Babel (2006)

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Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Boubker Alt Ed Caid (his first film), Said Tarchani (his first film),Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Mohamed Akhzam (his first film), Satoshi Nikaido, Elle Fanning, Nathan Gamble

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Summary: Tragedy strikes a married couple on vacation in the Moroccan desert, touching off an interlocking story involving four different families

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actress (Barraza), Supporting Actress (Kikuchi), Original Screenplay, Original Score*, Film Editing

I didn’t think I would review a movie for this project that in the first 30 minutes featured a Moroccan kid jacking off in the middle of the desert and a deaf Japanese schoolgirl taking off her panties and angrily flashing a bunch of guys at a club, but here we are. More seriously though, Babel is an occasionally great but ultimately disappointing movie with four somewhat concurrent, semi-connected stories on the theme of communication problems across languages along with constant of tragic fate and misery in each. Structurally, the movie makes the smart decision of not cutting between the stories too often, so that everything is easy to follow along with and so that the audience can (potentially) get invested in each segment when they come up. The big problem is that the whole enterprise doesn’t quite add up and none of the plot lines feel strong from start to finish, especially with their endings. Even the Japanese segment, which in my opinion was easily the strongest of the four and featured a fantastic performance from Kikuchi, petered out about ¾ the way through; ironically, the segment involving by far the biggest actors in the film, Pitt and Blanchett, was by far the weakest, although it probably had the most satisfying ending. Babel is a movie that looks good, has a well-structured screenplay and every once in awhile approaches greatness, but is unfortunately never able to put everything together into a fully cohesive package that would have made it something really worth watching.

Rating: C+

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The Departed (2006)

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Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin

Director: Martin Scorsese

Summary: An undercover cop and a mole in the police attempt to identify each other while infiltrating an Irish gang in South Boston.

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actor (Wahlberg), Adapted Screenplay*, Film Editing*

One of the most pure fun movies I’ve had the pleasure of watching for this project. I have not seen Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong movie that The Departed is a remake of, but they did a great job translating the story to an American audience and I have no complaints about it being 40 minutes longer than the original was because it never feels like we hit a dead spot-it’s thoroughly entertaining and interesting with loads of twists and turns and the movie has a real energy to it that never lets up. The cast is outstanding with DiCaprio giving what is my favorite performance from him I’ve seen, Nicholson being a giant ham in the best way possible and Wahlberg playing the glorious of shitheads where even though he’s technically a good guy, you still hate him because of how much of an asshole he is. It reminds me of L.A. Confidential or The Maltese Falcon in story, tone and energy, and that’s high praise indeed. The Departed was a worthy Best Picture winner, and in my opinion the best BP winner since Schindler’s List (although Million Dollar Baby and Chicago aren’t too far behind).

Rating: A-

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

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Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe

Director: Clint Eastwood

Summary: The story of the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who fought it

Other Nominations: Director, Original Screenplay, Sound Editing*

Letters from Iwo Jima is an interesting one, developed as soft of a companion film to the much bigger movie about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, yet it actually made more money on less than a quarter of the budget because it did huge business in Japan. It only got made because of Clint Eastwood, a legendary actor/director whose patriotism couldn’t be questioned by conservative outlets, and is the extraordinarily unusual Hollywood war film that’s exclusively from the perspective of those fighting against the Americans. It depicts the General in charge of the Japanese troops, Kuribayashi (Watanabe) as a sort of Robert E. Lee-type figure (or at least what Lee had mean mythologized into): a decent and honorable man who harbored no ill will towards the enemy and didn’t particularly buy into the nationalistic rhetoric of his side, and was an excellent general who ended up fighting for the wrong side because of the circumstances of his birth. Furthermore, it sees the average soldier in any war as basically the same, someone who just wants to survive and get home, and the average Japanese soldier as maybe just more prideful and that their military conduct standards (like with ethics and “discipline”) as different, but that mainly comes from the top-down. Basically in any military structure, there are decent and honorable people (such as Watanabe’s character) and there are shitheads and the latter can have an outsized impact on everything. For a Hollywood film to be as sympathetic to the soldiers who were fighting against us as this movie is, and especially one from the guy who later made American Sniper, is downright remarkable; the value of that approach can be debated, but in my opinion showing how similar people the people drafted into wars tend to be across cultural borders is a healthy mindset.

