[box cover]

Babel

Why do people hate Babel? This may sound like an odd question considering the 2006 film's success throughout that endless period of flesh-pressing and conscienceless politicking known as awards season, but, while there is a contingent that is deeply moved by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's third and most artistically successful feature, there is an equally vocal legion that loathes the film for being everything from a "Crash Benetton" (per Samuel L. Jackson, who inveighed against the film while serving on the Cannes Film Festival's 2006 jury) to a "mechanistic chessboard" (as dubbed by Newsweek's David Ansen). Perhaps this extreme division shouldn't be so surprising, considering that Inarritu — working for the third (and, in light of a very nasty falling out, likely last) time with screenwriter Guillermo Arriga — went quickly from promising young auteur with Amores Perros (2000) to wanton miserablist with needlessly non-linear wallow 21 Grams (2003). Undoubtedly the most dour of the new Mexican cinema triumvirate, which also includes Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, Inarritu found himself branded as an aggressively downbeat purveyor of spiritual torment, which must be why so many exited Babel claiming it was just more of the depressing same. Worse, Inarritu — who got clobbered in some quarters for employing a confusingly fragmented narrative in 21 Grams — was this time taken to task for an overly schematic approach that improbably and too tidily wove together four divergent arcs stretching from Mexico to Morocco to Tokyo. The latter charge is not without its merits; the colliding stories — an American husband and wife (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) contending with an inexplicable assault in the Moroccan desert, a deaf (!) Japanese schoolgirl's (Rinko Kikuchi) painful lurch into womanhood, and a Mexican housekeeper's (Adriana Barraza) unfortunate decision to take two young American children (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) in her care to her son's below-the-border wedding — are massively contrived. Pitt's predicament requires a phenomenal suspension of belief given the global reach of the Internet and the fact that he has the exact coordinates of his location. Maybe in another era the American government would hit snags whilst extricating two of its citizens from a non-hostile country; nowadays, it's unlikely they wouldn't bully their way through the bureaucratic red tape and deal with the bad press later. Flawed internal logic is navigable provided the filmmaker possesses sufficient technique to immerse the viewer in his world — and Inarritu has an embarrassment of craft. Unfortunately, he also lapses into some embarrassingly banal dialogue during all three segments, hoping to keep certain issues vague so as to better hit the audience with stunning reveals later on (this is a particular annoyance in the Japanese segment). And he badly telegraphs the fourth arc (featuring two Moroccan boys responsible for Blanchett's semi-accidental shooting) as an anti-violence treatise that doesn't tie in with the Japanese arc the way he'd like it to. Yes, the movie is fraught with one eye-rolling contrivance after another, but these shortcomings are mostly excusable due to Inarritu's conviction and technique, and the fact that the emotional truths comprising the core of the film are genuine and universal. At 125 minutes, 21 Grams was a slog; clocking in at 142 minutes, Babel is an expertly paced rumination on the frustrating human disconnect that causes many of the world's problems. It's manipulative as can be, but one prefers structural dishonesty over emotional fraud, especially when it's all at the service of one of the most stunningly shot and edited movies of the year. Paramount presents Babel in a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. This is a bare-bones release containing only a handful of theatrical trailers. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks



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