Sunday, March 30, 2008

Movie Review

Stop-Loss

Directed by: Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry)
Starring: Ryan Phillipe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Timothy Olyphant


I was vehemently opposed to seeing this film once I heard of it and gave it the bad mouth treatment to all that would listen. The problem lies solely in the fact that since the war in Iraq, Hollywood has done nothing but get it wrong. They have yet to produce a film that fully captures a soldier’s perspective or a realistic portrayal of what it is to be a ground soldier fighting in Iraq.

I’ve shared my own perspectives to an extent on this site, but still haven’t delved into the worst of it. The fundamental difference that I have come to know is that there is a divide amongst soldiers and civilians, one that will never come together. There is too much that simply cannot be explained and understood by someone who hasn’t done it. And I don’t mean the cool guy shit, either. The boredom, the bullshit, the politics, the way of life, it simply cannot be understood in a few interviews and Ogrish.com videos.

And really, based on box office receipts, I don’t think many civilians care. And that, again, is what furthers the divide. Because, I do care. And there are a lot more that do and those of us on that side of the dividing line want to see it done right.

Director Kimberly Peirce co-wrote ‘Stop-Loss’ after her own brother joined the military and her family began to go through the experience of having a loved one away at war. It is an eye-opening experience to say the least. The biggest and most prevalent of that experience is never knowing what is really going on.

‘Stop-Loss’ tackles many of those issues and tackles them as ‘soldier’ issues and teeters on the edge of ‘political’ issues. At its core, the film is focused on the men, which is a welcome change of pace for Hollywood, who thus far has only focused on deeply wounded vets (the abysmal ‘Home of the Brave’), murder-mystery home front tales (In the Valley of Ellah), or the downright insulting (DePalma’s excruciating ‘Redacted’).

To date, ‘Stop-Loss’ is the most invested and relatable Iraq war film, but that doesn’t make it great or perfect. It’s simply the ‘most’ invested and relatable. There are far too many inconsistencies in the actual stop-loss policy (as well as redeployment and deployment policies) to make this an accurate film. While bringing to light a sour and dishonest policy, it still fails to bring the truth of those it affects to fruition without falling into the usual Hollywood war movie traps.

The film opens at a check point in Iraq where we meet Ryan Phillipe as a Staff Sergeant (squad leader), Channing Tatum as one of his team leaders, and an assortment of ‘Joes’ all geared up and doing their job searching vehicles. The usual soldier antics are at play here and fairly believable. The Iraq setting isn’t too bad, but Hollywood still hasn’t found the right back lot to get it dead-on. There’s never enough trash or fires.

The check point is fired on by a passing car and they all jump in their HMMWV’s to give chase. Now, there aren’t a lot of high speed pursuits in Iraq, but we do give chase.

Tactically, it’s easy to play Monday-morning quarterback when watching other soldiers do their job. We all do it. We all want to pretend that we know the standard and tactics better than anyone else, especially those in other units. That being said, I began to nitpick everything these guys did, but I had to relent, because the bottom line is, whether the filmmakers got it wrong or intentionally made these guys jacked up in certain areas, it doesn’t matter, because ultimately it’s dead on.

When you are being shot at and pursuing bad guys and are in unfamiliar territory your brain becomes a short-circuiting supercomputer, spitting out all kinds of data that you have to piece together to make the best and most informed decision based on where you are and what you’re doing. In short, it’s not easy. It’s chaos.

Phillipe leads his squad directly into a rooftop ambush, which is not a good place to be. One of Phillipe’s ‘Joes’ is critically wounded and another three are killed by small arms fire and explosions. In the end, Phillipe escapes, saving his team leader, Tatum, and makes it out. Following this scene is a montage of ‘soldier-shot video’ which shows the memorial services for Phillipe’s men. The footage is meant to give you the feeling that you are watching actual video from Iraq and it’s not bad. I have no doubt that there are pictures on my hard drive that could compare easily. It’s an interesting technique and is certainly more successful than when it was used in director Brian DePalma’s atrocious pile-of-shit docu-wannabe ignoramus movie ‘Redacted.’

The soldiers return home to a parade, which is like a condensed coming home ceremony for the movies (in reality, there is a long process of turning in weapons and equipment, safety briefs, etc., before you are turned loose on your family). The parade is followed by an awards ceremony (again, taking serious movie liberties here as these things are NOT the norm by any standards on ANY post) and Phillipe is poised to give a speech.

He chokes on the speech, giving us echoes of Tom Cruise as wounded Vietnam Vet Ron Kovic in ‘Born on the Fourth of July.’ Naturally, the misconception is that all soldiers who see the bad and the ugly of war are fucked in the head for life, unable to speak in public or confront the issues and situations in which they’ve been involved with. Certainly, not all vets have a clear conscience on everything they’ve seen and done, but the fact that those that do are the ones constantly thrown in the spotlight is a testament to the truth not being fully told.

Phillipe is excited to get out as is Tatum. Their plans are to move on, having served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve seen and done enough and are ready to move on with their lives (much like myself). Now, a few things happen after this point that both caused me to laugh out loud and to take note. So, let me make one thing clear about this movie; ‘Stop Loss’ does bring the problem (and it IS a problem) of stop loss to light, but fails to examine the full spectrum of the issue and how soldiers deal with it REALISTICALLY.

Instead, director Peirce takes ‘Stop Loss’ into the movie adventure arena, a fantasy world intertwined with reality to form a cliff’s notes version of the issue (which, is what most movies are). In order for me to explain, I have to debunk a few myths. If you’re bored and don’t care, well, skip to my wrap up in the last paragraph. If you’re curious and want to know how reality stacks up against this film, then read on.

First off, Phillipe begins to ‘clear,’ which is what we call it when you are getting out. You turn in your equipment and gear and begin the paperwork process of getting out of the Army (called ETS – Expiration Termination Service). Now, the dates aren’t scrolled across the screen, but it’s obvious that the events that transpire up to Phillipe’s clearing date aren’t any longer than a month. The official Army policy is that no action be taken 90 days prior to redeployment (return from deployment), including clearing.

