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.

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.

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.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story is the space cowboy heist movie I didn’t think I wanted but which I quite enjoyed.

Look, I’m not immersed in the world of Star Wars. But I did grow up with Han Solo in the cinema and so I’m bemused by how down some people are on Alden Ehrenreich. It’s true that Ehrenreich’s portrayal of the young Solo is pivotal in making this work, and to my mind he has this as right as anyone who isn’t Harrison Ford is going to get it. There’s a bit of swagger, the smirk is there, and he looks the part.  I have no problem with Ehrenreich at all.

It helps that Chewie is just right too, as their buddy dynamic (with an imaginative meet-cute) is a high point throughout. And Donald Glover is spot on for Lando.

Some of the other casting left me disappointed though. Woody Harrelson was exactly the same as he is in most things I’ve seen him in, and his character was largely predictable. I read someone suggesting that the roles of Harrelson and Thandie Newton should have been swapped, and I have to agree this would have made a much more interesting outcome. And I don’t get all the Paul Bettany love. He does nothing for me, although I did love the demi-cape arrangement.

But the biggest disappointment has to be Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra. Given where she ends up, this is the most interesting story arc in the whole film but she seemed bored, had no chemistry with Ehrenreich, and was too dull to match the femme fatale aura that had clearly been written for her.

The story itself takes a while to get going, and the opening 20 minutes are perhaps the roughest ride. But once it settles down, I found it easy to enjoythe self-contained-ness of the plot. Yes there is the occasional reference to things happening elsewhere, but there’s no need to worry about The Force and it’s a long time before A New Hope comes in to play, and so it turns out it’s just a good old heist story, which happenes to be set in a galaxy far, far away.

I really enjoyed the smart one-liners (writer Lawrence Kasdan clearly does know his Han), the nonsense about how Han came to have the Milennium Falcon, and the (finally!) sorting out the parsecs-is-distance-not-time conundrum.

As I implied at the beginning – I didn’t need to know how he did it, but it was enjoyable finding out!

 

Deadpool 2

Having gone to see the first Deadpool outing with low expectations and having been pleasantly surprised, I didn’t fall into the usual trap this time around. That is, I went in to see Deadpool 2 with equally low expectations and was not in the least surprised.

Full of its own smugness, this film only raised a laugh from me with some of its meta-moments – mostly involving Barbra Streisand and Josh Brolin, and I’m not even sure they were meant to be funny.  All of the puerile humour and over-the-top gore that was part of the ‘plot’ was not my cup of tea.

I quite enjoyed Brolin as Cable, but to have the two main characters avenging the death of the women in their lives was (as was mentioned more than once in the film) sloppy writing.

And I’m now officially bored with Ryan Reynolds trying to carve out a career as a stand-up artist through his films. If you want to be a comedian, go and do that son. I’m not going to pay money to watch your smug face and voice in anything anymore.

Cable has it right. “You’re just a clown. Dressed as a sex toy.”

Avengers: Infinity War

Well, folks, it’s all been building up to this point. 18 films and how many years down the line, Thanos finally closes in on the complete gauntlet and it’s all hands on deck to try to stop him.

And obviously, all these hands squished into one film mean there’s a lot going on. On the one hand, seeing everyone pitching in together is great fun, and there is no doubt that in addition to trying to save the universe, there is always time for a little humour along the way.

On the other hand though, it clearly means that there’s only time for short appearances from our favourites. Some of them get two or three lines and then disappear. Some of them don’t even appear at all.

The Russo brothers have done a good job of presenting the villain as having an understandable (if morally corrupt) motivation, and of making sure we can keep track of where everyone is and why. But it still feels a little disparate, as there are a number of small groups of Avengers rather than assembling them all in one place – for the time being I suppose.

The directors have done everything they can to put the film at the service of fans, rather than the general cinema-going audience. If you’ve only seen some of the preceding films, then you’ll definitely miss out on some of the in-jokes and character references. If you haven’t seen any of them, then I think you’ll struggle to know what’s going on at all.

But the audience I was with seemed pleased, and there was an actual round of applause marking one character’s entrance to battle. There was also a bit of a stunned silence as the credits started to roll, so I guess it did its job.

However, there are two major and unavoidable problems for me.

Firstly – we know there is another film to come, and that we’re actually only half-way through the story. That means some of the stakes are not really as high as they might seem.

This is compounded by the second problem – that green stone. Because of that one item, I can’t believe most of what happened in the final 10 minutes.

If it is possible to be enthused and annoyed by something at the same time, then this is it. And of course I am going back for seconds.