starring Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
screenplay by Mark Richard & Kimberly Peirce
directed by Kimberly Peirce
*/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Spacey
screenplay by Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb
directed by Robert Luketic
by Walter Chaw The only thing really wrong with MTV--besides the fact that they don't show music videos anymore--is that its branding on some of the most vacuous, appalling celebrations of vanity, stupidity, and acting-out in the not-exactly-sterling history of the medium has spawned a rash of imitative programming. It's cheap to turn a few cameras on pretty idiots fucking each other figuratively and literally in resort locales, and so now there are Tiffany versions of this ("Survivor") on broadcast networks and sewer versions of this (those Flava Flav things, Anna Nicole's old show) on struggling basic-cable outlets. (Cartoon Network even has an animated send-up of "The Real World".) And if the genre momentarily appeared to be on the verge of extinction, it suddenly found new life with the recent writers' strike. Because a good many films nowadays are populated by pre-fabricated tween (and post-tween) stars, I have no idea who they are until they're shoved into my consciousness as "stars"; indeed, MTV's dread influence on popular culture has extended itself (hand-in-hand with Titanic's mammoth babysitter's-club popularity) into the multiplex. Too ephemeral for any nickname (no "brat pack" here, just a revolving door of fresh meat), the real legacy of MTV might be that it functions as a microcosm for the lost youth phenomenon in the United States: In every Britney Spears, I see a Virginia Tech. Promise the terminally untalented the moon and repay them with a goat's portion of disappointment, disillusionment, and frustration bound to simmer to a foul boil.
So be afraid when MTV weighs in on the Iraq II discussion with its pseudo-serious Stop-Loss, a marginally prettier Home of the Brave that has as its chief selling point that it's not full of old people like Irwin Winkler's mawkish melodrama or Paul Haggis's likewise-deplorable In the Valley of Elah (or predictable Sundance fave Grace is Gone--have I forgotten a few? Who's counting?). MTV's revolving door of fresh meat seems a natural fit with the individual human tragedy of war, though Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Channing Tatum, and Abbie Cornish, three of the brightest young actors of their generation, lend gravitas to director Kimberly Peirce's self-serving theatrics and standard jags of rise-and-fall self-righteousness. In their capable hands, it's possible now and again to see past Peirce's populist anti-war polemic and note hints of real nobility in the urge to go bleed in the desert for the same idealism that informed this country's foundation.
Barring that, what's left for our fighting men and women is a role as mug in someone else's bad practical joke and the unpatriotic suggestion that to sacrifice all the things the film rightly essays our military folks as having sacrificed is to be a patsy. Note Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death in Afghanistan and how it went from being an act of extreme patriotism to being the focus of a government conspiracy to first doll-up, then cover-up, the facts of this beautiful man's ugly extinction. A similar kind of heartfelt exploitation goes on in Stop-Loss as the "Noble One Who Snaps Beneath The Injustice Of It All," Brandon (Ryan Phillippe), visits his ex-unit convalescing in pieces in an underfunded veteran's hospital. Politically, I'm in the movie's corner--it's hard for me to feel great about the Pentagon's policy of re-upping their vets in lieu of a draft (when people say we've learned nothing from Vietnam, I can only disagree: we learned that when continuing an unpopular war into eternity not to televise casualties or institute a draft) and harder still to understand the lack of support for returning soldiers shattered by their experiences in the name of God and country. Still, you gotta question the effectiveness of broad, facile treatments like these.
Peirce's avatar in the picture is Cornish's Michele: steadfast and patient in the face of Brandon's disintegration--his struggle between the Scylla of war abroad and the Charybdis (embodied in a trio of youths he catches vandalizing his car) of the million little battles at home. Peirce, whose last picture was the highly-regarded Boys Don't Cry, is still dealing with gender-identity issues, with how young men are rudderless in this culture and dangerous left with the bitter taste of betrayal and limited information. Call it a Deer Hunter without direction that telegraphs its tragedies and masks its anxiety in a soft sheen of pretty faces involved in their sexy Method. Brief interludes of jittery hand-held footage uploaded to the Internet continue this year's (and part of last's) fascination with our information-age overload, locating MTV as the savant author/prophet of yet another sticky string of our psychosocial disturbance. The biggest surprise of Stop-Loss is that it tries to have something to say; the biggest non-surprise is that Peirce trying her best behaves an awful lot like a solipsistic fraction of a bigger malfunction.