Suddenly, Phillipe is about done with the process and as he goes to be signed out, a desk clerk (which, I’m guessing is a part of personnel actions, it’s never specified) tells him that he’s been stop-lossed and that he has orders to report back to Iraq. Naturally, he’s upset. And I would be too if it happened that way.

But, it doesn’t happen that way. More on that in a sec.

Phillipe is pissed and goes to his battalion commander (played by Timothy Olyphant) and tells him it’s wrong and that he’s pissed and fuck the president. The commander orders Phillipe to be escorted to the stockade and for it to be ensured that he makes his flight back to Iraq.

Now, look…stop loss is bullshit. It’s unfair and deceitful and everything that is wrong with the Army. However, this is NOT the way it happens. And if the defense of doing it this way is to speed up the process for the movie, then that is fucking weak and amateurish. There are many, many scenes in this film that could have been cut that would have paved the way to show the true trials and tribulations of dealing with stop loss.

And yes, I am somewhat of an expert as I have had to deal with it and many of my fellow soldiers and friends are currently caught in its cold grasp. Let the myth debunking begin; For starters, Phillipe would have known about the possibility of being stop lossed a lot sooner than the day he was signing out. I myself knew that my unit was going to possibly be stop-lossed while I was still in Iraq.

Phillipe would have known well in advance and would have had plenty of time to begin to examine options, whether that be reenlistment, reassignment, signing a declination statement, or finding a new job on his post that was not deploying. I know this, because I was faced with the same situation…and my solution did not involve going AWOL and attempting to buy my way into Canada or confront my state senator in D.C.

Instead of examining these struggles, which are even more challenging than what this movie would have you believe, we are treated to a soldier taking the most extreme measures to deal with the situation. Now, I’m not implying that soldier’s have not flew the coup after being faced with yet another deployment down range. The truth is that it does happen. They do go to Canada or Mexico or simply hide out in the states, but the majority either find another alternative by the means I listed above or simply fulfill the commitment, for better or worse.

When Phillipe goes AWOL, hell bent on confronting his state senator in D.C., ‘Stop Loss’ becomes a road movie, a modern day, low key Iliad, where our hero confronts thieves, lowlifes, and the families of fallen soldiers, and injured comrades throughout his voyage.

During his journey we bounce back and forth to see the slow downfall of one of his Joes, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt is particularly burned by the death of a good friend and is having problems reassimillating back into civilian society. He, like many soldiers, seems to be happier when at war. This is a common sentiment amongst many soldiers, and although it feels clichéd and is handled that way to an extent, it is true to life and happens frequently. Many soldiers find that life while deployed is much more regimented and predictable, yet still exciting enough to quelch the boredom. Sometimes.

The distinct difference between being in combat and being at home is that while you are home, especially in the military, you are without a mission, a purpose. You are in charge of yourself and your own actions, no longer ordered around and given a mission. You are a soldier without a fight. When you spend a solid year or more with nothing on your mind but completing a mission, having that taken away can leave you lost and aimless.

And such is the case with Gordon-Levitt. He loses his wife after his drunken and violent behavior (which nearly all of them fall privy too) and after spiraling into an abyss of problems, ends up getting a bad conduct discharge (all within a month, once again…man, if only things moved that fast in the REAL Army). Naturally, taking away the last thing that he has, Gordon-Levitt turns to suicide.

His soldier’s suicide is what makes Phillipe turn from the borders of Canada and return home, where he is confronted in the THIRD fight with Channing Tatum in the film (apparently Texas natives fight everything out). Phillipe cracks and spills his guts, saying that he feels he did everything wrong and that he was responsible for his soldier’s deaths and dismemberments.

This had impact. This had truth. It is the burden of all leaders, especially for those leading the fight on the war on terror. For those not in the know, the enemy we fight is not dressed in a clearly defined uniform. The engagements don’t take place on plains and open fields, but in homes and neighborhoods. The bad guys dress like innocent civilians, everyone has guns and when the bullets fly they don’t always land on just the intended target.

Imagine if the Nazi’s dressed like normal German civilians and used their own civilians as body shields and fought only from their homes and neighborhoods…how successful do you think coalition soldiers would have been had those been the circumstances of the fight?

In the end, Phillipe stops running and accepts his fate, but not because he’s happy about it, but because, like most infantry soldiers, it becomes about something more, namely the men to the right and left. Essentially, it’s a rationalization, but it’s a good enough rationalization to make him do the right thing, even if the wrong thing is being done to him.

To give up the freedom you’ve fought for, lost men for, lost innocence for, and live in a foreign land with a false identity is not worth the compromise of risking your life for the country you love. It’s a bittersweet compromise and one that stings and stings deep.

The problem with the film’s version of Phillipe coming back and deploying is that the facts of the issue are so condensed that they are completely unrealistic. All of these events transpire within nearly a month, which means that Phillipe got stop lossed (with orders to report back to Iraq WITHIN a month), goes on the run (from Texas to New York to Texas again), and gets on the bus to head back to Iraq at the end of the month. This is completely unrealistic. If you are in the military and reading this and are sitting there proclaiming that you know somebody that this happened to (that DIDN’T volunteer for it, which you CAN do) then by all means, send me proof and prove me wrong. But I have never heard of a unit redeploying BACK to Iraq with only a month back stateside. That is just simply ridiculous.

The new policy is that all units and individual soldiers must have a one-year stability before they deploy again. However, there have been instances when soldiers changed duty stations and were redeployed very quickly, within months. But never an entire unit. After a year-long tour, NO UNIT in the U.S. Army could be prepared to redeploy to combat with only a month turnaround time. ZERO.

Now, perhaps my nitpicking is just that, since most moviegoers don’t know or really care about those details…however, for the movie’s sake, for the message it is trying to convey, the details are important, because when all the true facts are not presented then the real story isn’t being told. And soldiers are living the real story every day. If you are going to proclaim to tell the truth about something then don’t skip on the details or the hard facts.

