Movie of the Week: Babylon (2023)

Damien Chazelle directs Margot Robbie, Diego Calva and Brad Pitt in this epic ensemble dark comedy drama about the death of the silent movie business in Hollywood and the fallout among the decadent has-beens and wannabes.

Close-up on a gargantuan anus. It sprays shit all over us. And if you aren’t on board and cackling aloud with that first scene, sorry folks, it is uphill all the way. Overweight bellies are pissed on. A pantry with every possible narcotic is opened. Someone crashes through a window and nobody misses a beat. Excess, orgy, relentless. That is 32 minutes before the title card appears. BABYLON.

Chazelle understands pace, his education in music gifts him this over nearly any other director (Carpenter?). He is probably the finest director to have arrived in the 21st century. Whiplash, La La Land and now this are the incontrovertible evidence. He moves breakneck here, tearing up whatever rule book may exist for accessible, pleasant storytelling. Multiple characters screech and swerve around a chaotic party. The first hellish celebration of many. Babylon has party scenes like Jaws has sea bound sequences. Fuck Gatsby get-togethers. This is Anger and Arbuckle raves. Hollywood Babylon and Singin’ In The Rain are the key sources. Kenneth Anger’s unbelievable gossip book lingers about, engorged and leering back at us, in all the background details. When the USC football team turn up half naked, you wonder have they all fucked the starlet yet… as essayed in Anger’s chapter on Clara Bow… and if so, which one of the wooden nude lunks is supposed to be a young John Wayne? You need to move quick if you wanna pack it all in. Catch the rattlesnake. Let us experience the heady rush without questioning the depravity or morals or marbles or truth of the endeavour. Chazelle knows when to give pause, knows when to leap a year. The screen fills with writhing devil may care oblivion, then lingers on an exhausted face. Or a crying one. Realising there’s no way this will all ever last.

He has assembled a crack team of creatives. Some are his house band. His wife plays the small but pivotal role of established silent director Ruth Adler and she more than any cast member really understands the rhythm he is going for. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren matches Gordon Willis’s love of darkness in the night time bacchanals yet lenses the widescreen carnage of an early Hollywood shoot with an arid expanse closer to crisp Conrad Hall. Justin Hurwitz’ score is another persuasive ear worm, even if it playfully calls back to a stanza in La La Land occasionally (welcome), in the main it is its own dirty raggy, jazzy stomp that cuckolds the movie stars and possesses them.

Of the new faces to Chazelle; Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li all make their mark. You possibly want a little more of all of them out of three hours plus but they aren’t the leads and they more than serve their purpose. Adepo gets a particularly brutal moment of self realisation and spiritual compromise when he is forced to darken his skin. There are gorier, more transgressive moments but this is the one calmer scene that truly wounds. Tobey Maguire has a fantastic extended cameo as a creepy merchant of evil. His third act horror set piece shows where all this corruption goes once LA starts becoming formalised and sanitised. Underground. Yet it is Robbie who deserves highest praise… she takes that grating, sexy, unpredictable Harley Quinn / Tonya Harding energy and amps herself all the way up to blitzkrieg level. FOR. ALMOST. 180. BREATHLESS. MINUTES. Have a word with yourself Academy voters. Shame on you.

In box office and, to a lesser extent, critical acclaim Babylon has not exactly set the world alight. It is a $80 million production that reminds me in many, many ways of the self destructive hubris that ended New Hollywood. The big communal celebration scenes of Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate instantly spring to mind. The bitter, half fat musical synergy of New York, New York and One From The Heart is definitely there. The budget churning, audience disregarding cynicism of all these productions. Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon achieved on the scale of Apocalypse Now. Mature, ambitious, career wrecking big swings that general audiences rarely embrace on opening weekend (see also BladeRunner, Fight Club). Potential Career Enders. I see very little wrong in Chazelle’s massive vision: a blood stained love letter to every major schism in American movie making. Some quieter scenes gasp and squeak a little under the constant pressure of their neighbours and it often is branded in gross-out bad taste. I laughed my arse off. I cared when I wasn’t laughing. And when I was doing both I was utterly terrified. This is cinema! Catch it on the biggest screen, as you’ll regret listening to the naysayers and eventually streaming this at some expired date instead… kicking yourself afterwards that you missed out on the big one.


