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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  Fair
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Gunner Palace
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The Empire Strikes Back meets The Phantom Menace in Gunner Palace, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's reporting-to-you-live-from-Baghdad documentary about the occupation of Iraq. Or should I say "COPS" meets "Survivor"? Armed only with a camera and a microphone, Tucker spent two separate months with members of the U.S. Army's 2-3 Field Artillery Division back in late 2003 and early 2004, and the result is a piece of reality-based entertainment that would fit quite comfortably on MTV's programming schedule. It's not that Tucker and Epperlein fudge the facts or anything. But the soldiers they focus on are clearly aware of the camera, performing the role of G.I. Jarhead as if their lives depended on it. Many deliver their messages via freestyle raps. One does a Jimi Hendrix number on "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his electric guitar. And who knows, maybe this is what it's like over there.

If so, then M*A*S*H and Apocalypse Now are more relevant than ever. While hanging out with "The Gunners," Tucker collects absurd little moments, as when several of them seem not to even notice the mortars exploding just outside their compound because a rat has invaded their makeshift barracks. He also accompanies them on various patrols and raids, where the absurdities ' sweet-faced kids throwing rocks at the Humvee, for instance ' are less amusing. And there's the constant threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). Something between a recruitment poster and an antiwar rally, Gunner Palace captures the weird juxtapositions of a combat soldier's life ' the boredom and the terror, the gung-ho and the ho-hum. Its title comes from the bombed-out pleasure dome that Saddam Hussein's son Uday once called home, now the Gunners' home away from home. When they're not busy liberating Iraq, they like to take dips in Uday's swimming pool.

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