Monday, August 25, 2014


Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi

My husband rarely watches my 1001 Movies flicks with me.  He’s not a movie buff the way I am, and I would never want to force him to watch, say, an intense Swedish film – like Bergman – unless, for some reason, he really wanted to.  Which normally, he doesn’t.  But he wound up watching Babel with me, almost on accident, in that he was playing a video game in the same room and wound up getting pulled into the film, watching the last hour with the video game on pause.  Do not let this be a comment on Babel amazing quality, however, as when it was over, we turned to look at one another and vocalized our almost identical reactions. 

“That could have been so much better.”

Waving the ride of the concept of telling multiple interconnected stories, Babel’s interconnected stories are in Morocco, California and Mexico, and Tokyo.  An American couple (Blanchett and Pitt) are vacationing in Morocco when the wife is accidentally shot on their tour bus.  The shooter is a young Moroccan boy out tending goats with his older brother; the two were simply monkeying around with the new rifle their father bought for killing jackals.  While the young boys panic and try to hide what they did, the husband of the stricken wife desperately searches for medical attention in the remote farmland of a country whose language and custom he does not know.  Meanwhile, back in California, the children of the American couple are taken to Mexico by their live-in nanny Amelia (Barraza) because her son is getting married and she can find no one to look after them.  While things are fine initially, problems eventually arise.  And finally, in Japan, a teenage deaf-mute Chieko (Kikuchi) is frustrated enough at the world for not understanding her condition; her distant father and dead mother don’t make things any easier.  Chieko starts acting out in possibly dangerous ways as we begin to understand just how angry and hurt she really is.

The reason I said above that this could have been so much better is because the central themes of Babel are good ones, solid ones, even necessary ones.  The very idea that we live in an age of international connectivity is one that is vital to moving forward, and yet this remains an idea that many people, cultures, and countries eschew.  The issues Babel raises around this theme, that of language barriers and lack of communication, are equally profound.  We are all connected to one another, and we must embrace this as the world becomes smaller and smaller, but we have a great deal of barriers in our way that prevent us from truly embracing the similarities we all have.  This idea is important.  Babel deals with important and significant cultural debates. 

It just doesn’t delve into these questions nearly as well as it thinks it does.

Three of the four central tales in Babel are all clearly linked to one another.  The American woman is shot by kids in Morocco while the woman’s own children attend their nanny’s son’s wedding in Mexico back home.  Yes, three stories, all with a very clear thread of connectivity.  Then there’s the Tokyo story.  Yes, there is a link between Chieko’s tale and what’s happening with the other characters, but it’s flimsy at best and feels like a big stretch, as if the writers came up with this great Tokyo plotline but had to find a way to shoehorn it in to the other threads.  Right away, this takes away from Babel’s strength as a film, as there seems to be an oddball tale awkwardly fitted in between the other, related plotlines.  Which is really a shame, because for my money, the Tokyo plotline was easily the most interesting part of the film.  Granted, the type of story and characters in this chapter make me predisposed to liking it more – few, introspective characters, internal turmoil, drama and angst, as opposed to the distinct action/adventure/thriller aspect of the other three tales – but even my husband admitted to finding the Tokyo story (a phrase I cannot type without thinking Ozu) the most compelling, and he’s definitely an action/adventure/thrilling kind of guy.  Honestly, I wish it had been its own film; Kikuchi’s Chieko is devastatingly honest and a frightening pillar of uncontrolled strength and emotion.  When she is not commanding the screen, the film lags, as if Babel itself wishes it could have spent more time with Chieko.

