Friday, 27 January 2023

‘Babylon’ a depraved, debauched slog; Epix becomes MGM+



In the Paramount Pictures production notes for “Babylon,” this epic film is described as a tale of outsized and outrageous excesses that traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of “unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.”

This description of the period in 1920s Los Angeles is on the mark as well as oddly candid for the usual adulatory promotion that oozes out from a studio’s publicity machine. In fact, absorb the idea of rampant decadence and depravity as a warning.

From the beginning moments when an elephant defecates on a worker transporting the animal to the debauched party set for that evening at the mansion of a Hollywood mogul, you should know it’s not the only grotesquerie that awaits.

The party scene introduces the primary characters whose lives will intersect in different ways as the silent film era transitions to the talkies. The top star is dashing Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who evokes the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert and Rudolph Valentino.

Jack arrives at the party with his soon to be ex-wife Ina (Olivia Wilde) and partakes in so much alcohol that he needs a ride home from Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a wide-eyed dreamer desperate for a spot in the film industry.

As a Mexican-American outsider, Manny needs all the help he can get for a break, but a series of circumstances will find him reaching the upper levels of studio management.

Another partygoer is Margot Robbie’s free-spirited Nellie LaRoy whose rise to stardom will be marred by her gambling addiction and inability to maintain a sense of dignity and poise in certain social situations.

Interesting minor characters include Jean Smart’s gossip columnist Elinor St. John, Tobey Maguire’s creepy gangster and Eric Roberts as Nellie’s dodgy money-grubbing father who fights rattlesnakes.

Writer and director Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) spent years researching the darker side of the story of the shift from silent film to the talkies, and what he delivers in his film causes one to wonder what was his target audience.

“Babylon” revels in the depraved, hedonistic folly of the movie business in a way that will disturb many. The opinion of the critics as well as the audience seems to be split, at least according to Rotten Tomatoes.

In my view, “Babylon” is a three-hour-plus slog that is such a struggle to endure that if it had an intermission the temptation would have been to leave and cut my losses.

EPIX REBRANDING AS MGM+

The premium and commercial-free linear and streaming service EPIX is rebranding as MGM+ with a launch on January 15th timed with the Season Three premiere of the acclaimed series “Godfather of Harlem.”

MGM has always been an archetypal brand in the world of cinema, and Michael Wright, head of MGM+ stated that the streaming service is a place for viewers to “find television that reflects and celebrates the legacy of the iconic MGM brand.”

Simply stated, “MGM is television for movie lovers,” according to the streaming service’s desire to trade on its legendary brand to deliver “cinematic programming with sophisticated storytelling.” Current EPIX subscribers will be transferred to this new platform.

One of the first programs to air on February 5th is the new true crime four-part docuseries that pulls back the curtain on America’s most infamous jewel thief Jack Roland Murphy in the provocatively titled “Murf the Surf: Jewels, Jesus, and Mayhem in the USA.”

In October 2019, the New York Times published an article celebrating the 150th anniversary of New York’s American Museum of Natural History. One of the most momentous events to take place on site was an epic jewel heist.

This was the biggest caper in American history, mastered by a band of “surfer dudes” from Miami in 1964. The key to the operation was Jack Roland Murphy, otherwise known as Murf the Surf, whose name was propelled into pop culture after the heist.

The heist created a notoriety that would stretch far beyond the caper. What followed Murf’s meteoric rise is a spiraling tale of unspeakable crime, murder, deception and mayhem which, to this day, remains shrouded in mystery.

The documentary series explores the tumultuous life of the man behind the legendary nickname. Featuring exclusive access to Murphy himself prior to his death in 2020, the series addresses the blurred line between fact and fiction, faith and delusion, sanity and madness.

The six-episode series thriller “A Spy Among Friends,” based on the New York Times best-selling book written by Ben Macintyre, dramatizes the true story of two British spies and lifelong friends, Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby.

Intelligence officer Philby became the most notorious British defector and Soviet double agent in history. His deeply personal betrayal, uncovered at the height of the Cold War, resulted in the gutting of British and American intelligence.

Although a premiere date for “A Spy Among Friends” has not yet been set, it’s good to know that the cast features Emmy-winning actors Damian Lewis (“Billions”) and Guy Pearce (“Mare of Easttown”).

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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