Archive for the ‘war’ category

300: Rise of an Empire

March 9, 2014

300-Rise-of-an-Empire-Spoilers-EndingIn 300: Rise of an Empire, this most testosteronal of movie franchises passes into the ungentle hands of women. On Greece’s side, there’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), the Spartan widow of valiant Leonidas from the original 300. On Persia’s side, we have Artemisia (Eva Green), naval commander and all-around vicious warrior. It’s one of the movie’s many failings that Gorgo and Artemesia never have a scene together; they may never have met in actual history, but the film makes such blithe hash of history anyway that an exchange between Gorgo and Artemesia, their words so hostile that their speech balloons in a comic book would have icicles hanging off them, wouldn’t have made much difference other than to add some welcome female camp to a movie loaded with manly camp.

This 300 isn’t exactly a sequel to the first, since its story unfolds before, during, and after the legendary Spartan attempt to hold off the Persians. So it has an unavoidable whiff of “Here’s something else that was happening.” It’s essentially a sidebar to the main story. It’s based, we’re told, on the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller, who also wrote/drew the original 300. Xerxes hasn’t actually come out yet, but, we’re also told, it should show up in comic-book stores sometime this year. I assume Miller made some sketches and preliminary pages available to the filmmakers, as well as the basic plot, but what’s missing here is the graphic charge that made Zack Snyder’s original movie good eye candy for a while. Under the direction of Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire tries hard to follow in Snyder’s footsteps — plenty of speed-ramping slow-mo action — but it just comes across as an imitator.

The heroes here are the Athenians, led by stoic beefcake Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) at sea. The Athenians aren’t as hardcore as the Spartans — remember the Spartans razzed them as “boy-lovers” in the first film — but they still love Greece and freedom, and that’s pretty much all there is to them. The Persians, ruled as before by hulking Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), want to crush Greece, and Artemisia, born Greek but traumatized as a child when Greek soldiers “raped and murdered her family,” wants to seduce Themistocles onto her team. Their resulting sex scene is probably the most ludicrous such thing I’ve seen in a film since Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan went at it in a pool in Showgirls. It doesn’t work on noble Themistocles, though. Afterward, Themistocles does the walk of shame back to his men, while Artemisia presumably does the ancient-world equivalent of eating cookie-dough ice cream and blasting Alanis Morissette.

Laughable as the sex scene is, it at least provides some comic relief, as opposed to the brutal ludicrousness of everything else in the movie. People (mostly Persians) get carved up practically nonstop, impaled, dismembered, stomped by horses. Their blood floats lazily in the air in lackadaisical digital blobs. Is it because the carnage is so stylized that 300: Rise of an Empire got through the ratings process with an R instead of a teen-prohibitive NC-17? If a mere slasher movie boasted this much splatter, it’d have to go back to the editing room many times before qualifying for an R. The problem is, this movie is a mere slasher movie. You go to slasher movies to see psychos slice up teenagers, and you go to the 300 movies to see Greeks slice up Persians.

Sketching in Artemisia’s backstory, the movie seems to want to zip past her motivating rage — uh, your heroes the Greeks raped her mom and killed her dad — as quickly as possible. Eva Green, who between this and Dark Shadows is developing into an actress with a definite taste for outré roles, keeps the rage front and center anyway, becoming by far the reason to sit through the film. Lena Headey, too, does her share of grief-stricken seething. That the movie thinks we’re more interested in faceless men shredding faceless men than in watching these two formidable women is proof that nobody on the creative team (including Zack Snyder, who gets a co-screenwriting credit) was really at the wheel. If some network were to make an entire series about Artemisia and Gorgo — maybe they team up to fight crime, I don’t even care — and the actresses returned to play them, I would sit for every episode five times each and join the show’s goddamn Facebook fan page.

