KNOCK AT THE CABIN (2023) – M. Night Shyamalan’s Latest Intriguing but Not Intense

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Acclaimed writer/director M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the scene with his super successful debut film THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), and in the years since has enjoyed an up and down career with a variety of hits and misses.

For me, most of Shyamalan’s movies have been misses, but when he’s on his game, and the story is as strong as his direction, and the film isn’t done in by a superficial plot twist, the results are pretty darn good.

KNOCK AT THE CABIN (2023), Shyamalan’s latest, fall into this latter category. It’s pretty darn good! And he’s helped here by superior source material, as the screenplay by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman is based on the novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. Those of us from the New England horror community know Paul very well and are overjoyed that his writing is being adapted by Hollywood and turned into movies. Way to go, Paul!

So, KNOCK AT THE CABIN has a strong story, and M. Night Shyamalan does right by it.

KNOCK AT THE CABIN opens with a little girl Wen (Kristen Cui) playing alone in the woods catching grasshoppers, when she is approached by a very large yet softspoken stranger who introduces himself as Leonard (Dave Bautista). Although Wen tells Leonard she doesn’t talk to strangers, he has a gentle way about him, and soon they are talking. The conversation begins innocently enough, but when three other strangers arrive, Leonard tells Wen that they are there to talk to her and her parents and they are going to have to make a difficult choice, words that frighten Wen and cause her to run back to her cabin where she finds her two “dads,” Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and warns them that four strangers are on their way to the cabin.

Andrew and Eric immediately become alarmed when they see these four people at the door holding various sharp tools and weapons. Leonard asks to be let in, but Andrew and Eric refuse. Eventually, the four strangers force their way in, and after a scuffle, Andrew and Eric are tied to chairs and find themselves at the mercy of these four people. The two men immediately believe that they have been targeted because they are gay, but the softspoken Leonard assures them that is not the case, that they didn’t even know they were a same sex couple until they arrived at the cabin.

When Leonard starts speaking of shared visions that the four have had, and of the oncoming apocalypse which will wipe out all humanity, Andrew and Eric then believe that they have been overpowered by a group of religious fanatics. Things get worse when Leonard explains that the only way the apocalypse can be avoided is if there is a sacrifice, and that sacrifice will have to be made by Andrew, Eric, or Wen.

One life to save humanity.

While the story told in KNOCK AT THE CABIN is refreshing, in that it’s not about attacking a same sex couple because of extreme homophobia, and early on the audience is thinking the same thing that both Andrew and Eric are thinking, that they have been targeted because they are gay, it’s not without flaws. For starters, strangely, considering the premise, this movie is nowhere near as intensely disturbing as expected. Part of it is the plot itself. When Leonard goes on and on about the apocalypse, Andrew and Eric both think he and the others are simply crazy, and rightly so! I’m right there with them, as most others would be. Leonard and the three others are trying to convince Andrew and Eric to make an impossible sacrificial choice, but really, it’s not so impossible, because Andrew and Eric don’t believe it.

Unless you do this, the world will end!

Okay, I don’t believe you. So, we’re not doing it! End of story.

Also, the idea that Andrew and Eric have control over the decision is much less intense than if they had zero control, where the four strangers were going to do something horrible to them, but that’s not case. The point, of course, is the question, would you make that sacrifice for your fellow humans? The problem is there is no way that most folks here in 2023 are going to buy this premise. The apocalypse? I’ll wait till God shows up in person, thank you very much!

And neither Andrew or Eric ever ask the question, who is asking them to make this choice? God? Really? It makes no sense religiously. Sure, there are sacrifices throughout the Bible, but for Christians, at least, those sacrificial days are over, because of Jesus.

Also, as the movie goes on, Andrew begins to poke holes in their story and makes a strong and convincing argument that the four themselves are being manipulated by a group delusion and are experiencing a shared psychotic disorder, but the story doesn’t go there, and so at the end of the day, things are a bit murky, because what Andrew said made sense, and he even offers proof, but nothing comes of it.

Still, KNOCK AT THE CABIN is intriguing and enjoyable. It also features some solid acting performances.

Dave Bautista is perfect as Leonard, the gentle giant, who explains that he is an elementary school teacher and that one reason he is doing this is he doesn’t want his young students to die. Bautista has been fun as Drax in both the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and THE AVENGERS movies, and he’s been memorable in a bunch of other movies as well, but his performance here in KNOCK AT THE CABIN is one of his best. The only knock against him… heh, heh!… is his consistent calm demeanor and the fact that he promises not to harm the family removes a heck of a lot of tension in this movie.

Ben Aldridge as Andrew, the more hot-headed of the two parents, and Jonathan Groff as Eric are also superb. They really make you care for these two guys, and that’s one of the more emotional parts of this movie. The audience really feels their love for each other and doesn’t want to see anything happen to either one of them. Groff of course is known for his work in HAMILTON (2020) and FROZEN (2013), but my favorite Jonathan Groff role remains his FBI character Holden Ford on the short-lived yet superior Netflix TV series, MINDHUNTER (2017-2019).

Rupert Grint, known to Harry Potter fans as Ron in the HARRY POTTER movies, is really good here as Redmond, the least balanced of the four strangers, and the one who makes the family the most uncomfortable. Nikki Amuka-Bird as Sabrina and Abby Quinn as Adriane round out the four strangers and do decent jobs in the roles.

The other phenomenal performance in this movie belongs to young Kristen Cui as Wen. Her expressions throughout this movie are perfect. One of the more intense scenes in the film is when the four strangers are intially at the door trying to get in, and the main reason for this intensity is Cui’s panicked cries for her parents to make these people go away.

On the other hand, another reason this film isn’t as disturbing as expected, is little Wen is largely shielded from all the horrors here. The film doesn’t go there, but if it had, it would have been really frightening.

