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HTF HD-DVD Review: Babel



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#1 of 5 PatWahlquist

PatWahlquist

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Posted February 11 2007 - 04:02 AM


Babel (HD-DVD)

Studio: Paramount Home Video
Rated: R
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus, French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1
Subtitles: English; Spanish; French; English SDH
Time: 143 minutes
Disc Format: 1 SS/DL HD-DVD
Case Style: Keep case
Theatrical Release Date:2006
HD-DVD Release Date: February 20, 2007


A seemingly minor gift sparks a worldwide calamity touching the lives of several families in different and tragic ways in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel. The story interweaves four separate stories into a much larger, international picture that uses the concept of the biblical Babel as a reference. In the Bible, a tower is built by humanity to reach toward heaven and the creator. God is angered, and he makes all the people speak different languages to confuse and separate them as punishment. We disconnected citizens, separated by the miles and words, now must work harder to strive for harmony among one another and achieve some form of communication.

The four stories go like this:
-In a small Moroccan village, a man buys a rifle from another man who received it as a gift from a Japanese hunter. The new owner’s sons begin playing with the gun trying to see if it can attain the firing ranges the seller claimed it could. As a tourist bus winds through the desert, the youngest boy fires, seemingly not hitting anything.
-A fractured man and wife, Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), reeling from the loss of a child and the damage it caused, travel through Morocco on a tour bus. As Susan dozes on the bus, she is suddenly hit in the neck by a bullet. The tour bus is diverted to the guide’s small village to await interaction with the American embassy and medical treatment.
-Two young, American children await the return of their parents who are traveling abroad. Their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adrianna Barraza) is asked by their father to stay with the children as he and his wife are unable to make it home. Amelia tells him she is unable to do this since her son is getting married the next day in Mexico and she has to attend. The father says she must stay as there is no way he and his wife can get home. Amelia makes the decision to take the children, illegally, with her to Mexico. Her unpredictable nephew, Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) is their transport, and he does not do well with alcohol or border guards.
-Eager to explore her sexuality, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) flirts with the boys by flashing her pantyless crotch to attract their attention. As they quickly flock to her, they are just as quickly turned off by her deafness. Cheiko and her father, Yasujiro (Koji Yakusho) are haunted by memories and the police due to her mother’s death a few years earlier. She even makes an attempt to seduce one of the police when she calls him to her apartment. While there, the cop notices a picture of Yasujiro on a hunt in Morocco holding a very familiar rifle.

The tagline to this picture is “Listen”, but I contend you need to watch just as much since each of the actors do exceptionally subtle physical performances as: Pitt in his weathered make-up, Blancehett writhing in pain and fright, Kikuchi in her sexual expressiveness. There is a shot with Amelia and the children in the desert where the camera holds on some high clouds in the blue sky. We can easily understand the similarities in human conditions and emotions and that this sky blankets all of us equally. It has no concern or care for our petty little squabbles and it will go on if we’re here or not. The movie reinforces this in our emotional responses to situations in that we feel for each of the characters equally since we can feel their pain and suffering. This feeling is not challenged by the inherent roadblocks of language or culture.

Babel is currently riding high on a wave of Oscar nominations, but I question whether the picture would have got the same attention had it been released any other time of year. As much as I liked the picture for its messages, Pitt and Blancehett stick out like big Hollywood sore thumbs and their star power tries to detract from the rest of the excellent ensemble cast (specifically Kikuchi and Barraza, neither neglected by the Academy). I get the distinct impression Pitt and Blanchett told their agents to find them an Oscar worthy role by an up and coming director, and thus, Babel. This is not to slight Innaritu by any means since it is his partial story and picture, but he deserved better than that. Innaritu is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors and I hope he maintains his focus as his popularity grows. What an exceptional year for several Hispanic directors (Innaritu, Almodovar, Del Toro and Cuaron): these four men and their pictures (specifically Cuaron’s Children of Men was my favorite picture of last year) show me all is not lost in modern cinema.