I Declare War

September 15, 2013

I-DECLARE-WAR-Press-Image-1.-This-should-go-in-guide.-Property-of-IDW-Films-Inc.Back in 1969, writer Sandra Scoppettone and artist Louise Fitzhugh put out a children’s book called Bang Bang You’re Dead. It’s something of a collector’s item now — so many parents and teachers loathed it that it kicked up a lot of controversy. Anyway, the book is a starkly brilliant parable about kids playing war and really hurting (though not killing) each other. The point, made none too subtly for a readership of little boys who liked to play war, was that war isn’t and shouldn’t be a game. It draws blood. I remembered the book while watching I Declare War, a bitter but paradoxically entertaining fantasia about a group of boys (and one girl) who play war out in the Canadian woods. The movie’s conceit is that we share the kids’ imaginations: when they pick up a toy gun or a branch and pretend it’s a real gun or a bazooka, that’s what we see. In visual movie language, they’re really shooting at each other, but only in their heads. No one gets killed, but a few illusions bite the dust.

Shrewdly, I Declare War almost immediately puts us on the side of P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his army. P.K. is small, blonde and tinsel-toothed, an unlikely figure to be a general, but he’s intelligent and has studied military history. He’s serious about winning war games — his base shows off all the flags he’s won. Putting us further in P.K.’s camp is his adversary, Skinner (Michael Friend), an unpleasant “spaz” who’s just out for revenge on P.K. and is willing to torture P.K.’s best friend Kwan (Siam Yu) when he takes Kwan prisoner. Therefore a variety of “soldiers” under both boys’ “command” are cannon fodder to settle an old score between two “nations.” You could read I Declare War as an allegory for just about any conflict the United States has gotten into, or any other country.

As the movie goes on, we realize something about the fair-haired P.K.: he’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s perfectly fine with sending his best friend off to be captured and possibly tortured a second time. We’ve been rooting for him because he’s smart and his enemy is emotionally volatile, but the movie ends up asking what, exactly, P.K. stands to “win” by asking his friends to sacrifice for his own glory. There’s another brain in the group, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), who plays a lot of chess and has her own agenda; she’s technically on Skinner’s side, but isn’t really loyal to him. Jess’s favored weapon is a crossbow, which serves as a perhaps unintentional critique of the heroine of The Hunger Games. The movie suggests that the people best at planning out war games aren’t the best human beings. Skinner, warped by the desire to make a mark in this faux-violent context, comes to seem less like a villain than a victim.

I Declare War has enough downtime to flesh out all the characters, strongly played by a variety of young actors mostly unknown outside Canada. But it flies by anyway, animated by the complexity of the chessboard. François Truffaut famously opined that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, since war is so innately cinematic and exciting, and indeed the battles here are crisply staged for maximum lizard-brain satisfaction. At times the movie is like Red Dawn with a conscience. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson (Lapeyre also wrote the script) perform a weirdly morally complicated contextual juggling act. We know it’s fake, both in and out of the film’s reality — we know the “grenades” are just balloons filled with red paint, the “guns” just wood and plastic — yet here we are, watching adolescents shooting at each other with what read visually as real bullets, and it’s fun. It’s fun in the old primate way it’s always been: the tension of the “good guys” taking cover while being shot at, the gratification of what Hannibal Smith called a plan coming together.

But it’s also not fun, and while nothing much is actually hurt here aside from some feelings, those feelings matter to us because the kids do. As you may have guessed, this is a story, like Lord of the Flies and Stand by Me, that involves kids but is meant more for adults. The language, appropriately enough, is pretty salty. Also like those stories, though, I Declare War is thematically appropriate for pre-teens, who use that language anyway, and who might best benefit from its message. If it were a young-adult book, it’d be stupidly challenged by offended parents all over the country. It’d face the same fear and loathing that greeted that Vietnam-era relic Bang Bang You’re Dead. Why do some authority figures not want children to know about the painful, unglamorous realities of war? Or have I just answered my own question?

Captain America: The First Avenger

July 24, 2011

“I don’t want to kill anybody,” says scrawny 4F Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in answer to whether he wants to go kill Nazis. “I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” And there’s the way into Captain America: The First Avenger even for long-haired lefty peaceniks like me. The movie’s politics pretty much stay that simplistic, but then it harks back to a more simplistic time, when America’s enemies were big and bad and all you had to know was where they were so you could shoot ‘em. Despite being a sickly stick figure, Steve desperately wants to join the Army so he can go fight in World War II. He rejects the notion of finding some way to serve at home; other men, including his buddy Bucky (Sebastian Stan), are charging into the lion’s mouth, and he doesn’t feel he has a right to do any less than what they’re prepared to do.

