Director Damien Chazelle is a talented visualist with a love of style. His movies “La La Land” and “Whiplash” are two of my favorite films since I started blogging. So it is with regret that I must say “Babylon” is a misfire of gigantic proportions. This movie is visually audacious and simultaneously repugnant.  There are moments of great beauty, juxtaposed with some of the vilest imagery you can imagine. Chazelle may have wanted to comment on the the ugliness hiding under the veneer of movie fantasy, but instead, he has made a movie that proves that sometimes the path of success leads to excess. Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and recently Sam Mendes have learned that the the power of success gives license to shoot yourself in the foot. Whether Chazelle can recover from this self inflicted wound will take time to discover.

“Babylon” is the dark side of early Hollywood, as seen by a lover of movies but a hater of the system that produces them. Taking urban legends and real historical characters for inspiration, Chazelle has created the anti-“Singin’ in the Rain”.  The Gene Kelly classic is the polar opposite of this movie. When Debbie Reynolds cute wannabe drops into the movie business, she is charming, full of energy and sweetness galore. Margo Robbie as Nellie LaRoy is a  conniving, entitled climber, with a little talent but a big appetite for stardom.   Brad Pitt is a John Gilbert stand in. Replicating his success in silent pictures, frequent marriages and loss of popularity with the coming of sound. So no Gene Kelly happy reclamation by trying his star to Kathy Selden, Pitt’s Jack Conrad is a closer approximation to Gilbert than we may have seen before. 

The underbelly of Hollywood is shown in it’s most grotesque forms, including a scene with a Fattie Arbuckle style character, enjoying a golden shower and accidentally crushing a woman’s chest cavity. Meanwhile an orgy is being entertained in the rest of the house with a lesbian chanteuse, a diarrhetic elephant, and Nellie, fearlessly dancing in an orgiastic manner with the crowd. People engage in sex amid the throngs of people at the party, and drug use is rampant. The whole purpose of the title of the film is contained in the long opening sequence. Of course there are moments of beauty as well. The jazz inflected party is pumped up by a band of black musicians who know their stuff and deliver it with verve. The double edged sword of creativity and debauchery is being wielded with a heavy hand from the very start of the movie.

Jack makes an impassioned speech to one of his wives about the art of cinema. The passion for film as art is shown when Robbie’s character gets on a set and emotes more effectively for the silent screen than had been seen before, and her erotically charged dancing brings a spark to a melodrama that would certainly be forgettable without her. The casual friendship she struck up with Mexican immigrant and also Hollywood wannabe Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, will become the spine for a story that brings the three leads, Calva, Robbie and Pitt, into one another’s orbit on regular occasions as the movie business is transitioning to sound. Manny is no Donald O’Conner, he really wants to make movies and be a player at the executive level, his Spanish Language skills and ethnicity seem to banish him to doing the Spanish version of bigger English language films. His infatuation with Nellie, his contacts with Jack and the random insertion of a story about how blacks were treated in the era, make for a rough plot to follow. 

As the story grows darker, the scenarios become more off putting. Nellie is a degenerate gambler and coke fiend who has gotten deeply in debt to a shady mobster with slight connections to the Hollywood scene. Manny’s mission to help her out when she is desperate, is a trip down a rabbit hole that can literally be labeled a descent into hell. Toby Maguire, a producer on this film, plays the gangster, and he shows us a walking nightmare world that is hypnotically repugnant.  This is another path that Chazelle has decided should push the boundaries of what is acceptable to portray in films. The goal may be to demonstrate the lack of humanity in Hollywood, but it really just feels like a freak show that is designed to make the audience nauseous.   

There is a coda segment that may be trying to explain and justify what happened in the first two hours and fifty minutes of the movie. Foolishly, Chazelle references the film that this movie is at the polar opposite of, and instead of redeeming the character of Manny, it feels like it is mocking him. A montage of other great film moments is dumped on us as a recompense for what we have endured, and I suppose the message is that it may be all worth it, except that’s not how it feels. After being shit on, vomited on, peed on and visually assaulted, it will be hard for anyone to appreciate the many dazzling moments in this movie. To get them, we have to keep stepping over piles of feces left for us by the writer-director. I’m sorry, but the fact that after to step in it, the smell follows you home, does not mean it was successful. 