M. Night Shyamalan keeps the camera tight on Dave Bautista, making him seem immense throughout. Bautista is gigantic in real life, so he doesn’t need much help to look bigger, but Shyamalan’s camerawork does just that. The most riveting scene in the movie and the one Shyamalan does his best work on is the sequence where Andrew makes a break for it and desperately tries to get his gun from the back of his car. Other than this sequence, the intensity is all rather low key.

That being said, I really enjoyed KNOCK AT THE CABIN. I wish it had been more frightening, and I wish there was more to its premise other than the derailing of the apocalypse, but the story was refreshing enough to hold my interest throughout.

I give it three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

WOMEN TALKING (2022) – Important Drama Struggles to Make Emotional Impact

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Sometimes a movie just doesn’t work as well as you expect it to.

WOMEN TALKING (2022) makes its points throughout, but it does so on an intellectual level. Emotionally, I wasn’t moved anywhere near as much as I thought I would be, and for a story about women struggling to escape abuse by men, the fact that I was not emotionally moved really surprised me.

Admittedly, I was distracted throughout the movie by its vague sense of time and place. This is a story about an isolated religious community, where the women aren’t educated— they can’t even read— and the setting looks like somewhere in the distant past. Yet, the movie takes place in 2010, in some unknown location in the United States. It takes place in 2010 because this story is loosely based on true events which occurred inside an isolated religious community in Bolivia in the early 2000s. Since the movie makes no attempt to talk about time or place, I felt distracted because I couldn’t wrap my head around this story taking place in 2010. I get it, that these communities ignore present day life, but it just made everything that happened here a bit… off. While the point of the movie is about the women’s struggles, I found myself wanting to know more about this community and how they had reached this point in their lives. The film doesn’t speak to this.

The plot of WOMEN TALKING is simple. In this community, women are being drugged and raped at night by some of the men there, and their complaints are dismissed as female imaginations. So, a group of women meet in a barn to discuss their options. As they see it, they have three choices: stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. And that’s the movie. Because over the course of the next hour and 45 minutes, the women discuss, argue, and ultimately come to a decision.

These discussions bring up many important issues: the need for women to have a voice, the culture of men’s treatment of women, ongoing from generation to generation, and the violence that men inflict on women without penalty. I appreciated these arguments intellectually, but emotionally not so much, because the experience was similar to sitting in the audience listening to a panel of women discussing these issues. That’s all well and good, but movies can communicate in ways that panel discussions cannot. Movies can move people on a whole different level. And that’s where WOMEN TALKING didn’t succeed for me as well as it could have. In fact, I probably would have been moved more watching that panel discussion because I wouldn’t have been wondering what year this was or where these events were taking place.

Of course, I do realize that the possibility exists that I wasn’t moved as much because I’m a man, but I don’t think this is the reason. I certainly empathized with all of the female characters in this movie. I just wasn’t moved much by the movie as a whole.

WOMEN TALKING features a solid cast. Rooney Mara is captivating as Ona, the unmarried woman who is pregnant, who has an artistic and almost poetic view of the world. Ona is the most interesting character in the movie.

Claire Foy plays Salome, the feisty character who is ready to fight and kill anyone who harms her children.

The rest of the cast all do admirable jobs. But I can’t say the characterizations won me over either. We know very little about these characters other than what we learn from them through their discussion in the barn.

WOMEN TALKING was written and directed by Sarah Polley, the screenplay based on the book by Miriam Toews. The color scheme is muted for effect, and at times the cinematography almost looks black and white. This is for effect, of course, and it works, in that it speaks to the oppressed life these women faced. It also works on a symbolic level, that even today, women can feel like they’re living in the Dark Ages. On the other hand, it makes you think you are watching a story from a century or two ago, not in 2010, which sadly for me, just made for a distraction.

The subject matter of WOMEN TALKING is important. The fact that events like these happened in 2010 speaks to that.

Unfortunately, as a movie, WOMEN TALKING doesn’t take this important subject matter and turn it into an emphatic piece of cinema, which is too bad because its subject matter is something people need to hear about, think about, and act upon.

Sadly, I saw this in an empty theater. Not one other person was in attendance.

Which for me, begs the question: women are talking, but is anyone listening? I hope so.

I give WOMEN TALKING two and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE WHALE (2022) – Brendan Fraser Gives Oscar-Worthy Performance in Thought-Provoking Film

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THE WHALE (2022) is a difficult movie to like.

This is by design.

The movie opens with massively obese English professor Charlie (Brendan Fraser) masturbating to gay porn. Not exactly an image designed to get folks feeling warm and comfy in their seats. In fact, later Charlie demands from another character, “Do you find me disgusting?” and the character’s answer is yes.

On its surface, THE WHALE is about a dying housebound man trying to spend the last week of his life getting to know his estranged teenage daughter. But beneath the surface, the main theme of this movie, which is hammered home a little bit too hard, is that people in spite of how much they say they hate, really do care about other people. As Charlie says, “people are amazing!”

The problem is that nearly every character in this movie is full of hate, which is the point, of course, as Charlie says, that even these people really care. But it makes for challenging viewing because there’s just so much ugliness abound. THE WHALE is a thought-provoking movie, the type of which I really enjoy, because I prefer movies that challenge its audience to think, but that being said, it was a challenge to sit through, and I have to admit, I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

There’s also a strong connection to Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, hence the title THE WHALE, which is also a reference to Charlie’s weight, and this connection becomes stronger as the movie moves towards its conclusion.

