Sunday, January 22, 2023

A spoiler-filled essay on BABYLON***** but also Zero - it's an alpha gamma film

It pains me to say that Damien Chazelle hasn't made a wholly decent film since WHIPLASH and it's clear where he's gone wrong. WHIPLASH was tight as a drum, taut with tension, constructed with precision and escalated from a whisper to a bravura climax. It centred on a single story and a single relationship that captured us and spat us out at the end, exhausted and exhilarated. By contrast, BABYLON starts at eleven and keeps on going, throwing everything at the screen in bravura set piece after bravura set piece. Some of it works. In fact the first 100 minutes or so is some of the most impressive cinema I've ever watched. But it all goes wrong when Tobey Maguire appears on screen. No disrespect to Maguire but his performance is clearly a misdirected misfire of epic proportions that jumps the shark, or leaps over the alligator, or whatever. And the film never gets back on track. After that it's just overlong repetitive unnecessary coda after coda culminating in one of the most patronising epilogues of all time. Yes, Chazelle, we get that you're telling the story of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN as tragedy rather than comedy. We. Get. It. We are clever. Stop trying to hammer it home. Stop trying to big yourself up.  Stop trying to place yourself at the heart of the unending unspooling of cinematic history because you are doing yourself no fucking favours.

Anyways. Long pause for breath. Let's talk about the stuff that is absolutely amazing in this film. Let's talk about a film that is in love with what film means to its audience, and the madcap pioneers who made it all happen, but is also under no illusions about the cruelty and crassness and exploitation of the industry itself, as depicted in its earliest scene where an elephant shits over the audience. 

We open with a 30 minute bacchanalia at a movie producer's house in proto-Bel Air, surrounded by desert scrub and bristling in saturated dry heat.  Everyone is part-naked, coked-up and fucking. Jean Smart's thinly veiled Hedda Hopper-style gossip columnist wants to see the secret room upstairs where the producer keeps the underage girls. A thinly veiled Fatty Arbuckle is getting pissed on by a wannabe starlet who is soon to OD, and will be smuggled out by cover of elephant. 

Lest we think Hollywood has corrupted these people, Chazelle shows us they started out corrupt.  Margot Robbie's wannabe starlet and Clara Boy cipher Nellie LaRoy arrives at the party wearing nothing and looking for drugs, and when she gets her big break she decides to bear her iced nipples: she's no naive innocent and no-one is forcing her to be lewd.  As a result, it comes as something of a surprise in the film's second act when she seems shocked and saddened at being called "low" - so saddened that she acts out by trying to wrestle a snake, leading to perhaps the coolest, crudest and sexiest meet-cutes of all time. Thankfully Nellie's attempts at reformation are short-lived. She doesn't progress or learn or grow. Maybe a drug and gambling addict can't - at least not in an environment of enablement where every set has a friendly dope-pedlar. In her fragile vulnerability and incapacity to escape herself I found myself thinking of Elizabeth Short, now known as the Black Dahlia, another vulnerable woman who came to Hollywood for stardom.  There but for the grace of God.  When LaRoy disappears into the night, high as a kite, dancing to the music in her head, was any other ending ever possible? Or maybe the other ending is that ascribed to LaRoy's mother, institutionalised. Maybe Hollywood is to be lauded for at least allowing a "wild child" to be wild?

Similarly, Chazelle has cast newcomer Diego Calva for his dreamy eyes, but his Manny Tores is shrewd from the start. It's his idea to use the elephant as cover and he will literally do anything for access to a movie set including disavow his own family and racial heritage. So it comes as no surprise that an hour later into the film he will cruelly decommission Nellie's lover and Anna May Wong cipher Lady Fay (Li Jun Li) as inconveniently gay at a time when the wild west of Hollywood is about to be self-policed by the prurient Code.  I was happy when Manny came a cropper and didn't buy into the importance of his epilogue redemption. Do I give a shit that Manny now sees the magic of film? Or understands his former colleagues' place in its history? No.  And his casual dismissal of Lady Fay echoes Chazelle's inability to give Li Jun Li the story she deserves because of the constraints of the story he is telling. She has to escape to Europe for a career when the Code cuts her short. And so she disappears from BABYLON much to its loss. The same holds for Olivia Hamilton who plays an early female silent film director. This film cannot say much about her because Hollywood did not allow her to thrive. But it was wonderful to see  the early female directors recognised. 

