Talking Movies

May 22, 2018

From the Archives: Stop Loss

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a very under-rated Iraq war film featuring strong supporting turns from Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The Iraq War has become a continuing nightmare for the United States military to set beside Vietnam. Surprisingly it’s also become impossible terrain for American film-makers compared to the cinematic response to Vietnam. It falls to writer/director Kimberly Pierce to make the finest film about the Iraq War to date. This is her first feature since 1999’s acclaimed Boys Don’t Cry and Pierce has waited a long time to provide another absorbing and heartbreaking slice of small town Americana. The film opens with an action set-piece in Iraq that conveys tedium, paranoia, fear, bloodlust and chaos more effectively than the entirety of Brian De Palma’s Redacted. The real focus of this film is the psychological battle on the home-front back in Texas.

There is no place for a warrior in a stable society. This is a melancholy truth that has found expression over and over again in fiction, if you set out to protect your home your violent deeds will unfit you for ever living there again. “I’m going to miss blowing shit up” laments Channing Tatum’s Steve Shriver as he hands over his weapons for discharge from the army having served his required tours of duty. What exactly are these men going to do back in their small town? Jobs are scarce, they’re adrenaline junkies and scarred by the savagery they’ve witnessed and been forced to commit in Iraq. The dilemma is best exemplified by the out of control Pt. Tommy Burgess. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a supporting role as the violent alcoholic Tommy is as superb as his performances in Brick, The Look-Out and Mysterious Skin have led us to expect. Burgess and Shriver desperately need their commanding officer Brandon King to keep them in check. King is leaving the military…until he finds the President has signed an order keeping him in the army against his will.

Ryan Phillipe is impressively mature as the righteously indignant Staff Sergeant Brandon King who thinks he should not be asked to pointlessly lead more men to their deaths. Australian actress Abbie Cornish is a fine foil as Michelle, Shriver’s neglected girlfriend who offers to drive King to Washington. There are echoes of Phillipe’s previous role in Flags of Our Fathers. King is convinced that he can just take the matter up with his local Senator who welcomed him home but he quickly learns the harsh truth. You’re a hero when you’re fighting, but when the war finishes or you’ve gone AWOL from a Stop-Loss, they don’t want to hear about you anymore. The shadow of Vietnam hangs heavy over this film as King suddenly realises his choices are return to Iraq or flee to Canada, start a new life there and never be able to return home again. This is never preachy, always compelling and emotionally taut. An absolute must see.

5/5

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December 20, 2011

The Rises and Falls of Michael Moore

Michael Moore is still making entertaining documentaries using the same methods he’s employed for the past 20 years, so why does no one care anymore?

I had this thought when I heard that Moore was in town doing a show in the Grand Canal Theatre to promote his new book, and realised that, no matter how good this new book was, only a fraction of the number of people who proudly displayed Stupid White Men on their book-shelves as a symbol of right-on resistance to George Bush Jr would bother to buy this one. It’s not like Moore’s writing has suffered an obvious fall-off and that’s the reason that people are eschewing it. Stupid White Men is very funny but also very sketchy at times in its logic and arguments, while Dude, Where’s my Country? is filled with excruciatingly childish sneering at conservatives. But both sold phenomenally well. No, whatever the quality of this book its reception will be muted because Moore’s time as de riguer reading has simply passed.

Moore’s time was quite short, lasting only around 4 years or so, but of course it wasn’t his first coming. Roger & Me launched Moore to fame in America in 1989, and set the tone for his whole career with its partisan satirical railing against corporate greed in the traditionally more neutral documentary genre. I fondly remember Moore’s TV show appearing on Channel 4 in the mid-1990s where he door-stepped businessmen and generally afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. He faded out of view for quite some time and then, almost out of nowhere, Bowling for Columbine and Stupid White Men gave him a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I welcomed him back as an old friend while watching Bowling for Columbine but it was clear that attacking capitalist excesses wasn’t enough anymore. He aimed higher, and ironically brought himself down.

Fahrenheit 9/11 went after George Bush Jr on a petty if entertaining level but was undone by its own indiscipline. Despite the opprobrium heaped upon it, it is a very good polemic – either side of a truly terrible half-hour about Iraq and vague conspiracy theories. More people saw this any of Moore’s other films and that’s why it was dangerously ill-judged. Fahrenheit 9/11 was designed to topple Bush from power but instead he was re-elected with a thumping majority. I think ordinary cinema-goers were inclined to view Moore’s film as a failure in propagandising, both because of its practical lack of success and its aesthetic clumsiness, and the more political among them were inclined to blame him for Bush’s victory by his populist rabble-rousing spurring the GOP into more effective voter-turnout drives. But if this was when Moore’s stock fell other circumstances wiped it out.

