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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008


The War in Iraq remains a tricky cinematic situation. Over the last few months, there’s been a myriad of motion pictures that have decided that the best way to interpret the conflict is to make the soldiery a kind of indirect villain. Instead of celebrating the bravery and duty of these incredible young men and women, they’ve turned the political/policy elements of the conflict into a means to murderous, madmen ends. No matter the theater – foreign or domestic, religious or military – it’s nothing but the worst of our fears made very, very human. Kimberley Peirce’s Stop-Loss wants to buck this trend. It hopes to illustrate the Bush Administration’s ridiculous reenlistment strategy, a revolving door that keeps haggard and harried defense forces in harms way long after their effectiveness has waned. But instead of getting to the heart of the matter, it mines the middle of the road for a series of clichéd contrivances.


After leading his men directly into an ambush, Sgt. Brandon King returns home to Texas a decorated, if disconnected hero. He is celebrated by his hometown, along with buddies Steve Shriver and Tommy Burgess. With just a few days before he gets out of the service, Brandon hopes to restart his civilian life. But when he reports to turn in his gear, he learns he is being Stop-Lossed. In layman’s terms, it means he is being involuntarily reenlisted for another tour of duty. Angry over this perceived betrayal, Brandon goes AWOL. He decides to go to Washington and speak to a Senator who promised to help him out. Steve’s fiancé Michelle decides to be his driver. Naturally, the military doesn’t look kindly on deserters, and it’s not long before they send his friends after him. Desperate and on the run, Brandon can’t understand why the country he served would treat him so. It’s a horrible lesson that he and his fellow recruits will soon learn all too well.


For the first ten minutes or so, Stop-Loss crackles along on a bed of preconceived patriotism. We watch fresh faced young men battling ambiguous Arab enemies, rocket launchers sending Hummers – and humans – to a planned pyrotechnical reward. By the time we see the trademark tableau (dead Islamic family, including kids, lying in a pool of blood and bullets), we think this film might be ready to break from the formulaic mold. But alas, director Peirce (of Boys Don’t Cry fame) brings the drama back home, and it’s here where Stop-Loss stumbles. In fact, within a short time of landing stateside, the movie meanders into a series of vignettes that replay every tired post-service chestnut ever offered. Over the course of the 105 minute running time we get the doomed alcoholic, the commitment-phobic jarhead, the conscientious objector, the fading Vietnam Vet father and any other stereotype you can stomach.


This doesn’t make Stop-Loss dreadful, just predictable. The moment you hear a commanding officer warn the troops about banned leave conduct – no drunk driving, no wife beating, no sex with underage partners – we recognize the various plot point beats the narrative is going to traverse. Sure enough, Tommy takes his car for an inebriated spin, while Steve’s gal pal suddenly sports a shiner. When combined with the other archetypes abounding (rebel yelling soon to be recruit, compassionate care-giving mother), we get a veritable cornucopia of cornball cinematic extremes. That Peirce manages to keep everything from swerving into parody or direct outrage is commendable. Yet the script by the director and Mark Richard keeps veering into easy answers and simplistic sentiments. In the end, we feel like we’ve witnessed all these war stories - both at home and on the front lines – before.


As for the acting, there is some reason to rejoice. While he’s typically been known as Reese Witherspoon’s ex, Ryan Philippe actually redeems himself as a serious performer – albeit of a decidedly MTV era bent. He looks less like a waifish pretty boy and more like a Lone Star soldier here. Equally engaging, though far more limited in range, is Channing Tatum. Best known for being the badass stud muffin in tween treats like Step Off, he certainly looks the part of a tattooed marksman. But when required to bring the big guns, dramatically speaking, he slips just a little. And while she may have a jailbait Charlize Theron look to her trailer trashiness, Abbie Cornish is a vapid, vacuous female lead. Among the underused and downright forgotten are Ciaran Hinds as Brandon’s worn warrior dad, Timothy Olyphant as the crusty CO, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the consistently tanked up Tommy, and a blink and you’ll miss it turn by Rosanne‘s Laurie Metcalf as a grieving mother.


