Gunner Palace

by (2004, United States)

My coworkers and I have had many interesting, involved, and impassioned debates concerning the conflict in Iraq, a lot of them revolving around the wisdom of our government getting involved (or lack thereof).  We all have our own take on the issue, and we throw out facts and figures that we glean from the newspaper, from CNN and Fox News, etc.

One of the more sobering conversations I had about the war took place over lunch one day, when one of my co-workers, whose husband is serving in Iraq, revealed that he spent part of his leave buying supplies for his unit—supplies that were perfectly ordinary and necessary to do their job—from Radio Shack… with his own money.

Regardless of your opinions of the war, something about that notion—that U.S. soldiers have been thrust into a conflict, and then have to pay for part of it with their own dime—should rub you the wrong way.  Those of us halfway around the world, safe and warm in our homes and 9-to-5 jobs, can make all of the debates we want, for or against.  But I can only imagine how hollow those statements ring when you’re being pelted with rocks, mortar rounds are landing within spitting distance, and all that’s between you and a homemade landmine is some scrap metal that you found in an Iraqi junkyard.

Gunner Palace takes this very approach.  Filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker present a perspective on the war that is far removed from the talking heads, one that is right from the eyes of the troops.  In this case, the troops are members of 2/3 Field Artillery (aka the “Gunners”) who patrol the streets of Baghdad and live in a bombed out palace that one belonged to Saddam Hussein.

That incongruity is apparent within the opening seconds.  One minute, the troops are driving through Baghdad’s backstreets, making raids on suspected insurgency cells.  The next, they’re relaxing in a garish suite originally built for Saddam’s sons, chilling out by the pool, or shooting a few rounds of golf on the palatial estate.  It’s a fairly absurd situation, and one can’t help but think of a old M*A*S*H episodes—except that this is real.

Tucker occasionally asks offscreen questions, but most of the time, he just records what the troops are doing, their reactions, etc.  Many of the troops interviews, like Private Wilf, come from small towns and have little to no education.  For them, the army is one of the few real prospects that they have.  However, as someone points out early in the movie, these soldiers are “Field Artillery”.  They’ve been trained to bring out the really big guns and blow really big stuff up, poor skills to have when it comes to conducting traffic, arresting unruly protesters, and moving through cramped alleys.

Most of the soldiers interviewed react to their situation with—what else?—humor.  Sometimes it’s brash and crass as anything.  And yet, behind their humor lies a deep cynicism about their role in Iraq.  Does the war make any sense?  Should they even be there?  Will what they do make any difference once they’ve gone?  One soldier expresses such doubts even as he trains the Iraqi army.  And worst of all, does anyone back home even care?

Time and again, soldiers comment on how folks in America are only interested if someone gets shot, or something really big happens (such as the capture of Hussein, which takes place shortly after this film was made).  They don’t care about the day-to-day lives of the soldiers and the Iraqis, the mundane duties that still fraught with great danger.

I’m sure that really partisan folks might find something to bicker about.  Liberals will probably complain that the filmmakers are too light on the war effort, and don’t probe deeply enough into the “real” issues.  Conservatives will probably whine about the film painting the military in a bad light.  I have a feeling that the soldiers in Iraq would probably scoff at such remarks.  War is never that simple, is never a Right vs. Left affair, never a matter of black and white.  Gunner Palace is oftentimes a vivid reminder of that.

It’s not a perfect documentary by any means, though.  For starters, Tucker’s narration often distracts from the film.  The editing gets a little sloppy at times and the various soldiers often get jumbled together, such that it can be a little difficult to pick up where their individual stories continue.  And halfway through the film, Tucker films his return to the States and discusses his settling back into real life, presumably to provide a contrast to what the soldiers are still going through.  However, it feels awkwardly placed, especially when we’re back in Iraq 5 minutes later, as if nothing had happened.

Such flaws prevent the documentary from hitting home as hard as it could.  But the raw materials are there, and the soldier’s plight and situation still comes through loud and clear.

A little bit of trivia: this film’s rating was reduced from an “R” to a “PG-13”, despite the fact that words like “fuck” are all over the place.  This is one of those rare times when I agree with an MPAA decision like this.  There’s nothing at all glamorous or gratuitous about the use of such language—it’s simply there, captured by the camera, like every other ordinary detail of the soldiers’ lives.

