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Posted: July 22, 2009

Dave on film: BOOM go the IEDs and about your other mom…

Reviews of "The Hurt Locker" and "Coraline"

Dave Taylor

After the juggernaut of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," it seems like there¹s been a tiny lull in what¹s coming out, though two of the most anticipated romedies (you know, romantic comedies) are scheduled for release this Friday: "(500) Days of Summer" and "The Ugly Truth." But I can¹t tell you anything about them until they¹re in the theater, so definitely stay tuned for next week¹s column.

This week I want to talk about "The Hurt Locker," an intense war film set in Iraq that follows a bomb disposal specialist and then highlight an amazing - and dark - animated film that's released this week on DVD: "Coraline."

"The Hurt Locker"

Set in Iraq in 2004, "The Hurt Locker" offers up a collection of interesting -- and sporadically quite intense -- scenes focused on U.S. Army Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a wild member of an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit on the front lines of the complicated war zone that is Baghdad.

The film starts out with a quote that really explains the point director Kathryn Bigelow is making: "War is a drug."

For James, that's exactly what it is, even as his two squadmates, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (a nuanced performance by Brian Geraghty), try to figure out what makes him tick. Why? Because James is a fearless and undisciplined daredevil who eschews all safety rules in the interest of just walking in and defusing the bomb.

As the film progresses, we are frequently reminded of the time remaining on their tour of duty in Iraq with titles "Days Left in Rotation." The first such scene we see is when the three men have only 38 days left, and eventually it winds down to two days remaining before they're rotated back to the United States and away from the war zone entirely.

Thanks to the splendid work of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, the visual style of "The Hurt Locker" is choppy, gritty, out of focus and it often seems like a documentary rather than a cinematic film. It is very effective and gives us an on-the-ground sense that significantly helps the tone and realism of the film.

In that sense, I was constantly struck by how even as the soldiers were on high alert, guns at the ready, guarding the bomb squad as they disarmed various IEDs (improvised explosive devices), Iraqi civilians continued to wander around as if it were a daily occurrence. And perhaps soldiers on full alert -- with bombs hidden in the middle of a trash-strewn street -- are indeed a common sight in Baghdad, which might just be the most frightening aspect of the film.

The weak link in the squad is Specialist Eldridge, who is the only character with any depth in the entire movie. He's doing his duty, he's part of the team, but he's assailed by doubts and has a difficult time accepting the risk and danger he faces on a daily basis. We continually hope to get a clue about what makes Sgt. James so unaffected by the dangers he faces, but never do.

"The Hurt Locker" is an exciting film that offers up an astonishing and gut-wrenching view of life as a soldier in Iraq. It just doesn't explain anything and doesn't offer much of an inkling about what's going on inside the heads of the soldiers. If you're curious what modern warfare is like, it's a good place to start. Just expect a film that lives somewhere in the gray area between a documentary and a fictional movie.

"Coraline"

If you recall the weird but fascinating "The Nightmare Before Christmas," you've seen the amazing stop-motion work of director Henry Selick. The writer of that film was the always-peculiar but terrific Tim Burton. "Coraline" has a different writer, though it has a very similar look and style.

Stop-motion animation is great for kids, but as a father of three younger children, I have to say right up front that "Coraline" is not a film for kids. It got a PG rating from the MPAA, but purely for thematic elements a PG-13 would have been more appropriate.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is a young girl who moves into a strange old house with her workaholic parents (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) who are totally focused on creating a garden catalog and hoping to strike it big. They're both far too busy for her, however, and she's left to her own devices, depressed and disappointed about the move that's taken her away from her friends. A funny little boy named Wybie (voiced by Robert Bailey Jr.) gives her a doll that looks just like her, but with button eyes.

But that's not just a doll, it's actually a powerful malevolent force that lures Coraline into an alternative world where she has a highly attentive mother and father, all the treats she desires and the unfurnished house has been transformed into a beautiful Victorian. But it's not real, and it's not safe, though she finds it very enticing when contrasted with the gray tedium of her real life.

In a plot element reminiscent of the sporadically frightening "Spiderwick Chronicles," Coraline finds that a secret ring she's given lets her see through the artifice of the evil button-eyed witch. It's an interesting element because what we're seeing is projected through the "ring" of the projector lens. It's one of the many deep elements in this ostensible children's film based on a graphic novel by the talented Neil Gaiman.

I won't share any more of the story line lest I ruin this wonderful -- and creepy -- film, but I have to say that it was one of the more interesting movies I've seen so far this year. From the visuals to the lovely musical score by Bruno Coulais and They Might Be Giants, it's a fascinating film well worth watching. But it's not for kids.

Enjoy the tail end of July and, who knows, perhaps I'll see you at the movies.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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