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Posts Tagged ‘Benicio del Toro’

Christmas is coming on apace (drop me a line via the comments if you would like my gift wish-list) and I am aware that some people are harder to buy presents for than others. What do you get, as the saying goes, for the person who has everything?

Well, here’s an idea (i.e. a cheap gag is en route) – get them a piece of card with ‘YOU ARE HERE’ written on it, and when they ask you what it is, tell them it is a fabulously rare and precious gift – nothing less than a life-size map of the world!

Oh well, it’s a bit Zen, perhaps, but I like it. I was reminded of this dubious old gag while watching Traffic, a 2000 movie from the peak period of the Steven Soderbergh collective. This was the year in which the Soderberghs managed to get Oscar-nominated twice in the same category¬†(which I would interpret as meaning that at least one loss was guaranteed to be on the cards, but then again I’m not known for looking on the bright side). This is one of the Soderberghs’ most sophisticated and complex movies, as befits its topic – this is a film attempting to deal seriously with the realities of America’s so-called War on Drugs.

Traffic-2001-movie-poster

It’s impossible to deal with a topic this broad and complicated using only a single viewpoint, and the movie doesn’t even try – instead, it has three parallel plotlines, which are only loosely linked, and together they offer a slightly more rounded perspective.

The movie opens with the realities of drug enforcement in Mexico, as careworn cop Benicio del Toro finds himself sucked into the darker side of the struggle with the cartels. Recruited by a high-ranking army officer for some, er, off-the-books work, he finds himself forced to confront the realities of torture and corruption, and the dawning realisation that one of the most active and vicious areas of the entire drugs conflict is the struggle between the various cartels themselves.

Taking place in a more familiar milieu is the story of affluent housewife Catherine Zeta Jones, who doesn’t look too hard at where her husband’s money is coming from. This changes when DEA agent Don Cheadle arrests Miguel Ferrer’s dealer. Ferrer gives up his boss in exchange for immunity, said boss being Zeta Jones’ man. She rapidly find herself not only having to accept her husband’s career choice, but actively involve herself in the business if she’s going to preserve anything of her family and its lifestyle.

Finally, the political angle is considered in a story concerning Michael Douglas’ judge, recruited by the President to head up the War on Drugs. He is, as you’d expect, full of high principles and strong rhetoric, but entirely unprepared for the revelation that his daughter (Erika Christensen) has a serious drugs problem of her own, and her descent into addiction and eventual prostitution compels him to reassess all of his assumptions.

Well, let’s not be under any illusions here: this is a movie featuring numerous mob executions, personal degradation of an intimate kind, torture (both psychological and physical), and very nearly industrial levels of hard drug use. This is not a movie to watch if you’re looking for a relaxing or escapist two and a half hours, as it is a gruelling and fairly demanding watch.

Now, the Soderberghs do their best to make the proceedings accessible – one of their touches is to, effectively, colour-code the three different storylines so you know (broadly speaking) which one you’re watching at any given moment – most of the scenes in the Douglas plotline are tinted a muted blue, while the one set in Mexico is primarily a hellish yellow-orange. This is reasonably helpful, but doesn’t really make any difference to the fact that this is a film attempting to cover an immensely big and complicated topic.

The individual storylines of the main characters are compelling and engaging enough, which is the film’s great strength, but it is also notable for the way in which it refuses to be just a character-based drama or thriller – it insists on addressing the wider issues of the topic. The internecine conflicts of the drugs cartels are just one, as equally under consideration are the effects of drug-related stereotyping on ethnic minorities, the essential futility of everything the DEA, as embodied by Cheadle’s character, are trying to do, and many other issues.

The result is not quite intellectual and sensory overload, but neither is it very far from it. The War on Drugs is a highly complex and potentially controversial topic, surrounded by questions to which there are no easy answers, and by dealing with it so honestly and fully Soderbergh has come up with a film which is highly complex and potentially controversial, full of questions to which there are no easy answers. In this respect it sort of resembles the life-sized map of the world I mentioned earlier.

