Babylon

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 3/21/23;
Paramount;
Drama;
Box Office $15.35 million;
$25.99 DVD, $31.99 Blu-ray, $35.99 UHD BD, $44.99 4K Steelbook;
Rated ‘R’ for strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, bloody violence, drug use, and pervasive language.
Stars Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, P.J. Byrne, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Max Minghella, Rory Scovel, Katherine Waterston, Tobey Maguire, Flea, Jeff Garlin, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze.

Just in case the trailers hadn’t fully prepared viewers for what they are in for with Babylon, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s lavish tale of Hollywood excess in the silent-movie era, the film’s opening moments will set a tone that is not for the faint of heart.

In the first scene, a day laborer is sprayed with dung by an elephant he’s helping transport to a fancy party. A minute later, a corpulent attendee of said rave is shown being urinated on during a dalliance with a flapper (a clear reference to the Fatty Arbuckle scandal).

And that’s just the first five minutes of a film whose three-hour runtime will test viewers’ patience as much as its fluidic humor will test their gag reflexes. Babylon is a beautiful paradox of a film in which the glitz and glamour of grand villas, magnificent costumes and epic setpieces are counterbalanced by grotesque orgies, mind-numbing narcotics and underground freak shows.

A former jazz drummer, Chazelle seemed to have a found a nice filmmaking niche at the intersection of music and cinema with films such as Whiplash and La La Land. But then he made First Man, turning the inherently patriotic journey of America’s first voyage to the moon into a depressing treatise on grief. So, who can blame him for going for broke with Babylon?

The film is an Altman-esque portrait of a handful of archetypal characters navigating their way through Hollywood in the late 1920s, when the advent of talkies revolutionized the motion-picture industry. Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad, an aging star rejected by audiences once they hear him recite the insipid dialogue he’s asked to perform. Margot Robbie is the stereotypical “It” girl who seeks nothing but superstardom and a perpetual party. Jovan Adepo plays a black jazz musician whose career is transformed by shorts of him playing the trumpet, and just as easily curtailed by racist attitudes. The list goes on.

The central thread weaving these stories together is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), as close as a stand-in for the audience there could be for this picture. He’s a Mexican migrant who dreams of working for the studios, and gets his chance thanks to being in the right place at the right time. He quickly rises through the ranks until he learns the quintessential lesson of Hollywood: There is no dream that can’t be shattered by bad timing and loving the wrong person.

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The transition from silents to sound was also the focus of 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, a film that has had a rather obvious influence on Chazelle’s creative perspectives. He made his grand love story musical with La La Land, and now covers the Hollywood history aspects of Singin’ in the Rain with Babylon. Given there are several direct references to Singin’ in the Rain within Babylon, Chazelle isn’t being subtle with the parallels.

Chazelle’s opus is certainly not lacking for ideas, and as muddled as it is at times, Babylon is long enough to indulge most of them (there’s another nine minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray). The production values are impeccable, the boisterous jazz-infused score by Justin Hurwitz is fantastic, and the character journeys themselves are not altogether uncompelling (one of the film’s better running jokes is that Conrad seems to have a different new wife in every scene).

But these characters aren’t singing in rain. They usually end up dancing in poop and piss and vomit, a visual metaphor for how Hollywood will shit on anyone for the sake of meaningless profligacy.

Dramatizing the days before workplace protections and safety regulations, Babylon depicts people literally dying on sets for the sake of art, an uncontrolled chaos that seems less concerning to the filmmakers of the day than getting the perfect shot before the sun goes down. Characters are less interested in their future well being than in maintaining the delusion that the good times will continue forever. Even when confronted with the reality that all things must end, they are offered the comfort of film itself being the source of immortality, its stars the ghosts of a bygone era.

Of course, there’s a question unspoken by the film that lingers above the overindulgence: Was it worth it? Around 90% of the films shot during the silent era are now considered lost — ghosts with no one left to haunt.

Chazelle skirts this issue with a thesis that the silent era and its response to the advent of sound in films served as an important foundation for the industry to come, and its countless technological leaps forward. And in that regard, he becomes yet another filmmaker presenting an ode to the magic of going to the movies — even the ones that symbolically spray feces on the audience.

