I know, I know, I’m “late” to this one. The critics finished hailing and mainstream audiences finished not giving a damn months ago. But it’s suddenly up for a slew of pre-Oscar awards, so let’s get to it, SPOILER WARNING in effect, and once more into the breach…

Here we have the latest from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, in which they drop a whole new set of stories into the same basic format as their last two films, “Amorres Perros” and “21 Grams”: Multiple stories connected to one another by what are supposed to be head-slappingly ironic coincidences are fractured and presented out of chronological order.

The function unstuck-in-time schtick is to abstract the character and situational specifics, making the audience unsure of where sympathy or interest should lay, in order to make us think “more deeply” about Broader Themes, Big Ideas and Important Issues at work in the story. As two of the three stories are set, respectively, in Mexico and Morocco, you kinda know that illegal immigration and terrorism are the two main Important Issues the film wishes us to ruminate on. (Global warming, gay-rights, stem cell research, the 2nd ammendment and national health care are, presumably, waiting for the sequel.)

The title is a reference to the Tower of Babel, one of the more infamously strange “God acting like a world-class dillhole” entries in the wonky earlier chunks of the Old Testament. Short version: Humanity used to all speak the same language, and got so organized and capable that The Almighty felt threatened (“we” were building a tower to equal the height of Heaven) so he gave the ant farm a big hard shake and made everyone speak different languages, so we wouldn’t be able to get along as well. That, plus the setting(s) and the arthouse street-cred pretty much tells you the final moral of the story to begin with: “Boy, people not being able to communicate sure does cause a lot of trouble!”

Interestingly, language-barrier doesn’t come up as much as you’d imagine, and certain main characters self-generate a secondary moral: “Boy, stupid people sure do cause a lot of trouble!” For example, if you are testing the range of your brand-spanking-new rifle… moving automobiles are not the smartest choice for target practice. Also: If you are an illegal alien from Mexico, crossing the border again, this time with two American toddlers in tow and your DUI-prone no-goodnik nephew at the wheel… probably wanna re-think that plan.

The Mexican nanny in question is trying to get back home for the wedding of her son, complicated by the issue of the kids belonging to a recently-unseperated couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) who’ve just called to say their Moroccan re-connection vacation has been unexpectedly extended… because the wife has been seriously wounded by the bullet the two Moroccan boys fired at their tour bus for target practice. The shooting touches off an international incident after the American Government (booo! hiss!) raises the possibility of a terrorist connection and hacks off their Morrocan counterparts. The third, and arguably most compelling, story involves the increasing sexual-frustration of a deaf-mute Japanese girl, who’s story is so thinly connected to the others that it feels like an entirely seperate (and frequently better) movie.

It’s all very intriguing to watch this all play out and see who fits where and why, the direction and cinematography are consistently beautiful and the actors are on-poinu. But once you get past that and down to the supposed “depth” of the thing theres not really a lot going on here aside from some heavy-handed commentary on world affairs and heavy dollops of moral messages that are beyond cliche: “Try to understand those different from you.” “Dire situations remind you what’s REALLY important.” “Don’t fire weapons are moving traffic.” “Sometimes, life just sucks.”

Inarritu is a tremendous filmmaking talent, and along with Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron is part of a crucial wave of artists doing the Great Work of dragging Spanish/Latin Cinema out of the “all-Almodovar-all-the-time” rut it’s been in for far too long. But this feels too much like going through the motions, even if you put aside the prior two films. I get it, already, we’re all one big human family and it’s amazing how many little coincidences connect us in unexpected ways. I bet he kicks all kinds of ass at Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon… but I found this one a little on the underwhelming side, though theoretically admirable.


Two More Capsule Reviews: "We Are Marshall," "The Good Shepherd."

Here we have the (mostly) true story of what happened to a small town that lived and died by it’s college football program when nearly the entire team, coaching staff and “booster” fandom was killed in a horrible plane crash.

What happened next – a charismatic outsider coach (Matthew McConaughey) took the open job and tried to ressurect the new team’s, and the town’s, spirit – has the makings of a Hollywood sure-thing… but the final summation (an unremarkable losing season) not so much.

Thusly, the film veers back and forth uncomfortably between rousing sports heroism and “victory isn’t everything” catharsis, and never settles these contradictory vibes. Director McG, straining for legitimacy beyond his commercial/“Charlie’s Angels” roots, shows visual restraint but little sense of narrative or innovative punch.

Final Rating: 6/10

The instant problem with presenting a movie about purporting to relate a names-changed version of “true secret history of the CIA” is that the subject matter undercuts the presentation: It’s difficult to forget that if it really were the case that director Robert DeNiro and his crew were able to ‘blow the lid off” the CIA they wouldn’t BE the CIA. But, once you power through the films’ adopted “window on history” pretense, it’s entirely enjoyable as a finely-cast, effortlessly self-assured flashback to the glory days of Cold War skullduggery.

The film charts a broad, partially-speculative recounting of how the aforementioned Agency grew from a small collective of U.S. covert-liasons to British Intelligence during WWII, culled largely from Yale’s ultra-secret “Skull & Bones” brotherhood, into the powerful entity we know (or at least “know of”) today. The central figure is Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) a patriotic, WASPy Bright Young Thing who sacrifices happiness, family and even his own security for Honor and Duty.

An expectedly top-tier supporting cast including DeNiro himself, Michael Gambon, Billy Crudup, Alec Baldwin and Angelina Jolie (only in Hollywood do you get shotgunned into marrying the sister of your buddy because she got pregnant from your one fling… and she turns out to be Angelina Jolie) provide solid foundations and scene work, but primarily this is Damon’s show and it’s a convincing, affecting performance despite some questionably-minimalist “aging” makeup. Overall, reccomended.