Why a story about a garbage can being thrown from a parking ramp injuring a tourist made me think of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Babel’

This is your gut reaction when you hear this story: 

It’s your outrage if a boy shot a bullet at a moving vehicle filled with foreign tourists.

It’s what you’d think if a woman left two children alone and unattended out in a desert.

It’s the disgust you’d feel if one of your patients tried to kiss you while you were cleaning her teeth at a dental office.

Five innocuous little words. What is wrong with you? Assigning blame without knowing everything.

But while the boy/woman/patient (and whoever might have thrown a garbage can at a tourist) were clearly at fault here, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning film “Babel” (2006) humanizes these actions and shows us that actions have consequences — no matter how good the intentions initially were.

The boy/woman/patient are not bad people, even though they might have all done bad things. They’re not monsters. They didn’t shoot at a tour bus, leave children alone in a desert, or attempt to sexually assault you out of hate, but rather love and pride. Iñárritu’s film explains the tower of confusion or misunderstandings that led to these situations in about 143 minutes.

The boy, woman and patient are all distantly connected in this story, which circles round and round like a kaleidoscope.

The patient is a teenage Japanese deaf girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who found the dead body of her mother after she committed suicide on their balcony. If that isn’t alienating enough, the girl finds it impossible to find love — especially when boys realize she can’t hear or speak. Her attempt to kiss her dentist was a perversion, yes, but it was also a very misguided attempt to find love.

The boy Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), who lives in a poor and rural community in Morocco, was driven by a bet with his brother Ahmed (Said Tarchani). Ahmed bet that his brother couldn’t hit the moving bus. Yussef proved he could. They never intended to shoot Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett), an American touring Morocco while on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt).

And Richard and Susan Jones, never intended to extend their stay in Morocco. Because they did and because they didn’t have anyone else to watch their children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), their babysitter Amelia (Adriana Barraza) faced an impossible choice: watch the children in San Diego or miss her son’s (Robert ‘Bernie’ Esquivel) wedding in Mexico. 

Amelia opted to shoot for the moon and brought the children she was babysitting to Mexico with her for her son’s wedding, but as an undocumented immigrant, Amelia had trouble returning to the states after the festivities.

It didn’t help that her nephew and driver Santiago (Gael García Bernal) got drunk at the wedding before he drove her to the U.S. border.

It didn’t help that they tried to cross the border with two kids that weren’t theirs.

Santiago, Amelia, Mike and Debbie do make it over the border, but in an attempt to shake the U.S. Custom and Border Control agents from their tail, Santiago left Amelia and the children in the middle of the desert with a promise to return for them. Santiago didn’t return. And Amelia briefly left the children to save them — to find someone who could give them food, water and shelter — even if it was one of the CBC officers they were running from.

Was that wrong?

And if so, what was wrong with that? That Amelia thought with her heart rather than her head?

Could that also be how the garbage can which hit a tourist got thrown from a parking ramp?

“Babel” makes us question what we see and second-guess what we value.

Meanwhile, a question like “What is wrong with people?” might not be so easy to answer.

“Babel” was written by Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film was directed by Iñárritu. “Babel” won an Oscar for “Best Original Score.”


‘Guru Dian’ hopes to expand your worldview

Sometimes you need a reminder that not everyone wakes up with high speed Internet at their fingertips. Somewhere in the world, even a cell phone signal is a cherished blessing.

That’s what Purnomo Aziz 79-minute Indonesian film, “Guru Dian,” reminds us: to look at things from another point of view.

Aziz’s feature film takes us to a remote and rural village in Indonesia, an half hour walk from any drivable roads.

This is a village surrounded by high rolling mountains cloaked with green vegetation — the kind of place where Mac Book Pros, televisions and cell phones look like alien objects.

Here, children grow up aspiring to become like their parents — entering the cycle of humble migrant workers and farmers. Small chores, like looking after the goats or minding the store, take precedent over schooling. And the village’s school has long been abandoned by both teachers and pupils.

That’s how Dian (Aji Sanrose) finds the dilapidated hut where she’s been assigned to teach. Her classes are empty because school isn’t as important as finding food.

The film shows us socioeconomic pressures in a small and poor rural community, but fails to emphasize why or how schooling can better these villagers’ lives. The village boys will take over their father’s trade and the village girls will be sent to a foreign country to work low-paying jobs as factory workers to earn money for their families.

