The Banality of Space Exploration and Human Folly in #AdAstra

In Ad Astra, lonely astronaut Roy McBride is married to his physically and psychologically draining job, which predicatably ends his marriage, and has followed in the footsteps of dear old dad, who decades earlier headed up the infamous Lima Mission to Neptune to search for extraterrestial life. The mission was assumed lost, until some crazy anti-matter flares make their way to Earth with disasterous results from – you guessed it – out Neptune way. Oh yeah, and old daddy may be the one who created this mess. So, of course, sonny boy has to go out there to see what the heck is going on, save the solar system, and wrestle with his deep-seeded father issues.

Despite Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stunning and sometimes vertigo inducing celestial cinematography and a few good stand alone sequences, James Gray’s emotionally drab and tired father-and-son / man-is-a-lonely-beast space opera is one of the biggest cinematic dissappointments of recent memory.

Everyone in the film looks exhausted (Brad Pitt, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler…even the normaly bright-eyed Ruth Negga) and it’s no surprise given the broad strokes with which all the characters are painted and the shocking banality of space travel and colonization on display. In James Gray’s near-future universe, human beings just keep getting caught up in the same old mistakes, trite archetypes, and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, look, an Applebees and Subway on the lunar colony. And pirates fighting over mines. Mars is just one giant underground bunker that looks like it was designed with cardboard packing material from Amazon.com. Out in the middle of nowhere near some random asteroid, humans are experimenting on primates, who go maliciously bonkers in an oddly thrilling sequence that plays like a revival of an abandonded sequence from Gray’s last curiosity about human exploration, The Lost City of Z. Why were we messing with primates in space? Well, it’s just because, you know, animal torture is what humans always do. And hell, it is boring as hell out there, so why not?

One of the most irritating elements of the film is Brad Pitt’s near constant, and woefully undercooked voice-over that is strung together from routine psychological check-ups and philosophy 101 inner monologue. The Tree of Life this is not. Underscoring the voice-over and anti-action are Max Richter’s minimalist tones, pale echoes of Hans Zimmer and Justin Hurwitz’s work from the superior in every way First Man. The aformentioned cinematography of Van Hoytema is technically stunning and beautiful to look at it, but it’s not married to anything of deep substance. Interstellar this is also not.

I don’t blame Gray for tapping into classic thematic tropes. Some of the best stories of all-time deal with father-and-son drama and the loneliness of human existence, but if you are going down that well tread path you need to have either something new to say or do it in an interesting way. Sadly, in his attempt to hang these tropes inside his musings on the empitness of space, Gray shows how tired and empty these ideas can sometimes be.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Advertisements

The Truth Has No Temperature but The Counselor is Tepid

The Counselor - Cameron Diaz

I’ve come to the conclusion that Cormac McCarthy is incapable or writing interesting women, but he thinks he knows a lot about them.  The men in his screenplay for Ridley Scott’s slick, pulpy and sweaty “massive drug deal gone awry” flick The Counselor spend most of the film’s runtime spouting off quasi-philosophical macho riffs on life and greed and chicks, man…chicks, they’re like crazy.  The men toggle between misogyny and bafflement.  The character played by Javier Bardem (who, god bless him, tells the story to Michael Fassbender’s protagonist with comically black glee) knows his chick is crazy because of the way she made love to his Ferrari.  No, I’m not kidding…the woman literally humps the car.

That woman, the inexplicably named Malkina, is inexplicably played by Cameron Diaz, who looks great and gives it her all, but just isn’t up to par for this type of role.  She’s borderline camp, and a better actress (an Angelina Jolie perhaps?) would’ve either gone whole-hog with the camp or truly smoldered.   – POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD –   Continue reading

I’m Sick of these Zombies in World War Z

World War Z

World War Z is every bit as bad as I feared it would be.  Though I never read Max Brooks’ book upon which it’s based, when I heard about the premise – a globe-hopping multiple POV take on a zombie apocalypse and the war the survivors waged against the undead – I thought, much like Hollywood, hey, that could be a cool idea!  Let’s apply a Contagion-like approach to a zombie narrative.  Sadly, when uberstar Brad Pitt signed on for the film adaptation, a decision was made to eradicate the novel’s central conceit and make it about one man’s quest to find the source of the plague that turned people into ravenous snap-jawed yokels.  The resulting film, which credits at least four screenwriters, is allegedly directed by Marc Forster (honestly, it could’ve been directed by anyone…or a committee) and went through numerous re-shoots, is a total bore.

