Margot Robbie and Diego Calva in Babylon


Over the course of three hours and nine minutes, there's one sensationally effective, entertaining, and even educational sequence in Damien Chazelle's Babylon – even if, like everything else in this wildly indulgent and obnoxious old-Hollywood saga, it, too, eventually gets royally effed up.

Nearly all of Chazelle's film covers the period between the late 1920s and early '30s in which silent pictures were gradually transitioning to sound following the staggering success of 1927's The Jazz Singer. Babylon's only (mostly) excellent scene makes this uneasy transition its sole focus. Starring in her first talkie, silent-screen goddess and current “It girl” Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) has a theoretically easy task for her first take on The Dame & the Dean: All she has to do is walk into a room, hit her mark, drop her suitcase, say “Hello, college!”, make a quick phone call – she doesn't even have to dial – and hang up. Simple. Or so you'd think. Because during the 15 seconds it will require to shoot this bit, it turns out that anything that can go wrong does.

Nellie's heavy New Jersey accent initially proves too piercing for the sound guy, who demands that she speak at a volume several decibels lower. One take is ruined by a wandering crew member who isn't wearing rubber-soled shoes, and another attempt is waylaid by an unfortunately timed sneeze. Nellie's spontaneous act of twirling into her scene causes the starlet to miss her mark – she needs to land directly on the “X” for the overhead microphone to capture her line – and two additional tries are ruined by staffers who still don't understand that a flashing red light means the studio door has to remain closed. Meanwhile, the oppressive heat from the closed set's lighting equipment is causing Nellie to sweat through her character's breezy intro, although her suffering is nothing compared to the cinematographer's, who has to operate his camera from a sound-proof booth that's basically a makeshift sauna.

It's a spectacular passage in Chazelle's movie: humorous, yet painfully so; rigorously edited without prompting a seizure; informative about the harrowing real-life conditions filmmakers were forced to endure at the start of the sound era. But as he does everywhere else, the writer/director badly overplays his hand here, and this largely first-rate sequence climaxes with another barrage of witlessly crude screaming fits, Robbie's coked-up apoplexy skyrocketing for the umpteenth time, and one more dead body in an epically scaled “comedy” already rife with them. I loathed Babylon through and through, from the opening segment's elephant that power-defecates on an unsuspecting victim to the closer's stunningly misguided “magic of the movies” montage that dares to compare the wretched work we've been watching with Un Chien Andalou, The Wizard of Oz, Terminator II, and, most pointedly, Singin' in the Rain. I never hated it more, though, than when Chazelle sabotaged his one wholly successful tribute with what felt like his zillionth explosion of braying commands, vociferous arguments, and juvenile shock effects. I have no doubt that Chazelle admires the artists and craftspeople who had to master the difficult switch from silent films to sound. I wish he had found ways to express that admiration without turning everything into a grim, boring, desperately unfunny joke.

Brad Pitt in Babylon

When a friend and I caught Babylon over the weekend, we wound up being the only patrons there. This wasn't necessarily a surprise: It was a Christmas Eve morning showing of an R-rated – and hard-R-rated – outing with limited evident commercial appeal, and the mere act of getting to our cars required walking through sub-zero temperatures. But never have we been so glad to have an auditorium all to ourselves, given the frequency of our loud, incredulous “What the f---?!”s and our bone-deep urges to flip off the screen.

It's not fair to say that nothing works in Chazelle's film. Playing Jack Conrad, a suave matinée idol whose professional standing takes a dramatic turn south, Brad Pitt coasts through on natural charm and his gift for sardonically understated line readings (he's also one of the few performers here who looks right for the period), and Jovan Adepo, Jean Smart, and Tobey Maguire each make distinct impressions before their material betrays them. Yet these momentary oases of sturdy professionalism don't stand a chance against the garish oppressiveness of Chazelle's maximalist approach. Babylon isn't just big; it's “Big! Bigger!! Biggest!!!” And its writer/director appears so fixated on crafting The Hollywood Spectacle to End All Hollywood Spectacles that he doesn't seem to realize that little of it makes sense or is in any way believable, let alone meaningful.

