Casa de Los Babys

Posted on October 3, 2003 at 5:12 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Child substance abuse, drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, strong women
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

John Sayles is not going to make it easy for you.

He is much more interested than questions than answers. Sayles is the ultimate “on the other hand” guy, which may make for more thoughtful understanding but which is difficult to translate to film, a medium better suited to the dynamic, the opinionated, and the one-sided.

Most directors try to grab you. But from the matter-of-fact opening of “Casa de los Babys”, showing an unspecified Latin American city waking up with people coming down from the hills to work and the street urchins beginning to stir, director John Sayles gently tugs on your sleeve.

One of the most prolific of American directors, Sayles has a knack for bringing together complex characters, a sense of history, and subtly revealed longings to create a photo album of being human onto which the audience can project its own conclusions. Here, with an ambitious kaleidoscope of images to coordinate, Sayles does the directorial equivalent of tossing them all into a shoe box to let the characters –- and the audience -— sort them out. The end result is a handful of memorable scenes amidst a jumble of vignettes that never quite feel like a story.

The camera cuts between six visitors and several locals, as their lives cross in that unnamed Latin American city. The visitors are American women, come to adopt local babies and waiting out the months of paperwork, isolated by language. They have nothing in common except for the one thing that matters more to them than anything else. They are together by necessity and get to know one another with a traveler’s intimacy, fully aware they are unlikely to ever meet again, and maybe a little relieved about it.

They represent a spectrum of personalities, from the world-weary Leslie (Lili Taylor) to the childlike Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), each there for the same reason — a child — and yet each for different reasons, with different dreams.

With one simple scene where she mutely inspects a doll, Nan (Marcia Gay Harden, Oscar winner for Pollock) shifts from tense future soccer mom to truly sinister suburbanite with an understated psychosis reminiscent of Annie Wilkes (Cathy Bates in Misery) on a bad day. Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is a study in bland normality, attending AA meetings despite the language barrier, while Skipper (Daryl Hannah) is a soft-spoken exercise addict, using her incessant workouts as penance for her inability to have children. Susan Lynch gives a stand-out performance as the down-to-earth and sweetly natural Eileen, who is rapidly running out of money for her stay.

The limbo which these women occupy is a peaceful hotel enclave decorated in light pinks and populated by more staff than guests. The hotel is run by Sra. Munoz, a stern vision in coiffure and heavy jewelry played by the always impressive Rita Moreno (West Side Story). She has her own maternal concerns — her revolution-minded son, recently released from jail for starting fires is talking alarmingly about the parasitic capitalists who come to snatch babies from local women.

While the Americans wait for their promised babies to be relinquished by the stork of bureaucracy, the audience gets to know some of the locals, including one of the hotel maids whose youth belies her responsibility as household head, and a young girl whose pregnancy rests in the hands of a forceful mother, intent on putting the baby up for adoption. A homeless little boy, trying each day to scratch out enough money to buy spray paint to inhale with his two brothers, dashes in and out of the street scenes and adds one of the movie’s more disturbingly lovely shots as he lies on the beach at night with his cherubic features smudged with gold paint and watches the falling stars.

Sayles wants to keep you off balance, never letting you root for any character for more than a few minutes. Is it wrong to have the country’s primary export be its babies? Is it more wrong to leave the babies where they are and let them grow up to be homeless? There are some beautifully written scenes, especially Gyllenhaal on the phone with her husband and the exquisite dialogue between the young maid and Eileen, connecting despite language.

Parents should know that the movie contains strong language in both Spanish and English, and mature themes. The young boys live in extreme poverty, are addicted to paint sniffing, and support themselves by begging and stealing. One of the adult characters lies and steals from the hospitality cart at the hotel. Discussions between characters cover topics including infant illness, medical procedures for fertility and sexual orientation. A character is an alcoholic. Two characters are encouraged if not forced to put their babies up for adoption.

