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Monday, March 15, 2010

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS -- DVD review by porfle

You never get the feeling that you're watching something truly, awesomely, memorably funny, yet THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS (2009) is fun and endearing, and surprisingly heartfelt for a comedy about psychic warriors in the American military who remote-view enemy positions and attempt to subdue their opponents with tactics such as sparkly eyes, gentle thoughts, and invisibility. And the fact that this cheerfully off-kilter tall tale is largely based on true events makes it just short of wonderful.

Ewan McGregor plays journalist Bob Wilton, who's just been dumped by his wife and goes off to Iraq to prove to her that he isn't a wimp by becoming a war correspondent. His life takes a big left turn when he meets the mysterious Special Forces vet Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) and is swept up in a secret mission with this seemingly insane zealot who professes to be a former Jedi warrior with paranormal mental abilities. Into the desert they go, where they're kidnapped by gunmen, rescued by American capitalist opportunists led by TERMINATOR 2's Robert Patrick, and drawn back into a perversion of Cassady's old Special Forces unit now operating on the dark side from a hidden desert base under the leadership of former teammate Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey).

The unit's benevolent founder, New Age idealist Colonel Bill Django (Jeff Bridges)--whose efforts were once backed by President Reagan since he was "a fan of both the Star Wars films and the paranormal himself"--is now a burn-out who is unable to stop Hooper from using his peaceful psy-ops techniques as a destructive force. With a guilt-ridden Cassady believing himself cursed for once having used his mental powers to kill a goat, and Django having surrendered his principals of non-violent engagement to the evil Hooper, a newly-converted Wilton must rally the two faded Jedis for a last chance at redemption and the final validation of their ideals.

What seems like nothing more than light, frothy comedy material at first gains considerable depth the farther we get into these characters and are drawn into their weird world along with Wilton, who, like Alice, suddenly finds himself plunging straight down the rabbit hole from his first encounter with Cassady. The story pushes the bounds of nuttiness without crossing over into farce, so that it remains involving and suspenseful as an off-kilter action yarn, especially since Cassady takes it all so deadly serious.

He's not kidding when he talks about walking through walls, using mind power to make clouds disappear, or giving a goat the lethal stare, and he really believes that a jealous Hooper once zapped him with the "Dim Mak death touch" even though it may take up to 18 years to work. As the Jedi master and the confused journalist careen through the desert on their enigmatic mission, it's fun watching Cassady put his supposed paranormal powers to use in one dangerous situation after another as Wilton looks on with frantic incredulity.

As he's already proven in his Coen Brothers films, George Clooney has gotten very good at playing this kind of role, able to invest his character with utter deadpan sincerity while deftly drawing out all the comedy potential (flashbacks of his younger self flourishing under Django's mind-expanding tutelage are a hoot). He never makes a misstep--other actors might have been tempted to mug or play too broadly, if only a little bit--and is entirely convincing.

Kevin Spacey, as usual, seems capable of doing all of this without any effort (which probably takes a lot of effort). As for Jeff Bridges, he's in familiar territory as the laidback New Age dude and knows his way around it, this time with the added dimension of being a bonafide military officer wielding his skewed perspective in the art of warfare. Ewan McGregor, all fresh-faced and earnest, gets to play another likably quirky American who, ironically, ends up once again as a Jedi in training.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 with English and Spanish subtitles. Extras include two commentaries (by director Grant Heslov and book author Jon Ronson), a brief "making of" featurette, deleted and alternate scenes, character bios, and trailers for this and other Anchor Bay releases. (Blu-Ray includes a digital copy of the film.) Of special interest is the featurette "Goats Declassified: the Real Men of the First Earth Battlion", which tells us just how strangely close to the truth much of the movie is.

Although it's probably in little danger of becoming a classic or gaining any kind of devoted cult following, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS is worthwhile entertainment that's fast-paced and fun to watch. The ending is a bit too literal--it should've cut to black a split-second before we see whether or not a real-life Jedi actually can walk through walls. As for the goat, maybe Cassady really did kill it with his mind. Or maybe its time was just up.

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