So, here is the wrap up for those of you that skipped to the end to get past the rambling know-it-all-vet’s movie review. ‘Stop Loss’ is a movie with good intentions, but lightly informed facts, teetering on the fantasy and peppering the reality. It tells a tale, sprinkled with fact, but heavier on fiction, and completely floating on Cliff Notes. The performances are decent, nothing Oscar worthy, and there are some real moments of truth, but not enough to make this an outstanding piece of cinema that brings to light a shitty policy that is entrapping already beat down soldiers into deployment after deployment.

I give ‘Stop Loss’ kudos for its good intentions, but cannot entirely endorse it due to the distracting amount of misinformation and clichéd story devices pulled from every war movie you’ve ever seen. It’s entertaining enough, but not enough to elevate it to something of classic or cult status. In the end it will join the ranks of the other fallen Iraq war movies, but will definitely stand alone as one with the best of intentions.

GRADE: B-

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Movie Review





Doomsday

Directed by: Neil Marshall

I went into ‘Doomsday’ expecting very little, but hoping for something campy and kinda fun, maybe some gratuitous booty shots of Rhona Mitra, and a few DECENT action sequences. What I got was something so much more.

‘Doomsday’ is a love song to every 80’s sci-fi/action genre flick with hints and flavors of so many of the best. The plot is ripped directly from these old genre flicks and slapped together. There’s nothing entirely original here. And that’s not a bad thing for once. This movie is intentionally giving a hearty nod to the classics by both imitating, reinventing, and bringing them into the 21st Century.

Rhona Mitra (the naked chick that gets raped by Kevin Bacon in “Invisible Man”) plays Snake Plis-I mean, plays MAJ Eden Sinclair, a bad-ass operator that rivals all your classic female heroines rolled into one. And she is smokingly hot to boot. What’s funny is that she has been around for a long time and this is the first time she has been put in a lead role and left to carry the film. She’s a recognizable face (and body) but has never risen above the status of “Hey, who’s that girl…she’s hot!”

Mitra is the female version of ‘Escape From New York’s’ Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell. The nods to ‘Escape’ begin early on in ‘Doomsday’ as the plot revolves around isolating Scotland by building a defensive wall in order to contain a deadly virus. The onscreen graphics and fonts are exactly like ‘Escape’ and had me smiling like a total fanboy. It’s little details like this that make ‘Doomsday’ a riot.

Another nod to ‘Escape’ is Mitra’s eye. When we first see her in the film she is on a mission and wearing an eye patch (a la Plissken), which again gave me the fanboy goosebumps. However, director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) took it a step further and gave her a detachable eye which acts as a mini-video recorder and can be tossed around like a bouncy ball in order to see around corners, etc. Bloody brilliant.

Sinclair, joined up by a super trooper squad of soldiers (a nod to the colonial marines of ‘Aliens’) is tasked with finding a cure within the closed off country and returning within 48 hours before an imminent outbreak happens in the United Kingdom. Simple, uncomplicated, and a perfect fit for this kind of genre flick.

The movie is chock full of fun gore with heads chopped off, bodies run over, heads blown in half by a shotgun, a man burned alive and eaten, and even a bunny getting turned into lasagna. It’s a blast, it’s fun, it’s campy, it’s perfect. ‘Doomsday’ owns its R-rating.

When the mission goes bad and Sinclair is forced to go on the run after escaping her cannibal ‘Mad Max’ reject captors we get an interesting trip to the countryside where a band of immune humans have come together in medieval fashion, taking up residence in a Scottish castle and taken to using swords, horses, and armor, leaving technology in the breeze.

It’s a cool device, taking these characters from their ultra high tech gear and weaponry back to the middle ages and seeing how they fare. Some critics whined that this was making the movie too scattered, but I feel it gives it more depth and takes you on a more enjoyable ride.

Seeing Sinclair battle an armored knight in a Gladiator-esque match-up is great fun and really gives us another nod, namely to Time Bandits and Army of Darkness. It doesn’t last long, however, and in no time flat Sinclair is making her escape once again, this time in a brand new Bentley, just in time for the wild cannibal killers on her trail to give chase in true Mad Max fashion, rounding out the homage’s.

'Doomsday' also has some really great cinematography, really playing up the comic book elements with brilliant lighting and use of shutter speed and slow motion. I'ts nice to see the stage set so well for something that could've just been phoned in. The music score by '300's' Tyler Bates is an updated and orchestrated mix of sync, electronic, and composed tracks, once again fueling the throwback elements, mostly to John Carpenter's compositions.

The climactic car chase battle is a blast and reminded me of a Mad Max movie as directed by Michael Bay. I mean, come on, who couldn’t have fun with this? I’ve said fun way too many times in this review, but that’s the crux of it.

Many critics have complained about a non-existent plot and not enough development, etc. To that, I say go rent fucking ‘No Country For Old Men’ and stop your crying.

I mean, most people have seen the trailers and have a rough idea of what they’re getting themselves into. You can usually guess if a movie is the right fit for you. Sometimes you’re surprised, but not usually. Usually, it’s about what you expected.

‘Doomsday’ does not try to reinvent anything. It’s like a bunch of guys getting together and talking about their favorite genre flicks from the 80’s, quoting lines and citing scenes that they loved and in the end everyone saying, “Man, they just don’t make movies like that anymore.”

The sad thing is, a lot of those guys that grew up with those films, that were inspired and fueled by those films have tried (and succeeded in my mind) to replicate that work…but audiences didn’t turn out. They stayed away. ‘Grindhouse’ is the perfect example. Tarantino and Rodgriguez grew up on those same films and almost every movie they make is a throwback to them …and it’s hit or miss. ‘Doomsday’ is like another chapter in the ‘Grindhouse’ series and it’s so very sad that it will never get the proper treatment it deserves.