This should not detract from the impressiveness of Soderbergh’s narrative achievement in making such a sprawling project cohere so well as a piece of storytelling, nor from the strength of the various performances. However, this isn’t a film you would watch for pleasure, nor really for information or a particular perspective on the problem. I think, to be honest, it’s a film you’d watch simply in order to be able to say you’d watched it, and thus capable of discussing it in an informed manner. As sophisticated talking-point movies go, though, it has a lot going for it.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 14th June 2005:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the column that believes it’s better to be adored by a few than read by anyone. This week we cruise the mean streets of Sin City, our helpful guides being Robert Rodriguez (whom you may recall as the director of the Mariachi and Spy Kids trilogies, not to mention From Dusk Till Dawn) and Frank Miller (who’s partly to blame for the script of Robocop 2 and got stabbed in the head with a pen by Colin Farrell in Daredevil).

However, the well-read amongst you will be aware that while Miller’s record at the cinema ain’t exactly gilt-edged, his track record when it comes writing and drawing comics is peerless – for one thing, the imminently blockbusterous Batman Begins owes a significant debt to Miller’s Year One, while he made Daredevil famous and actually created Elektra. Away from the spandex crowd, Miller is probably best known for his painfully stylish series of Sin City graphic novels – and its these that the new movie is based upon.

The film is set on the streets of Basin City (geddit), capital of the state of total moral collapse, where the police, the politicians, and the church seemingly strive to outdo each other when it comes to venality and decadence, and the blood flows like tippex every night. Locked in perpetual darkness, every single inhabitant seems to be either mad, bad, or sad, but at least this means they all have quite interesting stories to relate. And the film follows three of them – jaded cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) battles to protect an innocent young girl (Jessica Alba, an actress whose visibility is about to rocket – ho ho ho) from a gnome-like pervert (Nick Stahl). Enigmatic loner Dwight (Clive Owen) tries to help the hookers of Sin City (all of whom seem to be heavily-armed killing machines, obviously) maintain their truce with the police department in the face of interference by the mob. And borderline-superhuman nutcase Marv (Mickey Rourke) sets out to avenge a prostitute (Jaime King) who was kind to him before she was murdered by a kung-fu fighting cannibal serial killer (Elijah Wood. No, really).

This probably isn’t the best choice of movie to take your sweet old grandma to, unless she really gets off on dismemberment, torture, immorality, generally astounding levels of violence and ickiness, and a really special scene where Bruce Willis rips someone’s knob off with his bare hands. (Betcha that doesn’t get picked as a ‘highlight of the movie year’ come the December review shows.) As you may or may not recall, it normally takes a lot to convince me that this level of really extreme violence is justified, but in Sin City‘s case it probably is, given that the film does try to say things about morality and the gore isn’t actually played for laughs. And it has to be said that it does form part of one of the most distinctive visions to be brought to the cinema in some time – a virtually perfect recreation of the original Sin City strips, with individual panels being imitated. The central irony, that stories with a morality consisting solely of varying shades of grey are told largely in black and white, survives. It looks fantastic, luminous monochrome deep-focus cinematography creating a world both utterly fantastical yet grimily realistic.

But solid performances from an impressive ensemble cast keep your attention on the stories, for the most part. The common theme of the three stories is one of dodgy alpha-males finding a sort of redemption through their relationships with women they idealise. Their willingness to do anything for their girls borders on the masochistic, if we’re honest, but to be honest it’s all that separates them from the scum they do battle with. In a funny sort of way Sin City‘s thoroughly unreconstructed gender politics mark it out as one of the most romantic films of recent months – admittedly Bruce Willis shooting somebody in the nuts (yes, this happens too) isn’t everyone’s idea of romance but there you go.

Hang on a mo’ though! A hardboiled, pulpy noiry sort of thriller? With a sort of anthology structure? Where the internal chronology is a bit fishy? And a lot of violence? And Bruce Willis, giving a pretty good performance? Yes, you guessed it, Quentin Tarantino pops up as a ‘special guest director’ (though he thankfully resists the temptation to appear in front of the camera). To be honest I’m not sure why he bothered as the sequence he’s responsible for isn’t particularly long nor distinguished. Presumably Bob Rodriguez doesn’t like being pestered any more than anyone. This movie certainly shouldn’t need Tarantino’s name plastered on it in order to be successful. It’s skilfully put together, memorable in all sorts of ways, and combines arthouse aesthetics with a charnel house sensibility in a manner guaranteed to meet with the approval of a good many cinemagoers. Not one I’d recommend without serious qualifications, but still one of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

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