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Paramount Home Video presents
"They look at us like we're monsters."
DVD ReviewThere's a lot to respect and admire about Babel, but at times you start to wonder if director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his colleagues aren't trying to be a little too clever for their own good. It's a skillfully made and essentially despairing movie, about our collective inability to communicate—the Biblical allusion of the film's title is probably enough to clue you in to that, and the many strands that the film weaves together are extraordinarily well drawn. But given that it runs close to two and a half hours and that the pace of it can be occasionally lugubrious, you may find yourself kind of meta-watching, wondering not what's going to happen to these characters, but to just how all the tales are going to be looped back together.
This is more or less a four-headed beast, spanning three continents. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are surely the most recognizable faces in the large cast—they play husband and wife, the proverbial Americans abroad, in Morocco, and their early scenes, marital recriminations in the desert, feel part Hitchcock and part Paul Bowles. Their domestic drama quickly gets derailed by a random act of violence, though, when, while riding through a remote part of the country, she takes a bullet through a plate-glass window on their bus that lodges in her shoulder. This seemingly arbitrary misfortune brings with it the specter of terrorism, but we know better—the shot was fired by one of the principal characters in the second story, that of a Moroccan family and their prized new rifle, and the bullets were expended in a dangerous but wholly familiar competition between two young brothers.
In San Diego, we follow the tale of Amelia, a Mexican nanny and the two tow-headed kids she cares for—Amelia's son is to be married the next day, in Mexico, and when Mike and Debbie's parents break their promise to be home in time for her to go to the wedding, Amelia decides that the only option is to take the children with her. And in Tokyo, we meet Chieko, a Japanese adolescent who is deaf and mute—she's got a tight group of friends who are sure to be her BFFs, but she's hungry for a more intimate connection, with boys especially, though the ones she encounters treat her as if she were a leper. The film bounces us between these tales, all of which have dire consequences—Amelia's hot-headed nephew gets into it with the U.S. Border Patrol when trying to get the kids back home, for instance, and Chieko's attempts to forge some sort of connection become increasingly desperate, mortifying and dangerous.
So even if much of our concentration is subordinated to the overall scheme, there are some awfully nice performances here. Blanchett alas doesn't get to do much more than bleed, but Pitt's anguish is palpable—the one he loves most is desperate for help, and he's just about completely impotent to do anything about it. Rinko Kikuchi is particularly moving as Chieko—it's bracing to see someone with a disability portrayed with such empathy and nuance in a big-time movie, and Chieko's heartbreaking attempts to reach out in a cold world are haunting. (Iñárritu withholds the standard silent deaf-person P.O.V. shots until a pivotal moment, and when they happen, they're pretty stunning.) And if all too often Latinas get cast only as the housekeeper, Adriana Barraza gives a multidimensional turn as a woman tugged between obligations across countries—there's no doubting that she truly does love these kids that she has essentially raised, but it's also true that she puts them in harm's way. Gael García Bernal gets less to do as her nephew, but there's no doubting that he's a movie star, and his screen presence is mesmerizing.
Iñárritu also coaxes fine work out of a slew of amateur actors, but more than that, you've got to respect the sheer scale of the production, and the way in which he so carefully rides herd over the tone of the piece. It's an accomplished piece of filmmaking that doesn't ever seem like a stunt, though the mechanics of it are frequently overly apparent.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: There's a grainy quality to the cinematography that has been transferred quite well here; some of the color levels can be inconsistent, but overall it's a pretty fair job.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: You'll likely be leaning on the subtitles for much of the running time of the picture, but the audio transfer is a clean one, and the mix is a strong and steady one.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Black Snake Moan, Things We Lost In The Fire, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Flags of Our Fathers
Packaging: Amaray Double
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThis is a film so relentlessly about despair and futility that it's hard to embrace, but it's an ambitious and generally successful accomplishment, if a bit too self-conscious. The accompanying documentary is full of insight as well.
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