Spare for some decent genre thrills in the Philly-centric set-up, the film is a cliché-ridden sack of tripe.  There’s not one second where you doubt Brad Pitt’s blank-faced hippy-haired hero is going to save the day or that his family (headed by Mireille Enos, who desperately tries to give her predicament some emotion while provided with zero personality by the writers) is ever in any real danger. Continue reading

Memory and Magic in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Like an Andrew Wyeth painting come to life, Malick's obsession with open doors and windows conjures myth and memories.

Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.
 
Over time, man has conjured God to tame her and give reason and order to the random chaos.
 
In present day, a man named Jack (Sean Penn) wanders listlessly through a cold, sterile metropolis where success is measured by wealth and excess.  On the anniversary of his brother’s death, a call to his father triggers an ocean of memories to come rushing over him.  Distracted, he daydreams and wonders about the meaning of life and why his brother had to be taken from him.  Was it because of the bad things he did as a child?  Was it a failure on the part of his parents?  Is it because his God is a mysterious and unknowable power that snuffs out life as easily as it gives it away?  Is this why he has become so misguided and empty today?  Jack imagines his childhood bookended by the beginning and end of time, where writer/director Terrence Malick’s meta-narrative provides a linear mirror image to Weerasethakul’s cosmic cycling from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  Memories and dreams fuel both films, but The Tree of Life cuts through time like a knife. Continue reading

You Might Be a Basterd If

If shes a Basterd...sign me up!

If she's a Basterd...sign me up!

A Review of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS:

I walked into Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds expecting non-stop Basterd-style Nazi killing, over the top violence and borderline kitsch.  Sure, there’s some of that, and an anachronistic use of a David Bowie song among other minor albeit forgivable annoyances, but what struck me most was that this was not just a story of Basterd scalping maniacs.  This was also a story of a young Jewish woman named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) hiding out in Paris under the guise of a cinema operator and her elaborate revenge plot against the bastard SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) who murdered her family.  This is a story of a ballsy double agent parading as a German movie star (Diane Kruger) who risks everything for an operation to assassinate Hitler.  And most memorably, and cyclically, this is the story of that ruthless SS Colonel Hans Landa and his inevitable comeuppance after he arrogantly and erroneously plays everyone as if he were the smartest man in the room.  In fact, the whole movie hangs on his story arc.  From the moment at the end of the opening prologue where Shosanna barely escapes from his overreaching grasp, we wait…ever so patiently…to see…in that final scene…Hanz receive his comeuppance.  And Tarantino, in his signature chapter-stop style weaves in all of these stories and others and uses the Basterds (essentially as a McGuffin) as the comic relief.

By all measures, this is Tarantino’s best-looking film.  Continue reading

A Review of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Cate asks Brad, Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?

Cate asks Brad, “Can we please be movie stars, even if just for today?”

Nothing Lasts Forever, 28 December 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

On a cold night on the eve of WWII in Russia, a diplomat’s wife (Tilda Swinton) shares tea with a most peculiar tugboat man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). When she asks him where is he from, Benjamin replies, “New Orleans…Louisiana.” Swinton’s character replies, “I didn’t think there was any other.”

This moment comes about forty minutes into the film which has been established on the grounds of a woman (Julia Ormond) reading to her dying mother (Cate Blanchett) from the diary of Benjamin Button as Hurricane Katrina sweeps over New Orleans. The ghost of a New Orleans now lost haunts David Fincher’s lyrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who ages backwards. There’s no denying this film couldn’t have been made five years ago, not only because the technology wasn’t there to make the process of aging backwards look real, but it would’ve also been a completely different movie as screenwriter Eric Roth wouldn’t have been able to bookend the film with Blanchett on her deathbed as Hurricane Katrina comes to literally wipe away her life. The story is hung on a gimmick, and the film told as a fable, but there’s grounding in the reality of life’s greater mysteries that speaks volumes about not just the death of a man or a woman, but the death of a city and the death of a way of life.

A big part of making the audience believe in the story falls on the film’s technical aspects: the make-up, the CGI, the period-piece details of the film’s set designs and costumes. If you look close enough, you can find things to nitpick, like the distracting disembodied voice of Cate Blanchett distorted onto a little girl, but for the most part Fincher constructs it all seamlessly. In terms of scope and sentiment, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems a complete departure for a director usually obsessed with darker more violent tales, but Fincher has always liked his plots to begin (think Seven or Panic Room) or end (think The Game or Fight Club) with a gimmick, and he’s always been a filmmaker obsessed with cutting-edge technology (think of the VIPER camera used to film Zodiac). Fincher does a superb job with his meticulous construction of these elements (complimented nicely by Alexandre Desplat’s subdued score), and he really wins the audience over with his flashbacks within flashbacks that are done in a charmingly stylized manner that remind us we’re watching a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed above any other pretense.

