Babel (US - DVD R1)
Gabe sees more integrity in the tower of Jenga than in this unstable structure...
Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), an emotionally estranged couple from San Diego, California, are vacationing in Morocco. When two young goat herders take a reckless pot shot at their tour bus, Susan is hit. Meanwhile, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), Richard and Susan's maid/nanny, gets a distressed call telling her to stay with the children until Susan has recovered. Amelia must attend her son's wedding in Mexico, and when she can't find a babysitter brings the toe-heads along. Back in Tokyo, Cheiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute struggles to find love and a decent father/daughter relationship in the wake of her mother's suicide.
I never got around to seeing Paul Haggis' Crash, but based on its premise (interlocking stories centred around a car crash) I always assumed it was an American, anti-racist take on Alejandro González Iñárritu's début motion picture, Amores Perros. It seems only fair that Iñárritu's latest picture should retake Crash's style. Unfortunately for Iñárritu critics still reeling from what I am told was a wholly undeserved Best Picture win at last year's Oscars® on Crash's part were very quick to unleash venom upon Babel (or at least half of them according to the Rotten Tomatoes quotes I read).
I still remember when we called these interwoven, multi-plotted stories 'Altman-esqe' after Robert Altman's love for the style (though, of course the style existed long before Altman came around). Then came Pulp Fiction, and everything that involved more than two story arcs was called Tarantino-esque, even though the superior Jackie Brown encapsulated the style more precisely. Later we compared these movies to P.T. Anderson's Magnolia (and by 'we' I mean the few people that didn't think the film was the most pretentious thing since Kubrick), and with good cause, as it took Altman's style, mixed it with Scorsese's, and ended up being one of the finest films of the last decade. Now it's all about Crash, mostly because Nashville, Pulp Fiction, and Magnolia never won any Best Picture Oscars®, deserved or not.
Babel is the kind of movie a viewer will either run with or away from. I wanted to trip it and finish the race alone. The tales of pretension and convolution told by many a film critic upon the film's theatrical release are painfully true. Babel is a very well acted bad movie that wants to tell you how to feel. I tried to go with it, even as the trite plot developments wound tighter and tighter. I wanted to like the film as a work of art, and when that failed, a work of emotionally rich entertainment. I even tried to enjoy it as Hollywood tearjerker, but to no avail.
The film's basis, the basis the trailers championed, the basis that should make an interesting and thought provoking motion picture, is the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Pain is universal, even if language is not. It's a warm fuzzy feeling. Rather than truly exploiting this premise, Iñárritu and his scriptwriter slather together some politically and emotionally centred, but ultimately safe stories about mistakes made and do their best to occasionally remind us about the dangers of miscommunication.
With the exception of the tale of Chieko, the deaf-mute Japanese girl in need of a beginners class on Freud (more on that in a few), Babel basically comes down to a series of incredibly stupid decisions on the parts of its ensemble cast (and hand holding, always with the hand holding). These stupid decisions (which I won't get into too much for spoiler sake) make it increasingly difficult to identify with anyone in the film. I understand that these mistakes are made outside of any malicious intent, and I'm guessing they somehow hark back to miscommunication, but it doesn't make them any less stupid. You can say ‘Oops’ in any language you want, it doesn't make criminal offences okay. Like I said, you'll either run with it or walk away.
The Altman-esque interlocking seems like an afterthought, and I see little point in telling the four stories at once. Cheiko's story is so detached from the other three that the pitiful attempts at tying it in are insulting. Ironically enough, despite belonging somewhere else entirely, it is Cheiko's story that most encapsulates the film's supposed point about miscommunication. The other three stories (the ones where people make stupid choices) make up an arthouse film that wishes it was a political thriller, and then ends without any real closure. Magnolia may've been contrived and melodramatic, but at least it had an ending. Had all four stories been unrelated beyond the idea of painful language and communication barriers it may have worked, but stapling one story onto the narrative quilt is weak writing, that and the fact that none of the stories are particularly interesting to begin with.
The acting is solid enough, but is more accurately referred to as reacting. Brad Pitt gets to grieve, worry, and be scared. Cate Blanchett gets to be shot and cry in pain. Only Rinko Kikuchi as Cheiko did anything for me emotionally (though her character is about as thickly written as any other dissatisfied youth on the Disney Channel), everyone else was about as engaging as the people you see on the side of the road after a car accident. Yeah, I feel bad for them, but I'm not going to cry for someone I don't know and have never met.
The biggest crime though, for me at least, as a shallow individual, is the film's visual aesthetic. 2006 was a banner year for Mexican filmmakers, specifically the three best friends Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Babel's Alejandro González Iñárritu. Del Toro made Pan's Labyrinth, a visually rich and endlessly creative adult fantasy. Cuarón made the best film of the year (in my opinion, of course) in Children of Men, a gritty sci-fi thriller with a not-so-hidden political subtext. In comparison to Del Toro's Baroque art direction, and Cuarón's unbelievable one-takes, Iñárritu's film is flat, quiet, and haphazardly edited. Not to mention the fact that it only works as a melodramatic morality play, whereas Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth work hard above and below the surface. Babel is merely competently directed. The fairness of this comparison comes down to the fact that other, often better writers than myself have made it in a positive light already.
Perhaps Paramount is saving all the visual razzle-dazzle for the Blu-ray and HD-DVD releases, but for a major release of a recent film this DVD is lacking. Each country was filmed using different stock (and apparently different cameras), and it shows, but the overall presentation is still pretty unified. Details are usually sharp when the stage is well lit, but falter in darkness. The film is very grainy as well, which is mostly ignorable, but on occasion becomes a real nuisance.
The film is made in a Cinema Verite style, and is most likely meant to look a little rough around the edges. The Moroccan segments are very washed out, their colours muted, but again grain and noise plagues them. The Mexican scenes are more colourful, but the Japanese sequences fair the best. Black levels are often tinted slightly bluish as well. This is a good transfer, but really should be a great one, and I do wonder about the high definition releases.
Babel is an audibly sparse motion picture. Sound design is sometimes brilliant, but often missing entirely. On the whole I was unimpressed with the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but taken out of context, the Japanese scenes are incredible. Because Cheiko is deaf we are occasionally privy to her world. Cutting from noise to silence makes for a neat audio presentation. The original music (not the J-Pop and traditional Mexican music) is mostly single instrument based. It's pretty obvious that composer/song writer Gustavo Santaolalla has been watching Deadwood recently.
Babel is dry as the Sonoran and Moroccan deserts in the extras department, just a theatrical trailer (a really good trailer, by the way), and a few other trailers for upcoming releases. I smell a post Oscars® double-dip.
If there's anything to learn from Babel, it's that Iñárritu is most comfortable in his native country of Mexico. The scenes taking place in there are the most alive in the film. If you want to see him make good on the woven storyline concept rent or buy Amores Perros instead. From what I see in the mini-movie that is the Japanese section of this film it's time for him to move on, like his friend Alfonso Cuarón, who has made good in many varying genres and styles.
This is a safe film all around (with the exception of a go-nowhere sequence of a Moroccan child masturbating to thoughts of his naked sister). A safe choice for its director, a safe choice for most of its stars, a safe choice for audiences craving something beyond the Hollywood norm, and a safe choice for Best Picture this Oscar® season (though I suppose all five choices this year are pretty safe). I wanted something dangerous.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 20th February 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround English
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Easter Egg: No
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho
Length: 153 minutes
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