BABYLON (2022)

December 23, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1926 and a movie mogul is planning yet another massive debauchery-filled industry party at his palace of a home in still-developing Bel-Air, California. Lest we have any doubt that this party is over-the-top, we are forced to witness the handlers of the main attraction – a circus elephant – get sprayed from the wrong end as they push the colossal beast up the hill. Once the party starts, things get even crazier. Orgies, drugs, nudity, wild dancing, and a golden shower and drug overdose in the room of a Fatty Arbuckle type … yes, this opening party sequence lasts 20-30 minutes, and occurs before the opening credits. The only touch of class is the old school Paramount logo.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle (Oscar winner, LA LA LAND, 2016) sets the stage for his wild and frenzied epic meant (I think) as a tribute to early Hollywood and the uneasy transition from silent films to talkies. Of course, that topic has been handled in other prestige films – recently with THE ARTIST (2011), as well as the classic SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). It’s the latter which serves as a template or guidepost for Chazelle, to such an extent that he shows clips from it, quotes it, and even has a couple of his characters share similarities with Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood.

From the moment she crashes onto the party scene, this becomes Margot Robbie’s movie. Fully engaged doesn’t begin to describe how she embodies the Nellie LaRoy character. Nellie is a displaced Jersey girl desperate to break into showbiz, and she pursues stardom with everything she has to offer. Nellie is a risk-taker and literal gambler, and the character is supposedly inspired by the infamous Clara Bow. It’s at that first wild party where she meets both Jack Conrad (Oscar winner Brad Pitt) and Manny Torres (Diego Calva). Conrad is a huge silent movie star, and also a boozing womanizer with the accompanying swagger (supposedly based on actor John Gilbert). Manny, though a much quieter soul, is much like Nellie in that his ambition is to work in the movie business. The two discuss their dreams while tearing into mounds of cocaine.

Nellie’s fearlessness in front of the camera (much like Ms. Robbie’s) pays off as the offers roll in and she makes her name. She and Manny periodically cross paths as he climbs the ladder towards studio executive. We also keep up with Jack Conrad and his stream of wives, and how things begin to change with THE JAZZ SINGER and the advent of talking motion pictures. While all this is happening, the film also (sorta) follows the career of jazz trumpeter Sidney Powell (Jovan Adepo) as he builds a career as a black performer on screen. One of the more interesting characters who we wish had more screen time is Lady Fay (played by Li Jun Li). We are rarely treated to a Chinese lesbian chanteuse, and she makes each of her scenes quite fascinating.

Others in the cast include Olivia Wilde as one of Jack Conrad’s many wives, Lukas Haas as an industry guy, Eric Roberts as Nellie’s hustler dad, Pat Skipper as William Randolph Hearst, and Max Minghella as the legendary Irving Thalberg. They are each fine, but none as memorable as Tobey Maguire (also a producer on the film), who has a funny/creepy cameo as a fictional giggling gangster named James McKay. However, it’s Jean Smart as Elinor St John, a gossip columnist in the mold of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, who has the film’s best scene when she deals the hard truth to Jack Conrad. Ms. Smart seems to excel in every role she takes these days, and this may be one of her best, albeit with limited screen time.

The issues with the film have nothing to do with its entertainment value and outrageous moments or with the performances. Each of those things keep us watching. It’s only when we stop and think about it when the problems come into focus. Most blatant is the love story between Manny and Nellie. They actually spend very little time together after their cocaine feast. Certainly not enough to fall in love. There is a ‘blackface’ scene unlike anything you’ve seen before, and in 3 hours and 8 minutes director Chazelle follows up the projectile elephant poop with vomit from a drug overdose, vomit from something other than a drug overdose, a urine stream, and rattlesnake venom. At times it seems like he wanted to see just how much he could get away with.

Chazelle collaborators from LA LA LAND include cinematographer Linus Sandgren composer Justin Hurwitz, and Film Editor Tom Cross, all three are Oscar winners from that film, and all provide superb work here. The technical aspects of the film are terrific, it’s as a story (or stories) where things unravel. It’s simply bloated and overly ambitious, while having some of the frenetic pacing of Baz Luhrman’s MOULIN ROUGE! or THE GREAT GATSBY. It appears filmmaker Chazelle is attempting to reinforce cinema is art as a spectacle, when most of us don’t require more proof. The movie montage at the end is fun to watch, but strikes this viewer as a bit indulgent after a long movie. Buckle up for a wild ride and enjoy the good stuff.

Opens in theaters on December 23, 2022

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HARD LUCK LOVE SONG (2021)

October 14, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits inform us that the film is based on Todd Snider’s 2006 song, “Just Like Old Times”. This caused me to stop the film before it ever really got started. I was initially stumped … other than Christmas and Elvis movies, what others were based on a song?  I spent a few minutes thinking and came up with ALICE’S RESTAURANT (1969, Arlo Guthrie song), THE INDIAN RUNNER (1991, based on Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”), ODE TO BILLY JOE (1976, Bobbie Gentry’s song about that Tallahatchie Bridge), and of course, CONVOY (1978, CW McCall’s annoying song). To my surprise, It turns out a movie based on a song is uncommon, but certainly not rare. I’m sure you can come up with others.

