Stop-Loss (2008)

Writer-director Kimberly Peirce made her first and last movie nine years ago. That was *Boys Don't Cry*, a terrific debut that was timely, issue-driven, nervy, and the kind of movie that sticks with you. Time will tell if Peirce's *Stop-Loss*, which is also poignantly timely and issue-driven, will stick in the national consciousness in the same way. It might, and it might not -- moviegoers have not been beating down the doors for movies about the Iraq War. Maybe our weariness about the seemingly unending war -- now in its fifth year -- or the grim
complexity of our emotional engagement with it, makes sitting through a movie about it just too, too much.

*Stop-Loss* is about the war in Iraq, and also about the war at home, about what happens to soldiers when they return from war. It's a subject much in the news of late, with Iraq vets suffering strikingly high levels of post traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic injury, and encountering a dishearteningly inadequate and mean-spirited government response. PTSD is never explicitly mentioned in *Stop-Loss*, but it's there in the shadows, a spectre that darkens every scene.

The movie starts with faux home videos of a group of soldiers in Tikrit,  Iraq. They're boisterous and profane young lads who sing patriotic pop songs that promise to whup the enemy. Their bravado is soon tested when they are caught in a deadly firefight, ambushed in an alley. The battle scenes are staged with gripping and panicky realism, with an acute sense of how, in a war zone, the ordinary quickly goes all to hell. Some soldiers are killed in that fight, others badly wounded. The survivors are shaken, too, by the deaths of civilians, of children and mothers and grandparents who died in homes that became urban battlefields.

For Staff Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) and his buddy Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum), it's the last battle of their last tour in Iraq. They are relieved to arrive home in Brazos, Texas, where the most dangerous thing they have to shoot at is an empty beer bottle. Their buddy Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is on leave -- he lost his best friend in Iraq, and he's going back, filled with anger and a desire for vengeance that gives him a sense of purpose in war, but leaves him adrift and unable to function back home.

Brandon's relief at being home is short-lived. His friends start to fall apart immediately, unable to keep their war experience adequately compartmentalized. Then Brandon finds out that he's been stop-lossed -- his contract is involuntarily extended, and he's being sent back to Iraq. His sense of indignation results in an immediate political awakening of sorts, and in short order he chews out his commanding officer (Timothy Olyphant) and insults the president, gets arrested, escapes, goes AWOL, and hits the road in a beat up car with Michelle (Abbie Cornish), his pal Steve's fiancee, heading for Washington where he hopes to get a little help from his senator.

Peirce and cowriter Mark Richard quickly get bogged down trying to cram a whole lot of ideas and incidents into what ends up being a fairly conventional and predictable road trip movie. Brandon and Michelle are on the road to nowhere, but along the way they drift through episodes of random violence, stay in rundown motels, and encounter other stop-lossed vets on the lam and living in limbo. Brandon wrestles with his war experience, and with an acute dilemma: should he cross over into Canada, and a fugitive's oblivion, or go back to Iraq?

That Brandon remains ideologically confused about the war and his role in it gives his character, and the movie, a measure of authenticity that helps things along when the narrative gets pinched by its compressed timeline. An awful lot -- emphasis on the awful -- happens in just a few days, allowing no time for simmering or slow boiling. The war at home, it seems, is just as explosive and requires the same level of on-the-fly decision-making as the war in Iraq. Or maybe the point is that it just seems that way to the people who experience it on both fronts.

Peirce has a good eye and ear for the raucous rhythm and earthy feel of rural small-town life, and also for the messy confusion of young adulthood. *Stop-Loss* presses home the point that these are very young people lost in the fog of war. They're rash, they're idealistic, they drink too much, they brawl too much, and they lack the breadth and depth of experience with which to make sense -- if there's any sense to be made -- of their situation. It's a recipe for melodrama, and *Stop-Loss* has turbulent melodrama in spades. It's an unsteady, disorderly movie, and every bit as messy, I suppose, as the inner lives of its characters, who must contend with fear, anger, and loss, and sort through a complex welter of conflicting values: love, honor, loyalty, patriotism, friendship, and duty. *Stop-Loss* is an imperfect, compassionate, heartfelt movie about imperfect people stuck in impossible situations, with no good options. The movie isn't polemical, nor does it offer bromides or uplift or feel-good solutions. The message, such as it is, is that we all -- those of us here and those of us over there -- have no choice but to get used to being in a situation that's impossible to get used to.


Shutter (2008)

Ah spring, a time of rebirth and renewal, of fresh starts... everywhere except at the autumnal multiplexes, where moldering cinematic afterthoughts go to die, dropping into theatres like so many dead leaves. Spring is the between season for movie releases, a span of time sandwiched between the winter, when Oscar contenders roll out, and the summer megablockbuster season. It is a time of movies like *Shutter*, a remake of a 2004 Thai film also called *Shutter*. A mediocre movie, and yet another remake dredged up from the apparently bottomless pit of barely distinguishable Asian horror films, *Shutter* is the kind of movie that doesn't justify the effort of putting on my glasses.

*Shutter*, by Japanese director Masayuki Ochiai, features the standard J-Horror tropes -- a dark-haired, dark-eyed female spectre haunts people, walking slowly, appearing mysteriously, and alarming her victims with her disheveled hair and unfashionable clothing. The unflattering frock is especially disturbing to Jane Shaw (Rachael Taylor) who, after running over a woman with her car, wonders what she was doing there, in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, and more importantly, "why was she dressed like that?" Jane's husband Ben (Joshua Jackson), who was looking at a map at the time of the accident, didn't see the woman in question, and remains skeptical that his newlywed wife saw anything at all.

Ben's a photographer who apparently specializes in obsolete photo technology. He's got an assignment in Japan, where he and Jane settle into an apartment where things go bump in the night. Really. You might think the things going bump in the night routine would be so used up at this point that nobody would dare use it in a non-parody context. But there it is. *Shutter* also prominently features mysteriously flickering lights and that whooshing-whirring-moaning sound that the weary, ticked off, evil undead make. *Shutter* makes use of so many familiar plot devices and even more familiar scare tactics that it practically parodies itself, except that it isn't funny.

When all of Ben's film is ruined by blurry streaks of light, well, that's the last straw. Ben has apparently never heard of Photoshop. Jane quickly discovers that "spirit photography" is to blame for the blurry pictures, and that she and Ben are being haunted by the Kodak moment-ruining, unfashionably dressed woman in the road. The only remaining questions are: Who is she? What does she want? And, who really cares? Jane learns from a spirit photography magazine editor that Polaroids can't be faked, so she takes to carrying around a Polaroid camera hoping to spot the ghost. I wonder if Polaroid considered the implications of the loss of this invaluable ghostbusting tool when they decided last month to stop producing instant film.

*Shutter* is so blandly by-the-numbers that it's difficult to conceive why anyone even bothered to make it. As Jane says, in a moment of insight about the ghost's intentions, "Why all that effort if you don't have something to say?" My thoughts exactly.


Horton Hears A Who (2008)

It's always good when a movie isn't insufferably bad. *Horton Hears A Who!*, the computer animated retelling of the classic Dr. Seuss tale, isn't insufferably bad like, say, the live action *How The Grinch Stole Christmas* (2000), which also starred Jim Carrey. That's a pretty minimal quality claim, but by *Grinch* standards, *Horton Hears A Who!* isn't bad at all, which just goes to show that if you set the bar low enough, just about anything can pass over it.

Horton, crafted by Blue Sky Animation (*Ice Age*) does better than that, really, and it stays reasonably true to Seuss' story of the compassionate, open-minded pachyderm who saves the world of the Whos. The Whos live in Who-ville, of course, and their entire world is a tiny speck of dust sitting atop a clover blossom under the care and protection of Horton (Carrey), who has the only ears in the Jungle of Nool fine-tuned enough to hear the microscopically wee Whos. Horton's nemesis is a bossy busybody of a kangaroo (Carol Burnett), a moralizing law and order type who would rather commit Who-genocide than admit that, as Horton philosophizes, "a person's a person, no matter how small."

The small people are the ones that *Horton Hears A Who!* is primarily pitched to, although Carrey cannot resist the urge to riff a little and throw a few jokes in for the parental escorts. Carrey's Horton is, to say the least, a good deal more antic and less gentle in his Who stewardship than Seuss' Horton, which is to say that, rather than molding himself to a multigenerationally beloved character, Carrey has seen fit to make the character his own. This is not necessarily a good thing, depending on how much you like Jim Carrey, although Horton falls somewhere in the middle of the most-restrained to least-restrained spectrum of Carrey performances, which still puts it rather more towards the clown end than the calmer, sweeter end where one would expect to find the kindhearted, faithful Horton.

Meanwhile, down in Who-ville, the mayor (Steve Carell) has a mopey, uncommunicative emo son named Jo-Jo with whom the father-son bonding just isn't clicking. He's got a city council full of don't-worry-be-happy types to contend with too, and they just don't want to hear that Who-ville is in mortal peril. There are a lot of extraneous characters and a fair amount of fill to *Horton Hears A Who!* -- necessary, perhaps, to pad the movie to its bare bones 88 minute feature length -- but it distracts from the core story and makes the movie drag at times, despite all the frantic goings-on.

Writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, along with directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Marino, pack the movie with plenty of narrow escapes and death defying feats of elephantine derring-do. None of the extra characters are particularly filled out, nor are they especially original. There's Morton the mouse (Seth Rogen), Horton's hyperactive rodent sidekick (Why a mouse? Maybe it was a nod to Ganesha and Kroncha.), quirky scientist Dr. Mary Lou LaRue (Isla Fisher), and some odd little kid critters, at least one of whom appears to be a refugee from a Hayao Miyazaki film.

Miyazaki's influence shows up in a send-up of anime stylings during one of the movie's traditional animation interludes (the other being more in the Seuss mold). The computer animation in *Horton Hears A Who!* is diverse, moving from the photorealistic to the Seussian, with Who-ville in particular rendered in a way that's very true to the zany, curvy Seuss aesthetic. For all that's not by the book about *Horton Hears A Who!*, the look of the film -- the architecture and landscapes and character design -- stays true to the good doctor's loopy vision.

It ultimately stays pretty true to Dr. Seuss' message too. While Horton tries to shepherd his miniscule flock to safety, the mean ol' kangaroo rouses the rabble and gets them all terrorized by the free-thinking elephant menace. Seuss wrote Horton in 1954, in the wake of the McCarthy hearings, but the cautionary tale about intolerance and fear-mongering remains, alas, timely and relevant.


The Bank Job (2008)

*The Bank Job* is one of those "inspired by a true story" movies the lesson of which is that while crime might pay (and rather nicely at that), it could just be more trouble than its worth. The heist in question, the robbery of safe deposit boxes in a London bank, took place in 1971, and was known as the "walkie-talkie robbery" after the bandits' preferred method of communication. The loot, if the film written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais is to be believed, included photographs and documents that would have proved quite embarrassing to quite important people in the British government (and the royal family) if they ever saw the light of day. That they did not makes the whole affair one of those things that didn't happen, and which can't be proven to have been prevented from happening, none of which really matters, except to conspiracy theorists who, if they fixate too much on what didn't happen, will miss most of the good stuff that does happen in *The Bank Job*.

Not that the robbers know about any kinky pictures. They're in it for the cash and jewels after ringleader Terry Leather (Jason Statham), a car repair shop owner with shady connections and a spot of trouble with gangsters, gets a hot tip from Martine Love (Saffron Burrows), an ex-flame (maybe) who knows a guy who knows a guy... Terry and his lads Kevin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and Dave (Daniel Mays) bring in a few experts, including con man Guy (James Faulkner) and digging whiz Bambas (Alki David), to dig a tunnel from a deserted luggage shop to the bank vault. Turns out Martine has been put up to the job by a shady character from Britain's security services (Richard Lintern). There are items in the vault belonging to Black Power leader Michael X (aka Michael Abdul Malik, a real life revolutionary figure who hobnobbed with John Lennon). The spooks want Michael X's (Peter De Jersey) stash, but there are also salacious items belonging to an influential madame and one Lew Vogel (David Suchet), the "Soho porn king." Successfully cracking the safe counts as jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire for Terry and the lads -- the cops, the spies, and every unsavory type in London is soon after them and their ill-gotten gains. 

*The Bank Job* is fast-paced and fun, the kind of movie that sets out a whole lot of lines and then, with remarkable efficiency, precision, and thoroughness, reels them all in and ties them together. Director Roger Donaldson keeps the pacing brisk -- time is not on the side of the robbers, who improbably pull off a quick job, and then have to think fast to get themselves out of a major jam. For all its energetic plotting, however, the movie makes time to develop its characters and their quirks, and, more importantly, their very human motives.

*The Bank Job* is in its way an old fashioned heist movie, a throwback to the days when minimal planning and a lot of digging in the dirt were all you needed to rob a bank (in movies, anyway). There's nothing smooth, pokerfaced, or *Ocean's 11* about the Terry Leather gang, who owe their success more to dumb luck and desperation than to skill. The duplicity and guile are all on the other side -- these are working class lads who don't own tuxedos, facing off against high-powered men in Savile Row suits. If it's England, there must be a class struggle, and so there is, in the war between Michael X and white Britain, in the testy relations between branches of government, in the give and take between lords and ladies of, shall we say, ill repute, and poking out of the bespoke suit and leather jacket pockets of spooks and crooks. Terry's blokes are a scruffy lot, occupying the lower rungs of British society, but it's a hierarchy of venal blackguards all the way up, and all nicely displayed in *The Bank Job*.