'La La Land' on splashy adrenaline: 'Babylon' review

Kristofer Purnell - Philstar.com
'La La Land' on splashy adrenaline: 'Babylon' review
Margot Robbie in a scene from "Babylon"
Paramount Pictures

MANILA, Philippines — It cannot be denied that Damien Chazelle pours a lot of effort into things he wholeheartedly believes in, be it jazz music, a trip to the moon, and most importantly the love of cinema.

As he did with his love letter to film "La La Land," Chazelle wrote its adrenaline-fused cousin "Babylon" to step back in time to Hollywood's pinaccle in the roaring '20s, at the cusp of films transitioning from the silent era to sound.

The main players here are all dreamers in their own way — a suave Brad Pitt as the handsome face of the industry, an energetic Margot Robbie hoping to break into the mold, and relative breakout Diego Calva as the tether of a waning past and hopeful future.

This era, and even this narrative, is not unfamiliar to any cinephile as belovedly captured in 1952's "Singin' in the Rain" and the more recent 2011 "The Artist" (but it shouldn't surprise one which of the two Chazelle has attributed to).

Still a young filmmaker at 38, Chazelle is aware of the dedication and influence that cinema has brought to the world, and he pours it all together in this pot of cocaine-induced grandiosity and flashiness.

Needless to say "Babylon" is an eye-catching piece of work because of its cast, colors and sceneries plucked right out of the century, and an absolutely electric score by Justin Hurwitz that charts the highest of peaks and darkest of lows.

What brings it down is a three-hour runtime that is often too graphic, as honest as it wants to be, and surprisingly stagnant, eventually losing its way to be concluded — and even there the emotions seem too shuffled to be felt.

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Without giving much away, the film sets the stage in a debauched bacchanal and only matches that standard in glimpses, but even that is a polarizing beginning from the director of "Whiplash"; in a way "Babylon" acts a distant cousin of that film too given the similar vigor.

The golden era of Hollywood was undeniably not perfect, issues and controversies scattered through the years, so one cannot fault Chazelle for wanting to introduce it as such as well as the forgotten African-American, Asian-American, and homosexual communities that were also present then.

Speaking of, the supporting cast of Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, an underutilized Li Jun Li, and brief moments of P.J. Byrne, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde, Spike Jonze, Chloe Fineman, and Tobey Maguire reflect very much that aspect.

Nonetheless, the director's faith in his constant collaborators paid off to make "Babylon" a spectacle to behold on the eyes and ears, Hurwitz most of all for delivering what might be the best film score of 2022 ("Voodoo Mama" alone will have one's head bobbing).

The transportation to the 1920s was perfected by production designer Florencia Martin and set decorator Anthony Carlino, with costume designer Mary Zophres spicing up appearances as highlighted by Robbie's jaw-dropping dresses and Pitt's debonair outfits.

On the technical side, cinematographer Linus Sandgren again selectively chooses which shots to linger and follow to great dramatic effect while editor Tom Cross paces them with such exhilarating intensity, although one wonders if he could have contributed to more towards the runtime.

The only mild spoiler that will be mentioned is that Chazelle is paying a clear homage to the industry back then as it paved the way for what it is now, be it for better or for worse — hopefully the former.

Dedication and care can only take a person so far if the system and external factors stand in the way, but it won't stop people like Chazelle and Calva's character from striving to deliver what they believe is magic unfurling on the screen.

"Babylon" premieres in Philippine cinemas on February 1.

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