View From Above: The Lovely Bones

It was rather puzzling to learn that Peter Jackson would be directing a film about the rape and murder of a young girl by her neighbor. Wait… I’m not really spoiling anything here. But after all, this is the guy who directed the deranged puppet comedy, Meet the Feebles, and hit major mainstream success with the epic blockbuster trilogy, Lord of the Rings. The starkness of a family tragedy. The pounding suspense of exposing the killer. It just didn’t seem like his kind of material. Most importantly, where would you add the CGI?!

But Alice Sebold’s 2002 bildungsroman novel actually turned out to be an adaptation fit for a knight (see? because Jackson is knighted), because this isn’t your typical tale of murder. This is a story told from the point of view of it’s victim, 14-year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Providing the story’s narration, she tells your right away that she’ll be murdered. Will even tell you who her killer is. The name of the game is for the characters onscreen to figure out what the audience already knows. To some extent, her family will get help from Susie herself, who observes life on Earth, witnessing the devastation the brutal murder caused her family, from some fantastic world that exists somewhere between the world of the living, and a sort of heaven (Sebold, in response to religious critics about the secular treatment of the afterlife, said that she didn’t write the book with the traditional sense of heaven in mind). “The in-between” her younger brother calls it. New and unexplored, it’s both driven by the imagination of an innocent pre-teen girl, and also shaped by her reactions to the living world. Vast and visually-reliant, it’s a creation satisfying to the CGI fetishist (which Jackson essentially is), but it’s not a redemptive limbo. Rather, this is the place where Susie must find resolve. She is the story’s hero.

Of course, film critics have lambasted Jackson for nurturing the visuals (or, basically, any part of the film featuring Susie’s after-life world) to the point of creating unnecessary distraction. This world is bubble-gummy —contrary to Jackson’s intentions to avoid being hokey— since it is the fantasy world shaped by a 14-year old girl, the death and its impact on her family not having immediately made her bitter, only unclear as to her purpose. And it seems to go on forever. There are two especially aggravating scenes by the film’s end, where suddenly gripping intensity is abruptly held for dreamy drama, something that tested the patience of audience members who began growling in disgust, realizing how fruitless it was to yell at the characters in the film to JUST GET ON WITH IT! It’s like you’ve discovered a trail of gasoline and then suddenly spotted a man nearby about to light up a cigarette (the old Hitchcock philosophy of showing the viewers certain tidbits of information to rile them up) and before he is about to throw down his match, you’re suddenly thrust into a glassy scene of fuzzy gray kittens.

The material itself was really a challenge for any director as it requires to blend conflicting genres into a consistent film. On the one hand is that extreme discomfort of knowing when Susie is about to be killed, the nail-biting suspense of frequent moments when it looks like the other characters will find realize that Susie’s killer is right under their noses, something that of course, always leads to one of them going into the killer’s house to snoop around, but linger longer than they should. Jackson keeps tight reigns on these, and Stanley Tucci plays the villain well — you know, calm, cool, and mostly collected. On the other hand, there is the dreamy fantasy world that Susie Salmon wanders, almost aimlessly, as she watches over her family on Earth, and at the same time, tries to understand her purpose. As already said, that alternative foreground tends to spill over into the thriller in the Earth-world, destroying that well crafted suspense. Add to that, is also a little bit of comic relief where Susan Sarandon appears as the alcoholic, irresponsible grandmother. But, The Lovely Bones is not pure gut-wrenching tragedy, and if it was, there’d be no need for Susie Salmon, except to question why its taking so long to realize that she died at the hands of her neighbors. Instead, her death simply marks the impetus of an epic coming-of-age tale, strange as that can be where it occurs in the after-life.


Rock n’ Roll in the Rising Sun: Tokyo Pop

Tokyo Pop is probably an unrecognized film title to all but a handful of people, most of whom are likely rabid 80s film fans. And without the transition to the more readily accessible DVD, it remains not a great film (pacing tends to be a problem), but still an overlooked, low-budget gem in the grand universe of obscure cult films.

Centering on young and naive aspiring American and Japanese musicians, Tokyo Pop contrasts the mid-80s new wave, punk and rock influences of urban Japan with the backdrop of idyllic tradition and historical roots; an obvious criticism of commercial globalization and the “Americanization” of a once-distinct Eastern identity. Rock, pop, punk and new wave (check out an early performance of “Rauken Rauken” by Japanese goof-girl rockers, Papaya Paranoia) – it’s all image and personality. Like the old photos of youth in 1980s post-Communist countries: a carefully manufactured young “cool”.

