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. 

La La Land

A couple of East Coasters, not out of school for a decade, have captured the magic of the Hollywood Dream factory in a way that has not been seen, much less heard, in an eternity. Just as “The Artist” reflected the memory of the early days of the film business before sound came along to change everything, “La La Land” pays tribute to the golden age of musicals while updating them to contemporary days. If you have not already seen this film, and you are sitting there reading these comments, what the hell?  You could use the few minutes this takes to read to stand in line and get your tickets for what is going to be one of the best movie experiences of your year. No spoilers here, this movie is terrific.

Writer director Damien Chazelle and his musical partner Justin Hurwitz have found the heart of a 50’s musical in 2016 Los Angeles. Starting with a throwback version of the Summit Entertainment logo and expanding the screen to Cinemascope before any footage is run, we feel like we are in for a real studio experience. The dazzling song and dance number on the Freeway overpass that starts the film is choreographed with vigor and whimsy. Angelenos have been known to leave their cars in a traffic snarl like the one shown here, but never to move rhythmically atop their own vehicles much less those of their fellow Sig-Alert victims(Non-residents will have to look that one up). When the back door of a box truck is thrown up and a latin combo playing jazz infused dance music is already in full swing, you know that this is a fantasy that takes itself with a grain of salt but also with a good deal of conviction. The fact that it is capped off by the usual L.A. driver salute to his fellow travelers just tells you that this is not a form to be locked away in the past.


The clever lyrics to Hurwitz’s songs are provided by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. If you listen carefully you can here both bravado and wistfulness in the same tune. The story concerns two dreamers who find one another with some difficulty in the grind that is trying to make it in the business of this company town. Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a talented jazz pianist struggling to survive by playing music gigs that are far below his talent. Emma Stone is the aspiring actress who makes a living with her nose pressed right up against the window of her dream, as a barista at the coffee house on the Warner Brothers lot. That setting provides multiple opportunities for this to be both a backstage musical and a more straightforward narrative singing story. The sets sometimes mimic the locations used throughout the film. The choices of which must have been influenced by a dozen other movies with Hollywood history.


Angel’s Flight has not been operational for a couple of years and since it’s restoration in 1996, it has been closed down on and off a few times. Never mind that this funicular doesn’t really operate, this is a movie about lovers in Los Angeles, and we need to believe.  There is of course no way that Stone’s character Mia can run across the city from the Westside to South Pasadena to meet Sebastian at the Rialto, or that the Rialto is permanently closed, again, this is a movie where your fantasy counts more than a trivia thing like physics. The sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory plays out like the Gene Kelly envisioned ballet from “That’s Entertainment” or “An American in Paris”.  In fact at one point in the film, Gosling practically dances with a prop street light, evoking the ghost of Kelly in this film.


Chazelle manages the tricky feat of having his cake and eating it as well. The star crossed love affair both fails and succeeds through the magic of musical story telling. While jazz style music may not at first seem a natural fit for a Hollywood Musical, the director finds a number of ways to make it work. Interestingly enough, there is even a number that betrays Sebastian’s ideals and leaves Mia  nonplussed, while still being entertaining and valid. Just like Mia, we are not quite sure how to take the moment, but we are also swept up in it. John Legend stretches whatever acting chops he aspires to as a jazz musician that knows how to make that career work, and he wants to take Sebastian along for the ride.


Two years ago, I made “Whiplash” my favorite film of 2014. Chazelle wrote and directed that film as well and the whole milieu of jazz music came to life in a completely different fashion. That movie was frenetic and shot with a style that seems fitting to the music it emphasized. Even though this movie uses the same kind of music, the direction here is fluid and models the graceful dance moves of people like Kelly, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.  The camera follows our two lovers slowly as they walk across “Suicide Bridge” at night. The slow pan from inside the car,across the Rialto Theater after  it has closed does a subtle but effective job of indicating an important transition in the story. The camera glides and pirouettes just as the actors do in their dance scenes with phantasmagoric images of Los Angeles swirl in the background.