Director and co-writer (with first time screenwriter Craig Ugoretz) Justin Corsbie grew up in Austin, the live music capital of Texas, so it’s only fitting that he would deliver a movie about a dreamer who never realizes his dream of songwriting and performing. In fact, Jesse (Michael Dorman, THE INVISIBLE MAN, 2020) probably would be considered a “loser” by most. He certainly drinks too much. Drugs are not off limits. He tells lies with ease in social situations. And he ruined the best relationship he ever had, although he was too drunk to remember how it happened. Despite those “flaws”, Jesse is a pretty easy guy to like – quick with a smile and a hug.

Jesse doesn’t work as hard at songwriting as he should, but he does have a knack for hustling games in pool halls. One particularly big score puts him at odds with local baddie Rollo, played by mohawked and grilled-out Dermot Mulroney, looking about the roughest he’s ever looked. Once he slides out the backdoor to escape, Jesse immediately calls Carla (Sophia Bush, “Chicago P.D.”), his one-that-got-away. When they meet up at his room at the Tumble Inn (as cheap as it sounds), he tells her he’s on a lucky streak and “I’m doing good now”. They fall into a natural and familiar rhythm of old habits that include booze and drugs. Carla knows Jesse better than he knows himself, but she can’t help the attraction.

Of course, Jesse and Carla never have a smooth evening. First, Officer Zach (Brian Sacca, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) knocks on the door after a noise complaint, and searches the room. It’s another Jesse interaction that pays off later. Next, while visiting the bar where she works, Carla and Jesse cross paths with her boss Skip (Eric Roberts playing Eric Roberts) and bartender Sally (the always great Melora Walters (MAGNOLIA). And yet we knew it was only a matter of time until Rollo and his crew would track down Jesse.

The confrontation gets ugly and violent and noisy, and we meet our final key character in Louis (RZA, AMERICAN GANGSTER, 2007), who is Carla’s boyfriend with a certain talent that comes in handy for Jesse. It’s an odd ending befitting the characters. Filmmaker Corsbie has a feel for the underbelly of music towns like Austin, train wreck characters like Jesse, and bad seed relationships of the ‘can’t live with him – can’t live without him’ type. Extra points are scored for the FIVE EASY PIECES nod, and Ms. Bush and Mr. Dorman perform admirably. A clip of Todd Snider performing his song plays over the closing credits, and we can’t help but chuckle at how the lyrics mirror what we just watched. A nice final touch.

Roadside Attractions will release HARD LUCK LOVE SONG in theaters October 15th, 2021

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INHERENT VICE (2014)

January 12, 2015

inherent vice Greetings again from the darkness. What is an absolutely critical element to a good whodunit? The answer is “it”. By definition there must be an “it” that someone has performed or carried out.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel kicks off with a terrific scene that appears to set the stage for a big mystery that must be solved. But don’t fall for it … it’s really a parody of film noir that depicts the end of the care-free hippie era in southern California. Or maybe it’s the beginning of the paranoid era in southern California. Or maybe it’s something else all together. Whatever it’s meant to be, it is certainly a wild ride with a never-ending stream of colorful characters in strange situations.

Many of us consider Paul Thomas Anderson to be one of the true creative geniuses of the film world. His 2007 There Will Be Blood was a towering achievement and complements his other films such as The Master, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, and the underrated Hard Eight. His latest veers into new territory and features one of his more outlandish characters in “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix), a mutton-chopped hippie Private Investigator who never misses a chance to indulge in his marijuana habit. Welcome to 1970 SoCal.

It seems new characters and scenarios are being thrown at us in every scene, as Doc readily accepts new cases and new leads … only there really is no case, even though he spends most of the movie looking into things. His efforts find him crossing paths with his ex-girlfriend, the wife of a missing real estate tycoon, the Aryian brotherhood, a sax player who is either a Federal informant or a student dissident, a coke-fueled dentist, an Asian massage parlor, the FBI, a maritime lawyer, his pizza-delivering sometimes girlfriend who is also a District Attorney, a mysteriously named entity Golden Fang, and the tightest-wound/probably corrupt/ TV-acting police detective named Bigfoot.

Should you require additional weirdness, check out how many character names come right out of cartoons (Doc, Mickey, Bambi to name a few). Need more?  How about a soundtrack that features Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Can’s “Vitamin C”, and a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood? Or film stock that has the look of 70’s vintage … shot beautifully by Oscar winning DP Robert Elswit. There is just no describing the shenanigan’s other than to say the characters, situations and dialogue are alternatingly confounding and humorous. Our movie-watching brains are trained to follow a plot, but Anderson and Pynchon seem to be laughing in the face of this tradition as we try to assemble the nominally related puzzle pieces.

The cast is varied and fun. Katherine Waterston (Sam’s daughter) plays Doc’s ex who kicks off that first scene, Eric Roberts is the kinda missing rich guy, Michael Kenneth Williams delivers a clue, Benecio Del Toro is the maritime lawyer, Owen Wilson is the sax player, Jena Malone is his clean and sober wife, Reese Witherspoon plays the DA, Martin Short is the horny dentist, Martin Donovan is another creepy rich guy, Joanna Newsome is the narrator and periodic assistant to Doc, Serena Scott Thomas (sister of Kristin Scott Thomas) plays the wife of the missing rich guy, and Maya Rudolph (the director’s real life partner) is Doc’s receptionist … and Maya’s late mother Minnie Ripperton sings “Les Fleurs” on the soundtrack. But it’s Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin who really take this thing to the edge. It’s clear both are having fun, which is the best you can hope for while watching this one.

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