Sunday, July 13, 2008

DVD: Stop-Loss

What if you thought your sentence was served and you got pulled back in?

That's the question posed in Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss and the sentence is another tour of duty in Iraq after you've been told you would be discharged.

Brandon King returns to his Texas small town glad to be out only to learn that he's been stop-lossed. What had been a celebration quickly becomes a nightmare.

Under Peirce's direction in Boys Don't Cry, Chloe Sevigny was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award and Hilary Swank won Best Actress. So it's not surprise that Peirce's second film features the strongest performances for any of the actors to date.

As Brandon, Ryan Phillipe moves from teen idol to actual actor in the lead role, finding levels you'd never guessed he possessed. IVAW's Martin Smith didn't like the movie.

Maybe you won't either. In his review ["Stop-Loss: All the wrong conclusions" (IVAW)], Smith faults the film for many things including not being about Iraq, not focusing more on the White House, not having Camilo Mejia (or a character based upon Mejia) as Brandon's best friend, "subtle Islamophobia," and "pro-war rhetoric."

We await his review of Iron Man and hope he holds the 'redemption' of the War Criminal lead to the same standards.


Ava and C.I. note the following:

* Scope: "The scope Smith wants is nearly impossible in a feature film. That sort of scope is exactly why A Bright and Shining Lie never made it to the big screen and ended up on HBO. David Lean died in 1991 and no one else could pull off that sort of broad vista/canvas approach. As Jane Fonda -- who tried to steer film production of A Bright and Shining Lie for many years -- noted, Coming Home told the story of the homefront during Vietnam, Platoon told what it was like over there and A Bright and Shining Lie told the 'how' of the US starting that war. There's only so much landscape a film of 110 minutes can deliver."

* Islamophobia: "Iraqis are not characters in the film. The film is only briefly in Iraq at the beginning and later returns are via flashbacks. We missed the call to Muslim prayer preceding one incident of violence and we'll assume some others did as well. Even with it being pointed out, we do not see the connection between the two anymore than we would see a ringing church bell in Assassins as an indictment of Christianity. We see it as atmosphere. While the scene with two women and a child as the US military barges into a home can be seen as 'an indictment of war,' we'd argue there are many more such scenes throughout -- both in Iraq (such as when Brandon shoots the resistance fighter and kills both him and a small child) and in the US. The Iraqis are portrayed as that group of soldiers encounters them. The bulk of the film takes place in the US and, in terms of film conventions, the only way to get a storyline (briefly) going would have been an affair of some sort (contemplated or consummated) between an Iraqi and a US soldier. That's a whole other movie."

* "Pro-war rhetoric:" Film is a visual medium and captures a great deal in visuals as well as words. The tension at the table in the bar when violence in Iraq is being discussed is clearly bothering some -- including Brandon's mother Ida (Linda Emond). Is Ida pro-war? Is it not Ida, before Brandon leaves his hometown, who suggests her son go to Mexico instead of returning to Iraq? What about Michelle (played by the amazing Abbie Cornish)? Is she pro-war? Is her decision to help Brandon go on the lam pro-war? Is it just the reaction of some woman really pissed off that she's not getting married? Is that why she sells her car to raise money for Brandon? Wow. Wait 'till she realizes the years she wasted on Steve don't just mean no marriage, it means motherhood's been delayed too! Thank goodness she wasn't on her period -- she might not have stopped in NYC and just decided to storm the border crossing into Canada. The film is set in a small town and the prove-your-manhood undercurrent is obvious throughout. That the three main male characters are products of that town is surprising how? The women's reactions -- verbal and non-verbal -- provide the dissent throughout. It's not with pride that a widow's reluctantly taking a flag handed to her at a funeral. The film is set in Texas and Texas has had a huge number of men and women enlist from small towns. (They've also had a huge number of wounded in Iraq -- 2,915, second only to California.) Outside of Steve and Tommy (Brandon's fellow soldiers and friends), the only pro-war rhetoric we noticed was at the parade (was Medea Benjamin supposed to show up yelling "No More Blood For Oil!"?) and when the soldiers were around their male, non-enlisted friends. Again, it goes to the undercurrent of the town. When Brandon, at a funeral, says he failed and offers the example of the soldiers who died serving under him, is that supposed to be pro-war because many people find the blame Brandon's taking on (which is not his blame) to be heart-ripping? Was the self-checkout who gives Brandon the name of a lawyer who can help him get to Canada offering pro-war rhetoric? Steve's yelling out 'We're over there killing 'em in Iraq, so we don't have to kill them in Texas' is perfectly in keeping with the character (who is not bright and has no future, as he more or less admits to Michelle) and it's interjected when the people at the parade expect Brandon to make them feel good about the illegal war and he can't. It's a stupid statement and it and the reaction it prompts from the crowd is very telling about that town and about people's refusal to believe reality."