Bullet Train

Director David Leitch knows his way around a contemporary action scene. Having been a producer and an uncredited director on John Wick,  he took on “Deadpool 2” and the “Fast and Furious Spinoff Hobbs and Shaw”. In other words, Leitch has become adept at making action films that are short on credulity but long on humor and style, and this is one of them. “Bullet Train”, to use the obvious metaphor, is a fast moving vehicle that has few stops, no real scenery and a self contained environment for the players to bounce around in.

Brad Pitt plays an operative who has gone through some kind of existential crisis and is trying to maintain his career as a top clandestine agent, without having to kill or confront anyone in a violent manner. Of course when your job is to steal valuable assets from dangerous people, your life goals may have to take a backseat to your survival skills. In this situation Pitt’s character, code named “Ladybug”, has to steal a briefcase containing a large amount of money. Of course there is a reason for the money to be there, and there are others on the train who are after the same thing for different reasons, and there are other “fixers” from crime syndicates all trying to eliminate one another. If you took the characters from “Clue” and you moved them from a locked house mystery, to a trapped on a train crime thriller, this would be the result. This is one of those films that plays dismemberment for laughs and violence as a mere inconvenience until the next quip or visual joke comes along. 

“Ladybug” is a Buster Keaton like character who manages to get into and out of situations with a combination of great skills and incredible luck. The physical jokes are over the top and completely unbelievable, they are also incredibly fun to watch and they are accompanied by the relaxed performance of Brad Pitt. It is as if Pitt is not only channeling the laid back character he played in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, but he is now calling on the spirit of Owen Wilson to add a zen like daze to his hipster cool. Pitt seems to know how silly it all is but is having a good time anyway. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry, in addition to using three names, play salt and pepper brothers who are contract killers/operatives for hire, who having thought they completed their mission, now have to deliver the briefcase that is the target of Ladybug. They too have cute code names, Tangerine and Lemon, and they are full of some of the same cool headed hipster violence and humor that dominate these types of movies. 

If you saw “The Lost City” earlier this year, you probably won’t be too surprised at a couple of cameo spots that show up in the movie. Also, if you liked Pitt’s role in Deadpool 2, we get a turnabout moment that lasts just as long in this film. Maybe this is a little close to spoiler territory, but none of it gives away plot and you know how these things go anyway, so it is really more a moment of pleasure more than surprise when these things happen. I was also a bit pleased when I finally recognized the big bad who shows up at the climax of the film, it was not a role I had any foreknowledge of and it was another moment of cinema fan service more than plot development. Speaking of plot, unlike “Atomic Blonde” which still does not make any sense, this convoluted series of set ups works pretty well at bringing everything together in a reasonably coherent way. There may still be plot holes, but you will understand why everyone is in the picture and what their motives ultimately turn out to be. Pay no attention to the other passengers who appear and then vanish from the train. At best they provide a quick joke, most of the time they would be in the way, but by the end no one cares because the action and the train have accelerated way past reality a third of the way into the movie. By the last act we are watching a live action Road Runner cartoon, and that will be fine for most of us.

“Bullet Train” is the kind of summer movie you should be looking for right about now. It has no long term agenda, there is nothing serious going on that will haunt your memories, and it is easy to watch. Any film that has a Bee Gees tune and mimics the opening of “Saturday Night Fever” must have something going for it. Layer a Jim Steinman song on top of that with a bunch of other upbeat tunes and you will find yourself refreshingly immersed in a pop culture mashup, perfect for these times and this time of year. Jump the turnstile or buy a ticket, “Bullet Train” will entertain you for the dog days of summer.

The Lost City

This one should be short and sweet, it is a popcorn picture that for the most part succeeds and It’s not trying to do anything too innovative. This is a combination Romantic Comedy/Adventure film, and if you hear the title of “Romancing the Stone” in more than one review of the film, there is a reason why, the premise is exactly the same. A romance writer gets caught up in a real life adventure and finds the man of her novels in the real world. The pitch for this movie would be word for word the same as the 1984 film.

Instead of Kathleen Turner we get Sandra Bullock, who may be just a little too long in the tooth for this kind of film, but she gets a pass because she is talented, funny, and has a long history of Rom Coms behind her. Channing Tatum is turning into a great utility player who can be both a romantic lead and a comic foil, and he is both in this movie. If you watch the trailer, you might for a moment believe Brad Pitt is the hero of the film. Pitt is great, don’t get me wrong, he steals a scene with just his voice while doing his trademark munching,  but he is in the film very briefly. 