Stoked: The Rise And Fall Of Gator

by (2002, United States)

I was never big into skateboarding, but I have friends who were.  However, you don’t have to be a skater to get into Stoked, a documentary chronicling the rise and fall of Mark “Gator” Rogowski.  In the early 80s, before skateboarding became an “extreme” sport and Tony Hawk’s visage graced everything from video games to Mountain Dew commercials, Rogowski was one of the sport’s first true superstars.

Kids adored him and companies, eager to cash in on his popularity, sent a flood of endorsements his way.  Not surprisingly, the fame and fortune went directly to Rogowski’s head, resulting in a serious “rock star” complex, i.e. self-destrutive lifestyle and the requisite behavior (many of Rogowski’s antics seem like direct precursors to the likes of “Jackass”).

However, as the 90s rolled around, skateboarding underwent some major changes.  The style of skateboarding that Rogowski had made famous was no longer en vogue, and Rogowski’s fame began to crumble around him.  Unable to deal with his slipping fortune, Rogowski became even more self-destructive, even lashing out his fans, friends, and loved ones.  Hitting rock bottom, he finally found salvation and became a born again Christian.

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The Work Of Director Michel Gondry

by Michel Gondry (2003, United States)

The timing couldn’t have been better.  Now that Michel Gondry has thoroughly floored audiences and critics alike with the surreal work of brilliance that is Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, it’s a perfect time for Directors Label to really push this disc.  People are obviously leaving the movie dazzled, and chances are more than a few of them are going to want to know where this Gondry cat came from, and what else he has done.

I first perused this DVD a few months ago, so I sort of knew what to expect going into Eternal Sunshine… (though to say Gondry exceeded my expectations is a gross understatement).  After being dazzled by the movie for a second time, I came home and popped in this DVD as a sort of refresher.  And I found it, in some ways, even more enjoyable the second time around.  The Work Of Director Michel Gondry, which pulls together a number of the man’s music videos, short films, and other assorted works, not only provides an incredibly indepth overview of the man’s portfolio, but also some great insight into his creative process and just what it is that fuels that process.

Even scanning just a small portion of this DVD’s content reveals a couple of things about Gondry’s work.  First of all, he loves toying with reality.  And not just the reality contained within the context of his videos, like the kaleidoscopic waking dream in The Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be”, but also the viewer’s concept of reality.  There were several moments, such as Cibo Matto’s palindromic “Sugar Water” or Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World”, when I found myself scratching my head and rewinding, wondering if I’d really seen what I just saw.  Trying to wrap my head around what Gondry seems to pull off with such ease can often be quite a brainmelter.

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Winged Migration

by (2003, France)

My first glimpse of Winged Migration came when I caught the trailer before Spellbound.  I was immediately transfixed by the images I saw, such that once the trailer was over, I turned to my friend and told him that I needed to see that movie.  I watched the trailer a few more times on my computer, and even on the small screen, the sights still had me floored.  Of course, 90 minutes of birds flapping their wings doesn’t exactly sound like it makes for good cinema.  It’s a safe bet to say that most people would find it far too mundane a topic (one of my co-workers, upon seeing the trailer, immediately remarked that it was the sort of thing her husband would hate).  But therein lies much of Winged Migration‘s power.

Here in Nebraska, it’s a very common thing to see ducks and geese heading north in the spring and south in the fall, such that you rarely give such sights a second notice.  For example, my high school biology class went to see the sandhill cranes make their yearly stop in North Platte.  Not surprisingly, it was a less than thrilling trip.  So I’ve seen tens of thousands of birds in my life.  But I’ve never seen them like this.

At the very beginning of the film, the filmmakers put a disclaimer that no special effects were used in any of the shots of the birds.  That statement should prove a very humbling one for filmmakers who believe that every film needs a multi-million dollar effects budget.  Nature is still the greatest special effect of all, and I found myself dazzled by many of the film’s shots, and more often than not, completely baffled as to how they were achieved.

Using a multitude of means, the filmmakers often get within inches of their subjects in flight, revealing a world of detail.  We see the way the bird’s bodies move as they flap their wings, the way they hang suspended on the updrafts, the ways their feathers ripple in the breeze.  I was reminded once again that, even with all of his technology, Man is nowhere close to achieving Nature’s beauty and perfection.