In THE WHALE, Brendan Fraser, who was just nominated for an Oscar for this performance, plays English professor Charlie who teachers online writing classes, and because he is so obese, he keeps his camera off during these computer sessions. As he teaches, he constantly pleads with his students that the most important thing they need to do in their writing is to keep it honest, which is great advice. Charlie is in really bad shape. He’s insanely obese, can’t stand up or move without the help of a walker and eats nonstop. His friend and caregiver, Liz (Hong Chau) tells him the bad news that unless he gets himself to a hospital immediately, he will die by week’s end. Charlie pushes back, saying he has no money, and no health insurance, and he refuses to put himself in debt just to seek medical attention, so he accepts the fact that he will die within days.

As such, he does something he’s not supposed to do, which is he reaches out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) hoping to make amends. Ellie is a fiery force to be reckoned with, and Charlie learns that she is failing high school, she doesn’t want to graduate, she’s been suspended, and she’s full of hate towards him. Charlie offers to pay her to visit him this week, and to write her essays for her so she can pass her class. This piques her interest, and she agrees to come back to visit him under those conditions.

Meanwhile, a young preacher named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) begins visiting Charlie, believing that it’s his destiny to save the ailing teacher before he dies. When Ellie meets Thomas, she decides to have fun with him at his expense and engages in behavior which at first seems like she is out to ruin him, as she seems to do with everyone she meets, since she hates everybody, including her father. But Charlie doesn’t believe this about his daughter and in his final days tries to connect with her and teach her that she’s not a hateful person.

There’s a lot going on in THE WHALE, most of it as uncomfortable as watching a naked obese man take a shower. But it pushes its theme forward, that people really do care about other people, in spite of the hate spewing from their mouths, which is at the end of the day, a worthwhile and inspiring message to be sure.

Samuel D. Hunter wrote the screenplay, based on his play, and this film for the most part feels like a stage play. It primarily takes place inside Charlie’s home, and it’s very talky. In fact, it’s a little too talky. At times I thought I was watching a play, not a cinematic movie.

Director Darren Aronofsky, who also directed the controversial movie MOTHER (2017), a film I liked, NOAH (2014), and BLACK SWAN (2010) keeps things simple, and as I said, there’s not a lot of cinematic showmanship going on here from the director’s chair. Although the ending is neatly done, and very dramatic.

The best part of this one are the two main performances by Brendan Fraser and Sadie Sink.

I used to enjoy Brendan Fraser’s work back in the day, and while he’s been making movies and TV shows regularly, he hasn’t really done anything major in a very long time. He was memorable in a supporting role in Steven Soderbergh’s crime thriller NO SUDDEN MOVE (2021), but here in THE WHALE, he’s the lead, and he’s really, really good. Working under heavy prosthetic make-up to make him appear gigantic, Fraser delivers the one soft-spoken and sensitive performance in a movie filled with people who are anything but. He deserves his recently announced Oscar nod.

Sadie Sink is also tremendous as his troubled fiery daughter, Ellie. Sink, of course, is known for her role as Max on the hit Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016-present). Since she joined the show in its second season, she’s consistently been one of its best performers, and she had two of the best scenes in the series last season. In THE WHALE, Charlie keeps calling his daughter “amazing!” and really, the same can be said of Sadie Sink’s performance here. She’s lively, spiteful, funny, and completely unpredictable. I hope that Sink continues to get more movie roles, and that they become larger and more significant. She’s a promising talent.

Ty Simpkins plays the very white Wonder Bread preacher, and he gets bossed around and dominated by nearly every character in this film, especially by Ellie. Simpkins, as a child actor, played young Dalton who gets abducted by a demon in one of my favorite horror movies of the past twenty years, INSIDIOUS (2010). Simpkins also played the boy who Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark befriends in IRON MAN 3 (2013).

Hong Chau (also just nominated for an Oscar) is very good as Charlie’s friend and caretaker, Liz. Later in the movie we learn why she is so close to Charlie, as they are connected by another tragedy. This is the second straight strong performance by Chau, as we just saw her in THE MENU (2022), where she was outstanding as Elsa, the loyal right-hand person to Ralph Fiennes’s fanatical Chef Slowik.

And Samantha Morton is memorable as Charlie’s ex-wife and Ellie’s mom, Mary, another character who spews hate with her words and actually calls her daughter, “evil.” While Morton plays a somewhat coarse character here, the role is nowhere near as dark as the role she played on THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2022), where she played the murderous Alpha.

One thing the film doesn’t speak much on is obesity itself. This isn’t the point of the movie, and so Charlie eats tremendous portions of extremely unhealthy foods unchecked. Even Liz continually brings him fattening subs and sandwiches, with no discussion about healthier eating. But I think this is pretty much understood. For example, there’s a scene where Charlie is voraciously chowing down nonstop on two large pizzas, shoving slice after slice into his mouth, and I’m sitting there watching doing the same with a bucket of popcorn. I had to push the bucket away.

The connection to Moby Dick is an interesting one and stems from an essay which Charlie repeatedly reads throughout the movie. The writer of the essay is refreshingly honest in their understanding of the novel, which is one of the reasons Charlie keeps reading it, and one of its sentiments is that the writer feels sad for Ahab who believes wrongly that he can only be made happy by killing the whale, and also for the whale, who has done nothing wrong but is victimized by the obsessed Ahab. The writer then says that the long chapters in the novel which are just facts about whales were written because the author, Melville, was too sad to return to the story.

Like Ahab, people mistake what they need for happiness. Like the whale, people are victimized for no apparent reason. And like Melville, people often abandon things because they are too sad to continue.

Charlie sees all this in the essay, and he tries to get his daughter to see this as well, especially in terms of why he left her and her mother, and then stayed away, because the tragedies in his life made him too sad to continue.

While THE WHALE may not be easy viewing for most people, its thought-provoking story has a lot to offer its viewers. When asked by Charlie, “do you find me disgusting?” you have to be willing to answer no.

And mean it.

I give THE WHALE three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

MISSING (2023) – Computer Screen Gimmick Tale is Missing a Story

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Can someone say contrived?