There are essentially two leading characters who, by fate (and the script!), cross paths. Carrie Hamilton, the late daughter of comedienne Carol Burnette (she may be more recognized as one of the instigating rivals in Shag), shares the lead as Wendy Reed, a struggling singer with no hope for security and mobility in the New York City dives scene. Inspired by a postcard of a friend who boasts of success in the business following a move to Tokyo, Wendy packs up her sparing belongs and decides to join her friend. Except things don’t go as plan. Stunned not so much by culture shock, but news of her friend having already moved someplace else, she sticks it out. And, on the advice of fellow nomadic gaijins (the romanticized gringo: Americans) she,  takes up residency in a group house plastered with Disney memorabilia and, in the closest thing to paying singer she could quickly find, entertains drunken entourages of Japanese businessmen in a karaoke bar with half-hearted renditions of corny American folk songs.

Stranded in the city one night, Wendy meets Hiro (Yutaka Tadokoro, the vocalist for the Red Warriors who is probably better recognized as the director of the whiskey commercial in Lost in Translation), another young, aspiring rock musician. Obsessed with American and British pop culture, especially the musical legends like Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles, this is basically the bulk of the limited English he can communicate to Wendy. His family is the same – in one scene, his grandfather, in traditional garb, scowls at his daughter who is attempting to follow the jazzercise routines she’s watching on television as they sit around the dinner table with Hiro and his sister. A big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken crowds the table and Hiro’s mother is ironically bewildered that her son isn’t interested in more “Japanese” things. Even Hiro’s father, a divorcee (taboo no more!) specializes in the 80s novelty of synthetic food sculptures.

Hiro and Wendy’s first encounter is eventually miffed by a misunderstanding over the sharing of a hotel room, but eventually the two hit it off, much to the delight of Hiro’s band, a rock quartet, who want the newfound blond gaijin to be in their band, certain that this is just the gimmick they need to get recognized by the country’s most famous producer, since sneaking trying to sneak him demo tapes hasn’t worked. Reluctant at first, Wendy seems unable to find any other band to meaningfully support a singing career (X of Japan briefly appear in their massive coifs, and delegate Wendy, the new band mate for about a second, the back up singer’s tambourine).

Hiro’s band is basically a cover band, churning out live performances of corny American pop songs like Three Dog Night’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” Amazingly, they do achieve major public recognition, but only through some trivial event – a photographer happened to capture a backstage spat between Wendy and someone else. Suddenly, the cover band is topping the country’s charts. And yet, both Wendy and Hiro, at the helm of  a thriving gimmick band, aren’t entirely happy with the expected definition of “success” (money and fame). In private, Hiro has performed for Wendy the songs he has written, which he sings in Japanese. Completely absent of the Western manufacture, the songs are sincere. Wendy, willing to walk away in order to get Hiro and his bandmates to abandon the gimmick, encourages Hiro to perform these songs for his audiences. In other words: art for the sake of art.

Released in 1988 and yet to be re-released, the film was co-written and directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, though her 1992 directorial effort is more widely known: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tokyo Pop was a lot like the 1987 culture-clash dramedy, Living on Tokyo Time. Unfortuantely, there’s little net-recorded history on the movie, other than (surprisingly) a 2007 New York Times Review.

Cigarettes, Dirty Laundry, and Mangled Manifestos: Reality Bites

There seems to be a puzzling trend lately of non-fiction authors in their 40s publishing defenses of “The Greatest Generation.” But, contrary to the presumption that this title refers to those of the World War II era, as it commonly has before, the new (self-)decried honor instead refers to Gen Xers, although these authors frequently lament over the validity of the title, or any title at all. These defenses are similar in their reporting of the history: Baby Boomers are a selfish lot, incessantly urging credit for influencing some kind of revolution. But that by the 1980s, this wave of liberalism was instead replaced by the one-track capitalist ambition of the Yuppie. The “revolutionaries” getting their pictures in the paper for their part in a protest are now driving the kids to soccer practice in a minivan. But the demand for credit never ceased, and continually intrude to remind or altogether impose their values and ideas on the generations of youth to follow.

