Review: ‘Babylon’ (2022), starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li

December 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Margot Robbie and Diego Calva in “Babylon” (Photo by Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures)

“Babylon” (2022)

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Some language in Spanish and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, from 1926 to 1952, the dramatic film “Babylon” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy who are connected in some way to the movie industry.

Culture Clash: A Mexican immigrant finds himself in various entanglements—including a volatile relationship with an ambitious actress—when he goes from being a service employee to a high-ranking executive at a movie studio. 

Culture Audience: “Babylon” will appeal primarily to fans of writer/director Damien Chazelle; stars Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie; and repetitive, overly long movies about people behaving badly that don’t have much else to say.

Lukas Haas (far left), Margot Robbie (second from right) and Brad Pitt (far right) in “Babylon” (Photo by Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures)

“Babylon” is cinematic vomit wrapped up in a pretty package. This movie stinks of being a phony, self-indulgent mess, but because of the pretty package, some people will insist that it’s great. And with a total running time of 189 minutes, “Babylon” wears out its welcome long before those three-plus hours are over. What’s even more irritating about “Babylon” is that it has a pretentious tone that it’s some kind of groundbreaking film. It’s not groundbreaking at all. It’s just a miscalculated, big-budget dud with awards aspirations but with a second-rate plot of a trashy B-movie.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (the Oscar-winning director of 2016’s “La La Land”), “Babylon” is being marketed as an “exposé” of the dark side of Hollywood, particularly from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, when most of the movie takes place. (The entire time range of “Babylon” spans from 1926 to 1952.) This long-winded train wreck is actually just a series of scenes showing hollow people acting vain and stupid, while indulging in promiscuous sex, illegal drugs and unrelenting shallowness. It is decadence that looks overly staged, not natural, and certainly not fascinating. And that’s one of the biggest problems with “Babylon.”

An example of how “Babylon” looks too contrived is shown early in the movie, in a scene that is supposed to depict a sex orgy at a mansion in Bel Air, California. Everything about the sex looks too choreographed and fake, which automatically makes this scene lose any sex appeal that it intended to have. The scene is supposed make “Babylon” viewers feel like voyeurs, but all it does is make viewers think that what the cast members are doing in these sex scenes are too precise and perfectly timed to look convincing.

“Babylon” also overuses cheap and tawdry gimmicks of showing bodily functions—defecating, urinating and vomiting—with the type of juvenile glee of someone who tells not-very-funny vulgar jokes, just to try to shock people, when it’s actually not very shocking at all. The bodily functions aren’t offensive on their own, but they’re cynically used in the movie as an obvious ploy to get people to think that Chazelle is being “bold” and “daring,” just because he’s never had these types of scenes in his previous films. When these kinds of crass, “gross-out” scenes are in “Jackass” movies, at least they’re usually funny, and they aren’t pretending to be prestigious art. “Babylon” takes itself way too seriously to even be a good dark comedy.

“Babylon” begins in 1926, by showing service employee Manuel “Manny” Torres (played by Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who wants to break into showbiz, with two of his co-workers (played by J.C. Currais and Jimmy Ortega) while making a delivery in Bel Air. They are driving a truck that’s towing an elephant in an open cart that’s tied by rope to the truck. The elephant is being transported to a Bel Air mansion, where rich movie-studio mogul Don Wallach (played by Jeff Garlin) is having a party later that night. The elephant is supposed to be at the party, simply as a way for the party host to show off that he has the money to bring an elephant to his home.

The rope on the truck breaks while the truck is on a steep incline. The workers try frantically to prevent the cart containing the elephant from sliding down the incline. And for their efforts, the elephant defecates all over them, with everything shown in graphic detail. What the elephant does to these workers is kind of like what “Babylon” does to viewers who have the fortitude to sit through this asinine dump of a movie.

The party is where viewers first see the other main characters in “Babylon.” Most of these characters have very few redeeming qualities, as if it’s Chazelle’s way of saying that Hollywood in the 1920s attracted mostly corrupt and morally bankrupt people. People with a strong sense of personal ethics don’t last long in this story. “Babylon” is not interested in showing the reality that Hollywood has always attracted a wide variety of people, not just people who are heinous. “Babylon” only wants to give the most screen time and a narrow view to the ones that care the most about clawing their way to the top and possibly destroying the competition.

Movie star Jack Conrad (played by Brad Pitt), a sex symbol in silent films, thinks he’s at the top of his game. But his career has been fading and will soon be damaged by the arrival of talking pictures (movies with sound, also known as talkies) in the late 1920s. Jack is dropped off at the party by his soon-to-be ex-wife Ina Conrad (played by Olivia Wilde, making quick cameo in the movie), who is furious with Jack because he’s been openly cheating on her. Jack and Ina have a hostile conversation in their car, where she berates him for his infidelity and for speaking with a fake Italian accent to people he wants to impress. Before she speeds away in anger, Ina yells that she wants a divorce.

Nellie LaRoy (played by Margot Robbie) is a crude, fame-hungry aspiring actress, who literally crashes the party by crashing her car into another car in full view of the security guards outside. (It’s a minor fender bender.) And then, she argues with the security guards, who prevent an uninvited Nellie into the party. Expect to see Nellie doing a lot more yelling throughout “Babylon,” because her nasty temper is the epitome of her limited personality.

Manny, who witnesses this spectacle when it happens, is immediately infatuated with Nellie because of her physical beauty. And so, Manny lies when he tells the security guards that Nellie is an important person who’s been invited to the party. It’s the beginning of a dysfunctional relationship between Manny and Nellie, where she uses him to get her out of messes and help her in her career, while Manny hopes that Nellie will fall in love with him.

Elinor St. John (played by Jean Smart) is a very jaded and influential gossip columnist, who uses her lofty media position to give and take away clout, in regards to how people want their public images to be perceived. Not long after Manny arrives at the party as a “jack of all trades” service worker, Elinor makes a sexual advance at him, but he politely declines. Elinor is at the party mainly as an observer. She considers herself to be much smarter and tougher than the average Hollywood power player.

Sidney Palmer (played by Jovan Adepo) is a trumpet player in a jazz band where Sidney is considered the star. Sidney and his band have been hired to perform at this mansion party. Later, they get a chance to star in feature films, during the early years of talking pictures, and when it was trendy to have jazz stars perform their music in these movies.

Lady Fay Zhu (played by Li Jun Li) is an androgynous, openly queer or lesbian entertainer, who is described in the “Babylon” production notes as “Marlene Dietrich by way of Anna May Wong.” Fay develops an infatuation with Nellie, but Fay finds out the hard way that Fay’s sexuality is not as accepted by Hollywood star makers as it is when she goes to private parties or performs in nightclubs.

Some of the other “Babylon” characters, who have varying degrees of importance to the overall story include movie producer George Munn (played by Lukas Haas), who is Jack’s best friend, enabler and producing partner; Estelle Conrad (played by Katherine Waterston), Jack’s haughty next wife, a Broadway actress who looks down on people in the movie industry; and James McKay (played by Tobey Maguire), a wealthy, perverted and sadistic businessman who loans money to Nellie and threatens her life when she doesn’t pay him back.

Some of the industry players depicted in “Babylon” include movie producer Irving Thalberg (played by Max Minghella), who is based on the real Thalberg, but is a very bland and generic character in “Babylon,” when he shouldn’t be; media mogul William Randolph Hearst (played by Pat Skipper); and movie director Ruth Adler (played by Olivia Hamilton), a rare woman who helms major studio films. Hamilton is one of the producers of “Babylon” and is also Chazelle’s real-life wife, so it’s perhaps no coincidence that she was cast as one of the few women who has any real power in the movie.

Operating on the fringes of the Hollywood elite are Bob Levine (played by Flea), a sleazy “fixer” hired by movies studios to conceal scandals; Robert Roy (played by Eric Roberts), Nellie’s unsophisticated and domineering father/manager, who is not respected by many of the power players; The Count (played by Rory Scovel), a wannabe actor who supplies drugs to people in the movie industry; Max (played by P.J. Byrne), Ruth Adler’s ill-tempered and antisemitic assistant director; Wilson (played by Ethan Suplee), one of James McKay’s sycophant employees; and Constance Moore (played by Samara Weaving), a silent-film star whom Nellie sees as a rival.