The CGI-depleted Chris Evans, by way of a “super soldier serum,” becomes normal, beefed-up Chris Evans, and he proves his mettle right away, chasing a spy through the alleys and crowded streets of 1942 Brooklyn. Here and elsewhere, the production design is impeccable, a dream of the wartime big city as seen on Life magazine covers (and probably only there), and director Joe Johnston proves his mettle, too. I can’t say he has a vision, but he has a solid sense of pace and composition that stands him in good stead when he’s got sturdy material to work with. (With Johnston’s last effort, The Wolfman, he wasn’t so lucky.) The elements, including Alan Silvestri’s bombastically retro score, come together to form a ripping good adventure yarn that succeeds where J.J. Abrams’ too-reverent Super 8 failed in paying homage to Steven Spielberg’s salad days.

Captain America is a productive mix of square fortitude and very mild tongue-in-cheek. Even the hero’s name begins as an emasculating joke: Steve, having gained some fame, is pressed into USO service wearing a laughable version of the uniform he eventually wears in combat; he stands in front of crooning showgirls, beseeching audiences to buy bonds, and the media dub him Captain America. Soon, in battle against the fearsome Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his army of soldiers, he will become a real captain and leader of men. The Red Skull is a Nazi so megalomaniacal he doesn’t think Hitler is evil enough; with the help of a “cosmic cube” (which ties this movie to Thor) he builds super-weapons and an army of interchangeable soldiers. I could be wrong, but I think the Red Skull is personally shown killing more Nazis (out of the usual mu-ha-ha, you-dare-to-doubt-me Evil Genius pique) than Captain America is.

Indeed, the real threat in the movie is the Hydra legions, not the Nazis, which helps Captain America neatly avoid any real-world issues. Not that I’m complaining. Nobody particularly wants to see Captain America witnessing flyblown children’s corpses in Auschwitz, or for that matter flinging his impenetrable shield at Iraqi insurgents. What saves the movie from dumb jingoism is Cap’s reliance on a group of good, ethnically-mixed men, even including a Japanese-American soldier. The Howling Commandos, they’re called in the comics, though not in the movie. The actors, particularly Evans, do what they can to invest the film with personality, but in the crunch the script sort of loses track of the people; one major character dies so abruptly, and with so little blowback aside from a brief obligatory mourning scene, that I half expected him to have survived, somehow.

Captain America sells a country’s long-dead dream of itself as an aw-shucks giant modest about its power and benevolent in exercising it. This was never true, really, even before Vietnam made it abundantly clear to anyone without blinders on; see George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 for the scoop on how we’ve treated the rest of the planet as our playpen and piggybank for centuries. But the movie, full of good humor and color and foursquare opposition to bullies, is a lacquered pop-culture valentine to the ideal of America as the good neighbor. That its symbolic hero looks more or less like an Aryan übermensch (and was created in 1940 by two Jewish comics legends, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) is among the many pleasant ironies spinning around in this clean, unpretentious, brawnily entertaining fantasia.

Green Zone

March 14, 2010

One productive way to approach Green Zone might be as a dark comedy of frustration. Early on, warrant officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) and his team are in Baghdad after the 2003 shock-and-awe, in search of weapons of mass destruction. They speed out to a congested area full of looters. They navigate around the looters and discover that a confirmed WMD site is being defended by a sniper. They take out the sniper and move in, fumbling around in the dark building. Will they find what they’re looking for? We know they won’t, but they don’t know that. Miller has run two other missions with the same results. He’s beginning to get annoyed.

Green Zone tracks Miller as he ricochets around Baghdad like a righteous bullet, looking for The Truth. Are there actually WMDs here, and if not, why does government intel keep sending men like Miller and his team into harm’s way to chase shadows? Director Paul Greengrass, who worked with Damon on the last two Bourne films, employs his usual shaky-cam to sometimes vertiginous effect — it’s a rugged, you-are-there style, pumping up excitement. It’s a thriller in which we’re forever ahead of the hero; we know The Truth he seeks, and it’s not a very happy one, so the action is in service of an almost nihilistic mood. Miller pokes his nose into every seething corner of Baghdad to uncover the pointlessness of his very career.