By the 1990s, with college graduates facing one of the most hopeless periods in the job market, the overhyped myths of the Boomers fell on deaf ears in a way that mirrored the brief punk boom in the late 1970s, with its snarling recognition (and acceptance) of a cultural, social and economic apocalypse. (Compare Leggs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s oral history of punk, Please Kill Me to Michael Azzerand’s Our Band Could Be Your Life). The Gen Xers penning these books proclaim their generation to be the smartest and the most creative (spawning a major transformation with YouTube, MySpace and Google). Although, puzzling enough, the examples always stem from a limiting and definitive Holy Trinity: director Richard Linklater (Slacker), author Douglas Coupeland (Generation X), and Nirvana. The Generation X histories remind their audience that the lifespan of Gen X was brief, and their contributions are frequently masked by the Boomers who refuse to acknowledge their irrelevance. Ironically, these histories also skip over any mention of a Generation Y to chastise the Millenials as a worrisome return to everything the Gen Xers had declared as wrong: self-absorption, obsession with celebrity, mass obedience, and worst of all, insatiable material pursuit.

This shaping of Gen X’s mark on humanity was already told years ago during its brief existence, although in the medium of film, the Gen X biographies were frequently shaped by Hollywood Hands, no matter how attractive it was to call something a product of the Alternative or Grunge Era. In particular, there were three histories that survive memory. One was writer/director Cameron Crowe’s 1992 romance dramedy, Singles. The second is Linklater’s improvised vignettes, Slacker, a favorite in the cult circuit released in 1991. And the third is, Reality Bites, marking Ben Stiller’s directorial debut (written by Helen Childress), followed two years later.

While Singles served as a time capsule of the Gen X lifestyle, it is really only ancillary to it’s primary focus on the romantic relationships of its various characters. It was something of a bust at the box office. Slacker has dominated the discussion when it comes to Gen X films, but Reality Bites deserves some spotlight in the analysis of life as a twenty-something in the early 90s – fresh out of college, full of ambition, jaded, and about to cement their cynicism. (“The script was initially turned down by all the Hollywood studios because it tried to capture the Generation X market like Singles and that film was not a box office success.” 1)

It is worth noting that the application of generational titles, although always marked by some range of birth dates, is that it’s usually not all inclusive of it. There’s always the unspoken distinction in demographic, or socio-economic status, or some other variable. Though Generation X is said to refer to anyone born between 1965 and 1981, its histories really tend to be dominated by whites that met this criteria. And more specifically, college educated whites. For those outside of that demographic, but born within that time, does Generation X even have the same meaning? Does it even apply?

Reality Bites frames Gen Xers in the same way as the Gen X histories do today (though it’s more first-hand than the material coming out now), doing so through a variety of themes: romantic relationships (obviously), commercialism of art, contempt for parental values, overeducated and underemployed graduates, AIDS, homosexuality, and so forth. The movie centers on the dynamics of four college friends (three having just graduated and one having dropped out) sharing a house in Texas. Lelaina (Winona Ryder), one of the film’s major characters, works a thankless job as a production assistant for an arrogant morning talkshow host (John Mahoney). The documentary filmmaker assumes her art will be her escape, though it never seems likely to get off the ground until she befriends an entertainment executive (Ben Stiller). Troy (Ethan Hawke), the other central character, is extremely smart, jaded, and both frequently unemployed and aloof. (The real Troy Dyer is reported to be a financial planner these days). The witty Vicky (Janeane Garofolo), rarely finding herself in positions of responsibility in her career and relationships, starts to turn this around. And the least seen, Michael (Steven Zahn), is a homosexual who eventually, though anti-climatically, comes out to his friends.

The linear history of Reality Bites is nearly identical to the celebratory histories released of late, even opening with the impetus for the principals of Generation X. Valedictorian Lelaina (Winona Ryder), addressing her graduating peers, has no advice about their post-college futures, as even she is uncertain what direction is best. But one thing she is adamant about: criticizing their parents’ promise of revolution, but despicably trading it for material ambition. The claims of perfect families and perfect lives that really weren’t, a statement supported by quick cut scenes from Lelaina’s documentary which features clips of her friends describing their parents. Divorces for some and indifferent marriages for parents of Lelaina’s friends that did stay together. Which leads to the construction of their ultimate dogma: avoid everything your parents did. For that reason, Reality Bites, whether just in retrospect or even when it was released, makes the Generation X crowd seem like the bubbly hippies they criticize.

