CINEMA REVIEWS: BABYLON (2022) and THE FABELMANS (2022)
I have been extremely busy with the day-job, itself working with the filmmakers of the future at Raindance Film School, so I have a number of reviews backed-up in “pre-production.” Meaning I am thematically linking the latest films from Damian Chazelle and Steven Spielberg in one double-bill review show. Both Babylon (2022) and The Fabelmans (2022) celebrate the seismic and life-changing power cinema has had on the culture and society, from a historical, professional and very personal perspective.
While I love watching, writing and making films, cinema offerings about filmmaking and the love of cinema can be construed as somewhat of an indulgence on the part of the filmmaker. Quentin Tarantino recently achieved high level juxtaposition between homage and impressive narrative style with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). Moreover, there have been some brilliant films about filmmaking as this Six of the Best Films about Filmmaking article illustrates. But when two of the finest directors around produce extremely different visions of the filmmaking process, then one immediately takes notice.
Directed and written by Damien Chazelle
Main cast: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li etc.
Damian Chazelle has proved himself one of the most exciting cinematic voices of recent years. Whiplash (2014), La La Land (2016) and First Man (2018) are all masterpieces of filmic storytelling. The absolute control displayed within First Man (2018) when contrasted with the aggression of his debut film and romantic vibrancy of his Oscar winning musical is a wonder to behold. Thus, I came to gonzo-period-drama-jazz-and-coke-fuelled-black-comedy-mash-up, Babylon (2022) with high expectations.
The opening scene of an elephant shitting on the camera / audience from a great height sets the tone of Chazelle’s unofficial adaptation of Kenneth Anger’s scurrilous book, Hollywood Babylon. And so at breakneck speed we hurtle, from 1926 onwards and a orgiastic party through the on and off-set lives, loves, highs and lows of Margot Robbie’s wild “child” actress, Brad Pitt’s silent movie heartthrob, Diego Calva’s ever-optimistic, Manny Torres, and the squeezed-out-of-the-story, jazz musician, portrayed by the under-used Jovan Adepo. It’s brash, bold and challenging cinema that left me with, I have to admit, motion picture sickness.
Babylon (2022) is not so much a love letter to Hollywood as a ratcheted-up-to-eleven tribute to the tragic heroes of the past who were chewed up and spat out by the relentless Hollywood machine. Despite Chazelle and his production team’s incredible dedication and attention to detail in creating a slew of astounding filmmaking set-pieces, I rarely cared about any of these mostly obnoxious characters and could not wait for this Hollywood rollercoaster to stop. Sadly, it goes on for far too long, with too many endings. Don’t get me wrong there are moments of genius, hilarity and grotesque pleasure to be had during Babylon (2022), however, this type of dysfunctional character-driven drama was done with way more heart by Paul Thomas Anderson’s far superior, Boogie Nights (1997).
Mark: 7 out of 11
THE FABELMANS (2022)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner
Main cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle
Judd Hirsch, Jeannie Berlin etc.
“Movies are dreams!“, says a glowing, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), to her young son, Sammy, as she presents him with a camera. So it proved for Steven Spielberg with his career in filmmaking working like a dream, both behind the camera and up on the cinema screen. Indeed, there is no doubting Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of all time, having delivered a succession of incredibly popular film blockbusters and some seriously impressive genre films of spellbinding quality. Jaws (1975) is regularly screened on Sky Cinema and there isn’t a wasted scene or action or performance or line of dialogue in one of my favourite films of all time. The rest of Spielberg’s cinematic curriculum vitae isn’t too bad either.
So, what about The Fabelmans (2022)? Well, it’s a more loose and episodic when compared with Spielberg’s tightly plotted genre films. But if anyone has earned that right it’s one of the finest film storytellers. It’s such a personal project Spielberg even thanked the audience for coming to the cinema to watch it in a recorded clip. At the heart of the action is the aforementioned Sammy, who after his initial visit to the cinema is smitten at first sight. So much so he strives to create the spectacle on his Dad’s 8mm camera. As Sammy’s love affair with film grows into his teenage years he finds himself in the midst of a tug-of-war between his mother’s artistic and highly emotional personality and his father’s (Paul Dano) scientific, more logical mind.
Beautifully filmed, designed and edited, The Fabelmans (2022), is a majestic experience from an emotional and visual perspective. Spielberg’s love for cinema and his family is palpable, as he and Tony Kushner’s screenplay cleverly juxtaposes the filmmaking process with key emotional scenes from the director’s life. One specific moment where teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) edits a home movie only to reveal something very painful is certainly one of the most memorable scenes of the year. Performances are intriguingly varied with LaBelle and Dano both impressing. The usually superlative Michelle Williams was great, but her character felt like she was from an otherworldly realm. I imagine that was Spielberg’s intention. In conclusion, The Fabelmans (2022), is a stunning and big-budgeted home movie. If you are captured by Spielberg’s personal journey and enjoy watching characters on a cinema screen as they stare in wonder at the cinema screen, then you will love this.