Young and idealistic, Dian’s a transplant with a giving heart and Western values, but she lacks the insight that comes with experience. While she firmly believes that a child’s place is in school, she flounders at explaining how or why to the village’s elders. Without their support, it seems impossible to teach.

Slowly, but surely, though, Dian earns the children’s trust and attendance (Part of it involves installing a television in their school). But it’s hard to see how her schooling can change these student’s lives. And if that’s the lesson Aziz’s trying to teach us, it’s one that’s hard to reconcile.

“Guru Dian” was directed by Purnomo Aziz and written by Sad Purnadi, Risdi Sulaeman and Dirmawan Hatta. The film premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival.


Revisiting ’71 in Belfast

About a half an hour into Yann Demange’s directorial debut, “’71,” we’re seated behind young British soldiers in a classroom. Like them, we’re getting a brief lesson about “the Troubles” in Belfast.

“This is the front lines, boys,” says a commanding officer, pointing at a map of Northern Ireland. It’s sectioned into clashing reds and greens, the color-codes for the civil war’s main participants. “Catholics and protestants living side by side, but at each other’s throats, divided by the Divis flats,” he says.

That, of course, is the cliff notes version of the 30-year conflict — indicative of Demange’s 99-minute movie. This 10-second soundbite is the only bit of context we’re given before we’re thrown into the war-ravaged streets of 1971-Belfast.

Like the film’s protagonist, a wide-eyed British soldier named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), we’re strangers to the Troubles of Ireland. The country and its conflict are seized and rewritten by conquering British forces. With each rewriting, their language (Gaelic) and stories become an even more distant memory.

That’s how “’71” handles the Troubles. The “victors” have taken Ireland’s history and have collectively rewritten it into a universal one. Ireland is directed by France (Demange), written by Scotland (playwright Gregory Burke) and filmed in the U.K. (Sheffield, Liverpool and Blackburn). The film is Irish in the way that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day: throwing back those Irish Car Bombs while decked out in green.

There’s plenty of car bombs in this film, but “’71” isn’t really about the opposing Irish factions blowing each other up. The narrative’s hijacked by this young British soldier who’s accidentally left behind by his platoon.

Hook inadvertently becomes both the vehicle for us to see the Irish peoples and a symbol for the conflict. The IRA want him dead. The British troops, stationed to assist the Royal Ulster Constabulary, want him back. It’s a deadly game of capture/eliminate the flag and the players are either fighting for a United Kingdom or an independent Ireland.

Of course, this game isn’t without its casualties. Hook’s British comrade is shot suddenly and violently. Buildings blow up. Cars and busses are set on fire. The boys with guns are kids with mums and sisters.

Among them include a perceptive, young Loyalist boy (Corey McKinley) who’s as spirited as the young Gavroche from “Les Miserables.” McKinley is fantastic, holding his own among men twice his side. With a stick in his hand, he boldly leads a mute Hook through a barricade of Loyalist men, who hand him and his comrade a beer. This self-assured boy’s about the same size and build as Hook’s timid younger brother, Darren (Harry Verity) — who’s waiting for him back in Derbyshire.

Demange and Burke fill their film with wonderfully poetic foils. Hook and his platoon’s first Irish opponents are a group of rowdy children, throwing water balloons rather than hand grenades. The British soldiers laugh when they realize the absurdity of the situation, but in subsequent scenes, children aren’t as harmless and enemies aren’t so clear-cut.

“’71” is a coming-of-age story of sorts, which teaches us as much as it teaches its characters. Like the “Dubliners” in James Joyce’s short stories, these characters are in a state of paralysis. Catholics and Protestants point their guns at each other in a Mexican standoff while the sun sets on both their dreams.

“’71” was written by Gregory Burke and directed by Yann Demange. 

‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’: the tale of girlhood

Last month, Dr. Sharon Marcus and Dr. Anne Skomorowsky wrote a through-provoking piece examining Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film, “Boyhood.” Their Wall Street Journal article argued that “while boyhood is filled with possibility, girlhood is limiting.”

This is evident in Iso Takahata’s poignant hand-drawn animated Oscar contender “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” — a Studio Ghibli production produced over the past five years. While “Boyhood” feels very real, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is a fabricated fable about a celestial being who came under the care of a couple of peasants — a bamboo-cutter named Okina (Takeo Chii) and his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto).

Okina thinks the tiny Thumbelina he found in a bamboo shoot is destined to be a princess, so he does everything in his power to raise her like a daughter and to give her a better life. This includes moving the “Princess” away from their rural village and into the city. Okina even hires a private tutor (Atsuko Takahata) to teach her.

