Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oscar Nominee Review: Babel


Rated: R for violence, language, nudity, sexuality & drug use

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Rinko Kikuchi, Adriana Barraza, Mohamed Akhazan

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Running time: 2 hrs, 21 mins
Nominated for:
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actress (Kikuchi)
-Best Supporting Actress (Barraza)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Babel, another powerful drama from Inarritu, packs an emotional punch yet falls short of greatness

The way the critical accolades, Oscar noms and number of pre-Oscar awards had been raining down on this ensemble drama I thought Babel was going to be one of the greatest movies of the past 20 years.

Turns out it was merely one of the best films of the past year.

Not a bad thing, but with so much hype and praise lavished on the latest non-linear, interlocking tale from Spanish auteur Inarritu ("21 Grams"; "Amores Perros"), I guess I was just hoping for...something more.

There's no doubt that Inarritu, along with Oscar-nominated screenwriter/directing partner Guillermo Arriaga, have crafted a mesmerizing film, magnificently shot on four continents while wringing career-best work from a number of members of the cast. Yet somehow the sweeping epic fell short of delivering on the heavy debt created by incredible expectations.

The story unfolds in Inarritu's trademark non-linear style, i.e. one of the early scenes actually takes place after the rest of the events unfold, a method that doesn't particularly detract from the film but may confuse some viewers unaccustomed with this type of storytelling. There are four main plots involving three globe-spanning families: a Moroccan goat herder and his two young sons become entangled in an international incident with an American couple, Richard (Pitt) and Susan (Blanchett), vacationing there; the couple's Mexican nanny, Amelia (Barraza), travels from California to Mexico with their two young children illegally in tow; and a Japanese teen and her father try to cope with the suicide death of their mother/wife.

**MINOR SPOILERS (revealed early in the film)**

Tragedy strikes quickly after the herder purchases a high-powered rifle from a local man in order to protect his goats from predatory jackals. He teaches his two boys, Yussef & Ahmed, who are in charge of watching over the flock, how to use the rifle, although the younger Yussef appears to know more about firing the weapon than his father. As the boys sit idly watching the animals graze on the side of a mountain they begin toying with the gun, wondering if the sellers' claim that the bullets can travel great distances is true; unfortunately their only targets are a passing car and a large tour bus traversing the snaking road far below their perch. After Ahmed narrowly misses the car Yussef aims and fires a round at the bus, which at first appears to have no effect on the vehicle. However, as soon as the bus comes to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road and screams can be heard emanating from the windows, the boys realize something terrible has happened.

Thus the first connection is made. The person hit by the random shot was Susan, who was innocently resting her head on the bus window when the bullet pierced the glass and entered her collar bone. As Richard realizes what happened he frantically screams to stop the bus while blood pours from his wife's shoulder. Here the disturbing realization that these people are in the middle of nowhere with nary a city, never mind a hospital or doctor, in sight hits home with a sickening thud. Their only option for Susan's survival comes from a local man on the bus, who offers help of a family doctor in a nearby tiny village.

While Richard attempts to contact American Embassy officials regarding their situation, believing Susan's attack was perpetrated by terrorists, Amelia is faced with a dilemma back in California. She originally had been granted the weekend off in order to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, but when Richard informs her of what has happened and that he has no one else to watch the kids he insists she must watch them until he can return to the States. Faced with the prospect of missing her son's nuptials Amelia makes a risky decision to take the children to the ceremony and then return later that night without anyone the wiser.

Trouble is Amelia is an illegal immigrant, and when her drunk nephew Santiago (Inarritu favorite Gael Garcia Bernal), who is taking her back to the U.S., runs from the border cops and forces her and the kids out of the car, she finds herself stranded in the desolate Mexican countryside in the middle of the night with two petrified kids and no means to get home. The best part of these segments is the acting of Barraza, who brings a real sense of kindness and despair to her character.

The final thread concerns Chieko (Kikuchi), a deaf mute Japanese teenage girl who is dealing with a number of emotionally troubling issues: the inability to relate to the world around her due to her disability, the horror of discovering her mother after her suicide, and how the tragedy has negatively affected her relationship with her distraught father. Apparently the father had been a suspect in his wife's death at first, so when a policeman comes looking for the man Chieko assumes it has to do with her mother, but eventually we learn that the father has an indirect relationship to the Moroccan shooting.

The irony here is the connection to the other stories is nothing but a minor, seemingly insignificant coincidence, yet Chieko's storyline is the one that carries the majority of the emotional weight of the film. Kikuchi gives a riveting portrayal of a teenager on the verge of a nervous breakdown, so staved for attention that she flaunts her womanhood to any man within her reach, only to be rebuffed and humiliated time and time again.

It is during these Japanese scenes that Inarritu's brilliance is easily recognized; the way he and Kikuchi made the viewer feel what it must be like to be deaf in a world full of so many sounds was entrancing and deeply moving. The scene that best exemplifies this achievement comes when Chieko and her girlfriends meet a few scruffy-looking boys at a local hangout. The guys quickly have the girls chasing some pills with shots of whiskey, and then the tripping group heads to a thumping, strobe-lit disco for some substance-enhanced fun. As the Earth Wind & Fire classic "September" ramps up to club level in the background, we witness Chieko experience an overwhelming mix of sensations while she copes with only being able to see what others are hearing. Her wide-eyed awe at watching bodies writhe around in silence was amazingly captured by flipping the volume of the soundtrack on & off, and coupled with her sadness after she sees her friend kissing the boy she liked made for one of the most memorable scenes in recent memory. It clearly stood out as the high point of the film.

there was still plenty more to go through. Crawling along at nearly 2 1/2 hours we still must witness Richard and Susan waiting for a military helicopter to come pick them up after the bus leaves them stranded, Amelia suffer a crushing blow when her actions are discovered by American authorities, and the Moroccan boys learn the hard way that crime doesn't pay, even when the action is unintentional.

Despite the expectations of grandeur Babel fell short of the mark for me. Yes, the film is incredible in many ways, visually stunning, emotionally powerful and backed by a haunting score. The acting is first rate across the board, with the standout performances coming from the two nominated women as well as the four young children. While heavyweights Pitt and Blanchett give commendable efforts, there is a reason neither one was nominated here and it isn't because their roles were smaller than usual.

Perhaps it didn't work because the tiring practice of using interlocking stories & flash-backward narrative, traits common in films from Pulp Fiction to Memento to Traffic to Inarritu's own 21 Grams, holds this one back from attaining greatness. Inarritu wanted to tell a tale of communication, love and tragedy on a global scale, and while the messages and many of the images work at conveying the directors grand vision and laudable intentions, the snails pace development and anti-climatic, ambiguous ending conspire to hold this film back from the upper echelon of film greats.

In other words it's no Departed.

Or even Little Miss Sunshine for that matter.

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