Pitt's Jack, Robbie's depressingly one-note Nellie, and the fast-rising show-biz tyro Manny (Diego Calva, lost in an illogical, half-written role) snort mountains of coke and drink gallons of booze with no debilitating hangovers. Hundreds of extras participate in a debauched Sodom-and-Gomorrah party at which there are no cars in the mansion's driveway. (For what it's worth, Chazelle has committed to celluloid the dullest, least erotic orgy sequence since Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.) Impossible crew assignments are pulled off with impossible-to-buy success, and always at the last second. Li Jun Li's Chinese cabaret singer is deemed legendary and irreplaceable despite our only witness to her talents a poorly staged rip-off of Marlene Dietrich's drag number in Morocco. Seemingly significant characters such as Eric Roberts' Robert Roy and Olivia Hamilton's Ruth Adler disappear with no warning or explanation. A lengthy, late-film descent into the Hollywood underbelly serves no conceivable purpose except to remind us how much better, and less nauseating, this same scene was when it landed near the end of Boogie Nights. Every time you think Babylon has become as insufferable as possible, a noxious new bit rears its ugly head: a party guest urinates on a grossly overweight man; a dwarf masturbates a prop penis taller than he is until the thing ejaculates on a crowd of revelers; goo pours from Nellie's neck after a rattlesnake bite. (Given its plethora of visible bodily fluids, Chazelle's movie doesn't demand an audience so much as a tourniquet.)

As expected, the film's production and costume designs are impeccable, and composer Justin Hurwitz's score is certainly propulsive, even if I was thrown every time his refrains echoed note progressions eerily similar to those employed for Chazelle's La La Land. Still, I couldn't wait to get the hell out of Babylon, and thought the only character who displayed any shreds of sanity and wisdom, and who engendered any empathy, was Jack's soon-to-be-ex-wife Ina, played by Olivia Wilde. She drives her husband to a party in the movie's first 10 minutes, drives off, and is never seen or heard from again.

Brendan Fraser in The Whale


You may have heard that Brendan Fraser plays a 600-pound man in The Whale, and you may also have heard that the actor is remarkable in the role. This is accurate on both counts. What you may not have heard, though, is that director Darren Anofsky's adaptation of screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter's play is stupefyingly, offensively awful – preferable to Babylon only because it's 70 minutes shorter.

I'm not sure how Hunter's material works on the stage, if it works at all. But there's no mistaking the script's theatrical roots, considering that, barring a couple of flashbacks and a few brief jaunts outside, the entire drama unfolds within a single apartment set, and the narrative is little more than a series of confrontations in which one character after another enters, berates Fraser's morbidly obese Charlie, and storms off. After about a half-hour of this dreary routine, I presumed that Aronofsky and Hunter would maybe start shaking things up a bit; that they'd whisk us to another locale, say, or provide a scene with more than three people involved. But no – the claustrophobic, punishingly staginess lasts from beginning to end. Yet the same could be said of Stephen Karam's 2020 screen rendition of his Tony-winning The Humans, a movie I adore. So my chief problem with The Whale isn't that it's based on a play. It's that it appears to be based on a really bad play, and Aronofsky seems to have done everything in his power to make matters worse.

Fraser's Charlie is a reclusive English-language professor who teaches college-level courses online (being careful to keep his camera off during Zoom meetings), and most of the film is devoted to his exchanges with the only five others in his offline orbit. There's Liz (Hong Chau), the registered nurse who is Charlie's best friend and warns him that he's rapidly developing congestive heart failure – though that doesn't stop her from arriving every day with a fresh bucket of fried chicken. There's Ellie (Sadie Sink), the abandoned teenage daughter from an ill-fated marriage with whom Charlie desperately wants to reconnect. There's Mary (Samantha Morton), Charlie's still-furious ex-wife who was forced into single-motherhood after Charlie left her for a younger male student. There's Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a devout Christian missionary who accidentally shows up at Charlie's door and becomes adamantly invested in saving the man's soul. And there's Dan (Sathya Sridharan), the friendly pizza-delivery guy who makes apparently nightly visits to Charlie's apartment but has never seen the man in the flesh – he simply chats with the guy from outside the door, drops off the pies, and collects his cash from the mailbox. Dan seems pretty genial, and in Simpkins' sweet-faced, single-minded dopiness, Thomas appears harmless enough. It's Charlie's other three guests, I'm afraid to say, who are incredible ass aches.

Hong Chau in The Whale

I don't want to label Hunter's conceptions of Liz, Ellie, and Mary as misogynist, because these characters would no doubt be just as hateful if played by men. (And considering that Charlie is gay, the roles could have been refashioned as male fairly easily.) But every single time one of these three women entered a scene, I groaned, because they barely get through Charlie's doorway before pelting him with insults and recriminations and harangues, and always at top volume; I can't remember the last movie I saw in which, collectively, shouting was the reflexive performance technique. Sink fares the worst, lending no variety to Ellie's bitter and endless cascade of complaints; she makes you wish there was a morning-after pill to take care of generically pissed-off teens. Following her sublime one-scene-wonder appearance in She Said, Morton offers a rare unconvincing portrayal here, Mary's years of apparent seething culminating in ill-defined rage and a shaky American dialect. And while the sensationally gifted Chau gives her role a good try, there's nothing she can do to redeem Liz's incessant sourness – and senseless sourness, given that her outbursts about Charlie's suicidal gluttony prove meaningless when, in the next breath, she's handing her friend a pair of foot-long meatball subs.

