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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“La La Land” movie review

lalalandSimply dazzling! A beautifully produced motion picture musical that is sure to delight audiences around the world. Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) and Emma Stone (Mia) shine brightly in this self-reflexive modern romantic film set on the backdrop of a classically composed movie musical echoing the song and dance numbers that Busby Berkeley brought to the silver screen through Hollywood studio system powerhouse Warner Bros. Summit Entertainment’s La La Land will have you laughing one moment and crying the next in this roller coaster of emotions. Every aspiring professional who has the dream of a substantive career as an artist in the visual and performing arts–or just an artist in general–needs to watch this film. If you have ever been discouraged on your career path, or lack thereof, this film will aid in reigniting the flame that fuels your dreams of writing, acting, playing, or whatever your passion happens to be. Whereas many films similar to this one would have shot it as a period OR modern piece, this film is nothing short of a masterpiece that harnesses the nostalgic appeal of the classic musical with the power of modern cinematic storytelling.

Stories of struggling to reach your dreams are nothing new, but there is so much more to the story of Mia (Stone) and Sebastian’s (Gosling) respective goals of successful careers in the city of angels. Following a chance meeting at a night club in LA where Sebastian was playing a set list of traditional Christmas carols, Mia and Sebastian continue to bump into each other at parties and in the work place. The focus of this musical is on the everyday life of two struggling artists trying to make it in a city notorious for shattering dreams and breaking hearts. Mia and Sebastian must learn what is more important: chasing dreams of being in the spotlight or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a beautiful love unmatched by any other.

Best part about Damien Chazelle’s La La Land? The old-school movie musical feel from the moment the film opens. From set pieces to matte paintings to the manner in which the cameras capture the story as the drama unfolds, this is both a modern story of romance and conflict and classic Hollywood musical. While some may find the cinematography, lighting, and editing to be nothing remarkable, the fact of the matter is that it required great skill and hundreds of hours of effort to capture the essence of an old Hollywood musical. To recreate a nearly extinct film genre, is an outstanding achievement in cinematic storytelling and deserves all the 9s and 10s this film is receiving from critics and fans alike. La La Land takes pages right out of the books of Busby Berkeley (Footlight Parade) and Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain). Such a gorgeous combination of a classically structured and choreographed musical within a modern Hollywood. And the film could have easily rested its laurels on the technical and artistic achievements alone, but the film also possesses an incredibly beautiful love story between two aspiring artists.

In a modern studio system who appears all too often to be more concerned with franchise building, merchandising, theme park integration, and rebooting, this film is fresh, real, gritty, and endearing. In a climate so predisposed to the Star WarsesHarry PottersJurassic Parks, and Avengerses, this film brings with is a breath of fresh air that is nearly unmatched by any other film this year. While many are concerned with the lack of original stories coming out of Hollywood, may this film be a testament that masterpieces can still make their way into cinemas nationwide and not simply the art house theatre of the US’ largest metro areas. Although film is a visual medium and should not rely upon the score or songs to carry the bulk of the film (i.e. Frozen), this film is very much about the music. However, unlike films that integrate music in order to cover up poorly structured and developed writing, La La Land embraces the music as much a part of the story as the writing itself. In many ways, the film plays out like music and flows like a musical score. The way the cameras moves, the editor cut, and the blocking of the characters is very much like a musical staff, like the way music is composed and performed. But at the same time, the movie is not simply about the music but about the relationship between Mia and Sebastian; and furthermore, about their aspirations for the spotlight. Solid writing and a solid score.

The casting of La La Land could not have been more brilliant! Both Stone and Gosling successfully bring about that 1940s feel in a modern story. That could be due to the successes of both in 1940s era films prior. Stone in Magic in the Moonlight and Gosling in The Notebook. While both can successfully carry a period piece on their own respectively, together they are a powerhouse couple like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their performances in this film were so incredibly natural, so real, and believable. At the same time, the actors are also very much contemporary–just like the film: classic yet contemporary. Even though the audience is well aware that Stone and Gosling are anything but struggling artists, they play their respective parts so convincingly that you’d swear that we were actually watching a pair of struggling artists who do desperately want a substantive piece of that Hollywood pie. A great screenplay possesses protagonists that the audience will love or love to hate, and the characters in La La Land connect so incredibly well with classic and contemporary audiences.

Inspirational. This film will help to inspire those who have a talent for storytelling, music, or writing to continue to work hard and remain dedicated to one’s craft because that is the only way that a career can pay off. The moment you stop trying is the moment that the dream dies along with settling for less. Not that day-jobs aren’t important. Certainly the importance of a day job is shown in the film, but it’s imperative that the day job never cause an artist to sell out or give up on the dream. Day jobs should fund imaginative dreams not eclipse them. There is much to love about this film; so much so that you will likely find yourself with a desire to watch it again. This IS definitely my pick for Best Picture as we head into award season with the holidays coming to a close.