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Capsule reviews of recently released movies

BABEL An award winner at Cannes, Babel arrives courtesy of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the same team that gave us 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Like their past efforts, Babel is a gloom-and-doom dissection of society, whipping between various characters and their interconnected storylines. Certainly, this is the duo's most ambitious undertaking, yet for all its scattered strengths, it's also the least satisfying, hampered by a structure that feels schematic rather than organic. Several of the Big Issues -- border disputes, Middle Eastern tensions and gun control -- are handled in ways that feel overly familiar, perhaps because we've seen them tackled more adroitly in other multistory flicks like Traffic and Syriana. The freshest storyline concerns a deaf teenage girl (excellent Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo who grows increasingly frustrated as she's unable to find any male who's willing to provide her with love and compassion -- this plot seems the least driven by obvious ideology and therefore best illustrates the picture's theme of the lack of communication that exists between people. There's a lot to chew over in Babel. But because it's overstuffed, it also means that there's a lot not worth swallowing. **1/2

BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN Originally conceived as a character on HBO's Da Ali G Show, Borat Sagdiyev is a Kazakh journalist who comes to America to make a documentary -- and there's your plot in a nutshell. Yet what makes Borat different is that creator-star Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays the insensitive and language-mangling journalist, never breaks character, interviewing scores of ordinary Americans who genuinely believe that they're being questioned by a foreign reporter. If Borat is staged in any way, then it's a "mockumentary" that stretches its one-joke concept to the breaking point -- after about an hour, you'll be satisfied. Yet if the filmmakers' claim that everything is on the level is true, then this is borderline genius, an inspired piece of guerilla filmmaking that's able to gauge the real pulse of America and unearth some unpleasant (if hardly surprising) truths. Borat is often convulsively, savagely funny, but beneath the scatology and mockery rests a knowingness about the manner in which our societal prejudices can be hidden, diverted and even encouraged. In that regard, this is one smart movie. ***

DELIVER US FROM EVIL A documentary with the power to affect even the most jaded of moviegoers, this centers on Oliver O'Grady, a priest who over the course of three decades sexually molested countless children throughout the state of California. In a perfect world, a bullet would have been put in his brain a long time ago; instead, he served seven years in prison and is now leading a peaceful life in Ireland. This is where director Amy Berg (a former CNN journalist) caught up with him, and one of the strengths of the picture is the complete access she had in being able to interview her subject at length. Yet Berg also moves past the pedophile priest and indicts the other, equally culpable villains of the story: the Catholic Church superiors who knew of O'Grady's crimes yet did nothing to stop his rampage. For all of Berg's research, the most powerful sequences are the unscripted ones, the moments when O'Grady's now-grown victims and their families express their rage at the Catholic hierarchy that repeatedly placed the institution's image over the welfare of the children. As we witness how people's lives have been shattered by men who profess to work for the glory of God, we come to realize that even eternal damnation isn't punishment enough for some people. ***1/2

FLUSHED AWAY It's a textbook Faustian example of selling one's soul to the devil. Great Britain's Aardman Animations, the studio behind the delightful Wallace & Gromit films, has always ignored the American modus operandi of churning out loud and obnoxious toon flicks by sticking to its veddy British guns and producing works that relied on clay animation rather than CGI and clarity instead of chaos. Flushed Away, however, reveals that the devil is starting to collect his due. The story of a pet mouse (voiced by Hugh Jackman) who gets flushed down the toilet and ends up in an underground city populated by rats, frogs, slugs and other critters, the film exhibits the frenzied pace and overbearing characterizations that have become standard in US-born-and-bred animated features. The story is strictly perfunctory -- and further hampered by the sort of puerile gags that have come to define Yankee toon flicks. Where the Aardman wit is retained -- and what significantly elevates the film's worth -- is in the small details, tossed-off asides and background imagery: Keep your eyes on the margins and you'll remain satisfied by the gems found among the clutter and cacophony. **1/2

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