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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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