BABYLON (2022) – Exceptional Movie Has Much to Say About Film Industry and Movies’ Relationship with Fans

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BABYLON (2022), the latest movie by writer/director Damien Chazelle, the man who gave us LA LA LAND (2016), my favorite movie that year, and starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, is not getting great reviews or performing well at the box office.

But I loved it.

It speaks to the magic of movies, and what it has to say about how important movies are to people is spot on, and it does this with a story about just how cruel and unforgiving the business is to those who work in it, creating a perfect storm of opposites: how can a medium so magical and which brings such joy to people the world over be built on such depravity and callousness? And the answer the movie offers by film’s end is that in the end, it’s all worth it— all of it, the pain and suffering and loss—none of it matters in the long run, because movie makers create high art that is seen in theaters around the world and that connects to fans forever.

BABYLON takes place during the 1920s, during the era of silent movies, and opens with an extravagant, decadent Hollywood party/orgy filled with drugs, sex, music, and even an elephant! This opening pre-credit sequence goes on for over 30 minutes and might have viewers wondering if this is the point of the movie? One long party sequence to show how Hollywood partied in the 1920s? The good news is that this is not the point of the movie. Instead, this sequence serves as an introduction to the three main characters in the story.

We meet Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a young Mexican American who is employed by the famous party host, and we first see him trying to transport the elephant to the party mansion, but it’s at the party where he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) a vibrant young actress who crashes the party in the hopes of getting discovered. Manny comments to her that she wants to become a star, and she replies that she is already a star, that you’re either born a star or not, and she is. We also meet Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) who at the time is the silent screen’s biggest leading man.

When the party finally ends, Manny is told to drive a drunk Jack Conrad back to his home, and he does. Jack enjoys conversing with Manny, and the next day tells Manny that he wants him to join him on the set of his movie as his personal helper, and since Manny is dying to break into the movie industry, he agrees. Meanwhile, when an actress at the party overdoses on drugs and nearly dies, the producer picks Nellie on the spot to replace her. It’s a bit part, one scene, but Nellie is more than up to the task.

On Jack’s movie, after a brutal on location battle sequence, the director finds himself out of cameras, and Manny is sent to find replacement cameras and get back on location before sunset, a job is he is determined to complete.

The movie then follows Nellie’s rise to stardom, Manny’s triumphant climb to the director’s chair, and Jack’s slow decline from box office star to Hollywood has been as he struggles to make the transition from silent movies to sound pictures. But don’t expect A STAR IS BORN. As Jack learns in a conversation with tabloid reporter Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), the industry is bigger than all of them, it doesn’t need any of them, and it will continue when they are dead and gone. And so, Nellie’s and Manny’s success is also fleeting.

Getting back to the aforementioned scene, it’s one of the best written in the movie, in a film that has a lot of well-written scenes. Reporter Elinor goes on to tell Jack that while he may be broken now by his lack of success, because of the magic of movies, he will be immortalized. That fifty years after he has died, young fans born after his death will discover him on film, like him, and even believe they know him, all because he has been captured on film. It’s a wonderful conversation, mostly because it is true. This is exactly what happens to actors in movies of old and describes perfectly the relationship fans and moviegoers have with these actors decades after they walked the Earth.

I absolutely loved the screenplay by Damien Chazelle, as it has so much to say, and in a visually stunning well-acted movie, the screenplay was my favorite part.

On the surface, the screenplay speaks to the hilarious mania involved in making movies, especially during the silent era. In the battle sequence of Jack’s costume movie, for example, a man dies when stabbed in the heart with a spear, and the crew stands around his body and comments that he struggled with alcohol, and he probably stabbed himself. Riiight. Manny is tasked with finding an additional camera before they lose daylight, and he eventually commandeers an ambulance to race the camera back to the set before the sun goes down. And then there’s Jack, drunk and barely able to walk, after drinking all day waiting for the camera to arrive, painstakingly making his way up the steep hill in order for the director to get the shot.

There’s also a hilarious sequence chronicling Nellie’s first attempt at a sound movie, and how nearly impossible it was to get the sound right. This sequence calls to mind a similar sequence in Gene Kelly’s classic musical SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). More on this connection later.

Beneath the surface, the script has a lot to say about the discrepancies about the lives of the people who make the movies juxtaposed with the magic they make on screen, as the players often live in poverty, and then once they break into money, their lives spiral out of control due to alcohol and drugs. It’s not a pretty picture. And in Nellie’s case, her gambling problem leads her to cross paths with some very deadly people.

The screenplay also touches upon racism, social status inequities, and gender inequality in the making of movies.

There’s also an ongoing argument that Jack has with his wife about movies and art. Jack argues, and eventually becomes convinced, that movies are high art, and that they matter more than any other art form in the country. He argues that rich people go to Broadway, but everyday people go to the movies, and these films are so important to people’s lives; and, Jack argues, Broadway plays reach thousands of viewers. But movies reach millions upon millions of viewers. It’s a point well taken. It’s also true.

