DVD Review HTF Review: Casa de los Babys

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Jason Perez, Apr 1, 2004.

  1. Jason Perez

    Jason Perez Second Unit

    Jul 6, 2003
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    Casa de los Babys

    Studio: MGM
    Year: 2003
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 95 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
    Subtitles: English, and Spanish
    Audio: English & Spanish – Dolby Digital 5.1

    Release Date:
    April 20th, 2004

    Casa de los Babys, the fourteenth film from renown independent writer-director-editor John Sayles, is an attempt to delve into both the psychology behind women’s desire to become mothers and the social/economic implications of Americans adopting children from other countries. The film, made in traditional Sayles style (cheap and relatively quickly), was shot on a shoestring budget over a four-week period in Acapulco, Mexico, and tells the story of six Caucasian women from various parts of the U.S. who have journeyed to Latin America to adopt children. Although the particular country is never revealed, these women end up being housed in the same hotel, dubbed Casa de los Babys by the locals, while they wait for the adoption process to run its course.

    Unfortunately, the adoptions prove to be more lengthy and difficult than these six ladies had anticipated, and frustrations set in as their stay is extended. Indeed, each woman becomes emotionally tested, in one way or another, by the requirement that residency of at least two months be established before adoptions can be finalized, the bureaucratic requirements in general, and the culture shock they experience while waiting. Ultimately, being exposed to value systems so different from those they have become accustomed to, and being in such close proximity to other “competitors” for babies, dredges up each woman’s emotional baggage.

    Indeed, though they all hail from America, the six would-be mothers are a very diverse lot, and are pursuing adoption for different reasons. For instance, Skipper (Daryl Hannah), a woman from Colorado who exercises almost fanatically, is hoping to adopt the child that she is physically incapable of having. The second member of the group, named Leslie (Lily Taylor), is a single woman who works for a large publishing firm in New York. Leslie’s deal is that she wants a child without the physical trauma, and perhaps the intimacy, that getting pregnant and carrying to term entails. What a novel idea! Really, why deal with a messy pregnancy to deliver your own offspring when you can raise someone else’s as your own? I can see adopting children if the couple/individual cannot conceive, but this???

    The third member of the sextet, Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a wealthy woman who seems to be relatively happily married, but is also medically unable to conceive a child. Interestingly, despite already having reached this stage of the adoption process, she is quite possibly the most neurotic woman in the group, and at times appears unsure if she even wants to raise a child.

    Next up is the obnoxious, borderline-racist Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), resident witch of the “Casa”, who becomes disliked by the hotel’s owner, Señora Muñoz (Rita Moreno), for her incessant complaining, her superiority complex, and her badgering of a local lawyer (who she believes is sitting on the adoption paperwork). It turns out that she put off having a baby for too long (her career was too important), and is now unable to conceive. This is probably for the best though, as she has some really screwed up ideas about parenthood.

    The fifth guest at the hotel is named Gayle (Mary Steenburgen), a recovering alcoholic who wisely elected to put off childrearing until she could free herself from the bottle. Like some of the others, her ability to conceive and carry a baby is questionable, so she is seeking to adopt. Last, but not least, is Eileen (Susan Lynch), a pleasant woman of Irish ancestry whose strong desire to give a child a loving home far exceeds her ability to afford it. Ironically, although she is the least financially capable of raising a child, she would probably make the best mother out of this motley crew of women.

    Sayles brings this cinematic stew to a slow boil, allowing the audience to get a taste of the poverty that the Latin people are living in, their attitudes towards the United States, and the emotionally trying nature of these women’s stay at the Casa de los Babys. Over the course of this film, he makes it very clear that these women are not friends. Rather, they are merely passing time with one another because circumstances have brought them into close contact, and the cultural/linguistic barriers they face prohibit them from relating with almost any of the locals in a meaningful way.

    Like most of Sayles’ other films, Casa de Los Babys is a “talky” piece, which presents his characters’ viewpoints and advances the story through conversations between them. To be more specific, the prospective mothers chat with each other, expressing their desire for motherhood, and venting their frustration at the red tape surrounding the adoption process. Similarly, the locals converse with each other, or just ponder aloud, their feelings about the American imperialism they believe is responsible for the dire economic conditions in their country. In this regard, Sayles’ themes are also consistent with those present in many of his other works...namely the presentation of his perception of “the truth” about relationships or complex topics, without the traditional glossing over done by most big Hollywood productions unwilling to risk offending anyone. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything Sayles says, I’ve got to give him credit for sticking to his guns, and putting difficult ideas out there.

    The film does not consist entirely of conversations though, as Sayles also uses street scenes, some involving a very young homeless boy, to paint a very clear picture of the horrible conditions most of the townspeople live in, and how difficult jobs are to come by. The exceptions, like Señora Muñoz, rely on the steady stream of prospective foreign mothers/tourists to sustain their businesses, so they endeavor to accommodate foreigners as best they can, irrespective of their feelings towards them. Others, like her son Búho (Juan Carlos Vives), who considers himself a revolutionary, would like nothing more than to harm the “touristas”, thus striking a symbolic blow against the economic imperialism they hold the United States accountable for. Ironically, as his mother points out, Búho needs the pittance he earns as the hotel maintenance man to provide for his own survival, and the job to keep him from going back to jail, so his thirst for violence goes unquenched.