If Hunter deserves most of the blame for The Whale, though, Aronofsky's direction makes it a close contest. Despite the terrible writing, you can envision a version of this material in which Charlie is viewed as a figure worthy of understanding and deep empathy, and in Fraser's sensitive, quick-witted performance, that's occasionally what we get. But damned if Aronofsky doesn't seem more intent on making Charlie a monster. After roughly a minute of soothing, professorial coaching in his online class, our first actual view of Charlie is of him frantically jerking off to gay porn – an activity that leads to a possible heart attack at, wouldn't you know it, the very moment that Christian missionary walks in the door. Aronofsky, though, is relentless about Charlie's grossness. He heightens the gruesome crunching and slurping sounds whenever Charlie gorges, making sure that his protagonist leaves half his meals on his face. He emphasizes composer Rob Simonsen's scare-flick cues whenever Charlie makes aborted efforts to stand without the aid of a walker. He invites us to watch naked Charlie shower so we can soak in the hideousness of the man's repellant form (and the inevitable Oscar-winning prosthetics). Charlie isn't even allowed to giggle without pathetic gasping and grasping of his chest. On a surface level, Aronofsky may want us to “identify” with Charlie, yet The Whale's helmer seems far more interested in making the man a source of pity, horror, and contempt. Ellie continually treats her father like shit. Aronofsky treats him worse.

Given all this, it's not impressive so much as miraculous that Charlie's portrayer winds up as good – make that great – as he is. Brendan Fraser has always been an intensely likable screen presence; prior to The Whale, likability may have been his most notable performance trait. But Fraser's inherent lightness of spirit proves to be precisely what his heavy-handed and heavily symbolic role requires. Refusing to be swallowed entirely by his prosthetics, Fraser lets you see the hopeful, love-addled Charlie who existed before he became an embarrassed shut-in, and his melodiously ironic readings constantly take you by surprise. Having clearly fashioned Charlie as someone in love with language, Fraser makes you comprehend how even his irritating overuse of the adjective “amazing” is tied to an adoration of words, and the actor's open-heartedness and well-considered and -executed emotional transitions make Hunter's script play far better than it has any right to. The Whale isn't worth seeing. Brendan Fraser absolutely is. If you can't tell whether that's a recommendation to view the movie or not, you've got company. I can't, either.

Naomi Ackie in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody


I'm not someone who tends to fully register the number of producers and executive producers whose names show up in a movie's opening credits. But I really had no choice in the case of director Kasi Lemmons' Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (the “Whitney Houston” part having been added just a couple weeks ago, as if this bio-pic could possibly have been about anyone else). Twelve producers, among them screenwriter Anthony McCarten, and Clive Davis, the latter the noted record producer whom Stanley Tucci plays in the movie. Fourteen executive producers, among them the film's star Naomi Ackie. And while I don't recall if their names showed up in the film's first minutes or not, the Internet Movie Databse lists two additional co-producers, a co-executive producer, and three associate producers, resulting in – lemme do some quick calculation here … – a whopping 32 individuals who can honestly say at their next Hollywood cocktail party, “Yeah … I helped produce I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” If only that were anything to brag about.

It feels telling that none of those 32 producers is Lemmons, because this feature-film followup to her 2019 Harriet Tubman bio-pic Harriet certainly seems like the product of 32 separate opinions, not one of them coming from the person tasked with actually directing the freaking thing. Following, in roughly chronological order, the course of Houston's career from her early-'80s days in church choir to her accidental-or-not drug overdose in 2012, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is, as many works in this genre are, a glorified Wikipedia page, but oftentimes lacking details that would jump out even in a quick Wikipedia skim. When Ackie's Houston asks then-husband Bobby Brown – played, in an SNL-sketch turn, by Ashton Sanders – if he wants her to call the police on him again, we're taken aback. When did she call the police on him before? Any allegations, let alone re-creations, of physical abuse are completely absent here.

