Hurt Locker Decent, But Not Oscar-Worthy

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Voltage Pictures
131 minutes, Rated R

* * *

The Hurt Locker and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, are odds-on favorites to win Oscars in March. It wouldn’t be a travesty if either or both won, but it would be a triumph of politics over art. This is the sort of film Hollywood loves to honor because it gives the industry the opportunity to show how “important” and “relevant” it is. The Hurt Locker is a decent film, but it’s neither a masterpiece nor the best film of 2009.

The movie follows the bomb disposal unit of Bravo Company through a year’s rotation in Iraq. As so many war films do, it centers on a trio of soldiers: a tough black sergeant, J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie); specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), a white kid coming slowly unglued; and bomb tech extraordinaire Will James (Jeremy Remer), the proverbial ‘new guy’ who joins the team to replace a team member seen only in the film’s opening sequence. James is the film’s focal point. He’s a fearless but reckless cowboy-type who refuses to play by the rules and is perceived as endangering his comrades-in-arms through his impulsive actions. Is Will a sociopath, or an intuitive genius? We are supposed to realize that the “hurt locker” is Will himself, and that the mementos he keeps of the bombs he defuses are metaphors for the things that trigger his own damaged psyche. This never quite works as it’s intended—Will is really just James T. Kirk in a flak suit and without a beautiful babe hanging off his arm.

There are compelling moments in the film. Bigelow captures well both the intensity of a desert firefight and the minute-by-minute terror of life inside “liberated” Baghdad. The latter is shown as Dante’s Inferno raised to the surface, a trash-strewn post-apocalyptic nightmare in which instant death is a trip wire away, or peering through the chinks of a crumbled concrete wall. Lose your focus for one moment and you’re gone. Bigelow also subtly defuses the video game aspects of modern war by showing how often high tech gear goes wrong and by juxtaposing the cleanliness of Xbox death with the grisliness of combat reality.

The Hurt Locker has been labeled an antiwar film, mostly because it relentlessly shoves into our faces the reality that the United States has destroyed Iraq, that any sense of “mission accomplished” is a cruel lie, and that nobody—including the soldiers stationed there—gives a damn what happens to it. The Iraqis themselves appear less as victims than as little Saddams as devoid of feeling as Will James, the sort who think nothing of using human beings as bombs. Let’s just say that this film is unlikely to win any endorsements from U.S. policymakers or Arab civil rights groups.

It is a hard film to watch and therein is another tale. Almost no one has watched it. It took in a paltry $12.7 million at the box office and isn’t keeping anybody in business with DVD sales either. If World War II was the “good war” and Vietnam the “living room war,” Iraq is quickly becoming another kind of war. There used to be posters that asked, “What if they gave a war and nobody came:” Iraq is rewriting this as “What if they gave a war and nobody noticed?” This is a subject that Bigelow touches upon in a brief stateside sequence, but in a way that was too brief to drive home the point, and with an ending that undermines it. In the end, The Hurt Locker becomes a middle-of-the-road war movie. As a portrait of war's madness it lacks the wallop of Apocalypse Now, as a probe of damaged souls it’s not a patch on The Deer Hunter, and as an insider's look at a bomb squad it’s inferior to the BBC series Danger UXB. It’s not even as good a film about Iraq as Three Kings (1999). But that probably won’t prevent it from winning Best Picture next month. As we said, it’s the sort of film Hollywood loves to honor.