Based on the Japanese folk tale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” Takahata’s film shows how a girl’s options are limited. “A noble princess does not frolic,” Kaguya’s tutor, Lady Sagami, tells her. A noble princess doesn’t open her mouth. She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t even attend her own naming ceremony (that’s a three-night celebration for men like her adopted father — whom dictate her path).

“I might as well not be here,” Kaguya expresses.

Instead, a noble princess is expected to look beautiful and marry well. Her beauty attracts the attention of five noblemen, each asking for her hand.

This is very different from the choices “Boyhood’s” Mason is given. For him, the sky’s the limit. For her, her only decisions revolve around marriage.

Although Kaguya is a resourceful heroine, she confined as she grows up. Initially, we see a cherubic and carefree baby, amused by nature. She captures a frog. She befriends baby swine. She’s charmed by the wind blowing and the cherry blossoms. We even see her swinging on a vine with the rural neighborhood’s lost boys, led by their Peter Pan/Robin Hood, Sutemaru (Kengo Kora). But her laughter and smile disappears as she’s forced to adapt to humans’ inhumane definition of beauty.

That’s a beautiful and illuminating lesson — as hard to watch as Takahata’s 1988 WWII piece, “Grave of the Fireflies.” Bring the tissues.

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” was written by Iso Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi and directed by Takahata. The film was nominated Best Animated Film in the 87th Academy Awards. 

‘Aya’ explores the mystery in moments

You think you’ve heard this one before: A woman drives a man in a car….

And then she’s raped or injured or (if you’re Flannery O’Connor) murdered.  

That’s not what happens in Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’ Oscar-nominated live action short, “Aya,” though.

You do expect something to happen — some sort of lesson or epiphany. Instead, the 39-minute French/Israeli short is filled with stretches of silence as a mysterious Israeli woman drives a complete stranger to a far-off destination.

Perhaps that’s the punchline. “Aya” certainly starts off like a comedy of errors. “Aya’s” opening scene resembles the British rom-com “Love Actually.” Instead of Heathrow Airport though, we’re greeted at Ben-Gurion — watching hugs and kisses and “I love you” balloons float to the ceiling.

Aya (that’s the Israeli woman played by Sarah Adler) looks sort of gloomy, talking on her cell phone, watching and waiting. Perhaps that’s why the cab driver feels comfortable approaching her when his passenger arrives. He hands Aya his colleague’s sign and after a series of mix-ups, Aya finds herself driving Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen) to the Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Jerusalem. (See, there’s promise of comedy, right? Or perhaps one of those nasty Uber encounters you’ve heard about in the news?)

Written by Binnun, Brezis and Tom Shoval, this short feels like a puzzle you’ve given up on. Aya’s full of fun little contradictions: the kind of gal who feels more comfortable in a crowd.  The mysteries of this chance encounter are strangely intimate and will leave you perplexed.

“Aya” was directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis and written by Binnun, Brezis and Tom Shoval. “Aya” was nominated in the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short. 

Answering ‘The Phone Call’

Heavy breathing. A disjointed male’s voice. Crying.

“I’m scared,” the voice on the line finally says.

Mat Kirkby’s 21-minute Oscar-nominated Live Action Short“The Phone Call,” takes you through an emotional journey — evoking curiosity, wonder, helplessness, empathy and understanding.

The short stars the wonderfully expressive Sally Hawkins as Heather, a British Crisis Center worker. Hawkins carries the story, acting as your detective/journalist. With a pleasant, caring voice and a compassionate bedside manner, Hawkins reassures the reluctant man (voiced by Jim Broadbent) on the line, luring him to confide in her.

“We don’t trace calls, ever,” Heather says.

With those words, she navigates a mine field into one man’s past.

Kirkby and James Lucas’s poignant and engaging script has you hanging on to every word. Like NoMore.org’s Super Bowl spot about domestic violence, “The Phone Call” appeals to your pathos.

While we never see the person on the other line, “The Phone Call” reminds us that the invisible also have voices and stories to tell. They’re just waiting for someone to listen and share them.

“The Phone Call” was written and James Lucas and Mat Kirkby and directed by Kirkby. The 21-minute short from the UK was nominated for Best Live Action Short in the 2015 Academy Awards. 

Not a fowl note in ‘Boogaloo and Graham’

There’s a wonderful humor in Irish storytelling. This is apparent in “Boogaloo and Graham,” the delightfully “fowl” 14-minute Oscar-nominated Live Action Short written by Ronan Blaney, directed by Michael Lennox and produced by Brian J. Falconer.

