The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Hurt Locker' finds a new champion

July 23, 2009 |  2:42 pm

I first got to know Robert Bucksbaum when I discovered that my favorite neighborhood theater, the Majestic Crest in Westwood, wasn't owned by a corporate theater chain but by one man who was so crazy about movies that he'd bought his own movie theater, making him one of the few individual theater owners in America. Our paths have continued to cross, since Bucksbaum -- who's something of a baseball fanatic as well -- manages our local Little League's summer All-Star team, which, thanks to some stellar play from a great bunch of kids, including his twin boys and my son, ended up winning the District 25 championship last week.

Hurt_locker_poster But it turns out that I spent so much time second-guessing his managing moves that I'd forgotten all about the most formative experience of Bucksbaum's life. Having enlisted in the Army when he was 19. he spent four years in the military, two years at Ft. Bragg as an airborne paratrooper, two years in Germany in military intelligence. He still has vivid memories of the experience, especially of his 56 jumps as a paratrooper --"I never landed in a tree once, which was pretty good for Ft. Bragg."

The most grueling part of the experience was when he signed up for a three-week course of condensed Army Ranger training at Ft. Bragg. "The idea was to learn search, escape and evasion training," he recalls. "But it was unbelievably rough. We got no more than three hours of sleep a day, no one took a shower for three weeks, and you spent most of the night running through swamps. Most of us ended up on patrol for three days straight. The attrition rate was 75% because they were really trying to break you down as much as toughen you up."

So when Bucksbaum saw "The Hurt Locker" at ShoWest this spring, he was smitten by the film, which focuses on a steely group of bomb disposal specialists whose job is to detect and dismantle bombs in Iraq. "When I was in airborne school, I met guys who were bomb disposal and demolition specialists," Bucksbaum says. "They were incredible people, because after what they'd gone through, they were prepared for anything. They looked at life as gravy. What I always remember is the incredible confidence they had -- they didn't worry about the same things we worried about. They were just a different breed."

After he saw the film, Bucksbaum had a chance to introduce himself to Kathryn Bigelow, the film's director, who was especially excited to get such positive feedback from a theater owner who was actually a veteran. Bucksbaum started calling up Summit Entertainment, which is releasing the film, begging and cajoling the company to let him run the film at the Crest. At first, he got nowhere. When it comes to theater bookings on Los Angeles' Westside, most major distributors prefer to play their pictures in Century City or at the  Landmark Theaters about 10 blocks south of the Crest on Westwood Boulevard. Bucksbaum usually has to wait until a picture has played out at one of those multiplexes before getting a run for his own theater.

But Bucksbaum's persistence finally paid off. "I called them every Monday morning, begging and pleading, and finally this past Monday they said, 'OK. you can have it this Friday.' I guess everyone realized how passionate I was about it." 

Having performed strongly in its limited run over the last few weeks, "The Hurt Locker" expands to 238 theaters Friday. The Crest is apparently the only one whose owner is willing to make a special offer: Bucksbaum, who can often be found at the theater, changing projector bulbs, making popcorn and sweeping up after the show, is promising patrons that he'll refund their money if they don't find the movie a special experience.

Times haven't been good for independent-theater owners. Bucksbaum has been considering selling the Crest, although he wants to lease back the building and continue operating it as a theater. "It's been a struggle," he admits. "The slowdown in the indie film world has really hit us hard." But he is excited about finally getting to play a movie that is close to his heart. "Kathryn's film really captures the spirit of how soldiers interact with each other," he says. "It felt totally real, so it's the kind of movie that you want to share with the world, so other people can have a little understanding about what that special spirit and kinship is like." 

No one liked "The Hurt Locker" more than our film critic Kenneth Turan. Here are some highlights from the film, along with Kenny's take on the picture:  

       

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