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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Monday, April 15

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I've grown to learn that when director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, The Road to Perdition) is attached to any film, that film will be very difficult to categorize and summarize. His latest, Jarhead, is not a war film; it's not an anti-war film. If anything, it's a film about the mental preparation for a war that barely happens once it starts. The war in question is Operation Desert Storm, which saw more than 500,000 U.S. soldiers head to the Middle East, and sit around for months with nothing to do but train and prepare mentally to fight a battle that was effectively over in a few days. Mendes' film focuses on the required mindset of a Marine readying for a war and how the process of readying to kill for your country can drive someone completely insane, especially if he never gets the chance to kill.

A pumped up Jake Gyllenhaal plays Anthony Swofford (on whose autobiography the film is based), who jokingly says he got lost on the way to college and got himself enlisted. Through his training as a sniper scout, he is our entry point into the daily chipping away and retooling of the soul and ego of a military man. Mendes makes it perfectly clear that Marine training is a type of brainwashing, a lesson already learned and clearly borrowed from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. There are a couple of scenes in Jarhead that struck me as remarkably similar in tone and even visuals to Kubrick's essential work, but Mendes' borrowing doesn't end there. Even more blatant references to Apocalypse Now (ironically shown to the soldiers as a motivational tool at one point) are present and much appreciated.

The busy Peter Sarsgaard (in two films opening this week; see The Dying Gaul below) plays Swofford's sniper partner, Troy. He's probably the most underwritten character of the bunch, but Sarsgaard adds much-needed depth to Troy that saves him from being too obscure. His reasons for joining the military are different, but no less significant. And he acts as Swofford's conscience and sounding board when he strays. Jamie Foxx (in what is technically his first role since winning the Oscar for Ray) is the group's sergeant, who displays more of a philosophical and heart-felt persona then we're used to seeing in films about war. Foxx doesn't have as much screen time as many of his co-stars, but he doesn't need it. His performance is mighty enough for three films.

The film does a remarkable job of showing how much of the men's behavior and mental punishment is driven less from the leadership and more from one's fellow soldiers. They almost are being dared to be tougher and more disciplined while maintaining the overwhelming desire to kill. Supporting roles by Lucas Black and Evan Jones really drive home the duality of this war. Jones is desperate to kill, so much so that he mutilates the bodies of already-dead Iraqis just to hate his enemy a little bit more. Black (the young boy from Sling Blade and more recently seen in Friday Night Lights), on the other hand, is the Marine with the thickest Southern accent and the most liberal and informed opinions about why the war is being fought. Throw in a couple of cameos from Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert, and you've got yourself a beautiful and disturbing film.

Once the war begins and the Marines set up camp near the burning oil fields of Kuwait, the film takes on an otherworldly tone. And it's in these last few scenes that Jarhead goes from being a great film to being one of the best ever about the process of and preparation for battle. It alternates between grim and uplifting, as does war, and the level of frustration these soldiers feel when they are denied the taste of death is excruciating, almost as painful as the realization that now they will be sent home as trained killers with no release. Jarhead captures this and many other ugly truths with perfection.

The Squid and the Whale
Could also be titled When Hippies Raise Children. Welcome to the film that personifies bitterness. Tracking the disintegration of the Berkman family circa the early 1980s, The Squid and the Whale is an explosive, difficult-to-watch and partly autobiographical work from writer-director Noah Baumbach (best known for co-writing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).

The story centers on older son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg of Roger Dodger), who idolizes his writer/professor father, Bernard (the acid-tongued Jeff Daniels), whose promising career and talent is in gone in the toilet. Walt is something of a sponge who absorbs all of his father's opinions on books and people and spits them back out as his own without ever having read the books or met the people. He's a snob who hasn't bothered doing the homework to become one. His spirited mother, Joan (Laura Linney), is starting to have some success as a writer, and Bernard is ridiculously threatened by this. Consequently, Walt starts despising his mother for making his father feel bad. You see how this works, yes? Let us not forget younger brother Frank (Owen Kline), who is normally quiet but engages in the most deviant and sickening behavior of anyone in the film, all in the name of getting the attention of his parents whose separation is chronicled here.

