Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (2019)

Thank you Quentin Tarantino. Thank you for not making ‘The Sharon Tate Story’. I’m going to err on the side of benevolence and assume that it was Tarantino himself who realised that it was not a good idea to go there.

Instead, he has taken those events as a starting point, weaving fictional (but believable) characters into real life events, and creating his own story for 1969 Los Angeles complete with princess, knight in shining armour and fairy tale ending. This is fine; I don’t have a problem with the fact that the ending is not what actually happened to the real life characters – the clue is in the title: it’s all made up.

If Tarantino wants to go ahead and make a movie about two guys nearing the end of their Hollywood careers, set in 1969 and rammed full of references which only the most ardent of US-based TV and movie fans will get, then that’s fine. Because I loved what was going on in the first two thirds of this. DiCaprio and particularly Pitt are really very good, and their relationship highly entertaining. To be honest, I really wish Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood was just about these two. Their history, their struggles, their successes. How they’re ageing out of relevance and what that means to them. Because it affects both differently.

The feel of the era is captured perfectly, from the billboards to the cans in the cabinet, from the music to the radio advertisements. We’d expect nothing less from Tarantino.

And so having enjoyed so much of OUATIH, what a shame to see that Tarantino hasn’t failed to meet expectations elsewhere too. Whereas the casual references to TV, film and music were just right, Tarantino then overdoes it in his recreations of clips from Dalton’s filmography, which are far too long and self-indulgent.

I’m mystified by the casting of Margot Robbie. Either give her (significantly) more to do or, if you just want a blonde princess in the form of a budding young actress, then perhaps give the role to a lesser known performer? Having someone of Robbie’s calibre in such a flimsy role was a strange choice.

I’m puzzled by the choice to have the Bruce Lee scene too. Surely there are other ways of showing off Cliff Booth’s fighting skills, if that’s what it’s meant to do? My limited understanding of Lee’s martial arts philosophy is that seeking or provoking a fight is totally counter to what he believed (and no, that’s not just from watching Ip Man). Lee’s on-screen characters may have sought confrontation, but the man himself would not have.

And now that I’ve got to the topic of violence … the end scenes are just too much. The bone-cracking, flame-throwing, dog-chewing finale was a real shame, given that we’d got so far through the narrative with an interesting story and no need for gratuitous violence. The aggression could have played out in any number of ways, but Tarantino chose this one. It made it all the more annoying because for the past 2 hours I’d been enjoying a story about people that didn’t need to use violence.

I’ll probably watch the first sections again for the enjoyment of the period. But I don’t need to see the finale ever again.

Scent of a Woman (1992)

Rewatching for my The Complete Pacino list.

This is film for which Al Pacino famously won his Academy Award, one which he actually should have won at least twice previously, and which this time around was practically the apologetic life-time achievement win.

That’s not to say he isn’t good in this – it’s a fine performance of a generally unlikeable character – and it’s actually a lot more subtle of a performance that you may remember. Frank Slade and his hoo-ah has become a bit of a parody these days, and there is more to Pacino here than that.

So although Scent of a Woman was fine, it just didn’t spark with me.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Rewatching for my The Complete Pacino list.

This is a film full of angry men. It may be David Mamet, who is apparently to be admired as a writer, but it drove me mad.

I can appreciate the performances but this heavy-handed sales environment left me screaming for release.

The only woman I saw was the hat-check girl in the restaurant.

So many words.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

There is so much going on in this film I actually don’t know where to start.

Perhaps by saying that I liked it, though I didn’t love it. Then, I’m not generally one for animations so it must have been doing something good.

I liked the way that it acknowledged what even peripheral audiences know about Spider-Man, and so zipped happily through the back-story where necessary to keep thing moving along. I liked the way it captured the feeling of a comic book, with panels, sound effects and dots in the images. I liked that it did make me laugh.

Perhaps there were one (or two) too many Spider-people, as I felt that the little Japanese girl and her spider robot(?) got a bit sidelined towards the end, and the pig didn’t seem to have that much to do. (By the way, there’s a pig?) And I think if you are a big fan of the comic books then you will obviously recognise many more of the characters than I did. Also, even though I was definitely watching the 2D version, I sometimes felt like I had forgotten to put my 3D glasses on. I’ve read that the filmmakers deliberately did this to focus on the character at the centre of the screen, but it did make me squint and feel like I was missing something.