Although for my money, Kikuchi is the best of the bunch, the performances in Babel are all stellar and were probably the biggest strength of the film.  Naturally, Cate Blanchett is amazing, but that’s rather a given.  It’s easy to understand why Adriana Bazzara earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, but it’s Brad Pitt and the nonprofessional Moroccan actors who really manage to buoy the entire film.  Pitt is an actor easy to underestimate; his non-stop tabloid presence and impossible good looks can work against him.  But here, he is very good, very strong as a man who finds himself entirely out of his league and facing a life and death situation.  Right alongside him, the actors portraying the Moroccan family torn asunder by a rifle do a tremendous job.  The two young boys underplay most of their scenes, a fact that works best with child actors, and the Moroccan father believably carries the role of emotional heavy in what is a gut-wrenching tale.  Innaritu must be commended for coaxing such strong performances from every single member of such a varied cast.

*********************************SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING************************************

But ultimately, I have a bit of a problem with the overall message of the film, and this is why I say it could have been such a better movie.  When considering the ending of all four stories, I have to ponder what exactly Innaritu managed to say.  Think: the Moroccan family is completely torn apart, facing jail and possibly the death of one of its own.  Their lives will never be the same again.  The Mexican maid is ungraciously deported, forced to leave behind her entire life and not allowed even a suitcase of her belongings.  Chieko’s emotional future is anything but certain as she pushed herself to dangerous places.  Three of the four stories have distinctly downer endings.

But what happens to the white people?  Oh, no worries, everyone survives and gets back home in one piece.  Really, is that the message we’re going with?  Everyone’s interconnected in this world of ours, and bad stuff happens all over the place, but if you’re American, everything will be fine?  Is this some sort of subtle commentary on white privilege by Innaritu?  Although you may disagree with me on this one, I don’t think it is.  Rather, I feel like the writers felt the need to have one story end happily and they picked the white Americans one.  I really wish they hadn’t.  It would have felt so much stronger to have one of the stories involving a different culture, a different set of people, end well and to have something sad happen to the Americans.  But no, Babel is fundamentally an American film, marketed and shown to American audiences, and we can’t have our American audiences having their delicate sensibilities upset.  So we’ll force all the tragedy onto the people of color and ensure that our own get through unscathed.  This wrapping up of the plotlines undercuts the international message of the film, and thus much of the power of Babel.  Again, this could have been better.

Edit to add: After a bit of time away from this, perhaps the above is the point? Perhaps Innaritu is actually brilliantly calling out white privilege by having that plot line be the only one that has anywhere near a happy resolution. Actually, I don’t believe that is the case, I don’t feel this movie is quite that… clever, but I admit it’s a possibility.

***************************************DONE WITH THAT THEN*******************************

Babel smacks too much of a film specifically designed to make you feel like crap.  The stories continually scream at you to “BE SAD!!”  And if that isn’t enough, all the ancillary filmmaking techniques, such as score and cinematography, belabor the point, yelling at you to “BE SADDER!!!!!!!!”  While a perfectly acceptable film in that there isn’t anything too egregiously wrong with it, I was left a touch underwhelmed.  This is disappointing, as the issues Babel raises are interesting ones.  Again, I reiterate that the biggest message I got from it was wishing that Chieko’s plotline had been developed into a standalone film, as I would rather have watched that.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story
Director: George Cukor
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart

While I make it no secret that MGM musicals were the movies of my youth, they were, for the most part, the only classic Hollywood movies I saw. When I first went through the pages of 1001 Movies, making note of which films I had already seen, I was truly shocked to realize just how few classic films I had already seen.  But one of the few classic films I had already seen prior to embarking on my cinematic journey was The Philadelphia Story. My parents introduced me to this one at a young age, and frankly, it only gets better as I get older.

Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is a New England wealthy socialite about to embark on her second marriage to the bland and blustery George. Naturally, there is no better time for her first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), to make an appearance at the family compound. Turns out, though, that Dex has good reason to turn up, as he is actually trying to head off at the pass a sniveling paparazzi journalist who wants to unearth some sordid family secrets about the Lord clan. Reporter ‘Mike’ Macauley Conner (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) are strong-armed into covering the wedding against their wishes.  Things get complicated as all these people around her turn Tracy’s normal, even-keeled emotional life on its head.