Greg Kinnear turns up as the Pentagon slickster who wants to keep the WMD ruse going for the suckers back home. Whoever cast him deserves a cold beer, since he and Damon previously shared the screen — and a body — as Siamese twins in Stuck on You. The actors have a couple of clenched, hostile exchanges here, and I was left imagining how many takes they must have ruined because they couldn’t keep straight faces. Damon also has strong rapport with Brendan Gleeson as a CIA man who bluntly tells Miller he’s wasting his time; movies could do worse than to pull in seasoned, hard-bitten Brit actors to set the hero straight (Ray Winstone also performed this function in Edge of Darkness).

As Miller gets closer to the identity of “Magellan,” the mysterious source of info about WMDs, Green Zone never stops for a breath, and neither does Miller. The last third is fairly exhausting. Miller bounces around the city, browbeating gullible reporter Amy Ryan or conscripting Iraqi civilian Khalid Abdalla (in perhaps the film’s best performance) for near-constant service as his “translator.” There’s torture, there’s a lengthy chase — a real action-thriller climax, except the thrills turn to ashes in our mouths. Green Zone says that not even Matt Damon in full fury can change much of anything. By the end, the Iraqi people are already rejecting the U.S.-approved “democracy” Kinnear’s character wants to put into place, and Miller emails his findings off to every major media outlet in the Western world, for all the good it’ll ultimately do. Mission unaccomplished.

Avatar

December 27, 2009

James Cameron’s Avatar is very old wine in a dazzling new bottle. It’s almost completely hokey, but it’s also a major work, a first-class piece of big mainstream filmmaking. Cameron’s ideas may be dusty, and his dialogue may be functional at best and embarrassing at worst, but almost no other contemporary directors have his intuitive understanding of structure and fable. Yes, Avatar is made up of stories that have been told again and again, but there are stories and then there are Stories — tales that survive over the centuries, charged by Joseph Campbell’s power of myth.

Here we have Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine chosen to walk among the alien natives of the moon Pandora. Jake’s consciousness is inserted into an “avatar” combining the DNA of a native — a Na’vi — and his dead twin brother, who’d been studying the Na’vi for years. Jake has two agendas, science and profit: the former, personified by Sigourney Weaver as a hard-bitten scientist, wants Jake to negotiate peacefully with the Na’vi; the latter, led by hissable corporate drone Giovanni Ribisi and nail-tough colonel Stephen Lang, wants a high-energy mineral and doesn’t mind killing the Na’vi to get it. Jake, of course, goes native and falls in love with the Na’vi life, not to mention with warrior princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

Cameron uses this pulpy old stuff as a launching pad for peerless world-building; coming out of the hibernation of occasional deep-sea documentaries, Cameron beats George Lucas and Peter Jackson at their own game. This director has been away from feature films for twelve years, so I’d forgotten how effortlessly taut his filmmaking is (Avatar runs north of two and a half hours but flies by), how he approaches big, operatic emotions with a refreshing lack of irony, how he stages action scenes with a mixture of tension and exhilaration. (Everyone else who’s attempted large-scale megabudget spectacles in 2009 should take a look at Avatar and be shamed out of public appearances for a year.) For all his technological breakthroughs, Cameron’s great talent is for opening the storybook and inviting us in.

I’ll go ahead and say it: Late in the film, there is an extended battle scene between the Na’vi and the American military with all their concussive firepower, and it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve seen in a movie since I first started reviewing them in 1986. Cameron captures war in all its exultation and horror. Sam Worthington is an amiable blank as the hero — he’s pretty much the audience’s avatar — but Zoe Saldana, who deserves a Best Supporting Actress nomination, puts across a galaxy of moods: joy, agony, rage, passion. If Cameron had done nothing else in Avatar, he put one more great heroine on the screen.

