Review – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – The Prequel (“Babylon”)

Take Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, The Great Gatsby, Singin’ in the Rain, Day of the Locust, Hail, Caesar! with some Animal House vibes, inject them with cocaine and steroids and you’ll get this wildly unpredictable and crazy look at old Tinsel Town. 

Let us turn back the clock to the 1920’s when motion pictures were making their uneasy transition from silent to talking pictures. Writer/director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, First Man, Whiplash) gives us his larger-than-life and bizarrely fictional view of this decadent world of lights, cameras, and action! In this story that spans from 1926 to 1952, we have three central characters that this movie revolves around and how their lives are affected by the ever-changing movie landscape. After a raucous, drug & sex-fueled party at Kinescope studio head Don Wallace’s (Jeff Garlin) extraordinary castle mountaintop home, a party-crasher is “discovered” and given a part in the next day’s silent film shoot in Simi Valley.

Meet our players in this world: Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a bonafide movie star and lover of many women who makes friends with Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva), the studio’s trusty gopher. Manny eventually gets bumped to executive producer through sheer tenacity and his keen eye for seeing the greatness in others. Trumpet player, Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), who gets catapulted into the limelight with Manny’s help, and then the main star, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who starts out as a whiz-bang actress on the set but as her fame grows, dissolves into a self-destructive shell of her former self.

Revolving in and out through the years is Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a beautiful torch singer and friend of Jack’s, gossip columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) who gives both Jack and Nellie sage advice, and Tobey Maguire as the world’s creepiest mob boss! With obvious nods to Singing’ in the Rain (which they actually mimic), the silent films moved over into “talkies”, which destroyed many silent film stars’ lives. Through the thunderous, pulse-pounding, and sometimes jarring jazz score, we are witness to who it helped and who it didn’t. As the years roll on, Nellie gets more out of hand and Manny, who is secretly in love with her, is going crazy trying to help her.

Jack, who like Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain, has to face reality about his career, while musician Sidney Palmer is forced to make a terrible decision on the set of his new movie. When the first 20 minutes of this over three-hour-long movie starts off with an elephant defecating all over a guy and then a party that would make Sodom & Gomorrah blush, you know you’re in for something different. I must say, the first act featuring eye-popping debauchery, absolutely chaotic filmmaking in the desert, and the subsequent tenseness of making films with sound for the first time is pure cinematic mayhem and breath-taking to watch.

The second act slips a little with Nellie, Jack, and Manny (now established in their new lives) having to fend for themselves in the merciless world of Hollywood filmmaking and drugs, appearances in public, and reputation. Then comes the third act which starts off strong with Maquire and a very disturbing and graphic scene of. . . well, I best not tell you. But it’s gross! After that, it’s pretty much downhill and has an odd 15-minute ending that could have been trimmed out easily. I will say this, the first two acts are what you should pay your ticket for. That, and Margot Robbie. This is the best stuff by far I’ve seen her do in years! Brad Pitt may have the headline but Robbie, along with Calva (who is fantastic), is worth sitting three hours in the dark for.

Then you have Chazelle’s all-over-the-map direction. He’s like a kid getting a new camera on Christmas; he uses every camera technique there is and loves tracking shots; check out his in ‘n’ out track at the outdoor film set, it’s great! And really, somebody should fire the focus puller! Many times the actor’s faces were blurred as the camera dissolved from one to the other! Oh, and be prepared for tons of F-bombs, drug use, smoking, nudity, and bloodshed cranked up to 11. Yeah, Tarantino would giggle with delight seeing this movie. Overlook all that and, for all you cinephiles out there (like me), there are many parts that are interesting looks into the seedy and backstabbing world of the early days of film.  

**Now showing only in theaters 

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

A Coen Brothers movie is like going to Disneyland; you’re practically guaranteed a good time. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen who have a wicked, outrageous, and completely warped sense of humor (my kind of guys!). Their movies not only entertain but travel down roads not done by any other filmmakers. And for that I say, God bless the Coen brothers!

Harken back to the 1940’s Hollywood movie-making with all the glitz and glamour of lavish musicals and epic blockbusters. There are multiple stories that pop up at Capital Pictures, but the main story revolves around studio head and fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who puts out actor fires around the lot and keeps the studio humming, despite his own personal life crisis. The biggest mess on the lot that day is Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) a sorta dorky Kirk Douglas/Charlton Heston hybrid who’s making an epic biblical movie called Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ. In the middle of production, Baird is kidnapped by a group of Communist screenwriters, calling themselves The Future, and held for ransom.

Mannix must deal with the kidnappers while (take a deep breath here) dodging twin Hollywood tabloid reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played by a goofy Tilda Swinton), considering a sweet deal offered from Lockheed aviation, helping a temperamental out-of-wedlock pregnant swimming star (Scarlett Johannson), overseeing a famous singing cowboy star – with a pronounced twang – (Alden Ehrenreich) forced to star on a fancy period picture directed by snooty Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and check out a seriously cool singing/dance number with Channing Tatum! Whew!

In and out of the main story, Mannix has to deal with his personal demons of trying to quit smoking and doing the right thing with his beautiful and understanding wife (Alison Pill). We see that Mannix is good at his job. . . very good. Like a fine Swiss watch, he knows exactly what to do and when to do it, making him invaluable to the studio and to others. Luckily, cowboy star Hobie Doyle spots the ransom pick-up, tracks down the kidnapped star, and brings Baird back. All this mayhem and chaos happens in a matter of 48 hours, with Mannix finally (with the help of going to confession every day) figuring out what he wants out of life.

More than a collection of vignettes that are spliced together with the main story, the Coen’s have a firm grasp on skewering old Hollywood (and a little of today). If you’re a fan of the movie-making process, you’ll love the behind-the-scenes nuttiness and especially Laurence Laurentz’s multiple line-readings to an actor. There’s homages to classic Hollywood here with references to newspaper czar Hedda Hopper, screen legend Esther Williams, Busby Berkeley’s choreography, and many more. 

While it doesn’t quite have the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue of The Hudsucker Proxy, the sheer lunacy & fun of Raising Arizona, the nightmarish vision of Barton Fink, or the mythos of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it does have its own Coen stamp of weirdness and humor. Recommended for the movie-holic with a passion for pictures and Hollywood historians for some fun in looking back at the 1940’s. Clooney is terrific, as usual, in his third Coen film, but it’s young Ehrenreich who steals the picture as cowboy Hobie Doyle and outshines his fellow actors. Look for cameos by Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill, Christopher Lambert, Clancy Brown (my favorite), Robert Picardo, and listen for Michael Gambon as the narrator.

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