By shifting the central location of the story from the original setting of Baltimore to New Orleans, Roth opens the film up to a new layer of interpretation. Though the episodic tale of Pitt’s Benjamin growing younger while Blanchett’s Daisy grows older spans the globe from Manhattan to Russia to Paris, the characters’ hearts remain united in New Orleans. Roth, who also penned the thematically similar Forrest Gump peppers his screenplay with many momentous events from the 20th Century, but those moments ebb and flow through Benjamin’s life just as the other characters do showing us that life is made only of moments. None of them last forever.

The supporting players (including a gutsy performance from Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s adoptive mother who runs a nursing home) are wonderful and allow Pitt and Blanchett to shine as the movie stars that they are. Sure, these two have probably given better performances elsewhere, but here they have been given roles for which they might be best remembered long after their star-power has dimmed.

In a year when the films with the most impact (like The Dark Knight) have been those that have tapped into the fears and mindset of the times we live in, it’s rather fitting that a movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes along at the end of the year. It should be one of those movies that hold audiences rapt in hushed silence, but it’s also the type of movie that usually receives instant backlash. I wonder how it will stand up over time. On the surface it attempts to tell a timeless tale, but in a bittersweet way proves the opposite. Movies stars like Pitt and Blanchett, movies like this, stories, fables, dreams, cities like New Orleans…none of these things are timeless. Timelessness is just a flight of the imagination…like the idea of a man aging backwards.

But what a wonderful flight it is.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

A Review of the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading”

The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading is one of those movies with a farcical and convoluted plot involving idiotic one-up-manship that is essentially an excuse for the filmmakers to poke fun and for their stars to have a great time doing silly bits. Here our zany Brothers return to one of their favorite themes: what happens when simpletons get in way over their heads with a cynical league of morons. Clooney, McDormand, Malcovich, Swinton, and especially Pitt, all whip out their best comedic timing and smarmy facial expressions in this tale of misguided blackmail and bumbling counter-intelligence. Unlike their last two comedic travesties (the barely there Intolerable Cruelty and the wacko Ladykillers), the Coens’ focus is sharper and crueler in this Reading and pointed directly at the government, society, themselves and their audience.

I’ve seen four out of the last five Coen Brothers’ films in crowded theaters where their faithful often laugh out of turn at some of the most unfunny of moments. Burn After Reading has plenty of those moments, as well as some truly funny ones, but one has to wonder why such a talented pair would shoot so low as to desire the elicitation of that “solo” laughter from the loons in the audience that constitute the filmmakers’ personal league of morons. When Clooney’s hardwood floor-loving womanizer unveils his “special project” to McDormand’s plastic-surgery obsessed internet speed dater, it’s a hilarious anti-climax to what had been a long build-up in previous scenes that had the whole crowd groaning and giggling. But isn’t Clooney’s rear-entry sexual-aid device a bit emblematic of how the Coens’ have been treating their audience lately? Later, when Malcovich’s alcoholic ex-CIA analyst literally takes a hatchet to another character, it again elicits uproars, but I couldn’t help but think the Coens’ were symbolically taking out their frustration on the faithful who have been befuddled by their recent offerings. We’re a cynical bunch, and so are the Coens, and whether they see themselves as the simpletons in over their heads and their audience as the league of morons, or vice versa, is never clear.

At least with this slow Burn we don’t have to deal with the pretentious philosophical ruminations of their literary bound and insanely overrated Oscar-winner, No Country for Old Men. While this might not recapture the pure joy of their original dark comedy, Raising Arizona, this star-studded and occasionally hilarious Burn After Reading is the Coen Brothers’ most entertaining film in years, even if we’re all a little more bruised from the wear.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0887883/usercomments-75

___________________________________________________________________________

Check out my archives for past Coen Brothers’ reviews:

No Country for Old Menhttps://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/a-review-of-the-coen-brothers-no-country-for-old-men/

O Brother, Where Art Thou? :  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0190590/usercomments-616

Fargohttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116282/usercomments-316

