Babylon (18) **
All Quiet on the Western Front (15) ****
Alice, Darling (15) ***
Early on in Babylon, La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s epic-length love letter to the early days of Hollywood, a moribund matinee idol named Jack Conrad, played by Brad Pitt, muses on the nascent industry’s need to move with the times. Bored of making silent costume pictures that always look to the past, he reckons that if movies are to have any hope of connecting with audiences in the future they need to be more artistic and cutting edge, like Bauhaus architecture or twelve-tone music. It’s a speech loaded with dramatic irony, partly because Jack’s being set up as a tragic figure who can see the future but is powerless to do anything about it, partly because Hollywood’s survival has less to do with genuine art and innovation and more to do with a ruthless ability to regurgitate the same old stories and market them as something new.
Babylon itself is a prime example of the latter. Zeroing in on the end of the silent era and the dawn of the studio system, it’s another nostalgic celebration of cinema that cannibalises the plot of Singin’ in the Rain to make the same point about the power of movies that that film made so effortlessly 70 years ago. But where Singin’ in the Rain’s ubiquitous influence on everything from Scorsese’s New York, New York to The Artist to, ahem, Downton Abbey: A New Era renders Babylon’s narrative arc even more rote, Chazelle’s appropriation of its plot becomes more audaciously self-aggrandising. Not only does he position his film as a kind of bacchanalian origins story for the aforementioned Gene Kelly classic, he uses it to set up a tricksy 1950s-set coda that in turn treats Singin’ in the Rain like the star gate from Kubrick’s 2001, projecting an unwitting filmgoer into the future of cinema via a montage of clips from the blockbuster age, among them Jurassic Park, The Matrix and Avatar.
Though it’s supposed to inspire awe at how far movies have come, all it really does is showcase the extent to which Chazelle relies on other movies to compensate for this film’s deficiencies, which are evident from the off. Beginning in 1926, the film sets out its sensationalist stall early with a debauched orgy in a movie producer’s home. Featuring a flatulent elephant on the rampage as half-naked starlets, movie stars, directors, musicians and wannabes down buckets of cocktails and hoover up mountains of cocaine, it’s clearly intended as a wild, no-holds-barred refection of the lawless, frontier-style excesses of the pioneering days of the movie business. But as Chazelle’s camera relentlessly swings through the choreographed chaos, picking out the film’s main characters in the process, it comes off as oddly sanitised, like a Paul Verhoeven movie re-imagined as a Busby Berkeley musical.
In addition to Pitt’s ageing movie star, the film largely focusses on Margot Robbie’s over-the-top turn as a self-proclaimed star called Nellie LaRoy, who gate-crashes the aforementioned party in an effort to get discovered and duly walks off with a part in a movie when a not-so-lucky starlet overdoses and later dies offscreen (a portent of things to come). Along for the ride is Manny (Diego Calva), lowly gofer who earns Nellie’s friendship by sneaking her into the party and ends the night as Jack’s new assistant, a position he quickly leverages into a job as a studio executive. Their lives and storylines repeatedly intersect in a mad crosscutting frenzy that turns every elongated set-piece into a boring, repetitious, lifeless spectacle. By the time it reaches that corny ending, Babylon feels less like a love letter to cinema than an angry demand that we enjoy it no matter what’s on screen.
Emerging in recent weeks as an awards-season front-runner, Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front marks the first time German author Erich Maria Remarque’s 1928 anti-war classic has been adapted in its native language. Revolving around under-age recruit Paul Bäumer’s transformation from idealistic schoolboy to war-numbed killer on the Western Front, the film’s story loses none of its power in this retelling, thanks largely to co-writer/director Edward Berger’s eye for the cruel details of warfare and his understanding of the way it churns up everyone on the frontlines. Though not as technically innovative, the film feels like a good flip side to Sam Mendes’s recent 1917, with Felix Kammerer especially good in the lead, capturing with understated power Paul’s innocence and naivety, and his ongoing struggle to hold onto the last shreds of his humanity. Daniel Brühl co-stars.
As a young woman overwhelmed by a toxic romantic relationship, Anna Kendrick does a lot of heavy lifting in Alice, Darling, a film that repeatedly threatens to veer off into thriller territory but ends up instead as an interesting if uneven character study. That’s hardly Kendrick’s fault, who’s good at presenting the titular Alice as a plausibly gaslit modern woman given to literally pulling her hair out as she tries to negotiate the panic attacks that come from constantly having to placate her narcissistic artist boyfriend (played by British actor Charlie Carrick). Unfortunately, the film’s decision to start with the relationship already at crisis point undermines its power somewhat. Beyond the grim joke of naming him Simon – Simon says, geddit? – we learn next to nothing about Simon or how they got together, so when her best friends try to stage an intervention on a trip away together, the plot becomes dramatically inert.
Babylon and Alice, Darling are in cinemas from Friday, All Quiet on the Western Front is on Netflix now.