In fact, the movie is more of an artillery based Abercrombie and Fitch road trip than a concise character study. There is no desire to dig deeper into these men, to see why a series of tours in a remote Arab land turns some young boys into fractured, failed men. Sacrifice is stressed, but not the lingering horrors of being a hired killer. Stop-Loss is not a movie of insight. Instead, it skirts most important issues in favor of more post-adolescent angst. Peirce falls into the typical motion picture parameters. She relies on musical montages, pop culture cues, and the standard shaky-cam suggestion of chaos. And since we don’t have more meaning to the events, we end up losing interest. No amount of pizzazz or flash can permeate the failed policies of George Bush and company, and since the movie only gives the Commander in Chief cursory criticism (and an “F” bomb beratement), its possible points become moot.


This renders Stop-Loss anticlimactic and average. While better than ball buster bravado like Redacted and Rendition, it can’t compete with more serious efforts like In the Valley of Elah. In fact, the film is very much like our mission in Iraq – poorly defined, jingoistic, and destined to be unpopular. While marketing may drive the 20 something demo into theaters, audiences with more life experience will scoff at the black/white pronouncements. It is clear that this war is taking a toll previously unfathomable to those who initiated it. But what’s also evident is that Stop-Loss – as a movie and as a course of action is a failure as well. 



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008

For an entire generation, the death of John Lennon resonates more clearly than the assassination of President Kennedy or the suicide of Kurt Cobain. As the peace and politics voice of arguably the most important musical act of the 20th century - The Beatles - the iconic man with the sad/sweet gaze paid a substantial price for his undeniable megafame. While returning to his home in New York’s swanky Dakota building on a December evening, a mentally unbalanced young man named Mark David Chapman pumped five bullets into his back. As he lay bleeding, a ruptured aorta sealing his fate, his killer pulled out a copy of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, silently reading until the police came.


Chapter 27, the long delayed indie film dramatization of these events, proposes to be a character study of Chapman, a look inside the scattered, soured mind that decided that John Lennon must die. It also features one of those notorious star stunt turns, a DeNiro/Raging Bull, Theron/Monster physical transformation by pretty boy emo band member Jared Leto. Packing on 60 pounds of purposeful bloat, and diving Method like into Chapman’s baffling brain (thanks, in part, to taped interviews that formed the basis of the film’s inspiration, the book Let Me Take You Down by Jack Jones), our lead wants to create a gripping portrait of insanity unleashed. Part of the time he’s semi successful. At other moments, it’s the same old schizo song and dance.


As the first feature from filmmaker J.P. Schaefer, there is a determined effort to make Chapman’s tale parallel the events as played out in Salinger’s book. The main plot point travails of adolescent antihero Holden Caufield - trip to New York, a night with a hooker, the ducks in Central Park - are intertwined with Chapman’s own obsessions to form one part of an intriguing paradigm. What drives a supposedly ‘normal’ person to destroy that which they admire requires an intricate, complex dissection, however. All Schaefer gives us are nonsensical pronouncements from a clearly sick mind. The use of Jones’ book offers its own limits, since it can’t give us the analysis necessary to figure out Chapman’s malfunction. It’s like listening to bad poetry from depressed tweens - not the ravings of the fatal lunatic fringe.


And then there is Leto’s performance. He doesn’t really play a character. Instead, he’s the physicality of Chapman fused with tired, tic-laden theatrics. It’s more like an animatronic version of the notorious madman than a flesh and blood portrait. It’s not just that Leto is restricted in what he can bring to the role. The script constantly shuffles him over into nutjob mode without ever allowing us to see the real Chapman inside (if one truly existed). Constantly being “on” renders much of Chapter 27 redundant. When we see our lead lumbering toward Lindsay Lohan (playing a ubiquitous fan named Jude), we just know their conversations are going nowhere. A last act confrontation with a photographer essayed by Judah Friedlander is equally anticlimactic.