    As you can see, Casa de los Babys treats with some difficult subjects, none of which have easy answers to them. Indeed, throughout the film, Mr. Sayles tries to hammer home ideas and issues that most people would rather not face. In my opinion, however, he just doesn’t leave himself enough screen time to do it effectively, especially with so many storylines to deal with. More specifically, at only 95 minutes, this film is about half an hour leaner than the “typical” John Sayles film, which is just not long enough to develop any of the six main characters, or treat with these complex issues, to a level I consider satisfactory.

    Instead, merely a broad personality trait or two characterizes each woman, and film is over before it is possible to really develop a true understanding of any of them. The abundance of supporting characters and subplots that compete for time, including the aforementioned sad story of the homeless boy, and the tale of a pregnant 15-year-old girl forced to give her unborn child up for adoption, make it that much more difficult for Sayles to flesh out his leading ladies appropriately. Yes, these characters are intriguing, and their stories are sad on the surface, but ultimately each subplot is treated with so briefly that there is very little emotional payoff.

    I will not argue that Casa de los Babys is not a powerful film, but I can’t help but feel the usually brilliant Sayles did not give the audience enough of an opportunity to really care about the main characters, and thus get his messages across more fluidly. At least the performances are good across the board, and I think it is to the performers’ credit that they are able to achieve so much, despite being given precious little to do. Susan Lynch is particularly wonderful as Eileen, and Lili Taylor brings a bit of levity to this otherwise serious tale. Each of the other actresses – Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, and Maggie Gyllenhaal – also turn in performances that far outshine the material they are given to work with.

    On a more positive note, however, the film looks splendid from a technical standpoint, thanks to cinematographer Maurizio Rubinstein. Moreover, Mason Daring’s awesome Latin-flavored score really sets an appropriate mood, and the sourced music is equally wonderful. I only wish that the film’s content were as pleasing as it’s sights and sounds, if that makes any sense. As I stated earlier, it is clear (in my mind at least) that Casa de los Babys has a scope so massive that Sayles could not develop it completely. As a result, the main characters get buried beneath a mountain of issues and questions that Sayles raises during sequences that do not involve them.

    While Casa de los Babys is not a complete failure, I could not subdue the feeling that Sayles missed an opportunity to make this film something more poignant, more focused, and more memorable, for all the reasons I have listed above. Most troubling to me was that the film seemed unfinished, filled with both ideas and characters that are left in limbo. Considering the excellence of John Sayles’ previous body of work, Casa de los Babys has to be regarded as somewhat of a disappointment.

    Presented by MGM in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), Casa de los Babys looks lovely, especially considering the film’s budget. Shot on location in Acapulco, Mexico, the city’s varied architecture and beachfronts are reproduced precisely, and Maurizio Rubinstein’s cinematography is just as easily to appreciate as it was in the tiny Santa Monica, CA movie theater I saw this in!

    In terms of specifics, colors are well rendered, with clean whites, bold primary colors, and flesh tones all appearing much like they should. Blacks are dark and well defined as well, giving the image a three-dimensional appearance and outstanding shadow delineation. Fine detail is also above average, and since the production is recent, the image is generally as clean as a whistle.

    Finally, though edge enhancement halos are visible on light/dark transitions, I really had to look hard for them, and they are not a persistent problem. As such, I do not believe that they will detract from Casa de los Babys’ visuals. Better still, at no time did I notice compression artifacts. All in all, this is a fine effort by MGM, which will allow viewers to focus their attention where it should be – on the film.

    Casa de los Babys features a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which is not spectacular but certainly does the film justice. Since most of the story unfolds via dialogue between the characters, the mix is not terribly aggressive or dynamic, but it gets the job done. Specifically, dialogue is presented in a crystal clear fashion, free from disturbing anomalies. Further, although the soundstage is not as deep or spacious as what might be found on most current titles, the score by Mason Daring (and sourced music) is still reproduced quite effectively.

    In terms of surround and .1 channel use, there really is not too much to speak of, but since it isn’t in the source material I can’t lodge any complaints. As one might expect, the rears and sub provide some subtle reinforcement of the music in the film, or add some ambience to some of the outdoor scenes, but that is about it. I suppose it is important to remember that this film was shot (and recorded) quickly and cheaply though. Keeping that in mind, Casa de los Babys sounds pretty good in the home.


    Audio Commentary
    Writer/Director/Editor/jack-of-all-trades John Sayles provides a subdued but extremely informative feature-length commentary for his latest film, Casa de los Babys. I can’t say Sayles is the most exciting person to listen to, but I have enjoyed and appreciated his previous commentaries for the sheer volume of information he provides, and this one is no exception. Some of the highlights included:

    --- Mr. Sayles discussing how production was completed in and around Acapulco in a mere four weeks.