Waru

Waru is a film which I tried to get to see at TIFF in 2017, but it was sold out. It doesn’t seem to have been released outside of festivals. It’s been on my watchlist but ‘unavailable’ on Amazon Prime for almost a year. I wondered if I would ever get to see it.

And so god bless HOME, my local independent cinema and spiritual home, for their year-long programme of Women in Global Cinema in 2019. Waru was screening once, and once only, on a bitterly cold January evening, and I was not going to miss it.

It is such a powerful film. 8 different female directors have each created a 10 minute short film featuring female characters, each of which has a connection to the funeral of a young boy. The shorts weave together to allow us to view the death and its impact through the eyes of the immediate family, the community and the media.

The women at the centre of the 8 scenes are all incredible characters. All are struggling in some way with their position in society, some maintaining a steely exterior to cover up their internal emotions, others succumbing to desperate measures to cope. But all are real characters in recognisable situations, which really ensures that the message is brought home.

In fact, it’s worth mentioning that each short is filmed in one long take, with the camera swirling around the central female, following her in and out of her car, around the corridors of her work, or through the rooms of her home so that the audience is completely immersed in her experiences and emotions. It’s incredibly well done and I would be hard pushed to pick out a weak link, unusual for a portmanteau film.

It’s an excoriating view of New Zealand’s failure to address issues of child abuse, and also highlights racism and inequality; its themes are weighty, but the film doesn’t wring its hands over the issues. Instead it is (and indeed it ends with) a call to action to actually do something to reduce the levels of abuse.

If you ever do get a chance to see this, please invest 86 minutes of your time. It’s worth it.

My favourite films of 2018

2018 turned out to be the year when I had press accreditation for the London Film Festival! As a result, I was able to see a whole host of films which haven’t even been released in the UK yet, which was a real bonus.

On the other hand, as usual, I managed to miss a couple of films which I really wanted to see this year, top of the list being Cold War and Zama.

Although you may not have seen as many updates on this platform as before, I’ve been contributing at The Movie Isle this year and so you’ll find many of my reviews over there if they’re not here.

A complete list of my 2018 viewing can be found here on Letterboxd or click on the titles to see my thoughts on the top ten.

Let’s start with a quick list of numbers 20 – 11:

20 – Bad Times at the El Royale

19 – Black Panther

18 – Sweet Country

17 – The Endless

16  – L’amant double

15 – Lean on Pete

14 – Roma

13 – Un amour impossible

12 – Burning

11 – The Third Murder

10 – The Old Man and the Gun

If this is truly going to be Robert Redford’s final film, then what a fitting end. Charming, funny and entertaining.

9 – Gholam

Shahab Hosseini walks a lot in the London rain as he mulls over his options. It’s a film that has stayed with me all year, and has an ending that comes out of nowhere.

8 – Loveless

Wrapped in some beautiful, glacial cinematography, Loveless is a personal story with a political undertone which haunts long after the final image.

7 – First Reformed

When I left the cinema I had no idea whether I even liked this. The fact that it’s made it here probably tells you what you need to know.

6 – If Beale Street Could Talk

Soaring camerawork, a luscious score – Barry Jenkins and James Baldwin are a match made in heaven.

5 – BlacKkKlansman

Films that make you laugh, then make you feel uncomfortable that you’re laughing, then stun you into silence all within a few minutes must surely be doing something right.

4 – First Man

A terrifying opening sequence and a memorable, silent, end shot – with a lot of beautiful action happening in between.

3 – A Fantastic Woman

Daniela Vega imbues Marina with such dignity. Sebastián Lelio has woven a beautiful, fantastic tale about a very fantastic woman. It was an honour to meet her.

2 – Capernaum

Not an easy watch, but remarkable and challenging with a final shot that steals your heart.

1 – Shoplifters

A sublime portrayal of how a family can become a loving and supportive unit when both society and blood ties let it down.

Roma

I find it very difficult to comment too much in-depth on films like this, films which are so essentially personal to the film maker. And although many films to a certain extent will be personal, Roma – like Martin Scorsese’s Silenceis so deliberately and deeply rooted in the experiences of the writer/director/cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón that my opinion regarding the storytelling is largely irrelevant.