The people who made this movie obviously can’t. The plot here in MISSING (2023), a brand-new thriller about an 18-year-old girl searching for her missing mother, tells a story so convoluted it’s laughable. It’s one of those movies where when the final twist is revealed, and we learn what the villain’s plan actually was, you’ll scratch your head and ask, well, why didn’t he just do that in the first place? Why devise this complicated ruse just to do what he ultimately does?

Then again, the point of MISSING isn’t its story, but the way it tells its story, which features the gimmick of having the entire movie play out on a computer screen. If this idea floats your boat, you might love MISSING. Otherwise, you might be in for a very long night at the movies. This gimmick has been done before. For example, it was featured in the movie SEARCHING (2018), which evidently was made by the same folks who made MISSING, although it’s a different creative team, a different set of writers and directors. MISSING is being called a sequel to SEARCHING, but it really isn’t. It’s an entirely new story that has nothing to do with the first movie. I wasn’t that crazy about SEARCHING, and similarly, I wasn’t crazy about today’s movie, MISSING.

MISSING tells the story of 18-year-old June (Storm Reid) who doesn’t get along with her mother Grace (Nia Long) at all. Things have been tough between them for a while, and they are both scarred by the untimely death of June’s father about ten years earlier. When Grace leaves for a vacation with her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung), she leaves June home alone, which is fine with June because it means party time with her friends, although she is miffed at her mom for asking her best friend Heather (Amy Landecker) to check in on her regularly.

When June goes to the airport to pick up her mom at week’s end, her mom doesn’t show up. June calls the hotel in Colombia where her mom was staying and learns that her mom and her boyfriend left the hotel, but without their luggage. Finding this strange, June calls the U.S. Embassy in Colombia for their help, and not being satisfied by their response, decides to investigate on her own, and she does it all sitting in front of her computer. What she learns, and the revelations and twists and turns in the plot that this movie has to offer all come out of the soap operas of old, meaning they’re completely ludicrous.

And that’s the worst part of MISSING, the story it tells. It is flat out ridiculous. Before the movie is finished, June pretty much suspects nearly every character in this movie, even her mom of faking the whole thing, and then, when the final revelation is made, it’s just stupid. Without going into spoilers, if the villain’s goal in this one was to harm the person they wanted to harm, and then connect with the other person they wanted to connect with, there are far simpler ways to do it. Screenwriters Will Merrick and Nicholas D. Johnson, both of whom also directed this movie, seem to have concocted this plot just so they could tell a story all through computer use.

MISSING plays out like one big commercial for the internet. What June is able to do throughout this movie is admittedly impressive. There’s no doubt about that. She’s able to make phone calls, access video feeds, hire a man in Colombia to help her search for her mom, hack into private emails, access private photos, look up the personal history of people she doesn’t know, and she does this all from her bedroom using just a computer and her phone. The fact that we as a society have this kind of technological power is kinda neat. Screenwriters Merrick and Johnson, who based their screenplay on a story by Sev Ohanian, at least deserve credit for writing a story that makes full use of all these technological advances. But like I said, this movie plays out like a commercial, and commercials as we all know aren’t exactly truthful.

Everything that June does in this movie involving internet use not only works perfectly but works fast! I don’t know about you, but my experience online is that things don’t work perfectly, and they certainly don’t work quickly. Then again, I’m an adult of a certain age, and June is 18, and so maybe for most teenagers, the internet is that fast and precise. I have to admit, that while I didn’t enjoy the story in this one at all, I did marvel at the technology featured in it.

On the other hand, I spend most of my days looking at a computer screen and a smartphone, since basically here in 2023 nearly every aspect of life is conducted on a screen, from writing to teaching, to paying bills, checking the weather, socializing, it’s all screen time! So, the idea of watching a movie which in its entirety is taking place on a computer screen, does absolutely nothing for me. That’s the last thing I want to look at while watching a movie. So, I hope that this kind of movie storytelling doesn’t become more of a thing.

Storm Reid is okay in the lead role as June, although most of what she gets to do in this one is offer facial reactions to things playing out on screen. Likewise, Nia Long is fine as missing mommy Grace. Faring a bit better is Amy Landecker as Grace’s friend Heather, as we get to see various emotions from her, as her character goes through some changes in this one. Megan Suri is fun in a small role as June’s friend Veena, and veteran actor Joaquim de Almeida probably gives the best performance in the movie as the man on the ground in Colombia who helps June search for her mother. He’s the only character in the movie that in the brief time we see him we get to know him and know what he is thinking and feeling. Everyone else in this movie takes a backseat to the computer screen, and they come off as superficial.

The ending to this one is also a bit of a headscratcher. I won’t get into it, but it involves a TV show June was watching at the beginning of the movie.

I didn’t hate MISSING. I was impressed enough with the computer and internet aspects of the story to look past its convoluted plot, for a while, anyway. But as it goes along, it simply gets more contrived, to the point where it finally becomes just flat out stupid.

I know there’s some love out there for this one, as critics and fans alike have been saying good things about it. But it didn’t work for me.

So, while MISSING displays an intriguing gimmick where the entire film takes place on a computer screen, it simply can’t overcome the fact that it plays like one big commercial rather than a movie.

And that’s because what’s missing from this movie is a good story.

I give it two stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE CHANGELING (1980)

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Here’s a reprint of a column I wrote back in 2016:

I first saw THE CHANGELING way back when I was in high school.  It was a late night showing on HBO, and I gotta tell you, it creeped me out.  At the time, other than THE EXORCIST (1973), no other horror movie had gotten under my skin like this one.

So, I was very excited the other day to finally see THE CHANGELING again  on DVD, since I hadn’t seen it in years.  And while I have to admit that it didn’t scare me like it did back in the early 80s when I first saw it, it remains a first-rate horror movie.

