BABYLON (2022) film review

Whoa, that’s a lot of movie. Damien Chazelle’s decadent film of bombastic proportions is simultaneously mesmerizing and repulsive, coherent and incoherent, thoughtful and thoughtless. Suffice it to say, it’s interesting to behold. This overstuffed fever dream collage of 1920s and 1930s Hollywood is trying to tell so many stories, that it winds up not telling any of them effectively enough. There are competing A-stories (outside/action plots), each vying for to be the story about which the audience empathizes with the most. To dramatize these ideas, Chazelle assembles a mise-en-scene that’s ostensibly a combination of Singin’ in the Rain, Boogie Nights, Sunset Boulevard, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with a little Caligula and Wolf of Wall Street thrown in to provocative proportions. Ultimately, what we have here is more of an exercise in montage–the assembly of a motion picture–more so than we have a clearly defined narrative. Undoubtedly, this will become a film that is shown in film studies classes in the future, and will be used for close reading discussions, much like I show Boogie Nights in my American Cinema class. There is a prolific amount of imagery to analyze, as the film follows four different Hollywood stories that all intersect one another. Just for whom was the film created? Certainly not general audiences. It is likely going to be most appreciated by Chazelle himself and with some critics and scholars (tho, not this scholar nor the majority of the critics with whom I screened this film).

Decadence, depravity, and outrageous excess lead to the rise and fall of several ambitious dreamers in 1920s Hollywood.

One thing is clear, Chazelle’s intention was to craft a boisterous love letter to the allure and power of cinema whilst negatively critiquing the Hollywood system that creates and destroys careers on a whim. Furthermore, the film seeks to provide thoughtful commentary (just how thoughtful? that is for you to decide) on the superficial, fleeting nature of fame and celebrity. Where the film excels is in the both the performative dimension and Chazelle’s direction. Unfortunately, Chazelle’s screenplay is all over the place.

While audiences may not remember the four individual story threads that make up the outside/action plot, audiences will definitely remember the prologue and final scene. Chazelle certainly captures the unbridled decadence that is probably not unlike the level of debauchery that ran rampant after the great movie people migration from Europe (mostly Germany and France) and eastern U.S. (avoiding Edison’s motion picture patent policing) after the first World War. It was certainly the wild west with a seemingly unending source of money (coupled with massive debt). To borrow from Outback’s former slogan no rules, just right, that describes the atmosphere of the greater Los Angeles area. No order, only chaos. Which is not unlike this film–lots of chaotic images and plot points.

The prologue to Babylon is truly a spectacle that words simply cannot capture accurately. That’s not to say that all of the creative decisions were plot or character-driven–I’ve said it before–that even provocative imagery can be used to further the plot or character; and therefore, that which would otherwise be evaluated as gratuitous, is actually purposeful. However, much of what goes on in the opening scenes is simply gratuitous for the sake of shocking the audience–for an extended period of runtime. I am reminded of the opening to Boogie Nights, and how at first glance it may seem gratuitous, but actually the opening scene is needed for plot and character development. It’s not so much shocking as it is crafted for a strategic purpose.

While elements of the prologue are justifiable, in the relationship to plot and character, there are many moments that are no more than prolific debauchery simply because Chazelle could. Now, what I did find most interesting–and to the point that I greatly appreciate the prologue–is that much of the deplorable chaos is underscored by the score from Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis in the Babylon scene with MechaMaria. Something Chazelle wove into the scene for the film scholars in the crowd.

Jumping to the end of the film, there is a–what amounts to a–clip show featuring iconic films from the 100+ years of cinema history we have. I get it, Chazelle is communicating to audiences that being part of filmmaking means that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, something that will live on decades and (by extension) centuries after you pass away. It’s this artform that will continually be rediscovered and influence people and cultures (good, bad, or indifferent). While it’s clearly designed to be an emotionally moving moment in the film, as indicated by the tears in the character in that scene, it comes off as lazy, derivative montage that does little more than remind the audience of better films for the rather long sequence of imagery. Instead of being a deeply, moving scene, it’s rather vapid.

The four competing A-stories depict four different (but not too dissimilar in substance) Hollywood stories. (1) an A-list star that feels the pain as he watches his star fade with changing times (2) An up and comer that is thrust into the spotlight for a brief time, just to continue to fall due to tragic flaws and a talent that simply didn’t transition to talkies (3) an immensely talented individual subject to the prejudices of the general public and Hollywood executives and (4) and an animal wrangler turned studio executive by being in the right place at the right time, but even that level of fame and success is not invincible to human error and poor judgment. Any one of these stories would have made for a great A-story, with others falling in line thereafter. But each one of them feels like it’s vying for the main outside/action story. This is where Chazelle should have worked with a screenwriter that could have taken his concepts and ideas, and fashioned them into a much better structured and plotted narrative.

Perhaps it’s a film ahead of its time, or perhaps, it truly is the Heavens Gate of 2022. Maybe it will see success on down the road like Boogie Nights and Showgirls has, but only time will tell. Presently, it’s a wild, bloated film that lacks basic storytelling.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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“Rocketman” Movie Musical Review

Well, it’s better than BoRhap, but I should’ve rocketed passed this one. Before you throw tomatoes at me, as my opinion is clearly in the minority on this one, let me start out by stating that I do not care for rock n roll fever dream musicals. If you are unfamiliar with that subgenre of movie musicals, they are best described as those musicals that are surreal, nonlinear, and ultimately driven by emotion and image versus action or plot. Think of a poem versus prose. If you’re looking for an example of this type of movie, then look to Across the Universe. If you enjoyed Across the Universe or are simply a fan of Elton John’s music, then you will definitely enjoy Rocketman. If you are like me and do not care for the modern approach to a musical or unfamiliar with Elton John’s music beyond Step into ChristmasRocketman, or The Lion King, much like me, then you may want to consider blasting past this one. As outstanding as Taron Egerton’s impersonation of Elton John is, I am not ready to give him an Oscar nod. Personally, I do not consider excellent impersonations on par with acting. Impersonation and acting do not weigh the same, in my opinion. However, his performance appears to be highly committed and accurate to Elton John, which adds immense support to the tagline Taron Egerton is Elton John. Furthermore, this performance provides demonstrable evidence that Egerton is capable of a wide range of future roles. Where I do hope the film sees Oscar-nominations is in the spectacular costuming and mesmerizing production design. Those costumes were absolutely mind-blowing! For fans of Elton John’s music or simply the modern approach to the movie musical, then this will certainly be one to catch in the cinema on the big screen.

Rocketman is a modern movie musical that takes audiences on a fever dream journey through the highs and lows of Sir Elton John’s career from his breakout years to headlining Madison Square Garden to addict recovery and his resurgence in the 1980s.

Even before I told my friend that I did not care for the movie, she already knew. Why? Because she knew that I didn’t care for modern musicals; therefore, she extrapolated a hypothesis that I did not like Across the Universe. She knows me very well. Now, before you think that I only like classic musicals, let me elaborate. When I say modern, I am referring to a modern approach to the narrative structure and execution of the musical numbers. For instance, I absolutely loved La La Land and greatly enjoyed The Greatest Showman. However, both of those are classical in their respective approaches to the movie musical. In terms of Broadway, I love Sunset Boulevard and Mamma Mia, both of which are chronologically modern, but the former is still a classically structured musical and the latter’s worldwide success is attributed to the timeless music of ABBA, with which I am very familiar. If I use Mamma Mia or Mamma Mia Here We Go Again as modern movie musicals, that I liked, to which I compare Rocketman, then I assess that if I was more familiar with Elton John’s music, then I would have probably enjoyed the movie a lot more. After all, I went into it with the certainty that I was going to enjoy it. As there are no real shortcomings in the movie (except for some of the clunky dialogue), I am left with the evaluation that I simply do not care for this type of storytelling, so that is why I did not care for the movie.

My favorite moments in the movie are the ones between Elton and Bernie, specifically the one just before a concert in which Bernie urges Elton to reconnect with his child-self to remember why he loved music to begin with. Elton refuses to acknowledge his life before his Elton John persona, and snaps at Bernie. Two seconds later, he reaches out his hand to grab Bernie’s and apologizes. This shows the complexities of their longstanding platonic friendship, and therefore visually communicates the strength and depth of their relationship. At the core of this movie, it is about the rise, fall, and rise of the central character that is guided by an unreliable narrator. The nonlinear narrative begins in the present day, then flashes back to the past. And this goes back and forth until the showdown wherein we move past the moment that we opened with to jump forward to Elton’s recovery and end BEFORE The Lion King. I know. I was hoping that we were going to get a reference to The Lion King and then end the movie. Because this is a rock n roll fever dream musical, it was important to establish Elton John as an unreliable narrator because we then interpret what we are about to watch through a highly subjective lens. Subjectivity is important in the interpretation of a dream, and this story is very dream-like. Since the movie begins with an addict Elton John and ends with a recovered Elton, this unreliability allows for a greater character growth arc that is emotionally driven. Emotion is of vital importance because this story has far more in common with a poem than prose.

Perhaps the narrative execution is not to my liking, but the musical numbers are highly engaging and lots of fun to watch. If you love the music of Elton John then these musical numbers will tug at your heartstrings or make you jump to your feet and dance along with the movie. The first act is quite strong, and the second act is moderately strong, but the third act is a little clunky. Still, every moment of this movie was more enjoyable than BoRhap. The movie would have played stronger for me had it not been filled with one-dimensional characters wrapped up in a lackluster plot. But hey the music and costumes are great! If you want the full experience of Rocketman, then I feel that you want to watch it in a Dolby Cinema auditorium for the exquisite audio and picture quality. Whereas BoRhap was mostly about the music, this one is all about the imagery followed by the music.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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