The Hurt Locker “a great film, an intelligent film, a film shot clearly so that we know exactly who everybody is and where they are and what they're doing and why.” Has the bar for great, intelligent films slipped so low that a movie qualifies by being comprehensible?

And so it goes. David Edelstein recognizes the political shallowness of The Hurt Locker near the end of his New York review, then promptly endorses it. “Last but maybe foremost are the politics—or lack of them,” he writes, commendably bringing up the problem. “The question of what the hell these good men are doing,” he continues, “in a culture they don’t understand with a language they don’t speak surrounded by people they can’t read hangs in the air but is never actually called.” So far, so good, until he asks the rhetorical question, “Or is that why this movie rises above its preachy counterparts?” This raises two non-rhetorical questions in my mind: What qualities make those counterparts preachy, as opposed to informative or provocative? And what counterparts are we talking about, anyway? The critic gives no clue. Over at the Village Voice, meanwhile, Scott Foundas rightly notes that some film-festival viewers tagged The Hurt Locker “apolitical,” and then he executes the same maneuver as Edelstein, saying those comments only show that the film “is mercifully free of ham-fisted polemics” and is content to “immerse us in an environment.” I’m as anti-ham-fist as the next moviegoer, but there would have been plenty of room in that environment for some progressive polemics.

In another mostly perceptive article, New York Times critic A.O. Scott calls Bigelow “one of the few directors for whom action-movie-making and the cinema of ideas are synonymous,” saying you may “emerge from The Hurt Locker shaken, exhilarated and drained, but you will also be thinking.” Thinking about what, however? “Not necessarily about the causes and consequences of the Iraq war,” Scott hastens to add. Scott’s conclusion is a let-down, but at least he explicitly faults the movie’s political limitations, saying that the filmmakers’ concentration on moment-to-moment experience is “a little evasive.” Take out the “little” and the point would be better made.

David Denby’s review in The New Yorker is also both insightful and problematic. The Hurt Locker is not political, he writes, “except by implication—a mutual distrust between American occupiers and Iraqi citizens is there in every scene.” Again the film’s political shortfall – its politics are only implicit, and they encompass nothing more profound or sweeping than distrust – is nothing to fret about. “The specialized nature of the subject is part of what makes [the film] so powerful,” Denby continues, “and perhaps American audiences worn out by the mixed emotions of frustration and repugnance inspired by the war can enjoy this film without ambivalence or guilt.” I’m not sure “enjoy” is exactly what Denby meant to say in this context, but I am sure that movie-movie pleasure is not the best contribution a war-themed film can make to a culture that’s politically challenged to begin with.

BIGELOW: "IT'S NOT MY POSITION TO JUDGE"
Bigelow told the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips that The Hurt Locker "seems to have touched a nerve, no matter which side of the aisle you're on." She further stated, "My job is to communicate; it's not my position to judge or dictate policy. I find it annoying when a film takes a superior attitude and doesn't provide the information in order for me to make my own decision. I don't want to be told what to think."


Posted by Geoff at 10:54 PM CDT
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Wednesday, September 10, 2008
FOUNDAS & WELLS ON HURT LOCKER

Scott Foundas filed a review of The Hurt Locker yesterday from Toronto at his LA Weekly blog: 

[Kathryn] Bigelow's film may not be, in formal terms, as radical and innovative a work as Brian De Palma's Redacted, but it's nevertheless a unique and worthy addition to the canon of cinematic texts about the Iraq campaign — the first, I think, that really tries to understand what motivates the men (and in Bigelow's army, there are only men) who join a volunteer military in times of war. It also happens to be a first-class piece of visceral action moviemaking...

The Hurt Locker saves its most inspired strokes for last, when Renner returns home after his tour of duty and Bigelow, in a 10-minute sequence of pure cinema, creates a more palpable sense of the disorientation experienced by many a combat vet suddenly extracted from the war zone than Stop-Loss managed in its entirety. Finally, as Toronto hits the half-way mark, here is another movie worth getting excited about.

WELLS ANGRY ABOUT BUYER WARINESS
Jeffrey Wells is also raving from Toronto about The Hurt Locker:

The Hurt Locker is absolutely a classic war film in the tradition of Platoon, The Thin Red Line, Pork Chop Hill, Paths of Glory and the last 25% of Full Metal Jacket, and it damn well better be acquired by someone and set for release sometime between now and 12.31. Because I'm getting tired of this shit.

Something is very wrong with life, the world, human nature and the film business when a movie this knock-down good is still hunting for distribution. I'm obviously aware of all the Iraq War films that died last year but this movie is something else. You don't shun movies like this. If you're a distributor and that's your judgment -- walk away, we can't sell it, we'll lose our shirts -- then you need to get out of the movie business and start selling refrigerators or cars. A buyer told me a little while ago that it only cost about $15 million or less. How could the numbers not work?

...I don't want to reveal too much here, but the only thing that didn't feel quite right was a close-to-the-end sequence when Renner goes home to his (divorced?) wife and kid, and right away we can spot the familiar syndrome of the war veteran who can't quite settle down and groove with a midle-class, comforts-of-home lifestyle. I don't want to register a major complaint about this; it doesn't work against the film as much as it fails to add anything significant. This is probably the best film I've seen at the Toronto Film Festival so far.

