What’s in theatres? We’ll tell you.
Talk of the debauchery and abandon of Babylon was unavoidable in the weeks ahead of its release, followed by a resoundingly mixed response from critics, and what amounts to a firm rejection by theatre-going audiences.
There are a lot of reasons for this, beyond the limited appeal of a silent-going-on-sound era period piece about trying to make it (and maintain it) big. They are apparent even to someone who quite enjoyed the film: there is an inescapable sense of aimlessness, as if writer-director Damien Chazelle just had too much to say and never settled on a story he cared enough about to anchor his whistlestop of Hollywood’s highs and lows. That said, with 3 hours and change, Chazelle says significantly more than some are giving Babylon credit for, even as its convictions are swallowed up by all the sound and fury. A familiarity with Hollywood of the time will serve you well, a familiarity with the drive and lifetimes of the personalities being harkened back to even more so, and a passion for both will push you over the edge into the target audience: Damien Chazelle-types.
Certain portions of excess may leave a bad taste in your mouth, that’s not to say that recoiling from them isn’t the point, but after a while you can begin to feel like the movie isn’t on your side anymore (and for most modern, unmoved viewers, the best you’re likely to get is mild annoyance rather than scandalization). Mileage will of course vary, and it certainly helps that much of Babylon’s chaos is very, very funny, and nearly all of it seizes you and doesn’t let go.
Chazelle takes bold, fervent, often reckless swings as a filmmaker here, the production is top-notch and the cast never falters (Margot Robbie is especially mesmerizing in a role that seems as though its designed to make a star of her all over again). Of its length, Mark Kermode opined “Babylon… and on, and on and on”, and there’s some truth to that notion. The excesses run deep, and in covering so much ground the film begins to show symptoms of resolution-itis. The ending begs to be addressed: it’s a conclusion so vastly out of step with modern sensibilities, so out of left field that one could only be overjoyed to see something as brash as this in a theatre today, winding down a film intended for a mass audience.
Babylon is not a perfect film, and it probably fights its way out of being a great film, but there’s more than enough here to satisfy a viewer looking to be entertained, and you may find yourself taken in by the reverence and reproach of Hollywood. Chazelle paints the city of stars as though we were seeing the last days of Rome, and yet, knowingly, with devotion to the force which gives these people everything they’ve asked for, and which will pass them by.
Knock At the Cabin
The pandemic presented many with ruminations on the apocalypse, crackpots, social unease and rightful paranoia. It seems M. Night Shyamalan is no exception, or so his attraction to the claustrophobic Knock at the Cabin’s source novel would seem. The real question when it comes to a Shyamalan film, however, isn’t what it’s about, but whether or not he’s gone and made another disasterpiece. Thankfully, we can report that Knock at the Cabin is not only competent, but a highpoint for one of Hollywood’s last remaining “name” directors.
The seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) is staying at a cabin in the woods with her adoptive parents, Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge). Here they are set upon by four strangers, who demand that they sacrifice one of their own to avert the apocalypse.
Before we proceed with any and all reviewing, a recommendation: don’t watch the trailer. Knock at the Cabin isn’t host to the usual twists-and-turns people may expect from Shyamalan, so it’s not as if the trailers spoil any major developments, but they do provide answers you shouldn’t have at your disposal until the film is ready to reveal them. The film, playing out at the eponymous cabin nearly in its entirety, plays it simple; its writing is uncomplicated and peppered lightly with clichés, while the stakes are muddled by an air of the inexplicable. All of this is to say that, though this is the most well-judged screenplay Shyamalan has had to work with in years, the film relies primarily on an element of tension, born of its direction.
It’s good then that this is Shyamalan’s best directed film, maybe ever? He’s always had a great grasp for filmmaking on the visual level and Knock at the Cabin brings out a welcome Hitchcockian flair, lensed brilliantly by Jarin Blaschke (go-to cinematographer for Robert Eggers, more lowkey here). As a touchstone, those who enjoyed Split will find there’s a lot to like here (quite a lot actually…), and though there isn’t a bravura role on the level of James McAvoy’s Dennis, Dave Bautista as the soft-spoken Leonard continues to mark himself as far and away the best of the wrestlers-turned-actors. He and his co-stars (especially Nikki Amuka-Bird), with their cultish babble, make some of the explanatory, Shyamalanian dialogue more plausible, though later on a few exchanges tip just far enough into goofy to match the somewhat disappointing conclusion.
