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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“Ready or Not” Horror Comedy Review

Outstanding! Ready or Not is a brilliant horror comedy from start to finish. Fantastic screenplay, cast, direction, effects, everything works flawlessly. Probably the most fun movie of the summer. It’s a no holds barred dark comedy full of entertaining, campy dialogue and gruesome kills. Not since the cult classic Clue, has there been such an excellent horror comedy heavily influenced by the concept of a game. Samara Weaving slays audiences as the wedding dress wearing Grace as she transforms into this movie’s answer to Kill Bill. Although most of the other characters are relatively flat, you forgive them because of the endless jokes about the insanely rich and the non-stop bloody comedy. Does the film have shortcomings? Sure does–the cinematography and lighting, for examples; however, this movie is so incredibly charismatic and it’s hilarious enough to more than makeup for the technical faults in this movie. When I state “everything works flawlessly,” I suppose it’s a bit hyperbole because it’s not a perfect film, but it knows its strengths, and those strengths support everything else to deliver a movie that will keep you highly entertained for the entire run time that is non-stop antics and action.

“Till death do us part” means so much more than you bargained for in this movie. A century ago, the Le Domas family made a faustian deal with Mr. Le Bail, quite literally the devil, to launch a board game empire. As with any deal with the devil, he will make sure you hold up your end of the bargain. For the Le Domas family, that means playing a game at midnight whenever someone new marries into the family. A blank playing card is placed into a mysterious wooden box, then a  simple turn of the crank prints the name of the game onto the card. All is fun and games, unless the game is hide and seek, which turns the Le Domas mansion into a hunting ground for newlywed Grace (Weaving) as she must now hide from the entire family until dawn, all while her new in-laws hunt her with guns, crossbows and other weapons.

You think your family is screwed up, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Why is this movie so good? It’s a horror comedy with a poignant point to make for audiences. It’s the combination of social commentary and non-stop excellently paced gory antics that make this one to watch. From one of Grace’s first lines “I honestly can’t wait to be a part of your moderately fucked up family,” we know we are being setup for one of the most absurdly fucked up families ever, and we are hooked. It’s just so incredibly, spectacularly ridiculous! The success of this movie is partially derived from screenwriter Guy Bustick’s (The Purge) excellent handle on a healthy and smart sense of humor and comedic timing. He has also demonstrated an ability to creatively comment on the divide between the haves and have-nots while the story not coming off as propaganda. He has a message, but the method he chooses utilizes the power of horror and comedy to deliver it in a way that provokes thoughtful discussions but highly entertains along the way.

But what is the thoughtful discussion point posited by this movie? Is it wealth? Not necessarily. But wealth certainly has a lot to do with it. Ready or Not comments on the insane actions and thoughts of people who place immense value in wealth and the proximity to it. Furthermore, the movie suggests that if you come between a family and their wealth–watch out–because you may be rubbed out. All throughout the movie, characters acknowledge, in various ways, that they associate with the family to be close to the money steeped in tradition. The love of money is a drug–not the money itself–the love of money is probably the most powerful drug with the greatest degree of addictiveness that we’ve ever seen. And that addiction to money is played out in this movie. Everyone from the blood family themselves to those whom married into the family, and the servants is addicted to the money. The family doesn’t want to lose their money and power because that IS their legacy, and the servants don’t want to not be associated with it. The fear of a curse that could end a dynasty is more important than people’s lives, even though some of the family members even state that they don’t believe in the curse. Instead of the family’s pride and joy being the decades of games that have brought laughter and smiles to billions of people, the family is more concerned with the money than its creations.

Samara’s Weaving’s Grace is such a treasure to watch! She goes from a blushing bride to a scream queen to a kick ass Uma Thurmon-like character in a matter of moments. Her transformation is so much fun to watch, and she owns every second of screen time she receives. Her level of charisma is on par with the over all tone of the film. She delivers a dynamite performance that you will love to watch every second. This movie has cemented her as a bad ass who can hold her own. Her performance is so highly entertaining that you forgive it of the rough edges and even the movie for the plot holes that are pretty visible. She strikes a balance between someone unbelievably kick ass but still vulnerable and human all at the same time; furthermore, her actions do not lend themselves to superhuman or John McClane levels of survivorship. Grace is 100% human and 100% bad ass all at the same time. Her wounds are severe, but she is determined to survive. In fact, she must’ve read the same book as Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street, because Grace is obviously “into survival.”

Here is a question likely on your mind: why was The Hunt cancelled and Ready or Not still hit theatres since they have a similar premise at their respective cores. Not having seen The Hunt, I can merely speculate, but from what I inferred from the trailers, The Hunt appears to take itself far more seriously than Ready or Not. The latter is a black comedy that satirizes the concept of the rich preying on the poor for comedic effect whereas the former gives off far more serious tone. This is one example of how comedy allows you to tell stories that simply don’t work in other tones; furthermore, the pairing of horror and comedy provide such a creative latitude for expressing plots that would otherwise be too dark (i.e. The Hunt).

Don’t hide from this movie, because if you do, you will miss out on an absolute blast at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and teaches high school TV/Film production. 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 or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com!

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