No, Chapter 27 wants this entire experience to be one long Catcher tinged internal monologue, and Leto’s ersatz lisping narration (he is affecting an odd Southern drawl here) can grow grating at times. But because of the setting, the seedy back alley way in which Chapman went about his business, and the exterior element of a very public protest (the movie has been shelved since its 2007 Sundance debut for lack of a willing distributor), the film contains a morbid curiosity that can’t be helped. Call it a bow to our current tabloid mentality, but with his eerie resemblance to the famed shooter, Leto keeps our attention - at least until he starts rambling like a fool to any cab driver who will listen.


Schaefer is also his own worst enemy when it comes to directorial flourishes. First, he makes the big mistake of announcing Chapman and his intentions right up front. We get several foreboding flash forwards to the events that will lead to Lennon’s death. Had he hidden the fact that he was dealing with The Beatles’ infamous killer, and let the three day ordeal unravel organically, we’d have a much better dramatic arc. Similarly, by leaving the victim almost completely out of the picture (surely for legal and music catalog copyright reasons), we never feel Chapman’s fascination. The link to Catcher in the Rye is remote, and the voice over explanations ambiguous at best.


In fact, the real problems with Chapter 27 is it vagueness. Everyone here - Leto, Lohan, Friedlander - leaves us in the lurch, and nothing Schaefer does can save our confusion. While it may sound sick to say so, there is an innate allure to this story. We want to understand what happened, to get some insight into why this lowly schlub would take his failed ego fascinations out on a social symbol of a man. It remains the most captivating aspects of the assassin’s tale - and it’s the part that’s definitely missing here. To call Chapter 27 a failure would be a mistake. To call it worthy of the tragedy involved or the figure lost is also extremely shortsighted. Somewhere in the middle lies this less than impressive film.



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008


Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry - and sometimes separate - that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs period piece drama, Married Life, is so downright flat? Could it be that this filmmaker has finally found the one cinematic category - the noir-tinged whodunit - that defies matrimony’s easy explanations and illustrations?


Harry Allen is a decent guy. He works hard at his job. He’s successful in his career. He has good friends and solid personal relationships. If there’s a weak link in his life, it’s his dutiful wife Pat. Confiding in his drinking buddy and best pal Richard Langley, Harry lets the truth be known. His spouse is only interested in sex, and our harassed, henpecked hubby no longer enjoys the act. Instead, he wants a woman to cater to him, to literally take him in her arms and treat him like a pampered, vulnerable waif. Harry thinks he’s found his answer in the good natured Kay. She’s a young widow wise to the ways of the world. After Richard meets her, he decides to undermine his mate and make Kay his own. In the meantime, Harry can’t bring himself to leave his wife, so he decides the most compassionate way to end the marriage…is to kill her. Once it’s done, he can spend the rest of his life with Kay - that is, if Richard hasn’t moved in already.


If one scene were capable of saving an entire movie, Married Life would be a masterpiece. Indeed, Chris Cooper has one of those amazing actor moments when, just with his face and his reticent body language, we see one man’s entire life literally falling apart. It’s a seminal scene in the film, the culmination of a good 80 minutes of maneuvering, backstabbing, plotting, and preparation. Again, it’s also the only real sequence in the entire narrative, and since it’s clear that one Oscar worthy note can’t salvage an entire story, the rest of Married Life suffers. Indeed, this is the kind of well observed nostalgia that lumbers along like it’s the first feature to discover the sordid secrets of suburbia. Gasp! We’re supposed to stare in wide-eyed amazement as couples cheat, friends betray one another, and an everyday businessman kills his dog in a criminal “dry run” for his wife’s proposed demise.


