Film Reviews for 4-2-08 (4 Months, Stop-Loss)

‘4 Months’ offers honest portrayal of abortion

(Starring Anamaria Marinca, Vlad Ivanov, Laura Vasiliu and Luminita Gheorghiu. Directed by Cristian Mungiu. UR; 1:53. Starts Friday, April 4 at Baxter Avenue Theatres. LEO Report Card: A)
It was nearly a hundred years ago that public health advocate Margaret Sanger provoked widespread condemnation by advocating for birth control in an era when any public mention of it was considered obscene. She also had the audacity to promote a more complicated view of abortion: The women she met weren’t rich girls having abortions to save their reputations (as was the popular image), but poor wives who feared that one more mouth to feed could bring hunger to the entire family. Illegal abortion was ugly, dangerous and excruciating, but many women felt they had no other choice. According to Sanger, backstreet abortions were merely the byproducts of poverty, tradition, repression and bad luck.

Set in the dark days of Romanian Communism, Christian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” has Sanger’s brutal honesty and wide scope combined with skillful, compassionate moviemaking. It’s simultaneously bleak and kindhearted, intelligent and artful, plodding and restless. Yes, it is about abortion. But it’s also just a good film.  

For the women at the heart of this film — two college roommates in a bleak Eastern Bloc dormitory — the abortion they seek is not a matter of “choice.” Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is not a bourgeoisie scholar, but a 20-something girl whose academic diligence has allowed her to escape the depressed, oppressive Romanian countryside. A child would mean giving up life in a comparatively liberated urban center and returning to poverty back home.  

Her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), is there because, well, who else would be? The father surely wouldn’t, the family won’t understand, and the Romanian government, Stalinist and culturally conservative, strictly enforces its ban on abortion.

After pooling their money, the two girls descend into what’s essentially the birth-control underworld. While Gabita worries herself sick with the likely moral and physical consequences of the procedure, Otilia is left to find a hotel room and track down the underground abortionist, who proves to be an unpleasant and complicated man.

Mungiu is smart not to overplay his hand: The shock of an honest portrayal of abortion provides ample drama. Most of the scenes are long, with little camera movement and even less editing. In the hands of other directors, this naturalistic approach can be maddeningly slow. But here, coupled with perfect execution of Mungiu’s twitchy, nervous dialogue, that cinematic plainness just highlights the sense of dread. After all, the best-case scenario isn’t all that great.

Ultimately, “4 Months” could really have been about anything that is illegal, debatable and inevitable: drug use, illegal immigration, etc. Often, it’s the mere act of making something illegal that moves it from a minor social ill to a major one. In the case of Romania, where for decades almost everything was illegal, the government’s moral regulations inadvertently caused the social and moral collapse that Mungiu’s film documents. —Alan Abbott
‘Stop-Loss’ loses to war-movie cliché

(Starring Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Channing Tatum, Timothy Olyphant and Ciaran Hinds. Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Rated R; 1:52. LEO Report Card: B-)
Like many recent war movies, “Stop-Loss” leans too heavily on polemic and tired genre beats in its quest for high-impact drama. And yet, the movie contains enough scenes of the young men hanging out in rural Texas to establish the characters as actual people rather than shrill exclamation points.

Director Kimberly Peirce follows up 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry” with a sophomore effort whose earnestness is undercut by its rusty story machinations. The movie traces the postwar lives of three Texas soldiers as they try to assimilate to civilian life. The cold beers and bar dancing give way to fighting for the irascible Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); Steve (Channing Tatum) beats his girlfriend and digs ditches in his front yard in his tighty-whities and sleeps with a handgun; Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) holds his act together — at least initially.

Then Brandon gets “stop-lossed,” military jargon for a federally drafted order to re-enlist a soldier. “Fuck the president,” says Brandon to his Lt. Col., and then he beats up a couple of soldiers on his way to the stockade. Brandon and Steve’s girlfriend Michelle (Abbie Cornish) embark on a road trip to Washington, D.C., to try to reverse the re-enlistment order.

“Stop-Loss” seethes with anger at the damage the Iraq War has inflicted on the psyches of young veterans. Too bad it uses every cliché of the war-movie handbook to bellow its concerns over Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Despite those missteps, one sequence in particular has an unforced naturalism as the three men drink beers and use Tommy’s wedding presents as shotgun-target practice. Peirce and her talented cast create the most affecting moments of young lives destroyed by war by showing these soldiers playing, not fighting. —Jamie Peters