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In addition to six deleted and extended scenes, the Blu-ray offers three informative behind-the-scenes featurettes. The 31-minute “A Panoramic Canvas Called Babylon” is a comprehensive look at the production as a whole, supplemented by the three minute “The Costumes of Babylon,” which is self-explanatory, and the two-minute “Scoring Babylon,” about Hurwitz’s Oscar-nominated music.

HBO Max Renews Emmy Award-Winning Comedy Series ‘Hacks’ For Third Season

HBO Max June 16 announced it has renewed Emmy Award-winning comedy series “Hacks” for a third season. The show stars Jean Smart, an Emmy, SAG Awards and Critics Choice Awards winner for her performance in season one of the series, along with Hannah Einbinder, Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Jane Adams, who were all nominated for Emmys in season one.

Season two, which explored the evolving dark mentorship between legendary Las Vegas comedian Deborah Vance (Smart) and her young, entitled writer Ava (Einbinder), premiered to critical acclaim on May 12 and is streaming now on Max.

“We congratulate ‘Hack’s’ extraordinarily gifted executive producers and cast, and our partners at Universal Television,” Sarah Aubrey, head of original content for HBO Max, said in a statement.

“We’re thrilled that our HBO Max partners have renewed this standout series for a third season, and we can’t wait to see what’s next for Deborah, Ava and the rest of our outstanding ensemble,” added Erin Underhill, president of Universal Television.

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A Simple Favor

While a movie based on a dark mystery thriller novel might seem like an odd choice for a director known primarily for comedy, Paul Feig is able to deliver an entertaining adaptation of Darcey Bell’s A Simple Favor filled with plenty of twists and turns, driven by a pair of winning performances from his leading ladies, Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively.

 

 

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Lionsgate;
Thriller;
Box Office $53.55 million;
$29.95 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $42.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence.
Stars Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Bashir Salahuddin, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho.

A Simple Favor exists in a strange Venn diagram where the dark mystery thriller aspects of Darcey Bell’s source material novel intersect with the broad comedic sensibilities of the film’s director, Paul Feig. The result is an oddly compelling mystery filled with its fair share of plot twists, intrigue and genuine laughs.

Anna Kendrick plays Stephanie, an all-too-sincere mommy blogger who runs a DIY video channel and seems to embody the usual quirks of a Kendrick character. Her worldview is suddenly challenged when she meets the bitchy Emily (Blake Lively), mother of her son’s schoolmate, and the two ladies unexpectedly hit it off over martinis.

One day, Emily asks Stephanie to watch her son after school, and promptly disappears. Days later, Emily’s body seemingly turns up in a lake near her childhood home, setting off all sorts of question about what she was up to. Stephanie, meanwhile, consoles Emily’s husband (Henry Golding), and as they grow closer, they seem to be haunted by Emily, who, it turns out, may not be so dead after all.

In his first directorial effort after the misstep of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Feig largely succeeds in maintaining a darkly comic tone throughout, buoyed by a strong cast. Kendrick and Lively give terrific performances as the unlikely friends. Lively in particular dominates the screen in her early scenes, establishing the kind of dominant personality necessary to draw out Stephanie’s meekness and force her to come into her own.

Feig’s intention to make a “fun thriller” ensures the film is never as dark or serious as similar fare such as Gone Girl. If anything, it could almost be seen as a parody of the absurdity of such stories if it weren’t taking itself just seriously enough. Still, in the various bonus materials in which Feig is quite ubiquitous he seems rather flippant about some of his directorial choices, none more so than his alternative to a big, Bollywood-style dance number meant to play during the credits.

The bonus section includes three separate commentaries, and Feig is involved in all of them. The first is the director by himself, relating his own experiences of making the film. The second is Feig with members of the cast, including Kendrick, Lively, Jean Smart (who plays Lively’s mom) and Bashir Salahuddin, who plays a detective. A third commentary finds Feig with screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, producer Jessie Henderson, cinematographer John Schwartzman and costume designer Renée Ehrlich Kalfus.

The filmmaker commentary obviously delves into more of the technical aspects of the production, while the cast commentary is more of a fun discussion about the making of the film, and thus is the more enjoyable of the three.

Having a comedic director such as Paul Feig adapt a mystery thriller novel seems like an odd choice

The disc also includes more than 16 minutes of deleted scenes, including the aforementioned dance scene that was cut for essentially trivializing a story about two strong female characters.

There’s also a three-and-a-half minute gag reel and eight behind-the-scenes featurettes running about an hour in total.

A Simple Favor