It’s the type of horror movie that I love:  an A-list cast, talented director, and a sense of seriousness that lifts it above standard horror fare.  In short, it’s a high-quality movie.

THE CHANGELING opens with a tragedy:  composer John Russell (George C. Scott) watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are killed in a freak car accident.  In an effort to rebuild his life, Russell moves across the country, from New York City to the suburbs of Seattle.  He moves into a mansion, a quiet home where he hopes to be able to work on his music in solitude.

He soon begins hearing strange noises at night, noises that lead him to discover a secret room, and inside this room he finds a tiny wheelchair and other items belonging to a child.  Russell soon realizes that there is a ghost in his house, a ghost of a child, and this ghost isn’t trying to frighten him away but on the contrary is trying to communicate with him.  Russell wonders if perhaps the reason this spirit is seeking him might be connected to the fact that he lost his daughter at a young age.

Russell begins to investigate the history of the house, and what he learns leads him to the wealthy U.S. Senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas) who once lived in Russell’s house as a child.  Russell finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict, with supernatural forces on one side, and the power of a U.S. Senator on the other.

THE CHANGELING is a well-made, creepy and haunting horror movie that certainly belongs in the conversation when discussing the best haunted house/ghost story movies ever made.

Director Peter Medak does a wonderful job here.  The scenes in the house are creepy and atmospheric, and he makes full use of some truly memorable images.  A simple child’s wheelchair has never been so eerie.  Likewise, he uses the child’s voice to full effect and there are some shocking scenes as well, like one involving a bathtub.  The film also looks great.  It looks like something Hammer would have done had they still been in business in 1980 and had moved on to contemporary tales.

Peter Medak has a ton of credits, most of them TV credits, including episodes of SPACE 1999 (1976-77), HOUSE (2004), BREAKING BAD (2009), and HANNIBAL (2013-14), among many, many others.

THE CHANGELING boasts an A-List cast, led by the great George C. Scott, who does a bang-up job here as a man still in grief over the loss of his wife and daughter.  He makes John Russell believable as he channels his grief into helping the child ghost.  You understand why Russell becomes so committed to the ghost’s plight, as he sees it as his job as a parent— especially a parent whose daughter was taken from him at a young age— to help this child who when alive had no one to help him.

And while George C. Scott is remembered as a star actor who worked on such powerful films as PATTON (1970), he was actually no stranger to genre films as he made several in his career, including the science fiction thriller THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973), Stephen King’s FIRESTARTER (1984), the TV movie THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1986), and the third EXORCIST movie, THE EXORCIST III (1990).

Likewise, veteran actor Melvyn Douglas adds class to the proceedings as Senator Carmichael.  THE CHANGELING was the first of back-to-back ghost story movies which Douglas made just before his death in 1981, as he also starred in Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY (1981), his final screen credit.

And while Douglas enjoyed a long and varied film career spanning five decades, he began and ended his career with horror films, as he also starred in THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, and Gloria Stuart, and in THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Dwight Frye.

Scott’s real-life wife and frequent co-star Trish Van Devere appears as real estate agent Claire Norman who helps John with his investigation.  She’s very good in the role.  THE CHANGELING was the eighth time Van Devere and George C. Scott starred in a movie together. Trish Van Devere is still with us, as at present, she is 75.

And in another SPACE 1999 connection, Barry Morse appears briefly as a psychologist.  Morse is probably most famous for his role as Lieutenant Philip Gerard on the TV show THE FUGITIVE (1963-1967) but genre fans remember him fondly as Professor Victor Bergman on the science fiction show SPACE 1999 (1975-76).  Morse also appeared in the Amicus anthology horror movie ASYLUM (1972) starring Peter Cushing.

William Gray and Diana Maddox wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Russell Hunter.  Gray also wrote the screenplay for the original PROM NIGHT (1980) starring Jamie Lee Curtis. The screenplay here for THE CHANGELING is far superior to the silly slasher story of PROM NIGHT.

THE CHANGELING will creep you out in the same way that the modern-day PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies do but with the added bonus of also delivering a solid story, something the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies have never done.  And that’s what sets THE CHANGELING apart from a lot of other horror movies.  It does something that most horror films do not do, and that is it generates scares and creates a sense of eeriness without skimping on its story.  In fact, the story just might be the strongest part of this film.

THE CHANGELING is one of the best movies of its type.  And while I didn’t find it quite as scary as I did way back in the early 80s, it still holds up very well today. In fact, if you’ve never seen it and you’re watching it for the first time, you might not want to watch it alone.  Just sayin’.

—END—

M3GAN (2022) – Evil Toy Doll Horror Movie Has Its Moments But Doesn’t Wow

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Do we really need another horror movie about an evil doll?

Of course, we do!

They’re friggin’ creepy!

Plus, truth be told, we really haven’t had a whole lot of evil doll movies which have saturated the horror market and made us sick of them. In recent years we’ve had the ANNABELLE series, which have pretty much been underwhelming, and we’ve had THE BOY (2016) and its silly sequel. M3GAN actually reminded me more of the CHILD’S PLAY (2019) reimagining, with its inclusion of present-day computer technology as a plot device for making the doll act the way it does.

In M3GAN, robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams) is desperately trying to create the world’s next best toy, a doll that is so life-like in the way it can think and learn, that it not only can be a perfect playmate, but also a babysitter, as it can remind children to brush their teeth or flush the toilet, but obviously such a project is incredibly expensive, and so her boss David (Ronny Chieng) isn’t interested and tells her to shut the project down.

But when Gemma’s sister and husband are killed in a car crash, leaving their nine-year-old orphaned daughter Cady (Violet McGraw) in Gemma’s custody, her life changes. She is not equipped to be a parent, and during her struggles to find time off work and connect with Cady, she introduces Cady to a prototype robot toy she once built, which Cady thinks is amazing, and which inspires Gemma to ignore her boss and go all in with her latest project. The result is M3gan, a doll that can think, learn, and seemingly care about the child it is joined with, and in this case that child is Cady.

