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.

I, Tonya

It took a while for it to dawn on me that many people, including I, Tonya’s star and producer Margot Robbie, would be unaware of the real life events that inspired this darkly comedic portrayal of one of the greatest scandals in sport. In the build-up to Olympic figure skating selection in 1994, Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan was viciously attacked, and suspicion immediately fell on Harding and her entourage. The scandal followed her for years.

Building on interviews with Tonya Harding (Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the story focuses less on whether Harding was complicit or even involved in The Incident, and more on presenting a profile of her as a product of her very troubled background, and how she became the best in her field as a result.

Margot Robbie does a fabulous job as Tonya Harding, but I have mixed views about the rest of the film. By the end, there is no doubt that we have huge sympathy for Harding, and this is a definite highlight. Harding is not only the hero of her own story, she is also very much a victim of life, circumstance and the people who surround her.  It’s felt the most pointedly at the end, when the consequences of ‘The Incident’ hit Tonya harder than anyone else in her circle. It’s just not fair. Tonya just wants to be loved. For a fleeting moment she had that in her career but things conspired to take it all away.

Covering huge swathes of Harding’s life to give the audience background to her world view, the film steps away from a more traditional biopic approach. It recreates interviews with the real life characters, interspersing these with the dramatic action and a sprinkling of fourth-wall breaking thrown in for good measure. It is this combination which keeps the narrative moving along at a pace, and manages to keep things light, despite the clearly appalling events.

But this is not without its problems. I felt very uncomfortable laughing at a film with such a heavy proportion of scenes of domestic violence – sometimes the comedy falls even as the abuse is playing out on screen. Tonya suffers physical abuse from a number of quarters from a very early age, and while balancing the darker side of the story with comedy allows the difficult parts of the narrative to be more easily absorbed, it can lead to an uncomfortable juxtaposition and lessen the impact of the abuse.

The musical choices also tread a fine line between being smartly perfect and just a little on the nose, and I suppose the fact that I noticed means that I fall on the less positive side.

But what can’t be argued over are the performances of not only Robbie, but Alison Janney as Tonya’s outrageously pushy mother LaVona, and Paul Walter Hauser as ‘bodyguard’ Shawn Eckhardt.

It’s a movie which balances its lighter and darker sides very precariously, and I guess the extent to which the viewer likes the film will depend largely on how far they are willing to go along with that balance. Personally, I felt uncomfortable, but appreciative of the effort.

A version of this post first appeared at www.themovieisle.com

My least favourite films of 2016

I generally manage to stay away from the absolute worst films of the year, but I was scuppered this time around because some of the biggest and most hyped also turned out to be totally and utterly abysmal. Feel free to disagree!

Click on the film title below for my original thoughts on each one.

Number 5 –The Legend of Tarzan

Not even Alexander Skarsgård’s beautifully toned abs could rescue this – mainly because there wasn’t a comprehensible storyline to be found.

Number 4 – Suicide Squad

I love Margot Robbie, but this is her second appearance in this list. She was one of the few good things about Suicide Squad but this was an unholy mess of a film and was only marginally better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in that it didn’t make me angry, just bored.

Number 3 – Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Tom Cruise tries to prove to both himself and viewers that he is still capable of doing the same action movie stuff but it only prompted me to issue a cease and desist notice.

Number 2 – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Wonder Woman aside, the women are mothers or girlfriends to be rescued at appropriate moments, to be easily sacrificed, or to be an anonymous plaything for a billionaire vigilante on his night off. A complete fiasco.

Number 1 – Gods of Egypt

The only good thing I could find to say about it was that it mercifully came to an end.

Favourite films coming up in the next post!

Suicide Squad

The pleasant surprise of Suicide Squad was seeing such good performances from Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Viola Davis. But to be honest that was the only pleasant thing about this.

The MCU has had the benefit of the forward planning which allowed many of its superheroes to be introduced in their own movies, so that when they get together, we know who they are, why they are and what they are.

In the absence of this, Warner Bros and DC have to spend the first half hour just introducing everyone, but are never really able to present any depth to the characters. The relationships and motivations didn’t make sense to me, as I have no knowledge of the comic book origins.

And *what* was Cara Delevingne doing? Quite apart from not having a clue as to what was going on with her, her powers seem to be controlled by some kind of weird hip swivel which was, quite frankly, ridiculous. Don’t even get me started on The Joker, who was annoying, badly defined and largely absent.

It’s an unholy mess of a film and was only marginally better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in that it didn’t make me angry, just bored.