Expect to see a lot of cocaine-fueled debauchery and nonsense in “Babylon,” as Nellie predictably becomes not only a silent-film starlet but also a self-destructive drug addict. Manny, with Jack’s help, breaks into the movie industry and ends up becoming a high-ranking production executive at a movie studio, but Manny keeps letting Nellie’s problems become his problems too. Meanwhile, Jack struggles with maintaining his status as a movie star when talking pictures literally make him a laughingstock with movie audiences.

“Babylon” can’t even be very original when it comes to the “scandals” in the story. Early on in the movie, a young, aspiring actress named Jane Thornton (played by Phoebe Tonkin) meets an untimely death during the party at the Wallach mansion in Bel Air. Before she dies, Jane is shown having a drug-induced, kinky sexual encounter with an older, wealthy man named Orville Pickwick (played by Troy Metcalf), who is overweight and wants Jane to call him “daddy” while she urinates on him.

Jane and Orville are just lazily written caricatures of real-life actress Virginia Rappe and actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who went on trial for (and was later acquitted of) Rappe’s death, after she passed away in 1921, during a party they both attended in San Francisco. In “Babylon,” when Jane’s death is discovered in the Wallach mansion, there’s a frantic rush to cover it up. “Babylon” changes the outcome of this real-life scandal, but viewers who know about the stars of the silent-film era will immediately notice that Orville and Jane are based on Arbuckle and Rappe.

“Babylon” has eye-catching cinematography and production design to make everything look dazzling. The costume design, hairstyling and makeup are mostly adequate but also very questionable, since Nellie sometimes looks like she’s from the 1970s, not the 1920s. And the film editing in “Babylon” cannot be praised for a movie this bloated and unwieldy.

The “Babylon” cast members, particularly Robbie, give performances where they look like they want to be noticed and rewarded with industry prizes. Ironically, in a movie that overloads on empty excess, the best and most realistic scene in “Babylon” is a simple but well-acted conversation between Elinor and Jack in Elinor’s office, when Elinor explains to Jack why he’s becoming a has-been.

Elinor is one of many underdeveloped characters in “Babylon,” which puts most of the emphasis on the antics of Nellie and Jack. Manny gets sidelined for a great deal of the movie and only becomes a big part of the story again when Manny is needed to help Nellie. Manny’s meteoric rise in the movie industry, which could have been shown in riveting details, instead is merely a backdrop to whatever reactions that Manny has to the drug-addled hedonism that is going on around him and in which he sometimes participates.

“Babylon” tries to make “social statements” about Hollywood’s mistreatment of queer people and people of color during this time period. However, those statements reek of glib tokenism. Fay is never presented as a whole person but only as a fetish for people who want to see a woman kiss other women, or as an Asian woman whose purpose is to satisfy white people’s sexual fantasies about Asian women.

Similarly, “Babylon” also treats Sidney as a token, because his biggest scene is a humiliating racist experience that he has on a movie set: Sidney is ordered to put blackened makeup on his face so that his skin will look as dark as his bandmates. “Babylon” has no interest in presenting Sidney as a fully formed human being. The movie does not care to reveal anything about his personal life or backstory, whereas the personal lives and backstories of other characters are on full (and sometimes disgusting) display.

“Babylon” is also insulting in how it wants audiences to spend a little more than three hours watching a movie overstuffed with scenes where it’s just a lot of people shouting at each other, doing drugs, and being paranoid about their careers—and somewhere in between, a few movies get made. The snake wrestling scene with Nellie is particularly idiotic, as anyone with basic medical knowledge of poisonous snake bites can tell you. All of these superficial and time-wasting shenanigans don’t add up to much of a cohesive story, but are really just a lot of scenes strung together like a pointless, rambling essay.

Nellie will be the most talked-about character in “Babylon,” but she isn’t even that compelling, because she comes across as a dime-a-dozen Hollywood starlet, not a true star. (The Nellie character is partially based on the real-life Clara Bow.) “Babylon” never shows Nellie having any actual talent as an actress or having a charismatic personality, which would be two of the main reasons why people would root for this air-headed egomaniac. Nellie berates and degrades people who try to help her, she’s a pathetic drug addict, and she only turns on the charm when she wants something from someone.