The tide turned quickly for a President who had boasted of spending his huge political capital, and after Hurricane Katrina, and with increasing popular discontent with the fiscal and emotional cost of the never-ending occupation of Iraq (especially its maiming of a generation of volunteer soldiers), Bush was as toxic electorally as Moore had wished to make him. Sicko thus appeared when it was already clear that Bush’s neo-conservatism was out of favour, and Capitalism: A Love Story was released at a time of utter irrelevance for any American elections. The replacement of Bush with Obama was, for the rest of the world, akin to Hunter S Thompson’s characterisation of the political demise of Lyndon B Johnson – an evil king had been overthrown, and now we all could stop worrying about over-reaching American politics. And that meant not caring about American healthcare or capitalism either…

Which is a pity because Capitalism is a fascinating watch, filled with archival gold and provocative arguments, while Sicko’s polemic for a better healthcare system is quite devastating, and might have aided Obama’s strenuous and half-successful efforts at reform – except of course that no American conservative would watch it, never mind a Tea Party member. Americans seem to have turned away from Moore as being either counter-productive or treasonous, while the rest of the world apparently has turned away from his work because it’s simply become bored with an America that patently has lost the ability to project its power as it once did, either economically or politically, and is so dogged by polarised partisan infighting as to arguably be on the verge of a constitutional crisis; because if the legislature refuses to engage with the executive but merely engages in monolithic opposition deadlock ensues.

I strongly believe that within the next thirty years we will all have absorbed, by a process of osmosis, a basic knowledge of Chinese history and culture merely as necessary background noise to understanding what will then be the world’s pre-eminent country. We will know exactly what Confucius said, and be able to talk about the origin myth of modern China in the Opium Wars with the British, and know when the various dynasties ruled as readily as we roughly know when various houses of monarchy were on the throne in England. Part of that realpolitik adjustment might already have begun in an abjuration of interest in American politics as it can now be regarded as purely a domestic American concern with greatly decreased international impact. Moore’s future success might then be dependent on American domestic politics again forcefully impacting the rest of the world.

Can Michael Moore stage another comeback? The odds are stacked against him, but who knows, the Tea Party may yet do the unthinkable for them and make him fashionable again.

November 16, 2011

Funny Bones

Last year, just before they handed the series over to Living, Sky 1 aired a season 1 episode of Bones instead of the expected season 6 episode, and it was stunning how drastically the show has changed over its run.

I wrote about Bones twice for the University Observer. The first time I was writing about the trend in US television of heroes that we already sympathised with being depicted as achingly alone, rather than their loneliness simply being a device to get us onboard with an unlikely hero such as The OC’s Seth Cohen. Dr Temperance Brennan, the brilliant crime-fighting forensic anthropologist, would tell her FBI partner Seeley Booth, “There’s nothing wrong with going on vacation by yourself”, and then do so frequently, when she wasn’t simply working through the weekend. Bones and House suggested that the excellence of these characters at their jobs was only possible by the sacrifice of their personal lives.

I later wrote an article dissecting Bones’ dramatic motor – the unresolved sexual tension between Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Bones was not alone in using that device as a dramatic motor but it had perhaps the most obviously thwarted yet plausible of the many frustrated relationships littering the TV schedules in 2007, and one that cried out in season 1 for a symbolic Red State/Blue State reading. Towards the end of season 1 Brennan was in New Orleans identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina when she was drugged and framed for murder. Booth immediately rushed from Washington DC to rescue her only to be upbraided on arrival for his sneering attitude towards Voodoo: “I mean, you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…”, “Jesus was not a zombie! I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff!!”

Brennan and Booth have common values and a genuine attraction that exists despite their ‘ideological’ enmity. Like Barack Obama’s famous 2004 peroration to the Democratic National Convention you can say of their partnership, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”. Neither is a mere cipher of a political position. Brennan is militantly atheistic and scientific, but supports the death penalty unreservedly and is emotionally distant as a result of being abandoned to foster-care by her fugitive criminal parents. Booth seems modelled on John Wayne’s heroic straight-shooting all-American persona, but is an unmarried father battling to see his son, who uses his FBI job as atonement for his enormous religious guilt at murdering 50 people as an army sniper. Both characters desperately need the qualities of the other in order to be effective.

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The penultimate episode of season 1 managed minor miracles in tackling the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. There was of course only so much tension that could be generated by the politico-sexual friction between the two leads. The first episode of the second season saw Brennan complain at Booth’s snippiness: “I thought we were having an interesting discussion about the War on Drugs”, “Can we please just talk about something we don’t disagree on?!” The dead silence that followed exemplified their deadlocked relationship. Little surprise then that creator Hart Hanson introduced new characters as romantic obstacles to keep the leads apart, seeming happy to relinquish to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the task of depicting a Blue State/Red State romance for the 2006/7 season with Aaron Sorkin’s Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes as the lovers sundered by politics and faith.

