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Wednesday, October 18

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Babel

Babel is the latest portrait of despair from Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who uses four loosely connected storylines (as he did in Amores Perros and 21 Grams) set in Japan, Morocco and the United States/Mexico to convey tales of isolation, pain and ultimately a fleeting sense of hope. The film will be easily identified by most thanks to the storyline featuring high-profile actors Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as Americans traveling in Morocco. While the pair is riding a bus through the lifeless mountains, a bullet comes ripping through the window and into her neck. In the middle of nowhere, Pitt is forced to battle the American political bureaucracy to get help for his dying wife. It's his finest on-screen performance at a time in his career when we could use a fresh reminder of his talents as an actor and not just tabloid fodder.

The storyline most closely linked this one involves a Moroccan family that includes two young sons who are always competing with each other. The younger of the two seems more talented in just about all endeavors, so when their father gives them a rifle, they take turns shooting it…at a passing tour bus. You see how this film works now, yes? Every story in Babel is filled with sometimes overwhelming grief and raw, exposed emotion. It nearly drains your soul, but that doesn't stop it from being a wholly fulfilling experience.

The most disturbing story is set in Japan, about a teenaged deaf girl whose mother committed suicide and whose father (the great Koji Yakusho) is rarely around to comfort her. She acts out sexually in a desperate attempt to lose her virginity, which leads to some awkward and sad encounters with strange men. Another story involves the two children of the Pitt and Blanchett characters, who are taken by their Mexican nanny into Mexico to attend the nanny's son's wedding. Gael Garcia Bernal appears in this episode to drive the nanny and two children back to the border, but he panics and speeds off into the desert. The nanny and children end up stranded in the desert with no help in site and no idea in which direction they should walk.

At its core, Babel is about the relationship and gulf that can develop between parent and child, but it is also about the figurative and literal inability we have to communicate with others (in all the stories, two people not being able to speak the same language is a key element). This film is just about perfect, but it's a heavy load to carry for its nearly two-and-a-half hours, and you could leave the theatre feeling a little less sure about the world. Still, experiencing Babel is a lasting and powerful thing. It reaches into your chest and squeezes on your heart just enough to hurt it but not enough to do any permanent damage. I love when that happens.

Plus, read my interview with Babel director Alejandro Gonalez Inarritu on Ain't It Cool News.


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

You will never laugh harder in 2006 than you will watching Borat. But in order to experience this film in all its pure comedic splendor, you need to stop reading about it and seeking out clips online starting right now (actually starting about a month ago would have been better, but I'll take what I can get). You also need to abandon everything you think you know about humor, film, reality television, good and bad taste and the American dream.

By sending his fictional Kazakhstani reporter, Borat, across the United States in an ice cream truck to interact with unsuspecting citizens, comic genius Sacha Baron Cohen (familiar to many as the scheming gay French racecar driver in Talladega Nights) exposes a side of American thinking and cultural bias that many would rather have locked away and denied. This is not only one of the funniest film of all time, it's also one of the most stinging examples of this country's intolerance and bigotry you're ever likely to see…and you won't be able to control your violent giggle fits while watching it.

Anyone who ever saw Cohen's remarkable HBO series "The Ali G Show" (in which he played three characters interviewing real people—often government officials or celebrities—who had no idea they were being about to be skewered until it was too late) knows who Borat is. Cohen has obviously made up his mind about the humor value of shoddily produced television from the former Soviet nation and the Kazakhstani people. They hate Jews and women, but they love rape, bestiality, incest and American culture (not necessarily in that order). Borat is sent to America by his government as part of a cultural fact-finding mission about America and to promote his own nation as a tourist destination (much like the real Kazakhstan government is doing right now as a response to this movie).

The film uses this loose premise as an excuse to send Borat and his producer Azamat (the splendid character actor Ken Davitian) across the United States to find places and people that are uniquely American. The people are aware they are on camera, but they are told they are a part of a documentary for Kazak television, so they have no idea the entire thing is a gag. The way Cohen manipulates every situation is remarkable to behold. I could watch his fearless interactions for days on end. Perhaps the scariest moment comes when he sings the Kazak national anthem to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner" at a rodeo packed with angry rednecks. And he absolutely never breaks character.

What is often remarkable about nearly every situation is how people treat him when he says something completely offensive, but in a manner that makes him seem innocent of his verbal crime. People rarely get mad, but many treat him like a child and scold him. Then he lets fly with even more. What is more gut twisting is when he makes vile comments against Jews or gays or women, and the "victim" of his prank agrees with him. The film is filled with gripping and uncomfortable moments like this, and director Larry Charles (one of the regular writers of "Seinfeld" and frequent director of "Curb Your Enthusiasm") manages to capture every painful, unapologetic moment of it.