The film is essentially a coming-of-age slice-of-life story taking place in the politically charged region of Belfast, circa 1978. The conflict is thankfully far off-screen as two chickens take center stage.

The hens I’m referring to are brothers Malachy and Jamesy. Their father (Martin McCann) gave them two baby chicks, which they raised to adulthood. Their names, as you may have guessed by now, are Boogaloo and Graham.

Malachy and Jamesy decide to fly the coop though when they find out their beloved birds are in jeopardy. Their Mother Hen (Charlene McKenna) says she’s nesting a baby and their chickens came first! 

Lennox directs lovely comedic montages, showing the boys walking their birds, sharing ice-cream as well as bathing them. If that doesn’t have you clucking and cackling with laughter, you’d be charmed by Blaney’s hilarious script and its eggs-cellent dialogue.

“Boogaloo and Graham” was written by Ronan Blaney, directed by Michael Lennox and produced by Brian J. Falconer. The 14-minute film from Northern Ireland was nominated for a 2015 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short and a 2015 BAFTA for Best British Short Film. 

Photographer grants more than three wishes in ‘Butter Lamp’

Wei Hu’s “Butter Lamp” begins with that iconic portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, hanging in front of Beijing’s Forbidden City. It’s only when a couple of poor Tibetan nomads stumble into frame that you notice the wrinkles in the backdrop.

Nominated for Best Live Action Short in the 87th Academy Awards, “Butter Lamp” provides plenty of modern commentary. Remember that Dutch girl that faked her five-month vacation to South East Asia?

Hu’s film reminds us of today’s Instagrammed culture and how our images are cropped, edited and filtered to perfection.

Like the Instagram and Facebook demographic, the villagers in Hu’s 16-minute French picture seek to invoke the illusion of wealth and affluence associated with Western culture. The changing backgrounds feature the Great Wall of China, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the streets of Chinatown, Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Potala Palace — a place an elderly grandmother dreams to visit.

Instead of Slumber, Mayfair or Nashville, the photographer adds his own “filters,” such as a large red ribbon, modern Western jackets and a motorcycle. (The photographer himself sports an Abercrombie shirt.)

In this way, the photographer serves as both the Genie and the “Selfie Stick,” granting the wishes of these Tibetan villagers. Out of frame: we can only imagine that these portraits will be framed and displayed proudly in their households —where these Tibetans can share their worldliness with unsuspecting visitors.

Their visitors will stare with envy, not knowing how manufactured photos can be. 

“Butter Lamp” was written and directed by Wei Hu. The film was nominated for Best Live Action Short in the 2015 Academy Awards. 

‘Parvaneh’ bridges the east and west

If you’ve been reading or listening to any of the analysis on the Charlie Hebdo shootings last month, you’ve come to realize it’s a very complicated and complex issue. The Kouachi brothers believed they were “defenders of the prophet” Muhammed, a reasoning they used to justify their actions against the cartoonists at the French satirical magazine.

“If someone offends the prophet then there is no problem, we can kill him,” Cherif Kouachi told French reporter Igor Sahiri. “We don’t kill women. We are not like you. You are the ones killing women and children in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t us. We have an honor code in Islam.”

Kouachi’s warped worldview of Islam shows the immense schism between the East and West. Through our Western lens, hijabs and burkas are signs of oppression from men who want to cover up their women; however, some Muslim women may see head scarves as a sign of liberation, allowing men to see and hear them for what they say and think rather than what they look like.

Similarly, we see “Je suis Charlie” as a rallying cry for free speech while they see the same mantra as an attack on their religious beliefs. “Je suis Charlie” means that “I am Charlie” — that we stand with Charlie Hebdo. Most of us see Charlie Hebdo as a metaphor, supporting what Charlie Hebdo represents rather than the controversial content they publish. But if we’re the Peter Quills of the world, speaking in symbolism and metaphors, the radical jihadists are like the vengeful Draxes in “Guardians of the Galaxy” — questioning why he would want to put his finger on an enemy’s throat.

With all the negative press garnered by radical Islamist terrorists (from the Kouachi brothers to the Tsarnaevzs), it’s easy to forget that these world views don’t represent those of all Muslims. After all, jihadists are to Muslims as the Westboro Baptists are to Christians. Yet these Eastern cultures feel esoteric in our Western eyes.