Anyways, I’m done crying about shitty audience turnout/choices. It’s peeved me since I’ve started to pay attention to it and it’s never changed. I am hell and gone away from the typical moviegoer and happy for it. I’ll never argue with someone who is an avid sports watcher as I don’t watch any. Just about everyone is more informed than me on that front. But, when it comes to movies, I am on my game.

I left this movie thoroughly pleased, surprised even. I didn’t expect ‘Doomsday’ to really go for it, allowing itself to be the ultimate genre nod movie. They don’t make movies like this anymore, and for some critics and audiences that’s a good thing, but what the fuck…they can have their ‘College Road Trips’ and ‘Other Boleyn Girls’ as long as I can have my ‘Planet Terror’s’ and ‘Doomsdays’.

GRADE: A

Friday, March 14, 2008

Stop-Loss State of Mind














Aside from women referring to their vagina as a ‘va-jay-jay’, stop-loss is one of the most annoying things to deal with. And I don’t just mean because the average movie-going public is subjected to the horrendous trailers for the forthcoming Ryan Phillipe suck fest of the same name. Although I have shook my head in tragic irony when I see that pitiful trailer in-between bouts of American Idol, I have no doubt that it is going to misfire on the message more than Esquire magazine does when trying to get the pulse of the modern American male.

And that’s just the start of this little rant.

Some people call it a blog, some people call it a piece of brilliant writing (and a big thanks to YOU people), some just get a little brain tickle, and there are those that feel the ferocity in the form of a rant. If you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be in my company when a rant is triggered in my already overactive brain then you know that it is a force of nature, an unstoppable wave that builds slowly then crests like a towering giant and demolishes everything in its path until finally subsiding and whisking back to the calm sea as if nothing ever upset the balance.

Most of my rants will begin in the car and I have a one-woman audience who is subjected to my war-mongering, sexually deviant, over-the-top, and more-descriptive-words-spaced-out-with-hyphens, overzealous, but to the point rants. Normally she sits silently, waiting for that wave to roll back to sea. It’s her safest bet, really.
I don’t want to sound misguided here. I have shit to say. I want you to listen. Here we go.

I want to clear up this stop-loss shit. The stop-loss policy was put in effect in 2003 and affects all units that deploy in support of OEF or OIF.

Here…Let about.com explain the rest...My brain hurts...
“This Active Army Unit Stop Loss program affects Soldiers assigned to units alerted for deployment overseas to participate in operations described above. It is intended that Active Army Unit Stop Loss would begin at deployment minus 90 days and continue through the unit redeployment plus 90 days.”

What this means is that if your ETS (expiration term of service) is in December of 2010 and your unit is going to deploy in February of 2011 you are what we commonly refer to as “fucked.”
Stop-loss, like cancer, infidelity, and reruns of ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’ happens every day. It affects a lot of soldiers and affected a good batch that recently deployed with me to Iraq. It does not bring smiles.

The purpose of stop-loss is ultimately to keep any unit that is on active call at a constant state of readiness to deploy, being at full strength and in their best deployable condition. Talk about irony. I wouldn’t call a soldier who has just been stop-lossed and forced to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan a highly motivated individual. To call him at full strength would be just a thin stretch of the truth.

Now, I know (or have heard of) guys that don’t really care, guys that simply shrug their shoulders, make a frowny face and give the ol’ “Oh fucky well” and pack their bags and go on another extended Middle Eastern vacation. Some rationalize the situation by thinking about that combat pay (which, in comparison to movie star salary is pretty pathetic, considering the difference in job impact…you do the math), or…well, let’s face it, that’s really about the only rationalization you can get. I mean, it’s hard to rationalize by saying, “Man, I guess I could smell burning shit for another year!” or “Yeah, I guess living in a tin can ain’t that bad…it’s ONLY a year!”

Now, for any Army blowhard that reads this and wants to get all drill sergeant in my face about how we “raised our right hand” and how we “signed a contract,” well you can just sit back and do me a favor for a second and shut off that knee-jerk reaction that causes those two phrases to filter from your brain to your mouth and listen. I’ll raise my right hand for the third time and smack you upside the head.

I have not yet met a soldier that wants to be stop-lossed. We did raise our right hands and we did sign a contract and we did both under the conditions of said contract and were sworn in under those provisions. Every soldier signs up for a term of service, agreeing to fulfill all obligations under the contract until its termination.

Pretty simple, right? Like any contract, right? Wrongo. Chalk this up to lies your recruiter told you. Take a closer look at that stack of a contract, look between those dizzying signatures that left your head spinning and eyeball through the paragraphs and you will find this little gem from DA Form 3286-64, NOV 89, which is the Statement for Enlistment form, Paragraph 4:

“MILITARY SERVICE OBLIGATION UNDERSTANDING: “…In the event that the Secretary of the Army determines that military necessity of a national scope requires that soldiers be available for assignment/reassignment or training, any or all guarantees contained in this agreement may be terminated. Under these conditions I may be trained, assigned or reassigned according to the needs of the Army.”

When you are caught in the whirlwind of enlisting, signing shit like you’re a movie star at a McDonalds they always say to ‘read everything carefully’ and to make sure you understand everything. Right. I could read an advanced calculus book, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna understand it. It’s almost as if they hope you catch it, like there’s money riding on it. I’d love to be there when someone points out Paragraph 4 and asks the recruiters what that means…

The scene turns red (y’know, to simulate hell) and fires light up all over the place and they all reel back with laughter, devil horns sprouting from their foreheads and suddenly a pitchfork is pushing you back in your chair…”That means we own your soul, boy! Now, sign! Sign, you little porch monkey! (It’s cool…Clerks 2 brought it back).

So, what does it all mean? Well, I can only speak for myself, but it shows a breach of contract. The drill sergeant types can poke their finger in my chest and give me a Copenhagen puffed out lip smile and tell me, “ You said it yourself kid…Shoulda read and understood everything…Mwuh, ha, ha, ha, haaaa!”

