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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Feb 9, 2023



DAMIEN CHAZELLE really hit it big when his “La La Land” became an enormous commercial and critical success in 2016. 

It won him the Oscar best director plum, making him the youngest director to win it at 32. 

He then did the Neil Armstrong biopic, “First Man”, and a Netflix series, “The Eddy”, which both didn’t do so well.    

He now comes up with his new movie, “Babylon”, a very ambitious project set in Hollywood in the late 20s that is so big in scope and execution. 

It has an $80 million budget but bombed big time at the tills, earning only $42 million since its released last December. 

It’s now showing in local theaters and should really be seen on the big screen because they spent so much for the costumes, sets and some very spectacular, ingeniously blocked scenes.   

The film focuses mainly on three major characters. 

The first one we see is Manuel Reyes (newcomer Diego Calva), a Mexican who is tasked to transport an elephant to the mansion of a Kinoscope Studios producer on top of a hill.  

This sequence’s highlight shows the elephant pooping big time on Manny and his assistant while they’re pushing the truck that carris the huge animal.  

It’s as if the director is making an opening statement that Hollywood is really a big piece of shit.

The second character is Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad, a big Hollywood actor in the silent era who’s been married several times. 

When he gets so drunk, Manny helps him get home and he then helps Manny to get a job as production assistant in Kinoscope.   

The third character is Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, a starlet who gatescrashes in the party and Manny helps her to get in. 

When an actress dies of drug overdose during a perverse sex act with a very fat man (reminiscent of the notorious real life scandal that finished off silent film comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s career), Nellie is chosen to replace her and she impresses everyone with her natural acting where she can cry at will. 

Three minor characters are gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), Chinese-American singer Lady Fay (Li Jun Li, “Wu Assassins”, “Quantico”) and black trumpet player Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo, “Watchmen”, “The Stand”.)   

The film chronicles the rise and fall of its major characters as talking films replaces the silents in the late 20s up to the early 30s. Nellie hits it big but becomes addicted to drugs and gambling. 

Manny rises up the ranks to become a producer. He tries to help Nellie recover in her career but jeopardizes his own life and career because of Nellie’s gambling debts with gangster James Mackay (Tobey Maguire.)  

Jack realizes his days of being a top actor is over. The movie ends sadly for most of the characters.    

Chazelle’s lengthy opening sequence showing the bacchanalian party at the producer’s mansion will remind you of all the hedonistic debauchery depicted in Passollini’s “Salo: 120 Days of Sodom” or Fellini’s orgy scene in “La Dolce Vita”. 

But the final sequence is an unabashed tribute to the one of the greatest musicals of all time, “Singin’ in the Rain”, which is a much more uplifting movie about the transition from the silents to the talkies than “Babylon”.  

Just like “The Fabelmans”, another current film about moviemaking, this is meant to be “a love letter to cinema”. 

But for all the effort and the talent and the expense ostentatiously poured into its making, “Babylon” is more of an incoherent case of self-indulgence on the part of Chazelle that is a hit or miss thing, sometimes entertaining, sometimes preposterous in its excesses and the movie oscillates between those extremes. 

It’s truly a risky gamble to make a big-budget film about the 1920s Hollywood era most viewers today cannot relate with. 

To begin with, the more than three-hour bloated running time is already off-putting. 

Some outrageous scenes are amusing to watch simply because of their exagerrated madness. 

One sequence shows an outdoor movie set where the camera takes an impressive 360-degree "tuhog" movement as it tours us viewers around different shooting sets, making it a very immersive experience that makes you feel like you’re being transported into that time period of making movies. 

You also cannot fault the costume and production design.

But a number of over-extended sequences are just so “babad na babad”, like that scene of Margot answering a phone that took countless retakes before it’s perfected for the sound technician. 

We know Direk Damien is trying to make a point, but after being treated to more of the same, his hubris surely wearies you as a viewer. 

That menacing descent, led by a creepy Tobey Maguire, into a hellish phantasmagoria full of freaks, plus a huge alligator and Tobey’s assistant who keeps on spitting all over the place, is trying to say something substantial but it gets lost in all the violence that follows.  

One thing lacking in the screenplay is it never satisfactorily connects the relationships between the main characters. 

We really can’t understand why Manny is so devoted to Nellie that much when she is such a negative character addicted to cocaine and gambling.

The movie starts with Manny and it also ends with him. Calva has the charm to make the hardworking outsider that  Manny is quite endearing as he pushes his way up in Hollywood, which all goes down the drain because of his foolish involvement with Nellie. 

He is the only character who gets redeemed. He is forced to leave Hollywood because of Nellie and returns to it 20 years later with his wife and daughter. 

The film ends showing his tear-drenched face inside a movie theatre as he is awed and moved by Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” while we are shown a homage coda-montage of scenes from various classics from "Intolerance", "Wizard of Oz" and "Ben Hur" to "Psycho", "Un Chien Andalou", "Jurassic Park" and "Avatar".

There’s no shortage of talent in the big cast. Margot Robbie has a very showy role and she’s fearless in giving it her all, particularly in that long scene in a party where she chews the scenery and ends with her showing her snobbish detractors how uncouth she is and gloriously vomits into William Randolph Hearst.

Robbie is really so adept in playing unhinged characters as she already demonstrated in “I, Tonya” and “Birds of Prey”. 

Brad Pitt has a sombre role as the aging silent film star with a career downhill. 

His final scene with Jean Smart as Elinor, where she tells him his career has long been over but he will be immortal, is just heartbreaking. 

All in all, we think “Babylon” aims to show the true colors of Tinseltown, but it has been done before by several other movies including “The Artist” (also set in the silent era), “The Bad and the Beautiful”, “Barton Fink”, “The Big Picture”, “Get Shorty”, “Hollywoodland” and even “Valley of the Dolls”. 

But “Babylon” is certainly the most over-the-top addition to this list.