- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

Actor Gary Sinise doesn’t settle for photo ops when he visits soldiers fighting overseas. He talks to them, checks in via e-mail with those he met once he’s back in the United States and, when time permits, entertains them both here and abroad with his modest cover group, the Lt. Dan Band.

The “CSI:NY” star is a natural to kick off the first GI Film Festival this weekend.

“It seems perfectly appropriate and fitting to put this festival together to honor the service of our veterans,” says Mr. Sinise, who will introduce “Forrest Gump,” in which he memorably played Lt. Dan Taylor, a character who lost both legs in Vietnam.

The three-day festival, to be held through Monday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Northwest, will include film screenings of both military-themed favorites and new releases and panel discussions featuring soldiers, journalists and filmmakers.

One short being shown is “In Times of War: The Ray Parker Story,” which lets a World War II veteran tell in his own words how he got captured by Nazis and lived to tell about it. Another, “Shakey’s Hill,” follows actual footage of soldiers in Bravo Company of the 5th Battalion as they fight their way toward a weapons cache but end up battling North Vietnamese troops. “Divergence” offers a fictional romance between an Iraq war veteran and a woman who brings her own personal pain to the relationship.

Mr. Sinise says the treatment many Vietnam War veterans endured after returning home provoked his determination to give something back to soldiers.

“We wanted to sweep them under the rug,” he says of the approach too many took toward Vietnam veterans. “Not only did they deal with the scars of the battles they fought, but [they] had to come home and feel shameful for doing it. We don’t want that to happen again.”

Mr. Sinise’s grueling “CSI:NY” schedule means he can only travel sporadically on weekends, but he still manages weekend furloughs to bring his band to both stateside soldiers and their loved ones.

“The troops are deployed somewhere, but the family members are still there,” he says. “You can continue to pitch in and help out.”

Some have derided the acting community for not doing more to support the troops, i.e. visit the men and women overseas once in a while even if the actors don’t believe in the cause for which they fight.

Mr. Sinise won’t take the bait, ticking off the names of a few entertainers who have gone overseas, including Drew Carey and “Mad TV” comic Michael McDonald.

“Everybody has to make up their own minds. Some need a little nudge,” he says diplomatically.

This weekend, Mr. Sinise won’t be the only celebrity on hand.

The festival’s Hollywood Advisory Committee includes Ernest Borgnine (“From Here to Eternity”), Chuck Norris (“Delta Force,” “Missing in Action”), director John Milius (“Red Dawn”) and director John Dahl (“The Great Raid”). Pat Boone and “Full Metal Jacket” standout R. Lee Ermey are also expected to attend.

For more information, visit www.gifilmfestival.com.

Christian Toto

‘Once’ riffs on real life

Irish writer-director John Carney may have just reinvented the musical with “Once,” the story of a busking Guy (played by Frames frontman Glen Hansard) and a piano-playing Girl (collaborator Marketa Irglova) who meet on Dublin’s streets and make beautiful music together. Rather than resembling someone’s song-and-dance-based reinterpretation of life, it plays more like the real thing — only with a killer soundtrack seamlessly stitched into the proceedings.

If the movie feels intimate, personal and unaffected (its best attributes after its score) that’s because it is; much of its inspiration and content comes from its key players. That guitar Mr. Hansard’s playing with holes worn into its body? His fingers have cut gradually through its face over the decades he has caressed it.

That sidewalk he’s standing on while strumming? Oh, the stories he could tell about when he used to busk there.

That cheating ex-girlfriend his character might be willing to forgive? A subplot straight out of Mr. Carney’s dating history. And we probably don’t have to tell you that the two real-life musician stars actually did pen those tunes together — some before the idea for the movie ever crystallized.

“It wasn’t like I wanted to tell the story about how I was feeling or make a film about Glen and Marketa,” says the director. “All those things are kind of just happy coincidences that arose from hanging out together.”

More than a case of what Mr. Carney calls “weird kismet,” “Once” is also the result of a group of people who draw on their homeland’s rich cultural legacy. Music is more than a backbeat in Ireland; it’s a pulse.

Mr. Hansard, who’s toured the world many times over with his band, says he believes Americans treat music “like coffee — it’s readily available, and you have a particular time when you listen to it.” In Ireland, by contrast, “It’s part of the fabric of the culture,” he says. “It lubricates the way we all are around one another; it’s like drinking in the corner pub.”

“We had 600 years of British rule where we used British currency,” Mr. Carney adds, “and when we finally got our own money, the first thing we put on every single note was a harp. That has to say something.”

Fiddlers, singers and other song-weavers are staples of Irish social events, from nights on the town to weddings and wakes. “When the fiddler takes out his violin [there],” Mr. Hansard says, “it’s like a key in everyone’s heart — it goes ‘click, click, click.’ The music just lets the logic slip, and that’s definitely one of the things the Irish love.”

Judging from the reception “Once” already has received — including standing ovations and a World Cinema Audience Award for drama at this year’s Sundance Film Festival — it seems that while its origins and underlying sentiment are Irish, the film’s appeal may be more universal.

Jenny Mayo

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