Wednesday, February 23, 2011


The long and dying road

By Edward Copeland
Javier Bardem carries the weight of Biutiful upon his shoulders as if it's a crucifix — and with its excessive length and the multitude of burdens placed upon his character, it's a heavy cross to bear indeed.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful is not a particularly illuminating or enjoyable ride. My first exposure to the director was the great Amores Perros, but ever since he's seemed compelled to produce sado-masochistic viewing exercises for the moviegoer, usually in a jumbled chronology which worked magnificently in Amores Perros but did nothing in the way of aiding 21 Grams or, especially, that monument to ridiculousness, Babel, whose more than four-year-old review on these virtual pages by Josh R, much like Mary Richards, still can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.

González Iñárritu's usual collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, didn't work on Biutiful. While Arriaga's touch was crucial to Amores Perros as well to Tommy Lee Jones' neglected directing debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (though Arriaga did write 21 Grams and the nonsensical Babel), perhaps his input would have clarified Biutiful.

For Biutiful, González Iñárritu handles writing duties himself along with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone. For the most part, he tells its story chronologically for a change but like Babel (not in the sense of absurdity) it's overburdened with just too much plot. Call it kitchen sink filmmaking, because he includes everything.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a small-time criminal in Barcelona using illegal Chinese immigrants for his bosses to help make counterfeit high-end goods such as fake Gucci purses, but Uxbal cares and tries to find better living arrangements and work for the Chinese in a construction project he and his brother Tito (Eduard Fernández) are involved in. On top of that, they are selling the plot meant to bury the father they never knew, choosing to cremate him so they can take the cash.

Uxbal also has an estranged bipolar wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) who can't be depended on to take care of his son and daughter, especially his son who always is being punished as a bedwetter. Besides, she tends to sleep with Tito on the side. There's also some side business where Uxbal claims to read the thoughts of the recently passed and deliver it to their grieving relatives.

When his good intentions toward the Chinese go terribly awry and turn into a national, televised scandal, he has even more guilt on his plate and oh, I almost forgot, that blood Uxbal keeps pissing happens to because he's secretly dying of cancer, undergoing chemo on the sly and not losing a bit of that glorious mane of hair. Despite all these strains, Uxbal's No. 1 priority is securing the future of his children after he's gone.

Are you exhausted just reading a brief summary of the plot (and I left out quite a bit)? Imagine trying to sit through it. Bardem truly is the film's only saving grace, conveying more through his eyes and his face as to what Uxbal is going through than any of the overwrought plot mechanics ever could. We watch him go through the motions of all the other nonsense as we just bide time to his inevitable deathbed scene and it takes nearly two-and-a-half hours to get there, yet Bardem makes all the moments ring true for his character. It's just a chore getting there as good as he is.

When Uxbal breathes his last breaths, it came as a relief because I knew that both his suffering and mine had reached its end.

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aw, shucks...
I hope you also take the time, Copeland, when you're cheering yourself up with the Babel review (which I strongly suspect would have been even harsher and not even as thoughtful as Josh's work), to read all the way down and consider another point-of-view; come to think of it, part of the reason why I love the film is the way it presents us with differing, contrastiing, yet similar visions of life and encourages us to see through the eyes of others who are not ourselves and who, on the surface, do not live as we live or perhaps think as we think in some ways, yet still have to work their way out of the troubles and traps in life that are set either by themselves or others or a combination of both...I think it's riveting cinema (though not perfect; the 'desert apocalypse' scene bothers me on reflection) but you can keep your "ridiculous" if I can keep my "riveting"!

As for the film on this page, I'd have to see it again to write about it in any detail, but while I agree with you that it's overstuffed with plot/characters and probably too long, I think that it's a gripping and touching journey, with just enough humour to lessen the pain and make the sadness seem worth enduring...what it does well, it does 'biutifully' well and I'm glad I saw it!
Call Josh, me and the many other Babel detractors (of which there are many) crazy, but at some point, we do like to have rationality and logic in our movies unless they are the types where you aren't expected to such as a sci-fi extravaganza, etc. As for considering other opinions, that's fine, but you must remember that every opinion is valid because all opinions by their very nature are subjective. There is no right or wrong. You liked Babel and thought it was good. For you, that is the subjective truth. Josh and I though it was dull, ridiculous and defied logic. That is our subjective truth. None of us are wrong. People who get so bent out of shape over others who don't agree with them usually are too insecure in their opinion and they shouldn't be. Biutiful isn't bad (nowhere near Babel level). Bardem is very good, but it's slow as molasses and tries to stuff too many unnecessary things in it that distract from the essential story at its center.
Did I call you, or Josh, or any of the other Babel detractors (of which I am fully and painfully aware that there are many) crazy? Did I even imply that I thought this way? I hope not, because I do not - but feel free to attempt to give me an education in the concept of subjectivity if you think I need it - and I hope I'm not getting "bent out of shape" in an unreasonable or foolish or indulgent way, but simply making use of this excellent site of yours to put my case forward and hopefully get a reasoned and intelligent discussion going; I'm not attempting to 'educate' you to the 'right' way of thinking, but simply to enlighten you to MY way of thinking, even though I imagine we'll never agree about Babel; sorry if this annoys you...Call my response unnecessarily insecure if you must, but I see it as a reflection of the way that Babel captured my emotions and my admiration in a way (and at a level) that films rarely do; issues of rationality and logic, while usually a crucial building block in the making of most films, were far less important to me in THIS film than the visual and thematic richness, sensitive and powerful acting, technical deftness and fluidity, intoxicating music and sound design, but mostly the overall lyricism, thoughtfulness and empathy that came through so strongly to me, if not to you or Josh or any of the movie's other perfectly sane and reasonable detractors...