The big surprise is that Daniel Radcliffe, is a great villain and he has a wicked sense of comic timing in some key scenes. That’s right, Harry Potter is the Voldemort of this story, if Voldemort was a victim of sibling rivalry and had a sense of humor. Even the moments where he plays it straight are pretty effective so good on him. I don’t know why Da’Vine Joy Randolph is new to me, when I looked at her IMDB page, she worked in like eight TV series in the last couple of years, anyway she was very amusing as Bullock’s agent, who takes a serious responsibility for her client. 

A lot of the best bits of humor are spoiled by the trailer but there are a few additional moments that you can still be surprised by. One of the things that surprised me were the clever lines that came every few minutes, directed at our culture of Instagram addicted, barely literate, and now aging millennials. You may find yourself the target a a few barbs here and there. Speaking of sibling rivalry, the movie was co-directed and co written by brothers Aaron and Adam Nee, who look to be in charge of the Masters of the Universe movie that has been promised for the last couple of years. If you are looking forward to that film, you should probably check this one out to get a sense of how these two visualize a story and try to bring humor to it. 

Except for one brief bloody moment, the film is mostly cartoon violence and you can feel pretty safe taking your teens and your Mom to see it. Just be sure you get the refillable bucket of popcorn, because this will keep you munching throughout and enjoying a couple of hours of empty calories for your eyes as well as your stomach. 

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

I came to this film with the highest of expectations. It was my most anticipated film of this year, the trailer is fantastic and it covers a period of time that I lived through and remember. The subject of the movie is Hollywood itself and it’s made by Quentin Tarantino. Through the roof were my hopes for the film. Let me preface my more in-depth comments by saying first that I loved the movie, but in total, there are issues and my expectations may have hindered some of my reaction to the movie in both positive and negative ways. As always, this is a personal reflection of how I saw the elements coming together, your mileage may vary.

The best thing you can do for yourself in seeing this film is not to read anything about it beforehand. I’m not simply talking about spoilers, I’m really referring to the impressions that people will have and the surprise that comes from the discovery of what this movie really is. I stayed away from every review and every press release about the movie. It was impossible to avoid some things but I lucked out in that no one revealed how this movie really develops. This is a warning: While I will avoid spoilers, to discuss this film requires that certain concepts be explained and that may inhibit your own reaction to the movie. Proceed with caution or come back after you have seen it.

Tarantino makes movies that are a little bit like a buffet. There are dozens of things to choose from when you want to focus on them, but if you don’t have a plan, you may miss something important, or worse, you can mix dessert choices that simply don’t pair well. From my point of view, he has lingered over some aspects of the film too long and not offered a main course that is fully satisfying. However, the side dishes are solid and the main confection that comes at the end of the story makes the whole thing worth taking in. I notice that many of the people I follow have done rankings of the Tarantino catalog as part of the process of discussing the movie and it seems fitting to offer a little bit of insight in that direction here. Without giving you a complete nine film ranking, I can say that this movie is better in my opinion than “The Hateful Eight” and “Deathproof” but it does not quite scale the heights of “Pulp Fiction” or “Inglorious Basterds”. So that may be an indicator of my tastes and a way for you to measure the film as a consequence.

The three main actors all are terrific but the standout for me is Brad Pitt. As Cliff Booth, the stunt double/gofer to DiCaprio’s Western TV Star Rick Dalton, Pitt gets to be amused, sardonic, detached and invested in a lot of different scenes. His back story is completely unnecessary to the plot but as a character point it is interesting. Which is exactly the kind of thing that Tarantino adds to his stories all of the time. The existence of the scene where he faces off against Bruce Lee only means something at the end of the movie and that may be one of those points that you can see coming and that I am hesitant to get into too much detail about. The same is true of his home life with his pit bull Brandy. There will be a payoff down the road and we can see that something is coming but we don’t know exactly what. Brad Pitt’s best scene however may be a long sequence at the Spahn Ranch, where he encounters something that makes him extremely suspicious and sets up another pay off later on. Although there is a dialogue with two central characters in the sequence, it is really just his facial expressions and general demeanor that makes Pitt sparkle in these scenes.