As for the film as a whole and not just what it stands for…it’s pretty good, but wasn’t anything particularly memorable for me. From a story standpoint, the crux of the movie after the first 30 minutes ends up being that defending Iwo Jima is a suicide mission for the Japanese and everyone there knows it, so at that point, what do you do if you’re there? This is a fairly interesting premise for a part of a movie, but it’s not enough to sustain about 2 hours of movie and it gets dry after a while. Furthermore, this is a really dull movie to look at-they used an extreme amount of color desaturation (with the notable exception of the color red) to the point where it looks like one of Zach Snyder’s DC films. Movies like Saving Private Ryan have done this too, but not to this extreme and I don’t know why they didn’t just film the movie in black and white instead which would have looked much better. Ultimately, the movie has its heart in the right place and I liked Watanabe, but other than its basic concept didn’t do anything especially worthy of praise.

Rating: B-

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

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Starring: Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Dean Norris

Directors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (Their first film)

Summary: A family determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant take a cross-country trip in their VW bus.

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Arkin)*, Supporting Actress (Breslin), Original Screenplay*

This was a shockingly disappointing film for me. Everything is so goddamn quirky and every character in the main family feels like a “character” instead of a character-they feel less like they’re written and more like they’re engineered, it feels artificial. This is the indie-ist movie that ever indie’d in the worst way possible, from the characters to the score to the tone and message of the movie and it all gets really grating and predictable really quickly, although I will say it gets a little better after the first half hour or so which was just awful, and the ending at the beauty pageant is great and exposes the hypocrisy of that subculture. The only thing that makes the movie somewhat palatable is the cast. Everybody is very capable in their role even if I thought Arkin was a very uninspired choice for an Oscar winner. Still, this isn’t enough to save what is ultimately a script that annoyed me to no end in so many different ways. If nothing else, at 101 minutes it’s short.

Rating: D+, although I would say it’s better than any of the other film’s I’ve given a D+ to; let’s call it **/*****

The Queen (2006)

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Starring: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Sylvia Syms

Director: Stephen Frears

Summary: After the death of Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth II struggles with her reaction to a sequence of events no one could have predicted

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Mirren)*, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Costume Design

This was a much more compelling movie than the premise or the first 30 minutes or so would have led me to believe and it touches on some interesting topics. The film centers on the conflict between how the public at large, Charles and their kids viewed Diana vs. how the Queen, her husband and mother did and Tony Blair as a new PM figuring out how to mediate the two and a major shift in values and how important outward appearances are often more important than reality with public figures. That shift is symbolized by Diana, without the airs of the aristocracy, outgoing and out there in the public doing both good things while also showing the uglier side of herself, compared to the Queen from the older generation who values being stoic and strong, keeping her problems and emotions to herself, upholding her duties but also secluding herself behind the iron gates of Buckingham Palace and distancing herself from her people. Queen Elizabeth II is perfectly portrayed by Helen Mirren who is always great playing strong, hardened women (like in the TV series Prime Suspect or in Gosford Park), but also does a good job being vulnerable to her own character’s faults, like the Queen’s jealousy over the outpouring of grief over Diana’s death that was far greater than her own will be some day. This is a good example of a movie portraying a relative small incident but using it to explore some interesting themes about generational shifts. A quality nominee.

Rating: B

2006 in Review

Other Notable Films from 2006

The Prestige

The Lives of Others

Pan’s Labyrinth

Casino Royale

Dreamgirls

The Last King of Scotland

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Idiocracy

The Wicker Man

Borat

Children of Men

An Inconvenient Truth

2006 Nominees in Review

The Departed: A- (Won Best Picture)

The Queen: B

Letters from Iwo Jima: B-

Babel: C+

Little Miss Sunshine: D+

The Departed was a very worthy Best Picture in an otherwise undistinguished field that included a movie I disliked far more than I expected to, Little Miss Sunshine. I am surprised Dreamgirls, the film that actually had the most nominations (8) of any movie from 2006, was not nominated though, although I guess I shouldn’t be considering it was shut out of nominations from any of the Big Five categories. Children of Men (three nominations including Best Screenplay and Film Editing) would have also been a very welcome nominee to watch for this project.

For 2007: This film made use of every single U.K. WWII military ambulance that still exists; Diablo Cody wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for this movie in the Starbucks section of a local Target store over the course of seven weeks; The only Best Picture nominee to have a Neon Genesis Evangelion reference in it (figures of Unit-02 and one of the MP Evas are on the desk of the main character’s 8 year old son, which either makes him the worst or best father ever for showing the series to him at that age); and these two nominees, both considered some of the best of the decade, were filmed at the same time almost right next to each other-in fact, one of them had to shut down filming for the day when the other’s set created a giant cloud of black smoke testing out pyrotechnics for the movie.