One of my favorite album covers of all time is Everything but the Girl's Love not Money. It has a picture of a little boy and a little girl outside in the street of what appears to be some lower class mill town. It has been raining and the gray-toned photo is of the two of them watching each other piss into a puddle in the street. Kids. I'd want to kill some of the ones I've run into in my life if I hadn't been one once. Having been one once and then having kids of your own is a powerful combination that makes it impossible for any sane person to consider seriously harming a child.
This first English language film by Alejandro González Iñárritu and his second feature film is about the consequences of harming children. His first feature film, Amores Perros, was in Spanish and was about the consequences of harming dogs. I suppose his next film will be about the consequences of harming the gods. Who knows what language that one will be in?
21 Grams is about a whole lot more than harming children, but I couldn't get past the idea of two children. Benicio Del Toro, who more than anyone else in this movie deserves whatever awards you get for a job well done in the film industry these days, is a born again loser who is trying to be a father to a little girl and her younger brother. They're his kids but he is doing what could generously be called a halfass job of raising them.
I think I first paid attention to Del Toro in Traffic. I'm sure I noticed him in The Usual Suspects, but I don't think it would be a stretch to say that this is the role he was born for in 21 Grams.
It's not going to spoil your movie-watching entertainment to tell you that he is responsible for the deaths of two children (not his own) in this film. It might spoil the movie for you if I told you about the other two children in the movie, so I'll let that lie for now. But I could not get over the idea that this film should have been called "Two Children," primarily because I couldn't for the life of me figure out what the hell the 21 grams had to do with anything. Even if it *is* true that a human body loses 21 grams at the exact moment of death, this did not help me understand anything that happened in this movie. The character Sean Penn plays is a mathematician (if you can believe that -- nothing in the film leads you to believe that this is really true, even though you have to assume it is). He tells the female lead (Naomi Watts) that he studies numbers and how they imbue some sort of meaning to everything that happens in our lives. However, if you're looking for a great movie about numbers, I would suggest Pi or A Beautiful Mind. It's just an afterthought here, as far as I can tell.
Sean Penn will probably be the one who gets the award nominations. Of course, he's also in Mystic River this year, which I hear is a great film and one I will likely see, if for no other reason than it was directed by one of my modern-day heroes, Clint Eastwood. I suppose those of you who know me can imagine how much I dislike Sean Penn. Don't get me wrong; I enjoy hearing the other side of the political argument from those with a sharp wit and an ability to express themselves. Sean Penn has neither. Did you hear that rambling interview he did with Larry King after coming back from a trip to Iraq before the war? It was amazing to me that a man who can so skillfully recite the lines that are given to him in a drama can be incapable of putting a coherent sentence together when expressing his own words. It just made me sad, really. I think of Winona Ryder and Morton Downey Jr. and Courtney Love and all the other wasted lives laid bare before us by the movie machine.
However, there is no escaping the fact that Penn puts on a good performance in this film. Most of his acting is done with the interaction between himself and a cigarette, and you've got to have smoked a lot of cigarettes to be as good as he is at it.
As with Amores Perros, Iñárritu tells the story with two basic style elements: One is a grainy look to the film. I'll have to let riverrun tell you how that's done since I've been out of the film biz for too many years to know. I would suspect that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto shot it on a hand-held 16 mm or some smaller than usual format and then transferred to the larger stock. But that's just a guess. (In riverrun's honor, I will mention that the editor here is Stephen Mirrione who won an Oscar for his work on Traffic.) The more important element is the shifting timelines. This is not a new trick, but Iñárritu uses it in a way that I've never really seen before. He takes short shots and tosses them back and forth in the timeline in order to suit his purposes for setting the mood. It might just be a shot of an empty, nasty swimming pool at a motel. It might be a majestic shot of birds flying against a rosy dawn. The important thing is that it does not jar you into walking out of the movie, as so many of these type films do, thinking, "I'm not getting this and I've seen enough." I would venture to say that this film has had little or no walkouts, even though it is one of those movies my wife would call "too weird." I went to see it with my daughter who was also born in December and has the sensibilities of a good Sagittarian. Oddly enough, it turns out that Iñárritu shares the exact birthday of my Leonine wife, August 15.
As with Amores Perros, the film centers around the consequences of one accident on three different people. And, as with Amores Perros, he wrote this along with Guillermo Arriaga. I think you're going to be hearing a lot about these two names during the next couple of decades. And for those of you who live in or have known Memphis very well, most of the city scenes in this movie were shot there. (I've got to tell you I didn't recognize the city at all when I was watching it.) The desert scenes were shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The one defining characteristic of a great movie is that you will think about it for several days after you see it. It might be the "grand idea" you realized suddenly. It might be the majestic work of an actor or actress that you can't get out of your mind. With me and Amores Perros and 21 Grams, it's just a mood that I can't forget. It's a slice of my life somewhere that I usually keep hidden and these films drag memories out of the dark and make me look at them, whether I want to or not. That's pretty darn good art, in my book.