The things that come out of the mouths of this family are almost unfathomable. The cruel intentions (especially between the parents and between Walt and his mother) know no bounds and the inappropriate behavior and words that pass between the players is nothing short of shocking. Having said all this, The Squid and the Whale is probably the best of all of the recent indie works (including Thumbsucker or The Chumscrubber) looking at the self-destruction of the classic family dynamic. Throw in William Baldwin as a tennis pro whom Joan hooks up with and the damn sexy Anna Paquin as one of Bernard's students, and you've suddenly added an uncomfortable sexual dynamic to the whole glorious disaster. Daniels' work, in particular, is probably the best of his career as he plays the emotionally driven and ultimately pathetic Bernard. And while Walt's blind faith in everything his father says is infuriating, it's at the core of this film.

There is no real story to follow in The Squid and the Whale, just a series of cringe-worthy events that make up the all-too-believable structure of the Berkmans' life. This is a truly great work, but only attempt to see it if you have a strong stomach for pomposity and ferocity.

The Dying Gaul
When it comes right down to it, there is nothing more exciting for a movie lover than watching a group of great actors simply doing what they do best. The screenplay can be weak or nonsensical, the directing can be sloppy or amateurish, but if the acting is good, that makes the other shortcomings hurt a lot less. Not to imply that The Dying Gaul is a badly made movie. It's not. In fact, it's fairly spectacular on all fronts, thanks to a wicked screenplay by first-time director Craig Lucas (whose previous writings include the play Prelude to a Kiss and the films Longtime Companion and The Secret Lives of Dentists). But The Dying Gaul is about superb acting from three of the finest.

Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert, an undiscovered, openly gay screenwriter on the verge of selling his autobiographical, openly gay script for $1 million to studio exec Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), if Robert agrees to make a few changes to the script (namely, making one of the story's two gay male leads a woman and making the other straight). While the two men work on the script, Jeffrey's wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), strikes up a friendship with Robert and discovers that the script, called "The Dying Gaul," was written after the death of Robert's longtime lover.

The film follows a complex and fascinating series of events that bring the three players closer together while setting them up for an inevitable (and highly combustible) climax. All three alternate between being the victim of each other's whims and being the inflictor of great pain and misery. What begins as a set of sweat relationships turns into callous deception and emotional cruelty. Clarkson is perhaps the most tragic of the characters, since she clearly does not have an evil bone in her body, but through her obsession over unwrapping the mysteries of Robert's life, she's driven to awful deeds.

If it seems I'm being a bit vague about The Dying Gaul, it's in your best interest that I remain that way. The payoffs here are in the subtle but devastating turns each character makes, and I don't want to ruin that for anyone. The Dying Gaul provides juicy thrills and a twisting, melodramatic ride through the lives of three endlessly interesting creatures. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Forty Shades of Blue
Few things in the past year have made me more uncomfortable than watching the great Rip Torn paw a much, much younger Russian woman in his latest film, Forty Shades of Blue. It's just damn creepy, and it's meant to be. Torn stars as the Colonel Tom Parker-esque Alan James, a Memphis-based rock legend who produced all of the great black music in the 1960s and 1970s that came out of that part of the country. Alan lives with (and cheats on) Laura (Dina Korzun, in her first American film), whom he met on a trip to Moscow years earlier. She is not technically a mail-order Russian bride (for starters, the two aren't actually married), but she might as well be based on the way Alan treats her. The two have a child, and Laura acts like a loving and attentive companion and mother, but there's a deep sadness to her beauty that taints everything that happens in the film.

Alan's grown son, Michael (Darren Burrows), comes to Memphis to be a part of a tribute to Alan being held by his musical peers. Rather than celebrate with his son and girlfriend, however, the boisterous and very drunk Alan runs off to a hotel room with a young singer and doesn't return home until the morning. Since they are not married, Laura doesn't feel it's her place to complain, but that doesn't mean she doesn't feel terribly hurt. At first, Michael despises Laura's very presence in his father's life, but after spending time with her around the house and the city, the two grow close, perhaps too close. It isn't long before father and son find ways to tear this woman's soul apart.

Director/co-writer Ira Sachs (The Delta) fills Forty Shades with wonderful music (some of the saddest provided by Laura, providing a Marianne Faithful style to her singing) and soulful images of Memphis. More importantly, he provides Rip Torn with a vehicle to really cut loose and remind us how good he is. Like all great mood music, Forty Shades creeps into your head and actually changes your mood. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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