________________________________________________________________________

Are you part of The Coen Brothers’ League of Morons?  Feel free to share your rankings of their films.  Here’s my rankings from best to worst:

Fargo 10/10

Blood Simple 10/10

Miller’s Crossing 9/10

Barton Fink 9/10

Raising Arizona 9/10

O Brother, Where Art Thou? 9/10

The Big Lebowski 8/10

Burn After Reading 7/10

The Man Who Wasn’t There 7/10

No Country for Old Men 6/10

The Hudsucker Proxy 5/10

Intolerable Cruelty 5/10

Ladykillers 5/10

Mongolian Trailer Park

CAPTION:  Ghengis Khan is all up in this yurt.

So last week I saw that flick Mongol, you know, the new epic about Ghengis Khan made by a Russian director (Sergei Bodrov), starring a Japanese dude (Tadonubo Asano), nominated for an Oscar, and inexplicably released stateside in the middle of the summer movie season.  It was a pretty good movie that held my interest for two hours by exposing me to a culture I know little about and featuring a well played out historical epic story arc complete with requisite kick-ass battle scenes.  Sitting there getting frosty in the air-conditioned theater while the heat and humidity raged outside, I couldn’t help thinking this was a movie better suited for the prestigious autumnal season.  With the most gluttonous of film seasons in full swing (is The Dark Knight out yet?), I decided to take a look ahead at my favorite season in film and weather. 

Here I present my list of most anticipated movies for Fall 2008:

___________________________________________________________________

1.  The Miracle at St. Anna  (scheduled release date:  9/26)

The Director:  Spike Lee

The Stars:  Derek Luke, John Leguizamo, James Gandolfini, Joseph Gordon Levitt, some cute Italian kid, Alexandra Maria Lara, and a boatload of other people and familiar faces

The Scoop:  Okay, so I will admit it right here, right now.  I love Spike Lee.  I even liked She Hate Me.  He’s a cunning provocateur who’s had numerous peaks and valleys in his career but just won’t stop no matter what and always seems to get his name in the papers–witness Clint Eastwood telling him recently to “shut his face”.  Spike is coming off the most commercially successful film of his long career with Inside Man.  With this adaptation of the novel by James McBride about a group of African-American soldiers trapped in Tuscany during WWII, he’s giving us his first epic since Malcom X.    The trailer for this film is a smashing success that manages to sell the film as both a murder mystery and a searing Saving Private Ryan style WWII drama.  This latest Spike Lee Joint has so many great things going for it:  an auteur on the precipice of a personal artistic and commercial Renaissance (much like the one Scorsese recently went through with The Aviator and The Departed); a great storyline that has the potential to provoke discussions of history, race, religion and politics in a historic Presidential election year; and a multi-ethnic cast that includes a cute Italian kid, and as a special bonus for me, the devastatingly seductive Alexandra Maria Lara, whose beauty alone made Francis Ford Coppola’s recent debacle Youth Without Youth worth watching.

Watch the trailer:  http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3941007641/

________________________________________________________________

2.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button  (scheduled release date:  12/19)

The Director:  David Fincher

The Stars:  Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond

The Scoop:  This is the fantastic case of a gimmick film (it tells the not so simple story of a man who ages backwards, folks) with a literary pedigree (adapted from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald).  I first saw the trailer for this in front of the latest Indiana Jones flick, and the packed house was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.  Its epic scope appears to be a complete departure for director Fincher, and its unique story and images sweep over you in the masterfully crafted trailer-much kudos thus far to the marketing team.  This film has the potential to be monumentally huge or just another curiosity grabbing for Oscar gold at Christmastime.  Will Fincher (robbed of an Oscar nod for Zodiac last year) and uber-star Pitt (robbed last year for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) finally get their due?

CAPTION:  Two Oscars please, my good man!  Oscars for me and the Finch!

Watch the trailer:  http://www.apple.com/trailers/paramount/thecuriouscaseofbenjaminbutton/

Official Site:  http://www.benjaminbutton.com/

___________________________________________________________

3.  Australia  (scheduled release date:  11/14)

The Director:  Baz Luhrmann

The Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Australia!

