I can't say I've fallen for every one of the films from director John Sayles, but I strongly remember seeing them and the experiences revolving around the days I sat and watched them in the local theater. Minor concerns aside, Sayles is such a terrific storyteller that his films leave an impression - they are expertly done character studies that create richly detailed characters and an universe for the film that feels lived-in. Sayles has also kept switching things up, approaching vastly different subjects in such features as "Secret of Roan Inish", "Lone Star", "Eight Men Out" and "Limbo".
"Casa De Los Babys" will not be remembered as the writer/director's finest hour, but there's still a lot to like within this surprisingly short tale. The film revolves around a group of women who spend their days waiting at a South American motel while the process of adoption slowly makes its way through the usual government maze. One figures that they are being held up in order to spend more money in the country.
Each of them has a story: one can't concieve, one has had miscarriages and another can't seem to keep a relationship going long enough to have a child. While all of them have a reason for not being able to have a child, Sayles also manages to explore the hurt and emotion behind either not being able to concieve. Within their tightly-knit group, there's also a lot of gossip and rumor. With the way that the film drops us in, we get a feeling like they've been there a while and have started to know each other and also, that maybe they're trying to size up the other's potential at motherhood versus their own. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is an irritable neurotic, but it's revealed that her very troubled childhood may have an effect on her ability to be a mother. Although introductions may have been nice, I liked the way that the film makes the audience feel as if they've walked in in the middle of things.
To the credit of Sayles, he manages to keep personalities strong and fairly well-defined, even with the film's rather brief 98-minute running time. In an era where it often seems like films could lose a few minutes here and there, "Casa" probably would have been better served being more along the lines of two hours. A longer running time could have also allowed a look at poverty and other local issues that are brought up in the film (we see kids in the streets, trying to steal), but never really looked at in-depth. Sayles explores the differences in cultures at times, but only in a manner that gives the audience a basic understanding of the situation, without further insights.
The film's real joy is simply watching a group of very fine actresses do excellent work. The screenplay by Sayles creates a few comedic moments, and Taylor really has a few terrific one-liners that she delivers perfectly. Gay Harden creates a character who is utterly nasty at times, yet she suggests a complexity beneath the character's surface that makes the character compelling, while another actor's performance may have turned off audiences to the character completely. Maggie Gyllenhal has a few very touching moments as a young wife whose connection to her husband is slowly vanishing. Mary Steenburgen, Darryl Hannah and Susan Lynch also provide excellent performances. Lynch has an excellent scene where she confronts Asunción (Vanessa Martinez), the maid at the hotel, and talks about motherhood. Both have formed a bond, despite the language barrier.
Although this may not be the writer/director's most remarkable effort, average Sayles is still a lot better than a lot of fare released these days. The real, overall issue that I have with the picture is the fact that it seems to want to look into issues such poverty and the effects around adoption in a third-world country, but never really does so in a fully-realized manner. Some subplots, such as some questioning of whether Nan should be a mother, are brought up and then pretty much dropped. Lastly, the ending is just too abrupt for a story like this one.
Still, I was never bored, thought the performances were great and the script has several terrific lines and characters. "Casa" a very good film that could have been an excellent one had it looked a bit deeper into areas it approaches.
VIDEO: "Casa De Los Babys" is presented by MGM in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture starts off a little shaky, with some minor compression artifacts, but then cleans up superbly. Sharpness and detail were largely solid - a little bit of softness occasionally intruded, but the picture mostly appeared crisp and well-defined.
The picture does display a little bit of compression artifacting and a few minor specks on the print used, but otherwise seemed clean. Edge enhancement was not noticed, and its absence gave the picture a smooth, natural appearance that was pleasing. The film's natural color palette appeared accurately rendered, with brighter colors occasionally showing through strongly. Black level seemed a little weak, but not terribly so.
SOUND: "Casa De Los Babys" is presented by MGM in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a perfectly acceptable soundtrack that mainly focuses on dialogue. As Sayles discusses in the audio commentary, sound recording on some of the locations was difficult, but both dialogue and ambient sound remained clear throughout. Surrounds were really not used very much during the show, aside from some light ambience.
EXTRAS: Before I talk about the extras, I want to mention a coupon that's included inside the box: MGM offers $3.00 off the purchase of one of these Sayles DVDs: "Lianna", "Return of the Secacus 7" or "Brother From Another Planet". While not a lot, it's still a nice little offer that will either allow fans of the director to pick up another of his films or introduce newcomers to other films by the director.
The DVD's main supplement is an audio commentary from director John Sayles who, as always, gives an informative and insightful discussion of the filmmaking process. He talks about working with Mexican crews, some of the pros and cons (as well as some information about the local culture) of working on location, and casting/working with the actresses. Once again, Sayles does a superb job mixing technical details, character moments and production challenges into his chat. It's a perfect example of what a commentary should be: no narration of the story, no falling into stretches of heavy praise of his cast/crew and a pure focus on educating the audience to the experience of being an independent filmmaker.
Aiding the commentary in giving the viewer an overview of the production, "Making of Casa De Los Babys" is a 23-minute featurette. I was a little surprise that, for a film that's pretty independent, this seems a little more like a featurette one might see for a larger, studio film. It's not totally geared towards promoting, but it's a rather ordinary mixture of interviews and clips, with some basic behind-the-scenes clips thrown in. Given that this is a Sayles film, I was hoping for something a little more fly-on-the-wall. The interviews offer some insight into the characters, but it all goes a little too much into "happy talk" at times in the second half of the piece.
Somewhat better is "On Location With John Sayles", a 23-minute documentary that has a stronger mixture of behind-the-scenes clips of the production at work and interviews that get deeper towards the issues of the story. We're given more insight into the adoption situation in Mexico and get some additional information about the local culture and economy. While the prior featurete was geared more towards the acting, this piece allows Sayles to talk more about his style of directing, achieving the look and feel of the film, and some of the challenges the production faced.
"On Location" was directed by Bruno de Almeida, whose feature "Beyond Borders" can also be found on this DVD. "Borders" is a 29-minute documentary that combines a look at the making of "Casa De Los Babys" with an exploration of politics, society and the adoption situation in Mexico. This is a very good piece in a lot of aspects, but it does occasionally overlap some information (both generally and literally, in the case of a couple of interview clips) from the other pieces.
Rounding out the supplemental section are the film's theatrical trailer, a soundtrack spot and trailers for "Manic", "Camp" and director Kevin McDonald's outstanding "Touching the Void".
Final Thoughts: "Casa" has several great performances and despite the fact that the film seems rather underdeveloped in areas at only 98 minutes, it's still a very involving drama. MGM's DVD offers fine audio/video quality and a few insightful supplemental features. Recommended.