Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Hurt Locker (2008) ****½

I can’t believe I waited so long to see this. I really need to get better about watching these Oscar-nominated movies. “The Hurt Locker” is an Iraq War movie directed by a woman, so I figured it was a real talky, heavy-handed, message movie about how horrible war is, and this war in particular. It’s none of that. This is a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat action movie that does not suck in any way.

Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner), Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) form a 3-man Ordinance team, specializing in diffusing the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that dot the Iraqi landscape. The work is incredibly risky, and on every job the stress level is intensified by the fact that they are watched by loads of Iraqis, most of whom are just curious, but any of whom could be an insurgent with a detonating device.

No “Best Director” Oscar has been more deserving than the one Kathryn Bigelow won for “The Hurt Locker.” In every scene she brings the viewer right into the situation. You really feel the intensity of being in this dusty, claustrophobic place, surrounded by hostile foreigners. Every scene crackles with the possibility of death.

“The Hurt Locker” is not an anti-war movie, but it doesn’t shy away from the contradictions inherent in these modern conflicts. Iraq was easy to invade, but it’s hard to hold. Tasked with rebuilding the country and keeping peace between murderous factions, our soldiers are vulnerable every minute to attack from the people they are trying to help. If they are overly friendly, they may get killed, but if they are too zealous in defending themselves, they wind up hurting some civilians, which is not only bad in itself, but fuels the insurgents‘ cause. This is more mentally exhausting for some men than for others. Specialist Eldridge is in counseling to deal with his guilt over failing to shoot a shopkeeper before the man could detonate a bomb that killed the team’s former leader. If he had hastily killed an innocent shopkeeper, however, he probably would have needed counseling for that, too.

Sergeant James, on the other hand, seems to thrive on the work. It’s like he was born to defuse bombs. In a fascinating conversation with Sgt. Sanborn, he reveals that his coolness under pressure isn’t born of any Zen philosophy or great courage; he simply has less fear than most people. Growing up, he was probably the goofy redneck always pulling crazy stunts. Back home, he’s just another guy with a dangerous penchant for risk-taking, but in war, he is in his element. Towards the close of the film there is a telling scene in which Sgt. James is back home in the grocery store, trying to pick out cereal for his kid, confounded in a way that he never was in Iraq.

“The Hurt Locker” is no message movie; it is not anti-war or pro-war. I can’t say how true-to-life it is. My friends who have served in Iraq tend not to watch movies about it. All I can say is that this is a gripping action movie that deserves a place alongside such films as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Full Metal Jacket” in the cannon of great war movies.

4.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hot Dog (1984) ***

Sports movies are a hit-or-miss proposition. Between the acting and the action, a lot can go wrong. However heavily the film focuses on the sport itself as opposed to the human drama, my opinion is that they have to get the sport right. “Hot Dog” doesn’t get much else right, but this movie really nails the skiing action.

The plot is standard ‘80’s sports drama. Fresh-faced skier Harkin Banks (Patrick Houser) picks up a sexy hitchhiker named Sunny (Tracy Smith) on his way to the big, international, freestyle skiing competition in Squaw Valley, CA. Once there Harkin is befriended by some happy-go-lucky, underdog skiers, and he makes an enemy of the reigning champion, asshole Austrian Rudi Garmisch (John Patrick Reger). The insipid plot continues from there, following the standard formula for these movies. What really makes the movie bad is not the formulaic plot, though, but the acting. It’s like Patrick Houser and Tracy Smith are competing to see who can act worse. Every actor in the movie sucks, with the possible exception of David Naughton, who plays an alcoholic former ski-champ who takes Harkin under his wing. Oh yeah, Shannon Tweed is in this, and while she can’t act either, she does look really good naked.

That brings up one other positive aspect of the movie, the nakedness. I didn’t keep a running count of the bare breasts, Joe Bob Briggs-style, but there’s a fair amount of soft-porn action to distract you from the bad acting.

Ultimately, though, the saving grace of “Hot Dog” is the skiing. They got a talented group of stunt skiers to lay down some seriously sweet extreme skiing. They blast down the backcountry chutes, go off cliffs, and rip up moguls, and it’s all genuine skiing. During the competition scenes, they even have an event called “ballet,” which is pretty much dancing down the slope. I had never seen this before, and it’s way cooler than you would think. I suppose some might ask, “Why not just watch a Warren Miller ski film?”, to which I would respond, “Have you ever seen Shannon Tweed getting her breasts soaped up in a giant tub in a Warren Miller movie?”

1 star for the acting, 5 stars for the skiing, so we’ll settle at 3 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Play Misty For Me (1971) *

As Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, this film does not reflect particularly well on him, but I suppose that after this movie he had nowhere to go but up. Eastwood’s work has always been hit or miss for me. “Unforgiven,” and “The Outlaw Josie Wales” are awesome, but in movies like “Million Dollar Baby“ he indulges an entirely unacceptable level of melodrama and sentimentality. “Play Misty For Me” shows these faults at their worst.

Eastwood plays David, a smooth-voiced, late-night radio DJ with a weakness for the ladies and a soft spot in his heart for a blue-eyed artist named Tobie (Donna Mills, sporting a bizarre girl-mullet instead of the gigantic eighties hair for which she is remembered). David lets himself get picked up by a fan named Evelyn (Jessica Walter) for a one night stand that Evelyn forces into a multi-day fling. When Tobie shows back up, David has no interest in seeing Evelyn anymore, but she turns out to be the kind of girl who won’t take “No” for an answer. He tries to be assertive, but he is impotent against Evelyn’s increasingly crazy, clingy, and ultimately violent behavior, which winds up putting his career, his life, and everyone he cares about in danger.

It’s all very reminiscent of “Fatal Attraction.” To be fair, “Play Misty for Me” came first, but that’s the only advantage this movie has. The sad thing is, none of the actors deserved this movie. Everybody does a pretty decent job with their character, even Clint Eastwood, who basically plays the same squinty-eyed stoic he always plays. Jessica Walters even does pretty well as the Borderline Personality Disordered Evelyn. The problem here isn’t the acting, it’s the movie itself. The plot is painfully obvious, lumbering along as it does toward the terrible acts of violence that you can see coming miles away, but before you get to them you have to suffer through endless, schmaltzy, soft-focus love scenes between David and Tobie.

Even for a Clint Eastwood fan, this would be a good one to skip. Re-watch “Fatal Attraction” instead.

1 star