Families who see this film should discuss the different worlds that people are living in within the same hotel. The man at the fort who explains some of the city’s history is desperately trying to leave his country for Philadelphia. Movies directed by Sayles often have history as a theme. Why does history matter so much to the character of the desperate tour guide? Why would Sayles introduce this character in a movie about the “house of the babies”? Characters in this movie have to decide how much they can do to address the problems they see. Families might want to discuss one’s existential response to the question of what to do about an unfit mother: “Be really good mothers to ours.”

Families who enjoyed this movie might wish to see other John Sayles films including The Return of the Secaucus Seven (which is said to have inspired The Big Chill). For those who enjoy Susan Lynch’s performance, Waking Ned Devine is a wickedly funny little movie. One of Francois Truffaut’s best films is Small Change, a lovely and touching film about children.

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Mystic River

Posted on October 1, 2003 at 12:53 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Violence and tense scenes, dead body, murders
Diversity Issues: Strong African-American character
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

“Looks like damaged goods to me,” says a character at the beginning of this movie, and that could refer to everyone we will meet in a story that explores the impact of an unbearable tragedy on two generations in a community bounded by the river of the title.

It wants to be a big, serious movie. It has big, serious star power and big, serious themes. There are moments of power and flickers of meaning but it is ultimately hollow and unsatisfying.

Three men are forever bound to each other by something that happened when they were children. Jimmy, Sean, and Dave were playing street hockey and writing their names in wet cement when a man got out of a car, flashed a badge, and then told just one of them — Dave — to get in the back of the car. The man was not a cop. He was a pedophile. He and another man molested Dave for four days until he ran away.

As adults, Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins), and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are no longer friends but they have stayed in the same neighborhood and are always aware of each other. They are brought back together by another devastating loss, the murder of Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossem).

Sean is the police detective assigned to the case, along with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne). Dave and his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) provide comfort and support to Jimmy’s family after Katie’s death.

As Jimmy and Sean both use whatever resources they have to find out what happened to Katie, the past pulls at them.

The characters and their stories grow more and more tangled, like strands of seaweed swept by strong current.

A lifetime of history in the same place has all of the characters overlapping, intersecting, and echoing each other’s lives. Katie’s boyfriend has a brother who is mute. Sean has an estranged wife who calls him but cannot bring herself to speak. Other characters speak, but not about the things that tear at them. Or they speak, but they lie. Three wives must respond to their husbands’ involvement in terrible deeds. A child loses a parent and a parent loses a child. We see the sacred (Bacon’s character is named Devine) and the profane (Jimmy’s hoodlum buddies are the Savage brothers). The names are another indicator of the movie’s heavy-handedness.

Jimmy and Sean, like characters from an old James Cagney/Pat O’Brien movie, are boyhood friends who ended up on opposite sides, one cop, one ex-con with strong ties to unsavory characters. Each struggles in his own way with survivor guilt over not being the one who got in the molester’s car and with a resulting sense of what it takes to achieve justice. Each struggles with the attempt to find meaning after an incident with such a sense of randomness and such devastating consequences. Dave struggles with his sense of himself as “the boy who escaped from the wolves” but who never really escaped. In one of the movie’s most chilling moments, he tells his wife that he was no longer himself after the assault and that “once it’s in you, it — stays.”

Director and jazz fan Clint Eastwood plays his big, showy cast like a jazz ensemble, giving each one a chance to step forward for a spotlight moment. Rossem’s brief appearance makes her character’s death a wrenching loss. Robbins, Harden, Robbins, Laura Linney, and Penn are each given a moment to step forward and pull out all the stops. This is a cast that can deliver the goods in the big moments, but at other times the performances feel condescending, as though the actors have to work hard to play characters who are not as smart as they are. At the end it is all about the show, not the substance, and these themes and these stories deserve better.

Parents should know that the movie has graphic violence, including murders. While some of the violence and the child molestation occur off-screen, the depictions are still deeply disturbing. Characters drink and smoke a great deal and use very strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about the way that even people who are not directly victims of tragic events can be as haunted by them as those who are. They should also talk about the way that different characters in the movie think about justice.

Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate The Shawshank Redemption.

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