No one will mistake the two leads for professional singers but their voices are pure and sincere and work wonders at achingly evoking the desire on their parts for their dreams to come true. The hundreds of dancers employed in the big numbers and the musicians that play in the clubs and on stage are all excellent. He has only a small part near the end of the film, but Tom Everett Scott reminded me of an adult version of the character that you are most likely to know him from, another jazz enthusiast at that.  The film is a love letter to movie musicals and a great movie musical in itself. It is the opposite of the line that Gosling says at one point, “It’s Los Angeles, where they worship everything and value nothing.” The movie respects but does not deitize the films of the past and it values every contribution those movies made. “La La Land” is likely to be my favorite film of the year, if you see it and experience it the way I did, I suspect your feelings will be the same.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Here is a movie trailer that manages to sell the story without giving away the farm. The juxtaposition of moods is perfectly emblematic of what happens in the film, and the less you know, the more enjoyable the movie will be. I see reviews all the time when I read on-line where more than half the review simply retells the plot of the film. Sometimes that is necessary, because otherwise people won’t understand why the movie is worth seeing or why it should be avoided. I have always attempted to keep that type of material to an absolute minimum on my posts because I don’t want to spoil a movie for someone else, and frankly, repeating the story just bugs me, go see the movie if you need to know. This film is going to be a little challenging to write about because I don’t want to give away anything at all.

If you too are worried about spoilers, don’t read the next paragraph. It does not go into the plot but it does discuss something that most people seeing the film will have some knowledge of.


“10 Cloverfield Lane” is in fact a sequel of sorts to the found footage movie from 2008. That is eight long years ago, so a sequel might seem strange, but it is a different kind of a sequel, it is more a related story rather than a descendant. No characters reoccur in this piece but you will be able to see a direct relationship after the film has played out. There, that’s as much as I will say about it.


End of semi-spoiler material.


This movie has several great scenes in it that will startle you and build some fantastic tension. More than ninety percent of what takes place is in a “locked room” scenario and there are basically no effects, visual trickery or CGI manipulation. This is a strange drama played out against a backdrop that remains ambiguous till the end of the film. There are basically three characters and how they interact, what they do and their relationship to each other is all what the movie is about. The reason this movie works so well is not really the premise, but the screenplay. The principle screenwriters are Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle. That last name should have rung a bell for me, because he is the writer/director of my favorite film from two years ago, “Whiplash“.  I’m sure that the first two deserve all kinds of credit for creating the situation and plot, but I’d be willing to bet that the tension laden scenes in the film were scripted by Chazelle, the building stress and the mental strain exhibited by the characters is so close to what was in that movie about a young ambitious drummer that I feel I should have been able to guess it. 


Unlike the original “Cloverfield”, this is not a found footage film, and it is not shot using a ‘Go Pro’ strapped to someones head. The director here had access to a tripod and used it. That does not mean that the film is static, but it does mean that it is not full of visual flourishes designed to wow bored audiences. Director Dan Trackenberg is trying to tell a story, and not build a portfolio for himself to submit when someone needs a big budget picture made. Maybe he will be able to pull that sort of film off, but if he ever gets the chance it will not be because he was a camera wizard here. It will be due to the fact that he knows how to pace a scene and show the actors and stage a moment. And as i said earlier, there are some really good moments here. 


The cast has to get a huge amount of credit for the success of the film. John Goodman is an actor who works all of the time in so many different roles, that although he is easy to recognize, he is hard to classify. I found an appreciation of his efforts on another site that I read regularly and you might like to go there and see how versatile he really is (AndSoitBegins) . The truth is, he is well respected and has a long list of award nominated performances, mostly on TV. His film career is extensive and it really is a shame that he was not nominated for an Academy Award for supporting actor for “the Big Lebowski”. This movie is in a genre that is not likely to change that but it should. He is terrific as Howard, either a savior or a lunatic, who drives the tautness of the film up the wall at times. Howard is more mundane than we might expect, but he has elements to his character that will give you the willies. Walking through the parking lot after the film, we stopped in the “Golden Spoon” yo get some frozen yogurt to take home. My daughter asked me if I wanted it in a bowl or a cone, mimicking a scene in the movie, and I actually shivered for a moment because Goodman makes that scene so real and foreboding. Like Goodman,  Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an actress known for both television and films. I noticed that she costarred with Kurt Russel in two films and did the remake/prequel to the Kurt Russel classic “The Thing”, so maybe she has a thing for the grizzled old guys. This film really belongs to her. The emotional journey that takes place during the movie is all about her character. She grows and evolves as a person due to the experiences she goes through. There are some action scenes but more than anything it is the way she relates to her two co-stars that makes her performance memorable. The third actor in the piece is John Gallagher Jr., an actor that I don’t know well but for whom this film could be a launching point for bigger things. He has two very effective moments in the movie and matches with Goodman and Winstead, minute by minute. 


That’s as much as I’m going to say about the film. If you have seen it, I’d love to engage in some conversation with you about it. Just don’t give anything away because then I will have to wish you into the cornfield, and that won’t go well.