Of course, sometimes Cohen lays off us poor Americans and just makes us laugh at him. He doesn't need us to make him funny. You will literally laugh until you puke at Cohen and Davitian's naked wrestling match.

If this all sounds too vulgar and distasteful for your refined tastes, it probably is. But let me make this plea: Go see this movie; go see a movie that will make you react and talk after seeing it, instead of one that makes you feel safe and warm inside, you babies! Borat is dangerous filmmaking because it's about as real and honest as any film you're likely to see this or any year. The only negative thing I have to say about the movie is that there probably won't ever be a sequel. Now that Borat the character has been exposed as a fraud, Cohen will never be able to take him on the road through a naïve America again. His eminent fame will kill him, but what a glorious death it will be.


Flushed Away

Believe me when I say, I was holding my breath on this one. Aardman Animation has never produced a bad project. From Wallace and Gromit to Chicken Run to the "Creature Comforts" television series to dozens of wonderful shorts, the uniquely British Claymation house has always entertained me. But when I first heard the concept (some might say "conceit") of the company's latest project, I cringed. A CGI-animated feature that looks more or less like a Claymation work. I need to have more faith in these folks, because Flushed Away is a triumph, and it opens the door for more rapidly produced films from these folks.

The visuals are what hit you first. Because of the tremendous amount of water used in this tale of a pet mouse named Roddy (voiced by busy actor of the month Hugh Jackman) who ends up mixing it up with sewer rats and other creatures, there is absolutely no way Aardman could have done this story as a stop-motion work. But just because they went the CGI route doesn't mean that Flushed Away is slick and polished. The filmmakers have gone out of their way to replicate the flawed character designs and slightly staggered motion of Claymation, and the result is subtle but remarkable (I could almost swear I saw a fingerprint or two in various characters' bodies).

It doesn't take long for you to stop caring about the film's technical aspect and simply dive into this hilarious tale of the pampered Roddy trying to escape the eye-popping sewer-ized London under the streets of the city. And the lineup of vocal talents includes Kate Winslet as the saucy rodent Rita, who helps Roddy escape the clutches of Toad (Ian McKellen, putting on an extra-villainous tone to his voice) and his henchmen (Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis). But for some reason, my giggle factor went way up at the mid-film introducing of the French hitmen frogs (would that make them frogmen?) led by Le Frog (voiced by, who else, Jean Reno). And mark my words, children around the world will be demanding plush replicas of the slugs in this movie. They are the funniest things in this movie, and there are many to choose from.

Since its set largely in a sewer environment, Flushed Away has its fair share of slimy, grotesque elements to make audiences of all ages squirm with glee. And, the audience of hardened critics with whom I saw this film laughed heartily throughout, which makes me wonder whether adults or children are going to get more out of this film. This has been an exciting year for animated film offerings (with a few exceptions), and I don't know which one is my favorite right now (I still have a soft spot for Over the Hedge, which is now on DVD), but Flushed Away is right up there. Jackman is perfect as the British fop, who squeals like a little girl at the first sign of something disgusting. And Winslet's working-class Rita is the perfect foil. The film has some nice lessons about not judging people based on where they live, and it finally offers Jackman a chance to end up with the girl for once this year (he hasn't had much luck in films like Scoop, X-Men 3, The Prestige or the upcoming The Fountain). Flushed Away is an unqualified success that will make you thrilled that animation houses like Aardman exist and thrive without pandering.


49 Up

There is quite a bit I could say about this much-anticipated latest installment of director Michael Apted's legendary documentary series, but I'm going to say very little. Part of the thrill of being a faithful follower of the Up series is not knowing what to expect from the dozen subjects Apted has been checking in with every seven years since the age of seven. With every movie of late, I keep convincing myself that these people are at the age where the changes in their lives will be less drastic, thus the films will get less interesting, but that has never been the case. Marriage, divorce, children, career and class changes are constantly evolving for this group, and Apted and his team do a remarkable job taking us through each person's life over the 42-year life of this project.

It doesn't matter if you've ever seen one of these movies before. Apted recaps everybody's life story leading up to 49 Up, and even the more ordinary adventures remain endlessly fascinating. What strikes you most about many of these people is that simply being a part of this series has added an additional set of changes to their lives, not always for the best. But there's no denying that these people have become national celebrities in their native England. But being a part of the project forces them to examine the sum total of their lives on a schedule, and that's not always an easy thing to do. And as with other entries in the Up series, a couple people offer veiled threats of dropping out after 49 Up.

The one question I always have when I watch a new installment of this series (I've seen all of them since 21 Up, and the entire 7-42 series is recently available on DVD) is "What is this project proving?" The original conceit when Granada TV's "World in Action" show first aired Seven Up was "Give me a child until he is 7, and I will show you the man." But has that proven true? The answer, of course, is yes and no, and in nearly every case, the difference has been class related. At 14, many of the richer children had their career paths mapped out, and they have become the exact people they thought they'd be as teenagers. But with all of the other children, their lives have been seemingly random and without pattern, just like most of us watching them.

