Wednesday, June 27, 2012

New Films in Brief: Invisible War, Stella Days, Collaborator

The Invisible War
Directed by Kirby Dick
Opened June 22, 2012

Stella Days
Directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan
Opened June 22, 2012; available on demand June 19

Written and directed by Martin Donovan
Opens July 6, 2012; available on demand June 20

One of the most important documentaries in years, The Invisible War powerfully gives voice to women who were raped or sexually abused while serving in the U.S. military, an outcome shockingly more possible than being shot by the enemy in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Despite our best and brightest women joining the armed forces due to patriotism or long family traditions, their lives have been unconscionably ruined by a strictly male-centered mentality that puts women under enormous added pressure just for being women. Being violated physically is just the beginning of the nightmare: what they endure afterward—if they decide to report the abuse, which many don’t for fear of reprisals—is as distressing emotionally as the rape was.

Director Kirby Dick—whose other valuable documentaries are This Film Is Not Yet Rated and Outrage—not only gets several women to recount their compelling but heartbreaking stories, showing what lies ahead for those still being abused, but also buttresses his argument with head-scratching statistics about how widespread the abuse is and how little the army has done to combat it. (Laughable examples of PSAs designed to raise awareness within the armed services do little but consolidate the “blame the victim” mentality still prevalent in wider society as well.)

The Invisible War lays bare how our otherwise estimable armed forces are tarnished by this horrific debasement of so many unfortunate victims (there are some males among them): in eye-opening interviews with senior members of the military both clued in and clueless, that disconnect remains, despite recent advances, post-screening for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to try and remedy some of the injustices done to those who make claims against fellow soldiers.

Stella Days is based on Michael Doorley’s memoir of rural Ireland in the 1950s when a country still heavily influenced by the Catholic Church is taking baby steps to modernize, despite vociferous opposition by conservative leaders to remain in the dark ages.

Into the breach steps Father Daniel Barry, a liberal-leaning priest who, with the help of new school teacher Tim, to open a small movie theater for a population that’s barely seen any. Leading the anti-movie charge is Brendan, an ultra-conservative zealot running for office, hoping to keep his constituency from entering the 20th century, even belatedly.

Although Stella Days is mainly a feel-good melodrama, director Thaddeus O’Sullivan keeps sentiment at bay by approaching the subject with humor, especially when showing the absurd convictions of Father Barry’s parishioners. However, although Father Barry is skeptical, he’s still a believer, and never does he or O’Sullivan mock such heartfelt sentiments.

With on-target performances by Martin Sheen as Father Barry and Stephen Rea as Brendan, Stella Days is worth spending time with.

Martin Donovan first came to attention in Hal Hartley’s romantic comedy Trust (1990), in which Donovan and the late, great Adrienne Shelley traded quips in Hartley’s arch but affecting classic. So it’s no surprise that Collaborator, Donovan’s first film as writer and director, borrows from Hartley in its deadpan study of two men thrown together by unlikely circumstances.

Donovan plays Robert Longfellow, a playwright on the downside of his career and his marriage, who returns to L.A. from New York City to visit his mother. He also rekindles an affair with Emma, an actress who starred in several of his plays, and runs into Gus, a shady ex-felon from the neighborhood he’s known since they were kids: the men drink beers and kick around old times, and when Gus pulls a gun on Robert as the police surround Robert’s mother’s home, he finds his messy personal life is shown to a riveted television audience.

As writer, Donovan has created intriguingly bizarre characters of the sort Hartley did, as well as tart dialogue between the mismatched men compensating for the contrived relationships between Robert and Emma (underplayed sweetly by Olivia Williams) and his wife Alice (stiffly played by ex-Hole bassist Melissa auf der Maur).

As director, Donovan leans too heavily on the men’s absurd situation, and the title’s double entendre is too literally spelled out in the men’s final confrontation. As actor, Donovan doesn’t stretch himself as the put-upon hero, while David Morse persuasively portrays a loser grasping at anything resembling a life preserver. The actors provide the movie’s true collaboration.

No comments: