Babel (2006) - 3 1/2 stars

After Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Babel is the third and final film in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Death Trilogy." Amores Perros I have not seen, but in comparison to 21 Grams, Babel is able to capture more lasting emotions, if sacrificing some of its narrative coherency. The film's multiple narrative threads never quite come together in the way we might expect them to, but that doesn't keep each of them from carrying a similarly strong emotional punch.

The stories are juxtaposed, but presented in a way that is never confusing. There is the Morocco tale of a goatherder (Mustapha Rachidi) who buys a rifle from a neighbor. He then lends this rifle to his two sons, hoping that they will use it to protect their herd of goats from the land's vicious jackals. Instead, the two boys get caught up in an argument over the rifle's capabilities, and inadvertently shoot Susan (Cate Blanchett), an American riding a tour bus, in the neck. The rest of the film deals with the plight of Susan's husband Richard (Brad Pitt) and his attempts to save her in a foreign land.

The couple's children are also involved. While Richard and Susan are away, they are being watched by their nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza). When Adriana learns that Susan has been shot, a dilemma arises. She must return home to Mexico for her son's wedding, but at the same time, she cannot leave the kids alone. In a decision that may seem impulsive, she decides to take the kids with her to Mexico. I suspect that many people would have reacted the same way.

The third thread is the story of Japanese adolescent Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi). Boasting a temper (she is ejected from a volleyball match) and a rebellious attitude, Chieko struggles to connect with her father (Koji Yakusho) after her mother's suicide. The story deals mainly with her sexual encounters. All of these are strange, and may have even seemed silly in less capable hands, but Kikuchi's performance is painfully gripping and believable.

The entire ensemble, in fact, is in top form. This is one of Pitt's most unusual roles (his screen time is limited) but there is a lot of truth to it. There is a phone call scene between him and his son. The first time, early in the film, it is from the son's point of view. Later in the film, after the struggle, the phone call is retold from the father's perspective, and Pitt adds a surprising emotional depth. Adriana Barraza also stands out, playing the nanny who realizes far too late that she's in over her head. This film is a great piece about unusual circumstances, and how sometimes the world just doesn't allow certain people to be happy. Kudos to Gustavo Santaolalla's Oscar-winning score.

Blue Velvet (1986) - 2 stars

Blue Velvet is the second David Lynch film I have seen, after Mulholland Drive. Like that film - and probably any Lynch material from here on out - I am willing to suspend a complete opinion until after two or three viewings; however, I couldn't help but share an initial response, which is less than glowing. Kyle MacLachlan plays a college student who finds a severed ear in a field near his home. Upon showing the ear to Detective Williams (George Dickerson), he is introduced to Williams' daughter, played by Laura Dern, and he's brought into a world he never imagined.

That world begins with lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Kyle finds out that Dorothy's husband and son have been kidnapped by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, as wild as everyone says he is), a first-rate psychopath. The first forty-five minutes or so of this film is great stuff, full of suspense. The first exchange between Hopper and Rossellini is undeniably chilling, but after that, Lynch's signature weirdness takes over to the point where I became removed from the material. The fear I felt during the first half was gone, which was one of the major disappointments.

The film is full of symbolism, but not enough is explained or introduced for the film to leave us with anything. The psychological situations of the characters are only alluded to. While this makes for challenging, thought-provoking viewing, it remains, for me, more unsatisfying than cryptically fascinating. I wonder if the film's themes played more originally during its mid-1980s release because the idea of a small suburban town having a sinister side is less shocking nowadays. In no way am I saying that themes cannot be repeated throughout cinema, but I think that this film just doesn't have enough to say. Discovering an idyllic town that is actually not-so-idyllic is an interesting start, but Blue Velvet goes nowhere after that realization. Shouldn't there be more?

Body Heat (1981) - 3 1/2 stars

Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat is very good neo-noir; all of the genre's fundamentals are working. For creating his mood, Kasdan relies largely on John Barry's musical score, as well as the intense heat of the Florida setting; each scene is full of sweat. The film also plays out largely in the nighttime, especially the central romance between bum lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) and the alluring Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner).

One of the most original components of this film is that romance. While many noirs, such as Blood Simple or The Square, begin with the passionate affair already in full swing, Body Heat chooses to devote a great deal of time to the development of that romance. This is a risky move from Kasdan, and if the performances of Hurt and Turner weren't as good as they are, I think that the film - at least the first half - would have played too slow for many audiences.

The classic noir situation, present here, is this: Ned and Matty are in love, but Matty has a rich husband (Richard Crenna) who is getting in the way. Because of a prenuptial agreement, Matty would be left with very little if she were to divorce her husband, and Matty, toying with the notion of the femme fatale, is too greedy to leave with nothing. The couple's solution: kill the husband, and capture as much of his will as possible.

The two key supporting roles come in the form of Mickey Rourke and Ted Danson. Rourke plays one of Ned's clients, who is hired to create an explosive device which will serve as the murder weapon. Rourke's character is smarter than he may look on the surface. There is a great speech in which Rourke says there are fifty ways to mess up a crime, and thinking of twenty-five of them means you're a genius. Danson, on the other hand, plays a friend of Ned's. There is a crucial conversation between Danson and Hurt near the end, which I will not spoil.

It has been said that Body Heat took inspiration from the great Double Indemnity; it is easy to see why, but the impressive thing is how close it comes to matching that classic. While the film's first and second acts are devoted mostly to the relationship, the latter portions take on the persona of a delicious mystery, which is wonderfully plotted. A scene at the detective's office, late in the film, reminds me of one Fred MacMurray had in Double Indemnity. The way Hurt handles it is ingenious.


Candice Frederick said...

i adored Babel.

Film Intel said...

Just wanted to weigh in on Babel because I really, really struggled with it. I thought all the performances were great but the structure that Inarritu adapts made it incredibly difficult for me to care about any of them - the only story where I was actually invested in the conclusion was Kikuchi's. I couldn't help but feel that if it was a story just about the plight of Pitt's character or just about Kikuchi or just about Adriana Barraza's dilemma, then I would have enjoyed any of those much more than this ensemble of all of them. A case of 'less is more'?

Danny King said...

@ Film Intel: Despite our opposite reactions to the film, the major point you make is actually one I agree with. My main issue with "Babel" lies in the conclusions of each narrative. Even though the final Kikuchi scene is very moving, it can hardly be looked at as a true conclusion; I think this is true for all of the stories, and considering the 143-minute running time, I agree that this must be attributed to the filmmaker's structure.

The part where I feel differently is with regard to my sympathies for the characters. My emotions were consistently engaged throughout, and this is what made the film work for me. As I said in the article, I think that "21 Grams" is a much more savvy and definitive storyline than "Babel," but the latter affected me emotionally on a higher level.

Marshall Mathers said...

sounds pretty gay to me, maybe Hailie will like them though.

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