For me, the Up series has become less about whether a person's life is determined at a young age and more about catching up with old friends. If I ever meet one of these people (one teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison), the encounter would feel more like a reunion, at least from my end. It would probably feel like stalking from their perspective. 49 Up is a comforting experience, as if all is right in the world because I now know how these friends I've never met are doing. Do not miss this film. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Renaissance

With its awe-inspiring, black-and-white animation style, the French crime thriller Renaissance is high on style and lacking in substance and a tangible message. Imagine if Sin City was an animated movie, and you begin to understand what director Christian Volckman is going for. The futuristic story (set in 2054 Paris, looking a lot like the Los Angeles in Blade Runner) centers on a Paris detective (voiced by Daniel Craig) who unravels the mystery of a kidnapped scientist and a series of dead witnesses he encounters in his search for the missing woman.

But ultimately this tale of corporate greed, crime bosses and deadly scientific research gets lost in its own maze of double crosses, grotesque characters and surreal visuals. In other words, the story doesn't really matter; it's just an excuse to lay witness to some pretty remarkable 3-D animation. But in the end, the unnecessarily confusing plot and vague theories on the dangers of science and technology left me empty and bored. Use this animation style with a better story, and you've got yourself something special. At best, Renaissance is a step in the right direction for a new form of animation. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Deliver Us From Evil

Documentaries about Catholic priests molesting children are disturbingly prevalent in our society, much like the incidents themselves. Just two years ago, filmmaker Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) made the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith about a grown man who reveals to the world the abuse inflicted upon him and in the process alienates himself from his family, friends and church-trusting community. But Deliver Us From Evil, from first-time director Amy Berg, attacks an even larger target: the deeply corrupt and deceitful church system of Northern California, which covered up a slew of alleged incidents that was far worse in scope and number of victims than the situation in Boston.

Berg's centerpiece is a series of compelling and deeply disturbing interviews with the primary perpetrator—with hundreds of victims since the 1970s—Father Oliver O'Grady, who was bounced from parish to parish for 30 years by the Church in an attempt to keep his indiscretions a secret. O'Grady appears quite calm, regretful and utterly charming. He in no way denies his wrongdoings, especially since he is now living in a remote corner of Ireland in a place where none of the residents know about his past crimes. In what some might deem a lack of judgment (or at least good taste) on Berg's part, some of the interviews with O'Grady take place in front of playground or very near area where children are clearly in view.

Also interviewed are several of the survivors of O'Grady's crimes, some of whom endured his foul behavior for more than a decade. The elderly parents of these now grown men and women are also interviewed, and they share their sense of shock and disgust that they let this man in their homes, sometimes sleeping overnight. But Berg's investigation into these crimes goes deeper than just O'Grady and his supervising bishops. She examines the lengths that the entire Catholic Church has gone to bury this, whether it be with cash settlements or lengthy court battles. Everyone from George W. Bush to the current Pope are called into question as part of the lack of proper response that would include some form of healing. Perhaps most shocking is the revelation that the church considers the molesting of girls as less an offense than boys, because molesting boys indicates homosexual leanings.

Despite its clearly emotionally dreadful subject matter, Deliver Us From Evil is also too sterile and dry in its execution. We certainly get a fair share of victim and parent testimonials, but our rage is tempered by Berg leaving some of the nastiest details to our imagination. Not that there are levels of rape or pedophilia, but I was eager to have my blood boil more than it did over the actual crimes. But fear not, there are plenty of moments in this film over which to get angry. There's an extraordinary amount of deposition footage from O'Grady and his supervisors, which spell out their guilt more than anything else. The "60 Minutes"-style sweating and nervous ticks are undeniable, even as they say everything in their power to look slightly less evil. When a victims' rights attorney takes two of O'Grady's victims to the Vatican to deliver a letter asking the Pope to acknowledge and help heal those abused by priest, they are turned away at the gate, but what else would you expect to happen?

Deliver Us From Evil does a great job of getting to the heart of this atrocious matter, but I didn't get as pulled into the material as I did with Kirby Dick's film, or even the way I did with Jesus Camp from earlier this year (which features a different type of child abuse). Perhaps the most frustrating thing this film reveals is that there are still so many apologists out there who are willing to deny or excuse such foul behavior. To the victims, that type of systematic, institutionalized denial of the problem feels like getting raped all over again, and capturing that feeling is what this film does best.


