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The Hurt Locker (2008)
An excellent film
Military and war movies are problematic for me, at least modern-era ones; I wasn't in World War II or Vietnam but the post-Desert Storm era Army is a very well known quantity for me, and military movies set in this period (to include those set in the current Iraq / Afghanistan wars) almost always get some nagging thing wrong. Lieutenants and Captains don't call Colonels by their first names, and no one would ever wear a class-B wool sweater into a jungle at night, just to name two examples I've actually seen on screen in recent years.
"The Hurt Locker" slips up a bit, too, but to my surprise, I was able to forgive those missteps almost completely, because the movie on the whole is the most compelling war movie in many years, and just a great movie, period: terrifically acted, brilliantly conceived and directed, a work of true cinematic art. Like the committed professionals that it portrays, "The Hurt Locker" as a movie shows what movies are capable of when knowledgeable, experienced professionals are on top of their game.
"Saving Private Ryan" is generally regarded as THE modern war classic, and just about any picture set in war is going to draw at least a peripheral comparison to Steven Spielberg's flawed masterpiece, thanks to the still-detonating power of that film's master-class opening sequence, which took filmed combat to levels of never-before-seen verisimilitude. "The Hurt Locker" doesn't have that level of intensity, because it works on a smaller scale: the majority of the action is between individuals, not battalions. But there are extended sequences in "The Hurt Locker" that rival "Ryan" for impact, tightening the screws more slowly, more claustrophobically, until you feel as though you've been holding your breath even when you haven't. There are at least three of these sequences in "The Hurt Locker," all done in their own pace without dragging, all expertly performed, all showing a face of war that we haven't seen on film before.
There are bit roles from recognizable actors like David Morse (brilliant in his few moments on screen), Guy Pearce, and Ralph Finnes, but the majority of the acting load is shouldered by lesser-knowns Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie; they're both excellent. In a just world, this movie would be earning four hundred million in the US, not "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." But while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has pulled plenty of "say what?" moment in the past ("Crash," really?!?), they still have a chance to do right by this film and quality cinema in general: Best Picture nomination, a Best Director nod for Kathryn Bigelow, Best Screenplay (of some sort; this is based on journalism by the writer, Mark Boal, which may qualify it as "adapted" work), and acting nominations for Renner and Mackie. Yes, it's that good.
It's still only August and there's a lot of film to come in the ramp-up months to awards season, so this may be a stretch. But any movie that's going to top "The Hurt Locker" as my favorite of 2009 certainly has its work cut out for it.
BONUS POINTS: Unlike so many lesser films ("Crash," again looking in your direction), "The Hurt Locker" feels no need to explain its title on screen. There's never a point (at least that I recall) in which a character earnestly says, "Man, we're really in the hurt locker now" or words to that effect. A small point, sure, but just another nod to the creativity and confidence of the filmmakers.
Some nice visuals, but sacrifices WAY too much of the book...
The fanfare that greeted the novel "Hannibal" in 1999 quickly turned to controversy when audiences got a load of the book's perverse psychology and gore. Although I originally hated the book, particularly the bizarre (to put it mildly) climax, I've revised my opinion in the almost two years since--it remains vastly inferior to Thomas Harris's two earlier Lecter novels, but is still a compelling tour de force of abnormal psychology and a display of devastatingly smooth writing technique. Love it or loathe it, "Hannibal" is irrefutable proof that no writer working today does monsters as well as Harris; his creations are among the most nightmarishly memorable in popular American fiction, beings who can make you cringe, weep, and root for a nasty comeuppance all at the same time, characters both monstrously evil and sadly human.
In all fairness, it must be said that Ridley Scott and company began work on the film version of "Hannibal" facing several disadvantages. First, they were tackling a sequel to a modern classic--Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and crew absolutely nailed The Silence of the Lambs, turning in a near-flawless film adaptation that cleaned up at both the box office and the Academy Awards. Second, they amplified the anticipation by doing it ten years later (although through no real fault of their own, since Harris took years to write Lecter's encore). Third, they're dealing with characters that have become icons, particularly Hannibal himself. Fourth, the book was enormously controversial--at one time, there was even speculation that Harris wrote it as he did to sabotage a film adaptation, bitter over how the success of the film Silence overshadowed his books (the reclusive author has since refuted that story). Demme and Foster opted out this time, citing their discomfort with the book's excesses, but they really may have well been afraid that they couldn't top themselves.