Behind the camera, Damien Chazelle scores almost as highly. While there are so many sequences with expert editing that really bring these moments to life, the film has a three hour and nine-minute running time, and so sure, it could have used some overall editing to cut it down some. Some of these moments could certainly have been shorter. But they’re all so good, it’s difficult to complain.

For example, the long sequence near the end where Manny attempts to pay off Nellie’s gambling debts to the mysterious and deadly James McKay (Tobey Maguire, in a scene-stealing performance), and McKay invites Manny to an underground area of Los Angeles, is horrifying and disturbing. You can make the argument that at this point in the film, the movie goes full-blown horror movie. It’s terrifying.

While Brad Pitt gets top billing, the story is mostly about Nellie and Manny, and as such Margot Robbie and Diego Calva get most of the screen time, and they are both terrific. I’m a huge fan of Margot Robbie, and she delivers here yet again. We just saw her in AMSTERDAM (2022), another top-quality movie which also featured a superior Margot Robbie performance. Here, as Nellie, Robbie is wild, unpredictable, and a force to be reckoned with.

Diego Calva is equally as good as Manny, the young man who will do whatever it takes to work in the movies, and as such, he develops a reputation for being a go-to guy on set, a reputation that continually earns him more and more responsibility. He is also in love with Nellie, and he is always there to help her, even when the situation she finds herself in turns deadly.

Brad Pitt, in what turns out to be a quiet understated performance, anchors the film with his portrayal of silent film star Jack Conrad. At first, Jack is the confident lead man, never meeting a problem he can’t solve or a movie he can’t lead, but when he fails to make a successful transition to sound movies, he realizes that while his visage on screen may live on, he is forever stuck making mediocre sound movies because he’s just not as good in them as he was in the silent films.

There are other notable performances as well. Jovan Adepo as trumpet player Sidney Palmer, Jean Smart as columnist Elinor St. John, Olivia Wilde as Jack’s wife Ina, Lukas Haas as Jack’s manager George, Li Jun Li as the erotic Lady Fay, and Tobey Maguire as James McKay are all terrific, as are many others.

As I said earlier, there’s a strong connection between BABYLON and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. The plot of SINGIN’ IN THE RAY is all about Gene Kelly’s character trying to make the transition from silent movies to talkies, and since it’s a 1950s Hollywood musical, it’s all in good fun and has a happy ending.

Events in BABYLON mirror events from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. Heck, Brad Pitt’s Jack even sings “Singin in the Rain” as part of a musical number in one of his talking movies. The difference here is that BABYLON also shows the dark underbelly of the industry, complete with sex, drugs, blood, and death. And Manny, who lived it, buys a ticket to see SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN upon its release, some thirty years after the events of his movie making experiences, and the last shot of the movie reveals Manny’s thoughts as to whether it was all worth it or not.

BABYLON is an ambitious and near brilliant movie. I’m tempted to say I loved every minute of it, but at 3 hours and 9 minutes long, that wouldn’t be true. Yes, it could have used some editing to cut it down some. But other than this, BABYLON is a phenomenal movie that has so much to say about the movie industry, its place in the world as an art form, and its relationship with it adoring fans, the world over.

I give it three and a half stars.

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Ratings System

Four stars – Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars – Fair

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

FIRST MAN (2018) – Serious, Somber Look at Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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first man

FIRST MAN (2018) tells the story of astronaut Neil  Armstrong, following his personal journey as he becomes the first human to step on the moon. It’s a journey that is as focused as it is somber, and the film does an outstanding job capturing this mood.

The film also presents a raw and honest look at NASA. Don’t expect the crowd-pleasing heroics of Ed Harris and company in Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13 (1995). NASA here is more often portrayed as a group of scientists so caught up in the speed of the space race that they often pushed ahead without fully knowing what they were doing, at a great cost, as human lives were lost.

Regardless, Neil Armstrong is shown here, in spite of his own personal demons, believing the space mission was indeed worth the cost. FIRST MAN is not a knock on NASA. It’s simply an honest look at the space program in the 1960s.

When FIRST MAN opens, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the failing health of their very young daughter, who has developed a tumor. She dies shortly thereafter, and it’s a loss that stays with Armstrong throughout the course of this story. His somber mood sets the tone for the entire film. He cannot get over the loss of his daughter, and he struggles to deal with it. He sees her in his mind’s eye constantly. Yet, we learn as the story moves forward, that Armstrong keeps his daughter’s memory close to his heart and uses it as a focal point to drive him forward on his quest to reach the moon. It makes for some very effective storytelling.

Which is pretty much the plot of the entire movie, the quest for NASA to reach the moon before the Soviet Union does, as experienced by both Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet, who throughout the whole process is the rock which keeps her family together.

As such, FIRST MAN works on a much more personal level than a broad history lesson on the moon mission.

