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Get Rich or Die Tryin’

Mark Palermo on Fiddy, Jakey and Steve.

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Get Rich or Die Tryin’ combines two movements of hip-hop movies: The gangsta rap manifest ghetto films of the early ’90s (Boyz N the Hood, Juice, Menace II Society) and this decade’s tales of careerism (8 Mile, Hustle & Flow). Its message — crime doesn’t pay — is, like much of the film, too familiar. But the lesson’s also not genuine. It’s a dramatization of the pre-fame years of 50 Cent — playing a variation of himself named Marcus — that straddles a moral drama and an ego piece. 50 Cent’s few expressions make for an enigmatic leading man dwarfed by the movie’s strong supporting cast. Director Jim Sheridan has a gift for giving force to melodrama, and knows how to structure an arresting cinematic device — images through car mirrors distort as they vibrate to 50 Cent’s “I’ll Whip Ya Head Boy.” With In America, Sheridan delivered the most-felt recent film about lower-class struggle, but he seems less comfortable here. The attempts at sentiment come unnaturally. The most shameless example occurs in the celebrity-boosting moment of Marcus agreeing as his drug-dealing mother (Serena Reeder) instructs him to always treat women with respect. Some pieces work better than others: A vicious, totally gay prison shower fight scene is the movie at its riskiest, most memorable and insane. But a mostly derivative hip-hop number can’t afford to be so inconsistent. Where’s the flow?

Jarhead

The Gulf War drama Jarhead has, as a distinction from Vietnam movies, soldiers who have seen Vietnam movies. They know the tragic outcomes, and they don’t care. This is to be their war movie. Vietnam’s shadow hangs over Jarhead, not just in its soldiers’ expectations, but also in its shared outlook with Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The civilization of the Marine Corps in Jarhead necessitates dehumanization. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as sniper Anthony Swofford, whose autobiography served as the basis for Sam Mendes’ film. His brushes with abuse and comrade madness are treated with a contemporary cynicism that makes them alternately funny and disturbing. The war’s politics barely enter day-to-day life. Through weeks of heat and boredom, the marines’ fraternizing serves as the basis of Jarhead’s terrific first hour. The oppressive living conditions instill feelings of uselessness. Without seeing any action, the growing sentiment is that the whole process might mean something if they get to kill someone. Despite things like self-consciously approaching the homoeroticism that seems incidental in other war movies, Mendes holds both his characters and audience back from the genre’s usual satisfactions. This war isn’t what they expected, and it isn’t what they want. Jarhead moves the physical combat of war movies to an internal chaos and uncertainty. It’s a process by which a marine must, as one character puts it, “learn to burn the fat off your soul.”

Shopgirl

Shopgirl keeps threatening to amount to something. It’s a romantic comedy that’s almost romantic and almost funny. It has wry insight into the isolated self-sufficiency of LA shopgirl Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), who appears to be from a different world than her rich clientele. But the developing charm in her affair with a weirdo (Jason Schwartzman) who does graphic design for company logos on amplifiers is brushed aside before it can blossom. Hit on by the wealthy, much older Ray (Steve Martin), Mirabelle jumps into the dubious relationship for need of some affection. Martin, who wrote the screenplay based on his novella, brings the film the same magic, airy tone of his LA Story. But LA Story is also one of the funniest, wittiest romantic comedies of the past 20 years. Shopgirl drifts among uncertain emotions, being precious about them instead of comically insightful — it’s Martin’s semi-successful effort to hone his own Lost in Translation.

Alwyas honing: palermo@thecoast.ca.

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