This is not an open letter to change policy. This is not me crying for someone to feel sorry for me. If I am stop-lossed and deploy again then, what the fuck, at least the combat pay’s pretty good…NOT!

There would be no rationalization. I would do, simply, what the Army has taught me thus far and that is to ‘suck it up and drive on.’ I would take another vacation and do my job the same as I always have. But, that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it and it certainly doesn’t make it right. There would be no emotional music playing in the background as I charge the U.S. Senate, clearly AWOL, making a big speech in a southern accent, and gently easing in my regrets of bad things I did in Iraq.

So, shout out to all those who are living the stop-loss state of mind. Most of us chalk it up to just getting the green weenie once again and it’s really not that surprising. I have had tremendous and rewarding experiences in the Army, but have also had some mind-bogglingly ridiculous and terrible experiences. I’d like to say it’s just like any other job, but we all know that’s bullshit.

Okay, now that that’s all cleared up, you can go see that pile of shit Phillipe movie and refer to this blog/rant to compare fact and fiction or, for better or worse, now you have a better perspective on what it really is before this movie becomes another nail in the coffin of misinformation to the masses.

Believe me when I say that a soldier running off to Canada is not the most common reaction to stop loss. It’s usually just that sweet, sweet combat pay rationale and off he/she goes.













SERVICE to SERVICE

All right, let’s change gears…one service to another, namely the service industry. Even deeper than that, the service industry in Alaska. Now, for those of you who don’t live here, never will live here, have no intention of ever stepping foot in our beautiful 49th state, it really doesn’t matter. We can all relate to the simplicity of piss poor service. And it’s not like we’re slave-owners complaining about our slaves. We are paying for the service, which gives any paying customer the right to complain.

However much I love the rolling mountains, the exotic wildlife, the outdoor lifestyle, the slippery roads, the 10-month-long winters, and tax free purchases, the service industry is lacking in a big way.

One such picture perfect example is the Eagle River McDonalds. Now, save your rant about how you shouldn’t eat McDonalds anyway. It’s not like I’m going there every day, which makes it worse. My rare visits should be supplemented with great service. Let’s take a trip back in time to December 2007, when my wife and I decide to go inside the McDonalds as the drive thru line was almost to the restaurant entrance.

Upon entering the store (I can’t call it a restaurant again, I’m sorry) we are treated to a line just as long as the outside. It’s Christmastime, so there’s a…well, I THINK that’s a tree…and some garland…hanging…no, really hanging from the fake fireplace (yes, in a McDonalds) and then, yes, the tree is decorated…as if someone shot one of those party poppers on it and called it a day…the spirit is alive here.

The crew is that of young and old white people. Now, as an accidental racist this leads me to think that this makes it better, that the food will be better prepared, etc. Go ahead, slay me, but I believe all ethnicities are secretly happy to see “one of their own” behind the counter most of the time. It is right? Well, fuck me, the world ain’t right. So there it is.

But, I could not have been more wrong. It doesn’t matter a lick that there are fellow whitey’s working behind the counter…because they are slow as hell and lost in the sauce. The behind-the-counter operations remind me of a sinking Russian submarine. Orders being shouted, men and women running all over, putting out various fires, twisting valves, taking more orders, and trying to stay intensely focused putting the pickles on the quarter pounders. Wait…do they have McDonalds in Russia?

Anyways, it’s a beautiful mess. I stand in line with a smile that says, “I normally think I am so much better than all you other people in line here, you fatties that probably eat this all the time, and this is a rare trip for me, I am like an anthropologist, I’m just here to study, maybe get something to eat, but mostly to take this all in for my new book, and to further remind people how much better I am than you..You fast food cretins…”

You can say a lot with a smile.

The wife secures a table, because for some fucking reason, I have no idea to this day, but we decide to eat inside the restaurant…dining with the dinosaurs, munching with the pond scum, eating with the ingrates, the poor, the trailer park people that take big, slow bites of their Big Mac and chew it like a cow with an empty void where their eyes should be.
Yeah, we’re eatin’ in.

After about twenty-odd minutes we get our food. For fast food that is ridiculous, and only beaten by every Burger King on a military post, which takes on average thirty minutes to get your order, even if you just get a self-service drink.

And a note on self-service drinks; Am I the only one who feels like an asshole when I give my order and tell the cashier what I want to drink specifically, only to be given a cup to fill myself?

“I’ll have a super tasty, fizzy and fresh Diet Coke, please.”
“Here’s your cup, sir.”
“OH…right…thanks...(long pause)…guess I didn’t need to tell you I wanted a Diet Coke, eh? I mean, I could have said a Crown Royal and Coke and you just would have handed me a cup and not even blinked, right? Next time I’ll order a large Whiskey stone sour, you little creep.”

I fill up mine and my wife’s drinks. It’s so much fun! It’s like I work at McDonalds!

Ketchup packets are a thing of the drive thru. Most people know this. When you are “dining in” at ye ole McDonalds, you are treated to a vat of ketchup which can be squeezed out into a little paper cup that barely fills a thimble. Now, I don’t need a freakin’ bowl, but maybe something that doesn’t make it look like I’m doing a fucking taste test with my French fries would be nice.

But guess what? There’s no way you just guessed. Because this is too good. There are NO paper cups. A customer walks up to the counter and asks the old white lady if they have more taste test cups. She says they are out and recommends using a drink lid.

Let me type that again. SHE RECOMMENDS USING A DRINK LID.

Classy. I mean, we didn’t even get that resourceful. We just pumped that ketchup vat right onto our tray doiley into a big mass of ketchup mountain and dipped in like second graders making a cut and paste project for Easter. We have become the bloody savages.

The long lines, the erratic, unorganized mess behind the counter, the “didn’t-even-try” decorating, the lack of supplies, and the long wait for food has made the Eagle River, Alaska McDonalds the place to avoid like the plague when you have a “hankering” for some artery-clogging shitburgers.

