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Jarhead (2005)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A movie that pretends not to be political but, in reality, is is is., 27 November 2005

Jarhead has two themes. The first is an exploration of the degradation and terror that Marine recruits go through in their training. The brainwashing techniques they endure were pioneered by Stalin, Mao and their sycophants but, apparently, are not unique to adherents of totalitarian ideologies.

I work with several people who served the Marine Corps. It makes my skin crawl to realize that they accepted the mindless dictates of fanatical killing and absolute obedience that Jarhead presents. From now on, I'll think of them as psychopaths and be very very careful.

I was glad to see the contemptuous rejection that a couple of the Marines receive from their wives and girlfriends. The Marines made their choices and became hateful people. At least, their women have the sense to dump them.

The second theme of Jarhead is that none of this works. The fully indoctrinated Marines spend months in the Iraqi desert during the First Gulf War, with nothing to do but masturbate and tear each other apart, awaiting their opportunity to kill kill kill their assigned enemies.

But they don't get to. Seems the Air Force boys with their big bombs have taken care of things. All they encounter are dead Iraqis. One of the Marines wants to adopt a burned Iraqi body as his pet but his superior thinks that's not how Marines behave.

The opportunity to kill someone is what's sought more than anything else, and its bureaucratic denial drives some of the boys crazy. Maybe they should have thought a little more about what they were getting into.

6 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
A personal, compelling, and ultimately hopeful look at two would-be Palistinian suicide bombers, 30 October 2005

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Said and Khaled are young men who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp and who work in an automobile garage. You initially see them sitting on a hillside overlooking what they call their occupied country and sharing a water pipe. The feelings that lead them to volunteer as suicide bombers are revealed gradually, and with great effect.

We first see Suha, who turns out to be an equally important character, as she passes through an Israeli checkpoint and is viewed with intense suspicion by the heavily armed border guard who examines her papers. Later, Said repairs her car and they have what is, by American standards, a mild flirtation. Said learns from his boss at the auto shop that she is the daughter of a Palistinian resistance leader killed by the Israeli military.

Members of the Palistinian resistance also play important roles. Their leader tells Said and Khaled that they are certain to enter paradise. No one, however, really believe this. They are too modern and too secular for such promises to have credibility. It is revenge, restoration of honor, and finding of a place in their nation's history that emerge as the real motivations.

The resistance cadre tape explosives and detonators to Said's and Khaled's bodies and tell them in passing that no one but their contacts will be able to remove them. They hold at their sides machine guns with which they are clearly unfamiliar, read propaganda statements for videotapes, and proceed to cross the border to meet their contact. They have been dressed is suits and told to say that they are settlers going to a wedding.

At this point, things go wrong and further layers are peeled from the dramatic and political onion. A patrol vehicle approaches just as the men have passed through the border fence. Their contact drives off. Said and Khaled go back through the fence but are separated. Khaled makes contact with the resistance members. They remove his bombs and voice their suspicions about Khaled. His father, it seems, was an informer for the Israelis and was killed when discovered by the resistance. Said vouches for Khaled. The resistance cadres lend him a car and he drives frantically about the countryside in search of his friend. One of the places he goes to is Sula's house and Sula joins him in his search.

They find Said at his father's grave, about to detonate his bombs. They stop him and Said and Sula have an impassioned conversation, with he insisting that he has no alternative and she advocating political rather than hopeless military resistance. Said wonders seriously about what she says but is determined to go ahead with the plan. This time, he successfully crosses to Israel, still strapped with bombs and detonator. We last see him sitting on a crowded bus with pleasant-looking young Israeli soldiers around him, exactly the kind of people he has been ordered to kill. The screen goes blank and the movie ends.

Like the 1983 film, El Norte, Paradise Now has aesthetic rough edges but is politically an overwhelming success. The essential message is this: it is up to Palestinians and Israelis to decide whether they will continue to do the work of bloody minded fools or find a way to share the land that they both claim. Such a message is an enormous tribute to everyone involved in the film's creation.

3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
A brilliant invocation of the pretend and real Los Angeles, 11 May 2005

I almost left this film after its first two hours. I expected the final hour would be more of what had gone before - a succession of brief clips, mostly from little-known fifties and sixties movies, with a somewhat flat voice-over narrative explaining how little relationship the "L.A." scenes in the movies have to the realities of Los Angeles and American life. For a while, seeing all the old images was fun and the narration was intelligent, but, I thought, enough was enough.

I'm really glad I stayed 'til the end. The final hour pulled it all together and made me understand why the initial two hours were needed. The second part began with the "low tourism" of Annie Hall (still using the city as a backdrop), went on to the "high tourism" of Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (dealing with real historical events involving water and transportation but in a fictional context), and ended with with films by independent black directors, including Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, that show the lives of real people in a hard, difficult, vibrant city in which not everyone owns a car.

Los Angeles Plays Itself is an intensely political documentary for which the primary influence may ultimately be Bertolt Brecht. It doesn't seek to make the viewer identify with any of the characters, even the sympathetic characters, in its movie extracts. Rather, it uses the extracts to argue for a radical view of a potentially beautiful city, one in which economic and social decency come to the fore and public transportation is readily available.

I write this a week before a Los Angeles mayoral election in which Antonio Villaraigosa is the likely winner. I hope he has a chance to see Los Angeles Plays Itself.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
One of the best movies of the year - direct, natural and entirely believable., 23 August 2004

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Spoilers follow – but then, no serious work of art can really be spoiled by revealing its plot.

Maria Full of Grace reminds me of one of Patti Smith's first recordings, a monologue with music called Piss Factory. In it, she talks about a miserable job she had in a New Jersey pipe factory as a teenager. She inspects plumbing fixtures in 110 degree heat seated next to a woman who threatens to push her face in if she screws up the quota by working too fast. But complaining about hard conditions is not what Patti's about. Piss Factory's ultimately a hymn to what separates Patti from her co-worker ("though we may look the same"), what Patti calls 'desire.'

Patti's desire is similar to Maria's in Maria Full of Grace. It's ambition for a better life, but also more than that. Patti wants "to find the rhythm within." Like Patti in the early seventies, Maria's a headstrong young woman. At the beginning of the film, she tries to find her rhythm within by climbing, athletically and dangerously, to the roof of her house. She invites her boyfriend to join her on the roof, says she has something to tell him, and hints that if he comes up she'll give him the sex he wants. He looks at her as if she's crazy and walks away.

Maria's job's in a flower factory in Columbia. She removes thorns from roses and wraps them in bundles to be shipped to the United States. One morning at work, she needs to go to the bathroom a second time and vomits on some flowers. We guess the girl's pregnant. Her boss gets mad, makes her wash the flowers, and lets her know that she'll lose pay due to time lost from work. Maria can't take it any more and walks away from her job. Her family's upset. Her income's been helping to support her sister and her sister's baby.

When Maria tells her boyfriend she's pregnant, he wants to do the right thing and marry her. Then she and the baby can move in with the ten people in his family. Maria wants something better, and doesn't want to marry without love. She meets a guy at a dance who shows some appreciation and who's a bit more sophisticated than her boyfriend. He gives her a ride from their village to Bogota on his motorcycle and introduces her to a man who offers a way out. She can be a mule for drug traffickers. It's a big risk but a chance to make five thousand American bucks. Like everyone else in the drug business, she takes advantage of an opportunity.

The rest of the film, especially Maria's ritualistic swallowing of sixty-two large heroin capsules, has been well described by other reviewers, both professionals in the press and other amateurs in IMDb. Maria, with her dull friend, Blanca, tagging along, gets successfully through American customs (but only because they discover she's pregnant – seems it's against the rules to x-ray pregnant women for drugs in their stomachs).

Then the real trouble begins. One woman smuggler is discovered and arrested; another, Maria's mentor, has a capsule of heroin break open inside her and dies of an overdose. The American gangsters who receive the drugs slit her stomach open to retrieve their commodity and abandon her body. She has, however, given Maria the address of her sister in Queens. Maria Full of Grace comes through. She may be young and impetuous but she knows how to handle herself. The girls eventually get back to Columbia, Maria having paid half her profits to send her mentor's body home. Will she do it again?

Quite possibly.

I've always thought it was unfair of Ronald Reagan to condemn people in the illicit drug trade. After all, they're doing what he advocated, not relying on handouts but finding and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Maria's full of the kind of ambition and sense of possibility that we expect of successful Americans. Maybe our focus needs to be less on the people who bring drugs into the United States and more on why Americans of all social classes have such limitless appetites for what drug entrepreneurs have to offer.

Be that as it may, Maria Full of Grace is a great film. It looks at things straight on. Its characters are real people with strengths and weaknesses in real situations. They may be composites but they do far more than illustrate points. The director and screenwriter, Joshua Marston, and the actress who plays Maria, Catalina Sandino Moreno, are especially wonderful. Casual insights, such as the outsider's view of the frantic pace of New York City, are natural and highly effective. Very highly recommended.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Silly, bland, and without meaningful direction; a real dud., 11 June 2004

The last dozen or so movies I've seen this year have been exceptionally good, from Good Bye, Lenin to Harry Potter/Azbakan. I was beginning to think that I knew how to pick 'em, even if (as with Bus 174) I was one of two people in the theater. Well, my string of luck has ended on an exceptionally dismal note with the new Stepford Wives.

Nicole Kidman, I suppose, is more convincing as a high power media executive than as a courtesan in Moulin Rouge. And there was a mild interest in seeing Bette Midler without the usual cinematic efforts to disguise her diminutive height. But positive and neutral comments end with these. The suspension of disbelief required to make movie horror, even comedic horror, believable never gets off to a decent start. The characters are flat and without internal motivation. The situations are entirely implausible. It's an embarrassment to everyone involved, something to be left off one's resume. Somewhere between zero and one on a scale of ten.

14 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
What Alice Found is a really good movie about growing up in America without the all too common clichés., 16 May 2004

Until I did a Web search on "What Alice Found", I didn't realize that the name of the film is embedded in the title of one of Lewis Carroll's books. The book's complete title is "Through the Looking-Glass (And What Alice Found There)".

The Alice of the film comes from a background quite different from that of Lewis Carroll's Alice. Her fresh and assertive character, however, is similar. The movie Alice begins as a young woman in New Hampshire who steals money from her ass-patting boss and takes off for Miami, vaguely planning to study marine biology and play with dolphins. She encounters a middle-aged couple in a motor home (the husband's retired from the military) who rescue her from a strange man at a roadside stop and from her car's breakdown (perhaps caused by their mechanizations).

As it turns out, the couple is heavily involved in truck stop prostitution and see sweet, young Alice as a promising recruit. The wife (played by Judith Ivey in a performance worthy of some big award) buys Alice sexy clothing and shows her how to apply hot makeup. Initially, Alice passively accepts her ministrations and, with the couple's instructions, does several tricks. The encounter shown in the most detail is quite different from most cinematic sex but may be typical of what most often happens in real life. The man is shy and deferential and apologizes for "finishing" too fast.

What's wonderful about Alice (and different from her prototypes from Clarissa to Sister Carrie) is that she learns from her experiences and asserts herself. This is how things really are. Prostitution is everywhere. People are neither all good or all bad. Alice leaves the motor home with her well-earned money and a feeling of mutual respect.