BABEL - DVD review

I believe it deserves the accolades it has received, but I do not believe it is the best picture of the year.


Best Achievement in Directing. Best Achievement in Editing. Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score. Best Motion Picture of the Year. Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. Best Writing, Original Screenplay. From my count, this adds up to a total number of seven nominations for an Oscar in this year's 2007 Academy Awards. This also makes Alexandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film "Babel" one of the year's darlings of the Academy and one of the front runners for taking home the "Best Picture" Oscar. In anticipation of the awards and hoping that "Babel" takes home a few of the coveted statues, Paramount is hoping to capitalize on the hype and has released a no frills DVD just in time for the bit awards ceremony.

"Babel" is the third film by the director, creating a trilogy of sorts and following "Amores Perros" and a film I enjoyed tremendously, "21 Grams." "Babel" is this year's edition of "Crash." It is the mishmash of intertwining stories the take place over a short period of time and show how one event can interrelate and affect a much larger community. In the instance of "Crash," the events affected Los Angeles. In "Babel," four corners of the world are affected. Whereas I thought "Crash" deserved the Best Picture victory and wanted to see "Brokeback Mountain" not take home the shiny gold statue, I do not have the same hopes for "Babel." I enjoyed the film and felt it was well written and each of the separate stories was done nicely, but I do not sense that "Babel" is the best film released in the year of 2006.

Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) are on vacation in Morocco. Susan is not very excited by the trip and appears more vexed than relaxed. They argue over the reason for being in the country and Susan fights with Richard over some ice for a warm Coca-Cola. The trips gets much worse when Susan is shot through the window of a bus by a boy trying to prove that bullets in a Winchester hunting rifle are not worth anything at any distance. Without proper education on the dangers of the gun, the boy unknowingly hits Susan and after hearing the news of what has happened, believes he has killed the American tourist. His father quickly becomes a target by a brutalistic police force and he finds his father, mother, sister and older brother all in dire danger after his dangerous folly.

Back in Los Angeles, the couple's housekeeper and nanny Amelia (Adrianna Barraza) does not want to miss her son's wedding and has her nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) drive them to Mexico. The wedding is a culture shock for Richard and Susan's two children, as they witness chicken's being beheaded, lots of drinking and the firing of pistols in celebration. With the hours of the night passing, a drunken Santiago decides he is sober enough to take Amelia and the two children home. He is stopped by customs at the Mexico / U.S. Border and discovers that Amelia does not have letters of permission for the children. The border patrol realize that Santiago is drunk and they pull him over to the side to detain him. He flees in his car from the border and is pursued by the police, only to leave Amelia and the children alone in the hot desert.

In Japan, the original owner of the Winchester rifle, Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho) is struggling to be the father of his deaf-mute daughter Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Chieko is at a stage in her teenage life where she wants to be romantically involved with somebody and engage in sex, but she is avoided because of her hearing impaired handicap. She starts to remove her underwear in public and display her genitalia to just about any boy who will look. She loses a boy's interest to her friend and heads home in sadness. A young police investigator has questioned her in regards to her father's previous ownership of the Winchester. She believes it is in regards to her mother's suicide a few years prior. She yearns for sexual attention by the investigator and has him called upon to answer questions. She disrobes in front of him and hopes that he will calm her amorous needs.

The main part of the story is Richard's struggle to find aid for his dying wife. Susan has been shot in the chest, just above where the heart resides. The tour bus takes her to a small village where a local doctor does what he can to curb the bleeding and help her survive until hope can arrive. The U.S. Embassy cancels an ambulance pick-up and promises a helicopter, but the added wait has sparked the ire of the other people on the tour bus and they leave Richard and Susan behind. Susan's survival is strongly in question after the shooting, though the near death experience has reignited the love between the two.

They are unaware of the dangerous adventure that their children are undertaking, and believe that terrorists are behind the shooting and not an innocent peasant who purchased the gun to help protect his heard from coyotes. They are completely unaware that the gun in question was formerly owned by a Japanese businessman who no longer hunts because of the suicide of his wife. Yet, the entire "butterfly effect" of these stories are shown to us in the film. The butterfly effect of "Crash" had more bearing on each of the smaller stories than what "Babel" has. The Japanese side of the story is related only by the ownership of the gun and the final effect of the shooting is that the daughter parades nude through the living room and when the father finds his naked daughter, their relationship is strengthened. This practically unrelated, yet inspired story gives "Babel" a sense that it is reaching for further material by including this in the butterfly effect. Unlike "Crash," it just doesn't add any true power to the overall story.

Each of the four sub-stories of "Babel" show different aspects of humanity. The main story between Richard and Susan show how anger and love can fester in the face of death and its shows how dire situations can rekindle a lost love. Brad Pitt nicely shows the desperation of man. The story about the two boys, their father and the gun show the innocence and mistakes of youth and how much one little juvenile error can affect the world. This story shows that a father's negligence in educating his children can also have a horrendous effect on others. The Mexican wedding brings to light how somebody that has been trusted for years can be less responsible that expected and how a strong trust in that person can almost result in having that person's trust be nearly fatal. The Japanese story discussed the need for normalcy by those that are saddened and unable to fully fit into a mold of life that is typically considered normal, as the girl Chieko is without a mother, hearing and the ability of speech.