DiCaprio has a less flashy role here than he did in “Django Unchained“, his previous film with Tarantino. His best moments are on the set of a television show he is guesting on, with a conversation between himself and a young actor (because the word actress is meaningless) and also a conversation he has with himself. In previous films by Tarantino, there is a heavy emphasis on language and conversation. Jules and Vincent are compelling because of the way they take mundane subjects and treat them seriously. Col. Landa hoovers over the conversations he has with the French Dairy Farmer, Shoshanna in her disguise and Lt. Aldo Raine, as if he is a vulture looking for a scrap of dialogue he can rip out and feast on. In “Reservoir Dogs” the opening sequence debating tipping is magnetic. Unfortunately, there is nothing that rises to those heights in this film. The one place that Tarantino may have matched his earlier high standards is in the employment of violence in key moments of the film.

There has been some on-line criticism of the shortage of dialogue for Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. There is an explanation for this but again, let me warn you, it’s not a spoiler but it will alter your perception of the story...she is a red herring.  Polanski and Tate are peripheral to what the ultimate outcome is. If that sounds strange because you thought this was a film about the Manson Murders, well, be ready for that Tarantino twist. This is a wish fulfillment fairy tale, in the mode of his best film in my opinion “Inglorious Basterds”.  The movie takes us down a path of detailed history about Hollywood in 1969, and at the last minute rewrites it. The details up to the climax are all presented honestly, mixed with the fictional story of the declining career of Rick Dalton, but then there is a sharp right turn. Most of his work before this could be classified as revenge film cinema, and this will neatly fit into that classification.

The last fifteen minutes of the movie made everything that was overly long and unfocused in the first two hours irrelevant. Maybe the foreplay was inelegant and slow. It does not matter when the climax is so satisfying that you want to stand up and cheer even though you are witnessing a violent fiction. We want the scum that the Manson Family was, to get the retribution that they so richly deserve and society has denied. We want the sweet Sharon Tate and her innocent friends to be spared from the gruesome history we know exists. We want Rick Dalton to emerge from the crumbling Hollywood system that is taking down his career with some dignity and the hope that things will be better. And we want all of that with the signature overkill that Tarantino employs in most of his movies. This is not a genre take off like Django or Kill Bill and DeathProof. This is an original film that uses our willingness to suspend disbelief to get a result that we dream would be the truth.

I’m going back to see this again on Friday, and I plan on posting a second version of this review in video form. In that I will get into the technical pleasures of the movie and the historical context that made it so enticing for me. For now I will simply say that the movie turns what might have been a disappointment into a triumph. It’s a great magic trick, but it does take a while to play out.


This movie feels really old fashioned and stilted. Usually a Robert Zemekis film is dynamic and the performances are energetic. The two quite attractive stars are mostly just being attractive and it frequently feels like they are play acting instead of acting acting. I am having a hard time putting my finger on it, but this film feels like a misfire to me. Maybe it would have been more intriguing if the premise of the film were not given up in the trailers, and instead we were allowed to find the drama on our own. Instead, I felt like I was watching for clues and waiting for a tell as the story played ourt.

So may shortcuts in story are necessary to keep a film going, but there are really a lot of steps missing in the opening of the film. Brad Pitt puts on his Paul Henreid white suit and traipses around Casablanca looking for the letters of transit. No wait, that’s a different and much better film. Instead he acts surly toward his contacts and disregards his own personal rules when operating behind enemy lines. The most attractive woman in the country is his implanted contact, and together they plot an act of terror that in war time counts as espionage activity. It requires a brutal disregard of emotions, except of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walked into his. Whoops, slipped again. In truth, nothing will bring characters with no common background together quicker than participating in an assassination.

The contrivances in the first part of the film that are designed to sell Pitt and Marion Cotillard as a couple are cute but don’t really make sense since her husband really is supposed to be a stranger to the city. Their romantic clutch in the car in the desert reminded me so much of that moment when she pulled the gun on him and demanded the letters of transit for her husband, damn, I keep slipping. The next thing you know they escape French Morocco and he awaits her arrival in Paris, I mean London.


