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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FIRST MAN (2018)

October 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Every junior high student learns that Neil Armstrong spoke those words when he became the first person to walk on the moon’s surface in 1969. So while his words are etched into our minds and the televised visuals of the historic event are seared into our corneas, most of us know little of the man who is renowned as an American hero. Director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND, WHIPLASH) finds a way to personalize a man’s story without sacrificing the corresponding grandiose theatre and immense danger.

Kicking off with one of the most intense cinematic sequences ever, the film puts us inside the cockpit of a test flight with Armstrong in 1961 as he bounces off the atmosphere and rockets towards near certain death. This opening makes the statement that this is no ordinary man, and this is no ordinary movie … and we are now prepared to hold on tight! Based on James R Hansen’s book, the only biography Armstrong authorized, the script from Oscar winner Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT) expertly balances the test pilot/astronaut portion with the character study/personality of the man. Intensity is on display throughout – whether in a capsule or during family time.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, and the story tracks him from 1961 through that famous moment in 1969. What we see is a man who was first an engineer, and then a pilot. A man whose intellect and nerve allowed him to be part of the second group of pilots selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1962. The first group was the Mercury Seven. He was also a man emotionally devastated by the death of his young daughter Karen (from a brain tumor) and the numerous deaths of friends and associates in the space program. The film clearly shows how he was impacted.

Proving true JFK’s proclamation that the driving force wasn’t that it was easy, but rather that it was quite hard (and dangerous), we glimpse some of the inner workings of NASA, and what becomes clear that the space program was high stakes gambling filled with huge risks – all for a space race against the Russians that was motivated by ego and national pride. Daily danger was part of the job, as was the claustrophobia that comes with sitting in tin can space capsules being monitored by computers far less powerful than the cell phone you are likely using to read this.  Armstrong’s claustrophobia somehow seemed less apparent during his flights than during press conferences or sitting at the kitchen table with his family – providing even more insight into the man.

Claire Foy (“The Crown”) plays Janet Armstrong, the strong-for-the-kids while suffering-in- (mostly) silence homemaker wife. Ms. Foy does a nice job of conveying the emotional turmoil that goes with being an astronaut’s wife, and having no one to share the uncertainty and worry with. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space (Gemini 4) and Armstrong’s neighbor and close friend. Olivia Hamilton plays his wife Pat, while Kyle Chandler plays Deke Slayton, and Corey Stoll offers up a not so complimentary portrayal of Buzz Aldrin. Other familiar faces in the cast include Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks in APOLLO 13), Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian D’Arcy James, and Leon Bridges.

Meticulous attention to details of the era include kids that actually ask to go play outdoors (and aren’t overly impressed with astronaut dads). The sound design and set designs are phenomenal and complement the outstanding cinematography of Linus Sandgren (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND). The abundance of close-ups allow for an intimacy that makes the awe-inspiring space sequences even more breath-taking. Actual historic space audio is used whenever possible, and director Chazelle doesn’t shy away from showing us the “other side” of the space program: Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon”, writer Kurt Vonnegut publically questioning the program, and many citizens wondering why so much money is being spent on rockets while there were so many other areas (including Vietnam) in need of attention.

The humor is often quite sly, including a scene where his competitive applicants shrug off Armstrong as only a “Civilian”, unaware of his remarkable service and record in the Korean War as a Navy Fighter Pilot. Gosling’s quietly intense portrayal of Armstrong could be termed constrained, but it’s quite fitting given his subject. Composer Justin Hurwitz (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) delivers and unusual but fitting score, and we can’t help but realize this would make a terrific trilogy bookended by THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and APOLLO 13 (1995). Chazelle presents a fitting bio of a true American hero (and yes, we can see the flag on the moon), while also giving us a look at the harrowing process of putting folks into space. It’s on us to decide if it’s worth it, but leaves no doubt that President Kennedy was right … it is hard.

***On a personal note, I attended the first year of Edward H White Middle School in San Antonio, and his widow Pat White came to the Grand Opening. I vividly remember what a classy lady she was and how proud she was of her husband.

watch the trailer: