Babylon : An Indictment of Empire and a Celebration of Cinema

So I saw Babylon last Sunday night.  Twice.  I saw the 6:25 show and then picked Kalie up and went right back for the 10:35 show.  If Tinseltown had still been open after that, I’d’ve seen it a third time.  I can’t tell you the last time I saw a movie and then went right back in to see it again just because I loved it.  Sure, I’ve purchased multiple tickets in advance for “big” Marvel or Star Wars movies on opening weekend but to see a film back-to-back just because I fell in love with it?  It’s been ages.  Babylon’s three hours and nine minutes long, too, so with previews I was at the theatre for seven hours.  And I loved it!  Not a single second dragged and I saw so much more to appreciate my second time through.  I’ve read a lot of wildly divided opinions on Babylon in articles and across social media – people seem to either adore it or think it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen – and any film which is so polarizing intrigues me.  Last night I caught the 8:25 show, and now with three viewings under my belt, I wanted to write a bit about why I love Babylon so much.

Note, spoilers for Babylon will follow but the film’s ending won’t be discussed.

I get why people are so divided over this film.  First, I’ve never seen anything like it and we (to speak in unfair cultural generalizations) don’t do well with “new,” especially jarringly new.  Second, and more to the point, the commentary (it has a lot to say) and how it’s presented in Babylon is more layered and nuanced than what passes as our “usual blockbuster,” especially after years of big Marvel movies being the main reason we flock to the movie theatre.  But it feels too wild, chaotic, over the top, insane, and profane for the traditional “artsy movie,” too.  You really have to be open to and okay with just about ANYTHING for this film to land.

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Nellie LaRoy dances at Don Wallach’s party which opens the film. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

For example, about a minute into the film there is a graphic scene of an elephant shitting.

About three minutes into the film there’s a graphic scene of a woman peeing on a man, including in his mouth, for his gleeful sexual pleasure.

So.  You see what I mean?  This was four minutes into the movie.

But, somewhat surprisingly, these two scenes helped ready me for all the wildness to follow.  Admittedly, as I watched an elephant defecate, I found myself thinking, “I paid $9.25 for this?  What am I doing?  Should I leave?  I could do so many other things with my night.”  I felt the same watching a woman pee on her sexual partner and then I thought, “Who am I to judge someone else’s kink?  It’s not my thing.  I’d be uncomfortable trying it.  But as long as it’s happening between two consenting adults (which the film made clear they were), why would I judge or shame someone for what they like?”  This was a mindfulness bell, reminding me to be open and accepting of what falls outside my comfort zone which, I think, primed me to more easily embrace what followed.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Babylon is set during Hollywood’s silent film era and follows the intersecting lives of Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an aspiring actress; Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a young man seeking a career in the film industry; Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the most bankable leading man of the era; Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a talented trumpet player; Lady Fae Zhu (Li Jun Li), a singer who also makes title cards for films; and Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), the entertainment reporter who chronicles it all.  It has aspiration and ambition.  Meteoric rises and unforgiving falls.  Decadence and debauchery which make every version of The Great Gatsby you’ve ever seen look like a quaint, backyard children’s birthday party.  Excess!  Extravagance!  Insanity!  Humor!  Heartbreak!  Drama!  Pathos!  And the film manages to be just as beautiful and poignant as it is decadent and hedonistic.  I’ve never seen one film do so much, so well.

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Lady Fae Zhu, Manny Torres, Nellie LaRoy, Jack Conrad, Sidney Palmer, and Elinor St. John / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures

At one point in the film Nellie tells Manny, “It’s gonna be like nothing anyone’s ever seen.”  She was right!  I’ve loved the movies for as long as I can remember.  Going to the movies has been one of my life’s greatest joys for over thirty years.  I’ve seen a lot of films but I’ve never seen anything quite like Babylon.  It weaves the most tender and intimate moments through some of the raunchiest, wildest, most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie.

