movies I’ve seen

I cried several times during Stop-Loss. I usually hate war movies, but something about this one really moved me. I’ve talked to a couple of friends who hated it—one even walked out—but it really got to me.

We’re introduced to a group of friends/soldiers, including:

  • Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) – the leader and All-American guy
  • Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) – goofy, sniper-caliber second-in-command who’s a little too impulsive
  • Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – the guys’ underdog-y friend
  • Rico Rodriguez (Victor Rasuk) – a cocky, handsome big talker

Things go wrong during a really tense and horrific mission and several members of King’s squad are killed or injured, but luckily, they’re all being sent home soon. For Brandon and Steve, this is the end of their tours of duty, and they talk about what they’ll do back in “the real world.”

We see them readjusting to being home, including Steve’s strained relationship with fiancé Michele (Abbie Cornish, an outstanding performance) and the way they all seem to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Tommy gets drunker and drunker, picks a fight and gets thrown out by his wife (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter. She doesn’t get to do much acting other than an okay crying scene and has a strange face.); Steve strips down to his underwear, hits Michele and digs a foxhole in her front yard.

Brandon’s able to hold them together, though, and they all go back to base where our two main heroes expect to get out. It all goes to hell when Brandon discovers he’s been stop-lossed, i.e. involuntarily forced to extend his tour of duty, which could be up to 11 more years.

He resists and escapes custody and has to decide if he’ll submit to what he considers an unfair policy or if he’ll live the rest of his life as a fugitive. His father wants him to return; his mother (the awesome Linda Emond) offers to drive him over the border herself. The rest of the film details his attempts, aided by Michele, to get someone to help him fight this.

Along the way, they stop at the house of one of the soldiers killed in the combat we witnessed at the beginning of the film and they learn, from the angry brother of the dead soldier, about a lawsuit some soldiers are bringing against the Army. Laurie Metcalf plays the grieving mother but I didn’t recognize her for a full five minutes after she first came onscreen—that’s how much she disappears into this role: no goofiness, no Jackie-ism.

As Brandon and Michele move towards Washington D.C. then New York, they encounter thieves, fellow fugitives and even sympathetic friends while Brandon deals with his own PTSD.

They stop at a veterans’ hospital where Rico, horribly injured in the opening combat, has been brought from overseas, courtesy of Brandon’s request. He’s missing his legs and an arm; his eyes have been damaged so that they’re silvery and unseeing. Still, he retains his spirit as he flirts with Michele and has a man-to-man talk with Brandon about the unfairness of the stop-loss policy. Rasuk handles his scenes amazingly, never lapsing into self-pity, but still managing to show that his cocky, jokey character is concealing enormous depths of pain.

Still, he says, if he were able, he would go back over to rejoin his brothers in arms—and if he were to be killed, at least his family would get green cards. That tension—the fact that these young men know they’re in harm’s way and could die at any time, but still love the feeling of brotherhood and purpose the Army gives them—gives the film its most powerful angle.

It’s definitely not an anti-war or anti-military movie—it’s very pro-soldier, as clichéd as that might sound. Kimberly Peirce knows that these soldiers all have different reasons for signing up and staying (Steve gives up his chance to marry Michele to have a career in the Army because he has more of a future there, for example), and it doesn’t judge them.

Everything ends on a powerful, ambivalent note, where Brandon faces the ultimate decision: give up his life and all his family and friends in exchange for freedom in Canada or Mexico, or return to his duty and possibly die under fire, or end up more emotionally, psychologically (and physically) damaged than he already is.

I won’t spoil the ending, but there’s a moment at the end where Brandon’s mother, faced with his decision, puts on a brave face, only to have it crumble at the last second as she turns away, devastated. A little moment like that, showing the emotional fallout suffered by the families of the soldiers, sticks with you long after the film’s over—these are real men and women with real lives facing the unthinkable.

The movie’s considerable power for me stemmed from its focus on the characters themselves. Most impressive of all was Abbie Cornish as Michele, the small-town girl who reaches the end of her patience for being a military “wife.” She regrets lacking the necessary strength to share her husband and life with the Army, but she faces her altered destiny with a clear-eyed bravery and courage that I found the most inspiring of all. Slow to speak, deep-voiced and unshakeable, Michele was the character I most admired of them all—a quintessential American who, although she never enlists herself, finds her life, friends, town and prospects shaped by the presence and the need for—good and bad—the armed services.

I read a comment online that claimed this movie glamorizes desertion. It doesn’t. It puts a human face on a handful of soldiers caught in a horrible situation.

Boys Don’t Cry was one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen. This one doesn’t have quite the same strength, but it’s in the same vein and I highly recommend this movie.