In the film’s most surreally beautiful scenes, seabirds hang motionless on the ocean breeze, and then, with a twist of their neck, turn into living harpoons as they plunge into the water for food.  Swarms of birds duck and dive through the air, turning in the blink of an eye en masse with a speed and agility that fighter pilots can only dream of.  Even the goofiest birds, such as the pelican, are more graceful in flight than the most advanced jet we’ve ever developed.

In the midst of these awesome spectacles, Mankind makes an occasional appearance.  However, our species is rarely cast in a positive light.  Don’t worry, though; Winged Migration is no “tree hugger” film.  There are no blatant or simplistic “Man bad, Nature good” statements made here.  Still, it’s hard not to feel some sadness when you see ducks that have travelled hundreds of miles get shot out of the sky by hunters, their bodies crumpling as they tumble to earth.  It’s hard not to feel some anger when a flock flies through the smoke belching out of a factory and one of their number is unable to free itself from a puddle of sludge.  And watching farm geese with clipped wings call out to their wild cousins flying overhead is one of the film’s more poignant moments.

While much of Winged Migration focuses on the grandeur and majesty of Nature, her harsh and cruel side is also on display.  In fact, one of the film’s first scenes depicts a new hatchling, still blind and featherless, pushing its siblings’ eggs out of the nest; even at birth, death is ever-present.  The journey these birds undertake is fraught with peril, and many do not survive, falling prey to exhaustion, the elements, and predators.  In the film’s most disturbing segment, a bird with a broken wing tries to fend off a swarm of crabs.  Its one good wing flapping futilely, it limps down the beach while the crabs slowly close in for the inevitable kill.  I still get the heebie-jeebies when I think about it.

But such dark scenes still have a part in the bigger picture of survival.  But it’s a pcture that too many of us, especially those of us in the Western world with our cities and technology, have become blind to.  Nature is no longer something that fascinates, amazes, and inspires.  At best, it’s a resource that we use to produce goods to make our lives better.  At worst, it’s a nuisance that must be controlled so it doesn’t upset the status quo.

But how many of us consider the wonder of the tiny Arctic Tern, who travels nearly 13,000 miles, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, not once but twice a year?  Or the magic in migrating birds using the Earth’s magnetic field, a force to which we humans are completely blind, to navigate with unerring accuracy.  And they’ve been doing it for countless millennia, and will continue to do so, oblivious of what transpires amongst humanity.  I couldn’t help but be humbled by that thought as I watched a flock of ducks fly through New York and pass by the still-standing Twin Towers.  While I certainly do not wish to make light of the tragedy that took place there, watching that scene did give me a new perspective on it.

Annie Dillard once wrote that “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there… so that creation need not play to an empty house.”  For 90 minutes, Winged Migration gives us a front row seat to a spectacle that has been going on, above our heads, for thousands of years, a spectacle that we’ve become far too accustomed and inured to seeing.

Spellbound

by (2003, United States)

Of all of the films that have come out in 2003, I think it’s probably safe to say that Spellbound has one of the unlikeliest and most laughable premises: it just follows 8 students and their families as they prepare for the U.S. National Spelling Bee championship.  Yes, you read that last bit correctly—the U.S. National Spelling Bee.  But as the film progresses, that odd premise plays out in some very startling and amazing ways.

We see the children train, pushing themselves to limits that seem ludicrous.  We see their families and communities rally around them, in ways that are both touching and hilarious.  And we see them react under tremendous pressure as the Spelling Bee commences, with the camera zooming in tight on their faces while they struggle to figure out and decipher words so bizarre they hardly seem real.

To be perfectly honest, I’m hardpressed to think of a film I’ve seen in recent months with as much heart, drama, and glorious humanity as Spellbound.  It’s easily one of the best and most rewarding films I’ve seen so far this year, and its “ordinariness” really puts the glitz and glam of Hollywood in perspective (and the view isn’t terribly flattering).

During Spellbound‘s first half, we’re introduced to the 8 children and their families.  They’re all from different races, creeds, backgrounds, and social standings.  In a sense, you truly get to see America for the melting pot that it is.  Some kids come from privileged families, whereas some of them just barely seem to be scraping by.  Some families have their roots here, while others have come to the U.S. (some illegally) seeking the promise of a better future.  All of the children’s stories are unique and memorable, and it’s safe to say that every viewer will have their favorites.

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