* Camilo Mejia as a friend: "We think the whole world would benefit from having Camilo Mejia as a friend (and that's not sarcasm, we're serious). But if Camilo were Brandon's best friend on screen (or a Camilo-like character), wouldn't audiences be asking, 'Wait, why isn't that the story being told?' Camilo has had a fascinating life long before he enlisted (and will continue to have one). A best friend in many films of another era was Eve Arden. She was cast so often because she could get laughs and invest enough in a role that wasn't supposed to overshadow the lead but still manage to entertain audiences. The wisdom that Camilo could impart to Brandon would not come in one brief scene. Brandon would be resistant. Camilo would have to be a Yoda in such a role and that's an entirely different film. This film is about human emotions, human costs. Brandon King is the lead character. In a film of this scope, such a role would come from the romantic interest -- such as Jerry McGuire. Brandon has no love interest. That was a brave choice for Mark Richard and Peirce to make (the screenwriters) because it would have been so much easier for some audiences if Michelle and Brandon had become a couple. It also would have undercut the effectiveness of the film with some audiences who would have pinned his decisions off on 'the girl.' Instead, Brandon has to own all of his decisions." Leaving aside the Syd Field 'school' of screenwriting (we're not fans of cookie cutter, by the number scripts), all scripts have a dramatic break early on for the lead character. It's what spins the whole story. If Camilo were Brandon's friend, the break Brandon makes when told he's being stop-lossed would be far less dramatic."

*Spoiler: "Brandon's decision to return to Iraq after Tommy is buried plays out like suicide. We're not seeing that as pro-war. Even before the title card show up listing the number of people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the number who have died (and noting there are no figures released on how many of the dead were stop-lossed), the suicide tone is there. Steve has told him that Brandon kept people alive in Iraq. Brandon has told him -- and pushed his head at a tombstone -- that he's going to die over there. Following that moment, they both leave shaking their heads. Ida and Michelle then go with Brandon, headed to Mexico. He stops the car and says if he goes to Mexico he can never see the farm again. When they are back at the farm and he starts packing up, it's not a celebration. The mood is grim and remains so until the very end when he bumps shoulders with Steve and, even then, neither smiles. The camera than pans across the bus onto the faces of others headed to Iraq. We don't see glee or excitement. The choices made for those shots, including the angles, are part of the story. Even the most optimistic movie goer can only believe 'maybe' Brandon will make it out alive because don't movies always show us the happy ending? And that's before the title cards start listing the figures. Brandon's going against everything he's been taught and believed in when he's AWOL. The tragedy -- and the story is a tragedy -- is that he can only go so far, from point A to B. We certainly don't agree with his decision at the end of the film and we think some watching will feel it was death sentence. 'Why?' is the question they will ask. The 'why' is in keeping with his character so the question, for those who explore it, goes to the larger 'why' of the illegal war. Show don't tell. That's film. That's our take on it, your opinion and reaction are valid or we wouldn't provide a link to the piece you wrote. We happen to strongly disagree. However, we encourage you to take the movie you wanted to see and put it on paper. It could be filmed and, in a country that focuses way too little on the ongoing illegal war, we would certainly line up and pay to see it."

Rebecca and Ty note, "Eye-candy on parade!" Seriously. (And Ava and C.I. were the first to insist that the statement stays in.) A drunken Steve (Channing Tatum) is digging a ditch in Michelle's front yard in nothing but "skivvies, loose-fitting ones, lots of bun shots and bouncy-bouncy in the y-front" (Rebecca). For a movie with no sex scene, there's a lot of eye candy going on for the lovers of the male form. (Ty notes to check out the bun shots during Brandon and Steve's fight in the grave yard.)

For lovers of good acting, go somewhere else. There's no good acting in Stop-Loss. "Good" is too mild a term. Ava and C.I. are always reluctant to credit a director with too much but when everyone involved (including Timothy Olyphant) give the strongest performances of their careers, you have to credit Peirce who knows how to bring out the best in actors.

And with Stop-Loss, she proves she can handle a big budget film. In only her second feature length movie, Peirce delivers as a director. This isn't a "I've made my mark, now let me tell what happened to me when I was young man story." She completely bypasses the sophomore slump and that's amazing when you start adding up the scenes she's shooting in terms of location and detail.

But most of all, Stop-Loss is a compelling movie that essays what happens when one person tries to make a break from everything told and taught -- and told and taught to do now. Like life, some movies don't have happy endings. The DVD offers eleven deleted scenes (which none of us have viewed, we haven't looked at any of the special features), a making-of featurette, commentary by director Peirce and her co-writer Mark Richard and "A Day in Boot Camp." Our DVDs (which were gifts and not purchased in a store) did not contain a booklet inside or even a single page that would note other releases. We're not sure that's true of all copies.

Moments we take away from the film? Michelle playing pool with a disabled veteran, Michelle at the bar doing shots of tequila, Brandon on the phone trying to reach a US Senator who won't take his call, Brandon always trying to make everything right (including following a bar fight), Tommy's funeral and Ida's face throughout the film.
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