Fictitious countdown of the final six weeks in the twelve-month tour of an army bomb squad in Baghdad five years back, The Hurt Locker seems on a limited sampling to have excited other commentators more than it excited me. It excited me a little. The living and working conditions in a color-free wasteland appear perfectly credible to one who has never been east of Vienna, and the quasi-science-fictional details of the job — the spaceman protective suits, the remote-control bomb-sniffing robot, the tangle of colored wires, the hide-and-seek triggers — are highly enlightening. And the defusing of bombs — the constant prospect of their blowing up in our faces — carries a guaranteed tension, as witness such forerunners as Robert Aldrich’s Ten Seconds to Hell or Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Back Room. The ambush in mid-desert, outside the squad’s normal sphere of operations, is if anything even tenser: more unpredictable, more open to possibilities.
Kathryn Bigelow, one of the rare female action directors (K-19: The Widowmaker, Point Break, Blue Steel, and the vampire shoot-’em-up, Near Dark, still her best), dead-set on matching any man in muscle, favors here the combat-footage filmmaking style of jostles and jars to the camera, punchy zooms, whiplashing pans, and a chronic shaky hand, not necessarily restricted to scenes of combat. This is trendy at best, a tired cliché at worst. (The amplified heartbeat and the slo-mo explosion ought to be put to bed for a rest period of not less than a generation.) She takes a lot of time on the action scenes, or more broadly the tension scenes, and not much time in between, so that the three principals — Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, each of them looking the part — are thin on character, static in development, no more than generic as opposed to individual soldiers. And the “wild man” of the trio, a new replacement who has little regard for his own safety and an impressive record of 873 bombs disarmed at latest count, throws his meeker teammates into the shade. His private vendetta against the torturers and murderers of an unidentifiable Iraqi child, hypothesized to be the friendly one who hawks pirated DVDs outside the army base, provides variety at the expense of belief. The fleeting glimpses of the home front, in flashback and in the didactic dénouement, are too pithy to rise above platitude: the adrenaline-fueled warrior reduced to choosing a breakfast cereal from the bounty at the supermarket. We can see at that point, or at the connect-the-dots next point, that the Chris Hedges epigraph at the outset — “War is a drug” — sums up the film all too easily.
The End of the Line brings you another alarmist ecological documentary before you’ve had time to recover from Food, Inc. The alarm in this case is sounded over the projected extinction of the oceans’ edible population by the year 2048 or so, through the increased efficiency, capacity, and voracity of the world’s fishing fleet: “The thing is, we’re too good right now.” Director Rupert Murray, who four years ago made the very different documentary Unknown White Male on an apparent amnesia victim (about whose condition I am still awaiting an update), follows the set pattern of illustrating a pre-existing book, this one by British journalist Charles Clover, illustrating it mostly with talking heads supplying corroborative information, plus some snippets of unstaged footage of flopping, squirming, bleeding, unblinking fish in case the mere idea of extinction weren’t perturbing enough already. The answers to the question of What We Can Do, posed at around the hour mark, stop optimistically short of setting to work on a rocket ship to transport the last survivors of Earth to a distant planet to start anew.
Downloading Nancy, sort of a kinky thriller, which is to say definitely kinky but only sort of a thriller, re-enacts the ostensibly “true events” of a self-mutilating married woman finding on the Internet a compatible sadist willing for a fee to put her out of her misery. Director Johan Renck, rather than pander to the basest tastes, takes the high road of nonlinearity and disjunction, obliqueness and obscurity, coyness and concealment, and (courtesy of the esteemed cinematographer Christopher Doyle) an unembraceable image of frosty white and frozen blue. Somehow one doubts that the people in real life looked much like Maria Bello, Jason Patric, and Rufus Sewell, the last of whom is quite chilling as the uninterested husband, uninterested anyway in anything but golf. This is just the latest opportunity, not the best, to remind you to keep an eye out for the “alternative” offerings at the Reading Gaslamp. (I’m sure it indicates a failing in me that I would have opted to see this one over the documentary on Lyme disease, Under Our Skin.) To judge by the size of the “crowds” whenever I’ve attended — “crowds” in the standard sense that three’s a crowd — these presentations amount almost to philanthropy. I always thought that that was the promise if not the obligation of the multiplex, setting aside a spare auditorium or two for the dispossessed. It’s a promise seldom met.
The Wind Blows Round, or in its original language Il Vento Fa il Suo Giro, shown this Saturday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, serves as an appetizer for the San Diego Italian Film Festival in October, a dose of rustic realism set in a moribund mountain village in the Italian Alps, into the midst of which comes a glimmer of new life in the form of a French goatherd and cheese maker and his pretty wife, outsiders welcomed initially with suspicion and eventually, self-destructively, driven out with active animosity. The setting is the uppermost thing — the rugged topography and rough tactility — and the largely nonprofessional cast lends it the predictable complement of interesting faces. As related by director and co-writer Giorgio Diritti, the narrative is underdramatized to the verge of uncommunicative.
A film festival on a nearer horizon is the San Diego International Children’s one, spread out over four weekends from July 24 to August 16, at geographical points ranging from the San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con, the Carlsbad Dove Library, and the downtown New Children’s Museum. Go to www.sdchildrensfilm.org to sort it all out.