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The trenches of Iraq and Minnesota

By Lady Liberty
web posted November 7, 2005

The Legend of Zorro

* 1/2 out of ****

The Legend of ZorroI really liked 1998's The Mask of Zorro, and was delighted to hear about the sequel. The first film had been so much fun to watch that the second — which boasts the return of its major stars — just had to be fun to watch, too. That just goes to show you how completely baseless expectations can be.

The Legend of Zorro opens some dozen or so years after the end of The Mask of Zorro. Alejandro de la Vega (Antonio Banderas) — the alter ego of Zorro — and the beautiful and fiery Elena Montero (Catherine Zeta-Jones) are married and have a young son. But the passion of their early years in love and on crusade has been tempered a good deal in Elena's mind by the responsibility of parenthood. She is, in fact, not at all thrilled with her husband's ongoing habit of turning into Zorro when he's needed and she's not afraid to tell him — repeatedly — so.

Elena's nagging does get Alejandro to promise to stop his derring do just as soon as California's pending statehood and a volatile voting process is complete. That's not soon enough for Elena, though, and she drives him out of the family home. No sooner has she done so than she is accosted by two strange men on the street who demand her assistance. Meanwhile, she also runs into an old childhood friend from Spain (who is, bizarrely, a Frenchman) who promptly begins to woo her.

The handsome but cold Armand (Rufus Sewell) causes Alejandro no small amount of jealousy. But there's more than Elena's romance to worry about. The couple's child Joaquin (Adrian Alonso) is getting into trouble at school, and a mysterious and powerful explosion at a vineyard piques Alejandro's interest and sets his warning senses clanging.

If all that isn't enough, there are also detectives poking around, Confederate soldiers looking for aid to their cause before the country erupts into civil war, a governor who seems an incompetent at best, a band of smugglers, and the vicious Mr. McGivens (Nick Chinlund) who wanders around terrorizing the locals during the course of what he says is "doing God's work."

Whew! There's so much going on in this movie that it actually comes as a bit of a shock to find that the plot is quite shallow. While things do dovetail together nicely in the end, there are no surprises and little drama to get from here to there. Worse, in a misguided attempt to be funny, some of the script devolves well into a cartoonishness that only the most immature could find amusing. (Example: Alejandro gets falling-down drunk — and so does his horse.) To make matters worse, for whatever reason, the wonderful chemistry between Banderas and Zeta-Jones that was so evident in the first movie is visibly strained here.

Banderas and Zeta-Jones aren't bad, though lack the passion of the first film; Rufus Sewell shows so little facial expression most of the time that I actually found myself looking for movement more intently than I was listening for lines. Thankfully, Nick Chinlund is melodramatically bad and thus really quite good, while young Adrian Alonso acquits himself well. The sets and costumes are lovely (though some of the mattes appeared inexcusably cheap), but those things can't do much to bolster the shallow and silly script that is the movie's downfall.

The Legend of Zorro has a few redeeming moments not the least of which are stunts involving Zorro's gorgeous black horse. There are also some decent sword fights. But even a good deal of the action is so scripted and choreographed that it lacks the same excitement the script itself is so bereft of having. Too bad. I would have loved to see the movie I'd been hoping for. Instead, perhaps it's best that only a few of us see the movie that it proved to be.

POLITICAL NOTES: With the backdrop of California's march toward statehood, there's much that could have been said and done here. Unfortunately, none of it was. What was pointed out, however, was the need in the minds of some to ensure that the United States be taken down a notch before becoming too powerful. Though the statement was made within the thin context of the film, it's almost impossible not to see it as a comment on the world today and the echo of the viewpoint of an appalling number.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Legend of Zorro is rated PG for "sequences of violence/peril and action, language, and a couple of suggestive moments." The rating is probably just about right, but parents of younger kids should be cautioned that there are moments of subtitled dialogue as well as taking note of a couple of particularly nasty deaths (not graphic onscreen, but the methods are gruesome). Those same parents will also want to watch out for the inevitable imitation some children will try after seeing young Joaquin attempting his own rendition of Zorro-like behavior. Otherwise, The Legend of Zorro is mostly harmless, especially since it's a movie you'll likely forget not long after leaving the theatre anyway.


*** out of ****

JarheadI remember the Gulf War all too well. It was my own initial experience with a "television war" (those who are older doubtless remember that the Viet Nam war was the very first of those), and I was terrified of the repercussions even as I couldn't look away from the anti-aircraft tracers lighting up my TV screen. Not long after the war was essentially over, I found myself standing in line for an event with a young man who had only just returned from a stint in Kuwait as an Army medic. The three hour wait flew by as he told one anecdote after another of wearing chem suits in 120 degree heat, standing ovations for soldiers transporting Patriot missile batteries, and sand, sand, sand everywhere and into everything. The freshness of both memories played a large role in my purchase of tickets for Jarhead.

