At The Movies: Babylon an epic of excess, Operation Fortune a familiar caper

Brad Pitt and Li Jun Li in Babylon. PHOTO: UIP

Babylon (R21)

183 minutes, opens on Thursday

4 stars

The story: Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Diego Calva play three characters among a multitude whose fluctuating fortunes entwine in 1920s Hollywood during the twilight of silent films.

Babylon opens in a Hollywood Hills mansion circa 1926 for a 30-minute orgy of sex, cocaine and an elephant defecating. Consider yourself warned.

Pitt’s Jack Conrad is an oft-married matinee idol – might as well call him Brad Pitt – guest at the party.

Robbie’s brazen starlet Nellie LaRoy is a crasher. Calva’s Mexican immigrant is another outsider, an innocent willing to do anything to get a foot in the industry, and he ends the night hired as Conrad’s assistant and smitten with LaRoy.

Their rise and fall over the following decade is film-maker Damien Chazelle’s story on early Hollywood as the silent era transitions into talking pictures.

Chazelle in 2017, at the age of 32, became the Academy Awards’ youngest best director winner for La La Land. Where that fable was about Los Angeles as a dream factory, this latest based on his original screenplay is the underbelly.

The tragi-comedy is an epic of decadence and depravity. It is crude, profligate and staggeringly audacious, but there is never any doubting Chazelle’s heady passion for the movies however ugly the business.

Cinema history references fill his every frame with the 1952 musical Singin’ In The Rain the touchstone. And the countless memorable personalities, including a black trumpeter (Jovan Adepo) and a queer Asian chanteuse (Li Jun Li), are amalgamations of Golden Age legends from John Gilbert to Clara Bow to Anna May Wong.

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Few will survive the technological upheavals, much less the shifting public taste swayed by a powerful gossip columnist (Jean Smart): Conrad is the most poignant as the leading man who ages into irrelevance.

Hot take: Babylon’s much-ness will not be for everyone, but this movie-mad movie is impassioned and hypnotic and like nothing else in the multiplexes.

Operation Fortune: Ruse De Guerre (PG13)

114 minutes, opens on Thursday

3 stars

(From left) Jason Statham, Josh Hartnett and Aubrey Plaza in Operation Fortune: Ruse De Guerre. PHOTO: ENCORE FILMS

The story: The world is under threat and it falls on Jason Statham in his role of an elite spy to track down and stop the sale of a deadly new weapons technology.

Statham will not be the man to rely on if the world were truly under threat because his tough guy act is mostly self-parody when in the company of laddish writer-director-producer Guy Ritchie.

The espionage caper Operation Fortune: Ruse De Guerre is the British duo’s fifth film together since Ritchie’s 1998 debut Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, and their laziest, coasting as it does on their established action-comedy formula.

Statham’s eponymous agent Orson Fortune is dispatched by his MI6 handler (Cary Elwes) on a globe-trotting undercover mission that affords him 1982 Chateau Margaux wines on private jets. He is the reason for Britain’s Budget deficit. Aubrey Plaza plays his American cyber whizz associate, and rapper Bugzy Malone is the team’s sniper.

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Hugh Grant gives good laughs as the billionaire arms dealer Greg Simmonds, who impresses less as an evil mastermind than as a sleazy lecher – such are the low stakes.

Simmonds has a thing for celebrities, and so a Hollywood superstar (Josh Hartnett) is recruited as a decoy to help Fortune and his crew infiltrate the villain’s yacht party on the French Riviera.

The casting of Ukrainians as his weapons traders is callous, given today’s geopolitics. Otherwise, it is the usual business of Statham fist-fighting and wisecracking while cool gal Plaza eye-rolls at the boys around her.

There is no attempt to disguise what the movie is, and it is malarkey, but not without some old-school charm.

Hot take: Guy Ritchie plus Jason Statham. Enough said.

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