And that’s not the end of it. One night, while in the throes of indecisiveness, which haunts my life, we venture in the megalopolis that is Eagle River in order to find something to eat. It’s like window shopping with your car and looking for food instead of Gap clothes.
My wife gives me her sly smile and devious nod. “I’m thinkin’ Arby’s.”

God, I hate commercials.

I agree, and only because I haven’t had it in YEARS. I start thinking about the beef n’ cheddar that I had so long ago and the curly fries, and then…yeah…yeah…it’s happenin’…I, too, am thinkin’ Arby’s. I’m now excited for it, salivating like my dogs for a piece of turkey bacon, like…

“Hello, welcome to Arby’s can I take your order?”
“Yeah, hi, I’d like a number four with curly fries, and…”
“Um, we’re out of roast beef tonight.”
“What?”
“We’re out of roast beef.”
“Seriously?”
“Yeah”
“This is Arby’s, right?”
“Um…yes.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Yeah, you should be.”

We look to each other in wondrous amazement. How, in the name of all that is holy, does Arby’s, famous for roast beef, run out of roast beef? How do these things happen? It’s one of those great complications, like…how did the world let the Nazi’s come into power…how did ‘Catwoman’ get made…and how does Arby’s run out of roast beef?

And the list goes on. From fast food to restaurant chains, etc., Alaska is lacking in service. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t GREAT places with awesome service. There truly are, but they are few and far between it seems.

However, I am probably being harsh and a crybaby. I have lived in many different places, from Florida to Chicago to Washington D.C. and it all varies…however, the one thing those places have that Alaska doesn’t is a competitive market.

Competition breeds good service. It’s a double-edged sword in this great state. One of the best things about Alaska is its intimacy, its rawness, its lack of a thousand different places all clustered and clambering for your attention. And it is also its downfall. As the state continues to grow, which it is, immensely, I am sure that people will begin to force the stores and restaurants that are lacking to pick it up and get their shit together.

Good businesses will compete to keep you in their good graces. As someone about to venture into the throes of his own small business, I will fight for the loyalty and the business of my customers and do all I can to keep them coming back. It’s not like I’m reinventing the wheel. That’s the way good businesses have always succeeded.

So, we’ve covered two lovely topics today; Stop-loss and the service industry. Fucking random. Whatever. It needed to get off my chest and the longer I let it stew then the longer it dissolves away. This is the paragraph where I wrap shit up and try to make it seem like I planned to flow from one random topic to another and now I’m going tie them together and you can sit back and think of what a wonderful feat I pulled off.

Well, there goes that.

Next up: The Playboy Interview with my dogs. See you soon!

Monday, March 10, 2008

What I've Been Watching

I know I've been absent for a while, but, as usual, I'm trying to get back into the swing of things. For my rabid five or six fans, here is a quick update on what I've been watching. I get asked most about what I'm watching and although I do not aspire to be a critic, but rather critiqued myself, I simply can't help myself. If I'm gonna talk shit then it may as well be in a public forum.

I REALLY do have a few good things sitting in Word, gathering digital dust and as soon as I get rid of this procrastination bug, then I will plaster it up here...

In the meantime...What I've been watching...

Cloverfield
Directed by: Matt Reeves

A lot of people have asked for my perspective on this film, possibly because they didn’t quite know what to make of it themselves. For me, this film succeeds on many levels, especially the marketing, which drove audiences to the theater by the hordes for what seemed to be mere curiosity.

I love the use of the shaky-cam amateur filmmaking that is happening in a lot of movies now, thanks largely to the population’s immersion in online videos like you tube or ogrish. We are becoming a culture immersed in the throes of reality everything and why not include it in the big-budget extravaganzas that you would LEAST expect to see it?

Following a group of friends through New York after a monster (a la Godzilla) rampages through the city we are deeply invested in their struggle to stay alive and rescue a trapped and possibly dead friend. Most people have seen J.J. Abrams name strewn across this film and it definitely has his stamp. From the twenty-something angst of getting older and growing up, break ups and hook ups included, we are treated to a more three dimensional group of characters rather than the one note song of Matthew Broderick in Godzilla.

Now, I must admit, throughout the film I found myself turning away from the screen as the nausea built up from time to time (note to self: don’t sit so freakin’ close). This is the problem with the amateur shaky cam extravaganza. At some point, you would think, with our aforementioned culture so ready to become the next Spielberg with their Sony HD cam in hand, that they would take the time to steady the fucking camera and learn the rule of thirds and basic framing techniques. These guys shoot as if just trying to get some b-roll.

However, Cloverfield still shines as a cinematic achievement, blending the hyper-reality of amateur filmmaking with the likes of a Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) epic, only with much better characters and a more kinetic and realistic energy.

The monster is seen mostly in passing and we get a good look near the end, but ultimately it’s not about the monster, which is a feat in itself, especially when today’s sellout market is so reliant on the bells and whistles of a movie in order to further the cash cow to the bank. Many times the studios forget what they’re really putting out there…unless they’re Roland Emmerich, in which case you can go get your 10,000 B.C. lunchbox, happy meal, action figure, etc.

Cloverfield is a skimpy 80-odd minutes and it goes by fast, chock full of shocks, surprises, and ‘holy shit’ moments to rev up any moviegoer. It’s pure entertainment, put together with care and spirit, something very rare indeed.

GRADE: B+


Rambo
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone

I had a much larger review for this in the works, but have since abandoned it due to it being delayed for so long. Sometimes the short and sweet is better anyways as I am no stranger to beating the living shit out of a dead horse.

Rambo is, without a doubt, one of the best action films ever made. That’s a bold statement, I know. However, when you look at what an action film is Rambo lives up to all of the qualities and then ups the bar by giving us an in-your-face, unexpectedly raw and violent movie, taking great strides from his three prior entries into the series of John Rambo.