P.S. I didn't mind, or maybe I just didn't notice, whether Biutiful was slow or not, because I found the journey, for the most part, a sadly and powerfully engaging one, and its movement towards the inevitable conclusion to be appropriately measured and unhurried in its pacing, and even though, as I wrote before, I fully agree with you that it's flawed by unnecessary and distracting elements, for me it still reached a level of quality and satisfaction that felt like "time well spent".
You are missing the point of what I said. When you write things such as "we can keep our ridiculous, if you can keep your riveting" or in the newest comment speak of trying to "enlighten," your implication is that your opinion has more worth than others when what I was saying is that all opinions on film, being subjective, are by their very essence equal. The only reason I referred to the Babel again in this review was because it was from the same director and contained the same trait of trying to stuff many things in one movie. I do enjoy Josh's review of Babel and I wouldn't have done as great as job as he did because it takes a special inspiration to produce something that spot-on and funny, but as for the film itself, neither of us have given Babel much though four years laters because it's not worth our time and we've moved on, which you apparently have not. Too often, people (and I'm not referring to you here) take it way too personally when a film that they like get negative reviews. You need to build up your personal armor and realize that a bad review of a movie you love doesn't change the fact that you love it and you waste time tryng to change the minds of people whose opinions have been formed. Better to try to share your love of the film with those who have never seen it and have no opinion on the subject and see what they think afterward. Otherwise, after awhile it sounds like pro-choice and anti-choice forces yelling at each other about abortion as if either side will chance the other's mind.
Don't worry, I'm sure that I AM taking it way too personally, but with this film, at least, I have found it almost impossible to take it any other way, even if I try not to let the criticism get to me, because from my point of view, it tends to be some of the more vicious and incomprehensible I've ever read - though not necessarily yours or Josh's specifically, even if Josh's review is surely the ultimate in nitpicking for a film that swept me away almost totally - but then I can appreciate that you and Josh feel the movie is a string of nits deserving to be picked! (Personally, I think that Annie Frisbee and Gary Morris should hang their heads in shame for the blatant ignorance and crass simple-mindedness that I see reflected in their short-but-memorably-noxious comments on the Babel page - but moving on...I'm sure they'd find my contributions long-and-forgettably-tedious if they ever tried to read them!)

Maybe one day I'll learn how to retain my passionate love for great cinema while being able to restrain the passionate self-righteous defensive voice that tends to rise up and roar in situations of differing opinion like this one - and I kind of hate to say it, but moving completely onwards is made slightly more difficult when reviewers of recent movies remind me in their current writings how bad they thought Babel was when first released - but I am also aware that 'not minding' (as Sasha Stone so wonderfully puts it, though I guess she borrowed the phrase from the 'Lawrence of Arabia' script) is something I must aim for, if for no other reason than my own sanity, not to mention preventing the alienation of everyone who may happen to politely disagree with me!

and I agree that you're right - OBJECTIVELY right! - when you point out that 'enlighten' was the wrong word for me to use, because it sounds too much like 'educate', implying that your opinion is wrong and that I'm going to teach you the right one, when of course our opinions are just different - and likely always will be...

By the way, I'm really happy that we DO agree on some of the best movies of all time :-) Maybe when I'm in the right frame of mind we can have a totally positive discussion of what we each love best about Strangelove and Nashville...?

P.S. I'm catching the Foreign Language Oscar winner 'In A Better World' today at the Adelaide Film Festival; have you seen it yet? Or has it not really been released anywhere?
I have not seen In a Better World Yet, but you still have to remember not so much to control your passion as to remember that opinion is subjective. You might call Babel great cinema, but many would disagree. It doesn't mean you are wrong or that we are right because it is an opinion not an objective truth. If if affected you so deeply, good for you. There really aren't wrongs or rights about the opinions about whether a film is good or not, unless that film is Bio-Dome. If someone thinks that is a great movie, in that case, they are clearly wrong and may need medical intervention.
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