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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FENCES (2016)

December 23, 2016

fences Greetings again from the darkness. Just about any use of words you can think of serves some part in this screen adaptation of renowned playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony award winning stage production. It first hit Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the leads, and the 2010 revival starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis – both who reprise their roles for the movie version. It’s also the third directorial feature from Mr. Washington (The Great Debaters, Antwone Fisher).

The story takes place in mid-1950’s Pittsburgh and is a family drama character study centered on patriarch Troy Maxson (Washington), a former Negro League star and ex-con, who now works days on a garbage truck before coming home to his wife Rose of 18 years (Ms. Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo, “The Leftovers”). The Friday night after work ritual finds Troy holding court in his backyard with his best friend and co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson), as they share a bottle of gin and pontificate on the injustices that have landed them in this place and time.

Another regular Friday occurrence is the drop-in of Troy’s son by his first wife. Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is a musician who shows up on payday for a “loan” from dad. To say there is tension between the two would be an understatement, and it’s the complex relationships between Troy and everyone else that is the crux of the story. Another player here is Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who periodically wanders by talking about battling demons and hellhounds. See, Gabriel suffered a severe head injury during WWII and now has a plate in his head but no real place in society.

Troy is a proud and bitter man, unwilling to acknowledge that the world is changing. Instead he holds firm to his belief that the white man will always hold back the man of color. It happened to him in baseball (though actually he was too old by the time Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers) and he refuses to believe Cory can succeed in football despite his being recruited by a college. Troy jumps between charming and caustic, and his fast-talking bellowing style can be entertaining, enlightening, condescending and intimidating … sometimes all of the above within a few sentences.

There is magic in the words of Austin Wilson, and as a film, this is a true acting clinic. The performances keep us glued to the screen in each scene. Denzel is a dominating presence, and the single best moment belongs to the terrific Viola Davis. Her explosive release conveys the agony-of-the-years, the broken dreams, and the crushing blow of broken trust. As a viewer, we aren’t sure whether to stand and applaud her or comfort her with a warm hug. The only possible criticism might be that the stage roots are obvious in the film version. The theatrical feel comes courtesy of the sets which are minimal and basic with no visual wow factor. But this minor drawback only serves to emphasize the characters and their interactions.

It’s pointed out to us (and Troy) that fences can be used to keep things out or keep things in. During his pontificating, Troy uses a couple of phrases more than once: “Living with a full count”, and “Take the crooked with the straight”. He often waxes philosophical, and it’s through these words that we realize both he and Rose took their sense of duty and responsibility so seriously that they both lost their selves in the process. Making do with one’s situation should not mean the end of dreams and hopes, and it certainly gives no one the right to hold back anyone from pursuing the path they choose. While watching the actors, don’t miss the message.

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