So I get all the polarized opinions around the film.  I understand why some people hate this.  But I love Babylon.  I adore this film!  It’s a wild depiction and scathing indictment of the sins of empire’s excess, as seen through the film industry, while simultaneously being a beautiful examination of the power and point of the movies.  It’s this gorgeous three hour love letter to cinema!  The visual spectacle is unlike anything I’ve seen and the writing is just as impressive.  It’s so intelligent and so uncompromising and it makes you feel uncomfortable in ways which, if you don’t close yourself off and look away, lead you on a journey of self and societal reflection.

The casting was impeccable, too!  For years I’ve heard critics describe actors as “a force of nature.”  Secretly, I always thought that was just a poetic way of saying they really didn’t know what to say.  Because who even knows what that means??  Well, I do now.  Margot Robbie is a force of nature in this film.  Though what isn’t she good in, right?  But what she does as Nellie LaRoy is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen by anyone in anything ever.  And that was why Diego Calva impressed me so much, too!  I’d not seen him in anything before Babylon but he more than held his own – in sexiness and acting chops – opposite Margot Robbie.  There wasn’t a moment he was “lost” on screen next to Margot Robbie who gave, in my mind, the best performance of her career thus far.

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Nellie and Manny dance together at Wallach’s / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

As I watched, I wondered if part of the reason people weren’t ready for how debaucherous and excessive this film would be was grounded in our cultural understanding of “Babylon.”  Studying and teaching theology for twenty years, this reference is very familiar.  But I’m not sure that’s true culturally for the majority of us anymore. 

When we look to the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, “Babylon” is often the stand-in for discussing the evils of Empire in general (Babylon was the empire which destroyed the Southern Kingdom of Judah and took the Jewish people into exile for seventy years) and Rome specifically (you’d be arrested, tortured, and perhaps killed for carrying anti-Roman propaganda for centuries).  For our purposes here, I’ll define “Empire” as any governing system where all political, economic, and military power rests in the hands of the few elites who benefit at the expense of the many.  By nature, Empire brings excess – both for the enjoyment of those at the top and the distraction of those at the bottom.    

To cite just a few examples of how scripture frames it, Empire pleasures kings while intoxicating the rest of us with vices such as lust and drink.  We are naturally pulled to Empire, often seeing it as divine, though it offers us nothing of value (Revelation 17:1-6).  Empire is the way of finery, wealth, and economic lust (18:11-13).  Those who mourn Empire’s fall are those who worship profit (18:17-19).  This adulterous love of money leads all of us astray and this quest results in the death of all the holy ones (18:23-24).


Sidney and his band play at Wallach’s party. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

Historian and theologian John Dominic Crossan makes clear the excess and evil of empire have been our way of life for a very long time.  To have lived during the last six thousand years is to have lived touched by Empire, either benefiting from or being exploited by it.  In his text God and Empire he writes:

The point I wish to emphasize is that imperialism is not just a here-and-there, now-and-then, sporadic event in human history, but that civilization itself, as I am using that term, has always been imperial – that is empire is the normalcy of civilization’s violence.  It is, of course, always possible to oppose yours in favor of ours.  But if you oppose empire-as-such, you are taking on that which has been the normalcy of civilization’s brutality for at least the last six thousand years.[1]

This idea of Empire – the worship of wealth, decadence, and debauchery which will destroy us and kill all that’s “holy” within us – is the very heart of how Chazelle uses “Babylon.”  The film isn’t called Hollywood.  It isn’t called The Silent Era.  It’s called Babylon.  They say a picture is worth a thousand words and what Chazelle creates with this motion picture is far more evocative (and in many cases far more accurate) than anything our imaginations could concoct reading about the nature of Empire.  In this film, we are seduced by the allure of Empire’s excess in the most wild, free, hedonistic ways and we experience the heartbreaking emptiness, isolation, pain and destruction the pursuit of these desires bring as we take this journey alongside the characters.

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Lady Fae Zhu performs at Wallach’s party. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

Nellie and Manny meet at the party at Don Wallach’s house which opens the film.  Nellie, who isn’t on the list, is trying to talk her way past security and Manny, who works for Wallach (Jeff Garlin), vouches for her so she can get in.  Babylon is worth seeing for this party scene alone.  I can’t begin to imagine how Damien Chazelle dreamed much of this up (though some of it was oddly evocative of Mötley Crüe’s 2005-06 oh-so-aptly named Carnival of Sins Tour) but he deserves an Oscar nomination for how he orchestrated this scene alone.  And Mandy Moore did the choreography!  I have a whole new respect for her!  Words like “decadence” or “hedonism” or “bacchanalia” all seem to fall short in describing just what goes on amongst the writhing masses of partygoers at Wallach’s house. 

The excess and extravagance isn’t what draw Nellie or Manny to this world though.  The life is fun, obviously.  In fact “fun” also seems too banal a word to describe what happens here.  Nellie takes to the partying quite naturally.  Once she hits the dancefloor it is clearly her world, even if she had to sneak in.  But Nellie and Manny enjoy the lifestyle because it’s part of being in the movies and this is what they desire.

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Manny walks Nellie into the party after they meet. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

Once Manny brings Nellie inside, They don’t go to the dancefloor first.  Rather, he takes her to the back room where all the drugs are stored.  Nellie elects to do some cocaine and encourages Manny to join her.  They discuss where they’d go if they could go anywhere in the world.  Manny says he would choose to go to a movie set, because he wants to be a part of something “bigger.”  When Nellie asks, “Bigger than what?,” Manny replies:

Manny – “Bigger than this, uh, I don’t know.  Bigger than my life.  Bigger than sweeping elephant shit.  Bigger, better, important.  Something important.  Be part of something important.  Something that lasts, that means something.”

Nellie – “I love that answer!”

Manny – “Yeah?”

Nellie – “I wanna go on a movie set, too.”

Manny – “Yes, or at least I want to be there, work there.”

Nellie – “Yeah!”

Manny – “Learn there.  I don’t know.  I just love watching movies, you know?”

Nellie – “I love watching movies, too.”

Manny – “Like you’re there and you’re watching the movie…”

Nellie – “And you escape.  You don’t have to be in your own shitty, fucking life.”

Manny – “Exactly!  Exactly!”

Nellie – “You can be in their life!”

Manny – “Or wherever! 

Nellie – “Wherever!”

Manny – “Wherever the fuck you want, the Wild West, this fucking place, like you can be like a gangster, I don’t know.  Movies have people dancing.  Movies have people dying, movies…and they’re not really dead.  It’s fucking amazing they’re not really dead.  Like literally, kill me.”

Nellie – [mimes shooting him] “Pop.”

Manny – “And nothing happened for real but at the same time it’s something even more important than life.  You can feel it like, like, I don’t know.  Movies are sad sometimes.  Movies are fucking happy.”

Nellie – “They make you feel something.  One day, Manny, we’re gonna be on a movie set.  We can have lunch together!”

Manny – “Yeah, for sure.”

They have this conversation before either of them join the debauchery on the dancefloor.  Manny was already in the party but he was acting in his role as Wallach’s employee, helping to sort problems and tend to guests.  It’s only after their conversation about wanting to be a part of movies that Nellie and Manny head out to dance and join the revelry.  The way the scene is telegraphed shows the call of their hearts.  They discuss why they love movies before embracing the decadence.  Neither Nellie nor Manny turn away from the dark, alluring parts of the Hollywood lifestyle.  In fact, in the service of their careers, Nellie eagerly embraces the debauchery while Manny makes compromising choice after compromising choice.  But neither Nellie or Manny want to be part of the movies for that lifestyle.  It’s just a perk.  They want to be a part of the movies because movies are something important, something that lasts, something that has meaning, something that helps us escape from our own shitty, fucking lives and go wherever we want to go.