It doesn’t take long for Cady to absolutely love M3gan, and at a demonstration for David, he is blown away by the way M3gan and Cady interact, and so he greenlights the project to move forward, which means one more demonstration in front of the people in the company with the money. To better ensure a successful second demonstration, he encourages Gemma to have Cady and M3gan spend as much time together as possible, even though Cady’s therapist warns Gemma against doing so, that Cady may be developing unhealthy bonds with the toy and may not be able to let it go later, and which may get in the way of the child’s grieving process.

Gemma ignores the advice, and all is well, until it becomes apparent that M3gan sees it as her mission to protect Cady at all costs and in every way possible, meaning that the doll won’t stop short of murder or of seeing Gemma as a threat as well.

I liked M3GAN well enough and had no major issues with it, other than taken as a whole, it’s all rather slight. It doesn’t really go to any thought provoking places, nor is it much of a scary horror movie. It’s entertaining, and it does have a devilish sense of humor, which for me, was the best part of this one.

Allison Williams makes for a decent lead as Gemma. She is the single professional who has no idea what it takes to raise a child, nor is she really interested, except she does want to be there for her niece, and so it makes for a legitimate conflict. And she’s quite tough later when she realizes what M3gan is up to, and fights hard for Cady. Williams was similarly effective in a darker role as Rose Armitage in GET OUT (2017)

Young Violet McGraw gives the best performance in the movie as Cady. She is perfect as the confused and conflicted child, grieving over the death of her parents, needing someone in her life, and finding that someone in M3gan. Her facial expressions alone capture so much in this movie. It’s a great performance by a young actor. And we’ve seen her before, as McGraw has appeared in BLACK WIDOW (2021), DOCTOR SLEEP (2019), and where she was most memorable, as young Nell in the Netflix horror series THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018).

Ronny Chieng is also memorable as David, Gemma’s opportunistic boss, and Chieng’s comedic timing here comes into play as he gets some laugh-out-loud lines.

M3gan is played by two different actors. Amie Donald provided the movements, and Jenna Davis provided the voice.

Akela Cooper wrote the screenplay based on a story by James Wan. It’s a pretty straightforward story. It has a decent premise but doesn’t really go anywhere beyond typical horror movie fare. The dialogue is the best part, which is tight and oftentimes humorous, and also tells a tender story from Cady’s perspective.

Gerard Johnstone directed this one, and like the screenplay, the film as a whole remains a standard horror movie trope. The murders are all rather predictable and not overly exciting or frightening. Interestingly, M3GAN was originally intended to be an R rated movie, but the decision was made to go with a PG-13 rating to attract more teenagers, so evidently the murder scenes were watered down for this version. Not sure if more gratuitous violence would have made things better (probably not) but as the film stands now, it’s not very scary.

All this being said, I still had fun watching M3GAN, but I wasn’t blown away by any means.

I give M3GAN two and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) – Haunting Period Piece Thriller Mesmerizes from Start to Finish

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THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) is a beautifully shot period piece thriller by writer/director Scott Cooper that tells the haunting story of a killer on the loose at West Point Academy, a killer who likes to slice out the heart of their victims.

But it’s more than just a serial killer story. It’s also a detective story, as the unconventional Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is hired to solve the case, and he drafts as his assistant a young cadet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). It has as its prevalent theme the attachments we keep with our deceased loved ones, as most of the characters are influenced and oftentimes haunted by memories, spirits, what have you, of those loved ones who have gone before them. And it all takes place on the snowy West Point campus in 1830. It’s both a feast for the eyes and for the senses, as this atmospheric thriller now streaming on Netflix is definitely worth a look.

Christian Bale plays Augustus Landor, a man whose wife died after a long illness, and whose daughter ran away and never returned. He is a somber man who lives alone, yet each night when he’s on the case he has conversations with his deceased wife, who helps him with his deductions. He is hired by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to find out who is killing their cadets and cutting their hearts out. Landor doesn’t like the Academy, as he believes it robs men of their humanity, but he agrees to take the case.

He is soon approached by a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe who offers his opinions as to who he thinks the murderer is and tells Landor he should be looking for a poet. Landor likes Poe and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open around the campus. The two detectives are both drawn to Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his family, which includes his wife, his son, who is also a cadet there, and their daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton). There is something about them that troubles Landor, and he can’t put his finger on it. Further complicating matters is when Poe befriends Lea, he finds himself falling in love with her, eventually writing his poem “Lenore” for her.

Tensions rise as the murders continue, and Landor and Poe are no closer to finding the killer, but eventually their painstaking detective work pays off, and they begin to formulate answers.

I absolutely loved THE PALE BLUE EYE, but admittedly, I’m a sucker for period piece thrillers, and even though THE PALE BLUE EYE isn’t really a horror movie, although the argument can be made that it is, it did remind me enough of the classic Hammer Films horror movies of yesteryear that I enjoyed this one from start to finish.

Does it have one plot twist too many? Perhaps. Just when you think the film is over, it adds another element, another twist, that I don’t think the story needed, but when all was said and done, it still worked for me. I bought it. And I bought the characters’ reactions to it.

I really enjoy the work of Scott Cooper. His previous films include OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), an unheralded crime drama that was my favorite movie that year, and HOSTILES (2017), a hard hitting western. Both movies also starred Christian Bale.

Cooper is a terrific writer. Here, he adapted his screenplay from the book by Louis Bayard, and he includes riveting, realistic dialogue throughout. The characters here are all fleshed out, and the plot hooks you in immediately and never lets go. Regarding the characters, it helps that Cooper also has a fantastic cast here, but his writing is still superior.

