THE HURT LOCKER
Who knew that director Kathryn Bigelow was anything other than a Hollywood hack? Sure, sure, she's had her supporters, but practically all of her past projects have favored cold style over warm substance. The justly forgotten Blue Steel was one of the worst films of the 1990s, Point Break was merely daft masturbation fodder for fans of Patrick Swayze and/or Keanu Reeves, and the Harrison Ford dud K-19: The Widowmaker was so dull that just writing about it makes me... zzzzzz.
Where was I? Oh, yes, getting ready to praise Bigelow for a tightly wound film whose few flaws can be found in Mark Boal's screenplay rather than in her own potent direction. Boal, who co-wrote the only other worthy Iraq War film to date (In the Valley of Elah), has elected this time to focus all his attention on the soldiers who are placed in the line of fire, never allowing any political discourse to enter the conversation. It's an acceptable decision in that it pays sincere tribute to Americans willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, although it's also a timid move in that it steadfastly refuses to challenge warhawks in the audience, many of whom will be idiotic enough to view this as a "pro-war" flick.
The Hurt Locker follows the three members of a bomb squad plying their trade during the last six weeks of their tour of duty in 2004. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the leader of the outfit, a man as reckless as he is efficient when it comes to defusing bombs (it's believed he holds the record in this unenviable category). Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is the most professional -- that is to say, most stable -- member of the team, anxious to get away from a job he despises. And Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is the young pup of the outfit, a clean-cut kid terrified that
Bigelow and Boal follow the trio around as an on-screen marker counts down the number of days left in their rotation. Maximum suspense is not only gained through their encounters with specific bombs but also through the big picture that strains at the fabric of the film: Will all three make it out alive? It's a testament to the performances of all the actors (specifically Renner and Mackie) that we invest so strongly in characters that truthfully aren't fully developed.
The movie works best when its storytelling remains shaggy; it gets into real trouble when it introduces a forced subplot in which James sets out to avenge the death of a friend. But never does Bigelow falter in her direction, which, by adroitly alternating between muscular and sensitive, reapplies a recognizable face to a conflict that is already slipping from the American public conscious with all the wispiness of a bad dream.
THE UGLY TRUTH
Look, it's only fair. If impressionable frat boys can enjoy The Hangover this summer and impressionable teenagers can enjoy Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, then why not give impressionable women their own imbecillic film? An abhorrent romantic comedy, The Ugly Truth is so inept and ill-conceived on so many levels that mandatory sterilization seems to be the only punishment suitable for everyone involved in this mess. We wouldn't want these folks breeding like rabbits.In a typically bad performance consisting primarily of exaggerated reaction shots, Katherine Heigl (also serving as executive producer) plays Abby, a TV news producer who's also a frigid control freak loved only by her cat. Into her world enters Mike (Gerard Butler), a chauvinist whose cable access show (The Ugly Truth) gets absorbed into Abby's news program in an effort to boost ratings. Mike's segment, in which he claims that men can't be taught anything once they pass toilet training and that there's no such thing as a romantic male, offends Abby, but eventually she finds herself turning to Mike for help on how to land her hottie neighbor, Colin (Eric Winter). He's only too happy to assist her, until he begins to fall for this pill himself. It's inconceivable that a movie with such an unsympathetic female lead was written by three women; is it stepping out of line to suggest that they themselves must possess low-self-esteem issues or, at the very least, subscribe to the GOP vision of a woman's place in the world? (Tellingly, the most right-wing critic on Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 10 out of 10, stating that "every guy should drag his girlfriend/wife to this movie (not necessarily by the hair)" and that Mike "makes sense and describes how a man reacts to a woman so perfectly that it should be emailed to every woman around the world.") The male characters don't come off much better, but they do come off better. While Abby is painted as a repugnant caricature to her very core, Mike is revealed to only be a misogynist when the script calls for it; the rest of the time, he's nursing a broken heart caused by past relationships or lovingly hanging out with his sister and his nephew. I'm no fan of The Hangover, but that film at least made some attempt at comic innovation. Everything in The Ugly Truth is merely recycled from past rom-coms, from Abby accidentally glimpsing Colin's penis (giggle giggle) to the pathetic character of Abby's lonelyheart sidekick (Bree Turner) who's unable to land her own man. I could go on, but I'd rather start laying the groundwork for next week's review of (500) Days of Summer, a romantic comedy that's as smart, perceptive and charming as this one is stupid, clueless and, well, ugly.