Video:
Note: I am watching this title using a Marantz VP 12-S4 DLP projector, which has a native resolution of 720p. I am using a Toshiba HD-A1 for a player and utilizing the HDMI capabilities of both units.

The picture is in MPEG 4-AVC, encoded at 1080p and it appears to be properly framed at 1.85:1. Innaritu and his director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto, used varying film stocks and lenses for the four different stories: 16mm in Morocco, 35mm for Mexico and anamorphic 35mm for Tokyo. Due to this, the video image tends to fluctuate depending on which setting the story is in: the Morocco scenes appear to have more grain, while the others are more saturated and smooth. This does not detract from the picture but it instead enhances the journey of the characters both emotionally and physically. Colors in the desert scenes are de-saturated to emphasize the heat and dirt of the locale. Morocco also displays orange, earthy tones while Mexico is more reds and browns, and Tokyo strays towards cool reddish purple and greens representing the modernism of the urban environment. Black levels are excellent showing good detail. I received the SD DVD with the HD one and I found the SD video to be lacking the detail and sharpness exhibited by its counterpart. The HD version is the preferred viewing experience.


Audio:
The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack is attained by a 5.1 analog connection.

I watched the movie with the DD+ 5.1 track engaged, and it provided an average experience. The movie does not make use of the surrounds except to offer some ambience to the outdoor scenes and the abrasiveness of the nightclub Cheiko visits towards the end of the movie. In that same scene, the sound is dampened to simulate what Cheiko’s aural world is like, and it provides for an interesting effect to the viewing experience. Voices are clear and natural overall, and the sound field remains balanced primarily in the front three channels. Bass effects are good and stand out in more when the musical cues come up.


Bonus Material:
What a disappointment! We only get the theatrical trailer (in HD, at least) and nothing else, not even some lousy bios.


Conclusions:
At it’s heart, Babel is a story of parents and children, similar to Innaritu’s previous films. It has a dynamite supporting cast that almost gets overpowered by the wattage of the two leads, but these supporters outstanding performances help to balance out the picture. The HD-DVD gives us a good presentation, but unfortunately, there are no significant extras. I hope to see a more elaborate special edition in the future.
ISO "Lost" ARG prints from Kevin Tong, Olly Moss, Eric Tan and Methane Studios.  PM me if you want to sell!

All reviews done on a Marantz VP11S1 1080p DLP projector.

Displays professionally calibrated by Gregg Loewen of Lion AV.

#2 of 5 Steven Burke

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Posted February 12 2007 - 02:16 AM

Pat is there any chance you might start giving these subsections a score out of 5 like the other reviews?

#3 of 5 PatWahlquist

PatWahlquist

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Posted February 12 2007 - 04:25 AM

I've always been hesitant to do that since there is no standard among the reviewers. My 3 may be another man's 4. I believe the written words should be descriptive enough to give the reader a good impression of what the material looks and sounds like.
ISO "Lost" ARG prints from Kevin Tong, Olly Moss, Eric Tan and Methane Studios.  PM me if you want to sell!

All reviews done on a Marantz VP11S1 1080p DLP projector.

Displays professionally calibrated by Gregg Loewen of Lion AV.

#4 of 5 Tim Glover

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Posted February 12 2007 - 05:41 AM

Nice review Pat....I look forward to finally getting the chance to see this soon! Posted Image

#5 of 5 Bryant Trew

Bryant Trew

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Posted February 12 2007 - 12:16 PM

Awesome, but the lack of any extras on this DVD is disgusting.
Matrix Reloaded isn't deep at all. It's a simple, rehashed concept dressed up in fancy words and designer outfits...

Real World: "I'm hungry as hell, so I'm going to run my ass down to Micky D's to get me a burger and fries."

Matrix 2: "I need sustenance, ergo, move I shall expeditiously...