He scores just as highly as a director. The opening shot of the movie, a hanged body of man dangling strangely, as if he is sitting, starts the film with a haunting image and honestly never lets up. If you like visual thrillers, with creative direction and eerie photography, you’ll love Cooper’s work here with THE PALE BLUE EYE.

Christian Bale is always a pleasure to watch. He fully becomes the characters he plays, which enables him to portray so many different kinds of characters, a trait that makes him such an exceptional actor. We just saw him in AMSTERDAM (2022) as a World War I veteran and doctor in David O. Russell’s quirky comedy drama. He was the best part of the inferior Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) as its main villain, Gorr. He was just as memorable in his previous four movies, FORD V FERRARI (2019), VICE (2018) where he played Dick Cheney and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work, HOSTILES (2017), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), where he was also nominated for an Oscar. He won an Oscar for his supporting role in THE FIGHTER (2010), he played Batman in the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT trilogy, and on and on we could go. Bale is one of the best movie actors working today.

Here, he plays Augustus Landor as a man haunted by his past, by his deceased wife, and missing daughter. He’s also an effective detective, but he is going about solving the case with an obvious heavy weight on his chest from things we don’t know fully about, other than the loss he feels and the hurt that goes along with it. As you would expect, Bale nails this role, and is captivating to watch throughout this movie.

And if that’s not enough, Harry Melling is just as captivating as Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, as much as I like Bale, I enjoyed Melling more here, because I enjoyed watching his take on Poe as a character and bringing the poet/author to life. He’s wonderful. Melling is also a terrific actor. He’s known to Harry Potter fans as the irritating Dudley Dursley, but years later as an adult, he has really stood out in a host of supporting roles. Melling has been memorable in the Netflix TV series THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2022) and in the Netflix movie THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020). He’s also appeared in THE OLD GUARD (2020), THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT (2017) and THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016). Here, Melling is phenomenal as Edgar Allan Poe.

Interestingly, Melling is the grandson of actor Patrick Troughton, who is famous for playing Doctor Who in the 1960s. Troughton also appeared in Hammer Films, such as SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) with Christopher Lee, and in the Ray Harryhausen classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

And in another Hammer Films connection, Toby Jones, who plays Dr. Daniel Marquis, and who’s one of my favorite character actors working today, is the son of actor Freddie Jones, who made his debut as the tormented creation of Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). No wonder this one has such a strong Hammer Films vibe! As he always is, Toby Jones is excellent here as Dr. Marquis, playing a man, like Landor, haunted by a family secret.

Simon McBurney as Captain Hitchcock and Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer both stand out as cranky and crotchety officers. Lucy Boynton makes for a lovely yet troubled love interest for Poe as Lea, and as the story progresses, she becomes a much more integral character.

There are also a couple of major acting veterans in the cast. Gillian Anderson, known to X-FILES fans as Dana Scully, is fantastic here as Mrs. Julia Marquis. She gets some of the best scenes in the movie, especially the ones she shares with Christian Bale. The acting here, especially with Anderson and Bale, is so precise the characters almost leap off the screen. They are created with such precision.

And Robert Duvall also has a small role as Jean Pepe, a man who helps provide some historical information for Landor when he needs it.

I found THE PALE BLUE EYE to be an absolutely mesmerizing movie. I loved its story, its characters, and its overall mystery. I also enjoyed its theme of communication with the dead. As Poe explains in one scene, where he’s talking about his communications with his deceased mother, as he feels a connection with her and hears her voice often, in general he says, people forget their loved ones who have passed on before them, and these deceased spirits miss being remembered and reach out to the living in angst. But for those like himself who listen to the voices, much wisdom and caring is shared.

I love the work of Scott Cooper. His writing here, with the plot, the characters, and the dialogue, is superior, and his direction nearly flawless as he creates an eerie visual gem. And the cast, led by Christian Bale and Harry Melling, is a joy to watch.

THE PALE BLUE EYE is a masterful period piece thriller that will keep you glued to the screen, especially during a cold, winter evening.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

NANNY (2022) – Story of Undocumented Immigrant Nanny Better Drama than Horror Movie

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NANNY (2022), now streaming on Prime Video, is marketed as a drama/horror movie, which it is, but it’s a much better drama than it is a horror movie, and as such, I almost wish it had skipped its supernatural elements.

Written and directed by Nikyatu Jusu with a serious command of storytelling, NANNY tells the story of undocumented immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop) living in New York City and getting her first real big job, working as a nanny for a wealthy couple, Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector), watching their five-year-old daughter Rose (Rose Decker) since they both work long hours. Aisha and Rose hit it off big, and Amy and Adam love the way their new nanny cares for their daughter.

All is well, except that Amy begins to be negligent in paying Aisha for all the overtime hours she puts in when she is asked to stay overnight when neither Amy nor Adam can be there. At first, Aisha hardly notices, as she is preoccupied with her own son who is back in Africa, and she misses him dearly. She is saving up to bring him to America, and so when Amy continues to not pay her, this grates on her even more. But she needs the job.

Things grow more complex when Aisha begins having weird experiences which seem like supernatural encounters with some unknown entity. Then Adam makes a pass at her. But still, she needs that job. She eventually starts dating a man from her apartment building, Malik (Sinqua Walls) who has a son of his own, around the same age as Aisha’s son. She also meets Malik’s grandmother Kathleen (Leslie Uggams), who is a seer with experience with the supernatural, and she begins to school Aisha concerning her own experiences.

All of this is well-acted, well-written, and well-directed, and so I was all in, along for the ride, but where this story ultimately goes is a disappointment, mostly because it goes nowhere. The revelation at the end is surprisingly for a movie that up until that point got all the storytelling parts right, sloppily done in a very unrealistic sequence. Plus, the revelation itself, while tragic, is handled so quicky, it doesn’t pack much of a punch.