The self-proclomations of the generational revolution, like those before it, once again settled as an embraceable myth. But, although the recent biographies of Generation X doesn’t just claim this to be the Generation’s defining principal, but it’s most admirable one (at least where it worked out without much flaw in retrospect), this blanket rebellion seems naively inflexible, fruitless, and excessive. Something, in other words, to hail at a young age, until reality kicks in after enduring the more difficult trials and error of life. The philosophy is embodied in particular in someone like the stereotypical Troy (Ethan Hawke), often simply characterized as the rebel philosopher, one with equal parts intelligence and cynicism coupled with zero motivation. Says Lelaina to Troy in one scene: “I have to work around here, and unfortunately Troy, you are a master at the art of time suckage.” Lelaina’s staunch refusal to let her artistic integrity be compromised is another example. She is appalled that her documentary is given a demeaning Mtv revamp once executives get a hold of it, illustrating the great fear of Generation X culture was the dreaded act of selling out.

While it is urged by some not to be taken as a serious portrait of the early 90s, though it should not be entirely dismissed as a falsehood of the times. Just like a lot of movies about the rise through adulthood (Lelaina: “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23”), whether the it’s twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings (The Last Kiss is a recent example), there’s this eventual realization that the difficulties that started with adolescence never conclude just because you leave your teens. The confusion of growing up is consistent.

Emotional Rescue: Fearless

In 1990, an Emory graduate and DC-metro native named Chris McCandless donated his entire savings to OXFAM, gave away his belongings, burned in car in a field out West, and eventually fell out of contact with his family. In that time, he had traveled up and down the Western United States sometimes by foot, by boat, or hitchhiking. McCandless was motivated by a neo-Walden (maybe more neo-Rousseau) desire to experience life as the most purest form of Man in a world that seemed to him riddled with absurd baggage that had corrupted his most basic civility.

It had been done before, even long before Thoreau penned Walden. A trend of young men from well-off families who had backgrounds similar to McCandless: intelligent, good students, accomplished athletes. Chris’s parents owned a business and lived in the suburbs. These modern day adventurers would eventually resign to the wilderness, and it was often a failure to really prepare for it that lead to early deaths. McCandless, at the age of 24, died only two years after resolving to indulge this indefinite primitive experiment, surviving 112 days in the Alaskan wilderness until he was poisoned by a variety of plant he’d eaten. His story was retold in Jon Krakauer’s article for a 1993 issue of Outside, “Death of an Innocent,” before being turned into Into the Wild, a book that included Krakauer’s own experiences in the wilderness, and most recently, adapted for film by director Sean Penn.

Critical reactions to McCandless’s story and those of his predecessors tend to miss the point of their voluntary transformation: it was an act of escape. They found it baffling that society should continue to accept it’s own absurdities without question. In a way, their escape was something like Fight Club, but without the violent catharsis. The simplest example of this point is when McCandless wanted to raft down the Colorado River and was told by a park ranger that he’d first have to get a permit. Before he was issued anything, however, he’d have to put his name on a waiting list, although reservations for permits already filled the next twelve years. McCandless, in stunned disbelief asks, “12 years – to paddle down a river?!” He padded anyways, permitless.

McCandless and his fellow escapists also had to go to great lengths to satisfy their separation from the world they’d view as alienating and corrupt, wandering far into the fringes of the last bits of isolated, American wilderness. McCandless made that journey nearly 20 years ago.

One of the characters in Charles Williams’ suspense 1962 novel, Dead Calm, later adapted twice for film (the first being an unfinished Orson Welles picture), suggests that there is no idyllic setting to retreat to anymore. That the young painter who wants to go to Polypenisia to live like Gaugin once did won’t find what he’s looking for. “In the first place, there’s no escape from our so-called civilization anymore; the twentieth century is something we’re locked into and there’s no way we can get out; when we got to Papeete we’d probably find the same jukeboxes, the same headlines, the same cocktail parties, the same jet service from here to there, the same Bomb, and the same exhortations to embrace the finer life by buying something.”

If trivialities conquer the universe, the only escape then, is within yourself. Tyler Durden most poignantly demonstrated this in Fight Club, and his philosophy was simple: “just let go.” In 1993, director Peter Weir’s Fearless was released. It was more of what might be thought of as an independent drama by today’s standards, one delving into philosophical debate rather than typical hum-drum narrative. More importantly, it offers a different view of escapism in the modern, 20th century-saturated world.