It’s not just those aspiring to be part of cinema who see this.  After the party, Mr. Wallach has Manny drive a very inebriated Jack Conrad home.  Before stumbling over his balcony railing and falling into his pool, Jack offers a passionate soliloquy to Manny:

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Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

“We gotta redefine the form.  The man who puts gasoline in your tank goes to the movies, why?  Why?  Why?  Because he feels less alone there.  Don’t we owe him more than the same old shit?  You got guys in Europe with the twelve-tone.  You got Bauhaus architecture, fuckin’ Bauhaus, you know?  And we’re still doing costume pictures?  It’s the dinosaurs, kid.  It’s the ones who go to Beverly Hills for meatballs and mint julips, to reminisce about the old days when they can’t see there’s so much more to be done.  We’ve gotta innovate.  We gotta inspire.  We gotta dream beyond these pesky shells of flesh and bone, map those dreams onto celluloid, and print them into history.  Turn today into tomorrow so that tomorrow’s lonely man may look up at that flickering screen and say for the very first time, ‘Eureka!  I am not alone!’  Hh, yeah.”

The highest grossing star of his time understands the point of the movies is to help people feel less alone.  The point of the movies is to give the man who puts gasoline in your car what he needs.  The reason they need to innovate is to inspire the lonely man of tomorrow as they do for the man who’s lonely today.  Jack understands exactly what Nellie and Manny are talking about!  In these two pieces of dialogue we see the beautiful symbiotic relationship between those who make the movies and those who go to see the movies.

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Jack and Manny / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

Do I love watching movies?  Have I gone to the movies to escape?  To be somewhere else, to live someone else’s life for a while?  To feel less alone?  To be happy and sad and scared?  To know it’s “not real” while feeling it’s something even more important than life itself?  Um, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and YES.  This is exactly what we get from the movies!  This and so much more!  Jack tells Manny the film set is “the most magical place in the world.”  While I can’t speak to that, I know from personal experience what they create on those sets is magical.

Some of my life’s happiest memories have come from going to the movies.  The ritual of opening night.  Discussing the film in the car ride home after.  Multiple rewatches to test theories.  Renting movies from the video store.  Building my own collection of films.  Sharing old favorites with new friends.  Family movie days.  And, during a few particularly dark and turbulent times in my life, I went to the movies because I couldn’t bear being anywhere else.  I needed to slide into the darkness, to disappear and be taken someplace else, to be taken out of the feelings I couldn’t escape any other way and out of the life I didn’t want to be in.  It may’ve only been an escape of a few hours but in those dark and trying times it felt like the movies helped save my life.

This is what Manny’s talking about.  This is why movies are important, why they last, why they mean something.  Later in the film, in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy (which I won’t spoil), Jack snaps at his new wife, Estelle (Katherine Waterson).  She’s a theatre actor and in his pain he takes a shot at the prestige of her acting versus the commonality of his.  He tells her, “It’s not a low art, you know.  I want you to know that.  What I do means something to millions of people.  My folks didn’t have the money or the education to go to the theatre so they went to the vaudeville houses and then the nickelodeons and you know what?  There’s beauty there.  What happens up on that screen means something.  Maybe not to you, in your ivory tower, but for real people, on the ground, it means something.” 

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Nellie on set for the very first time. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

Amen.  “Amen” is a traditional closing for prayers because it’s Hebrew root means “to be trusted” or “to be reliable.”  Often it’s loosely translated as “I believe.”  Naturally, I can’t speak for everyone.  I can’t speak for you, dear reader.  But as far as I’m concerned, Jack’s right.  Amen.  There is beauty there.  What happens on that screen means something.  Sometimes, on the right day at the right time with the right film, it can mean everything.

Watching a film which makes me feel all I love about movies by telling the stories of characters whose hearts beat with the same love and who understand the point, power, and potential of movies as I do, makes the film that much more powerful.  It also makes their inevitable falls that much more heartbreaking.  Empire is unforgiving and, save those few at the top, it offers the rest of us indifference, exploitation, and even destruction should we refuse to play by the rules and/or challenge it too directly.

The party scene which opens the film – for as jarring, shocking, and at times uncomfortable as it may be – is enticing.  I want to be at that party…even if I’d be uncomfortable doing anything other than standing in the corner.  Still, there’s a part of me that wants to be on the dance floor, amidst the writhing masses of people, freeing myself in a sexy, sweaty, celebration of absolute abandon.  The party is shot in such a way where it’s appealing, even as it’s unbridled provocative nature feels a bit unnerving.  Towards the end of the film, we follow Manny, the Count (Rory Scovel), and James McKay (Tobey Maguire with a performance that will be hard to shake the next time I try and watch any of his Spider-Man films…) to another party spot.  Whereas the over-the-top extravagance of Wallach’s party felt exciting with a tinge of forbidden-fruit fun, the bizarreness of this party feels cold, foreboding, and dangerous.  It includes the only scene in the film I’ve looked away from each time I’ve watched this.  In many ways, I feel these two party scenes frame the characters’ journeys – they all begin in the wild light, living more freely than most of us could ever imagine, before descending into darkness.  The world they love, the world they’ve cherished, the world they’ve supported just as they’ve been supported by it begins to turn on them, reject them, expose them, and defame them.  In this, too, Babylon embodies its title.  The benefits of Empire are reserved for the very few.  Some never touch any of its decadence while some exist in the middle ground, enjoying the extravagance as Empire exploits them, only to be cast out when it’s finished with them.

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The Count and Manny with James McKay at a secret, underground party. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

It is Nellie LaRoy who rages the most against this cruel reversal of fortunes.  Another piece exploring the fates of these characters in more detail will be coming soon.  As I said above, this piece won’t discuss the end of the film.  But we see Nellie’s stardom start to slip as her world begins to change around her.  The advent of the Hayes Code, named for the then-president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, William Hayes, would bring a marked change to Hollywood and filmmaking:

“The Hays Code was this self-imposed industry set of guidelines for all the motion pictures that were released between 1934 and 1968,” says [The Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) Curator Chelsey] O’Brien. “The code prohibited profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic or realistic violence, sexual persuasions and rape.  It had rules around the use of crime, costume, dance, religion, national sentiment and morality.  And according to the code – even within the limits of pure love or realistic love – certain facts have been regarded as outside the limits of safe presentation.  So basically, this means we have a whole lot of married couples sleeping in separate beds for at least 20 years.”[2]

At a swanky, “refined” party with Hollywood’s glamorous elite, Nellie works to refine her image.  She has cut her long hair off into the fashionable finger-wave-bob of the era, dressed in a more formal gown, and is attempting to speak without her accent.  The anxiety and discomfort is evident on Nellie’s face and in her body language.  Eventually, she gives up and angrily indicts the wealthy elites who celebrated her just a few years before. 

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The adoring public greets Nellie LaRoy after her first premiere. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

Seeking to embarrass Nellie by calling attention to her “crassness,” a woman at the party asks her again and again to tell a joke.  Intentionally taking her bait, Nellie says, “Actually, I got one.  A bear and a rabbit are shittin’ in the woods one day and the bear says to the rabbit, ‘Hey, do you ever have a problem with the shit stickin’ to your fur?’  And the rabbit finishes shittin’ and he says, ‘No, I never do.  Why?’  And the bear says, ‘Fan-fuckin’-tastic!’ and he grabs the rabbit behind the ears and [Nellie takes the fur stole wrapped around the woman’s neck and uses it to wipe her ass].”  The crowd is appalled as more and more stunned faces turn towards Nellie as the joke progresses.  Elinor St. John, who had been helping “refine” Nellie, stammers, “I can’t believe you just…” 

Nellie replies with fury and righteous indignation burning in her eyes, “Why not?  Why, haven’t you ever heard what they say about me?  I’m a degenerate fucking animal. [mocking tone] Oh, oh Nellie.  Look at them.  Oh, who knows what she might do?  She’s, she’s from Jersey you know!  This is what a degenerate fucking animal from Jersey does. [Nellie walks over to the buffet and begins shoveling food in her mouth, eating noisily, until she turns with it smeared all over her face and dripping down her dress.] That’s what the degenerate fucking animal from Jersey does!  So you know what?  I’m gonna let you all go on fucking your cousins, polishing your guest lists, plying your underage fucking mistresses with fucking Beaujolais, you sick fucks.  I’m the animal?  What is this shit?? [picking up the food displays on the table and tearing it apart] What is this shit??  Oh I’m the sick one?  I’m the fucking crazy one?  You people make me fucking sickYou’re not better than me!  You’re NOT!  You’re not fucking better than me!  I don’t need this shit.  You know what?  I’m gonna go home.  I’m just gonna stick some coke up my pussy and you all can stick your champagne flutes up your rose smellin’, candy tastin’, snow white fucking assholes!

Nellie storms out of the party only to realize all the food she ate isn’t sitting well.  So she turns around, marches right back in, and projectile vomits all over the entryway.  When the man who’s hosting the party begins to yell at her for ruining his rug, she finishes vomiting all over him.  Then she turns to the horrified crowd, bows, and leaves.

In this moment Nellie LaRoy becomes our prophet figure and, like the prophets of the Bible who damned all those who turn a blind eye and revel in Empire’s sins, she rages against the hypocrisy of those who comfortably set themselves above others in a world that makes it easy for them to do so.  Lest you worry I’ve given away too much of the ending I want to reassure you, there’s still over an hour of the movie left after this scene.

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Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

I think a big part of why reactions to this film are so mixed is because of this.  Reading back over this piece, it feels like I’ve written two different essays, one discussing my love of the movies and how Babylon beautifully reflects that in a way few other films ever have and one discussing how Babylon presents the alluring, ultimately empty nature of Empire’s excess and the anger felt when one realizes they are among those rejected and exploited for Empire’s capricious amusement.  I wonder if Babylon would’ve been more widely accepted if it did only one thing, if it focused its message/critique in just one place.

In fact, I spent a lot of time wondering if I should split this into two different pieces.  I’m no stranger to long essays (they’re kinda my thing ;D) but tonally it felt like I was writing two very different posts.  But so was Babylon so I left this as one piece because it felt more authentic to the film.  These are far from the only ideas the film explores.  As I said above, I’ve never seen one film do so much, so well.  After the movie, Kalie (who is getting her PhD in literary theory with a concentration on “the mad monster” (and her dissertation explores Monster Theory through horror movies and novels)) said Babylon was a reminder to her of why what she does – the academic study and examination of film – is important.  She said it was a compelling example of all cinematic storytelling can do.

Amen.  Nothing could’ve prepared me for what Babylon held (as the first four minutes of the film made very clear) but I am overflowing with gratitude for all it gave me.  For me, Babylon is something important.  It will live on in my heart and it means a great deal to me.  It made me feel happy, sad, and scared.  And what it taught me, what it made me feel, was as important as life itself.  What a magical way to spend a few hours.

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Manny on his first day working on a film set with Jack’s longtime friend and producer, George Munn (Lukas Haas). / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Babylon (2022)

[1] John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 30.

[2] Maria Lewis, “Early Hollywood and the Hayes Code,”  Published January 14, 2021.  Accessed January 6, 2023.

4 thoughts on “Babylon : An Indictment of Empire and a Celebration of Cinema

  1. It’s nice to read such a positive reaction! I was looking forward to this because I love all things Hollywood. But I admit it the bad reviews combined with the massive run time) turned me off. Hopefully it will be streaming soon I’ll definitely give it a go there.

    Liked by 2 people

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