Thursday, April 24, 2008


Advocacy films are tough to critique. They can be terribly written, directed and acted, but if they raise awareness for a little known tidbit of tyranny or injustice does that boost their merit? That's the question the recently released Stop-Loss has raised for me.

Its moral and social implications aside, Stop-Loss did not work for me as a piece of art or entertainment. I get the feeling the writers and producers became aware of Stop-Lossing (the act of extending soldiers' active duty without their consent), and decided to get a film out as quickly as possible. The acting is hit-and-miss, and Channing Tatum (of the "Step Up" series of dance films) is just not up to the challenge of this material at this point in his career. He gets a few teary moments right, but his performance seems rushed and forced. It may not all be his fault because the writing just seems to chug along with uninspired lines, resting on cliche and unearned twists to forward the narrative.

The film begins in Iraq with a tense scene at a military checkpoint. The passenger of a fast-approaching vehicle opens fire, and the vehicle speeds off, at which point Sgt. Brandon King (played by Ryan Phillippe) issues the order to give chase. They end up trapped in a narrow alley, and in this, the film's most effective scene, you get a sense for the madness of this kind of war. King comments on this later-that he expected war would be fought in the open against clearly defined bad guys, but it isn't. The war is fought in people's homes, and the enemy could be anyone.

Two soldiers are killed in the battle, and Brandon blames himself for their deaths feeling that he led the men into a trap. He also carries guilt for another split-second decision he made in the heat of battle-the consequences of which are shown later in a flashback scene.

Upon returning home, he decides to retire from active duty and move on with his life. The clerk tells him that he has been stop-lossed, and must report back to Iraq soon. Haunted by guilt and post-traumatic stress, Brandon cannot bear the weight of leadership in the circumstances mentioned above, so he goes AWOL. The movie follows him as he seeks a way out of redeployment.

The problem with this kind of journey is that it is not necessarily good movie material, so writer/director Peirce feels compelled to add twists and turns in order to make it more entertaining. Every bad thing can and does happen- a barroom brawl that comes out of nowehere, a theft that King just happens to notice at the right moment in order to chase down the perpetrators, and the coincidental appearance of a sweater at the bottom of a pool prompting King to think one of his men is drowning. All these events could work, but they are not adequately prepared for. Again it feels like you are watching a first or second draft.

Upon a closer look at the social issue itself, it gets a bit muddy. Soldiers sign an eight year contract. The contract stipulates that the government can, at any time, require their service in a time of war. Stop-Loss, then, is not a backdoor draft, but just the act of holding the soldier to his word. Now, of course, the issue gets muddy in the current situation because of the dubious nature of the Iraq War. It does then bring up a pertinent question: if we are a nation at war, then why aren't there more of us fighting it? The film also has one other thing going for it: MTV films picked up distribution, which means a younger target market. So the film may be effective in making young men and women stop and ask the question, "Should I become a soldier in light of all this?"

Peter Travers said this film was a powderkeg and that the scene at the film's heart, a graveyard fight between Phillippe's character and Channing Tatum's, is effective. While I agree that this film raises some interesting questions, this scene in particular was not convincing in the least and encapsulated my problem with the film as a whole: if you're going to cover a topic you feel strongly about, why not do it justice?

** out of *****
Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive language.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Our youth pastor has been getting promotional info on Ben Stein's Expelled (his new documentary that attempts to show how modern science is acting like a religion in its dogmatic dismissal of Intelligent Design), and whenever a big movie starts targeting churches like that, I get the heebiejeebies.

Before I continue, let me say that I think there is some truth to Stein's claim. I think if scientists did a bit more history homework they'd realize that the church isn't always the ones responsibile for dogmatic support of one side of issues. Science has been guilty of this as well (see the current debate of Neodarwinism vs. Punctuated Equilibrium or the old debate between Edison vs. Tesla, etc.). Nonetheless, just because Stein may have something to this claim, its presentation and the way he's marketing the film give me pause.

Whatever we may think about the movie itself, Mel Gibson employed the same strategy of appealing to churches with The Passion of the Christ to lucrative effect. He made 1000% profit off that film. I'm not necessarily questioning his motives, but the question is-if you market yourself to the choir, what is your aim? Education or ensuring you have an audience? It's a good business move, but is it really a good meanse of raising awareness?

I have not seen a recent "issue" documentary, from Jesus Camp to Inconvenient Truth to even one of the most entertaining films of last year-the King of Kong-that has not succumbed to misrepresentation and manipulation to prove points (except Paper Clips and a very unknown film Dear Francis).

You'd think it would be harder to lie with video than with words in a book, but that is rapidly being proven false. Since Michael Moore purposefully and willfully misrepresented events, people and chronologies in Bowling For Columbine in order to convey his point (whatever it was), so many directors have taken to the documentary as the perfect medium to make money and raise awareness FOR THEIR CAREERS instead of the subject matter they supposedly feel so passionately about.

I actually want to make a documentary myself. I want to call it Schlockumentary: The Art of Using the Truth to Tell Lies.
My aim would be to attack this recent spate of documentaries that have turned the genre into one-sided diatribes that have no honest intent to arrive at truth. Their goal is to be entertaining and to be watched, consequences to fact and truth be damned.