In fact, the irony is that the least corrupt characters are arguably the old-hands: Jean Smart's gossip columnist and Brad Pitt's kind-hearted old-fashioned silent star, loosely based on John Gilbert. They love the movies for what they are - honest working class entertainment providing an escape for the lonely and poor.  Pitt's Jack Conrad gets one of the best scenes in the film when he tells his thespian fifth wife that the audiences a Broadway show pulls would be considered a flop in Hollywood. And it's heartbreaking to see him fail to make the transition to sound, and the toll this takes on him in his final scene.  It's even more heartbreaking because we know that while Jean Smart offers him immortality in exchange for heartbreak, those early nitrate films barely survive and are rarely seen. It was a bum deal, and somehow Jack Conrad always knew it. 

But Jack Conrad's self-managed exit from the stage isn't the films most heart-breaking moment. That is reserved for Jovan Adepo's jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer. He starts the film at the aforementioned bacchanal and ends up benefiting from the move to sound films, earning vast amounts of money but at the cost of enduring patronising white folks at a fancy country club dinner where Nellie, perhaps viscerally expressing what Sidney is feeling, ends up projectile vomiting over the pretentious cunts who act as gatekeepers. Later, he will be asked by Manny (a fellow minority presence in Hollywood but in full denial of his ethnicity) to black up so that his face doesn't look too white on screen.  No cinema in the South will show an integrated band.  Manny, by this time fully a tool of the system, emotionally blackmails Sidney and tells him the whole band will be out of a job if he doesn't comply and you can see every calculation - emotional and logical - that Sidney goes through - and what it costs him - with no words but etched on his face as he plays the trumpet.  It's a brutal scene that will stay with me for a long time. Thank Christ Sidney escaped to Harlem and got back his self-respect. But again, how sad for us and the film that he has to perforce leave our screens, yet another reason why its final hour is  - with the exception of Jack Conrad's exit - woeful.

So this isn't a terrible film, as many reviewers would have you believe. It's a brave bold beautiful disgusting chronicle of a brave bold beautiful disgusting set of people who wanted to create art, make money and make us laugh and often exploited people - and themselves - in order to do so.  Their aim, Chazelle's aim in highlighting what they endured, is noble. And if the film makes just one person pick up an autobiography of Clara Bow, or find an old clip of a silent film on BFI Player, then it's all worth it.

BABYLON is rated R and has a running time of 189 minutes. 

A spoiler-filled essay on ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED*****

Laura Poitras (CITIZENFOUR) returns to our screens with the beautifully constructed, deeply affecting and passionately argued ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED.  The movie plays as a multi-layered narrative centred on the incredibly talented, ground-breaking and straightforward photographer Nan Goldin.

The kernel of the film is Goldin's activism against the Sackler family, pedlars of Oxycontin as made famous most recently in the superb miniseries and book Dopesick. Goldin became addicted to Oxy having being medically prescribed, and now clean has founded a group called PAIN to agitate for the Sacklers to be brought to justice AND for their artwashing to be unpicked.  This is incredibly effective because Goldin is in the permanent collections of so many of the art institutions that the Sacklers have funded.  The Met, the National Portrait Gallery, the Louvre et al, then have an awkward decision: have Goldin withdraw her art OR take the Sackler name down from their marble halls. When we finally see the actual Sackler heirs being forced to listen to Goldin and other victims' testimony, it's a brutal and provocative moment. What are they really thinking?  Is their guilt sinking in? And does this really provide justice and closure for the survivors? Can anything?

Wrapped around this kernel is the story of Goldin's adult life - a life that seems to have been in permanent agitation and activism on behalf of the marginalised and despised. As a young photographer she falls into the 1970s and 1980s art scene in New York, living a financially perilous but artistically meaningful life.  She lives and chronicles the ballroom scene, whorehouses on The Deuce, and the cruel refusal of government to fund anti-AIDS research. Her indie artshow in support of AIDS victims contains an essay so controversial - an indictment of the Mayor of New York, the Federal Government and the Catholic Church - that it's debated on the Senate floor. So maybe - without wanting to wish chronic pain and addiction on her - Goldin was EXACTLY the artist-activist we needed to fight the opioid epidemic - an artist particularly attuned to institutional failure and the sacrifice of an entire generation of people for profit.