Visit the movie’s website and its website that shares soldiers’ (and their families’) real stories.

boleynIn real life, Anne Boleyn was a brave, intelligent woman who had the audacity to speak her mind, and the misfortune to live at a time when the full extent of her gifts had to be used for political intrigues to boost her family’s (and her own) prestige and power. You know, instead of running the country herself, which she would have probably done a good job of, despite her huge unpopularity (stemming in great part from the rampant antifeminism of the time), she had to settle for manipulating a fickle, pampered king. (Mom?)

The movie, The Other Boleyn Girl, presents Anne as a shrewd and ruthless woman with limitless ambition, but without focusing on the full range of her impact and intelligence. (Sexual power games do play better on the big screen than religious reform.) Her sister, the forgotten-to-history Mary Boleyn, here (as in the Philippa Gregory book, which I didn’t love) is presented as more a woman of the times: kinder and simpler and perfectly happy to abide by the king’s whims. Through their alternating rising and falling fortunes, Anne’s betrayals of Mary and Mary’s devotion to Anne, a picture of Tudor life in Henry VIII’s court emerges.

It’s a fascinating time, one that changed history forever (thanks, in great part, to the machinations of Anne, born out of a lifelong interest in religious reform acquired in the French court and also the universal-in-the-Tudor-world desire for power), but the movie doesn’t quite have the enormous emotional impact it could have, based on the subject matter. Hell, Anne is destroyed in the end by the corrupt system she rose to rule: betrayed by her family, her husband and her society, she’s beheaded in front of a crowd that includes Mary. This should be the stuff of epic drama. Instead, it’s sad, but in a “Mom, do you have a Kleenex? After this, let’s go to Chick-Fil-A” type way.

Playing the sisters, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson are both great, and I think the film will go a long way in adding luster to their careers. Visually, they’re a great match: Portman’s dark intelligence vs. Johansson’s more dreamy-eyed blonde, and the script gives them some excellent back-and-forths. Their scenes together are the best in the film.

That said, I think that Natalie Portman had an impossible task, and although I loved her in the movie, the challenge of truly channeling a maligned, misunderstood historical figure is a little bit too much. A great deal of that is probably the movie’s attempts to stay accessible to all audiences–with more of a glossy surface approach, there’s not many opportunities for her to disappear into the character. Although you feel for her (especially during a horrible rape scene, her trial and her final scene), it’s hard to forget that you’re watching Natalie Portman.

Scarlett Johansson fares better, probably because of how, lost to history, Mary Boleyn is pretty much a fictional construct. Quiet and emotionally complex, she internalizes everything around her instead of firing off sharp bon mots like Anne, and this mystery makes all the difference. Johansson’s is the performance of the film, and my respect for her (one of my favorite actresses) increased tenfold after seeing it. As we left the theater, my friend and I were discussing how she almost seemed to physically look different than she normally does–she truly becomes a living, breathing character different from her 21st century self.

Eric Bana’s hot, yes, and looks good shirtless, boffing ScarJo and wearing the shoulder-padded linebacker-y clothes, but this isn’t his story. Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic as the strong-minded mother of the Boleyn girls, who comments (a little anachronistically, but thankfully) on the action from a feminist viewpoint. And whoever played Katherine of Aragaon: could that Penelope Cruz-accented-broad ever monologue! (It’s all she speaks in.) And the costumes are amazing–I wish women today wore the same headbands/crowns/tiaras that they do in the flick. I wish I wore them!

While I really enjoyed the movie, it suffered from the same problem so many other historical epics do: not trusting the real story to be interesting enough on its own terms. Instead of showing the real Anne, an intensely polarizing figure of her time who nonetheless exercised amazing power in England and abroad, it presents us a simpler version: the rise and fall of a scheming vixen. 

 Tudor England was definitely a difficult place to be a strong woman, and I applaud the woman-positive slant the movie takes. There’s a fire in Mary’s eyes after Anne dies, and she grabs her baby and marches towards the camera, hellbent on escaping the court, and it ends on a lovely, forward-looking note that vindicates Anne. After showing the fates of several of the main characters, it ends with a shot of children playing in a field and a sentence like this: “Henry did have an heir, who would rule for 45 years: the strong, red-haired daughter Anne gave him: Elizabeth.” Nice.

Anne herself is a more than worthy mother to her more-famous daughter. She lived in times that were harsh to all women, especially ones who attempted to affect change, but one of the most amazing things about Anne is that she did what few have truly done–successfully pulled off a revolution.

So, while I liked the movie a lot, the other “Other Bolyen Girl” is the one who’s the most interesting: the real-life Anne Boleyn.

jessicaI like Jessica Simpson. I have a huge soft spot for her, and I hesitate to even type a title like this, but you’ve got to call ’em like you see ’em. (Which means I should technically write “Joe Simpson vs. Feminism.”)

No bones about it: Blonde Ambition is bad. You knew that, though. You’ve no doubt heard about how it opened in a handful of Texas theaters and barely scraped together $6,422.

My friend Z and I rented it last night. Jessica deserved better.

I’ve seen almost everything she’s appeared in, cinematically: Dukes of Hazzard, Employee of the Month, There Will Be Blood. She has a definite charm about her, a likability that could be used very effectively.

Could be, that is.

Too often, the grasping hand of manager Papa Joe Simpson sabotages his daughter, and cheap-looking, piece-of-trash Blonde Ambition is no exception (the Photoshopped cover is a leftover from her A Public Affair album cover shoot). Will he be content until he’s ruined any goodwill fans have for her?

Jessica could be good in movies; she just needs the right project and the right people who will help show her in the best light possible. I want nothing more than for her to prove this. Alas, that wasn’t the case here.

Some observations:

  • Luke Wilson looks bloated and scruffy/homeless. (As opposed to scruffy/cute.) Plus, he looks at least 20 years older than Jess. He played this role before in Legally Blonde…he (and the production) barely rate above dinner theater.
  • Jessica’s lipstick and hair are outrageous. There’s never a scene where she looks like a real person–instead, she’s got a billion billowy extensions and an unbelievable amount of hot scarlet lipstick slathered on, even when relaxing at home. Her lipstick changes, color, too: to match a coral-colored raincoat, she gets a bright orange mouth. TOO MUCH MAKEUP! (And, hey, I like drag queens!)
  • The script is groaningly stupid, giving Jessica no character to play. She goes through the typical romantic comedy tropes (She lies to the man she loves! He lies to her! He has to run to catch her at the end when he realizes he loves her!) but everything (from the opening credits that look like I designed them on a Tandy to the numerous green screen “effects”) just looks so cheap and generic that it’s a shock no one noticed beforehand.
  • Speaking of which, good actors (Penelope Ann Miller, Rachel Leigh Cook, Larry Miller) and bad-but-known actors (Andy Dick, Luke Wilson, Willie Nelson) do their best, but there’s nothing with which to do anything.

Here’s my main issue, though: for a supposedly empowering film aimed at women and girls, the movie’s feminism is, at best, strongly conflicted. While it does establish a strong bond between the “good” women (and presents some of them as capable, intelligent and successful), it also hits some really bizarre, jarring notes. Jessica lands a job as Larry Miller’s secretary, where she wears glamorous couture, bakes for everyone and cleans up the office. Like a bad fantasy of a submissive secretary (unlike the excellent fantasy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal), Jessica leans over to pick up files, coos “Yes, Mr. Connelly” and drops staplers into her cleavage. (Well, not the last one.) Her “business” success consists of her performing similarly housewifely duties–throwing a children’s birthday party, dressing up in a slutty Norweigian costume to “entertain” foreign clients and exiting an elevator in slow-motion in a gorgeous red power suit, blonde hair flowing behind her. That’s all it takes, girls!

The film’s villainess, Penelope Ann Miller (the VP who *gasp* schemes to become president) gets the seemingly-incompetent Miller fired and takes his job. Jessica’s character, ever the anti-feminist, pouts and schemes until PAM is hauled off by security and the middle-aged white man is again president, with Jessica’s white-toothed smile and huge breasts happily subservient and at his beck and call, where the movie says she belongs.

jessica2There’s a strange, ugly twist, though. After slapping Penelope, Jessica is urged by Penny Marshall and a roomful of other “investors” to call her a bitch. After demurring (“You’re a very mean person!” she frowns), Jessica is finally convinced and calls her a bitch, at which point everyone applauds (Penny most heartily) now that the career woman has been put in her place. You know, because she was MEAN, had an unflattering haircut and hid her funbags under business suits instead of letting them flop around like seal pups in the surf. Fuck all that business knowledge she must’ve had to rise to the top–she never wore lipstick and was tired of being #2, so let’s all cheer her downfall! What the fuck?!

The only bright spot in the film was the compelling/disturbing/fucking fantastic performance of Karen McClain as Betty, the secretary whose place Jessica takes. With a knowing smile and an arched eyebrow, she delivers the limp dialogue with an awesome combination of camp and menace that’s pure genius. She knows what the script calls for (a sassy black woman referred to “Big Momma’s House” by another character), but she rises above it and steals the entire film. There’s a tag at the end of her character returning to the office, where she’s the new VP, that’s the closest the film comes to hitting the right notes. Trust me–watch at least the scene where McClain hisses, “…and SOMEBODY’s being a Sneaky Susan!” and tell me she isn’t simultaneously frightening and hilarious! Check her out at her website and her MySpace: I hope to see this “Talented Terri” again soon.

Jessica, here’s hoping Major Movie Star‘s better!