The character of Jack is presented as having some empathy for other people, such as in scenes where he treats service employees very well, and when he helps Manny get his first big break in the movie industry. But the way Jack is written in “Babylon” is that he’s essentially a stereotypical Hollywood “bad boy” who parties too much and is chronically unfaithful to his wife/partner. There’s a very “been there, done that” attitude that Jack seems to have, but the same could be said about how this entire character is portrayed in “Babylon.”

Pitt in “Babylon” is really just doing a 1920s version of what was already seen in writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which was set in 1969. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which also co-starred Pitt and Robbie, was about fictional has-been actor Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/best friend Cliff Booth (played by Pitt, in an Oscar-winning role), as they encounter members of Charles Manson’s cult, with Robbie in the role of real-life bombshell starlet Sharon Tate. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Babylon” both have themes about what the quest for fame will do to people in Hollywood and how changing trends in Hollywood can affect people’s careers. It’s easy for anyone to see which is the better movie.

Chazelle has a devoted fan base of people who think he can do no wrong. Many of those people are likely to heap rapturous praise on the soulless “Babylon,” just because Chazelle wrote and directed it and got some big-name stars to be in the movie. People who aren’t as susceptible to getting blinded by celebrity names can see “Babylon” for what it is: A vanity project created by filmmakers with enough money to throw around at a movie that’s just a series of scenes of people being obnoxious, with not much else to say. A very pretentious montage near the end of “Babylon” tries to look like an artsy tribute to filmmaking, but it just looks out-of-place in a film that’s already immersed in a lot of tackiness and storytelling muck.

There are plenty of artfully made and entertaining films about people doing very bad things. Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese has made a career out of doing these kinds of movies. Simply put: “Babylon” is Chazelle’s ambitious but failed attempt to make a movie like Scorsese makes movies.

The reason why so many Scorsese films are classics, while “Babylon” will be known as a very expensive misfire, comes down to the believability of the characters and the story. People watching “Babylon” will feel like they’re watching privileged actors and actresses playing dress-up instead of truly embodying their characters. If the purpose of “Babylon” is to show how Hollywood can squander talent with overpriced and aimless movies, then that is perhaps the only area where “Babylon” truly succeeds.

Paramount Pictures will release “Babylon” in U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on January 31, 2023. “Babylon” will be released on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD on March 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,’ starring Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Mads Mikkelsen, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Callum Turner and Jessica Williams

April 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jessica Williams, Callum Turner, Jude Law, Fionna Glascott, Dan Fogler and Eddie Redmayne in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore”

Directed by David Yates

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1930s in the United Kingdom, New York City, China, Germany, Austria and Bhutan, the fantasy film “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) portraying wizards, witches and Muggles (humans with no magical powers).

Culture Clash: In this prequel movie to the “Harry Potter” series, good wizard Albus Dumbledore assembles a team to do battle against his former lover Gellert Grindelwald, an evil wizard who wants to oppress Muggles and take over the world. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Harry Potter” universe fans, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” will appeal to viewers of fantasy films about battling wizards, but viewers of this jumbled movie will be very confused unless they saw or know what happened in 2018’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.”

Mads Mikkelsen in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Messy and often tedious, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” stumbles and fumbles around like a franchise in search of a coherent plot. It’s ironic that this sequel about battling wizards has lost the magic of the first “Fantastic Beasts” movie and doesn’t even come close to the best “Harry Potter” movies. The “Fantastic Beast” movies, which are the prequels to the “Harry Potter” movies, began with 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and continued with 2018’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” and 2022’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.”

David Yates, who directed the last four “Harry Potter” movies, directed all three of these “Fantastic Beasts” movies, and he has been announced as the director of more “Fantastic Beasts” movies. Unfortunately, “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” looks like a movie where, even though many of the same filmmakers from previous “Fantastic Beasts” movies are involved, they’ve gotten too self-satisfied with their financial success and are just churning out uninspired mediocrity. “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is a perfect example of a movie with “sequel-itis,” where there’s little to no effort to surpass the creativity of the first (and usually best) movie in the series.

“Harry Potter” and “Fantastic Beasts” book series author J.K. Rowling has been the screenplay writer for the “Fantastic Beasts” movies. For “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” Rowling and Steve Kloves are the credited screenwriters. However, they make the mistake that a lot of movie sequel screenwriters make when crafting a story: assuming that everyone seeing the movie saw a preceding movie in the series.

If you don’t know who Grindelwald and Dumbledore are, if you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a magician and a Muggle, and you don’t care enough to find out, then “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is not the movie for you. But if you are new to the franchise and are curious, then you probably still need to go and watch the previous “Fantastic Beasts” movies to fully understand what’s going on in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.” Otherwise, too many parts of the film will be baffling to you.

What is easy to understand is that “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” has the predictable cliché of a good leader versus a bad leader, who wants to take over the world/universe/fill-in-the-blank space with whatever population. If it’s a fantasy film, various supernatural powers are used and/or spells are cast. And then, it all leads to a big showdown that has the expected outcome. The End.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” follows the same formula, but it doesn’t care enough to inform new viewers about meaningful backstories of the main characters. Viewers would have to know in advance that magizoologist Newton “Newt” Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) is a British Ministry of Magic employee, who works in the Beasts Division of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Viewers would also have to know that Newt is the protégé of Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law), a highly respected member of the British Wizarding Community and a professor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he teaches students how to defend against the dark arts. (It’s the school that’s later attended by Harry Potter and his friends.)

Viewers would also have to know that Dumbledore is gay and that he and his ex-lover Gellert Grindelwald (played by Mads Mikkelsen, replacing Johnny Depp in the role), who were a couple when they were in their late teens, are now sworn enemies, because Grindelwald is now an evil wizard who wants to take over the world. One thing that “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” does explain more than adequately (and repeats to the point where it insults viewers’ intelligence) is that Dumbledore and Grindelwald made a blood pact when they were a couple to never directly harm each other. This pact manifests itself in the movies with thorn-like chains around their wrists and a pendant that gets pulled out to show from time to time.

Viewers would also have to know that in this world populated by secret and not-so-secret wizards and witches, human beings with no magical powers are called Muggles. One of these Muggles is Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Fogler), a lovelorn baker who has been Newt’s ally in all of the “Fantastic Beasts’ movies. However, Jacob has mixed feelings about helping Newt in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.” That’s because he’s in love with a witch named Queenie Goldstein (played by Alison Sudol), who was in a forbidden romance with Jacob because it’s taboo for wizards and witches to have romantic relationships with and marry human beings.

Viewers would also have to know the backstory about Newt’s sometimes tension-filled relationship with his older brother Theseus Scamander (played by Callum Turner), who is considered an upstanding employee of the British Ministry of Magic. By contrast, Newt is considered an unpredictable, somewhat roguish employee of the British Ministry of Magic. As explained in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” Newt and Theseus fell in love with the same woman named Leta Lestrange (played by Zoë Kravitz), whose fate is shown in that movie.

And then there’s the complicated history of Credence Barebone (played by Ezra Miller), whose real name was revealed to be Aurelius Dumbledore in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.” He’s been caught in a tug-of-war between good and evil. In the beginning of “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” Credence/Aurelius (who is very dour and mopey) is on evil Grindelwald’s side. And so is Queenie, the love of Jacob’s life.

What does all of this mean? Dumbledore is going to assemble a team to defeat Grindelwald, who is a political candidate in the upcoming election for supreme head of the International Confederation of Wizards (ICW). This election is supposed to show that Grindelwald is not going to operate in the underworld, but he wants to become part of the establishment government in power. Grindelwald’s two opponent candidates in this election are Brazil’s minister of magic Vicência Santos (played by Maria Fernanda Cândido) and China’s minister of magic Liu Tao (played by Dave Wong), while the outgoing ICW supreme head is Anton Vogel (played by Oliver Masucci), who is Germany’s minister of magic.

In addition to Newt and Jacob, the others who are on Dumbledore’s team are Professor Eulalie “Lally” Hicks (played by Jessica Williams), a sassy teacher at Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; Yusuf Kama (played by William Nadylam), an even-tempered Senegalese French wizard; and Bunty Broadacre (played by Victoria Yeates), who is Newt’s loyal and trustworthy assistant. Queenie’s sister Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (played by Katherine Waterston), a love interest of Newt’s, makes a brief appearance toward the end of the movie. Aberforth Dumbledore (played by Richard Coyle), Albus’ somewhat estranged brother and the owner of the Hog’s Head Inn, is in the movie as an explanation for more of the Dumbledore family history.

And you can’t have a movie called “Fantastic Beasts” without some magical creatures running around. In “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” the creature at that’s the center of the story’s intrigue is the rare Qilin (pronounced “chillin”), which looks like a combination of a horse and a dragon. The Qilin has the ability to read someone’s heart and determine if someone is good or evil. In the beginning of the movie, Newt discovers a Qilin that has given birth. However, Grindelwald wants to kill any Qilins, to prevent Grindelwald’s dark heart and sinister intentions from being exposed.

There’s also the Manticore, a three-eyed beast that’s up to no good and looks like a combination of a crab/lobster and a scorpion. And there’s a shape-shifting avian creature called a Wyvern. Returning to the “Fantastic Beasts” series are the Bowtruckle named Pickett and the Niffler named Teddy. Although these creatures all contribute some way to the story, the visual effects for these creatures and the battle scenes won’t be winning any awards.

The opening scene of “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” is an example of how drab the movie is when in areas it should be electrifying and intriguing. The scene shows Albus Dumbledore and Grindelwald meeting each other at a restaurant. A scene that should sizzle with unresolved feelings between these two former lovers just ends up fizzling with dull dialogue.

Dumbledore tells Grindelwald of their blood oath to never directly harm each other: “We can free each other of it.” Dumbledore adds, “I was in love with you.” Grindelwald is unmoved and expresses his disgust of Dumbledore interacting with Muggles: “Do you really intend to turn your back on your own kind?” Grindelwald sneers. And of the human customers in the restaurant, Grindelwald asks Dumbledore if he can “smell the stench [of humans] in the room.”

“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” has more monotonous conversations throughout the movie, which makes the characters’ personalities very hollow and formulaic. The story has a lot of globetrotting to several countries to distract from the weak plot. The pacing is too slow in areas where there should be a higher level of intrigue. Many of the action scenes are poorly staged and look too forced and awkward. There’s nothing wrong with any of the cast members’ performances in “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” but there’s no real spark to anything about this movie, which plods along until its very predictable conclusion.

The movie’s biggest failing is not adequately explaining crucial backstories. (At one point in the film, Lally does a rushed “exposition dump” by giving a babbling summary of what happened in the first two “Fantastic Beasts” movies.) The film’s lackluster dialogue and trite action scenes don’t help matters. The end result is a movie that seems to take its loyal fan base for granted and doesn’t really make new “Fantastic Beasts” viewers feel welcome.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” in U.S. cinemas on April 15, 2022. HBO Max will premiere the movie on May 30, 2022.

Review: ‘The World to Come,’ starring Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Christopher Abbott and Casey Affleck

February 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vanessa Kirby and Katherine Waterston in “The World to Come” (Photo by Toni Salabasev/Bleecker Street)

“The World to Come”

Directed by Mona Fastvold

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in 1856, in a rural area of Schoharie County, New York, the dramatic film “The World to Come” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two farmers’ wives have a secret love affair with each other while unhappily married to their husbands.

Culture Audience: “The World to Come” will appeal primarily to people are interested in well-acted dramas about LGBTQ romances and how people cope with being in unhappy marriages.

Katherine Waterston and Casey Affleck in “The World to Come” (Photo by Vlad Cioplea/Bleecker Street)

The dramatic film “The World to Come” skillfully immerses viewers into a world filled with layers of oppression for the story’s two female protagonists. The two women are stifled by being in miserable relationships with their husbands; society’s bigotry against same-sex romances; and living in an era where wives could be considered property by their husbands. It’s a story that shows in understated yet poignant details how someone’s greatest love and passion could also be that person’s greatest heartbreak.

Directed with emotional intelligence and sensitivity by Mona Fastvold, “The World to Come” is based on Jim Shepard’s lyrical short story in the 2017 collection, each titled “The World to Come.” Shepard and Ron Hansen adapted the short story into the movie’s screenplay, which is told from the point of view of a farmer’s wife named Abigail (played by Katherine Waterston), whose diary entries are read in voiceover narration. The movie takes place primarily in 1856 in a rural area of Schoharie County, New York, but “The World to Come” was actually filmed in Romania to capture the type of landscape that no longer exists in that part of New York.

Abigail is an introvert who begins keeping a personal diary of her thoughts, after her husband Dyer (played by Casey Affleck) suggested that she keep a business journal for the farm, such as tools lent out and outstanding bills. Abigail begins her diary in January of 1856, and her subsequent voiceovers over the next several months are told with the dates in chronological order.

Dyer, just like Abigail, is quiet and unassuming. They seem to have an ordinary life with their daughter Nellie (played by Karina Ziana Gherasim), who’s 4 years old. But a tragedy strikes that puts both Dyer and Abigail down a path of depression and emotional turmoil.

By February of that year, Nellie has died from diphtheria. Abigail and Dyer, who are already introverted people, become more withdrawn from each other. Not long after Nellie’s death, Dyer becomes ill with a fever, which puts the productivity of the couple’s farm in jeopardy. (They are the only apparent people who work on the farm.)

Abigail barely has time to grieve while taking care of her ailing husband when another farmer couple moves nearby and unexpectedly changes Abigail’s and Dyer’s lives. Tallie (played by Vanessa Kirby) is a vibrant redhead, while her husband Finney (played by Christopher Abbott) is a brooding control freak. During this very depressing time in Abigail’s life, she writes in her diary: “I have become my grief.”

Dyer eventually recovers from his fever, but he and Abigail remain emotionally distant from each other. They refuse to discuss the death of their daughter, because it seems to be too painful for them to even talk about it. Abigail is expected to help Dyer with farm duties, but soon she’ll have someone who will be taking up a lot of her time and attention.

The first time that Abigail is shown talking about Nellie’s death to another person is in her first conversation with Tallie, who has stopped by Abigail’s home for a neighborly visit. Abigail and Tallie’s first conversation happens to be on the day that would have been Nellie’s fifth birthday. When Abigail tells Tallie this information, unbeknownst to the two of them, it’s the birth of something else: a budding romance between Abigail and Tallie.

The two women become fast friends and eventually confide in each other about their deepest feelings. But the respective marriages to their husbands are never that far from their minds. It’s easy for anyone to see that the passion has dwindled in Abigail and Dyer’s relationship. Tallie and Finney’s relationship is not as easy to read, although Tallie tells Abigail: “I suppose he’s unhappy with me because I have yet to give him a child.”

As Abigail says in one of her diary entries that she reads in a voiceover: “Finney and Tallie’s bond confounds me. At times, when their eyes meet, they seem yoked in opposition to one another, while at other times there seems a shared regard.” Abigail remarks in her diary about her growing romantic feelings about Tallie: “There is something going on between us that I can’t unravel.”

Abigail becomes fully aware of how deep her feelings are for Tallie after Tallie becomes ill from being caught in a snowstorm. Abigail becomes distraught over wondering if Tallie will recover. The snowstorm killed about half of the chickens on Abigail and Dyer’s farm, so the couple will be experiencing some hard times in the near future. However, Abigail is more worried about Tallie’s recovery than the farm’s financial loss from the snowstorm.

Tallie seems to appreciate Abigail’s introverted nature when Tallie tells her: “It’s been my experience that it’s not always those who show the least who actually feel the least.” And Abigail describes their blossoming love affair this way in her diary: “I imagine that I love how our encircling feelings leave nothing out for us to wander or seek.”

One day, Tallie gives Abigail an atlas, which is almost symbolic of their wishful thinking of how they could run off together and travel around the world. By the month of May, Tallie and Abigail’s romance of hand holding and hesitant kisses turn into more passionate displays of affection, and they eventually become secret lovers. Their infidelity to their husbands doesn’t come without feeling guilty about it, but Tallie tries to brush it off by telling Abigail: “I hear intimacy builds good will.”

