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Film Talk: Latest Movie Releases – Tale of transition into the golden age of the talkies

We all have those stars who in our eyes are Children of the Movie Gods and can do almost no wrong.

Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad and Diego Calva as Manny Torres in Damien Chazelle's exuberant valentine to the golden age of American filmmaking, Babylon
Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad and Diego Calva as Manny Torres in Damien Chazelle's exuberant valentine to the golden age of American filmmaking, Babylon

For years I’ve cultivated and added to the pantheon in my head of untouchable Hollywood heroes who, with their very presence, seem to just spin film reels into gold.

We’ll start with a home-grown boy, Mr Tom Hardy. I give you Lawless, The Dark Knight Rises, Locke, and – of course – Peaky Blinders. ‘Nuff said.

His Inception co-star, Leonardo ‘King of the World’ DiCaprio is also a long-held man crush of mine. The Departed; Shutter Island; Catch Me If You Can; The Wolf Of Wall Street. Not such a dismal back catalogue, eh? And Saint Leo’s partners in crime from Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – a certain Monsieur Pitt and Mademoiselle Robbie – have long been, to me, as hallowed as they come.

I’ve waxed lyrical on these pages before in praise of Brad Pitt’s comedy genius, with his roles in the Tarantino-verse standing as, in my opinion, the greatest of his career. Far from just a pretty face, the man can act, and beneath that iconic jawline is a talented star who can bring depth, humour and soul to any picture thrown his way.

And as for Margot Robbie, the incredible leading lady of The Wolf Of Wall Street is an unstoppable force that can put the colour into almost any canvass she is presented with.

This week, said King and Queen of my cinematic court are putting their talents front and centre alongside Mexican actor Diego Calva, in director Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. Chazelle is hoping audiences will revel in his tale of Hollywood’s golden era. But does this board allow its pieces to play their best game? Or is it one flick that even they can’t make sparkle?

BABYLON (18, 189 mins)

Released: January 20 (UK & Ireland)

In 2017 at the age of 32, Damien Chazelle became the youngest recipient of the Best Director statuette at the Academy Awards for his dizzying accomplishments behind the camera of La La Land.

His virtuosity had been teased three years earlier with Whiplash, a psychological battle of drumsticks and frayed nerves starring Miles Teller and JK Simmons, but Chazelle’s self-penned valentine to old school Hollywood musicals was the perfect showcase for his directorial brio including a breath-taking opening song and dance sequence on a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway.

The richly deserved personal victory in 2017 may have been overshadowed by Warren Beatty opening the wrong envelope for Best Picture but Chazelle confidently inked his name in Hollywood’s chequered history that night.

With Babylon, an exuberant valentine to the golden age of American filmmaking when the industry transitioned from silents to talkies, Chazelle’s reach finally exceeds his grasp.

Over three hours, he conjures a whirling, hallucinogenic fever dream of sensory excess that crashes and burns, reignites, then blazes uncontrollably to cinders again.

It’s a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride with a big opening – namely the dilating sphincter of a distressed elephant about to jettison the contents of its bowels over charismatic lead actor Diego Calva and the camera lens – that refuses to pump the emergency brakes.

In the midst of storytelling madness that careens from a razzle dazzling party festooned with drugs, debauchery and the aforementioned pachyderm to devastating personal loss, you have to admire Chazelle’s ambition and the film’s impressive technical credits led by glorious production design, costumes and composer Justin Hurwitz’s exuberant score.

The picture’s emotional heart is film assistant Manuel Torres (Calva), who yearns to rise through the ranks in Hollywood, starting with a lowly position working for suave matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt).

Manny is hopelessly smitten with ingenue Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who intends to torpedo her way to big screen fame (“You don’t become a star. You either are one or you ain’t. I am!”).

Their fates entwine with a motley crew of wannabes, leeches and hangers on including jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), professional tittle tattler Elinor St John (Jean Smart) and alluring cabaret chanteuse Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), who writes intertitle cards for silent films.

Babylon flings every conceivable bodily fluid and secretion at the screen as Chazelle romps through hit-or-miss comedic set pieces, culminating in a teary-eyed ode to Singin’ In The Rain.

Striking vignettes occasionally land with emotional force like when Manny persuades Sidney to blacken his face using shoe polish to match the skin tone of co-stars (“Actors change their appearance for roles… It’s normal.”)

Restraint isn’t in Chazelle’s vocabulary and the ensemble cast embraces the spirit of gung-ho abandon with fervour.

The French-American filmmaker swings big and repeatedly hits himself in the face.

ALICE, DARLING (15, 89 mins)

Released: January 20 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

Alice, Darling: Wunmi Mosaku as Sophie, Anna Kendrick as Alice and Kaniehtiio Horn as Tess

Friends of a young woman become deeply concerned by the controlling influence of a boyfriend in a timely drama directed by Mary Nighy.

Alice (Anna Kendrick) is repeatedly subjected to abusive behaviour from her artist beau, Simon (Charlie Carrick), who gaslights and belittles her, slowly chipping away at her self-confidence.

She is conditioned to believe that she is selfish and insensitive to meet Simon’s needs and must try harder to make the relationship work. Alice’s closest confidants, Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn), are horrified and stage an intervention under the guise of a birthday celebration in a remote cottage.

Reluctantly, Alice lies to Simon and tells him she needs to go away for work. Once the women are alone, Sophie and Tess confront Anna with the sobering and shocking facts.

They hope to break Simon’s vice-like grip on their friend and empower Alice to draw courage and strength from their sisterly bond.

MORE THAN EVER (15, 123 mins)

Released: January 20 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

Gaspard Ulliel as Mathieu and Vicky Krieps as Helene in More Than Ever

A 33-year-old woman stares death in the face and takes control of her destiny in a thought-provoking drama directed by Emily Atef and co-written by Lars Hubrich and Atef. Helene (Vicky Krieps) and husband Mathieu (Gaspard Ulliel) are happily settled in Bordeaux when a shocking medical diagnosis turns their lives upside down.

Faced with an incurable and rare lung condition that will make breathing increasingly difficult, Helene seeks comfort in the online blog of a terminally ill Norwegian man known as Mister (Bjorn Floberg). She is inspired by his humour in the face of adversity and visits Scandinavia alone in the hope of finding peace against the backdrop of mountains and fjords. Mathieu is deeply concerned about his wife’s faltering health and gives chase, determined to bring her back safely to Bordeaux where he can take care of her, supported by a close circle of friends.

HOLY SPIDER (18, 118 mins)

Released: January 20 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)

Zar Amir in Holy Spider

Zar Amir Ebrahimi won the coveted Best Actress prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival for her performance in director Ali Abbasi’s tense crime thriller, which is based on a real-life 2002 case dubbed the “spider killings” by the Iranian media.

Journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Ebrahimi) arrives in Mashhad to investigate the spate of murders of local sex workers. A police detective called Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) has receive communication from the perpetrator, Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani).

The so-called “Spider Killer” believes he is an instrument of a greater power, on a divine mission to cleanse the holy city of sinners. While Sharifi is helpful in sharing his observations, other men in Mashhad are less forthcoming or blatantly misogynistic.

Arezoo perseveres and once she has deduced a pattern in the killings, the journalist poses as a sex worker to hopefully turn the tables on a relentless predator.

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