Jarhead, as many people know, is a slang term for a US Marine. One of those newly minted jarheads is Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) who, largely to even his own surprise, finds himself enduring the rigors of basic training and then still more brutal training for his assigned specialty. Swoff tells one drill sergeant that he's in the Marines only because he "took a wrong turn on the way to college." His explanation doesn't go over well. Later, he does everything he can think of to drum himself out of the Corps.

Eventually, between the friendship and support of his partner, Allen Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) and the tough example set by his commander, Staff Sergeant Sykes (Jamie Foxx), Swoff becomes very, very good at his new job: a scout sniper. Needless to say, when the news breaks that Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait, Swoff's group is one of the first to be sent overseas.

The troops are welcomed to the desert by Lt. Col Kazinski (Chris Cooper) who commands a large segment of the Marines deployed there, and who tells them they must maintain constant vigilance and be ready to fight at a moment's notice. But months go by with nothing to do but drills and more drills, and the boredom, anxiety, heat, and desolation of their circumstances begin to wear. The men, of course, find some very creative (and usually very naughty) ways to entertain themselves and each other during this time. But when war is at last declared, they move out like the professionals they've been trained to be.

In the midst of burning oil wells and charred vehicle convoys, Swoff and his company make their way into enemy territory. They endure enemy fire and fear; fights amongst themselves and utter despair. And then, as suddenly as it began, the war is over. But despite the brevity of Swoff's experience (his own fighting war lasts only a little over four days), he and everyone else is changed by their experiences, and not all of those changes are easy to live with.

Jarhead gives us the firsthand experience of one soldier in the Gulf War with all of the attendant good and bad moments. As such, it's fascinating in and of itself. But director Sam Mendes has added dramatically to the story with some truly brilliant edits, some creatively managed flashbacks, and some astounding settings (the burning oil wells are bizarrely heart breaking even as the depiction onscreen is awesome; the destruction wreaked by American bombs is graphic and moving). Of course, the fact that the film is based on a book written by the real Anthony Swofford about his own experiences in the Gulf War means that even Hollywood effects can't take away from the back of our minds that much of what we see is real, or at least was.

Jake Gyllenhaal has become a very good actor indeed, and holds his own with Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, whose performance could very well garner him another awards season nod for his supporting role. Peter Sarsgaard is also just terrific. The rest of the supporting cast — who have far more limited roles — is also good. In fact, the one real criticism I have about the film is that I would have liked to have known more about each of the men who served so honorably and who were so altered by that experience.

Jarhead isn't a war movie per se in the sense that it shows a lot of shoot 'em up action. But it may be one of the few war movies that actually conveys graphically the sheer boredom and hurry-up-and-wait that is the reality for many soldiers. And that the men perform so well despite the emotional obstacles of where they are and what they might have to do, and that they're a cohesive group when it counts no matter the flaws of each or any of them, is unquestionably honored here. I recommend Jarhead for virtually everybody.

POLITICAL NOTES: The comparison between the Gulf War and the current conflict in Iraq is inevitable, particularly as some continue to believe that Saddam Hussein should have been deposed in that war rather than as a part and parcel of the current and ongoing War on Terror. But the very real difference between the two is that in the first, Americans were viewed as the liberators of Kuwait. In the latter, some countries look at Americans as the despots who overthrew a sovereign nation. While perception doesn't win or lose battles, it does make the difference between victory and defeat in the court of public opinion.

Obviously, it's tempting to call that opinion inconsequential. But the reality of it is that such opinion can shape alliances, trade, and more for years to come thus making mere perceptions important to everything from national security to economic health. Regardless, however, Jarhead does serve one important function and that's to humanize our fighting men and to reinforce the fact that they are fighting for our country and for freedom. Whatever your opinion on anything else, I'd hope you'd remember at least that much.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Jarhead is rated R for "pervasive language, some violent images, and strong sexual content." Parents should be aware that the R rating is entirely warranted. But with that caveat, I'd recommend Jarhead for mature audiences who are interested in current events, the military, or just plain good movie-making.

North Country

** 1/2 out of ****

North CountryI'm from a small town in northern Minnesota myself, not so very far from the iron range where North Country is set. The exteriors, most of which were filmed on location, were exactly as I remember the landscape and the huge open pit mines on a family trip through the area one long ago summer. So for me, North Country was perhaps all the more fully realized in that so much — including that distinctive Minnesota accent — seemed so familiar.