The final, outer layer of this film is perhaps the most tragic and the most revealing - and it is that of Goldin's childhood in conservative suburban hell.  Her big sister was a brilliant, gay woman whose family were utterly unprepared to handle her, and so was shipped off to successive mental institutions until she killed herself.  It's this story that brackets the film and it's shocking to see Goldin's immaculately dressed polite parents at the end of the film contrasted with the emotional turmoil we've seen for much of its running time. Perhaps Goldin seeks accountability, or understanding for her sister's treatment?  We hear her joke and laugh with them, so maybe she has found some kind of peace. And perhaps we have to just chalk it up to a different time, and that hurt people hurt. But the "different time" canard is exploded by Goldin's life and art. In each generation we need people like Goldin to explode the safe so-called morality of settled beliefs and rocket us into a more evolved progressive era. We all owe Goldin a debt for being part of that - and this film is an incredible chronicle of the toll it took and the battles still being fought.

ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED has a running time of 122 minutes. It played Toronto and Venice 2022 where it won the Golden Lion. It went on release in the USA last year and goes on release in the UK on January 27th.

Sunday, January 08, 2023


Scott Cooper (CRAZY HEART, HOSTILES) returns to our screens with a gothic crime story starring Christian Bale as a jaded, grief-stricken detective called in to solve a gruesome murder at West Point in the 1830s. He is assisted by the young Edgar Alan Poe who really did attend West Point briefly.  Harry Melling gives the stand out performance of the film as the strange, mournful but intelligent young writer. The murder involves some strange, apparently ritualistic mutilations that allow for spooky slash Dickensian cameos from Robert Duvall and Gillian Anderson respectively. In fact the latter made me think of her turn in the wonderful BBC adaptation of Bleak House as this film matches a lot of that show's colour palette and elegiac tone. 

The problem with the film is that it lacks any real drive or propulsive impact either as a detective puzzle or as a horror story. I think it maybe wants to be an emotional investigation of grief instead? Even that didn't really work for me. It just felt dull and overlong. The only reason to watch it is for Masanobu Takayanagi's (HOSTILES) stunningly wintry colour-drained photography. 

THE PALE BLUE EYE is rated R, has a running time of 127 minutes and is streaming on Netflix.


My cousin announced she was getting married in Lisbon and as my husband and I hadn't been to Portugal for decades we thought we would make an extended holiday out of it, planning a road trip by picking every single Michelin one and two star restaurant along the way for dinner every night bar the wedding, starting in Faro and ending in Porto.  We are the greedy capitalist bastards, where the dishes become a blur, that have apparently sucked the joy out of cooking and life for celebrity chefs like the fictional Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).

As a result, he lures a privileged few diners to his remote island restaurant for an epic tasting menu that will fully express his nihilism and totalitarian control of both staff and diners.  If you have the audacity to ask for mere bread, his maitre d, Elsa (Hong Shau) simply says "no".  Every course is exquisitely described and reveals yet more about the contempt in which the diners are held. And so we come to the inevitable horror-comedy conclusion.

For me, this is a superb social satire cum black comedy that takes the piss out of people like me. It comes as no surprise that it was written by two late night comedy writers - Will Tracy (Last Week Tonight With John Oliver) and Seth Reiss (Late Night With Seth Myers). There is a spareness to the comedy that is devastating. And the over-fussiness of the menu seems absolutely spot on.  Mark Mylod (Succession) directs with a cool deadpan tone and kudos to all involved in the production design.  The performances are uniformly good BUT Hong Chau is the stand-out in expressing the cult-like status of these chefs and the rigidity of their approach to actually enjoying food. It's kind of nuts to me that Anya Taylor-Joy has been nominated for a Golden Globe rather than Chau, who deserves awards not just for this but also her performance in THE WHALE. What a year she had in 2022.

However, while I do think the film is worth watching, well-made, and funny, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was a really good 60-minute episode of Black Mirror rather than a feature film: a high concept comedy that couldn't sustain its runtime. 

THE MENU has a running time of 107 minutes, is rated R, played Toronto 2022, and is available to stream.