Rambo is more in theme with its original, First Blood, and nowhere near the campy hijinks of the sequels that followed. I grew up on Rambo at the height of his popularity and well into the use of his name as an adjective or state of mind. I loved the brutal reality of the first film and the campy fun of the sequels. But this fourth film is something else entirely…

We pick up many years after Rambo 3 with our silent hero living the quiet life near Burma, running a snake-catching/boat taxi business and still trying to tame the beast within. Stallone plays it much more aloof this time out, but still within the parameters of what you’d think of John J. Rambo as a man about to enter the last stages of life.

What I love is the buildup of the character…always silent, lost in his own stare, never saying much but when he does it’s well thought out and direct to the point. To me, this is what makes Rambo such a force to be reckoned with. He is a man of thought and action. There is no in-between. He says what he means and does what he says.

The true kudos belong entirely to Stallone who gives the rest of the A-List directors in Hollywood a wake-up call they won’t soon forget; namely by showing the true grit and consequence of real-world violence, sparing us the cutaways and unseen carnage. He shows us the cards. He shows us the whole fucking deck and we are able to really see what we’re playing with. Amazing.

However annoyed you may be by hearing a combat vets perspective (get used to it…there’s a lot of us now) I found the realistic portrayal of violence just as shocking as anyone, but at the same time was happy to see someone finally give it to the audience straight. I’ve seen what a .50 machine gun can do and if you don’t want to see it in real life then just go watch Rambo…you won’t find a more accurate portrayal.

When explosions go off, body parts fly off, charred bits of flesh sail through the air and the brutal slaughter of innocent children is no longer a hand over our eyes. Many critics argued that this is excessive and self indulgent. They are wrong. I don’t care what their opinion is. They’re wrong. Seeing a child get stuck with a bayonet does not bring satisfaction, it brings to light what it really is to see an innocent killed by a monster.

And therein lays another check in the box for Rambo. If you don’t absolutely HATE the Burmese soldiers by the end of this film then you are the darkest sadist on the block. And when Rambo gets on that .50 and orchestrates an opus of destruction upon the Burmese army you will find yourself welling up with the feelings of sweet, sweet vindication.

The film also gives us a chance to see Rambo lead fellow ex-soldiers, putting him back where he is at his best. Watching him work and put his military skills and killer instinct to work is joyous. I truly felt that they really got to the core of this character and threw in some great variables for him to deal with. Some fans argued that they should send Rambo to Iraq and fight Al Qaeda.

As Stallone himself said, that would be an insult to those that are fighting that battle. By tackling the real-life status in Burma, where there is no military intervention (much like the Afghans and the Soviets in Rambo 3…talk about ironic foreshadowing), we are able to have our eyes opened and enter a situation in which we have no predispositions or politics, seeing as most people don’t even know where or what the fuck Burma is.

Now, to back up my earlier statement if I haven’t clarified enough, I’m not bullshitting when I say that Rambo is one of the best action films ever made. When I was a kid I said that after every new action movie I saw. After seeing “Universal Soldier” I told my brother that, “Yeah, I guess that’s my new favorite action movie,” and then years later, after suffering through that Roland Emmerich pile of crap, I realized how misguided and unseasoned I was.

Today, my thoughts could not be more clear (at least in my own, humble viewpoints) and by all accounts Rambo rocks more ass than Bret Michaels backstage after singing ‘Every Rose has it’s Thorn’ in Poison’s height of fame. The harsh, grungy, and fierce violence is unrelenting, the characters are alive in their own afflictions and Stallone is finally able to resolve the heart of a character evolved over three generations.

GRADE: A

27 Dresses
Directed by: Anne Fletcher

I agreed/was dragged to this romcom about a woman (Katherine Heigl) who is ‘always the bridesmaid and never the bride,’ nearly making a career of it. Heigl is deeply in love with her boss, played by Edward Burns, and when her sister (Malin Ackerman) comes to visit all hell breaks loose as the sister and the boss fall in love and get engaged. To top it off, a reporter (James Marsden) is covering a story on the career bridesmaid as it all goes down.

I really had no expectations for this one, but for a PG-13 romcom it’s pretty good. Heigl proves she’s not a one-trick pony in the comedy arena and takes the crown from the likes of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts who would normally inhabit such a role. Heigl is funny, aloof, klutzy, cute, and deeply confused, which seems to be the qualification for roles in this type of film.

The real surprise is James Marsden (Cyclops in the X-Men films) who for the first time is able to drop that serious, hardened persona he seems to always be typecast with and is utterly likeable, funny, and charming (man, did I just write that?). Marsden gives a well-rounded performance and the chemistry between him and Heigl is spot on. I mean, that’s half the work in a movie like this. That’s really all you need. Although naked boobies are always nice for the testosterone laden pervs like me, but I can settle for the charming romance. ..

This is light, fluffy, fun, and has a super happy ending, which is the recipe for success in this genre. For that it deserves its rewards.

GRADE: B+


Jumper
Directed by: Doug Liman

I had high hopes for this one for two reasons. One; Doug Liman has proven to be a kick ass director, evolving from Swingers to The Bourne Identity to Mr. And Mrs. Smith. I have become genuinely excited for his future endeavors and hoped for Jumper to further his winning streak.
My other hope was that Hayden Christensen would make me believe that he could pull off a leading man role that didn’t involve the stigma of Darth Vader.

Does either succeed? Yes and no. Jumper felt entirely like a pilot episode to a new TV show on the CW network. Something that would follow on the heels of Smallville or Supernatural. Interesting enough character with a lot of history, a lot of back story and a compelling gimmick with unending possibilities.

The problem is it’s NOT a TV pilot. It’s a self-contained movie that opens and closes under the pretense that this is merely the beginning, but didn’t give us much of that to start with. The ‘jumping’ effects are nothing that spectacular, but the concept is. Liman’s directing is pretty average with no new ground or similarly-minded scope covered. By all accounts this is sophomoric compared to his last two films.

Christensen is O-Kay in this, but not great. It always feels like he’s almost there, just about to make that great performance but doesn’t quite make it, his intensity rising just to the surface and leveling off. I’m sure the right director could pull it out of him, but that’s assuming he gets the chance. (To note, his best role to date is in “Shattered Glass” which is a great film-check it out!).

