Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Film Reviews: Babel, Source Code, The Machinist


It’s a good thing that I generally don’t fault a movie for being “award bait”. Sure it can be funny when they try and miss spectacularly (Australia), or were clearly mismarketed as such (The Men Who Stare at Goats), but unless it ludicrously obviously calibrated for an awards crowd (Crash), I’m usually not offended. Which was good for my enjoyment of Babel.

The story of Babel is complicated, as is appropriate for a movie about the butterfly effect. There are four main narratives, which are all related to each other. The movie begins with a pair of young Moroccan boys practicing with a new rifle their father bought. Not believing the seller’s claim that the rifle could hit at three kilometers, the younger boy shoots at a passing tour bus, and hits and seriously wounds an American woman (Cate Blanchett) on the bus with her husband (Brad Pitt). The Moroccan boys and the American couple are the main characters of two of the narratives; the third is the story of the couple’s two young children and their nanny, after she’s forced to take them to her son’s wedding in Mexico. The final story—that of a disturbed young deaf-mute teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) in Japan—seems unconnected from the other three, at least at first.

The main theme of the movie is the difficulty of communication (hence the title, referring to the biblical tower), but just as important is the idea that small events and decisions can have colossal, continent-spanning ramifications. Unsurprisingly, the movie is quite dark, and director Alejandro Inarritu has something serious to say. And to his credit, there’s some very good—maybe even great—material here. But Inarritu bit off more than he could chew.

Four different stories is too many. It isn’t that any of them don’t work—they’re all well crafted, and any of them could be a good short film it its own right—but for certain events to resonate, we need to really care about the characters. Frankly, we just don’t get to spend enough time with any of them. The film would have better without one of the four narratives. The two in Morocco are indispensible, but one of the other two probably should have been cut out. I probably would have gotten rid of the children/nanny story, as it’s probably the weakest (and has something of a dues ex machina in it).

Also, Inarritu makes a strange structural choice. The film is somewhat out of chronological order. This wouldn’t matter (and actually makes sense, because the four stories are only roughly contemporaneous), except more than once we learn something important in one story that hasn’t happened yet in another, and it takes out a great deal of the suspense. It’s mildly frustrating.

Babel is an overly ambitious movie, but it’s still impressive it its way. Better to try for greatness and not quite get there than to not try at all.

7/10 Good.

Source Code

It isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of a movie when the best thing I can say about it is that it had a great premise. And such is the case with the ambitious but ultimately forgettable Source Code. While it doesn’t blow a good premise quite as spectacularly as something like The Invention of Lying, it still doesn’t do a whole lot with it.

Source Code is like a hybrid of Inception, The Matrix, and Groundhog Day. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train across from a woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) with no memory of how he got there from the helicopter mission in Afghanistan that is his last memory. Eight minutes later, the train explodes, and Colter wakes up in a chamber that bears some resemblance to a helicopter cockpit. A screen with a woman (Vera Farmiga) on it tells him that he has been sent into a computer program that recreates an actual incidents from the memories of people who were there, and it is his job to find out who planted the bomb so that future attacks can be prevented. The catch: he only has eight minute increments to accomplish this, all of which will start in the same place and time. But the woman avoids Colter’s questions, and he quickly begins to suspect that there is more going on than she is telling him

It’s a good idea, and the on paper the plot is more than solid. Unsurprisingly, there a couple of fairly major plot twists, which are reasonably well executed. However, on screen the story doesn’t hold up quite so well, and any number of plot holes are readily apparent depending on how closely one wants to examine it. While a movie can work around a plot hole or two *, Source Code has a few too many for my suspension of disbelief threshold, which is fairly low.

*Or more, depending on the genre and how good the movie is otherwise. Take the Star Wars franchise; even the originals contain about fifty things that don’t make any sense if you look at it too closely. So we don’t

Another problem is that the movie takes itself a little too seriously. Director Duncan Jones (who previously directed the widely overlooked sci-fi film Moon, which has some similar themes) thinks that his movie is more profound than it really is, which is especially apparent during the ending. To be fair there are some mildly thought-provoking elements, but Inception this is not. Also, for a movie that wants to be taken fairly seriously, there are an awful lot of unintentionally funny moments, like Farmiga’s boss (Jeffrey Wright), whose voice sounds like someone doing a bad Danny Glover impression. Or the person who blows up the train, whose one-sentence motivation sounds like a cliff-notes version Ra's al Ghul from Batman Begins.

Still, there is enough going for Source Code that it’s still a decent movie. The plot, as mentioned above, is good enough to be interesting. It helps that the movie plays Colter’s situation as a mystery that takes most of the movie to be fully revealed, and the payoff is to the mystery is surprising enough. The Groundhog Day element—Colter goes through the same eight minutes (which start identically but resolve very differently depending on what Colter does) many times—is well-done, and the movie is short enough that it doesn’t grow repetitive. The acting is somewhere between adequate and good for the most part, and unsurprisingly Farmiga—easily the most talented member of the cast in terms of acting ability—is the standout. Monaghan unfortunately isn’t given much to do other than look pretty (something she’s perfectly capable of), but what she is given she does well, and she and Gyllenhaal have decent chemistry. And Gyllenhaal is convincing in a deceptively difficult role

Source Code is far from a complete failure, and is entertaining enough in its way. But it also had a lot of unfulfilled promise, and its always a shame to see a movie that is, above all, disappointing. Oh well.

6/10 Decent

The Machinist

The Machinist is a great example of a movie that manages to be creepy without quite being scary, which is about as much as I can handle. As I described in my initial tweet-review, The Machinist is pretty close to what we would get if Memento and Fight Club had a deformed love child. See it and you’ll know what I mean.

Trevor (Christian Bale, in a great performance) is the titular machinist, working in an industrial machine shop. Trevor is not a healthy man, physically or mentally. He hasn’t slept in over a year, and is has lost weight to the point that he is beyond emaciated (Bale lost over sixty pounds for the role, and was below 120 lbs at one point). Furthermore, he is clearly beginning to crack, becoming increasingly antisocial—his only real friend a prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that he visits. He may be growing paranoid, as well; is the man (a disturbing John Sharian) he keeps seeing around the town real, or a figment of his sleep-deprived imagination? Who keeps putting hangman post-its (initially ending in “er”) around his apartment? And why is the refrigerator bleeding?

The Machinist is not for the faint of heart. There is some very graphic gore, but the movie keeps its audience on edge more with a general sense of foreboding, helped by a highly desaturated cinematography, which makes the movie seem nearly black-and-white at times. We’re always expecting something very, very bad to happen. It’s a very atmospheric film.

(warning: some possible, albeit inexact, spoilers follow) As will be pretty obvious within the first few minutes of the movie, there is much more going on than we’re initially lead to believe. The plot twists are not obvious, but also fairly logical once they’re revealed. The obvious comparison would be Fight Club, but I actually think the movie owes a little more—especially thematically, as opposed to organizationally—to Memento. Trevor’s problems have an exact cause, one that will become increasingly clear as the movie progresses. The ultimate resolution is wrenching.

But I should also point out that although I did just compare the movie with two of the twenty-five greatest films ever made, it is nowhere near as good as its antecedents. The weirdness grows somewhat gratuitous, none of the subplots are particularly interesting, and it does feel just a little derivative of the two aforementioned films. Tellingly, my opinion of the movie has improved significantly since I actually watched it; my initial impression was less favorable, for whatever reason. It is a good movie, just not the caliber of the films it so closely resembles.

7/10 Good

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