Nafessa Williams and Naomi Ackie in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody

But the weirdest thing about Lemmons' and McCarten's movie is how thoroughly it removes Houston's agency. We knew she didn't write her own songs, and she wasn't a natural actor or gifted dancer, and the superstar was hardly a creative force of nature à la Madonna. But did her phenomenal success really come from simple divining – hearing pre-recorded tracks of songs performed by others (and played for her by Clive Davis) and deciding “Yep, I can do something with that”? Lemmons and company give Houston all the credit in the world for That Voice, and Ackie's scenes with Tucci have a lovingly unforced, playful rhythm. But otherwise, Ackie's Houston comes across in the film as the most lavishly rewarded of ambulatory chess pieces. Whether they came from those 32 producers or not, there appear to have been so many conflicting notions about what Houston did or didn't do to warrant such global adoration that the movie celebrating her leaves us with no sense of Houston the person at all.

No movie boasting wall-to-wall Whitney Houston tracks can be altogether unenjoyable, and it was no doubt wise of the filmmakers to not make Ackie – or anyone else – attempt to recapture those unparalleled deliveries. (Ackie does do a bit of actual singing here and there, and while she doesn't at all resemble Houston – though she would be ideal casting for a Betty Gabriel bio-pic – the performer at least nails the star's physical presence while singing.) But even this choice comes with built-in hindrances, because with nearly all of the vocals coming from Houston's recorded tracks, we have no metric to gauge when and how that glorious voice disappeared after decades of smoking and drug use. We have to simply take the reports of her poorly reviewed final tour as a given, when it would have been more more affecting, heartbreaking even, to see the proof of poor decisions play out in concert re-enactments. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody has been designed to be a eulogy, a record, a celebration. What it sadly hasn't been designed to be is a movie that's in any way interesting.

Emma Thompson in Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical


I couldn't possibly let my final movie reviews of 2022 end on notes as wholly unsatisfying as those inspired by Babylon, The Whale, and Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. So thank goodness for the family flicks Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical (newly streaming on Netflix) and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (now in theaters) to keep me from feeling like the Grinch-iest of holiday-fare critics.

With The Prom, tick … tick … Boom!, 13: The Musical, and now Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical, Netflix has officially become the Marvel Studios of musical-theatre interpretations, in that all of its releases feel identical even though the characters, locales, and storylines change. Admittedly, I was hoping for more from director Matthew Warchus' take on his Tony-winning Dahl adaptation about the brainy, emotionally abused bookworm (played by the charming Alisha Weir) who discovers her latest powers of telekinesis. In its Netflix-approved bright and peppy manner, Warchus' film is more presentationally blah than its more delectably nasty stage equivalent, and you might need the subtitles feature on to decipher words whenever cadres of youths are unintentionally making vocal gibberish out of Tim Minchin's gloriously smart and funny lyrics. Yet the material remains mostly indestructible, Weir leads a delightful team of adorable child actors, and Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham are suitably slimy as Matilda's abhorrent parents. It's an added kick seeing Lashana Lynch, who's in beautiful voice here, play the eternally good-natured Miss Honey after portraying an über-fierce warrior in The Woman King. And do I even need to mention that Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical would be worth watching simply for the divine thrill of Emma Thompson as school headmistress/torturer Agnes Trunchbull? I wouldn't have missed her sociopathic hilarity for anything. In this particular Dahl house, Thompson is the landlord.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

I liked Matilda: The Musical just fine. I loved DreamWorks Animation's Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, and this was a far more unexpected turn of events, given that I didn't care for 2011's predecessor, and actually haven't completely enjoyed any of the previous flicks in the Shrek fairytale universe. Director Joel Crawford's sequel, however, is an unbelievably entertaining outlier.

Years away from this franchise have certainly weakened my resolve; I now find it almost impossible to hear Antonio Banderas exclaim “I am Puss in Boots!” without dissolving into fits of giggles. (I've also been trotting out my half-baked imitation of Banderas' reading at every available opportunity.) But literally everything about this long-delayed, superbly well-animated sequel worked for me: the surprisingly moving plot that found Puss living in fear for the last-remaining of his nine lives; his thwarted romance with Salma Hayek's adventurer feline; his begrudging alliance with an emotional-support canine (peerlessly voiced by What We Do in the Shadows scene-stealer Harvey Guillén). And unlike most every animated comedy – hell, most every movie – you can name, The Last Wish provides no fewer than three legitimately scary villainous threats to our heroes' safety: the mercenary team of Goldilocks and her Three Bears (Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, and Samson Kayo), an abjectly terrifying Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura), and the Trump-ian “Big” Jack Horner (hysterically voiced by John Mulaney). Among theatre folk, at least, there's a sardonic expression of praise: “I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats.” At Puss in Boots: The Final Wish, though, I did laugh, I did cry, and it was better than Cats – and about cats. For 100 minutes, I completely lapped this thing up - never more so than when Kevin McCann voiced his riotous Jiminy Cricket by way of Jimmy Stewart - and can't wait to return for seconds.

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