Rachel Bilson shows up long enough to be hot and cute at the same time, but doesn’t do much to further her status as a rising actress. She’s pretty to look at but doesn’t touch anything near what Natalie Portman or the other A-list youngsters are doing.

Samuel L. Jackson is just Samuel L. Jackson only with ridiculous white hair. I expected a lot more from the rematch between Anakin and Mace, alas it’s all pretty by-the-numbers.
Jumper is a concept that seemed to be too big to capture in one film and so the filmmakers tackled it under the pretense that they were kick starting a franchise. The thing is you have to BUILD that franchise first. This is like cliff notes as a TV show.

By the time it was over I felt like I just started the first episode of a show on DVD and was ready to pop in the next disc. However, there is no other disc, just the one show and it just wasn’t enough.

GRADE: C+

Vantage Point
Directed by: Pete Travis

I kept telling everyone that I had high hopes for this one. The trailer is brilliantly cut and I was very hopeful that they didn’t blow their load on it. Fortunately, this movie had stamina and gave us a long session before exploding. Man, do we really need the innuendo? Yeah, it’s late. Deal.

Told from multiple perspectives circling the same event, we are thrust into about twenty minutes worth of a really bad situation, retold again and again from a different point of view. At first it starts to get frustrating, going back to the same spot and hitting play again, only to pick up with a different character, but then like an onion revealing its layers, we are shown a new side, a new plot point, which drives us deeper into the story.

This is called storytelling. We like it when it is fun and revealing and pulls all the right strings. Otherwise it’s not storytelling. It’s you waiting for someone to shut the fuck up so you don’t have to hear their shit anymore.

To dig too deep into this would be to reveal too much because every scene pushes forward more details to the next, leading to the ultimate showdown and big reveals. However, the basics are thus; a presidential assassination in Spain leads to the unraveling of a conspiracy and race against the clock to stop the bad guys and save the good ones.

This is shot as if they got a memo from Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum) giving them guidance on what elements to include in a good thriller. Explosions, surprises, double crosses, foot chases, car chases, shoot outs, assassination, and cool toys. Vantage Point has it all and gives one hell of a good adrenaline rush. In time it will probably be pretty forgettable, but I could think of a lot worse ways to spend an hour and a half.

Surprisingly fun, involving, and not too hard on the brain, this is a great gimmicky-thriller that hits on its marks and delivers the goods.

GRADE: B+

Definitely, Maybe
Directed by: Adam Brooks

Once again, I entered this one with low expectations, but due to a prior Valentine’s Day date that never saw fruition it was time for me to pay up. Lucky for me, I walked away a winner.
Ryan Reynolds plays a just single father who is confronted by his daughter about his past and how things came to be. Reynolds decides to spill the beans to her, but changes the name of the girlfriends in the story so that she won’t know which one is her mother.

At first this may seem just silly, but it works wonderfully. As we follow Reynolds from a wannabe politician in college, working on Bill Clinton’s campaign and his rise and fall through the administration, ultimately leading to a career in advertising, the relationships with the three women that ‘got away’ are revealed to us and teased and trodden over so that we are constantly guessing on who the mother of his daughter is.

With a great cast of females playing Reynolds trio of dames, Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher, and Rachel Weisz, and further support from a surprise appearance from veteran actor Kevin Kline and the newcomer extraordinaire Abigail Breslin as Reynolds daughter, the film has so much going for it in cast alone that it’s hard to ignore.

Fortunately, the story is just as strong, filled with great little intimate moments and real life relatable lessons and just enough warmed over sweetness to not make us sick. Reynolds plays his lovesick father role with ease and Isla Fisher turns in the strongest performance of the three female leads, cute, funny, and bittersweet to the end.

As the movie unravels its tale of love lost and found, we are left with a fulfilling and heartwarming story that anyone who has loved and lost can relate to. By and far the ‘sweetest’ movie I’ve seen since “Love Actually,” and ultimately a great surprise for someone that was ‘dragged’ to his Valentine’s Day contractual obligation.

GRADE: A

Semi-Pro
Directed by: Kent Alterman

Man, the promos for this movie had me rolling. I was ready for a return to the “Anchorman” and “Old School” Will Ferrell. I was ready for a great supporting cast and hilarious concept to really have me shooting soda out of my nose.

Unfortunately, I spent more time waiting for the movie to end than proceed. Semi-Pro follows the exploits of Jackie Moon (Ferrell) playing a basketball coach/owner/promoter who has to win a certain amount of games to be included into the NBA and not be disbanded completely.
After trading his washer and dryer for a washed up player on a winning team (Woody Harrelson), Jackie moves to make the big win and secure a spot in the NBA.

There are some real gem moments in this film but just not enough to make it anywhere near a comedy classic. One of the problems is the R-Rating, which is uncommon as of late for Will Ferrell’s movies, and the reason is that they don’t GO FOR IT. If you are taking an R then you are taking a hit on your mass audience. By that token you should make the risk worth it. Take it to the next raunchier level, show more boobs, make it nastier, say fuck every other word, whatever, just make it worth it.

I am baffled when a movie takes an R rating and doesn’t use every ounce of it. Don’t take an R just so you can say fuck more than once. That’s ridiculous. In a PG-13 dominated business it’s a huge risk. Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze if you’re gonna do it.

Here, there is hardly a reason for an R. Aside from some crude language (and nowhere near enough to justify it) there isn’t much that makes it feel like a grown up comedy. It’s no Old School, trust me. Ferrell is funny as always, but not in top form. And Harrelson is just completely miscast and useless in this. I’ve always liked him, but playing the straight man in an off the wall comedy is just a bad idea and bored me to tears.

The funniest moment is when the guys are playing a game of poker and a game of Russian roulette is started. You’ll never call someone a ‘jive turkey’ without thinking again. Come to think of it, most people never say that.

GRADE: C-