Adapted from Rafael Yglesias’s novel, it stars Jeff Bridges as Max Klein, a plane crash survivor. This is how the movie immediately begins and we see Klein who, almost paralyzingly nervous about flying, can’t help but to ignore his colleague assures him that everything will be just fine. Then there’s the crash. Klein appears dazed amidst the wreckage, but looks to help other passengers. His behavior seems almost matter-of-fact, and instead of notifying his wife and son of his survival, he checks into a hotel and visits an old friend before police come knocking on his door, having finally found him. But in those few days since the wreck, he had entered a strange new plane of invincibility. And in his disappearance, a sort of escape. He became invisible to his world and sort of wandered through it like a living ghost, no longer burdened by or afraid of anything. (In one scene he closes his eyes while driving on the interstate and allows the car to veer as it may while he presses the accelerator to the floor). The film does an amazing job of demonstrating that abstract for the viewer, to see the world as Klein does before and after the crash.

While he manages to transcend the limitations of his previous life, it’s something that his wife and others around him don’t seem to understand. And the local news crews that constantly hound him, parade him as the 6 o’clock headline hero. John Turturro plays Bill Perlman, a psychiatrist hired by the airline to console the survivors, but the ones he can’t seem to connect with are Max and the seriously depressed Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez, earning a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this role), who blames herself for her infant son’s death (she was holding him in her lap when the plane crashed). Max views most everyone around him reacting to the crash (the lawyer, the media, Carla’s husband, etc.) as selfish and instead, he befriends Carla and helps her with her emotional recovery, trying to share with her the changes he had undergone in attempt to help her start letting go. That her child’s death isn’t something she can change, nor something that she could blame herself for.

As Max and Carla become closer friends, he draws further away from his wife, Laura (Isabella Rossellini) who doesn’t understand the lasting personality change in her husband, and further becomes frustrated when he tells her that she didn’t really understand what he had gone through when they crashed, nor that she ever could. How could he go back to what he had escaped, or what would it take for her to reach that unbound reality, too, especially where it took drastic means to transform Klein?

(The video clip above is a fan video montage using scenes from Fearless. Song: “Excess” by Tricky.)

Infantmania: Baby Mama

(Warning: this post contains spoilers)

On the Internet Movie Database, one commentator’s review title suggests that Baby Mama (2008 ) is the perfect Anti-Apatow movie. That’s not quite an accurate description. Even at the end of Knocked Up, once-reluctant parents drive off with Baby at their side, ready to welcome the challenges and pleasures of parenthood… and cue the music!

But, the difference between the two movies is that in Baby Mama, baby infatuation is there from the start. Tina Fey plays Kate Holbrook. A 37 year-old, single, corporate success who tries desperately to oblige the slowing tick of her biological clock. She’s succumbed to an obsession where everything reminds her of babies. When she learns that her physiology may prevent her from getting pregnant, she seeks all manner of alternatives like in vitro fertilization, sperm donors, and adoption before finally settling on a surrogate mother service run by a woman (Sigourney Weaver) who can’t seem to stop having babies.

Although assured that the service’s screening process is rigorous enough to find the perfect surrogate mother in every way, Kate instead finds herself contractually bound to Angie Ostrowiski, a clean version of Philly’s answer to white trash played by fellow Saturday Night Live veteran, Amy Poehler. Though she’s expected to be the ostentatious candidate, as the female co-star of a moralistic semi-drama, she’s obligated to be less crude, and eventually more aware that her common law husband, Carl (Dax Shepard) is a total idiot who may interfere and mess up the pregnancy. When Angie breaks up with Carl, she winds up moving in with paranoid and prim future mom, Kate, forging the female odd couple.

Eventually, the two have to learn to adjust to each other, despite Kate’s attempts to quickly reform irresponsible Angie to her liking such as forcing her to purge her poor eating habits. Although, Angie too, tries to get Kate to simply ease in her own conservative stubbornness by taking her clubbing, for example.

Aww… they’re just like sisters!

With their increasing compatibility, Kate Holbrook might finally get what she desires most – the joy of raising a child. But of course, viewers should be raising their too-good-to-be-true flags even in a Rob Reiner-esque Perfect White World like this. Something is going to go wrong.

As it turns out, the whole thing is a scam hatched by Carl, where he and Angie pretend that she’ pregnant in order to collect the check. But karma comes back to bite them, and Angie is in for a big surprise herself.

Oh yeah… more babies!

