Babel review by Mike Long

In early January each year, many prognosticators attempt to predict which films will be nominated for an Academy Award. While this task is not an exact science, it can be fairly easy to guess what kinds of films will be nominated based on Oscar's past. There always seems to be at least film which I feel gets nominated based solely on its subject matter -- people see the movie as being "important" and thus they feel that it needs to be recognized. This year, we have at least two movies which fit this criteria in the Best Picture category. One is Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima, which is a unique look at an important moment in history. The other is Babel, which deals with many timely topics. I haven't seen Letters From Iwo Jima, but based on what I've read, it sounds like an important film which deserves praise. I have now seen Babel and I think people are overreacting to this movie.

Babel follows three stories which take place in different parts of the world. As the film opens, a man in Morocco buys a rifle from a neighbor. He entrusts the gun to his two sons so that they can keep jackals away from the goat herd. The two boys begin firing the gun to test its range. American Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are vacationing in Morocco and their tour bus in hit by ones of the bullets from the gun, which strikes Susan. In a panic, Richard has the bus go to a nearby village in hopes of getting medical attention for his wife. Instead, he finds that little can be done for her.

In southern California, a maid, Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is caring for two children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Michael (Nathan Gamble), while their parents are away. Amelia had been promised that the parents would return in time for her to attend her son's wedding, but when they do not, she decides to take the children to the wedding, which is being held in Mexico. Once there, Amelia is delighted to be with her family, while Debbie and Mike see a culture which is beyond their understanding.

Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a teenaged girl living in Tokyo who is deaf and mute. She hangs out with her friends, who are also deaf, but she feels alienated from the world at times. She lives with her father (Koji Yakusho), who was questioned by the police after her mother died. As Chieko wanders through the world trying to fit in, she notes that the police are coming around again asking for her father.

Babel comes from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who previously brought us 21 Grams. As with that film, I found Babel to be wholly unsatisfying, and also as with 21 Grams, it made me question Inarritu's abilities as a storyteller.

Before I launch into what I didn't like about Babel, let me touch on the film's bright spots. First of all, there is a common thread which unites the stories (though it is a tenuous one), so we don't come away feeling as if we watched three movies edited into one. I must say that I liked the tone of the film's conclusion, which could have gone to a very dark place. Of the three stories, Chieko's was the most interesting to me, as it came across as the most unique. I must admit that I've never seen a movie about a deaf girl in Tokyo, and this storyline's plot spread out from there. The film became much more intriguing when it switched back to Chieko. Her story also helps to illustrate what is wrong with the rest of the film.

Simply put, Iñárritu has bitten off more than he can chew and this sucks a lot of the potential emotion out of the film. Even at 143 minutes, Babel isn't allowed enough time to completely tells its stories and this hurts the film. The movie hits the ground running, introducing us to the myriad characters in the film, but unfortunately, it's not allowed to really go far. We only learn the bare minimum about most of the characters and I felt very disconnected from the movie for this reason. For example, the audience is told little about Richard and Susan, and there storyline is supposed to subsist on raw emotion. And yet, the bottom line was that Susan was either going to live or die, and I personally didn't feel a stake in the storyline either way. There is a bit more feeling in Amelia's story, as we can relate to the idea that she wants to attend her son's wedding, but this segment become unnecessarily muddled and tries to hard to make the audience care. The exception is Chieko's story. While it to is somewhat vague, it at least has a definitive point. There are some nice shots of Tokyo through Chieko's perspective and we realize how painful it must be to live in this vibrant city without being able to hear it. We also get to see how Chieko is treated by other teens, and the hurt there is universal. While the film's conclusion does tell us how the characters are related, it offers little closure.

It shouldn't be assumed that I wish that Babel had been longer. Actually, this film could have used a liberal trimming. Iñárritu is apparently attempting to make Babel an immersive experience, and there are long passages which linger on a particular situation or subject. For example, the wedding sequence goes on for quite some time. If I'd wanted to see a documentary about Mexican weddings, then I would have watched one. The time spent turning simple subjects into detailed worlds could have been used to beef up the story.

Babel is also offering insight into how our wide world is populated by people who can be joined by very small things and events. The movie does offer a nice message about how "people are people". The best example of this is how the tourists on the bus in Morocco were afraid of the locals and Richard found them to be compassionate. The movie also seems to be inadvertently sending another message -- if you leave your home country, you will only find trouble.

Due to its subject matter and narrative style, I’ve heard Babel compared to Crash and that’s a fair comparison. And while Crash was no masterpiece, it is certainly the better film of the two for one simple reason: Crash made us care about the characters. Whereas in Crash I was shocked and saddened by the events in the film, Babel simply left me numb. Beautifully shot and well-acted, Babel is a well-made movie, but the sparse narrative and distant characters may it easy to forget.

Babel journeys to DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image here looks good and it aptly translates the film style used in the movie. The movie has a somewhat grainy look and at times it adopts a verite style. This grain is evident on the image at times, but it’s not overly distracting. The color palette here is very diverse, as the movie jumps from the bleak browns of Morocco to the neon glare of Tokyo. The picture shows no defects from the source material and the movie appears to be accurately framed. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are quite good and abundant. The surround sound comes into play a great deal during the wedding scene and in the streets of Tokyo.

The only extra on the Babel DVD is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film. This definitely feels like a DVD which was rushed to market to capitalize on the Oscar buzz and I’m sure that we’ll see an official Special Edition sometime in the future.

5 out of 10 Jackasses

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