16 01 2008

BabelThe human condition spans continents, uniting us despite the gulfs created by distance, language and culture — this is the theme of Babel, the last film by director Alejandro González Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga. At least, that’s what I think the theme is, yet despite a nearly two-and-a-half hour running time, I’m still not quite sure.

The film follows four (sometimes tenuously) connected stories. In the first, a Moroccan goat farmer gives his two young sons a rifle in order to defend the goats from jackals. The second sees a nanny and housekeeper take her two young (white) charges across the border from the U.S. to Mexico in order for her to attend her son’s wedding. The third story has Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett holidaying in Morocco when Blanchett’s character is suddenly shot through the window of a tourist bus. (See where this is going?) Finally, in Japan we’re given the story of a deaf teenager whose disability isolates her from her peers, resulting in a kind of confused, desperate form of sexual aggression.

There is no doubt that, technically, Babel is an excellent film. The performances are all stunning and González Iñárritu’s ability to place the audience within each environment means that the jigsaw puzzle presented is never confusing or disorienting. His respect for each culture shines through, and there’s a real sense of credibility to the overall flavour and atmosphere presented.
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American Gangster

15 01 2008

American GangsterEarly in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, Russell Crowe’s character, a New Jersey detective, discovers almost $1 million in unmarked bills in the trunk of a car. Does he take the money? If he does, he’s entering into the murky world of corruption that the bulk of his colleagues seem to inhabit; if he doesn’t, he’s putting himself in immediate danger because, as his partner observes, “Cops kill cops they can’t trust.” He decides to turn in the money anyway.

On one level, American Gangster is the true story of the rise and fall of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a self-made man who became Harlem’s heroin kingpin in the 1970s by directly importing his product from Thailand and cutting out the middleman. Lucas was a true entrepreneur, applying a ruthlessly capitalistic philosophy to the drug trade — he undercut the competition (who just happened to be the Mafia) by offering twice the quality at half the price.

On a deeper level, however, the film is about police corruption. Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian seem to contend that dirty cops are even worse than the criminals they bully. Washington’s Lucas adheres to his own (albeit twisted) code of ethics — he will snap quickly and mercilessly at anyone who betrays his trust, but he only does what he thinks he needs to do in pursuit of his business goals. The sleazy Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), on the other hand, has no honour, instead abusing his power in order to extort as much money as possible from the men he should be arresting. Trupo, it seems, is the real bad guy here.
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P.S. I Love You

26 12 2007

P.S. I Love YouHilary Swank is a talented actress, winning an Oscar not only for her performance in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, but also as the transgendered Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry. Why she’d choose to then star in such a tepid romance as P.S. I Love You is a mystery right up there with the meaning of Stonehenge and the reason why Travolta never made Battlefield Earth 2.

The film opens with a protracted intro featuring an argument between apparently-in-love couple Holly (Swank) and Gerry (Gerard Butler) over a comment Gerry made to Holly’s mother earlier that evening. Rather than establishing how right for each other this couple is, this scene merely sets up the characters as being rather unlikeable and one-dimensional. The whole thing comes off as rather cliched.

After the opening credits, we find out that Gerry has since died of a brain tumour, and by the end of the first act, it’s been revealed that he’d created a scheme whereby Holly will receive a series of letters from him “beyond the grave” over the coming months. These letters, of course, are designed to ease Holly out of her grief and into a new life.
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The Fountain

2 12 2007

The FountainThe Fountain has a troubled history as a production: originally cast with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as the leads, the project was eventually shelved, only to be resurrected two years later with a scaled-back budget (less than half the initial budget of $75 million) and a new cast. To see the finished product, I can’t help but feel this was all for the best.

Hugh Jackman plays Tommy Creo, a research oncologist whose wife, Izzi (Rachael Weisz) is dying from a brain tumour. Parallel to this are two other stories: in one, Jackman plays Tomas, a Spanish conquistador who aims to assassinate Grand Inquisitor Silecio in order to protect his Queen (also played by Weisz); in the third, Jackman is Tom, a man hurtling through space in a spherical, translucent spacecraft. How these three stories relate to each other is one of the delights of The Fountain, and something that is best left for the film itself to reveal.

Writer/director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) has given us a film that possesses a depth of emotion and spirit few achieve. Its themes of mortality and grief are interwoven masterfully through its cinematic triptych as visual motifs recur again and again — the golden palette of the nebula featured in the third story, for example, is scattered throughout various scenes to remind us that these three stories are part of a larger whole.
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