New Year Movies. Films reviewed: Babylon, Broker

Posted in 1920s, Corruption, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Hollywood, Korea, Sex by CulturalMining.com on December 31, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

This week I’m looking at two new movies to bring in the new year. There’s an abandoned baby in Busan, and excessive abandon of 1920s Hollywood.

Babylon

Wri/Dir: Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash)

It’s a hot day in Santa Ana, near LA, in the 1920s. Manny (Diego Calva) has a strange job. He has to get an elephant through the desert to a mansion in time for a huge Hollywood party that night. There he meets Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) an aspiring young actress who claims to be a movie star. She’s never actually been in anything yet but she says in Hollywood if you say you’re a star you are a star. The doorman is unimpressed but Manny, now in a sweaty tux, gets her through the door. Inside it’s a jazz-filled mayhem of half-naked dancers snorting cocaine as they prepare for their next writhing orgy. The guest of honour is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), Hollywood’s top moustachioed movie star.

Manny stays relatively sober but Nellie goes whole hog, successfully transforming herself into a wild-child party animal. Manny saves the day when he manages to sneak a dead body out of the party on behalf of the studio, without the gossip rags — including Photoplay’s notorious columnist (Jean Smart) —  noticing. A woman died in a back room with a Fatty Arbuckle lookalike. By morning, both Manny and Nellie are invited to work on location on some movies being shot there; she as a starlet and he as a fixer, helping out in emergencies. 

The movie follows the three of them — Manny, Nellie and Jack — as they make their way up and down Hollywood’s precarious ladder. Nellie is a smash hit — she can cry on cue in a tragedy, and minutes later turn herself into a laughing floozie in a western bar. Manny works behind the scenes, doing the dirty things the top producers shy away from. Jack is still the top star, but is gradually slipping at the box office, acting in one flop after another. has a meteoric rise but faces trouble when the talkies arrive. Manny makes his way to executive level, but likes himself less and less. Will Jack find a wife who loves him? Can Nellie lose her Jersey accent in time for the talkies? Which one of them will survive the dog-eat-dog world of the movie industry?

Babylon is a very long but frenetically-paced movie about the early days of the motion picture industry. It recreates a version of that world with exquisite attention to detail — the music, the costumes, and incredible reenactments of the filming of war scenes and dance numbers using hundreds of extras. It gives you an uncommon, behind-the-scenes look at the silent movie era. Scenes in Babylon melt one into the next with cameras that lead you through tunnels, up staircases, from room to room in seemingly endless long shots. The story is part myth, part history. I’m guessing Chazelle found his inspiration in books like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, about the excessive and scandalous depravity that rocked the industry before the restrictive Hays code came into effect in the mid 1930s. He frequently quotes other famous movies set in LA about the movies themselves, everything from Sunset Boulevard to A Star is Born, to Singin’ in the Rain. (See how many you can spot.) And the over-the-top acting, especially Margot Robbie, is a lot of fun.

Is Babylon a good film? I had trouble identifying with the main characters — they all seem like pawns in the director’s hands as he tells his epic story. It features some non-white, non-conventional characters, from a female movie director, to a lesbian singer from Shanghai, and a black Jazz musician showing off his trumpet skills. Ironically they all seem to be inserted more to demonstrate the director’s commitment to historical diversity rather than as central characters. But it’s not really about the characters, it’s about the city of Los Angeles. Chazelle puts in lots of things meant to shock — nudity, defecation, urination, projectile vomiting, even characters who die as punchlines to jokes — that don’t quite fit.  But all that didn’t stop me from loving the movie-making on display.

If you’re a movie-lover, this epic deserves to be seen.

Broker

Wri/Dir:  Kore-eda Hirokazu (Shoplidters, After the Storm, Our Little Sister, Like Father Like Son)

It’s nighttime at a church in present-day Busan, South Korea. A young woman, a sex worker named So-young (Lee Ji-eun) is carrying her newborn infant which she leaves in a “baby box”, a small door where unwed mothers can leave their unwanted infants, knowing that they’ll be taken care of. What she doesn’t realize is there are two men on the other side of the door: Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a younger guy who works at the church; and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) a middle aged man who owns a tiny hand laundry shop. Right after So-young leaves, they erase the surveillance video and make off with the infant. Their plan? To sell it to a young married couple with fertility problems and keep the profit. But these two men don’t realize that Detective Ji-Sun (Bae Doona) and her subordinate (Lee Joo-young) are watching the whole thing from their police car parked just down the hill. They’re excited that what they see tonight might solve the baby trafficking case they’ve been working on for a long time. But they can’t prove anything until a transaction takes place.

But nothing is as simple as it seems. After a few days, So-young wants her baby back. She left a note saying the arrangement was only temporary. But she can’t involve the police. So she tracks down the two brokers. Turns out Sang-hyun grew up in an orphanage, so finding loving parents will spare the baby from growing up within the bleak institution he lived through. And Dong-soo has both monetary reasons — he’s deeply in debt — and personal reasons why this has to go through. So the three of them form an easy alliance of brokers looking for a permanent home for the infant. And when they discover Hae-jin (Lim Seung-Soo) a feisty kid from an orphanage they’re dealing with stowed away in their car, they suddenly become a makeshift family. But how long will it last? 

Broker is a wonderful, multifaceted movie about love, kinship and makeshift families. It’s also a murder mystery, a romance, a police procedural, and a road movie. Each of the characters has a rich background full of secrets and motives all of which a are gradually revealed. It’s directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, one of favourite directors who always finds a way to make dramas with unforgettable characters who are deeply flawed but still sympathetic. He made Shoplifters a few years ago, and this one picks up on some of his themes. Kore-eda is Japanese, but everything else in this film is Korean — from the language to the locations and the fantastic cast. You’ll recognize some of them: Song Kang-ho starred in Parasite, Bae Doona has been in everything from The Host to Cloud Atlas. So Broker is both a Korean movie, and unmistakably Kore-eda. I saw it four months ago at TIFF, but it really is stuck in my head.

I strongly recommend this movie.

Babylon is now playing; check your local listings. Broker opens this weekend in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lighbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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