A young soldier who has come home from Iraq is forced to rethink his ideas about heroism and patriotism when he is “stop-lossed” — informed that instead of leaving the Army he has been involuntarily assigned to another tour of duty. Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) and Steve (Channing Tatum), his best friend since high school, were greeted with an old-fashioned hero’s welcome right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with a parade and a warm handshake from their Senator, who says his door will always be open to real-life American heroes. They speak proudly about “killing ’em in Iraq so we won’t have to kill ’em in Texas.” But when Brandon finds out that the government has the right to send him back, he goes AWOL and leaves for Washington with Steve’s estranged fiancée (Abbie Cornish), hoping the Senator will find a way for him to stay home.
The real-life Army euphemism “stop loss,” sometimes referred to as a “backdoor draft” for the all-volunteer army, takes on multiple meanings as the film progresses. Brandon’s efforts to stay home are his own stop loss program. When he first comes home, he seems to be the most stable and responsible of the returning soldiers. But he crumbles quickly when ordered to return. For him, leaving the Army is the only way to stop further loss of his ability to return to a normal life. His efforts to resist only create conflicts with the people closest to him.
A Norwegian boy named Hakon (Stian Smestad) is being pushed around by some bullies. He warns them that his father will take care of them when he gets back from sea, and they tell him his father owes so much money he should never come home. But his father does come home, with an injured leg, and with Jens, the man who saved his life. Hakon does not want to go to sea in his place, but when the family risks losing their home, he goes. Jens promises to look after him.
The stern captain tells him, “There is no room for children aboard this ship,” and the crew initiates him by hanging him from the mast, but he watches, learns, works hard, and soon fits in well. At the first port, the captain tells him he has passed muster, and can stay on for the entire voyage. They are joined by a new First Mate — Howell. We know what the captain and Hakon do not — it is a murderer named Merrick passing as Howell. Hakon discovers guns in a crate marked “glass.” Merrick tells him it is a secret. Just as Hakon is about to tell the captain, the captain falls ill — poisoned by one of Merrick’s accomplices. The captain dies and is buried at sea. Merrick takes over.
At the next port, a brave young girl named Mary stows away. Hakon discovers her, and brings her food. She teaches him to read, using a book of Coleridge poetry. When Merrick discovers her, Jens confesses to protect Hakon. Hakon tells Merrick that it was his fault, and Merrick orders Jens to whip Hakon. But just then, the ship is struck by lightning and sinks. Hakon is washed up on an island, where he discovers pirate treasure–and a newspaper clipping with a drawing of Merrick, leader of the pirates. Hakon knows Merrick will come for the treasure, and sets up elaborate booby traps all over the island. Seeing smoke on another island, he builds a small boat, and explores it. He finds Mary and Jens, living with friendly natives. They return to Hakon’s island, just before the pirates come to get the treasure. Between the traps and Mary’s liberation of the ship, they manage to get away with the treasure, and return to Hakon’s home in triumph.
Neglected on its release, this is an exciting adventure, and a lot of fun to watch. Hakon does a lot of growing up. At the beginning he is a young boy who can only fight bullies by telling them to wait for his father. At the end he is a young man who is confident of his ability to protect himself.
Questions for Kids:
· How does Hakon decide whether to tell the captain about the guns he found?
· Why does Jens say that it was he who hid Mary?
· Why does Hakon tell the truth?
· Which part of the movie was the scariest? Which part was the funniest?
Connections: The booby traps on the island are reminiscent of the invasion of the pirates in “The Swiss Family Robinson,” and of course “Home Alone.”
Activities: Find Norway on a map and see if you can chart the course Hakon followed. You might also enjoy reading the Coleridge poem Hakon likes, “Kubla Khan.” Even if it is hard to follow, the language and rhythms are a pleasure to the ear and tongue. And it provides a good beginning for a discussion of dream or ideal places. The “pleasure dome” inhabited by “Citizen Kane” is named Xanadu, a reference to this poem.
