Why are movies about the Iraq War so difficult to make? That's easy -- all war movies are difficult to make, especially when the war is on-going and the support for the war is murky at best. World War II was easy -- movies like Mrs. Miniver were meant to rouse people and stir up patriotism. Get to Vietnam and an awful movie like John Wayne's The Green Berets was hopelessly outdated the moment it was released, capturing neither the reality of the war nor the spirit at home. You can barely call a minor skirmish like Grenada a "war," so when Clint Eastwood tried to build Heartbreak Ridge around it you couldn't help giggling.
And now the Iraq War. Documentaries have proven extremely effective and well-received because a point-of-view is a strength. But mainstream commercial films are afraid to seem partisan which means they fail to be realistic. And so to Stop-Loss ($34.99; Paramount), Director Kimberly Pierce's follow-up to her brilliant Boys Don't Cry squanders a fine cast on a timid story about soldiers upset over being forcibly re-enlisted via a backdoor draft after fulfilling their duty (the "stop-loss" of the title) but eventually showing up for duty anyway. Instead of the careful ethnic mix of a WWII movie, Stop-Loss features a careful balance of flaws: Channing Tatum is violent and unable to control himself in civilian life, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a terrific actor wasted in a small role) is a drunk who hates following orders and Ryan Phillippe (who is consistently better than you think he's gonna be) is a guy who refuses to accept being dragooned back into Iraq when he believes he kept his side of the bargain. Phillippe is the most stable of the lot, which makes his going AWOL all the harder to swallow. Could the smartest guy in his group really think a US Senator would go up against the Defense Department during wartime and help a soldier gone AWOL to avoid service? That's the hard-to-swallow engine driving this movie. Combine that with a respect for the soldiers and their families that keeps the movie from specifically talking about THIS war (the conflict could be darn near any conflict, for all it matters) and the result is a hard to buy premise vaguely connected to the current conflict rescued somewhat by a fine cast.
What's your favorite war movie? I have a fondness for the Korean War flick Pork Chop Hill because it was boldly pessimistic and my local TV station showed it over and over again late at night when I was growing up.
Also out this week:
Chop Shop ($26.98; Koch Lorber) -- Director Ramin Bahrani's superior followup to Man Push Cart delicately captures the struggles of two orphans in Queens, New York who claw out an existence around the junkyards near Shea Stadium. If he keeps improving like this, Bahrani's next film is definitely one to watch.
Superhero Movie ($29.95; Genius) -- If I told you this Airplane-like parody of superhero movies was dumb, would you think that was a compliment? If so, snap this up. At some point, actor Drake Bell is gonna be a superstar. I just can't figure out whether it's going to be via acting or his terrific music.
Batman Mania -- The Dark Knight is getting terrific reviews from the trades, so to pump up anticipation even more they're re-releasing Batman Begins in a Limited Edition Giftset ($49.99; Warner Bros.), which includes a flashdrive with Batman artwork, postcards and the such. But doesn't everyone who would pay extra for a giftset already own it? More useful is the 5th and final season of The Batman ($19.98; Warner Bros.), the recent animated series that began in 2004 which is fine, but not as good as the highwater mark of Batman, the animated version from the 90s. Finally, I'm split on Batman Gotham Knight ($29.98; Warner Bros.), the first PG-13 animated Batman movie. I know the movies are increasingly dark and really for adults and have no problem with the superior quality of this release. But somehow the fact that they're pushing the envelope content-wise with even the animated Batman just doesn't sit well with me. I know, it's not meant for kids just because it's animated. But still....
Mummy Mania -- Brendan Fraser's return to the square-jawed hero of The Mummy in the new movie The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor has spawned the usual reissues. There's The Mummy ($19.98; Universal), the surprisingly fun 1999 movie; The Mummy Returns ($19.98; Universal), the 2001 sequel which couldn't live up to even modest expectations, the original Boris Karloff The Mummy ($26.98; Universal) in a special edition that can't hide the fact that the original is pretty dull; Van Helsing ($19.98; Universal), which is a stretch but they need to make their money back on that one still, don't they; and even Journey To The Center Of The Earth ($19.95; Genius), a TV movie from earlier this year starring Ricky Schroeder that beat Brendan Fraser's other summer movie, at least to the little screen.
Shhhhh! "The X-Files" Is Coming Out -- For some reason, the summer movie The X-Files: I Want To Believe appears to be the buzz-less movie of the year. A once wildly popular TV show, The X-Files stayed on the air far too long (like virtually every hit show ever made) and wore out its welcome. But when I watch the trailer for the movie, that haunting score immediately gets me going again. Maybe this stand-alone adventure can be sold as a straight horror movie of sorts, with fans slowly realizing they missed the show after all. All it will need is some good reviews and a decent first weekend could turn into "legs," where the movie plays and plays and the fun of the show is reignited. One good way to get excited: dipping into The X-Files Revelations ($22.97; Fox), which brings together eight of the best stand-along episodes from the show including the pilot, the one with the sewer monster, the one with Peter Boyle as a psychic and more. No surprise: all eight episodes come from the first six seasons. Watch these and you'll be sure to line up for the movie on opening night come July 25.
Finally: the Canadian gem Mon Oncle Antoine ($39.95; Criterion); Sheryl Crow Live ($19.99; Koch), with the rocker celebrating her enduring career in this fine 90 minute show; Dog Whisperer Third Season ($39.98; Screen Media), with Cesar Millan working with problem dogs (and as often as not, problem owners as well) in this reality show; Tyler Perry's Meet The Browns ($34.98; LionsGate), Perry's latest romantic drama, this time with Angela Bassett and the always hilarious Jenifer Lewis in a special edition that includes a free digital download (an increasingly common feature on DVDs) for portable or computer viewing; 305 ($29.99; Allumination), the YouTube spoof of 300 turned to full-length DVD movie, proving that being the first YouTube to feature film doesn't necessarily mean you're the best, but at least you've got bragging rights; Stealth ($29.95; WaterBearer), a well-reviewed queer comedy about identity and love; Down The River ($29.95; WaterBearer), a pretty but shapeless Thai film about awkward teen gay love that is so typical of current Thai cinema in its disregard for niceties like character development that you have to wonder what the Thais have against plots; Soul Food ($49.98; Paramount), the fifth and final season of the Showtime series; and Down The Barrel ($19.95; Genius), a too-short ESPN documentary following Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Joel Parkinson and Kalani Robb as they surf in some of the most gorgeous spots in the world. No reason not to stuff this with extra footage of their surfing but the 93 minutes here look beautiful.
So tell me, what's your favorite war movie of all time?