Regrettably Hanson never seemed to take up that task seriously again and season 6 confirmed a number of alarming developments in the show. Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember the social niceties and her conversation suffered from an almost total ignorance of pop culture. Yet season 6 saw her presented as consciously unconsciously anti-social, if that makes sense. Despite 6 years of working with Booth she acted rudely when surely she must have learnt from his example what to say by now in nearly every circumstance. In many ways her character seemed to have regressed – the hideous attempts at jokes in particular were nothing more than horrible gurning by Emily Deschanel which was as uncomfortable to watch as it probably was to perform. This impulse towards comedy at the expense of character consistency was not an isolated incident though, but part of a trend.

The music changed over the seasons from mere background mood music to cutesy cues to indicate that everything was funny; in other words that the show itself had changed from what it originally was, a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags, to a modestly smart forensics sitcom with no laugh track for its constant modestly funny gags. Any doubt of this change in direction can be dispelled by noting the change in psychiatrist from Stephen Fry to John Francis Daley. Fry was cast because as a tall clever British psychiatrist he could literally look down on Booth in judgement. Daley is a young silly American psychiatrist who Booth literally just looks down on. Similarly when Zach was written out of the show at the end of season 3 he was replaced by a revolving line-up of squinterns, each of which appeared chosen for their particular comedic shtick, even if they would eventually be belatedly granted a modicum of depth. A dramatic imperative was consistently replaced by a comedic dynamic.

The decision to kill Mr Nigel-Murray at the hands of Booth’s sniper nemesis Brodsky, after a lengthy ominously scored montage which put all the characters potentially in jeopardy, was therefore terribly misjudged. The show simply cannot sustain that type of dramatic weight at this point in its development, whereas it still could when Zach was shockingly revealed as the apprentice to the cannibal serial killer Gormagon in the traumatic finale of season 3. By far the best episode of season 6 was the episode that most closely approximated season 1 – Brennan losing her grip on reality as she investigated the death of her apparent doppelganger, a brilliant socially isolated surgeon. Her tearful declaration of love for Booth and subsequent heartbroken acceptance that she had missed her chance for happiness by her reluctance to take a risk on him when he suggested it in season 5 was both incredibly dramatically satisfying and a reminder of what the show used to be.

Season 7 will largely eschew Emily Deschanel – written out for her pregnancy. Can the show survive that and will it ever square its political circle when she returns now that Booth’s romantic anger has subsided and Brennan’s imperviousness/strength balance has reached the point where they can get it together properly?

Bones season 7 begins its run on Living at 9pm tonight.

September 29, 2010

Buried

Ryan Reynolds acts his heart out alone on-screen for 90 minutes in this real-time thriller but a weak script fails to match his efforts…

Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian truck-driver in Iraq who wakes up after his convoy is ambushed to find that he’s been buried alive with only 90 minutes of oxygen left. He’s been left a phone with dodgy reception and a fading battery, and he fruitlessly calls his wife’s voicemail, a preposterously annoying neighbour, and various American agencies before the kidnapper rings to instruct Conroy to record and send his own ransom video. Comparisons to Tarantino’s CSI: LV special ‘Grave Danger’, which placed Nick Stokes in a coffin with only 12 hours for Grissom and his team to find him before the oxygen ran out, are inevitable. There are superficial similarities; the presence of a deadly weapon in the coffin, the intrusion of menacing fauna, the desperation that alternates between despair and panic; but also a shameless riff on Tarantino’s wonderful “Are you a terrorist?” “Well I guess that depends. Are you terrified?” But director Rodrigo Cortes is no Tarantino…

Cortes never leaves the coffin for the duration of the movie. This isn’t as Hitchcockian as he’d like because A Single Man cinematographer Eduard Grau’s six-minute takes include a ridiculous tracking shot around the coffin that makes it feel larger than some bed-sits. Reynolds displays considerable dramatic chops along with some nice comedic touches but his performance is better than Chris Sparling’s script. There are high-points in the writing like Stephen Tobolowsky as a HR man using legal chicanery to backslide on an insurance pay-out, while Robert Patterson’s crisp British voice is marvellous casting for Dan Brenner, the SAS type in charge of tracking down Conroy’s location, but mostly by staging conversations in the dark Cortes remove the visual field of reference to such an extent that this becomes a radio-play.

That fact focuses far too much attention onto the script, and it doesn’t take experience in screenwriting to realise just how few routes this story can take. Conroy frustratingly sits on vital information – for no reason, and there is an outrageous Chekhov’s Rifle of a detail that is left hanging before paying off as part of ‘the very oldest trick in the book’ – used in the deeply frustrating ending. Buried wants, structurally, to have its cake and eat it, and this only underscores its lack of profundity. In the end this is just needlessly nasty (Reynolds is forced to cut off his finger, pointlessly), perhaps in the wrong medium, and lacks the emotional power and depth to match Reynolds’ performance.

Reynolds fans will appreciate a fine turn that is a master-class in creating empathy out of thin air, but fans of suspense or drama would do well to avoid a film that can’t deliver on its promises.

2/5

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