51 Birch Street

I'm genuinely sad that this very moving documentary is only playing at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park, because this is one of those rare gems that you think you've got figured out in the first 20 minutes, and it completely and repeatedly sucker punches with surprising revelations all the way to the end. Director Doug Block was almost pushed into a reflective mood about his Long Island Jewish family when his mother, Mina, dies suddenly.

Doug fills the beginning of his film with interviews he did with his parents over the years while he worked as a documentary filmmaker (and doing wedding videos to pay bills). It becomes clear quickly that he and his mother were very close while the relationships between his father, Mike, and Doug and his two sisters was sometimes nonexistent and always strained. We immediately make assumptions that this film is going to be a glorification of Mina and perhaps an attempt by Doug to open up the lines of communication with his stoic father. But three months after Mina's death, Mike drops a bombshell: he calls from a solo vacation in Florida to announce that he's reconnected with his secretary from 40 years earlier, Kitty, and the two are getting married.

Did Mike and Kitty have an affair when they worked together? If so, did Mina ever know about it? Did their marriage suffer for so many years as a result of this relationship? You would think these are the key questions to be answered in 51 Birch Street, and you'd be dead wrong. The defining piece of this family mystery comes when the family is cleaning out Mina's possessions after her death, in preparation for Mike and Kitty to permanently move to Florida. Three boxes of Mina's personal diaries going back 35 years tell a story that none of the kids (or even Mike much of the time) has any clue was going on in the Block household. As a result, Doug and the audience must re-examine their opinions about all the players here.

Seeing Mike smile and openly affectionate with Kitty (something he never was with Mina) is a telling sign, but what exactly is it telling? Mina's diaries answer most of these questions, and reveal the sad and desperate tale of a suburban housewife who feels trapped more by the times and what is expected of her than by her husband and children. Mike was a sweet, attentive man. Mina was a passionate artist who never got a chance to really explore her creative outlets, and this made her miserable. It doesn't take long to understand that Mike was a quiet, unresponsive father because he was so unhappy that his wife was suffering. His relationship with Kitty is far more complicated and difficult to define than any affair would be.

What Block does here is sketch out one of the most complete looks at the way a generation would bury their secrets, troubles and frustration because doing anything else would simply be too humiliating. The experience causes Doug to look at his own marriage and wonder just how happy his wife is. The answer is not what he expects. And perhaps the most unexpected outcome of the entire endeavor is that Doug and his father grow closer than they ever have before, naturally just as Mike is leaving for Florida to live out the rest of his days with a woman whom he might have been better off with decades earlier.

51 Birth Street is a work of quiet, but no less powerful, discoveries. But more than that, it is a movie that may inspire you to take inventory of the memories you have of your own upbringing and make you wonder how your children may one day look back at you. As if you didn't have enough to worry about, right?


Princesas

Director Fernando Leon de Aranoa (Mondays in the Sun) is one of the darker and more personal filmmakers of his generation in Spain, and his latest work may be his finest. Princesas is set in the world of Madrid prostitutes. And while this is not your typical tale of vicious pimps, dangerous tricks and the threat of STDs (although most of these elements are featured here), this movie is more about an unlikely pair of friends who look out for each other and inadvertently become best friends.

The riveting Candela Pena (Take My Eyes; All About My Mother) plays Caye, a seasoned veteran of the street who is obsessed with getting her breasts enlarged because she is convinced bigger boobs mean more business. She and her fellow slightly higher-end hookers (they seem to do more business by appointment than simply walking the street) gather at a local beauty parlor and mock the ever-growing number of immigrant women who have come to Madrid from the Caribbean, South America and Africa, and are taking their business away with cheaper prices. Among the most beautiful of these newcomers is the drop-dead gorgeous Zulema (played by first-time Puerto Rican actress Micaela Nevarez), who is sending most of her money to her son back home. When Zulema inadvertently takes away a client from Caye, Caye wakes up the next morning to find part of the money taped her door in apology.

The two almost slip into friendship without realizing it. They just talk a lot, and hang out in places where Caye's other prostitute friends won't see them (she doesn't yet want them to know she's friends with the competition). There is a brutal customer of Zulema's who promises to get her the proper papers to allow her to stay and work in Spain, but when she calls his bluff and asks him to produce the long-promised documents, he beats and rapes her. Caye, on the other hand, longs for a real boyfriend to love. She meets a likely candidate in an attentive computer programmer named Manuel (Luis Callejo), but she dreads him finding out the truth about her life (much as she fears her family finding out). There's a scene in which the two are in a fancy restaurant and Caye is recognized by an old client, who approaches her for a quickie in the women's room.

Both woman share similar goals in life, and naturally neither wants to continue with their current lifestyle. But their common miseries lead to a unique bonding experience and small but significant changes in their paths. Princesas gives us two worthy character studies in a film that shows us a part of Madrid life not often shown in movies, with a story that is light on plot but heavy on gripping drama. The film opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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