The mining industry was far and above the largest employer in the area back in the 1980's. It was during that timeframe that pretty Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) returned to the area with her two children after leaving an abusive husband. With no money and nowhere else to go, she temporarily moves in with her parents, the long suffering Alice (Sissy Spacek) and the taciturn and disapproving Hank (Richard Jenkins) who, like so many others, works for a mining concern.

Josey, whatever else her father might think of her, is no freeloader. She promptly gets a job at a local beauty salon. When she runs into an old friend there, she learns she could make a lot more money if she worked in the mines. Glory (Frances McDormond) encourages Josey to join her there, but warns her in no uncertain terms that the job is a tough one both by virtue of the physical labor as well as thanks to the men who don't want the women there. Josey's father is himself far from enthusiastic about the idea, accusing her of being a lesbian in addition to her many other faults.

The money is too tempting to disregard, so Josey applies for and gets a job in the mines. From the very first, she learns that the hazing she expected from the men is far worse than that. She must deal with filth and obscenity on a constant basis, though she manages for awhile with good humor. And the money enables her to leave her parents' home and provide for her children. Glory and her husband Kyle (Sean Bean) are good friends to Josey; they even attempt some match making when Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a lawyer friend, returns to the area. Life should be good, or at least better than it's been for Josey in the past.

But the harassment at work becomes more than Josey can bear and, despite the unwillingness of the other women at the mines to stand with her, she takes her complaints to the very top. It's then that she learns just how bad things can really get. In the end, Josey believes she has no other option but to take on the company in court. Even Bill, however, won't take her case unless she's able to get some other women to corroborate her complaints. After all, says Bill, no one has ever attempted a class action sexual harassment lawsuit, and that's the only way he'll consider taking it on. It's an uphill battle for Bill and Josey, and it's made even worse by the fact that Josey has no friends and any number of vocal enemies who will refuse her, actively harass her, and even lie about her to stop her crusade to do what's right.

North Country is based on a true story, though none of the characters here depict real people per se. That being said, the movie does seem entirely real and that's due primarily to two things: Charlize Theron is probably going to find herself nominated for another Oscar for her portrayal of the desperate single mother, and the cinematographer used lighting techniques (described in some detail on the movie web site) that make the film seem more a documentary than a feature presentation. Further, the gritty realism of the sets contributes as does some rock solid acting from primary supporting cast members McDormond, Bean, Spacek, and Jenkins.

Thankfully for such a compelling story, those factors more than overcome a relatively weak script and lackluster direction. In several instances, events seemed to fast forward at a breakneck and improbable pace; others seemed consolidated into single scenes where at least several were warranted or even required. Some courtroom antics, while amusing, were so unreal as to be jarring; some actions, with virtually nothing to support them, seemed to come out of the blue and to make little sense as a result. A better script would have remedied these things; a better director would have demanded a better script.

It's testament, though, to the acting and to the story itself, however, that this movie still rates as well as it does and that I'd still recommend it. It's a moving portrayal of a very real and pivotal time in recent history, and it's done in such a way that we can all be there for the pain that gave an important precedent birth.

POLITICAL NOTES: I'm not a big fan of those women who claim sexual harassment. In my experience, most of those claims are the result of over-sensitive political correctness or just plain bitchiness (I've spent much of my career in male-dominated industries, and have known all too well some of these women). But the harassment depicted in North Country is the genuine and wholly reprehensible deal, and those employers who permit or even turn a blind eye to such behavior deserve the punitive actions that are coming their way (and frankly, those employees who are guilty ought to be jailed long enough to experience a little sexual harassment of their own). Fortunately, a few women in the iron mines of northern Minnesota have seen to it that such things are no longer tolerated and that punishment is forthcoming for most who engage in them.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: North Country is rated R for "sequences involving sexual harassment including violence and language, and for language." The sexual harassment is, as I said, the real deal. It's crass at best, and genuinely obscene or terrifyingly violent in a few instances. The language isn't anything most older teens haven't heard, though, and I think it's important that girls see what real sexual harassment is, and that boys learn just how terrible — for everyone — engaging in such harassment can be. That's why I'd recommend parents take their mature teens of about 14 and up to see the film and then discuss it afterwards (yes, I know how much the kids will love it if you do that, but suffering is good for the soul). For adults, North Country is impressive even without the life lessons, at least when it comes to an inspirational story or top level acting. Either way, it's well worth the price of the ticket.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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