Dyer and Finney can’t help but notice that their wives are spending more and more time together, sometimes for several hours a day. Dyer expresses frustration that Abigail’s devotion to Tallie has come at the expense of Abigail doing work on the farm. Dyer is annoyed, but he doesn’t become abusive about it.

By contrast, Abigail starts to see signs that Tallie is being abused, such as bruises and how Tallie seems genuinely fearful of Finney, while Tallie tries to pretend that everything is fine. Abigail also tries not to think about something Tallie told her soon after they first met: Finney is thinking about moving further west with Tallie. Later in the story, the two couples have dinner together at Tallie and Finney’s home. And it becomes very clear how cruel Finney can be.

The romance of Abigail and Tallie isn’t really a “sexual identity” story, because the movie never makes a point of declaring what their sexual identities are. There’s no big speech or enlightenment moment that Abigail and Tallie have about why they fell in love with each other. Viewers can speculate that Abigail and Tallie are closeted lesbians or bisexuals, or viewers can speculate that Abigail and/or Tallie don’t care what gender their love partner is. In 1850s America, there really were no specific terms for LGBTQ people, and the subject of any non-heterosexuality was so taboo that it was rarely discussed out loud.

“The World to Come” is really about showing how two lonely people met each other and filled a void in each other’s lives. In Tallie and Abigail’s private conversations, it’s clear that Tallie is more sexually experienced and less sheltered than Abigail, even though Abigail is older than Tallie. Abigail mentions that she married Dyer out of convenience, because he was the older son of a neighbor. By contrast, it’s hinted that Tallie is very aware of her allure and had her pick of suitors before she married Finney. It’s implied that Abigail was probably a virgin when she got married, while Tallie was not.

These hints about their sexual history provide some context for what happens later in the story and how Abigail and Tallie react to obstacles that inevitably occur in their relationship. Abigail is the only person who makes Tallie happy, and vice versa, but Abigail has the added emotional agony of losing a child. It explains why there’s a desperate way that Abigail wants to cling to her relationship with Tallie, no matter what the cost.

Waterston, Kirby, Affleck and Abbott all give commendable performances in their roles. As the story goes on, there’s a noticeable change in the personalities of Abigail and Tallie that Waterston and Kirby express in poignant ways. Abigail starts off very shy and unsure of herself, but becomes more determined and outspoken after she falls in love with Tallie. Meanwhile, Tallie starts off as more of a fun-loving free spirit, but she slowly loses her confidence under the burden of being in an abusive marriage.

Affleck’s Dyer stays on a fairly even keel of being a mournful spouse who has trouble expressing his emotions, but Dyer is someone who hasn’t completely lost his humanity and compassion. Abbott’s Finney is the most complex person of the four because, just like many abusers, Finney has a charismatic side and is skilled at fooling people into thinking that he isn’t as bad as he really is. There’s a scene in the movie that also realistically demonstrates how people who suspect domestic abuse often don’t want to be involved in reporting it or helping a suspected victim.

“The World to Come” is not a groundbreaking film, nor is it going to appeal to people who aren’t interested in deliberately paced dramas that take place in the 1800s. Some viewers might also be slightly annoyed by the film’s constant voiceovers by Abigail. However, her writings are a subtle nod to how articulate and intelligent Abigail is, considering that she was not a wealthy woman with the means to get a higher education, in an era when women were discouraged from being as educated as men.

Fastvold’s unfussy directing style is exemplified by the technical choices made in the movie’s costume design, production design and musical score, which all complement the creative aspects of the film without being overwhelming. The farm folks in this story live simply and quietly. If the movie had made Tallie and Abigail’s romance a big melodrama, it wouldn’t ring true for this rural culture of people who live discreetly and don’t want to call attention to themselves.

The actors in this movie’s relatively small cast make the most out of this intimate snapshot of a year in the life of these four people who have been damaged in some way by disillusionment. Tallie and Abigail experience glimmers of hope and a purpose to live because of the unexpected love that they found with each other. But it’s a love where people will inevitably get hurt, and decisions are made on how much of that love is worth any personal sacrifices.

Bleecker Street released “The World to Come” in select U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is March 2, 2021.

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