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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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"Babel" Not Half As Good As It Thinks It Is

Babel is the latest film in the "vaguely interconnected stories about people that have one broad theme" style that's become so popular in Hollywood lately. I admit to being predisposed to liking this sort of story, but Babel left me generally cold. While it was well made, it felt emotionally hollow for some reason, and it didn't resonate with me the way it was clearly intended to. Still, it has a good amount of hype and is a potential contender for some Academy Award nominations. So what's all the fuss about?

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who also directed the similar Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003), Babel is a series of four stories that all vaguely center around the accidental shooting of an American tourist, played by Cate Blanchett, vacationing in Morocco. As her husband (Brad Pitt) tries to get her medical attention, we also follow the family of goat-herders who are responsible for the accidental shooting, the Mexican housekeeper who is charged with watching the couple's children, and a deaf girl in Japan who feels alone and isolated from her peers (the connection of the last thread to the other three stories is so minor and revealed so late it feels largely like an afterthought).

Each of the stories allegedly are about communication (or at least cultural differences) but in two or three of them this theme seems very forced. After watching the movie and thinking about it, reading reviews and the like, I'm still not sure I get the point of the movie. People who felt that last year's Crash was too heavy-handed will be more comfortable here, but I'm afraid the movie's point is so subtle that it's easy to completely miss it.

Any one of the stories could have made a very interesting movie on its own, but compressed as they are and shoehorned into the film's non-linear chronology, each feels too abrupt. Far too many events seem as though they've happened because the filmmakers had to get from Point A to Point B, and in a hurry. The film runs 2 hours and 20 minutes and it just isn't enough to tell the sort of involved stories that Iñárritu and his collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, want to tell.

Some parts do work well, especially a scene in the Japanese storyline where the deaf girl follows some friends into a club. Iñárritu does an obvious thing and turns off the soundtrack for about half of the sequence, so we alternate between the pounding house music and total silence. I say it's an obvious trick, because it is, but one that is surprisingly effective. Several of the individual scenes in the film are equally great. The way Iñárritu captures specific moods and tones is commendable. The performances by the movie's big Hollywood stars are not quite that commendable, but a few by lesser-known actors are pretty sensational, especially the housekeeper played by Adriana Barraza.

But at the end I'm not sure it adds up to anything. I'm open to the idea that I just missed the point, but I'm trying really hard to find one. It is the sort of movie that I can imagine is very effective if it reaches you, but for me it didn't.

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