review – babylon

Before I saw this movie, there were already two things I liked about it. First, I’m a big fan of movies set in Los Angeles, and second, I’m a big fan of movies about the movie industry. There have been so-so movies set in Los Angeles and there have been so-so movies about the movie industry that I have liked. For example: the movie “Hitchcock” (2012) about Alfred Hitchcock making the movie “Psycho”. That movie was about the movie industry, it was set in Los Angeles where they filmed the movie, and it had a great cast including Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as Hitchcock’s wife Alma, and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, but it also has a lot of problems. The movie didn’t even mention Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia even though she’s in the movie “Psycho”.

Just like “Hitchcock”, “Babylon” is set in Los Angeles, it is about the movie industry, and it has a great cast including Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. However, the more I watched “Babylon” the more things I didn’t like about it. By the end of the movie, the bad things about the movie outnumbered the good things.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the main storyline of “Babylon” is about 3 people – actually 5 people but the other 2 are subplots – that often interact with each other. The 3 main people are Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) a Hispanic man who came to Hollywood to make his mark in the movie industry, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) who moved from New Jersey to Hollywood because she’s a star although she hasn’t been in a movie – she says “you don’t become a star, you’re either a star or you’re not a star”, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) who is a big star in Hollywood.

The 2 people in the subplots are Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) who is an African American jazz musician that frequently plays at the Hollywood parties but is looking for something bigger and Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) an Asian woman who does some work in the movies as an actress or writing “titles” (the text that shows in silent movies) but is also a popular cabaret singer at Hollywood parties.

The movie starts in 1926 at a big party at the house of a studio head in the hills of Bel Air. Sidney Palmer is playing in the band and Lady Fay Zhu sings. Manny Torres is working as a gopher/assistant at the party. Jack Conrad is one of the special guests at the party. Nellie LaRoy crashes the party – her car literally hits the statue in front of the house. When the security at the door doesn’t let her in, Manny rescues her by saying “they’re waiting for you inside”. Inside the house, Manny and Nellie talk about how much they both want to work in the movies. Nellie wants to be in front of the camera and Manny wants to be behind the camera.

In the early morning as the party is winding down, Manny and Nellie both get their big breaks. A studio executive picks Nellie out of the crowd to replace an actress found dead at the party that was supposed to film a scene in a movie later that day. Around the same time, Manny’s boss tells him to drive the passed-out Jack Conrad home. Jack likes Manny, so he tells him to come to the film he’s working on that day. When they arrive at the set Manny gets his first job in the movies handling a large group of angry extras.

Nellie impresses the director and the studio executives with her acting and – with a little help from Lady Fay Zhu who makes a “title” that gives her a clever catch phrase – Nellie starts to become famous. At the same time, after impressing the director and producer on Jack’s movie set, Manny gets more jobs in the movie industry.

Then it’s 1927 – the year that the “The Jazz Singer” is released. The first movie with sound. Jack sends Manny to New York to go to the premiere and reports back that “Things are about to change”. The change affects all 5 people.

Coincidentally, when the movie starts mentioning “The Jazz Singer”, is one of the first things I don’t like about the movie. There have been other movies that are about the same time when movies started to have sound such as “The Artist” (2011), “Sunset Blvd” (1950), and especially “Singin in the Rain” (1952). I really like those movies, so I really didn’t like that this movie had some very similar scenes. There are a couple scenes that are like scenes I remember from “The Artist”, a couple scenes that reference things that I remember from “Sunset Blvd”, and a WHOLE BUNCH of things that were practically copied from “Singin in the Rain”. In fact, parts of this movie seem like it’s a remake of that movie and parts make it seem like it’s a tribute to that movie. There are so many references to the movie or scenes copied from the movie, they should have said that “Babylon” is written by Damien Chazelle and Betty Comden & Adolph Green. The two people who wrote “Singin in the Rain”.

The second thing I didn’t like about this movie is the storyline. It doesn’t really have a 3rd act. The first act is about how Manny gets work in the movies and Nelly gets an acting job in the movies. The second act is about how things change when the movie switch from silent to sound. Then the storyline for the movie starts to conclude.

You may know that “Babylon” has a 3+ hour running time so you may be wondering what fills the rest of the time. The answer is a lot of unneeded scenes. There are quite a few scenes which could have been cut without affecting the storyline. Scenes such as the very first sequence in the movie where Manny helps get an elephant up into the hills of Bel Air to the house of the studio head having the big party that night. There are also unneeded scenes like when a large group of people leave a party and get into their cars to look for a rattlesnake to fight, a scene in New York City where Manny goes with Nellie to a mental institution to visit Nellies mother, and a rather long scene where gangster James McKay (Tobey Maguire) takes Manny and another man to the only place in Los Angeles where the decadence and depravity hasn’t stopped.

In fact, that’s the third thing I don’t like about this movie: the gratuitous sex, nudity, violence, and other things. I would have been perfectly fine not seeing some of the other things. I really didn’t need to see the elephant defecate on Manny and another guy as they’re trying to push it up a hill to the party at the studio heads house. I didn’t need to see a woman urinating on the belly of a man at the party. I really didn’t need to see a close-up shot of a rattlesnake bite. I didn’t need to see Nellie vomit on an expensive rug and then on the man who owns the expensive rug. I also didn’t need to see the things shown in the only place in Los Angeles where the decadence and depravity hasn’t stopped.

From what I’ve read, some of the unneeded or gratuitous scenes in this movie are based on real things that happened. However, just because it happened doesn’t mean you have to include all of it in this movie.

The fourth thing I didn’t like about this movie is the cinematography and editing. The movie keeps switching its pacing. One scene has a long continuous tracking shot going up and down and all around a party, or a movie theater, or a studio, or a movie being filmed. Then the very next scene has several very short quick cuts showing different things happening at the same time. Like different movies being filmed in different places or people running around screaming frantically after the rattlesnake bites someone (sorry about the spoiler but you see the rattlesnake in the movies trailer so you can probably guess someone will get bit). After 3 hours of watching scenes with long tracking shots and then switching to scenes with very quick shots it became almost disorienting to me.

Finally, probably the worst thing about this movie is at the end. I won’t spoil what happens in it, but it includes all the other things I don’t like about the movie. First, there’s a very big reference to “Singin in the Rain”. Second, it’s more like an epilogue to the movie rather than a 3rd act. Third, it may not be gratuitous, but a lot of it is unneeded. Forth, there is a long continuous tracking shot inside a movie theater – from the balcony, then across the audience watching the movie, then back to the balcony – followed by a lot of quick cuts.

I don’t hate this movie. In fact, there are some things that I really liked about this movie. One of the best things is the cast. Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt are perfect in their roles and there are a lot of great cameos including Tobey Maguire as the gangster James McKay and the women who play Jack Conrad’s wives – Olivia Wilde is his wife the first time you see Jack but she immediately divorces him when he refuses to stop speaking Italian, Karolina Szymczak is his second wife who rants and yells at him in Hungarian – while Manny tries to translate what she’s saying by searching a translation book, and Katherine Waterston is his third wife who was an actress on Broadway so she coaches him when he’s rehearsing the lines for his first movie with sound. However, as I mentioned at the start, the things I didn’t like about this movie outnumber the things that I liked about it.

I give the movie a 4 out of 10.