Some ways in the future, when Shyamalan’s worst movies have been buried by the disinterest of time, his better films will still be around, and their ‘eccentricities’ of dialogue and character, of stupefying turns and curious treatment, will probably seem charming; as a surprisingly involving B-movie strikes you forty-years on from its release. That’s what Knock at the Cabin calls to mind most of all; a lean, nasty little 70s thriller with some fun ideas and a sharp eye that works on its own terms.
There was far too much to David Bowie’s character for any documentary to capture his outsized personality without taking a seriously unconventional approach. For musicians there are the typical biographical docs, where a life-story is traced through stepping stones, really a tribute to a vast impression left on the world. Then there are the less common concert-films, letting the music and showmanship speak for itself. Moonage Daydream incorporates a modicum of both, but is largely a horse of a different, psychedelic colour.
Brett Morgan’s film instead aims to be a cinematic experience, expressively blending influences and archival footage into a kaleidoscope of culture in much the same way that Bowie did through his various personas and artistic outlets (think of German expressionism rubbing up against kabuki theatre, home video projects and private paintings, interpretive dance and sci-fi B-movies, planetoids passing over each other and fans in rapturous ecstasy). The trippy visuals and erratic montages are guided exclusively by candid interviews with Bowie spanning the musician’s lifetime, mostly concerning his personal identity and evolving relationship with his art and the world at large.
There are some lightly repetitive sequences (how many times did we need to revisit Ricochet’s trip to the Far East Plaza?) and I’d have liked a good deal more focus on Bowie’s perspective in his final days; from Blackstar it’s clear he had as much to say then as at any point highlighted more serviceably in the film. Still, we are left with the divining rod that kept an indefinable artist always looking forward: an irrepressible desire not to waste your days. Thankfully, Moonage Daydream keeps to the spirit of that credo; it takes no half measures and should be seen on a big screen.
In 1955, following the torture and lynching of her son Emmet at the hands of a group of white men, Mamie Till-Bradley demonstrated strength beyond belief in undertaking a campaign of activism. Her most cogent act of defiance was in allowing tens of thousands to attend a public funeral where her son’s remains laid in an open casket, photographs thereof published across the U.S.
The portion of Till (adapting these events with an intimate focus on Mamie) concerning the body, which, make no mistake, is the story that changed the world and which the film pays its dues to, is devastating. From a mother exploring the contours of her lifeless, near-totally unrecognisable child, to the quiet of an empty bedroom, I wept big, wet tears.
The film surrounding this centre isn’t as strong, though Chinonye Chukwu’s direction is persuasive and the screenplay by Chukwu, Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp obliges, but Till is made powerful by the staggering performance of Daniel Deadwiler, the – repeat, the – omission of this year’s Academy Awards.
This is a hard sell, and Till hasn’t broken out amongst awards contenders. It’s not just that you’re going see a life taken from a mother, you’re going to this film to hurt. Time is very unkind to lessons, and Till is an urgent reminder.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Much like its pipsqueak protagonist, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is such a small movie that it’s easy to pass by without noticing. This gentle, semi-stop-motion animated dramedy went into limited release overseas in June of last year and only now has it quietly shuffled into a few theaters on our side. We call this, justifiably, a gem.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is based on a viral internet short from the duo of Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate, the same team who’ve brought us this feature-length upgrade.
Both the short and film are made in a documentary-style, as the young Marcel introduces us to the novelties of his world (sock drawers, tomato plants, hollowed out tennis balls), and we are won over by his determined, if timid, personality. Though the film carries over the adorable-factor of the short, along with the deadpan comedy, it also develops a mildly existential, and ultimately life-affirming outlook.
We grow very attached to Marcel, and his nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini, her Italian accent clarified as a side-effect of having immigrated from the far-off land of the garage), whose personalities sustain the film as the barest of plots introduces itself, though some viewers may find that the simplicity wears thin. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On technically qualifies as a children’s film, but only for the most patient, quiet, and soft-hearted of kids.
The gift of Camp and Slate’s character is that, by being only himself, Marcel serves as a reminder to look at your world with a little more appreciation and even wonder, the child-like variety if at all possible. You’ll leave this film happy.