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Casa de los Babys

One of director John Sayles' less-compelling efforts, Casa de los Babys (2003) is a fine but lightweight ensemble piece about American women waiting to bring home the babies they're adopting from an unnamed Latin American country. It's easy to see what Sayles was hoping to achieve with the film — his group of privileged, white Americans have a variety of reasons for choosing this method of adoption, and the locals have a variety of reactions to what is, essentially, the legalized sale of surplus newborns to Anglos with cash. The setup offers Sayles a chance to examine the relationship between the U.S. and third-world countries, and to question the sometimes fine line between aiding and exploiting less-wealthy cultures. Unfortunately, the result is a tired picture that feels as if Sayles is growing weary of his own politics. It's over-written to the point of staginess and lacking the lyrical intensity of Sayles' best efforts like Men with Guns, Lone Star, and The Secret of Roan Inish. Sayles' direction of actors is still sharp, however — although each of the characters is written to a template (often feeling as if they're there to represent an American type rather than an individual human being) and only wispily explored, he manages to get engaging performances out of each of his performers. But then, he chose an amazing handful of women in Lili Taylor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen, Susan Lynch, Marcia Gay Harden and Rita Moreno. Of the lot, the most impressive performance is the most off-putting. Harden's hard-nosed, bigoted bully is extraordinarily unpleasant, but deeply real — this is someone that we've all tangled with at one point or another. The personification of the ugly American, she's loud, abrasive and convinced that the local officials are just holding up the paperwork to jerk the adoptive parents around — and she's sure that just throwing money at the right people will get her a baby faster. It's to Sayles' credit that he acknowledges she's not entirely wrong in this regard — but it also becomes apparent as the film progresses that this woman is grossly ill-suited to become a mother, no matter how fervently she yearns for a child. Also impressive in a much smaller role is Daryl Hannah, barely there as a woman who compulsively exercises and keeps the others at arm's length — when the reason for both is revealed, it's one of the film's most moving moments. Overall, however, Casa de los Babys suffers from many of the same flaws as Sayles' previous film Sunshine State (2002) — too many underwritten characters, a plot teetering awkwardly on the wider message he hopes to convey, and a curious lack of energy. Still, half-baked Sayles is better than the product of most other filmmakers currently working, and even the director's most lackluster efforts are worth a look. MGM DVD release of the IFC Films production offers a crisp, gorgeous anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). The DD 5.1 audio (in English with optional English and Spanish subtitles) is fine — this is a dialogue-driven film, and the talking never has to work to compete with the lovely Latin soundtrack music. On board is a commentary track by Sayles — however you feel about the film itself, the director still provides some of the best yack-tracks in the business. Smart, charming, scene-specific, and passionate, the director covers everything from technical details and background on the writing and planning of various scenes, anecdotes about working with the Mexican crew (the film was shot in and around Acapulco, although the location of the story is unspecified), and discussion on characters and directing his actors. The slick "Making of Casa de los Babys" (23 min.) is a fairly standard interview-and-clip featurette offering the usual promotional happy chat. The IFC-produced "On Location with John Sayles" (23 min.) and the 29-minute mini-documentary "Beyond Borders" (directed by Bruno de Alameida) are better, going behind-the-scenes and showing both the filming of the movie, and also talking to the actors and the local residents about the issues raised in the story. Also offered are the theatrical trailer, an ad for the soundtrack album and trailers for other MGM releases. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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