Iranian-Swiss film director and screenwriter Talkhon Hamzavi reminds us that it’s possible to reach beyond the curtain of cultural misunderstandings. Her “universal mixtape” is the refreshing 25-minute Oscar-nominated short, “Parvaneh.” The film is about a young Afghani refuge in Switzerland.

When we first meet Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani), she’s talking to her mother on a pay phone. Her father’s hospitalized in Afghanistan and she promises to send money. So begins her trip from the cold and snowy Swiss apps (which looks like a scene from “Fargo”) to the bustling and equally hostile city of Zürich. When the Western Union bank refuses to send her money because she’s under 18, Parvaneh enlists and eventually bonds with a tough-looking blond (Cheryl Graf) with dyed pink hair, ripped leggings and a black leather jacket. 

Parvaneh’s coming-of-age excursion is a short story rather than a novel, following the footsteps of Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron.” Filmed by Stefan Dux and edited by Hannes Rüttimann, “Parvaneh” conveys how vulnerable and lonely a girl can feel. Each shot highlights Parvaneh’s isolation: eating alone in the dining hall, refusing unwanted advances from men, walking along the expansive snowy backdrop with just a backpack and some drab-colored clothing.

When a sales girl approaches Parvaneh in a Zürich cosmetic shop, it’s startling. It feels as if we’ve spent a lifetime traveling with Parvaneh in silence that we, too, feel foreign in a cosmopolitan city.

Hamzavi’s unique short film allows us to re-examine how we see things. Through Parvaneh’s eyes, what we find familiar seems foreign. Yet this hajj is one we all should take. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, showing us the East and West isn’t that far apart after all.

“Parvaneh” was written and directed by Talkhon Hamzavi. The film was nominated in the 2015 Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short Film. 

‘Snowpiercer’: Bong Joon-ho’s Pandora’s box

Hope is hard to find when you’re trapped in a cold iron box — surrounded by sickness, violence and 1,000 lean starving bodies with no room to move. But hope is there — buried in Pandora’s box.

It’s the fire in Curtis’ (Chris Evans) eyes as he patiently plans for rebellion. It’s the rumble in Edgar’s (Jamie Bell) belly as he hungers for steak. It’s the desperation in Tanya’s (Octavia Spencer) voice as she searches for her son, Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis). And it’s the feeling in our gut as we watch Bong Joon-ho’s two-hour dystopian film, “Snowpiercer.”

Inspired by Benjamin Legrand, Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” “Snowpiercer” takes place in 2031 — 17 years after man’s remedy for global warming froze the earth. Humanity survives on Wilford’s (Ed Harris) sacred ark — a transcontinental train seated by social class. At its head is Wilford, the train’s divine engineer, and Wilfred’s mouthpiece Mason (played by the excellent Tilda Swinton). It’s caboose contains the dirty and destitute, yearning for a better life.

Captain America’s spearheading this revolution, trading his red, white and blue titanium shield for an inconspicuous wool hat. Evans’ almost unrecognizable in the hat and dark beard and you quickly forget his more popular on-screen persona. By the time he takes off his hat, revealing short, dark hair, he’s Curtis, the mysteriously reluctant leader in this fictional uprising. That’s a testament to the smart costume design by Catherine George and the work of the hair and make-up team (Linda Eisenhamerova, Chris Lyons, Gabriela Polakova, Paula Price, Matthew Smith, Bobo Sobotka and Jeremy Woodhead).

Under their direction (and Swinton’s acting, of course), the androgynous Swinton resembles a cross between “The Hunger Games'” Effie Trinket and “Harry Potter’s” deranged temporary headmaster Dolores Umbridge.

“Would you wear a shoe on your head?” says Mason. “I am the head. You are the shoe… Know your place.”

As Mason compares a shoe to life on Wilfred’s train, she holds a shoe in her hand and slowly twists it — as if its were a moving locomotive and she, the conductor.

Like his friend Park Chan-wook’s (“Stoker,” “Oldboy”) works, Bong’s “Snowpiercer” is visually striking. Bong even draws upon Park’s work. In one scene, Evans fights his way through a train compartment full of butch men in ski masks. It’s reminiscent to a scene from “Oldboy” (2003) — when the film’s hero, Oh Dae-su, fights through an corridor of men.

Written by Bong and Kelly Masterson, “Snowpiercer” (which is the Korean director’s first English language film) echoes the themes of Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Order is the code to survival — even if the fruit of freedom tastes sweeter. Nonetheless, in the grimmest of tales, a glimmer of hope resides.

“Snowpiercer” was directed by Bong Joon-ho and written by Bong and Kelly Masterson.