Perfect Double Bill: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

M3gan (2023)

Gerard Johnstone directs Allison Williams, Violet McGraw and Amie Donald in this horror where a lifelike android prototype over reaches in her protocol to be a little girl’s best friend.

Enough cool moments for a new multiplex icon to be born. The carnage takes a while to get moving, then it never exceeds the peaks teased in the trailer. Handles the tech company / killer app cliched bobbins better than most modern horrors. Fun.


Perfect Double Bill: Child’s Play (2019)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

Enys Men (2023)

Mark Jenkins directs Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe and John Woodvine in this experimental chiller where a lone woman explores a deserted Cornish island with daily uniformity.

People trust that rockabilly quiff. Yet sometimes Mark Kermode will praise to high heaven a movie that only really has a British director (who, like he, went to public school) and a Seventies vibe in its arsenal. Real slogs. And because he is genuinely articulate and passionate about all cinema – and actively doesn’t truck with Transformer movies or Roland Emmerich – the broadsheet / Radio 4 / premium podcast listening belly breathers think his opinion is untouchable. They never approach these wildly personal recommends (the impenetrable work of Carol Morley, the bang average looking Encounter) with the essential caveat of “Yes… but would I enjoy this saggy bag of pretentious bollocks over the latest Michael Bay entertainment?” ‘Cos they’ve tied their flag to one of the most idiosyncratic voices in middle class film criticism. So when they all start walking out of my screening of Enys Men half an hour in… is it really forgivable? By now they surely must know just because a film smells a bit like like Nicolas Roeg that don’t, in any way, mean the general ticket buying public will find any comforts within it. Their champion Kermode benefits from championing, his readers / listeners are unlikely to have the same motivations and immersive back stop of viewing eccentricities to fall back on. He was at the Scala in the early Eighties, crusaded to get rereleases of the original cuts of The Exorcist and The Devils. His bonafides are unquestionable but if you are only getting your film criticism from one source then chances are your cinematic palettes are a bit too stunted for Enys Men. Hence a third of the audience disrupting the mood and voting with their feet just as things were gently ramping up. C’mon guys… unexpected lichen has appeared!!! Turns out Enys Men is my kinda late night thing. I saw all its influences and its open yet obtuse intentions and I wholeheartedly went with it. The colours explode on the big screen, 5p seaside town newsagent postcards come to life. I like the forced poetry of it. The spooky, the experimental, the candle being snuffed out and the jump cut to daybreak. My take on the time slip and the apparitions and the repetitions worked for out me. I was invested in the puzzler aspect. I appreciated the mutating headfuck. Husband and wife team Jenkins and Woodvine locked me in with their hermit stylings. For me, for Mark, but for you? Make up your own mind.


Perfect Double Bill: Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

Risky Business (1983)

Paul Brickman directs Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay and Joe Pantoliano in this teen fantasy where a good clean cut kid becomes a pimp.

Tangerine Dream. Wet dreams. Tight white undies. Fast cars. Transactions. Reaganomics. Flawed glass. Used people. Studio mandated happy ending.


Perfect Double Bill: All The Right Moves (1983)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

Decision To Leave (2022)

Park Chan-Wook directs Tang Wei, Park Hae-Il and Lee Jung-hyun in this Korean police thriller where a middle aged police detective begins to fall for the suspect in a mysterious death.

The kinda movie where the pattern of the background wallpaper is more cinematic than most franchise movies. Tang Wei is utterly enthralling as the untrustworthy immigrant beauty. Feels very much like they came up with the memorable, highly symbolic, ending and worked backwards. Very dense plotting and production design. There are some Asian social mores and language quirks that get lost in translation… huge swathes where you might need to double check back on what has happened. Probably will work better on rewatch. But essentially it boils down to a longer, sweeter yet bleaker Vertigo (1958) or Basic Instinct. I have a lot of time for that mood, and I certainly will retry something cut from such high quality cloth.


Perfect Double Bill: Sea Of Love (1989)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

I Love You Beth Cooper (2009)

Chris Columbus directs Hayden Panettiere, Paul Rust and Lauren London in this teen comedy where a nerdy valedictorian publicly pronounces his love for a wild cheerleader on graduation day unleashing a series of chaotic consequences.

After Hours but… y’know for kids.


