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.

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.

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.

First Man

Damien Chazelle shows how to tell a story in a way that still feels incredibly tense even though it’s well documented as to how it all works out.

Honestly, I found the opening sequence terrifying. Together with a couple of other shots which take place in a fast-moving, madly-shaking spacecraft, it is a reminder of how close those men were to death just about every day they went to work. Call it madness or a calculated risk – either way it’s the very top of the emotional rollercoaster.

Neil Armstrong is portrayed as a man of few words but suppressed emotions, and Ryan Gosling is a great choice for such a role. Chazelle has crafted a compelling film featuring a taciturn man, which seems to defy logic.

Back down on the ground, Claire Foy as Neil Armstrong’s wife Janet is our way of understanding what may be going on inside his head. ‘Wife of a Great Man’ can be a thankless role on-screen, but Foy is exactly what is needed; she can say so much with just her eyes that there is rarely any need for lengthy conversations – not that Neil would indulge her anyway.

Despite the success of the mission there is always a tinge of sadness throughout, and given the losses that Armstrong has suffered along the way, it’s no surprise. In contrast to the scenes we’ve seen in documentaries, there is no whooping and hollering – this is taking place back in mission control, but we don’t visit that room, we stay on the Moon with the two men in silence and are overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all.

The scenes on the Moon are spectacular, with the images crisp and clear as opposed to the more period feel of the scenes taking place in the Armstrong’s house, for example. And the score … wow.

Chazelle has already proven that he knows how to finish films, and the final scene here (featuring just Gosling and Foy) is an absolute corker.

A Star Is Born

The title is the beginning of the problem, I think, in that Bradley Cooper has made a film about him and not a film about her, and so the title doesn’t make sense anymore.

I mean, the film is fine and everything, but it didn’t grab me as much as the hype would have me believe.

Gaga was fine, Cooper was good (probably the best I’ve ever seen him, but the bar isn’t that high tbh), Sam Elliott was too scarce.

The thing is, I just didn’t believe their relationship. I wasn’t feeling that they were madly in love. I think she thought she was, but was so used to looking after her father and his cronies that she was just able to turn that behaviour to looking after a husband instead. He sees her as a muse, saviour and emotional crutch but I don’t think he really loves her. I don’t think he knows how to.

By the end I felt a bit emotionally manipulated rather than engaged. And it all felt well … shallow.

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.

BlacKkKlansman is a masterclass in doing just that.

That’s not to say that it’s a master*piece*, but it’s not far off that either. What held it back from being that good was a couple of occasions where Spike Lee might be accused of ‘stating the bleedin’ obvious’ after he had spent a couple of scenes cannily drawing parallels between the America of the 1970s and the country as it is in 2018. The set up was so exquisitely done in the first instance, that the “well that’s never going to happen” conversation might just as well have been delivered directly to camera with a knowing wink. And although Laura Harrier is undeniably great as student union leader Patrice, that relationship did leave a bit of an icky feeling – not only was she not in possession of all the facts when she embarked on the romance, she was downright lied to. I understand why, but as that character is a fictional invention added in to the ‘based on a true story’ origins of the script, it didn’t sit too easily.

Beyond that though, this is Spike Lee in top form, and he is perhaps the perfect person to tell this story. The anger driving the narrative is couched in comedic touches, drawing the audience in, until just the moments when we need to be horrified to appreciate the anger. The juxtaposition of the ‘white power/black power’ scene is outstanding (and the casting of one character perfect).

There has been much discussion as to the ending. For what it’s worth, my opinion is that what Lee did is entirely justified and correct. An audience member in front of me was actively laughing with glee and clapping at the telephone scene towards the end, and was suddenly stunned into silence. A reminder to us all that as we go about our privileged lives, someone, somewhere, is fighting against injustice. Perhaps we need to be with them instead of clapping along from the sidelines.

L’amant double

Exactly one year ago, I was in Paris (to watch tennis) and tempted to go see L’amant double which had just opened in cinemas there, barely a couple of weeks after being screened at Cannes. In the end I didn’t get time to go, but the fact that we’ve just had Cannes, and that tennis is here again, is a stark reminder of the question I frequently ask: why do we have to wait so damn long for foreign language films to appear in the UK?

This one has definitely been worth waiting for. Although it’s good to remember that this is definitely a François Ozon film. Playing fast and loose with the interpretation of ethics of doctor/patient confidentiality, Ozon serves up a delicious, sexy treat of a film which had me simultaneously gasping and giggling at its audacity.

It’s difficult to say too much without giving the game away, but Jérémie Renier is wickedly engaging as twins, and Marine Vacth intense as the woman caught between the two of them.

Ozon employs mirrors and windows giving us myriad reflections to match the crazy twists of the story, and all I’ll say is it’s not just Renier playing multiple roles. It’s cheeky, dark, funny, and wildly entertaining.

A fun time was had!