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MARCH 28, 2008

Battle Fatigued

Reviewed: Stop-Loss, Flawless, Praying with Lior,
The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, Arranged

By Mark Jenkins

Wonder Why People Think It's a War Movie: Phillippe in Stop-Loss. (Paramount Pictures)

AFTER THE BOX-OFFICE BELLY-FLOPS of a half-dozen Iraq War flicks, it's understandable that STOP-LOSS director and co-writer Kimberly Peirce denies that her movie is another addition to the genre. But of course it is, however much Pierce (hawking her first film since 1999's much better Boys Don't Cry) emphasizes the "human" side of the story of three Army buddies who return from the Big Sandy.

Like Brian De Palma's stunningly unsuccessful Redacted, Stop-Loss opens in multi-media Iraq, refracting the inferno through film, home video, and computer screens. But Peirce quickly drops this self-conscious angle in favor of traditional hometown drama, as Brandon (Ryan Phillippe), Steve (Channing Tatum), and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) return to Texas. Most of the guys are messed up, which battle flashbacks, broken engagements, and suicide attempts soon reveal. Only Brandon keeps his cool, and only until he learns he's been stop-lossed: Although his hitch is over, he's ordered to return to Iraq. Taking longtime friend — and Steve's estranged fiancee — Michele (Abbie Cornish) with him, Brandon goes AWOL and heads toward Washington, naively seeking the assistance of the U.S. senator who recently saluted him.

Based in part on Peirce's younger brother's Iraq and Afghanistan War experiences, the movie is essentially a tour of post-combat bummers. Brandon suffers shellshocked hallucinations at a motel pool, and goes all Cheney on a trio of muggers. He and Michelle encounter one veteran who's fleeing to Canada; visit another who's blind, badly burned, and missing two limbs; and meet a disabled Latino vet who says it's worth dying to win green cards for his family. In short, Stop-Loss is exactly the didactic exercise its makers claim it isn't. Delivering a lesson is no dishonor, but attempts to sell the movie as a youth-oriented buddy picture are disingenuous. And for those conscientious few who are willing to see a film about the war, there are a half dozen documentaries that are more effective than this movie, or any other fiction feature about the subject released so far. (2008, 112 min; at local multiplexes)

A POSSIBLY POLITICAL CAPER set in 1960 London, FLAWLESS has two reasons for its title: The film is about diamonds, and it turns on a precisely etched heist. The script, however, is far from immaculate. An Oxford-educated American whose career advancement has been halted by London Diamond's glass ceiling, Laura Quinn (Demi Moore) is informed by ever-observant janitor Hobbs (Michael Caine) that she's about to be fired. Angry and desperate, Quinn agrees to assist Hobbs with his plan to swipe a few sparklers from the snooty British firm's safe, only to find that the thief has somehow cleaned out the place: Two tons of gems are gone. As the company teeters, Bear Stearns-like, on the verge of collapse, police detectives and insurance adjusters circle, and some speculate that the robbery is related to London Diamond's reliance on the brutal mines of racist South Africa. But it's all much more simple than that, and much less interesting. Director Michael Radford's previous film was the robust The Merchant of Venice, but he dawdles here, and gets a surprisingly rote performance from Caine. (Moore is, uh, as good as ever.) Slower can be better, but not when it gives the listless viewer extra time to contemplate the plot's implausibilities and the Luxembourg-filmed movie's lack of convincing local color. (2008, 108 min; at Landmark E Street)

JEWISH TEENAGER LIOR LIEBLING, who has Down syndrome, prays very enthusiastically. According to one of his acquaintances, that makes the Philadelphia boy "a spiritual genius." Ilana Trachtman's PRAYING WITH LIOR would be more coherent if it accepted that judgment — and much harder to take. Although Lior's supposed religious purity is one of the documentary's themes, Trachtman concentrates on the boy's relationship with his devoted family, especially older brother Yoni; stepmother Lynne; and mother Devora, a rabbi who died of cancer in 1997. (We see her with Lior in family videos.) This focus on family life makes the film more engaging, and renders it watchable for viewers skeptical of all forms of indoctrination, regardless of the mental state of the subject. The movie's climax is the kid's bar mitzvah, where music obscures most of the Torah recitation but his speech is audible. (Lior offers a string of cliches, which are enthusiastically received.) Earlier, one sensible observer suggests that the boy simply adapted to his environment, and that seems fairer than musing (as Yoni does) that Lior is "closer to God." (2007, 87 min, at the Avalon Theater)

ALTHOUGH SET DURING A 1970 CRACKDOWN by Brazil's military dictatorship, THE YEAR MY PARENTS WENT ON VACATION is considerably less edgy than much recent Brazilian cinema. Twelve-year-old Mauro is deposited at his grandfather's Sao Paulo apartment house by his parents, who say they'll return by the time of soccer's World Cup. What Mauro doesn't know is that his parents are political activists fleeing arrest; what his parents can't know is that grandpa has just died of a heart attack. Mauro becomes the responsibility of his late grandfather's Yiddish-speaking neighbor, Shlomo, who's shocked when he sees that Mauro (whose dad is Jewish) urinating in a plant: The boy is uncircumcised! Mauro soon has lots of protectors, and becomes a successful goalie, but when his parents don't appear for Brazil's World Cup victory, the boy begins to worry. Skillfully made if well-precedented, director Cao Hamburger's second feature includes much of the usual coming-of-age and sports-flick business, but the political context keeps it from getting too sentimental. The movie seems as if it ought to be autobiographical; surprisingly, it's not. (2006, 104 min; at Landmark E Street)

SET MOSTLY IN BROOKLYN, ARRANGED finds trans-religious rapport in the stories of two young women who face the same problem: their elders' matchmaking. Rochel, an Orthodox Jew, and Nasira, a traditional Muslim, teach together in a Brooklyn public school. Although their families and neighbors are suspicious, the two soon become friends. They bond in opposition to the principal, who chides them both for being old-fashioned, but also because they're each being presented with potential husbands they find unacceptable. Inspired by a true story, Diane Crespo and Stefan C. Schaefer's film is a sterling example of the low-budget Amerindie film. If ultimately a little glib, the movie is well-made and clearly heartfelt. The unobtrusive score, by the way, is by D.C. punk veterans Sohrab Habibion (Edsel) and Michael Hampton (Embrace, Manifesto). (2007, 89 min; at the Avalon Theater)