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


PAWN SACRIFICE (2015)

September 17, 2015

pawn sacrifice Greetings again from the darkness. Being such a fan of the expert documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), I found it a bit challenging to clear my head and accept a dramatized approach to the story. This was after all, one of the most fascinating reluctant public figure during one of the most energizing signature events of the Cold War between Russia and the United States … it was even described as World War III on a chess board.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) and writer Steven Knight (Locke, “Peaky Blinders”) wisely focus the story on the infamous World Chess Championship match in 1972 between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky. This was 8 years prior to the “Miracle on Ice” when the USA Olympic hockey team upset the powerhouse Russian hockey team, but this chess match caused every bit as much media frenzy and national pride as that day in Lake Placid. This international attention is as important to the story as the psychological state of Bobby Fischer and his genius-level chess skill. And it’s the media and citizenry reactions that provide the contemporary comparison to what we see too often these days thanks to social media … icons are born, chewed up, and forgotten.

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer, and despite lacking the height and physical presence of the real chess champion, he expertly conveys the paranoia, fear, and arrogance that burdened the man and created even more suspense for those of us keeping a watchful eye at the time. Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) plays Boris Spassky, and even speaks his lines in Russian. Schreiber captures the iciness for which the Russians were known, but also interjects subtle personality and insight in a story where his adversary is constantly over-the-top. Chess strategy isn’t so much the story here, as are these two men from different worlds forced together on a stage in Iceland – with the full attention of the world.

Supporting work is varied, but exceptionally strong. Robin Weigert plays Bobby’s mother, and we get glimpses of why he later suffered from Mommy issues – in no small part to her intimate gatherings of Communist friends. Lily Rabe is touching as Bobby’s sister and possibly the only person who ever had his best interest at heart. However, the real intrigue comes in the form of Peter Sarsgaard as Father Bill Lombardy, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Paul Marshall. Lombardy was Fischer’s coach and confidant, and seemed to be the only one who grasped the severity of Bobby’s mental state. Marshall, a well known attorney in the Music industry, is a shady fellow who seems connected to the government, and is really the driving force behind getting Fischer to play Spassky. More background and the motivation for these two gentlemen would have been welcome and filled a gap. The soundtrack of the era compliments the tone and is used smartly throughout.

The story of the tortured genius always makes entertaining fodder – think Van Gogh, Mozart, and John Nash. Bobby Fischer certainly fits that description, but his story is frustrating because we just don’t understand the mental issues that caused him to evolve from teenage chess prodigy to World Champion to literal anti-social outcast spewing hateful words (watch the end credit film clips). This film is a worthy primer for the man and the times, and a reminder that we are always searching for the next hero … the next person to hoist up on the pedestal, only to be replaced soon after with another, and then another. Perhaps the film says as much as about us as a people, as it does about Bobby Fischer as a person.

watch the trailer:

 


THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)

May 14, 2013

great gatsby1 Greetings again from the darkness. Movie versions of beloved books are always a risky proposition. Devotees of the written word recoil in disgust when a filmmaker dares re-imagine a character or scene, while critics take delight in itemizing each and every stray from the source material. Director Baz Luhrmann is an artist. His canvas is the silver screen, and he thrives in presenting his interpretations and visions. When he agreed to take on F Scott Fitzgerald’s 88 year old masterpiece… one that consistently lands on the lists of top ten novels of all-time … he most assuredly prepared for the onslaught of criticism and outrage that would follow (and has). He must have also known that his work would delight and entertain those open-minded viewers not shackled to thoughts of a single “correct” form (it has).

great gatsby2 If you have seen Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) or Romeo + Juliet (1996), then you are prepared for a Gatsby vision significantly different from director Jack Clayton‘s somber and oft-dreary version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Taking a different route altogether, Luhrmann worked with Jay-Z on the soundtrack that mixes Roaring 20’s jazz classics with contemporary hip-hop. He worked with award-winning Costume Designer Catherine Martin (his wife) on creating a kaleidoscope of colors for dazzling outfits that range from Gatsby’s pastel suits and shirts to the glitzy and sparkling party dresses at his over-the-top parties. Additionally, Luhrmann invoked the newest 3-D technology to add even more emphasis to the visual spectacle that included free-flowing champagne, high-gloss and high-powered automobiles screaming down narrow roads, sky-filling fireworks, and enough glittery confetti to stop down a parade. Jay Gatsby may know how to throw party, but so does Baz Luhrmann!

great gatsby5 Knowing this movie was coming soon, I re-read Fitzgerald’s novel back in January. While I was once again struck by the depressing feeling it leaves you with (it is after all a tragedy), I was also reminded of what stunning prose the writer lays out. At times I find it borders on poetry. You may agree with many of the 1925 critics who claimed the characters are unlikeable and the plot has little to offer, though you must also acknowledge the work acts as a timeless reminder that the vast majority of us could never come close to writing something as beautiful.  I pity the next high school student who opts to watch Luhrmann’s movie rather than read Fitzgerald’s words.  That essay will likely miss some key themes … but at least the student will be treated to a visual feast!

great gatsby4 The cast members are talented and game for Luhrmann’s world. Leonardo DiCaprio infuses the mysterious Gatsby character with the uncertainty and teetering balance of secrecy, desperation and illusion that Redford never could. His obsession with Daisy (Carey Mulligan) may be difficult to understand, but then why should obsessive love make sense? Joel Edgerton (as Daisy’s husband Tom) is a womanizing brute who sets apart his own inherited wealth and culture from that of Gatsby as East and West Egg. Tobey Maguire‘s Nick Carraway is our lone hope for normalcy. He is thrust into the Gatsby world and never really understands it … but then who could? The Carraway character is my single biggest complaint in regards to the movie. The framing device of Nick writing the story down for his psychiatrist as part of his therapy, means we get entirely too much Tobey Maguire and Nick Carraway for my tastes.

great gatsby7 It’s also a bit disappointing that we get so little of the strong supporting cast: Isla Fisher as Myrtle, Jason Clarke as Myrtle’s husband, and especially Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim and exciting newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker, are seen and heard from entirely too few times. In fact, the Nick and Jordan connection from the book is mostly ignored. These are all fabulous actors who did what they could with the characters, but we should remind ourselves that Fitzgerald’s book was always more about the prose than the characters or plot. He told us what he wanted us to know more than have his characters show us. That was his art form. Baz Luhrmann’s art form is showing … and his show is quite a treat!

**NOTE: this is neither a documentary nor exact adaptation … it takes artistic license for automobiles, clothes and music (among other things)!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy varying interpretations of art OR you just can’t decide who makes the dreamiest Gatsby – Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a literary traditionalist and believe movie versions of classic books should not vary from the script (this one does).

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TaBVLhcHcc0