The criticisms of this film have a common thread among them – casting the “envelop-pushing” Fey and Poehler in the leading roles attached an expectation that Baby Mama would be a display of similarly outrageous satire. It wasn’t. In fact this movie seemed more suitable for the likes of Cameron Diaz and Kate Hudson.

Saturday Night Live writer, Michael McCullers, steered painstakingly towards conventional romantic comedy and even coalesces on moral grounds. To begin with, Angie and Carl are, with few exceptions, innocuously trashy. And of course, everyone finds redemption in… you guessed it… parenthood. Sure Kate may have jumped into bed with the charming neighborhood juice bar owner (Greg Kinnear) on the first date, but it’s okay, because not only will she eventually discover she is (at last!) pregnant, but that it’s likely to be legitimated with a ring. And Kinnear is already a father to a charming 12 year-old he visits on the weekend. Meanwhile, Angie and Carl will be forced towards the path of at least some responsibility when Angie learns that in fact, she’s pregnant too. And the doorman to Kate’s luxury apartment building (the token black character here), who once explaining the meaning of “Baby Mama,” drawing on his own experience of having two, also eventually embraces perfect parenting. It is not surprising then to end the movie like Ron Howard’s saccharine and pastel perfect Parenthood ending, where it’s babies abound.

Honestly, are women just getting pregnant from the water?

Even Judd Apatow’s version of the rites of passage tolerated certain perpetual parental doubt and fear and above all, limited it’s baby count. Apatow isn’t really an opposite extreme, but if anything, it drains the overzealous realities of Baby Mama.

Now to go finish my copy of Alternadad.

Failing to Merge: Less Than Zero

Though an author, Bret East Ellis is the predecessor to the likes of contemporary dramatic filmmakers like Larry Clark and Gus Van Sant, those who have brought to the screen a startling (and at least in Van Sant’s case, very stereotypical and monolithic) view of extreme teen apathy. Ellis’ 1985 novel, which captures the mood of the decade, Less Than Zero centers on vaguely connected, college-age friends and trust-fund babies in Los Angeles. Their world lacks any real human emotion, any real human connection to one another, whether friends or family. Their concerns and legacies trivial, a fantastic reality of youth corrupted by uber-urban materialism. This, the 1980s. 

College freshman Clay returns to Los Angeles from New Hampshire on Christmas break and the novel is told from his point of view, but its stream-of-consciousness descriptions of mundane events feel more like a diary of dull consistency. The routine of parties, drugs, and gossip. But the theme, the significance of this particular book become clear about half way through; just before the point where the reader might be ready to give up on the really unglamorous life of people who believe themselves to be truly glamorous. And it is Clay who is acutely aware of this, his insulation in the East Coast life has made the West Coast one alien, though from the flashback passages, it already had been before he left for college. The book’s commentators appropriately draw comparisons to Salinger, saying that Clay is the modern Holden Caulfield. By the end of the film, there are no redeemable characters, no one worth Clay trying to save.

Somehow, by the hand of screenwriter Harley Peyton and director Marek Kanievska, these crucial social criticisms of the self-centered 1980s (or just privelege in general) mutated into a 1987 anti-drug movie starring Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey, Jr. and James Spader, among others. Clearly, the casting of some of the loosely connected “Brat Pack”–which should have included Jami Gertz and James Spader (who was much older than the others) among its named ranks–it is a star vehicle, and the intentions of which seem to transcend the material from which it is adapted.

McCarthy, as Clay, is summoned by former girlfriend, Blair, returns home for Christmas with the plea that he help save their friend, Julian (Downey, Jr.), burned by lofty ambition and suffering the peak of a cocaine addiction. While just as conceited and oblivious as the rest of the people Clay encounters in the novel, here, Blair invokes a kind of sympathy. She is Jami Gertz afterall and this is a Hollywood production, so there isn’t much to expect to be unresolved, and particularly, in any morally ambiguous conclusion (though interestingly, this is what happens in 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, which somewhat takes on the same subject of young privelege, but as Asian youth). The movie tries to impose on the characters an understanding of the rights and wrongs in which they exist, but what made the book so shocking was that its characters–at least outside of its nearly non-chalant observer, Clay–never seemed to possess any awareness of these things. There was never an alternative to force any of them to consider it, as there was in the movie. McCarthy’s version of Clay as the impatient hero, or Gertz, or even Julian’s parents who had nearly given up on their son but in the end, urge for their son’s reform in order to finally reunite. Never did such compassion exist in the book, and by the end, it’s relieving when Clay abandons the world he had only left for a short while, but even when he was there, felt so alien.

As an anti-drug movie, Less Than Zero (the film version) faces competition by two films that better approached the coke-addiction 1980s: Bright Lights, Big City (also a wonderful novel by Jay McInerny) and the 1988 Michael Keaton and Morgan Freeman drama, Clean & Sober. Given this, it is no surprise that Ellis would comment that there was no connection between the film and the book, despite the loose connection of character names and situations. He never goes as far as Paddy Chayefsky did to disavow himself of the film as was done with the early 1980s adaptation of Chayefksy’s novel, Altered States. Rather, Ellis was kinder with his reaction: “Due to all the liberties taken, Ellis refused to see the movie. In a recent interview with, Ellis stated that he has warmed up to the movie, and appreciates it visually as a snapshot of a particular time. Ellis claimed that there was no connection between the book and the movie, except for the title and the names of the characters” (from the Wiki article).

Ellis, in January 2008, suggested penning a sequel to Less Than Zero, to be titled Imperial Bedrooms, named for an Elvis Costello album. The movie is, as obvious from the post above, worth skipping. Pick up the novel instead for a quick read, but lasting effect.

How Much the Burden: Stop-Loss

Perhaps it’s first worth noting that 2008’s Stop-Loss, which although timely (and passed quietly), is directed by a woman: Boys Don’t Cry director, Kimberly Peirce (who co-wrote with Mark Richard). Immediately, in that post-9/11 mentality when it comes to Hollywood addressing warfare (although, technically, as a Bad Robot production, it’s not a mainstream picture), the opinions polarize as “with us” or “against us”.

‘Stop-Loss’ follows decorated US Army Seargent Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) who goes AWOL after being stop-lossed (meaning military service is indefinitely extended by the contracted term by the authority of an executive decision from Bush) for another 15-month tour in Iraq. The film is no doubt clear in its position on the invasion of Iraq, and as King describes, he enlisted in the military in the hopes of protecting his country, but fighting on the front lines in Iraq, realizes that it has become an unnecessary quagmire fueled by the simple desire for retaliation of 9/11. This, furthered, by the teeth-grinding level of frustration that those in Washington who administer the war, are so far from removed to even properly consider the realities of not just foreign policy decisions, but more specifically the life of the solider, even beyond the subject of stop-loss. That beyond simply the honor and pride of military service, those in combat also wrestle with the consequences of death and injury, of bureacracy, of family and friendship, mental illness, and obviously much more.

King returns home to small-town Texas with two of the troops he served with in Iraq. One of them — Steve (Channing Tatum) — is certain that a military career is inevitably his destiny, although he fails to consider the impact on his finacee, Michelle (played by Australian native, Abby Cornish) who is certain she is not strong enough for the accompanying destiny of being a military wife. “I can’t go another year without touching his face,” she admits to King. Tommy (Joseph Gordon Levitt), perhaps the most cocky of the squad, soon turns juvenile mistakes into bigger detriment, risking his marriage and career of military service. And, a survivor of the ambush they faced in Iraq before shipping back, Rico (Victor Rasuk), is now a blinded and scarred amputee recovering in Walter Reed Hospital.

Most simply but quite loudly, Stop-Loss asks how much of a burden one person should be asked to carry. There is the habit to unquestionably grant the title of “Hero” to anyone who has served in the military, and whether or not this is appropriate, by doing so, we attach a requirement that they carry the burdens, no matter how many there are to bare. In Stop-Loss, Brandon King’s reluctance to return to Iraq is largely because, due to his rank, he has seen many of his troops killed in battle, and does not want to be responsible for the deaths of any more. “I’m tired of the killing,” he explains. That he would have to give up another 15 months of his life living in the battle zone is the least of his worries. Though this is another “War is Hell” theme, Kings’s concern is much greater and done with at least some level of honesty in that, he doesn’t express the regrets the death of the Iraqi’s, but of his own men. It is a very real dissection of the US soldier. Why must he be expected to shoulder such an incredible burden just because he wears a military uniform? This is perhaps the most reticent question of ‘Stop-Loss’ and one that we rarely consider because discussion of Iraq is almost never viewed in human terms on any level. None of it made real enough for the considerations and discussions of people who experience this only through the filters so many miles and coasts away.