Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Biutiful People

On my (seemingly) never-ending journey to see the major films nominated for this year's Academy Awards, I found myself at the theater on Monday taking in yet another major release. This time it was the foreign film nominee Biutiful that made me travel into the downtown area, and I really wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. After all, I had a VAGUE idea as to what the main story entailed, but the trailer contained so much in the way of stimuli that the entirety of the tale was lost to me. I've also never seen any films by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, including his internationally-renowned Babel. So I have no idea of the story, and no perspective as to how it might be told. Top that off with an actor I genuinely respect - in this case international superstar Javier Bardem - but one I have actually seen in very little compared to his acting library. I've only viewed is work in recent Hollywood films No Country for Old Men and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, two films that show two vastly different performances from the veteran Spanish actor. The result is me sitting in the theater having literally NO idea what is coming. And that's how it should be.

In Barcelona, Spain, Uxbal (Bardem) is a petty criminal who coordinates between different groups of illegal immigrants, including African street vendors and Chinese counterfeiters. Having recently learned from doctors that he has scant months to live, he must learn to accept his inevitable demise and put his final affairs in order. It's not easy when he's a single father with two children he loves and cares about, but even more so when you factor in a scheming brother, an ex-wife suffering from bipolar disorder who might end up with the children after his passing, and a Chinese business partner who runs an illegal sweatshop. As his criminal enforcer status might suggest, Uxbal has done so much bad in his life that making everything right might just be impossible.

This particular director has a habit of casting unknowns or non-actors in his films, finding talent where others don't even bother to look. That worked out wonderfully in Babel, in which two complete Hollywood unknowns, Mexican actress Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi from Japan, were nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 2006 Academy Awards, with Barraza winning the prize. This time around, the supporting cast has not gotten nearly as much attention, but that might mainly be due to the fixation Bardem draws in his immediate direction. Bardem is just fantastic. It's sometimes difficult to feel sympathetic with Uxbal because he doesn't do good things even though he is a good man and a caring father. He's also something of a psychic, and while I'm thankful that particular storyline was somewhat muted, it really helped to show how figuratively and literally Uxbal is haunted by his past judgment. In all this Bardem shows a larger range than he's shown in either of the films I'd seen him in before. The movie is good because he is great, and I never get tired of seeing him act circles around most Hollywood hotshots. Maricel Alvarez, who plays Uxbal's troubled ex-wife, is also deserving of praise. Playing a bi-polar character often means changing your character's overall mood not only from scene to scene, but also moment to moment. Alvarez vacillates between a loving wife and mother and self-destructive harpy often over the course of the film, and plays a perfect foil off Bardem's imperfect rogue. Cheng Tai Shen plays Hai, a Chinese sweatshop owner, importing illegal labor to make knockoff handbags and work construction to bypass union laws. There's not nearly enough of him, but it generates strong emotions seeing the divide between his care of his family and then of his people. Other great roles belong to Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff, Eduard Fernandez, Luo Jin, and especially Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella as Uxbal's two children, who would steal every scene against a less seasoned performer than Bardem.

Having never seen an Inarritu film, it has since come to me no surprise that this director is practically obsessed with the idea of death. Death pervades every mood present in the film, even its few lighter-hearted moments. I'm not sure what inspired the director to focus on death and dying as film mediums, but he obviously knows what he's doing and how to make an impact visually in doing so. Like many visual directors, he has the skill to capture the perfect shot at any given time and makes many parts of the film worth seeing for the visuals alone. Whereas Clint Eastwood's efforts to instill the same interest in the afterlife in 2010's Hereafter feel forced and contrived, Inarritu obviously has great respect for his subject and manages to instill that respect into quality craftsmanship. The result is a film that feels authentic, honest and at times heartbreaking.

As you could probably guess, Biutiful is extremely bleak. While I can understand Inarritu dedicating the film to his father and basing it on his own father's experiences (or so it is according to the final credits), the film is a bit dark and depressing for that. Abject poverty, the death of children, immigration evils, the difficulties of bipolar disorder, tragic accidents and overwhelming guilt flow from this film like fluid through a sieve, and there's really very little to feel good about after the film's conclusion. There is also much imagery that, while certainly spot-on, is extremely cliche, and even predictable if you even have the remotest clue what is going on. On a final note, Biutiful has the feel of an ensemble film, with several interceding story lines involving similar themes and motivations, but ends up focusing almost entirely on Uxbal. I'm not really complaining about that; Bardem is fantastic and deserves completely his Best Actor nomination, the first ever for a 100% Spanish-speaking role. But I really wanted to know more about the supporting characters, and would have appreciated added content featuring them. These are what make Biutiful to me a good but not great film. Bardem is fantastic, and the film might win Best Foreign Film, but I already knew those things going in. I desired more, and sadly Inarritu didn't bring enough to completely seal the deal.


THE Real Estate Analyst!!! said...

Bravo ... great review.

Your mom and I saw "Social Network". It was nominated for what ... why?? Not a bad film but Oscar quality???? Please

It won awards and was nominate because of the contemporary "social networky" feel of it ... but as a movie ... or the acting parts??? profoundly mediocre.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe Adriana Barraza won Best Supporting Actress for "Babel." I think it was Jennifer Hudson for "Dreamgirls" that year. I want to see this, although I didn't love "Babel," I loved "Amores Perros," and "21 Grams." I recommend both of those. "21 Grams" was the first movie where I thought, "Wow, Naomi Watts can actually act!"

Gianni said...

Whoops! You were right about Barraza, Anonymous. I should have double checked that; I thought I saw she won it, but I must have confused the award with something else. The winner was indeed Jennifer Hudson.

Dad, I don't agree with you about the acting in The Social Network. I thought the actors played their parts masterfully... but the parts themselves were so completely unsympathetic that it pretty much ruined the whole point. It's pretty much getting all this attention because of its cultural relevancy. I don't mind the nominations for that reason alone. I just don't think it should win anything.