George Does Babylon (2022)!
Happy New Year!
I do not, as a rule, review movies in the current release. However, I got knocked out by Damien Chazelle's Babylon. Right on the deck, just like a Mike Tyson left to the jaw. Bang! Considering the topics covered in my regular Wednesday blog spot, it's not hard to see why I enjoyed it so much. Babylon is Singing in the Rain without the songs and jokes. No worries, folks. It has jokes of its own.
Please, see this film in a cinema. The big screen is aspirational to the characters and the film's point. See it as god intended, not naked, but on the big screen. The press is calling it a "Bomb," but not for lack of talent or presentation, not because it's a bad film - it isn't, just because people are cautious about returning to the theater. Wear your mask or biohazard gear and see it!
Babylon tells the fictional story of early Hollywood as it transitioned from silent films to talking pictures and the catastrophic cost it took on many stars. Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie are the big stars here, and they are excellent and enthusiastic as they play amalgams of various silent stars. Pitt is the Douglas Fairbanks-John Gilbert, and Robbie is sorta Marie Prevost-Clara Bow. They display a solid grasp of their characters and instill in them the necessary Joie de vivre that those actors must have had to be involved in moviemaking in that exciting time. Brad Pitt is a real movie star, and getting to plumb aspects of his life through this character gives his portrayal gravitas. Robbie is no stranger to this type of character, Tonya Harding in the excellent I, Tonya, and as Harley Quinn in at least three different films. The difference here is her mystery, her "It" we know she's running from something, and it's terrible, but what it is remains a mystery.
The cinematography by Linus Sandgren, who lensed La La Land, is top-notch. I might go so far as to say awe-inspiring, and they share the love by showing us the crews filming the picture and what they are filming with those Bell and Howell hand-cranked babies. Excellent.
There are two impressive performances here. As the gossip columnist Elinor St. John, Jean Smart deserves an Oscar nomination for just one speech toward the film's end. She sums up what the future holds for the great stars of silent cinema. It is powerful, beautifully written, and honest. It's one of the best scenes I have seen in a very long time. The other performance of note is by former Spiderman Toby Maguire as mob boss James McKay. Maguire takes a page out of the Elijah Wood/Daniel Radcliffe textbook and plays the biggest freak in the film, and that is saying something. I include the geek in my figuring.
Two little added surprises include the appearance of child actor Lukas Haas. He is all grown up and very solid in his portrayal. Unsurprisingly, he has grown much larger since his debut in Witness in 1985. The other surprise is Eric Roberts, the great movie star who should have been. He looks well and fit and plays a character who, well, no spoilers, but it plays to his strengths.
We have a couple of newcomers, to me anyway, Diego Calva from Narcos: Mexico. We see the story through his eyes, witnessing all the insanity, chaos, glory, and tragedy. And then there is Li Jun Li as, well as pretty explicitly, Anna Mae Wong, niece of James Wong Howe and current resident of the new 2022 quarter. (Check your pockets!) Li Jun Li is not only beautiful, but she displays natural talent and pure watch-a-bility. (She was on the ABC fantasy Quantico, with the equally attractive Priyanka Chopra; if I thought for one second that the FBI was actually filled with such gorgeous women, I'd be Agent George right now.) I could watch Ms. Li boil an egg and would swoon if she sang a little song while she did it. Li Jun Li comes close to stealing a scene from Margot Robbie and a rattlesnake, and that's no mean feat.
Babylon is an 80% classic. It's a little on the long side, and you occasionally get more of a scene than you need. Sure, there is some directorial self-indulgence, but I loved every moment.
Strange year. Usually, I like my movies to show a certain amount of concision in their execution. In 2022 I loved two over the top, best seen in cinema experiences this year—Elvis at the beginning and Babylon at the end.
What you just read concludes my weekly blog post for the year. I have some new stories planned for the next twelve months. (I'm lying, but something will pop into the brain pan and get cooked up for ya!) Sure, some more arcane old stuff and some more contemporary stuff too. I got a million of them!