Friday, November 02, 2007


Written by Hombre Divertido

Sean Penn directs from a screenplay he wrote from the book by Jon Krakauer on the story of Christopher McCandless. A young man who, after graduating from college, drops out of society and makes his way to Alaska while meeting people and experiencing adventures along the way. The story is engaging and thought provoking, and for the most part the movie does the story justice.

Penn seems to employ two types of directorial techniques when telling this story, one for the first part of the film, and another for the second. In the first half of this 140-minute endeavor the choices made by Penn at times create distractions. The choice to tell the story in different time frames takes a little getting used to, as does the need to make the film look more artistic than necessary. The side-by-side framing, close-ups, and awkward angles that plague the opening segments are like watching something a child would do with a new toy. Perhaps in the second half of the film the audience simply gets used to the director's style, but it would appear that Penn makes more traditional choices that better suit the telling of this tale.

Emile Hirsch portrays McCandless with a youthful exuberance, and though he bares a resemblance to McCandless, he appears to be in over his head here as he fails to keep up with his stellar supporting cast that includes: Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, and Hal Holbrook. The performances of this fine ensemble leaves the audience wanting far more of them and less of Hirsch.

Where Penn does excel is in the cinematography. Beautiful parts of our country are explored here, and the locations shots are breathtaking. The narration by both Hirsch as McCandless and Jenna Malone as Christopher’s sister Carine are also extremely effective, especially in the case of Malone, who brings a subtle intensity to her voiceover that makes the emotional journey real to the viewer. Abandoning the voiceovers in favor of on-screen titles makes for a far less powerful ending than certainly could have been achieved with the continued narration, and leaves the audience wanting for Carine's words.

Recommendation: Aside from the brief nudity and sexual content, this is solid family entertainment, which is sure to become a classic. Yes, perhaps a more traditional telling would have been more effective, but Penn should be applauded for his efforts, even those that failed. The performance by the supporting cast alone makes this film worth seeing, and you will be left wanting to know more of their stories. The cinematography should be seen on the big screen, so catch it while it’s still there.

BABEL (Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition)

Written by El Conquistadorko

One of the best movies to hit screens in the past several years, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 2006 film weaves together three stories—a pair of Moroccan brothers who fatefully make contact with an American tourist and later become hunted as terrorists, a deaf Japanese girl whose distant father is surprisingly tied to the incident, and the tourists' two kids who are brought to Tijuana by their maid and run into problems at the border. The movie is the third installment of Mexican director Inarritu's so-called “death trilogy,” following on the heels of the well-crafted Amores Perros and slightly less-than-satisfying 21 Grams.

Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the gun you see in Act One does get fired, but that the tragic results are not as predictable as you'd think. The movie is a beautiful work of cinematography and masterful storytelling, and although it relies on the same technique of interwoven plot lines that marked Inarritu's first two films, it doesn't use the same anti-chronological device that Inarritu used so well in his debut feature Amores Perros (that whole movie is wrapped around a car crash) but which proved so irksome in 21 Grams. Instead, the movie follows a single trajectory as the camera shifts from one character's perspective to another, following the arc of a single bullet and the investigation that follows from its tragic destruction.

Babel features superb acting performances from Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchini (two non-actors who play the Moroccan brothers), and especially Rinko Kikuchi, who gives a convincing and heartbreaking turn as Chieko Wataya, the deaf, sexually frustrated Japanese teenager. It also contains one of the most intensely surreal sequences put on screen in recent memory: a scene where Cheiko and her deaf friends drop acid and stumble grinning, arms interlocked, through Tokyo until they wind up in a public fountain, soaking wet.

The new DVD of the film contains two discs, the second of which includes a feature-length bonus feature—a making-of documentary called “Under Construction.” The documentary kicks off with two American school kids asking Inarritu why he called his movie Babel, at which point he tells them the Biblical story of how God punished mankind for its architectural hubris by forcing them to speak different languages, a more powerful way to divide people than religion, politics or race.

The film traces the movie's production from Morocco to Japan, Mexico and the United States, and is mercifully devoid of the typical mind-numbing celebrity interviews that mar most DVD bonus featurettes, which are about as entertaining as your average daytime TV commercial, although it does include some funny footage of Gael Garcia Bernal clowning around with an American accent, pretending to be a border guard. Instead, the documentary shows Inarritu at work with his actors, most of whom aren't: like the eight teams of deaf-mute Japanese girl volleyball teams he assembled for one scene or the several hundred Mexican actors he used in Tecate to enact a wedding reception scene.

“Under Construction” stands well as its own movie, much in the same fashion as making-of documentaries like Hearts of Darkness about the filming of Apocalypse Now and Les Blank's 1982 film Burden of Dreams, about the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo.

Even if you already have the original DVD release of Babel, you might want to consider selling it. The new special edition is worth buying for Disc Two alone.