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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Paul Whitington

Babylon movie review: Undisciplined, superficial epic like an X-rated Baz Luhrmann film

Margot Robbie and Diego Calva in Babylon

Babylon (18, 189mins)

If one were to pop some mescaline and speed read a history of golden age Hollywood, the resulting miasma might resemble Babylon.

Weighing in at a hefty three hours and nine minutes, knee-deep in debauchery, undone by its own excesses, Damien Chazelle’s epic is, I suppose, a brave attempt to capture the madness of silent era Hollywood, when devil-may-care directors and producers rode roughshod over health and safety concerns, and norms of human decency in their quixotic quest for celluloid perfection.

As Hollywood never tires of mythologising itself, this heroic era has been depicted on the screen many times before, most notably in Singin’ In The Rain.

Chazelle makes the mistake of referring to that film early and often: the comparison is not flattering. Because while Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s sublime 1950s musical did any number of things brilliantly all at once, Babylon has one abiding note, and that is hysteria.

At the centre of it all is Manuel ‘Manny’ Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant in 1920s California who works as a flunky for a studio boss.

The mogul throws a wild party at his Hollywood mansion, the centrepiece of which will be a live elephant. While Manny is transporting it, it sh*ts on him in protest.

Not exactly the high life, but Manny has big dreams and yearns to be part of the movie-making process.

At the party, he meets another dreamer, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress with a paint-stripping New Jersey accent who reckons she could be the next Mary Pickford. On a chaotic set, she will seize her moment, upstaging the furious star of a faltering western.

The party where she and Manny meet is an unseemly get together at which cocaine and champagne flow, along with various bodily fluids. Chazelle’s cameras swoop with evident delight around a roughly choreographed bacchanal that would have raised blushes in Gomorrah, but his scene-setting is undisciplined and feels like X-rated Baz Luhrmann.

Better by far is an extended sequence on a location film set where everything that can go wrong does. And while Nellie is seizing her moment, Manny has entered the orbit of silent star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a dashing leading man who’s taken the Mexican under his wing.

After Jack gets sloshed mid-shoot, an extra is killed and the only worked camera is smashed, Manny saves the day by scouring greater Los Angeles till he finds another one.

He’s on the way up and so is Nellie, but Jack is bound in the opposite direction, a victim of changing fashions. In a restrained and sensitive performance, Brad provides the only moments of soul this film possesses: his character is slow to accept the writing on the wall, and knows that once you’ve become famous, there’s no way back to normalcy.

Babylon approaches the creation of set-piece moments and vast, crowded scenes with commendable gusto, but lacks subtlety and rarely dips below its own glittering surface. Its storytelling is undisciplined, its characters hopelessly superficial: Nellie is an underwritten cypher and Robbie’s performance has tinny overtones of Harley Quinn. Calva’s Manny is impossible to engage with, a charisma-free zone.

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His rapid rise, his inevitable corruption, are hard to care about and the various minor characters that punctuate his progress — Jean Smart’s gossip columnist, Samara Weaving’s thwarted actress — are sketches rather than people.

Late on, after Manny has painfully attained the state of wisdom, he goes to a screening of Singin’ In The Rain and watches the crowd around him enjoy themselves.

This is the wonder that cinema can weave, he thinks, and Chazelle then intercuts a jarring montage that shunts us forward through Hollywood’s greatest hits, from Chaplin to Kubrick. People die, lives are ruined, but it’s all worth it for these transformative moments of magic.

Not entirely sure about that. Hollywood has a big head, and 95pc of its output has always been garbage.

Rating: Three stars

Anthony Head and Karl Rice in Let The Wrong One In

Let The Wrong One In (16, 97mins)

Conor McMahon’s fond obsession with B-movie horror continues in this pastiche vampire yarn set in Dublin.

On a hen trip to Transylvania, bride-to-be Sheila (Mary Murray) is bitten by a local bloodsucker and begins infecting all and sundry when she returns to Ireland.

That includes Deco (Eoin Duffy), a recovering heroin addict who’s perplexed to find himself growing fangs and allergic to the sun. Terrified by this turn of events, he mooches back to his family home, where a frosty welcome awaits.

Deco’s ma (Hilda Fay) refuses to speak to him, but Deco knows his younger brother Matt (Karl Rice) is a soft touch and persuades him to help.

Meanwhile, Henry (Anthony Head), a vampire hunter, has detected Deco’s presence and shows up with cloves of garlic and a very sharp stake.

McMahon blends the gaudy aesthetic of classic Hammer horror with Dublin’s salty slang to amusing effect, but while the conflation of addiction and vampirism is a good idea, he doesn’t do much with it. His cast are fully committed and charge hell for leather towards a giddy climax. 

Rating: Two stars

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi is excellent in Holy Spider

Holy Spider (16, 118mins)

A serial killer movie with a difference, Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider is set in the Iranian city of Mashhad and loosely based on a true story.

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi is Rahimi, a journalist investigating a recent spate of murders involving sex workers. As she searches for traces of the so-called ‘Spider Killer’, Rahimi faces a barrage of obfuscation and sexism herself: policemen make passes at her, then accuse her of loose morals, while the public at large seem to regard the killer as a righteous warrior.

The killer himself, Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), would agree: a disaffected veteran of the Iran/Iraq War, he rails against prostitution and has persuaded himself he’s doing God’s work.

He’s a devoted, if domineering, family man and, in the film’s most unsettling scene, has sex with his wife while staring at the foot of his latest victim, hidden in a rolled-up carpet.

Abbasi’s story stretches credibility late on, but is very well told. Amir-Ebrahimi is excellent as Rahimi and the monstrous Saeed reminds us that religious fervour is often the last refuge of a scoundrel. 

Rating: Four stars

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