Brian Dolzani
Plum Street Records 104

* * * ½

Reviewers who beat me to the punch have dubbed Brian Dolzani’s new release “nerd rock,” and he a “bookish and bespectacled Bob Dylan.” Several have noted that he’d be very much at home in The Decemberists. Let me add this observation: If Brian Dolzani hasn’t listened to a lot of early Neil Young and Crazy Horse records we’ve got one of the greatest coincidences of all time on our hands. In the upper register Dolzani even sounds a bit like Young. Check out “Water” and you’ll hear this immediately and, though his voice doesn’t echo Young as much on “Lovers,” its ever-so-melancholic piano-based arrangement could be a lost track from After the Gold Rush. There’s another dimension to the Neil Young comparisons—Dolzani’s voice isn’t going to blow you away. One of the album’s most catchy song is titled “Midrange,” and that pretty much sums up the vocals. That said, Dolzani knows how to rock out. In fact, he’s so good with melodic hooks and catchy bass lines that he’s restored some of the fun to rock and roll that’s been bled out by meandering jam bands and formulaic Nashville projects. Is he another Dylan? No, The Decemberist and Neil Young comparisons are better ones. But having just made the latter my advice is to forget all of the analogies and check him out for yourself. It’s fine just to be Brian Dolzani.

For some samples go to:




Darin & Brooke Aldridge
Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Mountain Home 12592

* *

The CD cover for the new duo album from Darin and Brooke Aldridge looks like a canned and sentimental engagement photo. That can be overlooked as they are, in fact, young and recently wedded. Alas, much of the material also struck me as overly sentimental. This is bluegrass for the family values set—it’s chockfull of bluegrass gospel, gooey love songs, evocations of rural splendor, and similar hearts-and-flowers themes. Brooke Aldridge has the makings of a first-class voice, when it matures and gets some bottom to it. Darin’s voice is less interesting as a lead vocal, though he’s quite good at harmony and plays pretty good guitar. I also enjoyed some of the classy instrumental breakouts from fiddler Tim Crouch, dobro player Rob Ickes, and banjo picker Chris Bryant. You should probably check out the Aldridges yourself as I’m on record with a profound preference for artists who explode rather than pay homage to old-style bluegrass. Maybe I’m just not feeling very optimistic these days, but this release was just too sunny, wholesome, and predictable for my taste. I actually got the blues waiting to hear some.



Darkness Sure Becomes This City
Signature Sounds
* * *

Remember when band names used to be named after animals? These days they’re just as likely to be named after moods and attitudes. The latest musical act to do so is the Americana/bluegrass ensemble Joy Kills Sorrow. The very name suggests introspection, a promise delivered. It also suggests an upbeat approach, but that’s not always the case.

The good news is that Joy Kills Sorrow is more complex musically than your average bluegrass band. Guitarist Matthew Acara, banjoist player Wesley Corbett, and mandolin player Jacob Jolliff can break out and pick with the best of them, but what they prefer to do is whip up an aural mix for bass player Bridget Kearney’s songs and Emma Beaton’s vocals. Beaton is a marvel to hear—a full-throated singer who can air it out when she needs to and grovel in the gravel when she wants to.

The group name, I’m told, is an homage to radio station WJKS, which broadcast the Monroe Brothers in the 1930s. There are certainly elements of Bill Monroe shining through on this album, especially his penchant for emphasizing the blues part of bluegrass. Beaton is especially sharp in inserting a brief catch in her voice to suggest pain and sorrow. But this leads me to an aspect of Joy Kill Sorrow’s music that some listeners may find problematic. The music is often complex, as befits what we might expect from Jolliff’s Berklee School of Music background and Kearney’s accolades as a John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner, but sometimes it’s simply just not as much fun as old-style bluegrass. The first two tracks often feel more intellectual than musical and it’s not until track three, the swingy “New Shoes,” that the band lets down its guard and lets us have some fun. In fact, some of the best tracks are the simplest. The quieter instrumentation of songs such as “Thinking of You and Such” and “If It’s Rainin’” allows Beaton to warble tunes that would be at home in Alison Krauss’s repertoire. In like fashion, “We Will Have Our Day” evokes minimalist Appalachian hollow blues, while “You Make Me Feel Drunk” is a torchy scorcher. (Check out the banjo and mando solos in that one!)

This is a promising national debut from a young band in the mold of Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, and Railroad Earth. The quintet might want to adjust the joy versus sorrow ratio a bit, but I like where things are headed.