And it also doesn’t truly impact the main story in this movie, which is about Aisha’s strained relationship with Rose’s parents, but by film’s end, they’re nowhere to be found, and the story of Aisha’s dealings with them is mostly forgotten.

The supernatural elements are subtle and refreshingly realistic, and I appreciated that. The horror elements here are not dumb. They are smartly handled. They just don’t have much of an impact. NANNY plays like a Hallmark movie that forgot what it was for a little while, took a detour into the supernatural for a brief bit, then went back to being a Hallmark movie.

That really isn’t a fair assessment. I don’t like Hallmark movies, and I definitely was enjoying NANNY, but while it attempts to be something of a horror movie, ultimately, it’s a love story, and while the whole thing doesn’t play like a Hallmark movie, it certainly ends that way.

I enjoyed the work of writer/director Nikyatu Jusu here. She is in command of the storytelling process from beginning to end. I enjoyed the characters, especially Aisha, and I wanted to see what was going to happen to her. Unfortunately, while she suffers a life altering incident, that’s the one part of the story that isn’t expertly handled, and as a result, combined with the very subtle supernatural elements, prevents this from being much of a horror movie.

Anna Diop is excellent as Aisha. She’s in most of the movie, and she delivers. She makes Aisha a very strong character, one you can build a story around. I really cared for her and wanted to learn more about the supernatural episodes which haunted her throughout the second half of the movie.

Michelle Monaghan as Amy and Morgan Spector as Adam were also both very good as the parents who become increasingly annoying as the movie goes on. One can argue that the most horror in this movie comes from Aisha’s dealings with them. Yet, they are both portrayed as real people, which makes them all the more difficult to like.

Sinqua Walls makes for a dashing love interest, and the talented Leslie Uggams shines in the pivotal role as Grandmother Kathleen who shares her supernatural insights with Aisha in scenes which manage to keep all the dialogue real and authentic.

I would have enjoyed NANNY more had it been a straight drama about a young undocumented immigrant nanny and the challenges she faces working for a difficult couple. This part of the movie is spot-on throughout.

The supernatural elements are less compelling, mostly because they are so understated and of less consequence.

NANNY is worth a look, but only with the understanding that this example of quiet horror is so quiet it’s pretty much inconsequential.

I give it two stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

WHITE NOISE (2022) – Bizarre Movie Lives Up to Its Title and Says Very Little

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I’m sure there’s an audience out there somewhere who will enjoy WHITE NOISE (2022).

To borrow a phrase from Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL (1977), the rest of us are all due back on planet Earth.

WHITE NOISE is one bizarre movie.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the man who gave us MARRIAGE STORY (2019), which I liked, WHITE NOISE is a story told in three parts, and none of them really work. Categorized as a comedy/drama/horror movie, and now available on Netflix, WHITE NOISE tells the story of a contemporary family in crisis. There’s the dad, college professor and Hitler expert Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their myriad of children who all act like an updated version of THE BRADY BUNCH.

On the surface, things seem wonderful. Jack and Babette seem extremely happy and act like the perfect couple, but soon cracks in the armor emerge, and it starts when their daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) spies her mom popping a pill and then denying it. The dialogue in this early sequence is playful and thoughtful, but it’s not easy to follow, and that’s because everyone in this movie speaks like an academic. We later see Jack and his fellow university professors chatting around a table, and their conversation is both highbrow and irrelevant, and it dawned on me as the rest of the movie played out that every character in this film, even the kids, speak this way. It’s as if Baumbach took notes on everything his college professors said to him and turned it into dialogue for his characters. As a result, the dialogue throughout the movie is not realistic because most everyday people don’t speak this way. I could even buy Jack and Babette’s kids talking in this manner, but everybody in this film sounds the same. And frankly, their conversations are difficult to follow, as they seemingly offer one non sequitur after another.

The second part of the story, and the movie’s centerpiece, follows the plot point of a truck colliding with a train, which releases toxic chemicals into the air, and Jack and his family like the rest of his town are forced to evacuate. This scenario should have been a laugh out loud one, but once more, the dialogue gets in the way and the hoped-for laughter never comes.

And the final part of the story follows Jack’s attempts to learn the truth about why Babette is taking a mysterious drug. This last sequence is the worst sequence in the movie, and so while I was on board for two thirds of this one, trying to buy into it in spite of the dialogue, the end completely lost me and it became a labor to sit through till the end credits, which actually feature a neat choreographed number with people in a grocery store, which sadly, is the liveliest part of the entire movie, the end credits. But you have to sit through the two hour plus movie first.

Ultimately, the story is about people’s fear of death, fear of the idea that we are simply working our way towards oblivion, that no one gets off this planet alive. A thought-provoking theme to be sure, but what a terribly convoluted way to go about it. Woody Allen tackled death much more effectively in most of his movies.

The screenplay here by Baumbach, based on the book by Don DeLillo, is a labor to sit through. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, mostly because they did not seem or speak like real people.

I usually enjoy Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, and for the most part I enjoyed them here, especially during the film’s initial sequence. They are a likable couple, and their conversations are thoughtful and refreshing, but the longer the movie goes on, the weirder things get, and the less relatable they become. By film’s end, I didn’t care about either character.

Don Cheadle is also in the cast as Jack’s friend and fellow professor Murray, who wants to become an Elvis expert. Cheadle is fine, even though his storyline is a snooze.

I really thought I was going to like WHITE NOISE. It had an interesting premise, a talented writer/director at the helm, and a good cast. But all this promise was sunk by a story that turned out not to be that interesting, with dialogue that was unrealistic, and a central theme about the fear of death that was never dealt with heads on.

WHITE NOISE is supposed to be a story about a family that is distracted from the real things in life by all the white noise which the world throws at them. But ironically, the film ends up living up to its title. It ends up being simply background noise with nothing of merit to say.

I give it one and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

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