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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April 1, 2015

While We’re Young

Frances Ha director Noah Baumbach returns to the NYC art scene, but loses Greta Gerwig as co-writer and reinstates Greenberg cohort Ben Stiller as protagonist.

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Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentarian. He’s married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a film producer, whose father is the legendary documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin).  Josh and Cornelia’s best friends Fletcher (Beastie Boy’s Adam Horovitz!!) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) have just had a kid. Indeed the misleading opening finds Josh and Cornelia gazing at the baby while a mobile playing a cutesy version of Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ hangs over the cot. Having lost Fletcher to the children cult Josh is receptive to a hipster couple he meets after one of his New School extension lectures. Jamie (Adam Driver) is a would-be documentarian, his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) makes home-made ice cream, and they live in a Brooklyn flat with friend and occasional band-mate Tipper (Dree Hemingway). Josh is enchanted, and soon so is Cornelia, but can this rejuvenation end well?

While We’re Young is less sunny than Frances Ha, but thankfully not as bitter as Greenberg, and, from the opening hilarious quotes from Ibsen’s The Master Builder, is always engaging. Some montages of Josh and Cornelia’s rediscovery of their youth thru hip-hop and hats equal Frances Ha’s use of pop, and Baumbach also mocks ‘Eye of the Tiger’ motivational status (“I remember when this song was just bad”). But Frances Ha was about being lost and aimless. This is about a couple who have everything, and are jaded, meeting a couple who have little, but are liberated. Josh has spent 8 years not finishing a documentary, and laments “I only have two moods: wistful and disdainful.” For Jamie making a documentary is a free and easy process, as whimsy-driven as choosing to not know a factoid rather than google it.

But when Jamie uses a remote control to zoom-in for a close-up on his face during a ‘spontaneous’ tearful scene when interviewing old school-friend Kent (Brady Corbet), Josh realises Jamie’s directing is as affected as the love of vinyl and VHS… Then things get All About Eve as Jamie supplants Josh in the affections of Leslie (veteran Grodin on fine comedic form). It’s a bit silly, not least as it draws attention to Baumbach’s own idol-supplanting. Josh is Woody Allen in Crimes & Misdemeanours: a film-maker unable to finish a documentary showcasing an aged academic proffering arcane wisdom. It’s as odd as James Murphy’s music and Baumbach’s staging creating an oddly sinister intercutting of a valedictory speech and an ethical confrontation, almost as if Baumbach is parodying his own concerns: Woody’s stakes were life and death, his, just passé ethics.

While We’re Young has moments of genuine sadness, like Cornelia (who’s miscarried repeatedly) freaking out a baby music class, but Baumbach opts for an all too pat comedy ending.

3.5/5

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