And so while I would have been interested to know more about the political background at the time, we don’t get that because the children wouldn’t have paid attention to it. And there is a whole other film to be made about the relationships between the people of Mixtec heritage and the white affluent families whom they serve.

Where I do have huge appreciation though is with the technical achievements. Roma looks absolutely beautiful, with the choice to film in black & white creating some gorgeous images, and also having the effect of reinforcing the feeling of memories being revisited. And there are some glorious long scenes which show a true master at work – the scene in the hospital emergency room for example, or the extended take on the beach are genuinely breath-taking.

For those familiar with Cuarón’s previous work, Roma contains visual references to many of his earlier films – Children of Men, Gravity, Y Tu Mama También – almost as if he had been trying out things in the past, in preparation for this, a film which he has been waiting to make for most of his life.

I liked it very much and I admired it a lot on a technical level – I just wasn’t quite as overwhelmed as I was expecting to be.

Aquaman

Oh my lord this is all kinds of crazy! Way too long crazy, who are all these people crazy and … an octopus playing drums crazy? Yes, all of the above.

But also, it’s fun, thank goodness. It’s not brilliant by any means, and there is one villain too many – presumably to set up a sequel – but it was highly enjoyable.

One thing that struck me was how little like a DC superhero film this actually is. It reminded me more of Greek myth – specifically the labours of Hercules. Arthur gets a task, completes it, and just as he’s sitting down to catch his breath – blam, something blasts its way through the wall and he has to go off on another mission. Great, you defeated this bunch of weirdos, now you have to fight the next lot and get hold of the golden fork … it’s relentless. But at least there’s no time to reflect on how daft it all is.

The villains in stuff like this can sometimes be over-wrought but Patrick Wilson gets this just right and I loved him yelling “Attaaaaaaaack”.

And as for Jason Momoa well, he’s clearly having the time of his life playing the giant-sea-horse-surfing dude and we all benefit in many ways.

My 4K TV is now impatiently awaiting the UHD Blu-Ray release.

Three Identical Strangers

The thing I often struggle with in watching documentaries, no matter how good they are, is that they are by nature subjective. With carefully timed revelations controlled by the director, I frequently feel manipulated by the end, which hugely reduces my enjoyment of the film as a whole.

With Three Identical Strangers though, director Tim Wardle gets the obvious reveals out of the way early, allowing for a more in-depth exploration of the lives of the eponymous identical strangers. We get to know how the revelations affected them in later life, and some of the background to their situations.

For the most part, it worked well. The subsequent twists and turns drew gasps and smiles from the audience, as the full realisation of what had happened was uncovered.

And then … the final act just couldn’t resist. Additional information is presented in an overly dramatic fashion, leaving me with the feeling that not only I, but also the subjects of the film, were being manipulated once more.

So having throughly enjoyed the majority of the documentary then, I walked out of the cinema with an unpleasant feeling and a whole bunch of questions raised just by the final 15 minutes. If the intention is to revisit with a sequel, then surely this did not need to be set up in this film?

Very good, and very disappointing at the same time.

Bad Times at the El Royale

This is the sophisticated film that Quentin Tarantino *thinks* he keeps making. But he gets nowhere near the subtle artistry that Drew Goddard shows in Bad Times at the El Royale.

The opening shot – a still camera watching one man at work and featuring some great editing – sets things up and everything spirals from there.

As new characters arrive and mysteries present and unravel themselves, everyone has a part to play, even if some make an earlier exit than others.

Top contributions come from Jeff Bridges – who has given up mumbling so that he can at last be understood. His scene where he explains his illness is extremely, and surprisingly, touching. But it is his companion in this conversation, Cynthia Erivo, who steals the show with every scene she is in. Not only in the scenes where she sings, where she is incredible, but also when the camera focusses on her face. She conveys a wealth of different emotions without saying a word.

I wasn’t sure about Lewis Pullman to start with, but as his character becomes clearer, he really comes into his own. And Chris Hemsworth is creepily salacious – or salaciously creepy – when he eventually arrives.

There are some things which didn’t quite work for me – a couple of the characters disappearing too soon to have any real impact, under-use of Dakota Johnson, and the two-state thing being irrelevant after the first 15 minutes.

But I enjoyed this a lot, and was glad that I knew nothing about it before going in.