In 2006, Time asked whether movie critics still mattered. Since then, more than 30 major national critics have retired or been laid off and there has been a lot of commentary about the pros and cons of the democratization of movie reviews. The internet has erased the boundaries between professional and amateur critics as well as the boundaries of geography and outlet. You don’t have to live in Chicago to read Roger Ebert and you don’t have to be Roger Ebert to be read.
As one of the beneficiaries of the new outlets made available on the internet (I was one of the very first critics to post online, 13 years ago this month), I have mixed feelings. I am delighted with the way that the internet has made it possible to read such a wide range of reviews. I especially love Rotten Tomatoes, the best place to read all the critics, which is now celebrating its 10th anniversary. But I am sorry that some of our wisest, most knowledgeable, most insightful, and most graceful writers are disappearing from the conversation. The bloggers who contributed to the loss of MSM critics have documented and even lamented this decimation of the ranks.
With a bit of gallows humor, Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times, which covers Hollywood the way the Wall Street Journal covers stocks, calls producer Avi Lerner his favorite critic. Few professional critics would disagree with his assessment of The Love Guru: “The worst movie I’ve seen in my life. It was so stupid I wanted to cry.” And this from the producer of such classics as “Shark Attack” and Rambo. With more than a bit of glee, the producers of the execrable Norbit pointed out that it received reviews from professional critics that ranged from disgusted to horrified and managed to make more than $150 million.
But critics are about more than telling people which movies are good and which are bad. Critics who understand the medium can help audiences understand what makes them good or bad and can provide background and context and their own insight and wit. A good review of a bad movie can be a pleasure to read. When movies are good, critics are very, very good, but when they’re bad, we’re better.
Slate’s Erik Lundegaard (note, an expert on business, not movies) writes that on a per-screen basis, movies recommended by critics make more money. “Critically acclaimed films average about $2,000 more per screen than critically lambasted films…Percentagewise, the critic effect is less pronounced for the supposedly critic-proof blockbusters, but it’s still there.”
I like Lundegaard’s idea of publishing brief non-spoiler reviews the date of release and longer, more thoughtful reviews on message boards a few weeks later, inviting audiences to participate in the discussion. Slate’s “spoiler” podcast is a variation. They are separate reviews intended for people who have already seen the movie, and I really enjoy them.
But what I like best in Lundegaard’s essay is his conclusion, which fits with my sense of, well, fitness and my belief in efficient markets (over the long term) in both of my careers: “[T]he main point of all of this is something obvious yet little-heard in our bottom-line culture: Quality matters. Yes, it even matters in the ledger books.”
The members of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists speak out on superhero movies. Are they just for boys?
MaryAnn Johanson, who’s carved her critic’s niche by taking superhero movies seriously, provides an introduction:
“Comic books and comic book movies ain’t just for boys anymore-if they ever were. The latest slew of superhero flicks, which began to come of age with 2000’s “X-Men,” have gotten increasingly sophisticated and now focus equally on the existential dramas of their heroes and the mythic arcs of their typically tragic stories as they do on slam-bang action…Today we’re seeing fantasy drama with an accent on the drama. Superhero movies are not longer lighthearted comedies dressed up in capes-as in 1978’s “Superman”-or expressions of over-the-top outrageousness-as in Jack Nicholson’s Joker in 1989’s “Batman,” for example. Even “Hancock,” which was marketed as a comedy, turns out to be more intensely dramatic than it is funny.
Lexi Feinberg comments, “I’d say they’re mythic. Adam Sandler movies represent the dumbing down of audiences much more than “Spider-Man” or “Batman”.”
The critics overwhelmingly chose “Iron Man” as the best recent superhero movie and hope for better superhero movies featuring women. The survey quotes my comment about Elektra and Catwoman: “they were made by people who don’t understand women, comics or movies.”