How on earth am I supposed to talk about the verbal perfection that is the dialogue and its delivery in this movie? How unbelievably quotable is every other line that comes out of someone’s mouth? It’s clear that this was a stage play first because of the sheer import that is placed on the specific phrasing of the lines, along with how much they are allowed to shine. This is not a film that shines due to fancy camerawork or flashy special effects, or even on a genius conceit. No, it’s the dialogue that is pitch perfect and painfully brilliant. When you aren’t howling with laughter over Dinah’s pronunciation of “innuendo” or snorting over Mike crank calling as the Voice of Doom, you’re feeling Tracy start to come across at the seams as she hears again and again language of statues and goddesses and ice queens. In my opinion, The Philadelphia Story is easily one of the most quotable films of all time.

When I was younger, it was the broad comedy, found mostly in the dialogue, which I loved in The Philadelphia Story, and it was why I liked the film. But as I got older and I inevitably kept revisiting the movie, I slowly began to understand something more. I really, truly enjoy watching Tracy’s journey from well-meaning but somewhat blind and insulated pride to a more open, more understanding, and definitely happier woman. I didn’t understand Tracy’s story when I was a child; it’s a subtler journey than one typically sees in film, as it’s not as simplistic as “she starts evil and is shown the error of her ways.” No, she somehow manages to start the heroine and end the heroine. But that’s precisely why I like it so much, why I like HER so much.

I identify with Tracy Lord, which maybe isn’t entirely a good thing to admit. But I do. I like her strength throughout the entire film. She starts out as strong but stubborn, and she ends strong as well. I think it takes a lot of guts for her to confront her faults and try to come to terms with them, to admit that she might be making a mistake for marrying someone like George, and for admitting that she has things to learn. She makes mistakes throughout the film, gets sloppily drunk, and generally throws everything into disarray. She isn’t perfect. And you know what? I love that. It’s refreshing. Hers is the sort of character I haven’t seen out of Hollywood in quite some time. Hepburn pulls off the role with aplomb, and it’s easy to see why this is the film that convinced the American public at large to forgive her for… whatever it was they had accused her of. I love the remake of The Philadelphia Story, but damn, it’s hard to one-up how perfectly Hepburn pulls off Tracy Lord.

But the character of Tracy Lord and Hepburn’s performance would not be nearly as interesting if she weren’t surrounded by two equally wonderful roles performed by two equally amazing actors, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Dexter and Macauley represent choices Tracy can make as she approaches her wedding. Watching Macauley set her free throughout their drunken revels is brilliant. While I would be hard-pressed to call this Jimmy Stewart’s most impressive film performance (it is the only one for which he won an Oscar), it is certainly a fine performance and it is easy to see why the Academy saw fit to recognize it. He is not simply the drunken fool, but full of heart as well, and not afraid to call shenanigans when he sees them. But really, Cary Grant’s Dexter just ties everything together. I absolutely adore Cary Grant, but I do feel like he tends to play different aspects of his celebrity persona in most of his films. His C.K. Dexter Haven, though, is reserved and hard in a way that one doesn’t expect from Cary Grant. He is unsettlingly stoic. And yet Grant has to convince us that Dexter really loves Tracy, that he never stopped loving her despite divorcing her, and that he loves her while being unafraid to speak the truth to her.  Convince us he does, through several sometimes small, sometimes not so small gestures throughout the movie. How he hides the bracelet, how he hits Macauley first, how he stays out of her way when she asks him to at the party, how he doesn’t judge her too harshly, how he is all too willing to save Tracy’s family from incendiary press, and finally, how he tries to help her save face at her botched wedding.  Grant doesn’t try to make Dexter perfect, but he does make him perfect for Tracy. He is wonderful in this role, and I easily think it’s one of his best.

Lovely dialogue, well-formed and interesting adult characters, actors who fully inhabit their roles, and a rollicking comedy with a happy ending. Really, it shouldn’t take anyone by surprise that I have loved this movie ever since I saw it and I will continue to love it for the rest of my life.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. Duh.