Now it may seem hypocritical for me to talk about making a documentary after decrying it as a medium, but in substance the medium itself is fine when it is not manipulated to meet the expectations of your target audience and molded into a nice Arisotelian plot arc even when the subject takes a dramatic down- turn in real life.

Anyway-Expelled seems to me to be the same animal. I predict that it will only muddy the already murky waters of honest debate over evolution even more. There's good information out there to be had (see Talk Origins for the evolution side, and listen to local Pastor Nic Gibson's phenomenal analysis from a Christian perspective -Click on the two talks on evolution and biblical authority links), and if people want to honestly debate it, maybe we could get somewhere. But I feel that movies like this merely make the dividing lines more pronounced, and even people who know better end up succumbing to name-calling and diatribe as a result.

More Favorites from 2007

Hot Fuzz

While most fans of the Frost, Pegg and Wright triumvirate prefer Shawn of the Dead, I had a lot more fun with this film. While it may not have much to say on a deeper level, the movie was one of my most entertaining movie-going experiences this year.

I’ve heard some critics fault the film because it didn’t fully comment on the action genre in the same way Shawn commented on the zombie genre, but I don’t know if that was the goal with this film. It was a genre-bender: blending action, buddy comedy, slasher and mystery elements.

I could do without the added hiccup twist at the end, but the film’s climax has to be one of the best comic/action moments of recent years, and the film is home to some of the best one-liners of the year.

Oscar worthy? In my opinion it was definitely better than Michael Clayton, but it didn’t deal with the issues ;)

Rescue Dawn

Most critics let this one go upon viewing the seemingly tacked-on and forced conclusion, but this shouldn’t distract from yet another fantastic effort by the underappreciated Bale. This is the second time he has radically altered his appearance to the point of endangering his health, and still, for some reason, the academy thought that George Clooney was more compelling playing a less interesting character this year than the one that got him an Oscar nod for Syriana. Politics pure and simple? That’s the only credible answer I can figure.

In addition to providing Bale with a great part, this film also gave Steve Zahn a chance to go beyond his traditional role as the goofy comic relief for something far deeper. The guy really has talent, and with this role under his belt maybe we’ll get to see him a lot more.

Oscar Worthy? Yes-Christian Bale-Best actor nomination without a doubt. Should he have beaten Daniel Day Lewis? I’ll leave the actors to decide that one. I don’t know; I thought Day Lewis’ Plainview was a bit over the top, but maybe I just didn’t get it.
Best supporting nomination could have gone to Steve Zahn. Should he have gotten it over Javier Bardem? Not a chance.

Amazing Grace

This one was a good education for me on British abolition. I reviewed the film earlier (you can read the original review at Ford's Film Reviews). My enthusiasm for the film has cooled a bit upon reflection (and upon reading some less-than complimentary reviews that brought up some justifiable criticisms). I still stand by the film as a solid representation of one man’s fight against a cruel institution, and as such, it stands in stark relief to the glut of biopics that have little more to say than fame is dangerous.

Oscarworthy? Probably not on any definable level. There’s nothing overt or subtle enough about this film to commend it in such a competitive field.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Aside from being a top nominee for the list of longest movie titles in history, this movie created no special stir in critics’ circles this year, garnering lukewarm praise at best. But the critics can have their oilbath with Their Will Be Blood, and I’ll settle for this picture. This isn’t to say this film works better than Blood, but I was much more interested in the characters here by far. Andrew Dominik decided to write his characters as 3 dimensional entities as opposed to one note blood vessel bursting screamers (i.e., PT Anderson’s Plainview and Paul Sunday). Not only does Casey Affleck further his up-and-coming dominance, but the film is filled with first-rate performances. Gary Dillahunt, who stole scenes as Tommy Lee Jones’ plucky sidekick in No Country for Old Men, is just as good here in a vastly different role.

Brad Pitt’s performance is good on the whole and downright creepy in places. He probably doesn’t get enough credit for his acting. One could contend that he overplays his material sometimes, but he really hits certain moments with his heart, and I find him effective.

I had some problems with the cinematography at times. I could have gone without the repeated blurring of the corners of the frame. I suppose it was there for artistic effect, but I just found it pretentious and distracting. Deakins’ camerawork at other points of the film really is magnificent, however.

The story was engaging, for some reason drawing parallels for me with last year’s Hollywoodland, a film I also recommend. Both are depressing, but they get certain emotions and themes right on the nose. In this film I felt a profound sympathy with te characters. I felt like I could honestly relate to Robert Ford nad his motivations and uncertainties at times. I like movies that act like a mirror, reflecting those inner fears and temptations that I sometimes overlook or am oblivious to. This movie did that for me.

On the Oscar front-the film was up for Best Cinematography, but lost to There Will Be Blood, and justifiably so. There Will Be Blood was filmed with more restraint and precision. It’s too bad that someone like Dillahunt doesn’t even get a second look for supporting actor, even if he only appeared in a few scenes. The guy was fantastic, but that’s how the Oscars go. He’ll win one in a few years for something else as a reward for the street-cred he earned this year, probably for a performance that pales before these.