    --- The opening scene in the film required three groups of 20 babies to shoot, since the children had to appear tranquil during the entire sequence.

    --- Sayles discusses in some detail how the film was shot on 16mm stock, then edited using digital technology, and finally transferred back onto film stock.

    If you liked this film in the least, you will definitely want to give this track a listen. [​IMG]

    The Making of Casa de los Babys
    This “Making Of” featurette, which runs for over 23 minutes, consists of interviews with the principal cast, key members of the crew, and John Sayles himself, commingled with scenes from the film and behind-the-scenes footage. During the interviews, each individual, particularly Sayles, offers a lot of insight into the mentality of the characters in the film, the cultural issues that are interwoven into the picture, and the reasons the relationships between the women in the film are fraught with tension.

    I also found Producer Alejandro Springall’s appearance interesting, as he briefly discussed why Acapulco was chosen as the setting for the film. And finally, each of the film’s six stars (seven if you count Rita Moreno) discusses John Sayles’ directorial approach, the quality of the script, and how much fun they had staying together during the four weeks in which the film was shot.

    Beyond Borders
    Directed by Bruno de Almeida, this 29-minute featurette contains behind-the-scenes footage and material shot on location in Acapulco, Mexico which provides still more insight into the film, especially the cultural issues it deals with. Several crewmembers also provide their thoughts on what this film means, including Felipe Fernandez (Production Designer), Maurizio Rubinstein (Director of Photography), and Alejandro Springall (Producer). Unfortunately, some of their comments are directly ported over from the “Making Of” featurette.

    Later, the principal cast offers some more insight into the film, as well as their thoughts on John Sayles, and what it was that drew each of them to the project. As is the case with the crew’s interviews, some of their comments are recycled from the “Making Of” featurette.

    Last, but not least, John Sayles offers a lot of insight into the development of the story, and his inspiration for it. He also talks a lot about the various aspects of the production, and some of the more subtle messages he is trying to impart on the audience. Finally, Mr. Sayles offers his thoughts on the amazing Rita Moreno in Spanish (which he speaks fairly well – for a “gringo”! [​IMG] )

    On Location With John Sayles
    Also directed by Bruno de Almeida, this nearly 24-minute featurette contains even more on-set and location footage, as well as some rather annoying rap music (in Spanish). Basically, this extra continues along the same lines as the other two, with the cast and crew offering insight into various aspects of the production, and John Sayles talking about the general lack of interest most Americans seem to have in other cultures. He also addresses the poverty that has affected millions throughout Latin America, and the social/psychological implications of American people adopting children from other nations.

    Trailers and Promotional Materials
    The original theatrical trailer and a soundtrack spot for Casa de los Babys are included, as well as:

    --- Trailers for Camp, Manic, and Touching the Void

    --- Cover art for 11 more MGM releases, including Brother From Another Planet, Return of the Secaucus 7, and Eight Men Out


    (on a five-point scale)
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    Audio: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Extras: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Overall: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    If anything, casa de los Babys[/b] shows that John Sayles has strong opinions (and a lot to say) about the social politics of Americans adopting Latin American children, and about the economic state of the impoverished Latin countries. Unfortunately, 95 minutes is just not enough time to deal with it all in a way that allows everything to resonate. Though Sayles is known for leaving his films open-ended, it serves as a distraction in Casa de los Babys, as there are way too many storylines and issues that are left unresolved. As a result of this, and the intrusion of subplots into the main storyline, many of the women in Casa de los Babys are unsubstantial and incomplete characterizations, instead of being fully realized people that a viewer can identify with/care about.

    While Casa de los Babys is not John Sayles’ best work, the disc is sound, from a technical standpoint. To be more precise, this DVD features pleasing images and sound, as well as a wealth of insightful bonus features, including an audio commentary and three informative (but slightly redundant) featurettes.

    In the final analysis, like most John Sayles films, Casa de los Babys is challenging viewing, and not for everyone. Further, this film is one of Sayles’ lesser efforts, so even though it still has some value, and causes viewers to think about some deep issues, I find myself hard pressed to give it an outright recommendation. With that being said, I will weasel out of this one by saying that if this motion picture sounds like your cup of tea, the DVD should provide a satisfactory experience!

    Stay tuned…
  2. Marc Colella

    Marc Colella Cinematographer

    Jun 19, 1999
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    Thanks for the review.

    I'll check this one out, as I'm a big fan of John Sayles.
  3. SteveGon

    SteveGon Executive Producer

    Dec 11, 2000
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    Ditto that. A surprising amount of extras as well.
  4. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

    Nov 3, 2003
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    Jason's take on the movie sounds similar to mine when I saw it in the theaters. Some interesting stuff there, probably worth seeing, but not a great success overall. I thought Sayles' previous effort, Sunshine State, was definitely more involving.

    Sounds like a great DVD for Casa de los Babys, though. Now when are we going to get an SE, with Sayles commentary and some docs, for Lone Star, one of my favorite movies of the last decade?

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