Sachs makes many mistakes here, none more outrageous than turning Pierce Brosnan’s Richard Langley into one of the more unlikeable characters onscreen. It’s not that the actor is miscast or misguided, it’s just that this playboy lothario is quite the unforgivable lout. He can’t wait to undercut Harry, gives Pat more than a fleeting flirtatious glance (of course, we find out Mrs. Allen has her own pent up agenda), and instantly aims his amorous designs on the easily swayed Kay like a wounded wolf. He goes after each of these targets with a determination born out of entitlement, and barely excuses himself or his amoral actions. Naturally, Sachs makes him our narrator as well, so we have to suffer through many statements of justification and self-aggrandizement. None of it matters to us since there’s nothing to identify with. Langley is more or less an insufferable cipher.


Luckily, Cooper’s Harry Allen is more levelheaded and likeable. While it’s odd to hear a man beg off sex (the scene where the two friends discuss the issue strains for credibility), we tend to buy it here, especially after seeing how our hero reacts to being spoiled. Kay can be viewed in many ways, but she’s not the patsy the storyline plans. Instead, the performance by Rachel McAdams seems purposefully depressed, as if this career gal with a MIA military husband is simply picking up the pieces of what many could see as a shattered life. Dolled up like a Vertigo-era Kim Novak, she really sells the part.


That just leaves Patricia Clarkson as the last link in this lover’s quadrangle, and for the most part, she’s an equally ambiguous cause. Sachs is convinced that the best way to handle this Donna Reed red herring is to have her play every scene like she’s barely conscious. Pat is either asleep, getting ready to sleep, or waking up. In fact, one could argue that our director enjoys getting his ‘50s era details accurate more so than making his relationships meaningful or his characters memorable. This is sumptuous film, a ripped from Look Magazine illustration of Eisenhower era conservatism crippled by the linger desires of a frustrated populace. It’s the time of hats and gloves, three martini lunches and late nights at the office. The backdrop is a clear creative choice, since the murder mystery source material (a beloved book by John Bingham) is set in Europe and begins in the ‘30s.


Perhaps the lingering question here is one of motive. Why make this movie? What was so enthralling about the script that this particular story demanded the attentions of the talented cast assembled? Even better, what in Sachs limited resume indicated that he could pull this off with the necessary panache and perfectionism required? In many ways, Married Life is a Coen Brothers knock-off without a bit of the boys accomplishment or bravado. It wants to pay homage to films and filmmakers past, but can’t quite figure out how to make the references fit together. There will definitely be an audience for this kind of slow burn situational potboiler, but for many, there will be too much stagnancy and not enough sizzle. When a planned poisoning can’t ratchet up the suspense, there is something wrong with the equation - and Married Life just can’t get the calculations right.



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008


Romantic comedies are, by their very nature, saddled with two completely different sets of motion picture hurdles. First, the story needs to be quixotic, dealing with the emotional bond between two typically star-crossed individuals. If the chemistry or the charisma is not there, part of the filmic formula fails. Then there is the humor. While not needing to be outrageous or riotous, there should be a fairly consistent level of laughs. Both of these prerequisite issues come to bear when discussing the Simon Pegg vehicle Run, Fatboy, Run. Directed by ex-Friend David Schwimmer and co-written by The State‘s Michael Ian Black, what we have is an attempt to turns a sullen London slacker into a loveable determined dreamer. The movie only gets part of this right.


After leaving his pregnant fiancé at the altar, life has been tough for lingerie store security guard Dennis. He is constantly being harassed by a leggy transvestite, and his steady diet of beer, cigarettes, and take away has left him pudgy and out of shape. When he learns that his former betrothed, the lithe and nibble Libby, is now dating a new man, he sees green. When Whit, this suave American businessman starts coming between Dennis and his Lord of the Rings obsessed son Jake, he sees red. Learning that his rival is a marathon runner, our hero decides to throw his Keds into said arena as well. With help from his gambling addicted buddy Gordon, Dennis hopes to finish the race, impress Libby, and in the process, win back her heart. But Whit won’t go down without a fight - literally.


