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'Babel' (**), 'Little Children' (****), 'Volver' (***)

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Posted: Friday, December 22, 2006 10:00 pm

My editor and I were having a conversation the other day about recent movies - specifically, about how there is absolutely nothing playing in wide release that appears to be worth seeing.

"The Pursuit of Happyness"? "Eragon"? At the risk of sounding prejudiced against movies I haven't even seen, these are simply not the kind of perilous choices that discriminating adults should be left with.

So, in an act of protest, here's a catch-up look at three films that have been getting some attention of late via year-end critics awards and the Golden Globe nominations (all still playing in limited release). Their quality varies, but one thing they all have in common is a creative boldness that is conspicuously absent from the vast majority of movies playing at the local multiplex.

First off is "Babel," the new film from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros," "21 Grams") that was the big winner when the Golden Globe nominations were announced last week.

Like the director's previous two works, this one is a volatile puzzle box of a movie in which fragments of the narrative are revealed one piece at a time until the end, when the viewer is finally able to get a big-picture view of the characters and their relation to one another.

I thought "21 Grams" was a masterpiece of tragedy and redemption, but unfortunately "Babel" has more in common with the director's sloppier first feature, which also garnered inexplicable critical raves.

The movie follows four separate story threads, which are all linked in ways that may not be initially apparent. The first follows a pair of impoverished Moroccan siblings who are given a rifle by their father in order to protect the family's sheep from jackals. Instead, the boys decide to test the weapon's firing range by shooting at a passing tour bus.

This leads into the second segment, which stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as an American couple who face an unexpected life-and-death struggle when a bus they're traveling on comes under fire from unseen attackers.

Another thread follows the couple's children, who are taken across the Mexican border so their nanny (Adriana Barraza) can attend her son's wedding.

The fourth plot line is the most mysterious, and takes place in Japan, where a deaf-mute teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) must come to grips with her increasingly intense sexual frustration. These stories are spliced together over the course of the film's nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, and -as is the director's trademark - temporal distortions abound.

The film is worth a look if only for Kikuchi's heartbreaking, award-worthy work as an emotionally damaged innocent. Too bad this masterful performance wasn't contained in a movie worthy of such an effort. Unfortunately, the narrative drive of "Babel" relies on characters who consistently act outside the bounds of believable human behavior.

As much as I wanted to become involved with these people and their stories, the sheer absurdity of the film's plot mechanics rendered me too confounded to do anything but stare at the screen in literal disbelief.

Contrast that with "Little Children" from Todd Field ("In the Bedroom") which also features people behaving in ways that are often irrational. The key difference is that in Field's film, the characters are fully developed and their behavior - however stupid - is always believable.

It's the rare kind of literary drama that makes you feel as though you've borne witness to a novel's worth of experiences in a mere two hours.

Kate Winslet stars as Sara, a frumpish, unhappily married homemaker who goes through the motions necessary to sustain her mundane existence yet longs to feel more alive. Enter Brad (Patrick Wilson), a hunky stay-at-home dad who serves as the pristinely isolated object of affection for the neighborhood's gossipy soccer moms.

On a dare, Sara engages Brad in conversation one day at the park, using her daughter as an "in." The two hit it off, and a friendly kiss is all it takes for them to become irreversibly enamored with one another.

Yet "Little Children" is not simply an adultery drama. By focusing heavily on secondary characters - a recently paroled sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) who becomes the focus of a neighborhood-wide harassment campaign; a disgraced former cop (Noah Emmerich) who bullies others in an attempt to mask his own self-loathing - the movie takes on the broader theme of immaturity.

The title refers not the kids themselves, but rather the surrounding adults who possess neither the desire nor the ability to reign in their own destructive whims. It's a great film for adults, about adults - or, at least, people who pretend to be adults, but act more like little children.

The most unusual of the three is "Volver," from acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, whose most recent critical darlings include "All About My Mother" and "Talk to Her".

It is with some shame that I admit I'm not too familiar with Almodovar's films (I've only seen "Bad Education," which I admired for its style if not its substance). Because of this unfamiliarity, I entered "Volver" not knowing the first thing about what to expect. That's just as well, because I'm not sure the film's plot - or the movie's overall appeal - can be adequately conveyed in a cursory synopsis.

But here goes: Penelope Cruz stars as Raimunda, a prospective restaurateur who must protect her teenage daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) after Paula kills Paco - who may or may not be the girl's father - in self-defense during an attempted rape.

Raimunda must also deal with the death of her aunt, who may or may not have been receiving visits from beyond the grave prior to her death. To complicate matters, Raimunda's sister Sole (Lola Duenas) has become caregiver to the ghost of their deceased mother Abuela (Carmen Maura), who…

You know what? Forget it. If you're intrigued by such bizarre soap opera shenanigans, you're likely to enjoy Almodovar's absurd feminist romp for its quirky sensibilities and brightly colored visuals. If not, then I can't say I blame you. But one thing's for certain: At least "Volver" has the fortitude to thumb its nose at convention and try something unique, which is far more than can be said for most of the studio pictures we've been seeing this year.

"Babel," "Little Children" and "Volver" are all rated R.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jwallis@runbox.com.

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