Friday, December 21, 2007

A double bill of kidnapings and abduction

Take One: 4 year old girl goes missing

Gone Baby Gone (2007, Director Ben Affleck): Rating 8.5/10

Some movies are best seen without knowing the story. The only thing I knew about Gone Baby Gone was that the movie was about a missing 4 year old girl. As it turns out, that is enough information to know because over the course of the film's 115 minutes or so, we learn everything else in small doses.

The missing girl story ends after 30 minutes or so. After that, a second story starts up but even that ends after another 30 minutes. Then a third act appears to start, a segment which on first glance appears to be an examination of the events from the first hour. But there is a tiny hint that there aren't three segments in this movie but one story, told in pieces. The reason the story is told in such a piecemeal manner is because the main character only learns the whole plot one step at a time. And so do we. There is one shot just after the hour mark which indicates something more sinister lies underneath the layer of evil. The camera focuses on a character in such a way that it triggered me to look at the character in a different light. We can't see the character's eyes because he is wearing shades. But the way his face is hanging coupled with the background music reminded me of a role this character played in a 2005 film. I made a mental note of this shot and wanted to see if in the end, this was how things turned out. Sure enough, this shot had a purpose. Not only did it reveal something sinister, it showed how the main character of Patrick (Casey Affleck) observes this other shady character.

Sometimes good hides behind an evil mask. And in the end, this is one of the key themes raised by this movie. If someone's intention are good, then if that person uses bad means to achieve a good result, then is it really a sin? The topic of good vs evil is brought up in a subtle manner throughout the film. But each person perceives good in a different manner. And hence the conflict between the 'good' characters.

The film starts off with Patrick's voice over narration describing the importance of a city in people's lives. But this movie is not about a city's influence on people, it is instead about people's mistakes and personality. Some people never change no matter how much responsibility is thrust upon on them. They will continue to make the same mistakes over and over. Such people exist in every city and not just in Boston, where the film is shot.

Gone Baby Gone is based on Dennis Lehane's novel. Lehane also wrote the emotionally powerful novel Mystic River, which was also filmed in Boston and nearby areas just like Gone Baby Gone. I haven't read either book but can only assess both stories via the movies. Mystic River primarily focuses on three men's lives. Via flashbacks, we learn that these three men's lives were forever altered during an kidnaping incident in their childhood. One of the three friends was kidnaped and abused, while the other two were lucky to have escaped. The moral consequences of that incident effected all three friends and set them on a miserable and tragic path. Gone Baby Gone stays in the present moment of the little girl's kidnaping and shows how the other adult characters react. Still, this story appears to take place on an opposite street from Mystic River. Both films highlight a present (Gone Baby Gone) and future view (Mystic River) of the emotional damage that can result from such a kidnaping. Mystic River was dark and unrelenting -- there was no hope but plain despair right through the end. Whereas Gone Baby Gone shows a glimmer of light, a tiny hope that despite all the evil and wrong doings, maybe things will turn out ok.

Note: To Ben Affleck's credit, he does include a shot which carries Gone Baby Gone away from the present and shows what the missing girl's future might be if she grew up in her neighbourhood. Near the film's start and end, he lets the camera linger on a teenager who is living in the same neighbourhood as the missing girl. One can imagine if the missing girl grew up in such a neighbourhood, she would look like this teenager.

Take Two: Family man goes missing

Rendition (2007, Director Gavin Hood): Rating 10/10

Egyptian man living in America. Suspicious. Perceived threat. Must protect the nation. Dubious 'intelligence'. So the only safe option for a nation's safety is to kidnap the man. No need to inform the family.

At the film's start, we see the wife (Isabella played by Reese Witherspoon) and her 6 year old son in Chicago. After a quick shot of the husband (Anwar played by Omar Metwally) in Cape town, the film moves to to North Africa (Morocco) where majority of the story takes place. Washington is shown on certain occasions because that is where the orders for the kidnaping and torture come from. Two stories are shown -- one of the husband's kidnaping/torture and the other being a love story. Both stories are connected and it is credit to the film-makers that the two stories are spliced equally together -- this narrative style balances the weight of the stories, mixing the innocent young characters with the evil men that are just doing their job.

This is easily one of the best movies of the year but why on earth did it disappear without any attention? Can such a story take place? One only has to look at Maher Arar's story and everything shown in Rendition seems life like. But what about the Moroccan love story? Is there is a need for that? Yes. The film tries to show two sides of the equation -- the enemy and the good guys. The film does not attempt to take sides but just shows how in the quest for good, characters will act the way they do. One side's good is perceived as evil by the other side. But it is important to understand the motives of the other side. One has to get to the roots of evil, otherwise there will be no solution. Force leads to counter-force, which leads to more force, which leads to even a bigger counter-action. Loop forever.

Note: I am not sure why Rendition only used the generic term North Africa to describe Morocco. One first glance, I thought the Moroccan city was Rabat. Then the second shot appeared to be Fez but by the third glimpse of the city with the market square and reddish house walls, there was no doubt that it was Marrakesh. And just to emphasize the point, the famous Djemaa el-Fna market square is shown on two occasions.

Abuse of Power:

"With great power, comes great responsibility." Spider-Man.

That quote from Spider-Man applies to both the above movies. In both films, certain characters want to do good but in doing do, they throw out reason and common sense. As a result, their blind actions lead to painful consequences. Blindly attempting to do good can turn into an evil act because such blind actions have no foundation in reason and logic. And when the actions of the law turn out to harm the innocent, well the job of the evil men just becomes easier. The evil men can use photos of the tortured innocent as evidence that all law is wrong and simply abuses power. So the young and feeble minds are lured as bait to commit evil acts in the name of a greater good.

Political Disappearances:

The kidnapping in Rendition is along the same lines of those committed by dictatorship regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Burma, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cambodia and several other nations. The Indian film-maker Gulzar explored such topics about abuse of power by police back in 1996's Maachis (Matchstick). Maachis was a phenomenal movie which showed how police brutality fed the flames of terrorism. Even though Maachis was set in Punjab, one can imagine similar situations leading to uprisings in Kashmir, Assam and other parts of the world.

Soccer, to lighten the mood:

Once again soccer provides the answer! The clue to the husband's innocence in Rendition lies in soccer. What? I am not making this up! I do remember watching the 1990 Soccer World Cup and the soccer team in question. When some of the names of those players were shown on the screen, I didn't think too much of it until Jake Gyllenhaal's characters stumbles across the answer in the movie.

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