Saturday, July 12, 2008

War and popcorn

It’s 114 days and counting until the 2008 presidential election, but three film projects — one in theaters now, one set for the small screen starting Sunday, and one eagerly (or anxiously) awaited for release in October — are setting the stage for the farewell to the Bush administration (77 days after that election).

The one with the buzz — Oliver Stone’s “W,” has been on a fast track toward completion since it started. Shooting started in May, and the Lionsgate film is set for release on Oct. 17, less than three weeks before the fall classic. (The teaser poster, above, is priceless).

Josh Brolin, on a roll since his star turns in “American Gangster” and “No Country for Old Men,” will star as George W. Bush, with Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, James Cromwell as George Bush (#41) and Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush.

Much of the rest of the cast has been fleshed out since the principal shooting began: Jeffrey Wright (“Basquiat,” “Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace”) stars as Colin Powell, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Dreyfuss stars as Dick Cheney, Thandie Newton (“Mission: Impossible 2”) as Condoleezza Rice and Stacy Keach as Billy Graham.

Benjamin Svetkey of Entertainment Weekly reported that Brolin spent months nailing down Bush’s singular vocal style by calling hotels in Texas and talking to the people at the front desk, listening to their accents.

Brolin has also been watching videos of Bush walking. The actor told Svetkey that Bush’s gait "changes over the years, how he walks in his 30s, how he walks in foreign lands, before 9/11 and afterwards. People hold their emotions in their bodies. They can't fake it. Especially him.”

“’W.’ isn't an overly serious movie, but it is a serious subject,” Stone told the Los Angeles Times on June 29. “It's a Shakespearean story. . . . I see it as the strange unfolding of American democracy as I have lived it."

Mike Goodridge of Screen Daily reported that Stone described the tone of “W” as in the over-the-top style vein of Sidney Lumet’s "Network" or Stanley Kubrick’s seminal antiwar rapier, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

Few American filmmakers ever generate the kind of anticipation Stone does, largely because of his visual and thematic daring. “Nixon,” his 1995 take on the presidency of Richard Nixon, starred Anthony Hopkins in the title role, a role in which Hopkins bore no real physical similarity to Nixon. Stone said that his intent was to get to the essence of Richard Nixon, despite a lack of physical verisimilitude. If Brolin’s makeup job as Bush #43 is any indication (see image above), Stone’s playing it visually straight this time.

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While Stone plots his overview of the life of George Bush, the seven-part HBO miniseries “Generation Kill,” which begins Sunday night, offers a grunt’s-eye view of the war that will be forever connected with the Bush administration.

The miniseries, based on a book of stories by embedded Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, follows the exploits of the U.S. Marine First Reconnaisance Battalion — the tip of the American spearhead — during the first 40 days of the Iraq War, in 2003.

Challenged by equipment shortages, imprecise rules of engagement and inept commanders, the Marines of the First Recon seem to be a microcosm of the American military as a whole in the halcyon days of “Mission Accomplished,” before the worst of the war began to happen.

The cast of “Generation Kill,” which was overseen by a variety of directors, both includes actors and real former Marines, one of whom acted as a technical adviser to insure authenticity. HBO’s excellent track record on edgy, provocative entertainment (“The Wire” and “The Sopranos” are two fine examples of what they’re capable of) suggests this will be destination viewing for the seven weeks of its run.

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The Iraq war gets the fictional treatment in “War, Inc.” a wild sendup of war as a financial enterprise. In the film directed by Joshua Seftel and co-written by John Cusack, the country of Turaqistan is effectively bought by the Tamerlane Corporation, run buy a former U.S. vice president. The company dispatches a hitman to eliminate an oil minister, one of Tamerlane’s competitors and the last obstacle to Turaqistan’s domination.

Cusack stars as the hitman (yeah, he did it before in “Grosse Pointe Blank”) with support from sister Joan Cusack, Hilary Duff, Dan Aykroyd, Marisa Tomei and Ben Kingsley.

It’s been in release since May and, until recently, only in a handful of theaters. A slow rollout to more theaters started in June, based on popular reception at theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

To date it’s earned about $405,000 at the box office. Many reviews have not been kind; the film scored 32% on Rotten Tomatoes.

But some approved: “A sprawling folly, this uniquely hellish war film has almost breathtakingly impressive (and busy) production values and is anchored by a memorably complicated performance from John Cusack,” said Tom Keogh of the Seattle Times.

Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune said “'War, Inc.' has that provocateur's edge, and it's at least awake to the world around us.”

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There’s been a building critical mass of antiwar films linked to Iraq; MTV Films released “Stop-Loss” in March, and Errol Morris’ documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure,” laid bare the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. “Redacted” and “In the Valley of Elah” examined the war from the front lines to the home front.

Like the current opinion polls reflecting a groundswell of opposition to the Iraq war, these films are both leading indicators of where we’re going and dark testament to where we’ve been. It’s not a chicken-or-egg issue; which came first doesn’t matter. What’s important is that they’re all here now, in the runup to what may be a moment of broad national change.
Image credits: W teaser poster, Josh Brolin as George Bush: ©2008 Lionsgate Films. Generation Kill cover: Putnam Adult. War Inc. poster: ©2008 Millennium Films.

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