The Hurt Locker has since been picked up for U.S. distribution by Summit Entertainment.


Posted by Geoff at 11:30 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 1:36 PM CDT
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Sunday, September 7, 2008
IRAQ-WAR FILMS TRY AGAIN
BIGELOW, BURGER, DICAPRIO & SCOTT

I've been following the trail of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker with much anticipation as it premiered at Venice last week, and moves on to Toronto next week. According to the U.K.'s Metro, Bigelow was asked at the Venice press conference how she felt about the troops returning home from Iraq. "I hope and pray that that is imminent, meaning immediately. I would like to see that happen. I think with a change of administration that's possible. But only one man is capable of doing that and that's Mr Barack Obama." (According to Bob Woodward, interviewed on CBS' 60 Minutes tonight, George W. Bush's advice regarding Iraq to whoever takes over the presidency is, "Don't let it fail.") Regarding Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells has reviewed the reviews and finds that Variety's pan of the film ("War may be hell, but watching war movies can also be hell, especially when they don't get to the point," writes Variety's Derek Elley) is at curious odds with every other rave review of the film Wells has read or heard first-hand. The bottom line from the Hollywood Reporter's Deborah Young? "War made exciting."

Young writes in her review that "Hurt Locker's refusal to take a moral stance on the war should widen its audience to the U.S. military, while lowering its chance for a a major festival prize." (Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler won the Golden Lion at Venice-- can't wait to see that!) The Hollywood Reporter's Steven Zeitchik wrote an article for the site's Risky Business blog quoting publicists of various upcoming Iraq-themed films who say that, after the low box office of last year's Iraq-war films, they are doing everything they can to avoid using the work "Iraq" when promoting these films. Neil Burger's The Lucky Ones (the promising trailer for which you can watch at the top of this post), about three soldiers returning from the Gulf who end up renting a car together on the way home, will premiere at Toronto this Wednesday. Howard Cohen of Roadside Attractions, the company distributing the film, told Zeitchik that "'Iraq' is a dirty word in film marketing right now."

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times today ran a joint interview with Tony Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio about their upcoming Body Of Lies, which they both think, according to the article by Chris Lee, "will be the Iraq-war movie that finally draws a crowd." Lee writes that the film (which will open October 10) "presents the most stinging screen portrayal of American foreign policy by any Hollywood studio movie in recent memory. DiCaprio portrays Roger Ferris, an idealistic field agent operating out of Iraq and Jordan who resorts to elaborate subterfuge -- concocting a fictitious sleeper cell and staging a mock bombing -- to flush a terrorist mastermind out into the open." Lee writes:

It's a deliberate throwback to Nixon-era conspiracy thrillers, films that spotlighted American political skulduggery and corruption. "To make a highly intelligent film with today's politics: That was the objective," DiCaprio said. "This movie could -- not necessarily say something about the state of the world, but -- take grasp of where we are in history right now."

Arriving in the climactic days of an election year, however, at a time when public fatigue with war on two fronts is at an all-time high, Body of Lies might be a hard sell. As DiCaprio and Scott seem only too aware, a spate of earlier films set in and around the social fallout of the Iraq war -- Rendition, Stop-Loss, The Kingdom and In the Valley of Elah -- failed to connect with audiences.

"It is a failed subject matter in the sense that none of those films has been successful," DiCaprio said. "But whether [Body of Lies] was going to be commercial or not was never a factor. It's the opportunity that we get to make this movie. You feel lucky to get to do it. The audience can get involved while simultaneously getting insight into what the United States is doing in the Middle East."

Scott was more blunt. "Do I think it's a commercial movie? My gut tells me it's a commercial movie," he said. "I think a lot of those Iraq war movies were jingoistic. This one isn't jingoistic. The audiences smell that."


Posted by Geoff at 7:07 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, September 8, 2008 9:13 AM CDT
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Sunday, August 31, 2008
Howell on The Hurt Locker


The Toronto Star's Peter Howell has an early review of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, in anticipation of the film's screenings at this year's Toronto International Film Festival September 8 and 10 (prior to that, Bigelow's film will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this Thursday, September 4th). The Hurt Locker was written by Mark Boal, whose 2004 Playboy article Death and Dishonor was the source for the Paul Haggis film In The Valley Of Elah. Howell states that with this new film, Bigelow "can add titan of suspense to her laurels. If you can sit through The Hurt Locker without your heart nearly pounding through your chest, you must be made of granite."

Howell begins his review by stating, "Just when you think the battle of Iraq war dramas has been fought and lost, along comes one that demands to be seen – if you can handle the raging adrenaline. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker strips the Iraqi conflict of politics and brings it right down to the garbage-strewn pavement, where lives are saved through skill and nerve but lost through bad luck and malevolence." Elsewhere in the review, Howell writes, "Testosterone flows non-stop and so does blood, but these macho men are just getting the job done. In so doing, they reveal much about themselves and also deliver some home truths about the Iraqi quagmire. This is no message movie, yet insights abound."


Posted by Geoff at 1:00 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, September 8, 2008 9:09 AM CDT
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