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“Babel,” the new “Crash”

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: Paramount Vantage, 2006]

It’s the scariest time of the year, and not only because of the healthy release of arterial spray in “Saw III.” Yes, Oscar season is upon us, where Hollywood’s self-important social conscience rears its bloated head for a few looks toward relevance. After the embarrassing Best Picture victory for “Crash” (the funniest movie of 05), the question arises of what “issue” film will bear the middlebrow crown of improbable success this year: Philip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire,” Ed Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” and Todd Field’s “Little Children” all have (or did have) a shot, but the film best positioned to repeat “Crash”‘s success is “Babel,” Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga’s latest multi-character network narrative. Iñárritu won the Best Director prize at Cannes, and Rex Reed has already deemed it a masterpiece. With the wrinkly visage of Brad Pitt, a seemingly resonant theme about inter-cultural miscommunication and the imprimatur of two hip Mexican auteurs, the Academy will adore it. Put it in the pantheon!

Unfortunately, it’s a massive failure as a film, despite being markedly better than “Crash.” Director Iñárritu and screenwriter Arriaga have cornered the market on the multiple overlapping stories structure ever since “Amores Perros” racked up festival awards in 2000. They’ve suffered diminishing returns since, with the flaccid “21 Grams” and now the dispiriting “Babel.” This latest film takes place in four countries and follows four different tales. Cate Blanchett is accidentally shot on a vacation in Morocco with her husband Brad Pitt; the two young shooters are chased across the desert by local police; in California Blanchett’s children are being watched by a nanny (Adriana Barraza) who takes them to her son’s wedding in Mexico; and a teenage girl, Chieko, (Rinko Kikuchi) mourns the death of her mother in Japan by rebelling against her morose father (Koji Yakusho).

The first three stories are directly linked, in plot and theme: they are concerned with the barriers of language and borders, and the violence rendered because of them. Pitt calls for medical help, no one comes, the nanny tries to reason with the Border Patrol, tragedy awaits. The fourth section’s narrative connection is tangential and revealed late in the film, and is also thematically separated, as Chieko represses her grief at the loss of her mother and channels it into acts of reckless sexuality. There’s no border of language or nation — just that old sentimental saw “the borders of the heart.”

It starts off well enough in the Pitt-Blanchett segment, the arbitrariness of violence framed by two bored Moroccan youths just shooting a little target practice. Inside of the bus where Blanchett is felled, a genuine sense of panic erupts as dust-caked Pitt rages impotently at uncomprehending passersby. Here the theme is organic to the action — something which becomes increasingly rare as the film rolls on. Arriaga and Iñárritu soon privilege grand statements over believable human behavior. As the shooting steamrolls into an international incident, “Babel” descends into self-parody (spoilers ahead).

Gael García Bernal, the nanny’s nephew, races past customs into the U.S. (because the guard was getting a little pushy) and dumps Barraza and the two children by the side of the road. This gives Iñárritu the opportunity to barrage the viewer with low-angle slo-mo shots of Barraza tottering in the desert sun, wailing and looking for the presumably starving kids. It’s completely over-the-top and a huge tonal shift from the relative social realism of the rest of the segment. Here action services theme, but what use is it if it detaches itself from the world we live in? The characters become automatons acting out rote scenarios (there’s no time to add depth with all of the cross-cutting) so Iñárritu can film garishly nihilist climaxes to prove his rather trite point — which runs something like: Rich Americans are miserable, Moroccan kids are miserable, Mexicans are miserable, and the Japanese are miserable and tremendously horny. Note the lack of elaboration — it’s the filmmakers’ fault, not mine.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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