It’s hard to sum up what’s wrong with Run, Fatboy, Run. It boasts an impressive cast - Pegg, Thadie Newton, Hank Azaria, Dylan Moran - and some spirited cinematics from the noted Yank behind the camera. The script, which our UK cult comic also had a hand in, does a decent job of setting up the whole contention and challenge element while adding a few laugh out loud moments to the mix. We sympathize with Dennis, even though he’s a sod for leaving Libby like he did, and Whit comes across as both too good to be true and an easily taken down dunce. And the last act run is handled with style, even if some of the beats are as cliché as they come. So why doesn’t this film work better? Why does it appear as if, sometimes, Schwimmer is phoning it in - or worse - incapable of creating the aesthetic presence needed to make things gel?


Part of the problem is the plot. It’s hard to buy Pegg as such a coward or cad, especially since it looks like his case of cold feet turns into a raving psychosis within a matter of seconds. Next, Newton seems more sensible than to simply drop the man after her humiliation. She loves their son together, and wants nothing but the best for the boy. Helping Dennis turn his life around seems reasonable, especially since she’s got one of those unimaginably successful movie jobs (she owns a bustling bakery) that indicates a real lack of desperation. And Azaria adds very little as Whit except for suit and tie savoir fare. He’s not a compelling mate, nor does he do much except use materialism and power as a way of manipulating situations. Heck, even Moran’s betting problems seem tacked on from a different Guy Ritchie oriented effort.


Another issue is the ancillary characters. Pegg lives in the only basement flat in London run by a Bollywood poster boy. Harish Patel does his damnedest to overcome the rampant stereotyping (he has a nice scene in reminiscence of his late wife), but he’s stuck in a pile of Indian clichés as Mr. Ghoshdashtidar. Similarly, the criminal element out to get Dennis and Gordon seems stolen from the extras call for Eastern Promises. The amalgamation of accents and attitudes is occasionally off putting. Schwimmer does try to keep things light and airy, allowing times when Fatboy gets questionable to skate on by unscathed. Still, we remember the initial minor shock.


For all its faults however, this is a romantic comedy that works - if just barely. We want Newton and Pegg to get back together, to see the supposed passion they once shared. They are a smart couple. Azaria does just enough to make his villainy viable without overplaying his hand, and the wager subplot loses enough of its tacked on quality by the last 10 minutes so that it starts to actually matter. Indeed, what we wind up with is an effort that tugs at our heartstrings while we’re sitting back, scratching our often confused heads. We don’t get much of the logic or rationality here. We’re afraid to look beneath the surface to see if this entertainment emperor really has not clothes. In the end, we’re relieved to see that he’s at least outfitted in some running shoes and shorts.


Anyone coming to this film hoping to see the kind of celebrated comedic wit that made Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead such winners will definitely leave disappointed. In addition, this is not a soaring love story like those witnessed in such quasi-classics as Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally. In some ways, Run, Fatboy, Run is a post-modern generation’s interpretation of a revisionist rom-com. It does away with some of the genre’s truisms while taking embracing a few too many. It fails to be full-on funny or five hanky weepy. In the end, we get a sometimes solid, frequently uneven mixture of jokes and underplayed emotion. It’s clear that Schwimmer has a career behind the camera. Perhaps next time he should pick sounder material. Fatboy is too fragile to withstand much scrutiny.



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Thursday, Mar 27, 2008
by Robin Cook

At Austin’s legendary Waterloo Records, Elf Power treated patrons to a lively in-store performance, with songs from their newest album, In a Cave (Rykodisc). Before their set, band leader Andrew Rieger talked about Elf Power’s history, their place in the great Elephant 6 cosmos, and their new sustainable housing project.—Robin Cook



Tagged as: elf power, interview, sxsw
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