Perfect Double Bill: The To-Do List (2013)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

Revenge of the Ninja (1983)

Sam Firstenberg directs Sho Kosugi, Keith Vitali and Kane Kosugi in this American martial arts film where a ninja must protect his family after he is betrayed by his shadowy business partner.

Cheesy but enjoyable Cannon Group beat-‘em-up movie shot in Utah. There’s enough brutal violence here, madcap action and sleazy plotting, to keep you thoroughly pumped from teeth to tits. Then ninja grandma whips out her Crouching Tiger magic and the crowd goes crazy. The final rooftop one-on-one fight is epic – every ninja weapon and trick is deployed. A cheap, forgotten treat.


Perfect Double Bill: Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

Betty Blue (1986)

Jean-Jacques Beineix directs Jean-Hugues Anglade, Béatrice Dalle and Consuelo de Haviland in this erotic drama about a writer’s relationship with his troubled yet beautiful girlfriend.

*** Warning! Spoilers! ***

Everyone remembers the first act. The painting of the beach huts. The raw thrusting. The home destroying tantrums. Fiery. Dalle is a wonder boy. She never even got close to reaching these heights again… even in the later parts of the very movie that made her an icon of the Eighties… what heights though! Gap toothed, open and always moving. Delectable whether clothed or undressed (there’s plenty of male nudity too), bonkers but just on the right side of annoying. You shouldn’t fuck crazy but she makes a convincing counter argument. Oh so French! Oh-La-La!

Cinema Du Look. Beineix challenges naturalism throughout, especially with his exteriors. This is often about mood and emotion more than logic or plot. At three hours, Betty Blue is a challenge and the third act goes off the rails in more ways than one. There’s multiple reasons for this. Even though Dalle’s Betty’s mental health deteriorates extremely from ‘cute menace to society’ to a ‘genuinely at risk individual’ her screentime diminishes. Even by the end of the second hour it feels like the spotlight is no longer being equitably shared and she shifts into the background a jot too much. There are compelling but blind siding subplots (drag robbery, piano delivery) that add little to the central relationship.

I think (and this is my own personal interpretation) that is because we are seeing Anglade’s Zorg’s fantasy as a struggling writer. Betty fills a gap beyond sexual desire, wild companionship and emotional support. She rebels against the drudgery of his day jobs creating dramatic exits from the stifling need to earn a wage, whether by arson or fork stabbing. She openly interrogates his self respect as a man and as an artist. She does all the boring admin grunt work towards getting him published. The typing up, the sending out, the conscious rejecting of the rejection letters. And once he makes steps towards being a writing success their relationship begins to fracture. She has needs beyond sex and encouraging her aspiring author – she wants a family, to reshape their world – and it tears her reality apart. There’s definitely a metaphor about creation in her emotionally shattering failed pregnancy. He begins to dress convincingly like a woman, indulge in more dangerous behaviours, eventually euthanising the better half who might be a lunatic but served to keep him on the right track to being a publishing success. His ultimate masterpiece is about the very woman whose life force he has spent getting to the next stage of his writing career. Ironic exploitation to the max. Betty Blue isn’t just his unhinged dream woman but his fairy godmother, possibly a high functioning split personality. And when her volatile service is no longer needed he emerges mature, she dead. And even if I’m wrong about all this supposing, it is a beautiful fucked-up marathon of experiences.


Perfect Double Bill: Diva (1981)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

Violent Night (2022)

Tommy Wirkola directs David Harbour, John Leguizamo and Beverly D’Angelo in this action comedy where a drunk but tough Santa protects a wealthy family who have been taken hostage by mercenaries wanting their safe.

One joke meme movie that idles in the middle. Tonally off. Feels like a Christmas kids film with extreme violence rewritten hastily when someone watched a season of Succession. Populated entirely by unlikeable characters, and in a flick like this you do need someone, anyone to root for. Won’t become a festive perennial.


Perfect Double Bill: Fatman (2020)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

Switchblade Sisters (1975)

Jack Hill directs Joanne Nail, Robbie Lee and Monica Gayle in this exploitation flick where The Jezebels find themselves in a power struggle when a capable new girl joins their gang.

Girl gang action and in-fighting with bundles of good energy. The action always goes bigger than you might expect. All the boys (aged 40 and over) are dweebs. Wholesome sleaze, classier than it needs to be without losing any edge.


Perfect Double Bill: Big Doll House (1971)

My wife and I do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here