In both its novel and film forms, The Silence of the Lambs stands as a veritable master class in the art of suspense, a propulsive, chilling manhunt for a serial killer that forces its protagonist to match wits with another monster, Dr. Lecter himself. But the novel Hannibal was altogether a different type of story, a psychological horror tale that deposited readers firmly in the wounded, dysfunctional psyches of its main characters and threatened to strand them there, a tour through layer after layer abnormal psychology that brought madness up close and personal, far too close for most readers' comfort.
Where Ted Tally's Oscar-winning adaptation of Silence of the Lambs delivered an escalating spiral of suspense that stands up a decade later because it respected its source and trusted viewers to guide themselves through the thorny patches, the screenplay for Hannibal seems driven to re-invent the controversial material (the ending is completely re-worked) and winds up robbing the audience of the story's most compelling facets. Spoilers Alert On the page, Clarice Starling was bitter about the collapse of her once-promising career, a fall that was largely orchestrated by Justice Department official / cad Paul Krendler, a politically ambitious snake whose overriding flaw was his deep hatred and contempt for women, particularly successful ones. Mason Verger, Lecter's only surviving victim, was a horribly disfigured millionaire pedophile who conspired to have Lecter captured and eaten alive by slavering boars, and who acted in collusion with Krendler to dangle Starling as bait. But the movie lets us in on none of these characters' inner workings. Just as we don't know what makes Hannibal tick in this movie, we're given very little about Mason--both his relationship with his lesbian sister and his "philanthropy" with orphaned children are excised from the film version, so he's just a disfigured beast, and in one scene a ridiculously Jim Carrey-esque jester. You don't feel pity, hate, or much anything else for Mason--he's just sort of there. We don't get to know much about Clarice Starling, as re-interpreted by Julianne Moore, so we don't feel much for her or her constant battle with the FBI's glass ceiling. Krendler, whose smarminess, sexism, and contempt for Starling were driving forces of the novel, is given a tossed-off reference to a failed pass at Starling as the reason for his hate; but even his spite doesn't seem particularly hateful, just oily, tacky and cheap.
Worst of all, the title character is now almost played for laughs. In fact, the packed-house audience at the screening I attended giggled during Lecter's biggest moments, a reaction that would probably make author Harris's hair stand on end--his most potent and sinister creation has become, thanks to celluloid, a populist sideshow farce.
Moore fills in admirably for Jodie Foster, and Hopkins, clearly comfortable in his most famous role, turns in a smooth, effortless performance. Ridley Scott does what he can visually, although you'd expect nothing less than great visuals from him.
In the end, watching "Hannibal" unfold on the screen is like taking the cover off of a silver dining tray and finding a baloney and cheese sandwich. The presentation is great, and you'll probably eat it, but it just isn't nearly as satisfying as the meal you were hoping for.
A great, graphic epic...
...and easily one of the best films of the year so far. Intense and moving in the same vein as 'Saving Private Ryan,' just a bit less gut-wrenching. I got the sense that something was left on the editing room floor in the relationship between Russell Crowe's Maximus and Djimon Hounsou's fellow gladiator--a little more development, maybe just one additional scene between the two men, would have been nice. The only other flaw I noticed was when the film lapses dangerously close to self-parody in just a scant few spots, only to successfully pull back. I didn't think much of either 'L.A. Confidential' or 'The Insider,' but Russell Crowe has won me over. Ridley Scott should be nominated for an Academy Award. A knockout film that definitely gives you your money's worth and an instant purchase for me once it hits DVD. This one is an across-the-board success.
Good, could have been better
Maybe a little too ambitious. Of course Mack-truck sized plot holes are nothing new in time-travel stories, and may be somewhat inevitable ("Back to the Future:" why didn't Marty's parents remember him?? "Termintor 2:" when they dropped the chip in the molten lava, why didn't John Connor just cease to exist?? And so on). "Frequency" has its share, but if heart counts, then "Frequency" definitely merits points. But the nagging feeling that the filmmakers copped out and opted for the super-happy ending instead of something more poignant and bittersweet stayed with me all the way home.