Saturday, March 29, 2008

Big studio films on "issues", sort of: "Stop-Loss" "21"

Well, at least two major studios this weekend showed they were interested in releasing big budget films that can make meaningful statements about major issues, and still try to draw the big crowds in the suburban mall multiplexes rather than depend on arthouses for “serious fare.” This is most welcome, even if neither film is completely successful.

Paramount, along with MTV, offers “Stop-Loss” (directed by Kimberly Peirce) which refers to the Bush administration policy of forcing military personnel to stay in the armed forces (usually the Army) past their enlistment contracts and return to deployment, usually to Iraq. (Wiki entry). According to the end credits, through 2007. 650000 soldiers had served in Iraq, and 85000 had been stop-lossed. The legalities of this practice (in the enlistment contract) are of some controversy. Along with this has gone multiple deployments and extended deployments, even of Reserve and Guard units. This is said to have been necessitated by the lack of conscription, and the film makes that point (about the "back door draft"). The film shows graphic fire-fights in Baghdad or other Iraqi cities (it was actually shot in Morocco) in the opening, and then in flashbacks later, and shows the wounded soldiers from “anti-hero” Brandon King ‘s (a very grown up Ryan Phillippe – a long way from getting in to Studio “54” – and remember Breckin Meyer in that movie?) squad after the fact, with horrific effect. (I don’t know if these are real, or were done with CGI; compare to the documentary “Fighting for Life” reviewed here March 20). And the movie shows how the soldiers remain bonded together (they are in bad shape) in “unit cohesion” even when back in Texas. They do not live for themselves the way upper middle class people do, and that again makes a moral point, about the unevenness of “sacrifice”. The film does not question our motives for being in Iraq.

I did find the AWOL sequence (and all the complications that follow) a bit hard to believe, and wondered what it would be like to be the Lieutenant Srhiver (Channing Tatun) who is supposed to bring him back. We don’t get to like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Burgess) like we want to. The movie has the strict three-part structure, and is organized around the real compelling end (beating the Stop-Loss), and the ending might be a let-down for some viewed. The movie is 1.85:1, and could use a bigger look.

Columbia offers the libertarianesque topic of casino card counting (for Blackjack) in "21", a film by Robert Luketic. (Yup, you have to be good with numbers. The promotional title was the prosaic "21: The Movie.") Columbia opened with its rising torch-lady fanfare, and takes real ownership of the film (with Relativity Media and Trigger Street). The film looks grand in 2.35:1 and recalls the Oceans movies. Now, counting cards is controversial in that it seems to try to changing gambling into a “deterministic game” like chess, although it takes a team with coded steganographic signals. Since it is legal, casinos must use “private’ (the libertarian word) schemes to break it up. In the movie, that includes hired thugs; in real life, it would mean hiring other systems people to implement systems and controls to defeat it.

The movie, though supposedly based on a true story about MIT, is quite “3-act” plot driven. (I guess multiplex movies have to be “plot-driven”; ask any Hollywood agent who reads spec scripts.) It depends on making you like math nerd Ben Campbell, played well by the most wholesome and likeable British actor (talking American) Jim Sturgess. (Yes, he just has to “dazzle” the Dean someday to earn his med school scholarship; he just has to win his money and, like Miss Scarlet, get it all back once he loses it.) Celebrating his 21st birthday near the beginning without getting bashed, he is brilliant, but instead of being a nerd lost in his own world, he is quite sociable and his own ego grows during the story. He seems like a Clark Kent without the “powers”; maybe the character Sam (Jared Padalecki) in Supernatural makes a good comparison, as that “bookworm pre-law” character grows more assertive and “action-oriented” in successive episodes of the popular series. He seems like the perfect son, the ultimate reward for two decades of parenting. I have to say that Sturgess, in this film, looks, talks an acts so much like a college student that I met in Minneapolis through the LPMN (which used to have its spring conventions at Mystic Lake Casinos), that the resemblance is totally uncanny. I wonder if it’s not a coincidence.

What I think would be interesting would be a movie (or television series on, say, CWTV, or perhaps HBO or Showtime) where a Sturgess-like character goes through the process of competing to make it in Hollywood. There are lots of “stories” of real life actors. I have a particular script treatment called “Make the A List” where the protagonist promotes his career by “exploiting” a situation of a much older person who underwent a mysterious calamity a few decades ago, with ramifications still being felt today. Maybe an alternate working title could be “laugh a little, cry a little.”

Update: April 22

USA Today story on "stop-loss" policy in Army is discussed here.

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