At least it has something on its mind, unlike idiot Robert Luketic's idiot 21, which, despite detailing the true story of a band of industrious MIT students who learned how to count cards in teams and take Las Vegas casinos for a bajillion clams in turn, doesn't have one single cogent thought anywhere near its brainpan. Another launchpad for British menschkin Jim Sturgess as lead-geek Ben (Asian in real-life, but John Cho was busy being Japanese in outer space), the picture follows Ben's rise as a Vegas big-shot, banging impossible crush Jill (Kate Bosworth) in a complimentary suite and becoming a magnificent prick in every other respect before suffering his fall (at the hands, sort of, of casino boss Laurence Fishburne) and discovering what truly matters in life. Find also Kevin Spacey reprising his role as Lex Luthor (and Bosworth the Lois to Ben's Supe/Clark), the evil MIT prof who recruits Ben and his coterie of alleged brainiacs to test his theories on the mean streets of Sin City.
A film that makes Rounders seem like a work of great seriousness and import, 21 is this generation's The Sting--and I mean that with as much ire as I can muster: It's a giant, sloppy, masturbatory mess spurred on by the same rage for filthy lucre as the characters it commodifies into stock types and flattened narrative arcs. The characters are smart because the script mentions it over and over again; their system works because the plot demands that it does; and once the filmmakers' imagination runs out, long about the five-minute mark (around the time our love interest makes her entrance hitting a punching bag), hurry and introduce a scary black guy with brass knuckles. If there was anything of value to the story, asking Luketic (he of Monster-In-Law and Legally Blonde) to take the reins guaranteed a thin, easily-digested slurry sure to rake it in during the winter release dead zone. MTV's scary legacy? Entitlement without real consequence: sex, fast fashion, and piles of cash traded in for spiritual and moral enlightenment. Originally published: March 28, 2008.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - 21
by Bill Chambers Sony brings 21 to Blu-ray in a seemingly optimal 2.40:1, 1080p presentation--there's enough telltale perfection on display (see: the characters walking down a glittering nightclub corridor in chapter 11) to let you know that this transfer is at the mercy of soft, soupy cinematography. This may be the ugliest movie yet shot with the Genesis, Panavision's proprietary HD camera: Director Robert Luketic creates a cognitive dissonance by slavishly following the Hollywood hack's playbook only to more or less eschew glamour lighting; of all the advantages that shooting in HiDef affords, it's inexplicable that he and DP Russell Carpenter should seize on its ability to register an image in practical darkness. (If verisimilitude was the desired effect, they succeeded only in looking amateurish.) What I'd really like to know is why green has been all but leeched from 21's palette, since Vegas--the city of money, after all--is abundant in verdant colours, from the beckoning Kryptonite glow of the MGM Grand to the palm-lined streets to the felt of a million card tables. As for the audio, it's rendered in tack-sharp Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and while I imagine it sounds a little more forceful at full resolution, the "core" is already pretty robust for such an undemanding, stereophonic mix. On another track, find a banal feature-length commentary in which producers Dana Brunetti (a dude) and Mike DeLuca perform tag-team fellatio on an undeserving Luketic. About the only thing I took from this yakker is that "the WB" remains a pejorative long after the network's official demise. Oh yeah, and casinos are fun.
Skipping over the BD Live features, whatever they may be (call me old-school, but I don't need to be on the fucking Internet while I'm watching a movie), the disc additionally includes three featurettes--in 1080p but curiously prone to aliasing--and a format-exclusive virtual blackjack game that actually lets you assign swear words to your player name, something Disney discs never let you get away with. In "The Advantage Player" (5 mins.), the main cast (minus Spacey) explains card-counting in a swift fashion meant to make you feel dense. Mission accomplished, though I did enjoy the brief explanation of Roger Baldwin's "optimum strategy," which over the years has morphed into basic strategy. Meanwhile, "Basic Strategy: A Complete Film Journal" (25 mins.) opens with a hilariously laboured account of how the story of MIT student Jeff Ma went from being a book to being a WIRED article to being a studio-hopping, homogenized Kevin Spacey production wherein Ma got to cameo as a dealer referred to as his white alter ego's "brother from another mother." Luketic and Spacey triangulate their mutual Kate Bosworth fetish and we learn that the establishing shots of Jim Sturgess riding his bike around Boston were given a heavy CG lift by visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall. The usual, in other words. Lastly, "Money Plays: A Tour of the Good life" (7 mins.) hears from production designer Missy Stewart (badly-miked) and costume designer Luca Mosca, both of whom discuss heritage (Boston) vs. pop culture (Vegas). A superfluous Blu-ray promo cues up on startup while HD trailers for Prom Night, The Other Boleyn Girl, Men in Black, "Damages" Season 1, Persepolis, Across the Universe, Made of Honor, Vantage Point, and Married Life fall under a menu-based selection of "Previews." Originally published: July 21, 2008.