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Rough Cut

Guy Ritchie's Snatch, about a diamond heist, is all flashy, gone-in-a-wink style and no substance; Cate Blanchett's performance is the real gift in The Gift.

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Snatch is not, strictly speaking, a sequel to writer-director Guy Ritchie's debut film, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but it sure feels like one. It has a similar gridlock of overlapped story lines and the same prankish, eruptive violence. Ritchie began in music videos, and he brings a barreling energy to the whirligig; each sequence seems choreographed for maximum charge. And yet nothing slows a picture down more than nonstop relentlessness. A lot of the exhilaration in this film is indistinguishable from exhaustion. Ritchie's problem isn't a lack of ideas; it's a lack of discrimination. After a while, the various convoluted subplots begin to run into each other and it doesn't much matter whose head is being bashed in, or who's on the wrong end of a meat cleaver. Ritchie is so carried away by his facility that he loses sight of why we should bother looking at this spectacle in the first place. This may be one of the hazardous offshoots of the music-video-trained generation of moviemakers; they confuse a diet of eye candy with a full meal.

The title refers to a flawless, golf-ball-size, 86-carat diamond that has been snatched in a jewelry heist in the Orthodox Jewish diamond district in Antwerp. One of the thieves, Franky Four Fingers (the omnipresent Benicio Del Toro), brings the diamond to London, where it sets off a chase between rival gangsters and jewelers with names like Doug the Head (Mike Reid) and Brick Top (Alan Ford) and Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones). There are also characters with monikers like Mad Fist Willy and Jack the All Seeing Eye; the whole thing is a bit like Damon Runyon with elephantiasis.

Franky has been acting as a courier for the New York mobster Avi (Dennis Farina), who hightails it to London to recover his booty and ends up ensnared in the freestyle mayhem. Added to the mix is an Irish gypsy bare-knuckles boxer, Mickey O'Neil (Brad Pitt), who doesn't cotton to rigged matches and has an accent so slurrily impenetrable that virtually no one in the film ever understands him. It's a funny running joke that, against all odds, gets funnier. The pleasure and relief we experience with this gag is also due, no doubt, to the fact that we're seeing Pitt playing a boxer in a movie that isn't Fight Club.

There's an almost collegiate conviviality to the madcap carryings-on, as if we were watching a grungy, East End variation on fraternity hazings, with blood and guts slopped in. Occasionally, Ritchie actually comes up with a character you might want to spend more than five minutes with at a stretch (but five minutes is usually about all you get). Doug the Head, for example, pretends to be Jewish because it's good for his diamond business; Boris the Blade (Rade Sherbedgia), an ex&-KGB operative, keeps rising from the near-dead, Rasputin-style. An entire film could have been built around either one of them. There's no reason why multicharacter caper movies have to be so scattershot. (The protagonists in this film are generally less evocative than their names.) Was Ritchie afraid that we might actually want to hang with one of these guys for a while?

British movies have long held the reputation, deservedly, for being visually unadventurous. Obviously, there are major exceptions -- Hitchcock, Carol Reed, John Boorman, among others -- but mostly England's contribution to cinema has been less evolutionary than elocutionary; those actors sure know how to enunciate. Perhaps as a reaction to the longstanding stodginess, and goosed by music videos, younger British directors seem intent on making sure that all camera angles are cockeyed and no shot lasts longer than a wink. Trainspotting was the big pioneer in this ADD School of Filmmaking, and Guy Ritchie's two films represent further explorations in the field. The problem with all this don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it dramaturgy is that ultimately everything is sacrificed for effect. When you're dealing, as Ritchie is, with explosions of real violence and viciousness, the hyperslick technique can't accommodate the real pain that comes with the territory, or ought to. What we're left with is a cackling amorality -- not a philosophy of life, just a posture.

in The Gift, Cate Blanchett's Annie Wilson is a seer in Georgia bayou country who gives readings to troubled locals that come across more like social-work sessions. A friendless, deranged auto mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) and a battered woman (Hilary Swank), outfitted in the latest Wal-Mart fashions, are a few of her neediest cases. Director Sam Raimi, coming off the baseball sapfest For Love of the Game, has ditched most of his sensitive-man duds, and parts of The Gift hark back to his own gifts for gothic gnarliness: There's an impressive amount of thunder and lightning and twisted oaks and decayed corpses. But little of this stuff is fresh, and Raimi, working from a script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, still retains trace elements of sap; he frames the story as a redemptive fable with an ah-sweet-mystery-of-life undertow.

The tone doesn't match Blanchett's edgily ambiguous performance. Annie is living in more than one world, and her features seem blurred by the stretch; recently widowed, with three sons to raise, she's both rooted and dissipated. There are other strong performances as well. Ribisi is intensely watchable, and Swank gives a delicately modulated performance without a trace of condescension toward her character; as the husband who terrorizes her, Keanu Reeves, bringing his voice down an octave and bellowing, is surprisingly scary -- the dude from hell. Were it not for these performances, The Gift would be fairly negligible. It's a movie about the unseen in which, for the most part, what you see is what you get.

In Brief: The Scottsboro case, in which nine young black men were falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931, went through four trials and set the stage for the civil-rights activism that erupted in the South decades later. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (the Screening Room), co-directed by Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker, is the first full-scale documentary about the history of those years, and it lays out lucidly the involvement of the Communist Party in the young men's defense and the ways in which the trials, against the backdrop of the Depression, replayed the murderous quarrels of the Civil War all over again.

Snatch
Written and directed by Guy Ritchie; starring Benicio Del Toro and Brad Pitt.
The Gift
Directed by Sam Raimi; written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson; starring Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Hilary Swank, and Keanu Reeves.
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy
Documentary co-directed by Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker.


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