Avatar is being shown in a variety of formats: 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D. I saw it in RealD 3D. I’m told the best way to experience it is in IMAX 3D. I’m also told it looks just as gorgeous, and is just as enveloping, in 2D. (Cameron knows what he’s doing: there are many shots and even sequences that don’t seem to use 3D much at all. He knows when to give your eyes a rest and when to punch up the 3D for maximum impact.) I’ve said before that the true test of a movie is whether it would draw you in even if it were playing on a 15-inch black-and-white TV screen. I know that I’ve happened across Cameron’s Titanic a few times on television and have been kidnapped into it for longer than I should have been. Avatar will probably work the same way.

Inglourious Basterds

August 23, 2009

inglourious_basterds_ver7In Inglourious Basterds, the quintessential Quentin Tarantino scene unfolds again and again: a long, sinister conversation between someone with power and someone without. Usually, but not always, the powerful person is a Nazi, imposing on someone’s time at excruciating length; it’s rambling as triumph of the will. None of this is as boring as it may sound: Tarantino plumbs these sequences for considerable suspense. When will the Nazi get to the point, or go away, or just kill someone and break the tension? The menacing one-sided chat goes on and on, while the listener sweats and tries not to give up whatever information is being demanded. In Tarantino-land, the Nazis don’t have to torture you; they talk to you.

Brad Pitt and his merry band of “Basterds” are less loquacious (though Pitt, too, uses the chatty method of extracting info). This group of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Pitt the Gentile hillbilly, prefers to rough up their Nazi prey, often for the sheer bullying fun of it. A glowering Boston Jewish bruiser, played by Hostel director Eli Roth, emerges from the shadows with a baseball bat and ends a frightened German soldier rather messily. The Basterds’ story is interwoven with that of a French Jewish girl (Mélanie Laurent), who escapes the Nazis early on and winds up managing a Paris movie theater; she has violent plans of her own. Pitt and Laurent are two sides of the same vengeful coin, with movie-love giving it a hot spin.

Tarantino always sets out to make The Ultimate Movie of Everything Quentin Loves. Inglourious Basterds is his brutal-cool reverie on war, though until the very end he stops short of wholeheartedly enjoying the sadism — the young, terrified German soldiers Pitt mutilates are humanized as much as the victims of the Nazis, and sometimes we feel that those German soldiers are victims of the Nazis, unpolitical kids conscripted into an insane system they might not believe in. The chief villain is an elaborately inquisitive “Jew hunter,” a Nazi colonel who in saner times might have been a great detective; sportively played by Christophe Waltz, this Nazi is allowed depth of motive and layers of feeling about what he does. He’s also a bit of a boor, endlessly impressed with himself.

The marquee star is Brad Pitt, and he turns in a one-note performance — malevolent amusement, mostly — though the note is consistently entertaining. The 26-year-old Mélanie Laurent, an actress to watch, sprinkles her deadpan with barbs of rage and grief. Once again, a woman walks away with a Tarantino film, and he cheerfully lets her take it. Inglourious Basterds is a long, strange pop artifact, studded with instant-classic moments and sealed with a legitimately great image of a laughing face swathed in fire and smoke — even if the entire film were junk, it’d be worth it for that shot alone, an immaculate essay-in-pictures about the power of cinema. As always, Tarantino works with a heady mix of playfulness and classical rigor, and getting out of L.A. and America — as he also did with Kill Bill — adds a pleasant old-world gravitas to his play. He may appreciate the Basterds on a bad-ass Lee Marvin level, but the French girl who shows movies — and shows that the dream Leni Riefenstahl helped build can be blown apart the same way — is his true hero. I don’t know whether Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s masterpiece (it’s too early to say), but it proves he’s still a master.

The Hurt Locker

June 29, 2009

Before The Hurt Locker is anything else, it’s a first-class action movie. This tense and muscular film unfolds in and around various Iraq war zones but isn’t really an “Iraq War film.” It follows a bomb-squad unit, headed by risk addict Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), who by his own count has disarmed 873 bombs. We don’t know whether James is brave or crazy or both, but we do sense that he wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. He doesn’t get cranked up before a mission — a Zen-like calm seems to fall over him. He knows how bombs work, and he knows how to make them not work. He’s in his element.