"Babel" is a beautifully shot film, a well written film and the actors all do an incredible job. Rinko Kikuchi was especially convincing as the sexually challenged deaf-mute. Both her and Adriana Barraza are nominated for "Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role" and while Barraza was also excellent as Amelia, I am rooting heavily for Ms. Kikuchi to bring home the Oscar. The rest of the cast is solid as well, but no others have been nominated for an Academy Award. Brad Pitt looks weathered and old in the film. Cate Blanchett is lovely as always and portrays a woman facing death with conviction. Gael Garcia Bernal depicts every stereotype imaginable for a Mexican and pokes fun at these stereotypes with one comment in the film. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a very talented filmmaker. I thought "21 Grams" was a better picture, but I did enjoy "Babel." I eagerly await what stories the filmmaker has in store for the future. I do believe this movie will bring home two or three Oscars in the very near future. I believe it deserves the accolades it has received, but I do not believe it is the best picture of the year.

"Babel" is a beautifully shot film, which locations in Morocco, Mexico, California and Japan. The film shows the various cultures and habitats of these globally and culturally diverse societies. The crammed and hectic Japanese society and the music and gaming flavored entertainment outlets of Japanese youth are nicely detailed. The mud huts of Morocco and rolling hills and plateau's of the country's desert-like environment are very nicely shot and show how devoid of vegetation and modern technology the country is. The dirt roads, colorful clothing and third world feel of Mexico starkly contrasts the rich household of Richard and Susan. The couple is used to a wealthy lifestyle with all of the amenities available in the United States, yet they find themselves surviving in a mud-brick domicile with no furniture and nearly no modern conveniences.

Regardless of the beautiful cinematography by director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, "Babel" is not a visually stunning film. The locations are bleak, dirty and cramped. Visuals are rugged looking, with less-than-desirable lighting, film grain and a general softness that takes away from the power of the visuals that Prieto and Inarritu have composed. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD transfer is good, but with a nearly low-budget look and feel, "Babel" is far more powerful in its storytelling than modern day visual technology. Film grain and softness is the most common problem with the transfer and looks as if it were shot in the early nineties and not the middle of the first decade of the new millennium.

Much of the shortcomings are certainly the result of the filmmakers' decision-making, but as you watch the film, the intended feeling of dirtiness is hard to shake. Colors are slightly subdued and not as true as one would expect from a new picture, black levels are slightly off and shadow detail in some of the dark interiors of the Moroccan household betray the visuals. These shortcomings appear to be a mix of the filmmaker's photographic techniques and the standard definition version. The two high definition versions are upgrades, but that is for another review or two.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film is far more visually powerful than it is audibly. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack for the standard definition release is good, but is hardly given a lot of material to shine. Aside from a party scene or two in the Japanese segments, there is not a lot of energy in the soundtrack and the film is, for the most part, a highly dialogue driven picture. The karaoke bar and video game parlors of the Japanese storyline exhibit some hard hitting bass and the music nicely populates all six speakers. There were moments of contrast as well, as any scene involving Chieko's point of view were completely silent and not a pop, crack or hiss of the soundtrack could be heart, just deafening silence.

The rest of the film was populated with a few notable moments of sound design. When the Moroccan police are firing their weapons at a few suspects in the shooting of Susan, the gunfire and their point of impact are echoed nicely in the front channels and echo to the rear surrounds. The sound of the big Winchester rifle firing reverberates throughout the rears and sounded quite good. The sound of Santiago driving his old sedan through the desert is also well done and you can hear rocks and other debris being pushed around by the tires. The Mexican wedding party is another scene with ground sounding audio content. Being a dialogue driven film, the actors' vocals are nicely heard and each word is intelligible. The Moroccan, Mexican and Japanese scenes are subtitled for those of us that cannot understand most of the spoken words of the foreign languages. French 5.1 Surround, English 2.0 Surround, English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

With this disc being rushed to market just in time for the Academy Awards show, there is pretty much no extras included. The theatrical trailer and a few previews are tossed in, but that is it. I'd be willing to bet the farm that a much nicer edition will be released in the future and will be chock full of little bits and pieces of value added content. The DVD marketplace is too profitable for Paramount to not revisit this film in the future, and I'm sure this will be the case with the recently released "Flags of our Fathers" as well.

Closing Thoughts:
I liked Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" and felt the performances by the cast were quite notable, especially that of Rinko Kikuchi. The film shows the butterfly effect of a somewhat accidental shooting by and uneducated juvenile who believes that a high-powered rifle is incapable of doing any damage at long ranges. The interrelated stories are nicely done and each show various aspects of humanity. However, I do not feel the stories are as powerfully intertwined as they were in "Crash" and I do not feel that "Babel" is as good a film as that "Best Picture" winner. "Babel" has been compared to "Crash" a considerable amount, as I have done in this review, but they are two structurally similar films. Inarritu is on a roll after "21 Grams" and "Babel" and I eagerly await his next picture. The DVD release will not awe anybody with sound and video and is completely lacking of any value added content. The real reason to own this disc is to witness why the Academy has given it seven nominations and to view this quality film featuring Brad Pitt.


Film Value