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

WATCH THE TRAILER


HORNS (2014)

October 28, 2014

Horns Greetings again from the darkness. Every once in awhile a movie comes around that seems to have all the markings of a cult film that could become a midnight movie favorite. Since I can best describe this one as “a darkly comedic supernatural horror film”, its only real hope for staying power is that teens and young adults embrace the outlandish look at good and evil, and make it a regular on the midnight movie circuit.

Director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes) has long been part of the “splat pack” and this time his source material has good genes. The popular book was written by Joe Hill, son of the great Stephen King. It’s an oddly atmospheric and sometimes funny film with theological undertones, and Aja stays mostly under control until the ultra-violent ending sequence.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Ig, a young man widely suspected by his fellow small town residents of murdering his true love (Juno Temple). After a visually creative opening that turns Ig’s world upside down and moves us from heaven to hell, we follow Ig’s attempt to solve the murder with the help of his attorney and long time friend (Max Minghella). And then one morning, things get really weird. Ig sprouts devil horns from his forehead. Things also get fun. This devilish look has the effect of causing people to confess their darkest inner thoughts … those thoughts we don’t even admit to ourselves!

Much of the movie plays as a basic whodunit, and the entire thing has a “Twin Peaks” feel to it … right down to the diner (Eve’s Diner with an apple logo). There are flashes of satire aimed at the news media, the drug culture, religion, and parenthood; and its core is a theme of “every devil used to be an angel“. With the satanic element, you can be sure Rock ‘n Roll comes into play (David Bowie, Marilyn Manson, The Pixies), and it’s actually kind of fun to watch Ig take advantage of his supernatural powers with a combination of evil and charm.

Radcliffe takes the role seriously and his approach adds some bite to the humorous elements. Juno Temple has limited screen time as his love interest, while Heather Graham goes full out nutso as the publicity seeking waitress, and Kelli Garner has the most frustrating role (her talents are wasted, except for a bizarre donut scene). Minghella doesn’t bring much to a role that had some potential, but Joe Anderson delivers as Ig’s drug addicted trumpet playing brother. James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan each have an extended scene as Ig’s parents, and David Morse delivers as the angry dad who has lost a daughter.

Mr. Aja throws a mixture of style and elements as he takes full advantage of the gloomy and colorful Pacific Northwest setting. Numerous flashbacks are utilized, including some childhood events that impact the current situation. The pitchfork, horns and serpents are there to distinguish good versus evil, but mostly you better be prepared for a twisted hoot that reminds a bit of Bubba Ho-Tep in the outrageous blend of comedy and horror … yep, the makings of a midnight cult favorite.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


IDES OF MARCH

October 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Political thrillers can be so juicy and filled with “gotcha” moments and “oh how could he/she” scenes. Inevitably, most come down to an “I believed in you” showdown and reckoning. This latest one based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, gives George Clooney an opportunity to play out his political aspirations without opening himself to the real thing.

Clooney also directs and the smartest move he made was assembling an ensemble cast of some of the best actors working today. Clooney plays Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, who is one of two still-standing Democratic Presidential contenders on the verge of the Ohio primary. His Campaign Manager is grizzled campaign veteran Paul, played with staunch principals and a black-and-white rule book by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Their talented and idealistic Press Secretary Stephen is played by Ryan Gosling, who talks more in the first scene than he did in the entire movie Drive. Their opponent’s manager Tom Duffy is played by Paul Giamatti. Duffy oozes cynicism and seems to have misplaced the rule book that Paul holds so dearly.

 The film begins with the set-up so we get a feel for just how strong or weak of character each of these men are. Morris (Clooney) is obviously an Obama-type idealist who claims his religion is the US Consitution. He says this while gently poking fun at his opponent’s Christian beliefs. We see just how talented Stephen (Gosling) character is at handling the words that his candidate speaks and we see Paul (PSH) in full back room politico maneuvering.

 The film has two huge points where the mood swings. The first is a contrived, definite no-no meeting between the ambitious Stephen and the shrewd Duffy. The second is a sequence between Stephen and a 20 year old campaign intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who also happens to be the daughter of the Chairman of the DNC. These two events turn the film from political thriller to melodramatic Hollywood fare. That doesn’t make it less of a movie, it’s just different than it began.

 Cat and mouse games ensue and we see just who is the master manipulator amongst a group of professionals. This is one of those films where the individual pieces are actually more interesting than the whole pie. There are two really excellent exchanges between Gosling and Hoffman. Ms. Wood steals her scenes with ease. Jeffrey Wright nails his brief time as a desperate Senator negotiating the best deal possible. Giamatti’s last scene with Gosling is a work of art. The only thing missing is a confrontation between Giamatti and Hoffman. THAT alone would be worth the price of admission.  We also get a glimpse of the give-and-take gamesmanship between the campaign (Gosling) and the media (Marisa Tomei).

You might be surprised that Clooney actually minimizes the political meanderings, though he does get in a few jabs at the Republicans. This is more character drama … how far can your ideals and morals carry you. What is your breaking point? Where is the line between realist and idealist? Is it betrayal if you act for the right reason? The final shot of film is superb. Et tu, Brute.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t mind a mixture of political drama and traditional Hollywood melodrama, especially when performed by a group of top notch actors OR you are convinced that only Republicans do bad things

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you only want a full-fledged political expose’ around running for political office OR you still believe that politicians and idealists are above reproach.

watch the trailer: