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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“Overlord” full movie review

Surprisingly deep! The best kind of bait and switch is when you go in with moderately low expectations and get blown away by how incredibly well an experimental film dances the line between two genres and provides us with rich writing and excellent direction. At the end of the day, it is still a glorified B-movie, but it’s a B-movie that has so many A-list qualities about it. Often when the term experimental is attributed to a film or movie, it is usually because of a particular stylistic choice by the director; however, I chose that description for this movie because it blends the war (WWII) genre with horror and action to create a movie experience that is incredibly thrilling and creepy. Not for the weak stomached, this movie contains quite a lot of war and horror violence, but the gore and violence are never the focus but used to enhance the visceral experience of the movie. The focus of the movie is on the mission of the American soldiers to take out a signaling tower for the Nazi forces, and we never forget that. For all the complexities of the film, the plot is superbly simple and the main characters moderately complex. If there is one singular fault of the movie, it is that the character of opposition (Wafner) is not as interesting as our central character of Boyce. Supporting the lead cast are fantastic side characters who are mostly there for some comedic relief. While the horrors of Nazi medical experimentation led by the sadistic Josef Mengele are still stomach-churning to this day, the end of this movie contains a brilliant payoff that takes what the Nazis may have been doing right before D-Day, and turns it against them. The Nazi’s are defeated by a member of a group that would have been on their extermination list. If you’re thinking that this is going to be another Dead Snow, you would be wrong. Takes what Dead Snow did well and combines it with the best of WWII movies to deliver an exhilarating movie!

Hours before the real life D-Day, a small group of American soldiers survive a airborne battle above France, and must work together, through their differences, to destroy a signaling tower in village near Normandy in order to allow the Allied forces to storm that infamous beach to deliver France from the clutches of Nazi occupation. The US soldiers soon realize that there is more going on than an oppressive Nazi occupation in the village. As the soldiers inch their way toward the former church, now a Nazi camp, they discover that the evil Nazi medical experimentation goes way beyond unethical and even immoral to downright sadistic. In an effort to solidify the Third Reich’s rein over the world, they have developed a serum to make super soldiers that has some horrific side effects. The allied forces must face not only the Nazi forces but the undead as well.

Why does this movie work as well as it does? Easy. The screenplay by Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith and direction by Julius Avery. Ray is known for Captain Philips and The Hunger Games, Smith for The Revenant. Avery is still relatively new to directing feature films, but demonstrates a strong ability to work with a blended genre that provides audiences with an exciting big screen time. With Avery still earning his chops for feature films, the fantastic screenwriting and story serve as a solid foundation upon which the other elements are built. At first glance, this movie seems like one that would essentially one that is just schlocky fun, or perhaps one that tries to take itself seriously but fails miserably in a way that makes it painful to watch, and ultimately forgettable. But to great surprise, the movie not only delivers a thrilling WWII horror movie but one that is produced with dimension, depth, and visual precision. Although not writing or directing, J.J. Abrams penchant for incredible visuals and heart-pumping action is seen throughout the movie.

Before discussing the performances and visuals of the film, I want to focus more on why this film is much deeper than it first appears. On the surface, it is a WWII action horror movie but beneath the surface, the screenwriters confront the audience with concepts and questions that are creatively woven into the high concept plot. Chief among these is found in our central character of Boyce. He’s a young black male fighting alongside these hard-hearted soldiers. While his counterparts are mostly jaded, he maintains a morally sound world view amidst the harsh realities of war. The fact that the film depicts a young black male as the hero during a time in our country that was about to experience great civil rights unrest, is a testament to the creative and effective approach to this story. He plays the role that is often given to a white actor, but I immensely enjoyed the charisma and talent he brought to this role that shows a progressive film. Regarding the rest of the American soldiers, each soldier represents a different kind of character, providing audiences one with whom they may be able to identify.

In addition to the fantastic casting choice in Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the screenwriters also confront the audience with the question of what truly separates us from our enemies when the only means to defeat them is stooping to their level. Including a message such as this one allows us to use the situation as an allegory in our present culture that is growing increasingly divided, and hate seems to abound. Where do you draw the line in the course of war or a philosophical battle? Ostensibly giving the middle finger to the damsel in distress, this film delivers an independent badass heroine in Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier). Such a strong female character in this movie, Chloe refuses to stay in her home and allow the American soldiers to fight for her. And she is so strong that even the most masculine of the soldiers accepts her tenacity and unbreakable spirit. Fortunately, the movie does not turn her into a love interest for the American soldiers. Many of the solders find her attractive, but she is never objectified by the Americans; however, she is objectified by the despicable Nazis. But fortunately for her, the infatuation the Wafner has with her, eventually brings about his demise.

Overlord delivers it’s visual tension brilliantly. And this is in party to the high degree of visual storytelling in this movie. The action sequences and special effects are extremely well produced. Avery’s movie rises above what we generally expect out of high concept action/horror movies to provide audiences with gritty, gnarly special effects and makeup effects. There is a realness to the atrocities of war felt in this movie that can be greatly appreciated. That realness is achieved by a large percentage of practical effects supplemented with digital effects. As I have pointed out before, relying upon mostly CGI robs the audience and the actors of authenticity. CGI cannot completely replicate the way real light bounces off real objects and into the camera. That sound mix, tho! If anything assaults your senses as much, if not more than the gruesome visuals, it is the ridiculous good sound design and mix. Definitely watch this film in IMAX or Dolby Digital (or the equivalent) if it is available in your area.

If you are seeking a horroresque gritty action movie, then this is one that you do not want to miss. It’s got everything you want from a movie that dances the line between horror and action. I cannot think of another horror action movie that does this as well with the exception of James Cameron’s Aliens (though, that one leans more towards action than horror).

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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