So is the director, Kathryn Bigelow. Absent from the big screen for too long, Bigelow was born to make action-thrillers (see Point Break or Strange Days), and The Hurt Locker may well be her masterpiece, the perfect fusion of director and material. Bigelow loves techno-POV shots; they were all over Strange Days, and this film opens with one, the staticky view of a radio-controlled robot rolling towards a concealed explosive. The action in The Hurt Locker is loose, caught on the fly and documentary-like, yet still perfectly readable. We always know exactly where the bomb squad is in relation to danger, and things slow way down during a shoot-out between snipers in the desert, during which any number of things go wrong (the ammo salvaged off of a freshly killed soldier keeps jamming because it’s too bloody, etc.). The action is frighteningly credible.

The movie is a salute to the soldiers who go in and get it done in the worst possible conditions, though it’s not an unabashed salute. James’ squad members occasionally freak out and break down; James keeps powering through, a good man (he takes care to treat the locals humanely) with some serious problems. Jeremy Renner, a great actor who deserves to be much better known than he is, shows flashes of the death wish under James’ laid-back demeanor. His men even briefly flirt with the idea of fragging him, because they figure he’ll get them all killed — is he a genius or just extraordinarily lucky? Either way, he chuckles as he strides into yet another death-trap, and speaks almost tenderly to the bomb components, some of which he keeps under his bunk later.

There’s not a scrap of politics in The Hurt Locker, as there also wasn’t in last year’s unfairly dismissed Stop-Loss — perhaps coincidentally, also directed by a woman (Kimberly Peirce). The two movies simply strive to be true to the experiences of those who serve or have served in Iraq. The film’s coda is almost a miniature Stop-Loss — a soldier comes home and can’t deal with things like chopping up carrots for dinner or shopping for cereal, and stop-losses himself right back into the fray.

Like its hero, the movie needs its adrenaline fix, but never at the expense of the drama that keeps the anecdotal narrative going. It comes by its thrills honestly, never losing sight of the potential cost in lives. These soldiers do their jobs while acutely aware they could be killed by some of the same people they’re trying to save, but they try anyway. The Hurt Locker goes far beyond action into almost existential excitement, fear, despair (one soldier bemoans how nobody except his parents, who “don’t count,” will care if he’s killed in action). Kathryn Bigelow has shown Hollywood how it’s done: The Hurt Locker is the strongest and most satisfying thriller in years.

War, Inc.

May 23, 2008

The adventures of the Bush administration have, it seems, driven John Cusack a little crazy, just as they drove Richard Kelly far enough around the bend to make his much-maligned epic Southland Tales. Perhaps these men have found a workable response, if not the only one, to current events: broad satire sprinkled heavily with glitzy disgust. War, Inc., written by Cusack along with Jeremy Pikser (Bulworth) and the postmodernist novelist Mark Leyner, doesn’t even pretend to buy into American warfare in the Middle East as remotely ennobling or democracy-inspiring. Tonally, this farce is all over the place, getting easy laughs from official doublespeak about new prosthetic limbs (“Just another breathtaking example of how American know-how alleviates the suffering it creates”) and then choking our laughter off. The business of war is serious even when it’s funny, and vice versa.

War, Inc. could almost be a default sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997’s witty, jet-black comedy about hit-man Martin Blank and his struggle to regain his humanity at his ten-year class reunion. Here, Cusack is Brand Hauser, a government assassin tasked to whack an oil baron who wants to run a pipeline through (fictional) Turaqistan and drink some of America’s milkshake. Brand is given a cover story: he’ll be organizing the arrival and media opportunities of rising Turaqi pop star Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff, sullying her squeaky-clean persona impressively). Plaguing Brand’s existence are this movie’s Minnie Driver, leftist reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen (Marisa Tomei), who wants the full story on what Brand is doing in Turaqistan, and this movie’s Joan Cusack, hard-bitten assistant Marsha Dillon (played by … Joan Cusack), who wants Brand to ice the target already so they can all go home.

Add in an appearance by Dan Aykroyd as the amiably venal vice-president and a Joe Strummer-esque score by David Robbins (brother of Cusack’s buddy Tim) and you really do have Martin Blank Goes to War, but as a die-hard fan of GPB, I didn’t care. Cusack’s morose intelligence holds everything together, and he has an agreeably combative rapport with Tomei and a gentler one with Duff, whose Yonica symbolizes how we’re trying to “democratize” the Middle East by Britneyizing and corporatizing it. The movie takes some cues from satires old (Dr. Strangelove) and more recent (Wag the Dog, especially in its barbs at the press for being so easily gulled by the government’s magic show), but its tempo and emphasis are all its own. Joshua Seftel, a documentarian making his narrative feature debut, channels Kubrick as well as Terry Gilliam in his cool fish-eyed-lens assessment of Turaqistan’s chaotic chessboard. By the time we see a tank with a goldenpalace.com banner on its tail, it’s no longer clear where monetary fantasia ends and war-torn reality begins.

War, Inc. is looser than GPB, and makes time for several extended scenes of various characters just sitting around getting to know each other, a welcome respite from what always threatens to become a cartoon. In a dazzlingly brutal dust-up between Brand and some local thugs, Cusack shows he hasn’t lost any of his kickboxing flair, nor his way of looking soulfully stricken when caught in the bloody act by a loved one. In these movies, Cusack is America, abashed by his talent for and background in violence, and eager to escape it — here, Brand constantly chugs hot sauce to burn himself out of awareness (he says he’s trained his tear ducts not to flow when he downs the stuff). People are always consuming in the movie — Yonica has her Popeye’s Chicken (a front for Brand’s shadowy liaison), a soldier chomps on freeze-dried coffee to amp himself up for crowd control. Critics will probably rush to smear War, Inc. as a rehash or irrelevant or even un-American, but it’s a good deal smarter and more satisfying than that — a punk-rock Strangelove riff on a mission very much unaccomplished.

Stop-Loss

March 28, 2008

Kimberly Peirce, who directed one of 1999’s best films with Boys Don’t Cry, seems to have a thing about androgyny leaning a bit towards masculinity. Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry and now the young soldiers in her belated new film, Stop-Loss, are rangy yet fragile-looking, capable of violence yet susceptible to it. If ever there was a director to bring Alexander the Great to the big screen (not likely since Oliver Stone made such a botch of it), Peirce would be the one. This lesbian filmmaker treats gender off-handedly, and her male characters — the non-psychotic ones, anyway — are handled sympathetically, even tenderly. The men in Stop-Loss are screwed up, wounded, haunted, hapless but never ridiculous.

Stop-Loss deals with an under-acknowledged reality of military service: the “backdoor draft” that obliges certain soldiers to return to combat even after their tour is done. The stop-loss policy has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War, and it has been employed under George H.W. Bush (during the Gulf War) and under Clinton. A soldier who is “stop-lossed” back to Iraq in the current conflict, though, finds him/herself re-recruited into a war that was never formally declared by Congress. It doesn’t matter, though; a soldier’s contract states that he or she may be involuntarily cycled back into action. Ironically, the better a soldier is, the more likely he or she will be judged “essential to the national security of the United States.”

Of the three soldiers profiled in Stop-Loss, two are willing to go back to Iraq, and one — Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) — wants to stay home in Brazos, Texas. Brandon has had enough of killing, enough of seeing his buddies torn to shreds. He returns home with his childhood friends Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who don’t seem to know what to do with themselves among civilians: they get drunk, they get into idiotic fights. Steve wants a career in the Army; Tommy seems addicted to the adrenaline of combat, the one thing he might be good at. Peirce, who wrote the script with the novelist Mark Richard (who appears alongside Laurie Metcalf in a poignant scene), establishes Brazos as a home worth returning to; she respects the rural way of living and relaxing. The sadness of the stateside segments is that Tommy and Steve no longer quite belong home.

The movie is not as hard-hitting as I imagine many critics would like it to be. It stays mostly apolitical and pro-troops, and it paints in broad, familiar strokes. Peirce, whose brother served in Afghanistan and Iraq, wants to make a simple film accessible to young viewers (MTV Films co-produced it), who won’t have seen post-war films like The Best Years of Our Lives, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, or even Born on the Fourth of July. (There are now people old enough for military service who weren’t even born yet when Born on the Fourth came out. No comment.) Peirce wants to perform a public service. But she isn’t a public servant, and her artistry gets in the way. A hack director might’ve been better at putting across the melodramatic peaks and lows of the narrative; Peirce works best with muted shades of melancholy and regret. When Brandon resists being stop-lossed and goes on the run, Steve’s fiancée Michelle (Abbie Cornish) goes with him, and Stop-Loss becomes a rather depressed road movie, exploring the paranoid world of stop-lossed AWOL soldiers living day to day in shabby, nondescript motel rooms.