A montage of events come by in a blur, including the birth of their child in the midst of a blitz that sees her delivering on the street while all around are being bombed. It is perhaps the second corniest moment in the film, and we are expected to accept it without much preparation or set up, it just happens. When the turn that was revealed from the very first trailer arrives, we get a sequence of events that is too cliched to believe. Pitt disobeys orders and conducts his own investigation. Peter Lorre shows up at a party at their house and begs for Pitt to hide him, no, sorry again, a guy who mysteriously sells jewellery to lonely housewives during the war, appears along with every horny couple in London looking for a place to shag. Pitt chases down leads in a reckless manner, including his own expedition into Nazi occupied France where Captain Renault lies for him to the German High Command. No, that’s not right, a local French policeman sells the resistance out to the Nazis and a battle occurs where our hero single handily defeats the Germans, before he flies back to England on a plane he commandeered from the Royal Air Force and managed to get to the Continent and back on without stirring any anti-aircraft fire.

True love triumphs in the end as the situation is resolved. I have done the best that I can to avoid spoilers but I will say that Boogie and Claude Raines do not walk off into a beautiful friendship. Instead another pair walks off into the future with the aura of love hanging over them. Maybe I make it sound like I did not like this film. I liked it well enough but not well enough to suggest that anyone else bother to see it. I frequently have low standards when it comes to romantic-WWII movies and desert intrigue. My guess is most of you do not.

Thelma and Louise 25th Anniversary Screening

At some point before this movie opened, I saw a trailer and both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were in a convertible with guns in their hands. At that point, without knowing anything further, I was in. The movie turned out to be a landmark Ridley Scott film that created a media sensation that kept people talking most of the summer. It was nominated for six Academy Awards (though not Best Picture) including nods for the two stars and the director. The end of the film was iconic and much parodied and it still packs a punch today. Although it is a road picture, it also subverts a lot of the traditions of such film stories.

I understand how it is seen as a feminist picture. The subject of how men relate to women in contrast to the way women relate to each other is explored in several interesting ways. Thelma’s husband Darreyl, played by an excellent Christopher McDonald, is a possessive  but disengaged spouse. He sees only what his wife can do for him or how she effects the way he will be seen. Harlan and J.D. are both exploiters of women. One might be less violent and more polite than the other, but his perception of them is the same, they are target rich environments. Jimmy, a breakout role for Michael Madsen, and Detective Slocum, the surprisingly sympathetic Harvey Keitel , both want to help the women in their crisis but have difficulty understanding why they are being shut out in very different ways. [The next year they would be antagonists Mr. White and Mr. Blonde].

Sarandon is the older more mature of the two friends, and she is the one who is most wounded at the start but we never see it. Louise is a walking functioning example of PTSD. As we get hints about events in her past, her motivations and perceptions become more understandable to us. Legal or not, her actions that start the two off as fugitives would be applauded by most in the audience. Thelma is a tougher specimen to examine. She is all contradictions. She starts off timid, then becomes liberated, and then near catatonic. She says it best towards the end of the movie:

Thelma: “But, umm, I don’t know, you know, something’s, like, crossed over in me and I can’t go back, I mean I just couldn’t live.”


At some point the empowerment of the two women overwhelms their sense of proportion. The patterns that preceded their adventures become paths they can’t avoid. Louise is blinded by her past and Thelma is resentful of it. When people complain about the end of the film, they need to keep that in mind.  Thelma starts her rebellion and freedom from Darryl by simply not asking his permission. Like a teenager, she overdose the vices, drinking to excess, smoking, unencumbered sex and finally robbery. She is acting out against the father figures she sees in her life, especially the unpleasant spouse she has been trapped with. Louise runs because she has been conditioned to do so. She runs from the man who loves her, from the sympathetic police officer that wants to keep her from being killed and mostly she runs from her own past.

There is a star making turn by Brad Pitt in the film. If ever there was an example of lightning striking a career, this is it. He is all charm and hot looks and that is what blinds Thelma to his faults. Louise was suspicious from the beginning but she is that way with nearly everyone. Both women share the lead in making decisions at different points in the film. It’s not important which one made which bad choice, what is important is that they are not going to let any man choose for them. That is the subversive message of the film. I am probably blinded by not being a woman, so some of their choices seem plain stupid to me, but that did not mean I was not entertained or fascinated by these women. Twenty-five years ago, I said to my wife when the film was over, “That was a hell of a movie”. It’s still true.