The Scoop:  Baz the Spazz changes gears completely with this big historical epic depicting heroism and romance against the backdrop of a Japanese attack on Australia during WWII.  The trailer sells the imagery and scope of the film very well, making it look Gone with the Wind Down Under, though the frame story of Kidman telling a fairy tale to the Aborigine girl seems a bit strained (and remarkably similar to Tarsem’s The Fall.)  Luhrmann appears to have abandoned his hyper kinetic style for the dreadful sumptuousness that always seems to sell tickets during the big holidays at the end of the year.  Kidman and Jackman certainly look the parts, and lord knows they could both use a big hit.   Will critics be eager to embrace the new Luhrmann after a seven year hiatus?  More than any other film, I think critics have the chance to make or break this one.

Watch the trailer:  http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2917663001/

Official Site:  http://www.australiamovie.com/

__________________________________________________________

4.  The Soloist  (scheduled release date:  11/21)

The Director:  Joe Wright

The Stars:  Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Jamie Foxx

The Scoop:  Brit Joe Wright atones for his period pieces by making this American set musical biopic.  Downey Jr. is back on the A-list, the director is taking on a genre held in high favor in recent years, and playing a schizophrenic musical genius seems right up Foxx’s alley.  There are no trailers or official sites yet, but I can’t wait to see what kind of tracking long shots Wright cooks up for this one–I’m picturing a shot the begins with an overhead dolly and travels down and through the crowd and orchestra at a grand concert hall.

________________________________________________________________

5.  Revolutionary Road  (scheduled release date:  12/26)

The Director:  Sam Mendes

The Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

The Scoop:  I have to admit, the plot of this one (from a novel by Richard Yates) sounds like a snore-fest:  a young couple in 1950’s Connecticut deal with problems and such.  However, Mendes has yet to make a bad film, suburban dystopia is his bread and butter (American Beauty, anyone?), and the reunion of Titanic stars Leo and Kate in a Christmastime release give this film some palpable buzz.  No trailers or official site have appeared yet. 

______________________________________________________________________

Other Films of Interest:

Changeling:  10/31.  The latest from Clint Eastwood has some mixed buzz coming from its Cannes’ premier.  This 1920’s set psychological thriller about a mother who begins to doubt the identity of her young son who has been returned to her after going missing will have a hard line to tow while it tries to convince people it’s not a remake of a horror film with the same name and is instead a prestigious Oscar bid for its uber-star Angelina Jolie.

Defiance:  12/2.  Yet another WWII epic, this one is based on a true story and staring Daniel Craig.  Directed by Edward Zwick, the film of course reeks of quality, and the trailer has been getting some good buzz (at least amongst my friends and family), but it looks nobly cliched to me.  If that new Spike Lee Joint strikes a cord, this runs the risk of being overshadowed as the later release.

Watch the trailer for Defiancehttp://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2008154393/

Oh, yeah, there’s also a new James Bond flick (Craig again) idiotically entitled Quantum of Solace (11/7), and a wacky crime caper from Oscar darlings the Coen Brothers zanily called Burn After Reading (9/12) and staring, you guessed it, Brad Pitt.

Watch the Quantum of Solace trailer:  http://www.moviefone.com/movie/quantum-of-solace/26922/trailer?trailerId=2150289

Written by David H. Schleicher

A Review of Andrew Dominiks’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

The Expectation of Applause, 6 October 2007
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a handsomely mounted, film-school like study of the last days of the infamous James’ Gang by director Andrew Dominik. Growing up in awe of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) finally gets to live out his dream of living side by side with his idol when his brother, Charles (Sam Rockwell) joins the gang. Young Robert quickly learns that the exploits of the murderous train-robbers are far from the exciting flights of fancy he grew up reading about in newspapers and dime-store novels. A series of cowardly acts in the wake of double-crossings and humiliations ultimately lead to the titular event.

The style of the film is often visually arresting and downright disturbing, especially in the acts of violence, which leave the most gruesome parts slightly off camera, but are frequently shot and framed in such a way as to maximize shock value and leave an uncomfortable feeling of tension in the theater seats. Dominik sometimes relies too heavily on voice-over narration torn straight from the book upon which the film is based leaving us to assume that aside from dreadfully beautiful photography of passing clouds and desolate Midwestern landscapes, he wasn’t always sure how he visually wanted to tell the story. This leads to a sometimes snails’ pace as the plot unfolds, though the haunting Oscar-worthy cinematography from Roger Deakins and mesmerizing music score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis eventually get under your skin even as the hands of the clock seem to move slower as if stuck in a pretty photograph of a nightmare.