FIRST MAN was directed by Damien Chazelle, his first film since he won the Best Director Oscar for LA LA LAND (2016), a film I liked a lot, so much so that it was my favorite movie from 2016.

With FIRST MAN., Chazelle is as focused on Neil Armstrong as Armstrong is on the mission. At times, this focus proves to be almost claustrophobic, as sometimes I wished Chazelle would just pull back a bit and look at the space mission through a broader lens, but that clearly wasn’t his purpose here.

This is Armstrong’s story from beginning to end, one he shares with his wife Janet, who is every bit as important to the story as her husband. Indeed, the strongest scene in the movie doesn’t take place in space at all but inside the Armstrong home. It’s the night before Neil is leaving for the moon mission, and Janet confronts him about wanting to leave without saying goodbye to his sons. The scene at the table where he has to admit to his young sons that he may not be coming back is by far the most powerful scene in the movie.

The film also does well with its moon mission scenes. The most cinematic scene in the film is the lunar module’s approach to the moon’s surface. It’s a magnificent scene and an example of movie-making at its finest. It truly captures the moment of what it must have been like for human beings to actually see the moon up close and then actually set foot upon it.

It’s no surprise that the somber screenplay of FIRST MAN, based on the book by James R. Hansen, was written by Josh Singer, the man who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015). That screenplay won Singer an Oscar.

Singer’s screenplay here for FIRST MAN reminded me a lot of his screenplay for SPOTLIGHT. Whereas it was the subject matter in SPOTLIGHT that was bleak, here in FIRST MAN it’s Neil Armstrong’s broken heart. He is devastated over the loss of his daughter, and he refuses to forget her. He uses her memory to drive himself forward towards the moon. It is not a happy journey. Of course, we know from history that the end of this journey is a happy one, as Armstrong made it to the moon and did indeed become the first man to step onto the moon’s surface. And in this movie, the moment also allows him to find closure with his daughter.

The screenplay also does an excellent job showing NASA as a human organization rather than one occupied by superhuman scientists and engineers. There are nonstop flaws and setbacks, and astronauts lose their lives in the process. In another of the film’s best scenes, NASA scientist Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tries to assure Janet that Neil is going to be fine, that they have things under control. She quickly lashes out at him, saying, You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  It’s a painfully poignant moment.

And yet as I said, this is not a movie that bashes the space program. The tone is prevalent throughout that the entire mission to the moon was worth the cost. FIRST MAN is simply an honest look at these costs.

Ryan Gosling is one of my favorite actors working today, and as expected, he does a fine job here as Neil Armstrong. He nails Armstrong’s focus throughout, and plays him like a grieving introvert who oftentimes shuns away both his family and friends. He needs to deal with his grief alone. Yet, Gosling is careful never to paint Armstrong as a jerk. For instance, he does not come off like a jackass when he ignores his family but rather like one who is truly struggling with a personal lost, and when he is pressed by his wife to step up for his family, he doesn’t lash out at her. He quietly acquiesces.

Some may think this is a one note performance by Gosling, as he seems to be stuck in this sad mood throughout, and while this may be true, he does effectively capture Armstrong’s pain and resolve.

That being said, Claire Foye I think gives the best performance in the film as Janet Armstrong. She certainly displays the most range, from loving caring wife, to frustrated mother, to the incredibly strong woman who has to go above and beyond to not only keep her husband focused but NASA honest about what they are doing with her husband. Foye is more than up to the task. Better yet, she shares almost the same amount of screen time as Gosling. She’s no supporting love interest. Janet is a prominent character here.

I haven’t seen much of Foye. She’s done a lot of TV work, and she was the best part of the weak thriller UNSANE (2018) earlier this year. She played the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s silly thriller, notable because it was shot entirely on an iPhone.

The supporting cast is excellent.  Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, and Ciaran Hinds all make solid contributions, as do a bunch of others. It’s well-acted throughout.

There’s also a powerful music score by Justin Hurwitz, which is no surprise, since he also composed the music for LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH (2014).

I didn’t absolutely love FIRST MAN. First of all, by design, it’s not a happy movie. In fact, it’s so downright mournful that I almost had a headache by the time it was over.

There are also times when the pace slows a bit. I wouldn’t call the film uneven because these moments are few and far between, but they are they nonetheless.

The film does end on a strong note, with the successful moon landing. In fact, the phrase “The Eagle has landed” has never sounded better, not since Armstrong said it for real.

History remembers that Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the moon, and it’s easy to accept that moment as it was captured in the grainy TV footage from 1969.

FIRST MAN fleshes out Armstrong’s story, presents it not as a black and white image but in high-definition clarity, and by doing so reveals that the human side to Armstrong’s story is every bit as important and relevant as the scientific side.

In short, Neil Armstrong was a real person with real fears, problems, and pains, and in spite of these things which we humans all face, he didn’t let them get the best of him but instead in his own quiet way used them to propel him to the moon.

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