The concept of the violent war vet who can’t shut off his fight-or-flee instinct at home is, I suppose, factual, but decades of movies have laid a blanket of must over it. Peirce takes some of the oldness out of it by focusing on the irrationality of soldiers torn between their duties to their country and to their loved ones. Ryan Phillippe is about as expressive as Peirce can make him, which isn’t much; the film belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who claims ownership of it when his Tommy pauses drunkenly at a diamond-store window, then tosses a beer bottle through it, as if that seemed to him the only sensible thing to do. Peirce brings out the violent joys and passions and soul-sickness of her delicate characters. Stop-Loss isn’t much as a narrative, but it does herald the return of a singular voice that’s been silent for far too long.

Atonement

December 7, 2007

A bizarre coincidence: Two of the year-end award-chasing films — The Kite Runner and Atonement — are epics of shame. They are based on novels written in separate years, set in different countries, yet they both center on an act of child rape and how a young protagonist responds to the act and, in adulthood, strains to redeem disastrous childhood lies. Atonement at least does not, unlike The Kite Runner, feature a Hollywood showdown based on a laughable coincidence; it ends on a dramatically ambiguous note, showing us the happy ending we want right after refuting it. Still, it’s a handsomely assembled bore, with far too much noble English repression.

Briony (Saiorse Ronan), an unpleasant little 13-year-old fabulist, spots her older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) jumping into a fountain and emerging with her underthings clinging, while the housekeeper’s son Robbie (James McAvoy) stands nearby. An odd occurrence from Briony’s point of view, though her assumption of naughtiness between the two isn’t entirely unfounded — they just haven’t gotten around to consummating their guarded mutual attraction yet. Still, the episode is on Briony’s mind when her cousin Lola is assaulted by a man Briony takes to be Robbie. He is arrested, and later given a choice between jail and the Army. Robbie chooses a soldier’s uniform over a prisoner’s, but it’s bad timing: England has entered World War II, and when we see Robbie again it’s during the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Joe Wright, who previously directed Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, gives us a lengthy tracking shot of the chaos on the Dunkirk beaches. It’s full of incident, and it must’ve been a nightmare to organize and shoot, but it goes on just long enough to start selling its Oscar-vamping epicness. (A similar sequence in Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall got in and out in half the time, with judiciously chosen images of pain and death.) The sisters Cecelia and Briony have both gone into nursing, though Briony (played in late teens by Romola Garai) is driven by an overwhelming desire to make up for what she did to Cecelia and Robbie. There’s the suggestion that part of her wanted Robbie banished because she herself had a schoolgirl crush on him.

Atonement builds itself on a string of stupid actions, such as Robbie’s typing a raunchy note to Cecelia to amuse himself, then handwriting a more genteel note, but accidentally delivering the wrong one to Briony, who of course opens it. It’s the only epic I can think of that blossoms out of the notorious slang word for female genitalia (which we see typed out thunderously across the screen). Reduced that way, it sounds kind of silly, and it is kind of silly. Had Robbie never typed those three consonants and a vowel, he (and we) would never have endured the horrors of Dunkirk. That’s just about the last word in English repression.

If we don’t buy into the conflict, we can’t buy into what the actors are doing — one scene in particular, a reunion between Briony and the two lovers, is played more falsely than it should be, even if the scene’s falseness is intentional. Daniel Mays comes through as Robbie’s no-nonsense Army companion, and Vanessa Redgrave turns up at the end as the elderly Briony, her voice and ironic smile carrying far more weight than anything else in the film. Atonement may be worth the sit just to hear Redgrave pronouncing “vascular dementia” — amused by the irony of a disease that will rob her of her words. You can have the show-offy tracking shot and the self-conscious romantic-epic touches (Cecelia on a bus with Robbie chasing after her is particularly shabby) — I’d rather watch two hours of Vanessa Redgrave telling this story, her inflections bringing it to life where Joe Wright fails.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers