Kimberly Pierce's "Stop Loss" features a bright young cast going through the motions of excruciating drama against the ubiquitous backdrop of the Iraq war. This time, like Paul Haggis' much more nuanced "In the Valley of Elah", the conflict is confined to the post traumatic stress suffered by the soldiers at home after their tour of duty. In addition to that, one of the soldiers, played by Ryan Philippe, is ordered back to Iraq through a policy known as stop-loss. With the help of his best friend's fiance (Abbie Cornish), Phillippe takes it on the lamb, seeking a way out of his forced return to Iraq. As the film's first 10 minutes sums up, Iraq is a bad place and war is hell. Not only does this give motivation to Phillipe not to return, but it mines the same territory of every other war film since "All Quiet On the Western Front".
Several problems exist with Pierce's overly earnest film- not only are the group of young soldiers (rounded out by Channing Tatum and Joseph-Gordon Levitt) from Texas, but Piece makes sure we know that by their incessant drinking, exaggerated southern draw, idle times spent shootin' at shit in the woods and two-step dancing. Things don't get much better when the action turns psychological, morphing Phillippe into a man who flashbacks to terrible times in Iraq as he's hunting down the thugs who broke into his car while stopped in Memphis. Every single frame of "Stop Loss" oozes with a sledgehammer approach. Not only is Pierce's view of Texas antiquated and cliche, but her obvious anti-war sentiments are clumsy. And wow... Abbie Cornish. She must be the out-of-wedlock, long lost daughter to Charlize Theron. Even though the star power in "Stop Loss" is high, Pierce's leaden manner of storytelling and characterization is just as ugly and amateurish as DePalma's "Redacted".
Shine A Light
It only seems natural that Scorsese, who's walled the images of his films with so many Stones tunes, would team up with these godfathers of rock and roll to bash out an entertaining concert film. Filmed in late 2006 when the Rolling Stones played a fundraising gig at New York's Beacon Theater, "Shine A Light" is a pretty bare bones rock and roll presentation. In between the full set numbers we're given cuts of newsreel footage as the young Stones ruminate on age and length of their superstar ride, then immediately brought back into the action of the 60-ish guys strutting their stuff. If nothing else, Scorsese's concert doc is cannily edited. But what really exudes throughout the film is the sheer joy of making music, expressed in the world-weary face of Keith Richards as he jams with an equally glee-eyed Buddy Guy or Christina Aguilara belting out a pretty bad ass duet with Jagger. While "Shine A Light" isn't as polarizing or tough a subject as "Gimme Shelter" (which stands as one the best documentaries ever) or as intriguing as Godard's observation on the creation of artistic collaboration in "One Plus One/Sympathy For the Devil", Scorsese's film wins out with clear eyed electricity.
If you haven't seen the 3 films of Chinese director Le You, I urge you to run out and rent them now. But his first 2 films, "Suzhou River" and "Purple Butterfly", pale in comparison to the operatic and sprawling "Summer Palace", just released on DVD after a minimal theatrical run in late January. You has taken the backdrop of Beijing in the late 80's to weave a touching and epic story of 4 college students coming of age and extending over several years as they grow apart, come together, and dissolve into the malaise of their country in heartbreaking ways. It's a masterpiece, kin to the grand yet intimate storytelling prowess of Zhang Yimou (specifically "To Live") but infused with a heavy dose of nouvelle vague. See it at all costs.
I love the extreme sport documentaries, and Mark Obenhaus' "Steep" is a fine example . Taking his cue from legendary documentaries such as "Endless Summer", Obenhaus' camera never loses sight of the human element even when the looming landscape threatens to overtake the simple narrative of his extreme skiing story. Chronicling the beginning of mountain skiing and tracking its progression across several continents and diverse personalities, "Steep" is an awe-inspiring look at the mavericks who bucked traditional skiing in resorts with rules, pre-ordained routes and ski patrol, and ventured out into the wild country of the French Alps or the Montana mountain ranges to create a unique style of sport. Blending personal testimony with aerial footage, "Steep" introduces us to a wide array of men and women who make us believe there's something not so crazy about skiing over jagged rocks and 50 degree inclines. This is an enthralling and highly enjoyable documentary.
I regret not seeing Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" in the theater last year as it would've certainly popped up very high in my favorites of the year list. As a filmmaker, Lee has no real distinct visual style, but the way he effortlessly snakes in and out of so many genres certainly endears him to 'master' status among today's artists. This time its 1940's Shanghai as resistance fighter Wong (Wei Tang) is charged with infiltrating the home (and sexual appetite) of army big-wig occupier played by Tony Leung. Part spy-thriller and part "Last Tango In Paris" (which duly got the film slapped with an NC-17 rating), "Lust, Caution" is an ambitious and carefully modulated film. There are so many complex levels here at work- sexual politics against personal politics, the regretful glances of Wong (especially when she asks one of her resistance partners why he waited 3 years to kiss her now) and the slow erosion of one's culture. I know some of this has been done many times before, but it doesn't look quite as good or feel quite as heartbreaking as it does here in "Lust, Caution". I continually look forward to whatever Ang Lee does next.