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A Modern "French Connection"
Is it possible to call Ronin the modern French Connection? Not the story, of course. But the look, the feel, the atmosphere, the action, it all comes back to Friedkin's superb thriller. Instead of a pair of street-savvy narcotics cops, you get a mishmash of characters, ranging from an ex-CIA operative to the Russian mafia. And all of it surrounds on simple question: what's in the case?
John Frankenheimer, a legendary director, did not miss a step, not when he had the help of David Mamet, er Richard Weisz. (Oops! The cat's out of the bag now.) Blending Mamet's penchant for multi-faceted stories and Frankenheimer's style of action-thriller directing, what ends up is Ronin, a tense and gritty action movie that leaves you begging for more literally. The story centers around the formation of a team of mercenaries, who are tasked by a mysterious Irish woman to steal a "case." Among these vagabonds is Sam, played to perfection by Robert De Niro, an ex-CIA agent who is never off of his game. Sam quickly befriends Vincent, a well-connected Frenchman who sees a bit of himself in Sam. But the group is not without it's rabble. Enter Gregor, a cold and calculating ex-KGB operative, whose personal ambitions only slightly outweigh his brutality.
As much as Ronin acts like a typical "underworld" kind of movie, it is so much more. Above anything else, it is a character film. De Niro and Jean Reno give excellent performances, but they are only accentuated by the supporting cast, which includes Stellan Skarsgaard, Natasha McElhone, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce. As the search for this "case" intensifies, you come to see the true nature of each character develop, up until the climactic ending that sheds a light on the true heroes and villains.
But what would this movie be without the action? The atmosphere is gritty, but it so perfectly fits the setting in France. To compliment the mood is some very tense action. The bullets fly freely, but the gun fighting is fairly reserved. There aren't a lot of explosions of the extravagant kind. The action is very realistic. But what gives it a real boost is the car chases. Remember The French Connection? Friedkin set a new standard with the car chase in The French Connection. But Frankenheimer has fashioned his own masterpiece, with two distinct and exciting chases.
I have heard quite a few complaints about this film, most notably regarding the case. But another common question is why the movie is called Ronin, save for a short discussion about the Japanese story. Yet if you think about it, it is a fitting title. This is a movie about men who are lost, the relics of the Cold War striving to continue the life they once lived. And when an opportunity arises, they will take what they can get, even if it means destroying themselves.
Ronin has been one of my top three favorite movies since it first came out. It is an entertaining movie, with plenty to offer. And if it isn't your kind of flick, understand that the story is not one for the modern audience. It intentionally leaves many questions unanswered. But that is what makes it so unique. It is like a throwback to the great crime dramas of the 70's. If you don't get it, don't worry about it. Just accept it and move on.
That is lesson number three.
The Fountain (2006)
Behold! ... The Road To Awe
How does a talented filmmaker like Aronofsky take simple themes, such as the fragile nature of life and death, and turn them into one of the most meaningful films in history? Just watch The Fountain and you will understand. In this one piece of art, Aronofsky has challenged himself, as well as the viewers, to see a film as more than just entertainment. The Fountain is an experience, a leap into the depths of imagination that will leave you utterly speechless.
Of course, a film like this is not without its critics. The Fountain is not for everyone. But I say heed the challenge. Try not to look for the realism and instead immerse yourself in an alternate world, one that struggles to reconcile the advantages and disadvantages of immortality.
For me personally, The Fountain is a milestone. It was the first film (and only) that left me utterly speechless as the end credits rolled. It took me a few minutes to snap out of the trance of what I had witnessed. Now, watching The Fountain is almost a religious experience. I ignore everything else and dive headfirst into Aronofsky's stunning vision.
This film has so many positive aspects that it would take forever to name them all. But there are highlights that cannot be ignored. For one, the two lead actors give stellar performances. I have seen The Constant Gardener, but Rachel Weisz shined even brighter in The Fountain. She is strong, both as the queen and as the ailing writer. Then you have Hugh Jackman. He may forever be typecast as a tough-guy, pseudo-Wolverine, but he gives the best performance of his career in The Fountain. The movie feeds off his energy, which from the first scene is genuine and intense. The thought that these roles were meant for Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette makes me so very happy that the first attempt was a failure. They would never have been able to do what Weisz and Jackman accomplished.
This film gets compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey quite a bit, namely the futuristic elements. But I see this film as entirely different. The visuals are simple, and yet incredibly poignant. The atmosphere of the film is very dark, but there are so many moments of brightness. It is indeed a film of contrasts, as well as parallels.
Above all, this film succeeds thanks to the unprecedented score by Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet. Mansell has worked well with Aronofsky before on Requiem For A Dream, but this score is something special. It adds to the atmosphere of the film, as well as highlights the power of the message.
When this film first came out, I was worried that the effect would be temporary. It was a special movie, but how long would it hold up? It has almost been two years, and The Fountain remains one of the most powerful and disarming films of the last 20 years. It is truly an experience, not simply a film. And though it may draw on themes that have been examined time and again, the uniqueness and effect of The Fountain cannot be ignored. It is a road to awe.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Isn't that a message we should be teaching our children? Actions speak louder than words. In an age where everyone has an opinion, and every issue is a headline, what is more effective: the arguments of politics, or actions to resolve the problems?
This may be a stretch to pull out of WALL-E, but the principle is there. WALL-E, the latest offering from Pixar, is one of the first "children's" movies that delivers this most meaningful of philosophies. And yet, WALL-E has been wrongly criticized for that same point. For a "children's" movie, WALL-E is somewhat dark, grim, and burdened with messages. But for those parents out there who complain about the poor quality of cartoons on one end, and then expect someone else to raise their children for them, WALL-E is the perfect film. It combines the silliness of a lovable robot with a very powerful truth of the human condition.
What makes WALL-E so unique is the fact that there is very little dialogue, particularly in the first half of the film. Instead, you are drawn into the world of a small, lonely robot, whose sole job is to clean up the planet. Yet even though the main character is a predominantly voiceless machine, his mirroring of humanity grows through his curiosity and longing for a companion. And one day, his wish is granted. He meets EVE, a far more sophisticated robot, who has come to Earth in search of life. While EVE is met by the lingering WALL-E, the two find a common ground of curiosity. But as WALL-E shows off his collection, EVE finds a plant and is forced to complete her mission.
This takes the plot into outer space, where WALL-E comes to a space station, where humans have lived for hundreds of years. This is where the film takes some interesting turns. Due to the lack of gravity, humans have become fat, lazy and clueless. All it takes is one visitor to begin to change all of it. While the humans want to get back to Earth, WALL-E just wants to find EVE. In the end, WALL-E is really a story of love, but one that you wouldn't expect. He will do anything for his love, even if it means sacrificing himself.
WALL-E is a dark movie, but that does not mean it is unsuitable for children. The blatant messages may be over the top at times, but the themes of love and action are hardly reserved for adults. Much like some of Pixar's other creations, particularly The Incredibles, WALL-E proves that animation is not reserved for childish antics and jokes. It is a medium that enables storytellers to imagine wonderful and fantastic tales. WALL-E has its flaws, but its positives far outweigh them.
I do suggest that parents take their children to see it. Not everyone will agree with some of the messages. I surely don't agree with them all. But the strongest themes, namely love and acting for what is good and right, those make the film more than just entertainment. WALL-E is an experience of the imagination and the heart. Those are concepts that transcend age and politics.