The acting in the film is superb from all involved. However, the performances often blur the line between caricatured scenery-chewing and emotional nuance (especially from Pitt and Rockwell). While there is some entertainment to be found in the lighter scenes of camaraderie amongst the gang members, the audience never really feels anything for the characters aside from sharing their sense of paranoia and fear knowing that around any corner someone will be betrayed and shot. The film also suffers from some scene stealing cameos from James Carville as the governor hell-bent on catching Jesse and the otherwise lovely Zooey Deschanel, who appears out of nowhere for a few moments about ten minutes after the film should have rightfully ended.

When the credits finally rolled, I wasn’t sure what to make of the film. There’s some unforgettable imagery (my personal favorite being the almost surreal depiction of the cloth-masked robbers waiting in the dark woods as the train comes roaring down the tracks), and many commendable artistic elements to be found in the film. If the idea was to leave the audience feeling the era showcased was a tension-riddled and violently lonely existence, then the film succeeded wonderfully. Those seeking a more pure entertainment will most assuredly be left stressed and stretched to their limits.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0443680/usercomments-22

A Review of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel”

*I’ve discussed this film often in my blogs, and as it is one of the Best Picture Nominees and the Golden Globe Winner for Best Drama, I feel the need to broadcast the review I posted on the IMDB when the film was originally released in November of 2006. 
 

Babel-on, Wayward Director…, 6 November 2006
6/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

With “Babel” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has crafted the apex to his trilogy that began with the gangbusters “Amores Perros,” and continued with the finely crafted and haunting “21 Grams.” Unfortunately, it seems that peak is crumbling. “Babel” has the same intertwining story structure as the previous two, but in hopping across continents and making the stories global (taking place in Mexico, Morrocco, and Japan), he loses some much needed focus. It also has what has now become his signature editing-with-a-hacksaw-style of chronology that worked beautifully in “21 Grams” but seems forced here. In fact there’s one set of scenes taking place at a Mexican wedding that is needlessly incoherent in its jumping back and forth. Everything in this set of scenes is taking place at one location on one night, so why the jumbled chronology? It makes one wonder if they forgot an editor all together.

“Babel” is not without its merits. The story lines are more often than not thought-provoking and challenging. The ensemble acting is top notch from the big stars (Cate Blanchett is riveting as always in all her subtle and alluring ways and makes the most of her limited screen time) down to the no-name locals (the Morrocan kids being especially effective). There’s also a commendable ambition to the whole endeavor as it attempts to explore communication and human emotion in the increasingly global and paradoxically intolerant world. Memorable, too, is some great cinematography of the Tokoyo skyline (especially that awesome closing pan-out from the high-rise balcony) and the Morrocan highlands, where the centerpiece of the intertwined tragedies takes place when an American tourist is accidentally shot by some goat-herding kids playing with a gun used to keep away jackals from their family’s livelihood.

Unfortunately “Babel,” in its uncompromising vision, plays out painfully in strained, awkward lurches that stretch believability. It’s interesting how during various moments, different story lines seem the most compelling. The early scenes in Morocco of both the American couple (Blanchett and Brad Pitt) and the local goat-herders are stark and intimate and represent the best at what Inarritu is capable of as a storyteller. Later, he applies a humanistic touch to the scenes of the Mexican nanny taking her American charges across the border for her son’s wedding. There’s a wide-eyed innocent nature to the culture clash he depicts that gets garbled later when Gael Garcia Bernal (as the nanny’s nephew) dives off the deep end with little reason and leads to a tragic series of events that really test the viewer’s ability to take this all as seriously as the filmmaker’s would like us to. Likewise, the Japanese tale of the deaf-mute teenage girl struggling to cope with society’s unwillingness to communicate on her level, a distant father, and the recent suicide of her mother lurches forward so melodramatically it becomes banal, and the connection it has to the other stories is the biggest stretch to swallow, and most viewers will choke on it.

Then, of course, there is the presence of the aforementioned uber-star Brad Pitt. He’s at a point in his career where his celebrity status trumps his acting talent. He’s actually quite good as Blanchett’s frantic husband, but his star-power is distracting and constantly has the viewer thinking in the back of their mind “wow, Brad Pitt can act” rather than feeling anything for the character. This is a piece of stunt-casting that doesn’t work.

There are many compelling moments and noteworthy performances in “Babel,” but it crumbles under its own weight as just about everything is reduced to the big breakdown/crying scene, and we are left wondering what Inarritu will do next as a director. He’s got talent to spare, but ran out of steam when taking his intimate look at human tragedy global with “Babel.”

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

http://imdb.com/title/tt0449467/usercomments-54