Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

25 November 2006

Babel / Casino Royale

I quite liked Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu's meditation on language barriers and the small (and large) tragedies that can result from our inabilities to communicate with one another. The story, as with Iñárritu's previous two films (Amores Perros and 21 Grams) is told in smaller sections that (supposedly) add up to a whole. This is the director's technique, and he seems not to want to stray from it, so while Babel may be the most accomplished of these three features, it still feels in a lot of ways like a re-tread of Amores Perros. To be fair, Babel is told on a much larger scale than the other two films: Iñárritu is dealing here with global questions of language and communication. The film follows four separate stories, each revolving around a single rifle. The storyline furthest removed from the bullet is the tale of a young deaf girl in Japan who is dealing with her grief over her mother's suicide (murder?) and her sexuality. This story, which has the least to do with the meta-narrative was, for me, the most moving of the four tales, although I found each of them deeply affecting.
The problem with Babel, though, is not the power of the narrative(s), but Iñárritu's storytelling method, which feels old hat. It also suffers in the writing. Guillermo Arriaga, who also wrote the scripts for the other two films (as well as last year's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), deals with exposition with no perceptible skill. He spends so much time obfuscating the truth of the narrative contained in the film, that when a truth comes to light, instead of it being revealed with quiet realization, it hits the audience like an egg hitting a stretch of pavement: interesting until the journey ends. Each of Iñárritu's little revelations comes across in this way as boring. By the time we find out what we wanted to know, we no longer care. Each bit of exposition is revealed as late in the game as possible and each time it happens, the audience asks itself why it wasn't told that earlier. So his filmic technique only half-works. He hides the truth for most of the time, cutting back and forth between his storylines, artificially preventing the characters from saying things they normally would, delivering things out of sequence. But this technique, while building suspense, gets in the way of the story being told. He cannot serve the story of Babel because he is too busy stylizing it.
The acting in the film, though, is uniformly good, with a beautiful performance from Brad Pitt (who I always think is good, but who, I'm well aware, has his detractors.)

The new James Bond film, Casino Royale is some kind of prequel, after having already had twenty Bond films: a kind of Bond Begins (everyone wants to be what Christopher Nolan is to the Batman franchise). I liked it for the most part, though I had a few huge complaints. Daniel Craig is great and he's gorgeous and cool. He makes Bond his own immediately and I never thought of Clive Owen once.
The movie is too damn long, of course--most mainstream movies are these days. This is a huge problem for the film, especially since cut between acts two and three is this ludicrous romance sequence that rings totally false and is completely out of keeping with the rest of the film. I cannot articulate the complete boredom and hollowness of this sequence. At some point I had my head in my hands and I was chanting "make it stop, make it stop."
Judi Dench is awesome, of course, though she's sort of too-much-of-a-good-thing. The movie is already too long and there are far too many scenes with her. The principle is this: if Judi Dench is onscreen, there aren't any bullets flying. I love her, but I'm at Casino Royale because I want to see an action movie.
Act two is problematic too, mostly because it centers around a 45-minute poker game. Instead of fighting or spying or doing reconnoissance, Bond is at a poker table in Montenegro playing—of all things—Texas Hold 'em. This is the second-most preposterous thing about the film. Maybe I don't understand international gambling trends, but does the international jetset really play Texas Hold 'em? The popularity of this game continues to baffle me. Poker has so many more infinitely interesting variations that a 10-million dollar tournament of Texas Hold 'em seems to me a truly ludicrous suggestion. It also sort of undermines the whole fighting-the-bad-guys thing by making war into a PG-13 game. I mean, instead of showing men dying in real war, Casino Royale abstracts war into so many diamonds, clubs and spades. I love what Joe Morgenstern said in his review: "If only Al Qaeda could be done in by a full house." It's silly.
Nevertheless, I kind of enjoyed it. I don't see action movies very frequently, so while I can intellectually pick it apart, I did have rather a good time. I mean, I sat in the dark and leered at Daniel Craig and made fun of the silly film conventions and laughed at some of the witty bits of writing. It was mildly fun as these things go. My companions were less forgiving. One even said that he liked the action in M:I:3 better.
Oh yeah, and the theme song for Casino Royale (written and performed by Chris Cornell) is truly awful.